June 30, 2010

Triples!

Thanks to a strange bounce off the side of the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center field Jim Thome tripled Monday for the first time since 2004. Thome went 73 months between triples, during which time he played in 770 games, logged 3,050 plate appearances, hit 179 homers, drove in 508 runs, and notched a total of 643 hits. There were 13 no-hitters between triples for Thome, whose last three-bagger came when Joe Mauer was a rookie and I was in college.

No doubt motivated by watching Thome leg out what must be one of the most leisurely triples of all time, Denard Span amazingly hit three triples in the first five innings last night. He had a chance to set the post-1900 record with a fourth triple, but walked instead to settle for tying Ken Landreaux for the Twins' single-game record, becoming the first player with three triples in a game since Rafael Furcal in 2002, and leading the AL with seven triples on the season.

Better yet, despite a terrible April and several prolonged slumps this year Span is now batting .284/.356/.394, which is within range of his .305/.390/.422 career line coming into the season. Ichiro Suzuki and Elvis Andrus are the only AL hitters with a higher on-base percentage from the leadoff spot this season and since his debut in 2008 the only outfielders with a higher OBP than Span are Manny Ramirez, Shin-Soo Choo, Matt Holliday, J.D. Drew, and Adam Dunn.

June 28, 2010

Twins slump away lead as Tigers come to town

Early this season it looked like the Twins might run away and hide from the rest of the division, but after yesterday's loss to the Mets they're now just a half-game in front of the Tigers and 1.5 games ahead of the White Sox. They finished May on a five-game winning streak that gave them a season-high 4.5-game lead, with the Tigers looking like their only real competition and the White Sox on the verge of trading away veterans, but since then the Twins are just 10-14.

Nearly all teams go through sub-.500 stretches like that, but the Twins' division lead vanished in a hurry because their rough patch coincided with the White Sox shockingly winning 15 of 17 games after beginning the season 24-33 as reports swirled about their manager and general manager feuding. Toss in the Tigers staying steady this month with a 14-10 mark and ... well, no one in the AL Central is going to be doing any running away or hiding for a while.

When a bad stretch like the one the Twins are on now follows a good season-opening stretch like they put together in April and May there's a tendency to assume things are falling apart and the team is doomed. Certainly the Twins' recent poor play is discouraging and takes some of the air out of their World Series aspirations, but it's important to put things in the context of a six-month, 162-game season.

Had the timing of the good and bad stretches been flipped, with the Twins starting 10-14 and then playing well for two months, the perception of their current situation would be different. It's similar to how a player who follows a big April with a mediocre May through September will spend most of the season with nice-looking numbers, but a player who follows a terrible April with a strong May through September will spend much of the season with bad-looking stats.

They may both end up hitting the same .300 with 25 homers and an .850 OPS, but one guy will probably make the All-Star team while people spend months talking about how the other guy is slumping. At the end of the day a hit in April or May counts the same as a hit in September, and along those same lines while it certainly would have been nice for the Twins to go through the entire season without a lengthy rough patch that was never particularly likely.

No matter how they got here, it's late June and the Twins are atop the AL Central and on pace for 89 wins. In their first eight years under Ron Gardenhire the Twins' average win total was ... 88.6. Shaking off the loss of Joe Nathan to start 31-20 raised expectations to the point that the current 10-14 stretch has people scrambling for answers and lobbing criticism everywhere, but if offered on Opening Day a half-game lead and 89-win pace would've sounded just fine.

Longtime readers of this blog may not think of me as a voice of optimism and I'm obviously not against criticism when it's warranted (and sometimes when it's not), but far too often fans and media members seem to forget that baseball is a six-month marathon of ups and downs. This isn't football or even basketball, and treating each winning streak or losing streak like it is will just lead to overreactions and hyperbolic analysis.

Without question the Twins' recent play is worrisome and exposes some flaws that likely need to be addressed, but whether it comes in April or June or September winning baseball teams are going to experience stretches like this and baseball fans should probably know better than to react as if they're doomed. Right now the Twins look like a good but not great team capable of winning a poor division, which was true on Opening Day and for most the past decade.

And now the Tigers are in town for a three-game series at Target Field.

