May 29, 2005

Twins Take 2 of 3 From Blue Jays

Yesterday's loss at the hands of Roy Halladay was frustrating to no end, but the fact is that taking two out of three games from a good Toronto team, on the road, is nothing to be disappointed about. Plus, any time Joe Mays is matched up against someone with a Cy Young award on his resume, expecting a win is silly.

Some notes on the series ...

  • I was very impressed with Orlando Hudson and Aaron Hill defensively. Hudson for his neverending range and hustle, and Hill for what looks like a great arm at third base. In fact, Hill's arm appears to be like Michael Cuddyer's arm, except he might actually have some idea where the tough throws are going to end up. Hudson has long been a favorite of mine, for whatever reason. He's not a great hitter and certainly has flaws, but he strikes me as someone I would really enjoy watching on a daily basis.
  • The lineup's collective effort against Halladay yesterday for pretty pathetic. There is no doubt that Halladay is a great pitcher, particularly when he is on top of his game like he was against the Twins, but hitters were flailing away at balls out of the strike zone early in the count all afternoon. At points it literally looked as if the Twins were trying to hurry their at-bats along in order to catch their plane out of the country.

    Jacque Jones had an at-bat in the fifth inning that looked similar to what might happen if a coach agreed to let a player take a few more swings at the end of batting practice if the player promised to take them really quickly. Halladay kept tossing breaking balls down and out of the strike zone, and Jones chased them all day. Jones wasn't alone by a long shot, but that at-bat -- in which he swung at four out of five pitches he saw and struck out swinging -- wrapped up the whole afternoon.

    As my favorite Blue Jays fan, Craig Burley (of Batter's Box and The Hardball Times), said to me shortly after the game, "This one was mailed in from the end of the first."

  • Of course, the Twins' starting pitching during the three-game series was pretty good too.
                       IP      H     R     ER     BB     SO     HR
    Johan Santana 7.0 4 2 2 2 8 0
    Kyle Lohse 7.0 6 1 1 0 3 0
    Joe Mays 7.0 10 2 2 1 3 1

    When a struggling pitcher and his pitching coach talk about making changes on the mound, it is usually nothing more than talk. In Kyle Lohse's case, there have definitely been fundamental changes in his approach. Pitching coach Rick Anderson appears to have convinced Lohse to simplify things on the mound, asking him to rely more on his fastball/sinker and slider than he has in the past. After nearly two years of struggling, Lohse has turned in three straight encouraging performances:

    OPP      IP     H     R     ER     BB     SO     HR
    TOR 6.0 7 2 2 2 1 0
    CLE 7.1 7 2 2 2 1 0
    TOR 7.0 6 1 1 0 3 0

    That's not going to win any awards, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. It is increasingly clear that Lohse is transitioning from attempting to be a power pitcher to attempting to be a ground-ball pitcher, ala Carlos Silva. That is, throw strikes, keep things simple by working mostly with your fastball, and let the defense work for you.

    Lohse entered this season with a career ground ball-to-fly ball ratio of 0.96-to-1. Pitchers as a whole averaged about 1.25 grounders for every fly ball over the last couple years, which means Lohse's pre-2005 ground-to-fly ratio qualified him as a "fly-ball pitcher." All of which makes what he's done of late pretty intriguing. Over his last three starts, Lohse has induced 46 ground-ball outs, compared to just 17 fly-ball outs, for a ratio of 2.71-to-1. Only Brandon Webb (3.55-to-1), Derek Lowe (2.87), and Jake Westbrook (2.72) induced a higher percentage of grounders than that last season.

    Lohse has never been able to rack up a lot of strikeouts, regardless of his style of pitching. And if you're not going to strike anyone out, you're going to need to get a lot of ground balls. It is the reason guys like Silva and Lowe can succeed despite batters making such good contact against them, and it is why I am suddenly hopeful about Lohse's chances of again becoming the solid middle-of-the-rotation starter he once was.

  • Thanks in part to Lohse's sudden transformation and in part to Mays' return from the disabled list, the Twins' starting rotation now consists of three fairly extreme ground-ball pitchers. Once upon a time the Twins -- with starters like Johan Santana, Brad Radke, Eric Milton, and Rick Reed -- had one of the most fly-ball dominant staffs in all of baseball. It is an interesting development considering the strength of the defense has long been Torii Hunter and Jones in the outfield, and the infield has seen a whole slew of changes this year.
  • Speaking of the new infield, I got an e-mail from someone during Saturday's game that read, simply:

    Ha. I thought you claimed Castro couldn't hit?!

    That of course came moments after Juan Castro homered for the second straight day. You'll find no one on earth happier about Castro homering in back-to-back games than me, but let's at least try to be rational here. Even after homering twice against Toronto, Castro is hitting .268/.302/.427 on the year. Now, if he could keep that up for the entire season, he would be a very valuable player for the Twins and a bargain at a million bucks. The problem is that he won't.

    Castro's homers shouldn't be especially shocking, because he has actually shown some decent home run power in the past. In fact, take a look at how his amazing power display so far this season (that's sarcasm, people) compares to what he did over the past three years:

                   AB/HR     IsoP
    2002-04 43.8 .132
    2005 27.3 .159

    Essentially, Castro has hit one "extra" homer this year, which accounts for the rise in his home run rate and his Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average). One extra home run in 82 at-bats goes beyond small sample-sizes into the realm of not meaning anything significant at all. In other words, if Castro doesn't hit a homer this week, he'll be right back at his regular homer rate from the past three years.

    What has changed to give Castro decent all-around offensive numbers for the first time in his career is the fact that he's hitting .268. He's not in danger of winning any batting titles, but that is likely not a sustainable batting average for a guy who came into this season as a career .226 hitter in 1,599 at-bats and has hit higher than .250 just once.

    I'll gladly eat a healthy serving of crow if Castro keeps this up, but let's wait until he has an at-bat total that isn't in double digits first. Oh, and just to be clear, I wrote the following in my "defense" of Jason Bartlett: "If the team had kept Bartlett at Triple-A this whole time, handing the job to Juan Castro or Nick Punto out of spring training, it would have been far less troubling than what has actually taken place." Castro starting at shortstop, by itself, isn't what I have a big problem with.

  • The Twins are now 29-20 on the year, which is a 96-win pace. Regardless of what the White Sox do -- and they certainly seem to be coming back down to earth in a hurry finally -- 96 wins will likely make the playoffs. Here's how this year's record through 49 games compares to the past four seasons:
    YEAR      W      L     WIN%
    2001 33 16 .673
    2002 27 22 .551
    2003 29 20 .592
    2004 27 22 .551
    2005 29 20 .592

    Interestingly, the only year in the past five in which the Twins have been on pace to win significantly more games than they ended up winning at the end of the season was in 2001, when they started 33-16, faded horribly down the stretch, and missed the playoffs. In the past four years -- which includes three trips to the postseason and, hopefully, a fourth this season -- the Twins have gotten off to very similar starts, winning either 27 or 29 games out of their first 49.

  • Today at The Hardball Times:
    - Murphy's A's (by Aaron Gleeman)

    Today's Picks (39-33, +$690):
    Chicago (Buehrle) -140 over Los Angeles (Washburn)
    Toronto (Lilly) -100 over Seattle (Moyer)

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