Now that the Twins streak of subpar baseball is coming close to the two-week mark, I'm getting asked about whether the team is going to play for the rest of the season the way we were expecting from Day One (and after that weak 1-6 Week One). The week before last -- the split in Boston and the bad weekend against Milwaukee -- could be passed off as an anomaly. As recently as Monday, after all, the ESPN "power rankings" had the Twins as the fifth best team in baseball.
So you weren't the only ones believing.
Two bad weeks raises questions.
Look at the lessons of the last couple of games and you'll see what astute people were saying all along: The Twins, as currently constructed, are a team with a small margin for error. On offense, the list of players we thought were significant who haven't performed expected is long: Mauer, Suzuki, Escobar and Vargas on the current roster; Santana and Arcia who have been sent to the minors for repairs. Hunter and Plouffe have slumped lately to their 2014 levels on offense.
Brian Dozier is the only player who has improved his production from 2014.
Without turning this into a screed about Joe Mauer, let's get this on the table so we can move on: Among the 24 MLB first basemen with enough plate appearances to qualify among league leaders, Mauer is 23rd in slugging percentage, on base-plus-slugging percentage and extra-base hits. He is 16th in on-base percentage and tied for 13th in RBI. (The best recent in-depth analysis on Mauer is from Aaron Gleeman, who writes: "He's hitting worse than ever at a position with the highest bar offensively." The rest is here and a should-read.)
All of this is happening while Mauer is batting third much more often than not. Given the current construction and production of the Twins, manager Paul Molitor doesn’t have many choices. He is pretty much stuck building a lineup in which he hopes the first few guys can get on base and then something good happens from the bottom guys in the order. Part science, part magic.
Dozier is batting leadoff, as much as anything, to get the Twins’ mostly highly productive player to the plate as many times as possible.
Those offensive issues are manageable, as they say in geometry, if and only if…
*Your defense doesn’t self-destruct. You can load the bases with nobody out and score one run and have Tommy Milone throw one bad pitch and play meet-the-bullpen if Aaron Hicks, who has saved the Twins with his defense a few times in the last month, doesn’t miss that fly ball in the eighth inning on Friday. If Hicks makes the catch, the Twins score and Glen Perkins gets the save, you can file away all of the bad stuff as bumps in the road that a good team conquers. Wednesday’s loss to Kansas City became lopsided in part, because of poor plays by Torii Hunter (a wretched throw) and Joe Mauer (a wrong throwing decision on a ground ball.) Mauer’s mistake was one in a series of recent defensive misplays on his part that should earn him an extended refresher on first-base fundamentals. (Paging Tom Kelly.)
*Your bullpen is first rate. Tim Stauffer is gone, but Aaron Thompson has replaced him on the unreliable arms list and Michael Tonkin, Stauffer’s roster replacement, has done little impressive work. The bullpen needs to be as good as it was in May, otherwise we’ll be seeing Perkins more often on Twitter (where he's also an All-Star) than on the mound.
*Your starting pitching remains solid: Twins starting pitchers have the fourth-best ERA in the American League. Play around with the splits in just about any other significant category and the Twins are in the bottom half. The lack of strikeouts becomes more alarming when the defense breaks down. That’s been a seasons-long issue, but other numbers related to the pitching have frayed in recent weeks. If the starting pitching suffers, that's big trouble.
*Your head is on straight. A four-game losing streak (and even a couple of weeks of blight) isn’t reason for fans to hyperventilate – or Hunter to make the spectacle of himself that he made in Wednesday’s loss. Yes, he was called out on strikes by an umpire with a bad reputation behind the plate. Yes, I would have understood if he’d said something to get ejected. Yes, a veteran player with star credentials has some leeway to do things that younger and less accomplished players don’t have. But that was just silly and inappropriate – and I felt a bit embarrassed for Hunter when I watched it. It was more WWE than UFC.
So here’s what’s up. There’s good reason to wonder which side of .500 the Twins will be on when June ends. I know the Twins aren’t as good as the Royals (a team whose bullpen and defense make up for other shortcomings) and despite the current standings they’re not as good as the Tigers (a team whose shortcomings still need conquering).
The Twins did things in May that would be impossible to replicate over a six-month stretch. The issue is whether they can find a point closer to where they were last month than where they are right now to remain interesting.
After 60 games last year, Kansas City was 29-31. You knew that, right?