June 25, 2010

Twins send Brendan Harris down to Triple-A and call up Jason Repko

This winter the Twins signed Brendan Harris to a head-scratcher of a two-year contract, oddly committing $3.2 million and multiple seasons to a thoroughly replaceable 29-year-old bench player with a substandard glove and .267/.324/.396 career hitting line. Yesterday they passed Harris through waivers unclaimed, removed him from the 40-man roster, and demoted him to Triple-A, calling up outfielder Jason Repko from Rochester to replace him.

Repko is the same age as Harris and is no great shakes himself, hitting just .226/.297/.371 in 478 trips to the plate spread over various stints with the Dodgers. However, most of that poor production came when he was a 24-year-old rookie in 2005 and Repko has hit .289/.357/.461 in 382 games at Triple-A. He's a decent enough right-handed bat to warrant some playing time over Jason Kubel against lefties and rates as a good defensive center fielder.

Harris has always been a tweener, because his glove isn't strong enough to be a viable option at shortstop or second base and his bat isn't good enough to be an asset at a less demanding position. And that was true before he hit .157 in 120 plate appearances this season. Normally the Twins would've simply cut him loose, but because they're paying him $1.45 million this year and still owe him another $1.75 million for next year Harris will remain in the organization.

Between the Harris move and another ugly start by Nick Blackburn, yesterday wasn't a great day for handing out unnecessary multi-year contracts to players who were under team control anyway. I'm curious to see if Ron Gardenhire is willing to actually use Repko versus lefties or to at least give Denard Span days off, but either way a legit fourth outfielder was needed more than ever now that Michael Cuddyer is apparently MLB's worst-fielding third baseman.

June 23, 2010

Twins Notes: Mauer, Lowell, Bonser, Neshek, Plouffe, and prospects

• A few weeks ago after Ken Griffey Jr. retired friend of AG.com Jay Jaffe wrote a good article at Baseball Prospectus focusing on his place in baseball history, which also included this list of the best No. 1 overall picks of all time based on Wins Above Replacement Position (WARP):

NO. 1 PICK           YEAR     WARP
Alex Rodriguez       1993    101.0
Ken Griffey Jr.      1987     79.7
Chipper Jones        1990     72.4
Harold Baines        1977     48.4
Darryl Strawberry    1980     46.9
Joe Mauer            2001     34.5

I was surprised to see that only six No. 1 overall picks in baseball history have accumulated as many as 30 career WARP. To put that in some Twins-related context, Corey Koskie and Greg Gagne had 26.0 and 24.6 career WARP, respectively. Joe Mauer is already the sixth-best No. 1 pick ever despite being in the middle of his age-27 season. He won't top Alex Rodriguez and may be a long shot to pass Griffey, but should give Chipper Jones a run for the third spot.

• Last week I examined whether the Twins should trade for Mike Lowell after Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com reported they were talking to the Red Sox about the veteran third baseman. Rosenthal has since followed up his initial report, adding that the Red Sox are in a "stalemate" with the Twins and Rangers regarding Lowell because they're willing to pay the rest of his $12 million salary, but only if they get a decent player in return.

In other words the Red Sox want to save money or get a decent player. If the Twins are willing to absorb most of Lowell's remaining salary they can likely get him for a low-level prospect. If the Twins are willing to part with a mid-level prospect the Red Sox will likely pay the rest of his salary. Either way, the price is right. Lowell makes sense as a third baseman or DH platoon partner for Jason Kubel, who has a Jacque Jones-like .235/.317/.352 career line off lefties.

• Traded to the Red Sox in December after missing all of last year following shoulder surgery, Boof Bonser spent the first two months of this season on the disabled list, allowed four runs without recording an out in his first big-league appearance in 21 months, and was designated for assignment a week later. Meanwhile, the prospect the Twins got in return, Chris Province, has a 5.66 ERA in 41 innings as a 25-year-old reliever at Double-A. Seems like a fair trade.

• After angering the team by writing publicly about his injury status, Pat Neshek was activated from the disabled list and optioned to Triple-A earlier this month, with Ron Gardenhire saying:

He's just like everyone else in the minor leagues now. He's got to pitch his way back up. When there's a need, he'll get an opportunity ... if he's the one throwing the ball good.

Neshek has pitched in four Triple-A games with a 2.00 ERA, .152 opponents' batting average, and 7-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in nine innings. So far so good, although I doubt he's gotten much closer to rejoining the Twins and even a 2.00 ERA ranks just third-best in the Rochester bullpen behind Kyle Waldrop at 1.16 and Anthony Slama at 1.60 ERA. Despite that, Rochester is 28-41 and has the worst team ERA in the International League at 5.03.

