June 30, 2011

Twins Notes: The Good, The Bad, and The Hairy

Scott Baker was excellent again yesterday afternoon, allowing zero or one run for the third time in four starts by shutting out the Dodgers for 7.1 innings. Baker racked up nine strikeouts without a walk until issuing a free pass to the final batter he faced, finishing June with a 1.46 ERA in six starts. And not only does his 3.15 ERA overall this season lead the team by a wide margin, Johan Santana is the only Twins starter with a lower ERA since Kevin Tapani in 1991.

Here are the best single-season ERAs posted by Twins starters during that 20-year span:

                   ERA     YEAR
Johan Santana     2.61     2004
Johan Santana     2.77     2006
Johan Santana     2.87     2005
SCOTT BAKER       3.15     2011
Joe Mays          3.16     2001
John Smiley       3.21     1992
Johan Santana     3.33     2007
Scott Erickson    3.40     1992
Carlos Silva      3.44     2005
SCOTT BAKER       3.45     2008

Two things stand out on the above list. One is that Santana was really amazing, posting four of their top seven marks since 1991. Two is that Baker is really underrated, joining Santana as the only starters to crack the top 10 twice. And unlike, say, Joe Mays in 2001, he isn't doing it with smoke and mirrors, as Baker ranks eighth among AL starters with 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings and seventh in the league with a 101-to-29 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 106 frames.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka has been considerably less impressive, struggling so much on both sides of the ball that e-mails and comments are beginning to pile up from people wondering exactly what the Twins saw in him that was worth a $14 million investment. Nishioka has batted just .197/.254/.252 in 19 games, showing little power with zero homers and three total extra-base hits in 66 at-bats and terrible strike-zone control with a 17-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

And as awful as Nishioka's hitting has been his defense might be even worse or at least more discouraging given his reputation as a standout defender with Gold Glove awards at shortstop and second base in Japan. Kaz Matsui showed previously that defensive accolades in Japan don't necessarily transfer to America, proving to be a sub par shortstop despite winning a total of four Gold Glove awards there before signing with the Mets in 2004.

I'm certainly not ready to conclude that Nishioka will follow that same fate after just 19 games, but his arm strength and hands haven't looked nearly reliable enough to be a significant asset at shortstop and moving back to second base would be a scary proposition after breaking his fibula in part due to his lack of comfort with hard-sliding runners around the bag. Joe Mauer is struggling on both sides of the ball too, but he also has a long track record of MVP-level play.

Nishioka had a strong career in Japan, but his MLB projections based on that track record were anything but jaw-dropping. I pegged him for .275/.335/.375 while noting the combination of a high strikeout rate and less power than any previous Japanese imports. He's certainly capable of adjusting and improving at the plate with experience, but it worries me that his glove might not be good enough to make him a big asset even if he reaches the .275/.335/.375 projection.

J.J. Hardy is hitting .307/.369/.547 with 11 homers, 13 doubles, and one error in 50 games for the Orioles and has started contract extension talks to stay in Baltimore.

• Twins top prospect Kyle Gibson has been named to the United States' roster for the Futures Game during the All-Star break, while preseason No. 8 prospect Liam Hendriks was picked for the World team. I'm always more interested in the Futures Game than the actual All-Star game and alumni of the prospect showcase include Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, Francisco Liriano, Delmon Young, Ben Revere, Rene Tosoni, and Luke Hughes.

Gibson has an ugly win-loss record thanks to terrible run support, but he's pitched very well at Triple-A as a 23-year-old with a 3.87 ERA and 83-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 81 innings. He has the International League's third-highest ground-ball rate at 57 percent and ranks sixth in both strikeouts per nine innings and strikeout-to-walk ratio, which adds up to a 3.25 FIP that's fourth-best in the league. He continues to look like a future No. 2 starter and is nearly ready.

Hendriks has followed a breakout 2010 performance between two levels of Single-A by proving it was no fluke with a 2.71 ERA and 74-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 83 innings at Double-A as a 22-year-old. He's allowed just four homers and has the third-best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the Eastern League, posting a 2.77 FIP that also ranks third-best. If there was a midseason version of my top 40 prospect list the Australian right-hander would join Gibson in the top five.

