August 14, 2008

Twins Notes: Breakouts, Overuse, Upgrades, and No Such Thing

  • Delmon Young provided one of the more dramatic moments of the season Tuesday night when he sliced a fly ball down the right-field line that wrapped around the foul pole for a game-tying three-run homer off Mariano Rivera. Unfortunately his clutch bomb and Rivera's first blown save of the year were wasted when Matt Guerrier fell apart in the 12th inning, but yesterday afternoon Young came up with another huge three-run homer that put the Twins up for good in a 4-2 victory.

    Young failed to homer in the Twins' first 61 games and spent most of the first 118 games coming up empty in crucial spots, compiling -1.44 Win Probability Added to rank third-worst in the league among outfielders behind only Carlos Gomez and Melky Cabrera. Not only do a pair of game-changing blasts against the Yankees go a long way toward wiping away those memories--Young couldn't hold back a huge smile while rounding the bases Tuesday night--it also wiped away much of that negative WPA.

    In two games Young went from -1.44 WPA to -0.73 WPA, making half of his negative contribution for the entire season vanish. Of course, his improved performance goes well beyond the past two games. Through the Twins' first 61 games he hit .270/.321/.349 with zero homers in 249 plate appearances. In the team's 59 games since then he's hit .315/.355/.477 with seven homers in 212 plate appearances. His overall numbers (.290/.336/.407) remain mediocre, but Young's turnaround has been dramatic:

                  PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     IsoP      SO%     BB%
    First 61 249 .270 .321 .349 .669 .079 15.6 6.4
    Next 59 212 .315 .355 .477 .832 .162 15.6 2.3

    Young has upped his batting average by 45 points while doubling his power and improving his overall production by 25 percent. Interestingly, his strikeout rate has stayed identical during the improvement while his walk rate has fallen through the floor. When he was struggling overall Young showed vastly improved plate discipline compared to his hacktastic rookie season in Tampa Bay, but he's drawn a grand total of five non-intentional walks in 212 plate appearances while thriving.

    It's been a tale of two seasons for Young and certainly it'd be nice to think that what he's shown over the past 10 weeks is more indicative of what the Twins will get in the future than what he showed during the first 10 weeks. However, 59 good games is still a very small sample of playing time in the grand scheme of things and Young's overall performance this season has been eerily similar to the numbers that he posted for the Rays last year:

    YEAR     PA     AVG     OBP     SLG     OPS    IsoP     SO%    BB%     GB%
    2007 681 .288 .316 .408 .724 .120 18.6 3.5 46.3
    2008 461 .290 .336 .407 .743 .117 15.6 4.6 56.9

    There's plenty of reason to get excited about Young's recent play and certainly as a 22-year-old who many people feel has significant long-term upside it's easy to view what he's done over the past 59 games as sustainable improvement. On the other hand, at the end of the day a season is 162 games full of ups and downs, and Young's overall production this year hasn't really been meaningfully different than his overall production last year. Either way, it's very nice to see him hitting and hitting for power.

  • With 13 runs allowed in his last eight outings Guerrier is pretty clearly running on fumes at this point and despite Howard Sinker's recent assertion that "it's not overuse" wearing him down there's plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise. Not only does Guerrier lead the league in appearances with 58, his usage has increased dramatically of late as the rest of the bullpen has faltered following Pat Neshek's season-ending injury.

    Prior to getting a much-needed day off yesterday Guerrier had worked 43 of the team's 84 games since Neshek went down, including 13 of the past 21 games. That's an 85-appearance pace since Neshek's injury and a 100-appearance pace over the past month. Short of some kind of crazy, Mike Marshall-like usage, that's what "overuse" looks like for a reliever. Ron Gardenhire ran Guerrier into the ground once he couldn't lean on Neshek and now the struggling bullpen's best remaining setup man is a mess.

