Thursday, May 27, 2010

Karma is a Brat

In life, it seems like your luck always ends up evening out. Long streaks of fortune luck will invariably be followed up by a cluster of bad breaks. You get a sweet new job, your girlfriend dumps you. You find a $20 bill on the ground, a passing car splashes muddy water all over your freshly dry-cleaned suit. The timing can change, but ultimately it seems like the outcomes that aren't under your direct control inevitably seem to balance out.

The same is true in baseball. Sometimes a mediocre pitcher will have a prolonged hot streak in which they're consistently getting opposing lineups to hit the ball right at their fielders (see: Hernandez, Livan). Sometimes hitters will slump for weeks because all of their line drives seem to be getting caught. Lucky and unlucky streaks can run teamwide as well. Just look at our Minnesota Twins.

In 2008, the Twins' lineup was exceedingly lucky. As a team, they registered a .748 OPS that ranked ninth in the AL, just below the league average. They hit only 111 home runs, fewest in the Junior Circuit. Their team on-base percentage of .340 was nothing worth writing home about. And yet, the team's hits always seemed to come at the right time and as a result the Twins ranked third in the league in runs scored while narrowly missing a postseason berth. A .305/.380/.446 hitting line with runners in scoring position will help with that. Given that their overall hitting line of .276/.340/.408 was substantially worse than their mark in scoring opportunities, some ventured to wonder whether the team was simply "clutch."

The answer was no. There is little evidence that individual players achieve significantly different results in clutch situations over a prolonged period of time, much less entire teams. That 2008 team had a fortuitous distribution of hits and the result is that they scored substantially more runs than one should have expected based on their overall offensive performance.

Flash forward two years, where the Twins finally seem to see those unlucky rain clouds rolling overhead to wash away all the good luck they experienced in that charmed '08 campaign. Now, the Twins are fielding a much more imposing overall lineup, and yet they cannot seem to get the big hits when they need them. They have the league's second-best on-base percentage at .355, but they're constantly wasting runners thanks to a .264 average and .749 OPS with runners in scoring position (compared to .273 and .779 overall). The more runners these Twins put on, the more inept they become at the plate. With runners on second and third, they're hitting .167 with a .662 OPS. With the bases loaded, they're hitting .169 with a .478 OPS.

So is this team, which includes many of the same players as that 2008 group, simply less clutch? No. It's not like batters are stepping up and completely abandoning their approach at the plate in key situations -- they're striking out and walking with about the same frequency as would be expected. It's what happens when the ball is put in play that is killing them; the 2010 Twins' overall batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is .305, but with runners on second and third that drops to .190. With the bases loaded, it drops to .175.

Compare that to the 2008 squad which saw its overall .316 BABIP shoot up to .332 with runners in scoring position. Their BABIP with runners on second and third was .351; with the bases loaded, .324. In '08, batted balls would consistently find a place to land in big spots. This year, in key run-scoring opportunities, line drives are continually falling into outfielders' gloves and hard-hit grounders are turning into double plays rather than seeing-eye singles.

Me and Phil Mackey, along with a few others, had a minor Twitter debate a couple weeks ago because he refused to label the Twins' tendency to fail with the bases loaded a "trend," since his reasoned stance was that the bad breaks were guaranteed to turn around at some point. I don't know how that stops an existing pattern of outcomes from being a trend, but while Phil is right that the team's bad fortune is almost certain to turn around at some point, there's no denying what we've seen thus far and there's no guarantee that it will end any time soon. It's clearly not happening yet, as evidenced by the 28 runners that have been left on base during the team's current three-game losing streak. The lucky hits kept coming pretty much all year long for the 2008 Twins, so it's really not unthinkable that this group could remain snake-bit for weeks, months, or even the remainder of the season.

Despite what a lot of misdirected anger from fans and bloggers might have you believe, the team's struggles in scoring opportunities are not the fault of the manager nor the result of a lack of intestinal fortitude among his players. It's simply an increasingly long string of bad luck. Hopefully it will turn around soon, because for the time being, this talented team is awfully tough to watch.

Stranded Again

On Sunday, the Twins lost 4-3 to the Brewers, seeing a ninth-inning comeback effort fall just inches short. The close loss could have been avoided; they left 14 runners on base.

On Tuesday night, the Twins battled the Yankees through five scoreless frames before heavy rain forced a delay and eventual suspension of play. The two teams picked up on Wednesday afternoon and Brian Duensing, making a pseudo-start after having worked out of the bullpen all season, gave up a tie-breaking solo home run to the second batter he faced. Duensing settled in after that, completing three innings of work with no further damage, but the Twins offense could muster no support and the Yankees notched a 1-0 victory. The Twins stranded 10 runners on base in the game.

In the nightcap of an impromptu semi-doubleheader, the Twins sent their ace Francisco Liriano out to face Andy Pettitte. The Twins were seemingly up to the task -- they took an early lead, they got a great performance from Liriano, they received a big game-tying knock from Delmon Young in the seventh inning -- but ultimately they fell short. The hitters failed in numerous key situations and Jon Rauch left a fat pitch over the plate for Nick Swisher in the ninth, propelling the Yankees to a second win on the day. In their third straight one-run loss, the Twins went 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position.

Last night, the Yankees one two games on home runs. The Twins, meanwhile, can't seem to hit the ball out of their home park. Hitters continue to see their soaring drives fall into fielders' gloves at the warning track, and it's pretty clear that frustration is building.

That frustration is reflected in a fan base that will be very unhappy if the Twins can't break the Yankees' spell and avoid an embarrassing home sweep against New York for a second season in a row.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Slowey Needs to Step Up

The Twins narrowly avoided a disastrous loss on Saturday night, as they were able to battle back for an extra-innings victory after blowing a four-run lead in the ninth, but that didn't stop fans from unleashing their venom on the club during its brutal late-game implosion.

Much vitriol was aimed at Ron Gardenhire, who had Ron Mahay start the ninth with a four-run lead and watched the left-hander load the bases without recording an out before giving way to Jon Rauch, who allowed all three runners to score plus a couple more as the Twins watched a 6-2 lead turn into a 7-6 deficit.

