Pat Borzi of MinnPost wrote a column last week suggesting that the current iteration of the Twins lacks heart
. He drew a comparison to the 2002 team, which was being celebrated during the opening series at Target Field, stating that it's "hard to imagine this roster, especially the younger players, clawing and scrapping like their counterparts from 10 years ago."
I don't know about all that, but I would say this team has been suffering from the absence of the heart of its lineup, as the No. 3 and 4 hitters have been largely invisible early in the season.
Last Thursday's game was one that harkened back to the good old days, with Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau both homering and carrying the team to victory. Not coincidentally, it was by far the best day the Twins have had offensively. Outside of that game, however, Mauer and Morneau are a combined 12-for-57 (.211) with two extra-base hits in eight contests.
There are a number of reasons that the Twins have scored three or fewer runs in seven of their nine games, but the silence from the M&M boys stands out distinctly. The lineup needs those two producing in order to function, and thus far neither player has done much of anything (other than staying on the field) to quell the concerns that surrounded them entering the campaign.
Mauer's plate approach has been fine, as he's been taking good at-bats and drawing walks, but that was also true last year. Outside of his home run last Thursday he hasn't been hitting the ball with authority. One of the most troubling underlying trends in his disappointing 2011 campaign was a career-high 55.4 percent grounder rate (and an accompanying career-low 21.5 percent fly ball rate); he's now put over 60 percent of balls in play in the dirt this year after grounding out in both of his non-walk plate appearances Sunday (including his league-leading fourth GIDP).
It's too early to draw definitive conclusions but thus far Mauer is exhibiting the same flaws that principally contributed to a .355 slugging percentage last season. This raises concern that he either: A) isn't as strong and healthy as we'd like to believe, or B) has fundamentally changed as a hitter. I don't know which would be worse.
Mauer could still be a decent hitter with the elevated grounder rate but he won't be a game-changing offensive force and he'll continue to kill rallies with frequent twin killings. Hopefully as the season progresses he can start lifting the ball more frequently.
Morneau's issues at the plate have been more worrisome, because unlike Mauer he's looked flat-out overmatched. After fanning in three of his four at-bats on Sunday, the designated hitter has 10 strikeouts against two walks in 37 plate appearances. That's a whiff rate of 27 percent -- a sizable uptick from his 15 percent career rate.
The main problem is that Morneau has been far too aggressive. He's swinging at 41.5 percent of pitches outside of the zone (career rate: 33.6 percent) and 55.4 percent of all pitches (career rate: 47.5 percent). When he's going good, Morneau patiently works the count to his favor and capitalizes on mistakes. Too often this year he's been falling into holes and chasing pitchers' pitches.
The Canadian can still crush the ball when he makes good contact, as demonstrated by his two doubles in Baltimore and his prodigious blast to right field on Thursday, but his pitch recognition and reactions are not up to snuff. These were noticeable deficiencies for him last April as well, and unfortunately injuries cropped up and took a toll before he had much chance to prove that he could overcome them.
The hope is that Morneau's lack of sharpness at the plate is more attributable to rust – due to playing irregularly since his July 2010 concussion – rather than the injury itself. If he can stay healthy and on the field we'll see how the quality of his at-bats improves. Personally, I get the sense that Morneau tends to get in his own head and that bad swings are stewing while he sits on the bench, causing him to press. I'll be interested to see if playing in the field, which he'll apparently start doing this week
, helps his approach.
It's too early to panic with either of these players, but up to this point they haven't really shown signs that they're ready to reverse course after dismal 2011 campaigns. It would be awfully nice if they could begin doing so this week in New York.
The Twins aren't going to win many games if they're not scoring runs in bunches, and this offense is going to have a tough time finding a pulse with the two players who comprise the heart of the lineup flatlining.