Friday, October 03, 2008

The 2008 Minnesota Twins: Expecting the Unexpected**

    If history has taught us anything it is that expectations fail, and they fail where expectations are most promising. For example, Captain Edward J. Smith expected the Titanic to cross the Atlantic Ocean. An iceberg, on the other hand, had a different destiny for the steamliner that was supposedly unsinkable. Lofty expectation can come crashing down to Earth quickly.  So when baseball experts spent most of the off-season penciling in the Detroit as the Division champions, those who have historical perspective should have known better. Certainly on paper the Tigers appeared indestructible, much like the great ship. They acquired Edgar Renteria, Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. Add those bats to a lineup that trailed only the Yankees in 2007 and Willis to a rotation that sported Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson, and Kenny Rogers, and anyone would expect an improvement on their 88-win season in '07. Yet at the conclusion of the first forty-one games in 2008, the Tigers were situated at 16-25 - last in the Central on May 15th.

    Likewise many of the same experts turned to the Cleveland Indians, a team that in 2007 came one game away from a World Series appearance, as the obvious Division suitor if the Tigers stumbled. After all, Cleveland not only had all of their key offensive contributors returning but also had a rotation of C.C. Sabathia, Fausto Carmona and Cliff Lee to provide a decent chance of winning each series. Regardless, by August 1st the Indians' winning percentage was at a sub-prime .435 and Sabathia was getting his mail forwarded to Milwaukee. The organization had rescinded into an unexpected rebuild mode.

The Twins meanwhile were labeled at the onset as also-rans. Naturally it was easy to overlook a team that had more unanswered questions than Celebrity Jeopardy. How could a team that had lost three starting pitchers (Johan Santana, Matt Garza and Carlos Silva), a Gold Glove center fielder (Torii Hunter), and a high-caliber defensive shortstop (Jason Bartlett) manage to improve on a 79-win season? How did they record a 21-15 record against the aforementioned teams?

    Undoubtedly the remaining headliners (Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer and Joe Nathan) accounted for a considerable portion of the team's success, but unexpected sources also lifted the team to victory:

Jason Kubel | DH

    There was plenty of statistical evidence in 2007 that indicate Kubel was primed for a breakout season. Still recovering from his knee injury in the first months of 2007, Kubel hit just .238/.293/.358 with a 33/11 K/BB ratio in 165 plate appearances in April and May. By August and September Kubel was a lineup mainstay batting .341/.418/.553 with a 25/19 K/BB ratio in 153 plate appearances. In January, Baseball Prospectus's Joe Sheehan took an early stance saying that "[Kubel's] 26 this season, and may actually be the Twins' best hitter during it; better than Morneau, better than Mauer."

    The season again started off slow for Kubel. But as he was regularly rotated with Craig Monroe as the designated hitter, he became a catalyst for the Twins, hitting .322/.391/.610 in 69 plate appearances between June 13th and July 6th. During that stretch, the team won 18 out of 21 games. Kubel has also hit a career-high number of home runs this season by crossing the 20-homer benchmark, second on the team only to Morneau.

Nick Blackburn | SP

    Subtract the $40 million dollar contract and three years from Carlos Silva and what are you left with? Nick Blackburn. In 2007, his introduction was without fanfare as he allowed 10 earned runs in 11 2/3 innings while opponents hit .365/.389/.519. His minor league pedigree, however, (701 1/3 innings, 434/154 K/BB ratio and a 3.68 ERA) was solid enough to merit a spot in a rotation that lost three of their frontline starters.

    Blackburn responded. Despite some hiccups (such as a 5.20 ERA away from the Dome), the control artist amassed nearly 200 innings to lead the staff and ranked seventh in the American League in walks-to-innings ratio. For a rotation that battled early season injuries (Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey) and performance issues (Livan Hernandez, Boof Bonser, Francisco Liriano) the Twins were fortunate to have a pitcher tally so many innings.


Nick Punto | INF

    Punto's previous season was beyond the pale. His slugging percentage of .271 was the lowest among qualified batters in the AL and his contact was poor too - a 14% line drive rate which was the third lowest in the league. The result was a jaw-droppingly low batting line of .210/.288/.271 - production that was tantamount to the Mendoza Line. So when Alexi Casilla was placed on the DL on July 29th, fans braced for the worst.

    But in Casilla's stead, Punto performed admirably, batting .294/.394/.412 in 132 plate appearances. Though his line drive rate remained consistent to his 2007 season, his batting average on balls in play jumped to .335, leading to a much improved season line in 2008.


Denard Span | RF

    On July 22nd, manager Ron Gardenhire finally decided that Carlos Gomez was no longer "exciting" enough to bat leadoff. A lackluster .281 on-base percentage by Gomez in 418 plate appearances incited the manager to move Denard Span and his robust .424 OBP to the top of the order. Slotting Span’s on-base skills in front of Casilla, Mauer and Morneau raised the number of runs scored per game to 5.50, compared to 4.92 in Gomez's tenure.

    Certainly judging from Span's minor league batting line no one could have expected this output. In over 2,000 plate appearances, Span hit .287/.355/.358 within the farm system, a fairly pedestrian mark. However at the close of the 2007 season in AAA, Span developed an eagle eye for the strike zone: in 123 plate appearances, Span walked 13% of them and struck out in just 9%, finishing out what had been an otherwise disappointing season with a .398 OBP in August. Span opened 2008 in AAA and mirrored his final month by posting a .429 OBP, earning the promotion at the end of June when Michael Cuddyer was put on the DL. Now it’s hard to imagine an effective top of the batting order without him.

    Of course if we’re completely honest, the successes of any one team depends on more than a handful of players—it depends on every guy who’s lucky enough to step to the dish or take his position in the field over the course of the season. It’s not as simple as cliché’s like “A team is only as strong as its weakest link”, because in baseball every action and every occurrence is so dependent on its own unique situation.

    But every time a team makes it into the post-season, there are always a number of players that can be identified as integral to success. Whether it’s Francisco Liriano mopping up down the stretch, Alexi Casilla stepping into the void at second base, Scott Baker stepping up to have his best season in the majors or one of the guys mentioned above, the success just proves one thing: baseball is a team sport, and Minnesota forced a one-game playoff as a team. There will always be more to baseball’s best clubs than their recognizable faces, and the Twins in 2008 were no exception.

**Had the Twins made the playoffs, this piece would have been in that special Gameday issue.  Thanks to both John Bonnes and Jesse Lund for editing and allowing me to contribute this season.