July 16, 2008

First-Half Review: Hitters

Joe Mauer: .322/.418/.455 with 41 RBIs and 58 runs in 360 plate appearances

My pick for team MVP, Joe Mauer has been far and away the best catcher in the league this season, scoring a team-high 58 runs and hitting .322/.418/.455 while the average player at his position bats just .262/.325/.394. That adds up to Mauer being 24 percent more productive than the average catcher offensively. To put that in some context, consider that Justin Morneau and his .323/.391/.512 line make him "only" 17 percent better than the average first baseman.

Misguided critics continue to focus on his lack of power, but Mauer has dominated his position like few other players in baseball while quietly hitting five homers with a .568 slugging percentage in 34 games since June 1. Toss in his usual quality defense behind the plate and Mauer's a legitimate league MVP candidate, although certainly the RBI-obsessed voters would never see it that way. He's fourth among AL hitters in Win Probability Added and rises to the top spot once WPA is adjusted for position.

Mike Redmond: .279/.315/.338 with 6 RBIs and 7 runs in 73 plate appearances

After totaling 298 plate appearances last year and an average of 216 trips to the plate during his first three seasons in Minnesota, Mike Redmond is on pace to bat just 120 times this year because Mauer has been one of the most durable catchers in baseball. Mauer ranks second among AL catchers with 711.2 innings logged behind the plate, has yet to start a single game at designated hitter, and is hitting .359 against lefties, leaving Redmond with few opportunities to crack the lineup.

Justin Morneau: .323/.391/.512 with 68 RBIs and 55 runs in 412 plate appearances

In past years Morneau's power has dried up after the All-Star break, but this time around he finished the first half with just four homers in his last 41 games. His .189 Isolated Power would be a career-low, but despite the relative lack of pop (Home Run Derby excluded) Morneau ranks third in the league with 68 RBIs. He came into this season as a .276 career hitter with a mediocre .340 on-base percentage, but is currently sporting a career-best mark in both batting average (.323) and OBP (.391).

The shape of Morneau's performance has changed, but the end result is similar to his MVP-winning campaign. In fact, with offense down considerably across the league this year his .903 OPS is perhaps more impressive than the .934 OPS that he posted en route to winning the award in 2006. He's on pace for a disappointing 25 homers, but has still been one of the league's top five hitters overall, ranks third in WPA, and is on track to drive in 110-plus runs for the third straight season.

Alexi Casilla: .315/.357/.440 with 36 RBIs and 29 runs in 228 plate appearances

Alexi Casilla began this season at Triple-A after a horrible 56-game stint with the Twins last year and saw his stock fall even further by hitting .219/.350/.250 in 32 games. Despite that putrid performance he was called up from Rochester in mid-May when Nick Punto landed on the disabled list. After playing sparingly for a week, Casilla smacked a three-run homer on May 19 and went 2-for-4 with two RBIs on May 20 to emerge as the new everyday second baseman, starting 49 of the next 52 games.

He's looked nothing like the scatter-brained rookie who was a mess on both sides of the ball last year and has instead hit .315/.357/.440 with four homers, 17 total extra-base hits, and a 20-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 228 plate appearances while flashing a good glove. Along with solid plate discipline and plenty of speed, Casilla has shown significantly more power than expected while still striking out in just 8.8 percent of his trips to the plate.

A .257/.344/.316 line in 129 games at Rochester suggests that he's played quite a bit over his head in batting average and power. With that said, even after struggling over the past two years he's a career .293 hitter in the minors and at 23 years old is likely to develop more pop. Coming back down to earth from .315/.357/.440 to eventually settle in around .285/.340/.400 seems realistic, which would make Casilla the obvious long-term answer at second base (or shortstop) and a very nice all-around player.

Nick Punto: .324/.383/.471 with 18 RBIs and 13 runs in 116 plate appearances

Between a poor start and lingering hamstring problems it looked like another long season for Punto, but he's turned things around by hitting .388/.446/.612 since June 1. Along with Brendan Harris' poor showing defensively and injuries to both Adam Everett and Matt Tolbert, the hot 15-game stretch has allowed Punto to again emerge as a starter, this time at shortstop. While his offense obviously isn't sustainable, Punto has looked more like the solid 2006 version than the execrable 2007 version.

Part of what made Punto successful in 2006 was a focus on putting the ball in play rather than working deep counts, but last year he fell back into old habits and it led to a 30-percent increase in strikeouts. So far this season he's back to making more contact, taking fewer pitches, and slashing line drives, although he's bound to regress heavily toward his .250/.318/.331 career line. However, unlike when he was stinking up the joint at third base Punto may be the Twins' best option at shortstop for now.

