July 18, 2014

Reviewing the Twins’ first half: Pitchers

perkins and suzuki

For all the talk about and money spent on improving their starting pitching the Twins' rotation ranks 28th in ERA among the 30 teams. Last year they ranked 30th. Two years ago they ranked 29th. Three years ago they ranked 26th. And even with some pretty good relief work included the Twins' pitching staff has the fewest strikeouts in baseball for the fourth consecutive season. Before the second half gets underway here's a pitcher-by-pitcher look at the individual performances ...

Phil Hughes: .283/.297/.410 in 501 plate appearances

When the Twins signed Phil Hughes to a three-year, $24 million contract this offseason the idea was that getting him away from homer-inflating Yankee Stadium would fix his biggest problem of serving up long balls. That's played out exactly as hoped, with Hughes allowing just nine homers in 122 first-half innings after averaging 19 homers per 122 innings from 2010-2013. Beyond that there was also another big but unexpected change: He stopped walking anyone.

Hughes has always had mediocre control, averaging nearly 3.0 walks per nine innings for his Yankees career, but this season under Rick Anderson's coaching his walk rate is a miniscule 0.8 per nine innings. Not only is that the second-lowest rate in all of baseball--sandwiched between Hisashi Iwakuma and Clayton Kershaw--it's the second-lowest walk rate in Twins history behind only Carlos Silva's ridiculous 0.4 per nine innings in 2004.

Hughes' velocity and strikeout rate remain nearly identical to his Yankees days and he's still one of MLB's most extreme fly-ball pitchers, but switching home ballparks has made those fly balls less of a weakness and refusing to walk anyone has turned him into a different pitcher. He walked zero or one batter in 17 of 19 first-half starts (89 percent) after doing so in 61 of 132 starts (46 percent) for the Yankees. He's been a souped-up version of the Twins' long-preferred pitching mold.

Kevin Correia: .292/.335/.439 in 478 plate appearances

Kevin Correia got off to a horrendous start, put together a nice stretch heading into the All-Star break, and just like last year finished the first half as one of baseball's worst starters. Offensive levels dropping across MLB have kept his numbers from being as gag-inducing as bad pitchers from 5-10 years ago, but among the 93 qualified starters this season Correia ranks dead last in strikeout rate, second-to-last in xFIP, and 84th in ERA. He also leads MLB with 11 losses.

Last year when Correia tossed 185 innings with the league's second-worst strikeout rate and seventh-worst ERA the Twins portrayed it as successful, but that was spin and now with several good prospects knocking on the door to the majors there's little value to be had in letting Correia finish out his two-year, $10 million contract. Since the beginning of last season the only two MLB pitchers with more innings and a higher ERA than Correia are Kyle Kendrick and ...

Ricky Nolasco: .330/.368/.538 in 459 plate appearances

Signed to a four-year, $49 million deal this offseason to front the Twins' rotation, Ricky Nolasco was the worst starter in the league for three months and then revealed that he'd been pitching through an elbow injury since spring training. Within his terrible performance was some poor luck on balls in play, even by Nolasco's often "unlucky" standards, but his velocity, strikeout rate, and walk rate were also all worse than the 31-year-old's career norms.

Based on secondary numbers Nolasco performed more like a 4.50 ERA pitcher than a 5.90 ERA pitcher, but that's still awful in a year when the average starter has a 4.05 ERA. Justin Morneau hit .321/.375/.559 in his MVP-winning 2006 season. This year opponents have hit .330/.368/.538 off Nolasco. Thankfully for the Twins adding Hughes to the rotation has worked out well, because the decisions to sign Nolasco and re-sign Mike Pelfrey have gone about as poorly as possible.

Kyle Gibson: .251/.303/.356 in 423 plate appearances

Kyle Gibson returned from Tommy John elbow surgery without bat-missing raw stuff, generating just 4.7 strikeouts per nine innings since going under the knife. That limits his upside and means he'll always be in danger of a rapid collapse, but his ability to induce grounders has remained with the rebuilt elbow and his ground-ball rate of 54.6 percent ranks seventh among all MLB starters. And after some early control problems he issued just nine walks in his final 10 first-half starts.

Throwing strikes and keeping the ball on the ground is a recipe for success, but without strikeouts that success likely tops out in the middle of the rotation. Which is fine, of course. The last Twins starter to log 150 innings with a higher ground-ball rate than Gibson's current mark was ... no one, at least not since 2002 when the data begins. Still, fewer than 5.0 strikeouts per nine innings is Silva, Nick Blackburn, and Scott Diamond territory, which is a dangerous place to be.

Sam Deduno: .260/.344/.370 in 305 plate appearances

Once presumed to be a member of the rotation, Sam Deduno began the season in the bullpen before shifting into starter mode to replace the injured Pelfrey in May. After an ugly June 14 start he moved back to the bullpen, where he finished the first half by throwing 13 scoreless innings. His sample size of relief work is too small to draw any conclusions, but with a 4.51 ERA and 4.5 walks per nine innings in 41 career starts there's no need to see more of Deduno in the rotation.

Anthony Swarzak: .265/.323/.359 in 198 plate appearances

Nearly all of the gains Anthony Swarzak made last season have vanished this year, as his strikeout and walk rates have regressed to the pre-2013 levels that made him look like a marginal big leaguer. His durability has value in a bullpen-saving role, but Swarzak is now 28 years old with a 3.69 ERA and just 5.8 strikeouts per nine innings in 132 career relief appearances. He doesn't miss enough bats or throw enough strikes.

