Monday, June 1, 2009

May Review

Twins' Record: 14-16
Overall Record: 25-27, 3rd in AL Central 4.5 games back

In more than 20 years of following the Twins, I've never seen a month like this. They suddenly turned into the Rangers, maybe even the Yankees, at the plate. Looking at the AL team batting stats for the month, the Twins are in the top 3 in R, H, BA, OBP, SLG%, and HR! Yes, after accumulating just 111 HR in all of 2008, the Twins sent 41 balls over the fence in their 30 May games, putting them on pace to finish the season with 178 long balls. With the pitching improving to the middle of the pack, and the defense still leading the league in fewest errors and unearned runs, the Twins were able to outscore their opponents 168-138.

And yet, that didn't translate into a winning month. Despite all of the hitting, there were too many men left on base. For all the HR, too many came with no one on base. The pitching improved, but still let the team down in key situations. And, as we saw on Saturday in Tampa, there's more to good defense than just avoiding errors. As they seemed to do routinely late last season, the Twins would follow narrow, agonizing losses with emphatic wins, inflating their run differential without doing much for their record. The textbook definition of this phenomenon is their lone win on the 7-game road trip to NY and Chicago, a 20-1 affair that enabled them to come home having scored more runs than they'd allowed despite a 1-6 record.

The road seems to be the trouble - so far the Twins are just 6-16 away from the Dome. That ugly winning percentage will have to change in a hurry, as the Twins play 18 of their 27 games in June on the road. However, 9 of those games are inter-league, where the Twins have thrived in recent years, and 7 others are against the bottom-feeders of the AL West, Seattle and Oakland. That will be a welcome change after an exceedingly tough May schedule - the aggregate winning percentage of the teams the Twins faced this month was .528. In June, it will be .475.

This month is the time to make a move. The Twins have been able to put together fantastic Junes in recent years. If they keep swinging the way they did in May, while continuing to improve their pitching performance, we should see them easily over .500 when the month ends.

The grades will illustrate another remarkable feature of the Twins' performance this month: just how large the gap was between the guys who were playing well and the guys who weren't. We'll hope to see the guys who have been struggling start to rise up toward their expected levels as the stars inevitably slow down. Minimum 30 PA for hitters and 8 IP for pitchers.

Getting It Done

Joe Mauer - Ya think? .414/.500/.838 with a 16/19 K/BB ratio and 2 more HR than he hit in all of 2008. Now that he's been sensibly moved into the #2 spot in the order, it is much more difficult for opponents to avoid pitching to Justin Morneau with men on base.

Justin Morneau - He's no Joe Mauer, but .361/.459/.713 with 9 HR and 29 RBI isn't too shabby. After showing little patience in April, he evened his K/BB rate at 20/20 after Mauer's return. It's been amazing to watch those two hit consecutively.

Michael Cuddyer - This is why I didn't think the Twins needed to panic about finding a middle-of-the-order RH bat during the offseason. Not that I expect Cuddyer to hit .312/.395/.651 with 8 HR and 26 RBI every month. But added to his slow start in April, he's now on pace for a season of .276/.363/.514 with 27 HR and about 100 RBI - just about what he delivered in 2006, his last fully healthy season.

Joe Crede - This month was about the best we could hope for from Crede. A decent .265 BA, leading to a rather poor .311 OBP, but 6 HR and 3 2B cranked the SLG% up to .574. And the defense is still terrific. If only it weren't so hard to keep him on the field.

Jason Kubel - Mostly singles this month from Kubel, but enough of them to finish the month with a .329 BA. He's been striking out a little too often, however. I'd like to see him be more selective going forward - that will probably help him find pitches to drive.

Denard Span - With 5 guys behind him walloping the ball over the field, Span's job is simple: get on base. And that he did, with an OBP of .388 and 19/17 K/BB ratio. He's still a little too susceptible to the called strikeout over the inside corner, but otherwise he's showing no signs of dropping off from his excellent rookie campaign.

Mike Redmond - At his advanced age, I can't imagine Redmond doing any better than he did in May: .310/.333/.379 with 2 doubles.

Nick Blackburn - Leave it to the #4 starter to lead the rotation in IP and ERA for the month. After a lousy first start in Detroit (abetted by just as shaky defense) Blackburn finished at least 6 innings in his remaining 5 starts, leaving the game with the Twins leading or tied each time.

Kevin Slowey - After 2 dicey outings to begin the month, including a rain-shortened start in Baltimore, Slowey completed at least 6 IP with 2 of fewer ER allowed in his final 4 starts of the month. Overall, he had a typically outstanding 25/3 K/BB ratio.

Anthony Swarzak - Filling in for the injured (and struggling) Glen Perkins, Rochester's best pitcher (and one of the organization's top prospects) shut out the Brewers in his MLB debut, then matched Josh Beckett for 6 innings before taking a hard luck loss on Thursday. No need to rush back, Glen.

