Monday, August 30, 2010

Previewing Tigers v. Twins

Wow is it good to be home or what? The Twins as a team seemed to hit the skids offensively over the recently-ended 7 game road-trip that mercifully saw them go 3-4. The team has been much better offensively at home, here's a couple players that perform much better at Target Field:

Denard Span
Home: .324/.399/.411
Away: .222/.281/.301

Home: .291/.391/.429
Away: .279/.330/.385

Delmon Young
Home: .327/.353/.500
Away: .289/.321/.490

bit of a Sample Size problem here, but Danny Valencia
Home: .413/.447/.550
Away: .258/.313/.350

The Twins have a number of things working in their favor against Detroit. Here's some highlights.

1.) The Tigers are a terrible road team. The Twins are a mediocre 35-34 on the road but they look like world beaters compared to the Tigers who have a 22-41 road record. To put that in perspective a little bit, Detroit is the 6th worst team in baseball on the road and only the Diamondbacks, Nationals, Mariners, Orioles and Pirates have worse road records. Conversely, the Twins have the 4th best home record in baseball at 40-22 and are starting a very welcome 9-game home stand.

2.) The pitching match-ups appear quite favorable. Tomorrow features Brian Duensing for the Twins vs. Armando Galarraga for the Tigers. Galarraga has pitched well over his last couple of outings, but has a brutal 6.44 road ERA this year and Twins hitters have eaten him alive with a .302/.406/.491 career-against line.Wednesday's game pits Detroit's Max Scherzer vs. Francisco Liriano for the Twins. Scherzer has been pitching very well of late winning 3 out of his past 4 starts and lowering his ERA to a season-low 3.60. That said, in two starts against the Twins this year, he's been rocked for 18 hits and 16 runs in 8 innings. Thursday's game looks like the most difficult on paper for the Twins as the Tigers throw out Justin Verlander against Scott Baker for the Twins. Verlander has a pedestrian 4.53 road ERA this season but owns a 1.64 ERA against the Twins in two starts this year. Many of the Twins hitters have good averages against Verlander and it's worth noting that this will be Verlander's first road start against the Twins this season.

3.) The Twins have something to play for, the Tigers do not. At 10 games back with 31 games to go, the Tigers are effectively done. I know everyone wants to make something for the "spoiler" teams in baseball, those teams who are essentially out of it who somehow derive some satisfaction from bringing down the teams in contention. These guys get paid TONS OF MONEY to play, I doubt there is much more motivation than that. With the Sox playing Cleveland, the the Twins have every reason to play these games at 100% to preserve or grow that precious 4.5 game division lead. There was a slightly simplistic, but decent article by Howard Sinker today at the Star Tribune about that 4.5 game lead, check it out if you have a couple minutes.

4.) The Twins are a very good against AL Central opponents. With a 33-18 record against AL Central foes, the Twins set themselves apart as every other AL Central team has a losing record in the division. Detroit is 24-26 in the division and have lost 7 out of 12 games against the Twins this year. Minnesota has also won 5 of 6 games against Detroit at home so far this year.

I fully expect the Twins to play well in this series which would be a nice confidence boost headed into the weekend and a 3-game set with the Rangers. I keep checking everyday for updates on Justin Morneau, I wish there was some news of an upcoming rehab stint or something, but no...nothing. Blackburn was incredible on Saturday and gives me hope that he can keep it up. I'd love to see the Twins with at least a 5-7 game lead headed into their series with the White Sox next week, I think that would be quite comfortable and set the stage for a knockout punch. Go Twins.

Friday, August 27, 2010

THE Critical Part of the Season

Fortunately for the Twins, they were able to avoid the sweep in Texas last night, maintaining a 3.5 game lead heading into what has to be a critical part of the schedule for them over the next 12 games. The Twins took advantage of a struggling Cliff Lee and the bullpen held on for a 2-run victory; they must be happy to leave Texas after a couple of tough 1-run losses and a frustrating series overall. Next up is Seattle which is no walk in the park, but at least they avoid having to face Felix Hernandez who has been very dominant of late.

The reason the upcoming 12 games are so critical is because of the potential opportunity the Twins could have to put some distance between themselves and the White Sox. The Yankees and White Sox start a 3 game series tonight in Chicago and then the White Sox go on the road for a nice little 10-game road-trip to Cleveland, Boston and Detroit. Meanwhile, the Twins have the 3-game set in Seattle this weekend and then come home for against Detroit, Texas and Kansas City. So you can see, the opportunity may certainly be there for the Twins to extend their division lead should they play well while the White Sox play a much tougher schedule on the road. With a mere three head-to-head games remaining, the more distance the Twins can create, the less meaningful those games will be.

Random Notes

As the Washington Nationals and baseball fans everywhere await the MRI results for Stephen Strasburg, I thought I'd do a little digging and see if there are have been any signs that are typical of someone who's headed for Tommy John surgery (well EFF, as I'm writing this the results come out, looks like he's headed for TJ Surgery...what a shame).

First, I went over to and using the PitchFX tool, took a look at Strasburg's average fastball speeds over his 12 Major League starts. His average fastball speed topped out in his 2nd start where he threw the heater at an average clip of 98.51mph.  The lowest average came on July 16th at 96.72mph. In the last start before his most recent trip to the DL, his average fastball was 97.55mph. I prepared a graph charting the average speed of his various pitches in each start.

Anyway, I guess it's all moot now, he's most likely going to have the surgery and we'll be waiting until 2012 to see what he can do post-surgery...I wonder how loud the "rookie salary structure" people will get now?

