Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Baker Needs to Step Up

Outside of Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano, the Twins' rotation has been struggling mightily for nearly the entire season. We've seen an occasional beam of light emerge in the performances of Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn, but for the most part these starters have been struggling and that's reflected in their bloated earned run averages.

It's not difficult to determine the roots of Slowey's and Blackburn's issues. In his first season back from a major wrist surgery, Slowey is essentially re-learning how to pitch. He's striking out fewer, walking more and relying more heavily on his below-average secondary stuff. Blackburn, meanwhile, has always walked a dangerous line with his propensity for pitching to contact, and he's inducing fewer missed swings than ever this year.

Baker, however, is more difficult to figure. He's a traditionally slow starter, with a 5.30 career ERA between the months of April and May, but he usually starts to come around in early June. Yet, we're at the end of June and Baker still hasn't gotten on track. After surrendering three homers to the Mets on Sunday, the right-hander finishes the month of June with a 6.07 ERA, thanks largely to his allowing eight homers in five starts.

The underlying numbers say that Baker isn't pitching that poorly. He hasn't allowed an inordinate number of base runners, as his 1.35 WHIP is roughly average. He's striking out batters at the highest rate of his career and he's been typically stingy with walks. His 30-to-3 K/BB ratio in June was nothing short of spectacular. Overall, he's struck out 4.37 times as many hitters as he's walked, which ranks him fourth in the American League behind Cliff Lee, Jered Weaver and Zach Greinke -- excellent company. (Lee, by the way, has a 19.0 K/BB ratio. Freaking insane.)

Yet, the results have not been there for Baker and balls continue to fly out of the yard. He's on pace to surrender a career-high 32 gopher balls this season and one has to wonder how much worse that figure might look if he didn't have the luxury of pitching his home games in spacious Target Field.

The stat-head in me wants to attribute Baker's poor results to bad luck and nothing else. After all, a whopping 12 percent of his fly balls have left the yard and his batting average on balls in play is .338, well over his career average of .307. But from actually watching Baker this year, I hardly get the impression that he's been all that unlucky. His strikeout rate suggests that his stuff has been filthy -- and certainly he's thrown a lot of good pitches -- but his tendency to lapse and leave hanging breaking balls out over the plate has seemingly been worse than ever. I watched the Mets broadcast of Sunday's contest from the La Guardia Airport and the team's announcers remarked repeatedly about how many meat balls Baker was throwing.

It seems odd, to say the least, that Baker is managing to baffle more batters than ever while simultaneously getting hit harder than ever before. One would imagine that something has got to give. He no longer has the excuse of being an inexperienced and wide-eyed kid; Baker is 28 years old and the Twins have shown their faith in him by handing him a long-term contract and lining him up as their Opening Day starter in each of the past two seasons (though injuries prevented him from being able to fulfill that duty on both occasions). It's time for him to step up and help stabilize a rotation that is quickly spiraling out of control.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Real Problems

On June 18, I mused about Ron Gardenhire's arrogant response to reporters asking him about some of the team's potential concerns ("Minnesota Twins! We're in first place guys!"). I contended that many of those questions were valid, given that despite the team's place atop the AL Central standings, they'd just finished up a rather soft portion of their schedule with rather pedestrian results and were coming upon a far more difficult stretch in which those aforementioned concerns could come to the forefront.

In the 10 days since I wrote that post, the Twins have gone 3-6 while allowing the Tigers to close within a half-game of first place, with the surging White Sox just a game behind them.

The Twins' offense has disappeared on certain days as the team continues to receive less production than expected from key players like Denard Span, Joe Mauer and Michael Cuddyer. J.J. Hardy's return still is not in sight. Orlando Hudson is back but has hit just .147/.216/.176 with 11 strikeouts and only three walks in 37 plate appearances since returning from the disabled list (entering play yesterday), suggesting that his wrist is continuing to cause problems.

More alarming than the offense's slump, however, is the complete deterioration of the rotation outside of Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano. While those two continue to perform well, the team's other three starters have combined to produce a 5.24 ERA while allowing 321 hits and 42 home runs over 259 1/3 innings. Scott Baker has failed to get on track after getting his season off to a characteristically slow start, Kevin Slowey looks like a lesser pitcher in the wake of major offseason wrist surgery, and Nick Blackburn's inability to miss bats -- or even induce weak contact with regularity -- has turned him into one of the league's worst starters.

The lineup's current lull is likely to turn around at some point and shouldn't be an ongoing concern but the struggles of 60 percent of the starting rotation show no signs of going away. To his credit, Ron Gardenhire has sought to address the team's run-scoring issues by using Cuddyer at third base, and soon he will need to start taking measures to stem the rotation's bleeding. That might start with adding Brian Duensing to the rotation and it might ultimately lead to a heated trade deadline pursuit of Cliff Lee.

The Twins are amidst an ugly slump. That's nothing to panic about -- it happens to nearly every team over the course of a season -- but the problems facing this club are real and shouldn't be downplayed just because the Twins are maintaining a slim lead in the standings.

Make no mistake: if they continue to play the way they are now during their upcoming homestand against the Rays and Tigers, Gardy's Twins won't be in first place when the All-Star break comes around.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Do the Twins Need Bullpen Relief?

Every Tuesday afternoon, I appear on KAUS 1480 AM, the Twins' radio affiliate in the Austin, MN area, to chat baseball with host Dean DeBoer. The segment is always a lot of fun and Dean is clearly a bright Twins mind, but one thing that amuses me is his constant lamenting of the team's bullpen. Of course, he's not the only one to do so, and he's certainly not the only Twins follower out there who would like to see the team pursue a top-flight reliever as the trade deadline approaches.

