September 13, 2010

Twins Notes: Fox, Young, Revere, Blackburn, Santana, and Batgirl

• Yesterday the Royals scored six runs in the top of the first inning against the White Sox and then lost 12-6. Despite that lack of help the Twins hold a six-game lead with 19 games left and this week's series is their final matchup with the White Sox, so most simulations put the Twins at 95-98 percent to win the AL Central. Basically, as long as they avoid being swept in Chicago the biggest question will be whether the Twins play the Yankees or the Rays in the first round.

Matt Fox fared well in his last-minute spot start on September 3, holding one of the AL's top lineups to two runs in 5.2 innings, but the Twins designated him for assignment a couple days later to clear 40-man roster space for Ben Revere. Calling someone up, having them pitch well on short rest and little notice in their MLB debut, and then cutting them loose 72 hours later is obviously not an ideal scenario for anyone involved, but it's important to note Fox's situation.

He wasn't on the 40-man roster to begin with and was only added when a dreadful 13-inning game the previous night left the Twins' pitching staff extremely short-handed. Had that mess of a game never happened (or had the Twins better prepared for it by expanding the roster on September 1) he never would have been in the majors and could have left the organization as a 28-year-old minor-league free agent this offseason anyway.

So instead of remaining at Triple-A to finish the season and then having the right to leave as a free agent Fox got to make a completely unexpected major-league debut and collected an MLB paycheck for a few days. And, as it turned out, Fox impressed the Red Sox enough that they claimed him off waivers, used a 40-man roster spot on him, and now seem likely to keep him in the majors for at least the rest of the month. And all because of that stupid 13-inning game.

• Speaking of unexpected debuts, Revere was certainly surprised that the Twins called him up for the stretch run. Not only wasn't he on the 40-man roster, Revere was initially thought to be out for the year after being hit in the face by a pitch and suffering a fractured orbital bone on August 3. Instead he returned to the Double-A lineup three weeks later, went 13-for-34 (.382) in eight games, and is now in the majors wearing a protective face guard on his helmet.

Albert Lyu of Think Blue Crew used swing zone charts to take an interesting look at Delmon Young, Vladimir Guerrero, and Jeff Francoeur, who are the only hitters in baseball to hack at 60 percent of the pitches thrown to them. Young's swing-at-everything approach was easy to overlook when he was crushing the ball early on this season, but that production has dried up and unfortunately now just the horrible plate discipline remains.

Young has hit .211/.242/.314 in 38 games since August 1, striking out 29 times while drawing just five walks in 158 plate appearances. His batting average is still around .300 and he'll drive in more than 100 runs, so I'm sure some people will call it a great season. However, his .805 OPS isn't very far above the .775 average for corner outfielders and once his terrible defense is factored in Young ranks just 33rd among AL outfielders at 13 runs above replacement level.

The clutch hitting has been very valuable and Young has obviously been much better than he was in 2008 and 2009, but a .328 on-base percentage and .477 slugging percentage from an awful defensive left fielder just isn't all that great. For some context, in his four seasons as a regular Jason Kubel has a .344 on-base percentage and a .477 slugging percentage, topping Young's current OPS by 15 points. And rarely does anyone make a big deal of his production.

• His overall numbers are still ugly and that's not going to change, but Nick Blackburn has a 1.71 ERA while allowing zero homers in four starts since returning from a month-long demotion to Triple-A. Prior to the demotion Blackburn induced 49 percent ground balls while striking out 7.4 percent of the batters he faced. Since the demotion he's at 58 percent grounders and 16.8 percent strikeouts. Also encouraging, he's more than doubled his rate of swinging strikes.

• As expected, Randy Flores has proven to be a horrendous "lefty specialist." He's faced eight left-handed batters since joining the Twins and has recorded one out, giving up six hits and a walk. Overall this season lefties are hitting .298/.385/.509 off Flores and he's apparently been shaking off Joe Mauer while refusing to throw off-speed pitches. Hopefully with Brian Fuentes available and Jose Mijares back after surgery Flores has seen his last high-leverage spot.

Joe Posnanski wrote a fun piece for SI.com ranking the majors' 30 managers by their playing careers and Ron Gardenhire fares a lot better than you'd probably expect from someone who hit .232/.277/.296 in 285 games for the Mets in the early 1980s. I won't spoil the whole article, because as usual with Posnanski it's really good and really lengthy, but fewer than one-third of current managers could reasonably be described as good major-league players.

