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Twins notes: You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here

I’m not sure what’s left to say at this point. Being swept by the Indians leaves the Twins at 8-16 since moving into first place on Aug. 22.

I’m not sure what’s left to say at this point. Being swept by the Indians leaves the Twins at 8-16 since moving into first place on Aug. 22. Despite the White Sox trying their best to gift-wrap the division by going 11-13 during that same stretch, the Twins are now 2.5 games back in the AL Central with just 10 games remaining. And beginning tonight, the first four of those games come against the playoff-bound Rays, in Tampa Bay.

For the past month or so, people have been focused on the second-to-last series of the season, which has the Twins hosting the White Sox for three games at the Metrodome. As long as the deficit is within two games when Chicago comes to town, the Twins will have a reasonable chance of at least forcing a one-game playoff, but right now even keeping things that close seems unlikely. There’s still time left for an improbable comeback, but rarely has a pennant race been such little fun to watch.

What’s amazing about the Twins’ collapse is that they’ve out-scored their opponents 131-to-114 while going 8-16, which is tough to do. The lineup has produced 5.46 runs per game, which is remarkable given that the Rangers have the league’s highest-scoring offense this year at 5.49 runs per game. The pitchers have a 4.27 ERA, which would rank sixth in the league overall. Yet thanks to 14 unearned runs, a whole bunch of blown leads, and some sloppy situational hitting everything has fallen apart.

All but one of the eight wins have been by at least five runs and they’ve scored double-digits runs in five of them, but the 8-16 stretch includes five one-run losses and eight two-run losses. In other words, 14 of the past 24 games have been decided by one or two runs, and the Twins lost 13 of them. Winning half of those games would’ve put them 3.5 games up in the division, and the Twins had a late lead in most of them. Even going 4-10 rather than 1-13 would’ve given them a half-game lead right now.

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If this were a party, the Twins would be the guy sitting by himself on the couch at the end of the night, nursing a beer and flipping through magazines while everyone else said their goodbyes. Chicago and the rest of the division have been kind enough to let them stick around for as long as they want, but the Twins refuse to get off the couch or go home. It’s time to chug the beer and do something, because this is getting pathetic and no one is having any fun.

Much has been made of the Twins out-performing expectations this season, and that’s certainly true. Few people picked them for first or second place, and my guess was that they’d finish third with 83 to 85 wins. However, at some point, preseason expectations become fairly meaningless. In March, most people pegged the Tigers and Indians among the AL’s top teams, but instead they’re a combined 11 games below .500 and it looks like 90 wins will be enough to claim the division title.

Because of that the Twins have oddly been both a pleasant surprise and disappointment this season. They’re on track to win 88 games, which almost everyone would have gladly signed up for coming into the year. Yet at the same time, they’ve failed to take advantage of numerous opportunities to emerge atop what is a pretty woeful division, repeatedly stumbling when it looked like they were ready to take the next step and unraveling when the White Sox tried to give away the division.

In June, the Twins headed into Chicago for a four-game matchup with a chance to move into first place and got swept by a combined score of 40-15. They recovered from that to win 19 of the next 24 games, erasing the White Sox’s six-game lead, but the momentum came to a screeching halt when they were swept by the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Five wins in six games followed before another three-game road sweep, this time at the hands of the Yankees.

They again bounced back, this time winning 19 of 27 games while taking over the division lead, but the incredibly frustrating 14-game road trip (and brutal 4-11 stretch) followed. Win two convincing games against the Royals, drop the series finale. Win two convincing games against the Orioles, drop the series finale. And now a sweep by the Indians. Every team goes through ups and downs during the 162-game marathon of a baseball season, but it’s a definite pattern with the Twins.

The Twins have shown the ability to bounce back from rough patches, which is a big part of how they’ve managed to out-perform expectations overall, but they’ve also shown little ability to handle success by building upon their momentum without suffering ugly setbacks along the way. Few expected the Twins to win the division this season, but that doesn’t make the division any less winnable. They were 75-54 with 33 games remaining and no longer had to worry about the Tigers or Indians.

Since then, the White Sox have lost more games than they’ve won and still gained ground, which is why finishing second would be as disappointing as it is unexpected. This team has had ample opportunity to win a division that they weren’t expected to compete for, but so far at least, they’ve shown no signs of taking advantage. Winning 88 games and finishing second would be a very successful year all things considered, but the Twins are a good team in a bad division and a playoff spot is — or at least was — there for the taking.

Starters and gloves
A reader named Steve S. recently emailed me this question:

I have a theory about the Twins’ starters that you may want to test out. Perhaps on average individually and collectively, they have not gone deep enough into games, thus exhausting the bullpen over a full-season schedule. That seems plausible, given that few starters even make it through the seventh inning and the starters are young and not very durable. Bert Blyleven and Jack Morris both make this point on air, but do the statistics back it up?

