Thursday, April 28, 2011

Epic Fail

You know that old saying that "if you don't have anything nice to say don't say anything at all?" That about sums it up. I try to be as positive as anyone but after a nice three-game winning streak that had us believing the worst was over, this team is back to playing some embarrassing baseball at home. I could try to find some silver linings here, but frankly I don't have the time or energy at the moment. No one seems to have a good idea of who's injured and how bad it really is, and I'm fairly convinced we might see some position players on the mound in the night game tonight given how badly the bullpen has been stretched due to the atrocious starting pitching performances. I'm certainly not writing off the season yet, but it's been hard watching this team the last two games. I have no idea what it's going to take to get things back on track, but someone better get it figured out soon.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Future HOFer?: Omar Vizquel

Twins' news is pretty slow these days. Between rain-outs and off-days they've had quite a bit of time off. Given that they have a number of ailing players, this has been a welcome break I'm sure, and hopefully they can hit the ground running tonight at home against the Rays. In lieu of a rambling piece about the Twins or a Rays/Twins preview, I thought I would continue my series about potential future Hall-of-Famers. In case you're new to this blog, I've also done this with Carlos Delgado, Todd Helton, Bobby Abreu and Johnny Damon.There are the obvious HOFers out there (Pujols, A-Rod, Jeter, etc) but I want to give the lesser-known guys, or perhaps even a few on-the-bubble guys, some pub.

Omar Enrique Vizquel broke into the Major Leagues with the Mariners in 1989 (Griffey Jr.'s rookie year) at the age of 22. He has played in at least 62 games in every season since then and just 3 days ago, he celebrated his 44th birthday. He's one of those ageless types, like Jamie Moyer, that just keep playing and playing and playing. I'll let you decide if the sheer length of his career should diminish his numbers in any way, all I'm going to do is share them, and try to find his place in the history books. Here's a look at his body of work to-date:

23 seasons
2,858 games played
10,292 at-bats (20th all-time)
2,807 hits
1,416 runs
445 doubles
80 homeruns
938 RBIs
1,014 walks
1,053 strikeouts
.273/.338/.354 hitting line
401 stolen bases
3 All-Star Appearances
11 Gold Glove Awards
2 World Series Appearances (both losses)
.985 career fielding% (best all-time at SS)

Even though Vizquel now plays for the hated White Sox, I have to stand in admiration of his overall numbers. While it's true that the simple longevity of his career has afforded him the opportunity to compile those stats, they are impressive nonetheless. The most impressive aspect of Vizquel's game is not even found on your average stat sheet, that being his defense. Between 1993 and 2001, Vizquel won 9 consecutive Gold Glove awards and is easily one of the best, if not the best, defensive shortstops to ever play Major League Baseball.

Over at, there is a section with sortable career stats. If you select the "SS" tab, and then select the "Value" tab...and then sort by "Positional Value", Vizquel's name is 6th all-time on the Shortstop list in terms of overall value. The number shown there incorporates batting skills, fielding skills and runs over placement level. He is behind only the likes of Luis Aparicio (HOF), Rabbit Maranville (HOF), Luke Appling (HOF), Bill Dahlen, and Ozzie Smith (HOF). If you sort by "replacement value", which is something that incorporates Vizquel's year-in, year-out health alongside his fielding and hitting abilities (read more here), Vizquel is 4th all-time among shortstops behind only Cal Ripken Jr., Robin Yount and Honus Wagner. That's some pretty good company.

In looking at his offensive stat sheet, I can't help but gape at his K/BB ratio. Here's a guy who never had much power, but managed a nearly 1:1 K/BB ratio throughout his career. That tells me he has a fantastic eye, and that he's exceedingly patient.

Aside from a discussion on Vizquel's HOF merit is the fact that he appears to be one of the good guys in baseball. Quiet, goes about his business, works hard, the kind of player that any manager would want and a guy the White Sox are lucky to have. Omar is very involved in the community, working with a variety of different charities and supporting people in his home country of Venezuela as well.

If I'm being honest, there's really not much doubt that Omar Vizquel has Hall of Fame credentials. His offensive numbers aren't all that eye-popping, but when you add in his defensive prowess, there is little doubt left that he is deserving of the Hall. If he was to reach 3,000 hits, which is still possible, I think that would make him a lock for 1st-ballot Hall of Famer. Vizquel probably only has a year or two left on his career, but his legacy will be one of outstanding defense, speed and longevity. Hats off to you Omar.

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Break in the Clouds (and "Where are they now?")

Ahhh. An above-average offensive game, a couple of wins, two good pitching performances, things are looking up. On top of that, the Twins aren't in the cellar anymore courtesy of a White Sox slump which has seen them lose 10 out of 11 games. Morneau's looking good in his return from the flu, Gardy says Delmon Young should be back in the lineup tomorrow, the Indians and Royals are returning to earth a little bit...slowly but surely things are turning around.

