May 8, 2006

Rangers 6, Twins 4

Last night's game was broadcast on ESPN, which gave me a chance to listen to friend of Jon Sciambi do the play-by-play in his always excellent style. It also gave color commentator Rick Sutcliffe a chance to show that he hasn't kept very good tabs on the Twins of late. After Torii Hunter made a horrible decision on the bases to get doubled off of first base, Sutcliffe said it was "not something you expect to see from the Minnesota Twins."

While true at some point in the last decade, that's clearly no longer the case. The Twins routinely make bone-headed plays on the bases, often look sloppy in the field defensively, and frequently fail to run hard on ground balls and pop ups. Whatever mandate on hustle that Tom Kelly left with the Twins stuck with Ron Gardenhire for a while, but has gradually lessened to the point of being almost non-existent.

Later, when discussing the Twins' problems preventing runs this season, Sutcliffe opined that "you can't blame it on the Twins' defense, because they're the best in the league." Of course, what Sutcliffe failed to mention is that the Twins being "the best in the league" is based solely on their low error total and completely ignores the fact that they've been horrible at actually turns balls in play into outs all year. True to form, balls were blooping in and bouncing past fielders all game.

Moments later Sutcliffe quoted Tony Batista's prior RBI totals as evidence that "he's been a very good player," which is like quoting McDonald's "millions served" totals as evidence that their food is good for you. I'm not Sutcliffe's biggest fan, but I don't mean to pick on him specifically. Rather, listening to someone unfamiliar with the team spout such hogwash really helped explain why so many people have trouble spotting the Twins' current problems.

The defense, particularly on the left side, is horrible. Because of Batista's miniscule range moving laterally and Juan Castro's circular routes to grounders in the hole, anything hit more than a foot to Batista's left ends up rolling into left field. Similarly, anything hit in the air to left field is an adventure, as Shannon Stewart tracks the ball like he's on skates with his eyes closed.

And whether by ground or by air, once Stewart picks a hit up off the grass his rainbow throws to the cutoff man allow runners to consistently take extra bases. Regarding Stewart's shaky defense, here's an interesting note from the Minneapolis Star Tribune about Torii Hunter's sprawling catch to preserve Johan Santana's no-hitter Sunday:

Magglio Ordonez led off the fifth inning with a drive toward the left-center field gap. With his team leading 3-0 and Santana still perfect, Hunter was shading Ordonez to right field.

How far did he run? Well, Twins first base coach Jerry White, who oversees the team's outfield instruction, said the ball actually should have been caught by left fielder Shannon Stewart.

"That was Shannon's ball," White said. "When Torii moves [toward right-center], Shannon should move, too."

The infuriating stance that the defense is great as long as no one makes errors ignores the fact that you literally can't make an error when you don't actually get in position to field the ball. If you just let it roll past you or fall in front of you, there's no danger of hurting the team's fielding percentage. That Sutcliffe doesn't realize how misleading the Twins' error total is doesn't surprise me, but that people who watch this team on a regular basis are unable to look past the errors to see a horrible defense is astounding.

A few other thoughts while watching the Twins drop to 13-19, including 3-13 on the road ...

  • It's likely no longer much of an issue now that Dennys Reyes has made a few solid appearances since being called up from Triple-A, but if the Twins are still looking to add another left-handed reliever the Rangers designated Brian Shouse for assignment prior to last night's game. Take a look at how Shouse's numbers from 2003-2005 compare to Reyes' numbers over the same span:
                        vs LHP                        vs RHP        
    Reyes .271 .336 .394 .294 .388 .454
    Shouse .198 .247 .311 .332 .401 .488

    Both pitchers struggle mightily against righties, but Shouse actually shuts down left-handed hitters extremely well. If you're going to utilize a LOOGY, you might as well find a sidearmer who can hold left-handed batters to a .198 batting average and .311 slugging percentage. For comparison, Reyes allowed lefties to hit .271/.336/.394 against him, which is barely better than league average.
  • For those of you who've wondered why I've spent so much time over the past four years complaining about the Twins not giving Michael Cuddyer a legitimate chance to show what he can do ... well, now you can see why. Cuddyer went 2-for-4 with a double last night and is hitting .429 with a homer and eight total extra-base hits in nine games since being moved into the starting lineup as the regular right fielder.

    Cuddyer has looked good in right field despite playing third base for much of last season, displaying decent range and a top-notch throwing arm, and is hitting .323 with a 1.002 OPS on the year. Since May 1 of last season he's batting .281/.350/.475 with 14 homers and 29 doubles in 412 at-bats. Yet for all the Twins' offensive struggles Cuddyer has yet to receive as many as even 425 at-bats in a season and has just 62 at-bats in 32 games this year.

  • There are a number of pathetic aspects to the Twins' lineup, but few moreso than Nick Punto continuing to receive key at-bats in late-inning situations. He picked up an infield single last night, but the number of times Punto has come up with the Twins trailing and only a few outs remaining is truly remarkable. Isn't one of the reasons the Twins have three utility infielders on the roster so that they can avoid having guys like Punto bat in important spots?

    Gardenhire pinch-hit Luis Rodriguez for Batista leading off the ninth inning, which brings up the obvious question of why Batista starts over Rodriguez in the first place. Then Gardenhire let Punto hit with one out while Lew Ford sat on the bench, despite Gardenhire spending much of last month saying that Ford was one of the team's best hitters. As usual, the lack of consistency and logical thought in Gardenhire's decision-making is depressing.

  • Dating back to last September, Brad Radke has a ghastly 7.43 ERA over a span of 11 starts. In 59.1 innings of work over that stretch Radke has allowed an amazing 87 hits, including 16 homers. He kept the ball in the ballpark last night for the first time this season, but Radke is essentially throwing batting practice at this point and that's bad news with the Twins' defense behind him. He's either hurt or he's done, and either way his Twins career looks headed for a sad ending.

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