Friday, July 06, 2007
A lanky right-hander with a smooth delivery and pinpoint control, Slowey has drawn comparisons to Brad Radke. However, Slowey is a unique prospect in that he works almost exclusively with his fastball, so the comparison is ultimately inaccurate until he develops a world-class changeup to go along with it. Slowey should be at least an effective mid-rotation starter, perhaps by midseason, but I'm somewhat skeptical about his becoming much more than that without improved offspeed stuff.Beginning with his big-league debut against Oakland and ending with yesterday's rough outing against New York, Slowey definitely showed that he needs "improved offspeed stuff" to approach the type of amazing success that he experienced in the minors. Without it, he had trouble putting big-league hitters away and gave up a ton of fly balls. In fact, his ground-ball percentage would easily rank as the lowest in the entire league if Slowey had enough innings to quality for the ERA title.
Fly balls turn into home runs at a relatively consistent rate and Slowey served up 13 long balls in just 37 innings. Slowey did a good job throwing strikes and that many homers is likely a fluke in the sense that it's an unsustainably high rate, but not missing any bats and giving up a bunch of fly balls is the worst possible combination for a pitcher. To Slowey's credit, his post-demotion quotes show that he understands that there's still plenty of work to be done:
The biggest thing is you realize what are good pitches here aren't necessarily the same as a good pitch in Triple-A. Your misses have to be way finer here. I feel that has been my problem and I've really got to work on, when I go down, my misses being balls as opposed to back over the plate and a little too hittable. Goodness knows I got plenty to work on.It's amazing how much different those comments are compared to how Matt Garza reacted earlier this season when told to use more offspeed pitches at Triple-A. Despite that, Garza was called up last week and will start tonight against the White Sox. The Twins won't need a fifth starter again until July 21 and Garza could stick around in the bullpen until then if he pitches well, but I suspect that Slowey handling the demotion with class will help him get back to Minnesota more quickly than Garza did.
Having spent a similar amount of time in the semi-intimate company of both men, I can say confidently that two people couldn't be more different. Kevin Garnett is one of the most impressive humans I've ever been around. Kobe Bryant isn't.If Kevin McHale wasn't a complete disaster as general manager, it's amazing to think of how different Garnett's basketball legacy would be.
This is a really pathological kind of offense, and maybe it has something to do with the inconsistency we’ve seen. While it is possible that the Big Four could improve, they’ve been pulling their weight. The key to improving the offense would seem to be replacing a couple of the awful spots in the order with some league average or so production.Or, as I put it yesterday: "Give Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Torii Hunter, and Michael Cuddyer some help and the Twins' offense can do some damage."
The changing newspaper industry calls for a new business model, one that doesn't have room for a minor league update.Apparently the Star Tribune needs more room to run the same cookie-cutter Associated Press articles that can easily be found online or in hundreds of other newspapers. After all, with the newspaper business declining, it's not like offering unique, localized content would make sense. Wait, what? As is increasingly the case when it comes to websites stepping in to provide the content that's lacking in print, there are thankfully several good blogs that offer plenty of fantastic minor-league updates.
If Gardenhire is really so interested in "protecting" his left-handed hitters, why did he refuse to platoon Jacque Jones for four seasons when Jones had clearly proven that he couldn't hit lefties? Instead, he chooses to consistently bench Kubel against southpaws despite the fact that Kubel has actually hit lefties better than righties during his career, including a .282/.333/.410 line against them this season. For comparison, Jones hit .227/.277/.339 against lefties during his Twins career.
Lew Ford went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts starting in Kubel's place, while Kubel delivered a pinch-hit single in the ninth inning off Mariano Rivera. Kubel has a .460 slugging percentage since May 10 and sports a higher OPS against lefties than Morneau and Mauer (not to mention Ford, Luis Castillo, Jason Bartlett, Nick Punto, Jason Tyner, and Luis Rodriguez), so it's probably safe for Gardenhire to start focusing his protection efforts on one of the team's many hitters who actually need it.
Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.