• Speaking of prospects, Trevor Plouffe has been destroying Triple-A pitching since being sent back down to Rochester four weeks ago and is now hitting .295/.365/.610 with 11 homers in 38 games overall. The bad news is that he's still a career .259/.312/.443 hitter in 323 games at Triple-A and the Twins were so put off by his defense at shortstop that they've been giving him starts in right field. I'm skeptical, but when the alternative is Matt Tolbert, why not?

LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune did a nice job mixing reporting and stats for an article about Glen Perkins' success in the bullpen, examining his increased velocity and adjustment to a role change spurred by injuries and struggles as a starter. Perkins has never thrown this well before regardless of role and struck out right-handed-hitting MVP front-runner Matt Kemp in a dominant outing yesterday. He has a 1.93 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 28 innings.

• Old friend Matthew LeCroy managed the All-Star game at high Single-A last week.

• Against all odds, the man in this picture is not me:

As far as you know, at least.

This week's content is sponsored by Wholesale Gold and Diamond Distributors in Minneapolis, so please help support AG.com by considering them for your jewelry needs.

March 14, 2011

Twins Notes: Whiffs, ladders, Polamalu, and “fire it through the internet”

Lucas Apostoleris of Beyond the Box Score broke down some numbers on which individual pitches produced the most swinging strikes last season. For instance, Cole Hamels' changeup led baseball by generating a whiff on 48.0 percent of swings, compared to the MLB average of 20.8 percent. Hamels' changeup was followed by Carlos Marmol's slider at 46.5 percent, Clay Buchholz's changeup at 46.2 percent, and Francisco Liriano's slider at 44.8 percent.

Liriano's stressful mechanics and reliance on his slider were primarily blamed for his past elbow problems and upon returning from Tommy John surgery in mid-2008 he altered his delivery and cut way back on his slider usage. However, after throwing his slider 26.9 percent of the time in 2009 while struggling with a 5.80 ERA he threw the pitch 33.8 percent of the time last season and thrived again.

Even last season's 33.8 percent sliders represents a 10.1 percent decrease compared to how often Liriano used the pitch prior to surgery, but only Ervin Santana (36.9 percent) and Ryan Dempster (35.1 percent) threw their sliders more often in 2010. Prior to surgery Liriano threw his slider more than anyone in baseball, whereas since surgery he's merely been among the leaders in slider usage.

I have no idea whether throwing 10 percent fewer sliders has a meaningful impact on Liriano's chances of staying healthy, but I do know that the pitch is dominant enough--and his fastball has been hittable enough since returning from surgery--that it's awfully tough to ask him to throw significantly fewer sliders. Not only is it Liriano's best pitch, it's one of the best pitches in baseball. His changeup is improved and his fastball is still pretty good, but the slider is special.

Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus did some very interesting research about how rapidly teams move their prospects up the minor-league ladder, finding huge differences between the slowest-moving teams and fastest-moving teams. For position player prospects the Twins are by far MLB's slowest-moving organization, allowing hitters to accumulate an average of 2,600 plate appearances in the minors before making their big-league debuts.

Not only is the Twins' average of 2,600 pre-debut plate appearances about 200 more than the next-slowest Angels, it's 1,000 more than the fastest-moving team, the Mets. That means the average Twins hitter debuts with two more full seasons' worth of plate appearances than the average Mets hitter. We saw that exact dichotomy in action with Carlos Gomez, as the Mets rushed him to the majors at age 21 and the Twins then kept him there at age 22.

For pitchers the Twins aren't quite as slow-moving, but still allow prospects to accumulate the third-most innings before their debuts behind only the Rays and Nationals. Again the Mets are the fastest-moving team with pitchers, which came in to play when the Twins acquired Deolis Guerra along with Gomez as part of the Johan Santana trade. Because the Mets had already pushed Guerra to high Single-A at age 18 he reached Triple-A as an overmatched 21-year-old.

