October 14, 2015

My hypothetical Twins MVP ballot

Miguel Sano and Brian Dozier Twins

After four straight 90-loss seasons the Twins re-emerged as a competitive team, going 83-79 and remaining in the Wild Card hunt until the final weekend of the season. Here's my attempt to rank the most valuable individual performances behind the team-wide turnaround:

1. Miguel Sano

It's difficult to be the most valuable player on a team when playing only 80 of 162 games, but two things make Miguel Sano a special case. One is that he was great in those 80 games, ranking as one of the best hitters in baseball and repeatedly coming through with key hits in key spots. Two is that none of the Twins' full-time, season-long players had particularly outstanding years, leaving Sano's great half-season to compete against good but not great full seasons.

Called up from Double-A on July 2 after the Twins went 11-17 in June, he was immediately the best, most patient hitter in the lineup. Sano hit .269/.385/.530 with 18 homers and 53 walks in 80 games, including a 1.055 OPS with runners on, a 1.028 OPS with runners in scoring position, and a 1.100 OPS in close-and-late situations. He easily led the team in the context-dependent stat Win Probability Added and ranked 17th in the entire league despite not playing in April, May, or June.

At age 22 he forced pitchers to throw strikes and punished them when they gave in. An incredible 28 percent of Sano's plate appearances went to a full count, compared to the MLB average of 12 percent, and he posted a 1.281 OPS on 3-2 pitches. He also batted a ridiculous .700 with a 1.650 slugging percentage when putting the first pitch in play, punishing get-me-over strikes too. Sano's rookie season wasn't just good or even great for a rookie, it was one of the best in Twins history.

Sano's adjusted OPS+ of 146 ranked seventh in the AL behind only Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Nelson Cruz, Josh Donaldson, and Edwin Encarnacion. Sano tied with Chris Davis, who led the league in homers for the second time in three seasons. Within the context of team history, the only other Twins hitters to top an OPS+ of 145 during the past 20 seasons are Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Jim Thome. None of them did it more than once. Sano is 1-for-1.

As a proponent of cumulative production, defense, and positional adjustments being big factors in player value the idea of a half-season designated hitter being team MVP is a tough sell, but Sano had a truly special half-season that was elevated even further in "clutch" situations and it seemed odd not to prefer 80 games of that compared to 150 games of slightly above-average. Sano was the Twins' best player for every moment he wore a Twins uniform and that gets my MVP.

2. Brian Dozier

Brian Dozier appeared to be having a breakout year when he followed up a very strong 2014 season with an even better first half, hitting .256/.328/.513 with 19 homers, 48 total extra-base hits, and 34 walks in 88 games to make his first All-Star team. Seemingly established as one of MLB's best second basemen, he then collapsed in the second half and hit just .210/.280/.359 to finish with worse overall numbers than he posted in 2014.

Starting strong only to fall apart in the second half in back-to-back years is worrisome and calls into question whether Dozier's durability is actually a strength, but the end result was still plenty valuable. He led all MLB second basemen in homers (28), extra-base hits (71), and runs scored (101), ranked second in RBIs (77), walks (61), and total bases (279), and posted a .751 OPS compared the MLB average of .711 for the position.

Toss in up-the-middle defense that rates slightly below average according to most metrics and Dozier was one of the top 10 second basemen in MLB this season. It may have been less jarring for Twins fans to watch if he'd simply been a .750 OPS hitter all year instead of being an All-Star in the first half and replacement-level in the second half, but in assessing all-around value for the season as a whole Dozier has a reasonable argument for being team MVP.

3. Kyle Gibson

Kyle Gibson took a step forward this year, staying healthy with a full-season workload again and upping his strikeout rate by 25 percent while maintaining nearly identical rates everywhere else. Last season he walked 2.9 per nine innings, induced 54 percent ground balls, and allowed a .287 batting average on balls in play. This season he walked 3.0 per nine innings, induced 53 percent ground balls, and allowed a .287 batting average on balls in play.

