Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Series Preview: Twins vs White Sox

I was trying to get this out before the game last night, but the weather did me a favor and gave me a little extra time and one less game to write about, being that the make-up game won't be played during this series. We haven't done one of these in a while, but with the the hated White Sox coming to town I figured it would be a good time to take stock of where these two teams stand. Both have disappointed so far this season after being pegged again as the two main contenders in the division, but each have shown signs of life as of late and are playing much better baseball. The Twins come in as winners of 8 of their last 10, and the White Sox have won 9 of 13 after suffering a 13-4 beatdown against the Jays on May 29th. The Twins have owned the Sox over the last few years, and courtesy of mlb.com, I found out that the Twins are 26-7 against the White Sox since 2009. That's dominance.

What is perhaps most surprising about the Twins' recent run is that they've done it despite a revolving door of injuries. For a team that scored above five runs so few times even with a marginally healthy lineup earlier in the season, it's pretty impressive that they've averaged over five runs a game over this recent run with no Jason Kubel, no Joe Mauer, no Jim Thome, a completely ineffective (and recently DL'ed) Justin Morneau, and no Denard Span, who was put on the 7-day DL with symptoms from a mild concussion (now a word that strikes fear into the heart of Twins Territory). What's even better is that help should be on the way soon; Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Glen Perkins could be back as soon as today, and Mauer should be getting ever closer to his long-awaited return.

But perhaps the biggest contributor to the team's success has been the pitching. Over the last 14 days, the Twins rank second in the league in overall ERA, and their sparkling 1.45 bullpen ERA is the best mark in baseball. Only Matt Capps has allowed a run out of the bullpen in the month of June. For as much as the bullpen was maligned earlier in the season, they are finding a way to get it done recently. It's not perhaps as good as that underneath the surface, as the 3.80 FIP and 5.00 xFIP marks attest over that same span (as well as the .194 BABIP), but the biggest thing is that the patchwork relief corps is producing results on the field. The starting pitching has also been excellent, with Liriano flirting with a perfect game, Scott Baker twirling a complete-game gem against the Rangers, and Carl Pavano allowing only three runs in his last sixteen innings. Anthony Swarzak performed admirably in two spot starts, and despite his ugly outing in monsoon conditions on Friday, Brian Duensing's previous start before that had been eight solid innings against the Royals. Here's a look at how the pitching matchups stack up for this now rain-shortened series:

Game 1: Carl Pavano (3-5, 4.54 ERA/3.99 FIP) vs Gavin Floyd (6-5, 3.89 ERA/3.81 FIP)

With the rainout, Tuesday's starters were simply pushed to Wednesday. As I noted earlier, Pavano comes into this game off of a seven-inning start against the Indians in which he allowed only one run on seven hits and struck out three. After an atrocious stretch to open the season, Pavano has started to regain his 2010 form, keeping up a strong ground ball rate and limiting walks. His 3.48 K/9 is by far the lowest mark in the majors, but he's also managed to keep the free passes in check, with his 1.90 BB/9 rate also among the lowest in the league. Pavano doesn't have much of a split this season, but he's been slightly more effective versus lefties.

Gavin Floyd has been perhaps the best starter for the White Sox this year not named Philip Humber (whose .220 BABIP has to start catching up with him at some point). He's down almost a mile-and-a-half per hour on his average fastball velocity this season and his K/9 rate is down slightly from his last few seasons, but he's also posting the lowest BB/9 rate of his career. Floyd has struggled against the Twins in his career with a 5.27 ERA, particularly having trouble in starts in Minnesota, and has fared much better against right-handers than left-handers this season. Ordinarily this would work in the Twins' favor, but the current lineup is much more right-handed as of late in the absence of almost all their lefty mashers.

Game 2: Nick Blackburn (5-4, 3.47 ERA/4.60 FIP) vs Mark Buerhle (3.95 ERA/3.74 FIP)

Don't look for a lot of strikeouts in this one either, although to be fair Blackburn actually has the K/9 advantage in this matchup. Blackie's 4.99 K/9 mark is the highest of his career even if it's still below league average, and he's also inducing ground balls at a 52% clip, also a career high. He's leading Twins starters in ERA at 3.47 even if FIP hates his K/BB rate, and his xFIP is a very respectable 3.77. For the type of pitcher he is, he's doing everything he needs to do to be successful. In his last start against the Rangers he struck out six and induced 13 grounders versus only 7 fly balls, allowing four runs (two earned) on ten hits.

If there's one word to describe Mark Buerhle, it's consistency, and at this point you know basically what you're getting from him. Buerhle has never thrown less than 200 innings in a season in his entire career, and his recipe for success resembles Nick Blackburn's in a lot of ways. Both pitchers rely heavily on pitching to contact, although Blackburn has a better career ground ball rate (and significantly higher rate this season in particular). Buehrle's average fastball this season is 85.4(!) miles per hour, and he obviously needs to change speeds and have pinpoint control to be effective. In his last start, he earned the win against Oakland after going seven innings while striking out four and walking one.

Overall, both teams come into the series playing well. For the Twins, a big key for the pitchers will be to keep the ball in the yard, as the White Sox have homered in eleven straight games. Paul Konerko has been one of the AL's best hitters this season, Alexei Ramirez is leading AL shortstops in WAR with 3.0, and Carlos Quentin is showing a huge resurgence in his power with 17 home runs already. Pavano has been able to avoid the home run pretty well this season, allowing only seven, but Blackburn has been prone to the long ball, giving up a team-high 12 (tied with Scott Baker). In the game I saw on June 9th, Blackburn gave up two absolute moon shots to Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz, and the White Sox have similar ability to punish mistakes.

The Twins currently sit 10 games back behind the now-division-leading Tigers, and the White Sox sit 4.5 back. The Tigers and the Indians are currently playing each other, and with a few more wins the Twins have a chance to get their deficit down to single digits for the first time in quite a while. With another home series with the offensively-challenged Padres on the horizon, followed by the similarly-inept Giants, there's good reason to think the hot streak could continue. There's still obviously a long way to go, but with some key players soon to return from injury, the future is certainly looking brighter.

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