June 11, 2008

Twins Notes: Height, Lately, False Hustle, and Sir Sidney

  • Teammates with the Twins' low Single-A affiliate in Beloit, Wisconsin, Loek Van Mil and Chris Cates were recently featured on ESPN as the tallest and shortest players in baseball:


    A 7-foot-1 right-hander who was signed out of the Netherlands, Van Mil has a 2.73 ERA and 32-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 29.2 innings as a reliever this season. Cates is a 5-foot-2 shortstop who was taken in the 38th round of the 2007 draft out of the University of Louisville and has hit .269/.348/.301 in 185 plate appearances. While Cates is merely organizational filler, Van Mil cracked my annual list of the Twins' top 40 prospects heading into last season and narrowly missed doing the same this year.
  • Juan Rincon's future with the Twins has become a popular discussion topic lately, with much of the media coverage and quotes from Twins management making it seem like his struggles are a new thing. As Ron Gardenhire put it last week:
    He's done a lot of great things here so you keep running him out there. He has a track record of getting people out. He's struggled lately, but he's continuing to work.

    Gardenhire's definition of "lately" differs considerably from mine. As noted in this space repeatedly over the past two years, in reality Rincon's pitching has steadily declined each season since 2004:

    YEAR      SO%     K/BB     OAVG     xFIP
    2004 32.4 3.4 .181 3.15
    2005 26.3 3.1 .224 3.32
    2006 20.6 3.0 .270 3.73
    2007 18.1 2.0 .273 4.67
    2008 15.0 1.3 .292 5.34

    That pattern was plenty clear this offseason, yet the Twins tendered Rincon a contract and signed him to a one-year deal worth $2.5 million. Whether you focus on stuff or results, he's a shell of his former self. Rincon's strikeout rate, strikeout-to-walk ratio, opponent's batting average, and Expected Fielding Independent Pitching have each declined every year since 2004. Beyond that, his fastball and slider are both down 3-4 miles per hour compared to his prime. There's nothing "lately" about his struggles.

    UPDATE: Rincon has been designated for assignment.

  • Here's an amusing note about Torii Hunter from the Los Angeles Times:
    Torii Hunter has some advice for the Little Leaguers who saw him dive headfirst into first base trying to beat out a grounder Saturday night: Don't try this at home.

    "That was the first time in my entire career I've done that, and it will be the last time--I won't do it again," Hunter said. "The next day, I felt like I had played a football game. My whole body was stiff. Kids, don't ever slide headfirst into first. It's false hustle."

    During their four seasons together with the Twins, Hunter likely saw Nick Punto slide head-first into first base no fewer than 50 times. Oh, and "false hustle" is the exact phrase that I've used in the past to describe Punto's annoying habit.

  • Francisco Liriano's velocity remains significantly below where it was prior to Tommy John surgery, but his outings at Triple-A have gotten increasingly impressive. Liriano tossed six innings of one-run ball Tuesday, striking out seven and handing out just one walk for the fifth time in six starts. He has a 3.35 ERA and 41-to-15 strikeout-to-walk over 51 innings since being sent back to Rochester, including racking up 21 strikeouts over 18.1 innings during his last three starts.

    Liriano's complete inability to throw the ball over the plate sabotaged a rushed comeback attempt and he continued to struggle with command for several starts upon being sent back to Triple-A, so it's very encouraging to see the progress that he's made with his control over the past month. Liriano can have success in the majors again whether or not his stuff ever returns to pre-surgery levels, but consistently throwing strikes becomes hugely important if his fastball continues to clock in at 90-92 miles per hour.

    While he's made great progress at Rochester, it's worth noting that Liriano remains nowhere near his old self. Totaling 41 strikeouts over a 51-inning span is far from exceptional, especially compared to the amazing strikeout rates that he posted prior to surgery, and his ground ball-to-fly ball ratio is nearly even after he once ranked among the most extreme ground-ball pitchers in baseball. Liriano looks nothing like the mess we saw in April, but also still looks nothing like the phenom we saw in 2006.

  • After driving in Carlos Gomez with a ninth-inning single last night, Alexi Casilla is now hitting .330 with three homers and 19 RBIs in 25 games since being called back up from Triple-A. Prior to that, he batted just .257 with a grand total of three homers and 23 RBIs in 129 career games at Triple-A. Funny game, that baseball.
  • Over at The Hardball Times, Alex Eisenberg has an interesting breakdown of Twins first-round pick Aaron Hicks' swing mechanics. Here's an excerpt:
    First, you can see the potential just ooze out of Hicks: a lot of athleticism; a frame with plenty of room to fill out; and a swing that can be worked on to produce a lot of power down the road from both sides of the plate.

    Hicks shows fast hands, strong wrists and a fast bat. When he is efficient with his mechanics, his swing can pack a lot of pop. He aggressively turns his hips and lets the ball come to him, though there are times he can get a little handsy with his swing.

    [...]

    Hicks has the components for a powerful swing: the weight transfer, the aggressive hip rotation, the hips and hands turning together (at times) and the sight of seeing the ball jump off his bat. There are smaller things that need to be worked on, but Hicks' tools are phenomenal, and his athleticism should help with any adjustments he needs to make.

    Very encouraging, although Eisenberg's conclusion throws some cold water on things:

    I've seen reports on a need for Hicks to improve his pitch recognition, so the coaches in the Twins organization are really going to have an interesting time turning this tremendous athlete into a complete player. One piece of advice if I were the Twins: Don't teach Hicks to hit the ball on the ground and "take advantage of his speed." Teach him to drive pitches over the outfield wall.

    Unfortunately, counting on the Twins to "teach him to drive pitches over the outfield wall" is like counting on me to skip dessert. For more on Hicks and the rest of the Twins' draft, check out my recap.

  • After pitching horribly for the Twins last season Sidney Ponson latched on with the Rangers this year and went 4-1 with a 3.88 ERA in nine starts, including a complete-game win over the Twins two weeks ago. Unfortunately for Ponson, surprisingly solid pitching couldn't keep him from getting released by the Rangers when his longstanding off-field problems became an issue again:
    He embarrassed the team and himself with an ugly incident at the hotel bar while the team was playing at Tampa Bay. Observers say that when the bartender there tried to cut off a clearly already over-served Ponson, the Aruban right-hander became enraged, challenged him to fight and teammates had to intervene. And Ponson was pitching against the Rays the next day.

    [...]

    Ponson helped out by pitching on three days' rest. But that doesn't excuse him from Friday's near-violent outburst when he learned he was being pushed back a day to accommodate Millwood. Depending on whom you talk to, Ponson may have even challenged manager Ron Washington to fight.

    All indications are that Ponson was a model citizen while going 2-5 with a 6.93 ERA for the Twins, but that someone with his history would even think about drinking while experiencing success for the first time in years says an awful lot about the strength of his demons.

  • Speaking of former Twins pitchers making headlines for something other than their pitching, Matt Garza got into a "shoving match" with catcher Dioner Navarro during his start Sunday. Traded away this offseason as the centerpiece of the package that went to the Rays in exchange for Delmon Young, Brendan Harris, and Jason Pridie, Garza has gone 4-3 with a 4.38 ERA in 11 starts.

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

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