All of which hammers home two points that everyone pretty much already understood, which are that Twins prospects generally have extremely conservative promotion timetables and the Mets were an organizational mess under former general manager Omar Minaya. Because of the Santana trade those two approaches collided and it certainly played a part in Gomez and Guerra (so far) failing to pan out as the Twins hoped. Conservative makes a lot more sense.

• If you've ever wondered what Steelers safety and reigning NFL defensive player of the year Troy Polamulu would look like wearing a Twins uniform, this is your lucky day:

Polamulu was apparently shooting a Head and Shoulders commercial with Joe Mauer.

Peter Gammons posted this note on Twitter last week:

Astros' first choice for a catcher to replace Jason Castro was Drew Butera, but Twins won't trade him. Outstanding catch-and-throw guy.

Drew Butera has such marginal value that the Twins should definitely be willing to trade him, but the odds of the Astros or any other team actually offering something of value in return are pretty slim and after trading both Wilson Ramos and Jose Morales the upper-minors catching cupboard is bare. Butera is a replacement-level player and ranks as perhaps the worst hitter in baseball, but the Twins love his defense and don't really have a better option behind Mauer.

• Speaking of Twitter, for some reason Ron Gardenhire is becoming increasingly annoyed with how quickly and efficiently reporters are able to relay his words to the Twins-loving public due to technology. Here's an amusing note from Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

When manager Ron Gardenhire announced Saturday that Nick Blackburn had made the rotation, it caused a mild stir in the Twins clubhouse.

"All you guys ... tweeted and blogged and all those things," Gardenhire told reporters Monday. "Before I could get back on the field, it was already back in here that we have a fourth starter.  So [the other pitchers] went right to [pitching coach Rick Anderson]. It's under control, Andy's talked to them. We knew going in that they were fighting for a job."

Gardenhire seems less than thrilled with how fast news travels these days, but he's keeping his sense of humor. When asked if Matt Tolbert, Trevor Plouffe and Luke Hughes were on equal footing in their battle for a utility spot, the manager said: "Yes, equal footing. You can tweet that. Just tweet it. You don't even have to write it. Just fire it through the Internet."

Gardenhire also got angry when he told a room of people about Justin Morneau's doctor visit and the news was actually reported by reporters. It used to take a day for news to be printed in a newspaper. Then it took an hour for news to be posted on a blog. Now it takes a minute for news to be tweeted. Like many 53-year-olds Gardenhire isn't embracing Twitter, but media reporting what he says about the team they cover hasn't changed. It's just a new method.

With that said, "just fire it through the internet" is comedy gold. Put it on a t-shirt, someone.

Follow me on Twitter. Gardenhire would want it that way and I'm constantly just firing things through the internet on there.

Patrick Reusse of 1500ESPN.com wrote an interesting piece about whether the Twins know "the difference between an annoyance and a bad guy" as it relates to Kevin Slowey now and Matt Garza a few years ago (with plenty of other examples coming to mind as well).

Anthony Slama was already facing an uphill battle to claim an Opening Day bullpen spot, but elbow problems make it all but certain he'll begin the season back at Triple-A.

• Today the Twins are expected to trim the players on their spring training roster from 59 to 45 and No. 1 prospect Kyle Gibson will be included in the first batch of cuts. Gibson will begin the season at Triple-A, where he's made just three starts. Add another data point to the Twins not rushing prospects.

September 13, 2010

Twins Notes: Fox, Young, Revere, Blackburn, Santana, and Batgirl

• Yesterday the Royals scored six runs in the top of the first inning against the White Sox and then lost 12-6. Despite that lack of help the Twins hold a six-game lead with 19 games left and this week's series is their final matchup with the White Sox, so most simulations put the Twins at 95-98 percent to win the AL Central. Basically, as long as they avoid being swept in Chicago the biggest question will be whether the Twins play the Yankees or the Rays in the first round.

Matt Fox fared well in his last-minute spot start on September 3, holding one of the AL's top lineups to two runs in 5.2 innings, but the Twins designated him for assignment a couple days later to clear 40-man roster space for Ben Revere. Calling someone up, having them pitch well on short rest and little notice in their MLB debut, and then cutting them loose 72 hours later is obviously not an ideal scenario for anyone involved, but it's important to note Fox's situation.

