Thursday, July 28, 2011

Fence Sitters

Thanks to great performances by Ervin Santana, John Danks and Brian Duensing yesterday, the Twins find themselves 6 games behind 1st place with only 4 days remaining till the trade deadline...what is Bill Smith gonna do? So far I've heard rumors involving Denard Span and Michael Cuddyer, hopefully they are just that because the type of rumors I've heard (Span for Drew Storen/Ian Desmond) do not sound favorable for the Twins. As for me, I honestly do not care whether the Twins are sellers or not in the next few days. My only hope is that if they do move a few pieces, they get good value in return.

I think this past week has highlighted just how tall a task it is to gain ground in a division when there are three teams ahead of you. With the White Sox, Tigers and Indians all seemingly playing one another, there have been more than a few nights where at least one of those teams is guaranteed to win which puts pressure on the the Twins to win or fall even further behind. Fortunately the White Sox have put away division-leading Detroit the past couple of nights, but if they (the White Sox) get into the mix at the top, that will only further complicate the Twins struggle to get to the top.

We've been seeing some really positive things from Joe Mauer these past couple of days. Two nights ago Mauer hit a pinch-hit double in a come-from-behind Twins victory. Last night Mauer went 2-for-4 with his first homerun of the year and, not only that, his single was to the opposite field, a good sign that he is seeing the ball well. My dream scenario would be Mauer finding his power stroke while continuing to hit for average - and then Morneau returns in mid-August and immediately starts hitting...ok, maybe it's far-fetched, but if it happens it could make September pretty interesting.

Focusing the microscope a little on the Twins pitching staff...after going 17-9 with a 3.08/1.26 ERA/WHIP in June, the pitching staff as a whole has come back to earth in July, going 15-10 with a 4.47/1.36 ERA/WHIP. I'd love to try and spin this by saying something like, "but their xFIP this month is 2.50" but that is sadly untrue. The 4.47 ERA looks a lot more like April (4.88) and May's (4.87) than it does June which suggests to me that June was probably a little flukey. The Twins starters, in particular, are going to need to be a lot more consistent if they have any hope of reaching the playoffs. Francisco Liriano, Nick Blackburn and Brian Duensing have been the most inconsistent over the past few weeks, to the point where it almost impossible to predict how any one of the aforementioned pitchers is going to fare in any given start. To highlight that a bit, Twins starters had a 3.00 ERA in June and so far in July they have a 4.44 ERA...that's not going to cut it when you're chasing down 3 teams in your own division.

I guess I feel a little silly saying things like "if the Twins have any hope of winning the division". Realistically, they don't stand much of a chance. Baseball Prospectus publishes a playoff odds report every day and it is based off statistics that they run through simulator 1,000,000 times and today they have the Twins playoff chances at 5.0%. By comparison, the Tigers have a 62.4% chance and the White Sox have a 23.8% chance of making the playoff. So, like I said, unlikely...but hey, this season has been all about trying to keep the hope alive, so why stop now right?

Friday, July 22, 2011


22 days into the month and this is only the 5th post of July here at TBS...our apologies. My excuse is that I was on vacation for awhile and while that one is pretty weak, Matt's excuse is that he has been busy spreading HUGE news...our very own Matt Larson will be a brand-new dad soon! Congratulations to him and to his wife Ali! That's very exciting stuff, can't wait to meet his new daughter, due sometime in mid-January.

After a nice 5-day break from humanity up in the North Woods of Wisconsin, I returned yesterday to a pleasant surprise...the Twins hadn't dropped in the standings! Yay. I didn't get to catch last night's game, but in reading the box score this morning, one thing was clear...the Twins got Verlander'd. 8 innings, 5 hits, 1 run, 9 strikeouts, 0 walks...looks like a Verlander line to me. With the loss last night, the Twins have now lost 10 straight games against the Tigers dating back to last year. If the Twins want to be in the AL Central race come Monday morning, they had better reverse this luck quickly, starting tonight against Max Scherzer. The Twins throw Brian Duensing out there tonight and Duensing has pitched well in July so far with 2 wins and a 2.01 ERA in 22.1 innings. Scherzer hasn't had very good luck against the Twins in his career with a 9.13 ERA in 4 career starts against our hometown team.

