Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Blog Roundup: Pitching Help

After last night's 7-5 loss in which Francisco Liriano gave up 4 runs in the first inning after plunking Austin Jackson with the first pitch of the game, it seems the bad starting pitching virus has caught on. I'm not sure if there's any evidence to indicate that bad pitching is contagious, but it sure seems like the Twins' rotation (apart from Carl "Burt Reynolds" Pavano) is stuck in a vicious cycle of under-performance. Twinkie Town has a nice post up regarding both Blackburn and Slowey's league-leading ineptitude in two very important statistical categories, and rumors are flying about possible trade targets to boost rotation depth. Here's a brief look at some of the opinions in the Twins blogosphere on who the front office could or should target before the deadline:
  • Josh Johnson believes that, of the big-name arms, Dan Haren is a more appealing candidate due to the fact that he has a somewhat appealing contract ($8.25MM in 2010, $12.75MM in 2011 and 2012) and would be more than just a three-month rental. By traditional metrics, Haren is underperforming, but his peripherals hold up just fine with his career averages. However, in terms of the package, Johnson suggests Ramos, Bromberg, Angel Morales and Slama, which seems a little too high. I think Ramos is a starting point in any discussions, plus a good OF or SP prospect, but not both, and pieces three or four are hopefully closer to filler than the top of the prospect rankings. Maybe that's wishful thinking, though.
  • Matt Klassen at FanGraphs thinks that Cliff Lee or Oswalt might make sense for the right package, but doesn't see the Twins trading someone like Hicks or Sano. I tend to agree - as good as Cliff Lee has been, it's hard to justify sending one of the centerpieces of the farm system (at least one that isn't blocked by Joe Mauer) for three months of Lee or for Oswalt's $16MM salary next season.
  • Tom Powers of the Pioneer Press brings some lower-level options to the table in Fausto Carmona, Brian Bannister, and Jeremy Guthrie. He says Carmona could be a "top-of-the-line guy," which is definitely an overstatement. Sure, his 3.64 ERA looks nice and he seems to have rebounded from a disastrous 2008-09, but Carmona is hardly top-of-the-line stuff. His biggest asset is a 58.1% GB rate, which would help a fly-ball heavy staff, but his K/BB ratio is a paltry 1.56, and xFIP has him at 4.48. Bannister certainly has been plagued by his team's lack of support, but his peripherals show that he's at least a fairly consistent, if unspectacular, option. He owns a career 5.16 K/9 rate and a 4.86 FIP, and his numbers this season are worse than everyone else on the staff except Blackburn. Yes, he pitches for a bad team, but he hasn't been that great on his own merits and he's certainly not an upgrade over Baker or Slowey. Guthrie has also been a middle-of-the-road starter for a bad team, and although his 4.30 ERA looks decent considering he pitches for the Orioles, his K/9 has been under 5 the last two seasons and he doesn't induce a ton of ground balls (40.4% career). The bottom line with all these guys is that none of them are significant upgrades, and if, as Powers claims, "none of these fellows will come cheaply," I'd just as soon not bother.
  • halfchest at Twinkie Town also favors Haren and does a nice job taking a look at the peripherals behind his somewhat down year so far. He names Hicks, Gibson and Sano as the likely untouchables in trade talks, but also poses the idea of including someone in the package from the current rotation, even floating Baker's name as a source of salary relief. I have to say that Ramos, Baker, and Bromberg (he even thinks Slama might be needed to get it done) looks even worse than the option in bullet point #1, but again, maybe I'm underestimating what it will take to push through a deal for Haren.
The bottom line seems to be that, especially for an organization traditionally averse to trading prized prospects, any deal for an ace is going to hurt. I'd agree that if the Diamondbacks truly are willing to deal, which still remains to be seen, Haren seems like the most enticing target due to his somewhat manageable contract for the next few years. My personal feelings are stuck somewhere between not wanting to "sell the farm" (pun intended) for either a short rental or increased salary commitments and feeling like with the money that has been put into this team already and the talent level that's already there, the Twins need to do whatever it takes to win now. I can't say I've made up my mind yet, but I'd honestly be pretty surprised if the Twins pull something off for a big-name starter, so maybe this discussion is moot anyway. For now, let's just hope that the current rotation can pull their collective heads out before things get any uglier.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Eeek...1/2 game lead

I was reading around the Twins blogosphere lately and came across an entry on the blog, Oh It's Those Girls. You can go read the article yourself, but the general gist of it is that fans, particularly the bloggers, are often very hard on their respective teams, sometimes exclusively negative. I guess I'm guilty as charged, it's a lot easier to write about what needs changing or what is not going right. So, having been made aware of this, I'll try to be more positive.

A 1/2 game lead in the division feels uncomfortable. Fortunately for the Twins, their next series is against the Tigers, at home, and they have an opportunity to expand that lead right away, but they are going to need to pitch a little better, and get the bats going to ensure that their tenuous lead does not evaporate completely.

Let me say that I'm really envious of the White Sox right now, not for their recently-ended 11 game winning streak, but more for the schedule they've had of late. In order since the beginning of June, they've played the Rangers, Indians, Tigers, Cubs, Pirates, Nationals, Braves, Cubs, and they have the Royals upcoming. Meanwhile, the Twins have played the Mariners, As, Royals, Braves, Rockies, Phillies, Brewers, Mets and next have the Tigers.

