August 20, 2014

Phil Hughes, Ace

Phil Hughes Twins

Phil Hughes has been the Twins' best starter with a 3.76 ERA in 25 starts, yet that good but not great ERA vastly understates just how well he's actually pitched. He ranks 10th in the league with 140 strikeouts while issuing just 15 walks in 158 innings for a 9.3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio that leads all of baseball. Clayton Kershaw ranks second behind Hughes and he's followed by Hisashi Iwakuma, David Price, Masahiro Tanaka, Felix Hernandez, and Chris Sale.

Hughes is a fly-ball pitcher and poor defense--particularly in the outfield where Josh Willingham and Oswaldo Arcia roamed the corners for most of the year alongside a revolving door of center fielders--has hurt him in the form of a .343 batting average on balls in play. Not only is that much worse than Hughes' career mark of .300, it rates as the fifth-highest batting average on balls in play across MLB among the 120 pitchers with at least 100 innings this season.

Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) attempts to more accurately evaluate a pitcher's individual performance by removing defense, luck, and bullpen support from the mix and Hughes ranks 20th among all MLB starters in xFIP at 3.23. In other words, he's been a No. 1 starter. And he's also been much better than he ever was for the Yankees from 2007-2013, when he posted the following yearly xFIP figures as a starter:

2007   4.58
2008   4.94
2009   4.93
2010   4.17
2011   4.74
2012   4.35
2013   4.36
2014   3.23

Hughes never posted an xFIP below 4.00 as a starter with the Yankees and only once, in 2010, came within a full run of his current xFIP with the Twins. He's a completely different pitcher in a home ballpark much better suited for his skill set and the results have been dramatic. In terms of recent Twins history, Hughes is in rarefied air. Here are the best xFIP figures by Twins starters during the Ron Gardenhire era of 2002-2014:

                      YEAR     xFIP
Francisco Liriano     2006     2.54
Francisco Liriano     2010     2.95
Johan Santana         2004     3.01
Johan Santana         2005     3.12
Johan Santana         2006     3.16
PHIL HUGHES           2014     3.23

Now that's a list.

Hughes isn't throwing any harder than he did with the Yankees. His average fastball this season has clocked in at 92 miles per hour and he's used it 63 percent of the time. With the Yankees his average fastball was 92 miles per hour and he used it 63 percent of the time. His strikeout rate has improved, but only slightly from 19 percent to 21 percent, and Hughes' swinging strike rate remains at his career norm of 8.5 percent.

If he's using his fastball exactly as often and throwing his fastball exactly as hard as before and he's not missing significantly more bats, how did Hughes get so much better? Well, basically he decided to simply stop walking anyone. As a starter for the Yankees he averaged 2.8 walks per nine innings, but this season Hughes has sliced that to 0.85 walks per nine innings for baseball's second-best walk rate.

Hughes walked zero in an MLB-leading 13 of 25 starts (52 percent), whereas for the Yankees he had zero walks in 24 of 132 starts (18 percent). He also leads MLB by walking zero or one batter in 23 of 25 starts (92 percent), compared to 61 of 132 starts (46 percent) for the Yankees. His overall walk rate of 0.85 per nine innings is the second-lowest in Twins history among starters with at least 100 innings:

                      YEAR     BB/9
Carlos Silva          2005     0.43
PHIL HUGHES           2014     0.85
Brad Radke            2005     1.03
Brad Radke            2001     1.04
Brad Radke            2004     1.07
Brad Radke            2003     1.19

And it's not just his walk rate that tells the story. According to's Pitch-FX data Hughes has thrown a pitch in the strike zone 56 percent of the time this season, which leads all of MLB by a wide margin. In fact, among the 120 pitchers with at least 100 innings this season no one else is even above 53 percent. And as a starter with the Yankees he threw pitches in the strike zone 49 percent of the time.

