June 27, 2013

Who are the best old hitters in Twins history?

twins best old hitters

Last week I wrote about the best young hitters in Twins history, using OPS to highlight the most productive seasons by players at ages 20 (Butch Wynegar), 21 (Tom Brunansky), 22 (Kent Hrbek), 23 (Joe Mauer), 24 (Hrbek), and 25 (Harmon Killebrew). I'm going to focus on the other side of the age spectrum today, examining the best old hitters in Twins history. Let's start with the 35-year-olds ...


AGE 35              YEAR      PA      OPS
Kirby Puckett       1995     602     .894
Harmon Killebrew    1971     624     .850
Tony Oliva          1974     494     .739
Terry Steinbach     1997     489     .696
Vic Power           1963     578     .682
John Roseboro       1968     435     .611

Those are the only six 35-year-olds in Twins history to log 300 plate appearances, led by Kirby Puckett in the strike-shortened 1995 season. In what was his final season he hit .314/.379/.515 with 23 homers and 39 doubles in 137 games. Defensively he'd shifted to right field, but Puckett remained a force offensively with an OPS that was 60 points above his career mark. He smacked his most homers since 1988 and set career-highs with 56 walks and a .379 on-base percentage.

And adjusting for the offensive levels of the two eras Killebrew's age-35 season was arguably even more productive than Puckett's despite lower raw numbers. Puckett edged Killebrew by 44 points of OPS, but the league average was .771 in 1995 compared to .681 in 1971. Killebrew split time between third base and first base while hitting .254/.386/.464 for the league's 10th-best OPS and led the AL in both RBIs (119) and walks (114).

Tony Oliva joins Puckett and Killebrew as the only other Twins who were above average at 35, hitting .285/.325/.414 in league that hit just .258 with a .371 slugging percentage as a whole. Terry Steinbach was well below average while hitting .248/.302/.392 in 1997, but his modest .696 OPS was just slightly below the AL average for catchers and he caught 116 games in his first of three seasons with the Twins. Oh, and he doubled his career-high with six steals.


AGE 36              YEAR      PA      OPS
Harmon Killebrew    1972     532     .817
Tony Oliva          1975     515     .722
Terry Steinbach     1998     465     .720
John Roseboro       1969     406     .654

Only four 36-year-olds in Twins history topped 300 plate appearances and all of them were also on the age-35 list, led by Killebrew hitting .231/.367/.450 with 26 homers and 94 walks in 139 games. Those may not stand out as huge raw numbers, but in 1972 he ranked third in the league in both homers and walks while placing among the AL's top 10 in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS.

Just like the previous season Oliva remained a slightly above average bat, hitting .270/.344/.378 in a league that hit just .258/.328/.379 in 1975. Steinbach was actually better at 36 than he was at 35, upping his OPS by 25 points and catching 119 games. John Roseboro made his name with the Dodgers, but after a decade in Los Angeles he moved on to the Twins for two seasons and, like Steinbach, was remarkably durable for a mid-30s catcher.


AGE 37              YEAR      PA      OPS
Terry Steinbach     1999     380     .748
Harmon Killebrew    1973     290     .698

For the young hitters lists the cutoff was 300 plate appearances, but because there aren't nearly as many old hitters I've reduced the minimum to 200 plate appearances for age 37 and up. And even then Steinbach and Killebrew are the only 37-year-old regulars in Twins history. Steinbach again raised his OPS, going from .696 at 35 and .730 at 36 to .748 at 37. He wasn't as durable, but still started 96 games behind the plate and posted a career-high .358 on-base percentage.

Killebrew was a shell of his former self in 1973, as major knee problems limited him to 69 games and he managed just five homers, although he still walked 41 times and posted a .352 on-base percentage. Oliva fell too short on playing time in 1976 to make the list, but he played his final season at age 37 and was a below-average hitter for the only time in his career, struggling for 67 games before calling it quits.


AGE 38              YEAR      PA      OPS
Harmon Killebrew    1974     382     .672
Jamey Carroll       2012     537     .660

Killebrew is technically the most productive 38-year-old in team history, but it wasn't pretty. He was healthy enough to play 122 games in 1974, but hit just .222/.312/.360 with 12 homers in his final Twins season before moving on to the Royals for one last forgettable season. Meanwhile, in basically matching Killebrew's age-38 production Jamey Carroll set a career-high with 537 plate appearances and also drove in the most runs of his career.

