TwinsCentric was formed by Twins super-bloggers Seth Stohs, Nick Nelson, Parker Hageman and John Bonnes. Together they publish at TwinsDaily.com and have authored books, e-books and magazines that provide independent and in-depth coverage of the Minnesota Twins from a fan's perspective. You can contact them at TwinsCentric@gmail.com.
After finishing the month of April ranked near the bottom of the American League in most categories, the Twins’ offense has undergone a stunning turnaround here in May, where they led the league in scoring through Tuesday. Prior to Wednesday's loss to the White Sox, the Twins had averaged 6.2 runs per game this month and had crossed the plate five or more times in eight of their past nine games.
A sleeping beast awakened, indeed.
Can this unit continue to excel and help keep the team hovering around .500? That will largely be dependent on how young contributors like Aaron Hicks, Oswaldo Arcia, Brian Dozier and Chris Parmelee progress, but even more so it may be dictated by the two veterans at the heart of the order.
Justin Morneau pulled into a tie for sixth place in the American League with four RBI on Monday night, but his high ranking has more to do with opportunity than effectiveness. Morneau has started 35 of the Twins’ 36 games – 32 of them in the cleanup spot – and has routinely batted behind Joe Mauer (.426 OBP) and Josh Willingham (.377 OBP).
Entering play Wednesday, Morneau had batted with more runners on base than any player in the majors save for Prince Fielder, and while he’s done well in those situations, batting .326 with runners in scoring position (including 7-for-8 with the bases loaded), you also get the sense based on his track record that he’s been leaving plenty on the table. Morneau has uncharacteristically been limited to two home runs this season, including just one with runners on base. Although he appears healthy, he is slugging .424, which is 65 points below his career mark.
Morneau is on pace for nearly 130 RBI this season even with a mere semblance of his usual power. Imagine what that number could look like if he were flashing more pop. We may actually be starting to see that now, as the 32-year-old has been hitting the ball with increasing authority recently, having tallied five doubles (and not coincidentally 10 RBI) in his past seven games.
The man hitting in front of Morneau is another interesting case. After driving in 110 runs last year, Willingham is on pace for 72 this year. Like with Morneau, this can be attributed to decreased power – Willingham hasn’t homered in May and is well off last year’s pace despite a team-leading total of five – but the bigger culprit is a simple lack of hitting.
It’s not that Willingham has been an offensive liability; he’s contributing to Morneau’s opportunities by getting on base at a .377 clip, thanks to a career-high walk rate. But walks don’t drive in runs and the slugging outfielder is batting just .204. In 39 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, he has collected only six hits.
The Twins are relying on these two boppers to provide the brunt of the power in their lineup and produce runs. Morneau is trending up in that department and Willingham, despite his recent slump, has proven more than capable. If the heart of the lineup can start beating more steadily, this offense should be able to keep its rhythm.
Coming into the game, centerfielder Aaron Hicks had a hitting line of .137/.239/.216 (.455). He had just five extra base hits in the first 30 games. He had struggled one defense as well as with the bat.
And then came Monday night.
After popping up in his first at bat, Hicks came up to the plate to lead off the 4th inning. He launched a long home run, 416 feet to straight-away centerfield.
In the top of the 6th inning, the Twins lead had been cut to 5-3 with a runner still on base when Adam Dunn, who also came into the game with a .137 batting average, came to the plate. Dunn launched a ball to nearly the same spot as Hicks’s home run. Fortunately, Hicks raced back to the wall, leapt and then caught the ball well above the fence, robbing Dunn of a game-tying home run.
The Target Field crowd erupted as Hicks showed the ball and smiled all the way back in to the dugout. He would bat second in the bottom half of the 6th inning. After Oswaldo Arcia struck out, Hicks stepped to the plate. On the first pitch he saw from lefty Hector Santiago, Hicks made solid contact and launched a ball, 412 feet, into the bullpen behind the left field fence.