  • A big part of why Guerrier has been so overused is that Gardenhire continues to deploy Joe Nathan sparingly despite the fact that he's clearly the bullpen's best pitcher and one of the truly elite relievers in all of baseball. Compared to Guerrier, Nathan has logged 16 percent fewer innings, thrown 24 percent fewer pitches, and faced 28 percent fewer batters. In Tuesday night's extra-inning loss, Guerrier threw 36 pitches, Jesse Crain threw 22, and Dennys Reyes threw 18. Meanwhile, Nathan threw just 15.

    At this point the Twins' bullpen struggles have become so obvious that Patrick Reusse actually took a break from writing 50 consecutive columns about golf to chime in on the subject, yet Nathan is on pace for a career-low 68 innings, has averaged just 15 pitches per appearance, and has gone five weeks since throwing even 20 pitches in a game. Underusing Nathan has led to overusing Guerrier and that combination has played a big part in the bullpen's collapse.

  • Despite talking a good game recently about loosening the reigns on Nathan the odds of Gardenhire actually using him in a less rigid role are slim, which is why claiming a quality setup man like Chad Bradford off waivers made all kinds of sense. Bradford would have been at worst the Twins' third-best reliever and is under contract at a reasonable price through next season, yet LaVelle E. Neal III reports that the Twins didn't claim him because "they weren't sure he would be much of an upgrade." Really?
    2005-2007     PA      ERA      FIP      2008          PA      ERA      FIP
    Bradford 645 3.24 2.84 Bradford 170 2.34 3.56
    Guerrier 957 3.26 4.03 Guerrier 271 4.67 4.43
    Crain 722 3.36 4.00 Crain 210 3.28 3.61

    At worst Bradford has been every bit as effective as the Twins' two main setup men, and based on FIP he's been better than both of them from 2005-2007 and this year. He's arguably an upgrade over Crain and Guerrier, let alone Brian Bass and Boof Bonser. What makes the decision to pass on Bradford even more frustrating is that the Twins reportedly claimed Alan Embree off waivers this week. Embree is five years older and far less effective than Bradford, in addition to being left-handed.

    2005-2007     PA      ERA      FIP      2008          PA      ERA      FIP
    Bradford 645 3.24 2.84 Bradford 170 2.34 3.56
    Embree 736 4.85 3.65 Embree 193 5.40 4.41

    Not only has Bradford been significantly better than Embree this season and during the previous three years, over the past eight seasons few relievers have consistently posted lower ERA or FIP totals than the side-arming ground-ball machine. It's a moot point because the A's pulled Embree back off waivers rather than send him to the Twins, but passing up a very good right-handed reliever while making a play for a mediocre left-handed reliever is misguided to say the least.

  • Remember last spring, when Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan accused Joe Mauer of making up an injury when he missed time with a "stress reaction" in his knee? Souhan wrote at the time: "I've spoken with trainers in other sports who have told me there is no such thing." With minimal research Stick and Ball Guy showed how incredibly off base and irresponsible Souhan's claim was. All of which brings us to this St. Paul Pioneer Press note about Adam Everett's throwing problems:
    Everett said his goal upon returning to the team was to prove that he finally was healthy. His shoulder had bothered him from the get-go. He called it a "stress reaction" in his right shoulder. That means it was this close to being a stress fracture, which is a very bad thing.

    Apparently Tom Powers doesn't speak to those same "trainers in other sports" that Souhan does. And sadly Everett's throwing problems haven't gone away even though "there's no such thing" as his injury.

  • People fretted about losing a "veteran innings eater" when the Twins let Carlos Silva walk as a free agent, but it may have been the best move (or non-move) of the winter. Silva got a four-year, $48 million deal from the Mariners and is 4-13 with a 5.93 ERA. Better yet, he's called out teammates publicly for their lack of effort recently, saying that he should "grab somebody in his neck and pin them to the wall" because only "half of the team wants to do the best they can." At 4-13 with a 5.93 ERA, that takes balls.
  • As Phil Miller amusingly notes over at his must-read Pioneer Press blog, when it comes to sliding into first base Randy Ruiz is the bizarro Nick Punto.

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

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