July 31, 2005

The End

And so it ended.

For years we've watched as Torii Hunter fearlessly took on outfield wall after outfield wall, usually winning and miraculously walking away in one piece each time. He finally met his match this weekend, when his left ankle went up against the triangle in Fenway Park and lost in a knockout.

It was a perfect example of the all-out, 110% effort Hunter has given the Twins over the years and the play that may have ended his season -- a double off the bat of David Ortiz landing just beyond Hunter's outstretched glove as he crashed into the wall -- is a perfect example of the almost-but-not-quite year the Twins have had. And it may have ended their season as well.

With a record nosediving toward .500, an offense looking completely helpless for going on a month, and the team's leader being taken off the field on a cart, Terry Ryan could very easily have panicked. He could have pulled the trigger on any number of deals, dealing prospects for veterans with the misguided notion of saving the 2005 season.

Whether he tried to do just that and simply failed, or instead realized at some point that it wasn't worth doing at all, is uncertain. Either way, things worked out for the best. Alfonso Soriano wasn't going to save this team, and neither were Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, Shea Hillenbrand or any of the other veteran stop gaps the Twins were reportedly pursuing over the last couple weeks.

This season was gone the moment Hunter's ankle hit the wall in Boston, and probably quite a while before that. Dealing away the future in the form of Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, J.D. Durbin or even Boof Bonser to chase what just isn't there would have been disastrous. Instead, this season can serve as a transition year, a learning experience, and the Twins can reload next year with all their bullets intact.

Things could have gone a lot better, of course. The offense could have provided the pitching staff with just a little support, the Twins could be fighting off Oakland and New York for the Wild Card, and perhaps a trade for someone like Soriano could have spurred the team to a strong finish like the acquisition of Shannon Stewart did in 2003. But for whatever reason, it just didn't happen.

I would have liked to see Ryan take advantage of an extreme seller's market to unload guys who won't (or shouldn't) be around next year, like Joe Mays and Kyle Lohse, and trading J.C. Romero when his value is seemingly at an all-time high wouldn't have been bad either. But asking a general manager to realize his team is going nowhere when they're still just a few games out of the postseason is tough, asking him to realize that and then start cashing in spare parts is almost impossible.

The next two months are probably going to be pretty tough to take, but the good news is that there are better days ahead and the events (or non-events) of this weekend put the Twins in a better position to succeed in the future. When Liriano and Johan Santana are forming a beautiful, left-handed 1-2 punch in the rotation, the idea that the Twins were thisclose to giving him up for 60 games of Soriano will be just a distant memory.

As will this season, hopefully.

Today at The Hardball Times:
- Analyzing the Deadline Deals: 2005 (by Aaron Gleeman)

Today's Picks (84-71, +$1,165):

July 29, 2005

Where Did All the Strikeouts Go?

There's something wrong with Jesse Crain.

I know it's hard to believe given his 9-1 record, 2.49 ERA, and .211 opponent's batting average this season, not to mention his 3-0 record, 2.00 ERA, and .179 opponent's batting average last season. And trust me, the only reason I haven't written about this until now is that he's been doing so damn well. Still, there's something wrong with Jesse Crain.

After going 4-0 with 10 saves and a 0.00 ERA in 35 innings as the University of Houston's closer, the Twins took Crain in the second round of the 2002 draft. Unfortunately for Crain, that was right before teams started drafting college closers (Huston Street, Chad Cordero, Ryan Wagner) and rushing them to the majors. In fact, the very next year the Reds drafted Wagner, who replaced Crain as University of Houston's closer, in the first round and he was in a big-league bullpen within months. Having arrived a year too early for the party, Crain instead began his career like any other draftee would, in rookie-ball.

He posted a 0.57 ERA in 15.2 innings there after signing and then moved up to finish the year at low Single-A, where he had a 1.50 ERA in 12 innings. Crain split the 2003 season between three levels, starting at high Single-A, advancing to Double-A in the middle of the year, and finishing up a step from the big leagues at Triple-A. Combined between the three stops, he had a 1.84 ERA in 84 innings, holding opponents to a .160 batting average and establishing himself as one of the better pitching prospects in baseball (Crain ranked 34th on my top 50 prospects list).

