April 30, 2010

Link-O-Rama

• One of the most underrated performers in the history of comedy has written a memoir that comes out later this year, and as if that wasn't enough it's apparently being ghost-written by the guy who covers gambling for ESPN.com.

Pam Grier surely thinks this story about Richard Pryor is something controversial to include in her new book, but the same thing happens to me all the time.

• I've always worked from home, but my goal is to some day have an office one-tenth as nice as new Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov's spectacular setup, particularly if the blond woman in the photo is part of the deal.

• Thanks to a few tips from inside sources, I wrote quite a bit on Hardball Talk this week about MLB.com beat writers being asked to cease using Twitter for non-baseball topics. If you missed it, here's my original report, here's the follow-up after speaking to an MLB spokesperson, and here's my final word on the story. An interesting experience to say the least, as it was picked up by, among other places, New York Magazine, Sporting News, The Big Lead, and Mediaite.

• I'm not a journalist, but I am a fat guy who likes to write about trying to become less fat.

• My favorite television writer, Alan Sepinwall, is leaving the newspaper business following 14 years at the Newark Star-Ledger, which is awful news for people in New Jersey and good news for everyone who reads him online anyway.

• Not only have I grown to like Patrick Reusse on the radio since he teamed up with friend of AG.com Phil Mackey, we're starting to think alike. Not sure who should be more disturbed.

George Costanza is such an amazing character that his story is almost as good as a drama:

Also proof that anything can be dramatic with the right music behind it.

• Catching isn't tough enough for Miguel Olivo, so he passed kidney stones during a game.

• Between her being naked on True Blood and incredibly funny on Party Down, it's probably time to make Lizzy Caplan an Official Fantasy Girl of AG.com candidate.

A.J. Daulerio and Sarah Silverman star in When Live Chats Get Ugly. Actually, the notion of sports bloggers getting into feuds with female comedians is so amusing to me that I'm giving serious thought to starting a beef with Rita Rudner.

• Speaking of Deadspin, my idol Adam Carolla was the guest on Drew Magary's podcast this week. Good times.

• And speaking of Carolla, one of the guests on his podcast this week was Nick Offerman. I'm actually so excited about Ace Man chatting with Ron "F***ing" Swanson that I haven't even listened yet. I'm saving it for a special occasion or something.

• The genius responsible for creating Swanson and Fire Joe Morgan is now really, really rich.

• If you're into a funnier, online version of Charlie Rose's long-form interviews, check out Kevin Pollak's Chat Show, where Kevin Pollak interviews people from comedy and movies for at least an hour, uninterrupted. His guest list is packed with interesting names and the laid-back chats are great. I've been devouring the archives and my favorites are Jon Hamm, Jason Reitman, Seth MacFarlane, Matthew PerryHank Azaria, Josh Malina, and of course Carolla.

Eastbound and Down will be back for another season on HBO, but Kenny Powers is taking his comeback to Mexico and there are reportedly a shit-ton of changes within the cast.

• My favorite e-mail of the week came from a reader named Chad who sent this link and wrote, "The blond girl in the foreground is what Elisha Cuthbert would look like if she was really hot and holding a giant beer."

• If you threaten to blow up his airplane, Kevin Kennedy will take you out.

• I'm a big fan of SI.com's Richard Deitsch, so this made my week.

Fred Hoiberg left his job as Timberwolves assistant general manager to coach Iowa State.

• Some of the highlights from my NBCSports.com blogging this week:

- Bobby Cox thinks slumping Jason Heyward is being too patient
- Rangers prospect Tanner Scheppers is toying with Double-A hitters
- Dusty Baker denies asking the Reds for contract extension
- Carlos Beltran fitted for custom knee brace and "not close to returning"
- Diamondbacks put Kris Benson on disabled list, call up Kevin Mulvey
- Rockies demote Opening Day catcher Chris Iannetta to Triple-A
- A flop in Boston, Brad Penny thriving back in National League

• Finally, this week's AG.com-approved music video is a "mash-up" combining "99 Problems" by Jay-Z and "Voodoo Chile" by Jimi Hendrix:

April 28, 2010

Strikeouts and Grounders: Francisco Liriano is Dealing Again

I've often suggested that the Francisco Liriano who was the best, most overpowering pitcher in all of baseball as a rookie in 2006 was lost for good when he underwent Tommy John elbow surgery. I still believe that to be true, but a) the version we've seen so far this year is pretty damn close, and b) if there wasn't an extraordinarily dominant 2006 version to compare him to the reaction to what Liriano is doing right now would be, more or less, "holy shit."