I'm baffled with the anger at Gardenhire. Mahay had been highly effective all season up to that point and was facing the bottom three hitters in the Milwaukee lineup, two of whom were lefties. Still, it was clear on this day that neither Mahay nor Rauch could get the job done, and unfortunately Gardenhire's other options were limited. That's because he'd already been forced to use two of his most reliable relievers in the game due to Kevin Slowey's inability to get his job done.

Despite being handed a 4-0 lead in the first inning, Slowey was unable to work through six frames on Saturday, as Gardenhire was forced to remove him with two outs in the sixth after Corey Hart launched a deep bomb against the right-hander. While that was the only run he allowed in the start, Slowey was unable to work efficiently through the Brewers lineup in spite of his comfortable lead, as his pitch count sat at 102 when Gardenhire took the ball from him.

The short start marked the continuation of a disturbing trend for Slowey. Outside of his eight-inning gem against the punchless Indians lineup early in the season, Slowey has failed to complete six innings in any of his nine starts. This hasn't necessarily been the result of bad pitching, as Slowey has allowed more than three runs only twice, but it's taking him way too many pitches to get people out.

Relief implosions like the one we witnessed on Saturday are bound to happen if you're leaning too hard on your bullpen, and Slowey has been doing just that all year. Blame Gardenhire, Mahay and Rauch for the meltdown all you want, but Saturday's ninth inning nightmare was inevitable and it will happen again if Slowey can't find a way to start pitching deeper into games.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Justin Morneau: A Student of the Game

Has any player on the Twins shown as much ability to adjust and improve over the years as Justin Morneau?

Despite missing the final weeks of the 2009 season with a back injury and proceeding to struggle through spring training this year, Morneau is currently playing the best baseball of his career. He's been the American League's best hitter up to this point, with league-leading figures in the AVG, OBP and SLG columns to go along with 11 home runs and 34 RBI, which are also top-five figures.

The gargantuan offensive numbers have largely been buoyed by a dramatically increased walk rate. Morneau's 35 walks tie him with Kevin Youkilis for most in baseball. Morneau has never ranked among even the top ten in the American League in bases on balls before, so this qualifies as a monumental step forward. Still, the signs have been in place for some time. Check out his walk rates in each year since he debuted in the majors:

2003: 7.8%
2004: 9.0%
2005: 8.1%
2006: 8.0%
2007: 9.6%
2008: 10.7%
2009: 12.2%
2010: 18.5%

It helps that opposing pitchers have increasingly sought to pitch around him over the years as they've come to view him as more and more of an imposing threat, but Morneau has clearly made enormous strides with his pitch recognition. While it might not seem too extraordinary for a player to improve his walk rate as he grows more and more accustomed to playing in the majors, many sluggers never improve on their K/BB ratio -- look at Ryan Howard, for instance. For Morneau to go from a guy who was striking out more than twice as often he walked -- as he did in his first full season of 2005 -- to putting up an even ratio like he has now is very impressive and speaks well to his ability to make adjustments.

Along with his consistently improving plate discipline, Morneau has also continually taken steps forward on the defensive side. A natural catcher, Morneau often looked awkward in his early days at first base but he's turned into a legitimate asset at first base.

The numbers help bear that out, as Morneau leads all major-league first basemen by a wide margin with a 4.5 UZR (the next closest guy is Adam LaRoche, at 2.8) and is on pace for his best season ever in that category. But you can also see it just from watching Morneau. He's become an increasingly smart player, always throwing to get the lead runner rather than simply stepping on first when the ball is hit at him. His range on pop-ups in foul territory seems to have gotten better with each passing year. And one element of his game that has always been a strength continues to impress: his ability to reach for errant throws and stab short hops that bounce in front of him at first. I'm thinking that has something to do with his extensive experience as a hockey goalie.

That Morneau has been a great hitter and hugely valuable player thus far is nothing new, but the 29-year-old is taking his game to all-new levels this year and proving that he's been working hard to improve in areas that might have once been considered weaknesses.

Now, one historical hurdle remains. Morneau has to keep it up through the second half and especially during the final months of the season.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Brendan Becoming a Big Problem

When the Twins signed Brendan Harris to a two-year contract during the offseason, it raised a lot of confusion among fans. Coming off a poor season, Harris had two remaining years of arbitration eligibility, meaning that the Twins had the option to go year-to-year and retain him at their own leisure for a relatively low price.

The obvious move, it would seem, was to tender Harris a one-year contract through arbitration and reevaluate his situation after the season. It wouldn't have even come as a huge surprise if the Twins had elected to non-tender Harris, given his lack of progress as a hitter in Minnesota and Ron Gardenhire's clear disdain for his lacking defensive abilities.

Instead, the Twins elected to lock up Harris through the 2011 season with a two-year, $3.2 million contract. At the time, the move seemed odd. Nearly two months into the 2011 season, the move seems more baffling than ever.

After going 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts while filling in for Nick Punto at third base yesterday, Harris is hitting .188 this season with a .275 on-base percentage and .263 slugging percentage. Harris' ostensible value to this club is as a guy who can take over at short in the event J.J. Hardy should miss time and as a guy who can step in at third base to provide an offensive upgrade over Punto.

Up to this point, Harris has failed miserably in both of those areas. His performance at shortstop with Hardy on the shelf was so bad that the Twins were forced to call up Trevor Plouffe for a brief major-league debut. Meanwhile, Harris has somehow managed less production offensively than Punto, whose 555 OPS is quite execrable in its own right.

Factor in Harris' defense, which has been typically weak, and the infielder has been one of the team's biggest liabilities this season. FanGraphs has Harris' WAR (Wins Above Replacement) pegged at -0.1 thus far, suggesting he's been less valuable than a replacement-level player. After accumulating a solid 2.3 WAR for the Rays in the year before they traded for him, Harris has posted a 1.2 for the Twins in 2008 and a -0.1 in 2009. This year, he appears to be headed for his most dreadful figure yet.

Harris has been on a clear path of regression for several years now, and it's hardly surprising to see that trend continuing here in his age 29 season. Harris is not getting the job done in the plate or at the field, and by many accounts his attitude is hardly exemplary. He's become a big problem. Now, it's a problem the Twins are attached to through the end of next season.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

No Hook Needed for Cuddyer

Michael Cuddyer has a notorious reputation around the Twins clubhouse as an amateur magician. This season, though, his only trick has been creating two outs in one at-bat. Cuddyer leads the league in double plays grounded into with 12, and is currently on pace to shatter the all-time record of 36 set by Jim Rice back in 1984.

