Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Turning the Page

My entries have been sparse for the last few weeks, for several reasons. First, it's always an uphill battle to find time to blog around taking care of 2 pre-Preschool children. Then, right about the time I saw reasons for optimism in mid-May, I got busy packing the house to move our family up to Seattle. Since I arrived here I've been overwhelmed with unpacking, networking, finding my local ______, etc. But during all of that upheaval, I kept checking in on the Twins, and was amazed to find that, night after night, they had managed to lose another game.

I had believed that scoring 4 or more runs a game was the key to winning for this team. But from May 20th-June 1st, they went 1-7 in games in which they scored 4+ runs. Those losses, mostly the result of bullpen meltdowns from replacement level pitchers like Dusty Hughes, Jim Hoey and Alex Burnett, took the possibility of a Twins turnaround this year from unlikely to nearly impossible. They were so soul-crushingly shocking, yet happened with such regularity, that I simply became numb. Tough to squeeze in time to write while feeling like that.

However, since the calendar turned to June, the fundamentals of this team (and its division rivals) have clarified themselves in such a way that I can't help but dive back into more active fanhood. I'm referring in part to the recent collapse of the Indians, who had jumped out far in front of the pack thanks to a nearly flawless month of April. Their only wins in the last 11 games have come by 1-0 scores; their offense has ground to a halt. This morning's standings show the following run differentials for the AL Central (Team: Differential, Pythagorean W%, Projected Record):

Tigers: +12, .521, 84-78
Indians: +7, .512, 83-79
White Sox: -7, .488, 79-83
Royals: -34, .446, 72-90
Twins: -64, .386, 63-99

I'm not aware of any reasons why we shouldn't expect those projections to more or less hold for the top 4 teams in the division. Somebody might wind up with more than 85 wins, but I'd be very surprised if more than 1 team does. In order to be that team, the Twins need to go at least 59-38 the rest of the way. That's a 98-99 win pace over a full season. Their total stats so far make that kind of record look pretty far-fetched. But they've only had their full team on the field for about 2 weeks this season, and the way they played for those 2 weeks wasn't representative of their true ability. Things have gone much better since then. Compare the average AL lineup with the Twins regulars:

AL CF: .264/.321/.416; Denard Span: .294/.361/.385
Plus he's 4/5 SB (why isn't he running more?) and playing some of the best D in the league. Please, please, please don't have a serious concussion.
AL SS: .265/.322/.382; Alexi Casilla: .263/.325/.343
Not a slugger, but the OBP is right there.
AL C: .235/.304/.378
I think Mauer can top that from here on out.
AL 1B: .270/.345/.449; Michael Cuddyer: .273/.339/.432
Justin Morneau is headed to the DL, so I'll drop Cuddy in here. He's almost average overall, and he's hit .296/.359/.477 since April 12th, on pace to hit 25-30 HR.
AL LF: .239/.302/.366; Delmon Young: .246/.272/.316
As poorly as he's hit so far this year, it's amazing that he isn't further from the pack. His 1st 4 games after coming off the DL were like the rehab assignment he didn't get; in 25 games since then he's hit .286/.300/.378.
AL RF: .260/.339/.422; Jason Kubel: .310/.355/.465
Gotta get his ankle healed, but he shouldn't be much more than a week away.
AL DH: .263/.343/.412; Jim Thome: .237/.372/.447
Also should be off the DL in a week or so.
AL 3B: .236/.307/.371; Danny Valencia: .218/.282/.329
He continues to suffer from an unsustainably low BABIP (as evidenced by the sick catch the CF made on his drive to end the Twins' big 7th inning on Sunday). If only his liners were falling in at the league average rate he'd be hitting more like .253/.312/.392.
AL 2B: .249/.310/.370; Tsuyoshi Nishioka: ?
Nobody really knows what he can do in this league yet, but .680 OPS doesn't seem like too much to ask.

Even without Morneau, this is a lineup that should continue to score more runs than the average team. And don't forget that 58% of the Twins' remaining schedule will take place at home, and 53% of it will be against their unimpressive division rivals.

