July 14, 2015

Reviewing the Twins’ first half: Hitters

Brian Dozier Twins

Last season the Twins ranked fifth among AL teams in both OPS and runs scored, but the lineup has taken a step backward. They've hit .254/.307/.399 to rank 11th out of 15 teams in OPS, but the offense has out-performed those overall numbers to rank seventh in runs scored thanks to hitting .283 with runners in scoring position and .241 without runners in scoring position. Before the second half gets underway here's a hitter-by-hitter look at the individual performances ...

Brian Dozier: .256/.328/.513 in 393 plate appearances

Two seasons ago Brian Dozier dramatically altered the trajectory of his career at age 26, going from light-hitting fringe shortstop prospect to starting-caliber second baseman. Last year he made another big jump, emerging as one of MLB's best all-around second basemen by combining power, patience, speed, and defense. This season he's again taken a huge leap, ranking among the best dozen players in the entire league during the first half.

Dozier is often overlooked, in part because his turning into a star came as such a surprise and in part because many people still misguidedly focus on batting average. But make no mistake: He had a spectacular first half. Dozier played 88 of 89 games, leading the league in extra-base hits (48) and ranking second in runs scored (67), third in doubles (26), seventh in homers (19), and 10th in slugging percentage (.513) while grading right around average defensively.

He's developed into one of the best power hitters in the league, which is amazing for a 5-foot-11 middle infielder who had a grand total of 16 homers in 365 games as a minor leaguer. In addition to crushing high fastballs Dozier draws walks, steals bases, and plays good defense at an up-the-middle position, which is why FanGraphs pegs him as the eighth-best all-around position player in the league at 3.3 Wins Above Replacement. He was, without question, the Twins' first-half MVP.

Joe Mauer: .271/.336/.387 in 366 plate appearances

Joe Mauer had a solid April, slumped badly from May 1 through mid-June, and finished the first half by hitting .320 with four homers in his final 25 games. The end result is an underwhelming .271/.336/.387 line that looks much like his underwhelming .277/.361/.371 line last year and has me wondering whether the .320-hitting on-base percentage vanished the moment he suffered a concussion in August of 2013.

His strong recent play puts those thoughts on hold for now and Mauer's actual impact out-paced his raw numbers thanks to hitting .380 with runners in scoring position and .400 in high-leverage spots. Mauer leads Twins hitters in Win Probability Added by a wide margin because he was great in game-changing situations even while being mediocre overall. Counting on that to continue is optimistic to say the least and Mauer was a below-average first baseman in the first half.

Trevor Plouffe: .259/.320/.449 in 354 plate appearances

Because he went from light-hitting shortstop prospect to good-hitting third baseman, whenever Trevor Plouffe puts together a good stretch offensively many people are quick to expect further development. Instead he's been remarkably consistent since becoming an everyday player and this season's production (.769 OPS) is very close to his numbers in 2012 (.751 OPS) and 2014 (.756 OPS). He's basically been a .250/.315/.440 hitter now for four years.

What has changed is that Plouffe went from being very rough defensively at third base to being solidly above average at the position, which is perhaps what should have been expected from a career-long shortstop making the transition in the majors. This season, like last season, Plouffe has been above average offensively and defensively to rank as one of the dozen best all-around third basemen in baseball. He was the Twins' second-best position player in the first half.

Torii Hunter: .257/.312/.444 in 333 plate appearances

Torii Hunter continues to hold off father time, putting together the same type of season for the Twins at age 39 that he had for the Tigers last year. He's been slightly above average offensively, making up for a 30-point drop in batting average with increased power and more walks (24) than he drew all of last season (23). Hunter has been extremely streaky, with a handful of huge games surrounded by mediocrity, but a .750 OPS at age 39 is as good as anyone should have expected.

Defensively he's rated somewhere between mediocre and poor, but either is a huge upgrade over the awful numbers he had as the Tigers' right fielder. Paul Molitor has also given Hunter plenty of time off from fielding with 11 starts at designated hitter. Slightly above average offensively and slightly below average defensively equals an average all-around player. That doesn't come close to matching the Hunter-as-savior hype train, but it certainly tops my modest expectations.