Mike Redmond's limited action as a backup catcher keeps him from appearing on any of these lists, but he spent ages 34-38 with the Twins and hit .294/.337/.352 for them after turning 35. Only six players in Twins history logged more plate appearances than Redmond after age 35 and his .690 OPS is plenty solid for a catcher. In fact, Redmond's adjusted OPS+ was the exact same as Steinbach's post-35 mark.


AGE 39              YEAR      PA      OPS
Jim Thome           2010     340    1.039
Paul Molitor        1996     729     .858
Jim Dwyer           1989     254     .794
Otis Nixon          1998     500     .705

When the Twins signed Jim Thome for just $1.5 million in 2010 he was supposed to fill a limited role as a bench bat and occasional designated hitter, but instead he turned in one of the best age-39 seasons of all time. Thome hit .283/.412/.627 with 25 homers and 60 walks in 340 plate appearances for a 1.039 OPS that's the fourth-highest age-35 mark in MLB history, one spot ahead of Babe Ruth and trailing only Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, and Ted Williams.

Not only is his 1.039 OPS in 2010 the best mark by any Twins hitter after age 35, no one else has even cracked .900. And regardless of age his 1.039 OPS in 2010 is the highest in Twins history for all hitters to play at least 100 games, with only Killebrew twice and Mauer and Rod Carew one apiece joining Thome in the 1.000 OPS/100 games club. Not bad for a guy who signed for $1.5 million and began the season behind Delmon Young in the line for playing time.

Thome's age-39 season is so amazing that it overshadows an incredible age-39 season by Paul Molitor, who batted .341 with a league-leading 225 hits in 1996. Molitor signed with the Twins after three seasons in Toronto and joined the 3,000-hit club in September, missing just one game while setting a career-high with 113 RBIs, tying a career-high with 41 doubles, and stealing 18 bases. Molitor is the only 39-year-old in MLB history to top 200 hits or 110 RBIs.

Otis Nixon looked 39 years old for his entire career and had one of his best seasons as an actual 39-year-old, hitting .297 with a .361 on-base percentage and 37 steals in 110 games during his one-season stay in Minnesota. Nixon broke his jaw in April when Royals shortstop Felix Martinez kicked him in the face during a double play, yet still managed the second-most steals in MLB history for a 39-year-old behind Rickey Henderson.


AGE 40              YEAR      PA      OPS
Jim Thome           2011     242     .827
Paul Molitor        1997     597     .786

Here's how ridiculous Thome's age-39 season was: He lost more than 200 points from his OPS the next year and still had one of the most productive age-40 seasons ever. Thome hit .243/.351/.476 with 12 homers in 240 plate appearances for an .827 OPS that tops the Twins' age-39 list ahead of his lone competition in Molitor. And then Thome was even better after being traded to the Indians in August, hitting .296/.390/.479 in 22 games back where his career started.

Molitor was also very good as a 40-year-old, hitting .305/.351/.435 in 135 games to join fellow Hall of Famers Ty Cobb, Sam Rice, Luke Appling, and Henderson as the only players in MLB history to bat .300 at age 40. Thome and Molitor are the only Twins to get regular playing time at 40 and the only other hitters in team history to see any sort of game action at 40 are Jim Dwyer, Ruben Sierra, and Elmer Valo, who combined to bat .179 in 144 trips to the plate.


AGE 41              YEAR      PA      OPS
Dave Winfield       1993     594     .767
Paul Molitor        1998     559     .718

Three seasons before Molitor notched his 3,000th hit in Minnesota fellow St. Paul native Dave Winfield signed with the Twins and did the same at age 41. And he was hardly just a novelty act, hitting .271/.325/.442 with 21 homers in 143 games in 1993. Winfield joins Williams, Bonds, and Darrell Evans as the only 41-year-olds with 20 homers. Molitor managed a nice-looking .281 batting average at age 41, but his .718 OPS in his final season was below the AL average of .771.


AGE 42              YEAR      PA      OPS
Dave Winfield       1994     328     .746

Winfield is the only hitter in Twins history to appear in a game at age 42 or older and he was still a decent hitter in 1994, batting .252/.321/.425 with 10 homers and 15 doubles in 77 games before the strike ended the season. Unfortunately he didn't call it quits during the strike, instead coming back in 1995 with the Indians and hitting .191 in 46 games to end a Hall of Fame career. Winfield has the ninth-most plate appearances in MLB history after turning 40 with 1,722.


