Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Do You Really Want A Break?

The Minnesota Twins dropped another tough game last night, and once again it came against the New York Yankees. After a great start to the season, and heading into the All Star Game strong, Minnesota has been a different team since the break. It was these Yankees that may have started the downward spiral (on July 25th at Target Field), but it's the Twins who don't seem to be leaving the rut any time soon.

During the first half of the 2015 Major League Baseball season, it was pretty apparent that the Twins were playing outside and past expectations. This team wasn't a contender, and their secondary statistics suggested regression would be coming. For over 80 games though, Minnesota turned up a nose at all of those notions.

Through the first half, Brian Dozier looked like a legitimate MVP candidate, Trevor Plouffe was one of the best third basemen in the big leagues, Torii Hunter looked ageless, Glen Perkins was the gold standard, and Joe Mauer seemingly was battling back to being his former self. It was a perfect storm of everything going right, all at the same time.

Dozier's first half was indicative of him being arguably the best second basemen in all of baseball. In 88 games, he slashed .256/.328/.513. His on base percentage once again negated the relevance of his average, and his extra base hit numbers powered the way. With 19 home runs, 26 doubles, and 50 runs batted in, the Southern Miss product was on pace to do something special.

Dozier's two infield teammates also paced Minnesota in the first half. Mauer's average (.271) wasn't ideal, but his slash (.271/.336/.387) helped the Twins in the middle of the lineup. His six home runs and 42 runs batted in also were a by product of a very strong high leverage batting average. Plouffe swung to a .259/.320/.449 slash line with 11 homers and 46 runs batted in, along with 22 doubles. Minnesota's third basemen was only overshadowed by a guy named Josh Donaldson.

Then there was Torii Hunter. 40 years old, at the end of his career, and still getting it done. The Twins favorite slashed .257/.312/.444 across his first 80 games. Hunter added 14 homers, 15 doubles, and 49 runs batted in to help pace the offense. By all early indications, he had plenty left in the tank.

Despite the Twins glaring issues in the bullpen, there was Glen Perkins. A failed starter, but two-time All Star closer, now looked like one of the best in the game. He was 28-28 in save opportunities, owned a 1.21 ERA, and was allowing opposing hitters to bat just .188/.217/.246 off of him. Dazzling probably doesn't do Perkins first half justice.

As the calendar turned over to the second half however, it all came crashing down.

Since the break, Dozier has slashed .220/.286/.431, effectively making his poor average a detriment. His six home runs have netted just 11 runs batted in, and he's doubled only five times in 27 games. Mauer has batted just .250/.316/.356 with two homers and nine RBI while Plouffe has watched a nice run of late bring up a paltry .225/.262/.500 slash line since the break. Without his seven home runs and 19 RBI, Plouffe's 26 game post All Star stretch would look even worse.

Then, there's the fact that Torii's age has begun to show. He hasn't been a solid defensive player at any point for the Twins in 2015, but that was expected. His .172/.215/.322 slash with just four home runs and 11 RBI since the break would warrant a demotion for most younger players. To say he's gone in the tank is putting it nicely.

As the bullpen has seemed to survive on shaky ground in the second half, it's been Perkins who has been arguably the worst. Despite the dazzling first half, he owns an 8.10 ERA in 10.0 post break innings. He's picked up only three saves, blown two, and lost three times. Opposing hitters are batting .383/.420/.702 off of him, and he's surrendered four home runs.

When looking at the middle of the Twins lineup, and the heart of what the team needs to compete, it's been a blow up in every sense. Dozier, Plouffe, and Hunter have turned into home run or bust types, while Mauer has been even more of a shell of what once was. Adding in the fact that Perkins is no longer a guaranteed save only complicates the issue.

As things stand, there is a rainbow through the storm that the Twins veterans have created. Miguel Sano (.292), Eddie Rosario (.279), and Aaron Hicks (.276) are pacing the Twins lineup. The youth movement has started, and 2016 was always seen as the opening of an upcoming window. While it's been the veterans failure to remain consistent that has cause the Twins biggest regression, it has been the youth's ability to succeed that has kept Minnesota relevant.

For months leading up to the All Star Game, regression was a word Twins fans wanted to stop hearing about. The fact now is that the numbers have began to even out, and because they were so steeply skewed in Minnesota's favor, they are now going the opposite way equally as steep.

The downturn has highlighted why the Twins were right to balk at making any big moves at the deadline. Playing well above their heads, remaining in contention for a wild card spot was unlikely. What has happened though is positive growth for 2016, a season in which the Twins should begin to "go for it." Curbing the post "break" downturn is something the Twins need to figure out however, and having the regression hit across the board at the same time is something that has to be avoided.

Paul Molitor has done an incredible job in his first year as the Twins skipper, but if he wants to use this season's success as a kickstart for the years to come, focusing on the second half slide is priority number one. Mauer and Hunter are more done than they aren't, but Plouffe, Dozier, and Perkins are cornerstones for this organization, and getting 162 games worth of productivity is part of taking the next step.

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