In doing so, he became the youngest Twins player to have a multi-home run game since Justin Morneau did it in 2004. Upon arriving in the dugout, the fans called for a curtain call, and Hicks obliged.
Following the game, Hicks stat line showed .152/.256/.286 (.542). It’s a good reminder of how much Hicks has struggled. It is going to take him a while to get those numbers up into the “respectable” category. However, his ability to take walks and show some power are encouraging for the long-term future.
As disappointing as the first six weeks of the season has been for Hicks, it’s important to remember why fans were right to be excited about Hicks. No, it has nothing to do with the small-sample of Spring Training, though that was certainly encouraging. Let’s take a quick look at the Aaron Hicks stat line and recall why there is so much optimism for the future of Aaron Hicks.
We won’t go all the way back to 2008 when the Twins took the California prep with the 14th overall pick. At the time, some teams ranked him higher than that, but as a pitcher. However, Hicks wanted to be a hitter, and the Twins were happy to take a guy that many believed had five-tool potential.
It certainly has not been an easy ride up the Twins farm system. In 2009, he was scheduled to play in Elizabethton, but injuries pushed him up to Beloit where he struggled. He struggled enough that he repeated in Beloit in 2010 and showed much improvement. In 2011, he moved up to Ft. Myers where he again struggled early. He was a surprise invite to the Arizona Fall League where he had a nice breakout showing.
In 2012, he moved up to AA and showed exactly what he can be as a player if he were to develop well. Hicks hit .286/.384/.460 (.844). Although I don’t believe that he will ever be a real high batting average guy, Hicks has always had a knack for getting on nearly 10% of the team via the walk. It is always great to see that trait remain as a player moves up levels.
Hicks also had 21 doubles, 11 triples and 13 home runs in 2012. This shows that Hicks is not just a guy who stands at the plate and hopes to walk. He does have plenty of extra base power. He likely won’t be a 30 homer guy, but at his peak, Hicks could hit 15-20 home runs a year. The doubles and triples show that he has very good gap power, and the triples indicate the kind of speed that Hicks has. Add in 32 stolen bases, and you know that you’ve got a very fast player.
Is he a five-tool player? Because he is one to strike out quite a bit, he may never have a great hit tool, but I think his ability to get on base makes up for that to some degree. He has good power for the position he plays. He certainly has very good speed. Although we have not seen it consistently, Aaron Hicks can be a very good outfielder with good range. And, his arm is very strong and generally quite accurate.
Is it surprising that Aaron Hicks is struggling early in the season? Not at all. Hicks has struggled early in seasons before when going to a new level. Then consider that he is actually skipping a level to go along with being in the big leagues for the first time. His struggles have been monumental, but a game like Monday night should remind us of Hicks’ immense ability. Now, it’s just a matter of how can he put together consistently quality plate appearances from game to game, or even from at bat to at bat.
Does one tremendous game mean that the tide has turned and all will be good for Hicks going forward? Of course not. What it does, for me, is remind me that the Twins need to do whatever it is that they feel is best for Hicks long-term to attempt to make him the best player he can be. Is that struggling in the big leagues, or is there a better situation for Hicks in Rochester? I can’t pretend to know the right answer to that question as it is something that would be different for every player. The variables to that question go beyond the physical and deep into the mental and psychological makeup of the player.
The Smile doesn’t show up on the stat page, and often we tend to mock the intangibles, but it was continually brought up how much Hicks was smiling following the catch, then the second home run and through the curtain call. With the struggles, it is great to see Hicks actually having fun. It’s easy to say that one is having fun, but it was clear that Hicks was relaxed enough at that point to have a blast. If he can relax, it will only help his performance on the field.
So, what do you think?
