August 20, 2014

Phil Hughes, Ace

Phil Hughes Twins

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that's a list.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

June 25, 2014

Twins Notes: Berrios, Vargas, Dozier, Hughes, Hicks, Pino, and Perkins

Minnesota Twins v Boston Red Sox

• Right-hander Jose Berrios and first baseman Kennys Vargas will represent the Twins in the Futures Game, which is MLB's annual prospect showcase as part of the All-Star festivities. Berrios was the Twins' supplemental first-round pick in 2012, going 30 spots after they snagged Byron Buxton. Last season a mediocre ERA hid what was a strong overall performance for a 19-year-old at low Single-A and this season his ERA and secondary numbers are on the same page.

Berrios is one of just two 20-year-olds in the entire Florida State League with at least 50 innings, posting a 2.05 ERA and 98/21 K/BB ratio in 83 innings. His strikeout rate of 10.6 per nine innings ranks second in the league behind only a 23-year-old and he's held opponents to a .219 batting average with just three homers. Berrios ranked fifth on my list of Twins prospects coming into the season and has upped his stock even further since then.

Vargas placed 23rd in that same ranking, but has also upped his stock considerably by hitting .318/.395/.531 in 70 games at Double-A. At age 23 he's not particularly young for the Eastern League and massive first basemen who'll probably wind up as designated hitters generally aren't a great prospect group on which to bet long term, but the switch-hitter has huge power potential and has made big strides with his strike-zone control.

UPDATE: Triple-A right-hander Trevor May has also been added to the Futures Game roster.

Brian Dozier hasn't slowed down following his surprisingly powerful start to the season and in fact June has been by far his best month with a .310/.449/.549 line that includes four homers and more walks (16) than strikeouts (13) in 21 games. Going back even further, in the past calendar year Dozier ranks as the third-best second baseman in all of baseball according to Wins Above Replacement, behind only Matt Carpenter and Robinson Cano.

During that 365-day span Dozier has hit .252/.340/.444 with 26 homers and 23 steals in 160 games, which along with very good defense adds up to an all-around performance that tops big names like Dustin Pedroia, Ian Kinsler, and Chase Utley. Not only does Dozier rank among the league leaders in walks after showing strong strike-zone control in the minors, his power has come out of nowhere after he hit a grand total of 16 homers in 365 games as a minor leaguer.

Ricky Nolasco has been disappointing, but the Twins' other free agent pitching pickup has outperformed expectations in a big way. Phil Hughes has a 3.40 ERA and 82/9 K/BB ratio in 95 innings after posting a 5.19 ERA for the Yankees last season and a 4.53 ERA in seven seasons for New York overall. He's issued zero walks in nine of 15 starts (60 percent) this season. Prior to this season Hughes had zero walks in 24 of 132 starts (18 percent).

Aaron Hicks giving up switch-hitting to exclusively bat right-handed seemed like a reasonable decision given his struggles from the left side of the plate, but after all of one month and very few at-bats thanks to a shoulder injury he's already gone back to switch-hitting. Hicks is technically in the minors on a rehab assignment, but it's hard to see what's gained by keeping him in the majors at this point. Let him try to thrive versus Triple-A pitching for a while.

UPDATE: Hicks has been activated from the disabled list and demoted to Double-A.

Yohan Pino had the seventh-best "Game Score" by any Twins pitcher in his MLB debut behind Andrew Albers, Bert Blyleven, Anthony Swarzak, Allan Anderson, Eddie Bane, and Brad Havens. Take from that group what you will.

Kendrys Morales has hit .222/.271/.333 in 14 games for the Twins. Josmil Pinto has hit .282/.417/.513 in 12 games at Triple-A since his demotion. And his career OPS in the majors remains higher than Morales' mark since 2012.

• On a related note, Glen Perkins had some pretty damning things to say about Pinto's pitch-framing skills, which puts a dent into his already slim chances of being a catcher long term.

• Perkins' record as a reliever is 13-5, including 8-1 since 2012 and 5-0 since 2013, and the Twins have won five of his last six blown saves. Among all MLB relievers with 30 or more innings this season Perkins ranks fifth in K/BB ratio, seventh in strikeout rate, and ninth in xFIP.