Meanwhile, TJ survivor Francisco Liriano turned in a solid outing last night against the potent Texas Rangers, striking out 7 in 7 solid innings of work. He still holds a Major League-best 2.31 FIP and is only 2nd to Roy Halladay in xFIP at 3.01. He won't get any consideration for the AL Cy Young award, but he's certainly pitched like an elite starter this year, it's a shame that Wins and ERA continue to be the two main standards that decide who gets the award.

The Twins "magic number" is at 32. The lowest Magic Number in the Majors right now is the Texas Rangers at 28. If the Twins were to lose the division lead, they currently sit 5.5 back (behind NY or Tampa depending on how you look at it) in the Wild Card chase.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

It's the Little Things...

Two things happened in last night's 4-3 loss to the Rangers that infuriated me; little mistakes that likely cost the Twins a valuable win. Neither mistake will appear in the box score, but they were game altering plays nevertheless.

The first error occurred in the bottom of the 4th inning. Josh Hamilton had started off the inning with a homer, a solo shot that tied the game at 2. Guerrero then grounded out, Murphy struck out and with 2 outs, Bengie Molina stepped up to the plate. He hit a fly ball to the gap in right center which both Span and Kubel chased, but at the last second, Kubel freaked out and the ball dropped, a ball that could and should have been caught. That would have been the 3rd out of the inning, but instead the inning continued, Moreland hit an infield single, Blanco his a ground-rule double and the Twins escaped the inning, but were now down a run instead of tied.

The second costly error came in the top of the 7th; Delmon had reached on an infield single, moved to 3rd on a single by Valencia, scored on a double by Casilla and with NOBODY out in the 7th, the Twins had tied the game and had men at 2nd and 3rd. Butera lined out to 3rd and luckily for Valencia, it happened so fast that he didn't even have time to react off of 3rd. So again, 1 out, men on 2nd and 3rd. DSpan was the next batter and hit a sharp grounder to 1st which was played cleanly by Moreland; inexplicably Valencia broke for home and was thrown out on a close play at home. I can understand running on a ground-ball to the SS, 2nd basemen or up the middle, but not to a corner infielder. This is the second or third time in the past week or so that the Twins have had a batter thrown out at the plate in a close game, including a play involving Jim Thome against the Sox where he was out by a mile. Granted, in this situation DSpan would have been out anyway and there still would have been 2 outs, men on 2nd and 3rd, but to me that's much more pressure on a pitcher than 2 outs, men on 1st and 3rd, maybe that's just me.

I realize that good players have bad games and that players make mistakes and that's a part of baseball. But to me, when a team has a goal and they have aspirations of a winning a championship, there is a focus that should be there. Dropping a catch-able fly ball (let's be honest, this is nothing new this year) and breaking for home on a groundball to a corner infielder are mistakes that are made when the focus is not there...or when the appropriate level of preparations have not been made.

I wrote a piece the other day about what a 5 game lead means. Since then, that lead has decreased by 1.5 games. Getting blanked 4-0 the other night and barely scratching out 1 hit...that happens, that didn't concern me too much, every team has those games. But losing a game you had myriad opportunities to take control of, that worries me, especially when the Twins are in the thick of a pennant chase and are playing a potential playoff opponent. The task doesn't get any easier the next two night as the Twins will be facing CJ Wilson and Cliff Lee, two of the Rangers best, and most consistent, pitchers.

Monday, August 23, 2010

What a 5 Game Lead Means...

The Twins had a rare nationally televised game last night, which meant that I was able to enjoy a relaxing Sunday evening with my wife watching my favorite team. They played it pretty close to the vest until the 5th inning when Danny Valencia absolutely killed a fastball from Jared Weaver, crushing into the 2nd deck in left field. Then with two outs in the same inning, O-Dogg tripled, Mauer and Kubes drew walks and after a lengthy battle with Weaver, Cuddyer lined a double into the gap in left center clearing the bases. The 4 runs was all they needed as Baker, Crain and Capps combined on the shutout.

Some of you out there might be nervous about a 5 game lead, some of you may be thinking it doesn't feel safe, especially considering the White Sox were 9 back at one point and in only a month were in the process of taking over the division lead. One thing to remember in baseball though is that it gets late, early... The Twins and White Sox both have 38 games left, the Twins opponents at this point have a .477 winning % and the White Sox opponents have a .492 winning %. Here is what a 5 game lead means: if the Twins were to finish the season playing .500 ball the rest of the way (19-19), the White Sox would have to play at a .631 clip to tie and at a .658 clip to overtake the Twins. If the Twins play to their current winning percentage the rest of the way (.581), which would equate to a 22-16 record, the White Sox would have to win 27 out of their next 38 games (.710 winning %) to tie the Twins for the division lead. When you take into account that 10 of the White Sox remaining 38 games are against the Red Sox and Yankees and then take into account that they have 3 remaining against the Twins, the picture looks even better.

Have solid division leads been blown in the last month of the season? Sure. Just look at the Mets over the last 5 years. The point is, it's going to be very difficult for the White Sox to catch the Twins at this point as long as the Twins continue to win division games and continue to beat the teams they should beat. The Twins are embarking on a fairly difficult roadtrip this week with 4 at Texas and then 3 at Seattle but are fortunately going to miss Felix Hernandez on the back end of the trip. Nick Blackburn makes his return to the starting lineup tonight and even though he's been pitching well at Triple-A, I'm not sold that the results tonight will be good. The Rangers have a loaded lineup and unless Blackburn can keep them off balance by changing speeds and inducing more than his fair share of ground-balls, it will be a tough night for the Twins.

