The remains of the season: Minnesota Twins

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Brendan Harris dives back to first. Gritty play like this has kept the Twins afloat. (Icon/SMI)

It is Aug. 8 and the Twins find themselves right back in the hunt for another AL Central crown. For all the talk of the Indians and the Tigers and the White Sox winning the world series in 2005, it is the Twins who have dominated this division in recent years, winning the crown four of the last six years. They are in prime position to make it five of seven as they stand only a half-game behind the White Sox as I write this.

The Twins have gotten incredibly little attention in the national media this year. After trading away Johan Santana to the Mets in the offseason, little was expected of the Twins as they were thought to be rebuilding. With the Tigers and the Indians underperforming, it is the Twins who find themselves in a race for the top spot with 48 games to go. How have they done it you ask? Solid pitching and timely hitting. Let’s take a look back.

Pitching

The Twins came into the year with a slew of young starting pitchers and crusty veteran Livan Herndandez. Hernandez has predictably pitched poorly, and recently got designated for assignment to make room for Francisco Liriano, so it has been up to the young starters for the Twins and boy have they produced. You might not know too much about Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey, Glen Perkins, and Scott Baker but you soon will. Let me give you a quick scouting report on each of them.

Baker is the veteran of the group at 26. He has been pitching in the big leagues since 2005 but has been up and down between Minnesota and Triple-A Rochester until this year. Throughout his career, Baker has had very good command, walking very few batters but not striking out many either. This year, however, Baker has cranked up the strikeouts to over eight per game while still holding his walks to two per game. That is exactly what you are looking for from a pitcher and his ERA has dropped accordingly.

Baker is a fly ball pitcher, so he will give up a few home runs but because he keeps runners off base for the most part they are solo shots and they don’t hurt him too much. Baker throws his fastball in the low 90s along with a hard slider, curve, and straight change-up. Many pitchers don’t throw a change-up to similarly handed batters, afraid they will leave one middle in for a batter to crush, but Baker throws his change-up to both right- and left-handed batters equally. This gives another thing for the batter to be thinking about because Baker is willing to throw any of his pitches at any count.

Perkins is the local boy who grew up in Minnesota and attended the University of Minnesota before being drafted by the Twins in the first round in 2004. He is a 25-year-old left hander who throws a fastball, curve ball, and straight change-up. I saw Perkins pitch several times in the minors and he basically is the same pitcher now as he was then, relying mostly on his fastball to get by. He throws about 92 mph, which is quite good for a lefty, and uses that pitch nearly 70 percent of the time.

He mostly throws his change-up to right-handed batters and his curve to left-handed batters and both are effective off-speed pitches. Perkins’ strikeout numbers are way down this year, which is kind of alarming, but he too has been stingy with the walks, so that has helped keep him afloat. Perkins is a fly ball pitcher who will climb the ladder with his fastball to try to get a batter to chase when he is ahead in the count. Pure talent-wise, he probably has the nastiest stuff and if he can get those strikeouts back, he could become a very solid front-line starter.

Slowey is a 24-year-old right hander who was a second-round pick in 2005. Slowey features a fastball around 91 mph with good tailing action in to right-handed batters, a cut fastball that mimics his four seamer well until it breaks away to a right hander, a slider that is pretty slurvy, and a straight change-up. Slowey’s best asset is his control, and he walks only about 1.5 batters per game. He is a fly ball pitcher and will give up his share of home runs, but he strikes out a good number of batters and the long balls don’t hurt him too badly because he doesn’t give up too many base runners. Sound familiar yet?

Blackburn is the real surprise of the group. He is a 26-year-old right hander who was a 29th-round selection in 2001 and he didn’t really start pitching well until he repeated A ball in 2004. Dominating a league at a somewhat advanced age after repeating it is something that you see from time to time, especially in the low minors, but Blackburn kept that momentum going and made it to the show in 2007 and has been in the Twins rotation all year this year, posting a tremendous 3.60 ERA and a 3.91 FIP to match.

Blackburn doesn’t strike out many batters, less than five a game, but he doesn’t walk anyone either, just 1.4 a game, and he gets a few more grounders than his teammates. That is mostly due to his sinker (which my pitch classification algorithm is calling a splitter because of it’s extra horizontal movement), which he throws a little more often than his four seamer. If that weren’t enough, Blackburn also throws a straight change-up, a cut fastball, a slider, and a slurvy curve. He literally can throw a pitch at every speed between 75 (curve) and 97 (four seamer) mph and doesn’t throw any pitch more than 26 percent of the time (sinker) which makes him a very tough pitcher to face.