Glen Perkins: .230/.264/.375 in 163 plate appearances

I'm not sure people fully appreciate just how good Glen Perkins has been since moving to the bullpen full time in 2011. During that four-year span he's posted a 2.54 ERA in 235 appearances, compiling 269 strikeouts compared to 49 non-intentional walks in 234 innings. And since taking over for Matt Capps as closer in mid-2012 he's converted 74 saves at an 89 percent success rate. By comparison, Mariano Rivera converted 89 percent of his career save chances.

Among all MLB relievers with at least 200 innings since 2011 he ranks seventh in strikeout-to-walk ratio, eighth in average fastball velocity, and ninth in Win Probability Added and xFIP. He's been one of the 10 best relievers in baseball since becoming a reliever and Perkins is actually getting better, as this year's 49/7 K/BB ratio in 39 innings represents the best strikeout and walk rates of his career. He's the third-best reliever in Twins history behind Joe Nathan and Rick Aguilera.

Jared Burton: .236/.306/.396 in 160 plate appearances

It'd be easy to point to his 3.34 ERA in 35 appearances since back-to-back ugly April outings as proof that Jared Burton has been his old self of late, but the truth is that a 3.34 ERA isn't even much better than this season's MLB average of 3.60 for relievers and his 24/10 K/BB ratio in 32 innings during that span is hardly vintage Burton. His velocity and strikeouts are down, his walks and fly-ball rate are up, and after a helluva run for the Twins he's in decline mode at age 33.

Casey Fien: .215/.242/.347 in 155 plate appearances

Extreme fly-ball pitchers always make for tricky late-inning relievers and Casey Fien has had a few home run-based blowups, but he's also got a 2.95 ERA and fantastic 137/27 K/BB ratio in 137 innings since the Twins signed him as a minor-league free agent in 2012 and then called him up with zero expectations that July. During that three-year span Fien has been superior to Burton in strikeout rate, walk rate, opponents' average, ERA, and xFIP. He's the Twins' best setup man.

Brian Duensing: .260/.327/.382 in 148 plate appearances

Compared to last season his ERA looks much better, but Brian Duensing's secondary numbers are actually much worse and in particular he's managed a poor 21/13 K/BB ratio in 36 innings. Duensing continues to be decent versus left-handed hitters, but he's walked more righties (10) than he's struck out (9). For his career righties have hit .297/.356/.462 off Duensing and he's not nearly dominant enough against lefties to make up for it.

Mike Pelfrey: .305/.419/.505 in 119 plate appearances

Pelfrey was terrible in 2013, going 5-13 with a 5.19 ERA in 29 starts, but for some reason the Twins felt compelled to give him a two-year, $11 million contract. He went 0-3 with a 7.99 ERA in five starts, got shut down with a dubious groin injury, and later underwent elbow surgery. He's probably done for the season, but Pelfrey will be back in the mix for a rotation spot next season because he's still owed another $5.5 million.

Caleb Thielbar: .231/.271/.413 in 118 plate appearances

Last season Caleb Thielbar came out of nowhere to emerge as the Twins' secondary left-handed setup man and he's filled the same role relatively well this year. At age 27 the former independent leaguer lacks long-term upside, but through 76 innings as a big leaguer he's got a 2.23 ERA and 60/22 K/BB ratio without extreme platoon splits. He's been used in low-leverage situations, but that could change in the second half if the Twins start auditioning him for Duensing's gig.

Matt Guerrier: .245/.295/.324 in 113 plate appearances

Signed to a minor-league deal and then promoted to Minnesota one day before the mid-May opt-out clause in his contract, Matt Guerrier has posted a nice-looking 2.67 ERA with just one homer allowed in 20 appearances. He hasn't quite been his old self, however, with just 12 strikeouts in 27 innings and an average fastball velocity of 89 miles per hour. At age 35 he's a low-leverage reliever, which is exactly how the Twins have used the former setup man.


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September 25, 2013

Twins Notes: Mauer shut down, rotation spending, and no platooning

joe mauer catching mask

Joe Mauer continues to have post-concussion symptoms more than a month after suffering a brain injury, so Monday the Twins shut him down for the final week of the season. Mauer hasn't played since taking a foul ball off the mask on August 19 and experienced setbacks when he tried to ramp up workouts during the past few weeks, with Phil Miller of the Minneapolis Star Tribune writing that he "still feels sensitivity to light and noises, and has trouble outside confined spaces."

Shutting him down is absolutely the correct decision and by the time spring training rolls around Mauer will be six months removed from the concussion, but sadly as the Twins and so many other teams have learned in recent years there are no guarantees with brain injuries. And now, much like with Justin Morneau and Denard Span, the only thing the Twins can really do is wait and hold their breath hoping that time and rest do the trick.

In making Monday's announcement both Mauer and general manager Terry Ryan stressed that they expect him to remain at catcher next season, but whereas that seemed like a questionable stance at the time of the concussion last month it now seems borderline crazy to me. I've spent a decade writing about how much of Mauer's value comes from catching and have always argued against a position switch, but the question has changed and the old answers cease to apply.

There's no way to stop a catcher from taking foul balls off the mask on a regular basis, along with all the other physical dangers that come with the position, and if he were to suffer another brain injury it might be too late to avoid major long-term consequences on and off the field. As a first baseman Mauer's odds of remaining an elite player into his mid-30s are much lower, but he'd still provide plenty of value there and Josmil Pinto is a potential replacement with upside.

(Note: I went into a lot more depth analyzing the Mauer position switch decision last month.)