No team has emphasized throwing strikes and limiting walks as much as the Twins under the duo of Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson. During their 13-season tenure together Twins pitchers have MLB's lowest walk rate at 2.6 per nine innings when none of the other 29 teams are below 3.0. Anderson's overall effectiveness has been in question for a while now, but aside from a few prominent examples he does get pitchers to throw the ball over the plate.

For many of the Twins' abundant collection of low-velocity pitchers Anderson's focus on pounding the strike zone has meant letting hitters tee off on inferior raw stuff, but in Hughes' case he's been able to maintain his above-average velocity and strikeout rate while drastically reducing his free passes. Toss in the switch from Yankee Stadium to Target Field predictably hiding his weakness for serving up homers and the result has been enough to create a 28-year-old ace.

Handing a four-year, $49 million contract to Ricky Nolasco six months ago already looks like a disaster and the Twins' other recent forays into free agent pitching to sign Kevin Correia and re-sign Mike Pelfrey for multiple years flopped as well, but Hughes' three-year, $24 million deal looks brilliant. He's on pace to throw 210 innings with the best K/BB ratio and second-best walk rate in Twins history and he's under contract for $8 million next season and $8 million in 2016.

For a lot more about Hughes' breakthrough season and change in approach, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode with guest co-host Parker Hageman.

June 4, 2014

Joe Mauer vs. Derek Jeter

joe mauer and derek jeter

Presented without comment: Joe Mauer is 31 years old. Here are his career numbers with four months left in his age-31 season compared to Derek Jeter's career numbers through age 31:

THROUGH AGE 31           JETER     MAUER
Batting Average          .314      .321
On-Base Percentage       .386      .403
Slugging Percentage      .461      .463
OPS                      .847      .866
Wins Above Replacement   48.4      44.7

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April 8, 2014

Twins acquire Eduardo Nunez from Yankees for Miguel Sulbaran

eduardo nunez yankees

Just a few years ago a not-insignificant number of people in New York talked up Eduardo Nunez as the Yankees' heir apparent to Derek Jeter at shortstop, but that was always pretty far-fetched and now that Jeter is actually ready to retire it looks downright delusional. Nunez's stock dropped so much that last week the Yankees designated him for assignment to clear a 40-man roster spot and yesterday the Twins acquired him for their No. 28 prospect, Miguel Sulbaran.

Nunez proved to be a horrible defensive shortstop when filling in for Jeter, making 30 errors in 1,150 innings (including 124 starts) at the position while Ultimate Zone Rating pegged him as an astounding 31 runs below average. New York also played him occasionally at third base, but his glove rated nearly as poorly there and as a career .267/.313/.379 hitter with even worse numbers at Triple-A his bat is hardly good enough to be an asset at a corner spot.

So what exactly do the Twins want with Nunez? Well, for one thing the price was right. Sulbaran isn't totally without upside, but he's also a Single-A pitcher they acquired from the Dodgers nine months ago in exchange for Drew Butera. Beyond that Nunez is still relatively young at 26 and under team control through 2017, so while he's really only a "middle infielder" like I'm a "radio broadcaster" there's some chance he could be not-horrible at second base or third base.

Mostly, though, the Twins' infield depth is so lacking and the MLB-wide standard for a serviceable backup infielder is so low that it wouldn't take much for Nunez to capably fill the role. He also has a minor-league option remaining, which means for now the Twins can stash him at Triple-A while deciding if they'd rather have Nunez on the roster than, say, the hollowed out remains of Jason Bartlett's skill set.

Nunez isn't a player I'd have given up anything to acquire--can't hit, can't field, and base-stealing isn't worth much on its own--but in general the Twins should be looking to add infield depth and clearly they think his speed and athleticism can still translate into something useful. If the Twins think Nunez represents a viable alternative to Pedro Florimon at shortstop they're likely to be disappointed upon closer inspection, but searching for a viable alternative is a good idea.

