Friday, July 18, 2008
First-Half Review: Pitchers
Scott Baker: 3.47 ERA with 68 strikeouts and 14 walks in 83 innings
A rough 2006 season left Scott Baker at Triple-A to begin last year, but he emerged as a dependable mid-rotation starter after rejoining the Twins in mid-May and has now become the team's default ace with both Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano in New York. As one of baseball's most extreme fly-ball pitchers Baker will always struggle to keep the ball in the ballpark, so his serving up 13 homers in 14 starts this season comes as no surprise. Despite that he has the rotation's best ERA at 3.47.
Baker has increased his strikeout rate while maintaining pinpoint control, joining Roy Halladay, Josh Beckett, Cliff Lee, James Shields, and John Lackey as the only AL starters averaging fewer than two walks and more than seven strikeouts per nine innings. Since returning from a month on the disabled list with a groin injury Baker has a 3.06 ERA and 39-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 50 innings, giving him a 3.97 ERA and 170-to-43 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 227 innings spread over 37 starts since last year.
Nick Blackburn: 3.65 ERA with 64 strikeouts and 18 walks in 118.1 innings
Baseball America drew criticism from me (and others) for ranking Nick Blackburn as the Twins' top prospect prior to the Santana trade, because as a 26-year-old with a poor strikeout rate and mediocre minor-league track record prior to last season he looked to me like "a back-of-the-rotation starter or middle reliever." So far Blackburn has made BA look smart while out-performing my expectations considerably, tossing 118.1 innings with a 3.65 ERA and 64-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 18 starts.
Blackburn's breakout between Double-A and Triple-A last season looks like legitimate improvement, although maintaining a sub-4.00 ERA will be difficult over the long haul with such a low strikeout rate. He's made up for the lack of missed bats by walking fewer batters per nine innings than every starter in the league except for Halladay and Mike Mussina. Interestingly, the combination of few strikeouts and even fewer walks has made Blackburn a near-perfect fit as Carlos Silva's replacement:
SO% BB% GB% AVG OBP SLGEerily similar. Blackburn has slightly more strikeouts and slightly fewer grounders, and their walk rates and opponent's batting lines are nearly identical. Blackburn has even followed in Silva's footsteps by establishing a reputation as a "ground-ball pitcher" without actually inducing all that many grounders. As far as compliments go "the next Silva" may not seem like a great one now, but he had a 4.42 ERA in 774 innings with the Twins and Blackburn looks like a younger, cheaper, and perhaps better version.
Kevin Slowey: 4.26 ERA with 61 strikeouts and 13 walks in 82.1 innings
Kevin Slowey's had an up and down year to say the least. He left his first start in the fourth inning with a strained biceps, spent the next month on the DL, returned with a 3.38 ERA in six starts, got rocked by the White Sox, bounced back to go 3-0 with a 0.93 ERA over his next four outings, and then struggled in his final two starts of the first half. And now he's questionable to make his first start of the second half because of a finger injury. Much like Blackburn and Silva, within that he's been very similar to Baker:
GS IP SO% BB% GB% AVG OBP SLGNearly identical numbers across the board, save for a 50-point difference in slugging percentage that can be traced entirely to Slowey allowing twice as many doubles as Baker. They're both extreme fly-ball pitchers who have excellent control and miss an above-average number of bats. In other words, for all the talk of Slowey lacking a supposed "out-pitch" he's essentially duplicated Baker's performance this season and has a 4.47 ERA with a 108-to-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio through 149 career innings.
Glen Perkins: 4.14 ERA with 43 strikeouts and 19 walks in 78.1 innings
Glen Perkins was sort of a rotation afterthought after missing most of last year with a shoulder injury, beginning the season at Triple-A and joining the Twins as a starter in mid-May thanks to Baker's trip to the DL. He's stuck around in part because of Liriano's early struggles and in part because of his own solid performance, allowing more than three runs in just two of his 13 starts. Perkins is yet another extreme fly-ball pitcher, but hasn't missed bats as well as Baker or Slowey.