• In the same presented-without-comment vein as the previous versions:

Tony Gwynn: .338 AVG, .388 OBP, .459 SLG, .847 OPS, 132 OPS+
Joe Mauer: .320 AVG, .401 OBP, .461 SLG, .863 OPS, 133 OPS+

• Random thing I noticed while looking up some other stuff: Denard Span had a .390 on-base percentage in his first two seasons. Since then he has a .329 on-base percentage in five seasons, never topping .342 in any year.

Johan Santana was on the verge of completing his multi-year comeback from multiple shoulder surgeries by joining the Orioles' rotation, but now he's done for the season with a torn Achilles' tendon. Just in case anyone forgot:

Clayton Kershaw, 2009-2014: 1,145 innings, 9.4 K/9, 3.4 K/BB, 155 ERA+
Johan Santana, 2002-2008: 1,413 innings, 9.5 K/9, 4.2 K/BB, 156 ERA+

• Since the beginning of last season the Twins are 16-10 (.615) against the White Sox and 86-125 (.408) against everyone else.

• For way more on Hicks, Vargas, Morales, and Pino, plus lots of talk about Oswaldo Arcia and Kyle Gibson, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.


This week's blog content is sponsored by R.F. Moeller Jeweler's repair department, which is recognized as the premier jewelry repair facility in the Twin Cities. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

June 6, 2014

Link-O-Rama

Steve Neuman broke down the amazing "Uptown living" video like only Randball's Stu can, although honestly I aspire to be a dollar-store Ryan Gosling. Or even a dime-store Ryan Gosling.

Joe Posnanski writing about FSN's ridiculous Derek Jeter "scouting report" is one of the best things I've read this year.

• I loved Dirk Hayhurst's essay/rant about the silliness of baseball's so-called "unwritten rules."

• On this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode we talked a lot about Phil Hughes, Josmil Pinto, Jason Kubel, and Aaron Hicks, plus I outed John Bonnes for having a weird fetish.

Parker Hageman's podcast co-host (and friend of AG.com) Dan Anderson got much-deserved internet fame this week when his wedding party decided to do their photo shoot on a dock:

I'm sure he'll give a detailed breakdown of the incident on the next "No Juice Podcast" episode.

Maureen O'Connor of New York Magazine writing about being shipped to California to date tech guys is fascinating and funny and sad all at the same time.

Headline of the week/weak: "Diet and exercise may help maintain weight loss."

• Old friend Joe Nathan isn't doing so well in Detroit.

• Old friend Johan Santana is back in the majors, sort of.

• I really enjoyed Rob Neyer's article/oral history about the St. Louis Cardinals' great 2009 draft.

• I am apparently a Princess/Hedonist, which sounds about right.

• Baseball press boxes can be a dangerous place, as former Twins beat reporter Mark Sheldon learned all too well thanks to Pablo Sandoval.

Brian Dozier can solve a Rubik's Cube in two minutes:

And he has great hair.

• Presented without comment: Joe Mauer vs. Derek Jeter. Or maybe how about Joe Mauer vs. Kirby Puckett?

• On a related note, the comments on this are amazing.

• I met a lot of people like this in the past few days.

• Apparently the Twins are moving their Double-A team from New Britain to Hartford.

• I'm still sad that Rye Deli in Uptown closed, but at least a potentially interesting restaurant is opening soon in its old spot.

• New restaurant recommendation: Lago Tacos on Lyndale Avenue in Uptown. I went on opening night and ate so much food that I got right home, put on sweatpants, and passed out.

• I'm on Instagram now, posting mostly really dumb pictures.

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

- "Minnesota Twins trade rumors"
- "Maximum amount of fresh garlic to be consumed"
- "When will Byron Buxton be healthy?"
- "How much money do the Twins make?"
- "Glen Perkins he's our closer"
- "Is Keith Law baseball Jewish?"
- "How much is Kevin Correia paid?"
- "Aaron Gleeman possum"

• Finally, this week's AG.com-approved music video is "Gun" by Chvrches:


This week's blog content is sponsored by R.F. Moeller Jeweler's repair department, which is recognized as the premier jewelry repair facility in the Twin Cities. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

February 28, 2014

Link-O-Rama

Johan Santana's comeback from multiple shoulder surgeries at age 35 isn't going so well.

• Official Fantasy Girl of AG.com is no longer really a thing, so longtime title-holder Mila Kunis gave up and decided to just marry some loser.

