July 29, 2010

Twins Notes: Valencia, Mauer, Young, Harris, and Rumors

• Beating up on the cellar-dwelling Orioles and Royals tends to make teams look good, but the Twins have won 10 of 14 to go from 4.5 games behind the White Sox to just one game back despite playing that entire stretch minus Justin Morneau. Even without the AL's second-best hitter for the past 18 games the Twins now lead the league in batting average, rank second in on-base percentage, and are two runs from trailing only the Yankees and Red Sox in scoring.

Danny Valencia went 0-for-3 with a walk yesterday to snap an amazing hot streak that saw him go 14-for-19 (.737) during a four-game stretch. Phil Mackey of 1500ESPN.com looked it up and since 1993 the only players to rack up more than 14 hits in four games are Johnny Damon (2000), Mike Benjamin (1995), and Brett Butler (1995). Valencia is now hitting .387/.441/.495 in 30 games overall after batting just .292/.347/.387 in 49 games at Triple-A before his call-up.

Obviously he'll be coming back down to earth soon enough and if you look beyond the flukishly high batting average he hasn't shown much pop with one homer and a .108 Isolated Power in 93 at-bats, but his 12-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio is a positive sign after Valencia struck out 71 times versus 22 walks at Triple-A and his defense has been far better than I expected based on the not-so-positive reviews the Twins put out there last season and this spring.

• As noted previously in this space, I've heard rumblings for much of the season regarding Joe Mauer being more hurt (and with a wider variety of injuries) than he's let on publicly, so it was interesting to read one of my favorite writers, Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, tackle the topic in a column yesterday. Passan predictably wasn't able to get Mauer or anyone else to definitively comment on specific injuries, but it's pretty clear that he's very banged up physically.

Despite that Mauer went 9-for-13 (.692) with a home run and four doubles in the three-game sweep of the Royals, including 5-for-5 with seven RBIs in Monday's slaughtering. He passed up a chance for a sixth hit in the eighth inning, amusingly telling Ron Gardenhire "no, I'm good." It was the fourth five-hit game of his career, which ties Victor Martinez for the second-most of all time by a catcher. Hall of Famer Ernie Lombardi holds the record with six five-hit games.

Mauer is now 21-for-52 (.404) with two homers, nine doubles, and 17 RBIs in a dozen games to begin the second half. He's nowhere near last year's MVP-winning numbers, but duplicating that historic performance was never likely anyway and his current .310/.377/.465 line is more or less identical to his pre-2009 career mark of .317/.399/.457. In fact, it may be slightly better if you factor in the move to pitcher-friendly Target Field and scoring being down across MLB.

• Delmon Young is crushing the ball and Matt Garza tossed a no-hitter Monday night against the Tigers, so the 2007 trade that sent Garza, Jason Bartlett, and Eduardo Morlan to Tampa Bay for Young, Brendan Harris, and Jason Pridie is suddenly a very popular topic again. Twins fans who're rightfully excited about Young's breakout won't want to hear it, but the Rays are still clearly in the lead based on Wins Above Replacement since the November 28, 2007 deal:

TWINS                WAR          RAYS                 WAR
Delmon Young        +0.6          Matt Garza          +7.6
Brendan Harris      +0.2          Jason Bartlett      +7.0
Jason Pridie        -0.3          Eduardo Morlan       0.0
TOTAL               +0.5          TOTAL              +14.6

To put those numbers into some context, Mauer as been worth 5.8 WAR per 150 games. So in terms of production and value received from the trade, the Rays have an edge of basically 2.5 seasons from Mauer. At the moment the trade looks far less horrible for the Twins than it did in 2008 and 2009, but Young playing well for four months doesn't wipe away his playing terribly for the previous two years or Garza and Bartlett both being huge contributors for the Rays.

Since the trade Garza has 516 innings with a 3.89 ERA, which is better than any Twins starter in that time, and Bartlett has a .761 OPS that's close to the .780 OPS from Young even without factoring in the huge defense/position gap. I'm thrilled that Young has figured things out and the deal is starting to lean in the Twins' favor, but let's not get crazy with the hyperbole. Can't we recognize his emergence without re-writing history and going completely over the top?

