One of my favorite stories of the season - and one that I will maintain doesn't get enough attention until my last breath - is how well the Twins have done without Justin Morneau. Morneau, you may recall, was hitting like an MVP candidate at the time of his concussion, with a .354 average and a 1.055 OPS. Then he got hurt, and he's missed 68 consecutive games.
And over those 68 consecutive games, the Twins have gone 47-21 to pull away in the AL Central and even clinch it outright before any other division leader. The Twins, right now, are tied with the Yankees for the best record in baseball. That's nothing short of amazing. How would the Nationals do without Ryan Zimmerman? How would the Reds do without Joey Votto? How would the Tigers do without Miguel Cabrera? Without Justin Morneau, one could argue that the Twins have played the best baseball they've ever played.
Unsurprisingly, what we see in the numbers is that the Twins' run prevention has been a lot better since Morneau went away. At the time of his injury, the Twins had a 3.96 ERA. In the two and a half months since, that's dropped all the way to 3.46. I don't think this is connected to Morneau in any way - it's not like Morneau is the worst defensive player of all time - but when a team goes on a stretch of winning 70% of its games, you expect the numbers to reflect some improvement. The big key to the Twins' survival without Morneau is that they've just stopped allowing runs.
But that isn't the whole of it. See, it isn't just the Twins' run prevention that's kicked it up a notch. Morneau's last appearance came on the seventh of July.
Offense, through July 7th: .767 OPS
Offense, since July 8th: .781 OPS
The Twins have actually been a better offensive team without Morneau than with him. The difference isn't enormous, but their batting average has jumped from .272 to .284, and we've seen a corresponding increase in runs per game, from 4.7 to 5.2. It hasn't just been about the run prevention. The Twins have just stepped it up overall.
How? Well, there are a number of people to thank. For one thing, Danny Valencia emerged as the solution at third base right around when Morneau went down. For another, Joe Mauer's batted .368 since July 8th. Additionally, Jim Thome has gone from starting a fraction of the Twins' games to starting a majority of them, and he's OPS'd 1.118 since the injury. Finally, JJ Hardy has taken off after an extended early-season slump.
So those are the four big reasons. Without Mauer, the Twins have seen production out of shortstop and third base, and they've seen increased production out of catcher and DH. Decent players have played well, and good players have played great.
Justin Morneau's status now, with the playoffs approaching, is unclear. Morneau himself is optimistic, and he's been working out a little bit, but concussions are unpredictable, and the symptoms may return or worsen at any time. What the Twins have rather remarkably established, however, is that they don't need him. That sounds more cruel than I intend, but it's true. Could they use him? Sure. Every team in baseball could use a bat like Morneau's. But in the event that he can't come back, or that he does come back and proves to be a bit rusty, the Twins can survive. They've gotten by this long, and while performances like, say, Valencia's, or Mauer's over his hot streak are unsustainable, there's enough talent and depth in there to absorb a big loss.
Jim Thome has been the acquisition of the year.