June 23, 2008

1.5 Back

When the Twins arrived in Chicago on June 6 to begin a pivotal four-game series with the White Sox, they were 2.5 games back in the AL Central. A sweep followed, during which the White Sox out-scored the Twins 40-15 and plated double-digit runs in three games. With the pitching staff demolished, the Twins traveled to Cleveland the next day and received a great start from Scott Baker, only to have C.C. Sabathia render the lineup helpless in a complete-game shutout.

Suddenly the Twins were three games below .500 and 6.5 games behind a White Sox team that had won seven out of eight, and any thoughts of contending this season appeared to be slipping away. Instead, the Twins responded by putting together their most impressive stretch of the season, splitting the next two games against the Indians, winning two out of three from the Brewers in Milwaukee, and sweeping both the last-place Nationals and first-place Diamondbacks at the Metrodome.

While the Twins were going 9-2 the White Sox went 4-7, and just like that the Twins are now only 1.5 games back in the division with 86 games left to play. Both the offense and defense thrived during that stretch, with the lineup scoring 6.5 runs per game (compared to 4.5 runs per game previously) and the pitching staff allowing 3.5 runs per game (compared to 5.1 runs per game previously). In particular, the rotation bounced back in a huge way following the disastrous series in Chicago:

                      DATE     OPP      IP     ER
Nick Blackburn 6/11 CLE 6.0 2
Livan Hernandez 6/12 CLE 3.0 7
Kevin Slowey 6/13 MIL 8.0 2
Glen Perkins 6/14 MIL 6.0 3
Scott Baker 6/15 MIL 6.0 3
Livan Hernandez 6/17 WAS 7.0 1
Kevin Slowey 6/18 WAS 6.0 1
Glen Perkins 6/19 WAS 8.0 3
Scott Baker 6/20 ARI 6.0 1
Nick Blackburn 6/21 ARI 7.0 1
Livan Hernandez 6/22 ARI 7.0 1

Livan Hernandez's clunker against the Indians on June 12 was the lone outing that didn't qualify as a Quality Start during that 11-game stretch, which along with six-plus runs per game from the lineup is a pretty dependable recipe for success. Hernandez, Baker Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, and Glen Perkins each turned in a pair of Quality Starts, combining for a 3.08 ERA over 70 innings. Faced with a lighter workload, the bullpen also got on track after struggling following the loss of Pat Neshek.

There were seemingly multiple runners on base each time Justin Morneau stepped to the plate and he went 16-for-45 (.356) with 15 RBIs over 11 games. Win Probability Added pegs Morneau's hitting as the biggest driving force behind the team going 9-2, which isn't surprising given that he was repeatedly given a chance to bat in crucial, game-changing spots and more often than not came through. Here's how WPA distributes the credit for the Twins' past 11 games:

                      WPA                              WPA
Justin Morneau 1.14 Glen Perkins -0.03
Brian Buscher 0.54 Mike Redmond -0.06
Jesse Crain 0.53 Boof Bonser -0.09
Kevin Slowey 0.52 Mike Lamb -0.14
Nick Blackburn 0.36 Craig Monroe -0.16
Joe Mauer 0.30 Dennys Reyes -0.18
Matt Guerrier 0.28 Alexi Casilla -0.25
Michael Cuddyer 0.27 Carlos Gomez -0.52
Jason Kubel 0.20
Brian Bass 0.20
Brendan Harris 0.18
Delmon Young 0.08
Livan Hernandez 0.05
Matt Macri 0.05
Craig Breslow 0.04
Scott Baker 0.02
Joe Nathan 0.01

What's remarkable is that the Twins got positive contributions from 17 of 25 players and even a few of the negative contributions were minimal. In particular, Hernandez, Delmon Young, and Brendan Harris combined for 0.31 WPA, which doesn't seem like much until you consider their -3.45 WPA through 65 games. While nowhere near as noticeable as Morneau driving in 15 runs in 11 games, getting slightly above average production from three players who previously dragged the team down is huge.

Calling up Brian Buscher from Triple-A and installing him as the starting third baseman also had a big impact. Despite not taking over from Mike Lamb until Game 4 of the 11-game stretch, his 0.54 WPA ranked second to only Morneau. Joe Mauer ranked third among the team's hitters with 0.30 WPA and his batting .351 while getting on base at a .468 clip was a big part of how Morneau was able to come up with so many runners to potentially knock in.

After totaling -0.68 WPA through 65 games, Jesse Crain tossed 5.1 scoreless, one-hit innings while racking up 0.53 WPA and taking on much of the late-inning setup work that was left by Neshek's injury. Toss in two good starts apiece from Slowey and Blackburn, the usual solid work from Matt Guerrier, continued power from Jason Kubel, and some much needed production from Michael Cuddyer, and you can see how the Twins quickly jumped back into the AL Central race.

Carlos Gomez and to a lesser extent Alexi Casilla accounted for the only hugely negative impacts over the past 11 games, which is interesting given the credit they've been given for jump-starting the lineup. Gomez hit .224/.250/.245 with a 13-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio, while Casilla batted .244/.298/.268. That the Twins still scored 6.5 runs per game despite such poor production atop the lineup is important, because Gomez has been streaky all year and Casilla was playing way above his head initially.

With a trip to San Diego to face the last-place Padres next on the schedule and a homestand against the Brewers, Tigers, and Indians following that, the Twins have a great opportunity to climb past the suddenly struggling White Sox. Of course, as the White Sox and Twins have both shown over the past few weeks, the beauty of baseball is that for all the talk about the importance of "momentum" it often proves to be as meaningful as sprinting midway through a marathon.

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

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