I didn't get to watch either of the games this weekend, I'm currently in the process of moving so that's taking up a majority of my time, but I did read/see a couple of things that made me smile. One was the 4 hits and 4 RBI from Morneau over the weekend. That's great to see and I don't think it will be long here before we start to see the thunder return to his bat. Jason Bay of the New York Mets, who also suffered a concussion and was out for awhile, hit his first HR of the season which gives me hope for Morneau. The second thing I read about that made me smile was regarding Nathan's appearance in Saturday's 10-3 win. He came in with a 7-run lead, pitched well, and I read that the fans were standing and cheering during the final three outs. I don't know the guy personally, but Joe Nathan seems like a good person and a hard-working player and I was happy to see the fans give him some love. That had to feel good.

I had MLB Network on a lot this weekend and I watched the Cubs game on Saturday so I got to watch former-Twin Matt Guerrier cough up a Dodger lead on Saturday, giving up 5 earned run in 1.2 innings of work. That got me thinking, "I wonder how other recently departed Twins are faring for their new teams?" So, here's a quick run-down:

Orlando Hudson - 2B - San Diego Padres
After a decent start to the season, Hudson has cooled off considerably and currently finds himself mired in a 4-for-33 slump. His triple-slash currently sits at .229/.349/.271 through 70 at-bats. O-Dog does have 7 steals so far this year, which is only 3 less than his best season total. In the field he's been money as he does not yet have an error at 2nd and has been a part of 15 double-plays.

J.J. Hardy - SS - Baltimore Orioles
Hardy only made it 6 games into the season before he found himself on the DL with a left oblique strain. He's supposed to take some swings today, but it's probably another week or two before he'll be back with the Major League squad.

Jesse Crain - RP - Chicago White Sox
With all sorts of problems at the back end of the bullpen for the Sox (6 blown saves in 7 chances), I wouldn't be surprised if Guillen gave Crain a shot at the closer role for the Sox. Crain has been quite effective so far this year with 11 Ks against only 2BB in 10.1 innings of work. Crain and Sergio Santos have easily been the White Sox more effective relief arms, but haven't had many higher-leverage opportunities lately as the Sox have lost 10 of 11 games.

Matt Guerrier - RP - Los Angeles Dodgers
In Guerrier's defense, he had not surrendered a run until Saturday's debacle which saw him give up 5 runs against the Cubs in 1.2 innings of work. Guerrier has still yet to give up an extra-base hit and prior to Saturday's blow-up, he had retired 33 of 39 batters-faced.

Jon Rauch - RP/Closer - Toronto Blue Jays
Rauch has been the de-facto closer so far this season, but that may be changing soon as Frank Francisco has come off the DL. Rauch has done a serviceable job in the role to this point, saving 3 games for the Jays and only surrendering 2 runs in 8.2 IP. Rauch will likely resume more of a set-up role going forward as Francisco is expected to regain the role of closer shortly.

Brian Fuentes - Closer - Oakland Athletics
With Andrew Bailey side-lined due to injury (right forearm strain), Fuentes has been filling as the Athletics' closer since the beginning of the season. Aside from two ugly outings against the Mariners and Tigers, Fuentes has pitched pretty well saving 6 games for the A's with 10Ks in 11 IP. The timetable for Bailey's return is early-May at which point Fuentes could find himself back in a set-up role, or even a LOOGY role.

Pat Neshek - RP - San Diego Padres
Neshek's velocity is still pretty awful, but he's managed to pitch well despite that fact, holding a 2.25 ERA over 8 IP so far. Neshek's control isn't there either (7:5 K/BB) which leads me to believe the National League simply hasn't adapted to his unorthodox delivery yet. Unless his velocity and command improve, he will start getting shelled once hitters get more comfortable with his release point. Pat's fan-friendly attitude hasn't changed though and I'm sure that if he sticks around with the Padres he'll become as popular there as he wa with the Twins.

That about does it for players worth mentioning. I wouldn't say that any of the ex-Twins are doing amazingly well, but it's early. As for the Twins, things are looking up, if they can get Liriano going a little better and get Mauer back sometime soon, we could be looking at a big turnaround. Fingers-crossed, Go Twins.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Gut Check Time

Denard Span (.313/.352/.418)
Matt Tolbert (.214/.214/.321)
Jason Kubel (.311/.354/.492)
Jim Thome (.171/.261/.293)
Michael Cuddyer (.250/.308/.300)
Danny Valencia (.220/.313/.288)
Luke Hughes (.190/.190/.238)
Drew Butera (.174/.174/.217)
Alexi Casilla (.128/.190/.179)

That was the lineup for the Twins last night against the Orioles, a b-squad lineup in just about every way. Five of those players have OBPs below .265 and, not only that, SEVEN of those players also have SLUGGING %'s under .325. Hughes, Butera and Casilla have combined for 13 hits in 83 at-bats (.157) this year. Blah, blah, blah, I know, most of us are keenly aware of how much the Twins offense has sucked so far this year. The result last night was predictable as the Twins got shut out, managing only 7 hits (5 singles) and 4 walks along the way, while leaving 9 men on base and going 0-9 as a team with RISP.