There was some talk about Crain making the Twins out of spring training last season, but he instead began the year back at Triple-A and once again dominated. With 19 saves and a 2.49 ERA in 50.2 innings, Crain successfully convinced the Twins he was done proving himself in the minors. They called him up in early August and he quickly became a crucial part of the bullpen, pitching extremely well down the stretch while appearing in 22 games spread over just two months.

His 2004 performance was enough for me to rank Crain the 34th-best prospect in baseball for 2005, while saying "I expect him to be one of the better middle relievers in the American League this season." Crain has been exactly that, starting the year 8-0 (and his career 11-0) before finally losing a game, and compiling a 2.49 ERA while pitching in an extremely high-leverage role for the Twins. He ranks fifth among AL middle relievers (or non-closers) in Win Shares, behind only Scot Shields, Cliff Politte, Justin Duchscherer, and Mike Timlin.

Since the moment he was drafted, Crain has been tagged with the "Closer of the Future" label in Minnesota. And while his ERA, won-loss record, and opponent's batting average in parts of two seasons with the Twins certainly suggest he has closer written all over him, there is something very concerning about his pitching. Basically, he has forgotten how to strike hitters out.

During Crain's three-year minor-league career, he pitched a total of 162.1 innings with a 1.94 ERA. However, it wasn't simply the outstanding ERA that made him a top prospect, it was the fact that his strikeout rate (11.5/9) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (207-to-53) were both amazing. Plenty of relievers put up gaudy ERAs in the minors, but the ones who are truly worth getting excited about are the guys who dominate by racking up huge strikeout totals and/or posting outstanding strikeout-to-walk ratios.

Crain was dominant in the minors and there was nothing to suggest it was a fluke or not sustainable in the majors. And, of course, it has been sustainable in the majors. Or it hasn't, depending on how you want to approach the issue. Crain has kept up his ability to limit runs and hits, but somewhere along the line, between Rochester, New York and Minneapolis, Minnesota, his strikeouts vanished.

First take a look at Crain's combined numbers over two seasons at Triple-A compared to his combined numbers over two seasons in the majors:

LEVEL           G       IP      ERA      H     HR
Triple-A 64 76.0 2.69 62 5
Majors 70 74.0 2.30 52 5

Nearly identical, right? In fact, Crain has actually been slightly more effective in the majors, with a lower ERA and fewer hits allowed. But now look at how he's achieved those numbers:

LEVEL            IP     SO     BB     SO/9    K/BB
Triple-A 76.0 97 27 11.5 3.6
Majors 74.0 31 28 3.8 1.1

At Triple-A, Crain had typically dominant numbers for a late-inning reliever, with tons of strikeouts, a low ERA, and few hits allowed. In the majors, he has maintained the low ERA and outstanding opponent's batting average, but his strikeout rate has fallen off a cliff and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is something from a junk-ball pitcher's resume.

It is difficult to get too concerned about a guy who has been one of the best relievers in baseball over the past year and a half. After all, how much can you really complain about a 24-year-old reliever who is 12-1 with a 2.31 ERA for his career? However, the problem isn't with how he's pitched thus far, it's with how he figures to pitch in the future. Separating those two things can be very tough.

Quite simply, Crain can't keep his current level of pitching up with the sort of strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio he has had since coming to the majors. It's not a knock against him as much as a fact of life. Save for a few extremely unique cases, dominant relievers miss bats a high percentage of the time and a big part of their success comes from limiting the numbers of balls that are put in play. A strikeout is a sure out, with no damage done, while a ball put in play may advance a runner or even fall for a hit.

Crain has done a poor job limiting the number of balls put in play against him, but has succeeded thus far by having the defense behind him turn an extraordinary percentage of the balls in play into outs. Minnesota's Defense Efficiency Ratio (basically the percentage of balls in play turned into outs) with Crain on the mound is an amazing .791. Minnesota's defense has done an above-average job turning balls in play into outs this season, overall. Their work behind Crain has been spectacular, as you can see by comparing Crain's defensive support to the other pitchers on the Twins' staff:

Jesse Crain .791
J.C. Romero .743
Joe Nathan .724
Juan Rincon .718
Matt Guerrier .718
Terry Mulholland .716
Brad Radke .714
Johan Santana .710
Carlos Silva .701
Kyle Lohse .672