Because he throws all those pitches, my classification algorithm considers him very unique with his closest comp being Carlos Zambrano, which I think is a great comp. His stuff is that good and there is no reason to suspect that this year a a fluke.

This group is actually an incredibly similar group. They all have pinpoint command, they all have a four-seam fastball that they are willing to throw up in the zone, they all throw a straight change-up, they mostly are fly ball pitchers, they mostly throw their fastballs in the low 90s, and they all are home-grown players. Clearly the Twins have an idea of what they are looking for in the draft and then able to teach these young pitchers how they want them to pitch. If ever a Moneyball is going to be written about the Twins, chapter one should be looking at how they are able to locate and develop their young pitchers.

Add to this mix Liriano, who threw six innings of shutout ball in his return, and you have a staff that is incredibly deep. Their bullpen has had its ups and down this year, but the core of Dennys Reyes, Jesse Crain, and Matt Guerrier is pretty solid and with Joe Nathan at the back they should be relatively effective coming down the stretch.

Position players

The Twins are led by Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, who both are having fine seasons. You probably have a good idea as to what these two bring to the table, so I’d like to spend time talking about a few other players you might not be as familiar with.

Jason Kubel was a hot prospect and burst onto the scene at the end of 2004 with the Twins. Sadly, after the season ended, he badly injured his knee in a collision in the AFL and didn’t make it back until 2006. While he may never reach the promise he once had, Kubel has filled in nicely as a part-time outfielder and DH for the Twins. DH has been a sore spot for the club for pretty much as long as I can remember, so getting solid production from Kubel has been a huge lift to the team.

Carlos Gomez was one of the key additions in the Santana deal and he has gotten a fair amount of press for his speed and bunting ability. Gomez has the ability to manufacture runs but his .291 OBP is an eye sore, especially at the top of the lineup. Seventeen walks in 455 plate appearances just isn’t going to get it done, especially if you have basically zero power. He is just 22 years old, so don’t give up on him, but the Twins would be better off if his playing time would be greatly reduced during the stretch drive. He plays the outfield well and has that good speed, so a fifth outfielder seems like an ideal role for now at least. He has already been moved to the bottom of the order, which is a move in the right direction.

Alexi Casilla is another young player who has been splitting time at second with Brendan Harris and Nick Punto. Casilla is also pretty fleet footed but doesn’t have the stolen base totals that Gomez has. What he does have is a much better OBP of .351. This is almost entirely driven by his .313 batting average but don’t think that Casilla is a fluke. Despite not walking much, Casilla hardly strikes out, only 25 times in 273 plate appearances, so his .329 BABIP isn’t astronomically high. Unfortunately, Casilla may be out for the season with a thumb injury.

Delmon Young, who came over in the Matt Garza trade, has been patrolling left field for much of the year. Young has displayed very little power this year with just four home runs and he has seen his ground ball rate spike to 57 percent and his line drive rate fall to 17 percent. Still, Young has some on base skills and isn’t a terrible defender so he has some value. The chances of him breaking out and becoming the star he was tabbed to be out of high school are decreasing rapidly however.

Denard Span has been the real surprise mid-season call-up after he was hitting well in Triple-A. I saw Span play in the minors early in his career and he was very unimpressive, but the light appears to have come on and he is hitting for a lot more power than he was before. Currently, his BABIP is at an unsustainable .364, but even if that comes back to regular levels, he seems to have the skills to be a useful player. He might have lost playing time when Michael Cuddyer returned from his rehab assignment in Rochester, but Cuddyer suffered a fractured foot when a line drive hit him Friday night.

Overall, the main story line for the Twins at the plate this year has been timely hitting. Despite hitting .278 as a team, they are hitting .316 with runners in scoring position easily lapping the league in that category. No other team is even at .300 for the year, so that appears rather unsustainable, but they have kept it up so far and now there are only 48 games left in the season. However, while it wouldn’t be impossible for them to keep that up it is unlikely.