I'm hopeful that this is just a rough patch for the Twins, particularly their pitchers who have no fared particularly well on this recently-ended road trip. Also, the lineup has clearly not been producing up to it's potential, so there is reason to hope. I think the people out there who are calling for Gardy's head are absolutely ridiculous. This team is in a funk, yes, and they have been for the better part of a month, but as the White Sox have recently proven, things can turn quickly and a team can get on a roll that either a) gets you back into the race or b) creates some distance between you and the rest of the division.

Here's to hoping and thanks to "Oh It's Those Girls" for a little perspective on things.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Harris to AAA - It's About Time

If you haven't heard, after today's 5-0 loss to the Brewers, the Twins sent Brendan Harris to AAA. Many of us have been clamoring for this for the bulk of the season - it only took 120 plate appearances of .157/.233/.213 baseball (that's an utterly atrocious .211 wOBA) with 1 HR and 4 RBI for management to realize that something needed to change. Sure, he's got a .188 BABIP, which is pretty unlucky, but he's hitting line drives at a paltry 15.1% clip and has walked only 9 times with 23 strikeouts. All of this equates to a season that has been worth -0.8 WAR thus far. Not good.

Harris hasn't always been this bad, but he's never come close to matching his productivity during his last season with Tampa in 2007, in which he hit a very serviceable .286/.343/.434 (.341 wOBA) with 12 HR, providing 2.3 WAR. As his defense is undoubtedly substandard, getting it done with the bat is the only reason to keep him around, and he certainly wasn't doing that. Maybe this move should have been made a long time ago, but at least the Twins have finally realized that Harris had become a "vortex of suck" both at the plate and in the field.

So who takes his spot on the 25-man roster? Enter Jason Repko. The Twins signed the 29-year-old outfielder from the Dodgers organization in April of this year, where he had spent eleven seasons as a once highly-touted, oft-injured prospect who failed to make much of an impact at the major-league level. His best shot at the majors came in 2006 when he began the year as a fourth outfielder in LA, but he suffered a severe ankle sprain and missed the bulk of the season. In 2007, he tore his hamstring and missed the entire season, and got no more than a handful of at-bats for the Dodgers in 2008 and 2009. And that's actually not the worst of it - check out this article for further description of what this guy has gone through.

Repko owns a career .274/.336/.433 line in the minors, and the Twins must have figured he was worth a shot after hitting .281/.368/.412 with 10 SB and 6 HR in 223 plate appearances for the Red Wings. Repko has never hit for spectacular average or power, but he has at least a little pop and possesses decent speed and defensive abilities. He'll provide a right-handed bench bat and will be able to come in as a defensive replacement, as well as playing center when Span needs a break. He likely won't be an impact player, but we may as well see what he can do until Hardy returns, at least.

Do Twins Pitchers Throw Too Many Strikes?

I'm sure someone else has written about this within the Twins blogosphere, but if they have not, I think there may be something to the idea that some of the Twins starting pitchers throw too many strikes. Having lived in Chicago for the past 8 years, I've listened to many national broadcasts and a lot of White Sox broadcasts of Twins games and one thing I hear over and over is that the Twins organization prides itself on grooming their pitchers to "pound the zone". Brad Radke is a perfect throwback example and three current-day examples are Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn and Scott Baker. Before I go any further, here are their current stats:

Scott Baker
Record: 6-6
ERA: 4.61
WHIP: 1.298
Ks: 77
BBs: 19
Z Contact%: 86.8%
Contact%: 80.8%
Zone%: 66.5%

Let me quick explain. Z Contact% is "the percentage of times a batter makes contact with the ball when swinging at pitches thrown inside the strike zone." [My regards to FanGraphs] Contact% is the exact same thing as ZContact but takes into account all swings on all pitches, irrespective of their location. Zone% is the percentage of pitches thrown in the strike zone. The major league averages for those 3 categories are as follows:

Z Contact%: 88.2%       Contact%: 80.8%        Zone%: 47.2%

Kevin Slowey
Record: 7-4
ERA: 4.58
WHIP: 1.43
Ks: 57
BBs: 17
Z Contact%: 90.9%
Contact%: 87.6%
Zone%: 54.5%

Nick Blackburn
Record: 6-4
ERA: 5.80
WHIP: 1.63
Ks: 24
BBs: 19
Z Contact%: 96.4%
Contact%: 94.2%
Zone%: 52.3%

So a pattern emerges. Baker is the best of the bunch, his Z Contact and Contact percentages are pretty much in-line with league averages and though he truly does pound the strike zone (66%+ of his pitches are strikes), he misses bats. Kevin Slowey is a step down from that with a Contact% significantly about the league average and Nick Blackburn is downright terrible with Z Contact% and Contact% well into the 90th percentile range. To put that into perspective, Major League hitters make contact with almost 97 out of every 100 balls that Nick Blackburn throws in the strike zone and still make contact with 94 out of every 100 he throws PERIOD. As a comparison, let's look at Francisco Liriano.

Francisco Liriano
Record: 6-5
ERA: 3.11
WHIP: 1.22
Ks: 100
BBs: 25
Z Contact%: 86.9%
Contact%: 74.9%
Zone%: 46.6%

To summarize, Liriano is getting contact at about the league average on balls in the strike zone, but the key to his success has been getting batters to swing at pitches that are NOT IN THE STRIKE ZONE. Liriano doesn't throw even half of his pitches in the strikezone, but he still gets strikeouts.

