May 27, 2008

Twins Notes: Boof, Bert, More Nathan, and Oh-For-Thrivas

  • Barring a setback with his groin injury, it sounds like Scott Baker will return from the disabled list next week, with Boof Bonser receiving a demotion to the bullpen in favor of keeping Glen Perkins in the rotation. Last week on FOX's "Sports on Demand" show we discussed what the Twins should do with Bonser and my suggestion was a move to the bullpen, so it'll be interesting to see whether he can turn things around as a reliever if facing the Yankees this weekend is his final start for a while.

    Bonser's peripheral numbers suggest that he's pitched quite a bit better than his ERA, but at some point it becomes tough to trot him out there with other capable rotation options available. Dating back to last year, Bonser is 6-17 with a 6.02 ERA over his last 30 starts. Bad run support is partly responsible for that win-loss record, but he has a 6.02 ERA with a mediocre 108-to-52 strikeout-to-walk ratio and .293 opponent's batting average in 172 innings spread over basically one full season's worth of starts.

  • The following picture of Bert Blyleven made the rounds a couple months ago:

    In a recent interview with David Brown over at Big League Stew, Blyleven discussed the photo:

    Blyleven: I LOVE to fart.

    Brown: What's wrong with you?

    Blyleven: I'm honest. Have you ever farted?

    Brown: One or two times.

    Blyleven: And did it feel good?

    Brown: Always.

    Blyleven: Probably so. That's why I wore it. I love to fart. I do. When the time is right, I do it. I'm not going to hide it.

    Brown: You're so blunt about your love for flatulence.

    Blyleven: Yeah. Well, someone gave me the shirt because of my history of farting, so I wear it. I LOVE to fart. I think I still have it.

    Brown: What gets you really gassy?

    Blyleven: Anything. The air we're breathing right now.

    Brown: Should I be ready for something?

    Blyleven: I have no trouble. It's not one thing that I eat, it's just passed down from my father. My father was a very good farter. I have a sister who's very good at it, too. Probably better than I am.

    Brown: Women aren't "supposed" to do that.

    Blyleven: Oh, I think times have changed--at least in the Blyleven family.

    Over the years Blyleven's announcing has increasingly annoyed me and my FSN watching often occurs with the television on mute because it's painful to hear his same tired routine every night, but despite that it's nearly impossible not to like him personally. I've long supported his Hall of Fame candidacy and Blyleven seems like a great guy, so it'd be nice if his announcing had more humor and meaningful analysis rather than being dominated by repetitive cliches, odd grammatical ticks, and fan circling.

  • Francisco Liriano served up a grand slam to Brad Eldred while allowing six runs in his latest start at Triple-A, giving him a 4.38 ERA and 23-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in six starts since being sent back to Rochester. The good news is that Liriano has improved his control recently, walking a total of just five batters over his last four outings. The bad news is that he's still throwing 88-91 miles per hour, has yet to strike out more than five batters in any start, and isn't inducing a high percentage of ground balls.
  • Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote an article earlier this week about the Twins' lack of power, including the following about Joe Mauer:

    Quibbling about Mauer's home run total is like quibbling about a top point guard's lack of dunking skills. Chris Paul, for example. Mauer is good at everything else. He is superb defensively at catcher, the most demanding position on the field. Entering Monday, he led the American League in batting at .338 and was third in on-base percentage at .416.

    If that sounds familiar, it's probably because you read the following in this space last week:

    After collecting multiple hits in each of the past three games, Joe Mauer now leads the AL with a .336 batting average. He also ranks fourth in the league with a .406 on-base percentage and only Kurt Suzuki has logged more innings behind the plate. For all the silly, Dan Barreiro-style talk about Mauer not coming through in the clutch or not making a huge impact because of a lack of power, Mauer ranks third among AL hitters in Win Probability Added, trailing only Manny Ramirez and Josh Hamilton.

    Once you adjust for catcher being the worst-hitting position in baseball and throw in his considerable defensive value, a WPA-based analysis likely shows Mauer as the league's most valuable position player thus far. Some homers would certainly be nice, but anyone complaining about a player hitting .330 and getting on base at a .400 clip while playing the most physically demanding, least-offensive position is merely doing a fine job showing how little they really know about baseball.

    As always, it's nice to see the local mainstream media picking up on some of the things that I've been harping on here--no, that's not a plagiarism accusation--and it's nice to see Christensen stretching his writing legs a bit with some analysis and opinion. Some readers have questioned why Mauer gets a free pass here for his lack of power while Delmon Young draws plenty of criticism for the same thing, but the difference between them is huge and goes well beyond their nonexistent homer totals.