Brian Buscher: .313/.337/.410 with 17 RBIs and 13 runs in 89 plate appearances

Brian Buscher failed to make the team out of spring training, but headed back to Triple-A and proved that last season's breakout was no fluke by hitting .319/.402/.514 in 53 games at Rochester. With Mike Lamb struggling offensively and defensively the Twins called him up in mid-June and installed him as the regular third baseman against right-handers, starting Buscher in 20 of the past 27 games. Results have been mixed, but barring a trade Buscher has likely earned continued playing time.

Buscher hit .312/.392/.500 with 22 homers, 38 doubles, and a 62-to-64 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 156 games between Double-A and Triple-A over the past two seasons, but hasn't shown much power yet in the majors and like Lamb projects as more of a gap hitter than homer threat. In fact, between the iffy defense at third base and similar attack offensively Buscher profiles as a poor man's Lamb. Or at least a poor man's version of what the Twins thought they were getting in Lamb.

Brendan Harris: .262/.315/.376 with 32 RBIs and 40 runs in 333 plate appearances

Many people viewed the Harris-Jason Bartlett portion of the big Delmon Young-Matt Garza offseason swap as being relatively even because their offensive numbers were comparable, but that overlooked the huge gap in defensive value. While Bartlett has flashed his usual outstanding range at shortstop for the Rays, Harris got himself moved off second base after struggling to consistently turn double plays and as was the case in Tampa Bay has shown himself to be stretched as a shortstop.

Poor middle-infield defense should've been expected based on his stats last year, but he's combined that with disappointing offense, including a 25-percent increase in strikeouts. He's hit .351/.380/.608 over the past month, but is now a 27-year-old career .269/.326/.405 hitter in 1,029 PA who doesn't have the glove to be an asset in the middle infield, which makes for a pretty marginal player. Harris' best fit is as a platoon partner for Buscher at third base, but Matt Macri could just as easily do the job.

Mike Lamb: .220/.257/.292 with 26 RBIs and 17 runs in 230 plate appearances

In signing Lamb to a two-year, $6.6 million contract this winter the Twins were hoping to trade some defense for offense at third base, but instead his bat has been every bit as horrible as his glove. He's shown Tony Batista-like range, which should have been expected, but hitting a measly .220/.257/.292 comes as a surprise after he managed a .281/.342/.464 line in four seasons as a part-time player in Houston. If not for the Twins owing him $3 million for next season, he'd likely already be off the roster.

Lamb can probably be counted on to bounce back offensively, but the Twins are unlikely to give him another extended shot at third base. In the past he's provided plenty of value as a left-handed bench bat and occasional starter at the infield corners, but Morneau plays every day at first base and Buscher is basically a younger version of Lamb at third base. He's not nearly as bad as he's looked thus far, but isn't good enough or young enough to warrant a ton of patience.

Delmon Young: .286/.330/.386 with 36 RBIs and 47 runs in 364 plate appearances

When the Twins acquired Young he was laughably compared to Frank Robinson multiple times while his supposed power potential was constantly talked up, but his track record told a different story. He had just 14 homers in 138 games at Triple-A and 16 homers in his first 192 games as a big leaguer, all while hitting the ball on the ground a ton. Once everyone got a good look at him rather than trusting long-expired "scouting reports" they saw a swing that was anything but powerful most of the time.

When Young went 60 games before his first homer fans went from criticizing people like me for having the gall to question his upside to making him their whipping boy, but along the way he actually started hitting. He's hit .305/.347/.460 in 47 games since mid-May, although that includes just three homers in 202 plate appearances and he continues to look lost far too often in left field while making a habit of putting together ugly at-bats in key spots.

He has the team's second-worst WPA thanks largely to hitting .271/.308/.365 with runners in scoring position and .214/.283/.333 with RISP and two outs. Young has improved his walk rate compared to last year, going from horrible to merely bad, but seems to abandon all discipline at crucial moments. He's shown a knack for hacking at the first pitch in game-changing situations, often failing to get the ball out of the infield. Beyond that, 38 percent of Young's walks have been of the four-pitch variety.

In those spots he's not drawing walks as much as being handed them and whatever patience he has vanishes when a good approach at the plate is needed most. Young is an opposite-field hitter with the fifth-highest ground-ball percentage in the AL, so without an overhaul at the plate hitting 30 homers will be difficult. With that said, he's just 22 and has hit .291 through 279 games, which leaves the door wide open for him to develop an impact bat even if the shape of his performance isn't what people expected.

Carlos Gomez: .253/.287/.351 with 31 RBIs and 50 runs in 399 plate appearances

Carlos Gomez had a fantastic Opening Day and showed flashes of brilliance early on, but has hit just .218/.253/.276 with a ghastly 41-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 39 games since June 1 and finishes the first half as one of the AL's worst hitters. Among the 83 hitters who qualify for the batting title, Gomez ranks 68th in batting average, 80th in on-base percentage, 75th in slugging percentage, 79th in pitches per plate appearance, 74th in Isolated Power, 80th in walk rate, and dead last in strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Only Vladimir Guerrero has swung at more pitches outside the strike zone and he's on pace to shatter the team record for strikeouts. Despite being completely unfit for the job, the Twins refuse to remove Gomez from the leadoff spot, magnifying the negative impact of his bat. His range is center field has been great and he leads MLB in bunt hits, but not much else has been encouraging. He's even ceased running effectively, stealing just five bases while being caught seven times in the past 57 games.