Admittedly this is a somewhat shallow treatment of the subject because Contact and Zone percentages don't measure quality, well-placed strikes vs. pitches that are hung in the zone or those that go straight down the middle. Nevertheless, there is a clear line between the styles of Liriano and Blackburn/Slowey/Baker. Throwing strikes and "pounding the zone" is all well and good, if you can locate. Blackburn, Slowey and Baker have all had their outings this season where they are hitting their spots and the results are usually good, but it seems that they have had a high number of outings as a group where the command is not there and they end up getting hammered. I don't know if there is a remedy for such a thing, but being less predictable might be a good start. Throwing strikes is not the ultimate goal, the ultimate goal is getting batters out via weak contact or strikeouts. If you can't get the Ks, you gotta get the weak contact and if that means you give up a few more walks and are a little less predictable, so be it.

That was Bad

What the hell happened? Oh yeah, the bats fell silent...again. Baker collapses on Tuesday and the Twins lose 5-7. Liriano gives up 3 and the the bullpen blows it from there and the Twins fall 3-5 yesterday. Now today they are getting shut-out (no-hit at this point) against Yovani Gallardo and Blackburn has already given up 4 runs. This wasn't the script that I wrote on Tuesday...

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Previewing Twins v. Brewers

For what was once a good rivalry when the Brewers were a part of the AL Central (which was considered the AL West before 1994), the Twins have pretty much dominated the last 3 seasons going 11-4 against the Brew Crew and out-scoring them 99-54 during that period.

As I mentioned earlier, the pitching matchups in this series appear to favor the Twins, at least in the first two games anyway. Let's take a look.

Tonight: Scott Baker (6-5, 4.41) vs. Chris Narveson (5-4, 5.79)

Following a couple of rough outings versus Oakland and Kansas City, Baker was absolutely electric in his last start against Colorado pitching 7 innings of shutout ball, striking out 12 and walking only 1. Pitch control has been Baker's M.O. for the past 3 starts in which has allowed a total of 3 free passes. He has struggled on the road this season, but has pitched well in night games, so perhaps the two will balance each other out and we'll get a serviceable outing from Baker tonight. As for Chris Narveson, he will be making his 11th start of the season and has not pitched very well. I bet the Twins will have their right-handed bats out in full-force tonight as Narveson is giving up a .324/.394/.573 line against righties this season. This is a winnable game for the Twins.

Tomorrow: Francisco Liriano (6-4, 2.98) vs. Manny Parra (1-5, 3.91)

If the Twins take game 1 vs. the Brewers, they stand a good chance to take the series because this is a best matchup of the series. Liriano has been brilliant as of late allowing 3ERs or less in each of his last 5 starts while striking out 41 and walking only 7. I feel bad for the lefties who have to face Liriano as has he has allowed a .178/.189/.219 line against them while striking out 25 and walking none. His opposition is Manny Parra who, after a long stint in the bullpen to begin the year, will be making his 3rd start of the season. Parra owns a career 5.01ERA and really isn't anything special. He started a game against the Twins last year, pitched 3 1/3rd innings, gave up 9 runs (8 earned) and the Brewers lost to the Twins 11-3. This is a very winnable game for the Twins.

Thursday: Nick Blackburn (6-4, 5.80) vs. Yovani Gallardo (6-3, 2.59)

This is easily the toughest game of the series for the Twins. Yovani Gallardo has been a diamond in the rough for the Brewers this year with 103Ks and 44BB in 94IP. He's been really good in June throwing 26 innings in 4 starts with a 2.08 ERA and .191 BAA. Blackburn on the other hand has been wildly inconsistent at-best and has generally been pretty terrible in his past 4 starts watching his ERA balloon from 4.28 to 5.80 over that period. For Blackburn, the difference seems to be whether the game is at home or away. At home, he has a 3.19 ERA on the season and on the road, it's a putrid 9.09. Unless Blackburn pulls something out of his butt for this one, I'm seeing a loss here.

The Twins have won 6 straight road series against National League competition and this one has the potential to be the 7 in a row. I'm hoping that Joe Mauer can join Delmon Young and Justin Morneau on the hit parade, I think that would really fire up the offense. Go Twins.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Pavano Comes Through

Carl "Super 'Stash" Pavano came through in a big way for the Twins yesterday, out-dueling Roy Halladay who has now struggled in consecutive starts against AL opponents. Pavano pitched his 2nd complete game of the season, striking out 2 and walking none. After Saturday night's 23-run affair, Pavano really saved the bullpen and gave the team just what it needed at a time when they needed it most. Even more importantly, the Twins won a tough road series kept their slim 1.5 game lead over the Tiger intact.

The Twins now travel to Milwaukee for a 3 game set vs. the Brewers. The pitching matchups favor the Twins on paper and the Brewers are not a very good home team (11-19 this season so far), but the Twins will need to play well to take the series. Ideally they'd take the first two games because Thursday they face Yovani Gallardo, easily the ace of the Brewers starting staff and one of the better pitchers in the National League.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Pitching Dominance and the Next Wave

In reading around the blogs lately and listening to sports talk radio, the two topics I hear most often are a) the wave of young talent that is just now appearing and b) the dominance of pitching in the game of baseball right now. I'm not going to do an exhaustive analysis here, but I think the two are very much related and I want to highlight just how many young, talented pitchers are out there, and what there is yet to look forward to.

Tim Lincecum (Giants) - 26 years old
Everyone knows his name by now and just last week he turned 26, in his 4th Major League season. Timmay has dominated so far in his short career with a K/9 rate of over 10 and back-to-back Cy Young Awards. If he can stay healthy, it's possible we could see one of the best pitching careers of the last 50+ years.

