June 2, 2008

Twins Notes: Offense!

  • Not only was Joe Mauer's game-tying homer off Andy Pettitte in the seventh inning last night his first long ball of the season, it was just the third time in his career that he's taken a left-hander deep. His previous two homers off southpaws both came in 2006, when he hit a dramatic three-run blast to straight-away center field against Neal Cotts on July 24 and then smacked a two-run shot in the first inning against Adam Loewen on September 24. Mauer has 33 career homers versus right-handers.
  • Michael Cuddyer had a big four-game series against the Yankees, throwing out three runners from right field and going 9-for-18 (.500) with a homer while scoring or driving in 11 of the team's 22 runs. Cuddyer hit just .206/.267/.320 in his first two dozen games back from the disabled list, but is now 17-for-48 (.354) with 11 RBIs over the past 11 games. Oh, and the Twins' lineup has produced at least five runs in six straight games and 11 of the past 14 games after doing so a total of nine times in April.
  • Over at his blog, St. Paul Pioneer Press beat writer Phil Miller passed along an amusing story about running into Carlos Gomez at a movie theater concession stand in Kansas City:
    There's one guy in front of me, and yes, he was like a kid in a candy shop. "Some of those, and a box of those. Wait, you've got Milk Duds? OK, a box of those, too. That's it. That's all. Oh, and a red licorice." Finally, Carlos Gomez peeled off a couple of $10 bills and started scooping up his sweet-tooth loot.

    I suppressed a laugh, just as Gomez turned and saw me standing behind him. First he looked surprised, then got that half-embarrassed grin that he so often sports, and shouted, "Hey, que pasa!" He stuck out his hand, then did that half-hug greeting that became the norm among pro athletes about 10 years ago and that makes me appear so hopelessly awkward.

    I said, "just wondering if there's anything left to buy," and he smiled and headed for the theater. I noticed his showing of "Indiana Jones" had started about an hour earlier, so I pictured Gomez, his usual bundle of nervous energy, sitting in the theater thinking, "Candy. I need candy." Probably more than once.

    Asked later to review the movie, Gomez said: "Great. Exciting. Zoom." Of course he did.

  • As expected, the Twins moved Boof Bonser from the rotation to the bullpen in preparation for Scott Baker coming off the disabled list Thursday. It looked briefly like Nick Blackburn taking a line drive to the face Sunday might give Bonser a couple more starts, but Blackburn thankfully appears to have avoided serious injury. Much has been made of Bonser's first-inning struggles and how they may keep him from being an effective reliever, but that problem has really just been an issue this season.

    For his career, opponents have batted .301/.336/.439 against Bonser in the first inning, compared to .286/.350/.469 against him overall. In other words, he's actually been more effective in the first inning, even with this season's first-inning struggles factored in. Bonser's average fastball has been about two miles per hour slower than it was in 2006, but shorter appearances may help him reclaim some of that lost velocity. Moving to the bullpen is far from a magic fix, but Bonser has the stuff to be a solid reliever.

  • Ron Gardenhire indicated yesterday that the Twins plan to carry 13 pitchers once Baker returns:
    You are in a stretch of 40 games in 41 days, and if there is any time in baseball you might need 13 pitchers, that would be it. There have been times since I've been managing here that I thought we could go to 13 pitchers. We've always stayed against it and got through it, but this might be a time. We have a lot of issues.

    It wasn't so long ago that most staffs contained 10 pitchers and for the bulk of my baseball-watching life 11 pitchers has been the norm. Recently the Twins have often carried a dozen pitchers and despite Gardenhire constantly suggesting that the bullpen is overworked that's rarely been true. A dozen-man staff includes seven relievers, which makes it difficult to find consistent work everyone in the bullpen, let alone overwork them. For instance, take a look at the Twins' bullpen usage over the past week:

    Even with an usually stressful three extra-inning games during that span, it's hard to say the bullpen was overworked. Joe Nathan's week: day off, 10 pitches, 12 pitches, day off, day off, 15 pitches, 18 pitches, 11 pitches. Matt Guerrier's week: day off, 15 pitches, day off, day off, 18 pitches, 3 pitches, day off, 20 pitches. Juan Rincon's week: day off, day off, 19 pitches, day off, day off, 31 pitches, day off, day off. Jesse Crain's week: day off, 12 pitches, 6 pitches, day off, day off, 20 pitches, 23 pitches, day off.

    Dennys Reyes' week: day off, 12 pitches, 1 pitch, day off, 19 pitches, 12 pitches, day off, 12 pitches. Brian Bass' week: day off, day off, day off, day off, 25 pitches, 3 pitches, 13 pitches, day off. Bobby Korecky and Craig Breslow basically split the final bullpen job, with their combined workload going day off, day off, 8 pitches, day off, day off, 26 pitches, day off, day off. It's hard to see any single pitcher being overworked during the past week, let alone the entire bullpen. And that was with a 12-man staff.

  • On a related note, when the Twins claimed Breslow off waivers last week Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported:
    This will give the Twins two lefthanded relievers in the bullpen, allowing them to protect lefty Dennys Reyes from getting overused.

