July 3, 2006

Twins 6, Royals 5

I have very few hard-and-fast rules when it comes to this site, but here's one of them: If it's our nation's birthday, Johan Santana gave up five runs to the Royals the night before, and the Twins still won for the 19th time in 20 games, I will skip posting my recap of the SABR convention in order to write about the game. OK, so I made all that up, but you get the idea.

Unfortunately, my insights are limited (moreso than usual, even) because of two factors: Last night was the first time I've seen the Twins play since last Tuesday and there's only so much you can say about a team that simply doesn't lose. Rather than try to find new ways to express that the Twins are playing really well, here are some random notes inspired by the team's 11th straight win ...

  • Justin Morneau is getting a lot of attention lately because of his power and run production, which is understandable given that he's on pace for about 45 homers and 145 RBIs. Morneau's Isolated Power is .287, which is up 35 percent from his career mark of .213 coming into the year. However, Morneau's power display isn't that much different than what he did as a rookie in 2004:
    YEAR      AB     2B     HR     IsoP
    2004 280 17 19 .264
    2006 282 15 22 .287

    What's turned Morneau into a truly devastating hitter in the middle of the Twins' lineup is that he's hitting for increased power and a big batting average. Three hits last night raised his average to .298 on the year, which is up 20 percent from his career mark of .248. Back in 2004, when he had 19 homers and 17 doubles in 280 at-bats, Morneau's average was "only" .271.

    Here are a couple stats to chew on: From May 19, 2005 to May 19, 2006, Morneau played 154 games and batted a pathetic .215/.287/.395 (although he did smack 24 homers and drive in 85 runs). On May 20, 2006 Morneau went 3-for-5 against the Brewers and has hit .361/.412/.707 with 13 homers and 41 RBIs in 39 games since then.

    Morneau has absolutely destroyed right-handed pitching this season, but the biggest difference in his game has been the new-found ability to hold his own against left-handed pitchers. Take a look at his OPS totals against righties and lefties from 2003-2005 compared to this season:

                03-05     2006      +/-
    vs RHP .844 .991 +17%
    vs LHP .603 .815 +35%

    Morneau has gone from good to great against righties, improving by 17 percent, but he's also gone from horrendous to solid against lefties, improving by 35 percent. In the long run his ability to post a .950 OPS against righties is what will make Morneau valuable, but his ability to post an .800 OPS against lefties is what can make him a star.

    When you toss in Joe Mauer's .393 average against lefties this season after Mauer, Morneau, and just about every other left-handed hitter the Twins had struggled against southpaws prior to this year, Joe Vavra comes out looking really good in his first season as hitting coach.

  • It looked like a typical Santana start until he fell apart in the sixth inning, as the rain messed with his command. Still, it was nice to see the offense take Santana off the hook for a loss when he's been the victim of poor run support so often. Jesse Crain pitched 1.1 scoreless innings to pick up the win, which obviously has more to do with when the Twins scored than how he pitched.

    With that said, since a horrible outing against the Mariners on May 1, Crain has tossed 24.2 innings with a 2.92 ERA and 20-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio. If he continues to pitch like that the Twins' pitching staff will be scary, because the two guys who followed him in relief of Santana have ERAs of 1.96 and 1.80, and the Twins have the only two starters in the entire league with an ERA under 3.00.

  • Since coming over from San Francisco, Joe Nathan is 102-for-111 converting saves, which works out to a success rate of 92 percent. Over that same three-year span he's 13-5 with a 2.08 ERA, 233-to-50 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and .185 opponent's batting average in 177.1 innings. It just doesn't get any better than that, and I've reached the point of not even thinking that Nathan blowing a save is a possibility.
  • On the same day that I received about two dozen e-mails from panicked fans regarding Mauer's mystery stomach problems, he went 1-for-3 with a walk and his sixth homer of the season. Mauer's power is still the least-developed part of his game, but he's on pace for a dozen homers and over 60 total extra-base hits.

    The last Twins catcher to reach 60 extra-base hits in a season? No one. Brian Harper holds the team record at 51 multiple-baggers and no other Twins catcher has topped even 50. Oh, and it's the Fourth of July and he's still hitting .391.

  • The good news is obviously that the Twins have won 11 straight, 19 of 20, and 21 of 24. The bad news--if there can even be "bad" news during a stretch like this--is that they're still nine games back in the AL Central and we've officially reached the halfway point of the season.

    At this stage last year the Twins were exactly where they're at now: 46-35 and 9.5 back in the division race. Actually, setting the winning streak aside they're probably in much worse shape this time around. Back then the Twins were leading the Wild Card, whereas now they're 6.5 games out of a playoff spot.

    Of course, if they never lose again I'm pretty sure the Twins will make the playoffs.

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