What's my point with all of this? My point is that this team has lacked fire in the early goings, and I'm starting to question the toughness of guys like Delmon Young and Justin Morneau. I know that Morneau had his bout with a severe concussion, and that the Twins have been understandably cautious with him in his recovery...but this team is struggling hard at the plate and unless this flu is some sort of mega-disease, we need these guys out there, in uniform, doing as best they can. I'm not privy to the team like some are so who knows, Morneau's case of the flu might be a bad one, but on a night that the team is already without it's All-Star catcher and offensively-talented's gut check time guys...somebody has got to play through a little pain or come through in the clutch.

What I'm not sensing from the Twins is any urgency. It's easy to think, in the beginnings of a 162-game schedule, that these early games don't matter all that much, but they do, and the Twins have helped to prove that fact over the past several years. 2008 and 2009 were perfect examples. In many ways, the Twins have been lucky so far this year in that the Tigers and White Sox have struggled out of the gate as well. Sure the Indians and Royals have played well up to this point, but I don't think either team has the tools for sustained success. So the Twins are, in my mind, still "in it" but unless they start playing significantly better, and soon, then they may very well play themselves out of contention by June.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tuesday Notes

The Twins are certainly still having trouble scoring runs, having not yet topped five in a game, but they've managed to put together their first back-to-back wins on the season. I'm not going to dwell on the uglier parts of the losses over the weekend, because we've spent enough time doing that and it finally feels good to get a few wins in a row. The Twins will look to keep the ball rolling tonight with the seemingly back-in-form Carl Pavano going against Jake Arrietta.

Starting pitching:
  • On Sunday, Brian Duensing allowed two runs, scattering seven hits over seven innings to continue his solid start to the season. He struck out five while walking two. Duensing's K/9 through 20 IP sits at 6.30, up almost a full point from last year's mark of 5.37. His swinging-strike percentage is 9.5%, up from the 7.7% he posted last year. It's probably too early to tell whether this uptick is sustainable, but obviously missing more bats should translate into continued success for Duensing and he's kept the Twins in every game he's started this year.
  • Liriano had what should, on the surface, look like a confidence-building start last night, allowing only two runs and pitching into the seventh inning. This is great, and he picked up his first win, but there are still plenty of red flags here. For starters he walked five, equaling his total from his disastrous first start in Toronto. He struck out only two, meaning that his K/BB rate now sits at 1.00. Both runs he allowed came on home runs, bringing his season total to four after allowing only nine all of last year. That's not to say it was all bad though, and there are encouraging signs. Liriano induced 13 ground ball outs as opposed to 6 fly balls, continuing a trend from his previous start. According to PitchFX, he averaged 93.19 mph with his fastball and touched 95.6, a huge improvement over his first start where he sat at 90.4 mph. It's hard to know quite what to make of Liriano so far, but he's certainly going to have to get the walks under control if he wants to come anywhere close to last year's success.
  • Still not great, but getting better? Maybe? Kubel at least over the weekend showed some of the power that's been non-existent from this crew so far. Last night's win featured some clutch hitting from unlikely sources (Butera??) and to be able to scratch out five runs and win without Mauer and Morneau is at least a positive. I mean, the bats have to catch fire at some point....right?
  • It should be said that this was an unexpected positive from the last two games. Sunday's game featured great catches from all three outfielders - Repko ranging far back and to his left and laying out, Kubel making a leaping catch near the wall in right, and Delmon with one of his sort-of-awkward-but-effective dives coming in on a low line drive to left. Casilla and Tolbert, despite their shortcomings with the bats, have looked like a more than capable double-play combination, turning a great DP in the 8th inning of Sunday's game to bail Perkins out of a jam and turning another key DP in the 6th inning last night. Casilla also made a Punto-esque barehand and diving throw for the final out of the 6th. It's still too early for the advanced defensive metrics to have much to say, but the team UZR as it stands now certainly isn't embarrassing, for what it's worth. Maybe not much.
  • If the story of the weekend was Nathan being replaced by Capps as closer (which has been written about in many different places) the story of the night last night was Jim Hoey pitching 1 1/3 scoreless innings, striking out one, and sitting at 96.7 mph with the fastball. Sure, he's no Aroldis Chapman, but it was a change for Twins fans to see someone throwing heat out of the bullpen. Hoey's career numbers are fairly ugly and I'm not convinced he's an impact arm in the bullpen or even someone I'd regularly trust in high-leverage situations, but there aren't a lot of more promising options in the minors that look ready right now. One of the biggest problems I see with Hoey is that, as evidenced by his strikezone plot, most of his pitches (including mistakes) were up in the zone. When it comes to blowing high fastballs by hitters, 97 is ok, but it's certainly not 102, and Hoey only averages 0.18 of horizontal movement on his four-seam fastball according to PitchFX. This means it's really straight (Capps' fastball averaged, for comparison, 4.5 inches of movement). Straight + up in the zone can mean problems down the line, but I'll give Hoey a chance to prove me wrong. He does feature a changeup as well that he threw four times, each for a strike, and generated his only K of the night by freezing Mark Reynolds. It's a pitch he has apparently worked on a lot over the off-season, and this article claims it's actually a splitter, but it looks basically like a changeup. He'll need to continue to mix that in to stay effective, as, unlike Chapman, I don't think his straight heat is enough to get him by.
First pitch tonight is at 6:05 CT. It looks like storms are on the way in Baltimore, so let's hope the Twins can get the game in and get another win!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Comfortably Numb

"Relax, relax, relax
I need some information first.
Just the basic facts.
Can you show me where it hurts?

