September 11, 2003

Tied up and gagged

I've been talking about far too much stuff that doesn't have anything to do with baseball over the last couple of days, this being "Aaron's BASEBALL Blog" and all. So, I think it's time to get back to the greatest game in the world...

"Today's game is obviously huge. If Brad Radke can pitch like Johan Santana did last night, the Twins could leave Chicago with a series split and a tie for first-place. If he pitches more like Kyle Lohse and Carlos Pulido did in the first two games of the series, the Twins will leave down two games. Now, two games is certainly not insurmountable, especially with the remaining schedules, but if they can get out of Chicago tied for first, I think they are officially in the driver's seat."

That's what I said yesterday, and Brad Radke went out and had a hell of a ballgame.

Radke pitched a complete-game, striking out five while walking none and "scattering" nine hits. He really only made two mistakes the whole game - one to Frank Thomas in the first inning and one to Jose Valentin in the ninth. The Big Hurt has 40 homers this season and 416 in his career, so that's not such a shocker, and the dinger he served up to Valentin came with two outs in the bottom of the 9th inning and the Twins leading by four runs. Other than that, he was fantastic. It was a textbook Brad Radke-start, because he did what he does best - he hit all of his spots and kept the Chicago hitters off-balance with his awesome change-up the entire afternoon.

Radke obviously showed a lot of heart, shutting down one of the hottest offenses in baseball in what was probably one of the most important games he has ever pitched, and the Twins as a whole really impressed me with the way they fought back after two tough losses to open the series.

The standings in the AL Central now look like this...

                W      L     GB

Minnesota 78 68 --
Chicago 78 68 --

And just like that, after six months and 146 games, we're right back where we started. Except now, the Minnesota Twins are in command.

Here are the remaining schedules:

   Minnesota              Chicago

4 @ Cleveland 3 @ Boston
3 Chicago 3 @ Minnesota
3 Detroit 3 Kansas City
2 Cleveland 3 New York
4 @ Detroit 4 @ Kansas City

If you take out the three games Minnesota and Chicago play against each other, that means the Twins have six games left against the Indians and seven games left against the Tigers, while the White Sox have seven left against the Royals and three each against the Red Sox and the Yankees.

That's a huge difference in schedule difficulty, about as big as possible. The Tigers are the worst team in baseball and one of the worst teams of all-time, and the Indians are 63-82, which is good for the 3rd-worst record in the American League. Meanwhile, the Yankees and Red Sox have two of the three best records in the American League and the Royals are 74-71.

I would have been happy leaving Chicago down two games, because I think the Twins will make up that many with the remaining schedules. Leaving Chicago tied is just an added bonus and the reason why I think the Minnesota Twins will win this division.

Even if the Twins drop 2/3 to the White Sox next week, there is no reason why they can't go 10-3 against Detroit and Cleveland, to finish the year with 89 wins. In order to match that, the White Sox would have to take the 2/3 from Minnesota and then go 9-4 against Kansas City, Boston and New York. Quite frankly, that just isn't going to happen.

Of course, the Twins have had a lot of trouble with the Indians this year and taking at least 1/3 from the White Sox is certainly not a given either. That said, if they play at anywhere close to the level they have played at during the second-half so far, they'll be in the playoffs for the second season in a row.

Some late-breaking news...

I chatted with Baseball Prospectus injury guru and radio superstar Will Carroll last night and he informed me that his sources have told him Eric Milton will be the Twins' starter on Sunday against Cleveland. He'll replace Carlos Pulido in the rotation, which is certainly fine with me. I really hope the Twins aren't rushing Milton back again, because having him healthy for next season is more important than whatever he can possibly do for the rest of this year. That said, letting him get his feet wet against the Indians (one of the worst offenses in baseball against left-handed pitching) is a pretty good situation for him and, according to Will's sources, he will definitely be on some sort of a pitch-count and/or innings-count.

Back to yesterday's game...

I was incredibly impressed with Esteban Loaiza, even though he took the loss. He gave up four runs in seven innings, but also struck out nine, walked just one and was flat-out nasty for much of the game. He didn't get a lot of help from the homeplate umpire, which was too bad (for White Sox fans, at least), because he was painting the outside corner all game.

