Thursday, October 15, 2009

2009 Season Review

Home Record: 49-33
Away Record: 38-43
1st Half: 41-40
2nd Half: 46-36
Overall Record: 87-76, AL Central Champions

A lot of people had the Twins pegged for a big drop-off in wins this year. They pointed to the fact that the offense in 2008 was largely based on an unsustainably high BA with RISP. While I agreed that those numbers would regress, I felt that the loss in runs would be largely mitigated by an increase in HR. That, combined with a maturing starting staff and far more sure-handed defense, would keep the Twins' run differential similar to 2008, and therefore propel them to 85 or so wins, enough to compete to the very end in a rather weak division.

I had the record pretty well pegged, but they took a different route to get there than I expected. Here's what went wrong:

1. What? We Only Have 7 Weeks of Spring Training?

The disruption of the World Baseball Classic prompted Spring Training to start a few days earlier and end a week later than usual. Given all that extra time to prepare, I expected the Twins' players to be in mid-season form from opening day. A handful were: Joe Nathan, Glen Perkins, Nick Blackburn, Jose Morales, Denard Span, Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel. But the rest of the roster had humongous holes in their game in April: Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey couldn't keep the ball in the yard, Jesse Crain and Craig Breslow couldn't throw strikes, and Joe Crede was the only other position player to crack a .700 OPS. But, thanks to bullpen implosions by the Mariners and Angels, the Twins were able to escape the first month with a .500 record.

2. Aren't There Supposed to Be 9 Hitters in the Lineup?

The ridiculously awesome Joe Mauer returned to the lineup on May 1, and Michael Cuddyer snapped out of his April funk to be better than he's ever been the rest of the season. Those 2 joined Span, Morneau and Kubel in consistently strong contributions. That's 5 good hitters. Even though he had a lousy BA and OBP, Joe Crede provided enough power (15 HR, 16 2B, 48 RBI) in 60% of the season that I'll throw him in there, too. So 6 good hitters, when Crede was healthy. But the other 3 lineup spots, 2B/#2, LF/#8 and SS/#9 were appallingly bad, struggling for most of the season to hit even .200, avoid making outs more than 70% of the time, and provide any XBH. Even replacement level production from those spots over the full season probably would have brought the Twins over 90 wins.

3. You Have a Pulse, Right? Wanna Pitch for the Twins?

The Twins set a dubious club record in 2009: Most Pitchers Used in a Season. 24 different players took the mound this season, and only 9 were able to best the AL ERA average (4.45) while in a Twins uniform. Lengthy DL stays by 3/5 of the starting rotation certainly didn't help, but ineffectiveness was as much a reason for the multitude of arms as anything. Breslow and Crain were demoted to AAA, Francisco Liriano was sent to the 'pen. A revolving door of Rochester pitchers were invited to fill the holes, but, until the very end of the season, none was able to provide sustained success. I had expected the pitching staff to be better than last year, but they fell well short of that.

4. Bumbling Bill Smith

Having finished just a game short of the postseason in a mediocre division, one might have expected Bill Smith to take advantage of the Twins' considerable payroll flexibility and a historically depressed free agent market in order to put his team over the competitive hump. Instead, he essentially stood pat, re-signing Nick Punto, adding Crede and Luis Ayala, but subtracting superlative LOOGY Dennys Reyes. Then, he weakened an already shallow bullpen by losing Breslow on waivers to Oakland (Breslow's numbers with the A's: 55.1 IP, 2.60 ERA, 1.00 WHIP) and replacing him with Sean Henn (11.1, 7.15, 1.50). Smith's failure to add depth to the roster in the offseason kept the Twins spinning their wheels throughout the summer.

A daunting list of shortcomings to surmount, but they did it, because a lot of things went right:

1. More Powerful Than I Could Possibly Imagine!

Yes, I expected the Twins to surpass the 111 HR they hit in 2008, but by something on the order of 30 additional bombs. In fact, the Twins blasted 61 more HR, and had 4 players hit more than 25 for the first time since 1987. Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Denard Span all set new career highs, and Justin Morneau got back to 30 before being sidelined by his back injury. The offense's numbers with RISP did indeed take a significant hit (from .305 in '08 down to .278 this year), but the barrage of long balls made up for all but 12 runs of the difference, and the Twins still finished 4th in the league with 817 R.