The Twins get Jason Kubel back tonight after an extended stint on the DL. Kubel was pretty much the Twins lone bright spot during the first two months of the season, hitting .310/.355/.465 with 30 RBIs in the first 52 games of the season. He hasn't played in a Major League game since May 30th when he went down with a foot injury. During his most recent 5-game rehab stint with Triple-A Rochester, Kubel 6 hits in 18 at-bats with a HR, 2 RBIs, 3 walks and 4 Ks. Hopefully he can provide a spark to an offense that has struggled lately, scoring 5 of more runs only twice in 9 games since the All-Star break. Kubel's activation means that Scott Baker, Denard Span and Justin Morneau (and Kevin Slowey) are the only Twins' players that remain on the disabled list. Baker is expected to be activated for a start tomorrow against the Tigers.

During the "critical 12-game stretch" to start the 2nd half, the Twins are 5-4 so far which isn't great, but it means they haven't lost any ground either. They are currently 6 games out of 1st with 64 games left to play. In order to get to 85 wins, which is how many I believe it will take to win the division this year, they need to go 39-25 (.609, 99-win pace)...not an impossible task,  but getting more difficult with each loss. To put it in perspective, the Tigers only need to go 33-31 (.515, 84-win pace) in their final 64 games to get to 85 wins. If Bill Smith decides to add a piece or two within the next 9 days, I'd like to see what we can get in the way of serviceable relievers. That said, my confidence in Smith to make a savvy trade or two is not very high. Hope is still alive though, Go Twins!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Getting Liriano Back on Track

As the Twins head into this crucial 12-game home stand that could very well make or break the season, it seems almost fitting that Francisco Liriano is starting the first game against the Royals. Liriano's season has paralleled the Twins' in many ways; he struggled mightily to begin the year but appeared to be completely locked in during May and most of June. Unlike the Twins, however, Liriano entered the All-Star break on a bit of a sour note, giving up five earned runs in two of his last three starts, included his last start vs Tampa where he struck out only four while walking the same amount. The control issues that he has struggled with all season seemed to have reaappeared, and out of the 91 pitches he threw, almost half were balls. Liriano's struggles earlier in the year were well documented on the Twins blogosphere, but I wanted to take another look at what he's done well and what he needs to do to get back on track and sustain his success. Scott Baker has emerged as the Twins' most dominant pitcher this season, but Liriano showed last year what he's capable of and will be a huge part of any stretch run that materializes (fingers crossed).

Liriano's ERA currently stands at 5.06, a lot of which is still fallout from his atrocious start to the season. He's been better than that, but not markedly better, with a 4.43 FIP and 4.26 xFIP. The decrease in strikeouts and uptick in walks are still holding him back significantly in this regard; in addition to a drop-off of nearly two K/9, he's walking more than two batters more. In the month of June, he posted a stellar 27:7 K:BB ratio, but he's walked almost the same number of batters in only two July starts. I don't have the savvy about pitching mechanics or the knowledge to dig deep into Pitch F/X to explain if he's somehow regressed mechanically or has changed his release point from what he was doing in June, but it's somewhat troubling that the control issues from earlier seem to be resurfacing. The whole "should Liriano pitch to contact" debate and the discussion of what that really means aside, Liriano certainly needs to avoid giving up as many free passes if he's going to regain his dominance, as he hasn't been able to compensate for wildness by missing more bats. It seems obvious, but it's true. To be fair, three less-than-great starts recently is still a small sample size and all pitchers have off nights, but it highlights the fact that Liriano hasn't been consistent, and thus not currently the pitcher that most Twins fans would trust at this point in the season to get a crucial win (I have to think that would be Baker, but feel free to disagree with me on that one).

