June 19, 2013

Who are the best young hitters in Twins history?

best young hitters

Oswaldo Arcia has thrived as a 22-year-old rookie, Aaron Hicks has struggled as a 23-year-old rookie, and Twins fans are counting down the days until stud prospects Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton arrive in Minnesota. All of which got me thinking about the best young hitters in Twins history, so I looked up the most productive seasons for each age based on OPS. No teenage hitter has even gotten regular playing time for the Twins, so let's start with 20-year-olds ...


AGE 20              YEAR      PA      OPS
Butch Wynegar       1976     622     .719

Butch Wynegar is the only hitter in Twins history to see regular action at age 20 and he logged 622 plate appearances, started 133 games at catcher, threw out 35 percent of steal attempts, and made the All-Star team while hitting .260/.356/.363 with more walks (79) than strikeouts (63) in a pitcher-friendly era. Adjusting for the time it was a Joe Mauer-esque year, which is why he was such a phenom and why, despite a solid 13-year career, he was ultimately a disappointment.

Bert Blyleven actually has the second-most plate appearances by a 20-year-old in Twins history with 100, because he was an amazing young pitcher who debuted before the designated hitter. In fact, he also has the most plate appearances by a 19-year-old in Twins history with 58. Through age 20 he hit .135 in 158 trips to the plate ... and tossed 442 innings with a 2.95 ERA. Blyleven ended up with 514 career plate appearances and hit .131 with a 193-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Among position players Luis Rivas has the second-most plate appearances by a 20-year-old in Twins history with 64. In the early days of this blog the Twins rushing Rivas to the majors and repeatedly handing him a starting job based almost solely on his age was a frequent source of frustration. He debuted at 20 and got the sixth-most plate appearances in team history through age 24--Wynegar got the most by a wide margin--but Rivas basically never improved.


AGE 21              YEAR      PA      OPS
Tom Brunansky       1982     545     .848
Rod Carew           1967     561     .750
Butch Wynegar       1977     617     .715
Zoilo Versalles     1961     542     .704
Luis Rivas          2001     619     .682
Cristian Guzman     1999     456     .543

Those are the only six 21-year-olds in Twins history to log at least 300 plate appearances. Tom Brunansky actually began that 1982 season at Triple-A in the Angels organization and was hitting just .205/.317/.330 in 25 games there when they traded him to the Twins in mid-May along with Mike Walters for Doug Corbett and Rob Wilfong. He was immediately handed a starting job and hit .272/.377/.471 with 20 homers, 30 doubles, and 71 walks in 127 games.

Rod Carew was also no slouch at 21, hitting .292/.341/.409 in one of the lowest-scoring eras in baseball history. Seriously, in 1967 the American League as a whole hit .236 with a .303 on-base percentage and .351 slugging percentage. If you adjust Carew's raw numbers to today's offensive environment he hit around .315/.360/.475, which is amazing from a 21-year-old second baseman and explains how he missed being the unanimous Rookie of the Year winner by one vote.

Wynegar cracks the list again and Rivas shows up too, along with shortstops Zoilo Versalles and Cristian Guzman. In six decades of Twins history only two regulars have been above-average hitters at 21, which is something to remember when Sano and Buxton show up. Mauer doesn't make the age-21 list because a knee injury cut short his rookie season, but he hit .308/.369/.570 in 122 plate appearances for what would be the top OPS by a wide margin.


AGE 22              YEAR      PA      OPS
Kent Hrbek          1982     591     .848
David Ortiz         1998     326     .817
Joe Mauer           2005     554     .783
Oswaldo Arcia       2013     133     .759
Tom Brunansky       1983     611     .753

I've included Arcia on the age-22 list despite his not having enough plate appearances to qualify yet because he's actually what got me thinking about this topic in the first place. Arcia has fared well enough in the early going that I wondered how his production compares to other 22-year-old Twins, discovering that he's in some pretty nice company with Kent Hrbek, David Ortiz, Mauer, and Brunansky.

In all a total of 12 different Twins have gotten at least 300 plate appearances at age 22 and Hrbek leads the way by hitting .301/.363/.485 with 23 homers in 140 games as a rookie in 1981. The worst OPS in the group of 22-year-olds belongs to Wynegar, who fell to .229/.307/.308 in his third season after being an All-Star at 20 and 21. Rivas, Guzman, Versalles, Carew, and Carlos Gomez also posted a sub-.700 OPS at 22.


AGE 23              YEAR      PA      OPS
Joe Mauer           2006     608     .936
Justin Morneau      2004     312     .875
Kent Hrbek          1983     582     .855
Rod Carew           1969     504     .853
Cristian Guzman     2001     527     .811

Four of the truly elite hitters in Twins history ... and Guzman. He'd been terrible in his first two seasons with the Twins, but in 2001 he hit .308/.346/.507 with seven homers, 22 doubles, and an incredible 13 triples in the first half to make the All-Star team. And then just as everyone was getting excited about a switch-hitting 23-year-old shortstop emerging as a star Guzman hurt his shoulder, missed much of the second half, and resumed being a terrible hitter.