Those are remarkably similar numbers and Gibson was able to up his strikeouts from 5.4 to 6.7 per nine innings. He's unlikely to ever be a high-strikeout pitcher, but in both 2014 and 2015 his ground-ball rate ranked among MLB's top 10 and pairing that with even a decent strikeout rate can lead to big things. This year for Gibson that mix--along with better bullpen support and fewer blowup starts--led to slicing his ERA from 4.47 to 3.84 while leading the Twins with 195 innings.

4. Trevor Plouffe

Trevor Plouffe had a typical Trevor Plouffe season, hitting .244/.307/.435 with 22 homers, 35 doubles, and a 124/50 K/BB ratio in 152 games while playing above-average third base defense. His production was nearly identical to his combined 2012-2014 line of .249/.314/.422 and in four seasons as the Twins' starting third baseman his OPS has never been lower than .701 or higher than .756. He is what he is, except for one big difference this year: Double plays.

Plouffe grounded into 28 double plays, which led the league and tied for the most in Twins history. His previous career-high was just 12 double plays. Whether it was a one-year fluke or not, making two outs at a time so often--and in so many key, rally-crushing situations--took a big chunk out of Plouffe's value. Compared to all MLB third basemen he was almost exactly average--slightly below offensively and slightly above defensively.

5. Eddie Rosario

Eddie Rosario was called up from Triple-A to replace the injured Oswaldo Arcia on May 6 and never went back, hitting better than his recent minor-league track record suggested he would and impressing defensively with excellent range and a strong arm. Rosario's total lack of patience held him back, as he swung at everything on the way to a ghastly 118/15 K/BB ratio and .289 on-base percentage, but his other skills mostly made up for all the hacking.

Rosario hit .267 with 13 homers, 18 doubles, and a league-high 15 triples on the way to a sturdy .459 slugging percentage. He nearly led the league with 16 outfield assists and tracked down fly balls that many recent Twins left fielders wouldn't have even gone after. Long term Rosario risks failing to fulfill his potential if he doesn't develop some semblance of strike zone control, but this season his extra-base power, speed, and defense made him an above-average regular at age 23.

6. Trevor May

Demoted to Triple-A at the end of spring training, Trevor May moved into the rotation following Ervin Santana's suspension and posted the best secondary numbers of any Twins starter through early July. His reward was being moved to the bullpen, where May took the role change in stride despite wanting to remain a starter and logged 31.1 innings with a 2.87 ERA and 37/8 K/BB ratio while emerging as the team's primary setup man.

When the Twins needed a starter, May stepped in and did a good job for three months. When the Twins needed a reliever, May shifted to the bullpen without putting up a Mike Pelfrey-like fuss and did a good job for three months. There's added value in that versatility, not unlike a position player with the ability to handle multiple spots defensively, and May finished his first full season in the majors with a 4.00 ERA and 110/26 K/BB ratio in 115 innings overall.

7. Eduardo Escobar

Eduardo Escobar was as a square peg in a round hole when the Twins gave the shortstop job to Danny Santana and regularly used Escobar way out of position in left field. They finally came to their senses in July thanks to Santana's ineptitude and Escobar picked up where he left off as one of the AL's better shortstops. His overall value is tough to gauge because he struggled in left field and thrived at shortstop, but Escobar certainly isn't to blame for the team misusing him.

He ended up starting 71 games at shortstop compared to 34 in left field or at designated hitter, plus nine more at second and third base. Overall he hit .262/.309/.445 with 12 homers and 47 total extra-base hits in 127 games. For some context his .754 OPS was 70 points higher than the average shortstop and slightly below average for corner outfielders, which is why Escobar's early usage was so silly and why his finally replacing Santana at shortstop made such a big impact.

8. Ervin Santana

Suspended for the first 80 games, Ervin Santana initially fared well upon joining the rotation in early July before having a brutal six-start stretch from late July through late August in which he allowed 33 runs in 30 innings. At that point he had a 6.05 ERA and the four-year, $52 million signing looked like a disaster, but then Santana fixed his mechanics and was one of the league's best starters down the stretch with a 1.62 ERA and 47/14 K/BB ratio in his final 50 innings.