He also trails Baker and Slowey in terms of control, but the gap is relatively minimal and Perkins has made tremendous strides with his walk rate. After walking 10.3 percent of the batters he faced between Double-A and Triple-A, he's handed out a free pass just 5.5 percent of the time this season. A sample size of just 78.1 innings means that Perkins' control may not be as improved as it looks, but it wouldn't be surprising if pitching coach Rick Anderson has begun molding him into a strike-throwing machine.
Livan Hernandez: 5.44 ERA with 45 strikeouts and 23 walks in 120.2 innings
Livan Hernandez was signed in large part because the Twins were worried about going with a rotation consisting entirely of young arms, but he's been one of the league's worst pitchers while 26-and-under starters Baker, Blackburn, Slowey, and Perkins have each found plenty of success. Prior to joining the Twins his ERA, WHIP, OPS against, and strikeout rate had all gotten worse in four straight seasons, so it should come as no surprise that Hernandez's steady decline is now in its fifth straight year.
Receiving the sixth-best run support in the AL has enabled Hernandez to hide his awful pitching behind a 9-6 record, but among the league's 46 starters who qualify for the ERA title he ranks either dead last or second-to-last in ERA, opponent's AVG, opponent's OBP, opponent's SLG, and opponent's OPS. He also has by far the worst Win Probability Added among AL pitchers at -1.72 and has been especially putrid recently, with a 6.86 ERA and .373 opponent's AVG over his last 11 starts.
Opponents have hit a laughable .342/.368/.506 in 540 plate appearances overall against Hernandez. To put that in some context, consider that Justin Morneau is hitting .323/.391/.512. In other words, he's more or less turned every hitter who's stepped to the plate against him into Morneau. And not only has Hernandez been absolutely awful, he's now keeping an annoyed Liriano from rejoining the rotation despite going 8-0 with a 2.53 ERA and 68-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his last 10 starts at Triple-A.
Joe Nathan: 1.13 ERA with 46 strikeouts and 10 walks in 39.2 innings
Ron Gardenhire's stubborn usage of Joe Nathan should be questioned given that he's on pace for a career-low 67 innings even after the bullpen lost Pat Neshek to a season-ending injury, but there's no doubting his dominance. After seeing his strikeout rate dip last season Nathan has missed 12 percent more bats this year while handing out just eight non-intentional walks to 151 batters. He's converted 27-of-29 saves, leads AL relievers in WPA, and ranks fourth in Expected Fielding Independent Pitching.
Opponents are hitting .191/.245/.277 versus Nathan, so the average batter has fared worse against him than Adam Everett (.189/.235/.324) prior to going on the DL. His sparkling 1.13 ERA can be traced to stranding 97.6 percent of his runners on base, which is both unsustainable and amazing given the AL average of 72 percent. Of course, his left-on-base rate was 83 percent from 2004-2007. Also of note is that Nathan has induced 49.5 percent ground balls after previously being an extreme fly-ball pitcher.
Matt Guerrier: 3.35 ERA with 38 strikeouts and 21 walks in 51 innings
Neshek's elbow giving out on May 31 pushed Matt Guerrier into the top setup role and he's responded with a 3.66 ERA and 16-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 19.2 innings since June 1. That's not quite up to Neshek's level and Guerrier hasn't been asked to put out nearly as many mid-inning fires, but he's kept his ERA under 3.50 for the fourth straight season while on pace for a second straight year logging over 85 innings. Claimed off waivers in November of 2003, Guerrier has a 3.22 ERA in 299 career innings.
Jesse Crain: 2.79 ERA with 29 strikeouts and 15 walks in 38.2 innings
Despite missing most of last year following season-ending shoulder surgery Jesse Crain is throwing every bit as hard as he ever did, averaging 94.1 miles per hour with his fastball and 89.4 MPH with his slider. He predictably struggled some initially with a 12-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio through 20 innings, but has been fantastic since stepping into Guerrier's old seventh-inning role once the bullpen lost Neshek, posting a 1.45 ERA and 17-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 18.2 innings since June 1.
