Thursday, July 16, 2015

Second-half Storylines: What To Watch For

The Minnesota Twins can arguably be looked at as the most surprising team in baseball through the first half of the season. With most projections suggesting another 90 loss campaign as far more likely than a playoff run, the Twins have taken the majors by storm. Now at 49-40, with the second best record in the American League, does Minnesota sink or swim?

Having had a poor month (to put it lightly) under their belt already, the Twins have proven they can handle adversity. If they are going to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2010 however, the club needs a couple of scenarios to play out.

Brian Dozier Needs To Be For Real

We have seen this narrative before. Dozier started out great in 2014 for the Twins. in 92 games (playing in 91) before the All Star Break, the Twins second basemen slashed .242/.340/.436 with 18 home runs, 45 RBI, 16 doubles, and 69 runs scored. Through the rest of the season though, Dozier hit just .244/.352/.387 with five home runs 26 RBI, 17 doubles, and 43 runs scored. Production was still there, but the power numbers faded almost entirely.

The owner of a current .256/.328/.513 slash line along with 19 home runs, 50 RBI, 26 doubles, and 67 runs scored, Dozier has an opportunity to do something special. If he can have a second half worthy of matching his first, there's no doubt he'll be near the top of the MVP discussion, and the Twins will be staring into the playoff race.

The Right Joe Mauer Needs To Show Up

Currently hovering right around a .270 batting average, Joe Mauer has taken his lumps once again this season. After talking up a recommitted pull and power approach at the plate, the home runs were few and far between (just one in the first two months of the season). Since a slide to start the summer, Mauer appears to have turned somewhat of a corner.

In April, Mauer owned a .318/.392/.412 slash line. The power was gone, but he was driving in runners and getting on base. Then in May and June, Mauer slashed .240/.309/.353; abysmal. After scuffling over those two months, July saw Mauer return to form. Using the opposite field again, he has hit .319/.347/.489 with two home runs through the first two weeks.

The Twins know Mauer is never going to be at first what he was behind the plate. he's also not going to be a power hitting stereotypical first basemen. However, for the Twins to continue their playoff push, Mauer will need to produce at the top of the lineup, even if that's in his singles-doubles-on base capacity.

Bullpen Is Given Some Help

Everyone not named Glen Perkins has contributed to the Twins employing one of the most inefficient bullpens in the big leagues. Minnesota doesn't strike anyone out late in games, and innings are pieced together by pitchers rivaling a dart throw on a near nightly basis. Blaine Boyer and J.R. Graham have given the Twins more than they could have expected, but the stretch is going to require more.

Minnesota, Terry Ryan, and Paul Molitor need to commit to getting relief help. A trade for at least one arm capable of being more than a LOOGY needs to happen. A reliever shouldn't fleece the Twins farm, but the Twins should probably aim higher than a retread like Joaquin Benoit or LaTroy Hawkins. If the Twins don't find bullpen help prior to the July 31 trade deadline, it's hard to imagine them weathering the storm in the AL Central.

Phil Hughes Has To Control The Longball

On the season, Phil Hughes has allowed a major league worst 135 hits and 22 home runs. he's currently on pace to serve up 39 dingers and 240 hits (both career worsts). In his 18 starts, Hughes has allowed round-trippers in 15 of them. What's working in Hughes' favor is that of the 22 home runs allowed, 16 of them have been of the solo variety.

Looking at Hughes peripherals, there's some things to worry about. With a 4.32 ERA his 4.64 FIP (fielding independent pitching) indicates things could be even worse. While he's still not walking anyone (0.8 BB/9) he's also striking out a career low 5.4 batters per nine. Hitters are also having better at bats against Hughes at the plate. The Twins ace is giving up a near career high 24.6% line drive rate, as well as a 32.5% hard hit rate.

In the second half, Minnesota needs the former Yankees pitcher to keep the ball in the yard. He needs to keep hitters off balance to a higher extent, and he needs to handle more at bats himself. The solo shots are aided by his low walk rate, but eventually base hits being buoyed by home runs will put a damper on things.

Injuries Can't Mount In Minnesota

As witnessed by division rival Kansas City and Detroit, injuries can be crippling. Minnesota has dealt with their fair share over the past four years, but has remained relatively health this season. That absolutely needs to continue, and the Twins need to capitalize on the misfortune of the Royals and Tigers.

Byron Buxton is currently shelved but should be back within the next few weeks. Ricky Nolasco underwent ankle surgery and is likely going to miss the rest of the season. If Minnesota can stop the bleeding there, they are in a good place. More than in recent memory, depth is provided in both the outfield and the starting rotation. The Twins find more value in a product of their whole rather than any one player. However, depleting that depth for the stretch run won't bode well for a team void of superstars either.

With right around two and a half months left in the regular season, the Twins are in control of their own destiny. Pieces are in place to stay relevant, and adding a key one or two more immediately makes playoff contention a real situation. As the Twins head to Oakland to take on the lowly Athletics, the momentum from the first half needs to carry over.

It's been a fun ride to this point, but the story is only half written. Buckle up, here we go.

2 comments:

  1. "As witnessed by division rival Kansas City and Detroit, injuries can be crippling."

    The Tigers have been crippled by their injuries. The Royals have not. In fact, the Royals have increased their season winning % and their lead in the division since Alex Gordon was hurt.

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    1. While the Royals have not lost at a higher clip without Gordon, there's no doubt they are worse off with him on the shelf.

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