Thursday, July 05, 2007
Halfway Home (Part 2: The Offense)
Tuesday in this space I examined how the Twins' pitching staff performed through exactly one half of the season, concluding that they have a "championship-caliber" group that's capable of improving in the second half. Today I'll take the same type of look at the team's offense through the season's halfway point, although the picture isn't nearly as encouraging. Before I begin, a reminder that all stats are through the 81st game of the season, which took place Monday.
Scoring 388 runs through the first half of the season puts the Twins' offense eighth in the league with an average of 4.79 runs per game. That places them exactly in the middle of the 14-team league, which sounds decent enough until you consider that they've produced an average amount of overall team offense despite having four of the league's top hitters. Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Torii Hunter, and Michael Cuddyer all rank among the AL's top 30 hitters in Gross Productive Average (GPA).
Unfortunately, the lineup's other five spots have provided amazingly little production:
POSITION OPS RANK STARTERSThe Twins rank second, fourth, fourth, and sixth in OPS from center field, first base, catcher, and right field, which would normally give them the core to build one of the league's top offenses simply by surrounding Hunter, Morneau, Mauer, and Cuddyer with some reasonably productive spare parts. Instead, they've gotten either the worst or second-worst production in the entire league from second base, third base, left field, and designated hitter, plus the 11th-best production from shortstop.
The offense ranks 12th in the league with 63 homers, but even that's misleading. Morneau and Hunter have provided 37 of the homers, which means the rest of the team has gone deep a grand total of 26 times in 2,472 plate appearances. Not only have they gotten zero homers from second base and two homers from shortstop, designated hitter and third base have combined for five long balls in 643 plate appearances. The rest of the league has averaged five times as much power from those two spots.
Of course, power certainly isn't everything and plenty of good offenses have been built around high batting averages and strong on-base skills. Just not this one. The Twins rank eighth in batting average, eighth in walks, and ninth in on-base percentage. Aside from Mauer, Cuddyer, and Morneau, no one on the team has gotten on base at even a .350 clip and seven of the 13 hitters with at least 50 plate appearances have made an out over two-thirds of the time they step to the plate.
GPALike a restaurant that attempts to compliment a menu featuring filet mignon, lobster, and caviar by offering a dozen different types of sardines, the Twins have squandered away the chance for an excellent offense by being so aggressively awful in five of the nine lineup spots. Morneau, Mauer, Hunter, and Cuddyer have all been significantly above average offensively, but no one else on the team has been even close to average at the plate.
General manager Terry Ryan has handed manager Ron Gardenhire a pathetic collection of utility infielders and fifth outfielders to work with, and Gardenhire has compounded the lack of capable bats by choosing the worst options from the weak bunch. All of which is how a 36-year-old backup catcher with a .369 career slugging percentage (Mike Redmond) and one of the worst-hitting outfielders in baseball history (Jason Tyner) start regularly at designated hitter.
Nick Punto has predictably reverted back to his banjo-hitting career norms after a shockingly decent 2006 season and is on pace for one of the worst years ever by a third baseman, yet he started 70 of the first 81 games while hitting .207/.307/.266 in 295 plate appearances. The refusal to remove Punto from the lineup is clearly on Gardenhire, but providing only Jeff Cirillo and Luis Rodriguez as alternatives is just as clearly on Ryan.
Add it all up and what you get is an inconsistent lineup that has surrounded the occasional breakout game with a whole bunch of flailing away helplessly while mustering little or no offensive attack. The Twins scored three runs or fewer in 36 of their first 81 games (44.4 percent), including being shut out six times (7.4 percent) and scoring just one run eight times (9.9 percent). In other words, the lineup was essentially completely shut down in one out of every six first-half games.
The nice thing about a lineup that has four spots that rank worst or second-worst in the league is that it's easy to improve. In particular, it would be incredibly easy for the Twins to find a competent veteran bat so that Gardenhire will stop the ridiculousness that is writing Tyner's name in the lineup at designated hitter. Of course, it also would have been easy to make the move for a veteran bat 60 games ago, when it became clear that Rondell White wasn't going to be returning any time soon.
That the Twins entered the season with no real alternative to the 35-year-old, oft-injured White is simply poor planning, but that they still did nothing when White predictably went down with a significant injury is a pretty clear example of a team willing to coast along. Some will spin it as patience, but spending 70-plus games rotating guys like Tyner and Redmond through the DH spot isn't an example of patience any more than standing still while someone repeatedly hits you in the head with a hammer is.