I was very skeptical of Loaiza's early-season success, but I have now watched him pitch on at least eight or nine occasions this season and I have been extremely impressed each time. He is obviously not the same pitcher he was before this year. He velocity is up, his control, which was always pretty good, has been incredible, and he is now featuring one of the nastiest cut-fastballs in baseball.

Here are his current numbers:

GS        IP      ERA      W     L      SO     BB     HR     OAVG

30 204.2 2.73 19 7 185 45 15 .232

That's just awesome. Cy Young-caliber numbers in any season. They become even more amazing when you consider that, coming into this season, Loaiza had the following career-totals:

    IP      ERA      W      L

1253.2 4.88 69 73

For his first eight seasons as a major league pitcher, Loaiza was essentially "average." He never had an ERA below 4.00, but he was usually somewhere around 4.50-5.00. He had a career record that was four games below .500 and a career ERA that was about 5% worse than league-average - all in over 1,200 major league innings.

And then, all of sudden and at 31 years old, Esteban Loaiza is one of the best pitchers in all of baseball.

Looking at his numbers this season, it is quite obvious which areas Loaiza's improvements have come in...ALL OF THEM!

          Pre-2003      2003

SO/9 5.44 8.02
BB/9 2.56 1.98
HR/9 1.16 0.66

Loaiza's control was always reasonably good, so there wasn't that much room for improvement there, although he certainly improved it significantly. In addition to the 22% drop in walks, his strikeout rate is up 47%, which is absolutely amazing for a guy whose previous career-best K rate was 6.19/9 IP in 2000.

In fact, check out his year-by-year strikeout rates:

Year     SO/9

1995 4.43
1996 5.47
1997 5.59
1998 5.68
1999 5.76
2000 6.19
2001 5.21
2002 5.17

2003 8.02

That's amazing consistency. From 1996 to 2002 - a span of seven seasons - Loaiza's K rate was between 5.17 and 6.19, and it was between 5.17 and 5.76 in six of the seven years. And then BOOM, he's up to 8.02 Ks per game.

The huge increase in strikeouts is a big factor in his success this year, but I think the biggest difference in Esteban Loaiza has been his ability to keep the ball in the ballpark, after years of serving up long balls in bunches. Loaiza has allowed just 15 home runs in 204.2 innings pitched this season. Prior to this year, he allowed an average of 1.16 homers per nine innings, which works out about 27 per 204.2 innings.

If you shave a dozen homers off a pitcher's season, you're going to see some serious improvements in ERA, even without better strikeout and walk rates. When you take away a dozen homers and add in a huge increase in strikeouts and a decrease in walks...well, you end up 19-7 with a 2.73 ERA, I guess.

I checked out Loaiza's ground ball/fly ball ratio, thinking maybe that told the story of how he is suddenly so stingy with homers, but it doesn't. He has a GB/FB ratio of 1.45, which is fairly ground ball dominant, but he's always been pretty much that same way. His career GB/FB ratio before this season was 1.41.

I think the biggest reasons for his success is his incredible control and especially the cut-fastball that he seems to have mastered this year. The control allows him to hit "his spots" more often, which keeps the ball away from the fat part of the bat, and his cutter does the same thing, avoiding the "sweet-spot" of bats by slicing in or darting away. Just ask the Twins, who must have swung through or fouled off at least a couple dozen of Loaiza's cutters yesterday.

I'd have to do a little more number-crunching to say for sure, but I think at this point, Esteban Loaiza has been the best pitcher in baseball this season - in the top 2-3 for sure. And there isn't a sane person in this entire world who would ever have guessed that before this season, which is, of course, the beautiful thing about baseball.

This Week's Featured Links:

Monday: ChiSox Daily

Tuesday: Football Outsiders

Wednesday: Kevin Millar sings "Born in the U.S.A"

Thursday: The Minnesota Daily

Today's picks:

Cincinnati (Etherton) +220 over Chicago (Wood)

Minnesota (Rogers) -100 over Cleveland (Sabathia)

Texas (Drese) +165 over Oakland (Zito)

Total to date: + 3,185

W/L record: 234-228 (0-1 yesterday for -110.)

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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