What made Liriano so incredibly special in 2006 is that he both led the league in strikeout rate and ranked fifth in ground-ball percentage, which is essentially the perfect combination. After returning from surgery in 2008/2009 he lost about one-fifth of his strikeouts, saw his fastball and slider velocity decline 3-4 miles per hour, and actually turned into a fly-ball pitcher, with his ground-ball rate going from 55 percent to 40 percent.

In other words, not only did his raw stuff and on-field results change for the worse with a drop in velocity and 5.12 post-surgery ERA, he was actually a different type of pitcher. Thankfully, it looks like he's back to missing bats and killing worms. After a mediocre season debut Liriano has won three straight starts and thrown 23 consecutive scoreless innings while allowing just 14 hits and five walks, racking up 24 strikeouts and 32 ground-ball outs in those 23 frames.

DATE     OPP      IP     R     H     SO     BB     GB     PIT
4/15     BOS     7.0     0     4      8      2     10      96
4/21     CLE     8.0     0     6      6      2     13     102
4/26     DET     8.0     0     4     10      1      9     112

Now, even 24 strikeouts and 32 ground-ball outs in 23 innings can't compare to what he did in 2006 and Liriano's velocity also isn't quite back to his pre-surgery levels, but that just shows how insanely great he was back then. For the past three starts he's averaged 93-94 miles per hour on his fastball with a strikeout per inning and nearly twice as many grounders as fly balls, which is absolutely, without question the recipe for top-of-the-rotation dominance.

Time will obviously tell if he can keep it up, but right now the Twins have a 26-year-old ace.

April 26, 2010

Twins Notes: Hughes, Walks, Slama, Shooter, and Snoop

• After playing short-handed for a week the Twins finally placed Nick Punto on the disabled list Friday, calling up Luke Hughes from Triple-A to fill his roster spot. In the past Punto has often tried to play through injuries, resulting in the odd combination of a horrible performance being praised, but this time he at least managed to stay out of the lineup with a strained groin while Brendan Harris filled in at third base.

Danny Valencia is a better prospect than Hughes, but the Twins think he needs more work on defense and he's hitting just .176 at Triple-A. Plus, because Punto may not miss a ton of time Hughes makes more sense in much the same way Drew Butera filling in for the injured Jose Morales makes more sense than calling up Wilson Ramos to back up Joe Mauer. Valencia isn't as promising as Ramos, but if the Twins do call him up they'll want it to be for years not weeks.

None of which is to suggest that Hughes is any more ready than Valencia to be a starting third baseman in the majors, because his glove generally receives even worse reviews and his bat projects similarly. However, he's a better candidate to sit on the bench for a couple weeks and Ron Gardenhire would stick with Harris at third base until Punto returns no matter the call-up. I'd like to see Hughes get some starts at designated hitter or left field against lefties.

For more on Hughes, see my write-up ranking him as the No. 23 prospect in the Twins' system.

Kelsie Smith of the St. Paul Pioneer Press notes that the Twins' league-leading walk total has them on pace to draw 70 percent more walks than in 2005. The change began last year, when they ranked fourth in walks after years of being among the league's worst, but the additions of Jim Thome and Orlando Hudson combined with Denard Span's continued development and sudden walk rate spikes by Jason Kubel and Justin Morneau have taken things to new levels.

Homers are nice, but getting on base and working counts to knock starting pitchers out early is an ideal recipe for putting runs on the board and it's great to see the lineup evolve from a free-swinging Jacque Jones approach to an ultra-patient Mauer approach. Span put it best: "If they throw it over the plate we're going to swing, but if not we're going to take pitches until we get what we want." Amusingly, he then called Delmon Young "the guy who never walks."