One last thing before I close, I wanted to mention Lou Pinella who retired yesterday. If you haven't watched his press conference after the game last night, it's pretty compelling stuff. For me, it only solidified in my mind what a great person Lou is. I was listening to ESPN1000 here in Chicago while running errands yesterday and some caller said, "there's no crying in baseball." I think there is crying in baseball when it's been your life for 40 some years and that comes to end. He's a pretty sure bet for the Hall of Fame, he's one of only two managers in the history of baseball to have 1,700+ hits as a player and 1,700+ wins as a manager, and he was good for the game of baseball. I suspect we'll see him in some sort of broadcasting capacity in the near future since he seemed to have such a good time with it prior to coming to the Cubs. One thing is for sure, Lou was one of the great managers in baseball history and with Cox, LaRussa and Torre also nearing retirement, we are seeing the changing of the guard.

Matchups for the 4-game series @ the Ballpark in Arlington:
(8/23): Nick Blackburn v. Rich Harden
(8/24): Carl Pavano v. Colby Lewis
(8/25): Brian Duensing v. CJ Wilson
(8/26): Francisco Liriano v. Cliff Lee

Thursday, August 19, 2010


For context's sake, I must start by saying I live in Chicago. When talking to acquaintances of mine who are White Sox fans about the new Target Field before this season started, almost ALL of them them mentioned how happy they were that the Sox didn't have to play in the Dome anymore. Hawk Harrelson (Sox TV announcer) voiced a similar opinion multiple times during Twins/Sox games earlier in the year. I too was concerned how the team would transition from field turf to grass, afterall their numbers on grass fields over the past several seasons were not great...

Home Record: (45-36)
Grass Record: (33-42)

Home Record: (54-26)
Grass Record: (39-36)

Home Record: (41-40)
Grass Record: (37-38)

Home Record: (53-28)
Grass Record: (33-42)

Home Record: (49-33)
Grass Record: (35-39)
Turf Record: (4-5) - ironic

The Twins were basically a .500 team over the past five years when playing on grass fields and there are a number of reasons for this not the least of which being the fact that all of those games were road games, but needless to say, with a (38-20) home record this year and a (65-45) record on grass, any worries about how they would transition have been alleviated.

Though baseballs may not be lost in the ceiling, or hit anything above the field, Target Field still presents it's own quirks. Several balls have already ricocheted off the stone facing of the wall in right field turning potential outs into triples, it has been reported that there are some odd glares as well, particular during afternoon games. Then there is the fact that the park simply plays large, like PETCO or SAFECO fields.

Overall, besides obvious things like more money for payroll and sellouts at every home game, the move to Target Field and a grass playing surface can only benefit the Twins players. Now, instead of switching between grass and turf all year, the players play almost exclusively on grass (only 9 games on turf all year so far) which affords the infielders some continuity on a day-to-day basis as far as what hops and skips to expect on ground balls. Anyway, enough on this.


The last two nights, though nerve-racking, have been quite enjoyable. 7 has been the lucky number offensively and though the pitching has struggled somewhat, the team has come through with victories and now lead the AL Central by 5 games. The Twins record is a nice and tidy 70-50 now and they are one of only 5 teams in all of baseball with 70+ wins. Detroit has now fallen to 12 games back and look stick-a-fork-in-them done. Tonight the Twins go for the series sweep and a commanding 6-game division lead and they have Mr. Steady (Pavano) on the mound against Mark Buerhle for the Sox. Look for Denard Span, Michael Cuddyer and Delmon Young to carry this Twins tonight, all of them have good career numbers against Buerhle. GO TWINS!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Kevin Slowey & the Target Field Experience

So my brother got married on Saturday (8/14) and a good time was had by all, but the fun didn't stop there. Back in May when preparing for this trip to Minnesota, I had checked to see if the Twins were in town and purchased tickets for Sunday's game ($30 a piece for 1st level left field seats, 3 rows from the fence). Needless to say, I had been looking forward to this game for a LONG TIME and the success the Twins have been having recently only served to heighten the excitement.

From the moment you walk out of the skyway and on to Kirby Puckett plaza, the stadium does not disappoint. If you're facing the stadium and standing on the plaza, there is a large piece of "stadium art" to your left, which when it's windy is very beautiful. It's nothing more than a large sheet of metal tiles, but as the wind passes through it, it's almost as if you can see the wind....anyway, I digress.

We arrived at the stadium about an hour before game time and took our time getting to our seats. Walking through the 1st level concourse I was struck by just how many food options there were. There is your normal ballpark fare, hotdogs, nachos, etc. but then you see a Wok station, gourmet sausage (Kramarczuk), a restaurant called "The Carvery", and a stand selling wild-rice soup. Due to budget concerns my wife and I stuck to the normal ballpark food, but I definitely hope to be able to branch out a little bit on my next visit.

In walking around the 1st level concourse, it struck me how ALL THE SEATS POINT TOWARD THE INFIELD!! This is how it's supposed to be obviously, but not how it has been for the past 28 years at the Dome. Our seats were in left field, about 3 rows from the fence and I was surprised how close I felt to the infield. Here's a pic from my seat:

At this point, I'm obligated to talk about the game because it was the "Slowey Game." First of all, being there, it didn't feel like a no-hitter, there were 3 walks and a hit batter, enough base-runners where you had to keep checking to make sure there were still no hits. When Gardy took Slowey out to start the 8th, the boos were LOUD and understandable. I was not booing, mainly because I knew exactly why they were taking Slowey out and thought it to be a smart move. Rauch really got it when he gave up the 1st hits and runs of the game, but the Twins won and that's all that matters.

