First, Last, Always

Jacque Jones in the leadoff hole, for better and for worse

After a recent Twins game at the Dome, manager Ron Gardenhire was in the mood once again to defend his leadoff hitter, Jacque Jones. The manager's decision, announced before the season even began, that he intended to use Jones as his everyday leadoff man raised some eyebrows at the time, and it continues to be the subject of debate among writers and fans, given the left fielder's plate impatience (or aggressive approach, if you're buying the company line) and poor track record against lefthanders.

At any rate, two months into the season, Gardenhire has clearly grown weary of the second-guessing, even as he has shown signs of relenting a bit in his early promises to use Jones at the top of the order every day; Jones's name has been noticeably missing from the lineup lately against particularly tough lefties, but Gardenhire insists he hasn't lost patience in the streaky Jones.

"Everybody wants to talk about his on-base percentage," Gardenhire said. "But what's his on-base percentage in the first inning? There are a lot of things Jacque can do for this team; walking might not be one of them right now, but he can obviously do a lot of good things to start a ballgame for us. When we get to the later innings, he's just as likely to be hitting third or fourth, so I'm really more concerned at this point with the tone he can set in that first inning."

To judge from the numbers through the weekend, Gardenhire has a point. Jones has led off four games with home runs already this season. He has a .318 first-inning batting average and a remarkable .727 slugging percentage. His first-inning on-base percentage (.348) is acceptable given the jolt he has given the Twins out of the block thus far. And that slugging percentage looks all the more impressive when compared with his overall number of .495 (still more than respectable). Jones has also been one of the Twins' best performers with runners in scoring position, batting .341 with a .591 slugging percentage overall.

Of course, all this raises the question: Wouldn't Jones's first-inning numbers look even better in, say, the three hole in the lineup? Yes, they would, but that brings us to the (increasingly obvious) fact that the Twins don't have a single player who fits the prototypical leadoff profile. They do, however, have a guy who might eventually be a natural for the role: Bobby Kielty. In only three first-inning at bats this year, Kielty is a perfect three-for-three. He also logs impressive stats when leading off an inning: batting .429 with a .500 on base percentage in 14 at bats. Kielty's overall .337 batting average and .441 OBP lead the team. What's more, as a switch hitter he has fared well from both sides of the plate (.436 OBP vs. RHP, .458 vs. LHP).

And getting back to Jacque Jones, it's increasingly hard to ignore his struggles against left-handed pitching. His average against southpaws is now down to .177, with a truly wretched .239 on-base percentage. This woeful performance only further handicaps the team when he leads off, since an additional bonus of the leadoff position is that it tends to give a hitter extra at bats over the course of a game. In other words, having Jones lead off against lefties is giving opposing pitchers extra outs as the game goes on. I don't necessarily have a problem with leaving Jones in the lineup against lefthanders, but why not try bumping him down in the order, where he might relax a bit and receive some protection?

Still, you have to admire the insistent confidence the Twins rookie manager has shown in his players, which is a refreshing and marked departure from the approach of previous skipper Tom Kelly. Gardenhire might admit to occasional frustration with his club's sometimes overaggressive approach and mental errors, but he'll continue to defend them. "I have faith in these guys," has become Gardenhire's mantra this season, and that faith has thus far proved unshakable, at least in his daily postgame wrap-ups. When he started outfielder Bobby Kielty at first base against Texas last week at the Dome, it was, one would assume, with the knowledge that not only had Kielty never played the position professionally, but didn't even own a first baseman's mitt.

"I want to keep his bat in the lineup, and I wouldn't put him over there if I didn't have faith that he could do the job," Gardenhire said. "He lobbied to go out there and told me he had played lots of first base, but he didn't tell me until after the game that it was in junior college."

While the Twins' increasingly frequent fundamental lapses--botched bunts, base-running blunders, missed signs, and more called third strikes than is seemly from a major-league team--have been maddening, it's hard to fault what the team has managed to accomplish so far, with a roster that's been severely hamstrung by injuries. They're in first place, they've got one of the game's true emerging superstars in Torii Hunter, they've won three of the first four games on what looked like a difficult road trip, and they're just starting to get healthy. That's got to be good news, doesn't it?

 

NOTES:

The Twins are going to be second-guessed for passing on Cubs pitcher Mark Prior in last year's draft--at least until Joe Mauer, the local kid they chose ahead of Prior with the first pick, makes an appearance in a Twins uniform. I'll admit that I was one of those people who felt the Twins had blundered in choosing Mauer, who is still playing for the Twins' Class A Quad City affiliate, where he is hitting .305 with two home runs and more walks than strikeouts. Nice enough numbers, but the other guy is already pitching in the big leagues and looks like he'll be around for a long time. The story, of course, was that the Twins felt they couldn't afford to sign Prior, who eventually agreed to a five-year, guaranteed $10.5 contract with a $4 million signing bonus. Those were unprecedented numbers for a number-one draft choice, but the Twins ended up giving Mauer a $5.15 million bonus. If Prior turns out to be as good as advertised (or even just a solid major-league starter), he's a bargain at that salary. The Cubs have him locked up for five years at LaTroy Hawkins money; over the course of those five years they won't be shelling out much more than the $8.75 million the Twins are paying Brad Radke this year alone.

Jason Simontacchi, the Cardinals righthander who has stepped into the rotation and gone 3-0 with a 2.73 ERA, was a member of the Twins AAA Edmonton club last year and was released after going 7-13 with a 5.35 ERA with the Trappers. Simontacchi spent the 2000 season pitching for Rimini in an Italian league.

J.C. Romero has attracted plenty of attention for his astonishing performance thus far this year (0.31 ERA, with only one run allowed in 29 and one-third innings), but the performance of bullpen mates Hawkins and Mike Jackson has been nearly as impressive and almost as surprising. Jackson has now appeared in 22 games and boasts a 0.89 ERA, while Hawkins has 24 strikeouts and only four walks in 27 and two-thirds innings, with a 1.95 ERA.

Contraction Watch: The Brewers are now 17-34, and have a team slugging percentage of .384 to go with a .242 batting average. As impressive as Shawn Green's four-home-run, seven-RBI performance was, it really should be marked with an asterisk in the record books, coming as it did against a beleaguered Brewers club that would have a hard time beating most Triple A teams right now.

 

Brad Zellar goes Yard every Tuesday morning--and perhaps more often--for as long as he (and the Twins) are up to it.

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