Jon Rauch blew his first save Saturday and not only didn't the world end, the Twins actually won the game. Aside from the fact that he's helping the team, the best part of Rauch going 6-for-7 in save opportunities so far is that it keeps hyperbolic fans and media members from attaching the usual mythical importance to a role that has an 85 percent success rate. As long as Rauch keeps pitching like he always has as a setup man, he'll continue to be just fine.

• I've long speculated that the front office is behind Anthony Slama still being in the minors at age 26, because he's repeatedly been passed over for call-ups and isn't even on the 40-man roster yet despite Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson praising him as someone they would like to take a look at. As always he's putting up great numbers in the minors with a 1.80 ERA, .147 opponents' batting average, and 14 strikeouts in 10 innings at Rochester this year.

Combined over the past two years he now has a 2.57 ERA, .190 opponents' batting average, and 126 strikeouts in 91 innings between Double-A and Triple-A. Much like Pat Neshek back in 2005/2006, high-minors dominance like that simply warrants a shot regardless of skepticism or question marks, but as Patrick Reusse of the Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote recently the front office remains unwilling to call up Slama despite his being Gardenhire's "preferred pitcher."

David Brown of Yahoo! Sports recently chatted with Mauer and showed why he's one of the best interviewers in the business by actually getting the reigning MVP to say a few interesting things. Among them is that Mauer loves hip-hop music, which gives me an excuse to re-run this amusing photo from his high school days:

Obviously those Cretin-Derham Hall boys roll hard.

• Mauer went 5-for-6 in Saturday's extra-inning win over the Royals for his third career five-hit game, which ties him for the second-most in baseball history among catchers and puts him one behind all-time leader Ernie Lombardi, who's also the only other catcher with multiple batting titles. For all positions Pete Rose (10) and Tony Gwynn (9) are the five-hit leaders and Kirby Puckett (6), Rod Carew (5), and Tony Oliva (4) are the only Twins with more than Mauer.

Shooter Hunt was a mess last season with 58 walks, 15 wild pitches, and seven hit batters in 33 innings between rookie-ball and low Single-A, and the 2008 first-round pick allowed five runs without a recording an out in his 2010 debut at high Single-A. However, as LaVelle E. Neal III of the Star Tribune notes Hunt has allowed just one run in eight innings since then, including five shutout innings with nine strikeouts and zero baserunners in his last two games.

• Last winter there was talk of the Twins pursuing free agent reliever Juan Cruz, who posted a 2.88 ERA, .199 opponents' batting average, and 158 strikeouts in 112.1 innings the previous two years. They ultimately balked because signing him would have meant losing a first-round pick and Cruz got a two-year, $6 million deal from the Royals, who by virtue of their bad record only had to forfeit a second rounder. Cruz was released Friday after a 5.50 ERA in 56 innings.

April 23, 2010

Link-O-Rama

• My fellow writing nerds will be glad to note the Associated Press finally changed "Web site" to "website" as the approved usage. I've always written it that way, but then again I'm a rebel.

Kate Beckinsale is really good at working out. Or at least looks really good working out.

Andre Dawson was way better at playing baseball than he is at owning funeral homes.

• Speaking of funerals, I really enjoyed reading this Chicago Sun-Times piece on the White Sox.

• As part of the team's "social media strategy" the Indians have created a quasi-press box at Progressive Field reserved strictly for bloggers. I'd love to see the Twins do something similar and have suggested it to a few people within the organization, but that seems highly unlikely to say the least. My press pass came via NBCSports.com and definitely not this blog.

• Strange as it may sound, my personality likely being classified somewhere between "loner" and "hermit" often keeps me from realizing that real, live people actually read this website, but once in a while that changes and it has happened plenty this month. I met a ton of incredibly nice AG.com readers at the TwinsCentric event and was amazed by how many media members in the press box reacted kindly to being introduced to me. And then I got this in the mail:

There was also a hand-written note attached from a reader named Matt that read: "I saw this record and immediately thought of you." And really, if this blog does nothing else the idea that people who read it might immediately think of me when they stumble across an Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix record is more than enough for me. Actually, in over seven years of blogging readers have sent me two unsolicited gifts.

