September 11, 2007

Twins Notes: Punto, LeCroy, Morneau, and Manship

  • Official Twins Beat Writer of LaVelle E. Neal III had an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune earlier this week about Nick Punto potentially becoming the first player to hit below .200 while playing enough to qualify for the batting title since Rob Deer in 1991. While LEN3 did mention the fact that Deer hit for excellent power while batting .179, it's important to note just how much more productive he was than Punto has been:
                    AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     OPS+
    Deer 1991 .179 .314 .386 .700 92
    Punto 2007 .199 .286 .255 .541 46

    Punto has 20 points of batting average on Deer, yet Deer has a 28-point lead in on-base percentage and a 131-point edge in slugging percentage. Deer's OPS was 159 points higher than Punto's and his adjusted OPS--which accounts for Deer playing in a much more pitcher-friendly era--is exactly double Punto's. Punto is the worst hitter in all of baseball, whereas Deer was relatively close to average while hitting 25 homers and drawing 89 walks. Here's a quote about Punto's struggles from Ron Gardenhire:

    We talked to him about trying to do some things, bunting and stuff. He's been so flustered with his swing he's gotten away from the best part of his game, which is the bunting part. He hasn't used that weapon this year because he's been trying to figure out his swing. Not that he hasn't tried. He's trying to hit the top of the ball, believe me he is. It just keeps going up.

    Like many things that Gardenhire says, that explanation sounds good in theory but falls apart once you examine it further. Seven of Punto's 133 hits (5.2 percent) came on bunts last year, whereas eight of his 85 hits (9.4 percent) have come on bunts this season. Punto's maddening inability to lay down sacrifice bunts has been a problem this year, but the idea that not using the bunt as "a weapon" has led to his struggles is misguided. Double his bunt hits from eight to 16 and he'd still be batting .218.

    One last note on the article is that LEN3 writes that despite his struggles offensively, Punto's "defense has remained spectacular." Sherri Nichols once observed that a catcher's defensive reputation is inversely proportional to their offensive abilities, which is a fancy way of saying that the better a catcher hits the worse people perceive his defense to be. The opposite is also very much true, and that seems to have extended to Punto despite the fact that he's not even a catcher.

    No one in the mainstream media seems able to discuss Punto's offensive struggles without noting his defense, and the praise heaped on his glove has increased just as steadily as his batting average has dipped. At .290 he was a good defender, at .250 he was great, and at .199 he's "spectacular." Meanwhile, among the dozen AL third basemen with at least 700 innings at the position this season, Punto's Zone Rating ranks ninth and only Mike Lowell has made fewer "out of zone" plays.

  • With a portly physique, a relatively slow bat, no real defensive skills, and absolutely zero speed, Matthew LeCroy is certainly the type of player who figured to age poorly. Still, that he's now completely washed up just two seasons after hitting .260/.354/.444 with 17 homers in 350 plate appearances for the Twins is surprising. LeCroy had an amazingly awful season at Rochester, hitting a Punto-like .194/.281/.287 with three homers in 80 games.

    The last time LeCroy was at Triple-A, back in 2002, he batted .351/.408/.609, so it's pretty clear that his days of being able to help a major-league team are over. Despite that, I was glad to see that the Twins called him up when Jose Morales was placed on the disabled list over the weekend. Aside from Johan Santana, LeCroy is probably my all-time favorite Twins player and he spent six seasons with the team after they selected him 50th overall in the 1997 draft.

    Last week's two-part series on most young players with good minor-league track records eventually developing into good major-league players focused on Scott Baker, Jason Bartlett, and Jason Kubel, but LeCroy could have been thrown in as a past example. A .303/.372/.538 hitter in over 1,900 plate appearances while coming up through the Twins' minor-league system, LeCroy batted just .174 in 56 games as a rookie in 2000.

    LeCroy spent the 2001 season back at Triple-A, where he hit .328/.384/.523 in 101 games, and then much like Baker and Bartlett thrived when given another chance in the majors. He hit .425 in 15 games during a September call-up that season and the rest is basically history. LeCroy ended up hitting .263/.327/.447 in 1,439 total plate appearances with the Twins, including .276/.338/.466 following his rookie-year struggles.

    Along with a common drop in batting average, LeCroy's minors-to-majors conversion was consistent in terms of Isolated Power and Isolated Discipline. While not a great player, LeCroy turned out much like his minor-league resume suggested that he would and developed into a solid right-handed platoon bat (although he wasn't always used optimally). Of course, he was also fun to watch and by all accounts one of the nicest guys on the team, which is why everyone seems excited to have him back.

    "He can provide us with an emergency catcher or a pinch-hitter, but just having a quality person like him around is going to make September a little easier to deal with here," Gardenhire said. I suspect that LeCroy will eventually take a job coaching for the Twins in the minors, but in the meantime he can teach the younger Twins his dangerously erotic dance moves and revive his longtime role as Will Young's non-sexual man crush.

  • Justin Morneau's power has largely been absent in the second half, with just five homers since the All-Star break, and his overall numbers are down compared to last season. However, it's interesting to note that the entire difference between an MVP-winning season and a year that will likely be viewed as a disappointment is his performance against left-handed pitching. In other words, his effectiveness against righties hasn't changed, but Morneau's numbers against lefties have plummeted:

    2006 .325 .391 .559 .950 2006 .315 .345 .559 .904
    2007 .309 .381 .566 .947 2007 .231 .289 .414 .703

    Here's a closer look at his decline against southpaws:

    YEAR      AVG     IsoP     IsoD      BIP      SO%     BB%
    2006 .315 .244 .030 .314 14.0 5.2
    2007 .231 .183 .058 .240 15.2 6.3

    Believe it or not, those numbers are actually very encouraging. Not only has Morneau continued to hit for good power against lefties, he's walked more often against them while essentially maintaining his strikeout rate. He's hitting for good power against southpaws and he's certainly not being overmatched, but the biggest source of his decline against left-handers is the fact that his batting average on balls in play against them has dropped from .314 to .240.

    As a whole, left-handed hitters facing left-handed pitchers have a .300 batting average on balls in play this season and Morneau's career rate was .280 coming into the year, which makes it likely that .240 is unsustainably low. If he can maintain his power and strike-zone control against lefties like he has this season, Morneau's numbers against them should see a big increase next season simply because a lot more balls in play figure to fall in for hits.

  • Last night, moments before Alexi Casilla stole his 11th base in a dozen tries, FSN announcers Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven informed the viewing audience that first-base coach Jerry White was an excellent base-stealer himself. Knowing that Bremer and Blyleven are wrong about such things at least as often as they're right, I punched up White's numbers at Sure enough, he stole just 57 bases in 646 games and was thrown out 28 times, for a poor success rate of 67 percent.
  • Earlier this week friend of Seth Stohs added to his bountiful collection of player interviews by talking to Twins pitching prospect Jeff Manship. Among other things, Manship offered reason for optimism regarding Francisco Liriano by discussing his own successful comeback from Tommy John surgery. A 14th-round pick out of Notre Dame in 2006, I ranked Manship as the Twins' No. 12 prospect coming into this season despite his having just 14.1 career innings as a pro.

    In doing so, I wrote that "if Manship has an injury-free season, he could be near the top of this list next year." That's exactly what happened, as Manship stayed healthy while going 15-6 with a 2.30 ERA, 136-to-34 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and .228 opponent's batting average in 149 innings spread over 26 starts between two levels of Single-A. The Twins currently boast as much young pitching talent as any organization in baseball and Manship might be the best of the next wave.

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

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