Mauer hit .347/.429/.507 in 140 games at age 23, becoming the first catcher in AL history to win a batting title. He likely should have finished either first or second in the MVP voting, but instead placed sixth while teammate Justin Morneau won the award based largely on racking up RBIs with Mauer on base in front of him. Two years earlier Morneau posted the second-best OPS by a 23-year-old in Twins history, hitting .271/.340/.536 in 74 games after a midseason call-up.

Carew, like Mauer, won his first batting title at age 23, hitting .332/.386/.467 in 1969 to boost his OPS by 200 points compared to 1968, which happened to be one of the lowest-scoring seasons in baseball history and the final season before MLB lowered the pitching mound. In all 28 different Twins have gotten at least 300 plate appearances at age 23 and 13 failed to crack a .700 OPS, including Torii Hunter and Roy Smalley.

Hicks hasn't reached 300 plate appearances yet, but his current .575 OPS at age 23 would rank third-worst ahead of only David McCarty (.542) and Danny Thompson (.482). Greg Gagne (.596) and Rich Becker (.599) also aren't very far ahead of Hicks and two guys who preceded him in center field, Gomez and Ben Revere, posted an OPS under .625 at 23. Next season Arcia will try to become the sixth Twins hitter to crack an .800 OPS at 23.


AGE 24              YEAR      PA      OPS
Kent Hrbek          1984     635     .906
Delmon Young        2010     613     .826
Denard Span         2008     411     .819
David Ortiz         2000     478     .810
Joe Mauer           2007     471     .808

Hrbek has the best OPS for 22-year-olds, the third-best OPS for 23-year-olds, and the best OPS for 24-year-olds. In his age-24 season listed above he hit .311/.383/.522 with 27 homers in 149 games, finishing runner-up in the MVP voting behind Tigers reliever Willie Hernandez despite not even making the All-Star team. Hrbek never finished in the top 15 in MVP voting before or after that season, although he had plenty of other productive years.

Delmon Young appeared to have a breakout season in 2010, hitting .298/.333/.493 with 21 homers and 46 doubles in 153 games at age 24 to convince a lot of people he was finally living up to the hype he received as a prospect. He finished 10th in the MVP balloting because some voters overlooked his terrible defense and focused on his high RBI total, but in three seasons since then he's hit just .263/.297/.404.

Ortiz has the second-best OPS for 22-year-olds and the fourth-best OPS for 24-year-olds, so while no one could have predicted that he'd become one of the elite hitters in baseball after leaving the Twins there was certainly plenty of promise shown at a young age. In all Ortiz hit .266/.348/.461 in 455 games for the Twins through age 25. In team history only Mauer, Hrbek, Morneau, and Rich Rollins had more plate appearances and a higher OPS than Ortiz through age 25.

By age 24 plenty of hitters are regulars in the majors and a total of 38 different Twins hitters got at least 300 plate appearances as 24-year-olds. Kirby Puckett ranks 34th out of 38 with a .655 OPS, hitting .296/.320/.336 with zero homers in 128 games as a rookie. Carew would hold the top spot among 24-year-olds with a .930 OPS in 1970, but a knee injury ended his season after 51 games with a .366 batting average.


AGE 25              YEAR      PA      OPS
Harmon Killebrew    1961     656    1.012
Justin Morneau      2006     661     .934
Tony Oliva          1964     719     .916
Bobby Kielty        2002     348     .890
Joe Mauer           2008     633     .864

Harmon Killebrew couldn't crack any of these lists before age 25 because the team didn't move to Minnesota until then. In his first Twins season Killebrew hit .288/.405/.606 with 46 homers and 107 walks. Five decades later he's still the only Twins hitter to top a .950 OPS by age 25. Tony Oliva also cracks these lists for the first time at 25 because it was his rookie season. He led the AL in batting average, runs, doubles, and total bases, winning Rookie of the Year.

Morneau's aforementioned MVP-winning 2006 season came at age 25, as he hit .321/.375/.556 with 34 homers and 37 doubles in 159 games. Morneau has the second-best OPS for 23-year-olds and 25-year-olds, but hit just .239/.304/.437 in between as a 24-year-old. Mauer cracks the top five in OPS for ages 22, 23, 24, and 25. And he likely would've had the top OPS for 21-year-olds too if not for the knee injury.

Bobby Kielty is the odd man out on the age-25 list, which reminds me that I've never been more wrong about a player. He was a switch-hitting outfielder with power and plate discipline, and as you can see Kielty put up big numbers at an early age. When the Twins traded Kielty to the Blue Jays for Shannon Stewart in 2006 he was a 26-year-old .269/.375/.444 hitter. I thought they'd made a terrible mistake. And then Kielty hit .246/.333/.389 after the trade, flaming out at 30.


Interested in sponsoring a week of AG.com and advertising your product, service, local business, or website directly to thousands of readers each day? Click here for details.