Dennys Reyes: 2.77 ERA with 15 strikeouts and 7 walks in 26 innings
You'd think that with Neshek injured and Juan Rincon released Dennys Reyes would have taken on an expanded role in the bullpen, but instead he's faced a career-low 2.4 batters per appearance. However, his brief outings have typically involved high-leverage work, as Reyes ranks behind only Nathan (and Neshek) in Leverage Index while leading the bullpen with 38 inherited runners. Here's the inherited runner tally, which too often takes a backseat to ERA when evaluating relievers:
IR IS IS%Reyes and Brian Bass have inherited by far the most runners with a combined 75. Meanwhile, Guerrier and Crain have combined to inherit 43 runners, and Nathan has entered a game with a grand total of two runners on base all year. While the logic behind bringing Reyes in to put out so many fires may be iffy, limiting him to such short outings makes plenty of sense. He's held lefties to .189/.232/.283 while righties have battered him to the tune of .325/.413/.500, and had a similarly extreme split last year.
Brian Bass: 5.31 ERA with 25 strikeouts and 19 walks in 57.2 innings
Bass is the bullpen's worst pitcher, yet along with inheriting nearly as many runners as Nathan, Crain, and Guerrier combined he leads the entire league in relief innings. Bass has gotten about 50 percent more work than Nathan and is on pace for 98 innings, although for the first three months at least most of that action came in mop-up situations. Recently he's been thrust into several high-leverage spots, leading to predictably ugly results on the way to allowing seven runs in his last four appearances.
There was little in Bass' extensive minor-league track record to suggest that he was capable of being a quality pitcher in the majors, yet he surprisingly cracked the Opening Day roster because he lacked minor-league options and the Twins were irrationally afraid of losing him on waivers. Meanwhile, Bass is a 26-year-old career minor leaguer who posted a 5.08 ERA in 359 innings between Double-A and Triple-A, so his current 5.31 mark is probably better than should have been expected.
Boof Bonser: 6.50 ERA with 61 strikeouts and 25 walks in 81.2 innings
Boof Bonser was banished from the rotation after going 2-6 with a 5.97 ERA in a dozen starts to begin this season made him 6-17 with a 6.02 ERA in 30 starts dating back to last year. On the surface his ugly 8.80 ERA in 11 outings as a mop-up man shows that he's been even worse since being demoted to the bullpen, but Bonser's increased velocity and 19-to-5 strikeout-to-walk in 15 innings as a reliever suggest that he may be capable of developing into a solid setup man if the Twins show patience.
Craig Breslow: 1.46 ERA with 13 strikeouts and 5 walks in 12.1 innings
Claimed off waivers from the Indians in late May, Craig Breslow has allowed just two runs in a dozen innings while stranding 9-of-10 inherited runners. He's been used almost exclusively in low-leverage spots and certainly isn't as good as he's looked thus far, but with a 3.24 ERA and 206-to-67 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 197 innings between Double-A and Triple-A he has the makings of a decent middle reliever. With Reyes an impending free agent, Breslow could be auditioning for his job.
Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
First-Half Review: Hitters
Joe Mauer: .322/.418/.455 with 41 RBIs and 58 runs in 360 plate appearances
My pick for team MVP, Joe Mauer has been far and away the best catcher in the league this season, scoring a team-high 58 runs and hitting .322/.418/.455 while the average player at his position bats just .262/.325/.394. That adds up to Mauer being 24 percent more productive than the average catcher offensively. To put that in some context, consider that Justin Morneau and his .323/.391/.512 line make him "only" 17 percent better than the average first baseman.
Misguided critics continue to focus on his lack of power, but Mauer has dominated his position like few other players in baseball while quietly hitting five homers with a .568 slugging percentage in 34 games since June 1. Toss in his usual quality defense behind the plate and Mauer's a legitimate league MVP candidate, although certainly the RBI-obsessed voters would never see it that way. He's fourth among AL hitters in Win Probability Added and rises to the top spot once WPA is adjusted for position.