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April 7, 2011

Tsuyoshi Nishioka fractures fibula in collision at second base

Tsuyoshi Nishioka's rough first week with the Twins got considerably worse this afternoon, as he suffered a fractured fibula when Nick Swisher slid very hard into second base to break up a potential double play. There's no official timetable yet for his return, but Nishioka will be out for at least a month and Luke Hughes has been called up from Triple-A to replace him on the roster. It's a good opportunity for Hughes to show he belongs, but what a shame for Nishioka.

April 6, 2011

Twins Notes: Hallelujah, payrolls, handshakes, stats, and mountains

Joe Nathan's velocity wasn't much better last night, as he continued to work at 89-91 miles per hour with his fastball, but compared to his first post-surgery outing Sunday his command was vastly improved and he relied far less on off-speed stuff. Oh, and throwing a fastball past Derek Jeter to end a game is always fun.

• At some point the starting pitchers will have to avoid digging a big hole right away, but Brian Duensing recovered well from a rough first two innings. He allowed four runs in seven innings overall, but that's actually a pretty solid effort considering the Yankees averaged 4.6 runs per seven innings at home last season.

• I'm curious to see if Ron Gardenhire will make a habit out of turning to Matt Capps for more than one inning now that he's not holding him back for ninth-inning leads. Early in his career Capps was very durable, logging 160 innings in 161 appearances during his first two seasons, but once he became a full-time closer in 2008 his usage lessened considerably.

• Old friend Luis Ayala got the Yankees out of a jam in the 10th inning, which is remarkable for a guy who was washed up when the Twins signed him in 2009. Ayala followed up a 5.71 ERA in 2008 with a 5.63 ERA in 2009 and then didn't pitch in the majors at all last season, yet there he was getting high-leverage work for baseball's only $200 million team. I'm just glad I didn't have to make good on this promise. Are the North Stars still good?

• Speaking of payrolls, USA Today crunched the numbers and found that the Twins rank ninth in Opening Day payroll at $112.7 million. That's second in the AL Central behind the White Sox at $127.8 million and the Tigers aren't far behind at $105.7 million, making it the only division with three $100 million teams. Of course, with the Indians at $49.2 million and the Royals at an MLB-low $36.1 million it's also the only division with two teams under $50 million.

Justin Morneau has had plenty of hard-hit balls through five games, but an even better sign for his comeback from last year's concussion might be that he can remember all these different choreographed, teammate-dependent handshakes:

My favorite is making it rain with Danny Valencia, which should be the title of a show on FSN.

Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote that the Twins are more involved with statistical analysis than their reputation suggests and based on his quotes vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff certainly sounds very open to sabermetrics, but as of last year the front office's highest-profile decision-makers had only a rudimentary understanding of most new-school numbers and Christensen says they "have yet to hire a full-time statistical expert."

According to Bill Lankhof of the Toronto Sun the Rockies "were all set to pick" Denard Span with the ninth overall selection in the 2002 draft, but instead took Canadian lefty Jeff Francis. I have no clue who the Twins may have nabbed at No. 20 had Span not been there, but some of the players picked in the next 10 spots were Jeremy Guthrie, Jeff Francoeur, Joe Blanton, and Matt Cain. They did well to get Span, obviously, although it didn't always look that way.

• I was encouraged by Gardenhire benching Michael Cuddyer against a right-hander Monday, but we'll see if that was an acknowledgment that Jim Thome and Jason Kubel are far superior options versus righties or merely a convenient day off for Cuddyer.

Seth Stohs has a breakdown of the Twins' minor-league rosters at Rochester, New Britain, Fort Myers, and Beloit, so you can see where all their top prospects are headed.

Kevin Slowey and R.A. Dickey are going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro together in January.

Rhett Bollinger, who replaced Kelly Thesier as the Twins beat reporter last month, now has his own blog in addition to being on Twitter.

• My favorite part of the re-design? LaVelle E. Neal III's popped collar look.

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