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Another Twin Killing on Palatine
2003-03-06 12:36
by Mike Carminati

Another Twin Killing on Palatine Hill?

There is an article today in the AP regarding the different approach taken by the Twins after the retirement of Tom Kelly. The basis of the piece is that Tom Kelly was a fine ol' manager but his approach became outdated and though he did help develop the young core underpinning this team, he didn't have the wherewithal to take them to the proverbial next level. Kelly was basically the Twins' General George McClellan for you history buffs. Ron Gardenhire is the U.S. Grant who can lead this once-ramshackle crew to victory.

OK, enough of the Civil War allusions. So how did Gardy do it? According to the article by allowing the Twins to swing as free and unfettered as Larry Dallas on a Saturday night.

Here's a long quote, but it's just so chock full of gibbering goodness:

``I think when you start telling young kids, 'Let's go be more patient at the plate,' you're going to screw 'em. Young kids, let 'em swing,'' Gardenhire said. ``Go find it. They're going to learn how to take pitches, they're going to learn how to take the count deeper. But it's only going to come with time and at-bats.

``When they get in a game I tell them be aggressive, get yourself a good pitch and take a whack at it and let's have some fun. That's what we're trying to do.

``It's great to have a .480 on-base percentage, but how many times does that guy go up there and not swing with men on base? Jacque Jones, he may not have a great on-base percentage, but he's hacking, he's gettin' his swings. I like that.

``You talk to other teams, other pitchers, they hate throwing to us, because if it's around the plate they know we're going to swing at it.''

Howard Johnson is right! Let the last be first: opposing pitchers typically hate people who are patient in the box, who battle a pitcher and run counts deep. Pitchers love guys who hack at the first pitch and ground out to short or who chase 0-2 balls in the dirt.

Jacque Jones, the so-called "poster boy" for this approach, did improve in 2002, but whether a more free-swinging lifestyle had anything to do with it is debatable. Jones turned 27 in 2002. That's the typical age for players to reach their peak. Besides Jones was moved up in the lineup in 2002 and accrued over 100 extra at-bats in the same number of games as in 2001. His walks, however, remained about the same. Jones renaissance actually pre-dates Gardenhire. In the second half of 2001 Jones' numbers looked remarkably similar to those he would have in 2002: .850 OPS, .300 batting average, etc. However, Tom Kelly was still the manager and Jones' walk rate went up in the second half as his numbers improved. Actually the biggest improvement seemed to happen after he was moved to the leadoff spot on August 20. In 2002, he was used almost exclusively to lead off and his 1.000+ OPS the first time that he faced a pitcher was being used very effectively there. He still can't hit lefties though (.590 OPS) and he did tank in the playoffs. His on-base percentage is acceptable at .340 but if it dives 20 points, he will be a liability in the leadoff spot.

Gardenhire's free-swinging approach did not really improve the Twins in 2002. They scored 4.77 runs last year just under the league average of 4.81. That's almost identical to their 2001 figure of 4.76 (4.86 league average). Their batting average, on-base, and slugging averages remained about the same, too. Their walk rate dropped from 8.01% of their plate appearances to 7.62%, about 0.5% change. Big deal. Besides, this was not the most patient crew to begin with: they ranked 19th in the majors in team walks in 2001 (25th in 2002).

So how did the Twins win their division in 2002 if their batting remained about the same? Their pitching of course. The team ERA went from 4.51, 5 points above the league average, in 2001 to 4.12, 32 point below the league average, in 2002.

Besides this team improved by only five and one-half games according to their expected (Pythagorean) won-loss record (81-81 to 86-75). They benefited greatly from the collapse of the Indians and the White Sox, who were not far behind them based on talent (86-76 expected won-loss), spinning their wheels in second place.

This is a team that did not learn to take pitches under Kelly and is unlearning the little Kelly taught them now:

``He'd tell Torii he's swinging at too many bad balls,'' Hawkins recalled. ``And Torii says, 'I can't get on base unless I swing. And my grandfather says, 'Well, I guess he's got a point.'''

What did his grandmother have to say about the matter? My grandfather's dead, but even he knows that you can draw a thing called a walk to get on base once in a while. (By the way, Hunter walked 29 times in 2001 and 35 times in 2002. His OBP went from .306 to .334.)

Look, this team is too good for an utter collapse but they will be faced with a real challenge this year by the Sox, and I don't think that telling them that they can't get on base unless they swing is going to match the St. Crispen's Day speech from Henry V for inspiration.

Gardy on the few, the happy few: ``We have to scrap for runners. We know that. Move runners over, get them in. That's the only way these guys know how to play. I don't see that changing. Our guys understand that we play defense and pitch. We throw the ball over the plate, and everything's going to work out.''

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