The Geek is in New York, so Aaron and special guest co-host Parker Hageman talk about whether the Minnesota Twins are a legitimately decent team or a mirage, Joe Mauer's hot streak and high strikeout rate, funneling food into your face to become a star, Kyle Gibson's timetable, Mother's Day hijinks, Vance Worley's struggles, Glen Perkins being a nerd again, the pros and cons of cursing, and updating the bar-buying plans. Here are:
Or, just click on the link below:
On Saturday, May 4, Ryan Doumit, at .203, was not even hitting his weight. With a slugging percentage of .291 to boot, the Minnesota Twins’ switch-hitting catcher/DH was a few nights of binge eating hot wings from matching that number as well. As a regular guest of manager Ron Gardenhire’s vital fifth spot in the batting order, Doumit’s woes directly impacted the team’s offense. An offense, which had concluded April with just 92 runs scored – ahead of only the Chicago White Sox at 89.
Last year, while providing crucial support in the heart of the order, the vast majority of his plate appearances came from the left side of the plate. His total numbers are buoyed by whether or not he succeeds as a left-handed hitter. In 2012, he hit a respectable .288/.335/.488 and dropped 13 of his 18 home runs from the port side. That carried him through the year and earned him his contract extension. This year, however, Doumit had yielded little returns from either side of the plate.
That is until the trip to Boston.
Despite leaving Thursday night without a hit, Doumit did a great deal of damage in a two-day span which included six hits in nine at-bats, two home runs and a double. Heading into Fenway, he was the owner of the sad .203 average and a middle infielder-esque .554 OPS. He had not hit one jack job all year. When the Twins left the city, Doumit’s average was 30 points higher and his OPS had 100 points added to it as well. He also smacked two dingers. What changed was his ability to square up on pitches…in the zone.
[Pause while audience gasps.]
Doumit entered the Boston series not necessarily chasing after pitches out of the zone at a higher rate than last year but he was making contact with pitches out of the zone. Opponents – fully aware of the fact that Doumit is a pull hitter – have attempted to defuse his powers by feeding him with pitches away, hoping he tries to pull them and, thus, turn them over for weak grounders. Here’s a better visual reference to understand what was happening during the series in Cleveland:
As a pull hitter, it is not a surprise to see teams attacking him with pitches away. Additionally, they had increased the usage of changeups on him (from 15% to 22%) in order to see if he will roll over on those offerings. These past few games, however, we have seen something different out of Doumit. Compare those points of contact to the ones he made while in Boston most recently:
Clearly, when a hitter makes contact with pitches in the zone, they are better able to square the ball off the barrel of the ball. Doumit’s poor pitch selection may indicate why he has had an inordinate amount of grounders put into play this year (54%) in comparison to his career average (43%). Without the elevation, he would suffer a power outage.
Heading into the Boston showdown, Doumit was put the ball on the ground 35 times versus the 31 times he got underneath it. That changed significantly in Massachusetts when he went vertical eight times and bounced three times (save for Thursday night’s game). It is no surprise, then, that when we witness Doumit accumulate extra base hits, he is elevating the ball much better.
Also a curious aspect to Doumit’s inauspicious start has been his inability to make pitcher’s pay when he has been in favorable counts. In 2012, when he had been up on pitcher’s, he absolutely raked - posting a .327 average and a 1.026 OPS ahead in the count. This year, that average is down to .154 with a OPS of .584. The results in those situations circle back to his expansion of the zone where two of the three examples above came in hitter’s counts.
Is this a corner-turn moment for Ryan Doumit? It is definitely plausible that the Twins are seeing the old Doumit return with his swing decisions exercised in Boston. It would be wildly beneficial as the team has suffered with his lack of production in the heart of the order. Keep an eye on his swing location through the upcoming home stand to see if this output continues.
You've probably heard the story by now. On the very day that Vance Worley was told by Philadelphia general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. that he'd been traded from the Phillies to the Minnesota Twins, the 25-year-old pitcher had been planning to pick up an engagement ring from the jeweler so that he could propose to his girlfriend.