• There seems to be considerable disagreement within the organization about how much focus to put on acquiring pitching via free agency. Nick Nelson of Twins Daily wrote a breakdown of the situation, with the short version being that Ron Gardenhire is basically begging for rotation help and owner Jim Pohlad says he's willing to spend big for reinforcements, all while Ryan downplays free agency much like he did last winter before settling for Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey.

Every team would love to build a rotation full of young, cheap pitchers and for many years the Twins did that well enough to avoid having to swim into the deep end of the free agency pool. And generally speaking free agent pitching is typically overpriced and requires making risky long-term commitments to players on the wrong side of 30. However, their current lack of MLB-ready arms with more than back-of-the-rotation upside makes Ryan's usual approach a tough one to pull off.

Despite his rookie struggles Kyle Gibson still has a chance to develop into more than a fourth or fifth starter and Alex Meyer remains a potential top-of-the-rotation starter if he can stay healthy, but neither can be counted on to make a huge 2014 impact and even if they do surrounding them with the likes of Correia, Scott Diamond, Vance Worley, and Samuel Deduno is going to leave the rotation well short of decent.

Last season Twins starters had the second-worst ERA in baseball at 5.40 and this season Twins starters have the worst ERA in baseball at 5.26. Based on those numbers and the in-house options who can realistically be rotation members in 2014 there's little chance of building even an average rotation without bringing in outside help. Ryan would surely prefer trades to free agency, but my fear is that his real plan involves a third straight season with a terrible rotation on the cheap.

• One of my frequent complaints about Gardenhire is his unwillingness to platoon hitters, which he's basically never done. Most prominently Jacque Jones and Jason Kubel played no matter the pitcher, but versus lefties Jones hit .231/.286/.355 and Kubel hit .239/.313/.365. For a more recent example on the other side of the plate, Trevor Plouffe plays no matter the pitcher despite hitting .223/.280/.381 off righties. And there are no shortage of maddening day-to-day examples.

Many of the best managers in baseball history regularly employed platoons and current examples in Gardenhire's own league include former Manager of the Year winners Joe Maddon of the Rays, Bob Melvin of the A's, and Buck Showalter of the Orioles. It's hardly a new-school approach and it's hardly a complicated thing to make sense of, yet Gardenhire has never budged and said the following when asked about it by Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

I don't recall ever having a platoon. I'm not against it. I'll tell you that. I wouldn't have a problem having a platoon if it fits. If it makes sense numbers-wise and it works, then you go with it.

"I don't recall ever having a platoon" and "I'm not against it" are statements that don't fit together coming from a manager in his 12th season on the job. Gardenhire may not be against it in theory, but his actions over nearly 2,000 games have certainly shown that he's very much against it in practice despite having plenty of opportunities to improve the lineup via platooning. And for his part, Ryan told Berardino that he's fine with the manager's lack of platooning:

I don't think he likes to platoon players at all. I don't either. Put guys out there that are everyday players, then you don't have to platoon. You're always looking for players that can play 162 games, right? That's what I'm looking for. I don't go out looking for platoon players.

Obviously every team would love to find nine everyday players and trot them out there 162 times, but that's an impossible goal and instead leads to so-called "everyday players" like Jones, Kubel, and Plouffe flailing away against same-sided pitchers they have no business facing. Over the past three seasons the Twins have scored the fewest runs in the league, making "I don't go out looking for platoon players" sound awfully tone deaf coming from the GM. It's nothing new, though.

• Mauer hasn't played since August 19, but according to Win Above Replacement and Fan Graphs' valuation system he's still been worth more than his salary this season.

• This year the Twins have been out-scored by 158 runs, which is the second-worst run differential in baseball. The worst run differential in Twins history belongs to the 1995 team at -186.

• Since taking over for Matt Capps as Twins closer Glen Perkins has converted 90 percent of his save chances (52-for-58) with a 2.31 ERA.

LaTroy Hawkins left the Twins for a two-year, $8 million deal with the Cubs as a 31-year-old free agent and a decade later he's still rolling along.

Francisco Liriano is lined up to start the Wild Card playoff game for the Pirates.

• For a lot more about Mauer's future and the Twins' roster options for next season check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.


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August 21, 2013

Twins Notes: Gibson, Morneau, Butera, Carroll, Mientkiewicz, and Liriano

kyle gibson final start of 2013

Kyle Gibson's first taste of the majors likely came to an end Monday, as the Twins demoted him back to Triple-A immediately following his poor outing against the Mets. Gibson pitched well in his Twins debut on June 29, but was mostly a mess after that and returns to Rochester sporting an ugly 6.53 ERA in 10 starts. His secondary numbers are only slightly more encouraging, including just 29 strikeouts in 51 innings and a .327 opponents' batting average with seven homers allowed.

Gibson got knocked around by big-league hitters and looked worn out at times, so considering the expected workload limit in his first full season since elbow surgery shutting him down soon made sense. He's thrown 144 total innings between the majors and minors and by shutting Gibson down after optioning him to Triple-A the Twins keep him from accumulating MLB service time while not pitching, although certainly the demotion could be purely based on performance.

There are some positives to be taken from Gibson's first 10 starts, including an average fastball of 92.2 miles per hour and a ground-ball rate around 50 percent, but the questions about his ability to generate strikeouts remain and overall he looked like anything but a top prospect. Hopefully he can come back strong next season, because Gibson will be 26 years old in a couple months and the Twins desperately need someone to emerge as more than a back-of-the-rotation starter.