    Reyes' workload has increased somewhat following Pat Neshek's injury, but he's still on pace to throw just 50 innings and has averaged a team-low nine pitches per outing. Thinking that Reyes is somehow in danger of "getting overused" explains the Twins' belief that a 13-man pitching staff is necessary, but in reality having an eight-man bullpen is beyond overkill. As for Breslow, he looks likely to be a fairly ordinary middle reliever despite what was a very impressive Twins debut against the Yankees.

    A southpaw who works with a high-80s fastball, high-70s slider, and mid-70s changeup, Breslow has held big-league hitters to .248/.354/.342 in 178 career plate appearances. Major-league relievers as a group have held batters to .247/.329/.381 this year, so that puts him right around average. Of course, 38.1 innings spread over four teams and three seasons is far from a representative sample size, so here are Breslow's career numbers at Triple-A:

     G      ERA        IP       H      SO     BB     HR
    95 3.42 144.2 130 159 50 10

    Solid numbers for a situational left-hander--lots of strikeouts, relatively few homers, shaky control--but it's unclear why the Twins needed to expand the staff to 13 in order to add a second such reliever. With Nathan closing, Guerrier, Rincon, and Crain setting him up, Reyes and Breslow facing lefties, and Bonser and Bass in long relief, finding enough work to go around will be nearly impossible. If the Twins felt strongly about adding Breslow it would've made sense to designate Bass for assignment.

    Bass is out of minor-league options, but Bonser could have taken over his long-relief role and there's a good chance that he'd pass through waivers anyway given that he's a 26-year-old career minor leaguer who now sports a 5.35 ERA and 16-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 35.1 major-league innings. Instead, the Twins add Breslow, keep Bass, move Bonser to the bullpen, and may soon feature a three-man bench of Mike Redmond, Craig Monroe, and Nick Punto.

  • In recapping last night's game, Christensen passed along this note about Livan Hernandez:
    Once again, Hernandez kept the Twins in the game, but he has now given up 116 hits in 13 starts. At this rate, he will finish the season with 303 hits allowed, assuming he reaches his recent career average of 34 starts. No major league pitcher has allowed 300 hits in a season since Phil Niekro allowed 311 in 342 innings pitched for Atlanta in 1979.

    Hernandez allowed five runs on 13 hits against the Yankees, so he only "kept the Twins in the game" because the offense scored six runs. If the lineup had scored three runs, would his five-run, 13-hit performance have been any worse? If the lineup had scored a dozen runs, would his five-run, 13-hit performance have been any better? Of course not, yet far too many people continue to evaluate pitchers in the context of their run support.

    One of my entries back in April asked: "Is Livan Hernandez the new Ramon Ortiz?" Sure enough, he's followed in Ortiz's footsteps by out-performing expectations for a month or so before falling apart. Ortiz posted a 2.57 ERA through five starts last season, but then had a 6.75 ERA over his next 56 innings before the Twins dumped him on the Rockies. Hernandez posted a 3.55 ERA through five starts, but has a 5.67 ERA in eight starts since.

    Part of my analysis in late April was that "as Ortiz showed, it's tough to out-run a well-established track record for long and Hernandez still figures to struggle keeping his ERA below 5.00 all year." At the time that seemed impossible to the many Twins fans who e-mailed me or left comments here, but his ERA is now up to 4.81 and opponents have amazingly hit .338 against him. Like with Ortiz last season, this is exactly what the Twins should have expected from Hernandez. It just took a while to get there.

  • Delmon Young and Billy Butler are both 22-year-old former first-round picks who ranked among the elite prospects in baseball heading into last season. Both players have shown little power this year, but their teams have handled them much differently. Butler homered just once through 53 games and last week the Royals sent him back to Triple-A. Young has yet to homer in 56 games, but continues to play nearly every day and has no chance of being demoted. Take a look at their respective stats:
    THIS SEASON           G      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     IsoP     K/BB
    Billy Butler 53 .263 .330 .339 .669 .076 1.37
    Delmon Young 56 .273 .329 .356 .685 .083 2.12

    CAREER G AVG OBP SLG OPS IsoP K/BB
    Billy Butler 145 .282 .341 .408 .749 .126 1.76
    Delmon Young 248 .289 .321 .405 .726 .116 4.25

    TRIPLE-A G AVG OBP SLG OPS IsoP K/BB
    Billy Butler 61 .295 .411 .535 .946 .240 0.75
    Delmon Young 138 .304 .326 .463 .789 .159 5.16

    Their numbers this season are eerily similar, while Butler holds a slight advantage in career MLB stats that includes a 23-point edge in OPS and far superior strikeout-to-walk ratio. Butler was far better than Young at Triple-A, topping him by 157 points of OPS, showing 50 percent more power, and walking more times than he struck out while Young whiffed five times for every free pass. Despite all of that, Butler finds himself back in the Pacific Coast League while Young gets a chance to turn things around.

  • One nice thing about having a pitching staff that hands out the fewest walks and a lineup that ranks 26th in free passes drawn is that the Twins play the fastest games in baseball.

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

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