May 8, 2013

Revisiting the best Twins prospects of the 2000s

mauer and morneau rookie

Coming into the season the Twins were universally regarded as having one of the truly elite farm systems in baseball, boasting plenty of star-level talent and impressive depth. I called it the best crop of Twins prospects in my decade-plus writing about the team and nothing has changed since then, as consensus top-25 prospects Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton are off to amazing starts and most of system's other significant prospects have played well.

I've written plenty about the Twins' prospects as part of my annual rankings, so there's no sense in revisiting everything a month into the season, but I thought it would be interesting to examine the recent history of Twins prospects. This year the Twins had six prospects in Baseball America's top 100 list, including Sano and Buxton in the top 10 and Oswaldo Arcia in the top 50, but what exactly has it meant to be a Twins prospect in the Baseball America top 100?

I wanted to focus on how prospects were perceived nationally at the time, rather than local hype or how I personally viewed them or how they actually turned out--no Johan Santana, in other words--so I relied on BA's list. On a season-to-season basis prospect crops vary wildly, so not all rankings are created equal, but below you'll find my best estimate of the highest-rated and/or most-hyped Twins prospects since 2000 (minus current prospects) and where they stand now.


1. Joe Mauer: #7 in 2002, #4 in 2003, #1 in 2004, #1 in 2005

Joe Mauer was basically as good as prospects get. He was a multi-sport superstar in high school, got drafted No. 1 overall, had immediate success hitting .400 at rookie-ball, thrived at every stop in the minors despite being young for the level of competition, was named Baseball America minor league player of the year, and reached the majors two weeks before his 21st birthday. Mauer was arguably the best MLB prospect of the 2000s and has obviously lived up to the hype.


2. Francisco Liriano: #83 in 2003, #6 in 2006

When the Giants traded Francisco Liriano to the Twins he was a former top 100 prospect who'd fallen off the list due to arm problems in the low minors, but two years later he re-emerged as the best pitching prospect in baseball. He showed why with one of the most dominant rookie seasons ever, but that was cut short by elbow surgery. Liriano has found some post-surgery success, but he was never the same and is a prime example of the volatile nature of pitching prospects.


3. Justin Morneau: #21 in 2002, #14 in 2003, #16 in 2004

Coming up in the same farm system at the same time as Mauer made Justin Morneau somewhat overshadowed, but he was definitely an elite prospect. Not only did Morneau rank among Baseball America's top 25 prospects in three straight seasons, he put up big numbers at every level in the minors and debuted in the majors a month after his 22nd birthday. Injuries have unfortunately kept Morneau from realizing his full potential, but he obviously lived up to the hype.


4. Michael Cuddyer: #36 in 1999, #18 in 2000, #55 in 2001, #27 in 2002, #17 in 2003

Michael Cuddyer was the ninth overall pick out of high school and cracked Baseball America's top 50 a remarkable five times, peaking at No. 17 the same year Mauer was No. 4 and Morneau was No. 14. He doesn't have an MVP, but Cuddyer has played 13 seasons as an above-average corner outfielder and occasional infielder, hitting .272/.342/.457. Everyone should be thrilled if similarly hyped prospects turned out as well as Cuddyer.


5. Jason Kubel: #17 in 2005, #58 in 2006

Oh, what could have been. Jason Kubel hit .352/.414/.590 with 16 steals between Double-A and Triple-A at age 22, hit .300 in a 23-game September debut, and ranked 17th on BA's list. Then a gruesome collision destroyed his knee, knocked him out for an entire year, and turned Kubel from an athletic, high-average hitter with good speed to a plodding slugger. And yet Kubel has still managed a decade-long career as an above-average corner outfielder not far off from Cuddyer.


6. Matt Garza: #21 in 2007

Matt Garza made just one Baseball America top 100, but that's because he went from first-round pick to the big leagues in one year. After some initial struggles Garza made 15 starts with a 3.69 ERA as a 23-year-old, at which point the Twins traded him for Delmon Young. Young is one of the biggest prospect busts of the 2000s whereas Garza had a five-season run as a solid No. 2 starter, but injuries have derailed him at age 29.


7. Michael Restovich: #50 in 1999, #26 in 2000, #63 in 2002, #37 in 2003

Drafted in the second round out of a Minnesota high school, Michael Restovich was a 6-foot-6 slugger who put up big power numbers in the minors and ranked among Baseball America's top 100 prospects four times. He debuted with the Twins at age 23 after hitting .286/.353/.542 at Triple-A, but never got an extended chance despite generally faring pretty well. He was lost on waivers in 2005, bounced around a ton, and ended up with just 297 career plate appearances.


8. Carlos Gomez: #60 in 2007, #52 in 2008

Carlos Gomez twice cracked Baseball America's top 100 in the Mets' system and was arguably the centerpiece of the Twins' haul for Santana. He debuted at age 21 and was the Twins' starting center fielder at 22, but rushing Gomez through the minors left him as mostly a mess offensively. Traded to the Brewers for J.J. Hardy after the 2009 season and now 27, he's finally becoming an impact hitter to go along with what was always excellent defense.