• When the Twins traded Drew Butera to the Dodgers on July 31 for a player to be named later or cash considerations my assumption was that their return would be cash and the considerations would be approximately the cost of a bucket of baseballs. Instead they ended up getting Miguel Sulbaran, a diminutive 19-year-old left-hander with a solid track record in the low minors since signing out of Venezuela as a 16-year-old.

As one of the youngest pitchers in the Midwest League this season Sulbaran has a 3.26 ERA and 86-to-26 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 97 innings. For comparison, J.O. Berrios has a 3.45 ERA and 92-to-34 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 94 innings facing the same low Single-A hitters at the same age. Last year the Twins drafted Berrios with the 32nd pick and he has much better raw stuff, so they're hardly prospect equals, but to get any sort of useful player for Butera is shocking.

Sulbaran hasn't cracked any Baseball America or ESPN rankings, but Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com recently rated him as the No. 14 prospect in the Dodgers' farm system. Mayo wrote that Sulbaran "has a good feel for his low-90s fastball" and "his curveball is his best offspeed pitch and both his slider and changeup show promise." Butera is arguably the worst hitter of the past three decades, so any deal would get the "great trade ... who'd we get?" treatment, but this is a nice haul.

• Parting with Butera is the only move the Twins made before the July 31 deadline, but trades can also happen in August via the waiver wire system and they swung another deal by sending Jamey Carroll to the Royals for the familiar player to be named later or cash considerations. If the Twins get anything decent in return for Carroll that would be even more shocking than the Butera deal, because as a 39-year-old impending free agent he had zero value to them beyond this season.

Carroll didn't work out quite as well as the Twins hoped when they signed him as a free agent in November of 2011, but the reasoning behind the two-year, $6.5 million contract made sense. As usual the Twins' infield options were severely lacking and Carroll was a good, versatile defender with strong on-base skills. He did what he was supposed to do in 2012, drawing the third-most walks on the team to get on base at a .343 clip and starting 30-plus games at three positions.

When signing a 37-year-old to a multi-year deal rapid decline is always a risk and unfortunately this season Carroll's usually outstanding strike-zone control vanished and the Twins no longer trusted him to play shortstop at age 39. He was a worthwhile pickup who couldn't hold off father time long enough to provide a great return on a fairly modest investment. And yet among all the middle infielders in Twins history to appear in 150 games only 10 had a better OBP than Carroll.

• As expected, Justin Morneau passed through waivers unclaimed because he's a 32-year-old impending free agent first baseman with a $14 million salary and a .430 slugging percentage. At this point it's unclear if any contending teams are interested in Morneau, but at the very least no teams were interested in Morneau and the possibility of being stuck with the remaining $4 million on his contract.

Clearing waivers means Morneau can be traded to any team, with August 31 as the deadline for postseason eligibility. However, don't expect much if he's moved. Despite a confusing number of fans and media members continuing to act as if Morneau is an impact player he's been a below-average first baseman since the 2010 concussion, batting .257/.317/.409 in 320 games. This year there are 216 major leaguers with at least 300 plate appearances and he ranks 115th in OPS.

Josh Willingham returning from knee surgery followed by Ryan Doumit coming back from a concussion left the Twins with a roster crunch and they decided to make room by demoting Chris Colabello back to the minors. It's a shame, because Colabello's monstrous Triple-A production warranted an extended opportunity at age 29 and he was just starting to show some promise by hitting .286/.397/.551 with four homers and nine walks in his last 16 games.

Most of the talk surrounding a possible Morneau trade centers on what the Twins might get in return and whether they should try to keep him past this season, but one side effect is that not trading him takes at-bats away from guys like Colabello who could prove useful on a minimum salary for 2014 and beyond if given a chance. Instead, after hitting .354/.432/.652 at Triple-A he got a grand total of 96 plate appearances in the majors.

UPDATE: Well, the good news is that Colabello has already been called back up. Unfortunately it's because Joe Mauer was placed on the concussion disabled list after taking multiple foul tips to the mask Monday. Mauer was dizzy during batting practice Tuesday, which is an awfully scary thing to write following several paragraphs about Morneau being a shell of his former self since a concussion. Brain injuries are impossible to predict, so it's breath-holding time.

• Fort Myers manager Doug Mientkiewicz got into a brawl with the opposing manager Saturday, video of which you can see below courtesy of the Fort Myers News Press:

Because the beginning of the brawl wasn't captured on video it's tough to tell exactly what went on, but by all accounts Mientkiewicz escalated the situation in a huge way by running out of the dugout to tackle the other manager. Twins minor league director Brad Steil issued a statement saying "that's not the example we want him to set for our players" and "he realizes that's not how we want him to represent the Minnesota Twins."

However, general manager Terry Ryan explained that the Twins left any discipline to the Florida State League, saying: "Doug was apologetic. I think it's taken care of." And the FSL merely fined him, providing quite a contrast to the Twins allowing Double-A manager Jeff Smith to bench Miguel Sano four games for showboating on a homer and reacting poorly to being scolded. It's obviously apples and oranges, but imagine Sano tackling another player and only being fined.

Francisco Liriano is 14-5 with a 2.53 ERA and 126 strikeouts in 121 innings for the first place Pirates, allowing two or fewer runs in 15 of 19 starts while throwing fastballs far less often than he ever did with the Twins. Jenn Menendez of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette wrote a lengthy, quote-filled article about Liriano's post-Twins turnaround, including this comment from Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage:

Because that's Frankie. If I try to make Frankie pitch like [someone else], we wouldn't have what we got. That's force-feeding him to do something that he's not comfortable doing. Frankie does pitch the way he pitches. So just let him be him. That's what we did.