Worley, who had just signed a lease for a new house in South Jersey nearby Philly, suddenly had his entire life uprooted. He would be leaving the only organization he'd ever known and heading to the American League Central, where instead of pitchers the opposing lineups are rounded out by powerful designated hitters like Victor Martinez, Adam Dunn, Billy Butler and Mark Reynolds.
Tough break for a control pitcher with fringy stuff. And as it turns out, Worley's misfortune was just beginning.
Maybe while he was packing his belongings for the move to the Midwest, he dropped a mirror and shattered it. Maybe he walked under a ladder, or a black cat crossed his path. Whatever the reason, the right-hander has been snakebitten thus far for the Twins, experiencing tumult unlike anything he's seen in his career.
When he entered the fold, Worley instantly became the Twins' most accomplished starting pitcher, as reflected by his assignment to start on Opening Day. In parts of three seasons with the Phillies, he had compiled an 18-13 record and 3.50 ERA, and in 2011 he finished third for Rookie of the Year.
Yet the early results in Minnesota have been roundly disappointing. Through seven starts, Worley is 0-4 with a 6.95 ERA. In 33 2/3 innings, he has given up a league-leading 55 hits, contributing to a ghastly 1.90 WHIP.
After each poor start, Worley sounds like a guy who's more flabbergasted than frustrated. "The ball was coming out, doing what I wanted it do," he said after coughing up six runs in Detroit last week. "They just came out swinging."
While it might be easy to see a lack of accountability in the pitcher's remarks, it's also not hard to see some truth. He really is doing many of the same things that made him a successful pitcher in Philly. His velocity is the same, he's throwing strikes and his pitches are moving. He is by all accounts healthy and feeling good. His ground ball rate, at 50.4 percent, is actually far higher than his norm.
Still the hits keep on coming. Worley has been saddled with a batting average on balls in play of .407, which is the highest in the major leagues and 90 points above his previous career mark. That is a sign of dreadful luck. Sure, it doesn't help that the Twins aren't an especially great defensive club, and Worley has given up his fair share of hard hits, but nothing can explain such an exorbitant number. He's getting killed by bleeders and bloopers.
In addition, Worley's HR/FB rate of 13.9 percent is the highest on the Twins staff and the highest of his career. He's stranding only 61.4 percent of his ample base runners – the lowest mark of his career and the lowest of any Twins' starter save for Mike Pelfrey.
Certainly Worley needs to make some adjustments. Whether it's scouting-related or the nature of AL lineups, hitters have been more aggressive against him this year and he needs to find a way to leverage that rather than letting it beat him.
But he hasn't pitched anywhere near as badly as his numbers suggest, and over time if he keeps executing his game plan he is going to get better results. There's simply no way this run of poor luck can sustain, unless he incurred some type of voodoo curse over the offseason.
That isn't to say Worley is going to turn into a legitimate No. 1 starter any time soon, or even that he'll be able to match his NL success. His 12.7 percent K-rate leaves much to be desired and falls well short of his 20 percent mark in the Senior Circuit. Nevertheless, I think his 4.18 xFIP is a much better indicator of what we can expect from him going forward than his current bloated ERA.
Last week, Twins Director of Minor League Operations Brad Steil was in Cedar Rapids watching the Kernels play six games. In an interview with MetroSportsReport.com’s Jim Ecker, Steil said, “I think off of this team, you could easily see six to eight of those guys eventually make it to the big leagues.”
As I look at the Kernels’ current roster, I think that number could be as high as ten, with a few more high-ceiling players rehabbing in Extended Spring Training. Obviously there is a lot of attrition because Low Class A and the big leagues, so it’s unlikely that ten of these players will actually get to the big leagues. However, it feels I need to remind people that Cedar Rapids, and all of these future Twins, plays their home games just four hours from the Twins Cities.
I made that trek for their Opening Weekend, so I was able to watch four practices and three ball games. It was cool (temperature-wise, and just to be there), but I came away from there with several take-aways. I know I’ll be going back in late June on the Territory Train, and I would love to get down there a third time sometime this summer to see what changes or improvements have been made since early April. Tickets are very reasonable and the Kernels’ staff does so much to make the experience a lot of fun for the fans.
