June 27, 2005

The Margins

One of my biggest complaints about Ron Gardenhire is that he does not squeeze the most out of his offense at the margins. There are dozens of examples of this over the years, most prominent among them batting guys like Juan Castro in the second spot in the lineup, refusing to platoon Jacque Jones with a right-handed hitter, and frequently writing up lineups that include multiple bench players in an effort to "get everyone involved."

Now, none of these things mean the difference between winning and losing over the course of a season. However, the Twins' offense is really struggling right now and the fact that Gardenhire is unwilling (or unable) to get every little bit of extra scoring he can out of the tools he has available is very discouraging.

Things such as platooning hitters and creating optimal lineups are not advanced strategies, but rather basic, fundamental abilities a major-league manager should have. The fact that Gardenhire doesn't is something I have complained about in the past, which has fallen mostly on deaf ears as the Twins succeeded despite his weaknesses. This season, however, with their margin for error smaller than it has been in the past, the little things add up.

Jones playing against lefties is where Gardenhire is most stubborn. The fact that Jones has essentially never hit left-handed pitching over a significant period of time during his entire career is often ignored when he gets off to a decent start against southpaws seemingly every season. He did that again this year, and the result was Jones/Gardenhire supporters saying things like, "It looks like he's finally figured lefties out" or "See, Gardenhire knew what he was doing with Jones."

Well, now we're three months into the season and Jones is hitting just .237/.280/.382 against left-handed pitching. Not only has Gardenhire kept him in the lineup against lefties in typical situations, he has refused to bench him in spots like Friday night, with lefty Chris Capuano on the mound and Lew Ford on the bench with the game being played by NL rules. Rather than give Ford a chance to play in an NL park (something that rarely happened during the first round of road interleague games), Gardenhire stuck with Jones and saw him go 0-for-4.

Now, Jones going 0-for-4 Friday night was not the reason the Twins lost, just as Jones playing every day against lefties is not the reason the Twins are in second place. However, separating those facts from the idea that Jones playing against left-handed pitching is hurting the team's ability to score runs and thus hurting the team's ability to win games should not be difficult. Yet there Jones is, out there in right field every time a lefty is on the mound.

Here is what Jones has done against left-handed pitching with Gardenhire as his manager:

YEAR      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
2002 .213 .259 .331 .590
2003 .269 .310 .393 .703
2004 .245 .328 .329 .657
2005 .237 .280 .382 .662

Essentially, the Twins have handicapped themselves by playing a corner outfielder who hits like a horrible shortstop in a third of their games. And there is little reason for it, other than Gardenhire's stubbornness and inability to accurately view Jones' faults. Sticking Jones in the lineup against southpaws every day is tantamount to the birds who fly into glass windows all day long because they think it's open air. The window isn't going to go away, so there's little point in flying into it over and over again hoping it does.

The Twins are struggling. The pitching staff is springing leaks, with pitchers getting knocked around, coming up injured, and suddenly unable to throw strikes. The offense has been among the worst in baseball over the last month, as Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau go through rough patches and the veterans struggle along with them. And the defense, baserunning, and situational hitting, once supposedly the team's strengths, have looked sloppy at best.

It would be nice if, for once, Gardenhire was doing the little things to help the Twins squeeze a few extra runs out of the margins during a time like this. Instead, it is business as usual, except this time it might end up mattering.

Today at The Hardball Times:
- My 2005 All-Stars: American League (by Aaron Gleeman)
- Pythagoras and the White Sox (by Dan Fox)

Today's Picks (65-56, +$795):
Los Angeles (Colon) -140 over Texas (Wilson)

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