I suppose the fan base's mid-season yearning for relief help was an inevitability as soon as Joe Nathan was lost for the season during spring training. No one can be blamed for cringing when Jon Rauch quickly surrendered the Twins' extra-inning lead on Saturday by coughing up a homer almost immediately after Drew Butera had stunningly put the Twins ahead with a solo homer in the top of the 10th. But, despite a few hiccups, Minnesota's bullpen has been surprisingly effective this year and has not prevented the team from winning many games. In fact, it has barely cost them any.

Despite being without their best reliever, the Twins' bullpen ranks third in the majors with a 2.89 ERA. While bullpen ERA can be a misleading statistic in some cases, it's not here; this has clearly been one of the most reliable relief units in baseball, and that's reflected by the fact that the Twins are 36-1 when carrying a lead into the seventh inning. Twins relievers have allowed only 23 of 81 inherited runners to score -- a 25 percent strand rate that places them solidly below the league average of 31 percent.

A big part of the bullpen's surprising effectiveness has been Rauch's outstanding performance at the back end in place of Nathan. While some relievers seem to struggle with the mental aspects of slamming the door shut on tight games (see: Hawkins, LaTroy), Rauch appears to be a rare example of a guy who thrives under the pressure associated with the closer role.

The right-hander has posted a 2.57 ERA and 1.14 WHIP while converting 17 of 20 save opportunities. Even in blown saves, he's been able to limit the damage as the Twins have not lost a single game this season that he has entered with a lead. His current numbers -- most notably his walk rate -- parallel the ones he posted with the Nationals in 2008, which was the only other time in his career that Rauch has been asked to serve as closer for an extended period of time.

During his time with the Nats in '08, Rauch posted a 44-to-7 K/BB ratio over 48 1/3 innings; this year, he has posted a 21-to-3 K/BB ratio in 28 innings. For a pitcher who has displayed mediocre (at best) control throughout his career, those low walk totals are extremely impressive and they suggest that when Rauch is handed closing responsibilities, he can go out and throw strikes.

For all his positives, though, Rauch is not dominant. His .705 opponents' OPS is hardly stellar for a closer, nor is his pedestrian 6.8 K/9IP rate. There's no telling whether he'll be able to continue at this rate throughout the remainder of the season. Many would like to see the team pursue someone like Heath Bell to improve the Twins' chances of finishing off tough lineups in the playoffs. Yet, a dominant closer hardly guarantees postseason success, as Nathan (and several other top-tier closers) proved last autumn, and given Rauch's high-end performance in high-leverage situations this season, there's little reason to believe he'd cower against the Yankees or Red Sox in October.

If the Twins want to make a big splash at the deadline, they'd benefit more from adding a starting pitcher or an infield bat. Pawning off top prospects for an elite bullpen arm who could serve as closer just doesn't make sense considering how well Rauch has done. Meanwhile, trading for a lesser reliever who could simply help boost the bullpen in the middle innings should not be a consideration, given that the organization possesses plenty of usable relief arms in Triple-A (most notably Kyle Waldrop, Pat Neshek and Anthony Slama).

They might not be flashy, but the Twins' bullpen has been far from a liability this season. In fact, they've been one of the most reliable in the game. Barring an injury, the Twins would be foolish to focus on adding external relief help at the trade deadline. Bill Smith has bigger fish to fry this time around.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Similar Paths

In a multitude of different ways, John Lannan is a very similar player to Nick Blackburn. The former, a starter for the Nationals, throws left-handed while Blackburn throws from the right side, but in spite of that disparity the two have followed startlingly similar career paths.

Both pitchers made brief big-league debuts in 2007 before becoming full-time starters for their respective clubs in 2008. Both proved to be workhorses in their first two big-league seasons, making 30-plus starts and averaging about 200 innings between the 2008 and 2009 campaigns. Most importantly for the purposes of this article, both were able to rise above rather unimpressive strikeout rates to post very respectable overall numbers during those first two seasons.

In 2008, Lannan went 9-15 with a 3.91 ERA over 182 innings despite a 5.8 K/9IP rate that fell well below the league average. That same year, Blackburn went 11-11 with a 4.05 ERA over 193 1/3 innings despite a 4.5 K/9IP rate that was even further below average.

In 2009, Lannan went 9-13 with a 3.88 ERA over 206 1/3 innings despite a 3.9 K/9IP rate. In Minnesota, Blackburn went 11-11 once again with a 4.03 ERA despite a 4.3 K/9IP rate.

Both pitchers were impressively managing to rack up quality innings despite their elevated contact rates. This year, however, they both have seen their already sub par strikeout rates drop through the floor, and it's no coincidence that both pitchers are seeing their overall performance plummet.

Blackburn and Lannan have been almost identical in their inability to throw the ball past hitters this year. Their K/9IP rates are 2.84 and 2.88, making them the only qualifying pitchers in all of the majors with rates below 3. They've both struck out about 7 percent of the total batters they've faced after striking out 11 percent in their first two seasons.

The results speak for themselves, and boy are they similar:

Blackburn, 2010: 76 IP, 5.80 ERA, 1.63 ERA, .337 BAA
Lannan, 2010: 75 IP, 5.76 ERA, 1.85 WHIP, .327 BAA

Blackburn possesses better control, but Lannan offsets that with a higher ground ball rate. Overall, these two have basically been the same pitcher all year long.

Yesterday, the last-place Nationals demoted Lannan to Double-A.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Pavano Fulfilling His Veteran Promise

While the Twins have shown no aversion to filling their rotation with inexperienced younger talent, they have always held a pronounced affinity for possessing at least one starter who fits the "veteran innings-eater" mold.

