September 25, 2006
Notes From the Weekend
Some notes I typed up while watching the Twins' "magic number" shrink to two and the chances of a first-round date with the Yankees grow ...
Over that 40-game stretch, which essentially coincides with the end of White's shoulder problems, he's hitting .319/.360/.564 against right-handed pitching and .313/.340/.521 against left-handed pitching. As odd as this sounds after watching him bat .182/.209/.215 in 54 first-half games, White is being wasted a bit batting seventh in a lineup that is suddenly bottom-heavy.
Just as importantly, Hunter has looked much better defensively over the past two weeks. He's still not quite himself in center field (and may never be), but he's getting to far more balls than he was this time last month and is no longer an obvious liability. Interestingly, while Hunter's power surge has some people convinced that bringing him back next year is a no-brainer, his overall production is fairly typical.
In fact, try to pick out this season from the following hitting lines:
AVG OBP SLG OPS
.289 .334 .524 .858
.271 .330 .475 .805
.269 .337 .452 .789
.279 .338 .488 .826
.269 .323 .462 .785
Those five lines are what Hunter has done in 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, and overall for his career. And if you're not able to easily and confidently identify which hitting line belongs to this season, then you've discovered my point. It's great to have Hunter relatively healthy and playing well heading into crunch time, but his future with the Twins has the same question marks attached as it did three months ago.
Joe Mauer .347
Robinson Cano .341
Derek Jeter .339
Miguel Tejada .332
Vlad Guerrero .325
Justin Morneau .323
He's hitting .360/.448/.549 against righties and .322/.392/.414 against lefties.
However, Punto's hitting this month is concerning, and not just because he's batting .245/.263/.298. He's reverted back to his old habits, posting a 15-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio after entering the month with 50 strikeouts and 44 walks. Punto found success this year because he stopped focusing on drawing walks and pretending he's a power hitter, but that approach has reared its ugly head again.
At this point it looks like Nevin and Jason Tyner are in an unlikely yet relatively straightforward platoon, which is something Gardenhire has avoided in the past. Nevin plays against lefties (pushing Justin Morneau to designated hitter, at least over the weekend) and Tyner starts against righties. I'd like to see Nevin in the lineup against certain homer-prone right-handers, but it's a well-designed platoon.
Nevin is a right-handed batter who has typically posted significantly better numbers against lefties over his career, while Tyner is a left-handed batter who has hit .329/.365/.387 against righties this year. The platoon would make more sense if Tyner was actually given a chance to contribute defensively instead of being wasted at DH, but as long as he's not hitting against southpaws I'll be happy.
The musical relievers worked in both cases this weekend and it's certainly a good idea not to overuse the bullpen down the stretch, but Gardenhire has somehow managed to turn one of the things I have always thought he does well (managing the bullpen) into yet another tactic worth questioning. Here's hoping he doesn't continue his Tony LaRussa impression in October, because it's not needed.
Garza showed no signs of being particularly homer-prone in the minors, but along with his possible lack of stamina it's another reason to think he'll struggle in a start against the Yankees. One thing you can always count on with New York is that they'll work long counts, wear pitchers down, and take full advantage of mistakes left over the plate.
The smart (and seemingly obvious) play would have been to hold Castillo up, giving the Twins runners on second and third with no outs for Mauer in the first inning of a scoreless game. Instead, Ullger got needlessly aggressive, Castillo was thrown out with ease on a laughable play, and the would-be rally was wasted.
One of the Twins' strengths during their amazing turnaround is team speed, with Tyner, Castillo, Punto, Bartlett, and even Hunter and White giving them a lineup full of runners capable of going first-to-third any time. In fact, most days there isn't a single base-clogger in the bunch and that has certainly led to plenty of runs. However, generally speaking the Twins take too many unnecessary risks on the bases.
That means Ullger sending runners home when playing for a big inning is a better decision, but also includes Gardenhire ordering low-percentage steals and hitters trying to stretch singles into doubles at horrible times. As fun as it is watching the Twins put pressure on a defense by flying around the bases, it's equally frustrating watching them run themselves out of innings a few times per week.