Michael Cuddyer: .252/.324/.376 with 35 RBIs and 30 runs in 259 plate appearances

Fresh off a big contract extension in January, Michael Cuddyer had a miserable first half that consisted of poor hitting and multiple injuries. Cuddyer sat out most of April after suffering a dislocated right index finger in the season's fifth game and came back to hit just .250/.328/.384 in 57 games before heading back to the disabled list with a strained tendon in his left hand. He's been sidelined since late June and sounds unlikely to return before August.

Signing Cuddyer to an expensive extension when the Twins already controlled him through 2009 struck me as a mistake this winter and seems even iffier now that he's missed time with hand injuries while hitting .269/.347/.416 since last year. With that said, as the Twins' best right-handed bat he gives some semblance of balance to an otherwise left-handed lineup, so getting an even moderately productive Cuddyer back would be key for a team that sports the AL's third-worst OPS against southpaws.

Jason Kubel: .262/.331/.461 with 44 RBIs and 45 runs in 305 plate appearances

Early on it looked like Jason Kubel was destined to spend another year in and out of Ron Gardenhire's doghouse. He was benched in favor of Craig Monroe on Opening Day despite the Twins facing a right-hander and started just two of the Twins' first five games, but Cuddyer's first-week injury forced Kubel into the lineup and he's emerged as the team's third-best hitter. Much like last season, Kubel got off to a slow start before catching fire in mid-May.

He's hitting .292/.393/.539 over his past 50 games and ranks second on the team behind Morneau in homers, slugging percentage, and RBIs. While the "Free Jason Kubel" campaign has been mostly a success, his struggles against lefties have kept Kubel from playing every day. Because of that he ranks just sixth on the team in plate appearances, is on pace to bat 150 fewer times than Gomez despite a 150-point edge in OPS, and has hit one fewer homer than Morneau in 107 fewer trips to the plate.

Kubel is batting .269/.334/.454 in 210 games since the start of last year, including .273/.341/.478 with 26 homers and 97 RBIs in 670 plate appearances since last May. Over that same stretch, Morneau has hit .294/.361/.494. Knee injuries have sapped Kubel of what was once above-average speed and he's yet to approach the high batting averages that he posted in the minors, but at 26 years old he's established himself as a force against right-handed pitching and the Twins' second-best power threat.

Craig Monroe: .203/.280/.419 with 28 RBIs and 21 runs in 164 plate appearances

Monroe looked washed up when the Twins misguidedly handed him a one-year, $3.82 million contract during the offseason and has predictably hit just .203/.280/.419 in 164 plate appearances. He began the season stealing significant playing time from Kubel even against right-handers, but Gardenhire eventually came to his senses and moved Monroe into the platoon role that he was seemingly still capable of filling adequately.

Instead, he's hit a miserable .122/.217/.216 against lefties while smacking righties around to the tune of .284/.346/.622. Like almost all right-handed hitters Monroe has fared far better against southpaws during his career and his odd first-half split is almost surely a fluke. In the second half smart money would be on Monroe's numbers against lefties rising dramatically while his numbers against righties decline dramatically, but the overall result figures to be fairly similar and completely underwhelming.

Denard Span: .324/.429/.423 with 7 RBIs and 12 runs in 86 plate appearances

A first-round pick in 2002 who carried a .283/.348/.348 career line in the minors into this season after batting just .267/.323/.355 at Triple-A last year, Denard Span looked to me like a future fourth outfielder at best. Span lost the center-field job to Gomez this spring, but batted .340/.434/.481 in 40 games at Rochester to earn his first call-up to Minnesota and has defied all expectations by hitting .324/.429/.423 through 25 games with the Twins.

Three good months after six sub par years means that Span's recent play should be viewed with plenty of skepticism, but it's tough not to like what we've seen. He's shown a great eye at the plate, walking 39 times in 270 PA between Triple-A and the majors after drawing an average of just 23 free passes per 270 PA prior to this season. He's also flashed more pop than expected while providing super defense as Cuddyer's replacement in right field despite playing almost exclusively center field in the past.

Span underwent laser eye surgery after "noticing [his] right eye getting a little blurry the last year and a half" and can "definitely see a difference now." Studies show that laser eye surgery doesn't necessarily lead to improved hitting, but Span certainly appears to be much different. Minimal power will always keep him from a huge upside, but as a strong defender with good speed if Span can hang onto his newfound plate discipline while maintaining a high batting average he'll prove me very wrong.

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

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