Mike Redmond: .279/.315/.338 with 6 RBIs and 7 runs in 73 plate appearances
After totaling 298 plate appearances last year and an average of 216 trips to the plate during his first three seasons in Minnesota, Mike Redmond is on pace to bat just 120 times this year because Mauer has been one of the most durable catchers in baseball. Mauer ranks second among AL catchers with 711.2 innings logged behind the plate, has yet to start a single game at designated hitter, and is hitting .359 against lefties, leaving Redmond with few opportunities to crack the lineup.
Justin Morneau: .323/.391/.512 with 68 RBIs and 55 runs in 412 plate appearances
In past years Morneau's power has dried up after the All-Star break, but this time around he finished the first half with just four homers in his last 41 games. His .189 Isolated Power would be a career-low, but despite the relative lack of pop (Home Run Derby excluded) Morneau ranks third in the league with 68 RBIs. He came into this season as a .276 career hitter with a mediocre .340 on-base percentage, but is currently sporting a career-best mark in both batting average (.323) and OBP (.391).
The shape of Morneau's performance has changed, but the end result is similar to his MVP-winning campaign. In fact, with offense down considerably across the league this year his .903 OPS is perhaps more impressive than the .934 OPS that he posted en route to winning the award in 2006. He's on pace for a disappointing 25 homers, but has still been one of the league's top five hitters overall, ranks third in WPA, and is on track to drive in 110-plus runs for the third straight season.
Alexi Casilla: .315/.357/.440 with 36 RBIs and 29 runs in 228 plate appearances
Alexi Casilla began this season at Triple-A after a horrible 56-game stint with the Twins last year and saw his stock fall even further by hitting .219/.350/.250 in 32 games. Despite that putrid performance he was called up from Rochester in mid-May when Nick Punto landed on the disabled list. After playing sparingly for a week, Casilla smacked a three-run homer on May 19 and went 2-for-4 with two RBIs on May 20 to emerge as the new everyday second baseman, starting 49 of the next 52 games.
He's looked nothing like the scatter-brained rookie who was a mess on both sides of the ball last year and has instead hit .315/.357/.440 with four homers, 17 total extra-base hits, and a 20-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 228 plate appearances while flashing a good glove. Along with solid plate discipline and plenty of speed, Casilla has shown significantly more power than expected while still striking out in just 8.8 percent of his trips to the plate.
A .257/.344/.316 line in 129 games at Rochester suggests that he's played quite a bit over his head in batting average and power. With that said, even after struggling over the past two years he's a career .293 hitter in the minors and at 23 years old is likely to develop more pop. Coming back down to earth from .315/.357/.440 to eventually settle in around .285/.340/.400 seems realistic, which would make Casilla the obvious long-term answer at second base (or shortstop) and a very nice all-around player.
Nick Punto: .324/.383/.471 with 18 RBIs and 13 runs in 116 plate appearances
Between a poor start and lingering hamstring problems it looked like another long season for Punto, but he's turned things around by hitting .388/.446/.612 since June 1. Along with Brendan Harris' poor showing defensively and injuries to both Adam Everett and Matt Tolbert, the hot 15-game stretch has allowed Punto to again emerge as a starter, this time at shortstop. While his offense obviously isn't sustainable, Punto has looked more like the solid 2006 version than the execrable 2007 version.
Part of what made Punto successful in 2006 was a focus on putting the ball in play rather than working deep counts, but last year he fell back into old habits and it led to a 30-percent increase in strikeouts. So far this season he's back to making more contact, taking fewer pitches, and slashing line drives, although he's bound to regress heavily toward his .250/.318/.331 career line. However, unlike when he was stinking up the joint at third base Punto may be the Twins' best option at shortstop for now.
Brian Buscher: .313/.337/.410 with 17 RBIs and 13 runs in 89 plate appearances
Brian Buscher failed to make the team out of spring training, but headed back to Triple-A and proved that last season's breakout was no fluke by hitting .319/.402/.514 in 53 games at Rochester. With Mike Lamb struggling offensively and defensively the Twins called him up in mid-June and installed him as the regular third baseman against right-handers, starting Buscher in 20 of the past 27 games. Results have been mixed, but barring a trade Buscher has likely earned continued playing time.