R.A. Dickey - Other than that disastrous outing vs. KC when he entered with the bases loaded and wasn't allowed to use his knuckler, Dickey has been money. He's done exactly what a long-reliever should, not only eating innings (4 or more IP in each of his last 3 appearances), but limiting any further damage (only 2 ER in his last 16.2 IP).

Joe Nathan - If only he could have that first night in NYC back, when he was touched for 3 ER on 3 H and 2 BB (one intentional) in 0.2 IP. However, in his other 12 appearances, he allowed 0 ER on only 6 H and 1 BB with 13 K in 11.2 IP. Nothing wrong with that.

Matt Guerrier - This month he was back to his old self. Though he allowed 3 solo HR in the first half of the month, he only gave up one other run in the remainder of his appearances, finishing May with a 2.40 ERA and 0.73 WHIP in 15 IP.

Jose Mijares - There weren't too many 1-2-3 innings for Mijares this month, but he's been very good at pitching his way out of jams once he lets men on base. Too bad we can't take back the HR he served up to Ken Griffey Jr. that cost the Twins a win.

So Far, So Good

Luis Ayala - He's been even more prone to allow baserunners than Mijares, but in recent outings has done nearly as good a job leaving them on base. I'd still be nervous going to him with the game on the line, but I don't despair when he takes the mound like I did last month.

Need To Pick It Up

Brendan Harris - He's going to get his share of playing time with Nick Punto on the DL, so he's going to need to improve on his .238/.297/.369 line from May. I still notice an immediate drop off in defensive range when he's at SS.

Carlos Gomez - He hasn't been playing every day, and you can't say he deserves to based on his .237/.303/.322 line. He isn't bunting, he isn't stealing bases. However, the CF defense is phenomenal, and he managed to lower his K/BB ratio to 12/5. All of that makes him a much better candidate for more playing time than...

Delmon Young - In fairness to Young, he was at least hitting for a pretty good average before he missed about 1/3 of the month to be with his family for his mother's death and burial. Since returning, he hasn't had a clue at the plate, and overall, he still had 0 XBH in 55 AB with a 22/3 K/BB ratio. Add to that the fact that he often turns fly-outs into doubles in the field, and we're probably looking at the least valuable player on the team.

Matt Tolbert - When he was called up, I said he probably couldn't do worse than Alexi Casilla, who had about a .475 OPS at the time. I guess he's technically been an upgrade, hitting .189/.265/.257 for a .522 OPS. His greatest contribution to the team may be that he finally forced Gardy to move Mauer up to the #2 slot in the batting order.

Brian Buscher - There is an incremental acceleration in the game between AAA and the Majors, and so far I'm not sure that Buscher, who was a dominant hitter at Rochester, has that extra gear. He's just a little late on fastballs in the zone, he's just tentative enough in the field to turn outs into base hits. I wish there were somebody at Rochester who could do the job better, but I don't see it right now.

Nick Punto - Even 2007 was better than this. While he's been a pretty reliable glove at SS, and he's done a good job of working counts (11/9 K/BB ratio), he just can't seem to square the ball up when he puts it in play. .152/.244/.182 is impossible to live with, even from your #9 hitter.

Scott Baker - He's getting closer to form, as evidenced by his 1.11 WHIP and 27/6 K/BB ratio in 38 IP. But he hasn't been able to scatter his hits, as we saw when his 5-6 inning gems vs. KC and Detroit turned into 5 ER outings with shocking quickness. And he's still giving up way too many HR, 2 each in his last 3 starts.

Francisco Liriano - Also can't avoid the big inning. He brought a lot of it on himself by walking 17 batters in 30.1 IP. Though he's lasted just 4 IP in 3 straight starts, I was encouraged by his last outing in Tampa. Yes, he allowed 4 ER in a grueling 47 pitch inning, but he got grounders with men on base, and there were hardly any hard-hit balls against him.

Glen Perkins - As good as he was in April, he was bad in May, serving up 6 HR in 18 IP with a 10.00 ERA and 1.83 WHIP. I hope the shoulder trouble that sent him to the DL was the problem and that he'll be an 8 IP pitcher again when he returns. But I'm not shipping Swarzak out to make room for him either, and the bullpen doesn't seem like an awful alternative.

Jesse Crain - In a brutal 5-game sequence this month, Crain allowed an ER in each outing, totaling 6 ER in just 3 IP and taking 2 losses, bailed out of a 3rd by Joe Crede's walk-off Grand Slam. He looks like a shell of the confident pitcher we saw in spring training and the first half of April.

Craig Breslow - His April funk spilled over into May, as he continued to serve up BB and HR at an unprecedented pace. Reeling from their taxing series vs. the Yankees, the Twins called up Sean Henn when Perkins went on the DL, necessitating another move when Swarzak was called up to fill the rotation hole. They opted to put Breslow on waivers, where he was promptly claimed by Oakland. Since then he's allowed 2 ER on 3 H and 1 BB with 7 K in 6.2 IP. Whoops!

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