• Those of us who're naturally blessed resent the fact that people can now fake having our gift.

• I did something very similar for about 10 years, except with Chinese food.

• As a college dropout I'm thankful that this is an increasingly prevalent thing, if only so someone can support me in my old age.

• I wrote a White Sox season preview for HardballTalk and for the second straight season they might be even worse than the Twins.

Lydia Loveless put out a new album last week and I've already listened to it several dozen times. Good music with emotional lyrics, an interesting perspective, and a pretty solid Lucinda Williams vibe. She's coming to Minnesota in April to play First Avenue and I'll be there.

• Really good long read: Benjamin Wallace-Wells of New York Magazine on prison gang culture and the craziness of a large-scale hunger strike in solitary confinement.

• On this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode I gave John Bonnes a tour of my new place in Uptown and told a lengthy pooping-related story.

• On a related note, the podcast is making tremendous strides in the female listener demographic.

• I stupidly didn't go see Hannibal Buress at Varsity Theater after loving him at Acme Comedy Company last year, but at least his five-minute set on "The Tonight Show" was really good:

Here's hoping that Jimmy Fallon keeps giving good, young stand-up comedians a big stage.

• Big news in the fast food world, as Taco Bell is set to launch a breakfast menu and McDonald's is thinking about serving breakfast all day.

• It never stops: "If you don't know what type of phone this guy has (if it's a BlackBerry, dump him) you should prepare to bring a charger."

• Having just realized that Uber is available on BlackBerry, this Mickey Rapkin article for GQ about a week-in-the-life of an Uber driver was really eye-opening to me.

Mike Minor and his urethra had a rough offseason.

Jason Schwartz of Grantland wrote a really interesting article about the Houston Rockets using their Developmental League team to essentially experiment with extreme strategies ... and win.

"Humanitarians of Tinder" is just perfection.

• It turns out that I could never play for the Vikings.

• Yet another writer/analyst left Baseball Prospectus for a job with an MLB team.

Sarah Silverman and Michael Sheen are a couple now, which seems both random and fun.

Ron Gardenhire looks fit, well-rested, and ready for the challenge of leading the Twins back into contention!

• Old friend Carl Pavano is retiring after 14 seasons, the last three-and-a-half with the Twins.

Marc Maron's chat with Tom Arnold was manic and weird and fascinating.

• You should go vote for Meredith Westin as the Twin Cities' best music photographer.

• "Bad Self Portraits" by Lake Street Dive was the AG.com-approved music video in Link-O-Rama a few weeks ago and now it's the free song of the week on iTunes.

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

- "How much is a Ron Coomer signed baseball worth?"
- "Brian Duensing trade contract"
- "David Ortiz dating"
- "Robin Thicke socks"
- "Is LaVelle Neal married?"
- "When is Aaron Gleeman's wedding?"
- "Aaron Gleeman top tweeters"
- "Paul Lambert on KFAN"
- "Ryan Doumit home run"

• Finally, this week's AG.com-approved music video is Loveless singing "Back On The Bottle":

September 26, 2012

What happened to the Twins’ pitching?

Rick Anderson took over for Dick Such as the Twins' pitching coach when Ron Gardenhire replaced Tom Kelly as manager in 2002 and since then the staff has issued the fewest walks in baseball, leading the league in walk rate six times. However, one common misconception about Twins pitching under Anderson is that their fantastic control has always come attached to terrible strikeout rates.

In reality Anderson's early pitching staffs were often able to combine excellent control with solid strikeout rates, and in fact Twins pitchers led the league in strikeouts as recently as 2006. That was Johan Santana's second-to-last season in Minnesota and his third straight year leading the league in strikeouts, and the Twins also got a ton of missed bats from Francisco Liriano before the 22-year-old rookie blew out his elbow.

They were joined in the 2006 rotation by Brad Radke and Scott Baker, who produced above-average strikeout rates, and the late-inning bullpen trio of Joe Nathan, Jesse Crain, and Juan Rincon combined for 220 strikeouts in 219 innings. Overall the pitching staff had a league-high 1,164 strikeouts and a league-low 356 walks in 1,439 innings, and not surprisingly they also had the AL's second-best ERA.