Below are my thoughts on ten prospects currently on the Kernels roster:
Byron Buxton (my #2 Twins preseason prospect) – As I’ve said often since seeing Buxton in person five weeks ago, if someone wants to say Buxton is the #1 Twins prospect (yes, ahead of Miguel Sano), I have no problem with that. His speed is absolutely game-changing. He has very good power. He has tremendous patience at the plate. He has walked 24 times in 126 plate appearances. He can steal bases. He plays great defense. He has an incredible arm. He’s just 19 years old.
Jose (JO) Berrios (#8) – Berrios is still just 18 years old until the end of the month. He was not in Cedar Rapids when I was there at the start of the season because of his participation in the World Baseball Classic. The Twins wanted to stretch him out to start before sending him up. He’s now made three starts for the Kernels and is 3-0 with a 2.55 ERA. In 17.2 innings, he has two walks and 21 strikeouts. His fastball sits 92-94 and touches 96 already. He has a plus-breaking ball, and he is developing a potentially-plus change up. He will move up the rankings when they are done next.
Travis Harrison (#14) – He was the Twins first supplemental first round pick in 2011 out of high school in California. Last year, he hit about .300 in Elizabethton, but didn’t show a lot of power. In watching him work, and specifically watching him take batting practice, you could just see the power potential that he has. It’s starting to show as he already has nine doubles and five home runs on the season. That doesn’t include his recent walk-off grand slam that was called a single because of the celebration. His defense at third base remains a work-in-progress, but he works very hard at it. This is another guy who will move up the rankings.
Adam Walker (#16) – I wasn’t sure what to expect from Walker when I got to Cedar Rapids. I had always heard that he had as much power as anyone in the organization, including Miguel Sano. And then I saw him take batting practice, and I would absolutely agree with the assessment. Now, in the three games I saw, he played in two of them and did very little. But, watching him practice, it was clear that it was just a matter of time. Things have certainly clicked for Walker. He now is hitting .303 with seven doubles, two triples and seven home runs. He has driven in 32 runs. He is a big man and very strong. However, he is a very good athlete and has taken well to right field. He’s just 21 despite already having played three years of college ball. Yes, he will be moving up this list as well.
Jorge Polanco (#19) – Polanco was signed as a very little, 16-year-old the same year that the Twins signed Sano. He was to be a great shortstop, and he struggled with the bat in two seasons in the GCL. Last year, he hit for a good batting average in Elizabethton, but with little power. I’m always now a little leery of E-Town stats. Polanco is still just 19-years-old and now he’s hitting .345/.387/.504 (.892) with nine doubles, three triples and a home run. He was the team’s #2 hitting on Opening Night, and he’s hit #3 every game he has played since. He’s playing primarily second base, but he’ll continue to get time at shortstop. He is very smooth defensively, but his offensive, frankly, surprised me. Despite not walking a lot, he does seem to have a good grasp of the strike zone. As you would expect, Polanco will also be moving, quite a bit, up this list.
Mason Melotakis (#22) – Melotakis was a Twins 2nd round pick last year out of college. The 21 year old left-hander throws pretty hard. When I saw him in Cedar Rapids, he was sitting 90-93 with the fastball and throwing three pitches. Pitching out of the bullpen in 2012, he was hitting as high as 97 on the radar gun. As he’s transitioning to the rotation from the bullpen, it’s necessary to last more than an inning or two, so it’s normal to see the velocity come down a little bit, at least temporarily. He’s pitched in just 23.2 innings over his first five starts. He’s walked 12 and struck out 21. I’m definitely supportive of keeping him in the starting rotation for awhile because I do think he has the three-pitch mix to be successful with it.
