July 2, 2008

Twins Notes: Missions, Progress, and Strikeouts

Hello like before
I'd never come here if I'd known that you were here
I must admit though that it's nice to see you, dear
You look like you've been doing well

- Bill Withers, "Hello Like Before"

Between the search for a new woman to officially lust after and the annual attempt to ruin my liver while making time with lamps, the amount of Twins coverage here over the past couple weeks has been relatively minimal (although to be fair I've still written more words about the Twins during that time than Minneapolis Star Tribune columnists Jim Souhan and Patrick Reusse, combined). While pictures of Keeley Hazell and Chris Dial have dominated this blog recently, the Twins have won 16 of 20 games.

Despite growing evidence that my writing about the Twins actually hurts the team on the field--it's fairly shocking that someone at Twinkie Town hasn't put forth that theory yet--I've decided to tempt fate and put the team's playoff chances at serious risk by typing up some Twins notes for the first time in over a week. You'll have to excuse a little rustiness, but rest assured that the Official Fantasy Girl of AG.com throne only becomes vacant every couple years and my next vacation figures to be in about 400 days.

  • Jason Kubel has been on fire during the Twins' impressive 20-game stretch, going 20-for-62 (.323) with five homers. His dozen long balls are tied with Justin Morneau for the team lead and he's batting .300/.392/.562 over the past 40 games. Dating back to May 10 of last year, Kubel has gotten a total of 644 plate appearances, or about one full season's worth of everyday playing time. During that stretch he's hit .275/.340/.480 with 25 homers and 96 RBIs. Mission accomplished.
  • Delmon Young homering remains a rare occurrence and he's still tough to watch defensively in left field, but after going 3-for-4 with a pair of doubles yesterday he's batting .306/.357/.476 in 38 games dating back to mid-May. Take a look at how that compares to his first 39 games with the Twins:
                         PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     XBH     BB     SO
    Through May 15 157 .270 .312 .304 4 9 26
    After May 15 156 .306 .357 .476 18 12 25

    His strikeouts and walks have remained fairly constant, but Young is finally starting to drive the ball with some semblance of authority after spending the first six weeks of the season tapping weak grounders to second base. Since mid-May he has 18 extra-base hits in 156 plate appearances. Prior to that he had four extra-base hits in 157 plate appearances. He's managed just two homers in 78 games and continues to hit the ball on the ground far too often for that to change much, but progress is progress.

  • Carlos Gomez collected two singles and a double yesterday afternoon for his third straight multi-hit game, but also struck out for the 84th time. Only Jack Cust of the A's has more strikeouts among AL hitters, but he's a plodding Three True Outcomes machine who's drawn 46 more walks and hit eight more homers than Gomez. Gomez has struck out in 55 of his 77 starts (71 percent), including 28 of the past 35 games (80 percent).

    Strikeouts are just fine if you're getting on base and hitting for power, but Gomez has done neither of those things thus far. Even with a solid .274 batting average his .308 on-base percentage ranks 75th among the league's 83 hitters who qualify for the batting title, as he's drawn a total of 14 free passes in 358 plate appearances for the fourth-worst walk rate in the AL. Gomez has done slightly better in the power department, but still ranks just 68th among AL hitters in Isolated Power at .108.

    Gomez has the worst OBP in the AL among leadoff men by a wide margin and thanks in part to batting so often atop the lineup despite being a poor fit there he's on track to break the Twins' single-season record for strikeouts. At his current pace he'll strike out 161 times, which would shatter the old record of 145 set by Bobby Darwin in 1972. Asked earlier this week whether he'd consider putting Gomez in a spot where his horrible OBP wouldn't make such an impact, Gardenhire gave a predictable answer:

    Gomez is doing fine. I know he's not a prototype leadoff guy, but he's having fun. When I sit here and the game starts and he walks to the plate, I don't turn my head.

    Having fun and keeping the manager from turning his head are nice and all, but not making an out 70 percent of the time would be way better. No. 2 hitter Alexi Casilla has a .371 OBP through 43 games, walking one fewer time than Gomez in 174 fewer plate appearances. Even Denard Span has gotten on base at a .356 clip in 46 trips to the plate while filling in for Michael Cuddyer (and posted a .434 OBP during his career-best stretch at Triple-A). Oh, and Joe Mauer ranks second in the AL with a .413 OBP.

  • Francisco Liriano's comeback stalled when he allowed five runs on nine hits in back-to-back starts at Triple-A, but he bounced back Monday with his best outing since returning from Tommy John elbow surgery. Liriano tossed seven shutout innings against the Phillies' affiliate, allowing four singles while handing out one walk and racking up a season-high nine strikeouts. Even accounting for the horrible, punchless Lehigh Valley lineup that he faced it was a tremendously encouraging start.

    Liriano was a mess in three starts with the Twins and initially continued to struggle after a demotion to Rochester, but over the past dozen outings he has a 3.69 ERA, 65-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and .242 opponent's batting average in 75.2 innings. Both his velocity and ground-ball rate remain down significantly compared to 2006 and his overall numbers certainly aren't dominant, but that performance from a "regular" Triple-A pitching prospect would be solid enough to warrant a call-up.

