August 20, 2014

Phil Hughes, Ace

Phil Hughes Twins

Phil Hughes has been the Twins' best starter with a 3.76 ERA in 25 starts, yet that good but not great ERA vastly understates just how well he's actually pitched. He ranks 10th in the league with 140 strikeouts while issuing just 15 walks in 158 innings for a 9.3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio that leads all of baseball. Clayton Kershaw ranks second behind Hughes and he's followed by Hisashi Iwakuma, David Price, Masahiro Tanaka, Felix Hernandez, and Chris Sale.

Hughes is a fly-ball pitcher and poor defense--particularly in the outfield where Josh Willingham and Oswaldo Arcia roamed the corners for most of the year alongside a revolving door of center fielders--has hurt him in the form of a .343 batting average on balls in play. Not only is that much worse than Hughes' career mark of .300, it rates as the fifth-highest batting average on balls in play across MLB among the 120 pitchers with at least 100 innings this season.

Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) attempts to more accurately evaluate a pitcher's individual performance by removing defense, luck, and bullpen support from the mix and Hughes ranks 20th among all MLB starters in xFIP at 3.23. In other words, he's been a No. 1 starter. And he's also been much better than he ever was for the Yankees from 2007-2013, when he posted the following yearly xFIP figures as a starter:

YEAR   xFIP
2007   4.58
2008   4.94
2009   4.93
2010   4.17
2011   4.74
2012   4.35
2013   4.36
...
2014   3.23

Hughes never posted an xFIP below 4.00 as a starter with the Yankees and only once, in 2010, came within a full run of his current xFIP with the Twins. He's a completely different pitcher in a home ballpark much better suited for his skill set and the results have been dramatic. In terms of recent Twins history, Hughes is in rarefied air. Here are the best xFIP figures by Twins starters during the Ron Gardenhire era of 2002-2014:

                      YEAR     xFIP
Francisco Liriano     2006     2.54
Francisco Liriano     2010     2.95
Johan Santana         2004     3.01
Johan Santana         2005     3.12
Johan Santana         2006     3.16
PHIL HUGHES           2014     3.23

Now that's a list.

Hughes isn't throwing any harder than he did with the Yankees. His average fastball this season has clocked in at 92 miles per hour and he's used it 63 percent of the time. With the Yankees his average fastball was 92 miles per hour and he used it 63 percent of the time. His strikeout rate has improved, but only slightly from 19 percent to 21 percent, and Hughes' swinging strike rate remains at his career norm of 8.5 percent.

If he's using his fastball exactly as often and throwing his fastball exactly as hard as before and he's not missing significantly more bats, how did Hughes get so much better? Well, basically he decided to simply stop walking anyone. As a starter for the Yankees he averaged 2.8 walks per nine innings, but this season Hughes has sliced that to 0.85 walks per nine innings for baseball's second-best walk rate.

Hughes walked zero in an MLB-leading 13 of 25 starts (52 percent), whereas for the Yankees he had zero walks in 24 of 132 starts (18 percent). He also leads MLB by walking zero or one batter in 23 of 25 starts (92 percent), compared to 61 of 132 starts (46 percent) for the Yankees. His overall walk rate of 0.85 per nine innings is the second-lowest in Twins history among starters with at least 100 innings:

                      YEAR     BB/9
Carlos Silva          2005     0.43
PHIL HUGHES           2014     0.85
Brad Radke            2005     1.03
Brad Radke            2001     1.04
Brad Radke            2004     1.07
Brad Radke            2003     1.19

And it's not just his walk rate that tells the story. According to MLB.com's Pitch-FX data Hughes has thrown a pitch in the strike zone 56 percent of the time this season, which leads all of MLB by a wide margin. In fact, among the 120 pitchers with at least 100 innings this season no one else is even above 53 percent. And as a starter with the Yankees he threw pitches in the strike zone 49 percent of the time.

No team has emphasized throwing strikes and limiting walks as much as the Twins under the duo of Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson. During their 13-season tenure together Twins pitchers have MLB's lowest walk rate at 2.6 per nine innings when none of the other 29 teams are below 3.0. Anderson's overall effectiveness has been in question for a while now, but aside from a few prominent examples he does get pitchers to throw the ball over the plate.

For many of the Twins' abundant collection of low-velocity pitchers Anderson's focus on pounding the strike zone has meant letting hitters tee off on inferior raw stuff, but in Hughes' case he's been able to maintain his above-average velocity and strikeout rate while drastically reducing his free passes. Toss in the switch from Yankee Stadium to Target Field predictably hiding his weakness for serving up homers and the result has been enough to create a 28-year-old ace.

