June 30, 2011

Twins Notes: The Good, The Bad, and The Hairy

Scott Baker was excellent again yesterday afternoon, allowing zero or one run for the third time in four starts by shutting out the Dodgers for 7.1 innings. Baker racked up nine strikeouts without a walk until issuing a free pass to the final batter he faced, finishing June with a 1.46 ERA in six starts. And not only does his 3.15 ERA overall this season lead the team by a wide margin, Johan Santana is the only Twins starter with a lower ERA since Kevin Tapani in 1991.

Here are the best single-season ERAs posted by Twins starters during that 20-year span:

                   ERA     YEAR
Johan Santana     2.61     2004
Johan Santana     2.77     2006
Johan Santana     2.87     2005
SCOTT BAKER       3.15     2011
Joe Mays          3.16     2001
John Smiley       3.21     1992
Johan Santana     3.33     2007
Scott Erickson    3.40     1992
Carlos Silva      3.44     2005
SCOTT BAKER       3.45     2008

Two things stand out on the above list. One is that Santana was really amazing, posting four of their top seven marks since 1991. Two is that Baker is really underrated, joining Santana as the only starters to crack the top 10 twice. And unlike, say, Joe Mays in 2001, he isn't doing it with smoke and mirrors, as Baker ranks eighth among AL starters with 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings and seventh in the league with a 101-to-29 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 106 frames.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka has been considerably less impressive, struggling so much on both sides of the ball that e-mails and comments are beginning to pile up from people wondering exactly what the Twins saw in him that was worth a $14 million investment. Nishioka has batted just .197/.254/.252 in 19 games, showing little power with zero homers and three total extra-base hits in 66 at-bats and terrible strike-zone control with a 17-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

And as awful as Nishioka's hitting has been his defense might be even worse or at least more discouraging given his reputation as a standout defender with Gold Glove awards at shortstop and second base in Japan. Kaz Matsui showed previously that defensive accolades in Japan don't necessarily transfer to America, proving to be a sub par shortstop despite winning a total of four Gold Glove awards there before signing with the Mets in 2004.

I'm certainly not ready to conclude that Nishioka will follow that same fate after just 19 games, but his arm strength and hands haven't looked nearly reliable enough to be a significant asset at shortstop and moving back to second base would be a scary proposition after breaking his fibula in part due to his lack of comfort with hard-sliding runners around the bag. Joe Mauer is struggling on both sides of the ball too, but he also has a long track record of MVP-level play.

Nishioka had a strong career in Japan, but his MLB projections based on that track record were anything but jaw-dropping. I pegged him for .275/.335/.375 while noting the combination of a high strikeout rate and less power than any previous Japanese imports. He's certainly capable of adjusting and improving at the plate with experience, but it worries me that his glove might not be good enough to make him a big asset even if he reaches the .275/.335/.375 projection.

J.J. Hardy is hitting .307/.369/.547 with 11 homers, 13 doubles, and one error in 50 games for the Orioles and has started contract extension talks to stay in Baltimore.

• Twins top prospect Kyle Gibson has been named to the United States' roster for the Futures Game during the All-Star break, while preseason No. 8 prospect Liam Hendriks was picked for the World team. I'm always more interested in the Futures Game than the actual All-Star game and alumni of the prospect showcase include Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, Francisco Liriano, Delmon Young, Ben Revere, Rene Tosoni, and Luke Hughes.

Gibson has an ugly win-loss record thanks to terrible run support, but he's pitched very well at Triple-A as a 23-year-old with a 3.87 ERA and 83-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 81 innings. He has the International League's third-highest ground-ball rate at 57 percent and ranks sixth in both strikeouts per nine innings and strikeout-to-walk ratio, which adds up to a 3.25 FIP that's fourth-best in the league. He continues to look like a future No. 2 starter and is nearly ready.

