November 12, 2015

Twins trade Aaron Hicks to Yankees for John Ryan Murphy

John Ryan Murphy Yankees

In a move that clears some of their outfield logjam and brings in a much-needed alternative to Kurt Suzuki behind the plate, the Twins traded 26-year-old center fielder Aaron Hicks to the Yankees for 24-year-old catcher John Ryan Murphy. It's a classic example of dealing from an organization-wide area of strength (young outfielders) to address an organization-wide area of weakness (catching), although that in itself certainly doesn't guarantee a successful trade.

Hicks is a former first-round draft pick and top prospect who turned his career around this year, hitting .256/.323/.398 with plus defense in 97 games for the Twins after looking lost in his first two years as a big leaguer. As a switch-hitter with decent power, good plate discipline, excellent speed, and a strong arm he has all the tools needed to become an above-average starting center fielder, but Hicks is held back by his inability to hit right-handed pitching.

Through three seasons and 247 games in the majors Hicks has hit just .206/.284/.311 off righties and his time in the minors tells a similar story. He's been great off lefties, hitting .272/.360/.447 in the majors after also crushing them in the minors, but until proven otherwise Hicks looks best suited to start 2-3 times per week when a lefty is on the mound--which is the role he'll probably fill for the Yankees initially--and that severely limits his long-term upside.

Beyond that, even if Hicks shows enough improvement against righties to develop into a viable everyday player the Twins have no shortage of younger, higher-upside outfielders. By midseason their starting outfield could be Byron Buxton in center field flanked by Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler, and publicly at least the Twins have been talking about giving Miguel Sano some outfield action too. Oswaldo Arcia and Danny Santana are also still in the mix.

Hicks is already a very useful part-time player with the potential to become more, but counting on that transformation would require a leap of faith the Twins were clearly not willing to take and his long-term role in Minnesota was tenuous. Trading him coming off his first positive showing in the majors makes sense from a hypothetical value standpoint, but it's unclear if Murphy represents particularly good value in return.

Murphy has served in a backup role for the Yankees, hitting .267/.311/.374 in 115 games spread over parts of three seasons. He got his most playing time this year, logging 172 plate appearances in 67 games, and hit .277/.327/.406. Those numbers would make him an above-average catcher offensively, but the sample size is very small, Murphy's poor 43/12 K/BB ratio is worrisome, and his track record in the minors is underwhelming.

Last season he hit just .246/.292/.397 with six homers and an ugly 42/13 K/BB ratio in 51 games at Triple-A and Murphy has a career OPS below .750 at Single-A, Double-A, and Triple-A. There's little in his track record at any level to suggest he has significant upside offensively, but Murphy establishing himself as a decent-hitting catcher certainly seems doable considering the position's low standard for offense.

Ultimately, though, this trade may hinge on Murphy's defense. He has a good defensive reputation and unlike the same being said of Suzuki the numbers don't totally contradict that notion. Murphy has thrown out 28 percent of steal attempts in the majors, which is right around the MLB average, and his pitch-framing has graded out as neutral. Small sample sizes are involved, so this is a case where the Twins' scouting evaluation of Murphy needs to be right.

It would have been nice for the Twins to shoot a little higher in their search for catching help, but the free agent market is barren aside from Matt Wieters and trading for an established starting catcher would've required parting with more than just Hicks. To target a young backup with the potential to become a solid starter is a sound approach, but Murphy's skill set and track record leave room for plenty of skepticism that he fits the bill.

For a solid 90 minutes of Byung-ho Park talk and a look at the domino effect his arrival has on the Twins' lineup, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

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.

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