Inbox: Can Twins' offense keep up fast start?
Beat reporter Rhett Bollinger answers Minnesota fans' questions
After sweeping the Royals over the weekend, the Twins are back at .500 after 12 games.
Minnesota has seen some encouraging signs from the offense, but the pitching has mostly struggled so far, which leads right into the first question of the first Twins Inbox of the 2014 season:
The Twins didn't make any major additions to the lineup, but they've been producing so far this season. What's been the biggest reason? And can they keep it up?
-- Daniel O., St. Paul, Minn.
The two biggest changes for the Twins this season are that they're getting on base at a higher rate than last season and actually cashing in with runners in scoring position.
The Twins ranked 20th in the Majors with a .312 on-base percentage last year, but they finished 25th in the Majors in runs scored, as they struggled with runners in scoring position. Minnesota's hitters combined to hit just .225 with runners in scoring position last year, which was the second-worst mark in baseball.
This year, the Twins have a collective .340 on-base percentage that ranks tied for fourth in the Majors, while they're also hitting .266/.381/.367 with runners in scoring position.
They also lead the Majors in walks with 59, which is actually an area in which they fared well last year, as they ranked seventh in the Majors in that category with 533.
Minnesota has simply been buoyed by strong starts from players such as Jason Kubel, Kurt Suzuki, Trevor Plouffe and Chris Colabello. Brian Dozier has also added four homers, while Josmil Pinto has three in spot duty as a backup catcher and designated hitter. Joe Mauer didn't get his first RBI until Friday, but he still has a .386 on-base percentage.
The Twins have to hope players such as Plouffe, Colabello and Dozier have turned the corner, while also hoping that veterans such as Kubel, Mauer and Josh Willingham continue to produce. The offense won't be this good all season, but it's still an encouraging start.
What has been your impression of the Twins early this season? It seems like the opposite of what most expected, with the offense faring well, but the starting pitching faltering.
-- Travis A., Plymouth, Minn.
It's definitely true that the offense has carried the Twins through their first 12 games of the season, as they entered Monday tied for third in the Majors in runs scored with 67. They've also scored at least 10 runs in three games this year after doing it just six times all of last season.
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But as much as the offense has been solid, the pitching hasn't fared any better than last season in the early going, despite the signings of Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes and Mike Pelfrey.
Twins starters have combined to post a 5.40 ERA, which ranks 28th in the Majors, ahead of only the Rockies and D-backs, and is slightly worse than the 5.26 ERA posted by Minnesota's starters last year. And Twins relievers also have struggled to a 4.79 ERA, which is more than a run higher than their 3.50 ERA last season.
But the Twins saw some good signs from their rotation over the weekend in their sweep over the Royals, as Kyle Gibson, Nolasco and Kevin Correia turned in consecutive quality starts. So the pitching does figure to get better as the season goes along, but the offense will also see some regression after such a hot start.
Minnesota, though, has to be pleased with its .500 record, and the Twins have outscored their opponents by three runs, so it hasn't exactly been a fluke.
What does Eduardo Nunez bring? And can we expect him to be in the Majors soon?
-- Jim P., Eden Prairie, Minn.
Nunez, 26, was acquired by the Twins last week from the Yankees for Minor League left-hander Miguel Sulbaran.
Nunez is a better hitter than shortstop Pedro Florimon, as he's a career .267/.313/.379 hitter in parts of four seasons with the Yanks. But he's also struggled defensively his entire career, according to advanced defensive metrics.
Florimon ranked tied for second in the Majors among shortstops with 12 defensive runs saved in 1,099 2/3 innings last year, while Nunez ranked last in the Majors with minus-28 DRS in 608 1/3 innings, according to FanGraphs.com.
Nunez still has to prove he can fare better defensively before he's handed the shortstop job over Florimon. But Nunez is still likely to be recalled from Triple-A soon, and he is expected to see time as a utility infielder, while giving Florimon some competition at shortstop after his slow start offensively.
What defensive skills does Pinto need to work on? Footwork, blocking balls in the dirt or arm strength? Does he have the ability to call a proper game?
-- Steven R., Rochester, Minn.
Pinto essentially has to work on all those things, as he still has plenty of work to do before becoming a solid defensive catcher.
The other skill Pinto needs to work on is pitch framing, as he struggled in that area as a rookie last year, according to data at BaseballProspectus.com. He's also had difficulty throwing out attempting basestealers, and he dealt with shoulder issues last season that lingered into the offseason. But the Twins still believe that Pinto is capable of sticking at catcher, and clearly his bat is Major League ready. Pinto had an impressive showing as a September callup last season, and he already has three homers in just seven starts this year.
Isn't this the season where Pelfrey is supposed to turn the corner in his second year coming back from Tommy John surgery? He seems to be the same pitcher from last year so far this season.
-- John L., Fargo, N.D.
It's only been two starts, but Pelfrey has struggled this year, with a 7.84 ERA with six strikeouts, seven walks and four homers allowed in 10 1/3 innings. Most pitchers regain their command in their second year back from Tommy John surgery, but Pelfrey hasn't shown that yet this year with the seven free passes he's issued.
Pelfrey's tempo also isn't much better, as he's taking 23.4 seconds between pitches after taking a career-high 24.6 seconds between pitches last year, according to Fangraphs.com. His fastball velocity is also down, as he's averaging 91.3 mph this year after averaging 92.3 mph last year.
So it hasn't been encouraging for Pelfrey, but keep in mind it's only two starts, and they both came against playoff teams from last season -- the Indians and A's. The Twins still believe he can build on the second half of last year, and that's why he was brought back on a two-year, $11 million deal this offseason.