Jayson Stark of ESPN.com reported recently that the Orioles have been "sniffing around for a shortstop" and Trevor Plouffe "is rumored to have piqued their interest." Plouffe was oddly the only shortstop Stark mentioned by name and that seems like some awfully random smoke if there's zero fire behind it. Over the weekend Plouffe was sent back to Triple-A, where he's hit a career-best .278/.340/.449 in 54 games.

• Last week B.J. Hermsen was four outs from a no-hitter at low Single-A, settling for a one-hit shutout. Friend of AG.com and former part-time MLB.com Twins beat writer Thor Nystrom was in attendance and told me Hermsen was "very solid looking" and "goes after guys." However, he was surprised that Hermsen "doesn't throw hard for his size" and "doesn't have dominant stuff," which matches reports I got before ranking him as this year's 18th-best Twins prospect.

• After signing in September for $3.15 million, Miguel Sano homered on the first pitch he saw in the Dominican Summer League and is hitting .341/.444/.636 in 14 games. What makes that even more impressive is the DSL as a whole hitting .234 with a .315 slugging percentage this year, so his OPS is 427 points higher than the league average. Also worth noting is that Sano has played primarily third base, so any notion of him as a long-term shortstop is already over.

• In less positive prospect news, last year's supplemental first-round pick Matthew Bashore is out for the season following Tommy John elbow surgery and third-round pick Ben Tootle is out indefinitely after shoulder surgery. Bashore signed for $750,000 shortly after the draft, but got into just one game before being shut down and never pitched this year. Tootle looked good in his debut last year, but gave up 17 runs in 18 innings before going under the knife this year.

• Outfield prospect Rene Tosoni is also out for the season following shoulder surgery, which is a shame because he was off to a good start at Double-A after ranking 11th on my preseason list and could have factored into the Twins' plans at some point next season.

June 21, 2010

The new and improved Delmon Young

I come to praise Delmon, not bury him.

- William Shakespeare (if he was a Twins fan)

In the fall of 2007 the Twins acquired Delmon Young, Brendan Harris, and Jason Pridie from the Rays for Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, and Eduardo Morlan. I wasn't a fan of the trade, in part because I felt Young was an overrated prospect and in part because I felt the Twins were selling unnecessarily low on Garza and Bartlett. Three years later I still believe those things to be true, and for the first two years the trade looked worse and worse for the Twins.

Young batted just .288/.325/.413 with an ugly 197-to-47 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 260 games through his first two seasons in Minnesota, which along with horrible defense made him one of the worst regulars in baseball. While he was being disappointing on nearly every level, Garza logged 388 innings with a 3.87 ERA and Bartlett hit .306/.361/.429 in 265 games as the Rays had the first two winning seasons in franchise history and advanced to the World Series.

In terms of value gained from the trade it was a blowout in the Rays' favor after two seasons and the scale may never swing all the way back to the Twins' side, but this season for the first time the gap isn't widening. And it's not because Garza has turned into a bum (his ERA is 4.16) or the Twins are getting value from the other two guys in the deal (Harris is hitting .157, Pridie is at Triple-A for the Mets). No, it's because for the first time Delmon Young is playing well.

After starting slowly for the third straight year Young has been on fire for the past month and is now hitting .307/.345/.502 in 61 games for the sixth-best OPS among AL corner outfielders. He's still not walking much, but after two frustrating seasons of flailing away at breaking balls and grounding out weakly to second base or blooping singles into right field on fastballs Young is finally making the solid, damage-creating contact that was supposed to be his calling card.

Even better, after losing 30 pounds during the offseason Young's defense in left field has gone from horrible to merely poor, with the occasional flashes of good mixed in with the still-present penchant for cringe-inducing awkwardness. He certainly hasn't turned into the second coming of Frank Robinson or Albert Belle that so many comparisons at the time of the deal laughably suggested, but he has turned into the guy the Twins thought they were getting in 2007.