    Mauer has tremendous defensive value and stands out from the rest of the pack offensively at catcher, hitting .329 with a .414 on-base percentage and .816 OPS that ranks second in the AL among players at his position. Young has marginal defensive value and lags behind the rest of the pack offensively in left field, hitting just .262 with a .318 on-base percentage and .651 OPS that ranks dead last in the AL among players at his position. Both players have yet to homer, but that's where the comparison ends.

  • Last night's game against the Royals provided another example of my point from earlier this week regarding Ron Gardenhire's unwillingness to use Joe Nathan in a less rigid role. Nick Blackburn put two runners on base with one out in the ninth inning after cruising through eight scoreless frames, so rather than let him try to complete the game with a three-run lead Gardenhire brought in Nathan for the save. Certainly a debatable move, but there's nothing wrong with it in my mind.

    Nathan then proceeded to induce a looping fly ball down the left-field line that narrowly fell fair. It would have been a run-scoring double, except Young attempted a sliding catch that came up short and took his sweet time jogging after the ball once it bounced past him, leading to a game-tying inside-the-park homer that saddled Nathan with his first blown save of the season and left Blackburn with a tough-luck no-decision. (Blyleven laughably commented: "There's not much Young could do there.")

    Nathan quickly retired the next two hitters and finished the inning having thrown just 10 pitches while facing only three batters. When the Twins failed to score in the top of the 10th inning it seemed like a no-brainer that Nathan would be allowed to come back out for another frame, but instead the team's best, highest-paid pitcher called it a night after recording two outs and making all of 10 throws. Dennys Reyes and Jesse Crain then each worked an inning while throwing more pitches than Nathan.

    Asking lesser relievers to pitch in crucial, game-deciding spots while barely using Nathan is exactly the sort of backwards workload distribution that has cost the Twins plenty of times in the past. It didn't hurt them last night, as Reyes and Crain both managed scoreless innings before the lineup broke through in the top of the 12th, but that doesn't make the decision any better. Oh, and after Gardenhire yanked Nathan following 10 pitches, Royals closer Joakim Soria threw 31 pitches in two scoreless innings.

  • Taken by the Twins in the 26th round of the 1999 draft, Terry Tiffee spent parts of three seasons at Triple-A Rochester and dashed the hopes of optimistic, track record-ignoring fans once he got to the majors. Tiffee played primarily third base in the minors and was briefly given a chance to replace Tony Batista at the hot corner in mid-2006, but showed a glove that was better suited for first base and a bat that was better suited for shortstop.

    Tiffee hit just .226/.273/.351 in 256 plate appearances spread over 91 games with the Twins and was removed from the 40-man roster following the 2006 season. He signed a minor-league deal with the Orioles, hit a measly .272/.307/.394 in 124 games at Triple-A last season, and then latched on with the Dodgers via another minor-league deal this year. As a 29-year-old with little defensive value and an OPS below .750 in eight minor-league seasons Tiffee seemed unlikely to ever reach the majors again.

    Instead, he began this season by hitting .422 in 46 games at Triple-A Las Vegas and was called up to Los Angeles over the weekend to replace Andruw Jones on the roster. Tiffee provides a good example of two key things. One is that perseverance is a fantastic trait to have and can occasionally even trump talent. The other is that when it comes to baseball players just about anything can happen over the course of a hundred-something at-bats. Denard Span should probably take note of both lessons.

  • Speaking of former Twins infielders, Luis Rivas has been playing regularly for the Pirates this month thanks to starting shortstop Jack Wilson's calf injury and homered twice Sunday. Rivas was the Twins' starting second baseman from 2001-2005 and served as the Official Whipping Boy of during this blog's first few years of existence. He was mercifully let go by the Twins after hitting .262/.307/.383 in 2,056 plate appearances spread over parts of six seasons in Minnesota.

    Rivas debuted shortly after his 21st birthday and was a full-time starter in the majors the next season, so Twins management, media members, and plenty of fans always pointed to his youth as evidence of long-term potential despite the fact that he never actually performed well in the minors or majors. After 2,000 replacement-level trips to the plate and 4,000 innings of sub par defense the Twins finally gave up on Rivas and he spent the next two seasons playing at Triple-A for the Rays and Indians.

    He was no better in the minors, hitting just .218/.252/.288 in 2006 and .263/.341/.400 in 2007, yet the Pirates gave Rivas an Opening Day roster spot. Even after Sunday's two-homer game Rivas is hitting just .221/.247/.325 in 82 plate appearances, with the only real difference in his performance being that the Pirates have allowed him to play bad defense at shortstop in addition to second base. Hopefully Young can avoid the Rivas career path by adding some "performance" to his "youth" soon.

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

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