There was nothing special about Santana's overall performance, which included a 4.00 ERA and 82/36 K/BB ratio with 12 homers allowed in 108 innings, but he was an above-average starting pitcher for 17 starts and that carries significant value just the same as it would if he'd been a prospect called up at midseason rather than a veteran banned from participating in the team's first 80 games.

9. Tommy Milone

An afterthought for most of the season--including a month-long demotion to Triple-A despite being 28 years old with 500 innings as a big leaguer--Tommy Milone started 23 games and logged 129 innings with a 3.92 ERA. It wasn't always pretty and it was never flashy, but Milone had a better strikeout-to-walk ratio than Gibson, Santana, and Pelfrey while ranking second among all Twins starters in Win Probability Added behind only Gibson.

10. Tyler Duffey

It was only 10 starts, but Tyler Duffey saved the Twins' rotation by throwing 58 innings with a 3.10 ERA and 53/20 K/BB ratio down the stretch as veteran starters were dropping like flies and May was working out of the bullpen. After getting knocked around by the Blue Jays in his debut Duffey joined Santana as the only reliable starters for the final six weeks, completing at least six innings and allowing two or fewer runs in each of his last five starts.

This week's blog content is sponsored by Casper mattresses, which offers a 100-day free trial with free shipping and returns. And you can get an extra $50 off by going to Casper.com/Gleeman and entering in the promo code GLEEMAN.

October 12, 2015

Gleeman and The Geek #219: Jackalopes

Topics for this week's "Gleeman and the Geek" episode included watching the playoffs and trying to imagine the Twins making a deep run, reviewing our good and (mostly) bad preseason over/under picks, Ron Gardenhire's ongoing job search, eating Jackalope and drinking beer at New Bohemia, how to become the subject of a gossip column, and living your life around a living room mattress.

Gleeman and The Geek: Episode 219

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 Casper mattresses, which offers a 100-day free trial with free shipping and returns. And you can get an extra $50 off by going to Casper.com/Gleeman and entering in the promo code GLEEMAN.

October 9, 2015

Who will the Twins purge from the 40-man roster this offseason?

Chris Herrmann Twins

At the beginning of each offseason every team goes through the ritual housecleaning of shedding players from the 40-man roster to prepare for a winter of adding new players and protecting new prospects. Despite improving from one of MLB's worst teams to a Wild Card contender the Twins have no shortage of marginal big leaguers clinging to 40-man spots, so here's my breakdown of the players most likely to be shed and where they stand (in alphabetical order):

(Note: Free agents Torii Hunter, Mike Pelfrey, Brian Duensing, Blaine Boyer, and Neal Cotts are automatically removed from the 40-man roster.)

A.J. Achter: Called up as a late-season bullpen reinforcement in each of the past two seasons, Achter has allowed 17 runs in 24 innings for the Twins. His numbers at Triple-A are much better, including a 2.57 ERA and 21 saves in 99 appearances, but there's nothing impressive about his 136/51 K/BB ratio in 144 innings there and Achter's fastball tops out in the low-90s. He could find a niche as a middle reliever, but at age 27 he doesn't possess much upside beyond that.

Logan Darnell: After making four starts and three relief appearances for the Twins last season Darnell didn't pitch in the majors this year, going on the disabled list with pneumonia following a September call-up. Darnell was used primarily as a reliever at Triple-A, posting a 66/25 K/BB ratio in 78 innings. He works in the high-80s with his fastball and combines mediocre strikeout rates with poor control, so it's tough to see the 26-year-old lefty as more than a middle reliever.

Casey Fien: Arbitration eligible and due a raise to around $2.5 million, Fien could be expendable if the Twins get serious about upgrading the bullpen. He has a lifetime 3.82 ERA, including a 3.55 ERA and 41/8 K/BB ratio in 63 innings this season, but Fien is a low-strikeout 32-year-old and fits best in middle relief. They have bigger issues to address and a $2.5 million price tag isn't much, but the Twins could use more youth, velocity, and upside in Fien's role.