White is currently on a minor-league rehab assignment, but given his progress thus far it's a pretty good bet that he'll end the season with more "setbacks" than at-bats in a Twins uniform. And as good as White was down the stretch last season, he's far from a savior who's worth waiting for after batting .246/.276/.365 overall last year. Ryan could throw a rock and hit a veteran hitter who would immediately improve the offense and he should have done so months ago.
Replacing Punto at third base is more difficult, because you can't just plug any bat into the lineup there. Cirillo would be a capable alternative if healthy, but his balky knees have limited his playing time and effectiveness. However, much like designated hitter, third base is still a spot where upgrading is not overly difficult and should have been done already. Ryan doesn't have to swing a deal for anyone spectacular in order to provide a big boost over Punto.
Second base and left field are trickier, because it's unlikely that the Twins would look to replace Luis Castillo or Jason Kubel despite poor first-half production. Castillo started 66 of the first 81 games and Twins second basemen rank 13th in OPS, yet it's not difficult to find people who view him as one of the team's best players. While that's far from true, Castillo is certainly very capable of improving upon his first-half performance and making second base something less than a huge weakness offensively.
Similarly, Kubel has shown various signs of coming around since getting off to a poor start. After failing to homer in his first 118 plate appearances, Kubel finished the first half of the schedule with five long balls in his next 121 plate appearances and then kicked off the second half with a key two-run blast yesterday against the Yankees. Like designated hitter, left field is a spot where finding a capable bat isn't overly difficult, but there's reason to believe that Kubel can provide a boost on his own.
While acquiring a star hitter to plug into the middle of the lineup would be nice, far less than that is needed to dramatically improve the offense. Simply finding non-horrible bats for two or three lineup spots would change things significantly, but the organization's lack of MLB-ready hitting prospects means that trades will likely be needed even for that. The two Triple-A players mentioned most by fans are Garrett Jones and Matt Tolbert, but neither player's potential matches the hype they've received.
Jones is no more a legitimate major-league designated hitter than Tyner or Redmond and Tolbert has predictably come crashing back down to earth after a flukishly great start at Rochester. The best hitting prospect Triple-A can offer is Alexi Casilla, who's hitting .284/.375/.362 and figures to step in for Castillo at second base next season. While he'd likely be an upgrade over Punto or Rodriguez, playing Casilla regularly at third base is no one's idea of a solution.
Delving a little deeper into the Rochester roster provides names like Ken Harvey, Darnell McDonald, Denard Span, Tommy Watkins, Glenn Williams, Trent Oeltjen, Doug Deeds, and Matthew LeCroy, but those aren't homegrown solutions so much as evidence that a trade for outside help is needed. With White injured and Punto struggling, the Twins have no capable alternatives at designated hitter and third base. For the offense to improve in the second half, that needs to change.
Give Morneau, Mauer, Hunter, and Cuddyer some help and the Twins' offense can do some damage.
Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.
Tuesday, July 03, 2007
Halfway Home (Part 1: The Pitching Staff)
With last night's loss to the Yankees, the Twins have now completed half of their schedule. At 42-39 they have the third-best record in the division and the sixth-best record in the league, which puts them 7.5 games behind in the AL Central and 5.5 games back in the Wild Card standings. At this point last season the Twins were riding an 11-game winning streak that made them 46-35, but they were nine games back in the division and just a half-game back in the Wild Card race.
The pitching staff has allowed 359 runs, for an average of 4.43 runs per game that ranks fourth in the league behind the A's, Red Sox, and Angels. At this point last season the pitching staff had allowed 369 runs, for an average of 4.56 runs per game. That would seem to indicate that this year's pitching staff is slightly better, but because of the league-wide drop in scoring this season the opposite is actually true. Whatever the case, the Twins' pitching has been very good.
As usual the Twins' relief pitching has been their major strength, although the bullpen is far more top heavy than in past years because Juan Rincon has struggled, Dennys Reyes spent a month on the disabled list, and Jesse Crain underwent season-ending surgery. Despite all of that, Twins relievers rank second in the league with a 3.40 ERA. The group is led by Joe Nathan, who continues to be one of baseball's premiere closers with a 2.29 ERA and 40-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 35.1 innings.