Buscher hit .312/.392/.500 with 22 homers, 38 doubles, and a 62-to-64 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 156 games between Double-A and Triple-A over the past two seasons, but hasn't shown much power yet in the majors and like Lamb projects as more of a gap hitter than homer threat. In fact, between the iffy defense at third base and similar attack offensively Buscher profiles as a poor man's Lamb. Or at least a poor man's version of what the Twins thought they were getting in Lamb.
Brendan Harris: .262/.315/.376 with 32 RBIs and 40 runs in 333 plate appearances
Many people viewed the Harris-Jason Bartlett portion of the big Delmon Young-Matt Garza offseason swap as being relatively even because their offensive numbers were comparable, but that overlooked the huge gap in defensive value. While Bartlett has flashed his usual outstanding range at shortstop for the Rays, Harris got himself moved off second base after struggling to consistently turn double plays and as was the case in Tampa Bay has shown himself to be stretched as a shortstop.
Poor middle-infield defense should've been expected based on his stats last year, but he's combined that with disappointing offense, including a 25-percent increase in strikeouts. He's hit .351/.380/.608 over the past month, but is now a 27-year-old career .269/.326/.405 hitter in 1,029 PA who doesn't have the glove to be an asset in the middle infield, which makes for a pretty marginal player. Harris' best fit is as a platoon partner for Buscher at third base, but Matt Macri could just as easily do the job.
Mike Lamb: .220/.257/.292 with 26 RBIs and 17 runs in 230 plate appearances
In signing Lamb to a two-year, $6.6 million contract this winter the Twins were hoping to trade some defense for offense at third base, but instead his bat has been every bit as horrible as his glove. He's shown Tony Batista-like range, which should have been expected, but hitting a measly .220/.257/.292 comes as a surprise after he managed a .281/.342/.464 line in four seasons as a part-time player in Houston. If not for the Twins owing him $3 million for next season, he'd likely already be off the roster.
Lamb can probably be counted on to bounce back offensively, but the Twins are unlikely to give him another extended shot at third base. In the past he's provided plenty of value as a left-handed bench bat and occasional starter at the infield corners, but Morneau plays every day at first base and Buscher is basically a younger version of Lamb at third base. He's not nearly as bad as he's looked thus far, but isn't good enough or young enough to warrant a ton of patience.
Delmon Young: .286/.330/.386 with 36 RBIs and 47 runs in 364 plate appearances
When the Twins acquired Young he was laughably compared to Frank Robinson multiple times while his supposed power potential was constantly talked up, but his track record told a different story. He had just 14 homers in 138 games at Triple-A and 16 homers in his first 192 games as a big leaguer, all while hitting the ball on the ground a ton. Once everyone got a good look at him rather than trusting long-expired "scouting reports" they saw a swing that was anything but powerful most of the time.
When Young went 60 games before his first homer fans went from criticizing people like me for having the gall to question his upside to making him their whipping boy, but along the way he actually started hitting. He's hit .305/.347/.460 in 47 games since mid-May, although that includes just three homers in 202 plate appearances and he continues to look lost far too often in left field while making a habit of putting together ugly at-bats in key spots.
He has the team's second-worst WPA thanks largely to hitting .271/.308/.365 with runners in scoring position and .214/.283/.333 with RISP and two outs. Young has improved his walk rate compared to last year, going from horrible to merely bad, but seems to abandon all discipline at crucial moments. He's shown a knack for hacking at the first pitch in game-changing situations, often failing to get the ball out of the infield. Beyond that, 38 percent of Young's walks have been of the four-pitch variety.
In those spots he's not drawing walks as much as being handed them and whatever patience he has vanishes when a good approach at the plate is needed most. Young is an opposite-field hitter with the fifth-highest ground-ball percentage in the AL, so without an overhaul at the plate hitting 30 homers will be difficult. With that said, he's just 22 and has hit .291 through 279 games, which leaves the door wide open for him to develop an impact bat even if the shape of his performance isn't what people expected.