Eric Fryer: Re-added to the 40-man roster on September 1 because the Twins wanted a third catcher around once rosters expanded, Fryer has passed through waivers unclaimed before and figures to do so again. At age 30 he's hit .243/.329/.336 in 65 games as a major leaguer and .237/.328/.328 in 271 games at Triple-A. Organizations need players like Fryer around because catching is difficult to acquire midseason, but there's no need to have him on the 40-man.

Chris Herrmann: For long stretches in each of the past three seasons the Twins have gone with Herrmann as their backup catcher and he's hit .181/.249/.280 in 142 games. Among all players with at least 300 plate appearances for the Twins since 1985 his .529 OPS ranks second-worst, ahead of only his backup-catching predecessor Drew Butera at .494. And he hasn't been much better in the minors, hitting .261/.336/.391 in 152 games at Triple-A.

Tommy Milone: In a season that included a month-long demotion to Triple-A and multiple arm injuries Milone still ranked among the Twins' better starters with a 3.92 ERA and 91/36 K/BB ratio in 129 innings. His track record as a solid back-of-the-rotation starter is well established by 619 innings of a 3.97 ERA, but the question is whether the Twins want to pay him around $5 million via arbitration for 2016 when they seemingly have too many mediocre veteran starters as is.

Ricky Nolasco: He's owed $25 million for the next two seasons and the Twins can't escape that commitment, but there are two ways in which they could remove Nolasco from the 40-man roster to make use of his spot. One is to simply get rid of him via trade or release, both of which would require eating the remaining contract. The other is to let him pass through waivers unclaimed and outright him to Triple-A sans 40-man spot. Unlikely, but an option if space gets tight.

Eduardo Nunez: After five seasons as a below-average hitter Nunez finally produced a little bit, hitting .282/.327/.431 in a bench role. In two years with the Twins he's started 45 and 48 games while getting 213 and 204 plate appearances. Keeping him around in a similar role makes sense, but with Nunez due for a raise to around $2 million via arbitration it's possible the Twins will want to fill that bench spot with either a more capable defensive shortstop or a more potent bat.

Ryan O'Rourke: Added to the 40-man roster and called up in July to fill a left-handed specialist role, O'Rourke fared well initially before going through a rough patch and then mostly collected dust down the stretch. He held lefties to a .171 batting average for the Twins after dominating them to an incredible degree in the minors, so there's little doubt O'Rourke can fill the specialist role, but control problems and struggles versus righties really limit his potential usage.

Josmil Pinto: Pinto once looked like a long-term building block as a catcher/designated hitter, but he struggled in 57 games for the Twins in 2014 and spent all of 2015 at Triple-A having his season wrecked by concussions. When healthy Pinto is a good right-handed hitter with power and plate discipline whose defensive chops behind the plate are iffy. He's still just 26 years old, but catching regularly may be out of the question and the Twins have no shortage of DH options.

Ryan Pressly: Sidelined for the final three months of the year by a lat muscle injury, Pressly's place in the Twins' plans depends on his health and a belief that his 3.46 career ERA tells a more accurate story than his 85/47 K/BB ratio in 133 innings. He's a perfectly solid middle reliever and throws harder than most of the Twins' incumbent options for that role, but the 27-year-old former Rule 5 pick hasn't found a way to generate strikeouts and has iffy control.

Shane Robinson: After nine years in the Cardinals organization Robinson signed with the Twins as a minor-league free agent, won a spot on the Opening Day roster, and received a career-high 48 starts and 198 plate appearances. He hit just .250/.299/.322, which is in line with his modest track record. Robinson is a good defender with plus speed, but he doesn't hit enough to be more than a fifth outfielder and "fifth outfielder" is no longer even a job on many teams.

Aaron Thompson: For six weeks or so Thompson emerged as Paul Molitor's go-to lefty setup man and got the Twins through a bunch of key innings unscathed, but his deal with the devil ran out and he was demoted to Triple-A in July. He was nothing special there and did not receive a September call-up, finishing the season with a 5.01 ERA and 17/11 K/BB ratio in 32 innings. At age 28 there's nothing in his track to suggest Thompson is more than a replacement-level arm.