Crain blows away the rest of the pitching staff, having balls in play converted into outs over 6% more often than the next guy, J.C. Romero, and nearly 18% more often than Kyle Lohse. And this isn't just a one-year deal, Crain's success last year was due to the same thing:

Jesse Crain .813
Johan Santana .750
Juan Rincon .742
Joe Nathan .731
J.C. Romero .719
Brad Radke .707
Aaron Fultz .700
Grant Balfour .699
Carlos Silva .682
Kyle Lohse .679
Joe Roa .678
Terry Mulholland .664

Crain's DER was even more extreme last year, at .813. That was 8% better than the AL Cy Young winner (whose ball-in-play stats were outstanding, relative to anyone but Crain) and 22% better than Old Man Mulholland. Among all AL pitchers with 40 or more innings so far this season, Crain's DER ranks fourth behind David Riske (.815), Politte (.812), and Mariano Rivera (.792). Among AL pitchers with 25 or more innings pitched in 2004 (a lower cutoff, since Crain only had 27), Crain's DER ranked second, behind only Scott Williamson (.845).

Regardless of where you side on how much impact pitchers have on balls in play (otherwise known as "the DIPS argument"), the odds of any pitcher maintaining the sort of success Crain has had thus far on balls in play over the long term are extremely small. All of which means Crain's success thus far has been the result of either luck and/or a small sample size or the presence of a special skill on Crain's part. Or maybe both, who knows?

Further complicating matters (and making Crain a particularly interesting case) is the fact that he has complained about a loss in fastball velocity this season. That may help explain the drop in strikeout rate, although Crain still throws in the low-90s and has quality breaking stuff. But does it also potentially explain his success on balls in play? Maybe. To help combat his sudden inability to blow hitters away with an upper-90s fastball, Crain has worked to develop a sinker.

With the sinker in his arsenal, Crain has gone from being an extreme fly-ball pitcher who relied on strikeouts to inducing slightly more ground balls than fly balls while pitching to contact. However, as the wildly different DERs of extreme ground-ball pitchers Carlos Silva, Joe Mays, Mulholland, and Romero show, pitching in front of the Twins' defense and keeping the ball on the ground isn't necessarily the key to a low batting average on balls in play.

Crain is an extremely interesting player, because he essentially became a completely different pitcher the moment he made it to the majors. His transformation is seemingly a poor one, as his strikeouts have completely dried up and his fastball is several ticks slower, yet the results are almost identical to his significant minor-league success. In the short term, it doesn't matter how a pitcher gets it done, as long as he gets it done. However, in the long term, I think Crain's lack of strikeouts and extremely low batting averages on balls in play will catch up with him. He's walking a very thin line.

Today at The Hardball Times:
- It's A Funny Funny Game 2.1 (by John Brattain)

Today's Picks (83-70, +$1,165):
Cleveland (Millwood) -130 over Seattle (Sele)

Sunday's Picks:
Detroit (Bonderman) +115 over Oakland (Saarloos)

July 27, 2005

Ah, Much Better

There's nothing like a little offense, some Johan Santana, and a win over the Yankees to make you forget (temporarily, at least) all the Twins' problems.

Santana wasn't dominant (a pattern that is concerning in itself), but he managed the game very well and shut the best offense in baseball down for seven innings. And while it took them until the seventh inning to break through, the lineup got on base and drove runners in, both of which have been rare since the All-Star break.

Of course, the skeptic (or maybe pessimist) in me feels the need to point out that the Twins managed just one run in six innings against Al Leiter and Felix Rodriguez, while stranding runners all over the place, and when they finally did some damage it came against Tanyon Sturtze, Scott Proctor, and Alex Graman.

When a 39-year-old pitcher with a 6.20 ERA who was released by a contending team earlier this month starts the game, is relieved by one guy fresh of the disabled list, two guys with career ERAs north of 5.00, and another guy with an ERA above 20 (yes, twenty), and seven runs still seems like a major offensive explosion ... well, you know you've been struggling.