Kurt Suzuki: .235/.291/.313 in 271 plate appearances

Kurt Suzuki parlayed a good first half last season into his first career All-Star appearance and a two-year, $12 million contract extension from the Twins, at which point the magic wore off and he resumed not hitting. Suzuki has played 112 games since signing the deal, hitting .240/.291/.333 to basically match his .237/.294/.357 mark from 2010-2013, and this season his .604 OPS ranks 22nd among the 25 catchers with 200 or more plate appearances.

Suzuki's defensive reputation has always been excellent, but his defensive numbers have always been terrible and this season is no exception. He's thrown out 20 percent of stolen base attempts, his pitch-framing rates below average, and while he's been charged with few passed balls Twins pitchers have racked up tons of wild pitches with him behind the plate. Add it all up and Suzuki has been one of the league's worst regulars.

Danny Santana: .225/.245/.313 in 239 plate appearances

Danny Santana's great, out-of-nowhere rookie season carried with it several red flags, including a bad strikeout-to-walk ratio, unsustainably high batting average on balls in play, and iffy track record in the minors, but no one could have expected this type of collapse. His batting average is down 100 points, his power has been sliced in half, and his strike zone control has gone from bad to horrendous with 59 strikeouts and four walks. He's been one of the five worst hitters in MLB.

And he's been nearly as bad defensively despite moving back to his natural position of shortstop after being forced into action as a center fielder last year. Santana has committed 13 errors in 58 games at shortstop and Ultimate Zone Rating, Defensive Runs Saved, and Plus/Minus agree that he's been 5-10 runs below average. Santana made lots of errors and hit .274/.317/.397 with bad K/BB ratios in the minors and that's no longer masked by a shockingly good rookie campaign.

Eduardo Escobar: .254/.285/.403 in 216 plate appearances

Eduardo Escobar is a good-fielding shortstop with a decent bat for the position, but he's been asked to play mostly left field and designated hitter with predictably poor results. He's made 33 starts at left field/DH compared to 17 at shortstop, which has changed the perception of Escobar's value. Playing shortstop while hitting .254/.285/.403 would make Escobar an average regular, but a sub-.700 OPS looks totally different in left field and his outfield defense isn't pretty either.

Escobar is held back by terrible plate discipline, which includes a 48/8 K/BB ratio this season, but the bar for offense at shortstop is low enough that hitting .250 with gap power and non-existent strike zone control is perfectly reasonable when combined with solid defense. It makes no sense to play Escobar at a position where his bat and glove are both weaknesses, especially when Santana has been a mess at shortstop. Escobar is who he is. His team needs to utilize his skills better.

Eddie Rosario: .284/.310/.418 in 205 plate appearances

Molitor and the Twins were convinced that Eddie Rosario was more ready for the majors at age 23 than his mediocre numbers in the minors suggested and through 55 games his .284/.310/.418 line narrowly tops his .255/.300/.400 line at Double-A and Triple-A. His inability to control the strike zone in the minors has carried over with an ugly 47/8 K/BB ratio, but thanks to the smooth swing that Molitor and company rave about he's still been able to hit .284 with decent power.

Offensively he's been below average and more Triple-A time to work on plate discipline and trying to hit left-handed pitching might make sense, but Rosario has held his own enough to avoid being a weakness. And he's been very good defensively, showing plus range and a strong arm shifting between left field and right field. Rosario has plenty of rough edges to smooth out if he's going to become a great player, but he's already pretty close to being a good one.

Kennys Vargas: .245/.277/.365 in 166 plate appearances

Kennys Vargas was handed the Opening Day designated hitter job, lost it, reclaimed it, lost it again, and got demoted to Triple-A and then to Double-A, all within three months. In between he hit .245/.277/.365 with a hideous 48/7 K/BB ratio in 47 games to lose the Twins' faith. As a rookie his 63/12 K/BB ratio in 53 games wasn't much better, but no one seemed to care because he hit .274 with plus power. He has a lot to prove if he's going to re-enter the Twins' long-term plans.