Handing a four-year, $49 million contract to Ricky Nolasco six months ago already looks like a disaster and the Twins' other recent forays into free agent pitching to sign Kevin Correia and re-sign Mike Pelfrey for multiple years flopped as well, but Hughes' three-year, $24 million deal looks brilliant. He's on pace to throw 210 innings with the best K/BB ratio and second-best walk rate in Twins history and he's under contract for $8 million next season and $8 million in 2016.


For a lot more about Hughes' breakthrough season and change in approach, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode with guest co-host Parker Hageman.

August 18, 2014

Gleeman and The Geek #158: Just a Concussion and The Purge

Topics for this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode included trading Josh Willingham to the Royals, Byron Buxton's incredibly scary injury, what to expect from Ricky Nolasco, where Danny Santana should be playing defensively, what to make of Oswaldo Arcia through one full season, appreciating Phil Hughes' excellence, the launch of Vikings Journal, and whether or not to freak out about hair in your food.

Gleeman and The Geek: Episode 158

In addition to the direct download link above you can also subscribe to the podcast via iTunes.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Uber, which is offering a free ride to first-time users who sign up with the promo code "UberGleeman."

August 15, 2014

Link-O-Rama

• From the same doofuses who brought you Twins Daily comes a new Minnesota sports website on which you can kill countless hours while at work: Vikings Journal.

• Shocked and appalled that Gleeman-Bonnes didn't make the New York Times' extensive "Twitter power couples" list.

• Twins fans know all too well that there's no such thing as "just a concussion," but based on how ugly his outfield collision looked Wednesday things could've been much worse for Byron Buxton.

• I like to imagine Idris Elba staying awake all night agonizing over whether to correct this story.

Adam Dunn vs. Dee Gordon vs. Koji Uehara vs. Bartolo Colon in the silliest league ever.

Kate Upton is the new Elaine Benes, apparently.

• On this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode we broke down Kevin Correia's departure and Trevor May's arrival, plus how to properly buy a car and why everyone should own a penthouse.

• Actually, forget the silly penthouse apartment. I want to buy this insane house in St. Cloud:

There was a shorter, more polished version of that video, but it's been taken off YouTube and, honestly, the world should see the full 12 minutes of pure magic.

Hard-hitting journalism: "We asked Gassen the question Lindsay Guentzel was afraid to know the answer to."

Joe Nathan got booed at home in Detroit by Tigers fans and made a chin-flick gesture at them, so he apologized.

• Did the Twins accomplish anything by purging a bunch of veterans from the roster around the trade deadline?

Yoenis Cespedes: Badass.

• I move from Hopkins to Uptown and now Hopkins is a "hipster haven"? Puh-leeze.

• My uncle and cousin were again the subjects of a lengthy article in the Minnetonka Sun Sailor, which may have simply decided to cover stuff that's sure to be linked here at this point.

• I don't really have any interest in seeing the new "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" movie, but I did enjoy this pug-starring remake:

Great special effects.

• Next month Target Field is hosting a "Light the Night Walk" charity event to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. If you're interested in making a donation, consider sponsoring my friends on Team Minnie Mouse.

Phil Hanley was a good guest on what remains my favorite podcast, "Stop Podcasting Yourself" with Graham Clark and Dave Shumka.

Adam Carolla and Dr. Drew are both basically the worst now, but lately I've been going to sleep listening to old "Loveline" episodes and it makes me happy.

• One of my favorite stand-up comedians, Jen Kirkman, is coming to Acme Comedy Company in Minneapolis next month and everyone should get tickets.

• Some of this week's weird and random search engine queries that brought people here:

- "Todd Milone trade"
- "Tom Milone trade"
- "Jon Taffer hair transplant"
- "Terrible comedy podcasts"
- "Guide to podcasts"
- "Matthew LeCroy salary"
- "Lean Cuisine success"
- "Lew Ford married?"

• Finally, this week's AG.com-approved music video is "Collide" by Howie Day:


This week's blog content is sponsored by Uber, which is offering a free ride to first-time users who sign up with the promo code "UberGleeman."

