April Showers Bring May Power

The Twins Are Playing Like Their Early Slump Is Behind Them. Maybe.

So much for that old notion that pitching is 90 percent of the game, which as I'm fond of saying is true just as long as we can all agree that the ultimate math of a baseball game somehow adds up to 180 percent. In April the Twins stumbled badly out of the gate, and played like a team in the grips of a full-blown offensive brain cramp. Through their first 25 games the Twins were 11-14, and were batting just .247 with 19 homeruns and 329 total bases. Their team on base percentage was a humble .309, while their slugging percentage was .388, numbers which would be acceptable for a second-string middle infielder, but which are disastrous for a Major League baseball team. That the team managed to stay within spitting distance of .500 was testament to their pitching --the work of the bullpen, primarily-- and the quality (or lack thereof) of their competition. The starters were hardly stellar in April, but the staff as a whole did post a respectable 4.38 earned run average, and held opponents to a .235 batting average.

What a difference a week can make. Since the Twins'last six-game losing streak --already their second of the young season-- the team has gone 8-3, and has scored 69 runs in 11 games. They have now hit 13 homeruns in their last eight games, including ten in six games so far in May. Two-thirds of the team's promising mix of spare-part outfielders, Dustan Mohr, and Michael Cuddyer--the same guys who posed a season-long dilemma for manager Ron Gardenhire last season, and sparked plenty of hot stove debate over the winter-- got off to wretched starts this season, and all but forced Gardenhire to play Bobby Kielty every day. Both Mohr and Cuddyer have been terrific the last week, and are once again creating lineup headaches for the manager. In the first six games in May, Mohr is batting .500 with two homers and an unreal .864 slugging percentage, while Cuddyer has hit .417 with a .533 OBP and a .583 slugging percentage.

During the Twins' brief but impressive May run the pitching staff has actually been slightly worse than in April, compiling a 4.58 ERA. What this all means, of course, is that the Twins are back to playing almost exactly like the team that ran away with the Central division last year. And, most encouraging, while the Twins have been playing their best baseball of the season the rest of the division has been stinking up the joint. The Royals have now played 22 games since they started the season with a nine-game winning streak, and they are 11-11 in that stretch. They're also 4-8 in their last 12 games, and 3-7 in their last ten, and during that skid the Twins have closed to within three-and-a-half games. Kansas City manager Tony Pena, who is dealing with a bunch of young pitchers who almost all racked up innings in winter ball, is already so desperate that he's going with a six-man rotation for the time being, in the hopes of keeping his pitchers' arms from falling off come July and August. I don't much like his chances, and the rest of the division looks positively hopeless at the moment. The White Sox, who loaded up in the off season in an attempt at making a run at the Twins, are a putrid and hugely undisciplined defensive team, and don't look like they have a prayer of being in any kind of a race come September.

The truth is that the Twins could bounce up and down all season and still win the Central by ten games. May will in all likelihood be the toughest portion of their schedule, with series against Boston, Kansas City, Chicago, Oakland, and Seattle. But the good news is that of those 21 games, 15 of them are at home, including ten straight starting Friday at the Dome.

Whereas a few weeks ago there wasn't much reason for encouragement no matter how hard you looked at the Twins statistics, at the moment, heading into that tough stretch, things are decidedly looking up. Granted, before anyone gets too excited you need to recognize that Minnesota has padded its record against Detroit and Tampa Bay --going 11-0 so far against those two teams, which have a combined record of 19-46. Against everybody else --Boston, Chicago, New York, KC, and Toronto-- they're merely 6-15. Or put it this way: against teams with losing records the Twins are now 15-5. Against the clubs with winning records they're 2-10. I suppose we're going to find out in a hurry how close they are to putting their April lethargy behind them, but for now there's plenty of satisfying data to digest.

Consider, for instance, the play of Jacque Jones, who is now hitting .336 with a slugging percentage of .500. Most impressive in the leadoff man's hot start has been his performance against lefthanders, against which he has historically been brutal, at best. In 2001 Jones hit just .182 against lefties (in 55 at bats), and last year he wasn't much better in a lot more opportunities (.213 in 160 at bats). How then to explain his numbers this year? Right now Jones is hitting .353 against southpaws, with an OBP of .373 and a slugging percentage of .500. And, yes, that's in only 34 at bats, but those are some impressive numbers for a guy who was looking for a long time like he was doomed to a future as a platoon player. Jones is still a hacker up there, one of those guys for whom every at bat is a guessing game. But despite the fact that he's not drawing walks --he only has one walk against lefties-- he's nonetheless gotten markedly more disciplined about laying off pitches he can't handle and punishing mistakes. I don't know, I guess he's gotten a lot better at guessing, which is the mark of a guy who's really working at hitting and learning the tendencies of pitchers.

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