June 8, 2011
Prospectus Hit and Run
Anatomy of a Collapse
It has been a miserable season thus far for the Twins, but since the calendar flipped to June, they’ve shown signs of life. On the heels of a three-game sweep by the Tigers, the two-time defending AL Central champions rebounded to take four straight from the Royals in Kansas City, then kicked off a three-game series in Cleveland with a 6-4 win, their fifth straight. Their streak ended on Tuesday with a 1-0 loss to the Indians, but where they were 20 games under .500 and 16.5 out at the close of play on June 1, they’re now 16 under (22-38) and 12.5 out. While their performance to date still qualifies as the team's worst start since 1995, the run offers the faintest flicker of hope that the club can climb back into the AL Central race.
Coming off a 94-68 season—their best since 2006—the Twins were forecast to be in the thick of another three-way scrum in the Central, with PECOTA pegging them as a .505 team (roughly 82-80), a narrow third behind the Tigers and White Sox. Projected to rank seventh in the league in scoring, the offense instead ranked 12th at 3.75 runs per game amid a slew of injuries and underperformances. Through Monday, they also ranked 12th in batting average (.243), 13th in on-base percentage (.303), slugging percentage (.349), and home runs (35), and dead last in isolated power (.106). Meanwhile, the pitching staff ranked 13th in runs allowed per game (4.95) and strikeouts per nine (5.8).
It has taken a perfect storm of bad luck and bad performance for the Twins to play down to this level, but nonetheless, it's clear that general manager Bill Smith and the rest of the organization made numerous mistakes in preparing for this season, mistakes that have compounded their misfortunes to make a bad situation so much worse. What follows are the five biggest ones.
1. Misevaluating Joe Mauer
Losing an MVP-caliber bat is bad enough, but worse is the fact that the Twins have gotten just a .150/.186/.224 line from Drew Butera, who has started 31 of the team's games; his .157 True Average is the majors' lowest among players with at least 100 plate appearances. Throw in Rene Rivera, Steve Holm, and the minimal production from a weakened Mauer, and Twins catchers have combined to hit .178/.229/.252—far inferior to Livan Hernandez's career mark (.221/.231/.297)—while stinking at a level roughly one win below replacement level. In light of what the Twins should have known about Mauer's injuries, their lack of major league-caliber backup—which the 27-year-old Butera, who hit .197/.237/.296in 155 PA last year, decidedly ain’t—is inexcusable, as is the way they rushed their star to be ready for Opening Day.
2. The Middle Infield Muddle
The Twins chose to turn one middle-infield job over to Alexi Casilla, a homegrown 26-year-old who in parts of five seasons had hit just .249/.306/.327 in over 1,000 plate appearances while irritating the brass with a seemingly never-ending series of mental lapses and lack-of-hustle incidents. They signed 26-year-old Japanese free agent Tsuyoshi Nishioka for the other spot; the three-time NPB Gold Glove winner and 2010 batting champion has drawn unflattering comparisons to Kaz Matsui and earned a reputation for fragility. Manager Ron Gardenhire spent spring training trying to figure out which players belonged where; concerned about their import's arm strength, they moved Nishioka from shortstop (where he played exclusively in Japan) to second, and placed Casilla, who had yet to show himself to be particularly adept at the keystone, to short. Nishioka's inexperience at second quickly manifested itself in costly fashion; six games into the season, he suffered a broken fibula via a Nick Swisher takeout slide after straddling the base for too long on a potential double play.
Casilla has been a mild surprise, hitting .255/.327/.342 for a .257 True Average, 23 points higher than his weighted mean PECOTA projection. He has been above average with the leather while splitting time between second and short, and ranks second among the team's hitters in WARP, which says more about his teammates than it does about him. Alas, the other infielders—Matt Tolbert, Luke Hughes, Trevor Plouffe, even Michael Cuddyer—have combined to hit .204/.257/.327, netting out at zero WARP. With their subpar defense, the Twins’ .696 Defensive Efficiency Ratio lags six points below the league average, a costly shortfall given the staff's propensity for pitching to contact. Perhaps the D will improve with Nishioka's return; he has just begun his rehab assignment, and will reportedly return to shortstop upon rejoining the Twins.
3. Doubling Down on Carl Pavano
4. More Rotation Frustration
Ultimately, Slowey lost out on the final spot despite his proclivity for both missing bats (a career 6.9 K/9) and throwing strikes (1.5 per nine, for a stellar 4.6 K/BB ratio); an extreme fly-baller, he has always been rather homer-prone (1.4 per nine), and hardly durable, topping out at 28 starts in 2010, and never throwing more than 160
Despite throwing a no-hitter on May 3, Liriano has done little for his own trade value either, racking up a 5.73 ERA and an unappealing 1.1 K/BB ratio, and serving time on the DL due to shoulder inflammation; he was just activated on Monday. In all, this supposedly deep unit's 4.36 ERA and 5.7 K/9 both rank 13th in the league, and their 49 percent quality start rate is tied for 12th.
5. Not Enough Big Bats
And struggle Morneau has, hitting .232/.286/.345 for a .224 TAv, which ranks 25th out of 26 first basemen with at least 150 PA. Last week he revealed that he has been dealing with a pinched nerve in his neck, which has caused weakness in his shoulder. Kubel (.310/.355/.465) has rebounded to become the team's most productive regular, but he just went on the disabled list due to a sprained foot. Cuddyer (.264/.326/.399) continues to slip, and Young's performance has completely collapsed; he's hitting .223/.255/.270 while battling mechanical woes and an oblique strain. Thome (.237/.372/.447) has hit well when available, but oblique and quad strains have limited him to just 94 plate appearances.
In all, the aforementioned players gave the Twins a .283/.348/.505 performance over 2,234 plate appearances in 2009, and thanks to the addition of Thome, spread similarly high-quality production (.284/.356/.490) across an even larger footprint of 2,558 PA in 2010. This year, they're down at .257/.316/.383, and lo and behold, the team has nothing remotely resembling a power hitter to add to the equation; slap-happy Ben Revere, recalled to replace Thome on the roster, has hit just .278/.304/.296 in his limited exposure.
Though other serious problems have befallen the Twins, none could have been anticipated to the extent of the aforementioned five. The bullpen—which shed mainstays Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, and Jon Rauch via free agency but regained Joe Nathan in his return from Tommy John surgery—has been lit for a league-worst 5.15 ERA, and the team is just 17-8 when leading after seven innings, a shortfall of 4.8 wins relative to the major-league average. Nathan struggled so mightily that he was quickly displaced as closer by fill-in Matt Capps, who was retained to account for just such a likelihood. The two have converted just 11 out of 17 save opportunities, and Nathan is now on the DL with a flexor strain. Third baseman Danny Valencia, who enjoyed a strong rookie season last year, is hitting just .219/.282/.335. The rash of injuries has forced the team to use the DL 13 times, which is tied for second in the majors, and that may climb if Denard Span's collision-induced dizziness turns out to be a concussion.
As for that five-game winning streak, it's worth noting that while the Twins received four quality starts as the rotation pitched to a 2.31 ERA, the starters struck out only 4.1 per nine, not exactly a recipe for sustainable success. Furthermore, four of the five wins came against a team that had lost 13 of 18 coming in, one that has the majors' worst run differential over the last month by a country mile. The Playoff Odds still give the Twins a 2.0 percent chance of making the postseason—smack dab between the likelihoods of the Orioles and Mariners, and nobody's sprinting to Vegas to lay money down on them. Even with that mini-surge, the team is likely to do little more than play out the string over the next four months. Hopefully, their front office will absorb some of this season’s harsh lessons as they do.Paste post text here