• Gardenhire wasn't much of a player, but as a manager he's on an historic pace for ejections. During the aforementioned 13-inning nightmare Gardenhire was tossed for the 51st time in his nine seasons as Twins skipper, which works out to 3.6 percent of his career games managed. Bobby Cox is the all-time ejections leader and has been booted from 3.5 percent of his games.

Johan Santana will miss the rest of this year and possibly much of 2011 following shoulder surgery. That doesn't make the Twins' haul from the Mets any better, but it does reinforce that handing out the long-term deal likely needed to keep Santana in Minnesota would have been a mistake. His performance hasn't been the problem, with a 2.85 ERA for the Mets after a 3.11 ERA in 175 starts for the Twins, but now his future is murky and he's still owed $77.5 million.

• Last year the Twins sent a fairly underwhelming set of prospects to the Arizona Fall League, but this year's group of seven players is pretty strong: Revere, David Bromberg, Joe Benson, Kyle Waldrop, Chris Parmelee, Carlos Gutierrez, and Tyler Robertson. In my annual ranking of the Twins' top 40 prospects six of those guys made the list (and cracked the top 20) coming into this season and all seven will definitely be among the top 40 for 2011.

• According to Jim Callis at Baseball America the Twins are one of nine teams to hand out less than the MLB-recommend "slot" signing bonus amounts to draft picks this year, spending the fifth-least money relative to the suggested numbers. While not uncommon for the Twins, that's a definite change from last year when they went over "slot" to sign Kyle Gibson after he fell to them with the No. 22 pick despite once being a consensus top-10 prospect.

• Something to think about next time an announcer claims "doing the little things" is the key to the Twins' success: Matt Klaassen of Fan Graphs points out that of the nearly 3,000 bunts and bunt attempts across MLB this year just 27 percent have actually increased the bunting team's Win Probability Added. Most of the time, giving up an out is just a bad idea.

• Random stat: Matt Capps has thrown 78.3 percent fastballs this season, which is the fourth-highest rate among all pitchers with at least 60 innings.

• Last week Wilson Ramos hit his first career homer off R.A. Dickey while behind the plate for a Livan Hernandez start. The game was played in some sort of Twins bizarro world.

• If you remain on the fence about joining Twitter despite my obsessive involvement, perhaps this will push you over the edge: Batgirl is now tweeting.

August 26, 2010

Twins go in search of left-handed specialist, settle for Randy Flores

In their search for a left-handed reliever to fill the bullpen void created by injuries to both Jose Mijares and Ron Mahay the Twins claimed Randy Flores off waivers from the Rockies. At first glance Flores may appear to be a perfect fit because he's a 34-year-old veteran who posted a nice-looking 2.96 ERA in 27 innings for the Rockies, but the problem is that he simply isn't very good or even especially effective at getting out left-handed hitters.

Flores has a 4.53 ERA and 4.42 xFIP in 336 career relief outings, walking 3.8 batters per nine innings while allowing opponents to hit .285/.359/.442. Righties have clobbered Flores to the tune of .306/.383/.467 and lefties have hit .266/.337/.428 off him. To put that in context, the MLB average for a left-handed hitter is .260/.334/.409 and that includes facing both lefties and righties. In other words, for his career lefties are better against Flores than they are overall.

Actually improving the performance of left-handed hitters isn't exactly what teams are looking for in a supposed "left-handed specialist" and he's been particularly ineffective versus lefties in recent years. Including this season's 27 innings for the Rockies he's thrown 120 total innings since 2007 and during that time left-handed hitters have produced a .290 batting average and .470 slugging percentage off Flores. This year lefties are slugging .460 off him.

Devoting a roster spot to a left-handed specialist who faces one or two batters per game and tailoring your late-inning decisions to get him into matchups with left-handed batters can make sense when that pitcher is dominant in the role, but Flores isn't even effective enough versus left-handed hitters to be a clearly superior option against them than the various right-handers in the Twins' bullpen.

In the grand scheme of things a left-handed specialist is unlikely to have a very big impact and because the workload for the role is so limited Flores almost surely won't throw more than 10 innings down the stretch, so anything can happen. However, because Ron Gardenhire clearly felt the need to have "a lefty" in the bullpen the Twins focused on handedness over ability and in doing so added someone who's an iffy fit for the role and simply not a very good pitcher.