May 21, 2015

Tommy Milone is dominating at Triple-A, but does it matter?

Tommy Milone Twins

For the second season in a row Tommy Milone got demoted to Triple-A despite being at an age, experience, and performance level where players rarely get sent to the minors. Last season he had a 3.55 ERA through 16 starts in early July when the A's demoted him to Triple-A and later traded Milone to the Twins for Sam Fuld. This season the demotion to Triple-A came after four starts, as the Twins bumped him from the rotation for Trevor May despite a $2.8 million salary.

Milone is 28 years old with a 4.02 ERA in 513 innings as a major leaguer. His raw numbers have been helped by calling Oakland's pitcher-friendly ballpark home for most of that time, but Milone has proven to be a useful back-of-the-rotation starter and certainly deserves to be in the majors. However, the A's last year and the Twins this year found themselves with a rotation logjam and Milone's lack of velocity and upside helped him draw the short straw.

Last year Milone pitched poorly following his demotion to Triple-A, but this time around he's been ridiculously good. In three starts for Rochester he's 3-0 with a 0.00 ERA, throwing 23 consecutive scoreless innings. That includes back-to-back starts in which he threw eight shutout innings with 12 strikeouts and zero walks on May 13 and threw a complete-game shutout with 13 strikeouts and zero walks Monday. Seriously. Milone did that.

Pounding the strike zone against Triple-A hitters isn't surprising, because Milone did that back when he was a prospect coming up through the Nationals' farm system. Back in 2011, when he was 24 years old, Milone posted a 155/16 K/BB ratio in 148 innings at Triple-A, which is what convinced an MLB team to call up a diminutive left-hander with a mid-80s fastball. For his career Milone has started 34 games at Triple-A with a 3.04 ERA and 223/30 K/BB ratio in 210 innings.

Milone is an example of why it's important to truly and fairly factor in both performance and raw stuff when evaluating pitching prospects. Based strictly on his performance in the minors, which included outstanding strikeout, walk, and home run rates, Milone would have looked like a future ace. Based strictly on his raw stuff, which included a fastball that topped out in the high-80s and no exceptional breaking ball, Milone would have looked like a Triple-A lifer.

Instead he's proven to be somewhere in between, putting together 500-plus innings as a decent fourth or fifth starter for three different teams through age 28. All of which is a long way of saying that what Milone has done at Triple-A since his demotion by the Twins is noteworthy because 23 straight shutout innings with a 33/2 K/BB ratio is always noteworthy, but he's still the same guy. Useful and deserving to be in the majors, but unlikely to be a big upgrade for the Twins.

In back-to-back Triple-A starts Milone had 12 strikeouts and 13 strikeouts, but he's never topped 10 strikeouts against an MLB lineup and has recorded six or fewer strikeouts in 77 of his 87 career starts in the majors. It's possible his dominant stretch for Rochester will convince the Twins that Milone is back on track and ready to resume being a 4.00-4.50 ERA starter, but it's also possible they still don't feel that's worth bumping anyone from the current rotation.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Uber, which is offering a free ride to first-time users who sign up with the promo code "UberGleeman."

May 20, 2015

Twins demote Kennys Vargas to Triple-A

Kennys Vargas Twins

Last season when the Twins dumped Kendrys Morales and his remaining salary on the Mariners in late July they called up Kennys Vargas to replace him as the starting designated hitter. It was an unexpected move because Vargas was a good but not great prospect putting up good but not great numbers at Double-A as a 23-year-old. Vargas arrived with a hot bat, hitting .330 with four homers, seven doubles, and an .875 OPS in his first 25 games despite an ugly 29/4 K/BB ratio.

Vargas then cooled off considerably by hitting .223/.276/.402 with 34 strikeouts in his final 28 games, but he finished the season with solid overall numbers and faced little competition for the Opening Day designated hitter job this spring. He got off to a brutal start this year, hitting .172 in April, but the Twins stuck with Vargas and he hit .366 with two homers, two doubles, and a .956 OPS through a dozen May games ... at which point they demoted him to Triple-A.

There was some writing on the wall, as manager Paul Molitor repeatedly benched Vargas during his hot streak, but demoting a player in the midst of a productive stretch following an extended slump is odd timing to say the least. Odder yet, Vargas' good stretch came immediately after the Twins worked with him to adjust his swing mechanics. It paid off, as Vargas notched 14 hits in 10 starts this month and also delivered a pinch-hit homer. And now he's in Rochester.

Vargas' strike zone control absolutely needs improvement after striking out 93 times compared to just 17 non-intentional walks in 82 games for the Twins and further developing that skill against minor-league competition could be a good idea. Which is why it was surprising when the Twins promoted Vargas from Double-A to majors last year and why the timing of this year's demotion, rather than the demotion itself, is what stands out now.