Double plays create more misdirected anger amongst fans than perhaps any other play in baseball. Yes, the twin killing is a frustrating outcome for an offense, as it wastes base runners and murders rallies. But, unlike a strikeout, the double play is not an obvious and blatant failure by the batter -- typically these are hard-hit balls that happen to roll right into an infielder's glove. Since batters can't really control exactly where a batted ball is going to go, the difference between a rally-extending hit through the hole and a morale-crushing DP is often a matter of luck. Cuddyer's luck this year has not been good.

Certainly, there's nothing in his numbers to suggest that the spike in double plays is a direct result of anything Cuddyer is doing wrong. He's not hitting the ball on the ground more; in fact, his 41.4 percent ground ball rate would be the lowest of his entire career. He's not even hitting into double plays at an astonishingly high rate; as Aaron Gleeman noted today, Cuddyer does not even rank among baseball's top ten in ground ball rate.

The chief culprit for Cuddyer's huge GIDP figure is abundant opportunity. When you happen to hit behind Justin Morneau, who leads the American League in on-base percentage and ranks second in walks, you're going to be batting quite often with a runner on first base. The GIDP bug would likely be biting anyone hitting behind Morneau with even a remote penchant for putting the ball on the ground. As such, the increasingly popular suggestion that Delmon Young -- who had been swinging a pretty good bat recently -- should be moved up to the fifth spot in the order to cut down on the double plays is flawed. Young is a far more GB-heavy hitter than Cuddyer and if he were hitting behind Morneau you can believe he'd be racking up the twin killings as well.

Ultimately, regardless of their recent trends, Cuddyer is a better hitter than Young and is the best right-handed hitter in the Twins lineup. His historical success against left-handed pitching makes him a good fit between Morneau and Jason Kubel (or Jim Thome), so there's no reason to believe Cuddyer should be moved out of that spot just because he has been slumping for a couple weeks. Let's not forget that in April, he posted a strong .825 OPS while leading the team in RBI. Clearly he can succeed in this role and shifting him down in the batting order would be nothing more than an overreaction to a slump.

With that being said, there's no denying that Cuddyer has been having a tough time lately, and it sure seems like he could stand to take a day off.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Runaway Crain (Never Coming Back?)

Twins fans are growing increasingly frustrated with Jesse Crain. The right-hander has been abysmal this season, owning a ghastly 7.31 ERA and 1.56 WHIP through 16 appearances. Seemingly every time he's taken the hill for the Twins this season, Crain has seen his straight fastballs laced into the outfield gaps or over the fences. He's a mess.

This is, of course, not the first time we've seen these types of early struggles from Crain. Last year on this date, his ERA stood at 8.25 and his WHIP at 1.58. Crain continued to pitch poorly into June, and midway through that month he found himself demoted to Triple-A with a bloated ERA and nearly as many walks (12) as strikeouts (13).

As most are probably aware, Crain's minor-league stint did him some good and he returned to the Twins as a different pitcher in July, posting a 2.91 EA and 30-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 34 innings after returning. After being knocked around with consistency early in the year, Crain rattled off 17 consecutive scoreless appearances during one stretch in August and September.

The strong showing down the stretch was enough to convince the Twins that Crain was worth bringing back at a relatively expensive $2 million price tag. Now, the righty is struggling early again. Opponents are hitting .303/.352/.576 against him. He's yielded three homers and nine doubles in 16 innings. Recently, things have only looked worse; over his past four appearances he has allowed five runs on six hits (two homers) while walking two and striking out only one of the 14 batters he's faced.

Quite frankly, Crain appears to have no business being in the big leagues. While his velocity is fine -- Crain's fastball is averaging 94.3 miles per hour, which is where it's been for the past several years -- the lack of movement on his pitches is allowing opposing hitters to elevate the ball and drive it with authority.

The Twins have stated that they'd like Crain to start putting more sink on his pitches and they seem to have a point, as only 30.2 percent of batted balls against him are going on the ground (his previous career low in this category was 40.6 percent) while 50.9 percent are getting hit in the air (previous career high was 42.2 percent).

The Twins made a significant investment in Crain during the offseason and there's no doubt that he has the raw stuff to succeed as a big-leaguer. But sending him to the minor leagues to get straight isn't an option this year, and as the numbers listed above indicate, there's no reason to think he's on the road to significant improvement.

The Twins' recent promotion of Jeff Manship to the big-league roster gives the Twins 13 pitchers, an ominous sign for the struggling Crain. When J.J. Hardy is ready to come off the disabled list this weekend, we may see the righty reliever designated for assignment, with numerous right-handed options existing in Triple-A.

Right now, Crain looks to be headed the wrong way on a one-way track. It might be too late to get turned around.

Monday, May 17, 2010

As Grand as it Gets

Last week, Twins Geek wrote about one of the most memorable regular-season home runs in Twins history, a blast by Harmon Killebrew in 1965 that salvaged a series for the Twins and proved that their talented team could indeed hang with dynastic Yankees, who'd owned the American League over the prior two decades or so.

Sound familiar?

The Twins entered the eighth inning yesterday seemingly headed for a 13th straight loss against the Yankees. They'd come to New York looking to prove their legitimacy in the American League, but over the first two games of the series the Twins had seen their offense fail time and time again to come up with a big hit while the pitchers had folded in the face of a powerful Yankee offense.

So when Mariano Rivera, who hadn't allowed a run all season, stepped in to protect a two-run lead with the bases loaded in the top of the eighth, one hardly could believe good results were in store for the Twins. Their ineptitude with the bases loaded this season had been a trend nearly as frustrating as their longtime problems with the Yankees. They'd amassed a .157 average, with five double plays and only one extra-base hit (a double), in 61 plate appearances with the bases full. The offense had generally been chugging along nicely, but the hitters had continually failed to come up with the big hit in the big situation. Alas, it was difficult to envision that it was going to come against perhaps the game's greatest closer of all time, who'd been invulnerable all year.

Jim Thome pushed a run across for the Twins with a walk, narrowing the lead to one. Fans yawned. Sure, the Twins had scratched out an important run, but they still had not found that elusive game-changing knock. In stepped Jason Kubel, riding a terrible early-season slump -- evidenced by a .224 average with just two home runs -- and 0-for-3 with two strikeouts on the day.

