July 23, 2006

Notes From Cleveland

Some notes I typed up while watching the Twins take two out of three from the Indians ...

  • I've been clamoring for the Twins to give Pat Neshek a chance for most of the past year, and now you can see why. Within his first two weeks in the big leagues, Neshek has already surpassed Jesse Crain as Ron Gardenhire's preferred option in the seventh inning, tossing seven scoreless innings over five appearances since coming up from Rochester.

    Neshek's willingness to attack major-league hitters and pound the strike zone is impressive, and missing a ton of bats while doing so is what makes him a potential stud. Neshek threw 69 of his first 101 big-league pitches for strikes and walked just two of the 24 batters he faced. Best of all, he racked up nine strikeouts, all swinging.

    Neshek doesn't have mid-90s velocity on his fastball, but he's far from a soft-tosser. The combination of a fastball at 89-92 miles per hour and a ridiculous delivery allows him to blow hitters away just like throwing 95 MPH would. Neshek doesn't paint the corners or rely on favorable strike-three calls, he simply challenges hitters to actually hit strikes and watches as they fail.

    Gardenhire campaigned for Terry Ryan to call Neshek up and immediately trusted him in tight spots. Instead of sending Francisco Liriano out for the sixth inning with 95 pitches yesterday, Gardenhire turned to Neshek for a multi-inning appearance, showing confidence in him (and Dennys Reyes) to bridge the gap between Liriano and the near-automatic win that begins when Juan Rincon enters the game in the eighth inning.

  • I've written in the past about how postseason pitching staffs are significantly different than regular-season pitching staffs. Because of added days off in between games and series, teams can often get by with using only seven or eight pitchers regularly. The Twins still have a long way to go before they get into the playoffs, but if they do there's no doubt that they'd have the best staff in baseball:
                              ERA     OAVG
    SP Johan Santana 3.00 .222
    SP Fran Liriano 1.93 .196
    SP Brad Radke 4.83 .318

    CL Joe Nathan 1.54 .181
    SU Juan Rincon 2.03 .229
    LH Dennys Reyes 1.38 .211
    RH Pat Neshek 0.00 .059

    That's scary, especially considering Brad Radke has a 2.54 ERA over his last 10 starts. Crain has also pitched well over the past two months, but he'd barely be needed for more than mop-up duties if Neshek avoids a blowup. That's a staff built for the playoffs, with two aces, a third starter who's much better than any other options, a dominant setup-closer combination, and middle men to match up against lefties and righties.

  • Joe Mauer received his 12th intentional walk of the season yesterday, matching last season's total in 184 fewer plate appearances. Cleveland chose to load the bases for Michael Cuddyer with a right-handed pitcher on the mound rather than pitch to Mauer with two runners in scoring position, which is a strategy that will always make sense as long as Cuddyer bats behind Mauer.

    As discussed in this space last week, Justin Morneau should be hitting cleanup. Batting Mauer and Morneau back-to-back would leave the Twins susceptible to a left-handed reliever coming in, but both Mauer and Morneau are doing well against southpaws this year. As things stand now, they're just as susceptible to Mauer being pitched around to have a righty face Cuddyer, and Cuddyer has been far less successful against righties.

    Cuddyer has generally come through in key spots, including a Jhonny Peralta-aided infield single after Mauer's intentional walk yesterday. However, he'd have those same opportunities batting fifth, and moving Morneau up one spot would actually leave the bat in Mauer's hands a little more often. At the end of the season, when various fans and members of the media lightly criticize Mauer for driving in fewer than 100 runs, just remember yesterday's game.

  • On a related note, Cuddyer appears to have changed his stance a bit against righties. He typically stands relatively straight up, with his hands raised fairly high and close to his body. In yesterday's at-bats against Jake Westbrook and Brian Sikorski, Cuddyer was much more crouched down and had his hands dropped noticeably lower.

    It remains to be seen if the adjustments are permanent (or if they actually work), but at the very least it shows that someone (likely either Cuddyer or hitting coach Joe Vavra) is paying attention. Cuddyer was hitting everyone well early this season and has continued to bash lefties, but recently he's struggled against righties. That it was recognized, through stats or observation, is encouraging.