Digging farther into the numbers, there are a few other things that stand out. On the positive side, Liriano's swinging strike percentage remains excellent at 12.2%. Liriano posted a 12.4% in the 2010 campaign, and is only surpassed by Michael Pineda this year (12.5%) in all of baseball. If he keeps this up, it's very possible that we'll see the strikeouts start to come around again. Contrary to last year though, and perhaps contributing to the lack of K's, is that his O-Swing percentage (percentage of swings generated on pitches outside the strike zone, or, in general, batters "chasing") is down from 34.4% last year to 27.9% this year. The effect that stat is really having though is purely speculative; for comparison, Liriano's 2006 mark was only 27.5% (although that year he did put up a stunningly awsome 16.4% swinging strike percentage). If I had to guess, I'd say that more batters this year seem to be laying off the slider, a fact which may be backed up by the fact that last year his slider was worth 19 runs above average, whereas this year it's only been worth 5.6. While still an effective pitch, this decrease in results from the slider, in turn, may be causing him to favor the changeup more (4% increase from last year). That said, I'm not sure that throwing the slider more is any sort of answer, I'm more just pointing out things I'm noticing in the numbers.

Lastly, I'll discuss the concept of keeping the ball on the ground. We've already seen that he's missing fewer bats and thus has been relying more on balls in play to get outs, so looking at what types of balls are being put in play is important. In general, the more ground balls the better for a pitcher. Even though ground balls have a higher BABIP that fly balls, the biggest thing is that ground balls can't leave the yard. Last year, Liriano posted a career-high 53.6% ground ball rate, and I think that that was a positive contributor to his success, particularly in the small amount of home runs he gave up. This season, his GB rate has fallen off to 47.9%, and my gut wants to tell me that this is somehow related to his decreased success. However, with Liriano, it's not quite that simple on a game-by-game basis. For someone like Nick Blackburn, who isn't able to generate many strikeouts, there's usually a pretty good correlation between getting more ground balls and quality starts. For Liriano, though, that surface-level analysis doesn't play out. Case in point: during the game against the Royals (which brought the pitch-to-contact debate to a head) Liriano generated 15 ground balls and only 3 fly balls. Some of those ground balls (6 in fact) just happened to find their way through the infield in the fourth inning. Conversely, during his no-hitter, Liriano generated 11 fly balls compared to only 9 grounders. On May 22nd versus Arizona, his ratio was even worse with 12 fly balls to 5 grounders, yet he escaped with only two earned runs. And lastly, on July 6th versus Tampa, his GB:FB ratio was 2:9 yet he surrendered 5 earned. All of this goes to say that as a season-long trend, it could be that less grounders might equal less success, but it's harder to make sense of that when you dig into individual examples.

I started this piece intending to pick out concrete things that Liriano needs to do to find more consistency and get his season back on the right path, but along the way I think I found more questions than answers. Does he need to throw more strikes? Does he need to throw the slider more often and more effectively? Does he need to generate more ground balls? He certainly needs to cut down on the walks, and if batters aren't chasing as many balls outside the zone, he may have to find a way to compensate for that to avoid walking batters and running up his pitch count. However, for Liriano, throwing more strikes shouldn't mean turning into Blackburn or Buerhle; it should mean finding good locations within the zone early in the count to set up his out pitches. Regarding throwing the slider more, I wouldn't suggest that's any sort of answer. The reason that he hasn't been throwing it as much could be that it hasn't been as effective - I'll have to come back to why exactly that is, but there has to be a reason. And regarding keeping the ball on the ground, well, that's a little more complicated than I thought but I still would generally suggest it's a good idea, if only to try to keep home runs in check. (Liriano's HR/FB rate last season was 6.3%, which was certainly a bit luck-driven, but generating grounders certainly contributed). All of this might just be a fancy way of saying "pitch better," and the haste with which I tried to get this out means I probably left plenty of gaps in my logic. But if Liriano can regain the excellent command he exhibited last year (and stretches of this year), it will go a long way towards helping him return to dominance. With an in-form Liriano and a healthy, consistent Scott Baker, the Twins will have a 1-2 punch that could push them into a playoff spot.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Ready for the Ride to Continue

Last night I actually watched the All-Star game. More precisely, I glanced up at the TV every once in awhile while playing games on my phone. It was boring...except the Timberlake interview which was decidedly awkward and amusing. I thought it was fitting that the respective leaders in the MVP-race for each league hit homeruns. The NL pitching dominated, though to be fair the AL was sans Sabathia, Price, Hernandez, Lester, etc. It's a shame that this game actually decides something. Oh well.

