At 12-5, they’re tied with the Rays for the best record in baseball. They’re leading the division by three games. Everything’s coming up Minny! Follow along after the jump to see just how good this team really is.
Despite all the hand-wringing over their recent struggles with runners in scoring position, the Twins have already scored 89 runs in just 17 games, second only to Tampa Bay (93) in the American League. They’re getting on base at a good .361 clip, in large part because they’re drawing a ton of walks (86, the most in all of major league baseball). They’re not striking out much either, only 92 times in 667 plate appearances. They’ve also got a little pop, slugging .421 with a .156 ISO And all of that is despite the recent struggles of key contributors like J. J. Hardy and Jason Kubel. Just imagine all the damage this lineup is going to do once everyone starts hitting.
The pitching, with a few exceptions, has been pretty solid as well. The pitching staff has a 3.47 ERA, 3.99 xFIP, and 2.89 K/BB ratio, with a 0.94 HR/9 rate (so much for Target Field being a bandbox). Francisco Liriano looks like something better than the 2008 and 2009 versions, though not quite as unhittable as the 2006 phenom. Carl Pavano is continuing the solid season he had last year, while Kevin Slowey seems to have solved his problem with finding the strike zone. And, contrary to popular belief, Scott Baker will be just fine. He got taken to the woodshed in his last start by a Cleveland lineup that, well, actually the Cleveland lineup is more dangerous than it looks. They’ve gotten off to a slow start, but they’ve also got a ton of power and probably weren’t going to score just 3.75 runs per game forever. Baker is typically a bit of a slow starter, posting ERAs of 5.17 in April and 5.98 in May, but typically finishes strong, with an ERA of 3.95 in September and October. Unless he’s hurt, T. Scott will probably finish the season with an ERA under 4.00. Book it.
Of course, there may be a few things to be concerned about:
Jason Kubel: Oh, sure, I spent two days working on this, and Parker Hageman beats me to the punch. That’s what I get for having two tests and a paper due. Kubel had a breakout season last year, batting .300/.369/.539. However, with his devastating split against lefties (.243/.299/.345), there was some question whether Kubel Khan would keep it up. So far, his critics appear to be right: Kubel Khan has gotten off to a very slow start, batting just .180/.317/.320 with very little power. However, the good news is that there is reason to think this is just a slump and not a sign of something more serious. First of all, Kubel’s batting average on balls in play is just .212, which, like with Denard Span, probably means he’s been more unlucky than anything. And even though his strikeout rate is at an all-time high 30%, he’s still drawing a lot of walks (10, in 60 plate appearances). Otherwise, his line drive rate, ground ball rate, fly ball rate and overall contact rates are all within career norms. He isn’t doing anything drastically different at the plate, and he’s still making solid contact, so Kubel Khan should see his luck change pretty soon.
J. J. Hardy: Hardy is coming off of a terrible 2009 campaign with Milwaukee, in which he struggled so much he was demoted to AAA and then traded in the offseason. So far, he’s off to a pretty mediocre start, batting just .228/.290/.351 in 63 plate appearances, though his .239 batting average on balls in play is also well-below average. It remains to be seen whether Hardy will rebound, but the good news is that he doesn’t necessarily have to. Hardy has been a good enough defender (10.4 UZR/150) that he can get away with being just an okay hitter. Besides, this lineup can afford to sacrifice a little offense for defense in such a key defensive postion.
Nick Blackburn: It’s not surprising that Blackbeard is apparently suffering a bout of arm trouble. He got hit hard by Kansas City in his last start, giving up five runs on seven hits in just five innings. He wasn’t all that impressive against the White Sox either, surrendering five runs in seven innings, including three homers. He’s never been a strikeout pitcher, but his 3.26 K/9 rate is the worst it’s ever been. Most troubling, however is his 2.79 BB/9 rate. Since Blackbeard pitches to extreme contact, he relies heavily on his pinpoint control to be successful. Obviously, this is not a good sign.
I’m not sure Blackbeard’s injury is entirely to blame for his struggles. I really don’t know how he’s been able to pitch as well as he has up to this point. He misses few bats, which isn’t unusual for a sinkerballer, but also has a mediocre groundball rate (45.3%) and an awfully high fly ball rate (35.4%). Perhaps he was just getting lucky, perhaps he really is that good and I’m just too dumb to figure it out, or perhaps he sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for a starting job with a major-league ballclub. The good news, though, is that the Twins aren’t completely sunk even if Blackburn is the second coming of Joe Mays. They’ve got a strong 1-4 in Liriano, Baker, Pavano, and Slowey, so even if Blackburn is league-average at best, it isn’t going to kill them (although wasting $16 million is certainly going to hurt). They’ve also got a lot of depth, with Brian Duensing, Glen Perkins, and Jeff Manship ready to slide into the fifth spot if necessary.