August 16, 2010

Kevin Slowey and the no-hitter that was never going to happen

Kevin Slowey was brilliant yesterday, no-hitting the A's through seven innings, and many fans at Target Field booed when he didn't come out for the eighth inning. And then they booed far louder when Jon Rauch allowed a one-out hit on the way to giving up two runs. However, it was absolutely the right call by Ron Gardenhire. Sure, he could have left Slowey in to start the eighth, but between his pitch count and elbow issues a no-hitter just wasn't going to happen.

Slowey had his last start skipped due to elbow soreness and was slated to be on a relatively short leash yesterday. Those plans obviously changed somewhat when he failed to allow a hit through seven shutout innings, but Slowey was already at 106 pitches with six outs left to go. Under normal circumstances I'm sure the Twins would have given Slowey every opportunity to make history, but those weren't normal circumstances.

He's averaged 16.3 pitches per inning this year, including 15.1 pitches per inning yesterday, so realistically it likely would've taken at least 130 pitches to finish the no-hitter. His career-high is 114 pitches and he's thrown more than 106 pitches just seven times in 76 starts, so allowing Slowey to throw 20-30 more pitches than ever before just days after elbow soreness kept him from taking his turn in the rotation would've been something between silly and irresponsible.

And for what, exactly? No-hitters are great and I certainly don't blame anyone at Target Field for wanting to witness one in person, but there have been five (or six) no-hitters already this season and a total of 268 in baseball history. Allowing someone who missed his last start with elbow problems to go well beyond his previous career-high pitch count in an effort to get the six outs still needed to become No. 269 hardly seems worth any kind of risk.

When the best-case scenario is a 130-pitch no-hitter from a 26-year-old pitcher with a tender elbow that's a pretty underwhelming best case and with two innings remaining the odds were still against Slowey actually completing the no-hitter. Leave him in and there's a strong chance he ends up allowing a hit on, say, his 127th pitch, in which case the Twins would've gone from risking his health for a minimal reward to risking his health for zero reward.

All of which is more or less exactly how Gardenhire explained his through process afterward:

I would boo too. I mean, I was booing myself. But I also know what's right, and that's why I [pulled him]. I wanted to see a no-hitter myself, but I also know I'm responsible for this young man's arm. You just can't risk a guy's career. I'm not going to do it. Slowey is coming off an elbow injury and we're not about to even come close to risking this guy.

I'm not going to let him throw 125, 130 pitches. It's just not going to happen. If he went back out for one more inning, he'd probably be up around 115, 120, and he'd be done anyway. There was no way he was going to finish, and we're just not going to risk this young man. He's got too big of a career ahead of him.

Judging by all the hugs and handshakes he was doling out in the dugout between the seventh and eighth innings Slowey wasn't exactly crushed by the decision to pull him, although he did admit afterward: "I don't think it would be possible not to be a little bit disappointed." He also joined Gardenhire in seeing the decision as a smart one in the bigger picture:

More than anything I was encouraged. I was encouraged by the way it was presented to me, I was encouraged by the fact that Gardy and [pitching coach Rick Anderson] care a whole lot more about me as a person and as a pitcher in the long term than they do about winning one game, or having one accomplishment. I think that says a lot about them, and it says a lot about our organization.

Exactly, and I also think that reaction says a lot about Slowey.

August 12, 2010

Joe Mauer on historic doubles pace

Games like last night's aren't much fun to write about, but it seems like forever since I've done anything Twins-related in this space and I'm sure everyone is sick of seeing pictures of me and my fellow nerds as the top entry, so ...

Joe Mauer had two more hits in the loss, making him 39-for-89 (.438) with 17 extra-base hits and 27 RBIs in 22 games since the All-Star break. One of those hits was his 38th double of the year, which ties Mauer for the AL lead with Nick Markakis and puts him on pace to break both the all-time record by a catcher and the Twins' team record. Ivan Rodriguez holds the catcher mark with 47 doubles in 1996:

Ivan Rodriguez      1999     47
Brian McCann        2008     42
Jorge Posada        2007     42
Brian Harper        1990     42
Lance Parrish       1983     42
Terry Kennedy       1982     42
Mickey Cochrane     1930     42

A couple things. First, a Brian Harper sighting! He's the 25th-best player in Twins history for a reason, after all. Second, it seems weird that six different catchers have 42 doubles, but none have 43-46 doubles and only one has more than 42 doubles. Coincidentally, 47 doubles is also the Twins' record:

Justin Morneau      2008     47
Marty Cordova       1996     46
Torii Hunter        2007     45
Chuck Knoblauch     1994     45
Kirby Puckett       1989     45
Zoilo Versalles     1965     45

It's worth noting that Chuck Knoblauch hit 45 doubles in a strike-shortened season. Prorated to a full schedule he'd have 65, which is amazing given that the MLB record is 68 by Earl Webb in 1931. Mauer isn't on quite that pace, but with 38 doubles through 114 games he's on track for 54. In four weeks he's raised his average from .293 to .327 and his OPS from .792 to .886, both of which lead the team now that Justin Morneau no longer qualifies for the batting title.