As far as our view of the game went, I loved our seats, but would have loved to be able to see the massive scoreboard. We were directly underneath the scoreboard with a deck above us so our view of it was completely blocked. The still show a few highlight on the very detailed out-of-town scoreboard, but you miss all of the between inning stuff. Here's a picture of the scoreboard:

One other random thought here before I wrap it up; I loved being at a Twins game with 40,000 other people. The day was perfect weather-wise and after having been to so many games over the past 10 years where there was only 15,000-25,000 people there, this was really nice. The crowd was loud during run-scoring plays and loud at the end. Saw a couple of great catches (Kubes and Repko) and saw Thome hit his 580th homerun, all in a day's work. Overall, I really had a great time at the game and I was very impressed with the new ballpark, I can't wait to go back. Here's some randoms:

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Dropping the Hammer: Twins vs White Sox Series Preview

Ok, so it doesn't exactly involve the Twins, but any excuse to post this picture is a good one.

I'm almost not sure if I should even be writing about this, so let me just knock on wood right now and get it out of the way. The last time we spoke of the proverbial nail in the coffin of the White Sox, it almost directly coincided with their blazing-hot streak leading up to the All-Star game. For as badly as they started the season and as hot as they were in June and July, the White Sox have cooled as of late, going 7-8 in August compared to the Twins' 10-4. The last time the White Sox came to Target Field in the middle of July, after the Twins had limped into the All-Star break, a seemingly rejuvenated Twins team took three of four to kick off their most recent run of success. Last week in Chicago, the Twins took two of three, pounding out seven home runs during the course of the series. With the Twins' sweep of the A's and the White Sox stumbling late in two weekend games versus the Tigers, the Twins now hold on to a three game lead in the division, with the potential to increase that lead even further with a series win. After this series, the Twins and Sox will only play three more times, in Chicago Sept 14-16, so each head-to-head game takes on increasing importance.

Justin Morneau remains out with concussion symptoms, but the Twins will get Nick Punto and J.J. Hardy back from injuries for tonight's game, at least bolstering infield defensive options (and Hardy's bat will be welcome back as well, as he had been mashing in July and August, posting an impressive .863 OPS in July).

Game 1: Scott Baker vs John Danks

Although Baker picked up the win in last Tuesday's game at US Cellular thanks to the Twins' five-homer explosion, he wasn't all that impressive, going six innings and giving up four runs on eight hits. He did strike out five while walking only one, however, improving his excellent (compared to everyone else not named Cliff Lee) K/BB ratio on the season to 4.07. That mark is good for third among AL starters, behind only Lee and Jered Weaver. Opposing Baker will be John Danks, who held the Twins to only one run on Wednesday over eight strong innings. Delmon Young will be back in the lineup, and I wouldn't be surprised if Jason Repko gets another start in right field to keep as many right-handed bats in the lineup as possible.

Game 2: Francisco Liriano vs Gavin Floyd

The second game of the series will feature an exact rematch of last week's series finale. To borrow from the inimitable Joe Morgan, Liriano turned in a gutsy effort in Thursday's game on a day where he appeared not to have his best stuff. He worked out of a number of jams and got strikeouts in some key spots, even though he only totaled four punchouts on the night. The Twins also seemed to catch Floyd, who has been solid this year, on an off-night, touching him up for six runs. It's always fun to see two talented young pitchers duke it out, and something tells me this may be more of a defensive struggle.

Game 3: Carl Pavano vs Mark Buerhle

If game two features the youngsters, the rubber match will showcase the crafty veterans. The last time these two faced each other, the results were somewhat epic - both pitchers threw complete games (Buerhle for only 8 innings) but Pavano out-dueled Buerhle in Minnesota on July 17th for the 3-2 win, striking out six and walking none. Since then, Pavano has been stellar, winning four of five starts and allowing two runs or less in each. His K/BB ratio hasn't been great at 20:11 over that period, but he's (to borrow from Morgan again) just going out there and getting wins, which is what it's all about, right? Right??

For this crucial series, the Twins and White Sox are both sending out their three best starters, with a great deal riding on the results. With at least a series win, the Twins can further extend their division lead and make it that much more difficult for the White Sox to climb back in the race. I'd hesitate to call a sweep a knockout punch per se, especially given the results of the last two years, but it would certainly send them staggering into the ropes. Save for Morneau, the Twins are looking healthy and well-rested, and they're simply playing some good baseball right now. Let's hope that continues.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Delmon's Dismal Defense

All alliteration aside (sorry, I couldn't resist), it's hard to be nit-picky about these things when the team is winning, and it was especially hard to pick on Delmon when he was absolutely destroying the ball last month. But as his bat has predictably cooled off (he's posting a .208/.236/.283 line thus far in August, with no homers and only three RBI), it seems as though the head-scratching plays in left field seem to stick out a little more. In Thursday night's game, Delmon did one of his patented awkward-feet-first-sliding-attempts on a Juan Pierre liner that looked catchable and had the ball glance off the heel of his glove. Last night, he missed a Jack Cust fly ball by leaping too early near the wall, with the ball again going off the heel of his glove. He then crashed into the wall and lost his glove completely. Both of these were ruled hits, and neither was a "can of corn" by any means, but both seemed to be very makeable plays that produced very awkward-looking (but thankfully not game-altering) outcomes.

Last night's game featured Twins defense that was both spectacular and awful in equal measure, and Young wasn't the only one to make a gaffe (Casilla's error in the 9th could have been much more detrimental to the Twins' chances of winning), but as my dad commented in a email, Delmon has the tendency to "goof up the plays the beer leaguers make every night." This is obviously a more anecdotal, this-is-what-my-eyes-tell-me sort of look at his defense; if you look at his Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games for this season (which isn't said to be very helpful for small sample sizes, but it's the best we have for advanced defensive metrics) he should be markedly better than he was last season, with a current mark of -4.7 as opposed to the -22.7 he put up last season. It could very well be that he's taking better routes more consistently this year and is getting to balls a little quicker with a lighter frame, but that's often not something that is immediately evident. What are evident are the epicly awkward failures that seem to be occurring with some regularity.