Now that the All-Star game is mercifully over, I'm looking forward to two things: a) Chris Berman being used strictly for Monday Night Football purposes and b) the 'second-half'. I think the Twins have a legitimate shot to make up for their horrible start and I'm excited to see how they play in these first few games post-All-Star-break. I'm excited for a 12-game homestand. I'm excited to see if Delmon Young can find his sea-legs again and help carry the load a little. I'm excited to see what happens if the Twins pull even closer to the Tigers and Indians by the end of the month. Yes, our beloved Twins are 6.5 games out of first, but the gap doesn't seem that large.

To quickly update the Twins injuries:

Scott Baker is in line to make his next start on Monday, July 18th against the Indians. His MRI last week showed only a minor flexor strain so hopefully he will be able to pick up right where he left off.

Delmon Young was activated and will start tomorrow against the Royals. He had a nice 9-game rehab stint at Triple-A, seeing 5 of his 9 hits (31 at-bats) go for extra bases including 2HRs.

Kevin Slowey threw 4.2 innings of scoreless baseball at Triple-A last Sunday with 3Ks and 1BB. He will pitch in one more rehab start coming up this week. According to Ron Gardenhire the Twins have no plans to call him up once he's ready, which really makes absolutely ZERO sense to me. At the very least he could be used in the bullpen and in my opinion, he deserves strong consideration for a rotation spot which would give the Twins the option of putting Brian Duensing in the bullpen as a left-handed specialist or long-reliever. Wasting Kevin Slowey's talent in Triple-A is just plain stupid.

Jason Kubel continues to rehab his injured foot and is probably still another 10-15 days away...and that's if things go well. He's expected to start in some rehab games at Fort Meyers here over the next few days, but there is no concrete rehab schedule at this point.

Denard Span will be meeting with doctors (perhaps today) in hopes of receiving clearance to start a rehab assignment. He ran the bases and worked out hard this past weekend and reported no symptoms. If cleared, he will probably need about 7-10 rehab games before he comes off the DL.

Update 12:03pm CDT: According to D-Span's twitter feed, he was cleared to begin a rehab assignment today, great news!

Justin Morneau is still on doctor-ordered post-surgery rest, but could resume light baseball activity here in the next week or so. His target for a return is mid-August, which may be slightly optimistic but, if true, could prove quite valuable to the Twins if they can stay in contention until then. Positive word from him is that his wrist has been feeling much better lately and continued rest will hopefully allow it to fully heal.

Whew, I think that's it in terms of injuries. Jim Thome has been dealing with a sprained toe, but it doesn't seem like anything a few days rest won't take care of. Injuries have been the main storyline for the Twins this season, but it looks like (fingers crossed) the Twins may finally be getting closer to "healthy" here in the next 2-3 weeks.

Some Interesting Reading Around the Twins Blogosphere (and elsewhere):

Nate Gilmore over at Puckett's Pond gave the Twins a first-half report card of sorts. I can't say I disagree with any of his marks.

Corey Ettinger put together an AL Central All-Star team with a little bit of justification for each selection. There aren't many Twins players in the bunch but then again, they haven't had that many stand-out players yet this season.

Nick Nelson wrote a good piece comparing this year's team to the 2003 Twins team that was in a similar situation at the All-Star break and went on to win the division. Hope seems to be running high again in Twins Territory and damn it, it feels good.

TT over at Granny Baseball is going through a series of posts explaining statistics. So far they've done BABIP, K/9 and IP. Nothing super in-depth here, but it's a nice primer for people looking to better their understanding of baseball statistics. What's odd about these posts is that Granny Baseball has been a very anti-sabermetrics blog...

The Common Man and Bill over at The Platoon Advantage had an interesting read about the number of players selected to the All-Star game.