Maybe he simply needed a fresh start somewhere else, but "just let him be him" certainly isn't something Twins coaches said often about Liriano and his improvement can be linked to a clear change in approach that runs counter to what the Twins preached regarding fastball usage. He's averaged 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings for the Pirates, whereas the Twins have used 10 different starters this year and none have averaged more than 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings.

• Whatever slim chance Nick Blackburn had of pitching for the Twins again is over following season-ending knee surgery. Blackburn's contract still includes an $8 million team option for next season, but that will obviously be declined. In signing Blackburn to a misguided long-term deal in March of 2010 the Twins ended up paying $14 million for 408 innings of a 5.56 ERA from a guy who would have been under team control through 2013 even without the guaranteed contract.

Darin Mastroianni wound up spending four months on the disabled list with an ankle injury that was initially deemed so minor that the Twins let him play through the pain for several weeks. He eventually underwent surgery, but now that Mastroianni is healthy again the Twins activated him from the disabled list and optioned him to Triple-A. In other words, Mastroianni lost his job because of the injury. And his 40-man roster spot might be in danger this offseason.

• For a lot more about Morneau going unclaimed on waivers and a look at the Twins' options for improving the rotation in 2014, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.


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July 18, 2013

Reviewing the Twins’ first half: Pitchers

glen perkins and joe mauer

Last year Twins starters ranked dead last in the league with a 5.40 ERA, but after big talk of fixing the rotation the actual additions were inexpensive and uninspired. This year Twins starters have a 5.23 ERA that ranks dead last in either league and even with surprisingly good work from a largely makeshift bullpen the pitching staff has the league's worst ERA and fewest strikeouts. Before the second half gets underway here's a pitcher-by-pitcher look at the individual performances ...

Kevin Correia: .296/.336/.472 in 472 plate appearances

Signed to a two-year, $10 million contract that didn't make much sense this offseason, Kevin Correia posted a 2.23 ERA in April that had people coming up with all sorts of theories about why he'd turned a corner at age 32. Since the calendar flipped to May he's made 15 starts with a 5.21 ERA, allowing opponents to hit .321 with 15 homers in 74 innings. Since completing at least seven innings in each of his five April starts Correia has done so just once in his last 15 outings.

Overall he has a 4.23 ERA compared to the AL average of 4.08 and across baseball Correia ranks 85th among 89 qualified starters in both strikeout rate and swinging strike percentage, which is some serious pitching to contact. He's been slightly less ineffective than expected thanks to the fast start, but Correia has shown why the multi-year commitment was misguided and if the Twins can trade him before the ERA rises any further they should.

Scott Diamond: .313/.355/.514 in 394 plate appearances

Scott Diamond's miniscule strikeout rate suggested that last year's success would be short-lived and sure enough he unraveled in the first half. His strikeout rate fell even further to 4.2 per nine innings, which is the worst in baseball, and his walk and ground-ball rates declined from excellent to merely good. Toss in a 30-point uptick in Diamond's batting average on balls in play and you end up with an ERA that jumps from 3.54 to 5.32.

Diamond wasn't as good as he looked last season and isn't as bad as he's looked this season, but overall he's a whole lot closer to a left-handed Nick Blackburn than a long-term building block. In fact, through three seasons the comparison between Diamond and Blackburn is eerily close. Diamond has a 4.27 ERA and rates of 4.5 strikeouts, 2.1 walks, and 1.0 homers per nine innings. Blackburn had a 4.14 ERA and rates of 4.4 strikeouts, 1.8 walks, and 1.1 homers per nine innings.

Mike Pelfrey: .313/.359/.478 in 363 plate appearances

All the offseason and early spring training talk of Mike Pelfrey being vastly ahead of schedule in his recovery from Tommy John elbow surgery gave way to his actually having to pitch and it was ugly. Pelfrey had a 6.66 ERA through 11 starts, including a .332 opponents' batting average and 26-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 51 innings. He then likely saved his rotation spot with a decent five-start stretch to finish the first half, with a two-week disabled list stint mixed in.

Pelfrey wasn't particularly effective before the surgery, serving mostly as an innings-eater for the Mets, and going under the knife didn't fix his inability to miss bats. He relies almost exclusively on a low-90s fastball, which is why Pelfrey is averaging fewer than 6.0 strikeouts per nine innings for the eighth time in eight seasons. That pitch used to at least generate lots of ground balls, but his current rate of 43.8 percent is a career-low and actually qualifies Pelfrey as a fly-ball pitcher.

Samuel Deduno: .262/.327/.371 in 264 plate appearances

Last season Samuel Deduno was relatively successful with a 4.44 ERA in 15 starts despite nearly as many walks (57) as strikeouts (53) in 79 innings. Even that modest success won't work long term with those secondary numbers and somewhere along the way pitching coach Rick Anderson appears to have hammered that point home to Deduno. Prior to this year Deduno had walk rates of 6.1 per nine innings in the majors and 5.0 per nine innings at Triple-A. This year he's at 2.9.

It's a sample size of 10 starts, but Deduno has three or fewer walks in all 10 of them after doing so just half the time last year. His strikeout rate has actually fallen to 4.5 per nine innings, which is among MLB's worst, but he's made up for the lack of missed bats by nibbling less and letting the movement of his pitches induce an AL-high 61 percent ground balls. Or, put another way: Pitching to contact actually works for Deduno. There's more reason to believe in him now than last year.

