June 17, 2010

Link-O-Rama

• I defy anyone to find a better lead paragraph for a news story: "A German student created a major traffic jam in Bavaria when he mooned a group of Hell's Angels, hurled a puppy at them, and then escaped on a bulldozer."

• In one of the greatest "worlds colliding" moments in comedy history, Ricky Gervais will play himself in the upcoming season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. He once interviewed Larry David for a show on the BBC and the result was predictably fantastic.

• Speaking of David, his ex-wife has what I'd call diverse taste.

• You know you've fallen off the dieting and exercise wagon again when a list like this starts to sound appealing. No. 9 is obviously right up my alley.

• I'd follow the Jason Phillips approach to dating, but I'm not sure I can afford to give out that many baseballs.

• This baby from Brazil is by far the best dancer I've seen since Elaine Benes:

I fully expect table-top diaper dancing to really take off now.

• Sometimes you must turn to Adam Carolla for helping analyzing bad relief pitching.

• I'm not a Celtics fan, but these pictures alone could be enough to make Maria Menounos an Official Fantasy Girl of AG.com candidate. This picture doesn't hurt her cause either.

• During my appearance on 1500-ESPN radio earlier this week Tom Pelissero and Phil Mackey hinted at the Twins being legitimately interested in Cliff Lee, and Pelissero put his inside info in writing yesterday. I'm still very skeptical about the Twins' actual chances of landing Lee, but that they're even kicking the tires on him is plenty interesting.

• Believe it or not, this man dated Alyssa Milano.

• I'm addicted to WhatIfSports.com's Hardball Dynasty game and my league has one franchise open with a new season set to begin next week. Hardball Dynasty is not fantasy baseball, but rather an incredibly detailed simulation of running a fictional MLB organization from rookie-ball to the majors, so due to the steep learning curve and time commitment required we're looking for an owner with previous Hardball Dynasty experience. If you're interested, let me know.

Bert Blyleven would probably say that Kenshin Kawakami just doesn't know how to win.

Tom Powers' column about the Ubaldo Jimenez-Francisco Liriano matchup would've been a lot shorter if he'd just said, "Get off my lawn!" Gotta sell those newspapers, I suppose.

Pedro Cerrano thinks this minor leaguer went a little over the top with his home run trot:

My favorite part of the whole thing is the shoulder shrug at the end.

• One day Lou Piniella went crazy on Steve Stone for having the gall to criticize him and the next day the Cubs' manager followed Stone's advice.

• Two years after his initial arrest for drug possession, former KFAN radio host Jeff Dubay has violated his probation for a second time by using cocaine. Don't do (hard) drugs, kids.

• From the people who brought you Twinkie Town comes SB Nation Minnesota, about which my MinnPost colleague David Brauer wrote an interesting article earlier this week.

• Have love, Cameron Diaz will travel.

• I'm hoping that most of the people who read this blog also read my work on NBCSports.com, but for those of you who don't Hardball Talk underwent an extensive re-design this week. As with any kind of big change the re-design is getting mixed reviews, but if you like my writing or Craig Calcaterra's writing you should check out Hardball Talk because we essentially tag-team blog throughout the day, every day, pumping out dozens of entries.

• Speaking of which, here are some highlights from my NBCSports.com blogging this week:

- Alex Gordon is apparently too good for the Royals
- Before the injuries hit, Mark Mulder was having a great career
- Dustin Pedroia puts on a knee brace and his hitting shoes
- Diamondbacks trade Conor Jackson to A's
- Darin Erstad says "I'm done" after 14 seasons
- Ubaldo Jimenez beats Twins, improves to 13-1 with 1.15 ERA
- Dustin McGowan lasts just eight pitches before another setback

• Finally, in honor of the aforementioned Ms. Diaz, this week's AG.com-approved music video is The Black Keys doing a live cover version of "Have Love, Will Travel" by Richard Berry:

Not quite a Baker’s dozen for Scott

Some random notes on Scott Baker racking up a career-high 12 strikeouts over seven shutout innings against the Rockies last night ...