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June 19, 2013

Who are the best young hitters in Twins history?

best young hitters

Oswaldo Arcia has thrived as a 22-year-old rookie, Aaron Hicks has struggled as a 23-year-old rookie, and Twins fans are counting down the days until stud prospects Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton arrive in Minnesota. All of which got me thinking about the best young hitters in Twins history, so I looked up the most productive seasons for each age based on OPS. No teenage hitter has even gotten regular playing time for the Twins, so let's start with 20-year-olds ...


AGE 20              YEAR      PA      OPS
Butch Wynegar       1976     622     .719

Butch Wynegar is the only hitter in Twins history to see regular action at age 20 and he logged 622 plate appearances, started 133 games at catcher, threw out 35 percent of steal attempts, and made the All-Star team while hitting .260/.356/.363 with more walks (79) than strikeouts (63) in a pitcher-friendly era. Adjusting for the time it was a Joe Mauer-esque year, which is why he was such a phenom and why, despite a solid 13-year career, he was ultimately a disappointment.

Bert Blyleven actually has the second-most plate appearances by a 20-year-old in Twins history with 100, because he was an amazing young pitcher who debuted before the designated hitter. In fact, he also has the most plate appearances by a 19-year-old in Twins history with 58. Through age 20 he hit .135 in 158 trips to the plate ... and tossed 442 innings with a 2.95 ERA. Blyleven ended up with 514 career plate appearances and hit .131 with a 193-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Among position players Luis Rivas has the second-most plate appearances by a 20-year-old in Twins history with 64. In the early days of this blog the Twins rushing Rivas to the majors and repeatedly handing him a starting job based almost solely on his age was a frequent source of frustration. He debuted at 20 and got the sixth-most plate appearances in team history through age 24--Wynegar got the most by a wide margin--but Rivas basically never improved.


AGE 21              YEAR      PA      OPS
Tom Brunansky       1982     545     .848
Rod Carew           1967     561     .750
Butch Wynegar       1977     617     .715
Zoilo Versalles     1961     542     .704
Luis Rivas          2001     619     .682
Cristian Guzman     1999     456     .543

Those are the only six 21-year-olds in Twins history to log at least 300 plate appearances. Tom Brunansky actually began that 1982 season at Triple-A in the Angels organization and was hitting just .205/.317/.330 in 25 games there when they traded him to the Twins in mid-May along with Mike Walters for Doug Corbett and Rob Wilfong. He was immediately handed a starting job and hit .272/.377/.471 with 20 homers, 30 doubles, and 71 walks in 127 games.

Rod Carew was also no slouch at 21, hitting .292/.341/.409 in one of the lowest-scoring eras in baseball history. Seriously, in 1967 the American League as a whole hit .236 with a .303 on-base percentage and .351 slugging percentage. If you adjust Carew's raw numbers to today's offensive environment he hit around .315/.360/.475, which is amazing from a 21-year-old second baseman and explains how he missed being the unanimous Rookie of the Year winner by one vote.

Wynegar cracks the list again and Rivas shows up too, along with shortstops Zoilo Versalles and Cristian Guzman. In six decades of Twins history only two regulars have been above-average hitters at 21, which is something to remember when Sano and Buxton show up. Mauer doesn't make the age-21 list because a knee injury cut short his rookie season, but he hit .308/.369/.570 in 122 plate appearances for what would be the top OPS by a wide margin.


AGE 22              YEAR      PA      OPS
Kent Hrbek          1982     591     .848
David Ortiz         1998     326     .817
Joe Mauer           2005     554     .783
Oswaldo Arcia       2013     133     .759
Tom Brunansky       1983     611     .753

I've included Arcia on the age-22 list despite his not having enough plate appearances to qualify yet because he's actually what got me thinking about this topic in the first place. Arcia has fared well enough in the early going that I wondered how his production compares to other 22-year-old Twins, discovering that he's in some pretty nice company with Kent Hrbek, David Ortiz, Mauer, and Brunansky.

In all a total of 12 different Twins have gotten at least 300 plate appearances at age 22 and Hrbek leads the way by hitting .301/.363/.485 with 23 homers in 140 games as a rookie in 1981. The worst OPS in the group of 22-year-olds belongs to Wynegar, who fell to .229/.307/.308 in his third season after being an All-Star at 20 and 21. Rivas, Guzman, Versalles, Carew, and Carlos Gomez also posted a sub-.700 OPS at 22.


