Wetmore: Analysis of season-to-date and a look ahead in 3 up, 3 down
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The Twins split a road series with the Milwaukee Brewers, the start of which marked the beginning of the second trimester of the baseball season. They're two games below .500 and in last place in the American League Central, five games behind first-place Detroit.
Let's check in on some big-picture questions for the Twins, and let's do so with a clever baseball-related phrase. We'll call it: 3 up, 3 down. It doesn't mean anything, it just gives us justification to write six items.
3 UP, observations from the first-third:
1. Brian Dozier was the team's first-third MVP, in my opinion. He hits for power and steals bases and draws enough walks to maintain a .335 on-base percentage, despite a low batting average. His combination of power and walks has resulted in a .337 weighted on-base average, which is 7th among all qualified second basemen. For a month Dozier performed like a top-5 player in baseball and he's cooled off since. Still, he looks like a solid piece of the puzzle in the Twins lineup, on the bases and in the field.
2. Trevor Plouffe looks like a better player than we'd seen from him previously. He got off to a really nice start, at which point I took a look at his new approach at the plate. It included driving the ball the other way and having a better eye at the plate. His overall batting numbers (.249/.326/.423) are not significantly better than his career line (.241/.304/.413). Still, his .332 weighted on-base average is eighth in the Majors among qualified third basemen. If he improves on his first-third at the plate and in the field, Plouffe could make himself part of the Twins' plans beyond this year.
3. The elephant in the room for the first-third has been Joe Mauer. This is uncharted territory for the Twins first baseman. In his first season out from behind the plate, Mauer has not met expectations. Yes, his .350 on-base percentage is at times overlooked. But considering his lofty expectations, he's fallen well short of what the Twins should have hoped for when they moved him from one of the game's premium defensive positions.
It's entirely possible - in fact, I would say likely - Mauer goes on a tear at some point and we're reminded he's actually a great hitter. But the causes for concern are legitimate.
His OBP is 50 points lower than his career average.
He's striking out in nearly one out of every five plate appearances. That's up from his previous career high and more than 70 percent higher than his career average.
Contrary to what the Twins and Mauer contend, he's not suffering from abnormally bad luck. When he puts balls in play, they're falling for hits at roughly the same clip they have for his entire career.
For the traditional stats people: Mauer has two home runs and 15 RBIs in 226 plate appearances.
I don't believe that using RBIs as a predictor for future performance is helpful, but the 15 RBIs represent what he accomplished in the first-third of the season. It is what it is.
For the stat heads: Mauer's Isolated Power (.080) has plummeted. His wOBA (.310) is below the league average (.313) and way below that of other first basemen (.339). According to weighted runs created-plus, Mauer has been five percent below the league-average offensive player, which factors in league and ballpark.
Combine everything he's done (or hasn't done) at the plate with the knowledge that his transition to full-time first baseman hasn't been seamless, and Mauer has not been worth his salary this season.
3 DOWN, a look at what's ahead:
1. If Dozier has been the team MVP, Phil Hughes has been its ace. His incredible stretch of 178 batters without a walk got the attention it deserved. Hughes ditched his slider in spring training and is focusing almost exclusively right now on a fastball/cutter mix. He's pounding the strike zone and occasionally mixing in his curveball.
He has significantly reduced the rate at which he allows home runs, long an Achilles' heel of the former Yankee. In his career, he's allowed 1.23 home runs per nine innings pitched; this season he's chopped that down to 0.52 HR/9. It seems unlikely, even in spacious Target Field, that Hughes will continue to suppress home runs to that extreme.
He's been great for the Twins and his peripheral numbers suggest he'll continue to be pretty good. I wouldn't expect him to be quite this good, however, in the final two-thirds of the season.
(Conversely, Ricky Nolasco's peripheral numbers suggest he'll be better than he's shown thus far. His strikeout rate is down, his walk rate up and so, too, is his home run rate. His 5.70 ERA is unsightly for the most expensive free agent in Twins history, but his expected fielding-independent pitching, FIP, which strips the rest of the defense from the equation, is 4.32. That's designed to be on the same scale as ERA, and is a better gauge for how Nolasco has pitched this season.)
2. How will the catching dynamic play out for the Twins the rest of the season? Kurt Suzuki is looking like a great one-year signing for the Twins. He does some things well behind the plate and in the first-third of the season he was among the team leaders in RBI percentage (a way to contextualize runs driven in, which accounts for the disparity of opportunities to drive in runners).
With all of those things being said on Suzuki, he hasn't been good at throwing out runners and is partially responsible for limiting Josmil Pinto's plate appearances. Suzuki's batting well above his career norms (.290/.359/.389, compared to a career line of .255/.312/.376), and it's hard to believe that at age 30, he flipped a switch and became a better hitter. I expect his numbers to decline in the final two-thirds of the seasons, at which point the Twins will have to decide if it's worth the defensive downgrade to get Pinto's bat (career .272/.360/.482) into the lineup.
If Pinto doesn't catch more, he should DH a lot more.
3. Eduardo Escobar has surprised to this point. Entering this season, I would have guessed based on his minor league track record that his upside is a utility infielder. At the plate, he's benefitting from incredible luck and he doesn't have the fielding range of the man he replaced, Pedro Florimon. So while I don't expect he's locked down a long-term job as the Twins' shortstop of the future, his first-third performance still is impressive. I highly doubt he'll sustain this performance, but the Twins could do much worse than .315/.348/.457 from a 25-year-old shortstop.
(Actually, they proved they could do much worse than that by giving Florimon 74 plate appearances in the first-third.)