Bert Blyleven had 12 or more strikeouts 22 times, including 15 for the Twins. Johan Santana had 14 such games for the Twins and Camilo Pascual had 10. No one else in team history has as many as five.

• Baker joined Santana, Blyleven, Pascual, Eric Milton, Jim Kaat, Joe Decker, Jim Merritt, and Francisco Liriano as the only pitchers in Twins history with seven or more shutout innings and 12 or more strikeouts. Santana did it six times, while Blyleven and Pascual did it twice apiece.

• Baker also joined Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Jake Peavy, Pete Harnisch, and Hideo Nomo as the only pitchers to throw seven or more shutout innings with 12 or more strikeouts against the Rockies. Martinez is the only pitcher to do so versus the Rockies at Coors Field.

Note: If you're a nerd like me and enjoy looking up stuff like that, I highly recommend purchasing the "Play Index" at Baseball-Reference.com. It'll be the best and dorkiest money you've ever spent.

June 16, 2010

Should the Twins trade for Mike Lowell?

Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com reported recently that the Twins are involved "in trade talks" with the Red Sox for Mike Lowell, who has been relegated to bench duties after an offseason deal to the Rangers was nixed by thumb surgery. According to Rosenthal "the Twins' field staff is lobbying for Lowell" because "the need is obvious" but the "front office would need to work through money and durability concerns."

Rosenthal is my choice for the best, most plugged-in national reporter in baseball and on the surface at least the Twins being interested in Lowell makes sense. Twins third basemen have been awful this season, hitting .207/.275/.274 with just two homers in 64 games to rank dead last in the league in batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, homers, extra-base hits, and RBIs while also ranking second-worst in on-base percentage and runs.

Lowell has barely played for the Red Sox thanks to the winter signing of third baseman Adrian Beltre and the resurgence of designated hitter David Ortiz, logging a grand total of 90 plate appearances in 65 team games. He hasn't fared well in the extremely limited action, batting just .215/.311/.354, but 90 trips to the plate spread over three months is hardly a significant sample size and his OPS still beats Twins third basemen by 117 points.

Lowell is 36 years old and has undergone hip and thumb surgeries within the past 20 months, so the risks are obvious. However, he's said to be reasonably healthy now and when given a chance to actually play last season batted .290/.337/.474 with 17 homers and 29 doubles in 119 games. In fact, his current poor production in sporadic action marks just the second time in 11 full seasons as a big leaguer that Lowell hasn't posted an OPS above .785.

If you're curious, the last time someone started at least 100 games at third base and posted an OPS above .785 for the Twins was Corey Koskie in 2004. Lowell's lack of consistent work this season makes it nearly impossible to say exactly what he's capable of offensively at age 36, but there's no doubt that he'd be an obvious upgrade over the horrendous production the Twins have gotten from third base so far and the improvement would likely be significant.

Lowell is also a right-handed hitter and has batted .287/.354/.493 versus left-handed pitching during his career, making him a good fit for a Twins lineup heavy in lefty bats. When healthy his overall production has essentially been identical to Michael Cuddyer, with Lowell batting .279/.342/.466 and Cuddyer batting .270/.343/.457. Cuddyer has obviously been a key cog in the Twins' lineup for a long time, so adding a similar right-handed bat would help a lot.

Defensively is another story, because while Lowell was once a Gold Glove-winning defender at third base age and injuries may have turned him into a liability there. He graded out very well in Ultimate Zone Rating all the way up to 2008, but had hip surgery that offseason and came back to rate 10.7 runs below average in 107 games there last season. He's started just four games at third base this season, which makes it impossible to say if his range has recovered.

I'd be confident calling him a worthwhile, sensible target if the Twins are comfortable pursuing Lowell after presumably having access to his health status and scouting some of his starts this year. He could provide a big offensive upgrade at third base while holding his own defensively and even if his range is gone for good the tradeoff may be worth making. Worst case, if Lowell proved to be a huge liability in the field they'd benefit from his righty bat in a platoon at DH.

Lowell will be a risky acquisition however you slice it, so the potential move comes down to what the Twins would have to trade the Red Sox to take that risk. Back in December they had a deal worked out to send Lowell and $9 million of his $12 million salary to the Rangers for an intriguing but ultimately mid-level catching prospect named Max Ramirez and obviously teams haven't been banging down their door since the trade was nixed.

