The Twins swept a 4-game series against the Rangers and then returned home to drop the first game of what will be 13 consecutive contests against the Chicago White Sox or Detroit Tigers.
This column presents 5 thoughts that have been on my mind lately.
1. Luis Arraez, you might have noticed, is having a great first season in the big leagues.
The unflappable rookie has taken over regular playing time on merit. The left-handed hitter has become known for his exceptional control of the strike zone and his ability to put his bat right on a pitch and spray it somewhere in the ballpark. Some Twins fans also get a kick out of the way he’ll watch a close pitch go by for a strike and then shake his head – at nobody in particular – as if to confirm to the home plate umpire that, no, you saw that correctly, it was not a strike.
He had three more hits Monday to bring his batting average to .348, the best in his class among first-years with at least 100 plate appearances. His .412 on-base percentage is second among rookies, behind only Houston Astros rookie sensation Yordan Alvarez.
And it’s not just against rookies that his raw numbers stand out. He’d be leading in line for the batting-average title, if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. Crunch the numbers and it’s extremely unlikely he’ll get enough trips to the plate to qualify this season (he’d need more than 7 per game, if he played in each of the Twins’ final 37 games), so consider him for now the batting leader with an asterisk. It doesn’t make his surge any less impressive in my book.
Remember how we all talked about Willians Astudillo having a crazy-low swinging strike rate? La Tortuga makes contact with 91.7% of the pitches he has swung at this season, according to FanGraphs. Arraez tops that with 91.8%, per FanGraphs.
Say this much for Arraez: For as often as he’s putting the ball in play, and given that he walks more often than he strikes out, the 22-year-old rookie certainly is giving himself a chance.
2. After Monday’s loss, the Twins still play their next 12 games against the White Sox and Tigers.
After a split in Milwaukee and a 4-game sweep against the Texas Rangers, the summer schedule is taking a turn for the better for the Twins. It got off on the wrong foot Monday. One would expect that it will soon turn back in the Twins’ favor.
The Tigers, at their current pace, will lose 112 games this year. The White Sox have been demonstrably better and are pacing to lose 90. Remember when the Twins were scoreboard watching and the Indians seemed to play 9 out of every 10 games against the Royals and Tigers? This is the turnabout that Twins fans have been waiting for.
At the risk of overstating things, I believe that this stretch of games will determine if the Twins will win the Central or if they’ll win the Central comfortably. And while the Yankees appear to be really running away with the League in terms of wins, a two-week string of cupcake games could also get the Twins back into the mix for hosting some postseason series, if they’re able to capitalize on the soft schedule.
Here are the win totals in the A.L. entering Monday:
Yankees – 83
Astros – 79
Twins – 76
Indians – 74
Rays – 73
A’s – 71
Red Sox – 67
Worth noting: One player warned Monday that as much as we might look at this as a light stretch on the outside — or in front offices — the players in the clubhouse are not in the business of taking teams lightly. The approach is the same, another player said Monday. I’ve stuck with my decision to view this season one-series-at-a-time, and based on what I heard Monday, some Twins players might consider my viewpoint to be too long-term focused.
3. Nelson Cruz returned from the Injured List on Monday, the first day that he was eligible.
His wrist appears to be fine.
Cruz drove an RBI single and then clobbered a pitch high off the right-field wall during an attempted 9th-inning rally for the Twins. Maybe it’s unfair to expect the 39-year-old to pick up right where he left off. Then again, he’s done it before.
Since the all-star break, the Twins’ MPV – most pivotal veteran – was hitting out of his mind. Cruz had an impressive-for-a-video-game batting line of .333/.429/.900 in his 106 plate appearances after the break. That included 16 home runs and 30 RBIs in one of the most unimaginable power stretches for an aging slugger since David Ortiz or Jim Thome.
Will Byron Buxton be back by the early part of September? If so, the lineup is back to looking on paper like one of the best in baseball, and the pitching staff and fielders will all get a needed shot of adrenaline.
4. Who will carry the Twins in the months of August and September?
Early in the season I was struck by the notion that when everything is going good in Bombasota, this club has so many players that can win you a game. It got a little ridiculous here for a while. How many players can win you a series? How many can carry a team for an entire month?
Well, early in the season it was Jorge Polanco. Forging his way to his first All-Star Game, as a starter no less, Polanco absolutely carried the Twins. His fielding was better at shortstop, and his bat made him one of the best hitters in baseball. Then Max Kepler emerged as a carrying force for a while. Byron Buxton always was there when he was healthy, if only because of his impact while poking doubles and suppressing runs in center field.
In July, it seemed like the page turned to guys like Miguel Sanó, Nelson Cruz and Mitch Garver to supply the firepower. In August it was Cruz again when he was surface-of-the-sun hot but then he got hurt and has missed some time; so it’s turned more recently back to Sanó and Marwin Gonzalez.
On the pitching side you’d say that alternately José Berríos and Jake Odorizzi carried the staff, with nice outings from Martín Pérez, Kyle Gibson and more recently Michael Pineda helping to distribute the load.
Think about how many baton carriers we’re talking about here. And this is failing to mention some impressive performances further down the list – Luis Arraez, C.J. Cron, Jason Castro and Ehire Adrianza.
So the question is simple. As the Twins try to get back to somewhere near full strength and the schedule eases up for a couple weeks – whose turn is it to carry the club?
5. Martín Pérez is almost back, question mark.
Before the Twins’ lefty took the mound against the Milwaukee Brewers last week, a Wisconsin-based radio station asked for my opinion on the starter. They hadn’t seen him much in his career, they said, so what should Brewers fans expect?
It felt like there was way too much to fit into one sound bite.
Well, the Twins signed him to a Major League deal with an option. It looked like a stretch. Then they sprinkled Wes Johnson’s Magic Dust on him – with a touch of Johan Santana? – and for a time Twins fans were wondering where in the heck did this guy come from? And did the team uncover Johan 2.0?
Well, that stretch ended with a thud, and for a dozen starts in a row Pérez was not the same guy. He had an ERA higher than 6.00 in that stretch and some wondered if the Twins would use last Monday’s off day to skip his turn in the rotation.
That was about as quickly as I could summarize the Martín Pérez Experience for an audience of Brewers fans that hadn’t seen him since he was a Ranger.
So, the Twins stuck with their veteran lefty and in his latest two outings, they were rewarded for that trust. Six innings and no earned runs against the Brewers, and 5 innings with 2 earned runs in Texas. The last two outings from Martín Pérez, I saw a guy who had his good fastball back at 95 mph, who got some bad swings and misses on his changeup, and who seemed to know the way to play the cut fastball against lineups that are now fully geared to look for it. The raw walk totals are higher than you’d like, although I think he suffered from some bad calls on borderline pitches. And his overall ability to get swinging strikes throughout a game could use a boost.
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