Phil Mackey and others have pointed out that Liriano has the highest BABIP in the game right now, and especially during Thursday's game where he was forced to get himself out of a partly Delmon-induced jam, I wondered how much of that could be blamed on shoddy outfield defense. Oddly, though, Pavano's BABIP is .274, and he gives up many more fly balls than Liriano. Adam Peterson did some excellent analysis over at Twinkie Town on the BABIP of Twins starters, specifically trying to link high BABIPs to outfield defense. Although it's difficult to figure out just what role defense plays in BABIP without doing some extensive analysis on how many balls were just out of the reach of fielders or were even touched by fielders but ruled hits (as opposed to clean hits that no one would have gotten to anyway), it's probably fair to say that there's some degree of correlation there.

This isn't meant to be Delmon-bashing, and I realize he's never going to be Willie Mays. His bat has been a huge boost to an offense that has been missing Justin Morneau, and he's finally fulfilling a lot of the potential that we hoped to see from him when he arrived in Minnesota. I just hope that we don't see too many more outs given away in crucial spots in the game, whether in the outfield or on the basepaths (Jason Kubel, I'm looking at you for that one last night, although Scottie Ullger probably had more to do with it). As long as the wins keep coming, it's probably silly to be writing articles like this, and like I said, I'm not trying to nit-pick. I'd just rather see fewer cringe-inducing plays on balls that shouldn't be as difficult as Twins outfielders make them look. Is that too much to ask?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

1st Place (and +100 Run Differential)

That was enjoyable. Aside from a bit of a shaky outing from Scott Baker, last night's win was enjoyable in just about every way. 5 HRs, good at-bats all night, some solid bullpen work from Matt Guerrier all added up to a big Twins win and sole possession of 1st place for the first time since July 2nd. Last night also marked the first time this season that the Twins run differential has cracked the +100 mark. This number sparked my curiosity so I did some digging. Since 2002, 51 teams have finished the season with a +100 run differential or better. Of those 51 teams, 84% of them have made the playoffs. With 50 games left on the schedule, I realize this analysis is a bit premature, but these numbers are pretty convincing and I don't see any reason why the Twins wouldn't continue to improve their run diff. number.

In getting back to 1st place, the Twins have followed my "Steps to Reclaiming 1st Place" pretty closely. They've beaten the White Sox (4 out of 5 times since then), beaten the teams they should beat, won the division games (18-7), demoted Nick Blackburn to Triple-A, and shaken up the bullpen a little (brought back and subsequently sent down Slama and added Capps). They didn't add a starter, but Brian Duensing has performed admirably in his starts since joining the rotation and tonight we get to see what will hopefully be a reinvented Glen Perkins. There was a good article written about Perkins in the Pioneer Press this morning and Perkins has pitched well in his last 7 starts going 3-0 with a 2.70 ERA.

Joe Mauer has now improved his season hitting line to .325/.397/.485 which is still a good bit off from his .365/.444/.587 line from last year, but is right in line with his overall career numbers. He's 13 for 27 (.481) in his 7 games with 3 multi-hit games, 5 runs and 9 runs-batted in. It gets even better if you go back over Mauer's last 11 games where he's hitting .488 with 11 runs and 12 RBIs. It doesn't look like this shoulder is bothering him anymore, here's to hoping it stays like that for the rest of the year.

I was thinking last night, much has been made of how well the Twins have been playing without Justin Morneau. They mentioned it again on the White Sox broadcast and I've read it various other places as well. I'm here to argue that Justin Morneau has nothing to do with it, but rather, the absence of Nick Punto is what has been good for this team. In the 12 games that Punto started for the Twins since July 9th, they were 7-5. In the other 16 games, they were 12-4. In June the Twins had their worst month of the season and Punto started every game (he did play well though hitting at a .301/.396/.386 clip). I say this very tongue-in-cheek because really, this Twins team is a good one despite the absence of one or two players. Danny Valencia has played quite well so far at 3rd, committing only 1 error in 323 innings. I'm looking forward to Morneau's return, but I don't mind keeping Valencia at 3rd, he's earned some extra time.

Jim Thome celebrated his birthday on Monday (doesn't turn 40 till Aug. 27th) and then proceeded to hit a HR in last night's game against the Sox. Of all the moves Bill Smith has made since taking over for Terry Ryan, signing Thome has got to rank near the top. To quickly revisit, Thome signed a one-year deal with the Twins for $1.5MM in base salary plus $750K in incentives. He has a .267/.392/.579 line in 237 plate appearances this year and has been the left-handed pop that the Twins hoped he would be. Not only that, he's been a great addition to the team personality-wise and has helped to fuel the impact that some of the callups have had on this team. So to Bill Smith, I salute you for signing Thome.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The 2nd Best Time of the Year

When you're a baseball fan and your team is "in it," this is the 2nd best time of the year. Whether your team is solidly in 1st, or a couple of games out, or in the hunt for the wild card, it's exciting. Every game, no matter the opponent feels like a 'must-win' and for the Twins, this is what it has felt like for the past month or so. Yesterday the Twins won in come-back fashion and the White Sox lost to the recently rejuvenated Baltimore Orioles, leaving only 1/2 game between the Twins and Sox for 1st place in the AL Central. The Sox have another game today, but there's a slim possibility that the Sox & Twins could be tied atop the AL Central heading into their 3-game series together starting tomorrow. In anticipation of that series, let's look at some numbers...