There is no pain, you are receding.

A distant ship's smoke on the horizon.
You are only coming through in waves.
Your lips move, but I can’t hear what you’re saying."
 -Pink Floyd, Comfortably Numb

Yesterday I was concerned to read that Joe Mauer was being held out for a 2nd straight game but there were enough points of justification to allay the fears of injury. Then I flicked on my computer this morning to the news that Mauer had landed on the DL and my head literally fell into my hands. John Bonnes over at TwinsGeek wrote a soothing piece yesterday about how he felt that "dawn" was coming for the Twins and with all of my heart I wanted to believe that. Things couldn't get much worse right?? I guess they could get worse and they did get worse.

I don't want to dwell on it too much. First of all, we don't know much about the condition that Mauer has or how long it will take for him to recover and get back on the field. Second, just like with Nishioka's injury, it has happened, the team has to move on and try to figure out a way to win. There's no way around it. It sucks, 100% it sucks. Like Nick Nelson said today, "at this point things are about as dreary as they've ever been [...] and we're only in April.

One thing I've been reading around the blogs (especially in the comments) so far this morning is this impression that because the Twins have recovered from season-ending injuries to the likes of Morneau and Nathan the last couple of years, they will somehow manage to do the same in this case. Though I appreciate that sentiment and would love to believe it, this simply isn't the same kind of injury. Mauer's role is bigger in that he is essentially the captain of the pitching staff. If his injury proves serious and causes him to miss months instead of weeks, the effect of that would be much more widely felt than losing a Justin Morneau or a Joe Nathan.

I guess we'll find out more over the next few days, but right now it's hard not to feel sick about how this season has started for the Twins. I would be elated if they turned things around, Mauer injury only required a 15-day DL stay, Nishioka came back in mid-to-late May and slid right back into his role and everything turned out rosy at the end of the season, but I'm not expecting that.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Busting the Slump

To be completely honest, I've been struggling a little to come up with ideas for posts. It's certainly been frustrating to watch this Twins team limp out of the gates at the start of the season, and as much as I've touted my generally optimistic outlook, it's admittedly been difficult to stay positive. I've thought about going through the Twins' offensive rankings thus far, but they're pretty much last in every meaningful category, so that makes for a depressing read. I've considered the "how much are we paying Joe Mauer per weak grounder to second" post, but that's probably still a little premature through eleven games. I've considered writing about how Target Field is the new PETCO (except for Jim Thome's moon shot over the weekend), but I haven't been able to find much hard data (outside of watching the flags in right field) to explain why there seems to be some sort of forcefield knocking balls onto the warning track. I'm certainly no meteorologist, but it certainly looks like Target Plaza = wind tunnel. And after yesterday's game, I pondered looking at what's going on with Liriano, but the entire Twins blogosphere already beat me there.

So what's left? This still-young season has resembled some sort of bizarro world where nothing is as it seems. The biggest perceived strengths of this team - a largely intact offense that had no problem scoring runs last year and a starting rotation that boasts some of the best depth in the league - have looked like weaknesses. On the other hand, the biggest question mark - a bullpen depleted by free agency - has been one of the few bright spots with a collective 3.09 ERA and 3.43 FIP in 35 innings of work. Some things have been predictable (shaky defense, Alexi Casilla's bat, and Baker serving up home runs) and some things have me scratching my head after spring training (Delmon looking more like the 2009 rather than 2010 version, Valencia looking frequently lost both at the plate and in the field, and the complete lack of power evidenced by a collective .070 ISO). It's probably not fair to single out individual hitters though, because outside of Span and maybe Kubel, it's all been pretty bad. The Twins have 88 hits on the season, which puts them further towards the middle of the pack than the bottom, but as the Royals learned last year, a team does not live on singles alone. The Twins have technically out-hit the Yankees (who have 82 hits); the difference is that 20 of the Yankees' hits have been home runs, compared to the whopping 3 that have left the yard for Minnesota.

It's still too early to pick out underlying statistical trends that would explain the anemic offense, and on the whole, I don't think anyone is legitimately concerned that Mauer will hit .265 all year and Morneau and Delmon will finish the season with a combined zero home runs. As Adam wrote over at Puckett's Pond, though, there does appear to be some sort of groupthink going on regarding plate discipline, seemingly an effort by Twins batsmen to hit their way out of this collective funk rather than staying patient, working counts, and waiting for good pitches to hit. I'd agree that if I had to point to one thing that should be firmly within the team's control (meaning not BABIP or something else related to "luck"), taking a more patient approach at the plate should certainly help to generate baserunners and help some of the singles lead to more runs.