Because their financial resources have been limited in the past, they've often been reduced to the bottom-of-the-barrel members of this category. The idea of paying Livan Hernandez or Ramon Ortiz a few million dollars to reliably pile up innings on an otherwise young staff is great in theory, but when those pitchers (predictably) perform so poorly that they become major liabilities the experiment has to be cut short.

That the Twins were willing to pay Carl Pavano $7 million to return this season despite his posting a 5.10 ERA last year speaks not only to their valuing him as that veteran innings-eater, but also to their seeing past his inflated ERA and realizing that he's a notch above the type of veteran starter they usually end up with. Not only does Pavano possess a durable arm capable of rattling off more than 200 innings, he's also effective enough to be an asset while pitching those frames. That sets him apart from the likes of Hernandez or Ortiz (or Sidney Ponson, or R.A. Dickey for that matter).

Whether or not you buy into the mythical importance having of a seasoned veteran providing leadership and consistency in a youthful rotation, Pavano delivered yesterday in exactly the way the Twins envisioned when they decided to offer arbitration during the offseason. After two young and relatively inexperienced starters were forced out very early over the first two games of a series in a tough opposing ballpark, Pavano faced off against one of the game's most dominant pitchers and delivered a masterful complete-game victory, relieving a beleaguered bullpen and salvaging a series that at one point looked completely lost.

Pavano has completed seven or more innings in 11 of his 14 starts this season and has accumulated more innings than all but four starters in the AL. It's no coincidence that he has factored into the decision each time he's pitched this season; he's routinely lasted deep into games and he has heavily impacted their outcomes. Talk about earning your paycheck. (That last sentence can be read with a not-so-slight tinge of irony by my friends who follow the Yankees.)

I don't know how valuable Pavano's performance has been as far as setting an example for the younger pitchers (considering that hideous mustache, I think I'd prefer the team's other starters not seek to emulate him), but it's been plenty valuable on its own as the 34-year-old righty has given the Twins a good chance to win nearly every time he's taken the mound. His outstanding production, alongside the steadily excellent Francisco Liriano, has helped to keep the Twins' rotation respectable in spite of up-to-this-point disappointing performances from its three other members.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Tough Road Ahead

Ron Gardenhire has grown irritated in recent days, apparently with the tenor of questions he's been receiving from the media regarding his club. Kelsie Smith of the Pioneer Press reported on an outburst from the manager earlier this week:
After a five-minute pregame session with reporters, during which Gardenhire fielded questions about Hudson's wrist, Joe Mauer's swing, an increase in team errors, how he believes Trevor Plouffe and Danny Valencia are handling big-league at-bats and whether he senses the fan base is more fanatical this season, the annoyed manager stood up to leave and hollered, "Minnesota Twins! We're in first place, guys!"
Gardenhire was right. The team is in first place. But they're hardly in the clear and there is legitimate reason for concern about their current status.

They're past Ubaldo Jimenez, but Twins actually just wrapped up a relatively light portion of their schedule. Eighteen of their past 24 games have been at home, and their only road series during that span came against a pair of sub-.500 teams: the Mariners and Athletics. While the Twins did have a few tough series mixed into their recent homestands -- including match-ups against the Yankees and Braves, who may be the best teams in their respective leagues -- they also had weaker opponents like the Brewers and Royals mixed in and they should be expecting to win at home against all comers.

Despite the soft patch in the schedule, the Twins emerge from this latest stretch of games with just a 1.5-game lead on the Tigers in the AL Central, and now they will have to run through a veritable gauntlet leading up to the All-Star break.

First, the Twins will open a National League road trip tonight in Philadelphia. After the weekend series with the Phillies, they'll head to Milwaukee for a three-game set before wrapping up with another weekend series on the East Coast against the Mets. After that nine-game tour of the NL is complete, the Twins will come home to face the Tigers, who are nipping at their tails in the division, and the Rays, who are tied with the Yankees atop the AL East. Then it's back on the road for three games against the powerful Blue Jays and three more against the Tigers.

And then it's the All-Star break, which will probably be welcomed because that is a tough stretch of 22 games with only two days off. Not one series among those mentioned is a "gimme," so the Twins are going to need to step their game up and start scoring some runs if Gardenhire still wants to be touting his first place Minnesota Twins when the All-Star Game comes around.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Twin Killings Are Killing the Twins

The Twins didn't manage to do much offensive damage today in a 5-1 loss to the Rockies at Target Field. That's partially because they were facing Ubaldo Jimenez, who has been the best pitcher in the majors this year. But one can also point to the Twins repeatedly wasting early rally opportunities by grounding into three inning-ending double plays over the first four frames, pushing their MLB-leading total to 78.

The Twins have scored significantly fewer runs than one would expect based on the number of runners they put on base. They rank third in the American League in team OBP, trailing only the Yankees and Red Sox, yet they rank seventh in runs scored -- barely above the AL average. They are wasting too many baserunners.

At one point, this could have been pinned on their ineptitude with the bases loaded, as they hit .160 in such situations over their first 34 games. Yet, the Twins have predictably reversed that unlucky trend by going 10-for-30 with the bases juiced in their past 32 contests. Now, a dizzying double play rate has become the chief source for the club's offensive headaches, and it's not showing any signs of going away. They tapped into nine twin killings during their three-game series with the Rockies this week.

The Twins' current pace would have them grounding into 191 double plays by season's end. That would shatter the single-season major-league record of 174, set by the 1990 Boston Red Sox. This is an epidemic. But, as frustrating as it is, the Twins' jaw-dropping DP tendency is hardly surprising.