9. Adam Johnson: #41 in 2002, #85 in 2002

Adam Johnson was the No. 2 pick in 2000 draft out of Cal-State Fullerton, but Baseball America projected him as a mid-first rounder and the Twins were criticized for making a "signability pick." Johnson predictably fared well in the low minors against less experienced competition and cracked the top 50 in 2002, but things fell apart once he advanced past Single-A. He posted a 10.25 ERA in 26 innings as a major leaguer, washing out at age 23.


10. Luis Rivas: #70 in 1997, #55 in 1998, #63 in 1999, #86 in 2000, #93 in 2001

Luis Rivas ranked as a top 100 prospect in five straight seasons, but in the early days of this blog I wrote often about how his actual performance never matched the hype. He never hit well in the minors, yet the Twins made him their starting second baseman at age 21 and stuck with him as a regular for five seasons despite a .262/.307/.383 mark and iffy defense. He played 565 games for the Twins through age 25, but totaled just 83 more games after they finally let him go.


11. Wilson Ramos: #71 in 2009, #58 in 2010, #96 in 2011

While never quite an elite prospect Wilson Ramos typically ranked among the top five catchers and was a good enough prospect for long enough to create questions about how the Twins could make room for him and Mauer in their long-term plans. Ramos was a top 100 prospect three times and debuted with the Twins at age 22, but was traded to the Nationals for Matt Capps later that season. He's still just 25, but looks headed for a lengthy career as an above-average catcher.


12. Glen Perkins: #91 in 2006, #66 in 2007

Glen Perkins starred for the Gophers, made the top 100 twice, and debuted for the Twins two years after they made him a first-round pick. He was billed as a mid-rotation starter and looked the part as a 25-year-old rookie, but then struggled for two seasons as injuries derailed him. Perkins was demoted to the minors at age 27 and returned as a reliever, throwing harder than ever and quickly moving into the closer role.


13. J.D Durbin: #66 in 2004, #70 in 2005

J.D. Durbin threw hard and talked a good game, nicknaming himself "The Real Deal." He debuted in 2004 with all kinds of promise at age 22, but didn't make it back to the majors until 2007 and all that prospect shine had worn off by then. His strikeout rates and overall numbers in the minors never quite matched his hype and once he got to Triple-A poor control further did him in. Last year Durbin spent his 13th season in the minors, compared to 73 total innings in the majors.


14. Deolis Guerra: #35 in 2008

Deolis Guerra is technically still a prospect in that he's only 24 years old and hasn't reached the majors, but between his on-field struggles and recent health problems he's looking like a long shot to have a big-league career. Once upon a time many people felt that Guerra, not Gomez, was the best prospect in the Santana package, but like Gomez he wasn't helped by being rushed through the minors in the Mets' system and has had little success above Single-A.


15. Matthew LeCroy: #44 in 2000

Matthew LeCroy was a first-round pick out of college and crushed minor-league pitching while moving quickly through the Twins' system, debuting as their Opening Day catcher in his third pro season. He struggled offensively and proved to be a liability behind the plate, but after a demotion back to the minors he returned as a good platoon bat versus left-handed pitching at designated hitter, first base, and occasionally catcher.


16. Kevin Slowey: #71 in 2007

Kevin Slowey was an oft-debated prospect because his ridiculously great numbers in the minors didn't match his underwhelming raw stuff. Baseball America tends to skew heavily toward stuff over stats, so the fact that Slowey still made the top 100 shows just how silly his numbers were. He debuted at age 23 after posting a 2.28 ERA and 159-to-31 strikeout-to-walk ratio between Double-A and Triple-A, and split the difference by becoming a decent mid-rotation starter.


17. Ben Revere: #59 in 2009

Ben Revere was viewed as a reach in the first round of the 2007 draft, but started to get some prospect hype after he hit .379 at low Single-A in 2008. That was his only year appearing in the top 100, which isn't surprising considering prospect rankings are all about upside and Revere's complete lack of power and arm strength limited that even in optimistic scenarios. He's more or less become the flawed but useful player his minor-league track record suggested.


18. Jesse Crain: #89 in 2004, #63 in 2005

Jesse Crain was a college reliever and second-round pick who moved quickly through the Twins' system, debuting at age 23 after 162 innings in the minors. While the shape of his performance has changed over the years, Crain was a good setup man immediately and has remained so for a decade with a 3.18 ERA that includes just two seasons above 3.60. Relievers are rarely considered elite prospects, but Crain's career has gone almost exactly as hoped.


19. Matt Moses: #81 in 2004, #75 in 2006

Billed as a "pure hitter" coming out of high school as a first-round pick, Matt Moses got by on that reputation for quite a while before everyone finally realized that he couldn't actually hit. He cracked Baseball America's top 100 twice, peaking at No. 75 on a 2006 list that had Jay Bruce, Dustin Pedroia, and Kendry Morales in the next three spots, but never advanced beyond Double-A and hit just .249/.304/.374 in the minors overall before washing out at age 24.