The bad news is that after a brief homestand, the Twins are back on the east coast. The good news is that they face the Rays and the Orioles, both teams who have experienced similar run-scoring troubles. Tampa's wOBA on the season is only four points higher than the Twins at .271, even after the 20-hit beatdown they laid on the Red Sox a few days ago. The Orioles are slightly better than that at .286, but they have also done a stellar job of run prevention, aided by their up-and-coming young arms such as Zach Britton (and potentially Brian Matusz who may be back just in time to face the Twins).

Whatever it is that explains the offensive struggles, maybe the fake turf and cream-colored ceiling of Tropicana Field will kindle some memory of the M&M boys rifling homers over the baggy, aided by the air conditioning vents in the Metrodome roof (or so the legend goes) rather than hindered by the swirling Target Field winds. Maybe the ghost of Jason Kubel's game-winning RBI pop-up off the catwalk is still lingering somewhere in the rafters, seeking to reverse the string of bad luck that was particularly evident yesterday in the numerous seeing-eye singles that found their way through during Liriano's disastrous sixth inning. Maybe Twins Geek is right, that it's darkest just before the dawn. I don't exactly know what got the Twins here and what will get them out of it, but there's no reason it can't start tonight.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

KC Royals vs. MN Twins Series Preview

Last night's Rays v. Red Sox game gave me hope for the Twins. If you didn't see the game, the Rays unleashed a 20-hit, 16-run onslaught against the Red Sox after hitting even more poorly than the Twins through their first 9 games. I would love to see a game or two or ten like that from our beloved Twins...a laugh-er would be good for the souls of Twins fans everywhere.

Game 1 - Tuesday 7:10pm CST

Pitching Matchup: Jeff Francis (0-0, 1.98 ERA) vs. Brian Duensing (0-0, 5.14 ERA)

Jeff Francis came to the Royals from the Rockies this past off-season and has gotten his 2011 campaign off to a good start...which means he's due to have a blow-up on the mound. During his career, Francis has never had a season-ERA under 4.16 and for over the last two seasons, he hasn't managed an ERA below 5.00 though he has battled through various injuries. His first two starts of this year were both at home, against the Angels and White Sox and in each game he struck-out 4 and walked only 1, gave up 1 homerun and threw about 100 pitches in 6.2IP and 7.0IP respectively. Nobody on the Twins really has much experience with Francis, though Morneau is 1-for-3 with a HR against Francis. The Twins would be best-served to go with as much of a right-handed lineup as they can against the lefty Francis as he has allowed a .298/.346/.464 career hitting line to righty hitters.
As for Brian Duensing, he got roughed up early in his only start of the year against the Yankees, but managed to settle down and get through 7 innings, striking out 7 while walking only 2. Duensing has feasted on Royal hitters so far in his career surrendering a meager .263/.282/.395 hitting line against them in a collective 38 at-bats (7:1 K/BB). The thing the Twins will have to watch in this game, and throughout the series, is KC's penchant to steal bases. Through 9 games, Royal runners have stolen a MLB-best 15 bags, a trend which has carried over from Spring Training where they stole 57 bases. What's interesting to note is that the Royals don't have a starter in the Top 20 for stolen-bases, their team-leader is a bench guy (Jarrod Dyson) and he has 3 stolen bases. For the Royals it's been a team-effort on the bases with 8 guys having at least 1 SB.

If I had to take a guess at a result, I'd say Twins 7, Royals 4

Game 2 - Wednesday 12:10pm CST

Pitching Matchup: Kyle Davies (0-1, 9.00 ERA) vs. Francisco Liriano (0-2, 7.71 ERA)

Davies has struggled so far this year giving up 9 runs over two starts, walking 7 and striking out only 5. Davies has never been a very good pitcher in the Majors, but has managed to keep a starting job because of who he pitches for. If the Twins don't score many runs in this one, we'll know something is wrong folks because as a team, the Twins have a .288/.406/.429 hitting line against Davies in 156 at-bats and have walked more times than they've struck out against him. Thome and Kubel both have career 1.200+ OPS marks against Davies so it should be a no-brainer that both of them should be in the lineup.
Francisco Liriano has also struggled so far this season, but looked better in his last outing vs. the Yankees on April 7th. A number of current Royal hitters have had an appreciable number of at-bats against our ace, but none of them have gotten very good results, except for Alex Gordon who owns a .930 OPS against Liriano in 11 career at-bats. I expect Liriano to be even better in this game and it should help him some to be back in the spacious confines of Target Field as well. In his last start against the Yankees, Liriano had a 8/7 GB/FB ratio which indicates that he had improved control of his pitches. If we start to see pitch velocities that are closer to last year's then I think we will start to see Liriano start to dominate the competition once again. Hopefully he will start that trend by putting together a good start against the Royals on Wednesday afternoon.

Prediction: Twins 8, Royals 2

It's just a short two-game set but I hope this is where the Twins will start to turn things around at the plate. Overall the pitching has been good the past few days and the bullpen has been surprisingly good; I think the Twins can really get on a run here if they can get it going with the sticks. Go Twins!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Wanna See a Great Catch?

