April 30, 2007

Month In Review: April

In what is probably just an odd scheduling quirk, the Twins finished April with a trip to Detroit both this season and last season. On last year's trip, the Tigers outscored them 33-1 in an embarrassing three-game sweep that dropped the Twins to fourth place and put them eight games behind the division-leading White Sox at 9-15. With 9-0, 18-1, and 6-0 losses, it was a horrible way to end a tough month. In reviewing it on May 1, 2006, here's what I wrote:

The offense was predictably ineffective and the pitching was shockingly horrible, and the team often looked both overmatched and disinterested. The defense was sloppy, the starting pitchers put the team in an early hole nearly every time out, and the manager continued his annual tradition of giving at-bats to the wrong guys.


The offense has produced 22 percent fewer runs than the AL average, while the pitching has given up 23 percent more runs than the rest of the league. That the pitching staff has received so much more of the blame is due entirely to expectations, because while the pitchers have been more disappointing they haven't been any worse.

Now it's May 1, 2007 and things sure have changed in a year, and not just because a rash of injuries has made it tough to complain about Ron Gardenhire "giving at-bats to the wrong guys." Rather than getting swept by the Tigers, the Twins nearly pulled off a sweep of their own heading into May, losing Sunday's game when Brandon Inge hit a walk-off homer off Jesse Crain. Even with the month-ending loss, they finished April in second place at 14-11.

The offense that "produced 22 percent fewer runs than the AL average" last April was just two percent below average this April. The pitching staff that gave up "23 percent more runs than the rest of the league" last April was 11 percent better than average this year. Between a ton of injuries, several winnable games that slipped away, some sloppy defense, and even sloppier baserunning it certainly wasn't a pretty first month despite a very easy schedule, but it sure beats last season's version.

The team as a whole hit .271/.330/.401 in April, which in typical Twins fashion ranked third in batting average, sixth in on-base percentage, and ninth in slugging percentage. Last year's team ended the season ranked first, fifth, and eighth in those same categories. Offense is down about six percent across the league this year, which is why similar rankings produce less impressive raw numbers, but in general the Twins are hitting much like they did last season (and far better than they did last April).

Joe Mauer hit .369/.465/.512 with 12 RBIs and 18 runs in 103 plate appearances while picking up right where he left off last season by leading the league in batting average. Torii Hunter hit .326/.352/.651 with 18 RBIs and 16 runs in 91 plate appearances while leading the league in doubles with 13. Mauer and Hunter were the team's clear offensive leaders in April and were each among the most valuable handful of players in the league during the first month.

Justin Morneau hit .271/.358/.521 with 15 RBIs and 17 runs in 109 plate appearances, which is nearly identical production to what he did on the way to winning last season's AL MVP once you account for the league-wide drop in offense. Similarly, Michael Cuddyer hit .290/.333/.450 with 17 RBIs and 17 runs in 108 plate appearances to nearly duplicate his performance from last season's breakout campaign. Unfortunately, after Mauer, Hunter, Morneau, and Cuddyer the offense wasn't pretty.

The lineup's 3-6 hitters combined to hit .311/.373/.531 in April, but if you remove them from the equation the rest of the hitters combined to bat .241/.292/.306. No other hitter slugged above .400 and only Jason Tyner produced an above-average on-base percentage. Perhaps the most amazing stat is that in 494 at-bats spread between 11 hitters, a grand total of one homer was hit by someone other than The Big Four. That's right, one homer all month (and Luis Rodriguez hit it).

Part of that comes from injuries forcing Rodriguez, Josh Rabe, and Alexi Casilla into the lineup and keeping Rondell White and Jeff Cirillo out of the lineup, but Luis Castillo, Nick Punto, Jason Kubel, and Jason Bartlett were all awful at the plate as well. On the other hand, the Twins hit .290/.366/.422 against right-handed pitching, compared to just .248/.285/.377 against left-handed pitching, which is an area having White and Cirillo healthy would have helped.

The pitching staff allowed 4.1 runs per nine innings this April, compared to 4.2 runs per nine innings overall last season. At first glance that would indicate that the Twins' pitching has been almost exactly as effective as it was last season, but because of the aforementioned drop in league-wide offense the staff has actually been slightly worse. Interestingly, the ERA gap between the rotation and bullpen has tightened this year, which is the opposite of what I would have guessed coming out of spring training.

Johan Santana went just 3-2 with a 3.60 ERA, but that actually qualifies as the second-best April of his career. He combined with Carlos Silva and Ramon Ortiz to go 8-4 with a 3.12 ERA in 16 starts, while Boof Bonser and Sidney Ponson combined to go 1-4 with a 6.70 ERA in nine starts. The rotation as a whole turned in 12 Quality Starts in 25 games, with Ortiz shockingly going 5-for-5 and Ponson not so shockingly going 0-for-4.

The bullpen was similarly divided into great performances and poor performances. Joe Nathan got off to a slow start, but finished the month with a 2.19 ERA and 12-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 12.1 innings while converting all seven of his save chances. Setup duo Juan Rincon and Pat Neshek combined to go 3-0 with a 2.08 ERA and 24-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 21.2 innings, while middle man Matt Guerrier posted a 2.40 ERA in 15 frames.

At the other end of the spectrum, Dennys Reyes gave up more earned runs (6) in 7.2 April innings than he did all of last season (5). He combined with Crain to post a 6.62 ERA and 12-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 17.2 innings, with Crain losing two games when Gardenhire refused to bring in Nathan instead. The bullpen combined to allow seven homers in 75 innings (one per 10.7 innings), while the rotation served up 24 homers in 151 innings (one per 6.2 innings).

After converting 68.4, 70.2, and 68.5 percent of balls in play into outs over the previous three seasons, the Twins turned 69.7 percent of balls in play into outs this April to rank seventh in the league. They committed the fewest errors in the AL with just 11, which is amazing given that Bartlett had five of his own within the first two weeks. After ranking fourth in the league by throwing out 36 percent of would-be basestealers in 2006, Mauer and Redmond gunned down a league-best 59 percent in April.

The Twins finished April 23-for-26 (88.5 percent) stealing bases, with Casilla (4-for-4) and Hunter (4-for-5) leading the way. Mauer (3-for-3), Bartlett (3-for-3), Tyner (3-for-4), Castillo (2-for-2), Punto (2-for-3), Cuddyer (1-for-1), and Kubel (1-for-1) each stole at least one base and no one was thrown out more than once. On the other hand--and while I don't have any specific stats to quote--the Twins made a disturbing number of baserunning mistakes, running their way out of several innings.

Finally, here's how the Twins' record this April compares to past seasons:

YEAR      W      L     WIN%
1965 8 3 .727
1969 13 7 .650
1970 12 6 .667
1987 12 9 .571
1991 9 11 .450
2001 18 6 .750
2002 16 11 .593
2003 12 14 .462
2004 15 7 .682
2005 15 8 .652
2006 9 15 .375
2007 14 11 .560

For whatever it's worth, the Twins missed the playoffs the year they posted their best April winning percentage among those dozen seasons (.750 in 2001) and made the playoffs the year they posted their worst April winning percentage among those dozen seasons (.375 in 2006).

Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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