Carlos Gomez: .253/.287/.351 with 31 RBIs and 50 runs in 399 plate appearances
Carlos Gomez had a fantastic Opening Day and showed flashes of brilliance early on, but has hit just .218/.253/.276 with a ghastly 41-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 39 games since June 1 and finishes the first half as one of the AL's worst hitters. Among the 83 hitters who qualify for the batting title, Gomez ranks 68th in batting average, 80th in on-base percentage, 75th in slugging percentage, 79th in pitches per plate appearance, 74th in Isolated Power, 80th in walk rate, and dead last in strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Only Vladimir Guerrero has swung at more pitches outside the strike zone and he's on pace to shatter the team record for strikeouts. Despite being completely unfit for the job, the Twins refuse to remove Gomez from the leadoff spot, magnifying the negative impact of his bat. His range is center field has been great and he leads MLB in bunt hits, but not much else has been encouraging. He's even ceased running effectively, stealing just five bases while being caught seven times in the past 57 games.
Michael Cuddyer: .252/.324/.376 with 35 RBIs and 30 runs in 259 plate appearances
Fresh off a big contract extension in January, Michael Cuddyer had a miserable first half that consisted of poor hitting and multiple injuries. Cuddyer sat out most of April after suffering a dislocated right index finger in the season's fifth game and came back to hit just .250/.328/.384 in 57 games before heading back to the disabled list with a strained tendon in his left hand. He's been sidelined since late June and sounds unlikely to return before August.
Signing Cuddyer to an expensive extension when the Twins already controlled him through 2009 struck me as a mistake this winter and seems even iffier now that he's missed time with hand injuries while hitting .269/.347/.416 since last year. With that said, as the Twins' best right-handed bat he gives some semblance of balance to an otherwise left-handed lineup, so getting an even moderately productive Cuddyer back would be key for a team that sports the AL's third-worst OPS against southpaws.
Jason Kubel: .262/.331/.461 with 44 RBIs and 45 runs in 305 plate appearances
Early on it looked like Jason Kubel was destined to spend another year in and out of Ron Gardenhire's doghouse. He was benched in favor of Craig Monroe on Opening Day despite the Twins facing a right-hander and started just two of the Twins' first five games, but Cuddyer's first-week injury forced Kubel into the lineup and he's emerged as the team's third-best hitter. Much like last season, Kubel got off to a slow start before catching fire in mid-May.
He's hitting .292/.393/.539 over his past 50 games and ranks second on the team behind Morneau in homers, slugging percentage, and RBIs. While the "Free Jason Kubel" campaign has been mostly a success, his struggles against lefties have kept Kubel from playing every day. Because of that he ranks just sixth on the team in plate appearances, is on pace to bat 150 fewer times than Gomez despite a 150-point edge in OPS, and has hit one fewer homer than Morneau in 107 fewer trips to the plate.
Kubel is batting .269/.334/.454 in 210 games since the start of last year, including .273/.341/.478 with 26 homers and 97 RBIs in 670 plate appearances since last May. Over that same stretch, Morneau has hit .294/.361/.494. Knee injuries have sapped Kubel of what was once above-average speed and he's yet to approach the high batting averages that he posted in the minors, but at 26 years old he's established himself as a force against right-handed pitching and the Twins' second-best power threat.
Craig Monroe: .203/.280/.419 with 28 RBIs and 21 runs in 164 plate appearances
Monroe looked washed up when the Twins misguidedly handed him a one-year, $3.82 million contract during the offseason and has predictably hit just .203/.280/.419 in 164 plate appearances. He began the season stealing significant playing time from Kubel even against right-handers, but Gardenhire eventually came to his senses and moved Monroe into the platoon role that he was seemingly still capable of filling adequately.
