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Twins at midseason: anatomy of a collapse (Part 2: hitting)

I wrote Monday about how the pitching staff has primarily been to blame for the Twins limping into the All-Star break with a 15-22 record since June 1, but the lineup hasn’t been much good during that 37-game stretch either.
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Second of two articles

I wrote Monday about how the pitching staff has primarily been to blame for the Twins limping into the All-Star break with a 15-22 record since June 1, but the lineup hasn’t been much good during that 37-game stretch either.

Through two months, the Twins led all non-AL East teams by scoring 4.92 runs per game, but since June 1, they’ve managed just 4.24 runs per game for a dropoff of 14 percent (including a 33 percent dip in walks from a once super-patient lineup).

Here’s a look at the individual hitting performances since June 1:

Denard Span 161 .247 .308 .363 .671
Joe Mauer 147 .260 .333 .389 .722
Delmon Young 142 .338 .359 .537 .896
Jason Kubel 140 .300 .336 .492 .828
Michael Cuddyer 134 .254 .321 .393 .714
Justin Morneau 131 .298 .344 .529 .873
Nick Punto 120 .260 .347 .327 .674
Orlando Hudson 100 .231 .290 .319 .609
Jim Thome 65 .286 .385 .679 1.064
Danny Valencia 64 .310 .375 .345 .720
Matt Tolbert 49 .214 .292 .333 .625
J.J. Hardy 34 .212 .235 .273 .508
Drew Butera 27 .130 .192 .261 .453
TOTAL 1377 .265 .321 .409 .730

Jim Thome has clobbered the ball since June 1, batting .286/.385/.679 with an extra-base hit every five at-bats for a team-high 1.064 OPS, but started just 13 of 37 games. Delmon Young was the most productive regular during the 15-22 stretch, batting .338 with five homers, 12 doubles, and 31 RBIs in 37 games to continue a breakout year. However, amid all the hard-hit balls and bad-intentioned swings he seems to have lost his new-found plate discipline.

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Young drew 13 walks in 161 plate appearances through the end of May, which was almost as nice to see as his power arriving, but since then he has a grand total of one non-intentional walk in 142 trips to the plate. Clearly walks become an afterthought when someone is hitting .330 with power, but ultimately returning to his hacktastic ways is a bad thing for Young, and hopefully he can combine the good hitting with a more selective approach in the second half.

Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel have more or less duplicated their career totals since June 1, but Joe Mauer hitting just .260/.333/.389 in 34 games represents one of the worst stretches of his career and leaves him with a sub-.300 batting average at the All-Star break for the first time in seven seasons as a big-leaguer. The slump has dragged his overall season line down to .293/.368/.424, which is doubly disappointing coming off his MVP-winning career-year.

There’s nowhere to go but down after leading the AL in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage while doubling your previous high for homers in one of the greatest catcher seasons ever, but obviously a 240-point drop in OPS is a massive letdown. With that said, Mauer’s current .293/.368/.424 line is basically identical to his 2005 (.294/.371/.411) and 2007 (.293/.382/.426) production, and not far from his pre-2009 career mark (.317/.399/.457).

Of course, the Twins didn’t pay $184 million for the pre-2009 version even if there were plenty of reasons to be skeptical about the new-found pop sticking around, and hitting .260/.333/.389 since June 1 is just plain unlike Mauer. I’d heard rumblings about Mauer playing through some injuries even before he sat out the final game of the first half with shoulder soreness, and his recent performance is certainly uncharacteristic enough for that to seem plausible.

Michael Cuddyer started 13 of the past 22 games at third base as Ron Gardenhire sacrificed defense to get him in the same lineup as Thome, Young and Kubel. Unfortunately not only has that downgrade defensively contributed to some of the pitching problems, Cuddyer has hit just .245/.302/.306 at third base and .254/.321/.393 overall since June 1. On the other hand, like Mauer’s, his season line (.267/.334/.432) is still pretty close to his career mark (.269/.343/.455).

Cuddyer has done his job versus left-handed pitchers, hitting .292/.424/.521 as much-needed right-handed thump in a lefty-heavy lineup, but he’s struggled with men on base while hitting a putrid .257/.290/.394 against righties, and those ugly at-bats are magnified by Gardenhire’s refusal to move him lower in the batting order. If nothing else, his performance certainly hasn’t justified hurting the defense by starting Cuddyer at third base. That’s just bad on bad.

Cuddyer hasn’t hit righties all year and hasn’t been good enough against them throughout his career to make up for a bad glove at third base. Similarly, both Thome and Kubel aren’t good enough versus lefties to warrant starting against them if it means sacrificing defense. In other words, shifting Cuddyer to third base merely gets him starts versus righties and Kubel/Thome starts versus lefties, neither of which is really needed. It’s like killing no birds with two stones.

Denard Span and Orlando Hudson were ideal table-setters after two months, combining for a .375 OBP and 74 runs in 51 games atop the lineup, but Span has batted just .247/.308/.363 since June 1 and Hudson spent nearly half of the 37-game slide on the disabled list, returning to hit .231/.290/.319 after Matt Tolbert hit .214/.292/.333 in his place. Combined with Mauer’s slump, the three guys getting the most plate appearances have had an OPS around .650.

In addition to poor performances from everyone but Thome, Young, Kubel and Morneau since June 1, the Twins have hit into more double plays than any team in baseball during that time to continue a historic season-long weakness. Not only do the Twins lead baseball with 102 double plays at the All-Star break, that’s 10 more than any other team, 56 more than the least DP-prone team, and on a pace to shatter the all-time record of 170 by the Red Sox in 1990.

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When a team goes from 31-20 to 46-42 fans start calling for all sorts of moves to be made, but realistically what can and should the Twins do? Some of the most plausible “solutions” involve guys like Mauer, Cuddyer and Span simply hitting better and ultimately there’s more to worry about with the pitching and defense anyway, but here are three other ideas that don’t involve dumping half the roster or trading half the farm system …

1. Find a right-handed hitter to take at-bats from Kubel and Thome against lefties.

Against left-handed pitching, Kubel has hit .235/.337/.365 this year and .239/.318/.358 for his career, while Thome has hit .190/.244/.310 this year and .238/.339/.420 for his career. Neither guy has any business starting regularly versus southpaws and the Twins would be better off giving those at-bats to just about any semi-competent right-handed hitter, including in-house options like Jason Repko or Danny Valencia.

2. Stop playing Cuddyer at third base or at least bat him lower versus righties.

The whole idea behind playing Cuddyer at third base is flawed, because he’s not good enough to make it worthwhile versus righties and Kubel/Thome aren’t good enough to make it pay off versus lefties. It’s only necessary because Gardenhire won’t bench Cuddyer versus righties, so weakening the defense is the only way to also get Young, Kubel and Thome into the lineup. Short of a benching versus righties, at least move Cuddyer behind Thome, Kubel and Young.

3. Call up Jose Morales from Triple-A to serve as Mauer’s backup

Morales has hit his usual .274/.377/.379 in 54 games at Rochester since returning from wrist surgery, so it’s time for him to reclaim the backup catcher gig. Drew Butera seems like a good guy and has done a nice job defensively, but his bat is so bad that he’s just not an MLB-caliber player. Butera has hit .157 in 56 plate appearances after batting .211/.268/.292 at Triple-A, so the Twins are basically letting the pitcher bat for himself whenever Mauer isn’t in the lineup.

Previous: The Twins at midseason: anatomy of a collapse (Part 1)