20. Nick Blackburn: #56 in 2008

I disagreed so much with Baseball America ranking Nick Blackburn as the Twins' top prospect in 2008 that I made a bet with the magazine's editor, John Manuel, that Blackburn wouldn't get 70 career wins. I'm feeling pretty safe about the bet now with Blackburn stuck on 43 wins and his career at a crossroads, although in retrospect he did turn out better than I expected even if 819 innings of a 4.85 ERA is nothing special.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Curt's Salsa, a locally owned salsa company that believes in fresh ingredients and rooting for the little guy. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

April 18, 2012

Twins Notes: Baker, Liriano, Perkins, Sano, Willingham, and Casilla

• As expected Scott Baker underwent surgery yesterday to repair the flexor pronator tendon in his elbow, but while he was under the knife Dr. David Altchek discovered ulnar collateral ligament damage and performed Tommy John surgery as well. Apparently the torn UCL didn't show up on the initial MRI exam or last week's follow-up version, so instead of a six-month recovery timetable Baker will likely be out for 12 months.

So in the span of two weeks Baker went from having an MRI exam that the Twins described as "good news" to needing "cleanup" surgery to undergoing Tommy John surgery. I'm of the opinion that there was never any chance of the Twins exercising his $9.25 million option for 2013, but now that isn't even a consideration. And at this point any injured Twins player who doesn't seek a second opinion from someone outside the organization is an idiot.

Francisco Liriano turned in his third straight clunker last night, failing to make it out of the third inning. Through three starts he has an 11.91 ERA and .407 opponents' batting average while throwing 138 strikes and 103 balls. It's become increasingly popular to say that Liriano's struggles are mental and I'm sure there's plenty of truth to that narrative, but it's also worth noting that his raw stuff is simply nowhere near as good as it was in 2010, let alone in 2006.

As a rookie Liriano's average fastball was 94.7 miles per hour and in 2010 it was 93.7 mph, but since the start of last season it's 91.6 mph. It certainly isn't shocking that a one-time power pitcher would lose confidence as his velocity vanishes and his fastball becomes far more hittable. Perhaps it's a chicken-or-egg scenario and there's no doubt that he's failed to make adjustments, but to suggest that his collapse is entirely mental seems way too simplistic.

Glen Perkins hopefully won't follow Baker's progression from optimistic diagnosis to career-altering surgery, but he underwent an MRI exam on his forearm after coughing up the lead Sunday. No structural damage was found and he's avoided the disabled list ... so far. Dating back to his final 20 appearances of last season Perkins has a 5.56 ERA in his last 23 innings, although that includes 24 strikeouts and his velocity hasn't dipped.

Miguel Sano is off to a huge start at low Single-A, homering yesterday for the fifth time in 12 games. Despite being the sixth-youngest player in the entire Midwest League and not turning 19 years old until next month Sano is hitting .256/.408/.692 and has already drawn nine walks after a total of just 23 walks in 66 games last season. Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus recently got a first-hand look at Sano and came away very impressed.

Baseball Prospectus subscribers can read the full scouting report, but the short version is that Goldstein was surprised by the vastly improved patience Sano showed at the plate and was awed by the exceptional power as "his bat goes through the zone violently with plenty of explosion from his mid-section and hips." Goldstein even described Sano's defense at third base as better than expected, although that meant "merely bad" instead of "laughably awful."

Josh Willingham, like Sano, also hit his fifth homer yesterday, taking over the AL lead and joining Kirby Puckett in 1987, Kent Hrbek in 1982, and Bobby Darwin in 1972 as the only Twins hitters with five homers through the first 11 games of a season. So far at least the Willingham signing looks every bit as good as it did at the time, although as a left fielder he makes a good designated hitter.

Alexi Casilla is off to another slow start, which is an annual tradition at this point, and while looking over his career numbers with the Twins this comparison to a similarly disappointing middle infielder popped into my head:

                         G      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     SB
Casilla with Twins     418     .251     .309     .336     .645     51
Player X with Twins    565     .262     .307     .383     .690     78

Longtime readers of AG.com may recognize "Player X" as Luis Rivas, who was without question the player who received the most criticism during the first four years of this blog's existence. Rivas was released by the Twins at age 25 and was out of the majors for good at age 28, which is how old Casilla will be in two months. It's time to stop treating him like some sort of prospect with impressive upside.

Trevor Plouffe has now committed 13 errors in 465 innings as a big-league shortstop, which is the equivalent of around 40 errors per full season and a startling number for someone who was a shortstop for 680 games in the minors. That includes 242 games as a Triple-A shortstop, during which time Plouffe made 47 errors. In other words, at this point Plouffe is a shortstop like Michael Cuddyer was a second baseman. He needs to start mashing left-handers.

• Last season Twins pitchers ranked dead last among MLB teams in strikeouts by a wide margin and they're back in 30th place again this season with just 54 strikeouts through 11 games. By comparison, Nationals pitchers lead baseball with 117 strikeouts in 12 games. And not surprisingly the combination of the fewest strikeouts in baseball and a sub par defense has added up to MLB's fourth-worst ERA.