Nathan had some rough patches early in the season when an inordinate number of bloopers and choppers were finding holes, but since blowing a save against the Devil Rays on May 2 he has a 1.64 ERA, 25-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and .205 opponent's batting average in 22 innings. Pat Neshek has seamlessly taken over for Rincon as Nathan's primary setup man by posting a 1.37 ERA, 47-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and .124 opponent's batting average in 39.1 innings.
Matt Guerrier has thrived while moving into the secondary setup role previously occupied by Neshek and Crain, posting a 1.82 ERA with a workload that puts him on pace for 98 innings. Nathan, Neshek, and Guerrier have combined for a 1.82 ERA in 123.2 innings, while the rest of the bullpen has a 5.21 ERA in 114 innings. However, looking at the bullpen in terms of their Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) numbers shows a slightly different story than the raw ERA totals:
xFIPRather than looking strictly at runs allowed--which can be misleading when relievers often enter and exit games with runners on base--xFIP shows a more complete picture based on things like strikeouts, walks, and ground ball-to-fly ball ratio. Nathan and Neshek stand out from the rest of the pack in xFIP, but Guerrier's performance looks far less impressive. Among AL relievers with at least 25 innings, Nathan ranks third in xFIP behind only Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz. Neshek ranks eighth.
Unfortunately, the rotation hasn't been nearly as strong as the bullpen despite Johan Santana turning in half of another Cy Young-caliber season (and perhaps the best first half of his career). Santana ranks second in the league with a dozen Quality Starts and third in the league with a 2.76 ERA, but the rest of the rotation has a 5.03 ERA and has managed just 25 Quality Starts in 64 outings. Part of those ugly numbers are due to Sidney Ponson and Ramon Ortiz, who went 5-9 with a 6.22 ERA in 17 starts.
Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey certainly haven't been great as their replacements, but their combined 5-3 record and 5.04 ERA in 14 starts is still a major improvement. Carlos Silva has surprisingly been the team's second-best starter, cutting way down on his homers allowed while posting a 4.15 ERA in 99.2 innings spread over 16 starts. However, much like with the bullpen, looking at xFIP rather than raw ERA totals tells a slightly different story:
xFIPSilva's 4.70 xFIP isn't hugely out of line with his 4.15 ERA, but it shows that he's likely been somewhat lucky in terms of keeping the ball in the ballpark. Silva has improved his ground ball-to-fly ball ratio, which goes a long way toward cutting down homers, but allowing a long ball on just 6.4 percent of his fly balls will be a difficult rate to sustain in the second half. Regardless of that, there's no doubt that he's pitched well while far exceeding my expectations.
Baker ranking second on the above list is sure to surprise people just as much as Silva ranking fourth, but the large gap between his actual performance and the public's perception of his performance was discussed in this space yesterday. Santana's 3.60 xFIP ranks fourth among AL starters, behind Erik Bedard, C.C. Sabathia, and Dan Haren. As a whole, the rotation ranks seventh in the league with a 4.47 ERA and 10th in the league with 37 Quality Starts.
Add it all up and what you get is a championship-caliber pitching staff that's led by an elite starter, an elite closer, and an elite setup man. There's room for improvement in the second half, because dead weight has been cut (Ponson) or moved to a less prominent role (Ortiz), but the development of Baker, Slowey, and Matt Garza will be key. If the Twins can trot out Santana and four starters with xFIPs in the 4.00s they can continue to carry what has been a mediocre offense (more on that tomorrow).
Getting Rincon back on track to further strengthen the bullpen would be huge, but his consistently declining numbers suggest that might be wishful thinking. In fact, depending on what the Twins do with him following Friday's start, I wouldn't be shocked to see Garza emerge as Ron Gardenhire's preferred late-inning option alongside Nathan, Neshek, and Guerrier. Short of that, Reyes staying healthy and pitching like he has since returning from the DL would provide a significant boost.
Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.
Monday, July 02, 2007
Notes From The Weekend
Here's a picture of her explaining to me that Kevin Slowey's 3-0 record is due largely to run support:
And here's a shot of her advising me that I should probably leave the beard-growing to Sinker:
As you might expect from someone who's so devoted to being a Twins fan that she was technically at the previous get-together in April despite not even being born yet, she was right on both counts.
