Sunday, May 04, 2008

Warranted Optimism

What a glorious day, eh?

It's May 4th, and the Twins lead the Central Division by 1.5 games. Even for someone who was optimistic about the Twins chances to be competitive this year - and I was - that's strange to say. But a modest five-game winning streak and series sweeps of the White Sox and Tigers have put them atop the division. And for today and tomorrow and most of Tuesday, a sense of optimism will be surrounding the Twins.

And there should be. I'm just not sure it's for the right reason.

We may have learned some valuable lessons about the Twins chances of making the postseason, but I'm not sure we learned that much about the Twins. They're still a young team, with plenty of pitching, a decent bullpen, an offensive core that is hit-and-miss, with a lot of youth. They'll need to manufacture runs, just like they have for the last decade.

They manufactured plenty this weekend. With Michael Cuddyer back, Delmon Young batting lower in the order, and Joe Mauer red hot, we finally saw what the middle of the lineup is capable of. Cuddyer had two runs and four RBI this series. Justin Morneau had four hits, three RBI and two runs. And Mauer was 7 for 11(!) with four RBI and three runs.

But the optimism shouldn't come from a mistaken belief that this team is becoming an offensive powerhouse. That's not going to happen until Mike Lamb, Young and Carlos Gomez are shaken out of their early season doldrums or just plain reach another level. After all, this team hit .320 this series, but they're still hitting just .266 this season, and are second to last in the American League in runs scored.

The optimism should come from what we're learning about the rest of the Central Division, which was supposed to be one of the best in the majors. It's not. Not only are the Twins the only team in the division above (or even equal to) .500, but the division as a whole is eight games under .500 against the other divisions. That's the worst showing for any division in the American or National League.

This weekend the Tigers looked like a fundamentally flawed team. They seemed old and one-dimensional, only capable of winning when playing station-to-station baseball. That's overly simplistic, but even Jim Leyland is talking about making drastic changes to their lineup to eek out a bit more production. Their ultra-hyped offense has been outscored by the opposition by 16 runs this year.

But, of course, that really points to the Tigers biggest flaw. Their pitching is nowhere near average, and it doesn't look like there's much that can be done to fix that. The Tigers are sporting a 5.01 ERA as a team right now. Dontrelle Willis should return fairly soon, but all that might do is bump their best starting pitcher out of the rotation. They're calling up guys who have pitched all of seven innings in AAA to help out the bullpen. And their best pitching prospect struggled in his last outing - at High-A ball.

But the Tigers aren't alone in their mediocrity. Looking at the rest of the division, it's hard to find a team that looks like a 90 game winner. The Twins lead the division but have been outscored by their opponents this year. The team with the best run differential in the division is the White Sox, but they did that while having the worst team batting average (.235!) in the American League. Plus, their pitching is a still a work in progress.

The Indians are the only other team in the AL Central who has scored more run than their opponents. They were a victim of very poor starts by pitchers CC Sabathia and Fausto Carmona, but both of them have shown some life lately. However, starting pitcher Jake Westbrook has gone down with an injury and slugger Travis Hafner has been in a slump for, umm, about 14 months now. With all that drama, we probably know the least about the Indians. And strangely enough, that probably makes them the frontrunner to be competitive this year.

Except, of course, for the division-leading Twins. Just a week ago I wrote in GameDay that this team really needed to take two games from the White Sox, so they could buy some more time for their young lineup to develop. So far, so good. I don't know whether some key players will grow enough this year to become an above-average offense. But it seems clear that they'll have they're getting plenty of time to sprout.

And that justifies the optimism we're feeling. Glorious day, eh?


TT said...

"The optimism should come from what we're learning about the rest of the Central Division, which was supposed to be one of the best in the majors. It's not. Not only are the Twins the only team in the division above (or even equal to) .500, but the division as a whole is eight games under .500 against the other divisions. That's the worst showing for any division in the American or National League."

This is placing far too much emphasis on current records. As of today the Central division teams are at .500 against the east. They are now eight games under .500 against the western division (there have been no interleague games). If you look at who played those games, it is not a cross-section of the two division's teams:

ALC games against the ALW:

Indians 12
Twins 10
Royals 10
Tigers 6
White Sox 2

ALW games against the ALC:
Oakland 14
LA 12
Texas 9
Seattle 5

So any conclusions about the relative strength of the division from that record are skewed not only by a small sample of games, but by a non-representative sample.

Combined, KC and the Twins are 8 games under .500 against the West. Accounting for the entire difference between the two divisions. Oakland and Los Angeles have not only played the most games against the ALC, they are a combined 10 games over .500 in those games. Seattle and Texas both have losing records.

Detroit has winning records against both the East and the West, they are 4-12 against ALC. I'm not sure that looking at current records tells you much about the divisions' relative strength.

SoCalTwinsfan said...

The best reason for optimism is the Twins are in first place, but so little has gone right for them. Liriano was terrible, Cuddyer, Slowey and Baker have been hurt, Everett was hideous before admitting he was hurt, the only players to hit anything close to expectations have been Morneau, Mauer, and Harris, and the bullpen has had its struggles at times.

If a team was really playing over its head early on, you would see that in individual performances, but the only player to really do that has probably been Blackburn and possibly Harris and/or Livan Hernandez. Reyes and Rincon might also be in that category, although both have this well in the past for the Twins.

There are far more disappointing performances so far: Delmon, Kubel, Lamb, Everett, and Liriano. Add in the numerous injuries, there's reason to believe this isn't as good as they're going to be.

TT said...

"There are far more disappointing performances so far:"

Whether disappointing or not, I don't know that they can be expected to do better the rest of the year. Can Mauer be expected to end up hitting .333? He might, but I would not count on it. Is Tolbert going to hit over .300? I doubt it.

But that misses the larger point of the above post. The Twins are in first as much because of the disappointing performance of other teams as they are because they have got off to a good start. I don't think the Twins having a winning streak get them to 2 games over .500 is a huge surprise. What's surprising is that puts them in first place.

TBird41 said...

Why did you use team batting average instead of team on base percentage when talking about the offenses? The White Sox might have a horrible batting average, but they have a great on base percentage, and that's why they've scored a lot of runs so far.