Credit: Associated Press
Holy Crap.

This catch made by Sam Fuld in yesterday's White Sox v. Rays game was among of the best I've ever seen. My 2nd favorite part of the video is Hawk Harrelson's version of the call, you have to watch till the 3rd time they show the catch. Most of the time Hawk bothers the crap out of me, but he does have some of the most entertaining calls in all of baseball.

The one aspect of the catch that bothers me? Check out the White Sox fan just beyond the fence who taunts Fuld after the catch. Seriously? Respect the skills!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sputtering Offense Not a Surprise...

When Tsuyoshi Nishioka went down with a broken leg last Thursday, Ron Gardenhire was left with some interesting decisions to make with regards to his daily batting lineup. The result? Mauer in the 2-hole, Morneau in the 3-hole and Delmon Young batting cleanup. The result on the field...a stagnant offense and 6 runs in three games over the weekend. Though none of the Twins' players are hitting particularly well, I believe a lot of blame for that fact can be placed on this very odd lineup that Gardenhire has put together. There was no better example of that than today's game in which Morneau was 3-for-4 and yet drove in only one run (on a ground-out mind you) because the hitters in front of him, Mauer and Span, went a combined 2-for-8 with both hits coming late in the ballgame. In the 1st inning Morneau came to the plate with 2-out and no one on, in the 4th inning he led off the inning (again, no one on obviously) and in the 6th he again came to the plate with 2-out and no one on base. A 3-hole hitter comes to the plate with 2-out and no one on more than any other position in the lineup, a fact I expounded upon in my piece on lineup optimization a couple of weeks ago.

I won't cover it all over again, but the lineup optimization basics say that you should have a high-average/high on-base % guy leading off, the team's best hitter hitting second, an average player in the 3-hole (because the 2-out, no one on sitch) and your power guys batting cleanup and 5th. Putting Morneau at 3 gives him a few more at-bats sure, but it saps his chances to do damage. In today's game, had he gone 3-for-4 as the cleanup guy, he may have had an opportunity or two to drive someone in, and otherwise would have led off a couple of innings with hits and who knows how things might have transpired from there. As it was, his hits were wasted as Delmon Young went 1-for-4 hitting behind him.

The Twins offense certainly isn't by any means doomed with this lineup. As I mentioned earlier, none of the Twins hitters seem to be seeing the ball very well with several of them hitting below the Mendoza-line. This poor hitting is further compounded by the fact that the team as a whole seems impatient at the plate, drawing a total of THREE walks (against 19 strikeouts) in this latest three-game set with the Athletics. When you're not hitting well, and you're not working walks, you aren't going to score many runs and that's what we've seen lately with the Twins. To Pavano, Blackburn and Baker's credit, they pitched pretty well in the series, but the offensive gave them little to no support to back their efforts which is a shame considering how few runs the Twins would have needed to score to take the series.

Put simply, it's up to the hitters to hit (duh). That said, if I were Ron Gardenhire I would keep Mauer in the 2-hole, move Morneau back to the cleanup spot and put Delmon Young or Danny Valencia in the 3-hole. Morneau seems to be hitting better and better as the season moves along and he needs to be put in a situation where he can either a) drive runs in or b) get things started in an inning. Putting him in a position where he is coming to the plate with no one on base and 2-outs is wasting his abilities. As for the other hitters..."come on boys, you gotta get some hits!" Coming into today's game, the Twins as a team were hitting just .203...which is downright terrible. Hopefully the bats will come around this week as the Twins take on the Royals and punchless-Rays. Maybe they'll take some extra BP during their day off tomorrow.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Home Sweet Home (and trying to stay positive)

The Twins limp home after a 2-4 eastcoast road-trip and while there is plenty to be down about, at least our boys are coming home. I've been reading around some of the Twins blogs and, understandably, the hot topic of the day is Nishioka's unfortunate injury in yesterday's game. I want to change the subject though because honestly, it happened, he's out, and we have to move on.

In trying to focus on positive things, I've come up with a couple of observations:

1.) The Twins bullpen was fantastic in the Yankee series. The bullpen as a whole pitched 8 scoreless innings against a very potent Yankee lineup and they were key in the Twins' victory in game 2 of the series.

2.) Though Baker and Duensing struggled in the early innings against the Yankees, both of them settled down and gave the team 6+ innings.

It may seem like I'm grasping at straws there, and I am a little, but those two things are certainly positive developments, especially considering how many of us have expressed our concerns with the bullpen. Another thing to keep in mind is the disparity in schedules between the Twins and White Sox so far. While the Twins had a very difficult road-trip against teams that were a combined 36 games over .500 last season, the White Sox had the Indians and Royals. Now they draw the Rays and their Triple-A offense while the Twins draw the Oakland Athletics who have one of the deeper and more talented starting rotations in the American League. The schedule will even itself out eventually, I'm just saying...

