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Five Numbers: Justin Morneau's New Approach, A Concern For The Giants' Rotation, And More

Each week, SB Nation's Jeff Sullivan provides commentary on five up-to-date statistics you'll probably want to know. They are not the five most important statistics in baseball, but much like SB Nation's Jeff Sullivan, they're kind of a big deal.

Let's go! Let's go! Let's go! We're wasting time here!

1)      27.4%

For as long as I can remember, the Twins have been the 2010 favorites in the AL Central. They've been the favorites as much because they're a solid team as because they play in a division short on high-level talent. Only the Tigers looked as if they could pose much of a threat, and, sure enough, nearly two months into the year, only the Tigers are hanging around.

The playoffs, then, have long looked like a good possibility for Minnesota. The Twins are no strangers to postseason play, having advanced in five of the last eight seasons. However, over those five trips to the playoffs, the Twins have won just six games. If this Twins team wanted to do more than just show up - if they wanted to make some real October noise - they'd need their star players to carry them.

So far, it's worked. Household names like Joe Mauer and Jim Thome have been terrific. Soon-to-be household name Francisco Liriano has been great. Nobody, though, has impressed more than former MVP Justin Morneau. Through nearly 200 trips to the plate, Morneau has batted an unthinkable .369/.487/.675, failing to reach base only four times in 44 games. Were voting to be held today, Morneau would (likely) again be voted the American League's Most Valuable Player.

Morneau's current 1.162 OPS is a full 228 points higher than his previous career best, and nearly 300 points higher than it was a year ago. What's going on? How has Morneau turned an already productive bat into a lethal one?

It is important to recognize that Morneau's current batting average on balls in play is .425, against a career mark of .294. Justin Morneau is not going to keep hitting .370 all year long. There's going to be some statistical regression as more time gets put in the books. But Morneau's improvement isn't just coming on singles. He's hitting more extra-base hits than ever before - one per 7.6 trips to the plate, compared to one per 9.8 for his career. He was already powerful. Now he's superhuman.

And the ‘why', I think, lies in the fact that Morneau just isn't putting the ball on the ground anymore.

Career: 40.6% groundballs
2009: 41.5% groundballs
2010: 27.4% groundballs

Morneau isn't Ichiro. He's never had much success on groundballs. So he's stopped hitting them. He's hit more than three-quarters of his balls in play in the air, and the results speak for themselves. He's sacrificed nothing in the way of contact or discipline, and he's made significant gains in the power department. He's upped his rate of extra-base hits per ball in play by half over what it used to be. That's absolutely remarkable. And the fact that Morneau has just two dingers at home compared to nine on the road leads one to wonder whether Target Field might even be holding him back.

Mechanically, I can't explain why everything Morneau's hitting is going in the air. We can all, however, observe that it's worked. Justin Morneau seems to have taken a big step forward in 2010, and for a Twins team that's looking to make a deep run in the playoffs, the timing couldn't be better.

2)      .682

At 23-22, it's hard to call the Giants a surprise. They are what they've been for a while, and what they were expected to be again in 2010 - a team that's as bad at pushing runs across the plate as it is good at preventing them. Losers of six of their past seven games, the Giants have dropped four games in the standings, and they're in jeopardy of being left behind by the three teams in front.

While the team has had its ups and downs, though, one can't fault the starting rotation. At least, not the front 80% of it. Todd Wellemeyer hasn't been good, but Tim Lincecum, Jonathan Sanchez, Barry Zito, and Matt Cain have combined to allow just 81 runs in 37 starts, for an RA of 3.00. The substantial steps forward by the middle of the rotation have kept the Giants afloat.

However, the middle of the rotation keeps a dark secret. If you navigate to the Baseball Prospectus statistics page, you'll find a link titled "Pitcher's Quality of Opponents." Click that link, enter a minimum of 20 innings, and sort by OPS in ascending order. You'll see Cain, Sanchez, and Zito near the top of the list. This list? Pitchers who've faced the easiest opposition.  

Matt Cain has faced the fourth-easiest opposition in baseball, as the batters he's seen have combined for a .680 OPS. Jonathan Sanchez comes in at sixth-easiest, at .681. Barry Zito comes in at seventh-easiest, at .684. Altogether, these three guys have faced opposing batters with a total OPS of .682.

That figure of .682 is weak, and it serves, at least in part, to explain why those three guys are posting tiny ERAs. San Diego, Pittsburgh, and Houston have had the worst offenses in the National League so far. Cain, Sanchez, and Zito have faced those offenses 13 times out of 27 starts. Nearly half of their outings have come against feeble lineups. Meanwhile, they've combined for but a single outing against one of the NL's five most potent orders. Pretty much all of their innings have come against opposition that's either average or worse.

Matt Cain, Barry Zito, and Jonathan Sanchez are all very talented pitchers. Each is perfectly capable of holding down a Major League rotation spot without embarrassing himself. Given the batters they've faced in the early going, though, it seems highly unlikely that they will sustain the success they've had to date. The opposition will get tougher, the numbers will get worse, and the Giants very well may sink with them.

3)      .771

Now take that same list and flip it. Sort by OPS again, this time in descending order. At #1, you'll see Jonathan Papelbon. Which is interesting enough. But what I find really interesting is the name at #2.

Tyler Clippard.

You know Clippard's name because he's tied for second in baseball in wins, at seven. Tied for second, despite being a reliever. He's behind Ubaldo Jimenez, tied up with David Price, and ahead of everybody else in the league. That's incredible, and while no one worth anything puts much stock in pitcher wins as a statistic, relievers generally don't pick up their seventh win in May if they're not doing something right.