When Kubel drove that Rivera pitch over the wall, it turned a depressing series sweep into a potential momentum builder. Rauch came out to pitch the ninth and let two runners get on base, but rather than folding he stepped up to strike out the top three hitters in the Yankee lineup consecutively, slamming the door shut on a lengthy losing streak in the Bronx.

Now that the Twins have remembered how to get a big hit with the bases juiced and remembered what it feels like to notch a big victory in an East Coast town, we'll see how their demeanor is in Toronto and Boston this week. It'd be no surprise if they walk into Rogers Centre tonight with a bit more swagger, having freshly removed a pair of big monkeys from their backs.

Maybe the Twins keep struggling on the second and third legs of this road trip. Maybe they prove just as snake bit against the Yankees when they face them later this month at Target Field as they have over the majority of the past two years. And maybe the 2010 club's Kubel, Morneau, Mauer, Thome and Cuddyer don't follow the same path as the 1965 club's Killebrew, Mincher, Versailles, Allison and Oliva in leading the Twins to an AL pennant.

But just maybe Kubel's incredible grand slam today will be commemorated in a blog post 45 years from now as the blast that enabled a championship team to turn a crucial corner.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Series Preview: Twins @ Yankees

The Twins entered this season with high expectations, and through 34 games they've not disappointed. Their record stands at 22-12 and they sit three games ahead in the AL Central. They've lost only one series all year. The offense is scoring runs, the rotation is delivering strong starts and the bullpen has mostly held up. This Twins team has given us little to complain about.

Yet, in a way, it seems almost as though the Twins have simply been going through the motions up to this point. Have they truly been challenged? Really, one should expect a team with a $100 million payroll and a roster packed with as much talent as this one to consistently win series against sub-.500 teams, and that's almost exclusively what the Twins have faced so far. Among opponents the Twins have faced up to this point, only the Red Sox and Tigers currently sport a winning record. One of those teams -- Detroit -- handed the Twins their only series loss of the season. The other -- Boston -- slumped badly early in the season, when the Twins had the fortune of facing them.

Now, the Twins will get their first real test as they embark on a seven-game road trip that will have them touring baseball's toughest division, the AL East. Before playing two-game sets against the solid Blue Jays and the improving Red Sox, the Twins will head to New York for a series that many Twins fans (and, I would guess, players and coaches) have had circled on their schedules for many months.

The Twins' ineptitude against the Yankees over the past decade or so is well documented. They're 3-23 in Yankee Stadium since Ron Gardenhire took over as manager and went 0-10 against the Bombers last season, including a three-game postseason sweep. While the Yankees have almost always had a better team, it's astonishing how much the Twins have struggled to win games against them. At times, the losses have been uncontested blowouts, at other times they've been closely fought battles where a few fortuitous breaks enabled the Yankees to squeeze by. What's been constant is this: the Twins have had an incredibly hard time finding a way to win against this baseball team, particularly in New York's hostile home stadium.

Of course, this year's Twins team offers a very different dynamic than past Gardenhire clubs. For once, they've broken into the top third of the league in team payroll. They're still not close to the Yankees in that regard, but they're spending enough to boast quality players at most positions. In the ALDS last year, the Yankees out-homered the Twins 6-0; that's not likely to happen again. In fact, it would hardly come as a big surprise if the Twins were able to hit more balls out of the park than their opponents this weekend.

Let's take a look at the pitching match-ups that are lined up for this key series:

Game 1 (Friday): Scott Baker vs. A.J. Burnett

Burnett's great stuff hasn't been as overwhelming to hitters this year as it has been in the past. He's notched only 32 strikeouts over 45 innings in his first seven starts, translating to a 6.4 K/9 IP rate that would rank as easily his lowest since 2001 if it stuck. That hasn't stopped Burnett from being effective, as he's cut down on walks while going 4-1 with a 3.40 ERA up to this point, but it might catch up with him at some point. Maybe it already has; he's coming off a disastrous outing against the Red Sox on Sunday in which he allowed nine runs -- eight earned -- over 4 1/3 innings. The Twins might be getting him at just the right time.

The opposite is true of Baker. After struggling through the month of April -- as he is wont to do -- Baker has gotten his month of May off to a far better start. He chipped in a Quality Start against the Tigers in his first outing this month, and then turned in his best performance of the season his last time out, shutting out the Orioles over eight innings while fanning eight and walking none. Baker is a guy who can really become a force when he gets into a groove, and we might be seeing signs of that now.

Game 2 (Saturday): Francisco Liriano vs. Andy Pettitte

I hope that many of you will be taking this contest in with me at Majors in Bloomington tomorrow afternoon. This game will be a great test for Liriano, who was victimized by terrible luck in his last turn in giving up five runs and 10 hits without getting hit particularly hard. If Liriano, who seemingly had a hard time putting dud performances behind him last year, can rebound from that outing and deliver a strong start against the Yankees in New York, he'll make believers out of any lingering doubters out there. The Yankees have been among the least strikeout-prone teams in the league this year, so he may have to rely on ground balls rather than punch-outs to succeed. Fortunately, he's shown that he can do that.

Pettitte, like Burnett, is a guy whom the Twins would seem to be facing at a somewhat opportune time. While he'd been dealing over his first six starts, going 4-0 with a 2.08 ERA, Pettitte had his last turn skipped due to elbow inflamation. He wouldn't be slotted back into the rotation if the Yankees didn't feel he was ready, but Pettitte is 37 and these things don't always heal quickly for aging vets.

Game 3 (Sunday): Nick Blackburn vs. Sergio Mitre

Blackburn's season got off to a horrid start, but he's shown signs of settling in lately, having delivered consecutive Quality Starts for the Twins. Given his astonishing inability to miss bats (he's struck out only nine of the 169 batters he's faced this year), Blackburn presents the most concerning match-up against this imposing New York lineup, but it's tough to forget the admirable effort he put forth the last time he pitched in this stadium, hurling 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball in last year's ALDS.

Mitre has achieved solid results this season, but he's nothing more than a veteran swingman at this point. Given his major susceptibility to lefty hitters, this is a match-up that bodes well for the Twins.