And finally, Deadspin had a good read today about the 100 Worst Baseball Players of All-Time. It's interesting to see a lot of pretty good managers high on that list including Tommy Lasorda, Billy Martin and Ozzie Guillen. This is the first installment of the list.

Monday, July 11, 2011


Ahhh. Nothing like a series with the White Sox to make me feel good about the Twins heading into the All-Star break. I managed to watch 3 out of the 4 games this weekend and I have to say, I was generally impressed with what I saw. Living in Chicago, it's always interesting to me to hear what the White Sox announcers have to say about the Twins. One thing is for sure, the Twins are in the heads of the announcers, for sure, and perhaps even the entire White Sox team. After taking 3 of 4 over the weekend, the Twins have won 9 out of their last 10 against Chicago and 29 out their last 36. Sometimes I wish we could play the White Sox all the time, fortunately we get 19 games against them every year.

After playing to a 17-36 (.321, 52-win pace) record through the end of May, the Twins have turned around with a 24-12 (.667, 108-win pace) record since June 1st. They enter the All-Star break with a 41-48 record, sitting in 4th place, 6.5 games behind the division-leading Detroit Tigers. One year ago today, the Twins were sitting in 3rd place with a 46-42 record, 3.5 games behind division-leading Chicago...I'm just sayin' for as good as the memories are of last year's team are, they weren't in all that different of a situation than this year's version is. The difference is that this year's squad dug themselves a massive hole at the beginning of the season and last year's team had a slump in the middle of the's all about perspective. I don't believe this team has 108-win talent, but I also believe they're way better than a 52-win pace. Hopefully this division continues to run mediocre and the Twins can have the final laugh when it's all over.

Being that I live in Chicago, I usually watch Twins v. White Sox games on Chicago television which inevitably means a run-in with Ken "Hawk" Harrelson, the play-by-play (and color) man for the White Sox. Generally he's irritating to listen to, but he's been in baseball for a LONG time and has a deep knowledge of the game, which I can appreciate. During one of the games over the weekend he said that in all of his years of baseball, he's never seen a team have as many injuries to key players as the Twins have had. Given that this team is still in contention...with everything they've gone through, I think Gardenhire and his coaching staff deserve some serious praise. It wasn't that long ago that this team was carting out a mostly Triple-A lineup on a nightly basis, and a lot of those guys are still up here and are contributing in big ways.

The Twins did some shuffling after yesterday's game, sending down Rene Tosoni and Rene Rivera to make room for Delmon Young and hot-hitting Trevor Plouffe. It's good to see Delmon back, especially considering how ugly his ankle injury looked initially. With him and Kubes out the outfield defense has been better, but I think we've missed their bats. As for Plouffe, my gut tells me that calling him up will end in disaster (and another eventual demotion), but I guess he's earned a shot with his bat. Where the Twins will find him playing time is a mystery, but he did kinda force their hand. Either way, I'm happy because a few months ago I purchased an ad for this blog on the Trevor Plouffe baseball-reference page so Plouffe = traffic, thanks Trevor!

Looking ahead to "2nd half", the Twins have 12 straight games (at home!!) against AL Central opponents starting with 4 against Kansas City. Starting on July 18th they will have 8 straight games against the Tigers and Indians, both of whom are in front of them in the standings. This will be a key stretch for the Twins and could mean the difference between whether the Twins are sellers or not. Congratulations to Michael Cuddyer on his All-Star selection, enjoy the break and GO TWINS!!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Capps Has Got to Go

On the face of things, the Twins have been playing pretty well lately. After a 6-game slide they've bounced back and have won 6 of their past 7 games and had it not been for a bullpen implosion against Milwaukee over the weekend we would be talking about a 7-game winning streak...and that's the face of things. When one turns the power up on the microscope, however, you see a team that is barely getting by, mostly because of a shaky back end of the bullpen. It hasn't been great all year, but things have really took a turn for the worse over the past 4 games and most of the blame lands squarely on Matt Capps' shoulders.