AGE 23              YEAR      PA      OPS
Joe Mauer           2006     608     .936
Justin Morneau      2004     312     .875
Kent Hrbek          1983     582     .855
Rod Carew           1969     504     .853
Cristian Guzman     2001     527     .811

Four of the truly elite hitters in Twins history ... and Guzman. He'd been terrible in his first two seasons with the Twins, but in 2001 he hit .308/.346/.507 with seven homers, 22 doubles, and an incredible 13 triples in the first half to make the All-Star team. And then just as everyone was getting excited about a switch-hitting 23-year-old shortstop emerging as a star Guzman hurt his shoulder, missed much of the second half, and resumed being a terrible hitter.

Mauer hit .347/.429/.507 in 140 games at age 23, becoming the first catcher in AL history to win a batting title. He likely should have finished either first or second in the MVP voting, but instead placed sixth while teammate Justin Morneau won the award based largely on racking up RBIs with Mauer on base in front of him. Two years earlier Morneau posted the second-best OPS by a 23-year-old in Twins history, hitting .271/.340/.536 in 74 games after a midseason call-up.

Carew, like Mauer, won his first batting title at age 23, hitting .332/.386/.467 in 1969 to boost his OPS by 200 points compared to 1968, which happened to be one of the lowest-scoring seasons in baseball history and the final season before MLB lowered the pitching mound. In all 28 different Twins have gotten at least 300 plate appearances at age 23 and 13 failed to crack a .700 OPS, including Torii Hunter and Roy Smalley.

Hicks hasn't reached 300 plate appearances yet, but his current .575 OPS at age 23 would rank third-worst ahead of only David McCarty (.542) and Danny Thompson (.482). Greg Gagne (.596) and Rich Becker (.599) also aren't very far ahead of Hicks and two guys who preceded him in center field, Gomez and Ben Revere, posted an OPS under .625 at 23. Next season Arcia will try to become the sixth Twins hitter to crack an .800 OPS at 23.


AGE 24              YEAR      PA      OPS
Kent Hrbek          1984     635     .906
Delmon Young        2010     613     .826
Denard Span         2008     411     .819
David Ortiz         2000     478     .810
Joe Mauer           2007     471     .808

Hrbek has the best OPS for 22-year-olds, the third-best OPS for 23-year-olds, and the best OPS for 24-year-olds. In his age-24 season listed above he hit .311/.383/.522 with 27 homers in 149 games, finishing runner-up in the MVP voting behind Tigers reliever Willie Hernandez despite not even making the All-Star team. Hrbek never finished in the top 15 in MVP voting before or after that season, although he had plenty of other productive years.

Delmon Young appeared to have a breakout season in 2010, hitting .298/.333/.493 with 21 homers and 46 doubles in 153 games at age 24 to convince a lot of people he was finally living up to the hype he received as a prospect. He finished 10th in the MVP balloting because some voters overlooked his terrible defense and focused on his high RBI total, but in three seasons since then he's hit just .263/.297/.404.

Ortiz has the second-best OPS for 22-year-olds and the fourth-best OPS for 24-year-olds, so while no one could have predicted that he'd become one of the elite hitters in baseball after leaving the Twins there was certainly plenty of promise shown at a young age. In all Ortiz hit .266/.348/.461 in 455 games for the Twins through age 25. In team history only Mauer, Hrbek, Morneau, and Rich Rollins had more plate appearances and a higher OPS than Ortiz through age 25.

By age 24 plenty of hitters are regulars in the majors and a total of 38 different Twins hitters got at least 300 plate appearances as 24-year-olds. Kirby Puckett ranks 34th out of 38 with a .655 OPS, hitting .296/.320/.336 with zero homers in 128 games as a rookie. Carew would hold the top spot among 24-year-olds with a .930 OPS in 1970, but a knee injury ended his season after 51 games with a .366 batting average.


AGE 25              YEAR      PA      OPS
Harmon Killebrew    1961     656    1.012
Justin Morneau      2006     661     .934
Tony Oliva          1964     719     .916
Bobby Kielty        2002     348     .890
Joe Mauer           2008     633     .864

Harmon Killebrew couldn't crack any of these lists before age 25 because the team didn't move to Minnesota until then. In his first Twins season Killebrew hit .288/.405/.606 with 46 homers and 107 walks. Five decades later he's still the only Twins hitter to top a .950 OPS by age 25. Tony Oliva also cracks these lists for the first time at 25 because it was his rookie season. He led the AL in batting average, runs, doubles, and total bases, winning Rookie of the Year.