Matt Cain (Giants) - 25 years old
Battery-mate of Lincecum, Cain is even younger and has very much lived in Lincecum's shadow. Cain isn't quite as dominant, but still sports a 3.39ERA in almost 1,000 Major League innings. One aspect of Cain's value is his durability, if he reaches 200IP this season, it will be his 3rd consecutive season of 200+ IP.

Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers) - 22 years old
At 22, Kershaw has to be one of the more exciting young pitchers in baseball. He has some control issues at times, but sports of a K/9 rate of 9.5, doesn't give up many home-runs, oh, and did I mention, he's only 22. He's already won 20 games in his short career and will be a guy to keep an eye on.

Mat Latos (Padres) - 22 years old
Buried in forgotten San Diego, Latos is putting together a quietly dominant year and just like Kershaw, he's only 22 years old. In 13 starts this year, Latos has a 3.19ERA and 0.98WHIP and has struck out 3 times as many batters as he's walked. Latos was dominant in the minors and looks to have translated some of that success to the major league level.

Ubaldo Jimenez (Rockies) - 26 years old
Today's matchup with Liriano is a tasty one huh? Since his rookie season in 2007, Jimenez has improved his numbers every season and now is one of the best pitchers in the National League. There's no way he keeps up his current 1.16ERA, but there's no reason to think he can't consistently be around 3.00. He's 26 and we're gonna be seeing him around for awhile.

Yovani Gallardo (Brewers) - 24 years old
Perhaps because he's played on some crappy teams, Gallardo never seems to get any recognition. He's 24, strikes out over 9 per 9IP, and if he played on a better team, would probably be a lot more well-known. He's another one that's gonna be around for awhile.

Jaime Garcia (Cardinals) - 23 years old
He became the 1st rookie pitcher since 1913 to have 12 consecutive outings without allowing more than 2ERs. He currently has a 1.59ERA, 2nd behind only Jimenez, in 13 starts. I wrote about him earlier this year, I think the drop-off to more sustainable numbers is coming soon, but he has certainly shown he can pitch.

Stephen Strasburg (Nationals) - 21 years old
Do I even have to say anything? He's been spectacular in his 1st two major league starts and looks nearly unhittable. I'm looking forward to seeing how he does against some real major league hitting though. Pittsburgh and Cleveland are the AAAA teams of the Majors.

Tommy Hanson (Braves) - 23 years old
Hanson is 23 years old and in 35 Major League starts, he has a 3.08ERA and 1.19WHIP. He strikes out almost 9 per 9IP and wins games with 18 wins already. He finished 3rd in the ROY voting last year and it won't be long before we see him in All-Star games.

...and that's just the National League. And that's not including pitchers like Aroldis Chapman, Mike Leake, J.A. Happ or handfuls of other good pitchers in the NL like Carpenter, Wainwright, Billingsley, Haren, Hamels, Hudson, etc, etc. Now to the American League.

David Price (Rays)
It's hard not to start with the Rays, and Price has really come on strong this year, posting his 10th victory the other day. He's not the strikeout artist that some of the other young phenoms are, but he's held his own on a strong Rays staff, and in the AL East no less...

Matt Garza (Rays) - 26 years old
The Twins bailed on Garza WAY too early, and he has been great the past few years, now working on his 4th consecutive season with a sub-4.00 ERA and a 2nd consecutive season of 200+ IP.

Phil Hughes (Yankees) - 24 years old
It took Hughes a little while to settle in, but he has really opened some eyes this season sporting a near 9K/9IP rate and a tiny 1.12WHIP. He's won 9 games already this season against 1 loss and has emerged as one of the Yankees better starting pitching options next to CC.

Francisco Liriano (Twins) - 26 years old
Liriano looks to be back near his rare form of 2006 with back-to-back 10K+ efforts in his last two starts. He's definitely the Twins #1 option at this point and if he can continue to have success post-Tommy John, there's no reason to think he won't stick around for several years to come.

Clay Buchholz (Red Sox)- 25 years old
I tend to think Buchholz is just having a good year, but he's been very good so far, posting a 2.67ERA in 84+ IP. He still has a lot to prove, but he's someone worth watching.

Jon Lester (Red Sox) - 26 years old
Lester is also having a very good year so far for the Red Sox and looks to be legit. He had a 10+ K/9 rate last year and his WHIP has gone down every season so far.

Brian Matusz (Orioles) - 23 years old
Hopefully he'll get traded because I think he's a lot better than what he's shown and he's a diamond in the rough pitching for the Orioles. He's young yet so keep an eye out for him.

John Danks (White Sox) - 25 years old
Danks has been a man among boys this year within the White Sox rotation and has been perhaps the only one to duplicate past success this season. He has an impressive 3.18ERA and 1.18WHIP and is on pace for another 200 inning season. He should be the front man of the White Sox rotation for a few years.

Felix Hernandez (Mariners) - 24 years old
King Felix is definitely one of the best pitchers in the AL and finished 2nd behind Zack Greinke for the AL Cy Young award last year. Hernandez would be a superstar if he pitched for a large market team, but he's put up superstar numbers the last few season in Seattle and is the clear ace of their staff despite Cliff Lee's presence. I predict Hernandez will win the AL Cy Young award at some point, hopefully soon.

