Pond Reflections: April 2011 – A Month to Forget
We’re 5 days into May, the Twins are 2-1 and Francisco Liriano has tossed a no hitter this month. With that backdrop it’s awfully easy to forget what happened in April. Considering how things went in the first month of the season, that’s not a bad thing.
The saying goes that to know where you are going, you have to know where you’ve been. I like to think of it in a slightly altered way. To appreciate where you are you have to always remember what you’ve been through. April may have been a month to forget for Twins fans, but to enjoy the rest of the 2011 journey we have to remember.
It’s hard to pick one place to start with this team as there were a slew of factors that contributed to their 9-17 record in the season’s first month. If I were to pick just two phrases that summed up April for me it would be “bilateral leg weakness” and “pitch to contact.” But when it comes down to it, I believe the primary reason for the teams struggles starts with the injuries and transactions the team has been forced to make.
The Twins played their opener on April 1st. Exactly one week later prize offseason acquisition, 2B/SS Tsuyoshi Nishioka was placed on the 15-day DL with a fractured fibula. Luke Hughes was called up to take his place. Nishi’s loss was a huge blow to the team, perhaps psychologically and emotionally more than anything. Looking back now, his freak injury* was clearly a harbinger of things to come. Hughes wound up being the first player to travel from Rochester to Minnesota this season and never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined 6 others would make the same trip during the month.
*Yes it was a freak thing and I don’t believe it had anything to do with Nishi being used to playing a different style of baseball in Japan. That’s a convenient conclusion to draw in an attempt explain the terrible outcome, but sometimes terrible outcomes don’t need explanations. After he fractured his leg, I watched no fewer than half a dozen nearly identical plays occur at 2B in the following week. That’s just in games I happened to be watching. Unfortunately for the Twins, Nishi was the only one that wound up on the DL even though several of the collisions looked far more severe. One player I was sure shredded every ligament in his knee when he got hit.
The very next day, RHP Kevin Slowey was placed on the 15-day DL with what was initially classified as a biceps problem but was adjusted to a shoulder strain shortly thereafter. RHP Alex Burnett was called up to take his place though his 1st stint with the team would be short lived.
Just 5 days later, on April 14th, Joe Mauer was placed on the DL with the now infamous “bilateral leg weakness.” Then we learned that he was hospitalized with a viral infection which wound up being an unrelated issue. Mauer’s infection kicked off something apparently akin to the bubonic plague in the team’s clubhouse. Several players were forced to miss time with the flu, including Justin Morneau (who lost between 10-20 pounds because of it), Delmon Young, Carl Pavano and others. Surely there were additional players who suffered symptoms but were able to play through the illness, which also likely contributed to their collective struggles. To take Mauer’s place on the roster, C Steve Holm was called up from Rochester on April 15th and pressed into action.
Things were quiet on the transaction front for all of 3 days as the plague was taking hold. Then Minnesota optioned RHP Jeff Manship to Rochester – after just 3.1 innings of work – and called up fellow righty Jim Hoey. It seemed a little early to pull the trigger on a move like this and with everything else going on around the team this move went largely unnoticed. I fully recognize that Jeff Manship is not an exceptional pitcher at this point and time, but while Hoey throws hard, I’d rather have Manship in my bullpen.
Bullpen tinkering continued on the following day, April 19th, when the team optioned Alex Burnett back to Rochester in favor of RHP Eric Hacker. Burnett, like Manship, was given a very short look – 2.1 innings over 3 appearances – and didn’t pitch that poorly relative to the rest of the team. That aside, I didn’t have a problem with Hacker’s promotion as he was absolutely dealing in Triple-A at the time he was called up (13.0 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 13 SO). As I write this Hacker’s ERA remains at zero in 5.1 innings of work with the Twins but he has given up 4 walks and 4 hits.
Things went quiet on the transaction front for a whopping 9 days until the team placed plague survivor Delmon Young on the 15-day DL with a sore left oblique. The move was made retroactive to April 19th. Also on April 28th, the organization optioned Hacker back to Rochester. They then called up LF Rene Tosoni to fill in for Delmon and used the spot vacated by Hacker to bring up RHP Anthony Swarzak to make a spot start in the 2nd game of a doubleheader against the Rays on that very day.
To close things out in April, Swarzak was sent back to Rochester on April 29th and Alex Burnett was brought back up to take his place.
Of course this doesn’t address some of the nagging, day-to-day stuff the Twins had to suffer through, such as Jim Thome‘s oblique, Jason Repko‘s quad strain but it paints a pretty compelling picture on it’s own.
Given all the team has been through with all the moves, their overall lack of production on the mound and at the plate is not all that surprising. Add in the fact that Justin Morneau hadn’t swung a bat in over 7 months before he got to Fort Myers and the fact that Liriano reported to camp having not followed his conditioning program and their individual struggles just magnify the issues.
In April the Twins most certainly suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but I still believe in this team and this organization. If any collection of personnel can overcome these setbacks, it is the Minnesota Twins. But the 2011 version of our team does seem to be snake-bit, born under a bad sign, or something along those lines. Maybe Liriano’s no-hitter was a sign that things are turning around, but they may want to sacrifice a bucket of chicken or something. Just to be safe.
