April 14, 2011

Twins Notes: Pitching to contact, Hunt scares, upped usage, and Gatsby

• Prior to yesterday's game Ron Gardenhire reiterated something he's been saying for a while now, which is that the Twins want Francisco Liriano to "pitch to contact" rather than focusing on strikeouts. That can be a positive thing, as Liriano would definitely benefit by improving his control and going deeper in games, but it seems like an odd stance to take following a season in which he had 201 strikeouts and a team-best 3.62 ERA. Here's what Gardenhire said:

We've told him forever that he's a strikeout pitcher. We understand that he can strike people out, but if he really wants to become a pitcher, pitch to contact. Use that two-seamer and use that slider down and in every once in a while, and that changeup, but pitch to contact early. That'll get him deep into games.

Because his stuff is so good. There's times when you need to go for the strikeout. That's when you save your Mr. Nasty, as they say. You throw the nasty pitches then. But those other times you need to pitch to contact to get you deeper into games. When you want that big strikeout, maybe with a man on second, and you've got an open base, take your shot with your stuff.

Liriano followed those orders against the Royals, throwing 68 percent strikes and walking just one batter, admitting afterward: "I was throwing more fastballs than I used to. I just wanted them to put the ball in play, not try to strike out a lot of people." In doing so he also showed the downside of asking a strikeout pitcher to adopt the "pitch to contact" approach. He cruised through the first three innings, but then this nightmare unraveled in the fourth inning:

Single

Single

Single

Single

Single

Double

Ground out

Single

Caught stealing

Single

Strikeout

Six runs on eight hits and at most three of them were well-struck. Even the double came on a ground ball. And he needed a strikeout just to escape all the bloopers falling in and grounders getting through. Last year no defense in the league turned a lower percentage of balls in play into outs than the Twins did behind Liriano and yesterday was the same story, as a defense with Michael Cuddyer at second base and the usual lack of outfield range did him no favors.

To be clear, Liriano has not pitched well through three starts. However, he was very good last year largely because of his ability to rack up strikeouts and I'm just not sure about the wisdom of trying to force the guy with the best raw stuff on the staff into the Twins' preferred pitching mold, particularly when the defense behind him is ill-suited to actually make that approach look good. Why should Liriano trust a sub par defense more than his ability to get strikeouts?

Obviously the Twins have shown that pitching to contact can be successful, but most pitchers adopt that approach because they aren't capable of missing bats like Liriano and MLB hit .325 with a .508 slugging percentage when not striking out in 2010. Strikeouts are good, relying on the defense can often be bad, and forcing a uniquely square peg into a round hole brings back bad memories of the Twins trying to change David Ortiz into something other than a slugger.

Alex Wimmers was the Twins' first-round pick last June after winning back-to-back Big Ten pitcher of the year awards at Ohio State and ranked No. 5 on my annual list of the Twins' top prospects. After signing Wimmers debuted with a 0.57 ERA and 23-to-5 strikeout-to-walk in 16 innings at high Single-A, but his first start back at Fort Myers this year couldn't have gone any worse, as he walked the first six batters before being yanked with no outs in the first inning.

Wimmers was a strike-throwing machine in college and his pro debut, but clearly this goes well beyond simple control issues. He threw just four of 28 pitches for strikes, uncorked three wild pitches in addition to the six walks, and was immediately placed on the minor-league disabled list with "flu-like symptoms" after the disastrous start. Wimmers isn't actually sick, but that's a way for the Twins to shut him down without the presence of an injury.

He's been pulled from Fort Myers' rotation and sent to extended spring training to work on his mechanics, as the Twins don't want to let things snowball after watching what happened to 2008 first-round pick Shooter Hunt when his control suddenly abandoned him following a good pro debut. Hunt has 145 walks in 104 innings since 2009, falling off the prospect map. There's no reason to assume Wimmers is destined for the same fate, but it's an awfully scary red flag.

• Now that Matt Capps has been freed from the misguidedly rigid usage patterns of the closer role Gardenhire is using him far more often. Capps threw 27 innings in 60 games on the Twins' roster last season, which is a 73-inning pace. So far this season he's logged 6.2 innings in 11 games, which is a 98-inning pace. Not only is Capps working the eighth inning in front of Joe Nathan, he's pitched in the seventh inning twice after doing so zero times from 2008-2010.