Money isn't as much of a factor at this point in the season, but assuming the Twins have some room to add salary they presumably should be able to get Lowell for a prospect clearly outside their top 20. It's tough to speculate any more specifically than that in terms of which players the Red Sox would target, but if the Twins can get Lowell for a prospect in the 30 range (now, not based on preseason rankings) they should pull the trigger.

He's a risk, but if reasonably healthy and productive Lowell would fill a clear area of need with a massive offensive upgrade in the form of a right-handed bat with some pop and might even surprise some people with his glove. Old, injured players are scary and I'm as hesitant as the Twins when it comes to parting with even mid-level prospects, but if the price is right Lowell was good enough as recently as last season to potentially give the team a major boost.

June 14, 2010

F-Bomb 2.0: How close is Francisco Liriano to 2006?

Francisco Liriano has reemerged as an elite pitcher this year and his latest masterpiece came Friday night against the Braves, with 11 strikeouts and zero walks in eight innings of one-run ball. His gem versus Atlanta marked the second straight start in which Liriano has allowed just one run while racking up double-digit strikeouts, and overall this season he's 6-3 with a 2.90 ERA and 87-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 80.2 innings spread over 12 starts.

Now four years removed from Tommy John surgery Liriano has clearly re-established himself as an ace, but because he was the ace prior to going under the knife the temptation will always be there to compare what he's doing now to the 2006 version that eviscerated the league as a 22-year-old rookie. Thanks to abundance of information available at Fan Graphs, we can get a pretty good idea of how Liriano in 2010 stacks up to Liriano in 2006.

Let's start from the top, with his fastball:

FASTBALL          2006     2010
Velocity          94.7     93.5
Percentage        43.6     50.7
Runs per 100     +0.13    +0.50

Liriano in 2006 threw his fastball an average of 94.7 miles per hour, but his velocity has dipped to 93.5 miles per hour this season. While that still ranks seventh in the league, a decline of 1.2 miles per hour is a significant drop in velocity. However, despite Liriano's fastball being slower he's thrown it 16.2 percent more often and the pitch has also been more effective, rating 0.50 runs above average per 100 offerings compared to 0.13 runs above average per 100 in 2006.

In other words, Liriano's fastball has gotten worse but he's gotten better at throwing it, which is natural for a pitcher as he gains more experience and also a credit to the work he's done on the long road back from surgery. Obviously it would be great if Liriano threw 95 mph again, but having better command of the pitch at 93.5 mph can actually be even better. Now let's take a similar look at his slider:

SLIDER            2006     2010
Velocity          87.7     85.0
Percentage        37.6     32.6
Runs per 100     +3.47    +2.71

Surgery cost Liriano even more velocity on his slider than his fastball, with the pitch going from an average of 87.7 mph in 2006 to 85.0 mph this year. Not only did his 87.7 mph slider lead the league in 2006, no one else even cracked 87.0. This year his slider velocity is 13th in the league and unlike with the fastball he hasn't been able to compensate by throwing it better. He's relied on the slider 13.2 percent less and the pitch has been 21.9 percent less effective.

Of course, less effective is a relative term. His slider has gone from +3.47 runs per 100 pitches in 2006 to +2.71 runs per 100 pitches this year, which is a big drop. Yet even at 21.9 percent less effective than it was before surgery Liriano's slider has been the second-best in the AL. That shows just how devastating his slider was in 2006, but also that, as Chipper Jones put it after facing him Friday, he still throws "some disappearing" and "Randy Johnson-type" sliders.

CHANGEUP          2006     2010
Velocity          83.5     84.8
Percentage        18.7     16.7
Runs per 100     +2.82    -0.99

Liriano's changeup was underrated in 2006 as everyone focused on his mid-90s fastball and ridiculous slider, but it ranked as one of the best in the league at +2.82 runs per 100 pitches. Since coming back from surgery Liriano's changeup velocity has actually risen by 1.3 mph, but that's not a good thing and when combined with a 1.2 mph decline in fastball velocity equals a much less effective weapon. In fact, his changeup has gone from great in 2006 to bad in 2010.