He wasn't on the 40-man roster to begin with and was only added when a dreadful 13-inning game the previous night left the Twins' pitching staff extremely short-handed. Had that mess of a game never happened (or had the Twins better prepared for it by expanding the roster on September 1) he never would have been in the majors and could have left the organization as a 28-year-old minor-league free agent this offseason anyway.

So instead of remaining at Triple-A to finish the season and then having the right to leave as a free agent Fox got to make a completely unexpected major-league debut and collected an MLB paycheck for a few days. And, as it turned out, Fox impressed the Red Sox enough that they claimed him off waivers, used a 40-man roster spot on him, and now seem likely to keep him in the majors for at least the rest of the month. And all because of that stupid 13-inning game.

• Speaking of unexpected debuts, Revere was certainly surprised that the Twins called him up for the stretch run. Not only wasn't he on the 40-man roster, Revere was initially thought to be out for the year after being hit in the face by a pitch and suffering a fractured orbital bone on August 3. Instead he returned to the Double-A lineup three weeks later, went 13-for-34 (.382) in eight games, and is now in the majors wearing a protective face guard on his helmet.

Albert Lyu of Think Blue Crew used swing zone charts to take an interesting look at Delmon Young, Vladimir Guerrero, and Jeff Francoeur, who are the only hitters in baseball to hack at 60 percent of the pitches thrown to them. Young's swing-at-everything approach was easy to overlook when he was crushing the ball early on this season, but that production has dried up and unfortunately now just the horrible plate discipline remains.

Young has hit .211/.242/.314 in 38 games since August 1, striking out 29 times while drawing just five walks in 158 plate appearances. His batting average is still around .300 and he'll drive in more than 100 runs, so I'm sure some people will call it a great season. However, his .805 OPS isn't very far above the .775 average for corner outfielders and once his terrible defense is factored in Young ranks just 33rd among AL outfielders at 13 runs above replacement level.

The clutch hitting has been very valuable and Young has obviously been much better than he was in 2008 and 2009, but a .328 on-base percentage and .477 slugging percentage from an awful defensive left fielder just isn't all that great. For some context, in his four seasons as a regular Jason Kubel has a .344 on-base percentage and a .477 slugging percentage, topping Young's current OPS by 15 points. And rarely does anyone make a big deal of his production.

• His overall numbers are still ugly and that's not going to change, but Nick Blackburn has a 1.71 ERA while allowing zero homers in four starts since returning from a month-long demotion to Triple-A. Prior to the demotion Blackburn induced 49 percent ground balls while striking out 7.4 percent of the batters he faced. Since the demotion he's at 58 percent grounders and 16.8 percent strikeouts. Also encouraging, he's more than doubled his rate of swinging strikes.

• As expected, Randy Flores has proven to be a horrendous "lefty specialist." He's faced eight left-handed batters since joining the Twins and has recorded one out, giving up six hits and a walk. Overall this season lefties are hitting .298/.385/.509 off Flores and he's apparently been shaking off Joe Mauer while refusing to throw off-speed pitches. Hopefully with Brian Fuentes available and Jose Mijares back after surgery Flores has seen his last high-leverage spot.

Joe Posnanski wrote a fun piece for SI.com ranking the majors' 30 managers by their playing careers and Ron Gardenhire fares a lot better than you'd probably expect from someone who hit .232/.277/.296 in 285 games for the Mets in the early 1980s. I won't spoil the whole article, because as usual with Posnanski it's really good and really lengthy, but fewer than one-third of current managers could reasonably be described as good major-league players.

• Gardenhire wasn't much of a player, but as a manager he's on an historic pace for ejections. During the aforementioned 13-inning nightmare Gardenhire was tossed for the 51st time in his nine seasons as Twins skipper, which works out to 3.6 percent of his career games managed. Bobby Cox is the all-time ejections leader and has been booted from 3.5 percent of his games.