Niko Goodrum (#27) – I moved Goodrum down the list a little too far last year. He repeated at Elizabethton and his batting average went down. However, and much more important, he improved his patience and walk total, and he increased his power numbers as well. Goodrum has a very nice swing from both sides of the plate. He has good speed. He is long and lanky, but he is proud that he’s up to 200 pounds and plans to stay there. He could add more power production. Defensively, he does a very solid job at shortstop. He’s not flashy, but he makes most of the plays. He recently turned 21. He’s still quite raw, but he has a chance to be a very solid ballplayer!
Hudson Boyd (#29) – It isn’t as obvious, statistically, that Boyd is a potential big leaguer. To see it, you have to look at things beyond the stat line. Right now, in 23.2 innings, he has a 5.48 ERA, 24 hits allowed, 14 walks and just 17 strikeouts. The second Twins supplemental first-round pick in 2011, from high school in Florida, Boyd has some good stuff. He has a low-90s fastball that will hit 95 when things warm up. He shows a good curveball, and he occasionally has a very good changeup. The problem has been consistency with mechanics, release point, control and some confidence. Boyd lost 45 pounds in the offseason, showing that he is willing to work to improve.
Tyler Duffey (NR) has been one of the better pitchers in the organization through the first five weeks. He threw seven perfect innings in his first start of the year and has been pretty good since. He was a reliever in college, at Rice, but he’s made the move to the rotation look simple. He’s got three good pitches which leads one to think that he could stick as a starter as he moves up.
Dalton (DJ) Hicks – Hicks was the 17th round pick a year ago out of Central Florida. The first baseman became known last year when his walk-off grand slam gave the Elizabethton Twins the Appalachian League championship. He’s been the everyday first baseman and clean-up hitter and hit well. He has a lot of power. He’s got nine doubles and four home runs this season. An overly-positive comp for him as a hitter is someone like Adam Dunn. He’ll walk. He’ll strikeout. He’ll hit for a lot of power… if he develops.
There are ten guys who may have a chance to get to the big leagues if they develop nicely. I didn’t include Tyler Jones, a hard-throwing reliever. He was just put on the Disabled List with an elbow injury. JD Williams is a tremendous athlete with great speed, a great eye at the plate and good defense. Middle infielder Candido Pimentel was the Appalachian League MVP in 2012. He’s got great speed. Josh Burris and his killer curveball just recently arrived in Cedar Rapids as well. Lefty Brett Lee has a very live arm. Right now he’s in the 6-man rotation, but he could be a devastating lefty-reliever.
And, consider that Max Kepler (#10) will hopefully be arriving in Cedar Rapids soon after missing the early season with an elbow injury. Luke Bard (#20) is also rehabbing an injury in Florida, but he will likely get a chance to start with the Kernels at some point this summer. Hopefully JT Chargois will be able to pitch in 2013 for the Kernels.
It’s also possible that the three members of the Kernels’ coaching staff will be Twins coaches at some point in their careers. Manager Jake Mauer does a terrific job of teaching and organizing these young men. He knows baseball, and knows the game well. Tommy Watkins is a great illustration for the players to show perseverance and not to give up on anything until your jersey is ripped from you. He also known hitting and defense. He relates so well to the player. Like Watkins, Gary Lucas is a former big leaguer. He’s been coaching in the Midwest League for about a decade. It’s clear how much he enjoys teaching young pitchers and pushing them to think through their pitches and the situations on the mound.
Check out the Kernels schedule and see if it works to book a trip there for a weekend. Like I said, it’s just a four hour drive. I talked to several people the weekend I was there who drove down for the game and then drove back afterwards. Some spent a night and went to two games.
It’s a great trip. Minor League ball is always entertaining. But for Twins fans, it’s an opportunity to see some future Twins two or three years early. It’ll be fun to be able to say you saw Byron Buxton or JO Berrios before they became big league stars. I remember my first trip to games in Beloit three years ago. Brian Dozier, Aaron Hicks and Mike Trout were all on the field. It’s fun to do your own scouting reports on the players.
Please feel free to ask questions.
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