What also stands out now is the Twins' lack of other appealing designated hitter options. Several times Molitor benched Vargas in favor of Eduardo Nunez and Eduardo Escobar, a pair of utility infielders who each have a career OPS below .700 in the majors and the minors. Now that Vargas is out of the mix Nunez and Escobar figure to see even more action as left fielders and designated hitters, which is a weird thing to do intentionally.

Here's how Vargas, Nunez, and Escobar have hit in their respective Twins careers:

                    AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
Kennys Vargas      .266     .309     .425     .734
Eduardo Nunez      .265     .291     .403     .694
Eduardo Escobar    .260     .300     .379     .679

In performing poorly enough to get demoted back to the minors Vargas still easily out-produced Nunez and Escobar. And unlike either Nunez or Escobar, there's actually evidence within Vargas' track record as a minor leaguer to suggest he's capable of producing more. Torii Hunter spending more time at DH is also likely in Molitor's plans, but that mostly just opens up an outfield spot for Eddie Rosario and there's little to indicate he's ready to out-produce Vargas either.

It'd be one thing if the Twins demoted Vargas and replaced him with another young hitter with DH-caliber potential like Josmil Pinto or if Oswaldo Arcia was due to return from the disabled list shortly and they wanted to work him back into the lineup at DH. But to demote Vargas now, when he was seemingly getting on track, and to give his at-bats to a pair of utility infielders and Rosario is a thought process begging to be questioned.


For a lengthy discussion of the Twins' decision to demote Vargas, plus talk about how long Aaron Hicks might stick around, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

May 18, 2015

Gleeman and The Geek #193: Hicks up, Vargas down

Topics for this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode included the Twins calling up Aaron Hicks (again) and demoting Kennys Vargas, how they've figured out how to beat every team except the Tigers, Jordan Schafer's place on the team whenever he's healthy, reviewing Comerica Park and Mad Max, Tommy Milone thriving at Triple-A, wanting someone who can actually hit in the DH spot, and answering mailbag questions from listeners.

Gleeman and The Geek: Episode 193

In addition to the direct download link above you can also subscribe to the podcast via iTunes.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Uber, which is offering a free ride to first-time users who sign up with the promo code "UberGleeman."

May 14, 2015

Appreciating the greatness of Glen Perkins

Glen Perkins Twins

Glen Perkins struggling in September before being shut down with forearm and elbow injuries last season was the rotten cherry on top of a rancid Twins sundae, turning one of the team's few bright spots into a question mark at the end of a fourth straight 90-loss season. Perkins had been his usual brilliant self through late August, converting 32 of 36 saves with a 2.44 ERA and 64/9 K/BB ratio in 55 innings. And then things fell apart.

In eight appearances from August 26 to September 16 he allowed 10 runs and struck out just two of the 32 batters he faced. And in the surest sign of something being very wrong, he served up five home runs in 6.1 innings after giving up a grand total of five home runs in his previous 102.1 innings dating back to 2013. Perkins was finally shut down for the final two weeks of the season after allowing runs in four consecutive games.

All offseason Perkins and the Twins insisted he was healthy, but a strained oblique muscle early in spring training further complicated his comeback and left doubts heading into Opening Day. Those doubts have now vanished, to say the least. Perkins has been nearly flawless, converting all 11 of his save chances with a 1.17 ERA and 14/0 K/BB ratio in 15.1 innings while holding opponents to a .193 batting average and zero home runs.

His fastball velocity is back to where it was before the late-season arm issues, he's inducing the least "hard contact" and second-most "soft contact" of his career, and his swinging strike rate is right in line with his career norms as a reliever despite throwing a career-high 60 percent of his pitches in the strike zone. Perkins combines good raw stuff and command with intelligence and an interest in analytics, and the result is pretty close to a perfect pitcher.

He pounds the strike zone and rarely walks anyone, yet still manages to miss plenty of bats and give up very few home runs while being nearly as effective against righties as lefties. Perkins will go through rough patches at some point this season, because that's just how baseball works, but aside from a brutal two-week stretch in which he was clearly playing through an injury he's been an elite reliever since moving to the bullpen full time in 2011.

During that span he has a 2.65 ERA and .227 opponents' batting average in 275 appearances, striking out 300 and walking 68 in 272 innings. He's also been difficult to run on, allowing seven steals compared to seven caught stealings, which is a nice bonus skill to have in the ninth inning. Oh, and Perkins has converted 88 percent of his save chances since replacing Matt Capps as the Twins' closer in mid-2012. By comparison, Mariano Rivera had a career save rate of 89 percent.

Expected Fielding Independent Pitching is a metric that attempts to remove defense and luck from the mix to judge pitchers based strictly on what they can control and since 2011 the only relievers with 250 or more innings and an xFIP under 3.00 are Perkins, Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, David Robertson, Greg Holland, and Mark Melancon. In five seasons as a full-time reliever his xFIP has never been higher than 3.13.

