January 29, 2014

Twins Notes: Nolasco vs. Garza, Suzuki vs. Pinto, Buxton vs. The World

matt garza twins

• In moving quickly to sign Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes early in the offseason the Twins seemingly signaled two things: One is that they really liked Nolasco and Hughes, believing they both represented good value within the context of this offseason's free agent starters. Beyond that, it also suggested that they felt the consensus top-tier starters from the class weren't worth parting with a draft pick to sign or would end up being out of their price range. Or both.

And yet two months after signing Nolasco to a four-year, $49 million contract the Twins watched as Matt Garza--considered by most people to be a more desirable free agent target--signed with the Brewers for a nearly identical four-year, $50 million deal. Garza, like Nolasco, didn't require forfeiting a draft pick to sign and at age 30 he's a year younger. But who's actually the better pitcher? Here are their numbers from the past three seasons:

           GS     IP     ERA    SO/9    BB/9    OAVG     GB%    xFIP     MPH
Garza      73    457    3.62     8.4     2.7    .245    43.8    3.46    93.5
Nolasco    97    596    4.29     6.6     2.1    .279    44.9    3.76    90.1

Garza missed some time with arm problems in 2012 and 2013, so Nolasco has a large innings edge from 2011-2013, but in terms of actually preventing runs Garza was much better. During that three-year span Garza posted a 3.62 ERA, compared to 4.29 for Nolasco, and within that he struck out 27 percent more batters while holding opponents to a batting average 34 points lower in less pitcher-friendly environments. His fastball velocity was also 3.4 miles per hour higher.

However, a lot of Nolasco's somewhat bloated ERA during that time stems from a .314 batting average on balls in play, which was the second-highest among all 84 pitchers to throw at least 400 innings from 2011-2013. By comparison Garza had a .293 batting average on balls in play during that same time, which was right in the middle of the pack. If you assume that the defense behind Nolasco was mostly to blame for all those extra hits falling in the two pitchers look much closer.

Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) attempts to remove luck from the mix by focusing on the factors a pitcher can control and Garza had a 3.46 xFIP from 2011-2013, compared to 3.76 for Nolasco. In other words Garza was still clearly better than Nolasco during the past three years, but it wasn't as large of a gap as their ERAs suggested and the gap shrinks even further once you account for durability. With that said, for the same price tag I'd rather have Garza than Nolasco.

• When the Twins signed Kurt Suzuki to a one-year, $2.75 million deal I noted that the biggest worry was Ron Gardenhire falling in love with the veteran and choosing to play him far more often than his performance warrants. Turns out it may not even take Gardenhire falling in love with Suzuki for that to happen, as Terry Ryan has already gone from hinting that Suzuki rather than Josmil Pinto will be the starting catcher to basically saying Suzuki has the job locked up.

Pinto may prove incapable of being a decent defensive catcher, but his offensive upside is sizable and at age 25 there's a chance that he could develop into a good all-around catcher. Meanwhile, in the past three seasons Suzuki hit .235/.290/.353 while throwing out just 25 percent of stolen base attempts and rating very poorly in pitch-framing analysis. Suzuki hasn't been a starting-caliber catcher since 2009 and the Twins are likely to be mediocre at best, so why not let Pinto play?

• This week MLB.com, Baseball Prospectus, and ESPN.com all published their annual top 100 prospect rankings and Byron Buxton holds the top spot on each list. Buxton will also soon be named the No. 1 prospect by Baseball America when their list comes out. My annual series ranking and profiling the Twins' top 40 prospects kicks off next week, covering five prospects each day in countdown form.

This week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode was recorded live in front of a 300-person crowd at Twins Daily's inaugural "Winter Meltdown" event, with special guests Twins president Dave St. Peter, former Cy Young runner-up Scott Erickson, and Miguel Sano documentary filmmaker Jon Paley. Come for St. Peter getting laughs at my expense and stay for Erickson telling dirty stories.

December 25, 2013

Twins trade Ryan Doumit to Braves for Sean Gilmartin, sign Kurt Suzuki

ryan doumit and kurt suzuki

By signing Jason Kubel last week the Twins added to what was already a logjam at designated hitter and the outfield corners. Ryan Doumit's role seemed particularly tenuous with his ability to remain an option at catcher in question, possibly leaving him as merely a bad defensive outfielder with a mediocre bat. Apparently the Twins assessed the situation exactly that way, because less than 48 hours after adding Kubel they subtracted Doumit (and then added Kurt Suzuki).