As mentioned above, the Twins rank third in the AL with a .348 on-base percentage, largely because they rank third in the league in walks. Yet, they don't hit for much power (seventh in the AL in SLG) and they don't steal many bases (10th in SB). That means they're putting an awful lot of runners on first base. When you factor in a team ground ball rate of 46.2 percent that ranks second in the AL, it's not difficult to see why the Twins have been getting doubled off with such frequency.

While the underlying reasons for the Twins high GIDP total aren't difficult to see, the hitters still can't be let off the hook completely. They are grounding into double plays at a higher rate -- per opportunity -- than the league average. (Twins: 15 percent; league: 12 percent.) Given that they've had more opportunities to hit into DP's than any other team, that increased rate is especially damaging.

It's time for the hitters in this lineup to take it upon themselves to elevate the ball with a runner on first rather than succumbing to the pitcher's will and firing a hard grounder right at an infielder. Similarly, Ron Gardenhire needs to start putting runners in motion more often; we actually saw the Twins avert a possible fourth GIDP today when Jason Kubel took off from first on a full count to Michael Cuddyer and reached second safely despite the ball being grounded directly to the second baseman.

It's great that the Twins are getting on base at such a strong rate this year, truly it is. But there's nothing more frustrating than wasting baserunners and between their early struggles with the bases loaded and their continual GIDP issues, the Twins are wasting an exorbitant number of them this season.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Familiar Headaches

Last season, the second spot in the batting order was an enormous liability for the Twins. The crucial lineup position produced an execrable .232/.272/.326 hitting line when occupied by anyone other than Joe Mauer. That means that when Mauer, the league's finest hitter, was batting third, the players in front of him were making outs about 73 percent of the time. It was depressing.

This ineptitude prompted me to posit back in early spring training that the signing of free agent Orlando Hudson late in the offseason was bound to be Bill Smith's most impactful winter move. Sure enough, Hudson was an absolute revelation in the two-spot through the first two months of the season, batting .300 with an outstanding .377 on-base percentage while chipping in a bit of power as well, as attested by his three homers and .421 slugging percentage. That's production that we're just not accustomed to seeing from that spot in the batting order.

Unfortunately, an outfield collision with Denard Span at the end of May has put Orlando Hudson on the shelf for the first half of June, and in his absence we're experiencing some familiar headaches at the top of the lineup. Rather than simply shifting Mauer into the No. 2 spot and moving everyone else up a spot, Ron Gardenhire has elected to cycle different lousy middle infielders through the two-hole, writing in either J.J. Hardy, Matt Tolbert or Trevor Plouffe each day. The results have been disastrous. With Hudson gone in June, the team's No. 2 hitters entered last night's game having gone 4-for-47, good for a batting average of .085. They'd not managed one extra-base hit. They'd struck out 13 times and drawn four walks. They'd crossed the plate only four times in 12 games despite having Mauer and Justin Morneau behind them in the lineup. Tolbert had a solid performance in last night's blowout victory, homering and walking twice, but that doesn't change the fact that it has been a problem.

Gardenhire's stubborn fixation on keeping a middle infielder in the second lineup spot has been a major source of frustration for me over the years and it continues to this day. Some think I blow the issue out of proportion, but having an automatic out jammed in the middle of all your best hitters is clearly detrimental to run production, and the Twins simply haven't been producing many runs this month. Obviously, Gardenhire is handcuffed to some degree by the wrist injuries that have ravaged his middle infielders, but sticking three of the team's worst hitters in one of the most important positions in the lineup is absolutely not the answer.

It's not like Gardenhire doesn't want the team to win, and I find it impossible to believe that he doesn't notice how consistently these players have been failing to get the job done in front of the team's best hitters. I'd think that at some point he'd finally start resisting the urge to write one of the team's no-hit backup infielders into that lineup spot, yet he just keeps doing it, as demonstrated by Tolbert's presence there last night.

If Gardenhire's oft-stated excuses were once valid, they're not anymore. He claims he wants to have players in the No. 2 spot who can "handle the bat." If the guys he's trotting out there can handle the bat so well, one would think that they'd be able to get a hit once every 10 at-bats. They're not moving runners over, they're not getting on base and they're not working great at-bats. They're just making outs at a catastrophic rate and killing potential rallies.

Gardenhire says he doesn't want to throw everyone else out of their rhythm by moving people all over the lineup but this offense could use a shake-up. They scored a total of six runs in three games at home over the weekend. Mauer responded well to hitting in the two-spot last year (he hit .398 in 33 games there) so sliding him up should be an option. And if Gardenhire refuses to remove Mauer from the No. 3 spot, he should consider Delmon Young, who's been the team's hottest hitter. Even Nick Punto has proven to be less of a black hole than Tolbert and Plouffe.

The lingering injuries that are affecting Hudson and Hardy have put Gardenhire in a tough spot when it comes to constructing lineups, without a doubt. But a great manager adjusts to tough circumstances and makes move to keep the team on track. Gardenhire has not been making those adjustments, and the team's struggles to score runs over the past few weeks have been -- at least partially -- a reflection of that.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Hitting a Sore Spot, TBL?

Last night, Rob Neyer responded to questions he's been receiving about his SweetSpot Blog Network and why nine teams still lack representative bloggers. Readers have been asking the top ESPN.com baseball blogger whether they might be able to join and help round out his developing baseball blog collective. Neyer's answer was forthright and honest: "The sad truth is that even if you've got the time to write about your favorite team every day, you probably don't have the analytical skills or the writing chops we're looking for."

