July 26, 2010

Twins Notes: Delmon, Defense, Hudson, Haren, and Real Men

• I wrote about "the new and improved Delmon Young" a month ago, examining changes he'd made to finally start living up to his potential ... and since then he's hit .350 with five homers, 11 doubles, and a .564 slugging percentage in 30 games. The new-found patience he showed early this season has vanished, with Young drawing a grand total of one non-intentional walk in 123 plate appearances during that stretch, but hitting .350 makes that seem kind of trivial.

Hitting coach Joe Vavra had some interesting quotes about swing changes Young has made:

He doesn't have the head-shoulder drop any more. His head is not moving, he's [keeping] a firm front side. So he's kind of putting it all together, which is a good thing to see. He came into spring training on a mission. He had that weight drop, and he was on a mission to clean up some things that he needed to do, and he did.

We go out in that cage every day, and we try to solve issues and problems that come up. He listens real well, he tries different things, but he's his own guy. He gets out there and does what he thinks is going to help himself to be successful, and he takes what we do in the cage and it's all on him then.

Young is up to .322/.354/.528 with 13 homers and 28 doubles in 92 games overall this season, which is good for an .882 OPS that ranks as the highest from any Twins outfielder who played enough to qualify for the batting title since Kirby Puckett in 1995.

• Fans and media members love to talk about the importance of defense, but I'm realizing now that's mostly just lip service. Few people seemed to recognize the role defense played in Nick Blackburn's success in 2008 and 2009, just as few people seem to realize the negative impact defense--or more accurately, outfield defense--has had on the rotation this year. For instance, Francisco Liriano's batting average on balls in play is the highest in all of baseball at .357.

Liriano has a 133-to-36 strikeout-to-walk ratio and just two homers allowed in 122 frames, but because such a high percentage of balls in play have gone for hits his ERA is a half-run higher than it probably should be, his record is just 8-7, and he's not getting credit for an ace-caliber year. Blackburn, Scott Baker, and Kevin Slowey are also each among the league's 10 highest in-play batting averages, which isn't a coincidence and has played a big part in their struggles.

Denard Span in center field flanked by some combination of Young, Jason Kubel, and Michael Cuddyer in the corners simply isn't a good defensive outfield, which is reflected in the pitching and in the Twins' outfield ranking 24th in Ultimate Zone Rating. Baker and Slowey have often been lumped in with Blackburn, but as extreme fly-ball pitchers with xFIPs of 3.77 and 4.45 it's pretty easy to see they've been hurt by fly balls turning into extra-base hits instead of outs.

Orlando Hudson straining his oblique muscle Saturday is tough break for the Twins, because that injury tends to linger and he was hitting well recently after initially struggling in his return from wrist problems last month. Hudson has hit .285/.356/.387 in 80 games overall this year, including .293/.360/.393 in his last 25 games, which along with solid defense at second base makes him one of the most valuable players on the team.

Alexi Casilla will apparently be the primary fill-in at second base after returning from an elbow injury of his own last week. Casilla has played well in limited action this season, but is a career .246/.306/.315 hitter and not as good as Hudson defensively. Plus, because Ron Gardenhire equates defensive position to place in the batting order that means Casilla and his .306 career on-base percentage will likely be hitting second in the lineup for however long Hudson is out.

Justin Morneau felt good enough to work out over the weekend, but various reports make it clear that he's not close to coming off the disabled list. He hasn't played since taking a knee to the helmet while breaking up a double play on July 7 and Cuddyer has started all 15 games at first base in his absence, with Kubel in right field and Jim Thome as the regular designated hitter. Along with last year's back injury, Morneau has missed 42 of the past 123 games.

• You can cross Dan Haren's name off the Twins' trade deadline wishlist, as the Diamondbacks traded him to the Angels yesterday for Joe Saunders and three prospects. I'm underwhelmed by the package Arizona received, because Saunders is more or less a left-handed Slowey and none of the prospects are considered elite, but regardless of that Haren in Minnesota may not have been possible. He's a California native and reportedly had the Twins on his no-trade list.