2. Just Catch the Damn Ball!

The 108 E and 70 unearned R the Twins allowed in 2008 were unprecedented under the Gardy administration, and I knew it would be a priority for them to clean that up. Say what you want about range or defensive efficiency, the Twins are known for making the plays they're supposed to make, and last year they didn't. This year, things were back to normal. In spite of the disproportionate number of errors Orlando Cabrera committed in just 2 months with the team, they still finished tied for first in the AL in fewest errors and 2nd in fielding percentage. That translated into 31 fewer unearned runs allowed than last year.

3. Bill Smith to the Rescue!

Recognizing that the division could be won by a slightly over .500 team, but that the group he had fielded was pretty much exactly a .500 team, the Twins' GM embarked on a flurry of late-season trades unlike anything attempted by his predecessor. He brought in Cabrera to raise the production from the dreadful SS/#2 spot. He brought in Carl Pavano to anchor a reeling starting rotation. He brought in Jon Rauch and Ron Mahay to solidify a combustible bullpen. All the moves worked (eventually), as what had been a .505 team through July improved to .583 over the final two months.

4. Somebody Step Up!

Those additions were a big help, but they were partially made to make up for the subtractions of Morneau, Kevin Slowey, Glen Perkins and Francisco Liriano. They did nothing to address the disappointing production the Twins had received from 3B, 2B, LF and the #4 starter. The Twins' happy ending resulted from contributions far exceeding what anyone could have predicted from existing role players. Delmon Young, Matt Tolbert and Nick Punto had put up terrible numbers for most of the season, but went off over the final 3 weeks to finally give the Twins a productive lineup from top to bottom. And Brian Duensing, following in the unimpressive footsteps of RA Dickey, Philip Humber, Anthony Swarzak, Kevin Mulvey, Armando Gabino and Jeff Manship, was given an opportunity to make some starts and not only made the most of it, but was one of the Twins' best pitchers down the stretch, compiling a 2.73 ERA and 5-1 record as a starter. If he pitches like he did at Rochester, the Twins don't catch the Tigers.

Baseball's postseason has always been about bragging rights between divisions and leagues, proving which of them was the strongest. I think we all knew going into the season that the Twins' division was the weakest. Among the AL Central clubs, the Twins were the only team to have a positive run differential, as well as a winning record against all of their division rivals. By those measures, at least, the Twins deserved to win the Central, and it was gratifying to see them pull it off. Maybe next year they won't have to wait until the last minute to do it.

In order to make the task of grading players easier, I'm only going to rate hitters with more AB than Jose Morales and pitchers with more innings than Jeff Manship. (Suffice it to say, Rauch and Mahay were terrific, while Breslow, Henn, Humber, Gabino and Mulvey were lousy.)

Flat Out Awesome

Joe Mauer - And I thought he had a great season last year. If it's possible for a multiple All-Star and Batting Champ to have a breakout season, Mauer did it, setting career highs in BA, OBP, SLG, HR and RBI. Not just the league's best hitter - the league's best player. Yikes, he's going to be expensive.

Denard Span - I was worried after his sluggish spring, but Span was ready once the regular season started. The XBH didn't come as easily as last summer, but he isn't paid to slug - his job is to get on base, and very few qualified hitters did it better. Span finished 9th in the league in BA, 10th in OBP, and 3rd in OBP among leadoff hitters.

Jason Kubel - After last season I noted that if Kubel could have picked up an extra knock every 2 weeks, even if they were all singles, he'd have hit .300/.360/.499. This season he got those extra base hits, and they weren't all singles. He finished at .300/.369/.539 with 28 HR and 103 RBI - all career highs.

Michael Cuddyer - Nagging injuries throughout the last 2 seasons had begun to make Cuddyer's fantastic 2006 seem like an aberration. This year, he justified the team's investment in him, setting career highs in G, AB, HR and SLG. He'd already put together a strong season when Morneau went down, but the way he stepped up to fill that void helped lead the team into the postseason.