Anthony Swarzak: .281/.314/.412 in 237 plate appearances

After three sub par years split between the rotation and bullpen Anthony Swarzak has taken a step forward as full-time long reliever. Compared to his first three seasons Swarzak has upped his strikeouts by 28 percent, reduced his walks by 26 percent, and become less fly-ball prone. He's been one of the most effective pitchers on the entire staff, although that's admittedly not saying much and because most of his work comes in long-relief spots his impact has been minimal.

In fact, the Twins are 6-21 when Swarzak pitches. That should be blamed on his role rather than his performance, which includes a 3.55 ERA and 41-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 58 innings. So far they've resisted the urge to put Swarzak back into the rotation and they've also yet to really move him up the bullpen hierarchy. Considering the overall state of the pitching staff if Swarzak keeps pitching this well in the second half he'd warrant some kind of higher-leverage gig.

Vance Worley: .381/.427/.577 in 234 plate appearances

When the Twins acquired 25-year-old Vance Worley from the Phillies in the Ben Revere trade he was supposed to step in as a long-term mid-rotation starter. Worley had thrown 278 innings with a 3.50 ERA for the Phillies and while there were questions about his many called strikeouts being sustainable there was little reason to expect a collapse. And then he went from Opening Day starter to Triple-A in less than two months, allowing 43 runs in 49 innings.

He generated just 15 strikeouts in 10 starts, got a swinging strike on an abysmal 4.5 percent of his pitches, and allowed a .381 opponents' batting average. Worley has been much better since the demotion to Rochester, but it's hard to be very encouraged by a 3.88 ERA at Triple-A when it comes with 34 strikeouts in 58 innings. He'll be back with the Twins at some point, but Worley hasn't been right since last year's elbow issues and was never a high-upside arm to begin with.

Ryan Pressly: .255/.321/.345 in 185 plate appearances

As far as Rule 5 picks go Ryan Pressly has been a big success. Used mostly for mopping up and long relief, he threw 44 innings with a 3.09 ERA and averaged 93 miles per hour with his fastball. Far less impressive than the shiny ERA is a 30-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio and Pressly is unlikely to be as stingy with homers going forward considering his high fly-ball rate, but he's been a useful member of the bullpen and has definitely shown some long-term upside.

Jared Burton: .247/.333/.377 in 184 plate appearances

Jared Burton picked up right where he left off following a fantastic 2012 season with a 2.10 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 26 innings through the end of May. Then he went through a rough patch while dealing with a groin injury, allowing 12 runs in 10 appearances as his ERA ballooned to 4.29 and he was removed from setup duties. Burton recovered to end the first half with six shutout outings in a row, although his usual swing-and-miss stuff still wasn't there.

Last year's .220 batting average on balls in play was always unsustainable and his overall stats remain decent with a 3.67 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 42 innings, but Burton has already walked more batters than all of last year and both his velocity and swinging strike rate are down slightly. Hopefully it's just a blip on the radar, because a healthy Burton can be light outs and he's signed through 2015 at salaries that make him a reasonably priced setup man or good trade bait.

P.J. Walters: .311/.383/.494 in 183 plate appearances

For the second time in two seasons the Twins called up P.J. Walters when their rotation was a mess, got a handful of decent outings from him before things fell apart, and then passed him through waivers unclaimed to keep the 28-year-old right-hander in the organization as Triple-A depth. Meanwhile, he has a 5.79 ERA in 20 starts for the Twins after posting a 4.60 ERA in 133 starts at Triple-A, making Walters the epitome of a replacement-level starter.

Pedro Hernandez: .311/.373/.517 in 169 plate appearances

Acquired from the White Sox in the Francisco Liriano trade, Pedro Hernandez is a soft-tossing, strike-throwing lefty who struggled against right-handed hitters in the minors and not surprisingly big-league righties have crushed him to the tune of .353/.423/.639 with eight homers in 137 plate appearances. He had two first-half stints with the Twins as a rotation fill-in, posting a 6.17 ERA in seven starts, and it's tough to see Hernandez having long-term success as a starter.

Josh Roenicke: .238/.331/.420 in 167 plate appearances

When the Twins claimed Josh Roenicke off waivers in November the story of his career was a big fastball and not much else, including a modest strikeout rate and poor control. His average fastball dipped to 91.2 miles per hour in the first half, but the rest of the story stayed the same with an awful 25-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 38 innings. And after some initial success he gave up 14 runs in his final 24 innings with as many walks (15) as strikeouts (15).

Brian Duensing: .300/.373/.393 in 159 plate appearances

Brian Duensing flopped as a starter, but has yet to rediscover his previous success as a reliever. Slated to be the primary left-handed setup man, Duensing struggled against lefties and righties while posting a 4.67 ERA and 30-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 35 innings and spent the final month or so of the first half working mostly in a mop-up role. His inability to handle righties will forever limit Duensing, but the good news is that his trouble with lefties looks like a fluke.

Lefties hit .307 off Duensing in the first half, but that was due to a ridiculously high .408 batting average on balls in play. Delving a little deeper, he posted a great 20-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio versus lefties and held them to just one homer in 82 plate appearances. Despite the rough first half not much has really changed with Duensing, but unfortunately that just means he's still a decent middle reliever who's a bad bet facing righties and a good bet facing lefties.

Casey Fien: .179/.217/.284 in 146 plate appearances

Burton and Duensing struggling as the main setup men pushed Casey Fien into a more prominent late-inning role and he responded by continuing to thrive. Not only did he have a 3.03 ERA and 42-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 39 first-half innings, dating back to his debut with the Twins last season Fien has a 2.57 ERA and 74-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 74 frames. Not bad for a guy who joined the Twins as a minor-league free agent last offseason at age 28.