Morneau's aforementioned MVP-winning 2006 season came at age 25, as he hit .321/.375/.556 with 34 homers and 37 doubles in 159 games. Morneau has the second-best OPS for 23-year-olds and 25-year-olds, but hit just .239/.304/.437 in between as a 24-year-old. Mauer cracks the top five in OPS for ages 22, 23, 24, and 25. And he likely would've had the top OPS for 21-year-olds too if not for the knee injury.

Bobby Kielty is the odd man out on the age-25 list, which reminds me that I've never been more wrong about a player. He was a switch-hitting outfielder with power and plate discipline, and as you can see Kielty put up big numbers at an early age. When the Twins traded Kielty to the Blue Jays for Shannon Stewart in 2006 he was a 26-year-old .269/.375/.444 hitter. I thought they'd made a terrible mistake. And then Kielty hit .246/.333/.389 after the trade, flaming out at 30.


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June 19, 2012

Bust to building block? Trevor Plouffe slugs his way into Twins’ plans

Going into the 2004 draft many teams liked California high schooler Trevor Plouffe more as a pitcher than as a position player, but the Twins were among the teams convinced he could be a good-hitting shortstop and took him 20th overall. Plouffe was one of their five first-round picks that year, as the compensation for losing LaTroy Hawkins and Eddie Guardado to free agency allowed the Twins to restock the farm system with five selections in the top 40.

Nine years later Glen Perkins is the only one of those picks to become a quality big leaguer and even that didn't take place until last season when he faced a career crossroads moving from the rotation to the bullpen. Kyle Waldrop is still in the organization as a potential middle reliever, but has just 11 innings in the majors at age 26. Matt Fox got a cup of coffee with the Twins in 2010, but is now a Triple-A journeyman. Jay Rainville never reached the majors.

And then there's Plouffe.

After signing for a $1.5 million bonus Plouffe had a decent pro debut at rookie-ball, but then hit .223/.300/.345 in 127 games at low Single-A in 2005. Despite that lack of production at age 19 the Twins moved Plouffe up to high Single-A the next season anyway and he again struggled, hitting .246/.333/.347 in 125 games. And then despite that lack of production at age 20 the Twins promoted Plouffe to Double-A in 2007, where he hit .274/.326/.410 in 126 games.

Plouffe repeated a level for the first time in 2008, hitting .269/.325/.410 in 58 games back at Double-A before a midseason promotion to Triple-A. At age 22 he was one of the International League's youngest players despite not cracking even a .750 OPS at any level and predictably hit just .256/.292/.410 in 66 games for Rochester. By promoting him so aggressively in the face of mediocre performances the Twins put Plouffe in an odd situation developmentally.

He was a former first-round pick one step from the major leagues at age 22, yet he'd never actually shown anything to suggest that he was a top prospect. And so he repeated Triple-A in 2009. And then he repeated it again in 2010. At that point Plouffe was 25 and had spent three seasons in Rochester, hitting .253/.303/.419 in 286 games and 1,194 plate appearances. He'd also spent a brief stint with the Twins, going 6-for-41 (.146) with 14 strikeouts and zero walks.

In short, he looked like a bust. Plouffe was still fairly young and within the consistently modest overall production at Triple-A was some decent power for a shortstop, although the reviews of his defense made projecting him as a potential big-league shortstop very iffy. In seven years in the minors, including three at Triple-A, his career-highs were a .280 batting average, .340 on-base percentage, and .430 slugging percentage. And two of the highs came in rookie-ball.

Plouffe failed to make the Opening Day roster last spring and was assigned back to Triple-A for a fourth consecutive season, at which point he shockingly hit .313/.384/.635 with 15 homers in 51 games for a 1.019 OPS that topped Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel for the highest mark by any Rochester player since the Twins' affiliate moved there in 2003. Suddenly he was back on the prospect map and back in the majors, although it didn't translate to immediate success.

In fact Plouffe hit just .238/.305/.392 with an ugly 71-to-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 81 games for the Twins and was so bad defensively at shortstop that they started using him primarily in the outfield. Because he was out of minor-league options and the rebuilding Twins weren't ready to give up on Plouffe he made this year's team out of spring training as a non-shortstop utility man, but played sparingly and poorly while going 8-for-60 (.133) through mid-May.