• Speaking of Harris, he's hit just .238/.273/.386 with a hideous 23-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 27 games at Rochester since being dropped off the 40-man roster, passed through waivers unclaimed, and demoted to Triple-A. He's making $1.45 million this year and is still owed $1.75 million for 2011, so a return to Minnesota remains very possible at some point, but he's looking more and more like a washed-up sunk cost. I'll never understand why he got a multi-year deal.

• Earlier this week I wrote about the negative impact outfield defense has had on the Twins' pitching staff and Adam Peterson of Twinkie Town did some serious numbers-crunching to find that my analysis "appears to be correct." He goes into a whole lot more depth than that, so if you're into learning about the pitching-defense relationship his work is worth checking out. Of course, if Jason Repko continues to start regularly in right field that changes things quite a bit.

• There is sure to be all kinds of Twins-related trade speculation between now and Saturday's deadline. I've never really filled AG.com with rumor-collecting and don't plan to start now, but I will be tracking the pre-deadline rumors for the Twins and every other team at Hardball Talk, where I've been writing an average of 15 posts per day. And, of course, if the Twins actually make a move before Saturday afternoon I'll have a full write-up here.

June 21, 2010

The new and improved Delmon Young

I come to praise Delmon, not bury him.

- William Shakespeare (if he was a Twins fan)

In the fall of 2007 the Twins acquired Delmon Young, Brendan Harris, and Jason Pridie from the Rays for Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, and Eduardo Morlan. I wasn't a fan of the trade, in part because I felt Young was an overrated prospect and in part because I felt the Twins were selling unnecessarily low on Garza and Bartlett. Three years later I still believe those things to be true, and for the first two years the trade looked worse and worse for the Twins.

Young batted just .288/.325/.413 with an ugly 197-to-47 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 260 games through his first two seasons in Minnesota, which along with horrible defense made him one of the worst regulars in baseball. While he was being disappointing on nearly every level, Garza logged 388 innings with a 3.87 ERA and Bartlett hit .306/.361/.429 in 265 games as the Rays had the first two winning seasons in franchise history and advanced to the World Series.

In terms of value gained from the trade it was a blowout in the Rays' favor after two seasons and the scale may never swing all the way back to the Twins' side, but this season for the first time the gap isn't widening. And it's not because Garza has turned into a bum (his ERA is 4.16) or the Twins are getting value from the other two guys in the deal (Harris is hitting .157, Pridie is at Triple-A for the Mets). No, it's because for the first time Delmon Young is playing well.

After starting slowly for the third straight year Young has been on fire for the past month and is now hitting .307/.345/.502 in 61 games for the sixth-best OPS among AL corner outfielders. He's still not walking much, but after two frustrating seasons of flailing away at breaking balls and grounding out weakly to second base or blooping singles into right field on fastballs Young is finally making the solid, damage-creating contact that was supposed to be his calling card.

Even better, after losing 30 pounds during the offseason Young's defense in left field has gone from horrible to merely poor, with the occasional flashes of good mixed in with the still-present penchant for cringe-inducing awkwardness. He certainly hasn't turned into the second coming of Frank Robinson or Albert Belle that so many comparisons at the time of the deal laughably suggested, but he has turned into the guy the Twins thought they were getting in 2007.

How has he done it? Well, first let's look at some of the basic components of his performance:

              BB%      SO%     K/BB      GB%      FB%      LD%     ISOP
2008-2009     4.5     19.0     4.19     53.0     30.2     16.7     .125
This Year     6.2     11.2     1.64     45.7     37.2     17.0     .195

Not only is Young walking 38 percent more and striking out 41 percent less compared to those disappointing first two years in Minnesota, he's hitting the ball on the ground 14 percent less. In other words, his approach at the plate has improved dramatically and the type of balls he's putting in play have gotten much better as well. He's putting together much better at-bats and giving himself a chance to actually for hit for power by getting the ball in the air.