He's unlikely to stay on a 98-inning pace, which would be a 30 percent increase from last year, but given the middle relief question marks having Capps for, say, 20 percent more action than he'd get as a closer can make a big impact. There's risk of breaking down physically with that much work, but Capps was very durable prior to becoming a closer and as an impending free agent likely to seek big money as a closer the Twins have less reason to worry beyond 2011.

• Rather than trade Kevin Slowey during spring training the Twins shifted him to the bullpen and now his landing on the disabled list with a shoulder injury has put any trade talk on hold, but Jon Paul Morosi of FOXSports.com speculates that the Twins could renew their efforts to deal Slowey once he's healthy and with top prospect Kyle Gibson close to being MLB-ready it would make plenty of sense.

Last month most reports had the Twins shopping Slowey for bullpen help, but Morosi correctly notes that the middle infield is now a much bigger area of concern with Tsuyoshi Nishioka out with a fractured fibula and Alexi Casilla predictably struggling on both sides of the ball. Morosi mentions the Red Sox as a possible suitor and they have shortstop depth to spare with Marco Scutaro backed up by Jed Lowrie and slick-fielding prospect Jose Iglesias at Triple-A.

• Gardenhire talked of giving Luke Hughes some action at shortstop, which is a bad idea when he last played shortstop at Single-A in 2006 and doesn't even get strong reviews for his glove at second base. Plus, in what scenario might that make sense? Hughes isn't going to be the shortstop if Casilla or Matt Tolbert are in the lineup. He may get the nod there if Cuddyer is at second base, but then the game would be canceled when the pitcher refuses to take the field.

Trevor Plouffe is off to a great start at Triple-A, hitting .348 with three homers in six games, but before anyone gets too excited remember that he played his way out of the middle infield mix during spring training by performing horribly and came into the season with a career line of .255/.306/.417 in 1,200 plate appearances at Triple-A. Plouffe hitting well is nice to see, but a good week in his fourth go-around at Rochester shouldn't change anyone's view of his future.

• So far so good with Denard Span's mechanical adjustments following his disappointing 2010. While the Twins' lineup as a whole has hit just .236/.283/.306 for a .589 OPS that ranks dead last in the league, Span has hit .333/.375/.422 through 11 games. Not only is that a massive improvement compared to last year's .275/.326/.375 line, it's very close to the .305/.390/.422 line he posted between 2008 and 2009. If he keeps that up, the lineup will click soon enough.

Parker Hageman at Over the Baggy passes along this shot of the new right field scoreboard at Target Field displaying Delmon Young's "favorite book." This whole time I had him pegged as more of a Tender Is The Night kind of guy.

28 Comments »

  1. Liriano can’t get anyone out, regardless of the approach. Rumors of his offseason work ethic (or lack thereof) seem to be true.

    Comment by mrgerbik — April 14, 2011 @ 12:49 am

  2. I think that Liriano will turn it around eventually, but I can’t help but blame his off season work ethic as the culprit thus far.

    I also figured Delmon was a huge fan of the theme of “This Side of Paradise”.

    Comment by Zach Morris — April 14, 2011 @ 1:39 am

  3. Liriano sucks so far…but he is good enough to go 4.50 ERA over the season and get us 10+ wins…

    Comment by chris — April 14, 2011 @ 2:58 am

  4. Pitching to contact, and particularly inducing ground balls, is fine when you have good defenders to back up the pitcher. Not so much when you are forced to start Cuddyer at 2B, along with Kubel & Delmon manning the corner outfield positions. Management seems content to accumulate a bunch of disparate parts, without any regard for how things fit together, and low payroll can no longer be used as an excuse. Some fresh thinking is sorely needed in this organization, as the window of opportunity is about to slam shut in the AL Central.

    Comment by Wade — April 14, 2011 @ 4:08 am

  5. Remember when Gardy used to say that the Twins were a better team with Johan Santana pitching out of the pen, despite the fact that Joe Mays was going out there every 5th day and giving up 6 runs a start? Gardy and his pitching philosophy have been necessitating scratching heads for a long time.

    Comment by Trace — April 14, 2011 @ 5:51 am

  6. I’m thinking Liriano will round into form by the end of April, however Gardy might yank him before then.

    Comment by MC — April 14, 2011 @ 6:04 am

  7. Maybe they should have traded him…maybe I was wrong. But, I’m with Aaron, I’d much rather have Liriano trying to miss bats. That said, he needs to miss closer (anecdote, no data), as when he misses it seems that he misses so much that no one* would swing at the pitch.

    *given that he’s not pitching to Cuddeyer….

