Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Aim Low, Shoot High

Most of the time, when we refer to “making the playoffs” as either Twins fans, players, or even bloggers, it is assumed that we are referring to that third division winner slot. The AL Wild Card usually has a better record than the AL Central Division champion, and the AL East Division champion almost always does. The rather recent emergence of the Oakland Athletics as a perennial 95-100 win juggernaut means that the lowly AL Central champ must settle for the third seed.

As you probably noticed over the past couple weeks, the 2004 Minnesota Twins seem intent on throwing that little arrangement right out the window. By the time you read this, here is what the overall American League standings will look like:

New York Yankees9254.630--
Boston Red Sox8757.6044
Oakland Athletics8461.5797.5

See that? Thanks to a nifty eight-game winning streak, your Minnesota Twins currently own the second best record among division leaders in the American League, one game ahead of the slumping Athletics. That, my friends, means that Twins fans will get to see Game 1 of the ALDS right here in Minneapolis as opposed to another trip to the Bronx. It also means that instead of squaring off with Orlando Hernandez and the New York Yankees, Johan Santana and the Twins will play host to Curt Schilling and the Boston Red Sox. Hey, I never said home-field was necessarily a good thing.

In my eyes, however, no matter who the Twins play it will be a good thing. There are only a couple teams in the major leagues who play better on the road than at home, and one of the most fundamental aspects of the game is that the home team always enjoys an inherent advantage over the road team (the last at-bat). Given a choice, I will always choose to play the Red Sox at home over the Yankees on the road, regardless of which team is perceived as the more “dangerous” right now. Plus, you can never discount the home crowd advantage at the Metrodome. The Twins may not have fared particularly well during home playoff games over the past couple of years, but there is no doubt that the Dome is still an intimidating place for opponents. You can’t underestimate the mental edge that 60,000 screaming fans will give the Twins.

In addition, the Red Sox are a team that is built for Fenway Park. They’ve got some tough right handed and switch hitters (Manny, Varitek, Cabrera, Millar, Kapler, Bellhorn), which is a must at Fenway. The BoSox also have three starting pitchers who usually throw more ground balls than they do fly balls, in Lowe, Schilling, and Pedro (although Pedro’s GB/FB ratio is really screwed up this year). Playing in Fenway definitely favors the Sox statistically.

The Twins, on the other hand, have always been more of a fly ball team, especially in the pitching department. When you play on such a fast AstroTurf surface, allowing too many ground balls will eventually get to you (see: Erickson, Scott). Radke has traditionally been a fly ball dominant pitcher; hitters get off balance and out in front of his change-up and lift a nice little popup to Torii in center. Before he started striking out everybody in sight, even Johan used to be a fly ball pitcher (his GB/FB ratio is 0.9 this season, the highest of his career). Of the Twins’ playoff starting 3, only Carlos Silva is a predominantly ground ball pitcher, which makes him a perfect fit for Fenway in Game 3. Silva’s recent performance (he threw 5 and 1/3 solid innings last night as well) makes me think that the Twins have finally solved their playoff rotation problems. If the Twins can hold onto this lead over the A’s, I think there is no doubt that Silva will be the one to take the ball when the Twins take on the Sox in Boston.

Some fans, including myself at times, have kind of tuned out the Twins right now, simply because their divisional lead is so enormous. But as you can see here, the team is still fighting for playoff position. If they can win this fight, it might just turn out to be the biggest victory of them all.

Phoning it in: "Why is This So Hard to Believe?"

Sorry about my lack of a new post today folks. I had a pretty good one all planned out (it dealt with the importance of getting the league's second-best record). Unfortunately, my new job as sports editor for our school newspaper sucked up about ten hours of my day, not to mention my normal duties as a student. The Twins are currently on a nifty seven-game winning streak, the magic number is down to eight, and the lead in the division is enormous. Doesn't get much better than this, does it? The following post, which is from May 1 of this year, portrays a much, MUCH different Twins team than the one we see now. Santana and Radke with ERAs over 5.00? It seems like a lifetime ago, but it was actually only four and a half months. Sometimes it can be fun to see what we were saying way back then, and I have to admit that I predicted a great number of things correctly, even back in May. Enjoy this little filler for today, as I promise we'll have a new article up tomorrow.

“The Minnesota Twins are living a contradiction. At least, that is, when it comes to the baseball adage, games are won with pitching and defense.”
–Tracy Ringolsby, Rocky Mountain News (4/30)

On the surface there seems to be nothing wrong with this statement (although I can’t imagine there are many regular readers of the Rocky Mountain News that give a hoot about the Twins- I couldn’t care less about the Rockies). Ringolsby goes on to cite some facts to back up his argument: the Twins’ relatively high team ERA (now exactly 5.00), their less-than-stellar defense thus far (21 team errors through Friday), and the team’s lackluster strength of schedule (games against Cleveland, Detroit, KC, and Toronto).

You know what I say to all of this? Phooey.

The problem with Ringolsby is that he didn’t look much past the statistics. Point one: the Twins 21st ranked team ERA. Sure, 5.00 isn’t great by any means, but a closer examination reveals that it isn’t nearly as bad as it looks. The bullpen’s ERA is a respectable 4.64, and that includes terrible performances from guys like Pulido, Thomas, and Greisinger. This is also a bullpen that could receive two huge shots in the arm come June/July: Grant Balfour and Jesse Crain.

The starting staff is mostly to blame for Ringolsby’s accusation. Once again, a closer look reveals that the situation can only improve from here on out. We all know that Brad Radke (5.64), Kyle Lohse (6.51) and Johan Santana (5.40) will all undoubtedly pitch substantially better than they have thus far. Carlos Silva has been a pleasant surprise with his 4-0 record and 4.02 ERA. The point is, this staff has grossly underachieved so far and it will shape up, hopefully sooner rather than later. Ringolsby conveniently fails to mention this.

Just as the pitching staff is undeniably bound for improvement, so is the Twins’ shaky defense. Friday’s two errors bring the season’s total to a whopping 21 in 22 games played, an unheard-of ratio for a Twins team. The main culprit has been the infield: their 13 errors rank tied for last in the major leagues. This is a rather startling statistic, but let’s consider past performance. These same starting five (Koskie, Guzman, Rivas, and Mientkiewicz) have anchored infields that finished 2nd and 3rd in the majors in infield errors the past two seasons respectively. Now, they’re going to have to really tighten the hatch in order to match that feat this year, but there is absolutely no reason to believe that this infield will go from being one of the game’s best to one of the worst in just one year. It’s just not going to happen.

I love the new turf, but I think it is at least partially to blame for this odd influx of errors. Once the players grow accustomed, the defense will shore itself up.

Ringolsby’s last point is one that I can’t debate as well. Until Friday’s impressive win over the “best team in the American League” (to quote Eric Chavez), the Twins had yet to play any potential playoff teams- unless you consider the Royals contenders (*snicker*). I think the next couple of weeks will speak volumes about this team. Tonight was just the beginning.

Now, I also realize the hitters will probably come back to earth somewhat. I firmly believe Twins will continue to be a very good hitting team, but probably not second best in the majors (just as Detroit isn't going to lead the league in runs scored).

Where the casual fan might find this blurb by Ringolsby as a foreshadowing of doom for our beloved Twinkies, I actually see it just the opposite way: If the Twins have started 15-7 with all these factors working against them, just imagine what they can accomplish when things really get going! I don't know about you, but I can't wait!