One is the above Redding/Hendrix album and the other was a copy of British men's magazine Zoo Weekly with about a dozen pages devoted to Keeley Hazell in various states of undress. That obviously qualifies as a gift-giving exacta and if not for the fact that Chinese food doesn't travel all that well through the mail I'm confident you'd nail the trifecta. You guys are like the John Paciorek of blog readers. Thanks.

Haralabos Voulgaris, who in addition to having a great name and being a well-known poker player also made his living betting on basketball and does lots of intriguing statistical analysis, recently made his picks for the NBA's worst defenders and ... well, congrats to Jonny Flynn.

• Compared to some of the reaction in the comments section here following my Delmon Young vs. Jim Thome entry, this comment an NBCSports.com reader left at Hardball Talk was funny: "How come you never say anything negative about the Twins?" That's comments, in a nutshell.

• That comment from Hardball Talk was left on an entry about Ike Davis, who along with being a good first base prospect called up by the Mets this week is former Twins closer Ron Davis' son. He was born in Edina and is a much-needed addition to the member-of-the-tribe lineup.

• Seems like Coachella was a good time for flip-flop wearers:

My favorite part is that he takes a break in the middle to hit on a few girls.

• Congratulations to my favorite announcer for his 60th anniversary calling Dodgers games.

• Last week I noted the great job Phil Mackey and Tom Pelissero are doing reporting on the Twins for the recently revamped ESPN Twins Cities website. Their radio colleague and longtime Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse agrees and used Twitter to offer some sage advice for the two upstarts:

Pelissero and Mackey keep tearing it up  for 1500espn.com, but I'm getting worried about the lads. They are working so hard for the website I don't  think they are leaving enough time to consume proper amount of adult  beverages. When I was young and covering ball, we gave it an effort but also had our priorities--3 hours of drinking per day at minimum.


So, here's old Uncle Pat's advice, boys: Keep the  tradition of sportswriting alive. Work a little less, drink a lot more. I gave that same advice to Strib colleague LaVelle E. Neal years ago, he took it to heart and look what a happy, well-rounded man he's become.

Being teamed up with Mackey on the radio has given me a whole new appreciation for Reusse and sitting behind him in the press box was one of the highlights of the my Target Field opener experience. Seriously.

• This is Week 12 of my latest weight-loss effort and I'm down 64.5 pounds. I've also recently discovered a 260-calorie meal that I really like in the Thai Style Chicken by Lean Cuisine, which includes a little rice, some surprisingly high-quality chicken, and a few vegetables mixed with a tasty sauce. For just 260 calories, four grams of fat, and three dollars I highly recommend it.

• Speaking of the weight-loss effort, I was never all that into Food Network, but since starting my diet I've been watching it non-stop. I'm not sure whether it somehow decreases cravings or is just a way to punish myself, but at this point the channel dominates my DVR. My favorite show is Chopped, but I've watched and enjoyed nearly every show in the lineup despite having zero ability or inclination to cook anything. Also, I'm getting old.

• In other television news Curb Your Enthusiasm is thankfully coming back for an eighth season on HBO and NBC renewed Parenthood, which I've enjoyed despite some uneven episodes.

• One of the better Willie Mays Hayes impressions you'll ever see:

The announcing is pretty amusing too.

• We may have finally found some people with worse musical taste than me.

• Former Official Fantasy Girl of AG.com Jessica Alba provides a reminder that she's still alive.

Ed Price of Fanhouse recently wrote about the Twins' bullpen, but any worthwhile points he made were obscured by personal attacks and every tired anti-sabermetrics cliche in the book.

• Next time you halfheartedly try to identify the letters on an eye chart, think of this.

• My favorite Bert Blyleven quote this week: "Kevin Slowey is just a hugger. Guys hug all the time, it's OK."

