June 18, 2006
On June 7 the Twins dropped their fourth straight game when Carl Everett hit a walk-off homer against Jesse Crain while Joe Nathan looked on from the bullpen, unused. That loss stuck the Twins with the league's third-worst record at 25-33, including 1-5 in June, and over their last 162 games the team was a miserable 73-89.
Johan Santana took the mound the next day to halt the losing streak and the Twins have lost only once since. Less than two weeks after arguably reaching the lowest point of the season, the Twins' record stands at 34-34. Juan Castro and Tony Batista are safely in the rearview mirror, Ron Gardenhire's mismanagement of the bullpen isn't such a big issue, and Jason Bartlett looks here to stay.
It's amazing all the problems a seven-game winning streak can fix.
I've talked plenty already about The Joe Mauer Show, the power binges from Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel, the importance of finally giving Bartlett a chance, and the impact jettisoning Castro and Batista will have. What I haven't touched on much yet is the fact that after a horrendous April the Twins' pitching staff has quietly regained its form from last season.
MONTH IP ERA AVG OBP SLG
April 205.0 6.28 .322 .367 .515
May 249.0 4.19 .287 .333 .456
June 147.2 3.05 .246 .300 .380
There are several interesting things to note within those numbers, not the least of which is that the Twins' ERA improved 33 percent from April to May and then another 27 percent from May to June. Despite finishing with an AL-worst 6.28 ERA in April, the Twins now rank seventh in the league with a 4.62 ERA overall and are within striking distance of claiming a top-five spot.
The pitching staff is like a marathon runner whose alarm clock didn't go off in the morning and caused him to show up to the race an hour late, yet still managed to get into the middle of the pack by about the 10th mile. The turnaround is truly remarkable, and within those massive improvements is where it really gets interesting.
MONTH SO% BB% HR% DER
April 14.5 6.1 3.7 .654
May 21.5 6.3 2.9 .661
June 18.6 5.6 2.6 .723
After striking out 14.5 percent of the batters they faced in April, the Twins' pitching staff has bumped that number up to over 20 percent since May 1. That may not seem like much at first glance, but it means about 40 percent fewer balls being put in play that the Twins' defense has to convert into outs. That's huge, especially given how horrible the team's defense was early in the season.
In addition to missing significantly more bats, the Twins' pitchers have cut way down on the number of homers they allow. In April 3.7 percent of the batters who stepped to the plate against the Twins went deep, but that number has dropped to 2.7 percent since May 1. Those percentages being so small makes it seem like another miniscule difference, but that's actually allowing 27 percent fewer homers.
Along with the entire pitching staff boosting strikeouts by 40 percent, cutting homers by 27 percent, and improving upon what was already outstanding control, the defense also stepped up. In April the Twins' fielders turned a pathetic 65.4 percent of the balls in play into outs and their rate of 66.1 percent in May was barely better. However, that rate began to climb when the defensive personnel started changing.
Shannon Stewart took his noodle arm and Mr. Magoo-like fly-ball tracking to the disabled list in late May, and was replaced in left field by two superior defenders in Kubel and Lew Ford. Castro and Batista, who provided perhaps the worst range of any left side of the infield in baseball, were replaced this month by significantly better defenders in Bartlett and Nick Punto.
After struggling to convert a measly 66 percent of the balls put in play against them into outs between April and May, the Twins' defense is suddenly making outs from over 72 percent of the balls in play so far in June. The difference between turning balls in play into outs 66 percent of the time or 72 percent of the time on defense is the same as the difference between batting .340 or .280.
It's silly to suggest that the pitching staff has had nothing to do with the defense's performance, both good and bad. After all, if the pitchers can cut down on homers why couldn't they also cut down on the hard-hit balls put in play? With that said, it's clearly not a coincidence that the defensive numbers improved rapidly once Stewart, Castro, and Batista were replaced by Kubel, Ford, Bartlett, and Punto.
Thanks in large part to improved pitching and defense the Twins have dug themselves out of an early-season hole to get back to an even record for the first time since being 7-7 on April 19. The good news is that Francisco Liriano now takes the mound every fifth day and the defense figures to remain vastly improved assuming Gardenhire sticks Stewart at designated hitter once he returns from the DL and continues to give Punto most of the playing time at third base.
Of course, there's some bad news too. Through 68 games last season the Twins were 38-30 and as good as the pitching staff has been over the past two months is still no better than it was for all of last year. Plus, for all the grand slams and key hits the lineup has come up with of late, the offense has scored a total of eight more runs than they had at this point last season. And we all know how that turned out.
With some of the dead weight leaving the roster and the lineup in a position to improve further thanks to the emergence of Mauer, Kubel, and Morneau, it's unlikely that the Twins will experience a second-half collapse like they had last season. Still, simply avoiding a disastrous stretch run isn't going to cut it when you're 11 games back in the division and 9.5 games out of a playoff spot in mid-June. The Twins must continue to build on their recent hot streak for it to mean anything.
During spring training I opined that the Twins "look like an 88-win team." It's the season's third month and they still look that way, although the route they took to get there is a lot different than I expected to see. They're back to having success thanks to pitching and defense, but it remains to be seen if this year's offense can keep up the pace that they couldn't last year.