May 18, 2008

Twins Notes: Span, Ruined Plans, and Taking Swings

  • Denard Span has had an interesting few months. He arrived at spring training by informing everyone who would listen that he was ready to take over for Torii Hunter as the Twins' starting center fielder, displaying a unique "confidence" for someone who hit .267/.323/.355 in 139 games at Triple-A during the previous season. Then he hit .282/.405/.385 in 16 spring games, only to be sent back to Triple-A for the second straight year while voicing his frustration with the Twins picking Carlos Gomez for the job.

    His stay in Rochester was brief, as the Twins called up Span after Michael Cuddyer's finger injury. He debuted on April 5, starting in right field despite playing almost exclusively center field in the minors, and was in the lineup as a right fielder in eight of the next 10 games while Craig Monroe often looked on from the bench. Span was then out of the lineup for the next four games, made his first career start in center field on April 23, came off the bench in a blowout on April 24, and was sent back to Triple-A.

    Batting just .258/.324/.258 over 34 plate appearances in his first taste of the majors is more or less what should have been expected from a career .283/.348/.348 hitter in the minors, but since returning to Rochester he's gone about changing those expectations. Span homered in three straight games last week, which is remarkable for someone who came into the year with a grand total of seven homers in 2,184 career plate appearances, including no more than three in any season.

    Span has batted an amazing .419/.514/.661 at Triple-A so far this month and in two dozen total games at Rochester this season he's hitting .378/.486/.544 with three homers, nine total extra-base hits, and a 17-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio while going 14-of-18 swiping bases. After producing nearly 2,200 plate appearances of mediocrity to begin his career, Span lighting up the International League for 100 trips to the plate in his second year at Triple-A warrants plenty of skepticism, but it's damn encouraging:

    DENARD SPAN AT TRIPLE-A

    YEAR PA BB% SO% K/BB IsoP IsoD SB/G SB%
    2007 548 7.1 16.4 2.31 .088 .056 .179 64.1
    2008 110 17.3 15.5 0.89 .166 .108 .583 77.8

    Not shown above is an unsustainably high batting average on balls in play and barring some sort of deal with the homer-hitting devil he's never going to possess even average power at the plate, but hitting .378 with homers in three straight games has masked some other encouraging things. He's always been talked about as a leadoff man despite struggling to draw walks, control the strike zone, or put his speed to good use, but he's improved significantly in all three areas so far this season.

    Span has coaxed nearly 2.5 times as many walks while cutting down on his strikeouts slightly, and has attempted about three times as many steals while upping his success rate from "horrible" to "good." Hitting .380 is great and the homers are nice given that showing some semblance of extra-base power would drastically change his long-term outlook, but given Span's skill set and track record his improved plate discipline and strike-zone control might be the most encouraging aspects of his monster month.

    And thanks to Gomez's wrist injury, he could be rewarded with another call-up.

  • Losing Matt Tolbert and Nick Punto to the disabled list has forced the Twins to dig into their weak collection of infield depth at Triple-A. Alexi Casilla was called up to replace Punto despite hitting just .219/.350/.250 at Rochester after looking like a mess with the Twins last season. Howie Clark was called up to replace Tolbert despite being a 34-year-old veteran of 16 minor-league seasons who's hit just .283/.355/.406 in over 2,200 career plate appearances at Triple-A.

    A few years ago Casilla looked capable of developing into a long-term starter at either second base or shortstop, but even then the oft-repeated comparisons to Luis Castillo were overblown and his stock has declined dramatically over the past two seasons. Casilla doesn't turn 24 years old until mid-July, so there's still time for him to become an impact player, but he's hit just .257/.344/.316 in 129 games at Triple-A and .219/.260/.255 in 68 games with the Twins.

    Clark's days of potentially being an impact player are long gone, but he's fought through 5,000 plate appearances in the minors to accumulate a half-season's worth of playing time in the majors spread over stints with the Blue Jays, Orioles, and now Twins. Clark's bat would be solid enough for a middle infielder and he likely got the nod over Brian Buscher thanks to defensive versatility, but he's stretched defensively at second base and is well below par offensively for third base or an outfield corner.

  • According to Official Twins Beat Writer of AG.com LaVelle E. Neal III, Tolbert's injury ruined big plans:
    There were indications Gardenhire was ready to shuffle the lineup. Brendan Harris would get some starts at third base and Tolbert would be in the lineup nearly every day. Gardenhire's goal with the moves would have been to shore up defense up the middle, especially turning double plays. ... With Tolbert out indefinitely because of strained ligaments in his right thumb, Gardenhire's plans have been foiled.

    Brendan Harris' glove has been every bit as shaky as advertised and Ron Gardenhire hinted at a short leash by criticizing his defense during spring training, but playing Tolbert every day is far from a great solution. His hot start had many fans willing to overlook a mediocre minor-league track record, but Tolbert predictably cooled off and headed to the DL with a .265/.307/.337 hitting line that's very much in line with his batting .280/.345/.405 over 1,500 career minor-league plate appearances.