And then, of course, the Twins were about five feet away from a Bernie Williams three-run homer tying the game in the eighth inning. Thankfully it drifted just foul (I may have given up on the season right then and there, otherwise), Joe Nathan came back to strike Williams out on the next pitch, and Juan Rincon was saved from a complete implosion that would have cost Santana his 10th win of the season.

But seven runs are seven runs and a win is a win (especially at Yankee Stadium), and I'll gladly take both at this point. Plus, Joe Mauer continued his outstanding month at the plate, Torii Hunter and Shannon Stewart each had three hits, and Justin Morneau hit a home run off a lefty (albeit a lefty just up from Triple-A). Hell, Bret Boone even made a nice play at second base, which immediately became the lead clip on his Twins highlight reel.

* * * * *

I was thinking about Jason Bartlett's situation yesterday and it occurred to me that it is a good example of a fundamental difference between mainstream media coverage of a team and whatever it is you want to call the coverage people like me give a team. (Half-assed, perhaps?)

All we've been hearing over the last couple weeks -- whether in the newspaper or on blogs, from players and coaches or radio show hosts and the average fan -- is that the Twins are in major need of and are desperately searching for some additional offense.

We've heard daily rumors about Bill Mueller, Kevin Youkilis, Kevin Millar, Alfonso Soriano, Shea Hillenbrand, and Joe Randa, and the team picked up Boone off the scrap heap in the hopes that he could find a time machine and give them some much-needed right-handed power. Yet when is the last time someone with an audience larger than a few thousand hardcore fans brought up Bartlett's name in the conversation?

Bartlett was impressive enough this spring to earn the starting shortstop job, he hit .332/.417/.475 at Triple-A last season, and now he's hitting .330/.399/.467 at Triple-A since being sent down this year. Oh, and he plays a position that the Twins have been filling with a career .228/.269/.337 hitter who is batting .249/.268/.383 this season.

I'm not saying Bartlett is the solution to this team's problems offensively, but with the amount of time and the number of words spent on "fixing" the lineup, how is it possible that Bartlett gets completely ignored? How many teams are simultaneously searching the globe for any hitters with a pulse while they have a shortstop hitting .330 at Triple-A for the second straight season?

* * * * *

I always like reading the local newspapers' take on Santana when the Twins travel to a new city. Here are a few articles on Johan from this morning's New York papers:

- Santana May Be a Marked Man, but He Earns High Marks (New York Times)

- Yanks fall to Santana's evil ways (Bergen Record)

- Santana is stifling again (New York Daily News)

* * * * *

According the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Twins sound close to signing Dennys Reyes to a minor-league deal:

The Twins offered a minor league contract to free-agent pitcher Dennys Reyes late Tuesday night and appeared Wednesday to be close to acquiring the veteran left-hander, a move that could signal a trade this week of a pitcher off the big-league staff.


Reyes' agent, Oscar Suarez, said late Wednesday the pitcher's choices were between the Twins and New York Yankees, who made a similar offer. He said he planned to go over the options with Reyes on Wednesday night, including the chances for a quick return to the big leagues with either club.

As for the idea a Reyes deal could be a precursor to a Twins trade of a pitcher — possibly left-hander J.C. Romero — before Sunday afternoon's non-waiver trade deadline, Ryan said, "I wouldn't read too much into it. We have an opening at AAA."

Reyes would be a solid pickup, although I don't think he should make the Twins any more willing to lose J.C. Romero. Reyes had very good numbers against lefties this year (.208/.311/.264), but it is a very small sample and he was knocked around plenty by righties (.359/.464/.508). Over the previous three seasons, his numbers were a lot more balanced and simply not very good: .296/.370/.459 against lefties, .281/.361/.455 against righties.

* * * * *

WILD CARD       W      L     WIN%      GB
Oakland 55 46 .545 ---
Minnesota 54 46 .540 0.5
New York 53 46 .535 1.0

Today at The Hardball Times:
- Circle the Wagons: Running the Bases Part I (by Dan Fox)
- Buyer Beware (by Ben Jacobs)

Today's Picks (82-70, +$1,060):
Cleveland (Lee) +105 over Seattle (Meche)

The End Is Near, I Fear

Taken in isolation, being dominated by Randy Johnson is certainly nothing to get overly discouraged about. He's done it many times to many teams, including the Twins, and he was simply on top of his game last night (and the generous strike zone didn't hurt either). However, the ongoing lack of offense is getting to be a bit of a joke.