• In addition to his hitting .293/.383/.415 through 11 games another positive sign for Joe Mauer is that he stole a base Monday night after a grand total of one steal in 219 games during the past two seasons. On the other hand nearly 60 percent of his balls in play have been on the ground, which is a disturbingly high total even considering he's always been a ground-ball hitter.

• Mauer isn't alone in his worm-killing, as Twins hitters collectively lead baseball with a ground-ball rate of 55.1 percent. No other team is above 51.6 percent and only two other teams are above 50 percent. And because it's really hard to hit a ground ball over the fence everyone not named Willingham has combined for four homers in 358 plate appearances.

Matthew Bashore, the 2009 first-round pick who was released by the Twins last month after injuries derailed his career, has signed with the Yankees.

"Gleeman and The Geek" made its radio debut this week with 70 minutes of non-stop Twins talk, so give it a listen if you haven't already. We'll be live on KFAN again Sunday at 4:00.

This week's blog content is sponsored by PickPointz, where you can make predictions, pick games, and win prizes for free. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

September 26, 2011

Why can’t the Twins find any infielders who can hit?

One of the constants throughout my 10 seasons of blogging about the Twins is their inability to develop or acquire middle infielders who can hit. I started blogging in 2002, when the Twins hadn't been to the postseason in a decade, Ron Gardenhire was a rookie manager, and the double-play duo was Cristian Guzman and Luis Rivas. In the 10 years since then they've had 10 different players start at least 100 games at shortstop or second base:

                      G      OPS
Nick Punto          430     .652
Cristian Guzman     423     .684
Luis Rivas          359     .686
Alexi Casilla       335     .643
Jason Bartlett      301     .706
Luis Castillo       227     .720
Brendan Harris      160     .666
Orlando Hudson      124     .712
Juan Castro         117     .599
Matt Tolbert        113     .570

Yuck.

During that 10-season span the average American League middle infielder has posted a .730 OPS, yet all 10 of the middle infielders to start at least 100 games for the Twins posted an OPS below .730. In fact, each of the Twins' four most-used middle infielders had an OPS below .690 and the 10-player group combined for a .670 OPS that's 60 points below the league average, with the high-water mark being Luis Castillo's mediocre .720 OPS from 2006 to mid-2007.

Here's how Twins shortstops have ranked in OPS for the 14-team league each year:

YEAR     RANK     SHORTSTOPS
2002     12th     Guzman, Hocking
2003      8th     Guzman, Hocking, Gomez
2004     11th     Guzman, Punto
2005     14th     Bartlett, Castro, Punto
2006      8th     Bartlett, Castro, Punto
2007     10th     Bartlett, Punto
2008     12th     Punto, Harris, Everett
2009      9th     Cabrera, Punto, Harris
2010      6th     Hardy, Punto, Casilla
2011     13th     Nishioka, Casilla, Plouffe, Tolbert

On average during the past 10 seasons Twins shortstops have ranked 10th among AL teams in OPS and the only time they've finished higher than the middle of the pack was last season, when J.J. Hardy's decent .714 OPS helped them rise to sixth and they immediately jettisoned him. Twins shortstops have been above average offensively once in 10 years and even then it was just barely, whereas they've been 10th or worse six times and 12th or worse four times.

And now here's the same list, but with Twins second basemen:

YEAR     RANK     SECOND BASEMEN
2002      9th     Rivas, Hocking, Canizaro
2003     12th     Rivas, Hocking, Gomez
2004      7th     Rivas, Cuddyer
2005     12th     Punto, Rivas, Rodriguez, Boone
2006      9th     Castillo, Punto
2007     13th     Castillo, Casilla, Punto
2008     10th     Casilla, Harris, Punto
2009     14th     Casilla, Punto, Tolbert
2010      9th     Hudson, Casilla, Tolbert
2011     13th     Casilla, Hughes, Tolbert, Cuddyer

Believe it or not the Twins' second basemen have actually been slightly worse than the woeful shortstops, ranking 11th among AL teams in OPS on average during the past 10 seasons and never placing higher than seventh. In those 10 years they've been ninth or worse nine times and 12th or worse five times. And this year both the Twins' shortstops and second basemen are second-to-last among AL teams in OPS.

It's also worth noting that they haven't been any better at finding productive third basemen, at least since Corey Koskie left as a free agent. Koskie was the Twins' starting third baseman from 2000-2004 and on average during those five seasons their OPS at third base ranked fifth in the league. Koskie signed with the Blue Jays after the 2004 season and since then here's how Twins third basemen have ranked in OPS among AL teams:

YEAR     RANK     THIRD BASEMEN
2005     10th     Cuddyer, Rodriguez, Tiffee, Castro
2006     13th     Punto, Batista, Rodriguez
2007     14th     Punto, Rodriguez, Buscher
2008     11th     Buscher, Lamb, Harris
2009     11th     Crede, Harris, Buscher, Tolbert
2010     10th     Valencia, Punto, Tolbert
2011      9th     Valencia, Hughes

