My first game this year at Target Field was yesterday, Wednesday April 13th. 807 years ago, the Fourth Crusade turned from their goal of reaching Palestine, and instead sacked and pillaged Constantinople, thus bringing an end to the Byzantine Empire's unbroken near-millenia of hegemony over the Balkan and Anatolian region.
Yesterday, I may have witnessed something no less historically devastating to a concept that had endured throughout what, in baseball years, verged upon 1000 years of acceptance: the Twins pitching philosophy of "pitching to contact" - that is to say, throw strikes, let the batter put wood on the ball more often than you otherwise might, and trust your elite defense to get the job done behind you.
The Twins trotted out the following defense:
p - Francisco Liriano
c - Drew Butera
1b - Justin Morneau
2b - Michael Cuddyer
3b - Danny Valencia
ss - Matt Tolbert
lf - Delmon Young
cf - Denard Span
rf - Jason Kubel
Some Twins fans are already rolling their eyes. But for the uninitiated, let me illustrate just what's wrong here. First off, the only above-average defense in this lineup comes from Drew Butera and Justin Morneau, both of whom field their positions extremely well. That said, gold glove defense at first base is kind of like winning the participant trophy in a sack-of-potatoes race. You don't pay your first baseman for his glovework, you pay him to S-L-U-G. And Butera's defense in no way, shape or form makes up for his complete lack of ability to hit major-league pitching!
Matt Tolbert and Danny Valencia will never win any awards on defense. Below average defense (and these two are both slightly below average) at third base could be picked up by an excellent shortstop, or somewhat vice versa, but these two guys ARE the third baseman and shortstop! So that doesn't work, now does it?
And Michael Cuddyer... oh, Michael Cuddyer. You are both Ron Gardenhire's and my mom's favorite Twin. And when you stalk the outfield in right, ranging the middle distance, catching fly balls and gunning down the occasional runner, you are doing allright. But second base? Michael Cuddyer DOES NOT HAVE THE RANGE TO PLAY SECOND BASE. His position is right field, where he is fine. And when he can't play in right, Jason Kubel has to. And Kubel is a below-average right fielder, primarily because he cannot get to the fly balls that others can. Bloops land more often for singles. Line drives find the gap more often for doubles.
Delmon Young is not a great defensive left fielder. But as with first basemen, we don't pay our left fielders to field, we pay them to launch monster bombs, and I won't be ragging on Delmon here because as of last year, he's become a great hitter. Still, this entry is about defense, and there's no denying it: Delmon's defense stinks, and unlike his hitting these past few years, it probably won't get much better.
And Denard Span? Good, but not good enough to make up for the fact that a center fielder who looks left and sees Kubel and looks right and sees Young is going to need incredible speed and reflexes to compensate for the lack of corner outfield defense.
Francisco Liriano is supposed to be our one strikeout guy. He's the one pitcher who is supposed to not NEED to pitch to contact. But in the game I went to, during the fourth inning (aka The Fourth Crusade, with the Royals batsmen playing the Crusaders and the Twins the hapless Byzantines), the Royals scored six runs, and here were the devastatingly-crushed ball-clobberings from the Royals arsenal:
1. A ground ball single to left field (past Danny Valencia and Matt Tolbert)
2. A ground ball single to center field (past Matt and Michael Cuddyer)
3. A ground ball single left (past Danny and Matt)
4. A ground ball single to center (past Matt and Michael)
5. A "soft line drive" to left (Delmon Young can't get it)
6. A ground ball double to left (past Danny, and Delmon can't come up with it quickly enough)
7. A "soft fly ball" to right field (Jason Kubel can't get it)
8. A ground ball single to second base (Michael can't make the play in time to prevent the run)
Do you detect a pattern? With the exception of the double to left field, not one of these was a hard-hit ball. Even average defense quite possibly ends this inning with fewer runs scored. The Twins would hope for a defense that would record at least two outs between items 1 and 5. The Royals should have scored 2 runs that inning, 3 on a bad day for the Twins. This was no bad day - this was THE FALL OF CONSTANTINOPLE!!!
I read today in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that the Twins are asking Francisco Liriano to alter his approach on the mound from strikeout machine to pitch-to-contact Twins company man. If this is the case, then we are in for a long season unless the Twins do something to improve their defense behind their pitchers. And yes, the game I attended featured the C-list defense.
But even when Tsuyoshi Nishioka was healthy, he seemed to be nervous in the field, and unable to communicate properly with Alexei Casilla, who himself is the maddening kind of shortstop who will completely amaze you with an impossible play one inning, then next inning make you tear your hair out in frustration when he takes a routine grounder and sails the throw to first over Justin Morneau's head into the dugout.
I miss O-Dog.
Saturday April 16th is Record Store Day. Support your local record store! Take that $20 you were gonna blow at some tacky restaurant, and mosey on down to Hymie's and pick up two or three great used LPs you always wanted but never had. Walk on down to Extreme Noise and grab that Chiefs reissue you always wanted but never pulled the trigger on. Visit Treehouse and grab a couple CDs. Stop at Yeti and buy a cassetti! These are Twin Cities-centric instructions, true, but the advice applies to all folks in all cities. Support your local record store! To paraphrase Johnny Thunders: you can't put your arms around an mp3.