The Twins have now scored five or more runs in just three of their 13 games since the All-Star break, and after being shut out last night they are averaging 3.15 runs per game in the second half. Take away the inexplicable 10-run outburst against Jason Johnson and the Tigers last Thursday and the Twins are averaging 2.6 runs over their last dozen games.

With the division long gone and the Wild Card slowing slipping away, I think the real danger now is that Terry Ryan might think he is forced to make a major move before Sunday's trade deadline. The reality is that this team is past the point of needing one hitter to turn things around. Whether it is Alfonso Soriano or Babe Ruth, the lineup has been pitiful of late and the team will go nowhere unless the entire group steps things up very soon.

A team averaging three runs per game doesn't just add a good hitter and suddenly average five runs per game. The problems run a lot deeper than that. Sadly, what looked to me this spring like potentially the strongest Twins team since at least 1991 may end up being the team to snap the streak of consecutive postseason appearances at three.

The White Sox have successfully run away and hid, and the odds of this team outplaying both the Yankees and the A's down the stretch seem remote. That leaves the Twins in an in-between stage. They're still in the postseason race, so you can't just give up on this season and focus on what looks like a very bright future (and the team can't deal away spare parts for future value). And their playoff chances don't appear good enough to get all that excited about the remainder of this season.

As for all the talk here and other places about perhaps acquiring Soriano ... it's all just noise until someone explains how the Twins will fit his expected $10 million salary for next season on their payroll. Until then, he would be a two-month rental with a cost far outweighing his value over the course of roughly 60 games.

Thankfully, it appears as though the Twins agree with me on this. Or at least Ron Gardenhire does:

Gardenhire said the Twins would not deal pitching prospects Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano, who have been asked about by other teams.

"We're not going to give up a bunch of good, young players for a rent-a-player," he said.

Of course, he didn't say anything about J.D. Durbin, Boof Bonser or Travis Bowyer, but hopefully the general point isn't dependent on specific prospects.

Being half a game back for a playoff spot never looked so bad.

WILD CARD       W      L     WIN%      GB
New York 53 45 .541 ---
Oakland 54 46 .540 ---
Minnesota 53 46 .535 0.5

Today at The Hardball Times:
- Resurrection in Oakland (by Aaron Gleeman)
- Shakeup in San Diego (by Vinay Kumar)
- Business of Baseball Report (by Brian Borawski)

Today's Picks (82-69, +$1,160):
Cleveland (Elarton) +165 over Oakland (Haren)

July 26, 2005

Twins Media Round Up

As the Twins prepare for a crucial series against the mighty Yankees, there seems to be an awful lot of Twins-related stuff in the mainstream media lately. So rather than babble on about my usual stuff today, I thought it would be good to take a stroll through the various coverage and see what sort of interesting tidbits we can find.

  • Former Mets GM Steve Phillips wrote a very interesting article over at ESPN.com yesterday, breaking down the personalities and negotiating tendencies of the American League GMs. While Phillips wasn't particularly forthcoming about anything that could be viewed in a negative light, there were a lot of interesting notes to be found in the article. Here's what he said about Twins GM Terry Ryan:

    Ryan is a very serious and hardworking guy. He is all about the team and the organization. He chose to stay in Minnesota through some rough times without any guarantees. That tells you about his character and commitment. He knows what he likes and what he doesn't. He also understands what he can consider and what he can't because of payroll limitations. He is a realist.

    He tends to look at the worst-case scenario instead of the best-case scenario in situations, but that is what drives him and motivates him to find solutions to problems. Terry is also willing to say no, which helps him. In fact, he says no to most first proposals even when it might be a deal he would consider. He doesn't chase away his partners, he just gets them to consider other options that ultimately might better suit him because he knows he can always go back to the original proposal later. He tests other GMs, and sometimes they blink and improve their proposals.

    Much of what Phillips says about Ryan is very similar to what he also says about other GMs, so it's difficult to get a feel for what is a description of something specific to Ryan and what is just typical cliche-speak. However, the few things Phillips says that are unique to Ryan are likely what his strongest traits are.

