Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Don't Panic

With another ugly loss to the Royals last night, the Twins have now dropped five in a row since the minor-league squad finished off the sweep of the Indians a week ago. The offense has been sputtering, the pitching has been fairly putrid, and it's hard to shake the feeling that we'd much rather see the Twins charge instead of limp into the playoffs. As is often the case, a stretch like this can draw the Chicken Littles out of the woodwork (I include myself in this category at times) and leave us with the sense of impending doom of another playoff implosion lurking just around the corner. I feel like this needs to be said though - stop panicking, and here are a few reasons why:

Reason #1: The concept of "momentum" heading into the playoffs is not a strong predictor of results.

Gleeman and others have pointed out that, at least in a limited recent sample size, the number of games won or lost heading into the playoffs hasn't necessarily translated into success or failure. Again, this isn't based on wide-ranging statistical analysis - it just goes to show that even the hottest team heading into the playoffs can lay an egg, and a team that closed out the regular season on a losing streak can be just fine. We've had these moments plenty of times during this season where nothing seems to be clicking, and the Twins have shown an ability to right the ship. In the playoffs, the window of opportunity to turn things around is obviously smaller (and I think the idea of "getting the losses out of the way now" is pretty meaningless) but hopefully the lineup that takes the field for the ALDS will look substantially different than the one we've been watching the past week. Which brings me to...

Reason #2: The Twins have been without a key third of the lineup.

Since the priority (as it should be) has been on getting the team healthy rather than going all-out for the best record in the AL, we haven't seen Mauer, Hardy or Thome lately. This obviously creates significant holes in the lineup both offensively and defensively, and the hope is that all three of these guys will be ready to go come October 6th, if not earlier. Although the latest report sounds encouraging, there's no guarantee that some of the injured crew won't have setbacks, meaning that whoever is in the lineup for Game 1 will have to step up, but the hope is that we'll see a healthy Mauer, Thome and Hardy all back at 100%.

Reason #3: The offensive "regulars" who have been playing haven't been the problem.

Again, small sample size, but in the last five losses the lines for the uninjured members of what we hope will be the starting lineup are as follows:

Denard Span: .412, 4 R, 3 BB
Delmon Young: .304, 1 HR, 3 RBI
Michael Cuddyer: .238, 3 RBI
Jason Kubel: 2 HR, 7 RBI
Danny Valencia: 2 HR, 5 RBI
Orlando Hudson (ok, so he's been struggling): .111, 2 R, 4 BB

Denard and Delmon seem to be seeing the ball fairly well as of late, and Kubel and Valencia have been providing some pop. Hudson and Cuddyer are in a bit of a funk, but they've been much better hitters at Target Field this year. A five-game sample obviously isn't predictive, but there are enough signs of life here that I wouldn't worry too much about an offense that has been missing two of its best hitters.

Reason #4: Part of the ugly run totals allowed have been due to bullpen guys who aren't getting used in the playoffs.

After Liriano's early exit due to illness on Sept 24, Manship and Burnett combined to cough up eight runs against the Tigers. In the first game of the Royals series, Manship gave up three more after Slowey left the game. Glen Perkins has allowed 4 ER in 3.1 IP. Randy Flores served up a game-tying home run to the Royals in a situation he's not going to be put in in the playoffs.

In terms of the guys who will actually see action, Crain has been slightly more hittable in September but is still pitching well, Capps struck out the side last night in his only recent appearance, Guerrier hasn't allowed a run since Sept 15th and fanned two in his inning Monday night, Mijares hasn't given up a hit or walk in his last three appearances, and since an ugly outing versus Texas on Sept 5th, Rauch has posted a 4:1 K/BB rate in 6 IP with no runs allowed.

Reason #5: The starting pitching....

Gulp. If there is one area that is the biggest cause for concern right now, this is it. I don't have the time to do any detailed pitchFX analysis or anything, but the results have not been good. To be fair, Liriano's last outing was shortened due to a stomach problem, and he actually looked pretty good before giving up the home run, with four strikeouts and one walk in three innings. Pavano has struggled (to say the least) in his last few outings, giving up twelve earned runs in only nine innings, including eleven hits and seven earned against the Tigers on Saturday. If there's a bright spot to be found, he's still getting more groundball outs than flyouts, and he struck out two in four innings while not walking anyone. In addition, if he's had a pattern this year, his clunkers have generally been followed up by much stronger outings. The red flag for Duensing lately would be his control, having walked four in each of his last two starts. He's still killing worms at a good clip (15 GB vs 8 FB in his last appearance). He has the ability to be effective if he makes good use of his excellent slider, but needs to cut down on the free passes.

The projected fourth starter, Nick Blackburn, did not have a very good night last night either, getting shelled for seven earned in 4.1 innings and allowing two home runs. In his recent run of success, the key factor for Blackburn (like Duensing) has been keeping the ball on the ground:

5-Sep TEX 1 0 7 6 0 2 2 4 3 5 12
11-Sep @CLE 0 0 8 5 0 0 0 3 2 6 16
17-Sep OAK 0 1 7 8 1 3 3 1 1 5 18
22-Sep CLE 1 0 7 5 0 1 1 2 2 6 12
28-Sep @KCR 0 1 4.1 8 2 8 8 4 2 8 6

One of these things is not like the other. If Blackburn does indeed get a start in Game 4 (which would be a road start) keeping the ball down will be absolutely essential. He's shown that he can step up and pitch well in big games before (see: Game 163, 2008 or Game 2, 2009 ALDS at Yankee Stadium), but can't afford to leave pitches up as a pitch-to-contact guy.

If Scott Baker has a dominant outing tonight, you'd have to figure he may be in the discussion for Game 4, but his elbow has been iffy and I'm not sure how much the Twins (or I) trust him at this point. Regardless of who that pitcher may be, the staff as a whole needs to snap out of their mini-funk and get back their edge before the games matter again. I'm confident they can - if Liriano can set the tone in Game 1, maybe that will give the others something to build on. I don't know if either bad or good pitching are "contagious" per se, but a strong start in front of the home crowd would certainly be a confidence boost. For Twins fans, the sky is certainly not falling, but there are some holes to patch up in the next week. This team has the talent to make a deep run in the playoffs, and here's to hoping for some October magic.

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