As May nears its climax, we find that the Twins are hovering at the .500 mark. This might be five wins more than the most optimistic preseason predictions held and they continue to defy science (or at least sabermetrics). Through 50 games the Pythagorean Theorem suggests that the Twins should be at 23-27, as they have been outscored 243 to 227. In April (and the one March game) the Twins finished the month 13-14 allowing 122 runs while scoring 102 - 20 runs worse than their opponents. Up to this point in May the Twins are 12-11 as they have allowed 121 runs and have managed to score 125, playing slightly better than their competition justifying the winning record. What this says is that while the pitching staff has been status quo in the two months, the offense has been able to manufacture 19 additional runs in four less games in May (with four remaining in the month).
How can this be? How can the Twins have improved by 19 runs? In full disclosure the Twins could actually be almost 27 runs better than their opponents had their not been so many defensive lapses. In 50 games last month, the Twins pitchers' relinquished just 8 unearned runs. This month in 23 games the Twins pitchers have been dinged for 18 unearned runs. Some, such as Patrick Ruesse, would like you to believe that the home run total is the barometer for the franchise and that because several key members are without home runs this team must be a failure. True, the -16 run differential can be attributed some to being out homered 29-to-56 but the offense compensates with a combination of speed (the 77% stolen base rate has led to 2.2 runs according to the formula presented in The Hidden Game of Baseball) and well-timed hits (the Twins have 78 rbis with 2-outs and runners in scoring position while opponents have scored just 61 in the same circumstances) has resulted in tipping the balance towards the Twins in several critical games.
Who are some of these main contributors?
1) Jason Kubel: Kubel's month of May is strikingly similar to the August/September performance of last season. He has increased his plate discipline (6 walks vs. 3 walks) and also his contact (strikeout rate cut in half) from April. Another factor that has led to an increased batting line is that he has decreased his amount of fly balls in play and started to hit more line drives across the field and just like that his babip improves from .250 to .300. Expect more May type results from Kubel as the calender turns to June.
2) Delmon Young: Sure, no home runs yet but has improved in just about every other category, including increasing his walk rate and reducing the strike outs that he was so apt to do last month, last season and in the minor leagues. Is this a new Delmon? To this point this season Young has taken 46% of pitches thrown to him. Last season he watched 38% of pitches. With Tampa Bay in 2007, Delmon's most patient month was also May were he posted a 9.2% walk rate (but he teamed that with a 20% strikeout rate). I would suspect that it is still too early to tell if this is an improved Delmon or a statistical blip. One glaring difference is that he is hitting too many groundballs for a supposed power-hitting (leading to a .235/.235/.265 babip). He must improve the type of ball he is putting in play, that being line drives: last year he finished knocking 20% of his balls for line drives. This season he is hitting just 14% for liners. Also, forget about criticizing him for opposite field hitting - he's batting .400/.400/.560 on balls taken to the right side of the field.
3) Joe Mauer: Blessed with a better batting eye in the month of May, Mauer walked more and struck out less but what is most impressive is that he has peppered the field with more line drives (24% over 15%) leading to a batting average on balls in play from a hefty .325 in April to gargantuan .424 in May. Suffice it to say, I'd predict a downturn in June simply because it is hard to maintain a hit rate encroaching on 50% for balls put into play - eventually some start finding leather. There is plenty of talk about Mauer rediscovering his opposite field stroke (he is hitting .469 that direction). This is good because he has been absolutely terrible at pulling the ball: On 34 balls in play Joe has had only 6 successful hits, carrying a .176 average on balls to the right side (though he did hit .300 that direction last year). The talking heads on FSN like to reiterate that he has resurrected the swing that won him the batting title in 2006 even though Mauer had a .311 pull average that season.
4) Carlos Gomez: The strikeouts are still as prominent as ever but the walks (25 versus 23) have begun to creep northward (2 versus 5). Nevertheless, Gomez is on-base 35% of the time giving the Twins every opportunity to drive him a feat which they have accomplished 27 times - led by Joe Mauer's 8 rbi.
4) Mike Lamb: Truthfully, there was no where else to go but up or out. Thankfully for the Lamb household he improved statistically across the board (offensively at least, he is still suspect with the glove), buying a few more weeks as a starting third baseman. He has 20 rbis but should be sending Delmon Young a nice thank you gift for being on-base for him, as 8 of those rbis has been Mr. Young himself.
Despite what some naysayers would like you to believe, the Twins have improved their overall offense in the second month. In 979 plate appearances in April, Twins batters hit 14 home runs with 98 rbis while hitting .260/.305/.362 - a fairly average batting line. In the second month, the Twins have accumulated 909 plate appearances and have improved on their home runs mark (15), rbis (118) and have hit significantly better overall: .273/.342/.404. The Twins have coerced 30 more walks this month than the previous one as well as striking out 24 times less. Naturally, the Twins cannot continue at the pace set in April. A team has to outscore its opponents over the course of a 162-game schedule in order to achieve above .500 baseball. To sustain an edge in the American League Central, the Twins will have to have improvement from other key players (Cuddyer, Monroe, Harris). If April showers bring May flowers, May flowers better bring June extra base hits.