While they have some nice players and are getting some nice production for unexpected sources, they still have a few sinkholes in the lineup and really could use another bat. With the trade deadline passed, it seems ever unlikely that bat will come, however, so if the Twins are going to contend it will likely fall to their pitchers to keep them in the race.

Looking forward

The Twins have played six more home games than road games and the White Sox have played five fewer at home, but the last meeting between the two teams will come at the Metrodome the last week of the season. The key to the Twins’ season likely rests in a brutal 14-game road trip Aug. 21 through Sept. 4 that starts out west with the Angels, Seattle, and Oakland, and ends with a cross-countries trip to Toronto. If the Twins can stay afloat during that stretch, then they have a chance.

Depending on which forecast you believe, the Twins have between a 35 and 50 percent chance of making the postseason. I normally tend to believe BP when relatively large differences crop up, but the Twins’ third-order winning percentage was almost completely achieved with Livan Hernandez in the rotation, so I suspect that something like 40-45 percent is more accurate. What could the Twins do to help their chances, you say? Well, here is a crazy idea: They could sign Barry Bonds.

Nate Silver tackled this idea a few days ago and found that Bonds really wouldn’t be that big of an upgrade in comparison to Jason Kubel, who should be DHing the lion’s share of the remaining games. While that is absolutely the case, here is a more radical idea that I think would make it worth it for the Twins. Instead of replacing Kubel’s spot in the lineup, Bonds should be replacing Gomez’s spot. This would involve Kubel going to left and Young moving to center so the outfield defense is going to get worse, but the gains at the plate would be huge.

Thanks to Sal Baxamusa‘s handy in-season Marcel Projections, we see that Gomez is on pace for about 225 plate appearances of .263/.313/.377 baseball. Notice that is a decent upgrade from what Gomez is currently hitting but works out to a sad 26.5 runs created using the simple formula. Bonds’ Marcel is .260/.420/.490, which almost identical to his PECOTA prediction of .246/.420/.494. That would be about 46.3 runs using the simple runs created method giving all of Gomez’s time to Bonds.

Now Gomez is not likely to get that many plate appearances because he has been moved to the bottom of the order and Sal’s estimates are from July 30, but you can see what a difference Bonds’ bat would make. Young is not a good center fielder and Kubel wouldn’t be as good as Young in left, but that isn’t likely to cost the team more than about five runs for the rest of the season. Gomez is much faster than Bonds so let’s chop off another five runs from that factoring in the speed and the fact that Bonds probably will need a little time to get ready, so he will probably receive fewer plate appearances.

That still works out to a 10-run increase. You might not think that is a lot, but that should be worth about one win to the Twins. One win isn’t a big deal to the Angels or the Cubs right now, but one extra win would be huge for the Twins. They are right at the same sweet spot that the Brewers were at when they made the CC Sabathia trade. When you are neck and neck with your main opponent, changing just one loss to a win probably adds about seven percent to the Twins chances of making the playoffs (going from BP’s numbers, which have the White Sox ending the season 2.5 games better than the Twins right now). That is a huge upgrade for just 48 games from just a single player.

There are some other potential issues like the Twins are already very left handed in their lineup and you would almost certainly have to bat Bonds next to either Mauer or Morneau in the lineup, but that is a pretty small issue. Sure Bonds might be a distraction, but he also would be one of few players on the Twins roster that has gone deep into the playoffs, so wouldn’t the veteran leadership cancel that out?

Maybe the media swarm around Bonds would keep reporters away from the young players on the Twins roster down the stretch as well. I realize that the chances of the Twins signing Bonds are about as likely as Santa leaving me a brand new stalker sport for Christmas (actually Santa, I am not too picky and would gladly take a refurbished stalker sport), but I think it is pretty clear he would help the Twins out if not push them over the top in the AL Central.

In any case, the Twins really have been one of the great untold stories of the 2008 season. Their pitching has come together and they have been getting timely hitting and they have hung around and now are in position to take the Central. If they were to overtake the White Sox and make it five titles in the last seven years, that would really be a story.

Give the front office credit for dumping Hernandez when they did as well. It takes some guts to dump your opening day starter, who also was leading the team in victories. The move was clearly the right choice, but sometimes the right choice is clouded by potential media/fan backlash. The faces may be different from the Twins you remember from even a few years ago, but the organization approach hasn’t changed as they continue to put out a quality team on the field.

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