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.

The key to Torii Hunter's turnaround, on the other hand, is clearly a more disciplined approach, born perhaps of frustration. He's not exactly lighting it up yet, but he has shown signs of breaking out of his slump, and part of that is that he's seeing more pitches. As I noted a couple weeks ago, that sort of patience doesn't come easy for him, and he's obviously struggled with it, yet he also seems to be figuring out that until he learns to be more selective he's going to stop getting pitches he can handle. Hunter, like Jones (and Kirby Puckett before them), is always going to be a hacker and a streaky hitter, but he's already drawn 14 walks this season (in 118 at bats), hardly Bonds-like numbers, but that figure still ties him with Kielty for second on the team, behind Corey Koskie (with 17). And considering that Hunter has drawn 18, 25, and 35 walks in his first three seasons, his 2003 walk totals represent something more than baby steps in the right direction.

As with last year's team, this version of the Twins is extraordinary in so many ways. Nothing ever quite adds up with this team, and they never seem to be able to put all facets of the game together at any given time, yet they continue to plod along and find ways to win. If someone had told you that Brad Radke, Rick Reed, and Joe Mays were going to have a combined ERA of almost 6.00, Torii Hunter was going to be batting just .229, with four homeruns, and the entire team was going to be hitting .242 with four homeruns with runners in scoring position in the second week of May, you'd have no reason to believe that they would be anywhere near .500, let alone three-and-a-half games out of first place.

Notes:

Does the merger --or whatever the hell it was-- between STATS and the Sporting News piss everybody else off as much as it does me? Over the last ten years or so I'd learned to take for granted the service STATS provided the average fan, and their annual Major League Handbook and Player Profiles were indispensible resources. With those two volumes you literally had a comprehensive statistical profile of every player in the Major Leagues, with breakdowns in almost every imaginable category --performance by month, ahead and behind in the count, with runners in scoring position, and versus left and righthanders. The new Sporting News Baseball Register, which is the first fruit of the new collaboration, is a pale imitation of the old STATS annuals, and I still have no idea where, if anywhere, a guy can find the sort of in depth statistics that were a staple of those old volumes. To go back to that business about pitching being 90 percent of the game, it would be easy enough to turn the tables on my earlier argument and point to the example of the Texas Rangers, who are currently 15-18 and in third place in their division, despite having the top three homerun leaders in the American League (and four of the top six), three of the top five in RBIs, three of the top four in on base plus slugging, and the number two guy in batting average. All that offense doesn't accomplish much, obviously, when your pitching staff has a 5.73 earned run average. Given the struggles of Luis Rivas at second base, it might be worth taking a look at the decent career Tom Kelly's old whipping boy Todd Walker has had since being traded away by the Twins. In case you haven't been paying attention, Walker is building a nice little career for himself, and seems to be a fine fit in Boston. He's now hitting .310 with 20 RBI, 21 runs, and a .364 OBP for the Red Sox. And he's still not Bill Mazeroski with the glove, but he did tie for the lead in National League fielding percentage last year (with only eight errors), and led the league in putouts. In 749 Major League games Walker now has a career batting average of .292, with 58 homeruns and a respectable .435 slugging percentage. The trade that sent Walker to the Rockies did net the Twins Todd Sears, so there's still a chance that they'll salvage something out of the deal, but his bat would look pretty good in the Twins lineup right now. Justin Morneau, the top Twins firstbase prospect, who recently got promoted to the Triple A Rochester club when Sears was called up, is having a monster season at the plate. Through his first seven games with the Red Wings Morneau is batting .444 with four homeruns and three doubles. In 20 games at Double A New Britain he hit .329 with six homers and 13 RBIs.
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