The Minnesota Twins, by Month

The Twins are now into their third month of the 2004 season, and I thought it might be interesting to look back at how they’ve played in each of the first two months and try to figure out what that might tell us about the rest of the season.

First, here are 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
--------------------------------------------------------
TOTAL     27     23     .540     4.80     5.14     -0.34

It’s not hard to see what happened to this team. The pitching staff was pretty bad in April, but the offense was absolutely out of control, scoring over six runs per game. Then, once May hit, the pitching staff improved quite a bit (12%), but the offense dropped off a cliff, falling by about 37%. Whereas they outscored their opponent by an average of 0.55 runs per game in April, they were outscored by 1.04 runs per game in May. I think they’re actually lucky that their May record (12-16) wasn’t worse.

Overall, for the first two months, they averaged 4.80 runs per game and gave up 5.14. To put that in some context, for the entire 2003 season they averaged 4.94 runs per game and allowed 4.68. So, clearly, both the offense and defense are underperforming compared to last year, but the defense is the bigger issue.

So, let’s take a look at that first …

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

The Twins walked more batters in May (+14.7%) and struck out slightly fewer hitters (-3.6%), but their batting average against, on-base percentage against and slugging percentage against all dropped. The slugging percentage improvement was the biggest (8.2%), which is thanks to a drop in home runs allowed (14.8%) and in doubles allowed (18.0%). The team gave up singles at roughly the same rate in both months.

Here’s a look at the individual pitchers …

PITCHING
 
                           INNINGS                GPA
PITCHER                  APR      MAY         APR      MAY
Brad Radke              28.0     41.0        .293     .199
Carlos Silva            31.1     28.0        .261     .290
Kyle Lohse              27.2     33.2        .313     .294
Johan Santana           28.1     32.2        .254     .296
Seth Greisinger         11.1     28.2        .345     .277
Joe Roa                 11.0     17.1        .267     .213
J.C. Romero             11.1     16.0        .219     .242
Juan Rincon             12.0     14.0        .170     .250
Aaron Fultz             11.2     13.0        .166     .230
Joe Nathan              11.0     12.2        .261     .107
Terry Mulholland         5.2     15.0        .241     .290
Carlos Pulido           11.1                 .313         
Grant Balfour                     5.1                 .307
Brad Thomas              2.2                 .404         
----------------------------------------------------------
TOTAL                  203.1    257.1        .271     .257

You can see how the roles of Seth Greisinger, Joe Roa and Terry Mulholland increased in May. Mulholland’s was almost by default, since he was signed near the end of April, while Greisinger took over as the full-time #5 starter and Roa established himself in the bullpen. The Twins cut bait on Carlos Pulido and Brad Thomas, and Grant Balfour came off the disabled list. Other than that, the staff has been pretty steady.

In general, the bullpen has been excellent this year. The fivesome of Joe Nathan, Juan Rincon, J.C. Romero, Roa and Aaron Fultz were all good in both months, and even Mulholland hasn’t been horrible as a long-relief man.

Nathan had an amazing May, as batters hit 4-for-40 off him with zero extra-base hits and 15 strikeouts. He did walk four people, so his totals were .100/.182/.100 for a GPA of .107. In other words, that’s about as good as a pitcher gets.

The starting pitching, on the other hand, stinks. Aside from Brad Radke in May, no starter had a GPA allowed below .250 in either month. Greisinger has given them a couple of decent starts, but he averaged just 5.0 innings per start over the first two months and batters hit a robust .309/.363/.539 against him, which is just terrible.

With the bullpen performing well and several guys doing a nice job, I think the Twins might be best served to give Joe Roa a chance to start some games. Roa has been very solid in relief and has shown he can pitch multiple innings at a time. Plus, he has been a starter for just about his entire career before this season. In fact, he has a career record of 61-28 with a 3.38 ERA in 118 Triple-A starts.

The only reason I can think of to keep Greisinger in the rotation over Roa is that Ron Gardenhire feels he needs Roa more in the bullpen, and you all should know how crazy I think that concept is. If the Twins were getting better starting pitching from the #5 spot in their rotation, they wouldn’t be relying on the bullpen as much.