Minnesota Twins:
Record Since the All-Star Break: (17-7)
Runs scored over those games: 144
Runs given up over those games: 83 (+61 run diff.)
Division Record over that time: (9-4)

Chicago White Sox:
Record Since the All-Star Break: (14-10)
Runs scored over those games: 117
Runs given up over those games: 85 (+32 run diff.)
Division Record over that time: (4-4)

The Twins and Sox have had similarly easy schedules since the all-star break, up to this point, and by easy I mean about as easy as it can get. Consulting ESPN's handy "Hunt for October" feature on the Standings page, we see that both teams have fairly easy schedules in the final 50 games (Sox future opponents have a .486 winning %, Twins future opponents have a .496 winning %) and both teams play more games at home than away. The biggest factor, in my opinion, that will decide the outcome of the AL Central will be the 9 games that the Twins and Sox have remaining against one another. The Twins own the series edge so far this year with 6 victories against 3 defeats, but then again, 6 of those 9 games have been played in Minnesota.

When you look at W-L records within the division, a different picture starts to emerge. The Twins have a stellar 29-16 record against AL Central opponents whereas the White Sox have a very pedestrian 20-21 record. Many of those division losses for the White Sox came in the first couple of months so the numbers are a bit misleading, but the Twins have done extremely well all season against division foes.

With today's news that Kevin Slowey is going to miss a start, the Twins will likely have to do some rotation shuffling but right now, at least on paper anyway, the Twins have some favorable matchups upcoming. Tuesday night features Scott Baker v. Freddy Garcia. In his last 20.1 innings, Baker has only given up 5 runs including 8 innings of shutout baseball against Tampa Bay in his last start. In his only other start against the Sox this year, Baker pitched 7 strong innings, giving up only 1 run while striking out 3 and walking 1. For his career, Baker has held the Sox lineup to a puny .570 OPS. Meanwhile his counterpart, Freddy Garcia, has been quite good of late as well giving up only 1 run in his last start against Detroit (6.2 innings). Garcia has given up a career .814 OPS against the Twins and two Twins players in particular, Joe Mauer (11 for 29) and Jason Kubel (6 for 10), have owned Garcia.

Wednesday's Twins starter is up in the air due to Slowey's back. Unfortunately it looks like they'll be calling on the services of one Glen Perkins (but to his credit, Perkins has been throwing well at Triple-A of late, read that linked article above for more scary tidbits). They can't throw Liriano on short-rest because Gardenhire described his problem as "tired arm" which suggests to me that they'll give him as much rest as they can give him in between starts. Regardless, the opposing pitcher for the Sox is John Danks who has easily been the White Sox most consistent starter all year. The last time he faced the Twins, he was roughed up for 6 runs in 6 innings, and over his career he has given up a .330/.386/.516 line against Twins hitters. That, of course, means nothing though because he owns a 2.86 ERA at home this season. Expect to see a lefty-heavy Twins lineup on Wednesday night.

The final game of the series is easily the best pitching matchup as the Twins cart out Francisco Liriano to counter the White Sox hottest pitcher, Gavin Floyd. Floyd owned a 7.00 ERA on May 16th and has lowered it down to 3.49 in the intervening 3 months. In 5 July starts, his ERA was 0.80. He has slowed up a bit of late, but is still dominating. He has given up a mediocre .323/.364/.496 triple-slash against Twins hitters in his career but again, that means next to nothing because of how well he has pitched over the last 2 months. His last start against the Twins was a good one and White Sox won the game 7-4.

So there it is, a big series during a crucial part of the season. What, you ask, is the best part of the season? That would be the playoffs (if your team is lucky/good enough to make it), and right now, I think the Twins are good enough. Just please, wrap it up in 162, my heart can't take another Game 163...

Friday, August 6, 2010

Twins Bullpen Shaken Up?

WHEW, at least they gained a split. Special mention and thanks to the catwalk at Tropicana Field. I thought it was an impressive series for the Twins starters, an average series for the Twins offense and a poor series for the Twins bullpen. Nevertheless, a split on the road against one of the better teams in all of baseball is a win. I do want to address the bullpen though, and question a few of Gardenhire's decision, particularly in the first two games of the series.

For illustrative purposes, let's break down the Twins bullpen ERA by months of the season:


Twins had the 6th best team ERA in all of baseball for the month, a good K/BB ratio, a low number of HRs given up and most importantly, 3 wins and 7 saves. (3.16 FIP, 4.22 xFIP)


In May they dropped a little bit, to 7th best in the Majors, with only 7 wins or saves against 6 losses or blown saves. The ERA was still serviceable at 3.38, but relievers gave up 8 HRs in 72 innings of work. (4.02 FIP, 4.15 xFIP)


Easily the Twins best month of the year as far as the relief goes. 9 HRs in 78 innings is a bit concerning, but an overall 2.31 ERA was fantastic. Too bad the starting pitching wasn't a little better in June otherwise the Twins might have staved off the hard-charging White Sox. (4.22 FIP, 4.66 xFIP)


During the month of July, the Twins bullpen ranked 21st in ERA in the Majors. I don't recall any injuries in July, and it would be tough to argue that this team's relievers have been overused so it's tough to come up with a reason for this sudden decline, especially after such a good month of June. A 4.18 ERA isn't terrible, but it's not gonna help you win the close games. Despite the bullpen struggles, the Twins managed a 15-11 record in July. (3.65 FIP, 4.50 xFIP)


So far, this month, the Twins bullpen has been even worse than July, currently 19th in the Majors this month. The reason for the mediocre ERA this month is somewhat obvious when you look at the stats. 16 strikeouts to 12 walks. The Twins relievers have walked more batters than any other team this month. (5.55 FIP, 4.21 xFIP)

During the last two games of the recently concluded Rays series, I held my breath when the ball was handed to the pen and beat my poor couch senseless when the relievers coughed up the leads. When Capps blew the save on Wednesday I became even more enraged about the trade they made to get him. And how do you give up a grand-slam to JASON BARTLETT?? (Mahay, I'm looking at you)

