Even as the Twins appear headed for their most successful season in five years, their offense lags at a few obvious positions. Shortstop has been a season-long problem. Center field, apart from Aaron Hicks’ five-week hot streak after the All-Star break, has provided little. Right field and catcher are manned by veterans having below-league-average seasons at the plate.
But the Twins’ lack of offense has been even more glaring at what once was, and what on some teams still is, a critical position: pinch hitters.
Shane Robinson slapped a grounder up the middle for a single Thursday, a hit that was meaningless in the Twins’ 15-2 rout of Baltimore. But the hit was still notable, if only for its rarity: It was the Twins’ fifth pinch-hit of the 2015 season. With only 40 games remaining, they appear headed toward a franchise record for fewest pinch hits, breaking the record of 12 set in 2006 and tied in 2012.
“That wasn’t really something I could have predicted,” manager Paul Molitor said. “It just hasn’t happened a lot, given the makeup of our team.”
Well, yes, that’s the problem, and it’s not just the Twins. With the gradual evolution of pitcher usage causing most teams to carry at least seven and usually eight relievers, American League teams these days often are left with three position players on the bench. In most cases, those spots go to a backup catcher, a utility infielder and a fourth outfielder, and defense and versatility, not hitting ability, are the qualities that decisions are based upon.
“You want to protect your defensive side of the game, especially [in case there are] injuries,” Molitor said. “So catcher, infielder, outfielder — that’s your bench.”
The Twins are fairly typical in that respect. Their bench this season has largely been made up of either Chris Herrmann or Eric Fryer at catcher, both of whom entered Saturday with .167 averages this year in the big leagues; fourth outfielder Robinson, a career .240 hitter who is enjoying a .263 season this year; and infielder Eduardo Nunez, a roughly league-average hitter.
None is a power hitter, and with so few roster spots available, big swingers such as Oswaldo Arcia and Kennys Vargas find themselves in the minor leagues.
But it’s the lack of hits, not home runs, that is most discouraging for Molitor. Entering Saturday, Twins pinch hitters were 5-for-42, a .119 average that would be the worst in franchise history. Robinson, 3-for-4 as a pinch-hitter with two walks, was by far the most successful, though Herrmann’s double in May is the team’s only extra-base hit and produced the only two pinch-hit RBI the Twins had this season before Robinson’s single Thursday. Eduardo Escobar was 0-for-6, Nunez 1-for-6 and Vargas 0-for-5.
And starters who come off the bench on their night off are no better; Torii Hunter, Joe Mauer, Kurt Suzuki and Eddie Rosario were a combined 0-for-11.
“For a guy who is used to playing every day, it’s tough. It’s a different feel,” Molitor said, and he should know. The Hall of Fame hitter was 2-for-23 as a pinch hitter during his career.
“It’s not an easy job. You’ve got to flip a switch, sit all night and suddenly go full speed,” Robinson said, and he’s right: AL pinch hitters together were batting .215. “You kind of have to trick yourself into feeling ready, like you’ve been in the whole game. It’s hard to be relaxed.”
Molitor had sent only 45 pinch hitters to the plate this season, second-fewest (behind Kansas City) in the majors, and 17 were for pitchers in NL parks. Another nine came late in blowout games (a seven-run difference or greater) to give starters a few innings off. That means Molitor had substituted a hitter in a crucial, game-still-in-doubt situation only 19 times this season. And how did they do?
The Twins were 1-for-17 — that’s an .059 batting average — with two walks, one of them intentional.
Yeah, add pinch hitting to the Twins’ to-do list.
While Terry Ryan and Paul Molitor appear secure with the Twins, change could be coming to the leadership of the AL Central this offseason. A look at recent developments:
Indians: Mark Shapiro, team president since 2010 and general manager for a decade before that, is a leading candidate for the soon-to-be-vacated president’s position with the Blue Jays, according to Fox Sports.
Shapiro is well-regarded in Cleveland, though the Indians have made the playoffs only three times since 2000.
Royals: The American League’s best team doesn’t figure to make many changes, but suitors for a new general manager are likely to consider Dayton Moore’s top assistant, J.J. Picollo. The 44-year-old has a scouting and development background, and Kansas City’s success should interest teams needing new leadership.
Tigers: They’ve already made the biggest move possible, dumping Dave Dombrowski, the architect of their decade of success. Now the question is, will Dombrowski’s successor, Al Avila, keep manager Brad Ausmus in place after a second disappointing season?
Avila said Ausmus will be evaluated after the season.
White Sox: Robin Ventura (278-328 entering Saturday) has had three losing seasons in four years managing the White Sox and has one more season on his contract. General Manager Rick Hahn refused to talk about Ventura’s future, saying, “Anything in terms of personnel changes … will wait for the offseason.”
It’s not just pinch hits, but off-the-bench power the Twins have lacked for five years. The Twins have hit exactly one pinch-hit home run in that time, an Oswaldo Arcia blast in Atlanta on May 22, 2013. No other team has fewer than five in the past five years, led by San Diego’s 30, and every MLB team has hit at least three since the Twins’ most recent. Here are pinch-hit home runs by the Twins and the AL since 2011:
Year Twins Rest of AL
2011 0 19
2012 0 32
2013 1 40
2014 0 30
2015 0 26