Young has eight homers in 61 games, which puts him on pace to shatter his career-high of 13, but the actual percentage of his fly balls that have gone over the fence hasn't really changed. Last season 11.4 percent of his fly balls were homers and this year 11.4 percent of his fly balls have been homers. The big difference isn't that he's suddenly crushing longer fly balls, it's that he's simply hitting more of them. Young's fly-ball rate is up 23 percent compared to 2008/2009.

When the Twins traded for Young the widely held assumption was that he'd hit for big power because he's a big guy and that's what the glowing scouting reports from his high school and Single-A days said, but grounders never turn into homers and guys who're among the league leaders in ground balls never turn into power hitters. Young still isn't putting the ball in the air nearly as much as the game's best sluggers, but he's now doing it enough to inflict damage.

How is he walking more, whiffing less, and hitting the ball in the air? Here are his swing stats:

              ZONE     SWNG     CONT     Z-SW     Z-CN     O-SW     O-CN
2008-2009     50.2     59.6     75.8     80.3     85.4     38.7     55.6
This Year     47.9     57.8     83.6     78.7     90.3     38.7     71.0

Based on the improved strikeout and walk rates you'd think he's been swinging at fewer balls outside the strike zone, but that's not actually the case. He's swinging at essentially the same number of pitches as 2008/2009, including nearly identical rates on pitches inside and outside the strike zone, but the difference is that he's making contact significantly more often on both types of offerings.

The biggest change is that Young has made contact 28 percent more often swinging at pitches outside the strike zone. He's still hacking at more pitches than anyone in the league except Vladimir Guerrero and still chases non-strikes as much as before, but this year he's actually hitting those pitches. I'm not sure whether that can be chalked up to randomness or a change in approach--or whether it's a sustainable improvement either way--but the difference is huge.

Breaking the pitches and swings down even further, here are his results by pitch type:

               FB%     FB100      CH%     CH100      SL%     SL100
2008-2009     53.6     -0.36     10.3     +0.25     19.8     -1.35
This Year     56.4     +0.23     10.6     +4.02     17.0     +1.07

Young has never been a great fastball hitter, but he's been better against the pitch this year, generating 0.23 runs above average per 100 fastballs (FB100) after previously being sub par. He's also gone from decent to amazing versus changeups (CH100) and from awful to strong on sliders (SL100). Not shown above is that he continues to struggle against curveballs, which makes drawing any strong conclusions from the pitch-type data even more difficult than usual.

Observationally, the biggest change on a pitch-type basis has been his ability to lay off sliders outside the strike zone late in counts, which is something that really dragged him down in the past. For the most part the numbers back that up with his non-strike contact rate and overall success on sliders. Of course, that he's still hacking at just as many non-strikes muddies those waters, although perhaps Young keeps swinging early but now has more late-count discipline.

Interestingly, while Young has improved across the board his batting average on balls in play is a career-low .308 after he had a .338 mark in 2008/2009. That may very well be due more to randomness than anything else, but it could also be due to the same change in approach that has led to more fly balls and fewer ground balls. In fact, that has almost certainly played a part because in general ground balls go for hits more often than fly balls.

Basically, he's been less effective getting bloopers to drop in and choppers to get through the infield, which is certainly a tradeoff worth taking for more pop. It may also suggest that Young has actually been somewhat unlucky this season--particularly since after losing 30 pounds and getting noticeably faster it should be easier to leg out infield singles--in which case even if his high contact rate on non-strikes declines a bit his overall performance may not suffer a ton.

The top five items on my wish-list for Young likely would've been fewer strikeouts and ground balls, more walks and fly balls, and better range on defense. He's improved all five areas and the result is a far better player who has gone from liability to strength. He deserves credit for getting into shape and hitting coach Joe Vavra deserves credit for altering his approach and stance. Now hopefully he can keep it going and, at age 24, perhaps even build on those gains.

I come to praise Delmon, not bury him.

- William Shakespeare, if he was a Twins fan.

« Newer Posts