Instead, he's hit a miserable .122/.217/.216 against lefties while smacking righties around to the tune of .284/.346/.622. Like almost all right-handed hitters Monroe has fared far better against southpaws during his career and his odd first-half split is almost surely a fluke. In the second half smart money would be on Monroe's numbers against lefties rising dramatically while his numbers against righties decline dramatically, but the overall result figures to be fairly similar and completely underwhelming.
Denard Span: .324/.429/.423 with 7 RBIs and 12 runs in 86 plate appearances
A first-round pick in 2002 who carried a .283/.348/.348 career line in the minors into this season after batting just .267/.323/.355 at Triple-A last year, Denard Span looked to me like a future fourth outfielder at best. Span lost the center-field job to Gomez this spring, but batted .340/.434/.481 in 40 games at Rochester to earn his first call-up to Minnesota and has defied all expectations by hitting .324/.429/.423 through 25 games with the Twins.
Three good months after six sub par years means that Span's recent play should be viewed with plenty of skepticism, but it's tough not to like what we've seen. He's shown a great eye at the plate, walking 39 times in 270 PA between Triple-A and the majors after drawing an average of just 23 free passes per 270 PA prior to this season. He's also flashed more pop than expected while providing super defense as Cuddyer's replacement in right field despite playing almost exclusively center field in the past.
Span underwent laser eye surgery after "noticing [his] right eye getting a little blurry the last year and a half" and can "definitely see a difference now." Studies show that laser eye surgery doesn't necessarily lead to improved hitting, but Span certainly appears to be much different. Minimal power will always keep him from a huge upside, but as a strong defender with good speed if Span can hang onto his newfound plate discipline while maintaining a high batting average he'll prove me very wrong.
Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.
Monday, July 14, 2008
Twins Notes: Halfway Home
TWINS AT THE ALL-STAR BREAKThis season's .558 winning percentage is tied for the third-best mark that the Twins have had at the All-Star break in the past eight years. Their best first-half winning percentage during that time came in 2001, when the Twins went 55-32 (.632) before the All-Star break and ended up losing the division by six games when they collapsed to 30-45 (.400) in the second half. That was their first season as a winning team since 1992 and their last season with Tom Kelly as manager.
They also took a division lead into the All-Star break the next season--and ended up cruising to their first AL Central title--but that's the last time the Twins have ended the first half in first place. Overall in the four seasons that have ended in an AL Central title--2002, 2003, 2004, 2006--the Twins had a .530 winning percentage in the first half and averaged a seven-game deficit in the division. In other words, this year's team has not only out-performed expectations, they're in pretty good shape historically.
A 3.53 ERA and 86-to-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 97 innings at Triple-A overall warrants a call-up, but there's no indication that he's on the verge of rejoining the rotation. Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Glen Perkins, and Kevin Slowey have ERAs between 3.47 and 4.26, so none of the rotation's 26-and-under starters deserve to be bumped. Livan Hernandez and his 5.44 ERA would seemingly be the clear choice to go in favor of Liriano, but his pitching poorly has obviously never bothered the Twins.
Velocity readings from the Twins should be taken with massive grains of salt. Ron Gardenhire said in February that Liriano "was averaging 93 and throwing it up to 96, free and easy," but in April he was working mostly in the high-80s and topped out around 92 miles per hour. With that said, Official Twins Beat Writer of AG.com LaVelle E. Neal III notes that his "fastball averaged 93 miles per hour and topped out at 95," while Rochester manager Stan Cliburn said that he "hit 99 on the gun" during one strikeout.
All of which made it especially frustrating when Blyleven offered an "analysis" of Hernandez's first half that dismissed his horrible ERA and historic number of hits allowed simply because he has nine wins. Blyleven has been kept out of the Hall of Fame largely because his win total doesn't match his overall performance and he's spent years essentially pleading with voters to let him in, yet he can't grasp that someone who goes 9-6 with a 5.44 ERA didn't have a great (or great-type, in Blyleven speak) first half.