Aaron Hicks: .266/.333/.387 in 138 plate appearances

After horrible rookie and sophomore seasons the Twins overhauled Aaron Hicks' approach at the plate and sent him to Triple-A. He thrived there to earn another chance and the results have been a mixed bag. Hicks looks like a different hitter--less patient, more aggressive--and his production is up recently, but he continues to be a switch-hitter with an extreme platoon split. His defense and baserunning have improved, but it's still unclear if he's a good part-time or a starter.

Shane Robinson: .243/.296/.304 in 126 plate appearances

Signed to a minor-league contract after a decade in the Cardinals organization, Shane Robinson made the team out of spring training and has played a bigger role than expected while starting 30 games. He hit .343 in April, but quickly turned back into a pumpkin and has hit .195 since May 1. Robinson's overall numbers match his underwhelming career marks and there's no reason for him to be starting games as a corner outfielder for a team struggling to score runs.

Eduardo Nunez: .290/.330/.477 in 116 plate appearances

Eduardo Nunez has hit and fielded better than ever, posting the second-best OPS on the team and even rating as a neutral shortstop after previously having some of the worst numbers at the position in baseball. His limited playing time means viewing all of that skeptically and the Twins still don't seem to trust him as an appealing shortstop option. Nunez may finally be taking a step forward at age 28, but more likely is that performances vary wildly in small samples.


For a lot more talk about the Twins' first half, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode featuring our MVP ballots and player-by-player breakdowns.

June 17, 2015

When will Miguel Sano join Byron Buxton in Minnesota?

Miguel Sano Twins

Within minutes of the Twins calling up No. 1 prospect Byron Buxton the ever-present "when will he be in Minnesota?" questions shifted to No. 2 prospect Miguel Sano, who's spent all season in Chattanooga batting behind Buxton in the Double-A lineup. Sano is six months older than Buxton and has more upper-minors experience, playing 67 games at Double-A in 2013 and 56 games at Double-A this year, but in between he missed all of 2014 following Tommy John elbow surgery.

Buxton's call-up filled an obvious need, because through their first 61 games the Twins gave a dozen or more starts to three different center fielders and the trio of Jordan Schafer, Shane Robinson, and Aaron Hicks combined for a sub-.600 OPS to rank among the least-productive positions in baseball. Buxton was also thriving at Double-A, hitting .310/.379/.540 with 18 steals in his last 46 games. Toss in Hicks' recent forearm injury and all the dots were connected.

Sano, on the other hand, plays a position at which the Twins are pretty well set. Trevor Plouffe has slumped of late, but he's hitting .248/.315/.442 to basically match his 2014 numbers while rating as an above-average defender at third base for the second straight year. Plouffe has been one of the Twins' best all-around players, both this season and last season, and the Twins have the fourth-highest OPS in the league at third base.

Plouffe has emerged as an above-average starting third baseman at age 29 and with two more seasons of team control remaining before free agency. Beyond that Plouffe's performance--low batting average, mediocre on-base percentage, good power--is exactly the type of performance the Twins would be hoping to get from Sano as a 22-year-old rookie. Calling up Buxton to replace Hicks/Schafer/Robinson was a clear upgrade. Calling up Sano to replace Plouffe is not.

However, that doesn't mean calling up Sano to take over at another position wouldn't make sense. Defense has never been his strong point anyway and many people were skeptical about his ability to remain at third base long term even before missing an entire season following elbow surgery. His range will always be limited at 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, surgery may have lessened his arm strength, and Sano has committed 25 errors in 118 games as a Double-A third baseman.

He's also hit .302/.384/.561 in 38 games since May 1 following a rough April, basically picking up where he left off before missing all of last season. If the Twins still believe Sano can stick at third base they may be hesitant to halt his development there, but his bat has always been what makes Sano a top prospect and it looks just about ready now. It would be asking a lot for him to learn a new position on the fly and in the majors, but they could simply ask him to do nothing but hit.

