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 ...

  • Rondell White went 4-for-4 with a double Saturday and is hitting .317/.353/.549 in 40 second-half games. If you project those post-break numbers out to a full season, it works out to around 25 homers and 75 RBIs, which is exactly the type of production the Twins were hoping for when they signed White this offseason and began the year with him hitting out of the cleanup spot.

    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.

  • Torii Hunter continued his own amazing second-half run Saturday, going deep for the 29th time this season and 15th time since the All-Star break. As discussed here last week, Hunter's plate discipline and strike-zone control have mysteriously vanished in the second half, but he's more than made up for it by batting .300 with 15 homers and 44 RBIs in 55 games.

    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.

  • Remember when Joe Mauer was supposedly wearing down? Not only did Mauer hit his second career homer off a lefty yesterday, taking Adam Loewen deep in the first inning to give the Twins a 2-0 lead, he's now batting .329/.442/.486 this month. Here's what the race for the AL batting title looks like heading into the final week of the season:
    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.

  • I've raved about the Twins' infield defense since Jason Bartlett and Nick Punto took over for Juan Castro and Tony Batista, but watching the Orioles half-heartedly go after relatively routine plays over the weekend hammered the point home even further. While I don't agree with Ron Gardenhire about heading into next season with Punto as the starting third baseman, it's certainly tempting defensively.

    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.

  • It was nice to see Phil Nevin hit his first Twins homer yesterday, if only because it could mean that Gardenhire may actually start playing him consistently. Nevin left Saturday's game with what appeared to be a serious wrist injury, yet was in the lineup Sunday and hit a crucial two-run bomb before narrowly missing his second homer in his next at-bat.

    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.

  • On the subject of Gardenhire's in-game tactics, it's worth noting that he's slowly but surely begun micromanaging the bullpen on a regular basis. He used six relievers in each of the past two games, which would make some sense if the Twins' bullpen wasn't loaded with guys who don't really need to be mixed and matched in specific situations.

    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.

  • It's difficult to find fault with Morneau given his .363 batting average this month, but he's quietly gone 21 games (83 at-bats) without a homer after going deep 32 times in his first 129 games (481 at-bats). Also worth noting is that Morneau struck out six times in the three-game series with the Orioles, which is unusual after he came into the series with just 26 strikeouts in 251 second-half at-bats.
  • Like most of Matt Garza's outings so far, yesterday's start contained both good and bad aspects. Garza pitched well early, but seemed to tire as his pitch count approached triple digits and served up three solo homers (including a pair to Miguel Tejada) after giving up a total of three homers in his first 41.2 innings.

    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.

  • I would have thought it nearly impossible, but Scott Ullger may be an even worst third-base coach than he was a hitting coach. Ullger's misguided tendency to send runners home when playing it safe would make much more sense came to a head Friday when Luis Castillo was thrown out by about 20 feet in the first inning.

    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.

  • Matt Guerrier's win in relief of Scott Baker Saturday was his first in 89 big-league appearances spread over three seasons, which is amazing considering how well he's pitched while often working multiple innings at a time. Guerrier is now 1-4 with a 3.62 ERA in 154 career innings, including a 3.27 ERA in 63.1 innings this season.
  • After all the talk about the Twins' sub par performance away from home earlier this season, they finished the road portion of their schedule with a 42-39 record. That may not seem all that great, but over the previous five seasons the Twins won 38, 43, 42, 40, and 38 games away from the Metrodome. The Twins were 44-37 on the road in 1991 and amazingly went just 29-52 away from home in 1987.

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