• 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:
• Lydia Lovelessput 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.
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 newcomerCasey 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 Rizzoreplied:
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.
• How dominant was Francisco Liriano against the A's on Friday night? Not only were his 15 strikeouts the second-most in Twins history behind Johan Santana with 17 on August 19, 2007, his 30 swings and misses induced were the most by any MLB pitcher since ... Santana had 32 on August 19, 2007. I went back through the AG.com archives to find what I wrote about his incredible performance that day and shockingly it included a Jessica Alba comparison.
Liriano's first start following his brief demotion to the bullpen also came against Oakland and he overpowered the A's then too, giving him a ridiculous 24-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 14 innings against them since May 30. And it was good timing, as at least a half-dozen teams reportedly sent scouts to evaluate Liriano for a potential trade. Since rejoining the rotation he's thrown 57 innings with a 2.83 ERA, .170 opponents' batting average, and 67 strikeouts.
• Some fun facts from that Santana start on August 19, 2007: He struck out 17 in eight innings and then closer Joe Nathan struck out two more in the ninth inning, as they combined for 19 strikeouts, zero walks, and two hits allowed in a 1-0 shutout of the Rangers. Michael Cuddyer homered for the game's only run, C.J. Wilson pitched in relief for Texas, and the Rangers had a 38-year-old Sammy Sosa batting cleanup. And here was the Twins' lineup:
1. Alexi Casilla, 2B
2. Joe Mauer, DH
3. Torii Hunter, CF
4. Justin Morneau, 1B
5. Michael Cuddyer, RF
6. Mike Redmond, C
7. Rondell White, LF
8. Tommy Watkins, 3B
9. Nick Punto, SS
Oh, and Jason Tyner came in defensively for Rondell White late in the game. One not-so-fun fact about the game: Santana made just seven more starts in a Twins uniform.
• Friday's deadline to sign draft picks came and went without much drama for the Twins, who'd already agreed to deals with their first 11 picks weeks ago. Or so everyone thought. It turns out sixth-round pick Andre Martinez, a high school pitcher from Florida who originally agreed to an over-slot $260,000 bonus, ended up reworking his deal after a pre-signing physical exam revealed shoulder issues. He signed Friday for $80,000 compared to the $200,000 slot.
Another last-minute signing was 20th-round pick Zach Larson, a high school outfielder from Florida who agreed to a $190,000 deal that's nearly twice the slot value for picks after the 10th round. By saving money elsewhere compared to the slot values for various picks the Twins had plenty of extra money to throw Larson's way and in fact overall they spent about $300,000 less than their MLB-high $12.3 million allotment.
Ninth-rounder L.J. Mazzilli is the earliest Twins pick not to sign, as the Connecticut second baseman and son of longtime big leaguer Lee Mazzilli presumably turned down close to the $130,000 slot amount for the No. 280 overall pick. Mazzilli hit .339/.404/.548 with 16 steals in 58 games as a junior, but also committed 20 errors and was no sure thing to stick at second base defensively as a pro. In all the Twins signed 27 of 43 picks, including 14 of their first 15.
Mark Appel, the Stanford pitcher represented by Scott Boras who fell to No. 8 after being an oft-projected No. 1 pick and possible Twins choice at No. 2, ended up as the only first-rounder not to sign. He turned down $3.8 million, which is $900,000 more than slot and the most the Pirates could offer without forfeiting next year's pick. Appel can return to college for his senior year and be drafted again, while the Pirates get the No. 9 pick in 2013 as compensation.
• After going 3-for-4 with a walk (and a great diving catch) last night Joe Mauer is now hitting .333/.420/.462, which is nearly identical to his .324/.404/.470 career line despite offense being down across baseball. He leads the league in on-base percentage and ranks second in batting average, has hit .385 in his last 45 games, and is projected to be worth $26 million this year according to Fan Graphs. He's being paid $23 million.
• Nick Blackburn is already back with the Twins after allowing one earned run in two starts at Triple-A following his demotion, but the bad news is that he managed just five strikeouts in 15 innings. He succeeded there by keeping the ball in the ballpark, but his ground-ball rate wasn't exceptional and as usual there's little reason to think pitching to that extreme level of contact is going to get the job done against big-league hitters.
