The Minnesota Twins, by Month (Through July)

After a very fast start followed by two mediocre months, the Twins put some distance between themselves and the rest of the American League Central with an extremely good July. Let’s take a look at how they did it, along with a month-by-month look at their season.

First, the basics …

TEAM
 
MONTH      W      L     WIN%     RS/G     RA/G     RDIFF
April     15      7     .682     6.05     5.50     +0.55
May       12     16     .429     3.82     4.86     -1.04
June      14     12     .538     4.27     4.42     -0.15
July      17     10     .630     4.96     3.44     +1.52
--------------------------------------------------------
TOTAL     58     45     .563     4.71     4.51     +0.20

Despite having a better winning percentage in April, I think July was the Twins’ best month this year. In April they bashed their opponents into submission, scoring over six runs per game while compiling a 15-7 record, but their pitching was poor (5.5 runs allowed per game) and they had a run differential of “only” +0.55 per game. In July, the offense was good but not great (although much better than it was in May or June) and the pitching staff was phenomenal, which led to the team outscoring its opponents by an impressive 1.52 runs per game.

Through the end of June, the Twins had been outscored by 21 runs or 0.27 runs per game, but their dominant July was enough to turn their negative run-differential into a positive one. They’ve also now gone from completely blowing their Pythagorean record away to simply out-performing it by three games.

Last month, while talking about Minnesota’s improved pitching in June, I said, “If the pitchers have a similar improvement in July, the Twins will find themselves among the league leaders in team ERA.” Well, it’s now the first week of August and the Minnesota Twins are improbably leading the American League with a 4.04 ERA.

Let’s take a closer look at that league-leading pitching staff …

PITCHING
 
MONTH      AVG      OBP      SLG      1B%     2B%     HR%      BB%      SO%
April     .297     .353     .450     19.3     5.0     2.7      7.5     16.8
May       .281     .342     .413     18.9     4.1     2.3      8.6     16.2
June      .267     .309     .431     17.0     4.5     3.6      5.6     18.6
July      .234     .285     .364     16.4     2.3     3.0      5.5     20.1

July was an incredible month for the pitching staff. They increased their strikeouts for the second straight month, striking out over 20% of the batters they faced, and cut down on their already-great walk rate. The Twins’ staff finished with a 3.24 ERA in June, which was the best in the AL by 23%. They also led the AL in batting average allowed (.234), OPS allowed (.649) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.67-to-1) in July.

In addition to the good job by the pitchers, the defense also did a fantastic job turning balls in play into outs, which I’ll get to in a moment. The Twins’ pitchers gave up homers at about the same rate as they have all year, but their singles rate improved quite a bit and their doubles rate was extraordinary — nearly twice as good as it had been in the first three months of the season. Both of those things can be traced back to the defense, particularly in the outfield.

PITCHING
 
                                  INNINGS                          GROSS PRODUCTION AVG
PITCHER                APR      MAY      JUN      JUL         APR      MAY      JUN      JUL
Johan Santana         28.1     32.2     37.2     46.0        .254     .296     .174     .132
Brad Radke            28.0     41.0     40.1     38.2        .293     .199     .239     .222
Carlos Silva          31.1     28.0     40.2     31.1        .261     .290     .272     .275
Kyle Lohse            27.2     33.2     31.2     33.0        .313     .294     .249     .289
Terry Mulholland       5.2     15.0     13.1     24.1        .241     .290     .296     .232
Juan Rincon           12.0     14.0     13.2     13.1        .170     .250     .117     .191
Seth Greisinger       11.1     28.2     11.0                 .345     .277     .329
Joe Nathan            11.0     12.2     12.0     12.0        .261     .107     .201     .145
Joe Roa               11.0     17.1     10.0      9.0        .267     .213     .296     .343
J.C. Romero           11.1     16.0      3.2     13.0        .219     .242     .410     .145
Aaron Fultz           11.2     13.0      7.0      9.0        .166     .230     .293     .229
Grant Balfour                   5.1     10.0     11.2                 .307     .205     .127
Carlos Pulido         11.1                                   .313         
Matt Guerrier                            9.0                                   .299
Brad Thomas            2.2                                   .404         
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
TOTAL                203.1    257.1    240.0    241.1        .271     .257     .247     .219

Here you can see Johan Santana‘s evolution from early-season disappointment to staff ace and potential Cy Young award winner. He has upped his innings pitched in each month, and his performance in June and July was almost unbelievable. Santana combined to go 7-3 with a 1.72 ERA in 11 starts, which included a 1.17 ERA and .095 (yes, zero ninety-five) batting average against in six July starts.

Brad Radke, despite giving up nine homers in 38.2 July innings, put together another solid month, going 3-2 with a 3.96 ERA in six starts. Terry Mulholland took over the fifth-starter gig and went 3-0 with a 2.96 ERA in 24.1 July innings. Kyle Lohse and Carlos Silva continued their tantalizing-mediocre performances in the middle of the team’s rotation, while the bullpen — including Joe Nathan (12.0 IP, 0.00 ERA), J.C. Romero (13.0, 0.00), Grant Balfour (11.2, 0.77) and Juan Rincon (13.1, 4.05) — was dominant. The only pitcher on the entire staff who had what I would call a “bad” July is Joe Roa, who is essentially the Twins’ mop-up man.

I said earlier I would talk about the defense, so let’s take a look …

DEFENSIVE EFFICIENCY RATIO
 
MONTH         DER
April        .661
May          .679
June         .701
July         .732

Here’s the real key to the Twins’ improved bullpen and the hidden factor behind the team’s ERA going from 5.00 to 4.34 to 3.94 to 3.24 in the first four months of the season. The defense has simply done a better job converting balls in play (everything but strikeouts, walks and homers) into outs as the season has progressed, culminating in an outstanding conversation rate of 73.2% in July.