Hendriks has followed a breakout 2010 performance between two levels of Single-A by proving it was no fluke with a 2.71 ERA and 74-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 83 innings at Double-A as a 22-year-old. He's allowed just four homers and has the third-best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the Eastern League, posting a 2.77 FIP that also ranks third-best. If there was a midseason version of my top 40 prospect list the Australian right-hander would join Gibson in the top five.

• Speaking of prospects, Trevor Plouffe has been destroying Triple-A pitching since being sent back down to Rochester four weeks ago and is now hitting .295/.365/.610 with 11 homers in 38 games overall. The bad news is that he's still a career .259/.312/.443 hitter in 323 games at Triple-A and the Twins were so put off by his defense at shortstop that they've been giving him starts in right field. I'm skeptical, but when the alternative is Matt Tolbert, why not?

LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune did a nice job mixing reporting and stats for an article about Glen Perkins' success in the bullpen, examining his increased velocity and adjustment to a role change spurred by injuries and struggles as a starter. Perkins has never thrown this well before regardless of role and struck out right-handed-hitting MVP front-runner Matt Kemp in a dominant outing yesterday. He has a 1.93 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 28 innings.

• Old friend Matthew LeCroy managed the All-Star game at high Single-A last week.

• Against all odds, the man in this picture is not me:

As far as you know, at least.

This week's content is sponsored by Wholesale Gold and Diamond Distributors in Minneapolis, so please help support AG.com by considering them for your jewelry needs.

14 Comments »

  1. Before today’s game, Scott Baker and Brad Radke both had a career 4.22 ERA, and Baker’s 3.99 FIP, 4.08 xFIP were better than Radke’s 4.24, 4.19 marks. Baker’s career 15.8 WAR (Fangraphs) also rates 6th among Twins pitchers in the last 30 years, and he could move past Eric Milton on the list by the end of the season. If he signs an extension past 2013, he’ll have a chance to catch Kevin Tapani’s 26.0 WAR in a few years–which would leave only Radke, Johan Santana, and Frank Viola ahead of him on the list of recent Twins greats. In other words, if he doesn’t get hurt or bolt out of here at the first opportunity, Scott Baker very well could wind up in the Twins Hall of Fame. Circle that, Bert!

    Comment by frightwig — June 30, 2011 @ 1:26 am

  2. Btw, I was curious to look up the best single-season FIP numbers in the past 20 years. As it turns out, Baker doesn’t make the top cut there, although his start against LA today could push his 2011 season into Top 10 contention.

    For anyone else interested, here are the Twins Top 10 single-season FIP by starting pitchers (min. 100 IP) since 1991. I put IP totals in parenthesis for a few to indicate that Liriano and Santana didn’t pitch a full season in the rotation (I still can’t believe that Johan’s 2002 performance didn’t earn him a rotation spot to start the next season).

    2006 Francisco Liriano, 2.55 (121 IP)
    2010 Francisco Liriano, 2.66
    2002 Johan Santana, 2.66 (108.1 IP)
    2005 Johan Santana, 2.80
    2004 Johan Santana, 2.92
    2006 Johan Santana, 3.04
    1992 John Smiley, 3.23
    2003 Johan Santana, 3.24 (158.1 IP)
    1992 Kevin Tapani, 3.26
    1991 Kevin Tapani, 3.49

    Comment by frightwig — June 30, 2011 @ 2:13 am

  3. I get irrationally angry every time JJ Hardy is mentioned. He should be the Twins starting SS, and that moving him was an offseason priority causes me intense mental pain.

    Comment by Hurricane Cake — June 30, 2011 @ 3:31 am

  4. 1. mauer was on Mike and Mike this am. He was boring, as usual, but he was very clear that he is willing to play some 1B to keep his bat in the lineup, and to help the team. He als reminded us that he tried to come back when he wasn’t really ready at the beginning of the year, but that this time he feels good. Looking forward to more hitting from him. And my statements yesterday about his leadership, given that I don’t know squat abour reality, were off base. We just don’t know.

