For months it has looked like the early part of this week would give baseball fans a series to remember, only for most of that time it appeared that the series would take place in Anaheim rather than Detroit.
The Rangers faded, the Twins surged, the Angels dominated, and the Tigers got sloppy. Put it all together and what do you have? The reality that baseball’s prime race moved east, from the oceanfront to the lakefront.
Credit the Twins for even getting this far.
Irrespective of the outcome, that this series is relevant beyond playoff seeding for the Tigers is remarkable. The Twins lost their second best hitter and major run producer, Justin Morneau, on 13 September, all they’ve done since is go 11-2 and scored an average of 6.2 runs per game, well above their season average of 4.94 R/G.
So, just how did the Twins not only withstand the loss of Morneau, but also overwhelm opponents with their bats, something they had rarely done when they had the entire lineup healthy?
Some of the answers are obvious; others, less so.
Joe Mauer has been so good all year, it’s easy to overlook him when talking about the September surge, but to forget his contribution would be criminal. All he’s done is hit .386/.485/.542 with an OPS of 1.027 this month. His power numbers are down from August, but he’s getting on base at an even better clip, which, given the emergence of some of the run producers lower in the order, has made him that much more valuable.
What more can you say about Mauer? Since missing all of April, the Twins have only played in three games that Mauer didn’t appear in. He’s had just three games this month in which he didn’t get a hit–one was a pinch hitting appearance and he drew five walks in the other two.
That he is the Twins’ MVP is set in stone. I’ve staked my claim that he is also the league MVP, but to repeat what I said about Zack Greinke, whether or not he is the actual AL MVP this season, he is the league’s best player.
The emergence of Michael Cuddyer has garnered him irrational amounts of praise. Yes, he has been integral to the Twins’ September rise, but he is not a serious MVP candidate as some may have suggested. Setting aside the irrational exuberance for a moment, Cuddyer really has been at his best this season.
His 2006 season is the only other season in his career that Cuddyer has been anywhere near this productive. It’s also the only year in which he played more than 150 games, which he ought to do this year (he’s at 145 currently and will almost certainly play in the seven remaining games). When Cuddyer is healthy, he’s been good. And while he’ll never be mentioned with Rich Harden in terms of players who are outstanding when healthy, but made of glass, he deserves at least a footnote.
As consistent as he’s been all year, he’s been even better in September, putting up a .290/.313/.602 line this month, good for an OPS of .915, while slugging eight of his career high 30 home runs this month.
Then come the guys that prove it’s not who you are, it’s how you play. Few, if any serious observers would be excited about a bottom of the order that features Nick Punto, Matt Tolbert, Jose Morales, and Delmon Young, yet all have batting averages above .300, and OPS above .770.
Punto has long been maligned as an offensive black hole and frequently it’s true, but this month he’s been a solid force at the bottom of the order. Think that’s an exaggeration? Punto’s line this month, .306/.427/.387 gives him the team’s fifth best batting average and second best OBP. If you were expecting Punto to slug like Mauer or Cuddyer, well, that one’s on you, captain irrational.
The point is, for much of the season the Twins fielded a lineup that was about four or five hitters deep: Mauer, Morneau, Kubel, Cuddyer, and Denard Span. They got occasional contributions from people like Joe Crede and Brendan Harris, but on any given day, the offense could be almost completely reliant on those five.
Now, the Twins are seeing production from nearly everyone.
Mauer, Cuddyer, Punto, Tolbert, Morales, and Young have been discussed already; Span has dropped off after an incredible August, but is still posting a .380 OBP from the lead-off spot; Orlando Cabrera hasn’t been the offensive panacea that the front office may have hoped he’d be, but his presence has kept Alexi Casilla firmly ensconced on the bench, and he has walloped three home runs this month, so there’s something to be said for that.
The outlier here is actually Jason Kubel, who had been outstanding for much of the year. Kubel’s September numbers are very pedestrian indeed: .244/.333/.423. However, over half of his 19 hits this month have gone for extra bases and he’s still a feared enough hitter that opposing pitchers can’t just walk Mauer in close situation with impunity. He hasn’t been his best this month, but he’s hardly been a negative presence in the lineup.
By getting contributions from everyone, top to bottom, the Twins have turned innings that looked like easy outs into crooked numbers.
Scoring runs is only half the game, and it’s actually been the half the Twins excelled at this season. Run prevention has been their bugaboo, from a rotation depleted by injury, to a bullpen plagued by ineffectiveness, to a team defense ranked fourth worst in baseball by UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) and ninth worst by PADE (Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency).
Over their last 13 games, the Twins have allowed a downright stingy 2.8 runs per game, down from their season average of 4.69 RA/G.
So, calling back the offensive number introduced previously, the Twins are scoring 6.2 runs per game and allowing just 2.8; is it any wonder they started winning games in bunches?
There is a danger in introducing Pythagorean expectations into a sample this small, namely that a few huge run outbursts would badly skew the sample. However, the Twins have broken into double digits just once in those games, and their median run output is seven, meaning the runs are fairly evenly distributed across the sample.
Their run prevention stems from replacing their worst starters with effective ones, which is about as fast a way to turn a team around as there is. They abandoned Glen Perkins, Anthony Swarzak, and Francisco Liriano, though the last has reemerged, in favor of Carl Pavano and Brian Duensing.
I’ve tackled Pavano previously, and Duensing is the more impressive of the two anyway.
Brian Duensing has come out of nowhere. Seriously, no one in the organization thought this was going to happen, so don’t feel bad if you missed it too. In 13 starts for AAA Rochester, Duensing was 4-6 with a 4.66 ERA and a 1.41 WHIP, none of which is bad per se, but it certainly qualifies as uninspiring. He limited his home runs and walks, which is a great foundation, but didn’t get a lot of groundballs or strikeouts.
In eight starts for the Twins, he’s gone 5-1 with a 2.06 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP while boasting two above average pitches in his fastball and slider. He’s improved in nearly every way possible from AAA to the majors, which happens on occasion, but is still a fairly remarkable feat.
The knock against him is that he seems to be doing the Nick Blackburn trick of putting runners on in bunches, then pitching around them, but his pitch quality and assortment is more akin to ace Scott Baker’s than to Blackburn’s. His walk rate should come down some, as it currently stands well above his career averages, and when it does, he’ll be that much better.
The back end of the bullpen has been amongst the best in the game between Joe Nathan (4.40 WXRL), Jose Mijares (3.7), and Matt Guerrier (3.4), but getting to them had been a serious issue. Bobby Keppel, R.A. Dickey, Sean Henn, and Jesse Crain all gagged away games between the starters and the dependable set of relievers. Only, one of those doesn't fit.
Since Aug. 22, a span of 15 innings and 15 appearances, Jesse Crain has given up 0 runs, just five hits, and four walks. Functioning as a bridge between the improved starting rotation and Joe Nathan, Crain has helped the Twins maintain leads they had previously surrendered, a critical skill in a playoff chase.
Another player helping to form that bridge is Jon Rauch. Acquired by the Twins just before the wavier deadline, Rauch has allowed runs in just one outing since coming to the team. Rauch will remain with the team into next season as his option has vested. Whether that's a good thing or not is up for some debate as Rauch has struggled in the AL at other points in his career. However, for the time being, he is certainly part of the reason the Twins are still alive in the AL Central.
Whether this will lead to a midwest version of Rocktober remains to be seen, and the Tigers certainly have designs of their own that would lead the Twins to the off-season rather than the postseason. One thing is sure: the Twins are finally clicking on all cylinders and it has made them a formidable force in the AL Central.
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