In particular, the outfield defense was outstanding, which shouldn’t be surprising considering the alignment for most of the month was Lew Ford in left field, Torii Hunter in center field and Jacque Jones in right field. If there’s a better defensive outfield in baseball, I’d like to see it. The outfield completely shut down the other teams’ ability to hit doubles in July, letting just 22 two-baggers go into the gaps in 27 games. The Twins, meanwhile, managed to hit 58 doubles of their own.

I also think the infield defense got a little boost thanks to Nick Punto stealing playing time from both Cristian Guzman and Luis Rivas before he went down with what is probably a season-ending collarbone injury. Punto’s defense was extremely good, although it’s tough for me to tell if that is legitimate, or simply in comparison to the middle infield sieves I’ve been watching for the past few years.

After starting the season with awful defense and one of the worst DERs in baseball, the Twins have climbed all the way up to a .687 DER for the season, which ranks 8th in the American League and is right around the league-average mark of .690. They’re still not particularly close to the DERs the team had in 2002 (.714) and 2003 (.710).

Now let’s switch gears and look at the offense …

HITTING
 
MONTH      AVG      OBP      SLG      1B%     2B%     HR%      BB%      SO%
April     .297     .370     .467     17.6     5.6     2.8     10.0     13.2
May       .245     .310     .379     15.7     4.1     2.6      8.0     15.9
June      .246     .307     .414     14.4     4.8     3.4      7.1     18.7
July      .271     .336     .434     16.0     5.8     2.8      8.2     16.3

Minnesota’s offense is not a good one, plain and simple. Aside from the first month of the season, when Ford was hitting .419 and Henry Blanco was doing his Johnny Bench impersonation, the lineup has struggled to score four runs per game. However, the hitting in July was at least not horrible, which was a major step up from the punchless, hapless, undisciplined performance in May and June.

In July, the hitters got back to doing what Twins hitters have done best over the past few years, hitting for a solid batting average (.271, 6th in the AL) while smacking tons of doubles into the gaps (58, 3rd in the AL). They didn’t hit any homers, which is why they were simply “okay” in July, but it was a major step up from the previous two months.

For the year, the Twins rank 10th in the American League in runs scored, ahead of Toronto, Tampa Bay, Kansas City and Seattle, four teams that are a combined 76 games below .500 and own four of the six worst records in the league.

Let’s take a look at the individual performances of these hitters …

HITTING
 
                           PLATE APPEARANCES                   GROSS PRODUCTION AVG
HITTER                APR     MAY     JUN     JUL         APR      MAY      JUN      JUL
Lew Ford               69     120     108     108        .389     .263     .273     .290
Cristian Guzman        81     119     112      83        .234     .238     .222     .267
Jacque Jones           90     110      92     100        .309     .228     .214     .254
Torii Hunter           32     102     107     112        .236     .269     .261     .250
Corey Koskie           76      52      95     101        .319     .211     .274     .237
Doug Mientkiewicz      90     104      96      32        .269     .223     .190     .408
Luis Rivas             66      50      66      65        .181     .229     .306     .194
Michael Cuddyer        44      95      53      45        .212     .269     .226     .284
Shannon Stewart        93      60              65        .303     .242              .283
Henry Blanco           69      65      27      44        .284     .144     .144     .241
Matthew LeCroy         11      54      65      55        .225     .248     .290     .219
Jose Offerman          66      38      25      19        .305     .185     .207     .307
Joe Mauer               6              73      39        .562              .282     .321
Nick Punto             43       6              54        .265     .075              .223
Justin Morneau                 26              67                 .302              .256
Michael Ryan           23      33      19                .326     .183     .074
Alex Prieto                    31       4                .249     .090
Michael Restovich               2       9      10                 .000     .244     .291
Rob Bowen              10       6                        .274     .200
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
TOTAL                 869    1073     967    1003        .283     .234     .242     .260

Once again, Lew Ford was the team’s best hitter in July, posting a .290 Gross Production Average, after having GPAs of .389, .263 and .273 in the first three months of the year. For the year, Ford is leading the team in hits, total bases, walks, stolen bases and runs scored, and is second in doubles and RBIs. He’s also blowing the rest of the team away in Runs Created at 70.5, about 14% ahead of Torii Hunter.

The offense got a big boost in July from the return of Shannon Stewart, who came off the disabled list on July 16 and hit .333/.379/.450 in 65 plate appearances. Doug Mientkiewicz also provided some good offense before getting shipped to Boston, hitting .385/.500/.731 in 32 plate appearances. Joe Mauer hit well in limited time, going for .361/.390/.583 in 39 plate appearances before his return trip to the DL, and Michael Cuddyer‘s bat made a rare appearance (.262/.326/.548), although his playing time continued to be erratic and sparse.

Other than that, the rest of the hitters were very mediocre, although Guzman had what is a good month for him, hitting .313/.337/.463. Somewhere along the line Guzman has convinced Twins fans that he’s having a good season at the plate. Just yesterday, I got an e-mail from a reader who said, in response to me criticizing Guzman on my blog, “Like it or not, Guzman is putting together a pretty nice year. The price is high, but at least he’s a proven commodity.”

Here’s the problem with that line of thinking: Guzman’s .707 OPS ranks 71st among 77 American League hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title this year, and his numbers this year (.287/.315/.392) are, at best, marginally better than the horrible offense he provided last year (.268/.311/.365), in 2002 (.273/.292/.385) or during his entire career (.267/.303/.383). Actually, the part about him being “a proven commodity” is pretty accurate.

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