Mackey: The Twins have three unfixable flaws
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When the Twins jumped out to a 19-9 record after sweeping Detroit at the beginning of May, it was difficult to imagine the trouble they'd eventually run into as the All-Star break approached.
The starting pitching staff has come temporarily unraveled, the bullpen lacks a defined bridge, Joe Mauer seems to have misplaced his cape, and Cliff Lee now pitches for Texas.
There are other issues as well, some of which are fixable.
However, a few of the Twins' struggles this season may not be fixable at all.
* Disclaimer: These issues aren't necessarily crippling. But they do matter. The Twins must find a way to win despite them. And heck, there might be more than three "unfixable" issues, but three was a well-rounded number.
Outfield defense: This became an issue the moment Minnesota traded Carlos Gomez away, but it didn't figure to be a crippling problem simply because an infield defense of Nick Punto, J.J. Hardy, Orlando Hudson and Justin Morneau projected to be among the best in baseball.
Well, Punto, Hardy and Hudson have rarely played together on defense this season, and the limited outfield ranges of Jason Kubel, Delmon Young and Michael Cuddyer have been exposed in the corners of the spacious pastures of Target Field.
Even Span, who is probably the fastest player on the team, doesn't cover nearly as much ground as Gomez did in center, nor does he look as spectacular as when he roamed the corner outfield spots the last two seasons.
Whether you put much stock into advanced defensive stats or not, Baseball Info Solutions (BIS) does an excellent job quantifying value.
Per BIS, Twins outfielders have made 106 "out of zone" plays this season, which is the second-fewest behind only the Dodgers (92). The Pirates -- with speedsters Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata and Lastings Milledge -- have made the most "out of zone" plays (167).
It may look like Cuddyer, Kubel and Young are barely missing balls in the gaps and down the lines, but in reality a lot of outfielders around the league are making those plays look routine.
Then there's the argument of arm strength, which certainly plays a role. With Young and Cuddyer, the Twins certainly have two cannons for arms, but that doesn't make up for the amount of extra baserunners they allow due to poor range.
Am I suggesting the Twins to re-acquire Carlos Gomez? Absolutely not. But it's worth noting that outfield defense does matter more than people probably thought heading into the season.
Baserunning: Traditionally, the Twins fare pretty well on the base paths, whether via stolen bases, moving from first to third on a single to the outfield, or by doing "the little things."
Not this year.
Take the fourth inning from Sunday's game for example. Drew Butera faced a full count with one out against Tigers lefty Andrew Oliver. Manager Ron Gardenhire called for a hit and run, but Punto got a terrible jump off the deceiving lefty's motion. Butera flailed at an outside fastball, and Punto stopped halfway to second base, realizing he was about to be thrown out by 15 feet. Instead, he was tagged out in a rundown.
Then there was the game against Detroit two weeks ago when Young was tricked by right fielder Brennan Boesch, who put his glove up as if he was about to catch a fly ball that eventually fell 10 feet in front of him. Young was forced out at second.
Or just look at how many times Span has been picked off this season... (six). There are three teams that have been picked off fewer times than Span.
Ultimately, the Twins just aren't equipped to give opponents headaches on the base paths this season. Span, Punto and Hudson are the only speedsters, which is why the Twins have only 35 stolen bases -- the fifth-fewest in baseball. Tampa has 110.
The Twins have also recorded the fourth-most outs on the basepaths this year (34), and according to BillJamesOnline.net -- a website run by the famous Red Sox consultant -- the Twins have a net baserunning gain of minus-25 to the MLB average. In 2009 they finished plus-63. In 2008 they were plus-67.
This also takes into account double plays, which brings us to the next unfixable flaw.
Groundball double plays: Bert Blyleven and Dick Bremer often point to hard groundballs as the primary reason for the Twins hitting into 102 groundball double plays so far this season -- a number that is on pace to shatter the 174 hit into by the 1990 Boston Red Sox.
But let's be honest. The Twins aren't hitting harder groundballs than the other 29 teams in baseball. They just have a lineup full of plodding power hitters. Kubel, Cuddyer, Mauer, Hardy, Young, Morneau and Jim Thome aren't beating out many 6-4-3 double play opportunities.
The tradeoff, of course, is pounding out the fourth-most doubles (173), and posting the ninth-highest team slugging percentage in baseball (.420) -- a figure that would probably be much higher if not for the pitcher-friendly confines of Target Field. The Twins also have the sixth-highest on-base percentage (.343).
Unless Gomez, Jason Bartlett, Luis Castillo and other assorted piranhas come walking (or flopping?) through the clubhouse door, the double plays will continue to mount.
Is it annoying to watch? Absolutely. Especially because we're so used to watching speedy Twins teams that rely on singles, bunts, paper cuts and mouse traps to defeat opponents. It's just different to watch the Twins draw walks and wait for big extra-base hits.