  • Of course, the Twins have indicated previously that they aren't interested in bringing Liriano back as a reliever and the rotation has been strong from top to bottom recently. Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, and Kevin Slowey obviously aren't going anywhere, Glen Perkins has a 4-2 record with a 4.31 ERA in 11 starts since arriving from Rochester in mid-May, and even Livan Hernandez has logged seven innings in three straight outings after essentially throwing batting practice for a month.

    In a perfect world the Twins would find a taker for Hernandez at the July 31 trading deadline and Liriano would join the rotation to give the team a fifth young, productive starter down the stretch. However, with Liriano looking merely decent at Triple-A, Hernandez avoiding a disastrous outing for a few weeks, and the Twins eying a playoff spot, my guess it that Bill Smith and Ron Gardenhire will feel compelled to keep the overpaid 33-year-old with the 5.22 ERA for his "veteran presence."

  • Meanwhile, Boof Bonser has a hideous 7.10 ERA since being bumped from the rotation early last month, but a closer look at the numbers behind his relief work shows some good signs. Bonser has a 16-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio and has served up just one homer in 12.2 innings as a reliever, which represent big improvements from his struggles as a starter. Since moving to the bullpen his strikeouts are up 85 percent, his walks are down five percent, and he's nearly sliced his home-run rate in half.

    Bonser has worked almost exclusively in mop-up situations, it's tough to get excited about a 7.10 ERA regardless of the secondary numbers involved, and the sample size is awfully small yet, but at the very least he's shown some reason to think that he can be successful as a reliever long term. It'll probably take a while for the Twins to have any sort of confidence in Bonser as an option in important spots, but if he keeps throwing like he has that ERA is going to come down in a hurry.

  • With Bonser trying to become a late-inning bullpen option, the Twins officially said goodbye to one of the best setup men in team history when Juan Rincon signed a minor-league contract with the Indians last week. He reported to Triple-A and has already taken his first loss there with an ugly appearance Tuesday, but Rincon has a pretty good shot at getting back to the majors after the All-Star break given the Indians' shaky bullpen and last-place status. Bonser is a better bullpen bet going forward.
  • Speaking of ex-Twins relievers, former AG.com favorite Grant Balfour is finally healthy again and has been excellent as a setup man for the Rays. Balfour was an extremely promising young reliever before Tommy John surgery in 2005 followed by a torn labrum and rotator cuff in 2006 derailed his career and caused the Twins to cut him loose before his 28th birthday, but he's back to overpowering hitters again and converted a four-out save Tuesday against the Red Sox.

    Balfour has a 1.08 ERA and 25-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 16.2 innings with the Rays and prior to being called up in late May he posted a 0.38 ERA and 39-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 23.2 innings at Triple-A, giving him a sparkling 0.67 ERA and amazing 64 strikeouts in 40.1 innings overall this year. After racking up huge strikeout totals while coming up through the Twins' system, Balfour went 5-1 with a 4.63 ERA and 74-to-38 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 68 innings in Minnesota.

  • Along with the Twins having the the only .400 hitter in the minor leagues in former first rounder Ben Revere, unheralded relief prospect Anthony Slama leads the minors in both ERA and strikeout rate. Revere is hitting .415/.467/.571 in 226 plate appearances at low Single-A, while Slama has a 0.42 ERA and 73-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 42.2 innings at high Single-A. There's no rush to promote Revere given that he's just 20 years old, but keeping Slama at Fort Myers is absurd.

    Not only are his numbers there absolutely incredible and not only did he dominate between rookie-ball and low Single-A in his pro debut last season, but Slama is already 24 years old. He was a 39th-round pick after a so-so career at the University of San Diego, so the Twins are understandably skeptical that they have something special in Slama, but there's clearly no need for a 24-year-old to be eviscerating Single-A hitters. He has a 0.97 ERA and 122 strikeouts in 74.1 career innings. It's time for Double-A.

  • Add Monday's game to the list of instances where it would have been awfully nice to actually use the team's best, highest-paid reliever in a crucial, game-changing spot rather than holding him back for a "save situation" that never arrived. Crazy, I know.
  • Here's the latest amusing note about Torii Hunter from the Los Angeles Times:

    Zach Cone, a high school outfielder from Georgia who was a third-round pick in the June draft, took early batting practice with the Angels on Monday and hit one home run. Cone, who is expected to sign with the Angels this week, met several players, including Hunter, who showed Cone the pay stub from the twice-monthly check he received Monday.

    Hunter, who is making $16.5 million this season, was razzed by Scioscia and several players for showing the kid his check, but he provided a defense. "Kirby used to do that to me," Hunter said, referring to former Twins teammate Kirby Puckett. "He did it to motivate me."

    Between punching teammates, throwing people under the bus for not being the ultimate badass like him, and showing teenagers his paycheck, Hunter is full of unique ways to motivate those around him.

  • Dick Bremer: Overreacting to routine fly balls since 1983.
  • Least Shocking Quote of the Week, courtesy of new Mets manager Jerry Manuel talking about Luis Castillo: "He seems to wear down a lot easier than I anticipated."
  • Not only does Cole Nathan sound like a baseball player's name, he already has that closer stare.

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

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