I think the thing I am most positive about is the fact that Justin Morneau looks like he's officially healthy. He's started the majority of the games so far and his bat is looking better and better. Yes the Twins lost 4 out of 6 games on the road-trip, but they also didn't score more than 5 runs in any of those games and their only homeruns came from Denard Span and Danny Valencia. The bats are gonna come around folks and this offense is going to be good, we just have to be patient.

I had to have Matt talk me off the ledge yesterday, so lest you think I simply have my rose-colored glasses on, I don't. I'm aware of the legitimate concerns this team has going forward, especially in the middle-infield. That said, we have to keep in mind how young this season is. I think we're going to start seeing some better outings from our starters in the next couple of weeks and I think having a couple of series' at home will be good medicine for this team. And hey, Nishioka's not going to miss the whole season, he'll be back by mid-May, early-June and we can get back to over-analyzing his defense and hitting abilities. Till then we've got Luke Hughes and Matt Tolbert to kick around.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Exaggerating a Win

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WE BEAT THE YANKEES...AT YANKEE STADIUM!! Who cares if we overblow it?? Yeah, yeah, it's sad that a regular season win, within the first two weeks of the season mind you, against the Yankees feels like winning a playoff game. Who cares? For now I'm basking in the glory of a come-from-behind, morale-boosting, early-season win. Here's a couple of notes on the game and the series so far:

  • In the first two innings of games against the Twins this year, the Yankees have scored 8 runs on the strength of 3 HRs. In innings 3 through 9, they've scored zero runs. This is both encouraging and discouraging. Nice to see both Baker & Duensing settle in after rough starts though.
  • After committing a couple of errors in the three-game series with the Blue Jays, Tsuyoshi Nishioka has seemingly settled in and has had a great series defensively against the Yankees helping to turn 4 double-plays in two games and handling the routine grounders with ease. At the plate last night he had a key hit in the 10th inning after failing to lay down a bunt.
  • In the 8th inning rally against Soriano, the Twins had a number of patient at-bats, drawing three walks with every hitter seeming to work a deep count. That kind of a patience is very encouraging, especially given the amount of quick outs the Twins have had so far this season.
  • Delmon Young hit the luckiest 2-out, 3-run double you will ever see. First, the only reason Mauer scored from 1st is because Delmon had worked the count to 3-2 with 2-out. Second, the ball was essentially a pop-up...that happened to find about a 10 sq. ft. area of the field that no one could get to. I'm not complaining, but I'll call it like I see it.
  • Michael Cuddyer looked pretty terrible last night, no way around that really.
  • Matt Capps deserves as much credit for the win as Young does, pitching through the heart of the Yankee lineup (Swish, Tex, A-Rod, Cano, Posada, Martin) in the 8th and 9th innings, retiring them 6-up, 6-down. He made fairly light work for Nathan by getting through those guys.
  • As Gleeman pointed out today, Nathan's velocity is still lacking, but he was effective enough in the 10th inning of last night's game. I don't think my heart could have taken it if Nathan had eeked out another save.
  • With a near-miracle win last night, the Twins have a solid shot at taking at least 2 of 4 in New York with Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano on the mound for the next two games. That would be about as much as I could have hoped for coming in.
Hopefully the team didn't go out and celebrate too much last night. This was a great early-season win and so far I've been impressed with the team in the first two games of this series, they've gotten down early but have fought back against a tough team. It's amazing how much one game can change your perspective.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Good, The Bad, and the Mostly Ugly

Remember that post I had before the season started about not trying not to hit the panic button? Well...I'm still not going to. Had you told me that the Twins would kick off the season 1-3, based on the opening schedule taking them out for seven games to places that they've had less success than any others, I wouldn't have disagreed. What I didn't see coming was Pavano getting massacred for eight runs in four innings, Liriano giving up two homers and walking five while the offense managed one hit, or, on the flip side, Blackburn keeping a potent Jays lineup in check for one earned run while inducing 13 ground ball outs. All surprising in different ways. The opening series provided a few parts good mixed in with a healthy dose of bad and ugly.

Last night, the Twins once again succumbed to the Yankees in the Bronx, a scenario we're unfortunately all too familiar with. The first two innings looked like vintage (at times) Scott Baker, serving up home runs to Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada on a couple very poorly located pitches. Another young pitcher, Ivan Nova, was mowing the Twins down without much resistance. It looked like an ugly start to the season was about to get even uglier. In the fifth inning, though, the Twins started to show some signs of life. I'm not one for moral victories (and sometimes close losses are harder to take than blowouts), but at this stage of the season I'm much happier that this game ended as it did even if the result was a loss. It's too early for any serious statistical analysis, so the below is based largely on suffering through these games on TV.

The good:

- Justin Morneau had hit some balls hard during the Toronto series without much to show for it, and last night he turned in a 2 for 4 performance including a double that was absolutely smoked. It's hard not to cringe a little watching him slide into second, but he's looking more and more comfortable at the plate.

- The middle infield combo of Nishioka and Casilla combined for two doubles, one RBI, a run scored and turned two double plays. Let's hope the communication that looked sorely lacking in Toronto is coming around.

