Are the Twins (somehow) better without Justin Morneau?
Ten ballgames from now, we'll open up our sports pages and Justin Morneau's bolded surname beside his stellar .345 average will be gone from the American League batting leaders. Poof. Disappeared. Out since suffering from a concussion vs. the Blue Jays on July 7th, Morneau would no longer own the 3.1 plate appearances per game required to qualify for the batting race. That is, of course, if the first baseman remains unable to return to the lineup after missing the past 18 games.
There's not a crumb here among us in the Bread Basket that doesn't wish, hope and pray for a swift return for the 2006 MVP. But concussions are so damn freaky. No ligaments to re-connect; no cast to adhese bone. Only an indeterminate time-table, the player's comfortability and patience to go on.
Yet in a strange echo from the close of last season, the Twins are shockingly winning at a better clip without Morneau, who left that strange slide in Toronto sporting career numbers. The afore-noted .345 clip stands at 61 points above his lifetime average while his superb .437 On Base Percentage still leads all of baseball. In addition: the 18 home runs owned by Justin at the time of his departure were pacing the Canadian for a career-best 35 bombs on the year.
But as we wait, the Twins are playing with no sign of hesitation in Morneau's absence.
Last year, when Morneau was forced to miss the final 21 regular season ballgames with a stress fracture in his back, the club went on a 17-4 tear, going from a sub-.500 record and third place standing in the Central to their eventual usurping of the Tigers in game 163. The shifting of ballers across the diamond chess board resulted in Michael Cuddyer hitting .325 with eight home runs while manning first base over that 21 game stretch and concurrently saw Delmon Young find the beginnings of his modern day sizzle with the enhanced playing time. The club's mark when Morneau left the lineup? 70-72, with a .493 win percentage. For that torrid 21 game close? An insane win clip of .810.
This season, the Twins were playing measured .538 ball (45-39) when Morneau was forced away with the concussion. In the 18 games since? The club is 11-7 (.611), including a 10-4 mark since the All-Star Break and five straight wins, matching their longest streak of the season.
Between the close of last year and the current Morneau-less stretch, the malleable Cuddyer has wasted little time evidencing ample comfort in Justin's stead. In the past 18 games while playing 1B, Cuddy has hit .351 with a .422 OBP and three HR's while playing the field sans error. It's interesting that, for his career, Cuddyer owns a .305 average and .553 Slugging
Percentage in 96 games at first base. Said power is further evidenced by a bomb hit in every five games. In his 578 lifetime games in RF, Cuddy sports a .269 average with a .446 Slugging mark and a long ball hit every 8.5 games.
There seems to be something of a Cuddy-Young-Kubel-Thome domino meld in the lineup shift without Morneau. In brief: Delmon's numbers over his past 125 games speak for themselves; in '10 Kubel is hitting over 80 points higher (with an On Base mark 50 points better) while playing in RF in contrast with DH'ing; Thome's HR/AB ratio of 14.5 serves as the seventh best in all of baseball with a minimum of 200 plate appearances.
Should Morneau remain out, the ensuing weeks will prove far more telling in this regard, in no small part due to the fact that the Twins have hit this hot streak versus namely cupcake competition. Post taking three of four against the Division-leading ChiSox after the Break, their next three opponents (Cleveland, Baltimore, K.C.) were all fourth or fifth place clubs in their respective divisions.
In the Twins next four series against teams that they haven't already played post the Break, the club will find opposition (Seattle, Tampa, Oakland, L.A.) versus whom Morneau has had ample success. To wit: for his career, he's hit .285 or better against three of those teams (sans the Angels) and claims a combined 44 career HR's in 204 games against all four. Despite the club's recent power surge, the Twins still rank in the bottom-half of MLB in team HR's, so this early-August run against more stout competition should serve as a more telling sign of Morneau's absence.
We collectively hold out hope that The Mountie will ride again before his name departs the batting ranks, just as it's somewhat sad and strange to imagine what Morneau must endure seeing the club succeed without him -- again. Are the Twins a better ballclub without one of baseball top hitters? Not for the long run.
But it's crazy how the value of a win weighs on what would seem obvious judgment.
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