    Comment by mike wants WINS — April 14, 2011 @ 8:03 am

  8. As for Plouffe, look, I don’t think he’s going to be Derek Jeter. But, we know that Casilla is a bad baseball player who is mentally weak. Why not try Plouffe and see what happens? It can’t be worse, can it?

    Comment by mike wants WINS — April 14, 2011 @ 8:22 am

  9. How many nights has Delmon stayed awake staring longingly across the bay at the blinking green light? Is that why he’s gotten off to a slow start?

    Comment by Hats Off To Us — April 14, 2011 @ 8:34 am

  10. Liriano’s fastball just doesn’t have the life it had last year at this point. It’s flat and straight. His fastball last year was inducing a ton of groundballs and kept the ball in the park.

    Currently, he knows that the only pitch he has right now to get outs is the slider. So he can pitch to contact and pray it gets hit at someone or he work way too hard to get the K’s, give up a ton of walks, and be on the bench after 4-5 IP. It’s basically academic right now HOW you want Liriano to be ineffective, but he will be ineffective until his fastball moves again.

    Comment by TMW — April 14, 2011 @ 8:42 am

  11. Span’s approach at the plate so far this season is very encouraging, and I hope it continues. Right now it’s still a pretty small sample, but the results are good and he clearly is doing somethings differently in his approach to his ABs.

    Someone else doing something similar is Kubel, who looks pretty good so far as well. He said he was looking to go back to the line-drive stroke he used in the minors, and he’s the only other consistent hitter in the lineup so far. He’s looked better at the plate this year as well, and if he can sustain it maybe he might even have a little better success with this approach against LHs? I’m still amazed his shot against the Royals didn’t go out, and clearly he was too. Guess we need it to warm up a little more before anyone other than Thome can just launch them out of Target Field…

    Comment by Josh — April 14, 2011 @ 8:47 am

  12. AG –

    Could you put a link on your page of the “Twins Top 40″ I printed off the #20 C. Pascual yesterday for my father in law and he loved it. The rest of the night he kept reciting the Twins 1961 lineup and talking about how dominant Pascual was.
    Speaking of dominance; I was surprised to see him at #20 considering how good he was for the Twins. Reading your write up I pictured him as the 2nd most dominant pitcher (j. Santana) in club history.

    Comment by pk — April 14, 2011 @ 9:00 am

  13. Gleeman, your writing is getting painfully passive aggressive and bitter. When was the last time you wrote something without using the word “misguided”?

    “the Twins want Francisco Liriano to “pitch to contact” rather than focusing on strikeouts”

    You’re conveniently leaving out parts of what Gardenhire said to make his position look stupid. He said to get the strikeout when you need it, but to throw more strikes to avoid walking people and throwing too many pitches. I’d say there were a few instances in that outing where Gardenhire would have been okay with a strikeout.

    “Last year no defense in the league turned a lower percentage of balls in play into outs than the Twins did behind Liriano”

    What happened to the talk of last year’s infield defense being elite? Can’t have it both ways. Either the defensive metrics are flawed, Liriano’s BABIP is not the fault of his defense, or the sample size is so small that you shouldn’t even bring it up.

    “forcing a uniquely square peg into a round hole brings back bad memories of the Twins trying to change David Ortiz into something other than a slugger”

    I thought we were done pretending that Ortiz was held back in MN by the coaching staff as opposed to a lack of PEDs.

    Comment by John W — April 14, 2011 @ 9:33 am

  14. PEDs don’t change your strategy from putting the ball in play to trying to hit a HR….there is also some disagreement about how much they actually help someone hit the ball farther, though I don’t want to get into that argument today.

    The MIF D was good (when it was whole), that doesn’t make the OF D or the 3B D or the 1B (with Cuddy, thought I have not looked that up) good.

    Gleeman’s writing and tone has not changed at all. When the Twins do things he disagrees with, he points that out. When they do things he agrees, with he points that out.

    Comment by mike wants WINS — April 14, 2011 @ 10:18 am

  15. What happened to the talk of last year’s infield defense being elite? Can’t have it both ways. Either the defensive metrics are flawed, Liriano’s BABIP is not the fault of his defense, or the sample size is so small that you shouldn’t even bring it up.

    Comment by Dave T — April 14, 2011 @ 10:20 am

  16. “Pitching to contact” is really just poorly worded. “Don’t be afraid of contact” is better. Basically, the Twins want Liriano to throw strikes and there’s no reason for him not to. His stuff is good enough he’ll get plenty of strikeouts (he had four in five innings yesterday). More importantly, he had 15 groundball outs to just two flyball outs. He’ll be fine.