This morning, the sports website The Big Lead took aim at Neyer, mocking him for holding high expectations for the quality of content in his network and then launching into a random diatribe about how all the "stat-heads" are going to unjustly get Bert Blyleven into the Hall of Fame.
As for the analytical skills, let’s begin with Bert Blyleven, a pitcher who has failed to get voted into the Hall of Fame 13 years in a row. Blyleven spent 48 seasons in the majors, never finished 1st or 2nd in Cy Young award voting, and his career highlight is a toss-up between this t-shirt and this F-bomb on air. Yet the stat-heads are certain he should voted in (sadly, he probably will next year; then, it becomes the Hall of Very Good). Using your analytical skills, sell Neyer one way or another on Blyleven.
This post struck a nerve with me for a couple of reasons. For one, obviously my blog is a part of Neyer's SweetSpot Network and frankly I'm proud to be a person whose analytical skills and writing chops were deemed worthy of that honor. But moreso, as a Twins fan, I'm annoyed to see another misguided soul hammering away at Blyleven's Hall of Fame case, particularly in a situation like this where it seemingly came completely out of nowhere.

The irony surrounding TBL's post is almost too rich to take. His presented case against Blyleven, who last year was not voted into the Hall of Fame by a subjective voting group, is that for thirteen years that same subjective voting group has not voted him in and that during his career that same subjective voting group did not place him first or second in the Cy Young balloting. Basically, the argument boils down to: "If some people thought this at some point, then it must be true!"

It amuses me that in a post where they seek to ridicule the folks who write about baseball while using statistics and facts to back up their positions, TBL shows exactly why those people are necessary. There's got to be someone to filter out condescending, snide and completely empty analysis like this. Do some of those stat-head bloggers write in that same arrogant tone? Sure, but generalizing that to the entire population of analytical baseball bloggers is as stupid as claiming that every single one of them believes that Blyleven belongs in the Hall (or that no traditional baseball analysts who rely less on stats believe he belongs).

Whether The Big Lead is just trying to ruffle feathers or still holds a grudge against ESPN for flooding their servers a few years ago, I don't know, but Neyer's comments are hardly worthy of such vitriol. Methinks The Big Lead should go back to doing what they do best: reporting all day on sports gossip. Then we can have a talk about journalism standards.

And they can tell some story about how intimidating Jim Rice was.

A Question to Ponder

The latest update on Orlando Hudson is that the team is unsure whether he'll be able to start tonight, ostensibly due to the fact that he's still having a hard time swinging the bat left-handed. Since the Rockies have right-hander Aaron Cook on the mound this evening, it would seem that Hudson's chances of playing will be slim if he's still not feeling right while swinging from the left side.

To which, I pose an honest question: Is there any reason Hudson has to bat from the left side against a righty? If he's feeling more comfortable swinging from the right, wouldn't we all prefer a righty-hitting Hudson -- even against a right-handed pitcher -- to Trevor Plouffe or Nick Punto in the No. 2 spot? Or is he so accustomed to hitting against opposite-handers that he'd struggle to adjust?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Twins Missing Their Middle Infielders

The Twins have a long history of dominating interleague competition and they've generally looked very good when playing at Target Field this season. Unfortunately, they lost two of three at home against the Braves this weekend because neither of those trends could outweigh their recent silence with the bats.

After scoring 118 runs in April and 133 in May, the Twins are on pace to score just 99 in June. They briefly emerged from their recent offensive slump by beating up on the Royals throughout a three-game series last week, but outside of that series the Twins simply have not been putting many runs on the board over the past few weeks.

It's not difficult to find the culprit for the team's recent drop-off in run production. Their thin infield depth has been exposed by injuries to both Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy. Trevor Plouffe and Matt Tolbert, called up to help fill the big-league club's middle-infield void, have both struggled immensely on offense, and lamentably Ron Gardenhire's misguided lineup decisions have enabled those poor performances to cause increased negative impact at the top of the batting order. Brendan Harris, forced into duty by the various injuries around the infield, has stunningly continued to show no offensive pulse whatsoever. He has just five hits -- all singles -- in his last 53 at-bats.

Hudson is expected to return to the lineup on Tuesday, and the Twins need to hope he's healthy enough to pick up where he left off because they could sorely use a jolt at the top of the lineup. We'll still probably be looking at a regular left-side combination of Plouffe and Nick Punto, which will likely continue to be an offensive liability. Hudson will be most welcome, though, because he will keep Plouffe and Tolbert out of the second spot in the lineup.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

In Draft, Twins Sticking to Their Guns

The Twins have had a very obvious preference in recent years for using their early draft picks on two particular types of players: light-throwing college pitchers and athletic high school outfielders.

As such, it was hardly surprising that when tracking the Twins' draft over the past couple days I saw them take the following players in the first four rounds:

1) Alex Wimmers, a right-handed starting pitcher from Ohio State University whose fastball barely touches 90 mph.

2) Cartier Goodrum, a speedy and toolsy high school shortstop who most believe will wind up playing in the outfield.

3) Pat Dean, a left-handed starting pitcher from Boston College who typically works in the high 80s with his fastball.

4) Eddie Rosario, an athletic high school outfielder out of Puerto Rico.

The fact that the Twins consistently target these same types of players in the high rounds year after year can be frustrating for fans. When I say they like "light-tossing" college pitchers I don't mean they like to draft guys who throw underhand, but they tend to go after the polished control pitchers like Kevin Slowey and Scott Baker rather than the raw hard-throwers with big-time upside. While this strategy could be considered relatively safe, it doesn't churn out many dominating top-of-the-rotation types.

Similarly, the Twins' tendency to bring in athletically gifted teenage outfielders can peeve fans simply because the arrival time on these players tends to be lengthy. Denard Span was drafted in the first round back in 2002 and it took him six years to make an impact. It's tough to get excited about players who, even if they turn out, won't be able to help the team until 2016.

While some might be dismayed to see the Twins employing the same old approach this year, it's awfully difficult to argue with their recent results.