Carl Pavano has four complete games in his last seven starts and now ranks third in the AL with 143.2 innings, which is just two fewer innings than he threw combined during four years with the Yankees. Pavano has basically spent one full season in the Twins' rotation since being acquired from the Indians last August for mid-level pitching prospect Yohan Pino, starting 32 games with a 17-10 record, 3.73 ERA, and 140-to-35 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 217.1 innings.

Since the trade Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez, Adam Wainwright, and CC Sabathia are the only pitchers with more innings than Pavano, which is amazing given his history. Seth Stohs wrote recently that "the front office and advanced scouts who told the Twins' brass Pavano should be targeted deserve a ton of credit" and I agree, but numbers told the same story. At the time of the trade he had a 3.94 xFIP. Since the trade, he has a 3.95 xFIP and 3.73 ERA.

• Forgotten man Clay Condrey will miss the rest of the season with an elbow injury after not throwing a pitch for the Twins, which means they wasted $900,000 on a 34-year-old middle reliever they never really needed in the first place. For now he's hoping to avoid surgery while instead undergoing platelet rich plasma injections and the Twins opened up a 40-man roster spot for Anthony Slama by transferring Condrey to the 60-day disabled list.

• Speaking of season-ending elbow injuries, Joe Nathan played catch last Monday for the first time since going under the knife in March. Starting to throw again from flat ground is merely the first big step on the long road back from Tommy John surgery and Nathan is still not a sure thing to be ready for Opening Day next season, but so far so good. Mel Antonen of USA Today wrote a lengthy article about Nathan rehabbing away from the team in Tennessee.

• One of my pet peeves with the method stats are recorded is that pickoffs are not counted in stolen base totals. For instance, Span is officially 18-of-19 stealing bases this season, which is great, but he's been picked off an MLB-high five times. He was also picked off an MLB-high 10 times last season while officially going 23-of-33 on steals. He should stay tethered to the base at this point, but beyond that it's more evidence of the value of steals being vastly overrated.

• When the Twins struggled mightily with the bases loaded early on this season many people misguidedly tried to attach all sorts of "explanations" for the lack of production, when in reality extreme outcomes simply come with the territory when the sample size is merely a few dozen at-bats. Sure enough, FOX9 sports producer Seth Kaplan pointed out that since starting the season 7-for-47 (.149) with the bases loaded the Twins are 24-for-60 (.400) in those spots.

Kubel's grand slam yesterday was the seventh of his career and he's now hitting .400 with an .833 slugging percentage in 73 plate appearances with the bases loaded.

• Slama, on being called up from Triple-A to join a clubhouse full of equally mustachioed men:

I've been grooming this thing since April. I didn't know all this was happening up here, the mustache extravaganza. It's good to see some real men in here.

Indeed.

  • TL

    I would love to see Repko for Kubes or Delmon in games when it’s late and close. I doubt I will ever see that.

    Was anyone at all surprised to see Casilla in the two hole today? Thank GOD Matt Tolbert is still injured or HE would be batting second.

  • Chris

    I can’t believe it would be that difficult to pick up a right-handed bat with some defensive upside. Any suggestions?

  • sports pr guy

    Did Twins Management completly misread how Target field was going to play or was it just by chance their best OF are below avg fielders?
    I noticed C Gomez isn’t even starting for the Brewers.

  • Pedro Munoz

    I honestly thought that Nick Blackburn was going to blow a 9-run lead today. What purpose does it serve to keep him on the major league roster?

  • A.J.

    Great article. In the absence of O-Hud, I think Mauer should return to the 2-hole now that his power has left him.

  • chris

    twins are back on track,

    blackburn in bullpen is silly…………

  • Neil

    Is Liriano a fly-ball pitcher? Can our poor outfield defense hurt him as much as the other starters (Baker especially)? Wouldn’t Frankie’s numbers be skewed by the two terrible starts he’s had?

