June ends tomorrow, and the Minnesota Twins will probably finish the month out of first place, but within a game of both the White Sox and Tigers for the AL Central lead. It’s been a precipitous drop for the club, who ended May with a 4.5 game lead on the Tigers and an 8.5 game lead on the White Sox. Since then, the Sox have been going like gangbusters, and the Tigers have been incredibly strong, while the Twins have scuffled (particularly during Interleague Play). Currently at 10-15 with two games to play, the Twins will finish with their first month below .500 since May of last year, when they went 14-16. And if they lose their last two games, they will finish with their worst record since August of 2001.
So as the Twins sit out of first for the first time since the second day of the season, it’s a good time to ask what has gone wrong, and whether the Twins can fix it.
The Twins’ offensive attack, through its first two months, was very impressive. The club was averaging just under 5 runs per game (251 runs in 51 games), and had and an OPS+ of 107. Since then, however, they’ve fallen off a cliff. Through 25 games this month, the Twins have scored 99 runs and their team OPS (.702) is 8 percent below the league average. Their patience is gone. Through May 31, the Twins had walked in 11 percent of their plate appearances, but that has fallen to 7 percent in June. Where did it go? As you’d probably guess, it suffered tremendously because of injuries to both Orlando Hudson and JJ Hardy,
who were replaced by impatient hitters like Matt Tolbert, Danny Valencia, and Trevor Plouffe (Tolbert and Plouffe being founding members of the IBTMI).. Also, when the Twins played in National League parks, they lost one or more of their most patient hitters in Jim Thome and Jason Kubel. They are also struggling to get extra singles because they’re not making contact. Surprisingly, the Twins’ strikeout rate has shot up in June, from 14.5 percent to 17 percent. The lack of contact means that, even with a decent .300 BABIP, there are fewer singles dropping in.
Pitching and defense
The good news is that most of the Minnesota pitchers’ underlying stats are solid. The team’s walk, strikeout, and WHIP have all held relatively steady or improved over the first two months of the year. The bad news, however, is that as the weather has warmed up, Twins pitchers have struggled to keep the ball in the ballpark. After allowing 44 homers through 458.2 innings in their first two months, Twins pitchers surrendered 32 in June, an increase of more than a third. The main culprit in this increase has been the Twins’ supposed ace. Scott Baker gave up 8 homers in 29.2 innings, after giving up 7 in the first two months. Nick Blackburn has also allowed 6 in just 18.1 frames. The rest of the increase can be attributed to the Twins’ pen. Alex Burnett surrendered his first two homers of his career in June, Brian Duensing gave up two after surrendering one in his first two months. And Jeff Manship, Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Ron Mahay, and Jose Mijares each chipped in one apiece. The Twins’ vaunted defense also let them down in June, as they helped the opposition score seven unearned runs, after allowing just five during April and May. After making just 12 errors through the end of May, they made 16 last month.
In short, the Twins are really struggling right now on both sides of the ball. Joe Mauer is struggling, as are Denard Span and Michael Cuddyer. Justin Morneau has returned to earth after his amazing start. And with Hudson out, the Twins went most of the month with offensive sink holes Tolbert and Plouffe hitting in the number two spot. This, combined with Span’s struggles, meant that the Twins often had no one on base for Mauer and Morneau. And with Blackburn and Baker (and Kevin Slowey) really struggling, an increased burden is being placed on bullpen, who are beginning to show cracks.
That said, Baker and Slowey have been nothing if not consistently solid in their careers. Blackburn has always lived dangerously, and his implosion may be a sign that his luck has finally run out, but his spot is easily replaced via trade or promotion from AAA. Likewise, Denard Span is a good bet to turn things around, as is Cuddyer. If Joe Mauer isn’t too beat from catching 36 of the 44 games the team’s played since his heel injury, he too will rebound. Orlando Hudson’s return means that Plouffe and/or Tolbert (or Harris) won’t haunt the lineup with their ineptitude, and the eventual return of JJ Hardy (who is about to start a rehab assignment) will push the other back to the bench where they belong. In short, it’s likely that the June blip is just that, and that the Twins should return to their winning ways shortly. They may not be the second best team in the American League (as Twins fans were envisioning after May), but they still should be able to cruise past the Tigers and White Sox, who can’t stay this hot forever.