August 24, 2008

Twins Notes: Sub-1.00 ERAs, 100 RBIs, and Two Strikes

  • After watching yesterday afternoon as the Twins' bullpen coughed up another late-inning lead while the stud closer with a 0.98 ERA went unused because it wasn't a "save" situation, my curiosity about Joe Nathan's amazing run prevention led me to the indispensable for a little digging. So far this season Nathan has thrown 55 innings with a 0.98 ERA. Here's the complete list of pitchers since 1920 who've logged at least 55 innings with an ERA below 1.00:
                        YEAR       IP      ERA
    Dennis Eckersley 1990 73.1 0.61
    Jonathan Papelbon 2007 68.1 0.92
    Chris Hammond 2002 76.0 0.95
    Joe Nathan 2008 55.0 0.98

    That's the whole list. Four pitchers in 90 years and all of them in the past two decades. Like Nathan, Dennis Eckersley and Jonathan Papelbon both had their sub-1.00 ERA seasons as closers. Chris Hammond had zero saves in 2002, as his 0.95 ERA came as John Smoltz's setup man after sitting out three straight years with injuries. Interestingly, if the innings cutoff moves from 55 to 50, Dennys Reyes and his 0.89 ERA in 2006 crack the list (along with Bill Henry in 1964 and Rob Murphy in 1986).

    Comparing a great year from Nathan to Eckersley's ridiculous 1990 season struck me as familiar and sure enough a look through the archives shows that the topic was covered in this space way back on August 5, 2004. That was Nathan's first season with the Twins and his ERA was under 1.00 as late as August 18, when he had a 0.82 ERA (and 34 saves) in 54.2 innings. Here's a look at how Nathan's current numbers compare to where he stood on August 18, 2004:

    YEAR      G     SV       IP     ER      ERA     SO     BB     HR     OAVG
    2004 53 34 54.2 5 0.82 66 18 2 .174
    2008 55 35 55.0 6 0.98 61 13 4 .185

    After allowing just five earned runs and blowing just one save through 54.2 innings in 2004, Nathan proceeded to cough up seven runs and blow two saves in his next three appearances. His ERA more than doubled to 1.74 before ending up at 1.62. Even if Nathan can avoid that same fate this season, he may have some company in the 55-inning, sub-1.00 ERA club. Side-arming A's rookie Brad Ziegler has a 0.41 ERA in 44 frames after his career-opening 39-inning scoreless streak ended last week.

  • By going 3-for-4 with a homer, a double, and three RBIs yesterday afternoon, Justin Morneau joined Harmon Killebrew as the only hitters in Twins history to crack 100 RBIs in three straight seasons. After driving in 130 and 111 runs during the previous two years, Morneau has knocked in 102 runs through 130 games this season, putting him on a 127-RBI pace. Here's how Morneau's current three-season run compares to what Killebrew did from 1969-1971:
                   G       PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      HR     RBI
    Killebrew 466 1998 .267 .409 .534 .943 118 372
    Morneau 443 1895 .299 .368 .520 .888 85 343

    Morneau is great, but Killebrew was a monster. In fact, the 55-point gap in OPS is actually wider than it looks because Killebrew posted those numbers in an environment that was much less conducive to big offense. From 1969-1971, the AL as a whole hit just .248 with a .319 on-base percentage and .371 slugging percentage, as the average team scored 4.04 runs per game. From 2006-2008, the AL as a whole has hit .272 with a .338 OBP and .427 SLG, as the average team scores 4.88 runs per game.

    In other words, compared to Killebrew, Morneau is playing in an environment that boosts slugging by 15 percent and ups overall scoring by 21 percent. If you take Killebrew's production from 1969-1971 and adjust it to the offensive levels that Morneau has experienced from 2006-2008, his line jumps to .295/.435/.615 with an average of 150 RBIs per year, giving him a 160-point edge in OPS. And those weren't even the three best years of Killebrew's career. Not even close. Here's Morneau on Killebrew:

    He's a Hall of Famer, 573 homers. He's the guy who's got all the power records in our organization. To have my name next to him is pretty nice, but I've still got a long way to go to come close to what he did. has a stat called OPS+ that takes a hitter's production and compares it to the offensive environment that he played in. A 100 OPS+ is exactly average, Babe Ruth holds the all-time career record at 207, and Barry Bonds set the single-season record at 268 in 2002. Morneau's career OPS+ is 121 and he had a personal-best 140 OPS+ in his MVP-winning 2006 season. Killebrew has a 143 OPS+ for his 22-year career and topped a 140 OPS+ nine times. Killer could hit just a little bit.

  • Watching Carlos Gomez end two innings by striking out on down-and-away sliders yesterday made me wonder whether he's more helpless than most hitters once the count has two strikes. Gomez has had two strikes in 239 of his 503 plate appearances, and he's hit .143 while striking out 49.4 percent of the time. To put that in some context, consider that the AL as a whole is hitting .195 while striking out 35.4 percent of the time with two strikes.

    In other words, everyone is awful once they have two strikes, but Gomez is really awful. He's 27 percent worse than the league average while striking out 40 percent more often. Actually, not everyone is awful once they have two strikes. Joe Mauer is hitting .272 while striking out in just 18.6 percent of his 210 plate appearances with two strikes and if you remove Gomez's awful two-strike work from the mix the rest of the Twins are hitting .218 on two-strike counts.

  • After keeping Brian Bass on the roster all season because he was out of minor-league options and they were irrationally afraid of losing him on waivers, the Twins finally removed him from the 40-man roster over the weekend. In what likely surprised no one except the Twins, the 26-year-old rookie with a 4.87 ERA in the majors after posting a 5.10 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A went unclaimed and reluctantly accepted a demotion back to Rochester.
  • Less than a week after Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote a lengthy, well-done article about Casey Daigle's career and marriage to Jennie Finch, the Twins released him to make room on the Triple-A roster for Bass. Jensen ended the piece with this Finch quote: "He's young still and I think he has a long career ahead of him, but if it doesn't work it doesn't work, and we'll be there for him." She also had a tough week, as the dominant U.S. women's softball team lost the gold medal to Japan.
  • After yet another ugly start Friday, Livan Hernandez has a 15.32 ERA in three outings with Colorado. Better yet, after inexplicably relieving the Twins of his remaining contract for this year the Denver Post amusingly reports that the Rockies want to "take a long look at Hernandez to see if he might fit into the club's future plans." Seriously. Deemed worthy of paying $5 million by the Twins this winter, Hernandez has a 6.28 ERA in 26 starts while allowing opponents to bat .347 for 224 hits allowed in 154 innings.
  • If reading today's entry hasn't made you completely sick of me, check out my appearance on FOX's "Sports on Demand" show with Jim Rich and Seth Kaplan today at 3:00 p.m. via the station's website.

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

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