Tyler Clippard has done a lot of things right, and what makes his achievement all the more astonishing is that he's done it against the second-toughest opposition in baseball, as the batters he's faced have combined for a .771 OPS.

Clippard made 41 appearances for the Nationals a year ago. His quality of opponent in 2009 was .741 - 30 points lower than it's been so far this season. Results?

Year

RA

H%

K%

BB%

HR%

2009

2.98

14.6

27.2

13.0

3.7

2010

1.99

14.7

27.1

12.4

1.6

 
Despite facing tougher hitters, Clippard has turned in a superior performance. He still struggles with his command a good bit, but he misses bats and he avoids solid contact by mixing a good fastball with two breaking balls and a dynamite change. When you look at Clippard's line, you might think the wins are pretty lucky, but there's no arguing the fact that he's still a very good reliever.

At 25 years old, Tyler Clippard's career may just be beginning. Some might suggest that, at fewer than 100 career innings out of the bullpen, Clippard has yet to really prove himself. Well, he's proven himself. He's proven himself against a collection of strong bats, and he's passed with flying colors.

4)      48.6%

Glance at the standings in the AL East right now and you won't be too terribly surprised. The top three teams - Tampa Bay, New York, and Boston - were all expected to be the top three teams, and while the order might seem a little unfamiliar, each roster is just littered with premium talent.

Look below Boston, though, and you'll see the Blue Jays lingering just half a game back. This was supposed to be a three-team division, so the fact that Toronto hasn't gone away comes as a welcome change of pace. How have they done it? How have the no-name Jays managed to keep pace with the two highest payrolls in the league?

They've done it by beating the crap out of the ball. The pitching's been pretty good, too, powered along by a bushel of strikeouts, but it's the lineup that's keeping Toronto competitive, as the Jays' lineup leads the Majors in doubles, homers, and - sure enough - runs scored. If you're a fan of slugging percentage, then you ought to be a fan of the Blue Jays.

What I find most interesting about the Jays, though, isn't that they're blasting the snot out of everything. It's that they're blasting the snot out of everything with an ultra-aggressive approach. See, the Jays don't just lead the league in extra-base hits. They also lead the league in swings. The Jays have posted a swing rate of 48.6% - highest in baseball, and a full 1.5% higher than second place. This offense has very nearly swung at half of the pitches it's seen.

An offense, of course, is a large collection of individual players, but let's pretend for one moment that the Toronto offense is one person. One person with the following characteristics:

-league-leading fly ball rate
-league-leading strikeout rate
-low walk rate
-league-leading slugging percentage

I don't know about you, but I look over that list and think "giant uppercut." The Jays have been hitting like a lineup with a bunch of giant uppercuts.

It isn't that simple, of course. Some guys, like Jose Bautista and Lyle Overbay, have shown some discipline. Others, like Alex Gonzalez and John Buck, have not. Team-wide characteristics don't apply to every single player on the roster. However, for simplicity's sake, we can say that the Jays' lineup has hit like a lineup of nine Cody Rosses. These guys like to swing, and they like to swing hard.

Power isn't everything, but the Jays have 14 more homers and 31 more extra-base hits than the next-closest team. As long as the lineup keeps producing like this, Toronto's going to stick around for the long haul. A four-team race? Two months in, I don't see any compelling reason to doubt it.  

5)      83.2%

Generally speaking, I hate hearing about the Yankees' problems. It's not that the Yankees don't have problems. They do. But by and large, their problems make me feel like my team is a pile of crap. Oh, Mark Teixeira is struggling? They still have the top OPS in the league. Oh, Javy Vazquez hurt his finger? He's the fifth guy in their rotation. And on, and on.

This season, though, the Yankees have had one problem that's made them seem almost human. And that problem has been a bullpen that, to date, has been mediocre. Even Mariano Rivera allowed five runs in a three-game span. If Mariano Rivera is struggling, what hope do the rest of us have?

The Yankee bullpen has not been terrible. Far from it, in fact. The Royal bullpen has been terrible. The Yankee bullpen has just been unimpressive. The Yankee bullpen, as a whole, has posted the third-lowest strikeout rate in the American League, a middle-of-the-pack ERA, and a contact rate of 83.2% that's better than only Cleveland's, and a full 7.1% behind league-leading Oakland.

In short, the Yankee bullpen has been hittable. And that's with Joba Chamberlain getting back to where he was earlier in his career. Rivera's contact rate is the worst it's ever been. David Robertson still misses a lot of bats, but he's missing fewer than he did a year ago. And the middle relievers have pitched like run-of-the-mill middle relievers. This isn't a crippling problem, as Rivera is Rivera, Joba's terrific, and Robertson is better than he's shown, but the Yankees are to be held to a higher standard, and their bullpen hasn't performed up to said standard so far.

Chad Gaudin can pitch well when he doesn't have to face lefties, so bringing him back was a good idea. Yet that move could also be interpreted as revealing New York's desperation to find more reliable relief. The Rays' bullpen has been spectacular. The Jays' bullpen has been good as well. The Yankees have had some trouble, in a similar way to how the Red Sox have had some trouble. This is one area where the cheaper competitors in the division have an advantage, and it's one area that could make a big difference down the stretch.

Gun to my head, I think the Yankees will survive. They do have the talent to succeed, and they have to resources to add other talent if their current talent doesn't soon improve. But it's refreshing to see a team like that have to deal with a real, normal concern. Parity lives. To some degree.