May 22, 2005

Talking The Fifth

This weekend's series against Milwaukee was an interesting one, with Carlos Silva tossing a 74-pitch complete game, Doug Davis following with a seven-hit shutout, and the Twins coming back to take the series and save Johan Santana from a loss on a day when he flashed no-hit stuff. But instead of talking about any of that, I'd like to delve into a topic that has been on my mind for a while now. I decided to finally write about it last night, when my grandpa brought up the same subject out of the blue.

Torii Hunter did something rather amazing Friday, grounding into inning-ending double plays in both the first inning and second inning. And they weren't run-of-the-mill double plays, either, as both came with the bases loaded and one out. It didn't end up hurting the Twins much, as they went on to win the game 7-1, but it did hammer home just how tired I am of seeing Hunter batting fifth in the lineup.

While he hasn't hit well this year, batting .231/.310/.381 overall and .250/.280/.386 with runners in scoring position, the truth is that Hunter has actually been good at avoiding double plays this season. In the past he has hit into a ton of them, including a back-breaking 23 last season, but Hunter has hit into just four this season (including Friday's two-DP performance).

In fact, according to Baseball Prospectus' "Double Play Rate" stat, Hunter has come to the plate 37 times with a chance to hit into a double play so far this year and has done so just 10.8% of the time, which is actually a better-than-average rate. Last year, Hunter hit into a double play 22.3% of the time, which was the fourth-worst rate in all of baseball.

In other words, my frustration with Hunter's double-play proclivity is due more to past transgressions than anything he's done this year. On the other hand, he really has done a startling amount of damage in just four double plays. All four have come with at least two runners on base, and three of them came with the bases loaded. And as if stranding 11 runners, using up eight outs, and scoring zero runs wasn't enough rally killing in four measly at-bats, all four double plays ended innings.

The problem is that while Hunter is not an ideal #5 man, the Twins don't really have anyone better suited for the job. Most teams look for a guy who hits for a solid batting average and has quite a bit of pop in that spot, because he'll come to the plate with a ton of men on base if the #3 and #4 hitters are good (which they are in the Twins' case). Hunter has struggled this year, so plenty of guys have a better combination of batting average and power than him right now, but does anyone profile as a better fit over a longer stretch of time?

2002-2004            AVG      SLG     IsoP     AB/XBH
Torii Hunter .270 .483 .213 8.7
Jacque Jones .286 .468 .182 10.1
Matthew LeCroy .275 .458 .183 10.1
Michael Cuddyer .259 .436 .177 10.2
Lew Ford .302 .461 .159 10.5
Shannon Stewart .305 .450 .145 10.7

Ignoring Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, Hunter has the most power and hits extra-base hits the most often on the team, which is why, flaws and all, he's still probably the best option. Jacque Jones hits for a better batting average, has the second-most power, and is hitting well this year, but the Twins would create a bigger problem than they already have in the late innings by having three straight lefties batting 3-4-5 in the lineup.

Basically, the Twins are short one good right-handed hitter. Not short in the sense that it's keeping them from being a good team or having a good lineup, but short in the sense that it's keeping Ron Gardenhire from drawing up an ideal lineup card. If they had, say, Mike Sweeney at designated hitter, he could bat fifth, Jones could hit sixth, and Hunter could slide down to seventh. That would get Hunter out of key RBI spots and get a better overall hitter behind Mauer and Morneau.

It'll never happen, of course, but a boy can dream. After all, anything is better than the nightmare that is Hunter at the plate lately. He went 1-for-12 in the three-game series with Milwaukee, leaving 11 runners on base, and capped things off by striking out with two outs and the bases loaded in the eighth inning yesterday afternoon. On a team that has struggled an obscene amount with the bases loaded all season, Hunter is perhaps the worst offender. He is now 0-for-9 with the bases loaded, which doesn't even properly account for his struggles by including double plays.

Today at The Hardball Times:
- To Live and Die in LA (by Aaron Gleeman)

Today's Picks (37-27, +$1,160):
Washington (Loaiza) -115 over Cincinnati (Milton)

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