As for his rank among the best relievers in Twins history, it's important to note Perkins is pitching as well as ever at age 32 and is under team control through 2018. With that disclaimer, he already ranks fourth in Win Probability Added behind Joe Nathan, Eddie Guardado, and Rick Aguilera, and by the end of this year he'll likely trail only Nathan and Aguilera in saves. Here are the Twins' strikeout, walk, and strikeout-to-walk ratio leaders among relievers with at least 200 innings:

                 SO/9                      BB/9                      K/BB
Joe Nathan       10.9     Carl Willis       2.0     GLEN PERKINS      4.3
Tom Hall         10.1     Jeff Reardon      2.2     Joe Nathan        4.2
GLEN PERKINS      9.4     GLEN PERKINS      2.2     Jeff Reardon      3.3
Eddie Guardado    8.6     Bob Wells         2.3     Rick Aguilera     3.2
Juan Rincon       8.5     Rick Aguilera     2.4     Carl Willis       2.8

Perkins ranks third in strikeout rate behind Nathan and Tom Hall, third in walk rate behind Carl Willis and Jeff Reardon, and is the only Twins reliever to crack the top five of both categories. All of which adds up to Perkins boasting the best strikeout-to-walk ratio by a reliever in Twins history at 4.3 whiffs per walk, edging out Nathan, Reardon, and Aguilera. And last but not least Nathan is the only Twins reliever to allow fewer baserunners per nine innings than Perkins.

Perkins was a first-round pick at the University of Minnesota, a top prospect in the Twins' farm system, and a decent starter in the Twins' rotation, but moving to the bullpen enabled him to add 3-4 miles per hour to his fastball and he's complemented that added velocity with an increasingly smart approach to pitching to become an absolute stud. By the time he hangs up his cleats, zips his fly, and shaves his neck beard he'll be one of the 2-3 best relievers in Twins history.

Glen Perkins, Proven Closer.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Uber, which is offering a free ride to first-time users who sign up with the promo code "UberGleeman."

May 12, 2015

Third time’s a charm? Twins call up Aaron Hicks from Triple-A

Aaron Hicks

Last week, when the Twins needed a fill-in for the injured Oswaldo Arcia, they bypassed Aaron Hicks in favor of Eddie Rosario despite the latter's struggles dating back to last year and vastly inferior Triple-A production in the same Rochester outfield. Now with Shane Robinson having a family emergency the Twins have called up Hicks, who hit .336 with a .415 on-base percentage and .561 slugging percentage in 27 games at Triple-A to lead the International League in OPS.

In both 2013 and 2014 the Twins handed Hicks the Opening Day center field job and he flopped. This time around the deck was stacked against him getting a third crack at the gig. During spring training the prospect getting all the hype was Rosario, not Hicks, and the Twins eventually settled on splitting center field duties between the journeyman duo of Jordan Schafer, a 28-year-old waiver wire claim, and Robinson, a 30-year-old minor-league signing.

It hasn't worked out well, predictably. Robinson has done a quality job in a limited role, playing good defense and hitting some singles while facing mostly left-handed pitching. Schafer has come back down to earth after a good 46-game showing with the Twins last season that stood out from the rest of his sub par track record. Combined the Twins' center fielders have hit .257 with a .284 on-base percentage and .289 slugging percentage in 32 games.

As bad as Hicks has been in the majors his career on-base percentage and slugging percentage for the Twins are both higher than the Schafer/Robinson duo has produced in center field this season. He also has significantly more upside than Schafer or Robinson, although certainly far less so than the Twins hoped when they had him jump from Double-A to the majors as a 23-year-old in 2013. However, at age 25 and after crushing Triple-A pitching he deserves another opportunity.

Hicks is only one year older than the Twins' "young" trio of Arcia, Danny Santana, and Kennys Vargas. He's already shown the ability to be an asset against left-handed pitchers, posting a solid .750 OPS off them for the Twins in 2013/2014. Within his overall struggles last season Hicks drew lots of walks on the way to a .341 on-base percentage in 69 games. And in addition to thriving at Triple-A this season he hit .291/.387/.441 in 67 games at Double-A and Triple-A last season.

It's not a mystery why the Twins were hesitant to give Hicks another chance. He hasn't hit right-handed pitchers, his defense in center field has been very shaky, and the team publicly called into question his work ethic and instincts. Those are facts and I'm not writing this from the perspective of a huge Hicks believer. Even when he was a top prospect I was never particularly high on him, although obviously I expected him to perform a lot better than he has so far.

However, when a 25-year-old former top prospect two seasons removed from being rushed into an Opening Day job shows signs of progress giving him another--and perhaps a final--shot makes sense. At his worst, which is what we've seen so far, Hicks is still as good as the Schafer/Robinson duo. At his best, which is mostly hypothetical, Hicks still has the potential to be a useful regular. Of course, it may be a moot point if Hicks' stay only lasts until Robinson returns in a few days.


For a lot more about the Twins' roster decisions and surprising, emphatic climb above .500 check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

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