    2. I too get irrational when JJ Hardy’s name comes up. That move is the move that least impresses me of all of Bill Smith’s bad moves.

    3. It still boggles the mind that Gardy never once saw tape/video of Nishi even after they signed him. I really thought the signing was a good risk to take, but that was based on no knowledge at all. I also thought he’d be at 2B, and that JJ would be at SS…..

    4. I’ve always thought Baker was under rated. Thanks for the data.

    Comment by mike wants WINS — June 30, 2011 @ 8:52 am

  5. I’m pretty sure I said that Baker was the most underated during one of the live chats. Glad to see him having another solid year. It drives me nuts every time I hear “Moonshot Scott” thrown around. I think Bert’s dislike of Baker has rubbed off on the common fan.

    Comment by D-Luxxx — June 30, 2011 @ 10:28 am

  6. Don’t put the Hardy deal on Bill Smith, Gardy basically said Hardy can hit well all he wants but he’s not “fast” enough, so he didn’t want him on the team.

    Comment by Scott — June 30, 2011 @ 10:41 am

  7. Scott,

    Personnel decisions are completely on the GM. Smith shouldn’t be allowing the manager to dictate those decisions. You don’t see Billy advising Gardenhire on the lineup card. I’m not saying a manager can’t have some input on personnel, but ultimately the final decision is the GM’s and his alone. The Hardy trade was indefensible at the time, and it’s getting worse the more he produces in Baltimore.

    Comment by Scott W — June 30, 2011 @ 11:10 am

  8. I recall your analysis of Nishioka when you first published it; because of it I wasn’t expecting much and am therefore not particulary disappointed. Thanks for a realistic appraisal.

    Comment by Rod — June 30, 2011 @ 11:25 am

  9. I see your point, and I agree with it. However, I feel that Smith and the front office allow Gardy to dictate some of these moves. The front office, bill smith and gardy need to share the same philosophy on how to build a baseball team. Right now, they do not.

    Comment by Scott — June 30, 2011 @ 8:48 pm

  10. Nishioka will improve with some experience. He’s a good player. There’s a lot of nerves right now, and you’re talking about a player that has to overcome a major injury in addition to cultural differences and major differences in game play. He’s behind the 8 ball this year but it’s a bit early to start piling it on. Twins fans are great at the 20/20 hindsight. If we hadn’t resigned Mauer everyone would have gone apes**t. Now they’re bashing him and talking about how bad the contract he signed is. Lots of readers of this site were grousing about not signing Liriano to a long term deal. Obviously Nishioka has some weaknesses and if you ink a guy to a 15 million dollar deal you expect him to step in and contribute right away and that’s valid. If he starts hitting like he can and gets more comfortable on defense everyone will get back on the bandwagon.

    Comment by Eduardo — July 1, 2011 @ 1:02 am

  11. “If he starts hitting like he can and gets more comfortable on defense everyone will get back on the bandwagon.”

    So what you are saying that if a guy who completely sucks stops completely sucking and plays well, people will be happy with him?

    Comment by Pedro Munoz — July 1, 2011 @ 11:03 am

  12. No, I’m saying that a sample size of 19 games– several of which came while recovering from a major injury– isn’t enough to conclude that a guy completely sucks. Call me crazy.

    Comment by Eduardo — July 2, 2011 @ 1:10 am

  13. Your comment wasn’t crazy- just really, really stupid. We don’t know that Nishioka is a good player and the horrible performance so far suggests he isn’t. Mauer will bounce back. This is looking like 14M down the toilet

    Comment by Pedro Munoz — July 3, 2011 @ 1:00 pm

  14. He’s played 22 games. Give the guy a chance to adjust before you conclude he sucks. He’s been abysmal so far but what’s really really stupid is to write the guy off already or dismiss the move as a total bust.

    Comment by Houston Jimenez — July 4, 2011 @ 4:08 am

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