The ERA from month-to-month tells you one thing, and then depending on how much stock you put in the advanced sabermetrics, you get a completely different story from FIP and xFIP. ERA tells you that the Twins bullpen started out the season well and has declined over the past month or so. FIP and xFIP tell you that the Twins bullpen was incredibly 'lucky' for 2 months and now that is catching up with them (though their xFIP in a small August sample-size is the lowest it's been since May). The bottomline is that right now the Twins have a fairly mediocre bullpen, and in close games it's costing them. It makes a little more sense why they went after a reliever near the trade deadline, but acquiring Matt Capps doesn't really do much to change the bullpen as a whole. If I'm going by the numbers, my advice to Gardy would be less Ron Mahay, more Jose Mijares, oh, and when Baker has thrown 8 innings of SHUTOUT baseball and has only thrown 105 pitches, don't take him out. Please.

Pitching matchups for this weekend's series against Cleveland:
(8/6) Francisco Liriano vs. Jeanmar Gomez
(8/7) Carl Pavano vs. Fausto Carmona
(8/8) Brian Duensing vs. David Huff

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Slumping Span?

After posting a stellar .311/.392/.415 out of the leadoff spot last year and signing a 4-year extension, expectations were high for Denard Span this year as the primary table-setter for the middle of the order. Thus far this season, Span has only managed a .275/.342/.362 line, which isn't horrendously awful but is a significant drop in production. His best month this season was May, where he posted a fantastic .353/.403/.462 line and scored 21 runs. As good as May was, July was just as awful, however, as Span slumped to a .245/.315/.265 line for the month, good for a putrid .580 OPS . Sure, everyone hits rough patches in any season, but surely we should expect more. Is there anything underlying these numbers that could give us any insight into Span's problems at the plate?

Theory 1: He's tired.

Could there be anything to this? Last year, through the beginning of August, Span had only compiled 346 total plate appearances. This year, he has 478, and only 4 players in the majors have more. As the everyday CF and leadoff hitter, Span's gotten fewer days off than anyone else on the team. Jason Repko has been used more in July to give Span a rest, but it's unclear if this has had any effect. However, Span did respond to two days off on July 25 and 26 (which, now that I look at it, was related to illness, but days off nonetheless) by going 2 for 4 and 3 for 5 in his next two games, and seems to have carried a little of his late July momentum into August. Related? Hard to say, but it's possible he's just wearing down a little and could benefit from an more frequent day of rest here and there.

Theory 2: He's been unlucky.

Generally the accepted way of assessing "luck" in hitting performance is taking a look at batting average on balls in play (BABIP). In Span's case, there might be something here. His BABIP on the season so far is .303, which is actually right around league average. So that's not the culprit, right? Maybe, maybe not. Some players over their career consistently put up higher than league average BABIP (often what you might think of as "speed" guys, such as Jeter and Ichiro who leg out a lot of infield hits), and Span's career BABIP is .333. His line drive rate is down slightly, which can decrease BABIP as well, but it's only down to 17.8% from 18.8% last year, probably not enough to account for a thirty-point drop by itself. Breaking BABIP down even further by batted ball type, we see the following:

Batted Ball Type Span BABIP League Average
GB 0.221 0.231
FB 0.124 0.171
LD 0.818 0.72
Bunt 0.250 0.179

This is sort of a roundabout way of getting at a stat called Expected BABIP (xBABIP) that looks at batted ball types and predicts what we should expect a player's BABIP to be in a luck-neutral environment. Interestingly, Span's xBABIP for 2010 comes out to .333, right at his career average. It seems, then, that bad luck might be partly to blame for his low mark this year, and certainly having some more hits drop in would boost his average and OBP. I'm not going to fall into the trap of saying that an unlucky BABIP is the whole culprit in this case, and Span hasn't been as "unlucky" as some, but I'd expect things to come around slightly in this regard.

Theory 3: He's lost some of his plate discipline.

The first and most obvious thing that might lead you to this conclusion is Span's decreased walk rate, down to 9% this year from 12.2% in 2008 and 10.4% last year. True, he's not walking as much, but the flip side of that coin is that his strikeout rate is 11.1%, also a career low. This translates to a BB/K mark that stands at 0.91, the best he's ever posted. So is he swinging at more bad pitches? Yes and no. Take a look at his plate discipline stats from FanGraphs:

Yes, his O-swing rate (balls swung at outside the zone) is up, but his O-contact rate (making contact outside the zone) is up even more. This fits in with the decrease in strikeouts. He's swinging at slightly more pitches overall, but not a significant amount, and he's making better contact than he ever has. Thus, I don't think there much we can point to in terms of his approach at the plate that would help explain his depressed numbers.

So what's going on with Denard Span? It's probably a little bit of both 1 and 2: he's probably a little fatigued, and he's not seeing some balls drop for hits that he's gotten the last few seasons. But for all the number-crunching that we like to do, it could be just a good old-fashioned slump, that inexplicable period that occurs with all baseball players where nothing is going right and there seems to be no good reason why. As Yogi Berra put it when asked if he was going through one, Slump? I ain't in no slump. I just ain't hitting. There have been a few encouraging signs in the last few weeks that Span is ready to start hitting, and for an offense that has been running on all cylinders recently (barring last night's four hit effort) even without Mauer, Morneau or Hudson, things should only get better once the starting lineup is intact again. Let's hope Span can get back the spark at the top of the order.

Random Twins & Baseball Stuff

Some random stuff I've picked up on over the last few days....