• Matt Capps' return from the disabled list lasted all of five days, as he showed decreased velocity and was shut down again with more shoulder problems. That ruins whatever chance the Twins had of trading Capps before July 31, which is a shame because reportedly at least one team was actually showing interest. Suffice it to say that the Twins' decision to forfeit a draft pick in order to re-sign Capps for $5 million has gone about as well as expected.
• David Laurila of Fan Graphs interviewed Terry Ryan and the lengthy transcript is definitely worth reading, but here's one particularly interesting excerpt about the team's oft-questioned involvement with statistical analysis:
We never messed with that too much back in the '70s, but we did in the '80s and the '90s and the 2000s. We've been looking at that forever. ... People don't want to hear that out of the Minnesota Twins. But we've been looking at that forever. Way before some. We're not as deep as some, but we do believe in certainly doing our work, and that stat page is one big piece to the puzzle of putting players together.
Our scouts, and our people, will tell you if I'm looking at a player, and I go down and look at his line, and it doesn't add up, I've got to give him a call quick. I tell him, "This doesn't make any sense." His role, his skills and his statistical history, and you're going to tell me this? How do you get there? I believe in that.
All forms of information are good. I've drilled that into our people. Bring it on. All forms, let me sort it out. ... I read all that stuff, and sometimes it's so much information that I do get paralyzed reading it and taking it all in. You can spend as much time as you want on everything that is available. It's almost mind-boggling how much stuff is out there.
Ryan and other Twins decision-makers have adopted "we're into that even if you don't know it" as their response to those questions. And that's fine, although it's worth noting that, for instance, assistant general manager Rob Antonylacked familiarity with basic aspects of statistical analysis as recently as two years ago and even in the above excerpt Ryan talking about looking at stats isn't really what anyone would consider a new-school approach.
When people wonder if the Twins are involved with statistical analysis the questions aren't about literally looking at a player's stats--that much is assumed, no matter a team's public stance--but rather taking full advantage of new technology and the increasingly in-depth data available. They've recently hired some stat-heads and clearly want to keep things secretive, but what little Ryan and others do say about the issue leaves plenty of room for skepticism.
• Midseason prospect rankings are out and Baseball America moved Miguel Sanofrom No. 18 to No. 22, whereas ESPN.com moved Sano from No. 28 to No. 26. In other words Sano remains a top-30 talent as an all-around prospect and among hitters who don't play up-the-middle positions only Wil Myers of the Royals, Oscar Taveras of the Cardinals, and Nick Castellanos of the Tigers rank ahead of Sano on both lists.
• As part of their minor-league roster shuffling the Twins releasedJairo Perez, who ranked 34th on my preseason list of the team's prospects. He hit .337/.413/.580 at low Single-A last year and .265/.350/.403 at high Single-A this year, which makes cutting Perez in July an odd move. On the other hand at age 24 he was very old for Single-A and didn't really have a clear defensive home. And now he's playing in an independent league.
• Matt Maloney parlayed a good spring training into an Opening Day bullpen spot after the Twins claimed him off waivers from the Reds in October, but the soft-tossing left-hander coughed up 10 runs in 11 innings and not surprisingly passed through waivers unclaimed in May. He was even worse at Triple-A, allowing 33 runs in 24 innings, and now he'll be out until mid-2013 following Tommy John elbow surgery.
• Twins castoff Luke Hugheswas released by the A's after hitting .223/.316/.338 in 42 games between Double-A and Triple-A.
This week's blog content is sponsored by Ballplayer: Pelotero, a controversial new documentary about baseball prospects in the Dominican Republic starring Miguel Sano as a 16-year-old.
Little darling, it's been a long, cold, lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right
Little darling, the smiles are returning to the faces
Little darling, it seems like years since they've been there
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right
Little darling, I see the ice is slowly melting
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been clear
There goes the sun
Here comes the sun
And I say, it's all right
- "Here Comes The Sun"
• Reminder: I'll be watching the Twins' opener against the Orioles this afternoon at Wild Boar in Hopkins with my "Gleeman and The Geek" co-host John Bonnes and some other familiar names. First pitch is scheduled for 2:05, so I'd encourage everyone to leave work early and join us for some baseball and beer. Click here for more details.
1. Denard Span, L CF
2. Jamey Carroll, R SS
3. Joe Mauer, L C
4. Justin Morneau, L DH
5. Josh Willingham, R LF
6. Ryan Doumit, S RF
7. Danny Valencia, R 3B
8. Chris Parmelee, L 1B
9. Alexi Casilla, S 2B
I'd have sent Chris Parmelee to Triple-A to begin the season, but if you assume that those nine players must start on Opening Day that's exactly what my batting order would look like. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but it's something.