This week's blog content is sponsored by Harry's Razors, where you can get discounted razors and shaving supplies delivered to your door by entering in the code "gleeman" at Harrys.com.

October 6, 2015

Eight big positives to take from the Twins’ half-full, half-empty season

Miguel Sano Twins

There are half-full and half-empty ways to view the Twins' season. On the half-full side they won 83 games compared to a Las Vegas over/under of 72.5 and local optimism topping out around 78, emerging as a contender ahead of schedule. On the half-empty side they made plenty of decisions on playing time, player evaluation, and call-ups that seemed iffy at the time and now stand out as especially damaging within the context of missing out on a Wild Card spot by just three games.

Whichever side you lean toward from a team-wide perspective, there's no doubt that looking at the Twins' season from a player-by-player view leads to an abundance of half-full glasses and a few that are overflowing. I've identified eight players whose 2015 performance stood out in a very positive way, both for this season and for the Twins' long-term plans. There are more, of course, but these eight made me feel the best about what happened this season on the way to 83-79.

Miguel Sano: I've spent the past three months obsessively posting Sano statistical porn on Twitter, so I'll try to keep this #SanoPorn somewhat brief. Sano arrived from Double-A on July 2 as a fully formed middle-of-the-order monster and one of the most extreme Three True Outcomes bats of all time, hitting .269/.385/.530 with 18 homers, 17 doubles, 53 walks, and 119 strikeouts in 80 games at age 22. He was a revelation, shattering the typical Twins hitting mold.

He's not without flaws, including a strikeout rate that will make posting decent batting averages difficult, but Sano's power and patience are both 99th percentile skills and his debut was one of the best in Twins history. Actually, that's underselling it. Sano had the 12th-highest OPS (.915) in MLB history among 22-year-old right-handed hitters, taking his spot on the list directly after Hank Aaron (.923) and Alex Rodriguez (.919). His long-term potential is drool-inducing.

Eddie Rosario: Despite little in his 2013 or 2014 performance to suggest he was ready for the majors Rosario was the first outfielder called up when reinforcements were needed in early May and never went back to the minors. He swung at everything on the way to 118 strikeouts and 15 walks in 122 games to match the idea that he wasn't ready, but Rosario also batted .267 with 46 extra-base hits and plus defense to show Paul Molitor was right to believe in his raw talent.

There's no doubting Rosario's tools, which include an extremely quick bat, very good speed on the bases and in the outfield, and a strong arm that killed 16 runners when stubborn teams refused to stop testing him. None of that will mean much if Rosario can't develop some semblance of strike zone control, but in terms of debuts for 23-year-olds there was a ton to like and even with the undisciplined approach at the plate he was an above-average player as a rookie.

Trevor May: May was sent down to Triple-A at the end of spring training, but Ricky Nolasco immediately getting hurt opened up a rotation spot and he had the best strikeout rate, swinging strike rate, and xFIP among Twins starters through mid-July. And then the Twins moved May to the bullpen, where he took the unwanted and undeserved role change in stride and thrived as a reliever with a 2.87 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 31 innings.

Like most starters May's velocity and raw stuff went up a tick or two as a reliever, giving him the potential to be a late-inning setup man or closer. However, he's also shown enough as a starter to think he can help the Twins more logging 200 innings in the rotation instead of 70 innings in the bullpen and May has made it clear he wants to start. Whatever happens, May took a huge step forward this season at age 25 and gives the Twins' pitching staff a much-needed building block.

Eduardo Escobar: For whatever reason the Twins were very hesitant to trust Escobar as their starting shortstop despite a strong 2014 in that role, first handing the Opening Day job to Danny Santana and then waiting three months to give it back to Escobar when Santana flopped. Escobar ended up starting 71 games at shortstop--along with way too many games miscast as a left fielder and designated hitter--and batted .262/.309/.445 with 12 homers and 47 total extra-base hits.

For his Twins career Escobar has started 187 games at shortstop and hit .281/.328/.480 in those games, which is the best shortstop production in team history and should be more than enough to make him the 2016 starter. Escobar is a free-swinger, but he's got rare power for the position and offers solid, sure-handed defense too. At age 26 he's under team control through 2018, so they may have stumbled into a shortstop solution after two decades of unsuccessful searching.