Johan Santana will miss the rest of this year and possibly much of 2011 following shoulder surgery. That doesn't make the Twins' haul from the Mets any better, but it does reinforce that handing out the long-term deal likely needed to keep Santana in Minnesota would have been a mistake. His performance hasn't been the problem, with a 2.85 ERA for the Mets after a 3.11 ERA in 175 starts for the Twins, but now his future is murky and he's still owed $77.5 million.

• Last year the Twins sent a fairly underwhelming set of prospects to the Arizona Fall League, but this year's group of seven players is pretty strong: Revere, David Bromberg, Joe Benson, Kyle Waldrop, Chris Parmelee, Carlos Gutierrez, and Tyler Robertson. In my annual ranking of the Twins' top 40 prospects six of those guys made the list (and cracked the top 20) coming into this season and all seven will definitely be among the top 40 for 2011.

• According to Jim Callis at Baseball America the Twins are one of nine teams to hand out less than the MLB-recommend "slot" signing bonus amounts to draft picks this year, spending the fifth-least money relative to the suggested numbers. While not uncommon for the Twins, that's a definite change from last year when they went over "slot" to sign Kyle Gibson after he fell to them with the No. 22 pick despite once being a consensus top-10 prospect.

• Something to think about next time an announcer claims "doing the little things" is the key to the Twins' success: Matt Klaassen of Fan Graphs points out that of the nearly 3,000 bunts and bunt attempts across MLB this year just 27 percent have actually increased the bunting team's Win Probability Added. Most of the time, giving up an out is just a bad idea.

• Random stat: Matt Capps has thrown 78.3 percent fastballs this season, which is the fourth-highest rate among all pitchers with at least 60 innings.

• Last week Wilson Ramos hit his first career homer off R.A. Dickey while behind the plate for a Livan Hernandez start. The game was played in some sort of Twins bizarro world.

• If you remain on the fence about joining Twitter despite my obsessive involvement, perhaps this will push you over the edge: Batgirl is now tweeting.

July 2, 2010

Link-O-Rama

• Once upon a time Steve Carrell leaving The Office would have made me sad, but it's tough to get too worked up given how far the show has slipped recently. It was a good run.

Mariano Rivera is the greatest relief pitcher in baseball history and the New York Times has an amazing video breakdown that sheds some light on how he's been able to dominate for 15 years with basically one pitch.

• Despite being among the most brutal reviews of all time the Washington Post account actually increases my interest in a Courtney Love concert.

• Losing to the Twins wasn't even close to the worst part of Johan Santana's week. Setting aside everything else, my first question is what kind of maniac has sex and then immediately plays tennis?

• Starting next year the Mets will pay Bobby Bonilla a $1.2 million annual salary through 2035.

• While the TwinsCentric viewing party watched the Twins' ridiculous extra-inning win over the Phillies last week one of the televisions at Park Tavern showed an Amanda Bynes movie. We naturally spent the final few innings debating which movie it was, to the point that Seth Stohs missed Ryan Howard's game-ending strikeout because he was busy looking at her IMDB page on his phone. Less than 24 hours later Bynes retired from acting at age 24. Eerie, huh?

• Hopefully they'll also be able to trade him for Tom Gugliotta.

• Official Fantasy Girl of AG.com candidate Kelly Brook spent the week modeling various bikinis while on vacation. Surely no further commentary is necessary.

• Video of the "100 Greatest Movie Insults" is almost as not-safe-for-work as it is fun to watch:

My favorite is "go home and get your shine box," but anything from Alex Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross and R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket is pretty great too.

Ron Artest celebrated an NBA title just like you'd expect Ron Artest to celebrate an NBA title.

• I'm apparently one of the few people who loved Louis C.K.'s first show that got canceled by HBO after one season, so it's no surprise that I also love his new show on FX. They're running back-to-back episodes every Tuesday night and I highly recommend watching assuming that you enjoy things that are really funny. And if you've never seen his amazing stand-up before, watch this recent set on Lopez Tonight. If you don't laugh, we can't be friends any more.

Party Down deserved far better than to be canceled after two seasons on STARZ, but it was such a good show and so overlooked that most of the actors got better gigs. Adam Scott will be a regular on Parks and Recreation and my crush on Lizzy Caplan will live on forever.