Actually that's even uglier than the middle-infield picture. This year is the first time since Koskie left that Twins third basemen have ranked better than 10th in the league in OPS and they're still below average in ninth place. Koskie started 762 total games at third base for the Twins, producing an .839 OPS. In the seven seasons since his departure they've started six different players at least 75 times at third base and none of them have cracked a .750 OPS:

                      G      OPS
Nick Punto          246     .653
Danny Valencia      222     .724
Michael Cuddyer     107     .741
Brian Buscher       106     .702
Brendan Harris       86     .688
Joe Crede            84     .729

If you combine their shortstops from 2002-2011, second basemen from 2002-2011, and third basemen from 2005-2011 that's 27 total years of infielders. And in those 27 positional years the Twins have had an above average OPS twice (shortstops in 2010 and second basemen in 2004) and have never finished higher than sixth in the league while ranking 10th or worse 18 times. All of which is a very long way of saying they can't find any infielders who can hit.

As for why they can't find any infielders who can hit ... well, there are a few theories that seem to make sense. First and foremost is that the Twins clearly focus on speed and defense more than most teams. Whether they do so successfully is up for debate, but when Nick Punto has the team's most middle-infield starts since 2002 and most third base starts since 2005 glove work and running fast are obviously priorities.

There are some exceptions, of course, particularly at third base, but even in the cases where the Twins attempted to sacrifice defense for offense they did so with non-sluggers. Third base has long been a power-hitting position and during the past 15-20 years more and more teams have viewed second base and to a lesser extent shortstop as a spot for guys with the power for 20-plus homers, but the Twins have never really come around to that approach.

Their shortstops and second basemen have almost always been diminutive players with a low strikeout rate, above-average speed, and below-average power, and that skill set rarely adds up to strong offensive production. They've been more willing to stray from that player type at third base in guys like Tony Batista, Mike Lamb, Joe Crede, Brian Buscher, Brendan Harris, and now Danny Valencia, but in none of those cases was there upside beyond solid regular.

As a tall, slow shortstop with 25-homer power Hardy is perhaps the most obvious example of the Twins going against their usual infield focus and not surprisingly they tired of him after just one year despite the highest OPS by a Twins shortstop since Guzman in 2001. Hardy's injuries were a big factor, but so was Gardenhire's desire to add speed to the infield. And now Hardy has 30 homers and an .800 OPS for the Orioles while Twins shortstops are back to not hitting.

Hardy and his .750 career OPS were sent packing because of injuries and lack of speed, while Valencia and his .735 career OPS are entrenched in the doghouse because of shaky defense and a general lack of awareness. Valencia is hardly a long-term building block, but he's a solid all-around player with a better bat than most Twins third basemen since Koskie and has plenty of value while earning the minimum salary.

It'll be interesting to see if the Twins ditch Valencia a year after ditching Hardy because neither player fits the organization's preferred infield mold and there's little indication they've realized how ineffective that mold is at finding competent hitters. Trevor Plouffe might be another test case, because in addition to possessing 20-homer power he's bigger, slower, and considerably less reliable defensively than the Twins like.

Trading away Hardy and replacing him with Tsuyoshi Nishioka showed a discouraging inability to properly evaluate those two players, but it also speaks to an overall approach to acquiring and developing infielders that's resulted in a decade of consistently awful offensive production from second base, shortstop, and third base. It's long past time to find infielders who can hit, but it remains to be seen if the Twins are capable of learning from mistakes and adapting.

August 29, 2011

Twins Notes: Waivers, trades, types, reinforcements, and Bernardo Brito

• Cleveland claimed Jim Thome off revocable waivers to facilitate last week's trade, but Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com reports that the Indians were also the team that claimed Jason Kubel. No deal was struck and the Twins pulled Kubel back off waivers, in part because their asking price for him was much higher than for Thome and in part because the Indians ceased needing a left-handed bat after acquiring Thome.

Ron Gardenhire revealed during his weekly radio show that Thome and his agent asked the Twins to place him on waivers "to see what happened." There's speculation that Thome ideally wanted to land back in Philadelphia, where a playoff appearance is guaranteed, but he would have been merely a pinch-hitter for the Phillies. Cleveland's playoff hopes are slim, but Thome is playing every day for the Indians and homered Saturday on his 41st birthday.

Joe Nathan explained that he "would consider" waiving his no-trade clause for a Thome-like trade to a contender, but his contract complicates things. He's owed around $2 million for the rest of this season and has a $12.5 million option or $2.5 million buyout for 2012. To get even a mid-level prospect in return for Nathan the Twins would presumably have to eat nearly that entire $4.5 million and any move would have to be made by Wednesday.

Michael Cuddyer moving to first base has helped the Twins during Justin Morneau's lengthy absences, but it also appears to have hurt his free agent ranking. MLB and Elias Sports Bureau keep their official rankings secret until the offseason, but MLB Trade Rumors reverse-engineers the data and posts frequent updates. Cuddyer was projected as a Type A free agent until last week, when his listed position changed from outfield to first base and he dropped to Type B.