I could go on and on; Ricky Romero, Brett Anderson, Rick Porcello, Wade Davis, Kevin Slowey, etc. The fact is, the number of good arms out there right now is starting to outnumber the good bats, especially in terms of what we see coming out of the minors. The 'changing of the guard' for pitchers is or has happened and the same thing is starting to happen for batters. Players like Ken Griffey Jr. and Chipper Jones are starting to filter out and new bats like Jason Heyward, Buster Posey  and Mike Stanton are bursting onto the scene. Personally I think it's a great time to be a baseball fan, there's a lot going on right now!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Twins vs. Rockies: Game 1 Notes

Admittedly, I haven't done a great job of posting lately (starting a new job can be a little rough), but I figured a series against my current hometown team (geographically speaking, obviously not in my heart) should warrant a post.

I caught most of the game on Fox Sports Rocky Mountain as my MLB.tv subscription was unfortunately blacked out, and came away with a few observations. The Twins surged to a convincing win with an interesting offensive mix of both power from expected (Kubel) and unexpected (Tolbert?) sources and small-ball, beating ground balls through the infield to manufacture runs.

Pitching: Pavano was solid once again, going seven innings and striking out five while walking just one. Both runs came on solo home runs by Troy Tulowitzki and Todd "The Toddfather" Helton. Despite a few clunkers in May, Pavano continues to post excellent peripherals, with an excellent K/BB ratio of 3.78 and an ERA of 3.82 that matches up well with both FIP and xFIP (as of the time this was written, 3.81 and 3.92, respectively, but likely slightly better). Without factoring in tonight's start, he's been worth 1.4 WAR so far this season, ahead of plenty of other big names.

Duensing and Burnett contributed a scoreless inning each, and although neither has been quite as good as their ERAs would indicate, you can't argue with putting zeros on the board. Burnett's 2.37 ERA aligns a little better with his 2.72 FIP, although xFIP hates the fact that he has yet to allow a homer and thus places him at 4.02. Duensing has benefited from a very low BABIP at .218 and a unsustainably high strand rate at 90.1%, so FIP puts him at 3.77. He's peformed admirably for the role that he's been called upon to perform, but he's not 1.75 ERA-good. But enough pessimism - at the end of the day these guys are keeping runs off the board, even if some regression is likely on the way.

Hitting: Delmon Young continues to get it done, pure and simple, going 3 for 4 with an RBI. He actually got some help tonight after shouldering most of the offensive load for the last week-plus, and he's continued his trajectory towards becoming more and more the player that the Twins thought they were trading for in the first place. After a lackluster April that saw him post a .222/.291/.381 line, Delmon has been on fire in May and June, racking up a .331/.358/.567 line to boost his overall tally to .296/.335/.503 with 8 HR and 41 RBI. And as AK mentioned earlier, this is coming with a BABIP significantly lower than his career average.

Kubel continues to own the right-field bleachers at Target Field, and Matt Tolbert has now surpassed Mauer's home run tally at home (I sense a longer piece coming about Mauer and Target Field not getting along, or his lack of power in general, but I don't have the energy to go into it right now). Punto managed to get a third of his tripleslash over .300 (OBP at .307) and Span posted another multi-hit game after opening the month of June with a miserable 0-21 stretch.

The Tigers kept pace after downing the Nats 7-4, which, if you're wondering, was another step for Detroit in one of the easier interleague schedules this season. The Twins don't have it the worst, but I'd certainly take the Pirates and the Nats over the Rockies and the Phillies. Regardless, the Twins looked tonight like they're ready to stop treading water and start swimming, and a large part of that will be Scott Baker getting back on track. He'll face Colorado's young right-hander Jhoulys Chacin, who has cooled off as of late after a blistering first few starts, but still has been missing plenty of bats. He'll give up walks though, so a patient approach may pay off for Twins hitters.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Treading Water

The Twins are nine games over .500, they lead their division by 2.5 games, they have the only positive run-differential in their division....yet as a Twins fan, I am still unsatisfied. This team has been hovering right about where they are now for what seems like the majority of the year. When are they going to put the bats together with the starting pitching? When are they going to get going on a winning streak or at least a stretch of games where they win more than they lose? 7 of their 12 games this month have been 1-run affairs. In 8 of their 12 games this year, they've scored less than 5 runs. They have a better team that this, I know it because I've seen the flashes of brilliance, like last Friday when Liriano struck out 11 and walked none in another 1-run win.

I could go through the stats and make them say this or that, but the bottom-line is that this team needs to start playing up to their potential. It's a little irritating that J.J. Hardy needed to go on the DL, again for the wrist bruise. I'm sure it hurts a little, but can a guy play through the pain? O-Dog is back tonight which will improve the D at 2nd. There has been talk of the Twins trading for Mike Lowell, who would certainly be an upgrade offensively at 3rd base, but carries with him a bit of a price tag and a major injury potential. Even aside from all that though, this is a good team that has been playing mediocre baseball now for the better part of a month. If not for Detroit deciding to lose it at the same time, and if not for Delmon Young's recent tear, this team may very well be in 2nd, in a division that they should win running away.