But even more important is the turnaround from the pitching staff. They've allowed only 24 ER so far this month for a sterling 2.02 ERA. The starters, with the exception of Brian Duensing, are all making it deep into games, enabling Gardy to keep the ball away from some of the more combustible relievers. Check out these trends:

In 4 starts working with Rene Rivera behind the plate, Francisco Liriano has turned his season around: 26 IP, 14 H, 5 R, 4 ER, HR, 8 BB, 29 K, 1.38 ERA, 0.85 WHIP. That's our Ace.

In 8 starts working with Rivera, Nick Blackburn has had one of the best stretches of his career: 56.1 IP, 55 H, 18 R, 15 ER, 6 HR, 11 BB, 32 K, 2.40 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and a low but not alarming 5.1 K/9.

In his last 5 GS, Scott Baker has gone 34 IP, 31 H, 12 R, 11 ER, 3 HR, 6 BB, 30 K, 2.91 ERA, 1.09 WHIP.

In his last 7 GS, Carl Pavano has gone 52.1 IP, 54 H, 16 R, 13 ER, 2 HR, 10 BB, 21 K, 2.24 ERA, 1.22 WHIP.

4 guys consistently giving the team about 7 IP. The K/9 are up. The BB/9 and HR/9 are down. They're having some nice luck on balls in play right now, but this is basically the pitching staff we wanted to see coming into the season. It is one that could give an above average offense an opportunity to win all summer long.

Still, there are pieces of this team that aren't working, and June is the time to start making adjustments. The general return to health will accomplish a lot of that, but here are some other things I'd do:
  • Dump Drew Butera. Rivera is also a liability at the plate, and he's got .100 points of OPS on Butera. But that's not even the real reason. I've cited the improvements in Liriano's and Blackburn's performance since they began throwing to Rivera. That effect can be seen across the staff - the team ERA is about 2 R lower with him back there. He just calls a better game than Butera. The Twins would still be wise to look for a backup C who can actually hit, but Rivera is clearly the best option they have on the roster right now.
  • Go with 11 pitchers. This seems almost radical in today's game, but it makes a ton of sense for the Twins. With the starters eating so many innings, the time between outings for the less-impressive relievers is starting to get pretty long. And they're not that impressive, so why have them taking up a roster spot? A 6-man bullpen would enable the Twins to send somebody like Burnett back to AAA for more refinement, while keeping an extra bat like Luke Hughes around once Morneau is healthy.
  • Send Duensing to the bullpen. He's been exposed as a starter this year, thanks to a radical platoon split that has RH batters posting an .868 OPS against him. He's holding lefties to an excellent .553 OPS against, but he doesn't see as many of them when the opposing manager can stack his starting lineup with righties. Back in the bullpen, where he's enjoyed considerable success in the past, he could be a huge asset, deployed mainly in the situations in which he thrives. Matt Capps, Jose Mijares, Duensing, healthy Glen Perkins and Joe Nathan... throw a ROOGY in there and that's a pretty solid relief corps.
  • Call up Kyle Gibson. In 16 career GS at AAA, he's put up this line: 87 IP, 83 H, 33 ER, 8 HR, 22 BB, 83 K, 3.41 ERA, 1.21 WHIP. Maybe the HR/9 are a tiny bit high, but his peripherals are basically right where you'd want them to be. He's getting 7 grounders for every 4 flies, which should keep him from getting into too much trouble as a rookie in the AL. I think he could probably do at least as well as Duensing has, and his platoon splits aren't nearly as severe.
  • Call up a RHP with some stuff. Anthony Slama has gotten only a passing glance from the Twins at the Major League level, but he's held the International League to a .208 BAA with improved control numbers this year. Against RH batters, it's a .143 BAA with a 22/6 K/BB ratio in 18.2 IP. He could be the ROOGY. Or, if you prefer, there's former 1st-round pick Carlos Gutierrez. He still walks too many guys, but his K/BB ratio has improved in each month of the season so far, as has the G/F ratio produced by his heavy, heavy sinker. He hasn't allowed a HR all year. Either one of those guys would be a better option than Hoey or Anthony Swarzak.
That should keep things rolling for the next 5 or 6 weeks. At that point, if they've made up enough ground in the standings, the Twins can decide whether they want to make a move for someone outside the organization.

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