He's probably due to come back down to earth at least a little bit and if that does happen it'll likely stem from serving up too many homers, as Fien was an extreme fly-ball pitcher in the minors and has one of the 10 lowest ground-ball rates in the majors since last season. However, his overall track record in the minors showed someone capable of being a quality middle reliever and so far he's allowed just seven homers in 287 plate appearances.

Glen Perkins: .172/.221/.262 in 131 plate appearances

Glen Perkins' first full season as the Twins' closer has been an overwhelming success except for the part about the team failing to find him consistent work. Perkins converted 21 of 23 saves with a 1.82 ERA and 47-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 34.2 innings, holding opponents to a .172 batting average. That's about as dominant as a pitcher can be and Perkins was rewarded with his first All-Star selection, yet the Twins used their All-Star closer for just 131 batters in 92 games.

Some of that stems from their lack of late leads, but Ron Gardenhire's refusal to use Perkins in non-save situations is the real culprit. Not only have 100 different relievers thrown more innings than Perkins, six Twins relievers have worked more. It's gotten so bad that Perkins requested more action, but Gardenhire continues to manage the bullpen around the save statistic while calling on lesser relievers in game-changing spots. Perkins is great, but his usage is terrible.

Kyle Gibson: .315/.392/.393 in 102 plate appearances

In his first full season back from Tommy John surgery Kyle Gibson entered spring training in the mix for a rotation spot, but pitched his way out of the immediate plans and then the Twins decided to keep him at Triple-A for three months. He was one of the International League's best pitchers, posting a 3.01 ERA with tons of ground balls and a 79-to-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 93 innings, and after going through eight other starters the Twins finally called him up three weeks ago.

Gibson had a very nice debut followed by three mostly poor outings, but looking beyond the ugly 6.45 ERA he induced 51 percent ground balls, generated a decent number of swinging strikes, and averaged 92.3 miles per hour with his fastball. Ultimately the key for Gibson is whether he can get enough strikeouts to be more than a mid-rotation starter who throws strikes and kills worms. At this point the jury is still very much out and his second-half workload may be limited.

Caleb Thielbar: .103/.205/.221 in 78 plate appearances

Twenty straight scoreless innings is an amazing start to anyone's career, let alone a 26-year-old rookie signed out of independent ball in 2011. Caleb Thielbar turned what looked likely to be a short-term call-up into a two-month gig, and while his secondary numbers and inherited runners allowed paint a much less impressive picture than his sparkling ERA he's shown more than enough to stick around with 21 strikeouts in 21 innings and 11 percent swinging strikes.

Note: For a similar first-half review of the Twins' hitters, click here.


This week's blog content is sponsored by the Twins Daily light rail pub crawl/Twins game, where you can join Aaron Gleeman, John Bonnes, Parker Hageman, Nick Nelson, and Seth Stohs for a day of bar-hopping and baseball on September 14. Space is limited, so book your spot.

July 11, 2013

Twins Notes: Gardenhire, Gibson, Tonkin, Perkins, Morneau, and Colabello

ron gardenhire ejected

• With the Twins free-falling toward a third straight 90-loss season and Ron Gardenhire's job security becoming a popular topic locally I wondered how many managers in baseball history have avoided being fired after three consecutive 90-loss seasons. I knew there was at least one in Tom Kelly, but Jacob Pomrenke of SABR looked up the data for me and found that it's happened a total of eight times since 1945:

Larry Rothschild     Rays       1998-2000
Felipe Alou          Expos      1998-2000
Tom Kelly            Twins      1997-2000
Joe Torre            Mets       1978-1980
Darrell Johnson      Mariners   1977-1979
Preston Gomez        Padres     1969-1971
Casey Stengel        Mets       1962-1964
Zack Taylor          Browns     1948-1951

Four of the eight managers who kept their jobs after three consecutive 90-loss seasons were from expansion teams, so tons of losing was expected/accepted. And five of the eight managers who stuck around after three straight 90-loss seasons were fired by the middle of the next year. Kelly managed the Twins to four 90-loss seasons in a row from 1997-2000 and then went 85-77 in 2001, at which point he stepped down from the job at age 50 and was replaced by Gardenhire.

• After a solid debut Kyle Gibson has struggled in back-to-back starts, leaving him with a 7.27 ERA and 10-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 17 innings. Among all pitchers in Twins history through three career starts Gibson allowed the most hits (23) and second-most earned runs (14). LaTroy Hawkins is the only Twins pitcher to allow more earned runs in his first three starts and he's had a 19-year career, although all of his success came after shifting to the bullpen.

It's silly to analyze three starts too much, but Gibson has been done in by a .377 batting average on balls in play and nearly half the runners he's put on base coming around to score. Fortunately neither of those rates are sustainable and the good news is that he's averaged 92.5 miles per hour with his fastball while inducing 54 percent ground balls and has yet to allow a homer. And despite a modest strikeout total his swinging strike percentage is slightly above average.

Caleb Thielbar going on bereavement leave means Michael Tonkin will be getting his first taste of the majors at age 23. Early on Tonkin's biggest claim to fame was being Jason Kubel's brother-in-law, but since shifting to the bullpen in 2011 the 6-foot-7 right-hander has emerged as a high-upside reliever with dominant numbers to match his mid-90s fastball. Dating back to last season Tonkin has a 2.17 ERA and 143 strikeouts in 99 innings.