    And Go-Go played what, half the season last year? I know he appeared in 137 games, but he only had 300-some plate appearances; many, many times he was a defensive replacement. Our outfield defense couldn’t have been that much better in ’09. We just had less right field to cover in the dome.

    Frankly, I think our outfield defense is slightly better now with Cuddyer at first base. He can’t get to anything in right anymore.

  • http://www.stickandballguy.com/blog SBG

    Slowey and Baker are fly ball pitchers, but Liriano isn’t, so it’s pretty hard to lump Liriano in with those two guys when you are talking outfield defense. Liriano’s got the highest GB/FB ratio of the five starters, by plenty. The next highest is Pavano, who has a very low .257 BABIP.

  • MC

    Yeah, kind of picking on the D in Defense of Liriano and then giving credit to those same defenders for Pavano’s improved out comes (ERA)… ?

    Our outfield D is brutal, sure. But I think our infield D has been considerably better and that’s what Liriano should be most concerned with.

  • Zman

    My question, Mr. Gleeman: Is there any facet of the game that you cannot deem overrated based on some advanced metric?

  • Abe

    My question, Mr. Gleeman: Is there any facet of the game that you cannot deem overrated based on some advanced metric?

    Thank you sir…

  • Josh

    Some nice wins in Baltimore this weekend, but I’m concerned that the success of gardy’s “give up” lineup on Sunday will convince him that it’s a good idea to give more AB’s to bad hitters, instead of just taking it for what it was: the whole team beating up on a bad pitcher. It’s great that Butera had 3 hits, Punto blorked in a few, Repko floated one out, etc. but it doesn’t make them good hitters.

    I agree with AJ, Mauer should shift up into the 2-hole with the O-Dog out, with Demon batting 3, Kubel 4, Cuddyer 5, and Thome 6 (when Mauer is catching). I’d like to see Valencia continue to play at 3B; small sample size, but the results so far suggest he’s worth giving more time to, especially with O-Dog out and you know Gardy’s going to keep running Punto out as often as he can.

    Speaking of Punto, I saw him dive head-first into first twice this weekend and get called out and I’m pretty sure he would have been safe if he’d run one of them out and had a shot at the other one too. I’d be nice if we had a manager who could stand up to a veteran player and fine his ass every time he did something this dumb, but I’m sure in Gardy’s mind it’s all Danny Valencia’s fault for…making Nicky look bad by hitting better. It would also be nice if they’d admit the idea of Punto as switch hitter is a bad one. He’s adequate as a righty, and it’s not like we couldn’t use more R’s in the lineup…

  • http://www.twinscards.com thingvall

    The Twins have, what, $13 million in bullpen payroll that won’t pitch one inning for them in 2010. Add in Neshek and Perkins for nearly anotehr million guaranteed. Whew!

    And the Twins can’t afford Oswalt.

    But, that’s the difference between the Twins and the big 2-3. When you have to eat payroll, it actually hurts!

  • aweb

    Pickoffs aren’t necessarily a reflection of trying to steal bases, some are just being absent-minded or caught by a pitcher with a “balk-type” move. Actually, some caught stealings aren’t part of trying to steal bases, on failed hit-and-runs the runner wasn’t really expecting to make it should the hitter fail.

    Baserunning stats would be a lot clearer if they counted such things separately, rather than all together.

  • mike wants wins

    Bullpen help? Really? they want bullpen help? Is that insane, or what? This team needs a starting pitcher. They have bullpen pitchers in teh minors. Go get a starter.

  • Dave T

    The Twins just moved their best left-handed relief pitcher (Duensing) to the starting rotation. Now they need another left-handed reliever. Blackburn is in the bullpen now, but he has no more value as a reliever than he had as a starter.

  • chris

    to Mike wants wins:

    They do not really need bullpen help even if they finally demote Blackburn.

