September 19, 2006

Twins 7, Red Sox 3

On Monday I discussed who the Twins should be rooting for in this week's Tigers-White Sox series, concluding that rooting for the White Sox, as difficult as it may be, is the right move. After losing the first game of the series Monday night to fall 4.5 games behind the idle Twins for the Wild Card, Chicago came back with a blowout win over Detroit last night. Combined with the Twins' win over Boston, that closed the gap in the AL Central to a half-game.

AL CENTRAL      W      L      GB          WILD CARD       W      L      GB
Detroit 90 61 --- Minnesota 89 61 ---
Minnesota 89 61 0.5 Chicago 85 66 4.5

The above standings illustrate why rooting for the White Sox is the logical choice, because Chicago's playoff chances are so slim that splitting two games with Detroit does almost nothing for them. Or as I put it Monday: "It's exceedingly likely that the Twins will beat the White Sox for the Wild Card regardless of what they do against the Tigers this week." Meanwhile, Detroit splitting two games against Chicago has brought them to brink of coughing up what was once a 12-game lead.

If Boof Bonser pitches the Twins to another win against the Red Sox tonight and the White Sox can once again beat the Tigers, the Twins will suddenly be leading the division with 11 games left to play. Even better, they will have taken that lead over Detroit while simultaneously remaining a huge favorite over Chicago for the Wild Card (should they slip from atop the division, of course). I said it Monday and I'll say it again: Go White Sox!

Some other thoughts on the Twins' 89th win of the season ...

  • The story of the game is undoubtedly Justin Morneau, who responded to increasing MVP hype by going 5-for-5. Morneau drove in his 124th run of the year, closing to within five RBIs of David Ortiz for the AL lead, and pushed his batting average to .326. Remarkably, Morneau was batting .208 on May 1 and .244 on June 1. There are all sorts of ways to present Morneau's incredible turnaround depending on which start date you choose to begin counting from, so let's cover a couple versions.

    First up is what he's done starting with a two-homer, six-RBI game against the Rangers back on May 9:

      G      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG       OPS     2B     HR     RBI
    116 498 .354 .408 .619 1.027 34 27 107

    Next is what he's done starting with a two-homer, five-RBI game against the Orioles back on June 9:

      G      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG       OPS     2B     HR     RBI
    91 392 .378 .431 .654 1.085 28 22 86

    Morneau probably doesn't even need the start-date trickery, because he's batting .326/.381/.578 with 36 doubles, 33 homers, and 124 RBIs overall. Trying to determine who the deserving award winners are with nearly 10 percent of the season remaining is sort of silly and I'm not convinced that Morneau is the MVP of the Twins, much less of the league, but he's certainly got an argument for both. For a team that went nearly two decades without a true power hitter, it's been amazing to watch.

  • Speaking of power hitters, Torii Hunter launched his 27th homer of the season last night into the seats above the Green Monster. Hunter's recent power surge makes it possible that the Twins could actually have two 30-homer hitters this season after going 18 years without even one. Unfortunately, the homer was overshadowed by Hunter leaving the game with a potentially serious injury in the seventh inning.

    Hunter has had all kinds of problems with his left foot and ankle over the past two years, missing big chunks of games and seeing much of his range defensively disappear. Last night he fouled a ball off the foot and immediately crumbled to the ground. He then somehow talked Ron Gardenhire into letting him stay in the game despite looking like he could barely stand and miraculously drew a walk, but had to be removed after having trouble taking the field defensively for the next half-inning.

    I've been accused of being overly harsh on Hunter, which is odd given that I've done little beyond simply point out facts. A month ago I discussed how his offense hasn't been nearly as valuable as it appears because of poor hitting in key situations. That's changed some with his recent hot streak, but the point remains. I also had the gall to say Hunter's range in center field declined upon his return from a broken foot, which would seem to be both expected (given his injury) and blatantly obvious (given his play).

    With all that said, and regardless of what you think of Hunter or what you think I think of Hunter, losing him now would be a big blow to the Twins' World Series chances. He's provided an important power threat behind Morneau in the bottom half of the lineup, batting .289 with 13 homers and 37 RBIs in 50 second-half games, and may still be the Twins' best option defensively in center field. After all Hunter and the Twins have been through this season, it'd be a real shame to lose him with two weeks left.

  • I called Hunter's walk last night "miraculous" mostly because it came after he was hobbled, but it would have been noteworthy and unexpected even without the injury. While chatting with my RotoWorld colleague Rob Blackstien last night, he showed me the following numbers for Hunter:
                       G     BB     SO
    First Half 85 38 58
    Second Half 50 6 43

    Hunter's newfound plate discipline saw him draw 38 walks prior the All-Star break despite coming into this season with a career-high of 50 free passes. After years of swinging at everything, including far too many sliders in the dirt, Hunter was suddenly laying off borderline pitches, controlling the strike zone, and working counts. It was equal parts shocking and pleasant, because his undisciplined approach at the plate has always been Hunter's biggest weakness.

    Then, whether because he didn't like the modest .264 batting average his new approach produced or simply couldn't maintain it for an entire season, Hunter went right back to being the hacker he's always been. Actually, with six measly walks to go along with 43 strikeouts in 50 second-half games, Hunter is less disciplined now than ever. While that's not a good thing, the return to hacking has led to increased power and Hunter's overall production is actually up:

                      BB     SO      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
    First Half 38 58 .264 .345 .443 .788
    Second Half 6 43 .289 .321 .536 .857

    For the long term, an approach that yields a 58-to-38 strikeout-to-walk ratio is almost always going to be better than an approach that produces a 43-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Similarly, Hunter's first-half offense is likely more sustainable than his second-half offense because it's not so reliant upon a high batting average and homers in bunches (both things that tend to fluctuate wildly) to bring value to the table. On the other hand, it's tough to argue with Hunter's power display in the second half.

    Beyond that, it's certainly plausible that a slugging percentage-heavy hitter like "second-half Hunter" might be more useful to the Twins right now than another on-base percentage-heavy hitter like "first-half Hunter" would be. The lineup is now loaded with guys who work counts and get on base at good clips, but only Morneau, Hunter, Michael Cuddyer, and perhaps Rondell White hit the ball out of the ballpark with any sort of regularity.

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