Let's get going guys.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Enjoying White Sox Misery

Awhile back on this very blog, I was waxing poetic about the White Sox starting rotation coming into the season, even going so far as to call it one of the best in baseball. Imagine my pleasant surprise that through the first 50+ games of the year, they are one of the worst rotations in baseball. Their team ERA currently sits at 4.81 which is good for 26th in the Major Leagues and their putrid 1.41 team WHIP is good for 19th. Thanks to FanGraphs, we can go a little more in-depth with their starting staff and when we do, we find that it gets worse. The combined ERA of the White Sox five starters is 5.19 (29th in MLB) and their combined WHIP is 1.42. That same group has an FIP of 4.25 which suggests that there will be a correction of sorts upcoming, but still, a 4.25 FIP isn't that great, in fact, it's only good for 18th in MLB. For a starting staff that looked downright fearsome coming into the season, they have surely disappointed and it came out yesterday that the White Sox may be close to giving up for this season.

This all makes me so happy. I live in Chicago and as most sports fans know, the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup last night. I was happy for them, I'm not a big hockey fan in general and I'm not a big Minnesota Wild fan either, so it wasn't painful at all to see the Blackhawks win. It did, however, remind me of 2005 when the White Sox won the World Series in what was one of the worst days of my sports life. But, all I had to do this morning was look at the MLB Standing, see that the White Sox (25-33) were 9.5 games behind the AL Central-leading Twins (35-24) and the memory of 2005 was out of my mind.

If any other Twins fans out there want to revel in the White Sox misery, please, post away.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Debut Tuesday: Strasburg & Stanton

If you haven't heard that the 2009 #1 Draft Pick, Stephen Strasburg is making his debut tonight, then you have either a) been on vacation in a 3rd world country or b) been in a coma for the last two weeks. The highly touted and quite talented Strasburg will make his first big-league start tonight against the Pittsburgh Pirates in front of a sellout Nationals Park crowd. I can only imagine how the 21-year-old feels today, I have to imagine there are some serious nerves going on. The game will be on MLB Network tonight, you know I'll be watching that.

Lost in the Strasburg hoopla though will be the debut of 20-year-old Mike Stanton, #3 ranked prospect by Baseball America. In 323 MiL games, Stanton had a stellar .274/.369/.569 line with 89HRs and 244RBI. He strikes out a lot (371 MiL Ks), but he's also 20 years old and could rival Jason Heyward's success if he can translate his minor league ability to the Major Leagues. Seeing as how Stanton is being promoted to the Big Leagues from Double-A, I'm thinking there will be an adjustment period, but between Stanton and Heyward, we could be looking at the next wave of superstar sluggers.

Is Delmon Young FINALLY Coming Around?

Lately when Delmon Young has come up to the plate, I find myself more hopeful than normal and not thinking, "oh man..." It started in the middle of the series against Texas at the end of May. On back-to-back days, Young had a couple of hits, driving in 3 and scoring twice. In 9 games since May 28th, he has gone 11 for 34 (.324) with 5 xbh (including 2 HRs), 5 runs scored, and 12 RBIs. That's a pretty nice little 9 game stretch for someone the Twins have been waiting, and waiting, and waiting on to come around at the plate.

Looking deeper into the numbers, there is even more reason to be excited about Young's performance so far this season than his recent hot streak. In 50 games so far this season, Delmon's walk rate (13.2%) is much lower than his career average (19.4%), his walk rate (7.0%) is up from his career average (4.3%) and his ISO (isolated power, which is SLG% minus batting average) is higher than it's every been at .192. To summarize, Young is walking more, striking out less and hitting for more power. I know the sample size isn't spectacular, but here's another tidbit for ya. Young's career BABIP (batting avg. on ball in-play) is .334. To this point in the 2010 season, his BABIP is .276, which suggests that he's been somewhat unlucky so far and that his overall numbers could even be better than they are if a few hits fell here and there.

I'll keep my eye on Young as we enter the middle part of the baseball season, but suffice to say he is showing some signs of waking up offensively. If he can continue to be patient at the plate, I see no reason why his recent success won't continue. The issue for Gardenhire is going to be getting Young consistent playing time. The problem has been alleviated somewhat by Cuddyer being on the bereavement list, but he comes back tonight meaning that LF/DH will once again be a platoon, leaving Gardenhire to play 'musical chairs' with Thome, Young and Kubel. Who knew signing Thome would cause such problems?

Friday, June 4, 2010

Re-Addressing Instant Replay

I've shared my thoughts on instant replay before on this blog, but the blown-call the other night has reignited the debate and so I want to take the opportunity to address it again. I've watched ESPN, MLB Network, and read a number of articles/posts about the debacle the other night and heard some pretty crazy stuff from the anti-instant replay camp. First, let's summarize.

By now everyone knows: Jim Joyce blows a call on what would have been the final out of a perfect game for Armando Galarraga. Joyce admits in a press conference after the game that he blew the call. Galarraga and Leyland do a absolutely fantastic job of handling the situation in the media and yesterday, Galarraga hands Joyce the lineup card at home plate prior to the game in what was a very classy gesture on the part of the Tigers. Meanwhile, Bud Selig decides not to overturn the call and this was his quote.

"As Jim Joyce said in his postgame comments, there is no dispute that last night's game should have ended differently. While the human element has always been an integral part of baseball, it is vital that mistakes on the field be addressed. Given last night's call and other recent events, I will examine our umpiring system, the expanded use of instant replay and all other related features. Before I announce any decisions, I will consult with all appropriate parties, including our two unions and the Special Committee for On-Field Matters, which consists of field managers, general managers, club owners and presidents."

