A few weeks into the 2006 season, Johan Santana was sitting on some numbers that weren’t in keeping with his usual high level of performance. His ERA and WHIP were up, and the wins weren’t there yet. Obviously, I tried to trade for him in all my fantasy leagues using the classic “buy low” strategy. Then, just over a month into the season, Minnesota moved Francisco Liriano into the starting rotation and it caused a feeding frenzy on the fantasy circuit. And for good reason – Liriano has been pretty much the best player in baseball since he became a starter.
On the flip side, when Twins first baseman Justin Morneau started hitting in mid May, fantasy owners turned a blind eye. When someone in a fantasy league offered him to me for Todd Helton, I waited about five seconds before rejecting the offer, and this was knowing full well that Helton is pretty much worthless. Needless to say, when Morneau caught fire, it wasn’t met with the same reaction as when Liriano started racking up the stats.
The reason is pretty simple and it can be summarized with the following cliché: Once bitten, twice shy. You see, Morneau was the guy everyone reached for in the eighth round of their drafts last year, only to see him flail and hack his way to a .239 batting average and meager .437 slugging percentage. It was going to take more than a three-homer week for me to willingly put him on my team.
Short story made long, I didn’t make the trade and I don’t have Morneau today.
Nor is fantasy baseball ultimately very relevant to what Justin Morneau has been doing for the past few months. But a funny thing happens when somebody makes you a trade offer, particularly one that you don’t accept. You find yourself paying a little closer attention to the guy you could have had. That’s why I started noticing every Morneau blast, all the runs he was driving in, and the steady climb in his batting average. Maybe that’s why I feel like I’m the only person alive that has any idea how good he’s been this year (warning: the “ridiculous exaggeration” filter is buzzing).
Everyone knows that the Twins have been on fire the last month and a half. The latest stat is 35-11 in their last 46 games and a glance at today’s standings shows them to be 18 games over .500 and a mere three games out of the American League Wild Card position.
Obviously, when a team gets this hot, there is sure to be a steady diet of columns and features examining, recapping, and explaining the sudden turn of events. Almost all of these stories have focused on three players: Santana, Liriano, and catcher Joe Mauer.
While all three have been amazing and arguably the best in baseball at their positions, it is Morneau – the Forgotten Lefty – that is the single Twin (kind of a funny pairing of words) most responsible for this dramatic turnaround.
I understand this is a bold statement. Santana won the Cy Young award in 2004, should have won it last year, and is right at the top of the list once again this season (12-5, 3.11 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 160 K’s in 156 IP). He is clearly the star of this team and the guy that anchors the pitching staff. Without him, Minnesota would not and could not compete.
Mauer is another guy that should get a ton of credit. He’s hitting .368 with a .441 OBP and serving as a reliable backstop behind the plate. Again, without him, it is hard to imagine the Twins being 18 games over .500.
That leaves Liriano and Morneau. Here we have two more extremely valuable players, but it gets even harder to figure out which guy is “most responsible” for the turnaround. Liriano has changed the entire pitching staff and the way teams approach series’ with Minnesota. It used to be that you only had to worry about Santana at the front of the rotation before going to work on their soft-tossers (Brad Radke, Jose Silva, etc.). The 2004 ALDS against the Yankees was a perfect example of this – New York basically conceded the Santana games and just bashed against the other guys. Now teams have to gear up for the most fearsome pair of lefty strikeout artists in recent memory and it makes a change-of-pace guy like Radke far more effective. So Liriano changes everything. Plus, his stats (12-2, 1.96 ERA, .96 WHIP, 137 K’s in 115 IP) are absolutely out of this world.
Lest I turn this into a Francisco Liriano column (which would, in turn, require me to turn it into a “Wow, I can’t believe the Giants traded Liriano and Nathan for A.J. Pierzynski” column), allow me to now explain why Justin Morneau is the guy that has ultimately turned things around for the Twinkies.
First, you have to understand how Minnesota baseball has worked for the past five years. Other than their brief fall from grace last year, the Twins have been the dominant team in the AL Central for this entire decade. They have won with pitching and defense and by bringing young players up through their farm system. Their one problem? They haven’t been able to get power from the middle of the order.
Last season – after a string of frustrating postseason exits – Minnesota entered spring training with an extra bit of optimism. Morneau was a young slugger that was home grown and ready to produce. He jacked 19 home runs after coming up in July of 2004 and seemed poised for a huge second season in the bigs. However, as detailed above, that plan didn’t exactly pan out.
Now? It’s a whole different story. Morneau is in the top 10 in the American League in batting average (.319, 9th), home runs (28, 7th), RBI (88, 3rd), and slugging percentage (.596, 7th) and has emerged as a legitimate MVP. However, his overall numbers don’t even begin to tell the story.
It seems like distant history now but the Twins were really struggling coming out of the gates. Because the AL Central was being billed as a Sox-Tribe clash before the season and because the Tigers have been so good, nobody really noticed that the Twins were brutal over the first two months, going 25-28 and scuffling along behind a punchless offense. Morneau was a primary offender, picking up where he left off in ’05 by hitting .253 with a slugging percentage under .500 over that period of time.
Once the calendar flipped to June (right about the time I passed on that trade), Morneau started raking the ball. Not surprisingly, the Twins started reeling off win after win. After a miserable first two months, Minnesota’s young left-handed power threat went crazy in June and July, hitting .387 with 18 home runs, 52 RBI, and a whopping .719 slugging percentage over that span. As for Minnesota, they ran up a 36-15 record during that time and got right back in the race.
There is no denying the impact that Morneau has on this team. Just as I prefaced this column, one simply can’t overlook Santana’s consistence brilliance, Mauer’s high level performance, or Liriano’s insane numbers. However, there is one key on the Twins roster who’s success exactly mirrors that of his team and that is Morneau. His presence in the middle of the order is changing the entire complexion of games for Minnesota. They no longer have to scratch and claw for hits and max out their bullpen arms in an effort to squeak out one-run games.
Santana and Liriano aren’t worried about losing the game by making one mistake. The offense isn’t going days on end without home runs anymore. Most importantly, the Twins finally have a guy that takes opposing pitchers out of their rhythm. There might not be anything more important in baseball than getting a pitcher to stop and think. For what felt like an eternity, the Twins lacked that bat. Now they have one.
I’m not sure what is more surprising about this whole situation: the fact that Morneau is playing the way he is or that nobody seems to notice. You never hear his name mentioned, even when people are specifically discussing the Twins. It’s really kind of amazing. One thing is for sure though – if he plays the next two months the same way he played the last two, his numbers will read something like .335/46/140/.630 and you will probably be looking at the 2006 AL MVP.
I’m guessing that at that point, people will finally take notice of the Twins’ forgotten lefty.