1.) Justin Morneau continues to be on the mend since suffering a concussion July 7th. According to ESPN, he took some light BP yesterday but wasn't feeling very good yesterday. There's still no timetable for Morneau's return and it would be nice to have him back. Cuddyer has been doing a decent job as a fill-in and Morneau's injury has eased the outfield logjam a bit, but the team is better with Morneau in the lineup and on the field.

2.) Last night, the Twins lost by 2 runs against the Rays despite playing their "B-Team." The Twins had Butera at catcher, Casilla at 2nd, and Valencia at third as they are without Morneau and Punto due to injuries and without Mauer for a 2nd straight game due to a cortisone shot he had in his right shoulder over the weekend. Mauer should be back soon, at least in a DH capacity.

3.) In what was a shock to all of baseball, Ozzie Guillen went off on a ridiculous rant again on Sunday about how Asians in baseball are treated better than Latinos, the evidence for his assertion being that Asian players have interpreters and Latino ones do not (and that Baseball makes little effort to educate Latinos about PEDs). Both Major League Baseball and the White Sox organization quickly released statements distancing and defending themselves from Guillen's comments. Said MLB spokesperson Rich Levin,

"We spend more time and effort educating our Latin players about PED use than we do our domestic players in the United States. We test extensively in the Dominican and Venezuelan leagues, and we've increased the testing every year, [...] We also have Sandy Alderson down in the Dominican Republic on a full-time basis and he's dealing with a lot of these issues as well."

I would also add to Levin's comments that Major League Baseball doesn't need to spend money on Spanish speaking interpreters because almost every team (if not all of them) has a handful of Latino players that know both English and Spanish. In addition to that, there are a number of coaches in the Minor Leagues that are bi-lingual as well. If a team lacked such players/coaches, I would hope that Baseball would provide interpreters, but the reality is that there are far fewer Asian players than Latinos. Said the White Sox,

"Ozzie may not have been fully aware of all of the industry-wide efforts made by Major League Baseball and its clubs to help our players succeed in the transition to professional baseball, no matter the level of play or their country of origin."

For some other interesting opinions on the matter, read John Kruk HERE and Jose Arangure HERE.

 4.) I mentioned him yesterday in my post about Liriano, but Jeremy Hellickson had a very impressive debut last night against the Twins throwing 7 innings of 2-run ball, striking out 6 while walking 2. It was disappointing to see the Twins lose a game, but I was encouraged that despite missing some of our offensive mainstays, the Twins still kept it close against a hot team. Hellickson was sent back down to the Minors after the game, but Buster Olney believes the Rays will recall him towards the end of the season.

5.) Prized Cleveland Indians rookie catcher Carlos Santana appeared to be seriously injured last night in a play at the plate, but tests today have indicated that aside from some bruises, he might be ok. In seeing that video, it's a miracle that he didn't get hurt worse.

6.) A lot of people have their eyes fixed on A-Rod as he struggles to reach 600 homeruns. Flying under the radar, Albert Pujols joined Eddie Matthews the other day as the only other player in Major League Baseball history with at least 25 homeruns in their first 10 Major League seasons. I learned this from a blog ESPN stats keeps, check it out. It's crazy to think that with as many prolific HR hitters as there have been throughout baseball history, that this list is so short.

Monday, August 2, 2010

On Liriano & Hellickson

As most Twins fans know, Francisco Liriano has been straight dealin' lately and his latest gem was yesterday afternoon against the hapless Seattle Mariners. Liriano struck out 11 while walking 2 in 7 innings of 2-hit ball. But not for two hiccups against Detroit, Liriano has only allowed more than 3 runs in 2 of his last 14 outings. Oh, and he's currently working on 21 straight scoreless innings, striking out 25 and walking 6 over that span. He's been downright ridiculous and as Gleeman pointed out today, Liriano has been the best pitcher in baseball this season, according to FIP and a wide margin. He's the front-line ace he was in 2006, though hopefully this time there will be no more injuries. I looked deeper into the statistics to see just how similar he is to Liriano circa 2006:

2.37 GB/FB
21.3 LD %
55.3 GB%
23.4 FB%
13.2 HR/FB%
2.35 xFIP
144/32 K/BB

1.97 GB/FB
20.1 LD%
53.0 GB%
26.9 FB%
2.1 HR/FB%
2.83 xFIP
150/38 K/BB [hat tip to FanGraphs for the stats]

Liriano had pitched 121 innings in 2006 and has now pitched 136 innings so far this season, so the comparison is of a two similar sample sizes. One thing I noted right awayt was that his K/BB ratios were almost identical indicating this his control is as good as it was in 2006. One thing that Liriano has undoubtedly benefited from this year is an extremely low HR/FB%, even despite a higher FB% than in '06. Another reason Liriano is so good is because he induces ground-balls at such a high rate, which leads to more double-plays and more outs in general. The numbers suggest that he isn't quite a copy of his 2006 self, but it's close and he's still quite dominating.

I'm watching the Twins B-team now as they trail 4-1 in the 6th inning (arg) and the Rays have a youngster on the mound that they just called up and he deserves a little discussion. The pitcher's name is Jeremy Hellickson and given his minor-league track record, I'm surprised his call-up was not met with more fanfare. Hellickson was drafted by the Rays in the 4th round of the 2005 draft and has absolutely obliterated the competition in the minors. In 579 minor league innings, Hellickson compiled a 2.66ERA and 1.05 WHIP to go along with 630Ks and only 135BBs. He was the MVP of this year's minor-league all-star game and how he is not up there with the Strasburg's and Heyward's in terms of hype is somewhat baffling. We'll see how much of a Big League taste he gets this time around, but I can't imagine that he wouldn't be a full-time member of the Rays starting rotation next season. Watch out for this kid, he looks like something special.