That season marked the fifth time in five years under Anderson that Twins pitchers had an above-average strikeout total and the next year they extended that streak to six consecutive seasons by ranking fourth in the league. Suddenly that all changed in 2008 as the staff's strikeout total plummeted to 10th in the league without Santana or Radke around, and Twins pitchers haven't had an above-average strikeout rate since.

They ranked 10th among the league's 14 teams in 2008, 2009, and 2010 before finishing dead last among all 30 major-league teams last season, producing just 940 strikeouts when every other team had at least 1,000. As bad as that was their strikeout rate has amazingly fallen even further this year, going from 6.0 to 5.9 per nine innings as they once again rank dead last among all 30 major-league teams. And it's not even close.

Twins pitchers have 890 strikeouts in 154 games, which is 14 percent fewer than any other team and 23 percent below the MLB average. Once upon a time Anderson-led staffs threw strikes and missed bats, boasting several starters and relievers with good raw stuff and strong whiff rates. And now? Well, they still throw strikes with a better-than-average walk rate ... and the AL's fewest strikeouts, second-most homers allowed, and second-highest ERA.

Santana was MLB's best, most dominant starting pitcher for Anderson's first six seasons as pitching coach, posting a 2.92 ERA with the most strikeouts and highest strikeout rate in all of baseball. During that same time Nathan racked up a remarkable 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings to go with a 1.94 ERA and five other Twins relievers who saw regular action had at least 7.5 strikeouts per nine innings.

When you have the best starting pitcher in baseball racking up league-leading strikeout totals, one of the best closers in baseball piling up whiffs at an even higher rate, and multiple setup men capable of missing bats then surrounding them with low-strikeout control artists is a sound strategy. But when you no longer have those elite, high-strikeout pitchers to anchor the staff the same strategy fails.

Santana going from unknown Rule 5 pick to MLB's best pitcher is one of the more remarkable journeys in modern history and Nathan emerging as MLB's best non-Mariano Rivera reliever is similarly astounding, so counting on Anderson and the Twins to duplicate those feats would be silly. Beyond that, considering the Twins' longtime aversion to acquiring hard-throwing pitchers it's unclear how much blame to assign Anderson as opposed to the front office.

With that said, it's very clear that something needs to change. They've failed to develop a front-line starter since Santana left five years ago and there are few power arms in the farm system aside from some 2012 draftees. Talk of succeeding by pitching to contact--or throwing strikes and playing defense--is a nice story with some truth behind it, but that approach doesn't work so well without elite bat-missers like Santana and Nathan leading the way.

In the absence of that front-line talent the Twins have essentially built entire staffs out of the guys who're supposed to be the surrounding pieces. In the five seasons since Santana's departure 37 different Twins pitchers have thrown more than 25 innings and three of them--Nathan, Liriano, and newcomer Casey Fien--have topped 8.0 strikeouts per nine innings. Of those 37 pitchers 27 had a strikeout rate below 7.0 and eight had a strikeout rate below 5.0.

How much stems from Anderson's well-established preferred pitching mold and teaching methods versus the front office simply not targeting hard-throwing, high-strikeout arms is up for debate, but whatever the case it needs to change and they need to adapt. In addition to having the fewest strikeouts and highest ERA in the AL since the beginning of last season Twins pitchers also have the league's lowest average fastball velocity at 90.9 miles per hour.

At the opposite end of the pitching spectrum are the Nationals, who this season lead the NL in both ERA and average fastball velocity while totaling a remarkable 42 percent more strikeouts than the Twins. Not surprisingly the Nationals have MLB's best record despite an offense that has scored 692 runs compared to 676 runs for the Twins. And when asked why he built a staff of hard-throwing strikeout pitchers, general manager Mike Rizzo replied:

We used to have sinker, pitch-to-contact guys. That's who you get when you're not elite.

Injuries to highly paid veterans like Baker, Carl Pavano, and Matt Capps took a big toll on this year's staff and injuries to prospects like Kyle Gibson and Alex Wimmers sapped the Twins of reinforcements, but none of those guys are hard-throwing, high-strikeout arms anyway. In fact, the last pitcher they've developed who fits that description is Matt Garza ... and the Twins traded him away for Delmon Young in 2007 at age 23 and after 24 career starts.

At this point even Crash Davis himself would advise the Twins to go looking for a few fascists.

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