Twins notes: One game back

So close. The Twins did their part last night as Kevin Slowey and a 12-hit attack defeated the Royals, but sadly the White Sox narrowly avoided blowing 5-0 and 6-2 leads, hanging on for a 6-5 win to maintain their one-game lead in the AL Central. Shaun Marcum will try to do the Twins a favor by topping Gavin Floyd tonight after Roy Halladay surprisingly failed to get the job done against Mark Buehrle, and the Twins will look for a sweep behind Francisco Liriano. Some notes while waiting for the division to be tied …

Slowey tied Glen Perkins for the team lead with his 12th victory and sliced his ERA to 3.63 by holding the Royals to one run in seven innings. As usual, he had pinpoint control, throwing 65 of 94 pitches for strikes and handing out just one walk. Slowey has walked a grand total of 19 batters in 24 starts, which is amazing when it comes along with 111 strikeouts. He leads all of baseball in both walk rate (1.17 per nine innings) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.84-to-1), which is pretty special for a 24-year-old.

Slowey is now 16-10 with a 3.97 ERA and 158-to-30 strikeout-to-walk ratio through 213 career innings, which looks like a season pulled right out of Brad Radke‘s career. In fact, if you prorate Radke’s career numbers to those same 213 innings, they’re eerily similar to what Slowey has done thus far:

Slowey 213 16 10 3.97 158 30 35 .271
Radke 213 13 12 4.22 128 39 28 .276

Since getting knocked around by the White Sox on June 8, Slowey is 10-3 with a 2.98 ERA in 16 starts.

Making his way back from a broken foot (and before that a strained finger tendon), Michael Cuddyer took batting practice and jogged the bases prior to last night’s game. However, LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that “he’s still several days away from being activated.” If Cuddyer can make it back before the Sept. 28 regular-season finale, he’ll probably be limited to designated hitter duties while playing primarily versus left-handers. In other words, don’t count on a huge impact.

Speaking of eerily similar comparisons and Cuddyer, take a look at these career totals:

Cuddyer .269 .344 .442 .786 2.01 31.1
Player X .270 .328 .442 .770 2.07 27.9

Player X is none other than Jason Kubel, and aside from the lack of a $24 million contract extension, his career marks now very much resemble Cuddyer’s totals.

Justin Morneau has knocked in 15 runs over the past nine games to give him 119 RBIs on the year, putting him just five behind Josh Hamilton for the AL lead (Hamilton has “only” 24 RBIs in 41 games since reaching 100 in his 99th game way back on July 25). Interestingly, during his MVP-winning 2006 campaign Morneau also finished second in RBIs, falling seven short of David Ortiz‘s league-leading total of 137. Here’s how Morneau’s current numbers compare to this same point in the 2006 season:

2006 583 .325 .381 .583 .964 33 120 85
2008 633 .309 .384 .524 .908 23 119 89

In 2006, he sat out five of the team’s first 145 games and typically hit either fifth or sixth in the lineup, but this year he’s played every game while always batting cleanup. Not missing any time and moving up a spot or two in the batting order helps explains Morneau’s 50 extra plate appearances, compared with this same point in 2006. He’s used those additional 50 trips to the plate to accumulate nearly identical run production, despite having 10 fewer homers and a 56-point drop in OPS.

Alexi Casilla was hitting .315/.357/.440 at the All-Star break, but my “first-half review” of Twins hitters suggested that “he’s played quite a bit over his head in batting average and power” while guessing that he’d “eventually settle in around .285/.340/.400.” Casilla is just 20-for-77 (.259) in 19 games since coming off the disabled list and is down to .300/.345/.403 in 361 plate appearances overall, which is pretty damn close to .285/.340/.400.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with hitting .300/.345/.403, especially for a 23-year-old middle infielder, but the lesson with Casilla is that people like me place a ton of emphasis on players’ minor-league track records for a reason. Casilla got off to a great start that involved hitting for a higher batting average and more power than he looked capable of sustaining based on his minor-league numbers and, sure enough, he came back down to earth a bit once the sample size of plate appearances increased.

MLB second basemen as a whole have hit .275/.336/.408 this year, so continuing to bat .305/.345/.403 (or .285/.340/.400) would essentially make Casilla average offensively for his position. Defensively, he’s posted an .800 Revised Zone Rating in 673 innings at second base, which is 3 percent worse than the AL average of .820 and ranks just 11th among the league’s 14 second basemen who’ve logged at least 500 innings. On the bases he’s been surprisingly passive, going just 6-for-8 on steals.

Add it all up and Casilla has been slightly below average for the position as a 23-year-old in his first full season, which is very encouraging from someone who was hitting just .219 at Triple-A when the Twins called him up in mid-May. While his lack of power perhaps makes it tough to project the same type of long-term improvement that you’d assume from most league-average 23-year-olds, Casilla’s showing in 81 games with the Twins should make the team feel good about second base going forward.

Ron Gardenhire and the local media love to talk about Nick Punto as an elite defender regardless of position, and that may have been true in his younger days, but he’s now 30 years old and there are few signs of defensive greatness, aside from Dick Bremer losing it every time Punto falls down making a play. In fact, over the past two seasons, Revised Zone Rating shows Punto as slightly above average at third base, slightly below average at shortstop, and well below average at second base:

Nick Punto .831 Nick Punto .778 Nick Punto .705
MLB Average .833 MLB Average .820 MLB Average .698

Unfortunately, he hasn’t been average since taking over at shortstop after Casilla’s return, with so-so range, several game-changing errors, and a .246/.309/.299 line in 15 consecutive starts at the position. He’s bounced back offensively after a historically awful 2007, nearly matching Casilla by hitting .284/.340/.396. That’d be very good production from a truly great defender, but that label is more perception than reality with Punto. Still, like Casilla, he’s been a pleasant surprise and, more or less, average overall this year.

His ERA has been just as ugly in the bullpen, but after a two-strikeout inning last night, Boof Bonser now has a 47-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 42 innings as a reliever. Along with a 6.21 ERA, he’s allowed a .297 batting average and served up seven homers in those 42 frames of relief, but if Bonser continues to miss that many bats and throw that many strikes, his ERA will eventually shrink and he’ll be a solid late-inning option.

Over The Baggy examines what this season may have been like for the Twins had Bill Smith sat on his hands and essentially done nothing in his first year as general manager.

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