So there you have it. Objectively, it's tough to see any of these pitching match-ups being drastically slanted in New York's favor. The Twins are fortunate enough to skip CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes, who have both been tremendous this year. Several of New York's offensive regulars are banged up as well. There are no excuses. It's time for the Twins to get this monkey off their shoulders.

Those who have watched the Twins regularly up to this point know that this is a good team capable of competing with anyone. But if the Twins want to prove to the nation that they're for real while shedding the widely held belief that they play scared against the Big Bad Bronx Bombers, they need to make a statement this weekend.

Update: For a view from the other side, check out the series preview over at Yankeeist.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

To Walk or Not to Walk?

Some looked at the big spike in Nick Punto's walks last year and saw a mirage. Why would pitchers not throw strikes to a hitter with a .284 slugging percentage? Surely, one would think, that Punto's heightened walk rate -- he was issued a free pass in 13.8 percent of his plate appearances after compiling a 9 percent rate over the first eight seasons of his big-league career -- must be a fluke.

Others figured that perhaps the versatile middle infielder had developed a repeatable skill, crouching in the batter's box to shrink his strike zone and laying off nearly every pitch that didn't come through that zone. Punto was flustering pitchers who were by no means afraid to throw him strikes.

So far in this young season, it appears that the first camp was correct. Punto has drawn only four walks in 66 plate appearances this year, translating to a 6 percent walk rate which is well below his career average. The drop-off hasn't been all bad though, as Punto has raised his batting average to .276 while accumulating a somewhat respectable .362 slugging percentage. If Punto could start drawing walks at a rate somewhere close to where he was last year, he'd actually be a pretty valuable contributor at the bottom of the lineup, but right now his .308 on-base percentage is suppressing his offensive value. We'll see if the walk rate rises at all in the coming months.

On the other end of the spectrum, there's Justin Morneau. After drawing his league-leading 29th walk yesterday, Morneau holds an otherworldly 20.1 percent walk rate. That easily crushes his 12.2 percent rate from a year ago, which had at that time established a career high. Unlike with Punto last year, the rationale behind walking Morneau is easy to understand: he's been a monster. He's batting .357 and his 1.138 OPS leads the American League.

By laying off more pitches (58.3 percent) than ever before in his career, Morneau is taking advantage of other teams' fear of throwing him strikes and putting himself on base at a higher rate than any other player in baseball. This development in his game has boasted his overall productivity and has him in line for an MVP-caliber season. We'll see if he can keep it up.

And if he does, let's hope it's contagious. Because that's something Punto could stand to catch.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Can Gibson Go Garza?

On a busy day of minor-league movement in the Twins organization, the biggest piece of news to come out yesterday was that 2009 first-round pick Kyle Gibson has been promoted to Class-AA New Britain. Less than a year after being drafted out of the University of Missouri, the right-hander finds himself at the second-highest level of minor-league competition.

Gibson opened the season in Ft. Myers, already a bit of a leap for a kid who hadn't pitched a professional game prior to this year. Nevertheless, Gibson's numbers in Single-A leave little doubt that a call-up was warranted. After scuttling a bit in his first start with the Miracle, Gibson went 4-0 with a 1.36 ERA and 0.93 WHIP over his next six turns before being bumped up to the next level.

The fast start and quick promotion are sure to remind many fans of Matt Garza, who was drafted in 2005 and was pitching for the Twins in 2006. Certainly, the two players have their similarities. Both were polished right-handed starters drafted in the first round out of college. Both possessed very good command. Both entered their first full seasons at the age of 22. And neither one spent a whole lot of time in Ft. Myers.

But Gibson and Garza have their differences. While Garza relied on flat-out dominance to blow away hitters in the low minors, averaging at least 10 strikeouts per nine innings at every level up through Double-A, Gibson relies more on forcing opposing hitters to drive the ball into the ground. Gibson has the ability to miss bats, of course, as evidenced by his 40 strikeouts in 43 1/3 innings with the Miracle, but he's shaping up as a monster ground ball pitcher, having managed a 63.9 percent GB rate over those seven Single-A starts. For reference, Tim Hudson is the only starter in the majors who currently induces a higher percentage of ground balls than that.

This is an aspect that was absent in Garza's game. And while it doesn't necessarily mean Gibson will be a better pitcher than Garza, who is off to a phenomenal start for the Rays this year, it might help him achieve more initial success. For while Garza debuted in his first full professional season, he didn't perform terribly well in that first stint, going 3-6 with a 5.76 and 1.70 WHIP. This is partially because the strikeouts he'd been so dependent on while conquering each level of the minor leagues became tougher to come by against big-league hitters. If Gibson can continue to induce grounders at an outstanding rate, he's likely to keep succeeding as he moves up even if he's not striking everybody out.

Will Gibson follow in Garza's footsteps and debut in the majors during his first pro season? I'd say it's not likely. Unlike Garza, who made 14 minor-league starts after being drafted in 2005, Gibson didn't pitch at all in the Twins organization last season thanks to his signing late and needing to recovery from an arm injury that caused him to drop to the Twins in the draft. Given that his limited innings last season, I suspect the Twins would prefer to follow a somewhat conservative approach with their top young pitching prospect. Throwing him into a major-league rotation at the age of 22 would not seem to be in line with such an approach.

Of course, if the Twins' rotation is struck by a rash of injuries -- which were basically the circumstances that necessitated Garza's call-up in '06 -- there's no telling what measures the Twins might be willing to take, considering how high the stakes are for them this year. Much will depend on whether Gibson can keep whiffing batters at a solid rate while forcing tons of grounders at the next level. This will certainly be something worth keeping an eye on.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Could Pavano Be a Bargain?

During the offseason, the Twins committed to retaining free agent Carl Pavano by offering him arbitration, which he accepted. Pavano took the offer because he knew he'd stand to make around $7 million and that was probably more than any free agent contract would pay him given that he'd finished the prior season with an ERA north of five.

Some Twins fans reacted with appall at the price tag for Pavano. At $7 million, he'd be making more than twice as much as anyone else in the rotation, and one would have a hard time arguing that he was the team's best starter. While he'd pitched some big games for the Twins down the stretch after being acquired from the Indians in August, there was no denying that his overall results on the season were ugly. He led the league in earned runs allowed and opposing hitters ran up a .294 average and .466 slugging percentage against him.

