July 1, 2007

Notes From The Weekend

  • The blogger get-together Saturday afternoon was a lot of fun. Along with me, other bloggers in attendance included Howard Sinker, Stick and Ball Guy, Jesse Lund, Nick Nelson, and Nick Mosvick. There were non-bloggers there too, including a record number of females for a non-Batgirl event. In fact, the male-to-female ratio was amazingly close to even. The youngest attendee was Stick and Ball Baby, who stole the show by being the most well-behaved baby I've ever seen (for about four innings).

    Here's a picture of her explaining to me that Kevin Slowey's 3-0 record is due largely to run support:

    And here's a shot of her advising me that I should probably leave the beard-growing to Sinker:

    As you might expect from someone who's so devoted to being a Twins fan that she was technically at the previous get-together in April despite not even being born yet, she was right on both counts.

  • Johan Santana, Justin Morneau, and Torii Hunter were named to the American League All-Star team yesterday, with the player's voting Morneau and Hunter in and manager Jim Leyland selecting Santana (along with Ron Gardenhire, who was named to the coaching staff). I'm of the opinion that being an "All-Star" should have less to do with having a good first half and more to do with being among the best players in baseball, so I would also have picked Joe Mauer and perhaps Joe Nathan.

    With that said, Ivan Rodriguez is a future inner-circle Hall of Famer, Jorge Posada and Victor Martinez are very good players having very good seasons, Mauer has missed 31 games, and four catchers on the roster would have been overkill. Meanwhile, Pat Neshek is one of five "Final Vote" candidates and will compete with Roy Halladay, Jeremy Bonderman, Kelvim Escobar, and Hideki Okajima for the AL's final roster spot.

    It will be Santana's third straight All-Star selection, while Hunter previously made the team in 2002, when he started in center field and robbed Barry Bonds of a homer in the game that infamously ended in a tie. Despite being the reigning AL MVP, this will be Morneau's first trip to an All-Star game. He was hitting .300/.352/.587 with 23 homers and 73 RBIs through last season's All-Star break (compared to .280/.354/.549 with 20 homers and 61 RBIs so far this year), but failed to make the team.

  • Along with simply losing last night's game, the Twins' inability to put runs on the board probably kept Scott Baker from changing the way many fans perceive him. Given a few runs to work with, Baker's outstanding performance against the league's most powerful offense would have been viewed as major step forward. Instead, he received zero run support, made one mistake to Marcus Thames after seven shutout innings, and takes a tough loss that likely won't make a dent in the way many view him.

    Of course, fans smart enough to realize that Baker can't control how many runs the Twins score will see that he's now turned in three straight strong starts, including holding the Blue Jays and Tigers to one run in back-to-back outings. I've never really thought of Baker as more than a back-of-the-rotation starter, but the amazingly negative reaction he gets from many Twins fans has sort of forced me into a position of defending him to some degree.

    In eight starts since returning from Triple-A, Baker has three fantastic performances and has pitched reasonably well in two other outings. He now has a 5.14 ERA and 129-to-41 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 184 career innings, which are the type of numbers that bode well for the future of a 25-year-old pitcher with an outstanding minor-league track record. For whatever reason many fans seemingly view him as a worthless bum, but he clearly doesn't deserve that level of vitriol. He deserves some patience.

  • Apparently all it took for Gardenhire to stop batting Mauer in the No. 2 spot and abandon his stated plan to remove Nick Punto as the starting third baseman was a week-long injury to Morneau, which probably shouldn't have been surprising given his history with such things. Jason Bartlett is playing very well right now and has the on-base skills to be solid at the top of a batting order, but the lineup is simply not well-constructed with Luis Castillo and Bartlett starting things off.

    Conventional wisdom values on-base skills and speed at the top of the lineup, but at some point you're better off simply getting your best hitters to the plate most often. There are scenarios where putting two guys with a sub-.700 OPS at the top makes sense, but doing so when it means batting Morneau and Hunter fifth and sixth is not one of them. The impact of a batting order is typically overstated, but putting the team's two best power hitters so far down in the lineup is a mistake that costs runs.