In terms of individual pitches, Liriano's fastball is slower but ultimately more effective, his slider is slower and less effective but still an incredibly dominant offering, and his changeup is faster but significantly less effective. Now let's move on to Liriano's actual results with a year-to-year comparison of his ERA, Expected Fielding Independent Pitching, strikeout rate, walk rate, and ground-ball percentage:

YEAR      ERA     xFIP     SO/9     BB/9      GB%
2006     2.16     2.35     10.7      2.4     55.3
2010     2.90     2.95      9.7      2.4     49.1

Those stats are all more or less what you'd expected based on the individual pitch changes. He's lost one strikeout per nine innings and has induced 11 percent fewer ground balls, which makes sense given the drops in velocity and slider ridiculousness. However, his walk rate has remained constant at 2.4 batters per nine innings, which can seemingly be linked to Liriano's improved fastball command canceling out the decline in raw, blow-it-past-everyone stuff.

What made Liriano so amazing in 2006 is that he combined an incredible number of strikeouts with tons of ground balls, which is the perfect recipe for a pitcher. Surgery has cost him about 10 percent of both his strikeouts and ground balls, but Liriano still ranks third in the league in strikeout rate and 12th in ground-ball rate. In terms of overall effectiveness, he's gone from a 2.16 ERA and 2.35 xFIP in 2006 to a 2.90 ERA and 2.95 xFIP this season.

Here's an even further breakdown of his results, based on strikes, swings, and contact:

YEAR     ZONE     SWNG     CONT     Z-SW     Z-CN     O-SW     O-CN
2006     54.8     47.8     65.4     64.5     76.0     27.5     35.3
2010     47.5     46.9     75.5     63.3     87.1     32.2     54.8

Liriano has actually thrown 13.3 percent fewer pitches in the strike zone (ZONE) this season, which perhaps could be chalked up to his no longer being able to simply overpower everyone with strikes. Opponents are swinging (SWNG) at basically the same number of pitches, hacking at 48 percent in 2006 and 47 percent this season, but they're making contact (CONT) on those swings 15.4 percent more often this year.

On pitches inside the zone opponents are swinging (Z-SW) at the same rate as 2006, but are making 15 percent more contact (Z-CN). On pitches outside the zone opponents are swinging (O-SW) 17 percent more often and also making 55 percent more contact (O-CN). I'm not smart enough to know for sure, but it seems like the slider going from ridiculous to merely excellent and the changeup going from excellent to bad could explain the swing and contact changes.

Add it all up and Liriano clearly isn't the same pitcher he was before elbow surgery. His velocity is down, his slider and changeup aren't as good, he's getting 10 percent fewer strikeouts and ground balls, and hitters are having a much easier time making contact against him on pitches in and out of the strike zone. He's also relying less on his slider and more on his fastball, likely due in part to the injury risk of the slider and in part to his improved command of the fastball.

It seems clear that the phenom who toyed with the league in 2006 is simply gone forever, but the good news is that Liriano was so spectacularly awesome then that even this post-surgery version with obvious declines in numerous areas is one of the elite pitchers in all of baseball. His combination of strikeouts and ground balls still ranks among the best in the league and his raw stuff is still capable of overpowering hitters, as the Braves saw first hand Friday.

Oh, and the other good news? F-Bomb 2.0 is still five months from his 27th birthday.

June 11, 2010

Link-O-Rama

• Who among us hasn't been tempted to break into a donut shop at three in the morning?

• After one career start, Stephen Strasburg has an xFIP of -0.50. Seriously.

Carrie Underwood would immediately become an Official Fantasy Girl of AG.com contender if all she did was play softball.

• I'll be hugely disappointed if the person who eliminates Jamie Hector from this weekend's paintball tournament featuring The Wire cast members doesn't yell: "My name is my name!"

• Is it really possible that the entire landscape of college athletics conferences is changing and all the Big Ten ends up with is Nebraska? If they're going to 12 teams, why not go all the way to 16 and at least get Kansas (and Kansas State) in for basketball? I have no allegiance to the Big 12, but for some reason the whole thing makes me sad.