Now he was going to become the Twins' highest-paid starter, by a long shot. It's not the first time the right-hander has found himself locking into a controversial contract.

Following a 2004 season in which he won 18 games for the Marlins, Pavano signed a monster deal with the Yankees, one that would pay him $40 million over four seasons. The contract was an unmitigated disaster for the Yankees, as Pavano battled injuries throughout his time in New York and totaled just 145 (below-average) innings over the life of the four-year deal. His name became a running joke in New York.

However, Pavano has been remarkably durable since signing his one-year make-good deal with the Indians prior to last season. He made 33 starts and piled up 200 innings last year, and he's been healthy and strong so far this year. What's even better are his results: Pavano is 4-2 with a 3.43 ERA and 1.12 WHIP. He sports the league's best strikeout-to-walk ratio and has issued fewer walks than any other qualifying starter in baseball. Given that he's putting up almost the same numbers so far that he did in that 2004 season, one which made the Yankees deem him worthy of a mega-deal, $7 million could end up looking like a bargain. This isn't necessarily just a lucky surprise.

The smart observer did not look at Pavano's 2009 season and see a bad pitcher with a 5.10 ERA who was getting obscenely overpaid through arbitration. They saw a veteran pitcher who was plagued by bad luck but who did well with everything he had direct control over. He ranked fourth in the AL in strikeout-to-walk ratio, joining elite hurlers Roy Halladay, Zack Greinke, Justin Verlander and A.J. Burnett in the top five. He posted his highest strikeout rate since 2001, when he was 25. He showed increased velocity across the board. He pitched more innings in that one season than he did over his entire four-year stay in New York.

Few people seem to realize this, but Pavano is about six months less far removed from undergoing Tommy John surgery than Francisco Liriano. Given that Liriano seems to be rounding fully into shape about three years after the surgery, it wouldn't be terribly surprising if Pavano can continue to pitch the way he did during his prime this season. Many are simply assuming Pavano's hot start is a mirage, and it's true that he'll always be susceptible to the occasional dud performance, but his supporting peripherals are encouraging and in my mind there's no reason the 34-year-old can't keep up at this pace.

If he does, that $7 million will look like money well spent.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Prospect Rundown: April

At the beginning of each month last year, I took the opportunity to break down the performance of each member of my Top Ten Prospects list over the previous month. I plan to do that again this year. I've had this post in queue for several days, so I'm sorry it's late, but here's a look at how each of my Top Ten prospects performed during the month of April and how their outlook is shaping up as we move forward.

10. Joe Benson, OF | Class-AA New Britain
April Stats: .169/.296/.271, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 11 R, 4/5 SB

After spending nearly the entire 2009 season in Ft. Myers, Benson moved up a level to open the 2010 season and has struggled initially with the Rock Cats. Strikeouts continue to be a problem for the athletic outfielder, as he whiffed 16 times in 59 at-bats. There’s no cause for alarm yet, as Benson is only 22 and still adjusting to the higher level of competition, but it would be nice to see him pick up the pace in May.

9. Carlos Gutierrez, SP | Class-AA New Britain
April Stats: 19 IP, 0-1, 6.63 ERA, 16/6 K/BB, 1.68 WHIP

After dominating Single-A hitters for the first half of the ’09 season, Gutierrez was moved up to New Britain at the end of the year and he struggled there, posting a 6.19 ERA over 22 appearances there while working mostly as a reliever. This year, Gutierrez was moved back into a starting role but he’s continued to struggle, as evidenced by the higher ERA and his .333 opponents’ batting average. Nonetheless, his strikeout-to-walk ratio is solid and Gutierrez is getting twice as many outs on the ground as in the air. Those are promising peripherals, so look for him to improve rapidly as the season progresses.

8. David Bromberg, SP | Class-AA New Britain
April Stats: 24 IP, 1-0, 1.13 ERA, 19/6 K/BB, 1.00 WHIP

Bromberg is one guy on this list who has definitely not disappointed thus far. After spending all of the ’09 season in Ft. Myers, Bromberg moved up to Double-A this year and hasn’t skipped a beat, continuing to dominate with just nine hits and four walks allowed over his first three starts. That he is continuing to miss bats at a solid rate against Double-A hitters is quite encouraging. If he can keep this up, he could become an option for the Twins at some point this year.

7. Danny Valencia, 3B | Class-AAA Rochester
April Stats: .256/.306/.346, 0 HR, 8 RBI, 8 R, 1/1 SB

Valencia was viewed by some as a candidate to win the Twins’ starting third base job out of spring training, but instead he was sent to Rochester to keep ironing out his game, knowing that his time could come any time this year. Valencia got off to a very slow start with the Red Wings but came on late in the month and has hit .372 over his past 10 games. It’d be nice to see him start to display a bit more power, as he hasn’t homered yet, but he does have eight doubles.

6. Angel Morales, OF | Class-A Beloit
April Stats: .281/.356/.500, 3 HR, 11 RBI, 9 R, 8/10 SB

Morales continues to struggle with his plate discipline, having fanned 25 times while drawing only six walks over his first 89 at-bats, but his outstanding athleticism continues to win out and there’s just no complaining about these overall numbers. Already he’s ripped three homers and six doubles to go along with nine stolen bases. Eventually he’s going to run into trouble if he doesn’t improve his plate approach, but for now he’s more than getting the job done.

5. Miguel Angel Sano, SS | Extended Spring Training
April Stats: N/A

There’s nothing to report at this point on the Twins’ prized Dominican prospect, who was signed last with a $3.15 million bonus. Sano spent the first month of the season working under the supervision of coaches in Extended Spring Training. He may be sent to the Dominican Summer League to get some real competitive action at some point.

4. Ben Revere, OF | Class-AA New Britain
April Stats: .274/.361/.306, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 6 R, 6/7 SB

After opening some eyes on the major-league staff down in spring training, Revere headed to Double-A to open the season, where he has continued to do what he does best: making contact and getting on base. His nearly even 12-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in April was impressive and helped him post a strong .361 OBP over the first month while swiping six bags in seven tries. He’s shown almost no power, with two doubles and no homers in 86 at-bats, and he drove in only a single run during the month, but those are secondary concerns for a leadoff man. Revere is doing just fine.

