Thursday, April 14, 2011

Busting the Slump

To be completely honest, I've been struggling a little to come up with ideas for posts. It's certainly been frustrating to watch this Twins team limp out of the gates at the start of the season, and as much as I've touted my generally optimistic outlook, it's admittedly been difficult to stay positive. I've thought about going through the Twins' offensive rankings thus far, but they're pretty much last in every meaningful category, so that makes for a depressing read. I've considered the "how much are we paying Joe Mauer per weak grounder to second" post, but that's probably still a little premature through eleven games. I've considered writing about how Target Field is the new PETCO (except for Jim Thome's moon shot over the weekend), but I haven't been able to find much hard data (outside of watching the flags in right field) to explain why there seems to be some sort of forcefield knocking balls onto the warning track. I'm certainly no meteorologist, but it certainly looks like Target Plaza = wind tunnel. And after yesterday's game, I pondered looking at what's going on with Liriano, but the entire Twins blogosphere already beat me there.

So what's left? This still-young season has resembled some sort of bizarro world where nothing is as it seems. The biggest perceived strengths of this team - a largely intact offense that had no problem scoring runs last year and a starting rotation that boasts some of the best depth in the league - have looked like weaknesses. On the other hand, the biggest question mark - a bullpen depleted by free agency - has been one of the few bright spots with a collective 3.09 ERA and 3.43 FIP in 35 innings of work. Some things have been predictable (shaky defense, Alexi Casilla's bat, and Baker serving up home runs) and some things have me scratching my head after spring training (Delmon looking more like the 2009 rather than 2010 version, Valencia looking frequently lost both at the plate and in the field, and the complete lack of power evidenced by a collective .070 ISO). It's probably not fair to single out individual hitters though, because outside of Span and maybe Kubel, it's all been pretty bad. The Twins have 88 hits on the season, which puts them further towards the middle of the pack than the bottom, but as the Royals learned last year, a team does not live on singles alone. The Twins have technically out-hit the Yankees (who have 82 hits); the difference is that 20 of the Yankees' hits have been home runs, compared to the whopping 3 that have left the yard for Minnesota.

It's still too early to pick out underlying statistical trends that would explain the anemic offense, and on the whole, I don't think anyone is legitimately concerned that Mauer will hit .265 all year and Morneau and Delmon will finish the season with a combined zero home runs. As Adam wrote over at Puckett's Pond, though, there does appear to be some sort of groupthink going on regarding plate discipline, seemingly an effort by Twins batsmen to hit their way out of this collective funk rather than staying patient, working counts, and waiting for good pitches to hit. I'd agree that if I had to point to one thing that should be firmly within the team's control (meaning not BABIP or something else related to "luck"), taking a more patient approach at the plate should certainly help to generate baserunners and help some of the singles lead to more runs.

The bad news is that after a brief homestand, the Twins are back on the east coast. The good news is that they face the Rays and the Orioles, both teams who have experienced similar run-scoring troubles. Tampa's wOBA on the season is only four points higher than the Twins at .271, even after the 20-hit beatdown they laid on the Red Sox a few days ago. The Orioles are slightly better than that at .286, but they have also done a stellar job of run prevention, aided by their up-and-coming young arms such as Zach Britton (and potentially Brian Matusz who may be back just in time to face the Twins).

Whatever it is that explains the offensive struggles, maybe the fake turf and cream-colored ceiling of Tropicana Field will kindle some memory of the M&M boys rifling homers over the baggy, aided by the air conditioning vents in the Metrodome roof (or so the legend goes) rather than hindered by the swirling Target Field winds. Maybe the ghost of Jason Kubel's game-winning RBI pop-up off the catwalk is still lingering somewhere in the rafters, seeking to reverse the string of bad luck that was particularly evident yesterday in the numerous seeing-eye singles that found their way through during Liriano's disastrous sixth inning. Maybe Twins Geek is right, that it's darkest just before the dawn. I don't exactly know what got the Twins here and what will get them out of it, but there's no reason it can't start tonight.

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