    Waldrop and Neshek are down in Minors for example. Rauch, Mahay, Mijares in bullpen…everything works.
    But 5th starter gone so far..(Blackburn) and Baker is having an off year…

  • yefrem

    denard span is terrible at reading LHP pickoffs. even when he is not stealing, how many times does he lurch back to first base when a LHP delivers to the plate? its embarassing.

  • Kevin

    Garza throws no hitter. I’d trade Young for Garza.

  • Brian

    “My question, Mr. Gleeman: Is there any facet of the game that you cannot deem overrated based on some advanced metric?”

    Sure, there are plenty: Sac bunts, game calling + pitcher managing ability of catchers, clubhouse chemistry, basically anything nick punto does. Did I miss anything?

  • http://kkvb.blogspot.com Karl

    Check the forecast in Hell.

    Some potential for freezing over.

    Delmon Young as of this morning, .330/.363/.539 = .902 OPS

    Gotta hand it to the guy – hard work has paid off in a career year. Here is the $250,000 question now. Are you guys in favor of paying him thru arbitration for a couple more years, signing to a multi year deal (if I was his agent the only sentence I would utter in negotiations would be “Cuddyer makes over $10m per”) or trade him now that his value is the highest it probably will be for a while and perhaps ever.

  • Large Canine

    Trade Young for Garza! Really? How did Garza do last night? He didn’t play last night? Really! And how will Garza do in tonight’s game? He won’t play! Hmmm. And how did Young do in last nights game? Garza would be our #3 behind Liriano and Pavano and Young will get some AL MVP votes.

  • Squishy
  • K-Man

    “just as few people seem to realize the negative impact defense–or more accurately, outfield defense–has had on the rotation this year. For instance, Francisco Liriano’s batting average on balls in play is the highest in all of baseball at .357.”

    Keeping Young in the outfield, I would say, has a lot to do with this stat.

  • brian

    This diving into first has to be stopped. It is not worth injuring million dollar bodies for the 1 out of 550 times diving gets there faster than running it out. Is this playing the game “the right way?”

  • Confused

    “… but beyond that it’s more evidence of the value of steals being vastly overrated.”

    How is that evidence of the value of steals being overrated? It has zero to do with the value of steals. It probably tells you that MLB record keeping practices can be misleading. It probably tells you that you need to look further than just ’17 of 18 in attempts.’

    But it says absolutely nothing about the value of a stolen base.

  • Kevin

    • Delmon Young is crushing the ball and Matt Garza tossed a no-hitter Monday night against the Tigers, so the 2007 trade that sent Garza, Jason Bartlett, and Eduardo Morlan to Tampa Bay for Young, Brendan Harris, and Jason Pridie is suddenly a very popular topic again. Twins fans who’re rightfully excited about Young’s breakout won’t want to hear it, but the Rays are still clearly in the lead based on Wins Above Replacement since the November 28, 2007 deal:

    TWINS WAR RAYS WAR
    Delmon Young +0.6 Matt Garza +7.6
    Brendan Harris +0.2 Jason Bartlett +7.0
    Jason Pridie -0.3 Eduardo Morlan 0.0
    TOTAL +0.5 TOTAL +14.6
    To put those numbers into some context, Mauer as been worth 5.8 WAR per 150 games. So in terms of production and value received from the trade, the Rays have an edge of basically 2.5 seasons from Mauer. At the moment the trade looks far less horrible for the Twins than it did in 2008 and 2009, but Young playing well for four months doesn’t wipe away his playing terribly for the previous two years or Garza and Bartlett both being huge contributors for the Rays.

    Since the trade Garza has 516 innings with a 3.89 ERA, which is better than any Twins starter in that time, and Bartlett has a .761 OPS that’s close to the .780 OPS from Young even without factoring in the huge defense/position gap. I’m thrilled that Young has figured things out and the deal is starting to lean in the Twins’ favor, but let’s not get crazy with the hyperbole. Can’t we recognize his emergence without re-writing history and going completely over the top?