Kyle Gibson, a polished college hurler nabbed in the first round last year, has quickly transformed into one of the better pitching prospects in the minor leagues. He's already up in Double-A and it's not unthinkable that he could be pitching for the Twins sometime in his first full pro season, a la Matt Garza.

Aaron Hicks, a toolsy high school outfielder taken in the first round of the 2008 draft, has displayed advanced plate discipline and outstanding athleticism in his young professional career and was ranked as the No. 19 prospect in all of baseball prior to this season by Baseball America.

Ben Revere, who was widely considered to be a giant reach when the Twins selected him in the first round of the 2007 draft, has batted .331 and stolen 105 bases over his first 307 minor-league games, positioning himself as the Twins' table setter of the future.

Of course, there are plenty of other examples from years past, including Slowey, Baker, Span, Matt Garza, Torii Hunter and so forth.

Like it or not, the Twins have stringently adhered to a specific draft strategy in recent years and for the most part it has worked for them. Granted, this year's draft -- which saw the Twins select pitchers and outfielders in rounds five-through-eight as well -- once again leaves the organization looking pretty thin on high-end talent at the infield positions, but let's not forget that the team's best current infield prospect (Miguel Sano) and best current catching prospect (Wilson Ramos) were both signed as international free agents. That's an area where the Twins have ramped up their focus lately, so we'll have to hope they can seek to address the areas that remain weaknesses through that avenue.

As far as the draft is concerned, though, the Twins are staying the course. And that's just fine with me. If Wimmers turns out to be the next Brad Radke, he will easily be better than the typical find with the No. 21 overall pick in Major League Baseball's crapshoot draft.

Monday, June 07, 2010

The Case of Nic Blacburn's Missing K's

The bullpen performed admirably in Oakland yesterday and a late two-run blast by Delmon Young (who had a tremendous series) pulled the Twins within one run, but ultimately the team came up just short in a 5-4 loss.

These factors made it all the more frustrating that Nick Blackburn put the Twins in such a huge hole to begin with. Despite pitching in one of baseball's most pitcher-friendly parks and against one of the worst offenses in the American League, Blackburn lasted just 2 2/3 innings and surrendered five runs on 10 hits.

After a terrible month of April, Blackburn seemed to be coming around in May when he went 5-0 with a 2.65 ERA and made a bid for Pitcher of the Month honors. Now, he's strung together his two worst starts of the year. Last week in Seattle he failed to complete four innings and yesterday he failed to complete even three.

In both cases, the opposing offense was terrible. In both cases, he allowed five runs on 10 hits, putting his team in a huge early hole on the road. In both cases, he failed to strike out a single batter.

That last sentence provides us with a pretty good explanation for Blackburn's struggles. He has now failed to record even one strikeout in five of his 11 starts this season. No other Twins starter has done it once.

Blackburn has never been a strikeout specialist, but his inability to miss bats this year has reached ridiculous levels. Of the 294 batters he's faced, he has struck out 17 of them. His rate of 2.27 strikeouts per nine innings ranks as the worst in all of baseball by a wide margin; next worst is John Lannan at 2.90. The next worst mark in the AL is Mitch Talbot at 3.91.

Blackburn's ability to put "sink" on the ball is a talking point for Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven every time he pitches, but no amount of sink is going to make up for such an exorbitant contact rate and Blackburn doesn't even induce ground balls at an elite rate. His 48.3 ground ball percentage ranks 35th out of 108 qualifying pitchers.

Hitters are making contact with 96 percent of Blackburn's offerings and they're elevating plenty of those pitches, so it should come as no surprise that the league is hitting .338 against the right-hander. This isn't the result of bad luck, as Blackburn's batting average on balls in play isn't too far above the league average and is basically in line with his career norms. It's not that a ridiculous number of balls in play are turning into hits behind Blackburn, it's that he's allowing a ridiculous number of balls in play to begin with.

Whether something is wrong with Blackburn physically or the league has just completely figured him out, something needs to be changed because there's almost no way he'll succeed when allowing this much contact. He's had a tough enough time posting solid numbers with a K/9 rate in the 4 range in years past, doing so with a rate that is close to 2 is basically impossible, especially with a middling grounder rate.

With Blackburn, Brendan Harris and Denard Span all struggling to varying to degrees, Bill Smith's decision to tender them all unnecessary multi-year contracts during the offseason is looking iffy. At least we can look at the numbers and see that Harris and Span have been somewhat unlucky; Blackburn is due for more of the same unless he can get back to striking out a remotely acceptable number of hitters.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Valencia: Get it While it's Hot

Danny Valencia made his major-league debut last night, going 1-for-3 while starting at third base in a 4-1 loss to the Mariners. Valencia looked fine offensively and defensively, and for those who've wondered when the team's top third base prospect would finally get his chance, it was refreshing to see the 25-year-old manning the hot corner.

Now, one wonders what the plan is for Valencia. Ron Gardenhire said recently that the team called on the young third baseman to fill in against a lineup of tough left-handed starters the Twins are set to face over the weekend. It would seem that when Michael Cuddyer returns from bereavement leave on Tuesday, Valencia will return to the minors (unless Orlando Hudson lands on the disabled list).

So what's the deal? The Twins have seemingly been of the mindset that Valencia should stay down in Rochester, playing regularly, until he's ready to come up for good. Now he's being called upon to make his major-league debut during a tough road trip with the caveat that he'll probably only be with the Twins for a handful of days before packing up and heading back to the minors, regardless of his performance.

It could be that the Twins want to take this opportunity to give Valencia a brief audition. Or it could be that they want to ride out his latest hot streak.