  • Morneau went homerless during the three-game series, but did go 4-for-11 with a double and two walks. He also avoided striking out, which means he's whiffed four times in 75 plate appearances this month. Coming into this season Morneau had struck out in 18.4 percent of his career trips to the plate, and through the end of June that number was at 18.2 percent this year. He's at 5.3 percent this month.
  • Rondell White's healthy shoulder-fueled deal with the devil continued in Cleveland, as he went 5-for-11 with a double and a walk during the series, including 4-for-5 with four RBIs Friday. Here's how White's post-Rochester numbers compare with what he did prior to the demotion:
                 AB     AVG     OBP     SLG    2B    HR    RBI    BB    SO
    Before 181 .182 .209 .215 6 0 15 5 30
    After 29 .448 .500 .862 3 3 10 2 2

    I'm not one to place much value in what happens over the course of 29 at-bats, but those are some of the most amazing stats I've seen all year. Even ignoring the actual numbers, White has clearly taken more healthy, bad-intentioned swings at pitches over the plate during the past two weeks than he did in his first 190 plate appearances combined.

    I have no idea how long "Good Rondell" will stick around or if "Bad Rondell" still lurks somewhere, but for now at least it's obvious that this isn't a case of a few grounders finding holes or some bloopers avoiding gloves. White is hitting balls hard, and they're finding gaps and flying over fences. If Torii Hunter comes back and Jason Kubel's knee lets up, there won't be an easy out in the entire lineup.

  • Mauer went 0-for-3 against lefty Jeremy Sowers Saturday, but went 5-for-7 with three walks and three extra-base hits in the surrounding games to put his season totals at .381/.457/.534. Here's how Mauer currently ranks among the all-time catching leaders:
                        YEAR      AVG                          YEAR      OBP
    JOE MAUER 2006 .381 Mickey Cochrane 1933 .459
    Mike Piazza 1997 .362 JOE MAUER 2006 .457
    Mickey Cochrane 1930 .357 Mickey Cochrane 1935 .452
    Spud Davis 1933 .349 Mike Piazza 1997 .431
    Mickey Cochrane 1931 .349 Wally Schang 1921 .428
    Ernie Lombardi 1938 .342 Mickey Cochrane 1934 .428
    Gabby Hartnett 1930 .339 Dick Dietz 1970 .426
    Mickey Cochrane 1927 .338 Mickey Cochrane 1930 .424
    Mike Piazza 1996 .336 Mickey Cochrane 1931 .423
    Deacon McGuire 1895 .336 Mike Piazza 1996 .422

    I first looked at how Mauer's season was stacking up against the all-time great years from catchers back in early June, at which point he was in the middle of a historic run that included getting on base 52 times in 20 games. It's six weeks later and his batting average has fallen just seven points, while his on-base percentage has actually gone up (thanks in part to those intentional walks).

    Mauer remains safely ahead of Mike Piazza's 1997 season for the highest batting average ever by a catcher, and he's one good game away from overtaking Mickey Cochrane's 1933 season for the top on-base percentage. Assuming Mauer gets a similar amount of playing time for the remainder of the year, he'll have to hit right around .330 to stay ahead of Piazza. As of right now, he's a career .326 hitter.

                        YEAR      OPS                          YEAR      RC
    Mike Piazza 1997 1.070 Mike Piazza 1997 149
    Gabby Hartnett 1930 1.034 Bill Dickey 1937 132
    Mike Piazza 2000 1.012 Gabby Hartnett 1930 128
    Roy Campanella 1953 1.006 Roy Campanella 1953 127
    Chris Hoiles 1993 1.001 JOE MAUER 2006 124
    Rudy York 1938 .995 Mike Piazza 1996 123
    JOE MAUER 2006 .991 Yogi Berra 1950 123
    Bill Dickey 1937 .987 Mike Piazza 1998 122
    Mike Piazza 1996 .985 Johnny Bench 1970 120
    Roy Campanella 1951 .983 Mickey Cochrane 1932 118

    Mauer is on track for a modest 12 homers, yet ranks seventh all-time among catchers with a .991 OPS and is on pace for 42 doubles that would tie him for second all time behind only Ivan Rodriguez's 47 two-baggers in 1996. In terms of overall offensive production (as shown above in the form of Runs Created), only Piazza's 1997 season is significantly ahead of Mauer's pace.

  • The Twins begin a three-game series in Chicago tonight against the Wild Card-leading White Sox and then host the division-leading Tigers for three games beginning Friday. Each series from here on out essentially becomes "the most important series of the year," which is why it's cliche to use that label.

    With that said, we'll have a much better grasp of the Twins' playoff chances by the time the Rangers come to town Monday. Here's what the Wild Card standings look like before Radke takes the mound against Javier Vazquez tonight:

                    W      L     WIN%      GB
    Chicago 59 38 .608 ---
    New York 56 40 .583 2.5
    Minnesota 56 41 .577 3.0
    Toronto 55 43 .561 4.5

    Between last season and the Tony Batista era, I almost forgot how much fun this is.

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