If you needed more proof of this whole one-inning-closer thing being stupid, check out Joe Nathan’s usage compared to some of the other relievers. Nathan is, clearly, the team’s best reliever (which is why he’s the closer), yet he pitched just 11.0 and 12.2 innings in the first two months. Meanwhile, Fultz pitched 11.2 and 13.0 innings, Romero pitched 11.1 and 16.0 innings, and Rincon pitched 12.0 and 14.0 innings. Why would you create a setup where your best relief pitcher is pitching less than all of your other relief pitchers? Nathan was 10th on the team in innings pitched through May.

Finally, here is the hidden key to their improved pitching in May, the fielding …

DEFENSIVE EFFICIENCY RATIO
 
MONTH      DER
April     .661
May       .679

That is the rate at which the Twins’ defense turned balls in play into outs. This is, in my opinion, one of the most overlooked aspects of a team. When you look at the amount of runs a team allows, the pitching is always a huge factor, but it’s not the only factor.

Once the ball gets put in play (not a home run, strikeout or walk), it is up to the defense to turn it into an out, and their success doing that is extremely important. When singles and doubles start falling in, the pitching staff has to face more batters, rallies are extended, more pitches are thrown, and runners on base start scoring.

In short, the Twins’ defense has been horrible this season. Considering defense is something the team prides itself on and talks about constantly, it’s extremely bad. The average American League team turned balls in play into outs 68.7% of the time through the end of May. The Twins converted balls in play into outs just 67.1% of the time in the first two months.

There are some teams that can and do get away with low DERs, but the Twins are not one of those teams. They don’t get a huge number of strikeouts and they are very stingy with walks, which means they are allowing a ton of balls in play. Plus, they give up quite a few home runs, which makes limiting the amount of hits on balls in play that much more important.

Here’s a look at the Twins’ DER for the past few years …

YEAR      DER
2001     .701
2002     .714
2003     .710

The defense this season is clearly not as good as it has been for the past few years, which is very troubling. For the most part, the defensive core (Cristian Guzman, Luis Rivas, Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones, Doug Mientkiewicz, Corey Koskie) remains the same, although some of those guys have missed time with injuries and Jones has shifted from left field to right field.

It could just be a bad or unlucky two months. Defense can go into slumps just like offense can, so it’s possible the Twins are just slumping and they’ll turn it around and get the DER over 70% by the time the year is over. The improvement from April to May is certainly a step in the right direction.

In fact, I think the DER improvement from April to May shows why the pitching staff allowed 18% fewer doubles in May. Getting more specific, doubles allowed can mostly be traced to the outfield defense and I think the fact that Torii Hunter missed about two-thirds of April and was healthy for almost all of May might explain the improvements there.

Another thing I would like to think led to the improvement from April to May is the fact that Luis Rivas missed quite a bit of time in April and was replaced by Michael Cuddyer at second base. Now, Cuddyer is no great shakes defensively, but this would go along with my “anyone is better than Luis Rivas out there” theory.

Okay, enough with the pitching and defense. Let’s take a look at the guys who put the runs on the board …

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

Well, right off the bat you see that the Twins walked significantly less (-20.0%) and struck out significantly more (+20.4%) in May, which is a pretty good way to go about ruining an offense. The Twins’ hitters hit homers at about the same rate, but their singles (-10.8%) and doubles (-26.8%) dropped by quite a bit, which is why the team batting average fell by 52 points.

Some of the decline in walks and hike in strikeouts can probably be traced back to the fact that a hacker like Hunter played a lot more in May than he did in April, while patient hitters like Shannon Stewart and Koskie played a lot less.

Here’s a look at the individual hitters …

HITTING
 
                             PA                  GPA
HITTER                  APR      MAY         APR      MAY
Cristian Guzman          81      119        .234     .238
Jacque Jones             90      110        .309     .228
Doug Mientkiewicz        90      104        .269     .223
Lew Ford                 69      120        .389     .263
Michael Cuddyer          44       95        .212     .269
Shannon Stewart          93       60        .303     .242
Torii Hunter             32      102        .236     .269
Henry Blanco             69       65        .284     .144
Corey Koskie             76       52        .319     .211
Luis Rivas               66       50        .181     .229
Jose Offerman            66       38        .305     .185
Matthew LeCroy           11       54        .225     .248
Michael Ryan             23       33        .326     .183
Nick Punto               43        6        .265     .075
Alex Prieto                       31                 .249
Justin Morneau                    26                 .302
Rob Bowen                10        6        .274     .200
Joe Mauer                 6                 .562
Michael Restovich                  2                 .000
---------------------------------------------------------
TOTAL                   869     1073        .283     .234

Now, this is interesting.