Freaks and Geeks is another show that deserved much better, but at least the Independent Film Channel will now be home to the old episodes nearly a decade after NBC sadly canceled the series after one amazing season. IFC also has Arrested Development re-runs.

• There's still time for the Twins to choose him over Joe Mauer.

• Some rare good news from the newspaper world: Let go by the St. Pioneer Press a year ago, friend of AG.com Phil Miller has been hired full time by the Minneapolis Star Tribune after doing a bunch of part-time work for them recently. I'm a little sad that Miller will be covering Gophers football after previously reporting on the Twins and Timberwolves, but his writing is so good it might actually get me to read about Tim Brewster and company. Maybe.

Conan O'Brien can feel good knowing that at least no one is watching Jay Leno.

• My weight-loss effort was a total failure last month and the fact that there's a donut shop opening soon about a block from my house isn't going to help.

• Next time you get frustrated by a Twins baserunning mistake, remember Ruben Rivera:

Jon Miller's play-by-play really takes the clip to a whole new level.

• Rather than make some lame joke about fumbling, I'll simply link to Adrian Peterson and his Playboy-posing fiancee.

• Having chatted with him about such things, let's just say that this drawing of Jon Heyman is not a self-portrait.

David Kahn has accomplished in two years what two decades filled mostly with losing could not, because between the draft and first couple days of free agency I'm giving serious thought to picking a new favorite NBA team. Any suggestions?

• This song randomly got stuck in my head last week despite not hearing it for 15 years, and I defy you to find a superior lyric: "Leave you kinda startled like the funk off a Frito / Make your man jealous while hoes cheese like Doritos."

• Based on this quote, I'd guess Ron Gardenhire reads Twins blogs, but not this Twins blog or any of the Twins blogs I read.

• A pair of Twins blogs Gardenhire and you should check out: OMG MN Twins and Knuckleballs.

• For whatever reason I was very late to the Drew Magary party, but he's quickly become one of my favorite writers because of absurd-yet-interesting things like this. As for the question on the table, I'd definitely take the over on 25,000.

• Friend of AG.com and awesome poker writer Paul McGuire has a new book called Lost Vegas that I can guarantee will be worth reading.

• I've been writing the "Daily Dose" column on Rotoworld each weekday since April 3, 2006, so it definitely feels weird to say that today's is my 515th and final column.

• On a related note, here are some highlights from my NBCSports.com blogging this week:

- Can Ubaldo Jimenez be the first 30-game winner since 1968?
- Stephen Strasburg's teammates let him down again in loss
- The next 300-game winner? How about Jamie Moyer?
- Pat Burrell apparently left his bat back in the National League
- White Sox are winning, so rookie Dayan Viciedo isn't playing
- GM says Carlos Zambrano's contract wasn't a bad deal ... and he's right
- White Sox reportedly targeting Nationals slugger Adam Dunn

• Finally, this week's AG.com-approved music video is Eddie Vedder joining Bruce Springsteen for a live version of "No Surrender":

June 17, 2010

Not quite a Baker’s dozen for Scott

Some random notes on Scott Baker racking up a career-high 12 strikeouts over seven shutout innings against the Rockies last night ...

Bert Blyleven had 12 or more strikeouts 22 times, including 15 for the Twins. Johan Santana had 14 such games for the Twins and Camilo Pascual had 10. No one else in team history has as many as five.

• Baker joined Santana, Blyleven, Pascual, Eric Milton, Jim Kaat, Joe Decker, Jim Merritt, and Francisco Liriano as the only pitchers in Twins history with seven or more shutout innings and 12 or more strikeouts. Santana did it six times, while Blyleven and Pascual did it twice apiece.

• Baker also joined Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Jake Peavy, Pete Harnisch, and Hideo Nomo as the only pitchers to throw seven or more shutout innings with 12 or more strikeouts against the Rockies. Martinez is the only pitcher to do so versus the Rockies at Coors Field.

Note: If you're a nerd like me and enjoy looking up stuff like that, I highly recommend purchasing the "Play Index" at Baseball-Reference.com. It'll be the best and dorkiest money you've ever spent.

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