  • There's always been plenty of reason to think that the Twins' perpetual lack of plate discipline is an organizational problem rather than strictly a manager or hitting coach problem, and assistant general manager Rob Antony provided even more evidence of that during a recent interview at Twinkie Town. After saying that the Twins target athletic guys who work hard and have "all the makeup traits" over "the 'Moneyball' guy who has a high on-base and takes a lot of walks," Antony added:
    We're not so much concerned about how many times they walk, and this and that. Yeah we pay attention to on-base percentage, and we want guys at the top of the order who have good on-base percentages and set the table for the middle of the order, but what we're most concerned about is players going up and taking swings at good pitches. Don't get yourself out, and chase sliders away and balls in the dirt. Swing at good pitches, and give yourself a chance to hit good pitches--more so than looking at all the different numbers that so-and-so has or whatever.

    Saying that he's "not so much concerned about how many times they walk" because the focus is on hitters "taking swings at good pitches" rather than "looking at all the different numbers" would be fine if the Twins had shown the ability to consistently develop good hitters and outstanding offenses. When this season's offense ranks dead last among all 30 big-league teams in walks and the lineup has scored an above-average number of runs exactly once since 1995, then it's plenty frustrating to hear.

    Here's more from Antony, in response to a question asking if there's "any temptation" to teach young hitters to be "more selective at the plate":

    Sure, we try and do that with Delmon. We try and do that with Gomez in particular. But they're both 22 years old, and the one thing you don't want to take away is their aggressiveness. ... He's an exciting player who's gonna learn on the job just like Torii Hunter did, just like Jacque Jones did, a lot of players learn on-the-job with us.

    Antony and the rest of the organization trusts scouting over stats, values aggressiveness over patience, and teaches "taking good swings" over "drawing walks." Meanwhile, those beliefs have led to 15 years of offenses that range from mediocre to horrible while producing two 30-homer hitters in two decades. Pointing to Hunter and Jacque Jones as players who learned on the job is revealing, because while they were both good hitters for the Twins neither player developed even average plate discipline.

  • As evidenced by the previous bullet point this site certainly tends to be far more critical of the Twins than coverage that you'll find in newspapers and on television or radio, so even if they're late to the party it's always nice to see the local mainstream media picking up on some points that I've been harping on here. For example, here's Howard Sinker of the Minneapolis Star Tribune on the Twins' reputation for "doing the little things" right:
    Anyone who prattles on about the Twins "doing the little things" right is living in the past. It is a catchphrase of the national media, which tends to live a few years behind reality when it comes to teams not playing on the Coasts or in Chicago, and of local loyalists who need vision and comprehension checks. It's just not happening any more and the sum total of the Toronto sweep should drive home that point to anyone still doubting it.

    The former manager, Tom Kelly, imbued his teams with the fundamentals and Gardy's division-winning teams were in large part the result of Kelly's ways of doing things. The current group has lost the right to carry that banner.

    And that was before committing three ugly errors Sunday. I've been trying to point out the long-expired nature of the Twins' "doing the little things" reputation for several years now, yet the national media and much of the local fan base continues to treat it as gospel. Delmon Young possessing huge power potential is another oft-repeated notion that readers of this blog have seen me disagree with over the past six months, and now even Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan is questioning Young's bat:

    Young's problem has not been warning-track outs, it has been getting the ball out of the infield. He rarely pulls the ball, and when he does, he does not do so with authority. He has taken the concept of the "inside-out" swing--a la Mauer--to a ridiculous degree, dragging the bat head through the hitting zone so belatedly that his hits can only be ground balls up the middle and bloops to right field.

    From the moment the Twins acquired Young from the Rays this offseason fans were treated to stories filled with quotes about his supposedly huge power potential and sky-high offensive ceiling, including the ridiculous, oft-repeated comparisons to Frank Robinson. Meanwhile, in analyzing the trade back in November one of my concerns was that Young "has hacked at everything while showing only moderate power since advancing past Double-A in mid-2005." Here's more of my day-after-the-trade breakdown:

    After posting a fantastic .228 Isolated Power in 936 plate appearances between Single-A and Double-A, his Isolated Power in 1,416 trips to the plate between Triple-A and majors has been a pedestrian .141. In other words, he's lost about 40 percent of the power that he showed early in his pro career. ... A big part of the decline in power is that Young has been an extreme ground-ball hitter in the majors, which makes it difficult to hit the ball into the gaps and impossible to hit the ball over the fence.

    Concerns about Young's power aren't limited to this year and shouldn't have surprised anyone focused on actual performance rather than optimistic quotes hyping potential. He's a former No. 1 overall pick who scouts loved and thrived in the low minors, but hit just 14 homers in 604 plate appearances at Triple-A and has just 16 homers with a measly .406 slugging percentage through 986 trips to the plate in the majors. Even his recent surge of extra-base hits have come mostly via bloops and ground balls.

  • Even scouts are apparently beginning to sour on Young. Or at least "one scout" who recently talked to Jayson Stark of ESPN.com:
    I'm not so sure about Delmon anymore. He swings at everything. And he's not a very good breaking-ball hitter. You spin it, and he can't lay off it. And if he hits it, he doesn't do much with it.

    It's unclear whether or not he's the same person, but Stark also quotes "one scout" opining that Gomez is "like a toolbox without a key" offensively. On Gomez's defense, however, the scout says: "I don't see a whole lot of difference between him and Torii, other than name and reputation."

  • Quote of the Decade, from FSN play-by-play man Dick Bremer during yesterday afternoon's game: "The Twins haven't been taking many walks lately."
  • In addition to the Antony interview, Twinkie Town passed along a virtual tour of the new ballpark:


    Anything without a dome over it looks great to me, but they may want to change the video showing on the virtual jumbotron at some point.

  • Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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