Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Repairing the Twins lineup.

Through the first 20 games, the Minnesota Twins share the dubious honor of having the American League's least productive offense with the Kansas City Royals (4.05 R/G).  While there are numerous sources for this dip in production, ranging from Joe Mauer’s absence to the lethargy of the right-handed bats, there appears to be an easily identifiable and correctable modification to the lineup that would improve the offense: remove Alexi Casilla from the number two spot.


As I alluded to yesterday, Bill James’s research shows that a bunched lineup (a lineup constructed with the best hitters grouped together) is the most optimal alignment of the talent.  Taking it one step further, James noted in his 1986 Abstract that the correlation of run production and the position in the batting order is strongest to that of the number two hitter.  The 2009 Twins have a .515 OPS out of this slot (thanks to Brendan Harris).  Only the lowly Royals have less production with their .499 OPS from their two hitters.  The two most potent offenses, Texas and Toronto, also share the highest two spot production with .951 and .867 OPS respectively. 


Under the current structure, the Twins are sending Denard Span (.737 OPS but a robust .378 OBP), Casilla (.456 OPS), Justin Morneau (.868 OPS) and Jason Kubel (.941 OPS) in sequence to the plate.  Casilla stands out as the weak link.  For a two hitter, Casilla has demonstrated borderline plate discipline.  He exercises the highest chase percentage among qualifying second baseman (39 percent out of zone swings) resulting in a high quantity of groundballs.  His 64 percent of worm-burners on balls in play is a league-leader and nearly half of his pop flies (46 percent infield/fly ball) are not even leaving the infield area (also the highest total in MLB).  Speed has been his saving grace as he has legged out three infield hits to keep his batting average above .150. 


Among other things, Casilla has been an absolute out-machine.  His .456 OPS is lowest in the American League among those with a minimum of 60 plate appearances and behind only the Giants’ immortal Emmanuel Burriss (.433 OPS) and the Padres’ Brian Giles (.454 OPS) in all of baseball.  This productivity is reminiscent of Nick Punto’s appalling 2007 season – except Punto managed to maintain a .566 OPS through the first 20 games of that season but the Twins scored just 4.60 R/G.   By the end of May, Punto and his sub-.600 OPS were booted down to the eighth and ninth positions in the order but by then it was too late for the Twins as the team would finish 63-67.


In 2008, when Casilla hit .313/.351/.424 in 273 plate appearances through July 28th, it caught most people by surprise.  At three seasons at the Triple-A level, Casilla had hit .257/.344/.316 in 532 PAs, not lending an indication that he was capable of slugging above .400.  Following an injury in July Casilla’s batting line reverted to.225/.302/.289 in 164 PAs after his return to the lineup in August.  Most people convinced themselves that Casilla’s abilities were closer to his first portion of the season rather than the latter.  In truth, his actual production probably lies in-between the two samplings. 


The options for Gardenhire are limited.  When the Twins face a left-handed pitcher, Brendan Harris is a decent solution (career .792 OPS versus LHP), but Harris’s defense at second is a downgrade from Casilla.  Catcher Jose Morales is another candidate for the two-spot as his .839 OPS is currently third on the team while hitting line drives 35 percent of the time. 


These both are short-term answers to a long-term problem however.  Harris is a streaky hitter and Morales's produrct is sure to curtail as his line drive rate regresses back to the norm.  The definitive remedy lies on the man returning on May 1st.  Inserting the career .856 OPS hitter in Joe Mauer into the second slot ensures additional at-bats for the team’s best hitter and provides a continuation of the four best hitters on the Twins’ roster.