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Breaking Down the Twins 9-4 Start

Our Minnesota Twins have jumped out to a solid, promising start, winning each of their first four series without a single sweep. At 9-4, the Twins have a 1.5 game lead over the Detroit Tigers, and sit behind only the Tampa Bay Rays (10-3) and New York Yankees (9-3) in the entire majors. We couldn't ask for a much better, more consistent start to the season. Beautiful new outdoor ballpark? Check. First place in the division? Check. Solid play on the road? Check. A nice balance of pitching and hitting? Check. Found a closer to take over for Joe Nathan? Check.

The Twins are on pace for 112 wins. Of course, I don't expect that to happen. But will the good times continue? Before we can answer this, first we need to understand how we got here.

First, the Twins record is roughly in line with their +22 run differential (69 runs scored versus 47 runs allowed), fourth best in the majors behind Philadelphia (+29), San Francisco (+28) and the Yankees (+25). Unlike the Detroit Tigers (7-5 record, despite a -3 run differential), the start is justified by the scoring. With roughly half the games played at home (4-2) and on the road (5-2), a tough Los Angeles to Chicago road trip without a day off didn't faze the Twins.

Offensively, as a team the Twins have a .277/.367/.439 line, scoring 5.3 runs per game. This is a small increase over last season's 5.0 runs per game, but it has felt like more. With 15 home runs in 13 games, power has been a large part of the offense, and the homers have been balanced across the lineup. Nine different hitters have homered, none hitting more than two, only Nick Punto and Denard Span have failed to hit a home run, and Punto barely missed a homer off the top of the fence Friday against the Royals. For me, perhaps the most promising offensive statistic is the Twins discipline at the plate. Last season, the Twins walked 585 times versus 1021 strikeouts. This season, 65 walks versus 74 strikeouts. Not surprisingly, Morneau (13), Span (10) and Mauer (9) lead the team in walks, but Orlando Hudson, Jason Kubel, and Brendan Harris have all drawn at least five walks. If this lineup continues to draw five walks a game with sluggers up and down the lineup, watch out American League. On the base paths, many of us expected a sharp drop off in stolen bases with Carlos Gomez traded for slow footed J.J. Hardy, and Alexi Casilla sitting on the bench. But as a team, the Twins have stolen 8 bases in 9 attempts, with steals from Span (4), Punto (2), Michael Cuddyer (1) and Delmon Young (1). Finally, the bench has been deeper than in years past. Brendan Harris (.222/.391/.389 in 18 AB) and Jim Thome (.227/.346/.545) have provided bench offense from the right and left sides, and having Thome lurking on the bench has added an exciting aspect to late inning pinch hitting opportunities.

On the mound, the Twins have given up only 47 runs, behind only St. Louis (38), San Francisco (41), the Yankees (44) and Texas (46). And all four of those teams have played 12 games versus the Twins 13. The rotation has been solid (4.17 ERA, 50 SO, 24 BB, 10 HR over 77.2 innings), with 7 quality starts (all Twins wins) in 13 games. Only tonight's starter Kevin Slowey has failed to make a quality start. The 10 home runs allowed, especially 6 in three starts by Nick Blackburn, concern me. But I expect to see Blackburn turn it around and end up with a line closer to the last two seasons. Francisco Liriano appears to have continued his strong offseason, with a 2.08 ERA and 11 strikeouts and 8 hits allowed in 13 innings. 7 walks is a bit high, but five of those walks came in his first start on a chilly night against the White Sox. Cisco's slider is biting and his fastball is down in the zone and missing bats. The bullpen has been even better, with a 2.52 ERA and 31 SO / 7 BB over 39.1 innings. Jon Rauch (6 for 6 save opportunities) has pitched well as Joe Nathan's replacement, and Matt Guerrier (3 H, 1 BB in 7.1 IP) has owned the 8th inning. 

Defensively, the Twins have been very good. J.J. Hardy has been better than advertised, getting to a surprising number of balls because his strong arm allows him to play deeper than many other shortstops. Nick Punto's arm has looked fine at third base, and Orlando Hudson has played a solid second base. Denard Span has played a good center field, not getting to as many balls as Carlos Gomez (no one does), but he's made quite a few good plays. Delmon Young has shown more range after losing weight during the offseason, but he still gets himself turned around at times.

In all, the Twins have played consistent (3-1, 2-1, 2-1, 2-1 in the first four series), balanced (hitting, running, pitching, defense) baseball. While no one expects them to keep up this pace, this is as good a start as I could have hoped for. Sure, there have been stinkers so far (Jesse Crain's 10.80 ERA, Jose Mijares' 6 hits and 2 HR in 3 IP), but they have been the exception rather than the rule in this glorious inaugural season for Target Field.