- In the spirit of Fire Joe Morgan, we try to avoid writing too much about the importance of determination, grit, etc, but it was encouraging to see Scott Baker make it through four scoreless innings after an atrocious start, albeit with the benefit of some hard-hit balls finding their way directly to a Twins fielder. According to PitchFX, his fastball averaged 90.39 mph, almost a full mph slower than his 2010 average, and his slider was almost three mph off his 2010 average of 84. Obviously it's still a little early in the season to be reading a lot into dips in velocity, but on Opening Day last year he averaged 91.48 and 82.75, respectively.

- After a 1-2-3 inning last night, Kevin Slowey has a 1.37 FIP through 3 2/3 innings and hasn't allowed a run or walked anyone. Sure, he's given up 5 hits but also has a 6:4 GB/FB ratio. Hooray for small sample sizes!

The bad:

- Denard Span was 0-4 with three strikeouts. However, I'm going to give him a free pass because he single-handedly provided most of the Twins' offense over the weekend.

- Delmon Young was 1-4 with a swinging bunt as his only hit and also grounded into a double play. Remember what I said about him driving the ball with authority in spring training? Yeah...not so much yet, but he'll be fine. Parker Hagemann pointed out that the Yankees did a good job of working Delmon away in the zone - he'll need to do a better job of looking to drive the ball to the opposite field if other teams take this approach.

The ugly:

- I hate to even put him in this category, but Joe Mauer looks like he certainly could have used a few more weeks in Ft. Myers. I'm certainly not knocking him for not having enough at bats to get his swing where it needs to be, especially coming off knee surgery, but he's 1 for 11 and has only gotten the ball out of the infield a few times, with the bulk being weak ground balls. He'll come around as well, but he's obviously a little behind the curve right now.

- Valencia went 0-3, meaning his only hit of the season was his homer on Sunday (and leaving him with a BABIP of .000 in 15 plate appearances). It's also unlikely that this will continue, but needless to say it's been a slow start for the youngster for whom so many have been predicting regression.

If the Twins can manage to eke out one more win over the next three games, I'll accept taking the much-needed trip back to Target Field at 2-5. The Twins will have five games at home vs Oakland and KC, before heading back out to the AL East for 8 more (seriously, who made this schedule?) Sabathia will take the mound again tonight versus Duensing, but then Pavano and Liriano will likely face Freddy Garcia and A.J. Burnett, respectively. If Pavano and Liriano can put their awful first starts behind them, I like the Twins' chances in either of those games. The bottom line is that it's been an ugly start, but for most of the team, the only place to go from here is up.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Disappointing Start

The Twins' first series of the year is now in the books and if I summed it up in one word, that word would be: disappointing. From Carl Pavano's opening inning on Friday to Joe Nathan's white-knuckle save to win today's game, the Twins looked to be on shaky ground the entire time. I suppose there are several caveats that should be mentioned before people think I'm getting too down on this team.

a) The series was on the road and last year's 94-win team only won 50% of their road games.
b) The series was against an AL East opponent and, say what you will, the Twins have had perennial struggles with AL East opponent for several years now.
c) It's the first series of the year, there's a lot of baseball yet to be played.
d) Hey, the Twins are getting these tough road games out of the way early right?
e) Both Liriano and Pavano are better pitchers than they showed in their respective starts. If it was Blackburn, Baker or Duensing that had struggled, there would be more reason to worry going forward, but Pavano and Liriano will bounce back.

I think it's that last point that gives me hope. Sure Pavano and Liriano got roughed up and it was ugly, but they are both good pitchers who, more than likely, just happened to have rough starts in back-to-back games. It's not what you'd like to see, especially to start a year, but it's not the end of the world. That said, there are a few other things that happened that do have me worried...

a) Tsuyoshi Nishioka had 2 errors in three games,...that kind of defense is not going to win you any Gold Gloves in the Major Leagues. It could be nerves, but it's something to watch going forward.
b) Justin Morneau looks like he could have used a couple more weeks of Spring Training. He's 1 for 10 on the young season, with a strikeout and a walk and he hasn't looked anything like his old's hoping he turns it around.
c) The bullpen looked shaky and they were used a lot on Friday and Saturday.
d) As mentioned earlier, Nathan looked very hittable today, and the Pitch FX data on his outing suggests that he's still in recovery-mode from Tommy John surgery. His fastest fastball today was 91.8 mph, almost a full 2 mph slower than his average fastball in 2009 and 2009. Not only that, his command was very spotty, which indicates that he's not all the way back. This will be something to keep a close eye on, if he has another outing like he did today, Gardenhire may choose to make Capps the closer for awhile.

So now it's on to New York City to play the Yankees for four. I don't even need to go into how much the Twins have struggled again New York for the last several years, every Twins fan is painfully aware. We'll get our first looks at Scott Baker and Brian Duensing in the series as they go up against Ivan Nova and Yankee-ace CC Sabathia. I'm looking to see some more offense for the Twins in this series and hoping for a little better defense as well. It think it would be a big boost of confidence for the Twins if they could split this series, though I'm not holding my breath.