And then everything changed. Starting third baseman Danny Valencia played his way back to Triple-A and the Twins turned to Plouffe as his main replacement while hoping his throwing issues wouldn't carry over from shortstop. He'd never played third base regularly in the minors or majors, but Plouffe has looked capable there at the very least and his arm strength is a real asset when he's making accurate throws. Oh, and he started hitting like Babe Ruth.

As of May 15 he'd played 125 career MLB games with a .212 batting average, .286 on-base percentage, .357 slugging percentage, and 97 strikeouts versus 11 homers. Since then he's hit .315 with 13 homers and a .793 slugging percentage in 24 games, including a stretch in which he went deep seven times in seven games. Obviously the sample size is small and he's not suddenly Miguel Cabrera, but Plouffe has been the hottest hitter in baseball for a month.

And even combining his month-long homer binge with his hideous first six weeks equals power numbers that are tough to brush aside. Despite a still-poor .243 batting average in 46 games overall this season his .566 slugging percentage ranks sixth among AL hitters behind only Josh Hamilton, Paul Konerko, Mark Trumbo, Adam Jones, and David Ortiz. Last time a right-handed Twins hitter was slugging higher at this point in a season was Kirby Puckett.

Isolated Power is a stat that takes slugging percentage and subtracts batting average to focus strictly on a hitter's raw power and Plouffe's current mark of .322 ranks third in the league behind only Adam Dunn at .345 and Hamilton at .343. No other AL hitters have an Isolated Power above .300. In the entire history of the Minnesota Twins they've had a hitter top a .275 Isolated Power seven times and all seven of them were Harmon Killebrew.

Expanding the sample size further to include Plouffe's terrible 2010 debut and ugly 2011 showing still produces some pretty amazing power numbers. For his major-league career he's now played 149 games and logged 536 plate appearances, totaling 24 homers and 26 doubles for an Isolated Power of .209 that ranks seventh in Twins history among all hitters with 500 or more trips to the plate. Here's the complete top 10 in a Twins uniform:

Jim Thome          .296
Harmon Killebrew   .258
Don Mincher        .239
Bob Allison        .225
Justin Morneau     .218
Jimmie Hall        .212
TREVOR PLOUFFE     .209
Tom Brunansky      .202
Kent Hrbek         .199
Torii Hunter       .198

Some pretty decent company, huh?

Of course, in addition to the relatively small sample size it's also important to note that his elite power has come along with a lowly .232 batting average and .301 on-base percentage in those 149 career games. Those marks are tough to live with, huge power or not, and because Plouffe also hit just .262 with a .316 on-base percentage in 337 games at Triple-A it's difficult to project a ton of improvement.

With that said, Parker Hageman of Twins Daily did some video-based analysis breaking down Plouffe's altered swing and the same mechanical adjustments that led to his power explosion could potentially lead to a more palatable batting average. He's never going to hit .300, but if Plouffe could hit .265 while maintaining what has always been a decent walk rate--and one that figures to rise as pitchers avoid throwing him strikes--his all-around value would soar.

Plouffe will come back down to earth and there's still reason to be skeptical of his upside long term, but he's shown enough power dating back to Triple-A last year, enough plate discipline throughout his nine-year career, and enough early promise defensively at third base to believe he won't simply turn back into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight. Much like Scott Diamond, his emergence is one positive from giving chances to untested players in a rebuilding year.

For even more about Plouffe's power and the changes in his swing, check out my discussion with Hageman on this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

July 18, 2011

Twins Notes: Closer changes, monster homers, regrets, and somersaults

Matt Capps blew a 1-0 lead and took the loss Friday, serving up a mammoth two-run homer to Royals rookie Eric Hosmer for his league-leading seventh blown save of the year, at which point Ron Gardenhire finally made a change at closer. Gardenhire turned back to former closer Joe Nathan rather than give the bullpen's most effective reliever, Glen Perkins, his first shot in the role, which I agreed last week makes the most sense as a short-term solution.

Perkins may eventually prove to be an elite closer, but he's been so valuable in part because of Gardenhire's willingness to use him in crucial spots whenever the need arises, whereas the manager's closer usage has always been far more rigid. For now at least I'd rather see Perkins throw 80 innings in a variety of tight situations than 65 innings with a lead of 1-3 runs in the ninth inning and Nathan's past closer experience makes the move even more of a no-brainer.