3. Kyle Gibson, SP | Class-A Ft. Myers
April Stats: 30.2 IP, 2-1, 1.76 ERA, 28/7 K/BB, 0.91 WHIP

A highly touted college pitcher who would have likely been a top ten pick in last June’s draft if not for injury concerns, Gibson started his pro career this season at High-A ball, which is no surprise considering his advanced skills. After a rocky first start, the right-hander has been lights out, achieving a solid strikeout rate while remarkably inducing five times as many outs on the ground as in the air. In his final start of the month, Gibson pitched a one-hit shutout. He doesn’t seem destined to spend much time with the Miracle.

2. Wilson Ramos, C | Class-AAA Rochester
April Stats: .179/.214/.328, 3 HR, 8 RBI, 5 R, 0/0 SB

After losing much of his 2009 season to injury, Ramos came to spring training this year and impressed Ron Gardenhire so much that the Twins’ manager wanted to bring Ramos north to back up Joe Mauer, despite his not having any experience above Double-A. The Twins ultimately elected to send Ramos to Rochester, and the catching prospect responded by struggling out of the gates. While his strikeout rate isn’t out of control, Ramos walked just twice all month and supplemented his three homers with just one double. He was called up to the Twins in early May after Mauer got hurt, but seems likely to head back to Rochester upon Mauer's return, where hopefully he can get his bat going.

1. Aaron Hicks, OF | Class-A Beloit
April Stats: .299/.427/.463, 3 HR, 7 RBI, 16 R, 5/9 SB

Speaking of poor starts, they don’t get much worse than the one Hicks got off to in Beloit. Perhaps disappointed by having to repeat the same level he finished at least year, Hicks sputtered out of the gates, collecting just one hit in his first 30 at-bats while striking out at an astonishing rate. Fortunately, Hicks has lived up to his No. 1 prospect billing with a dramatic rebound, batting .459 over his final 10 games of the month to raise his numbers back up to a more-than-respectable level. One thing that has been amiss in the athletic outfielder’s game over the past few years has been power, so it’s very encouraging to see some balls starting to leave the yard.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Responding to Ramos Critiques

My post yesterday titled "Trading Wilson Ramos is a No-Brainer" garnered mixed reactions. Some said I was spot-on in my analysis while others suggested that the only "no-brainer" was me.

Today, I'd like to respond to a few of the pervasive critiques of my argument in an effort to clarify my position and dispel some myths.

1. Ramos should stay because his bat will be an asset anywhere.

This seems to be a classic case of fans vastly overrating their own prospects. Yes, Ramos has a big frame and a nice swing, but there is little in the way of tangible evidence to suggest that he'll hit enough to be an asset at first base or DH, which are the only places he'd realistically be able to fill in outside of catcher.

Last year the average AL designated hitter posted a .780 OPS and the average AL first baseman posted an .832 OPS. Throughout his minor-league career, Ramos has accumulated a .777 OPS and he hasn't topped .800 at any level (with the exception of a short rehab stint in rookie ball). Now, granted, he's been young for every level and has the frame to evolve as a hitter as he reaches hi mid-20s, but one cannot simply assume he's going to come up to the majors and become a vastly better hitter, particularly considering that he has been nagged by ever-present plate discipline issues throughout his career.

In arguing with my thesis, many people said something to the effect of, "I'll trust the professional scouting reports over your opinion." That's fine, but scouts can get it wrong. I don't see how one can reasonably assume that Ramos' big-league hitting line -- particularly over his first several years as he adjusts to the league -- will be any higher than his .288/.336/.441 career line in the minors. That'd be good production for a catcher -- where American Leaguers averaged just a .715 OPS last year -- but it would be thoroughly mediocre for a DH or first baseman and would be minimizing Ramos' value as an asset.

2. The Twins need Ramos as insurance to protect their expensive investment in Mauer.

Many have argued that Ramos should be kept around so that the Twins will be able to rest Mauer more frequently and will have an able player to fill in should he go down with an injury. Have people completely forgotten that the organization already has a fine in-house option in the form of Jose Morales?

Certainly, Morales is not as great a hitter as his .328 average and .394 on-base percentage in limited MLB playing time would suggest, but the kid is almost an ideal backup catcher, with improving defensive skills and enough of a bat that he won't kill you if he has to fill in for a period of time. The 27-year-old switch-hitter is also cheap and controllable for many years. He's hurt right now, but once he's healed, Morales will return to his role as an above-average backup catcher, a role he can ably fill for the next several years.

3. Ramos enables the Twins to move Mauer to third base, where he'll stay healthier.

I will say that this is the one argument that has the most traction. Mauer's bat would play at third base and he's probably athletic enough to make the switch and remain a capable defender. Plus, outside of Danny Valencia, whom the organization seems to have -- at best -- moderate faith in as a long-term option, the organization is very weak at third base.

But, to reiterate, Mauer is heading toward a legacy as one of the best catchers in baseball history. He's an excellent defender behind the plate and his offensive output from a typically weak position is a big part of what makes him the trascendent talent that he is. Mauer would still probably be a great player as a third baseman, but his value would greatly decrease, particularly in the very plausible scenario that his defensive skills don't transfer over.

I think Mauer will shift away from catcher at some point, but not any time particularly soon. There is simply no precedent (that I can think of) for a team moving a Gold Glove catcher away from his natural position this early in his career.

4. Bill Smith traded Matt Garza for Delmon Young. I don't trust him.

People continue to fall back on the failed Garza/Young swap or the Johan Santana trade as evidence that Smith is too incompetent to bring back a worthy haul for the Twins' young catching prospect. Cut the guy some slack, folks. It was his first year on the job and -- in the case of the Santana trade -- he was leveraged to the point that he was in almost a no-win situation. The Mets were essentially bidding against themselves.

That won't be the case with Ramos. As a young power-hitting catcher with advanced defensive skills, Ramos is an extremely valuable asset in a league where many teams lack a legitimate long-term answer behind the plate. Given that Ramos will be cheap for the next six years, there's no big contract to stop small-market teams from bidding on him. If Smith makes Ramos' availability known, he'll be getting plenty of calls and should have no trouble bringing back an impressive haul.