Joe Nathan - I almost got caught up in the notion that Nathan's prominent blown saves over the season's final 6 weeks meant that he'd had a subpar year, but the numbers just don't back that up. His K/9 and BAA were the best they've been since 2006. If not for that one lousy game against the White Sox, when he gave up 4 ER on 2 HR and 2BB after the Twins' defense had recorded 27 outs, his ERA, BB and HR numbers would have been as stellar as ever.

Matt Guerrier - I figured he'd bounce back a bit from his disastrous finish to 2008, but Guerrier did better than that. He maintained his 76.1 IP workload while setting career bests in BA, OBP and SLG against, and nearly matched his career best ERA at 2.36. The only downside is that he gave up 10 HR, but at least they were mostly solo shots.

Most Satisfying

Justin Morneau - It's a testament to the ferocious pace Morneau set for the first 4 months that his deep slump in the final weeks could only drop him to an .879 OPS. In just over 500 AB, he was able to hit 30 HR with 100 RBI. He still needs to prove he can finish a season strong, but I'll give him a mulligan on this year.

Jose Morales - Asked to fill in for Joe Mauer in April, Morales hit like, well, Joe Mauer. I mean, the pre-2009 version, anyway. He drew more walks than I expected, finishing the year with a .381 OBP despite a deep slump over the final few games. He's a no-brainer to be Mauer's caddy next year.

Brian Duensing - In 14 relief appearances, Duensing didn't look much better than any of the other AAA filler the Twins brought up over the summer. But when he was given a chance to start, he was stupendous, lasting into the 6th inning nearly every time out and keeping his ERA under 3.00. Glen Perkins should be nervous.

Jose Mijares - He stumbled a bit over the final few days of the season, but Mijares was largely an excellent option out of the 'pen. Altogether, he had a 2.34 ERA over 61.2 IP with 55 K/23 BB (better than his minor league averages). He was able to hold lefties to a .480 OPS.

Nick Blackburn - If you liked Blackburn last year (and I did), then you had to like him this year, too. His final numbers were almost identical in terms of starts, ERA, WHIP, HR/9, K, BB, and W-L record. He averaged about an extra out per appearance, and was the Twins' best pitcher for much of the season. I'll expect more of the same next year.

Not Too Shabby

Delmon Young - Yes, I'm very concerned about the major step backward young took in plate discipline this season (92/12 K/BB). But I'm pleased by the career-best power he displayed (.425 SLG, .141 IsoP). Understanding that a lot of his trouble came from the funk he was in immediately after his mother died in May, check out his post All-Star Break numbers: .300/.322/.502 with 10 2B, 9 HR and 35 RBI. All this in his age 23 season. He needs to take more pitches, but he's coming along.

Joe Crede - His batting average was lower than normal, so Crede wound up with an OPS just a shade over .700. But he had a lot of big hits and played rock solid defense at the hot corner. While he was on the field, which was only about 60% of the time. Did I expect all that? Yeah, so I can't say he disappointed me.

Nick Punto - There are some who will say that Punto was awful this season, just as bad as he was in 2007. Hardly. Even when his average was south of .200, he was drawing walks at a career-best rate. When the hits started to fall in for him down the stretch, he was able to raise his BA to .228. Not good, but his remarkable .109 IsoD gave him an OBP of .337, very close to the .344 he had in his "good" year of 2008. Add in 16/19 SB and sure-handed defense, and I'm satisfied.

Scott Baker - He made 33 starts, threw 200 IP for the first time in his career, and had a fine 15-9 record, but Baker should have been better. He gave up half of his 28 HR in his first 9 starts, spanning 52.2 IP. After that, he was 13-3 with a 3.67 ERA the rest of the way. He made a mechanical adjustment, apparently. Why weren't his mechanics adjusted by the end of Spring Training?

Luis Ayala - Apparently some folks were deluded about his abilities, perhaps including Ayala himself. He wasn't going to be a blow-them-away setup man or a ground ball machine. He was going to be a slightly above-average, rubber-armed middle reliever. And so he was.

RA Dickey - Signed to be filler on the AAA team, Dickey was so good in spring training that he earned a spot in the 'pen. And for a while, it looked as though he'd figured out the whole knuckleball thing, compiling a 2.45 in 44 IP with a 31/17 K/BB ratio through June. He came crashing down after that, with a 9.30 ERA and 11/13 K/BB ratio in 12 appearances before his dismissal in early August. Still, who would have thought we'd even get a couple of good months out of him when he signed?