August 13, 2014

Twins trade Josh Willingham and Kevin Correia

willingham and gardenhire

Any realistic potential for the Twins to make a major move at the trade deadline likely revolved around dealing away All-Star catcher Kurt Suzuki, but instead they signed the impending free agent to a two-year, $12 million contract extension and chose only to make a handful of minor deals to remove veterans from the margins of the roster. And it's possible they may still make another minor deal or two before the end of the August waiver trading period.

Prior to deadline day they sent massively disappointing 31-year-old midseason signing Kendrys Morales to the Mariners for 25-year-old rehabbing reliever Stephen Pryor. On deadline day they shipped 32-year-old outfielder Sam Fuld back to the A's team from which they recently claimed him off waivers for nothing in exchange for 27-year-old starter Tommy Milone. And after the deadline they parted ways with 35-year-old Josh Willingham and 33-year-old Kevin Correia.

Correia was traded to the Dodgers for a player to be named later or cash considerations, and how many innings he logs for them as a spot starter/long reliever will probably determine whether the Twins receive a non-prospect minor leaguer or the equivalent of a bucket of baseballs. Correia had $1.5 million remaining on a two-year, $10 million deal, so the Twins save some money and more importantly clear a rotation spot for a starter who might actually have a future in Minnesota.

Similarly, by trading Willingham to the Royals for right-hander Jason Adam the Twins shed the $1.8 million remaining on his three-year, $21 million deal and open up at-bats for younger corner outfielders. As an added bonus Adam isn't totally devoid of potential. Drafted in the fifth round out of high school in 2010, he struggled as a starter at Double-A last season and this season before being shifted to the bullpen at Triple-A recently.

Apparently the Twins plan to send Adam back to Double-A and make him a starter again despite his 5.18 ERA and poor secondary numbers in 45 career starts there. At age 22 he's certainly still young enough to develop further and perhaps they simply want to get a first-hand look at what he's capable of as a starter, but based on Baseball America's scouting report of decent velocity and iffy off-speed stuff if Adam makes it to the big leagues it'll likely be as a reliever.

Ultimately, though, Adams and whatever the Twins get in return for Correia are merely icing on the cake of removing two mediocre veterans from a non-contending roster that didn't need them. At this point Willingham's spot in left field and Correia's spot in the rotation carried more value to the team than they did, although to actually benefit from that value the Twins need to fill those spots with players who possess upside and help those players develop with the playing time.

Correia had a 4.50 ERA in 54 starts for the Twins compared to a 4.10 ERA for the average AL starter. Among the 138 starters with at least 150 innings since 2013 he ranked 131st in xFIP and dead last in strikeout rate with 4.7 per nine innings when no one else was below 5.0. His only real value came from being not-disastrous and not-injured, and if the Twins ever truly needed to pay $5 million per season for that at any point it certainly ceased being the case now.

Willingham looked like a spectacular investment one season into his three-year contract, having a career-year at age 33 by hitting .260/.366/.524 with 35 homers. Rather than trading him then the Twins hung onto Willingham and he's been injured and ineffective since, hitting .209 with a .380 slugging percentage dating back to last season while sitting out 35 percent of the team's games. Toss in terrible defense and he was among MLB's least valuable players.

Correia was an example of a signing that carried only downside, because he pitched as well as the Twins could realistically have hoped for based on his track record and was still barely better than a replacement-level starter while earning 10 times the minimum salary. Willingham was an example of why signing mid-30s players to multi-year deals carries so much risk, as well as an example of why selling high is sometimes the right decision even if it's also a tough decision.

Of the four 30-somethings traded away only Fuld had a chance to be part of a future team and that wouldn't have been as more than a backup outfielder for a season or two, so to shed about $8 million in salaries, clear playing time for younger players, and receive the potentially useful trio of Milone, Pryor, and Adam in return is a job well done for the front office even if the moves came about in part because the Willingham, Correia, and Morales signings were all less than successful.


For a lot more about the Twins' deadline and post-deadline deals, plus Trevor May's ugly debut, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

August 11, 2014

Gleeman and The Geek #157: Oodbye Evin Orreia

Topics for this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode included Kevin Correia's long-awaited departure, Trevor May's shaky arrival, upside vs. known quantities, Joe Mauer's impending return, Francisco Liriano and Vance Worley thriving together, playing Danny Santana at shortstop, the good and bad of Twitter, penthouse plans, and car-buying 101.

Gleeman and The Geek: Episode 157

In addition to the direct download link above you can also subscribe to the podcast via iTunes.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Uber, which is offering a free ride to first-time users who sign up with the promo code "UberGleeman."

« Newer PostsOlder Posts »