Heading into this season many fans and media members fretted about the Twins relying heavily upon young starting pitchers, which is why so many people were inexplicably willing to overlook the fact that Livan Hernandez is a horrible pitcher to focus on his being a “veteran.” Then, once the young guys in the rotation proved to be the best guys in the rotation, the focus shifted to fretting about how deep Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, and Glen Perkins were going into games.

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If you ask the average fan to weigh in on the subject, my guess is that they’ll talk about how the young starters leaving games early has taxed the relievers too much, leading to the team’s ongoing bullpen struggles. And as the above email points out, the Twins’ television and radio announcers have been harping on that “fact” all season. Of course, like many things that the average fan takes as gospel and Bert Blyleven repeats on the air each night, it’s just not true.

2002 5.68 4.38 Scott Baker 26 6.15
2003 6.02 4.69 Kevin Slowey 24 6.10
2004 6.10 4.08 Glen Perkins 25 6.06
2005 6.33 3.93 Livan Hernandez 33 6.06
2006 5.81 4.50 Nick Blackburn 26 6.02
2007 5.97 4.33 Francisco Liriano 23 5.64
2008 6.00 4.23 Boof Bonser 26 5.53

During Ron Gardenhire‘s first six years as manager, the Twins’ rotation averaged 5.96 innings per start with a 4.32 ERA. This year, the Twins’ rotation has averaged 6.00 innings per start with a 4.23 ERA. In other words, for Blyleven’s endless talk about pitch counts and the perception that young starters have led to the bullpen’s collapse, the inexperienced rotation — with 85 percent of the starts coming from a 26-and-under pitcher — is going deeper into games (and pitching better) than usual under Gardenhire.

Aside from the guy who got demoted to the bullpen in May and the guy coming off Tommy John surgery, every starter for the Twins has averaged either 6.0 or 6.1 innings per start this year. Francisco Liriano‘s overall per-start average is just 5.64 innings, but that includes his ill-advised April stint in the rotation. Since coming back up from Triple-A, he’s averaging 6.46 innings per start, which would lead the team at the age of 23. As always, talent trumps experience.

Plenty has been made of Denard Span‘s out-of-nowhere breakout offensively and rightfully so, as he’s hit .300/.382/.441 in 80 games to give the Twins a fourth significantly above-average bat alongside Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Jason Kubel. He’s converted me from doubter to believer by showing improved patience and power all year, but certainly there’s still some reason to be at least a little skeptical given his .287/.355/.358 mark in the minors.

However, one area of Span’s game that warrants zero skepticism — and one area that has seemingly been overlooked due to his hitting — is his outstanding defense. Almost exclusively a center fielder prior to this season, Span has been absolutely amazing since taking over for Michael Cuddyer in right field. Monday night Span tracked down the latest in a long line of balls that would have gone for extra bases with Cuddyer out there, and his Revised Zone Rating now sits at an excellent .935.

Among the 32 big-leaguers who’ve logged at least 500 innings in right field, Span ranks fourth in RZR and third in “out of zone” plays per inning. Over the past five years, Cuddyer has an .829 RZR in right field, so Span has gotten to 13 percent more balls than the man he replaced. Over the course of a full season, that adds up to around 30 extra hits, which is a massive difference, given that many of them would be doubles and triples. At the plate, 30 extra hits would equal 50 points of batting average.

It won’t be an issue for the rest of this season because Cuddyer’s foot injury will likely keep him from playing the outfield, but his lack of range was a problem before Span showed up and has only been magnified during the past few months. Outfield defense takes on added importance because of the Twins’ fly-ball heavy pitching staff and even considering that Cuddyer’s rocket arm makes up for some of his lacking range it’ll be awfully tough to hand him the right-field job again after watching Span.

Along with Span’s outstanding defense in right field, Carlos Gomez has tracked down a tremendous number of balls in center field despite often taking indirect routes to get there. Among 31 players with at least 500 innings logged in center field, Gomez ranks fourth in RZR and first in “out of zone” plays per inning. At .945, his RZR is 9 percent better than the mark Torii Hunter posted as the Twins’ center fielder from 2004-2007, and as shown Monday night, Gomez is capable of making plays with his arm, too.

An ugly .253/.291/.347 line at the plate makes Gomez arguably the worst-hitting regular in the league and his 130-to-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio is atrocious, which along with service-time considerations is why the Twins likely would have been better off giving him some additional minor-league seasoning. However, along with Span, he’s played a huge part in the young, fly-ball heavy rotation thriving, and his glove looks capable of giving Gomez significant long-term value whether or not his bat ever develops.