Yes, the Young trade was a dud. But Young was more of a "can't-miss prospect" than Ramos is an he has done little since coming over to the Twins, while that deal has yielded a frontline starting pitcher and everday shortstop for the Rays. Wouldn't it be nice if Smith could follow a similar path in moving Ramos? Since he's coming off such a tremendous offseason, I'm inclined to give the Twins' GM the benefit of the doubt and overlook his lapses from three years ago.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Trading Wilson Ramos is a No-Brainer

Wilson Ramos has been garnering a lot of excitement around these parts lately. After working his way up to the top of most prospect lists with his outstanding work in the minors over the past couple years (he ranked second on my preseason list), Ramos was so impressive in spring training this year that he tempted the team to bring him north as Joe Mauer's backup despite his being just 22 and having only 54 games of experience above the Single-A level.

Ultimately the team wisely decided that giving Ramos regular at-bats in the minors while delaying his service clock was a better move, but when a window of opportunity was opened this week by Mauer's heel injury, Ramos was called up and he has taken full advantage, getting his major-league career off to a historic start by collecting seven hits in his first two games prior to an 0-for-3 effort last night. Ramos looks mature, polished and powerful -- a prototypical young backstop.

The early success has helped the Twins offense keep churning in Mauer's absence and has gotten many local fans downright giddy. Already I've seen many people pondering ways that Ramos can stick long-term with a team that already employs the game's best catcher.

However, the young Venezuelan's fate was sealed the day Mauer signed his whopping eight-year extension. In order to maximize their asset, the Twins will have to trade Ramos at some point.

I've seen many folks build hypothetical scenarios in which Mauer and Ramos can coexist on the roster. On the TwinsCentric blog yesterday, Seth Stohs laid out a plan that would have Ramos catching about 50 times a year and serving as designated hitter much of the time when not behind the plate. Others have proposed similar part-time playing alignments, while some have even suggested that the Twins ultimately make room for the young slugger by shifting Mauer -- or even Ramos -- to third base.

Let's work through these options systematically.

First, let's just throw out the idea of Ramos moving to third base. That's not going to happen. Because it can be discussed as a realistic option for Mauer, many people seem to have the perception that any catcher can easily be shifted to third base. That's not the case. With his big frame and strong arm, Ramos is perfectly built to catch, but he's slower than molasses, lacking the quickness and athleticism needed to man the hot corner. Throughout his minor-league career, Ramos has played catcher almost exclusively despite the Twins having Mauer entrenched. There's a reason for that: Catcher is Ramos' natural position and it's not going to change.

Aside from his not being athletically equipped to play the position defensively, a move to third would drastically lower Ramos' overall value. Even if he could field the position adequately, he'd almost certainly be far worse there than he is at his natural position of catcher, changing his defense from a strength to a liability. His bat also wouldn't play very well at third, because while some folks are mesmerized by his hot start with the Twins, it can't be forgotten that he's registered a relatively modest .288/.336/.441 hitting line with only 34 home runs in 302 minor-league games. Now, he's been young for every level coming up and it's hardly a stretch to think he's capable of improving on that line as a big-leaguer -- particularly after seeing him launch balls all over the place in his first few games -- but Ramos doesn't possess an elite bat that absolutely must be in the lineup. He's a great-hitting catcher, falling in the Bengie Molina mold.

It's for that same reason that giving Ramos significant time at designated hitter, as Seth suggested, is not a legitimate option. Nor is shifting him to first base, which is the only other defensive position he'd likely be able to handle well. Ramos hits very well for a catcher but there's no reason to think he's a strong enough hitter to be an asset at first base or DH.

The only scenario in which keeping Ramos long-term makes sense is if Mauer is moved to third base. Unlike Ramos, Mauer possesses the athleticism and offensive aptitude to make such a move palatable. But that's a played-out debate; Mauer is an elite player and much of his value is derived from his ability to play the catcher position at a Gold Glove caliber level. The Twins shouldn't even be thinking about moving Mauer out from behind the plate for several years.

Ramos is valuable because he's a great young defensive catcher with pop. Those are hard to find around the league. But unfortunately the Twins are set at catcher for the foreseeable future and -- as I've outlined above -- the organization will be lessening the value of a great asset if they try to fool around with switching Ramos' position.

While keeping Ramos around as a backup who can fill in for Mauer and DH against lefties occasionally would be a nice luxury, this team has other legitimate holes that need to be filled going forward and Ramos is their best chit to accomplish that. The dearth of great catchers around the league makes Ramos a very enticing piece, and if he's smart Bill Smith will start gauging interest as the deadline nears from teams that have organizational strengths at second base, third base and starting pitcher.

It's rare that a prospect as promising as Ramos is expendable, but for the Twins, he is. He has the look of a guy who should be catching full-time in this league and the Twins already have their catcher entrenched until Ramos is past 30.

Simply put, Ramos is more valuable to most other teams around the league than he is to the Twins. For that reason, trading him -- whether at the deadline this year or after the season -- is essentially a no-brainer.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Catching Up

Well, it was an interesting weekend as far as the Twins' catcher position is concerned.

On Friday night, Joe Mauer started but bruised his heel while running into first base.

The following night, Drew Butera got the nod at catcher while Mauer was thought to be too sore to catch but available in an emergency. We later learned that Mauer was probably not actually available at all since Butera was allowed to hit in several key situations late in a highly-contested game, going 0-for-5 on the night and helping cripple the Twins' chances when he grounded into a double-play with the bases loaded and the game tied in the 11th inning.

On Sunday, we learned that Mauer's injury was without question more serious than the team initially let on, as Wilson Ramos was called up to serve as interim catcher while Butera returned to his rightful spot on the bench. The well-built Ramos wasted no time making an impression, collecting four hits in his major-league debut and flashing his outstanding power by driving liners hard all over the field.

It was fun to see one of the very best prospects in the Twins system make such an immediate impact, but of course Ramos is no Mauer and we'll start to see that as he gets more exposure to big-league pitching. While he has about as much raw power as anyone in the organization, Ramos has very poor plate discipline, which helps explain why he was hitting .179 with a .214 OBP in Rochester prior to his call-up. He is undoubtedly a significant upgrade over Butera while Mauer is out, particularly because he appears to be a better defender, but the 22-year-old Ramos will go through his own growing pains. Count on it.

For the time being, though, enjoy this early glimpse of one of the very best catching prospects in all of baseball. Ramos is quickly showing the baseball world just why he carries that distinction.