Valencia is a notoriously streaky player. When he's locked in, he can tear up opposing pitchers, putting up multiple hits night after night. When he's in a funk, the 0-fer's can pile up in a hurry. This season has been a fine case in point; the third baseman got off to a slow start in April, batting just .256 with a disappointing .306 on-base percentage. In May, he turned it on, kicking those figures up to .330 and .384.

The trend is not unique to this year. Check out Valencia's AVG/OPS figures for each month in 2009 where he had significant playing time:

April: .269 / .858
May: .373 / 1.110
June: .262 / .706
July: .287 / .770
August: .283 / .703

It's worth noting that the numbers from the first two and a half months or so are from Doble-A while the second half of the season was spent in Triple-A, which helps explain the drop-off, but Valencia was red-hot even after being promoted to the Red Wings last year. He didn't start slumping until he'd already been there for several weeks.

Valencia's performance tends to fluctuate quite a bit throughout the season. Over his past 10 games in Rochester, he'd been hitting .324 with a .439 OBP. Perhaps the Twins called on him to ride out this hot streak before he inevitably falls into another funk. Let's hope his bat can keep rolling this weekend in Oakland, because right now the Twins need all the offense they can get.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Prospect Rundown: May

A quick rundown of how each of my Top Ten Prospects performed during the month of May...

10. Joe Benson, OF | Class-A Ft. Myers

May Stats: .263/.364/.561, 4 HR, 11 RBI, 10 R, 4/4 SB

Season Stats: .235/.352/.469, 9 HR, 20 RBI, 30 R, 8/10 SB

After a dreadful April in New Britain, Benson seemed to be picking up the pace in May. Over his first 46 at-bats of the new month, he was hitting .283/.411/.609, going deep four times after homering just once in April. Then, mysteriously, the Twins sent Benson back down to Single-A, where he spent his entire '09 campaign. The demotion couldn't have been performance-based, as Benson was on a tear and ranked second among New Britain hitters in OPS. Whatever the reason, the young outfielder has reacted well, putting up a .925 OPS while launching four more homers over his first 13 games at Ft. Myers. Despite his low overall batting average this season (.235 between the two levels), Benson is showing a lot more power while getting on base at a strong clip. He ought to be back up at Double-A very soon.

9. Carlos Gutierrez, SP | Class-AA New Britain

May Stats: 37.2 IP, 2-2, 2.15 ERA, 24/13 K/BB, 1.14 WHIP

Season Stats: 56.2 IP, 2-3, 3.65 ERA, 40/19 K/BB, 1.32 WHIP

Last month in this space I broke down a disappointing April for Gutierrez, but pointed out his strong peripheral numbers and stated that we can "look for him to improve rapidly as the season progresses." Sure enough, Gutierrez rebounded in a big way during the month of May, cutting down immensely on his number of base runners allowed and subsequently allowing far fewer runs. He continues to induce a huge number of ground balls while missing bats at a reasonable rate, but his walk totals will be worth keeping an eye on as we move forward. As hit-prone as he tends to be, limiting the free passes will be a key ingredient in Gutierrez's future success.

8. David Bromberg, SP | Class-AA New Britain

May Stats: 26.1 IP, 1-3, 6.15 ERA, 17/19 K/BB, 2.13 WHIP

Season Stats: 50.1 IP, 2-3, 3.75 ERA, 36/25 K/BB, 1.59 WHIP

Taking the opposite path of Gutierrez, Bromberg followed up an excellent April with an absolutely disastrous May. Of all the poor numbers the righty turned in during the season's second month, none are more alarming than the gigantic walk total. His erratic tendencies have always been one of the big potential drawbacks for Bromberg, and now they seem to be manifesting. On the plus side, his overall numbers for the season still look OK thanks to his strong April and he's still only allowed one home run on the year.

7. Danny Valencia, 3B | Class-AAA Rochester

May Stats: .330/.384/.408, 0 HR, 16 RBI, 14 R, 1/1 SB

Season Stats: .298/.350/.381, 0 HR, 24 RBI, 22 R, 2/2 SB

Valencia has always been a pretty streaky hitter, so it figured that he'd follow up his disappointing month of April with a red-hot May. The third baseman did just that, batting .330 while doubling his RBI total. The power still has not emerged this year for Valencia though, as he's gone homerless over the first two months of the season and possesses a meager .381 slugging percentage. Fans have grown frustrated by the fact that Valencia is getting passed over for promotions by lesser prospects like Matt Tolbert and Luke Hughes, but don't expect to see Valencia in a Twins uniform until he begins hitting the ball with more authority and cutting down on his still-high strikeout rates.

6. Angel Morales, OF | Class-A Beloit

May Stats: .235/.328/.343, 0 HR, 12 RBI, 14 R, 6/9 SB

Season Stats: .253/.339/.404, 3 HR, 23 RBI, 23 R, 14/19 SB

The speedy center fielder saw his batting average drop off in May and the OPS came tumbling down with it. It didn't help that Morales failed to go deep after launching three homers in April, although he did continue to display his speed with six steals and four triples on the month. Morales has struck out 52 times in 166 at-bats this year, so the low batting average should come as no surprise. Much like Carlos Gomez, Morales needs to start making better contact to better utilize his athleticism.

5. Miguel Angel Sano, SS | Dominican Summer League (rookie)

May Stats: .500/.500/1.750, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 2 R, 0/0 SB

Season Stats: .500/.500/1.750, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 2 R, 0/0 SB

It certainly bears noting that the numbers above all come from one game and four at-bats; Sano joined the rookie-level DSL Twins at the end of the month and went 2-for-4 with a home run and a triple in his very first game. The homer came on the first professional pitch he saw. A great start for the hugely promising teenager.