Of course, that’s just my viewpoint and it is just one of 5 that we have here on this site. In the spirit of collaboration – and because I value their thoughts as fellow Twins writers, fans, and staff members – I asked Adam, Nate, Eric and Paul what concerned them most about the way things unfolded during the month of April.
The first one to respond was Nate Gilmore, who presented this viewpoint:
April of 2011 was the most frustrating month of any that I can recall as a Twins fan. We all know about the injuries, bullpen problems, excessive walk totals, and walk-off losses. But the thing that frustrated and concerned me most about the Twins this month is that they fell behind early in the game on a regular basis.
I live on the West Coast, and most Twins games start at 5:00 p.m. local time. This means that if I’m busy at work, I often don’t get home and turn on the game until the 3rd or 4th inning. I can’t tell you how annoying it is when I settle into my comfortable chair with a cold beer after a long day at the office, only to see that the Twins are already losing 4-0.
In 26 April games, the Twins scored a grand total of three first inning runs (their two run outburst in Saturday’s game tripled the season total). They scored five in the second and nine in the third for a total of 17 runs in the first three innings. Even worse, the Twins’ opponents have had no trouble scoring early, with 16, 13, and 8 runs in the first three innings respectively. Before the game was even one third complete, the chances are the Twins were already losing, often by multiple runs. And it got even worse in the 4th inning, when opponents scored an unbelievable 29 runs – more than one fourth inning run per game!
Coming into the season, the consensus was that the Twins’ biggest problem was their bullpen. Pessimists feared that the Twins wouldn’t be able to protect leads late in the game. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to have that problem right now.
April Fools’ should have been just one day for the 2011 Minnesota Twins. Unfortunately for Twins’ fans, and any fan of baseball, for that matter, the Twins have taken the holiday and transformed it into their personal mantra. Through April the Twins rank last in the AL in Runs Scored (82), Home Runs (11), Batting Average (.233), Slugging (.322), OPS (6.13), Total Bases (281), Wins (9), ERA (4.88), and Strike Outs (by pitcher) (149). For good measure they’re next to last in Walks (69), Strike Outs (by batter)(155), On Base Percentage (.291), number of losses (17) and Runs given up (139). On top of all that, a team that annually prides itself on fielding ranks in the bottom half of the AL in Errors (8, 8th), Double Plays Turned (59, 8th), and Fielding Percentage (.983, 7th).
What does all of this mean? It means that the most concerning thing about the month of April is that the Twins are not a fun team to watch. They are not doing anything well. They are out played every night, by a wide margin. The Twins are not putting a product on the field that is entertaining. The biggest stars are hurt, injured, or sick. Their line-up features half of the Red Wings’ roster on any given day and the Twins haven’t put the same line-up out on back to back days since their second game against Toronto!
The good news is that baseball is still fun to watch, because the Twins have to be playing someone else.
It’s tough to answer this question with just ONE thing, but if I had to put my finger on what concerns me more than any other thing, it would have to be Francisco Liriano’s struggles. Liriano was the team ace last year, despite what some of his more traditional numbers might have suggested, and this year he looks nothing like that. Without an ace to headline their rotation, the Twins look like a vastly different team. When you look at his peripherals, the picture isn’t a good one; his velocity is down, his control is off, and he simply hasn’t been a dominating pitcher at any point so far this season. Coming into the 2010 season, Liriano had pitched in the Dominican Winter League and through the entirety of Spring Training and was essentially in ‘mid-season-form’ right out of the gate. This year he didn’t pitch in the off-season, reportedly didn’t do much off-season conditioning of any sort, had some shoulder issues early on in Spring Training that caused him to miss a couple of starts and has been terrible through the first month of the season. I’ve been holding out hope that Liriano is going to turn things around, but that hope is dwindling with each passing start. To me he is the stopper, the catalyst for the rest of the rotation. Without that kind of guy, the rest of the rotation looks weak.
I can’t help but go back to the offense a little bit when talking about team concerns. This Twins team has been riddled with injuries for the first month of the season, no doubt about that, and I’m sure it plays into the slow start offensively. But a couple of those guys have been back now for a few days and things are still bad. At some point you run out of excuses as to why this team seems unable to score runs, even against mediocre starting pitchers. I have a strong feeling that this offensive ineptitude has affected our rotation as well in the sense that these starters must feel like they have to go out and pitch a shutout just to keep the team in the ballgame. Add that pressure to the pressure that losing creates and you basically have a team of 25 guys all pressing, all at the same time. I guess if I take any solace going forward it’s that Mauer and Nishioka should be back by the end of May and there are about 135 games left this season. Time is running out though because if things don’t reverse course soon, the hole the Twins have dug themselves to start the season might be too deep to crawl out of.
Two additional notes to pass along here. First, Paul was unable to participate because he’s out in the ocean somewhere protecting all of us. Given all the things he could be concerned about as it relates to the Twins’ performance in April, chances are he would have had a completely different take than the rest of us. Second, Adam’s response was submitted before Liriano went out and threw his no-hitter the other night.
Do you agree with one of us? Do you have a different take or opinion? Let your voice be heard by voting! If you pick “other” we’d love to hear your thoughts so please leave a comment.
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