With that said, Ivan Rodriguez is a future inner-circle Hall of Famer, Jorge Posada and Victor Martinez are very good players having very good seasons, Mauer has missed 31 games, and four catchers on the roster would have been overkill. Meanwhile, Pat Neshek is one of five "Final Vote" candidates and will compete with Roy Halladay, Jeremy Bonderman, Kelvim Escobar, and Hideki Okajima for the AL's final roster spot.
It will be Santana's third straight All-Star selection, while Hunter previously made the team in 2002, when he started in center field and robbed Barry Bonds of a homer in the game that infamously ended in a tie. Despite being the reigning AL MVP, this will be Morneau's first trip to an All-Star game. He was hitting .300/.352/.587 with 23 homers and 73 RBIs through last season's All-Star break (compared to .280/.354/.549 with 20 homers and 61 RBIs so far this year), but failed to make the team.
Of course, fans smart enough to realize that Baker can't control how many runs the Twins score will see that he's now turned in three straight strong starts, including holding the Blue Jays and Tigers to one run in back-to-back outings. I've never really thought of Baker as more than a back-of-the-rotation starter, but the amazingly negative reaction he gets from many Twins fans has sort of forced me into a position of defending him to some degree.
In eight starts since returning from Triple-A, Baker has three fantastic performances and has pitched reasonably well in two other outings. He now has a 5.14 ERA and 129-to-41 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 184 career innings, which are the type of numbers that bode well for the future of a 25-year-old pitcher with an outstanding minor-league track record. For whatever reason many fans seemingly view him as a worthless bum, but he clearly doesn't deserve that level of vitriol. He deserves some patience.
Conventional wisdom values on-base skills and speed at the top of the lineup, but at some point you're better off simply getting your best hitters to the plate most often. There are scenarios where putting two guys with a sub-.700 OPS at the top makes sense, but doing so when it means batting Morneau and Hunter fifth and sixth is not one of them. The impact of a batting order is typically overstated, but putting the team's two best power hitters so far down in the lineup is a mistake that costs runs.
Why position things so that the reigning MVP and a .303/.345/.554 hitter aren't likely to bat until the second inning? Why not give the team's top hitters the best shot at additional at-bats? Why begin each game with three hitters who've combined for six homers in nearly 800 plate appearances? It may work for conventional wisdom, but "because fast guys always bat at the top of the lineup" doesn't strike me as an especially logical answer.
YEAR OPSPunto is currently on pace for the third-worst OPS of any starting third baseman since 1961, with the four other seasons in the top five coming in much lower-scoring eras. Brooks Robinson sitting atop the above list might seem odd, but Robinson was 38 years old in 1975 and it was his final season as a regular. Beyond Punto's historically horrible ranking among third basemen, his .573 OPS would also rank as the second-worst in Twins history, regardless of position:
YEAR OPSMuch like Robinson in 1975, that was Zoilo Versalles' final season in Minnesota. After posting a .531 OPS, he was traded to the Dodgers, where he batted .196 in 1968. However you slice it, Punto is in the midst of a historically awful season. Despite that, he's started 68 of the team's first 80 games while coming to the plate more often than all but four hitters (Michael Cuddyer, Morneau, Hunter, Castillo) and is on pace for about 600 plate appearances.
Interestingly, LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported recently that the Twins talked to the Cubs about reacquiring Jacque Jones, but cut off negotiations "because of finances." Jones has plenty of faults as a player and he's off to a brutal start with the Cubs, but he'd represent a massive upgrade over Tyner. The Twins were absolutely right to let Jones leave via free agency last offseason, but he's only owed about $2 million for the remainder of this season and $5 million for next season.
Given the number of times Gardenhire has written Tyner's name in the lineup and the organization's lack of quality, MLB-ready hitting prospects, Jones would be worth picking up if the Cubs were willing to pay about half of his remaining contract and didn't require a legitimate prospect in return. The point isn't so much that the Twins should be trying desperately to bring Jones back, but rather that there are plenty of hitters like Jones who're available for reasonably cheap and would provide a boost offensively.
Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.