    Why position things so that the reigning MVP and a .303/.345/.554 hitter aren't likely to bat until the second inning? Why not give the team's top hitters the best shot at additional at-bats? Why begin each game with three hitters who've combined for six homers in nearly 800 plate appearances? It may work for conventional wisdom, but "because fast guys always bat at the top of the lineup" doesn't strike me as an especially logical answer.

  • While Bartlett in the No. 2 spot is less than ideal, he's certainly a much better fit there than Punto was. Punto made several good defensive plays over the weekend, but went 0-for-9 at the plate to drop his season totals to .207/.307/.266 in 295 plate appearances. Since the Twins moved to Minnesota in 1961, here's how Punto's current OPS ranks among the worst turned in by a third baseman with at least 500 plate appearances in a season:
                          YEAR      OPS
    Brooks Robinson 1975 .541
    Don Wert 1968 .556
    Aurelio Rodriguez 1974 .562
    NICK PUNTO 2007 .573
    Clete Boyer 1964 .573

    Punto is currently on pace for the third-worst OPS of any starting third baseman since 1961, with the four other seasons in the top five coming in much lower-scoring eras. Brooks Robinson sitting atop the above list might seem odd, but Robinson was 38 years old in 1975 and it was his final season as a regular. Beyond Punto's historically horrible ranking among third basemen, his .573 OPS would also rank as the second-worst in Twins history, regardless of position:

                          YEAR      OPS
    Zoilo Versalles 1967 .531
    NICK PUNTO 2007 .573
    Butch Wynegar 1978 .616
    Roy Smalley 1977 .631
    Rich Rollins 1965 .641

    Much like Robinson in 1975, that was Zoilo Versalles' final season in Minnesota. After posting a .531 OPS, he was traded to the Dodgers, where he batted .196 in 1968. However you slice it, Punto is in the midst of a historically awful season. Despite that, he's started 68 of the team's first 80 games while coming to the plate more often than all but four hitters (Michael Cuddyer, Morneau, Hunter, Castillo) and is on pace for about 600 plate appearances.

  • On a similar note, after starting three of the previous four games in right field, Jason Tyner started at designated hitter last night for the dozenth time. I've already covered this topic in great length before, so I'll avoid repeating the details, but regularly using Tyner as a starting right fielder and designated hitter--including for a nationally televised game--is something both Gardenhire and Terry Ryan should be embarrassed by.

    Interestingly, LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported recently that the Twins talked to the Cubs about reacquiring Jacque Jones, but cut off negotiations "because of finances." Jones has plenty of faults as a player and he's off to a brutal start with the Cubs, but he'd represent a massive upgrade over Tyner. The Twins were absolutely right to let Jones leave via free agency last offseason, but he's only owed about $2 million for the remainder of this season and $5 million for next season.

    Given the number of times Gardenhire has written Tyner's name in the lineup and the organization's lack of quality, MLB-ready hitting prospects, Jones would be worth picking up if the Cubs were willing to pay about half of his remaining contract and didn't require a legitimate prospect in return. The point isn't so much that the Twins should be trying desperately to bring Jones back, but rather that there are plenty of hitters like Jones who're available for reasonably cheap and would provide a boost offensively.

  • Matt Garza was called up from Triple-A before the series and will be available out of the bullpen before starting Friday against the White Sox. It's difficult to see Garza claiming a rotation spot at this point and he wasn't pitching particularly well at Rochester lately, but with Glen Perkins on the disabled list he's certainly the right choice for a spot start. It'll be interesting to see if the Twins let Garza stick around as a reliever for a while and, if not, what his reaction will be upon heading back to Triple-A.
  • Random stat: Before going on the disabled list, Mauer was hitting .353 in 28 games, but just one of his 36 hits was a homer. Since returning from his quadriceps injury, Mauer has hit just .244 in 20 games, but three of his 20 hits have left the ballpark, including Friday's dramatic grand slam.

  • Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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