Hernandez won nine games despite his performance and his ranking sixth among AL starters in run support played a huge part in that. There are 46 starters in the AL who've pitched enough to qualify for the ERA title. Hernandez ranks either dead last or second-to-last in ERA, opponent's batting average, opponent's on-base percentage, opponent's slugging percentage, and opponent's OPS. He also has by far the worst Win Probability Added among AL pitchers at -1.72. He's been horrible, nine wins or not.
Beyond that, Santana ranks sixth among NL starters in Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP), and even ignoring his extreme first- and second-half splits his 3.55 mark fits right in with his xFIP totals from 2004-2007: 3.55, 3.42, 3.35, 3.28. Santana has lost a little velocity on his fastball and has shied away from using his outstanding slider, which together have made him less dominating and perhaps less effective overall. However, don't let the record fool you. He remains an elite starting pitcher.
AL HITTERS LEADING OFFGomez leading off is a mistake on two levels. First, his awful on-base percentage limits RBI chances for the lineup's best hitters. Gomez's .287 OBP is 14 percent worse than the AL average and ranks 81st among 83 hitters who qualify for the batting title. Only two regulars in the league have a worse OBP, yet the Twins bat him in a spot where getting on base is vital. Beyond that, Gomez simply isn't a good hitter and leading off guarantees that he'll come to the plate more often than anyone else in the lineup.
Talk of lineup construction tends to focus on how someone will influence players around them, but that impact is generally overstated. However, often overlooked is that a leadoff man will bat about 150 more times than a No. 9 hitter per full season, so leaving Gomez atop the lineup is handing 150 extra plate appearances to one of the worst hitters. That has a big impact, particularly when those extra trips to the plate involve making an out 70 percent of the time in front of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau.
Gomez is a tremendously exciting player who can wreck havoc when he gets on base, but unfortunately he's not much of a hitter at this stage of his career and is ill-equipped to set the table for the lineup's top hitters or accumulate the team's most plate appearances. When a player is hitting .253/.287/.351 with a 96-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio the goal should be to limit his plate appearances and lessen the impact of each trip to the plate, but leaving him atop the lineup has the opposite effect in both cases.
Unfortunately, Bass has pitched like you'd expect from a 27-year-old journeyman with a 5.08 career ERA between Double-A and Triple-A, posting a 5.31 ERA, 25-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and .313 opponent's batting average in 57.2 innings. Whether based on his underwhelming minor-league track record or the .313/.371/.536 line that he's served up so far in the majors, Bass has done nothing to show that he's capable of being a quality MLB reliever.
Despite that, not only has Bass thrown more innings than any other reliever in the AL, Gardenhire has suddenly begun using him in crucial situations after keeping him in a mop-up role for three months. As the boys over at Stick and Ball Guy's blog point out, Bass leads the team in negative Win Probability Added appearances at 14, which means that he's hurt the Twins' chances of winning in 40 percent of his outings despite rarely working in key spots. Passing him through waivers isn't the problem.
There is a simple reason the 2008 Twins have exceeded expectations: They throw strikes. ... The Twins excel at one aspect of the game above all others, excel at it whether they have Johan Santana, Brad Radke or Livan Hernandez at the top of their rotation. They throw more strikes than any other team. They avoid walks. They limit their pitch counts, enabling them to stay healthy and durable.There's no doubt that the Twins deserve tons of praise for their method of developing pitchers, but shouldn't it be obvious that if avoiding walks and limiting pitch counts are so important for a pitching staff then it would make just as much sense to put together a lineup that draws walks and inflates pitch counts? Every season the staff ranks among the league's best in walks allowed and the lineup ranks among the league's worst in walks drawn, yet no one seems capable seeing the link.
Silva out-performed Milton in 2004 while saving the Twins about $8.5 million, and since then Milton has a 5.83 ERA while being limited to 66 starts in four years due to arm problems. He's currently recovering from Tommy John surgery and hasn't pitched in over a year, but returned to his original organization last week by signing a minor-league contract with the Yankees. During six seasons in Minnesota he went 57-51 with a 4.76 ERA in 978 innings, ranking 38th on my list of the best players in Twins history.
Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.