Jesse Crain - It was a tale of two halves for Crain. Early in the year he was a mess, with a 8.15 ERA, 1.92 WHIP and 3 HR allowed in 17.2 IP before a midsummer demotion to Rochester. When he returned, he was the Crain of old: 2.91 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 0 HR allowed in 34 IP. Problem solved.

Not So Good

Brendan Harris - I was one of the proponents of the Harris/Buscher platoon at 3B heading into the season. It's a good thing Bill Smith got Joe Crede and Matt Tolbert finished so strong, because 3B would have been a disaster if we'd had to rely on just these guys. Harris' offensive numbers have declined for 3 straight years now, and his defensive range is nothing special.

Brian Buscher - I'll say one thing for Buscher: he's got a great eye at the plate. His .125 IsoD makes Joe Mauer look like Delmon Young. He kept himself marginally useful by reaching base 36% of the time and making just about all the makable plays at 3B. But after slugging like Jason Kubel for 2 years in a row at Rochester, it was a big disappointment to see him accumulate just 6 XBH in 136 AB.

Carlos Gomez - He definitely made some strides this year, lowering his preposterous K/BB rate from 5.68 to 3.27, and generally playing exceptional CF defense. But the speed pieces of his game took steps back - his SB success rate dropped from 75% to 67%, and he stopped getting bunt hits - so his overall offensive value didn't even measure up to last year.

Bobby Keppel - In an ideal world, Keppel never gets the call to join the Twins. But, having ditched Breslow and Ayala, the Twins needed another middle reliever, and Keppel was doing well at Rochester. He got off to a great start, allowing just 1 ER on 8 H (0 HR) over his first 16 IP. The remaining 38 IP were pretty dicey: 28 ER on 55 H (4 HR), beginning with the nightmare 14-13 loss to Oakland on July 20th.

Kevin Slowey - It may not be fair, but I hold Slowey to a pretty high standard. Though he was able to use prodigious run support to build a 10-3 record, he never established the consistency he's capable of, and that the rotation desperately needed. Of his 16 starts in 2009, only 9 were QS, and I just think he should be better than that.

Jeff Manship - Certainly he was over his head, having begun the season at AA and made only 9 AAA starts before being called up to the Twins' decimated pitching staff. But he was supposed to be able to throw strikes and keep the ball in the yard, and he didn't do that. Back to Rochester he goes...

Flat Out Awful

Mike Redmond - I didn't think twice about the Twins picking up Redmond's option last fall. Sure, his numbers were in steady decline from their 2006 peaks, but 2008 was the first time he'd been below his career averages as a Twin, and that was still good for a .287 BA. At 38, age finally caught up to him, as his OPS dropped below .600 for the first time in his career, and he threw out just 1 out of every 8 base stealers.

Alexi Casilla - He had pretty good plate discipline (.078 IsoD) and went 11/11 in SB attempts. But he was an easy out for most of the season, finishing the year with a .280 OBP, and he had several concentration lapses in the field as well. At least he ended the regular season on a good note!

Anthony Swarzak - Like Keppel, Swarzak started his Twins career with a run of scoreless innings. But he was quality just 3 times over his final 10 starts, and nobody was more flammable in August, when he gave up 22 ER on 33 H and 8 HR in just 13.1 IP over 4 starts (14.85 ERA).

Glen Perkins - He was the only Twins starter to come out of the gate strong, throwing 29 IP over 4 GS with a 2.48 ERA and 0 HR allowed in April. Then he got torched for 20 ER in just 18 IP with 6 HR allowed over his next 4 GS, and went on the DL. He was good Perkins again for his next 4 starts, allowing just 8 ER over 27 IP with 1 HR allowed, before he was torched again for 27 ER in 21.1 IP with 6 HR allowed over his final 5 GS. And never came back. Was it all physical? Or is he just that inconsistent?

Francisco Liriano - He never really got it going this year, mostly due to an inability to command his fastball. That led to nearly a BB every 2 IP, and a HR served up every 6-7 IP. There was some hope that he'd be a co-ace along with Baker, at least a solid #2. Not even close. And moving to the bullpen didn't make him any more likely to throw strikes or keep the ball in the yard.

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