    Comment by SoCalTwinsfan — April 14, 2011 @ 10:33 am

  17. Trying to make Liriano into a finesse pitcher is like trying to make him right handed or Swedish. Let him fling it.

    Delmon is just playing to the local literati, picking a book written by a St. Paul boy.

    Comment by Tom — April 14, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

  18. If Liriano just pitches strikeouts, he doesn’t go deep, that puts a lot more strain on the bullpen who has to cover the rest of the game. Then everyone will just complain about the bullpen and Gardy’s use of it, complain that the bullpen is losing games for Liriano, complain that the Twins didn’t make better trades for better relievers, etc. etc.

    I think allowing him to pitch strikeouts all the time might make his individual stats look pretty, but I’m not entirely convinced it would be the best for the team.

    Comment by Maija — April 14, 2011 @ 12:36 pm

  19. I don’t want to defend Gardy, but it is difficult watching Francisco go 0-2 on almost every hitter (not every hitter, but it seems like a lot) and then try to fish out a swinging strike with 3 balls that are way outside. I don’t support Gardy’s position either, and I know that many ML teams prefer their pitchers give batters nothing to hit after getting a favorable count, but it seems like Francisco wastes a lot of pitches when he is in a favorable count. I am sure that someone has some statistics on that.

    Comment by Tom W. — April 14, 2011 @ 1:41 pm

  20. I will gladly take 5 innings and 1 or 2 runs over 7 innings and 5 or 6 runs, thank you.

    I have a hard time believing that telling Lirano to pitch to contact has made him this much worse. Something is off.

    Comment by Pedro Munoz — April 14, 2011 @ 2:16 pm

  21. I agree with Tom W, the wasting of pitches seems to be an issue.

    There is an article on fangraphs on Liriano you may all find interesting…

    Comment by mike wants WINS — April 14, 2011 @ 4:08 pm

  22. Urging Liriano to throw strikes is hardly “forcing a uniquely square peg into a round hole”. He’s nibbling too much and throwing too many pitches. Strikeouts are great, but not if they come at the cost of 78 pitches in 3 innings (as in Liriano’s 9 K spring performance against the Orioles), or if they come with walks (9 walks in 14.1 innings this year).

    In order to be most effective for the team, Liriano needs to find a way to pitch 200+ innings per season, and to this point he’s managed 14.1 innings in 3 starts, largely because he won’t aggressively throw the ball over the plate. It’s wrong to fault Gardenhire and Anderson for addressing this problem.

    Comment by morts — April 14, 2011 @ 4:12 pm

  23. Mauer is “sore” and they won’t comment on it. I like this org less every day. Mauer is so coddled it is ridiculous.

    Cuddeyer is hitting 2nd. Ouch.

    Comment by mike wants WINS — April 14, 2011 @ 4:52 pm

  24. Mauer now “coddled” to the DL.

    Comment by Jeremy — April 14, 2011 @ 9:06 pm

  25. Mauer now “coddled” to the DL.

    And the tide continues to roll in on the Twins’ sand castle season. Let’s hope they’re not the last ones to realize it’s probably a rebuilding year for them.

    Comment by DrStrangeGlove — April 14, 2011 @ 9:56 pm

  26. Ok, I should not have said coddled. I meant coddled from an emotional standpoint, not from a medical one. They would not comment on his injury because he complained about it this spring. I was not talking about his medical condition.

    Comment by mike wants WINS — April 15, 2011 @ 3:16 pm

  27. Just don’t say coddled. Or any terms describing the clubhouse, as if we know these things.

    Comment by brian — April 16, 2011 @ 10:20 am

  28. John W: All of Liriano’s BABIP woes last year were on flyball BABIP – over 100 points worse than average, if memory serves. In other words, his outfield defense is what killed him, not Hardy and Hudson.

    Aaron, Liriano’s pitch f/x numbers show he’s lost FB velo and his two seamer has a touch less downward bite. He’s not throwing the same quality FB and part of me wonders whether this has something to do with being told to throw it for strikes and therefore backing off on it just a hair. If so, he should disregard everything the Twins tell him. If not, pray the velocity comes back and hope they can find something mechanical underlying it.

    Comment by toby — April 17, 2011 @ 4:09 pm

Leave a comment