The baseball world has been tossed on its head so far this season. The Pirates are over .500 and sit only two games back of the first place Cardinals. The Pirates have a better record than the Texas Rangers, who are currently under .500. The AL East and the NL East are playing out pretty much as expected. But over in the American League Central division, there seems to be a new world order. The Indians are in first place. The Royals are in second. The Tigers are making a move lately and are in third. And there at the bottom are the Minnesota Twins and the White Sox. Those two last teams are a combined 26-43. A win by the White Sox on Monday night pushed them ahead of the Twins and left the Twins in last place and gasping for air.
How bad are the Twins? They are in last place in the majors in OPS+. They are in next to last place in the majors in ERA+. Can they at least field? Well, they are in the bottom half of those metrics as well in both fielding percentage and defensive efficiency. If it wasn't for Denard Span, who by all fielding systems, is having a great defensive seasons, it would be much worse. You are not going to win a lot of games if you have the worst hitting in the majors and the next to worst pitching and your defense is suspect.
Last night, they got a great pitching performance from Nick Blackburn and the bullpen but could only score one run in eleven innings and eventually lost to the Boston Red Sox. The loss gave the Twins the worst record in baseball if you go by winning percentage. Ouch.
And we're talking about a team that has been in the playoffs for six of the last ten years including the last two. Are they this bad? Have they fallen this hard? Is this finally an indictment of their system which has been built to get to the playoffs but can never win them? Maybe.
Did this writer have concerns that were pointed out before the season started about the make up of this team? Yes. Indeed. Like the White Sox in 2010, the Twins made some decisions over the off season that were baffling. They are a team that famously preaches pitching to contact. But then the moves they made over the off season weakened their defense. If you pitch to contact, you have to catch the ball and throw it accurately. They also re-signed a couple of players that gave them good seasons last year but were questionable going forward because of age. Jim Thome and Carl Pavano have not been effective.
The infield has been a mess. Starting the season with Alexi Casilla at short was a huge mistake. Their big off season acquisition of Tsuyoshi Nishioka really didn't get off the ground since he broke his leg in his sixth game in the majors. But the signs were pointing to a problem as he had poor fundamentals in the field and was having trouble adjusting to major league pitching. Danny Valencia at third was such a nice find last year that much was expected of him this year. To this point, he hasn't had a good season. He is showing signs of offensive life lately though. And Justin Morneau still hasn't gotten back to where he was before his concussion.
How bad offensively has the Twins' infield been so far? Their slash line at shortstop so far is: .200/.267/.305. Their slash line at second base is: .161/.188/.226. Yowza, that's bad. Third base has been manned by Valencia fairly consistently. The Twins' slash line there is: .230/.304/.363. And first basemen (mostly Morneau) have a slash line of .252./.308/.398. That's not the kind of production you want from the first base position. And the infield isn't the only problem.
The DH has been disappointing after offering to be a strength when the season started. The slash line there is: .220/.298/.339. Left field has been a problem. The slash line there has been: .216/.276/.259. Yeesh. Certainly, the loss of Delmon Young to injury hasn't helped, but it's not like he was producing anyway. His OPS in sixteen games was .566.
Joe Mauer's inability to get on the field hasn't helped at all. Certainly, if he has been in the line up, they'd have a few more wins. The catchers that have struggled to replace him have a combined slash line of: .149/.203/.184. Whoof. That's bad.
So if you put all those numbers together, it adds up to a pile of losses and no offensive production. All of the five teams in front of them in offensive numbers are National League teams where the pitchers hit and there is no DH. Would anyone have thought that this year's Twins would take the Mariners' place as the worst offense in baseball?
A strong case can be made that injuries have played a part of those numbers. Mauer hasn't played (rendering the catch phrase of, "Well played, Mauer. Well played," a bit ironic). You could say that Justin Morneau's lack of production comes from recurring fallout from his concussion. As mentioned, Delmon Young has missed a chunk of time. Nishioka has been out since the sixth game of the season. Jim Thome has missed a chunk of time. The Twins offense should improve if all those players come back. But will it be too late by then?
Another culprit might be their ballpark. When a ballpark is that big and knocks out a team's power, you need a different kind of team. You need one that has speed and can run and do those little things to score runs in other ways. Only two teams in the AL have less stolen bases. Batters leading off the game have a .172 batting average and a .250 on base percentage. Batters leading off innings have a .214 batting average and a .298 on base percentage. Big ballparks require on base percentage to offset the lack of power production.
And the pitching isn't what the Twins expected. Again, the pitching to contact and walking few batters has been the mantra. The last two years, the Twins have been tenth of fourteen teams in strikeouts. But they have also been first in walks allowed. This year, they are last in the AL in strikeouts and only eighth best in preventing walks. This has backfired to the point that "pitching to contact" has become the butt of jokes on Twitter.
That "contact" has led to a lot of homers allowed. Four of their five starters have given up over a homer per nine innings. Only Brian Duensing has kept the ball in the yard effectively. The team is tenth of fourteen teams in homers allowed thus far.
The biggest concern the Twins must have is the walks. Of the starters, only Liriano has been really bad in that department. But in the bullpen, walks are rampant. If you add the starters and the relievers together, the staff is giving up 1.453 walks plus hits per innings pitched. That's not a good number at all. To put that into perspective, the entire team is allowing as many base runners per inning as Carl Pavano. And we all know what kind of season Pavano is having.
Is there any hope for the Twins? Sure. When get their injured players back and if Pavano gets on track and Liriano gets on track, they can play a lot better than they are playing now. But the bottom line is that the playoff chances seem remote. It's possible. If the Twins play .600 ball from now until the end of the season, they'd finish with 89 wins. But, there are just too many teams playing well ahead of them and the White Sox are sure to improve as the season goes along. It will be strange if the Twins don't make the playoffs. The Yankees will be sad if they make the playoffs and the Twins don't. But there is a strong possibility that this Twins team will be sitting home a lot earlier than they are used to in October.