Nathan hasn't looked quite like his pre-surgery self, but he's still been impressive since coming off the disabled list in mid-June. His velocity is up compared to earlier this season, he pitched on three straight days over the weekend for the first time since 2009, and Nathan has allowed just one run in 9.1 innings since the month-long DL trip, with seven strikeouts versus one walk and a .125 opponents' batting average. As for Capps, there isn't much left to say at this point.

By focusing on save totals and supposed "proven closer" status the Twins overvalued a setup-caliber pitcher, paying a premium in players and money. It was a huge mistake then and looks even bigger now, but Capps has also fallen apart. He's managed just 4.8 strikeouts per nine innings, which is 30 percent below his career rate, and command issues have hitters teeing off on what's always been a nearly all-fastball repertoire. Bad process, bad decision, bad result.

• Fortunately even with Capps turning a 1-0 lead into a 2-1 loss Friday night the Twins began the 18-day, 19-game stretch that figures to define the season by taking three of four from the Royals. They're now just five games below .500 for the first time since April and sit five games back in the AL Central with the first-place Indians and second-place Tigers coming to town for back-to-back four-game series. Giddy up.

Scott Baker was scheduled to start Game 1 of today's doubleheader versus the Indians, but was scratched from that outing yesterday and placed on the disabled list with the elbow injury that prematurely ended his last start on July 5. Scott Diamond will start in Baker's spot, as the Twins bypassed No. 1 prospect and Triple-A rotation-mate Kyle Gibson. Kevin Slowey wasn't an option because he last started Friday at Rochester.

Diamond hasn't impressed at Triple-A, posting a 4.70 ERA and 68-to-30 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 92 innings while allowing opponents to hit .291 off him, but he's fared better of late and the Twins clearly think very highly of him. They picked Diamond in the Rule 5 draft and then, when it was clear there wouldn't be an Opening Day spot for him on the pitching staff, they overpaid to keep him by giving the Braves hard-throwing reliever prospect Billy Bullock.

Under normal circumstances the Twins likely would've replaced the injured Baker with Anthony Swarzak and avoided calling up Diamond (or even adding him to the 40-man roster), but with Swarzak already set to start Game 2 of the doubleheader they needed another stretched-out arm and promoting Gibson for a one-and-done start didn't make sense. And instead of taking Baker's spot tomorrow Gibson started yesterday at Triple-A, coughing up nine runs.

• In addition to sticking Baker on the DL and calling up Diamond the Twins also optioned Matt Tolbert to Triple-A so they could add another pitcher for the doubleheader, increasing the staff to a ridiculous 13 arms. Chuck James never should have been sent back to Triple-A in the first place when the Twins chose to keep Phil Dumatrait over him last month and has continued to dominate with a 2.25 ERA, .197 opponents' batting average, and 48 strikeouts in 40 innings.

Jim Thome's monstrous three-run homer yesterday was the 596th of his Hall of Fame career and came in his 150th game for the Twins. Thome, who earned around $2 million last season and will make about $3 million this year, has hit .264/.392/.573 in those 150 games, with 31 homers and 82 walks in 476 plate appearances. That works out to a .965 OPS, which is by far the best OPS and adjusted OPS+ in Twins history among all hitters with 150 or more games:

                       G      OPS                                 G     OPS+
JIM THOME            150     .965          JIM THOME            150     160
Harmon Killebrew    1939     .901          Harmon Killebrew    1939     148
Joe Mauer            871     .878          Rod Carew           1635     137
Chili Davis          291     .862          Chili Davis          291     135
Justin Morneau      1003     .855          Joe Mauer            871     134

Thome is also the only hitter in Twins history with a slugging percentage above .550 (.573) or an Isolated Power above .300 (.309), topping Harmon Killebrew in each category. My favorite part of Thome's homer may have been Delmon Young's reaction to it from the on-deck circle:

Thome has 31 home runs and 82 walks in 476 plate appearances for the Twins. Young has 45 home runs and 83 walks in 1,884 plate appearances for the Twins.

Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune talked to a source who says "the Twins have no plans to trade Michael Cuddyer even if they fall from contention" and in fact "an effort will be made to re-sign Cuddyer this fall." Among impending free agents Cuddyer would bring back the most in a trade, but considering his extreme popularity it's certainly not surprising that the Twins aren't shopping him despite various reported interest from contending teams.