• I wrote all the season previews for AL Central teams at HardballTalk and concluded that the Tigers are clear front-runners, perhaps more so than any other team in any other division, while the Indians, White Sox, Royals, and Twins are each very capable of finishing anywhere from second place to last place. If everything breaks right for the Twins staying in contention deep into the season is possible, but my guess is that they finish right around .500.
• While a .500 record may not sound very optimistic, Las Vegas has the over/under for Twins wins around 73, which is higher than only the Astros and Orioles, and ESPN.com's season simulation based on Baseball Think Factory's excellent ZiPS projection system has the Twins going 70-92. They were so awful last season that improving by 15 games would still leave them at 78-84, so .500 would be quite an accomplishment.
"The Big Hrbowski" is the role Kent Hrbek was born to play.
• For months Terry Ryan insisted that Trevor Plouffewould be used exclusively in the outfield after his disastrous rookie showing at shortstop, but now that the Twins don't have a true backup shortstop on the roster suddenly Plouffe is in the infield mix again. Plans changing was the theme of this spring, but giving Plouffe some chances at second base or third base is a worthwhile idea while they try to figure out where he fits offensively and defensively.
• Seth Stohs has a complete rundown of all the minor-league rosters over at Twins Daily. Of my top 10 prospects, Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario will be at low Single-A Beloit, Oswaldo Arcia and Levi Michael will be at high Single-A Fort Myers, Aaron Hicks and Alex Wimmers will be at Double-A New Britain, Joe Benson and Brian Dozier will be at Triple-A Rochester, Kyle Gibson will be rehabbing Tommy John surgery, and Liam Hendriks will be in the majors.
• Parmelee working his way on to the Opening Day roster left the Twins short a Triple-A first baseman, so they acquired Matt Rizzottifrom the Phillies for cash considerations. As a 26-year-old career minor leaguer available for basically nothing Rizzotti is hardly a prospect, but he's consistently had very impressive numbers that include a .295/.392/.511 line with 24 homers, 34 doubles, and 79 walks in 139 games at Double-A last season.
• Matt Bashore starred at Indiana University and was the Twins' supplemental first-round pick in 2009, but arm problems have limited him to just 19 career innings and he was released last week. They also released 2009 third-round pick Ben Tootle, a hard-throwing right-hander whose career was similarly ruined by injuries, and Dustin Martin, an outfielder acquired from the Mets along with Drew Butera in the mid-2007 trade for Luis Castillo.
• Joel Zumaya underwent Tommy John elbow surgery last week and instead of putting him on the 60-day disabled list all season the Twins released him. And despite his one-year contract supposedly being "non-guaranteed" they're apparently on the hook for his entire $850,000 base salary rather than the initially reported $400,000.
• Jason Bulger and Steve Pearce both signed minor-league contracts with the Yankees after being released by the Twins in the middle of spring training.
• If you're interested in keeping tabs on Twins prospects this season Twins Fan From Afar is a blog you should definitely check out, as Andrew Walter will attending games in New Britain, Connecticut and writing about the Double-A team that includes top-40 prospects Hicks, Wimmers, Chris Herrmann, David Bromberg, Deolis Guerra, and James Beresford.
• For anyone who plays Hardball Dynasty on WhatIfSports.com my league is looking for a couple new owners and our next season begins soon. Before contacting me, click here.
• Last but not least, thank you to everyone who stopped here during the too-long offseason. My goal each winter is to find enough interesting stuff to write about that most of you keep showing up, but I'm ready to talk about actual games again and look forward to my 11th season of blogging. Thanks for reading AG.com, thanks for following me on Twitter, thanks for listening to the podcast, and thanks for supporting my work at NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.
And in what has become an Opening Day tradition, this is Richie Havens singing my favorite version of "Here Comes The Sun":
Get the 22nd edition of the New York Times bestselling Baseball Prospectus Annual. Edited by Aaron Gleeman, it features a foreword from Twins pitcher Glen Perkins, a Twins team chapter written by Gleeman and Parker Hageman, and 600 pages of analysis, projections, essays, rankings, and in-depth coverage of all 30 teams.