On Saturday, the Twins jumped out to a 7-0 lead over the Milwaukee Brewers and looked to be in cruise-mode en route to another victory. Carl Pavano wasn't lights out, but made it through 7 2/3rds innings giving up 3 earned runs, tipped his cap and handed it off to the bullpen to get the last 4 outs. Perkins came in and did his job striking out the only guy he faced. Capps came in with a 3-run lead to start the 9th inning, gave up three straight singles, got two outs and then gave up another double Nyjer Morgan and a single to George Kottaras to blow the game. Phil Dumatrait had to be called in to get the final out of the inning.

On Sunday the Twins got themselves into a donnybrook, with Nick Blackburn giving up 6 runs and Zack Greinke surrendering 5. The Twins also got the Brewer bullpen and held a 9-7 lead going into the top of the 9th. Gardenhire once again called on Capps to close the game and he proceeded to give up a lead-off single to Rickie Weeks, got Nyjer Morgan to ground into a fielder choice and, and gave up another single to Corey Hart. At this point, Gardy must have been steaming because with a 2-run lead, Capps had men at 1st and 2nd with only one-out and all-world hitter Prince Fielder strolling to the plate. Gardy decided to make a change calling on Glen Perkins who proceeded to strike out Fielder and pinch-hitter Casey McGehee to save the game and the day.

On Monday, suddenly-hot Brian Duensing threw a complete game shutout for our Twins as they cruised to a 7-0 victory. We were spared of any Capps meltdown for one day.

Last night, the Twins once again found themselves clinging to a small lead late in the game. Up 3-1 after getting to starter James Shields early in the game, Gardenhire maddeningly called on Capps once again to try and close out the victory. He must have immediately started kicking himself for making that choice as he watched Capps give up a lead-off bomb to B.J. Upton. Then a single Casey Kotchman. A fly-out, a line-out...could it be? No. A walk to Kelly Shoppach. Men at 1st and 2nd with 2-outs and a 1-run lead. Gardy had once again seen enough and once again called on Perkins to clean up Capps' mess, which he did on 3 pitches, getting Johnny Damon to ground out to short. Glen Perkins 2, Matt Capps 0.

As it stands at this very moment, the Twins are 7 games out of 1st place in the AL Central. After a game tonight to close out their series with the Rays, the Twins have 16-straight games against AL Central opponents beginning with a 4-game weekend set with their rivals from the Southside, the Chicago White Sox. If the Twins stand a chance at pulling off a miracle comeback in this division, they have got to be able to close games out when they have a lead in the 9th inning and right now, that means the Matt Capps has to be removed from the role. Right now they have two guys who are better options in the 9th, starting with Glen Perkins.

Glen Perkins has easily been the Twins most consistent reliever all season. After falling from grace and finding himself at Triple-A last year, Perkins has resurrected his career and is pitching as well as ever. Over his last 21 appearances, he's given up only 5 earned runs. He has a 32:11 K:BB ratio over 30.1 innings this year which is excellent and I think he has proven over the past 3 nights that he can get the job done when it matters. If there's a more pressure-packed situation than closing a game, it's closing a game when the guy who's supposed to be the closer can't do it.

Aside from Perkins, the case could be made that Joe Nathan deserves his old job back. Since coming back from the DL in late June, Nathan has thrown 5 innings of work surrendering one-run (the one run came in his first appearance off the DL) while striking out 5 against 0 walks. Not only that, his velocity is looking a whole lot more Nathan-like lately. Last night he threw 13 pitches, 9 of which we strikes. His fastball averaged 92.72mph and touched as high as 93.2mph. In the two seasons prior to Tommy John surgery, Nathan's fastball was averaging 93.6mph...earlier in the season Nathan was struggling to hit 91-92mph on the gun and now he's averaging almost 93mph...that's a good sign.

Either Perkins or Nathan would probably be a better option in the closer role at this point and I think either guy could succeed in the role. I have to imagine the Twins would love to get Nathan back in the closer role given that he is basically a very expensive set-up man right now. I'd be fine with either option, I just know Capps has to go. Every win is a precious commodity at this stage of the season and the Twins cannot afford to have a guy in the closer role who can't get the job done.