• In case there was any doubt about The Roots being the best part of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, this should settle it. Gotta love Ice Cube bleeping himself throughout.

• Twins second-round pick Cartier Goodrum wasn't the only amazing name drafted this week.

• Gophers catcher Kyle Knudson was drafted by the Twins in the ninth round and two of his teammates were also picked by other teams. Catcher/outfielder Mike Kvasnicka went to the Astros a dozen spots after the Twins selected Alex Wimmers and reliever Seth Rosin went to the Giants at No. 138. As former Twins blogger Trevor Born points out in the Minnesota Daily, the last Gophers position player to be drafted higher than Kvasnicka was Brent Gates in 1991.

• My two favorite radio personalities of all time, together in one awkward picture.

• Not surprisingly, Phillies fans get their drinking careers started very early.

• Re-runs of Seinfeld have grossed $2.7 billion (yes, billion) since the show went off the air 12 years ago, with most of that money going to creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. As the latter would say: "Pretty, pretty, pretty good."

• There's zero doubt that this hilarious mockumentary about Ralph Macchio will be significantly better than the sure-to-be-horrible Karate Kid remake:

"You sure, Ralph? I mean, the cuddling is your favorite part."

• Just because I haven't linked to any pictures of Marisa Miller in a while.

Ozzie Guillen is unhappy that his son Ozney Guillen (no, that's not a typo) warranted only a 22nd-round pick, but he was actually just one of five managers' sons to be drafted this year.

• Speaking of Guillen, general manager Ken Williams sounds ready to blow up the White Sox.

• This actually isn't that far off from what my elliptical machine looks like with a laptop perched on top and the ability to wedge an IBM Thinkpad between the handles was purely coincidence.

• Here's everything you ever wanted to know about The Hardball Times and my involvement, including an exclusive photo from our first staff meeting.

• This year's World Series of Poker is underway in Las Vegas and Tom Dwan was very close to winning millions of dollars in side bets from a bunch of the high-stakes players.

• ESPN is gradually expanding to various markets with "local" sites like ESPNNewYork.com and ESPNLosAngeles.com, but now SB Nation (which runs Twinkie Town) is taking a Blogger-based approach to the same process. Newspapers may be in the death rattle stage, but that doesn't mean there will be a shortage of sportswriting jobs in the near future.

• Speaking of newspapers, if you've watched television during the past couple decades you've probably seen this one a few times.

Jason Heller of A.V. Club provides a guide for getting as obsessed with Van Morrison as me.

• Their owner Frank McCourt is going through a messy divorce, so the Dodgers are seemingly taking advantage of the draft's failed-signing compensation rules to make things easier on him financially.

• Of course, the Dodgers aren't so strapped for cash that they can't pay a Russian "healer" to "send positive energy over great distances" for the past five years.

• After two seasons HBO recently canceled one of my favorite underrated shows, The Life and Times of Tim, but there's a chance it could wind up another channel.

Jay Mohr appeared on Adam Carolla's podcast and discussed his now-inaccurate reputation for being a jerk, which fittingly was my impression of him before hearing him be a great guest.

• Speaking of great podcast guests, Steve Nash was excellent with Bill Simmons. One of my favorite players on and off the court.

• Blogging for the past eight years finally paid off this week, as a longtime reader sent me 110 hours of Karl Pilkington (and Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant) audio. Sadly though, none of you have sent me the audio of Official Fantasy Girl of AG.com candidate Diora Baird's recent appearance on Loveline yet. You guys are really slacking off.

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

- Kosuke Fukudome living up to "Mr. April" label
- Indians send Matt LaPorta back to Triple-A
- Chone Figgins not happy about move to bottom of Mariners' lineup
- Pirates calling up Jose Tabata and Brad Lincoln
- Brandon Wood's struggles carry over to Triple-A
- Randy Wolf allows five homers in loss to Cubs

• Finally, this week's AG.com-approved music video is Elvis Costello singing "Alison" during his first ever television appearance:

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