Sunday, April 06, 2008

On-base Surprises

I don't know what surprises me more: that one week in into the regular season and it looks like we have two lineup changes, or that I don't seem to mind. Granted, neither of them are official or anything. But it looks like two guys are going to get a lot more playing time than anyone anticipated before this weekend's series versus the Royals.

The first is Matt Tolbert, who has played in six games, starting four of them. He received playing time in part because Adam Everett had a family emergency and because Brendan Harris has been fighting some flu, but that still means he was plugging those holes that Nick Punto was supposed to be filling.

But it goes further than that. Those incidents don't explain why he was starting at shortstop yesterday. I'll be surprised if he isn't getting at least one starting the Chicago series, and maybe two considering Mike Lamb (third base) is hitting just .143 so far. It looks like he currently has Ron Gardenhire's confidence. A .462 batting average can do that.

The second surprise is that the Twins plan to start Denard Span most days in right field during Michael Cuddyer's absence. That means that Span has just jump-frogged the capable combination of Jason Kubel and Craig Monroe, who will continue to platoon as designated hitters.

The initial reaction to both developments was a wince. Both smell like knee-jerk reactions. Neither player has been much of a prospect, but they've both been fairly hot, and their more respected competition has been somewhat cold. And that wince turns into a pained grimace when I think of the accolades and hype that are going to be thrown upon these guys by local coverage. It will make the Church of Puntocism that sprang up around here seem restrained.

But if you're watching the games, you can see what Gardenhire is seeing in those players. The Twins like to pontificate about "professional at-bats", and that's an easy thing for them to defend, because like porn, you can claim you know it when you see it. But I see it in their at-bats and both players spring performances show some results to support that assertion.

And frankly, so do both players recent stats. A couple of weeks ago I opined that Denard Span might just have turned a corner late last year, pointing to a large shift in his walk to strikout ratios. And, in his first major league game, he got on base with a walk, and didn't strike out. I'm not claiming he's Ricky Henderson, but he continues to bear watching.

And while Tolbert has never been a particularly high ranking prospect, the one thing he has seemed capable of doing is getting on base. Over the last two years in the minors, he's drawn 81 walks and struck out just 116 times. That's a damn fine ratio and helps explain why his on-base percentage (OBP) over those two years has been .350 over that time.

And this decade, getting on-base has been a real key for this team:
When the Twins have been above the league average in OBP, they've generally done well, and when they haven't, they've generally struggled. I'll admit, that's a pretty simplistic way to break things down, but it makes some sense. This team has always struggled to find power, but has been successful despite that ongoing deficiency. They've done so because they have been a little better at setting the table.
And so, I find myself warming to the surprises this first week has produced. I want to see if these guys are the disciplined hitters that their recent history suggests. And I want to see if the effect that adding to professional hitters might have on this lineup.