4. Ben Revere, OF | Class-AA New Britain

May Stats: .336/.412/.429, 1 HR, 15 RBI, 15 R, 12/16 SB

Season Stats: .315/.394/.387, 1 HR, 16 RBI, 21 R, 18/23 SB

Revere did a solid job of setting the table during the season's first month, putting up a .361 on-base percentage while going 6-for-7 on stolen bases, but in May he took his game to the next level across the board. Not only did he bump his batting averge up by about 60 points, Revere also added significant power, ripping a homer, a triple and six doubles after managing just a pair of extra-base hits (both doubles) in April. He also doubled his stolen base total while getting on base at a .412 clip. With 21 walks and just 19 strikeouts on the season, Revere seems locked in and he's already positioned himself as the top call-up option in the event that the Twins suffer a major injury in the outfield.

3. Kyle Gibson, SP | Class-AA New Britain

May Stats: 26.1 IP, 3-0, 1.37 ERA, 23/5 K/BB, 0.95 WHIP

Season Stats: 69.2 IP, 7-1, 1.68 ERA, 63/17 K/BB, 1.00 WHIP

I concluded my writeup on Gibson last month by stating that the right-hander "doesn’t seem destined to spend much time with the Miracle." Just a few days later, he found himself promoted to New Britain, and his early returns at the Double-A level have been truly marvelous. Through four starts for the Rock Cats, Gibson has allowed only four earned runs over 26 1/3 innings while maintaining his outstanding strikeout and walk rates. More importantly, he's continued to induce an insane number of ground balls, limiting opponents to a .208 batting average while surrendering no home runs. He's sure to spend some more time in Double-A for now, but Gibson is pitching like he wants to see major-league action before the end of his first pro season.

2. Wilson Ramos, C | Class-AAA Rochester

May Stats: .170/.200/.264, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 2 R, 0/1 SB

Season Stats: .175/.208/.300, 4 HR, 10 RBI, 7 R, 0/1 SB

It's been an interesting season for Ramos thus far. He raised plenty of eyebrows while collecting seven hits over his first two big-league games after being called up to briefly fill in for Joe Mauer back in early May, but that performance has helped cover up a lousy performance at Triple-A this season. He was hitting just .179 with the Red Wings before being called up and has now just .170 since returning. While he's kept his strikeout rate in check, Ramos isn't walking at all (just five times in 125 plate appearances in Rochester) and his power has gone missing. A big debut at the big-league level is nice and all, but Ramos needs to turn around his season at Triple-A in order to be an enticing trade deadline chit for the Twins to dangle.

1. Aaron Hicks, OF | Class-A Beloit

May Stats: .214/.321/.313, 1 HR, 6 RBI, 14 R, 1/3 SB

Season Stats: .246/.362/.369, 4 HR, 13 RBI, 30 R, 6/12 SB

Hicks recovered from a wretched start to finish his month of April with quality numbers, but he was back in the tank in May, hitting just .214 with one home run. Hicks continues to keep his on-base percentage afloat thanks to a very good walk rate, which is encouraging, but the other aspects of his offensive game simply aren't developing. He's striking out at an alarming rate (36 times in 112 May at-bats) and isn't hitting for power. Discouraging signs for the first-round pick, considering he's spending a second year in Beloit.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Where Has Mauer's Power Gone?

Last year at this time, Joe Mauer had just finished up a month of May in which he'd hit .414 with a .500 on-base percentage over 28 games (26 starts). Those numbers weren't terribly out of the ordinary for Mauer, already a two-time batting champ and one of the league's most disciplined hitters. What was shocking was the power he displayed during his season-opening hot streak. In 99 May at-bats, Mauer hit 11 home runs. Add in seven doubles and a triple and the Twins catcher managed a tremendous .838 slugging percentage over the month. It was a jaw-dropping performance from a player who hadn't hit more than 13 home runs in a season over the first five years of his big-league career.

Mauer's home run propensity declined a bit over the final four months of the season, but he still finished with 28 jacks, more than doubling his previous career high. The rapid power development rounded out the one aspect of Mauer's offensive game, transforming him from a great hitter to the American League's most threatening hitter. He easily captured league MVP honors at season's end. At 26, it seemed that Mauer had finally discovered his power stroke.

Now, we're two months in to the 2010 season and Mauer has hit just two home runs. He's been healthy and his game is holding up in other aspects -- still hitting .321 with a .396 on-base percentage, still walking more than striking out, still driving in runs -- but Mauer's ability to put the ball over the fence has all but evaporated. After homering once per every 19 at-bats last year, Mauer has gone deep just twice in 159 at-bats in 2010.

The drop-off was hardly impossible to foresee. Here's what I said about Mauer in my preseason writeup of the catcher position:
As pitchers continue to adjust to Mauer, who hit nearly all his home runs to the opposite field last year, I suspect we'll see some reduction in the home run proclivity, particularly considering that many of his round-trippers barely cleared the wall last season. One might argue that a drop-off in homer frequency might be offset by not missing a month of the season, but it probably isn't realistic to expect a whole lot more than 600 plate appearances from Mauer this year given that his previous career high in that category was 633 (again, this only helps reinforce how amazingly durable Mauer was after coming off the disabled list last year). I'd guess that Mauer's home run total this year will drop closer to 20 while his doubles total moves closer to 40.

True to form, Mauer's home run output has taken a dive early in this new season while he's on pace to set a career high with 41 doubles. Of course, the homer decline is more drastic than even I could have expected, as he'd have a very tough time reaching even double-digits at his current rate, but I suspect Mauer will bump up his long-ball tendencies over the next several months to finish with a respectable figure. Any thoughts that he might eclipse or surpass his homer total from a year ago are pretty much out the window at this point, though.