Tyler Duffey: Entering the year as a mid-level prospect with questions about his durability and bat-missing ability, Duffey finished it as arguably the Twins' best starter. Called up in early August as a short-term rotation patch, Duffey got knocked around by the Blue Jays in his debut and then went 5-0 with a 2.25 ERA and 52/18 K/BB ratio in 56 innings over his final nine starts while giving up just two homers in 229 plate appearances.

Duffey was even stingier with the long ball in the minors this season, giving up just one homer in 138 innings and 559 plate appearances at Double-A and Triple-A before the call-up. Because he's not an extreme ground-ball pitcher those low homer totals figure to be somewhat of a fluke long term, but Duffey has good command of a low-90s fastball and his curveball is a swing-and-miss weapon. At age 25 he deserves a full-time shot in the Twins' rotation next season.

Aaron Hicks: All but left for dead as a prospect after back-to-back awful seasons in the majors, Hicks earned his way back to Minnesota by dominating Triple-A for six weeks and finally showed the skills that made him a first-round draft pick and four-time Baseball America top-100 prospect. With a revamped approach at the plate that dialed up aggression and converted passiveness into patience, he hit .256/.323/.398 with 11 homers in 97 games.

Hicks also looked much better defensively in center field, making his usual assortment of standout plays without mixing in as much shaky route-running, and went 13-for-16 stealing bases too. He slumped down the stretch and it remains to be seen if the switch-hitting Hicks can handle right-handers well enough to thrive as an everyday player, but he was an above-average all-around center fielder at age 25 and that's a remarkable turnaround given how far his stock had fallen.

Jose Berrios: Setting aside whether or not the Twins should have called up Berrios to the big leagues this season--in July or August would have been my preference--his performance while spending the entire year in the minors firmly established the 21-year-old right-hander as the organization's best pitching prospect since Matt Garza in 2006. Berrios began the season at Double-A, moved up to Triple-A in early July, and was one of the best pitchers in both leagues.

Overall he threw 166 innings with a 2.87 ERA and 175/38 K/BB ratio while limiting opponents to a .223 batting average and 12 homers. His handling may have been frustrating to Twins fans, but it was a fantastic season for an excellent prospect and one that would have gotten Berrios to the big leagues in most organizations. Pitching prospects fail at a remarkably high rate, but Berrios looks MLB-ready and projects as a potential front-line starter. His development in 2015 was impressive.

Max Kepler: Prior to this season Kepler's prospect status was based more on his physical tools and youth than actual production, which was mostly mediocre thanks in part to a bunch of injuries keeping him off the field. That all changed in a huge way this year, as Kepler stayed healthy and crushed Double-A, hitting .322/.416/.531 with 54 extra-base hits, more walks (67) than strikeouts (63), and 18 steals to be named MVP of the Southern League at age 22.

Kepler is 6-foot-4 and significantly stronger than when the Twins signed him out of Germany as a 16-year-old in 2009, but still has enough range to occasionally play center field and figures to be a plus defender in a corner spot. Much like with Berrios, in most organizations Kepler likely would have been called up to the big leagues for more than a September cup of coffee, but regardless of that his season was a true breakout and thrusts him into the Twins' long-term plans.

For a lengthy discussion of the highs and lows of the Twins' season and Paul Molitor's first year as manager, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

October 5, 2015

Gleeman and The Geek #218: The Weekend That Wasn’t

Topics for this week's "Gleeman and the Geek" episode included saying goodbye to another Twins season, falling just short of the second Wild Card spot, half-full vs. half-empty, how to assess Torii Hunter, what to expect from the offseason, Paul Molitor's first year on the job, getting razor's from Harrys.com, Brian Dozier's strikeout record, Miguel Sano's full counts, KFAN's ratings dominance, and bat-flipping for fun and profit.

Gleeman and The Geek: Episode 218

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 Harry's Razors, where you can get discounted razors and shaving supplies delivered to your door by entering in the code "gleeman" at Harrys.com.

« Newer PostsOlder Posts »