• Based on MLB Trade Rumors' latest projection Cuddyer and Kubel are both slightly below the Type A cutoff, but a lot can still change. It's an important distinction in terms of compensation the Twins would receive if they sign elsewhere, but also in terms of how many teams figure to pursue them. Carl Pavano was an example of Type A status hurting a free agent's market, as many potentially interested teams didn't want to forfeit a first-round pick to sign him.

• There are seven AL pitchers who qualify for the ERA title with an opponents' batting average above .290 and the Twins have three of them (Pavano, Brian Duensing, and Nick Blackburn). In throwing 181 innings this season Pavano has allowed the most runs (103), hits (214), and baserunners (264) among AL pitchers and also has the league's second-lowest strikeout rate at 3.98 per nine innings. He'll be 36 years old next season and is owed $8.5 million.

Scott Diamond coughed up 10 hits in Friday's spot start versus the Tigers, becoming the fifth Twins pitcher to allow double-digit hits in a game this year. Diamond, Duensing, and Francisco Liriano have done it once apiece, Pavano has done it four times, and Blackburn has done it seven times in 26 total starts. Overall a Twins pitcher has allowed double-digit hits 14 times, which leads MLB. Not coincidentally their rotation has MLB's third-lowest strikeout rate.

• So far the Twins have used 16 players who weren't on the Opening Day roster and the only one of those 16 call-ups with an OPS or ERA better than league average is Anthony Swarzak. Seven are hitters and they've combined for 20 percent of the lineup's playing time while hitting .232/.281/.323 in 1,018 plate appearances. Nine are pitchers and they've logged 18 percent of the staff's batters faced while posting a 4.57 ERA in 187 innings (5.09 ERA without Swarzak).

Trevor Plouffe air-mailed a throw to first base over the weekend, but for the most part he's looked much improved at shortstop while subbing for the injured Tsuyoshi Nishioka. However, the destruction of Triple-A pitching that got him recalled to Minnesota hasn't shown up yet, as Plouffe has batted just .250/.293/.411 with an ugly 30-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 34 games since rejoining the Twins in mid-July.

Ben Revere swiped his 25th base yesterday, moving into second place on the Twins' all-time list for rookies. That sounds impressive, except the person atop the leaderboard is Luis Rivas, who stole 31 bases as a rookie in 2001. Not only did Rivas bat just .266/.319/.362 in stealing those 31 bases, he went on to steal a grand total of just 48 bases in his next 479 games. Of course, even .266/.319/.362 is quite a bit better than Revere's current .255/.301/.294 mark.

Luke Hughes went deep twice yesterday in his 73rd career game, becoming the first Twins hitter with multiple homers in one of his first 75 games since Morneau and Joe Mauer both did it in 2004. Before then the last Twins to do that were Corey Koskie in 1999 and Ron Coomer in 1996. Oh, and Bernardo Brito in 1993. Brito, who spent seven years at Triple-A for the Twins and totaled 164 homers there, managed just five homers in the majors.

• Mauer came off the disabled list on June 17. Since then he's played 61 games and Cuddyer has played 55 games. Since the All-Star break Mauer leads the Twins in batting average (.320) and on-base percentage (.380) while playing more games than anyone but Revere and Danny Valencia. Not everything must fit the pre-established narrative. Speaking of which, this is one of the rare times when Patrick Reusse and I are in complete agreement.

Dr. David Altcheck, who performed Tommy John elbow surgery on Nathan in March of 2010, provided a second opinion on Kyle Gibson's partially torn elbow ligament and agreed with the Twins' recommendation that he attempt to rest and rehab the injury before going under the knife. Gibson will miss all of 2012 whether he undergoes surgery now or in two months, so the delayed decision won't necessarily impact his return timetable much.

• Gardenhire finished ninth in a Sports Illustrated poll asking players which manager they'd like to play for, with Joe Maddon of the Rays holding the top spot at 14 percent.

• One big Thome is back in Cleveland, but 10,000 little Thomes are still in Minnesota.

Charley Walters wrote the most St. Paul article in the history of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

• Old friend Pat Neshek learned the hard way that there's a considerable difference between "designated for assignment" and "optioned."

Delmon Young has zero walks in 58 plate appearances since being traded to the Tigers.

• Since the All-Star break the Twins are hitting .247 with a .305 on-base percentage and .366 slugging percentage compared to their opponents hitting .297 with a .353 on-base percentage and .467 slugging percentage.

• Overall this year the Twins have been out-scored by 144 runs for the worst run differential in the league and the second-worst mark in baseball ahead of only the Astros at -157. Last year the Twins out-scored their opponents by 110 runs.

• Dating back to 2010 and including the playoffs, the Twins are 58-88 in their last 146 games.

• Here's how the race for the top draft picks in 2012 looks:

              W      L       GB
Astros       44     90     ----
Orioles      53     78     10.5
Royals       55     79     11.0
TWINS        56     77     12.5
Mariners     56     76     13.0
Cubs         57     77     13.0

They may have to call up Mark Madsen to shoot some three-pointers in late September.

Help support this site's free content and advertise your product, service, local business, or website directly to thousands of people each day by becoming an AG.com "Sponsor of the Week."

Older Posts »