 Here's my issue. In that statement, Selig says, "...there is no dispute that last night's game should have ended differently." Ok. Then change it. It wasn't like the blown call happened in the bottom of the 6th inning thus making it impossible to say what would have happened next. It was the LAST OUT of the game, had the call been made correctly, the game would have been over, no more outs, no more batters, no more action. In reading around, the opinion among ballplayers and managers IN BASEBALL is almost universal that Selig should have awarded Galarraga the perfecto. Joe Girardi said, "I’ve got to say we’ll never see it again in our lifetime." Tony LaRussa said, "If I was Mr. Selig, in the best interest of the game, the guy got it and I’d give him his perfect game." Clay Buchholz said (not sure why anyway cares, but whatever), "As blatant as it was, the commissioner needed to fix it, [...] it’s history. It’s not like he was throwing a shutout and a call got blown." And on and on and on.

There are a number of writers out there, including this writer at Yahoo Sports, who say that Selig shouldn't overturn the call because of the precedent it sets calling it a "slippery slope." I have to disagree. Everyone with working eyes can see that the call was blown. The ump who made the call said it was blown, the commissioner of baseball agrees with the umpire...the call on the FINAL OUT of the game was blown. You have long-time managers saying it should be overturned, veterans of the game like Milt Pappas (who was himself robbed of a perfect game) saying it should be overturned, the majority of fans calling for a reversal. This is such an exceptional situation, one that will likely not be seen again for a long, long time if ever, that to reverse the call does not degrade or demean the Rules of Baseball, if anything it upholds the integrity of the game.

All that being said, the real argument here is for the expansion of instant replay in baseball. I'm really tired of hearing people who don't like instant replay say something like, "well games are gonna take 4 or 5 hours if you expand replay." NO, THEY AREN'T. Oh, and then there are the people who say, "how do you say what can be challenged and what can't, pretty soon they'll be challenging everything!" NO, THEY WON'T. I swear, it's like the people with microphones in baseball never watch other sports. Football has the perfect template for instant replay and it's one that baseball could adopt and implement by next week if they wanted to. In football, there is a fairly clear distinction between what can be challenged and what cannot. Sure it took awhile for the fans to get used to the system, but now everyone knows a 'pass interference' call cannot be challenged, but a fumble call can.

To the people that say, "games are gonna take 4 or 5 hours," I say, give each team 1 or 2 'challenges' per game, just like they do in football. There's no need to unnecessarily bog the game down with challenge after challenge, 1 or 2 and that's it. More than likely, managers would be inclined to save their challenges for the later innings of a close game rather than blow it on a banger at 1st in the early innings. Or, baseball could limit challenges to the 7th inning on, a less desirable solution, but a step in the right direction nevertheless.

As far as the actual administration of instant replay goes, MLB could go one of three ways:

1) Have the umpires who are working the game come to the screens that are already sitting there to review the replay and make the call. This, to me, is the worst option. Making all of the umpires come off the field makes an already slow game slower.

2) Have a "replay" official at every game. There is some definite cost involved in this option, but as far as expediency goes, it's likely the best option. A play is challenged, the replay official has the job of making the call, he does so, relays his verdict to the crew chief and the game continues.

3) Adopt a system like the NHL has. If a play is challenged in the NHL, a call is made to the 'replay center' in Toronto where a designated league official reviews the replay from the available angles and then passes his verdict on to the head referee at that game who makes the call on the ice. In the playoffs, they have someone at the game. This system is ideal because it is both expedient and cost effective.

Something needs to be done and it's not just because of the call in Wednesday night's game. There have been blown calls that have affected the outcomes of games for years, most memorably in last year's various playoff series. Why baseball continues to be so noncommittal with instant replay is beyond me. They have the technology at every game, but they only want to use it for something as basic as home-run calls. MLB, please put a system in place that removes some of this "human error" crap. You can still have human error behind the plate calling balls and strikes, just don't let it take away someone's truly remarkable accomplishment.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

WTF; Jim Joyce Blows Perfect Game

Is there ANY more convincing evidence for INSTANT REPLAY in baseball than the travesty that happened tonight?? I mean COME ON! Armando Galarraga got robbed.

Ken Griffey Jr. Retires

When I was a kid, my favorite baseball player was Ken Griffey Jr. I collected his baseball cards, I followed his games and when I was about 13 my dad took me to a Mariners v. Twins game. We were sitting right down the 3rd base line, right over the Twins dugout and my childhood hero, Ken Griffey Jr. stepped up to the plate in the 1st inning against Brad Radke. All I remember is seeing that sweet swing connect with a fastball and watching the ball leave the yard and thinking to myself, "I got to see Griffey Jr. hit a home run."

He'll walk right into the Hall of Fame the 1st year he's eligible, he one of the greatest players during the 90's and I hope that he resurfaces somewhere in the MLB either as a commentator, coach or in some other capacity. Goodbye Ken Griffey Jr., thanks for all the memories.

The King and Lee: Previewing the Mariners' Aces

After last night's dud ended the little winning streak the Twins had been on, they now have the unfortunate task of facing two of the AL's best pitchers on back-to-back nights. Although the Mariners' run-prevention-based strategy hasn't exactly panned out so far (in the sense that although only the Twins and Rays have allowed fewer runs in the AL, the M's are second-to-last in runs scored, good for a -22 run differential), Cliff Lee has been as good as advertised. Felix Hernandez is coming of a dominant 2009 season that saw him finish 2nd in Cy Young voting, but has looked slightly more vulnerable so far this year. Needless to say, they're a formidable one-two punch, and the Twins certainly have their work cut out for them.

