The April Twins: Go Figure

The early woes of Ron Gardenhire's team are as explicable as they are maddening

There'll be two buses leaving the hotel for the park tomorrow. The two o'clock bus will be for those of you who need a little extra work. The empty bus will leave at five o'clock.

--Dave Bristol, San Francisco Giants manager, 1980

 

I'll be damned if I can figure out the Twins so far this season. Through the first 20 games Ron Gardenhire's club has been as schizoid as any team in recent memory. Six series (sweep, swept, swept, sweep, sweep, swept), a six-game losing streak followed by a six-game winning streak followed by another five straight losses. You tell me and we'll both know, as we used to say on the playground. It doesn't make a lick of sense, even if it is easily explicable.

The obvious problem is that the Twins aren't hitting --not hitting for power, not getting on base, not hitting with runners in scoring position, not drawing walks, and not scoring runs. That's not good. None of that is good. The Twins aren't pitching for shit either, but say what you want about the miserable performances of, say, Rick Reed and Brad Radke (who are making $15 million between them), the real goats thus far have been the guys with the bats in their hands. Minnesota's cumulative .312 on base percentage is the second-worst in the American League (only the absolutely futile Detroit Tigers --at a ridiculous .249-- have been more pathetic), and even the Tigers are hitting better with runners in scoring position (.229 to the Twins .200). Only the Tigers have fewer home runs (six to Minnesota's 14) and fewer runs scored (39 to 76). Suffice it to say that when you're the defending champion of the division and an odds-on favorite to repeat you do not want to be drawing comparisons to the Detroit Tigers three weeks into the season.

Yet that's exactly where the Twins are, and they've more than asked for it. There are huge disappointments and question marks up and down the line-up, and all that confidence coming out of Spring Training suddenly seems appallingly misguided. That on base percentage is a frightful thing, a terrible sign that an undisciplined team of aggressive hackers has been exposed and exploited. If you're paying attention --and if you could bear to watch-- you saw the Yankees come into the Metrodome and absolutely dismantle and demoralize the Twins over the weekend, and it was the sort of across-the-board drubbing that almost makes a guy believe in all that bullshit Yankee mystique. There's no denying the ugly numbers; this is a great New York team, and the Twins ran into them when they were in full juggernaut mode. But they were also playing without Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, and Jason Giambi was 2-18 in the series. Despite which, of course, the Twins were outscored 38-9, and out-homered 12-1.

It's awfully difficult to teach an aggressive hitter to take pitches, particularly at the Major League level. That patience is a virtue has long been recognized by anyone who really loves baseball statistics. A batter who can work the count and lay off bad pitches helps his team in so many ways. Every pitch and every baserunner changes the probabilities of a baseball game, which is what makes on base percentage such a great and largely unappreciated statistic. Particularly early in a game a hitter who can make a pitcher throw a lot of pitches gives himself and his teammates the opportunity to see what kind of stuff a pitcher has, how he's throwing that day, and what the umpire's strike zone is. Even a 1-0 count gives a batter a small advantage, and 2-0 or 2-1 increases his chances drastically. Making a pitcher throw more pitches early in a game also gives a team greater odds of getting into an opponent's bullpen, a huge bonus, particularly early in a series. The sort of undisciplined hacking we see so often from the Twins leads to too many easy outs and counts that favor the pitcher. There aren't very many good two-strike hitters in the Major Leagues, for good reason. Give a pitcher that cushion and he can essentially play with you and get you to hit his pitch, or not. Which is exactly what's been happening to the Twins hitters.

Good pitchers --hell, even mediocre pitchers-- have so much information on opposing hitters these days, and a player's weakness will be discovered in a hurry. You could see every one of the Yankee starters working over the Twins weaknesses up and down the lineup. Torii Hunter --only the most obvious example-- has been figured out, and it's obvious that opposing teams are going to keep messing with his head until he learns to make adjustments. And there's unfortunately a very good chance he just won't ever learn. It's obvious in the early going that opposing pitchers are preying on the Twins aggressiveness, and it hasn't been pretty to watch. Once again, the Yankee hitters provided an embarrassing study in contrasts. This is a team that is systematically disciplined, and they virtually never swing at bad pitches, work counts in their favor, take walks, and crush mistakes. In the fourth game of the recent series Rick Reed struck out the side in the first inning and looked unhittable, but it quickly became apparent that the Yankees learned something from those at bats, and by the time Reed skulked from the mound in the fifth inning he had thrown 95 pitches and given up 10 hits, three walks, two homeruns, and 11 runs. After that dominating first inning he struck out only one more Yankee hitter. David Wells, on the other hand, threw only 103 pitches to get the complete game victory, and walked only one batter, the first walk he had issued in his last 59 innings pitched.

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