Twins designated hitters rank 13th among AL teams in OPS, combining for a .250 batting average with three homers and a .339 slugging percentage in 60 games. Kennys Vargas has gotten 25 of those 60 starts, with another 18 going to Torii Hunter and Joe Mauer when they take days off from fielding. And the Twins' remaining 17 starts at DH have gone to light-hitting middle infielders Eduardo Escobar, Eduardo Nunez, and Danny Santana.

Vargas is capable of much more than he's given the Twins this season and if Oswaldo Arcia gets on track at Triple-A he's another quality DH option. But if the Twins again run out of patience with Vargas and continue to be less than enthused with Arcia, calling up Sano to take over at DH--with some action at third base and first base mixed in--would make only slightly less sense than calling up Buxton to take over in center field. It's an obvious hole and he's ready to fill it.


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."

May 12, 2015

Third time’s a charm? Twins call up Aaron Hicks from Triple-A

Aaron Hicks

Last week, when the Twins needed a fill-in for the injured Oswaldo Arcia, they bypassed Aaron Hicks in favor of Eddie Rosario despite the latter's struggles dating back to last year and vastly inferior Triple-A production in the same Rochester outfield. Now with Shane Robinson having a family emergency the Twins have called up Hicks, who hit .336 with a .415 on-base percentage and .561 slugging percentage in 27 games at Triple-A to lead the International League in OPS.

In both 2013 and 2014 the Twins handed Hicks the Opening Day center field job and he flopped. This time around the deck was stacked against him getting a third crack at the gig. During spring training the prospect getting all the hype was Rosario, not Hicks, and the Twins eventually settled on splitting center field duties between the journeyman duo of Jordan Schafer, a 28-year-old waiver wire claim, and Robinson, a 30-year-old minor-league signing.

It hasn't worked out well, predictably. Robinson has done a quality job in a limited role, playing good defense and hitting some singles while facing mostly left-handed pitching. Schafer has come back down to earth after a good 46-game showing with the Twins last season that stood out from the rest of his sub par track record. Combined the Twins' center fielders have hit .257 with a .284 on-base percentage and .289 slugging percentage in 32 games.

As bad as Hicks has been in the majors his career on-base percentage and slugging percentage for the Twins are both higher than the Schafer/Robinson duo has produced in center field this season. He also has significantly more upside than Schafer or Robinson, although certainly far less so than the Twins hoped when they had him jump from Double-A to the majors as a 23-year-old in 2013. However, at age 25 and after crushing Triple-A pitching he deserves another opportunity.

Hicks is only one year older than the Twins' "young" trio of Arcia, Danny Santana, and Kennys Vargas. He's already shown the ability to be an asset against left-handed pitchers, posting a solid .750 OPS off them for the Twins in 2013/2014. Within his overall struggles last season Hicks drew lots of walks on the way to a .341 on-base percentage in 69 games. And in addition to thriving at Triple-A this season he hit .291/.387/.441 in 67 games at Double-A and Triple-A last season.

It's not a mystery why the Twins were hesitant to give Hicks another chance. He hasn't hit right-handed pitchers, his defense in center field has been very shaky, and the team publicly called into question his work ethic and instincts. Those are facts and I'm not writing this from the perspective of a huge Hicks believer. Even when he was a top prospect I was never particularly high on him, although obviously I expected him to perform a lot better than he has so far.

However, when a 25-year-old former top prospect two seasons removed from being rushed into an Opening Day job shows signs of progress giving him another--and perhaps a final--shot makes sense. At his worst, which is what we've seen so far, Hicks is still as good as the Schafer/Robinson duo. At his best, which is mostly hypothetical, Hicks still has the potential to be a useful regular. Of course, it may be a moot point if Hicks' stay only lasts until Robinson returns in a few days.


For a lot more about the Twins' roster decisions and surprising, emphatic climb above .500 check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

May 5, 2015

Twins bypass Aaron Hicks for Eddie Rosario to replace Oswaldo Arcia

Eddie Rosario Twins

It's common for the Twins to cite a prospect's lack of "consistency" in the minors as an excuse for why they haven't been called up. Most recently they did so with Triple-A reliever Lester Oliveros, who has a 1.65 ERA and 109 strikeouts in 76 innings since last season. Sustained dominance like that makes the notion of Oliveros lacking "consistency" seem absurd, particularly compared to the low standards for "consistency" the Twins so often seem to have for mediocre veterans.

