July 1, 2009

Twins Through Three Months

In reviewing the Twins through two months, I used Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) and a comparison to last season's numbers to show that the starting rotation hadn't pitched as badly as their ugly ERAs suggested, citing Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano as the prime examples. Sure enough the rotation turned things around in June, going 13-7 with a 3.61 ERA and 124-to-45 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 169.1 innings spread over 27 starts after coming into the month with a collective 4.95 ERA.

Baker went 4-0 with a 3.20 ERA in six starts and Liriano went 2-1 with a 3.77 ERA in five starts, and the group as a whole saw its luck even out after a rough April and May. On the other hand, after evaluating the bullpen's performance through two months my take was that it "is going to need reinforcements to avoid remaining a clear weakness." Instead the Twins' bullpen combined for a 2.53 ERA and 65-to-26 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 67.1 innings in June.

With the rotation predictably getting on track and the bullpen trio of Joe Nathan, Matt Guerrier, and R.A. Dickey combining to allow just two runs in 31.2 innings the Twins went 15-12 in June after going 11-11 in April and 14-16 in May. And that success came despite the offense crashing back down to earth by averaging just 4.1 runs per game in June after scoring 6.5 runs per game in May. Here's a look at the individual xFIPs through three months:

STARTERS             IP     xFIP        RELIEVERS            IP     xFIP
Scott Baker 92.0 4.18 Joe Nathan 31.0 2.50
Kevin Slowey 87.2 4.35 Matt Guerrier 35.1 4.39
Fran Liriano 89.2 4.57 R.A. Dickey 44.0 4.44
Glen Perkins 67.0 4.81 Luis Ayala 32.1 4.79
Nick Blackburn 107.1 4.98 Jose Mijares 23.0 5.22
Anthony Swarzak 27.2 5.02 Sean Henn 11.1 5.33
Jesse Crain 17.2 5.41

As was the case a month ago everyone in the rotation is basically in the 4.15-5.00 range, with the main difference being that their ERAs now more closely resemble their xFIPs. Blackburn is the outlier, as his 3.10 ERA varies wildly from a 4.98 xFIP. Part of that comes from leading the team with seven unearned runs allowed while the rest of the staff has combined for nine, but xFIP also knows that someone with just 45 strikeouts in 107.1 innings and a ground-ball rate of 46 percent can't sustain a 3.10 ERA.

Similarly, the bullpen's June success should be tempered somewhat by the relievers' mediocre overall xFIPs. Nathan has been his usual amazing self and has thankfully gotten more action of late, but when the primary setup men have xFIPs of 4.39, 4.44, and 5.22 it doesn't bode particularly well for the second half. I'm confident that the rotation has righted the ship and certainly Guerrier, Dickey, and Jose Mijares have looked at times like a playoff-caliber trio, but ultimately the Twins still need one more quality arm.

While the pitching staff was thriving in June the offense ranked just 10th in the 14-team league in runs, declining by 40 percent from the lineup's otherworldly May performance. Joe Mauer's out-of-nowhere power display more or less ceased, as he managed just three homers over 109 at-bats, but he batted .353/.403/.490 to basically match his career mark of .323/.404/.475. In other words he stopped being some sort of cross between Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds to just resume being an MVP-caliber catcher.

Justin Morneau also dropped off considerably in June, but was still plenty productive at .255/.342/.459, and Jason Kubel kept rolling at .291/.371/.628 with eight homers. Michael Cuddyer was also solid at .278/.333/.481, but no other hitter managed even a .725 OPS as Joe Crede struggled, Delmon Young and Carlos Gomez continued to flail away, and Denard Span hit just .208 while missing half the month with an inner-ear infection.

An amazing May sandwiched between a poor April and June adds up to ranking ninth in the AL in runs per game overall. All of which is disappointing given some of the big individual performances, but not really surprising given that they've had a sub par offense in all but one of Ron Gardenhire's seasons as manager. Here's a look at Runs Above Replacement, which calculates how many runs someone was worth both offensively and defensively compared to a replacement-level player at the same position:

                      RAR                              RAR
Joe Mauer 38.1 Nick Punto -3.1
Justin Morneau 25.9 Matt Tolbert -5.6
Joe Crede 20.7 Alexi Casilla -10.8
Denard Span 15.5 Delmon Young -15.2
Michael Cuddyer 13.3
Jason Kubel 12.1
Brendan Harris 9.3
Jose Morales 7.4
Mike Redmond 1.2
Carlos Gomez 0.3
Brian Buscher 0.1

Despite missing all of April with a back injury Mauer ranked as the second-most valuable player in the league through three months, checking in at 38.1 runs better than a replacement-level catcher in his 54 games. Morneau and Crede also ranked 17th and 27th among AL players respectively, but got there in much different ways. Morneau was the league's fourth-best hitter, producing 22 runs above average at the plate. Crede was the AL's second-best fielder, producing 11 runs above average with his glove.

Mauer, Morneau, Crede, and Span also ranked 1-2-3-4 in that order through the end of May, so there's no real change at the top, but Kubel and Brendan Harris moved up considerably in June to essentially give the Twins seven solidly productive spots in the lineup. Unfortunately a lineup has nine places, and second base and the third outfield spot continue to drag the Twins down in a huge way. The fivesome of Gomez, Young, Nick Punto, Matt Tolbert, and Alexi Casilla were 34.4 runs below replacement level.

Or put another way, those five guys have basically canceled out Mauer's amazing season. Of that group only Gomez rates above replacement level, and just barely, because his glove in center field remains very good and his measly .229/.283/.331 line at the plate is made somewhat more palatable by the fact that center fielders as a whole have a lower OPS than any position but catchers and shortstops. Young, on the other hand, is awful defensively and has hit worse than Gomez at a high-offense position.

In fact, at 15.2 runs below replacement level Young has been the single worst all-around player in the entire American League. Of course, that was also the case last month. He's batted .256/.281/.318 at a position where the average guy hits .270/.343/.442, putting him 22 percent below average offensively in addition to Ultimate Zone Rating pegging him as 9.3 runs below average on defense. And the amazing thing is that Young has done all that damage in just 185 plate appearances spread over 50 games.

Casilla ranks as the third-worst player in the AL despite spending a big chunk of the year at Triple-A, which is what happens when you hit .180/.242/.225 with poor defense. Tolbert hasn't been any better, hitting .185/.274/.235 with similarly poor UZR numbers as Twins second basemen combine to provide worse production than any other position in baseball. June was the Twins' best month and the pitching staff made strides, but adding a capable second baseman and a reliever would still have a big impact.

Once you're done here, check out my "Circling The Bases" blog over at NBCSports.com.

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