How has he done it? Well, first let's look at some of the basic components of his performance:

              BB%      SO%     K/BB      GB%      FB%      LD%     ISOP
2008-2009     4.5     19.0     4.19     53.0     30.2     16.7     .125
This Year     6.2     11.2     1.64     45.7     37.2     17.0     .195

Not only is Young walking 38 percent more and striking out 41 percent less compared to those disappointing first two years in Minnesota, he's hitting the ball on the ground 14 percent less. In other words, his approach at the plate has improved dramatically and the type of balls he's putting in play have gotten much better as well. He's putting together much better at-bats and giving himself a chance to actually for hit for power by getting the ball in the air.

Young has eight homers in 61 games, which puts him on pace to shatter his career-high of 13, but the actual percentage of his fly balls that have gone over the fence hasn't really changed. Last season 11.4 percent of his fly balls were homers and this year 11.4 percent of his fly balls have been homers. The big difference isn't that he's suddenly crushing longer fly balls, it's that he's simply hitting more of them. Young's fly-ball rate is up 23 percent compared to 2008/2009.

When the Twins traded for Young the widely held assumption was that he'd hit for big power because he's a big guy and that's what the glowing scouting reports from his high school and Single-A days said, but grounders never turn into homers and guys who're among the league leaders in ground balls never turn into power hitters. Young still isn't putting the ball in the air nearly as much as the game's best sluggers, but he's now doing it enough to inflict damage.

How is he walking more, whiffing less, and hitting the ball in the air? Here are his swing stats:

              ZONE     SWNG     CONT     Z-SW     Z-CN     O-SW     O-CN
2008-2009     50.2     59.6     75.8     80.3     85.4     38.7     55.6
This Year     47.9     57.8     83.6     78.7     90.3     38.7     71.0

Based on the improved strikeout and walk rates you'd think he's been swinging at fewer balls outside the strike zone, but that's not actually the case. He's swinging at essentially the same number of pitches as 2008/2009, including nearly identical rates on pitches inside and outside the strike zone, but the difference is that he's making contact significantly more often on both types of offerings.

The biggest change is that Young has made contact 28 percent more often swinging at pitches outside the strike zone. He's still hacking at more pitches than anyone in the league except Vladimir Guerrero and still chases non-strikes as much as before, but this year he's actually hitting those pitches. I'm not sure whether that can be chalked up to randomness or a change in approach--or whether it's a sustainable improvement either way--but the difference is huge.

Breaking the pitches and swings down even further, here are his results by pitch type:

               FB%     FB100      CH%     CH100      SL%     SL100
2008-2009     53.6     -0.36     10.3     +0.25     19.8     -1.35
This Year     56.4     +0.23     10.6     +4.02     17.0     +1.07

Young has never been a great fastball hitter, but he's been better against the pitch this year, generating 0.23 runs above average per 100 fastballs (FB100) after previously being sub par. He's also gone from decent to amazing versus changeups (CH100) and from awful to strong on sliders (SL100). Not shown above is that he continues to struggle against curveballs, which makes drawing any strong conclusions from the pitch-type data even more difficult than usual.

Observationally, the biggest change on a pitch-type basis has been his ability to lay off sliders outside the strike zone late in counts, which is something that really dragged him down in the past. For the most part the numbers back that up with his non-strike contact rate and overall success on sliders. Of course, that he's still hacking at just as many non-strikes muddies those waters, although perhaps Young keeps swinging early but now has more late-count discipline.

Interestingly, while Young has improved across the board his batting average on balls in play is a career-low .308 after he had a .338 mark in 2008/2009. That may very well be due more to randomness than anything else, but it could also be due to the same change in approach that has led to more fly balls and fewer ground balls. In fact, that has almost certainly played a part because in general ground balls go for hits more often than fly balls.

Basically, he's been less effective getting bloopers to drop in and choppers to get through the infield, which is certainly a tradeoff worth taking for more pop. It may also suggest that Young has actually been somewhat unlucky this season--particularly since after losing 30 pounds and getting noticeably faster it should be easier to leg out infield singles--in which case even if his high contact rate on non-strikes declines a bit his overall performance may not suffer a ton.

The top five items on my wish-list for Young likely would've been fewer strikeouts and ground balls, more walks and fly balls, and better range on defense. He's improved all five areas and the result is a far better player who has gone from liability to strength. He deserves credit for getting into shape and hitting coach Joe Vavra deserves credit for altering his approach and stance. Now hopefully he can keep it going and, at age 24, perhaps even build on those gains.

I come to praise Delmon, not bury him.

- William Shakespeare, if he was a Twins fan.

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