    One is that Ryan "tends to look at the worst-case scenario instead of the best-case scenario in situations," although to be honest I'm not quite sure what that means. The other is that Ryan is "willing to say no" and "says no to most first proposals even when it might be a deal he would consider." This is a very clear description, and I think sheds an interesting light on Ryan's ability to make good trades. As Phillips writes, "He tests other GMs, and sometimes they blink and improve their proposals."

    Basically, if you read Phillips' description of Ryan and compare it to the descriptions of the other AL GMs in the article, Ryan comes across as a no-nonsense guy who tends to get right down to business rather than make small-talk and someone who attempts to prolong discussions to improve his end of the deal. While that may not make him the most fun GM to negotiate with (Phillips describes several GMs as being fun to chat with), it certainly seems to work for the Twins.

  • Jim Souhan writes in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that not only has Bret Boone been bad on the field, he isn't making any friends off the field either. It is sounding like the trade couldn't have turned out worse, and Boone's days may be numbered. In a column in which it seems like he's trying exceedingly hard to be really clever, Souhan did have a few good lines:

    Now that we're approaching the end of the Bret Boone era -- my favorite moment was the walk -- it's time for the Twins to look under another family tree for help.


    At this point in his career, he's a big ego bursting out of a banjo-hitter's body.

    Souhan also comes to a conclusion that I've been stressing with regard to the Twins for years now: "Guys with track records are not necessarily the answer, however appealing their names might be." Amen to that.

  • Meanwhile, Jason Williams of the St. Paul Pioneer Press has a more even-handed look at Boone's struggles. Williams also has a minor-league wrap-up with notes on Travis Bowyer, Francisco Liriano, Luis Rivas, and Jason Bartlett. Bartlett is hitting .330/.399/.467 at Triple-A and the Twins are looking for offense, yet Williams writes that "he isn't expected to be recalled anytime soon."
  • John Harper of the New York Daily News writes about the Twins' search for some offense and refers to the team as the Yankees' "favorite first-round playoff opponent." Which is true, of course, but it still stings.
  • ESPN.com's Rob Neyer had a column last week about the Twins that works off the shaky premise that Ron Gardenhire really believes the team's struggles are due to not having Henry Blanco around. I liked Rob's last line:

    But in all sincerity, I will suggest that if I employed a manager who really believed such a thing, I would seriously consider finding a new manager.

    I know Gardenhire said such a thing, but I have a hard time believing he truly meant it.

  • And finally, Joe Christensen of the Star Tribune reports that the Twins might be interested in Alfonso Soriano:

    In a widespread search for a hitter who can help their struggling offense, the Twins have spoken to the Texas Rangers about Alfonso Soriano, two people familiar with the trade discussions said Monday.

    Soriano is certainly the most interesting name that has been mentioned in connection with the Twins throughout all the trade rumors. The Twins reportedly offered Texas J.C. Romero, Joe Mays, and/or Kyle Lohse, but judging from the rumors about both New York teams being interested in Soriano, I can't imagine the Twins being able to get him for players like that. Plus, Kathleen O'Brien of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram writes that the Rangers aren't even sure they want to deal Soriano, period.

    I've been e-mailing back and forth with John "Twins Geek" Bonnes about a potential Soriano deal, but I'll wait until the rumor becomes somewhat concrete before wasting too many words on it. The short version is that he is a good but not great player who makes a lot of money and will thus likely be gone after this season if the Twins acquire him. I don't think giving up future value -- whether in the form of Romero or prospects like J.D. Durbin or Boof Bonser -- is smart when the upside is a 60-game upgrade of debatable significance.

    Is the upgrade from Luis Rodriguez or Nick Punto to Soriano over a two-month span really going to make the difference in the Twins' playoff chances? I don't think so. Plus, the assumption that Soriano could be had for guys like Romero, Mays, Lohse, Durbin, and Bonser seems iffy to me given how much competition their seems to be for his services.

  • Today at The Hardball Times:
    - Moneyball and Efficient Efficiency (by J.C. Bradbury)
    - Business of Baseball Report ... as of 1954 (by Steve Treder)

    Today's Picks (81-69, +$1,060):
    Detroit (Johnson) -100 over Seattle (Pineiro)

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