That includes a 1.85 ERA with zero homers allowed and a 46-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 39 innings between Double-A and Triple-A this year, so if Tonkin makes a good first impression the Twins may decide to keep him around at the expense of someone else in the bullpen. Either way, Tonkin is one of the most promising reliever prospects the Twins have had in a long time and it's easy to imagine him setting up for Glen Perkins at some point next season.

• As a follow-up to Perkins encouraging the Twins to use him more often in non-save situations, just 40 percent of his batters faced this season have come in "high leverage" situations compared to 43 percent in "low leverage" situations. By holding him back for save situations that often never materialize the Twins limit Perkins' overall workload, forcing lesser relievers into crucial spots, and end up using him in unimportant spots just to keep him from getting rusty.

But apparently they haven't started listening to Perkins yet. Last night the Twins lost a 13-inning game to the Rays in which they used six different relievers, but not their All-Star closer. Rule 5 pick Ryan Pressly, who's served as a mop-up man for most of the season, took the loss while Perkins went unused because it wasn't a so-called "save situation." Of the seven relievers who've been with the Twins all season Perkins has thrown the fewest innings. Saves are a helluva drug.

Justin Morneau has finally started to show a little power with four homers in 11 games after totaling six homers in his previous 115 games dating back to last year, but his overall production hasn't improved. It's hard to imagine there being much of a trade market for the impending free agent, but getting a compensatory draft pick if he signs elsewhere this winter is also no longer really an option for the Twins because he'd probably just accept the $15 million qualifying offer.

It's possible that Morneau would be willing to take a major pay cut to remain in Minnesota beyond this season, but do the Twins really want to block various young, cheap hitters with a 32-year-old first baseman who's hit just .259 with a .321 on-base percentage and .405 slugging percentage in 285 games since 2011? That's a harsh reality considering his decline began with a concussion, but even at half of his current $14 million salary Morneau just doesn't make much sense to retain.

• If the Twins do trade Morneau before he walks as a free agent Chris Colabello deserves a long look in his place. After a so-so season at Double-A last year Colabello has crushed Triple-A this season, hitting .357/.435/.656 with 23 homers, 22 doubles, and 41 walks in 81 games. Colabello is 29 years old and was signed out of an independent league, so he's hardly a top prospect, but he leads the International League in batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, and homers.

Maybe that won't translate to the big leagues, but one of the only benefits to being a bad team is that the Twins are in a position to find out. At worst Colabello struggles and gets written off as a Triple-A player as the Twins continue their march toward another 90-loss season, but he might also prove to be a decent stop-gap first baseman while making just $500,000. And if nothing else he'd give them a right-handed bat to help balance a very left-handed lineup.

Josh Willingham limped around on a bum knee for a month before finally being placed on the disabled list amid reports that he planned to avoid surgery and return after the minimum 15 days. Instead literally the next day it was announced that he'd undergo surgery and miss 4-6 weeks, which is definitely on the optimistic side for a torn meniscus. And sadly all of that has become a pretty standard injury progression for the Twins during the past three seasons.

Willingham hit just .250/.337/.325 in June with even worse defense than usual, making him one of the worst all-around players in baseball. Allowing him to play at what was clearly less than full strength hurt the team, hurt Willingham, and now leaves the Twins with little chance to trade him. We may never know what they could have gotten in exchange for him last July or this offseason, but as someone who implored the Twins to shop Willingham around it's a question that looms.

Aaron Hicks' season totals still look awful, but that's what happens when you start 2-for-48. Since then he's hit .249/.301/.462 with seven homers in 50 games, which is actually pretty damn impressive for a 23-year-old center fielder. He continues to strike out a ton and Hicks has stopped walking, but here's a list of all the 23-year-old center fielders to slug .450 or higher in the last 10 years: Colby Rasmus, Adam Jones, Matt Kemp, Chris Young, Grady Sizemore.

I still think it was a mistake to hand Hicks the Opening Day job without any experience at Triple-A and it's a shame that he's going to burn through an entire season of service time when that wasn't necessary, but that shouldn't take away from the fact that he's turned things around following one of the most brutal starts to a career you'll ever see. Even his defense has graded out much better recently and he's done some nice work as a baserunner.

P.J. Walters is a 28-year-old with a 6.28 ERA in the big leagues and a 4.45 ERA at Triple-A, so he predictably passed through waivers unclaimed after being designated for assignment to make room for Gibson's arrival and Mike Pelfrey's return. Walters accepted the assignment, so he'll stay with the Twins at Triple-A while no longer being on the 40-man roster. This is the second time in two years none of the other 29 teams claimed Walters off waivers.

• Since being called up from Triple-A in July of last year Casey Fien has thrown 71 innings with a 2.67 ERA and 71-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio while holding opponents to a .187 batting average. Last offseason the Twins signed Fien to a minor-league deal and based on his track record in the minors he looked like a potentially useful middle reliever, but the 29-year-old right-hander been a whole lot more than that so far.

• After last night's loss the Twins are 37-51, which puts them on pace to go 68-94. At this same point in the season they were 36-52 in 2012 and 40-48 in 2011, so not much has changed.

Brian Dozier since June 1: .264/.386/.500 with six homers, eight doubles and as many walks (19) as strikeouts (19) in 35 games. Six weeks are six weeks, but it's a sign of life.

• Twins Daily blogger and "Gleeman and The Geek" regular Parker Hageman wrote a good guest column for Baseball Prospectus about how the Twins develop their prospects.

• For a lot more about Willingham's injury situation, Walters' exit, Dozier's nice run, and the many former Twins on the All-Star team check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.


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