• Some of the highlights from my NBCSports.com blogging this week:

- Joe Maddon says ump Joe West is 'inappropriate'
- Aaron Harang thinks his struggles are 'bad luck'
- Chad Billingsley and the Dodgers are searching for answers
- Angels sticking with Brandon Wood ... for now
- GM says 'nothing physically the matter' with Madison Bumgarner
- Miguel Cabrera in some elite company at age 27

• Finally, this week's AG.com-approved music video is Corinne Bailey Rae singing "Closer" live:

April 22, 2010

Bullets Dodged and F-Bombs Dropped

Back in early December the Twins offered free agent Carl Pavano arbitration, which is basically a one-year contract for a salary to be determined later. Pavano eventually accepted the offer and later the two sides avoided a hearing by agreeing to a one-year, $7 million contract, but had he declined arbitration I'm told by a very reliable source that the Twins were preparing to make a serious run at free agent Rich Harden.

Harden ended up signing with the Rangers about 48 hours after Pavano accepted arbitration, getting a one-year, $6.5 million deal that includes another $3.5 million in potential incentives and an $11 million mutual option or $1 million buyout for 2011. Even considering his lengthy injury history I was surprised that Harden could manage only $7.5 million in guaranteed money and that proved to be a mere $500,000 more than Pavano officially signed for a month later.

I liked the Twins' decision to offer Pavano arbitration and thought $7 million was a worthwhile investment for a veteran pitcher who, despite a massive injury history of his own, was durable in 2009 and projected to be a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter if healthy in 2010. However, there was little doubt that Harden possessed far more upside than Pavano, at least in terms of what each pitcher was capable of if fully healthy and working with their peak stuff.

Among all pitchers with at least 25 starts Harden had baseball's highest strikeout rate in each of the past two seasons, joining back-to-back NL Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum as the only starters with more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings in both years. During that two-season span he had a 3.05 ERA with 352 strikeouts in 289 innings while holding opponents to a .208 batting average. When healthy enough to take the mound few pitchers were as dominant.

Pavano has never been that type of pitcher and certainly wasn't going to approach that type of dominance at age 34, and while he logged 199 innings without missing a start last season he actually threw fewer innings than Harden in 2008, 2007, 2006, and 2005. In other words, if Pavano was more of a sure thing than Harden for 2010 it probably wasn't by much and Harden possessed significantly higher upside. Or so it seemed, at least.

Pavano began this season with back-to-back Quality Starts before turning in a clunker Sunday versus the Royals, making him 2-1 with a 4.96 ERA through three turns in the rotation. Harden actually has a 4.73 ERA through his first three starts, but that's misleading. He has one Quality Start and in fact has made it out of the fourth inning just once, lasting 3.2 innings against both the Blue Jays and Yankees with a solid outing versus the Indians sandwiched in between.

Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not suggesting that three April starts mean much of anything in terms of whether the Twins would be better off with Pavano or Harden. However, what does mean something is that Harden has looked terrible--or at least like nothing resembling his old self--in all three outings. He has 14 walks in 13 innings--for comparison, Pavano has a total of 17 walks in 90 innings since joining the Twins--and his velocity is way down from years past.

Harden's average fastball has dropped from 94.4 miles per hour in 2004/2005 and 93.6 mph in 2006/2007 to 92.1 mph in 2008/2009 and barely above 90 mph this season, so all the injuries may have finally caught up to him. In terms of the rotation I'm told Harden was the Twins' first or second offseason target alongside Pavano, so while Orlando Hudson, Jim Thome, and J.J. Hardy stand out as strong additions a move they didn't make may work out just as well.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Francisco Liriano was fantastic again last night, following up seven shutout innings last week against Boston with eight scoreless frames against Cleveland. In those 15 innings he got 14 strikeouts versus four walks while inducing 23 ground-ball outs, which along with significantly increased velocity is creeping ever closer to 2006 territory. Best of all the back-to-back gems aren't the extent of his reemergence, as Liriano also dominated winter ball and spring training.

Liriano looks like a top-of-the-rotation stud again, the offense leads the AL in walks and ranks second in runs per game while grinding out tough at-bat after tough at-bat, and for the first time in franchise history the Twins have won five straight series to begin a season. There are some injuries to worry about and playing time issues to sort through, but the Twins are firing on nearly all cylinders right now and the division doesn't look capable of keeping pace for long.

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