First of all, you can see that the offensive collapse in May was not limited to just a few guys, it was a team-wide thing. Of the guys who got significant playing time (40+ plate appearances), six had a GPA of at least .275 in April, compared to zero in May. That’s right, not a single guy who played on a regular basis had a GPA of even .275 in May.

The best offense from regulars in May came from Cuddyer, Hunter and Lew Ford. Cuddyer, finally given a chance to play on a somewhat everyday basis, hit .241/.337/.470 with four homers and five doubles. He also walked 12 times, drove in 13 runs and scored 13 times — all in just 95 plate appearances. Meanwhile, Ford lost all of his power from April, but still managed to hit .290 and get on base at a .371 clip. Hunter returned from injury and hit .255/.327/.489 with a team-best 14 RBIs and 16 runs scored.

Other than those three (and Justin Morneau, who had a .302 GPA in very limited time), the entire offense was a mess. Guzman put up superficially good numbers in both months, hitting .292 in April and then .283 in May. As usual though, hidden behind those nice batting averages is the fact that he does nothing else beyond hitting singles. His GPAs (.234, .238) were horrible both months, even for a shortstop. This is something I have talked about before, of course.

If you look at the above numbers very closely, you can actually see Henry Blanco and Jose Offerman turn into pumpkins. With Joe Mauer out, Blanco did very nicely in April and then continued to get plenty of playing time in May, and responded by “hitting” .145/.185/.242. Offerman also started hot and then completely fell apart, hitting .156/.289/.219 in May.

Looking closely at the numbers, the only hitter on the entire team who was actually consistent from month-to-month is Guzman, whose GPA changed by just four points. Everyone else who had significant time in both months saw their GPA change by at least 30 points.

Closing thoughts …

The pitching got better and the offense stunk in May. The first part of that is good news and the second part can at least be traced somewhat to all of the injuries and the fact that Blanco and Offerman started to play like themselves after great first months.

Mauer’s return should help in a several ways. First, it takes Blanco out of the lineup which, even if Mauer isn’t great, will help the offense. Second, it allows Matthew LeCroy to (hopefully) DH on a regular basis, which will keep Offerman out of the lineup.

I would say that having Cuddyer (arguably their most productive hitter in May) in the lineup at second base every day would also help the offense quite a bit, but it sounds like Rivas is on his way back from the DL, so I’m not at all confident that Cuddyer will continue to play second base regularly.

My suggestions are pretty typical and mostly stuff I’ve been saying for a while now. Jacque Jones needs to be on the bench against lefties. He started out extremely well against them and everyone was e-mailing me to gloat about how wrong I was about him never improving against southpaws. Well guess what? Now he’s down to .257/.345/.297 against them, and most of that decent on-base percentage is due to being hit by four pitches. You simply cannot have a corner outfielder who hits like that in the lineup. Oh, and for those of you wondering, he hit .231/.274/.336 against lefties from 2001-2003. Funny how those e-mails stopped all of a sudden.

Rivas needs to either get injured again or stay on his rehab assignment for about three months. Cuddyer being in the lineup in place of him on an everyday basis would be a huge boost to the offense. For more on this topic from last week week, click here.

It strikes me as both strange and frustrating that the offense has struggled so much over the last six weeks and Justin Morneau, perhaps the best hitter in the entire organization, spent all but a week of that time either on the bench or at Triple-A. Morneau is now batting .342/.411/.621 with 10 homers and 15 doubles in 40 Triple-A games, and he hit .292/.370/.542 when the Twins decided to let him hit for seven games.

I just don’t know what else to say about this. The team can’t score runs, they have a semi-opening at designated hitter, and they have one of the best hitting prospects in all of baseball destroying Triple-A pitching. Somehow those dots just can’t get connected.

On the pitching side of things, I wish they would utilize Joe Nathan more, whether in multi-inning appearances or simply in more games where the team is either tied or behind by a run. There’s just no reason for him to be fifth among relievers in innings pitched.

Also, I would give Joe Roa a look as the fifth starter. He has been very good out of the bullpen, he has a nice track record of starting in the minor leagues, and Seth Greisinger is simply not getting the job done.

Beyond those things, you just have to hope that Johan Santana and Kyle Lohse improve, and that the hitters can get healthy and back to hitting.

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