Lee has fared well against the Twins in recent years, owning a 2.41 ERA vs Minnesota from 2007 to 2009, and this year he's been even better than his 3.22 ERA shows. His FIP is a ridiculous 1.43, largely a function of his incredible 14.00 K/BB ratio, a BABIP that's a little high at .328, and a strand rate that's significantly below average at 56.8%. Due to his injury to start the season, he's a little behind the rest of the league in terms of sample size, but 44.2 innings is enough to realize that striking out 8.6 batters per nine while walking only .60 is pretty darn good. He has yet to give up a home run this year, so xFIP puts him at 2.84, but Lee has been every bit the ace the Mariners wanted when they traded for him.

Lee won't overwhelm you with velocity, but he features excellent control of five pitches - four-seam fastball, slider, curve (including the infamous "spike curve"), changeup, and a cutter. According to FanGraphs, he's started using the cutter much more frequently the last two years, featuring it 17.7% of the time thus far this season. His fastball averages 91.1 mph, and he keeps hitters off-balance with an 84 mph changeup and a 76 mph curve. He has enough confidence in his impeccable command that he'll throw any of his pitches at any point in the count. He's issued only three walks all season, none of which have been to lefties, so he figures to challenge the Twins' patient approach.

Should the Twins be able to get a win versus Lee, they won't have much time to rest on their laurels with El Cartelua (Felix's nickname in Venezuela, roughly translated as "The Badass") waiting in the wings. The 24-year-old righty broke into the league in 2005 at the age of 19 and owns a 3.45 career ERA, posting his best season as a pro last year. He went 19-5 with a 2.49 ERA and struck out 181 in 238.2 innings, a great season by any standard (although FIP liked him slightly less at 3.09). This year, his FIP has risen to 3.82, partly due to an increase in his BB/9 rate from 2.68 in 2009 to 3.50 this season. That's really the only difference in his peripherals - he's generating ground balls at roughly the same rate, and his velocity has stayed consistent.

Hernandez features four pitches - a hard fastball, a devastating slider, a curve and a changeup. Although he doesn't have quite the pinpoint control, he's got better raw stuff on his primary pitches than Lee does - his fastball averages 94 mph, and his slider averages 85 with excellent movement. So far this season, Felix has relied less on the slider and more on his other breaking pitches - his curve % has increased from 10 to 12.6%, and his changeup has increased from 13.6 to 16.7%. He's also generating slightly more swings on balls outside the strike zone than he did the last few years. The wins haven't been coming as easily due to the Mariners' struggling offense, but I don't think there's a whole lot for Seattle fans to be worried about.

If the Twins can take one of these games, I'll gladly take a series split. On offense, it's going to require taking advantage of of some of the opportunities that they haven't been able to lately. Certainly the home runs in the last few games have been nice, but I've been disappointed with the failure to move runners over and stay out of the double play, the so-called "little things" that have become a cliche in Minnesota (and which aren't exactly true of the way this team plays anymore, at least offensively). Slowey and Pavano will have to be on top of their game, as it may be hard to muster a lot of runs. I'm optimistic that this team can at least get one win against the Mariners' dynamic duo, but it will definitely be a challenge. Let's hope the West Coast swing gets back on the right track tonight.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

And Suddenly, a 5-game Winning Streak

The Twins had themselves a nice Memorial Day weekend, sweeping the Texas Rangers at home and winning the first game of the current series with the Mariners, extending their winning streak to 5 games. It's crazy how much things can change in a week. Last Wednesday, the Twins had lost 3 straight, including 2 close games vs. the Yankees, and at a mere 6 games over .500, the Tigers were nipping at our heels. Now the Twins stand at 11 games over and the Tigers have fallen 4.5 back, having won only once in 6 road-games against Mariners and the Athletics.

As to the 'why' concerning the Twins recent run, I looked into it a bit and came up with the following:

1.) Finally hitting better with runners in scoring position:
Through the first 2 months of this season, the Twins bats with RISP have been mediocre at best. Domedog wrote about it back on May 7th. In the last 5 games, Twins hitters are 14 for 42 with RISP, good for a .333 average. I know that the Twins were particularly bad with the bases loaded, but I don't have an statistics on whether that has changed much.

2.) The starting staff has been excellent:
In every game of the current 5 game streak, the Twins starter has won the game. Not only that, every Twins starter during this streak has had a quality start. The Twins have out-scored their competition 29 to 13 in the past five games.

3.) The bullpen has been solid:
During the current streak, Twins relievers have pitched 12 1/3 innings, allowing only 2ERs. Rauch has saved 3 of the past 5 games and minus a little hiccup last night, has looked pretty good this year saving 13 games for the 1st place Twins.

4.) Spectacular defense continued:
I saw a little Elias tid-bit on the Twins ESPN page today, they recently broke the record for fewest errors in the 1st 50 games of a season with only 12. The previous record was 17 by the 2009 Phillies and 2006 Red Sox. This teams has been excellent defensively and if O-Dog can avoid the DL, I expect this will continue.

Good pitching, good defense and timely hitting is usually a formula for success and as of late the Twins have been following it to a 'T'. Their next 5 games are on the road vs. the Mariners and Oakland before coming home for another 9-game homestand vs. the Royals, Braves and Rockies.

A belated THANK YOU to the men and women who serve, or have served, in the U.S. Military. Thank you for everything that you sacrifice to protect our freedom. A special thanks goes out to my friend Jason who recently returned from a year in Iraq. I know his wife and young-son are very happy to see him and I'm very glad he's back safe as well.