Doumit is under contract for $3.5 million in 2014 as part of a two-year extension handed out by the Twins midway through his first season in Minnesota, but he wasn't worth that money in 2013 and ceased being a good fit for the current roster. Simply clearing his entire salary off the books and removing him from the bad-fielder logjam is an accomplishment for the Twins and getting a recent first-round draft pick from the Braves in exchange for Doumit is an added bonus.

Heading into the 2011 draft there was some talk of the Twins targeting Sean Gilmartin and as a soft-tossing college left-hander he certainly fit their longstanding drafting approach, but they picked 30th that year and the Braves took him two spots earlier. Three years later the Twins essentially acquired Gilmartin for nothing, but that mostly speaks to how far his prospect stock has dropped and how modest his upside was to begin with.

As you'd expect from an experienced college pitcher Gilmartin dominated in the low minors, but he managed just 6.5 strikeouts per nine innings in 20 starts at Double-A and then fell apart at Triple-A this year with a 5.74 ERA, .304 opponents' batting average, and 6.4 strikeouts per nine innings. Plenty of former first-round picks bounce back from struggles in the minors to thrive in the majors, but with a high-80s fastball Gilmartin doesn't seem like a good bet to be one of them.

On the other hand he's still just 23 years old and with only three pro seasons Gilmartin doesn't even require a 40-man roster spot yet, which no doubt played a part in the Twins asking for him in the deal. Gilmartin has had extreme splits in the minors--including an .859 OPS versus righties and a .635 OPS versus lefties this year--and could find a bullpen niche as a southpaw specialist. He's more "minor leaguer" than "prospect" at this point, but the deal is about shedding Doumit.

It's been clear all offseason that the Twins prioritized adding a veteran catcher and after missing out on both Jarrod Saltalamacchia and A.J. Pierzynski they were linked to second-tier options like Suzuki and John Buck. They ended up settling on Suzuki, who'll get $2.75 million to compete for playing time with and hopefully mentor Josmil Pinto. Suzuki was once a young building block for the A's, but huge workloads early in his career seem to have caught up to him.

Suzuki was a college superstar at Cal-State Fullerton, hitting .413/.511/.702 in 2004 before being drafted 67th overall. He debuted with the A's as a 23-year-old rookie in 2007, led the league in games caught in both 2008 and 2009, and then ranked third in games caught in 2010 and 2011. Through his first four full seasons in the majors Suzuki averaged 132 games and 1,145 innings behind the plate, which is a great path to being washed up before age 30.

Suzuki hasn't topped a .250 batting average or .700 OPS since 2009 and combined over the past two seasons he hit .234/.282/.332 in 212 games. That's backup-caliber offense at best and while Suzuki has a strong reputation behind the plate his actual defensive numbers have also been ugly recently. His caught-stealing numbers were consistently mediocre until this year, when 57 of 65 stolen base attempts were successful against Suzuki for an abysmal 12 percent throw-out rate.

Perhaps more importantly, Parker Hageman of Twins Daily notes that Suzuki fares very poorly in his ability to coax strikes out of borderline pitches. Dating back to 2008 he ranked 52nd out of 66 regular catchers in getting called strikes on pitches deemed to be within the strike zone, a metric which rated Doumit dead last during that same span. Breaking that down further into actual runs, Suzuki's pitch-framing graded out to 24.2 runs below average from 2010-2013.

So why do the Twins want Suzuki if he can't hit, his work framing pitches grades out poorly, and this year at least he couldn't throw? First and foremost because the veteran catcher market isn't exactly overflowing with capable options, so it's basically about holding your nose and deciding which huge flaws are palatable. Beyond that the Twins clearly believe more in their scouting and Suzuki's reputation than any defensive numbers.

He's a better option than Eric Fryer or Chris Herrmann, although the risk with Suzuki is that it's easy to envision Ron Gardenhire falling in love with his veteran-ness. As spring competition and eventually a backup and mentor for Pinto he's a perfectly reasonable, inexpensive fit, but if Suzuki finds his way into the lineup 4-5 times per week or perhaps even convinces the Twins to send Pinto back to the minors the signing will look a whole lot different.

For a lot more on the Doumit trade and Suzuki signing--plus the Mike Pelfrey re-signing--check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.