As a good but not great 32-year-old making $10.5 million on the verge of free agency Cuddyer is exactly the type of player most sub-.500 teams should be looking to cash in for future value at the trade deadline, but because the division is so weak the Twins aren't like most sub-.500 teams. With that said, not trading Cuddyer for long-term help could be a missed opportunity if they fall out of contention and re-signing him for similar money would be very dangerous.

• Trading away J.J. Hardy, much like trading for Capps, was a poor move at the time that now looks considerably worse. Hardy has hit .278/.335/.490 through 65 games for the Orioles after hitting .302/.356/.436 in his final 65 games for the Twins, and passed up free agency by inking a three-year, $22.5 million extension over the weekend. He surely would have been cheaper for the Twins to sign, but instead they spent $15 million for three years of Tsuyoshi Nishioka.

Meanwhile, neither player acquired for Hardy has impressed. Jim Hoey is faring well enough at Triple-A to think he may still provide some value, but he flopped with the Twins by allowing 17 runs in 12 innings as opponents hit .344 with nearly as many walks (8) as strikeouts (9). Brett Jacobson has split time between the rotation and bullpen at Double-A, posting a 4.24 ERA and ugly 60-to-48 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 74 innings. From the Baltimore Sun extension story:

Hardy, who came over this offseason in a trade with the Minnesota Twins for two minor-league pitchers, is a free agent at season's end and was looking for more stability after being with three teams since 2009. The Orioles have been pleased with his offense, defense, and leadership in the clubhouse.

Funny how that works. Bad process, bad decision, bad result.

• I've already written plenty about Slowey, so I won't delve back into that situation other than to say for as much harsh criticism as he's taken from fans, media members, and the Twins their handling of him fits on the same list of terrible decisions as the Capps and Hardy trades. He's currently in the rotation at Triple-A, trying to build back arm strength, and Jon Paul Morosi of FOXSports.com reports that the Pirates and Rockies have expressed interest in Slowey.

Slowey's value has likely never been lower and he's under team control for 2012, so there's no major urgency to move him. On the other hand, that 2012 team control would come with a salary of around $3 million and he's deep enough in the doghouse that it's awfully difficult to imagine digging out, in which case salvaging some kind of value for Slowey might make sense. He's the most likely player to be traded by July 31 whether the Twins are buyers or sellers.

• One offseason move that definitely worked out was not bringing back Nick Punto. Declining his $5 million option and instead giving him a $500,000 buyout was a no-brainer, but given the Twins' lack of quality middle infield depth I thought re-signing him for $1 million would've made sense. He ended up signing a one-year, $750,000 deal with the Cardinals, but missed much of April following hernia surgery and now may need season-ending elbow surgery.

• After taking three months off from game action following his disastrous season debut 2010 first-round pick Alex Wimmers has finally taken a big step in his recovery from extreme control problems. He returned to the mound last week at rookie-ball with just one walk in a scoreless inning, after which the Twins assigned him back to high Single-A. He's nowhere near out of the woods yet, but hopefully Wimmers can get somewhat back on track heading into 2012.

• I've written a few times that Ben Revere runs so fast that it often looks like his feet almost can't keep up as he flies around the bases. He took that to another level Friday night, losing his balance rounding second base and falling into a somersault before ending up on third base with a triple. Revere's long-term upside is still very much in question, but there's no doubt that he's been as fun to watch as a player could possibly be while hitting just .278/.314/.320.

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May 17, 2011

Harmon Killebrew: 1936-2011

Damn.

Harmon Killebrew entered into hospice care last week following unsuccessful treatments for esophageal cancer and the Twins announced that the Hall of Famer passed away this morning at age 74. Killebrew is arguably the greatest player in Twins history and one of the greatest power hitters in baseball history, ranking fifth all time in home runs and 10th in adjusted OPS+ when he retired in 1975.

However, his legacy goes far beyond that. Killebrew, an 11-time All-Star and 1969 AL MVP who captured six home run titles and was inducted into Cooperstown in 1984, was also universally regarded as one of the game's nicest superstars and beloved by seemingly everyone he ever met, including numerous current Twins players with whom he bonded in recent years. Twins president Dave St. Peter issued a statement about Killebrew's death:

No individual has ever meant more to the Minnesota organization and millions of fans across Twins Territory. Harmon's legacy will be the class, dignity and humility he demonstrated each and every day as a Hall of Fame-quality husband, father, friend, teammate and man.

RIP, Killer.

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