Another problem with the Twins citing a lack of "consistency" whenever it suits them is that when it doesn't suit them they're quick to ignore the concept. Right now, for instance. Needing outfield help with Oswaldo Arcia headed to the disabled list with a hip injury, the Twins called up Eddie Rosario from Triple-A to make his MLB debut at age 23. Rosario was hitting .242/.280/.379 with a 17/5 K/BB ratio in 23 games for Rochester, which is terrible.

And that's nearly identical to his terrible performance last year, when Rosario was suspended for the first 50 games following a positive drug test and returned to hit .237/.277/.396 with a 68/17 K/BB ratio in 79 games at Double-A. In between he was talked up by the Twins throughout spring training only to hit .233 with zero walks in 17 games. In retrospect the spring disconnect between the praise he received and his performance was foreshadowing.

Rosario was suspended 50 games for drug use and hit terribly at two levels of the minors and in spring training since returning, but "consistency" apparently isn't always a must for a call-up. For whatever reason the Twins and especially manager Paul Molitor are infatuated with Rosario and it's also clear they've totally soured on Aaron Hicks, himself a former top prospect who struggled in the majors after being handed an Opening Day job too soon and is still just 25 years old.

Hicks is hitting .289/.375/.494 with a 15/12 K/BB ratio in the same Rochester lineup as Rosario, topping him in every way except being on the Twins' good side. Hicks also hit .291/.387/.441 with a 40/37 K/BB ratio in 67 games between AA/AAA last season, easily out-performing Rosario again. And while Hicks has struggled for the Twins, he posted a .341 on-base percentage over 69 games in the majors last year while Rosario has failed to crack a .300 OBP in the minors since last year.

For the sake of simplicity, here's how their career Double-A and Triple-A numbers compare:

TRIPLE-A      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     K/BB
Hicks        .264     .349     .410     .759     1.58
Rosario      .242     .280     .379     .659     3.40

DOUBLE-A      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     K/BB
Hicks        .289     .389     .461     .850     1.31
Rosario      .260     .302     .403     .705     3.55

Hicks is also considered as good or better defensively than Rosario, who attempted to transition from center field to second base before going back to the outfield full time this season and has always been projected more as a corner outfielder due to limited range. It's hard to blame the Twins too much if they've indeed given up on Hicks, but there's no indication Rosario is ready for the majors and this move makes any "consistency" talk look even sillier than usual.

As for Arcia, this is another setback on his quest to gain the Twins' trust and establish himself as an everyday, middle-of-the-order bat. Molitor's willingness to platoon has put Arcia on the bench frequently versus lefties and both his plate discipline and defense remain huge weaknesses. He's hitting reasonably well at .276/.338/.379 in 19 games, but all four of Arcia's walks have been intentional and he's swung at the second-most pitches outside the strike zone in the league.


For a lot more about the Twins' recent roster moves and call-up timetables, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

April 22, 2015

The art of platooning: Molitor vs. Gardenhire and Arcia vs. lefties

oswaldo arcia twins

Paul Molitor barely has his feet wet as Twins manager, but one noticeable change from Ron Gardenhire is the willingness to platoon. In his 13 seasons as manager Gardenhire essentially never platooned based on handedness, instead treating left-handed bats like Jacque Jones and Jason Kubel as everyday players despite their inability to handle left-handers and ignoring the potential value mediocre right-handed bats like Danny Valencia had as lefty mashers.

Molitor platooned more in his first couple weeks than Gardenhire did in some seasons, regularly benching Oswaldo Arcia and Jordan Schafer against lefties. That's a positive sign in the sense that platooning is a very straightforward, commonplace method of squeezing the most value out of non-stars and putting players in a position to succeed, but in this case the Twins constructed such a weak bench that their platoon options are pretty unappealing.

