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Dugout Splinters: Minnesota Twins

The following appears in the Dugout Splinters insert of this week's GameDay Magazine, for the series against the Kansas City Royals.  Thanks to Nick Nelson for the invite.


Let’s not beat around the bush here, the last few couple of weeks in Twins Territory have left us with more questions about this team than questions about the acting skills of William Shatner.  And that’s a lot of questions.

Luckily enough, for all the losses that have been thrown up recently, entering play on Monday the Twins were still just 2.5 games behind the Chicago White Sox for first place in the AL Central.  While with 19 games left to play that seems like a very manageable deficit, the Twins have managed to overcome larger holes after September 8th just once before in their history, going on to win the division:  2006.  You remember that summer, right?  The one where Minnesota won the division AFTER their regular season ended?  Yes, THAT magical summer..  They trailed by four games after they won on September 8th, but going all the way back to 1901 as the Washington Senators, this franchise only has ’06 to look to as a beacon of hope.

As a whole this is a club that has far exceeded expectations.  Water cooler experts and sports talk radio pundits across the baseball landscape had the Twins pegged as a .500 team at best, and I won’t lie, I had them in the same ballpark.  But for most of the summer the boys have played like contenders; until these last couple of weeks it certainly appeared like they were a team to be taken seriously.  Suddenly this is a team that can’t take care of its own business, and clubs that need to watch the scoreboard every night hoping for losses elsewhere don’t belong in October..

That’s the Spock in me.  The realist.

So here’s the optimist in me, the Captain Kirk:  it’s not over.  Baseball is a long season, full of ups and downs, where every game counts.  The biggest shot this team has left, their one chance at a saving grace, is the three-game series against the White Sox that kicks off in two weeks.  Before the Twins get there though, to make sure that series still matters, they need to find a way to pull themselves out of this skid.  The Enterprise was always a sitting duck without Warp power, but once she got it back things always got better.  So it is with the Twins—stringing together a few wins will do wonders for the team and, let’s be honest, for us as the fans as well.

Now we kick off a series against the Kansas City Royals.  Nothing like a bit of good timing to turn around the fortunes of a season, and this is a team that Minnesota could be running into at the best possible time.  The Twins still have time to start taking care of their own business, but it has to start with this series.

Whatever happens with this season, we’ll have our ultimate questions answered on this team in a few short weeks.  On the other hand, we’ll always have questions about the acting skills of Willam Shatner.  And that’s as it should be.

Because Just Once More This Year, I Have to Say Joe Mauer Is Awesome

Remember early in the year when Joe Mauer “wasn’t pulling his weight”?  You remember—April 14th, Joe’d played in all of 12 games, and he was only hitting .238.  Since then he’s failed to reach base by hit or walk just eight times, has hit somewhere between .307 and .344 each month since (except in September when he’s hitting just .435…where’s the other .565 Joe?), and has posted monthly on-base percentages .412 or better.  Just like Ron Burgandy, Joe Mauer is the balls.

Two years ago, the Twins won the triple crown of the post-season individual awards.  Johan Santana won the Cy Young, Justin Morneau won the MVP, and Mauer became the first catcher in the history of baseball to win a batting title.  This year there will be no Cy Young, but not only is Morneau (rightly or wrongly) being included in MVP discussions, but Mauer could win his second batting title in two years.  On the season he’s hitting .326, which puts him in a tight race with Dustin Pedroia (.330), Milton Bradley (.327), Magglio Ordonez (.319) and Ian Kinsler (.319).  At 25, Mauer is putting together a strong application to be included on the short list of Best Hitting Catchers of All Time.  But oddly enough, that’s not the best thing about him.

Entering play on Monday, Mauer is the American League leader in WPA for position players, at 3.93.  WPA (or win probability added) is the difference in win expectancy between the start and end of a play, and is the result of equations that are run based off of the history of the game.  It’s a number that goes up or down based on how a player does in a certain situation, and as Dave Studeman of The Hardball Times said back in December of ’04:  “[WPA] measures every baseball event within the context of the ultimate goal:  winning games.”  Or, as the chances of a team winning or losing a game change as each play runs its course, each involved player is credited/debited based on their role in that play.

As much as we talk about Joe’s ability to hit anything thrown his way, as much as we talk about how often he gets on base, as much as we talk about his arm or his ability to call a game, the bottom line is this:  Joe helps the Twins win more games.  And when you cut everything else out of the analysis, that’s all that really matters.


Tuesday: Nick Blackburn (9-8, 3.71 ERA)

¨        2008:  169.2 IP, 192 H, 16 HR, 86 K, 30 BB

¨        2007:  11.2 IP, 19 H, 2 HR, 8 K, 2 BB

¨        Fastball, slider, curveball, changeup

¨        Has allowed more than three earned runs in a start just once since June 27th.

¨        Doesn’t miss high in the zone very often, but needs good horizontal movement to make the most of his “stuff”.

¨        Like most Twins pitchers will put the ball in play, so he needs a solid defense to help him out from time to time.

¨        Gets more ground balls (44%) than all other Twins starters, except Francisco Liriano (44.9%).


Wednesday: Kevin Slowey (11-9, 3.75 ERA)

¨        2008:  114.1 IP, 107 H, 15 HR, 79 K, 17 BB

¨        2007:  66.2 IP, 82 IP, 16 HR, 47 K, 11 BB

¨        Fastball, slider, curveball, changeup

¨        Allowed 10 hits over 5.2 innings his last time out, still allowing just three runs.

¨        Since July 28 (eight starts) he’s the proud owner of a 2.61 ERA.

¨        A fly-ball pitcher who’s usually responsible for one bomb per game, although when he’s on he’ll shut an offense down.

¨        11 of 23 appearances have been quality starts.


Thursday: Francisco Liriano (5-3, 3.33 ERA)

¨        2008:  29.0 IP, 26 H, 1 HR, 22 K, 20 BB

¨        2008 (AAA):  10-2, 3.28 ERA, 118.0 IP, 102 H, 8 HR, 113 K, 31 BB

¨        Fastball, slider, changeup

¨        Since his return to the Twins, strikeouts are up, walks and hits are down, and he’s 5-0 in seven starts.

¨        It’s a tale of two seasons for Liriano.  In April he posted an 11.32 ERA in 10.1 innings over three starts, striking out seven, walking 13 and giving up 15 hits.  In 43.2 innings since his recall it’s 38 strikeouts, 12 walks (two in last three games), 31 hits and a 1.44 ERA.

¨        Not many balls leave the park on his watch, just 6.3% of fly balls get over the fence.