July 5, 2010

Jimbo and Killer

Jim Thome went deep twice Saturday to tie and then pass Harmon Killebrew for 10th place on the all-time home run list with 574 and as he got back into the dugout following the second blast the Twins played a pre-taped congratulatory video message from Killebrew on the Target Field jumbotron. It was a very nice touch and clearly meant a lot to Thome, who spent the next couple minutes bear-hugging anyone he could find in the dugout.

Thome surpassing Killebrew while wearing a Twins uniform was fitting, although technically the last 14 homers of Killebrew's career came for the Royals (and the first 84 homers of his career came for the Senators). Not only are Thome and Killebrew two of the elite power-and-patience sluggers in baseball history, their career numbers are remarkably similar despite playing in two very different eras and offensive environments:

                  G      PA     AVG     OBP     SLG    OPS+    HR     RBI      BB
Killebrew      2435    9831    .256    .376    .509    143    573    1584    1559
Thome          2340    9619    .277    .404    .557    146    574    1592    1646

Thome edges Killebrew by 21 points in batting average, 28 points in on-base percentage, and 46 points in slugging percentage, but his leads are largely due to playing at a time when runs are far more plentiful. As a whole the league has a .272 batting average and .772 OPS during Thome's career, compared to a .259 batting average and .724 OPS during Killebrew's career. That's a 48-point difference in league OPS and the actual gap between their OPS is 77 points.

All of which is why Thome holds just a slight edge (146 to 143) in adjusted OPS+, which takes eras and ballparks into account. And the rest of the raw numbers are amazingly close. Games: 2,435 to 2,340. Plate appearances: 9,831 to 9,619. Homers: 574 to 573. RBIs: 1,592 to 1,584. Walks: 1,646 to 1,559. Along with Mickey Mantle, Mike Schmidt, and Barry Bonds they are two of just five players ever with 500 homers, 1,500 RBIs, 1,500 walks, and 1,500 strikeouts.

One area where Thome has an edge is that he's having a fantastic season at age 39, whereas Killebrew had his last good season at age 36 and retired after hitting .199 as a 39-year-old for the Royals in 1975. When the Twins signed Thome and talked about him mostly as a bench bat my hope was that Ron Gardenhire would quickly realize he was still far too dangerous against right-handed pitching to not start regularly.

Thome started 18 of the first 31 games before Delmon Young's emergence cut into his playing time, which combined with interleague matchups in NL parks led to just nine starts in the next 44 games. However, since finishing up the interleague portion of the schedule Gardenhire has cleared room in the lineup for both Thome and Young in six of seven games by shifting Michael Cuddyer from right field to third base, where he hadn't played since 2005.

Cuddyer has predictably been pretty brutal there defensively and is hardly hitting well enough to make up for it at the plate, but Gardenhire deserves credit for not simply making Thome an incredibly overqualified pinch-hitter. Thome has hit .266/.391/.594 with 10 homers, 10 doubles, one improbable triple, and 27 walks in 156 plate appearances to rank second on the Twins in OPS behind only Justin Morneau (and 165 points ahead of anyone else).

Not only has Thome been an excellent pickup for the Twins, at just $1.5 million in guaranteed cash plus some incentives he's been one of the very best free agent signings in all of baseball. I loved the signing at the time, I'm pleased that Gardenhire has played Thome more than the initial talk of his role indicated, and after watching him destroy Minnesota pitching for a couple decades it's been an awful lot of fun to see the future Hall of Famer mash for the Twins.

June 30, 2010

Triples!

Thanks to a strange bounce off the side of the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center field Jim Thome tripled Monday for the first time since 2004. Thome went 73 months between triples, during which time he played in 770 games, logged 3,050 plate appearances, hit 179 homers, drove in 508 runs, and notched a total of 643 hits. There were 13 no-hitters between triples for Thome, whose last three-bagger came when Joe Mauer was a rookie and I was in college.

No doubt motivated by watching Thome leg out what must be one of the most leisurely triples of all time, Denard Span amazingly hit three triples in the first five innings last night. He had a chance to set the post-1900 record with a fourth triple, but walked instead to settle for tying Ken Landreaux for the Twins' single-game record, becoming the first player with three triples in a game since Rafael Furcal in 2002, and leading the AL with seven triples on the season.

Better yet, despite a terrible April and several prolonged slumps this year Span is now batting .284/.356/.394, which is within range of his .305/.390/.422 career line coming into the season. Ichiro Suzuki and Elvis Andrus are the only AL hitters with a higher on-base percentage from the leadoff spot this season and since his debut in 2008 the only outfielders with a higher OBP than Span are Manny Ramirez, Shin-Soo Choo, Matt Holliday, J.D. Drew, and Adam Dunn.