Not playing Schafer against lefties is a good idea, but Shane Robinson is such a weak overall hitter that his right-handedness barely makes a difference. Not playing Arcia against lefties is also a good idea, at least in the short term, but if the Twins still hold out any hope of him developing into an everyday player he'll need playing time versus lefties eventually and Eduardo Escobar, while better than Robinson, isn't exactly an ideal platoon-mate for a corner outfielder.

Mostly, though, it's just nice to see a manager willing to embrace a common, effective tactic after more than a decade of watching lefties flail away against left-handed pitching, potentially useful righties cast aside because they struggled in everyday roles, and batting orders remain unchanged regardless of the handedness of the opposing pitcher. And if the Twins' bench ever contains better options Molitor could do some interesting things with the lineup.

It'd be great to have nine everyday players and just trot them out in the same lineup spots no matter who was on the mound, but it's hard to find teams that wouldn't benefit from at least some platooning. Nearly every left-handed hitter in baseball history with a sizable track record has fared better against righties than lefties, often to an extreme degree. Because of that, with a lefty on the mound even good left-handed hitters are often worse than mediocre right-handed hitters.

For instance, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are MVP-winning left-handed bats and two of the best hitters in Twins history. However, looking strictly at production against left-handed pitching they both have a lower career OPS than mediocre right-handed hitters like J.J. Hardy, Delmon Young, and Trevor Plouffe. Having the platoon advantage makes a huge difference. Here are the career splits for the Twins' most-used left-handed hitters of the Gardenhire era:

CAREER OPS           vsR      vsL
Joe Mauer           .915     .749
Justin Morneau      .894     .705
Jason Kubel         .813     .676
Denard Span         .751     .726
Jacque Jones        .816     .628
Corey Koskie        .870     .707

On average those six left-handed hitters have an .843 OPS versus righties and a .699 OPS versus lefties for a collective decrease of 17 percent and everyone but Denard Span sees their OPS drop more than 125 points. Those decreases are larger than typical across MLB, but in general lefties tend to be 10-15 percent worse versus lefties. Of course, some lefty bats are good enough overall that they warrant keeping in the lineup against lefties even with the decreased production.

Put another way: Mauer's production against lefties drops 18 percent, but he's still decent with a .749 OPS. However, not many lefties are as good as Mauer overall and so most warrant benching at least semi-regularly. Gardenhire obviously didn't agree. Jones hit .230/.278/.350 off lefties, yet Gardenhire played him every day and kept him leading off. Kubel hit .233/.305/.375 off lefties, yet Gardenhire played him every day and kept him in the middle of the lineup. You get the idea.

It's possible that Arcia will improve versus lefties and/or become productive enough overall that he's worth playing every day and because he's still just 24 years old it's certainly worth investing some more time into finding out. More likely is that he's ultimately a platoon or quasi-platoon player, which is less a knock on Arcia specifically and more just the way things tend to go with good but not great left-handed hitters.

Considering his poor defense Arcia needs to put up big numbers to be worth having in the lineup at an offense-heavy position. So far he's hit .221/.262/.340 off lefties, which is 25 percent worse than his .249/.322/.489 line off righties. Even if Arcia gets better versus righties and turns that 25-percent drop versus lefties into, say, a 15-percent drop it shouldn't be all that hard for the Twins to find a random right-handed hitter capable of better against lefties.

Aaron Hicks, while hugely disappointing overall, has posted a .758 OPS off lefties in the majors and has always hit lefties much better than righties in the minors. Hicks may never develop into a quality regular, but he's already a quality platoon option. With a lefty on the mound he's a viable center fielder and/or better than Arcia offensively and defensively in left field. And that's the magic of platooning, which turns useless into useful by separating strengths from weaknesses.

Molitor has shown the mindset required to improve a lineup via platooning, but the Twins need to actually give him the pieces to make those moves worthwhile and a four-man bench of Robinson, Escobar, Chris Herrmann, and Eduardo Nunez doesn't qualify. Still, after 13 years of learning to view hitters strictly through Gardenhire's binary "everyday player or not" lenses it's refreshing to consider how open-minded managing might take better advantage of useful but flawed options.


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."

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