July 14, 2008
Twins Notes: Halfway Home
TWINS AT THE ALL-STAR BREAK
YEAR W L WIN% GB
2001 55 32 .632 ---
2002 50 39 .562 ---
2003 44 49 .473 7.5
2004 47 40 .540 0.5
2005 48 38 .558 9.0
2006 47 39 .547 11.0
2007 45 43 .511 8.0
2008 53 42 .558 1.5
This season's .558 winning percentage is tied for the third-best mark that the Twins have had at the All-Star break in the past eight years. Their best first-half winning percentage during that time came in 2001, when the Twins went 55-32 (.632) before the All-Star break and ended up losing the division by six games when they collapsed to 30-45 (.400) in the second half. That was their first season as a winning team since 1992 and their last season with Tom Kelly as manager.
They also took a division lead into the All-Star break the next season--and ended up cruising to their first AL Central title--but that's the last time the Twins have ended the first half in first place. Overall in the four seasons that have ended in an AL Central title--2002, 2003, 2004, 2006--the Twins had a .530 winning percentage in the first half and averaged a seven-game deficit in the division. In other words, this year's team has not only out-performed expectations, they're in pretty good shape historically.
A 3.53 ERA and 86-to-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 97 innings at Triple-A overall warrants a call-up, but there's no indication that he's on the verge of rejoining the rotation. Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Glen Perkins, and Kevin Slowey have ERAs between 3.47 and 4.26, so none of the rotation's 26-and-under starters deserve to be bumped. Livan Hernandez and his 5.44 ERA would seemingly be the clear choice to go in favor of Liriano, but his pitching poorly has obviously never bothered the Twins.
Velocity readings from the Twins should be taken with massive grains of salt. Ron Gardenhire said in February that Liriano "was averaging 93 and throwing it up to 96, free and easy," but in April he was working mostly in the high-80s and topped out around 92 miles per hour. With that said, Official Twins Beat Writer of AG.com LaVelle E. Neal III notes that his "fastball averaged 93 miles per hour and topped out at 95," while Rochester manager Stan Cliburn said that he "hit 99 on the gun" during one strikeout.
All of which made it especially frustrating when Blyleven offered an "analysis" of Hernandez's first half that dismissed his horrible ERA and historic number of hits allowed simply because he has nine wins. Blyleven has been kept out of the Hall of Fame largely because his win total doesn't match his overall performance and he's spent years essentially pleading with voters to let him in, yet he can't grasp that someone who goes 9-6 with a 5.44 ERA didn't have a great (or great-type, in Blyleven speak) first half.
Hernandez won nine games despite his performance and his ranking sixth among AL starters in run support played a huge part in that. There are 46 starters in the AL who've pitched enough to qualify for the ERA title. Hernandez ranks either dead last or second-to-last in ERA, opponent's batting average, opponent's on-base percentage, opponent's slugging percentage, and opponent's OPS. He also has by far the worst Win Probability Added among AL pitchers at -1.72. He's been horrible, nine wins or not.
Beyond that, Santana ranks sixth among NL starters in Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP), and even ignoring his extreme first- and second-half splits his 3.55 mark fits right in with his xFIP totals from 2004-2007: 3.55, 3.42, 3.35, 3.28. Santana has lost a little velocity on his fastball and has shied away from using his outstanding slider, which together have made him less dominating and perhaps less effective overall. However, don't let the record fool you. He remains an elite starting pitcher.
AL HITTERS LEADING OFF
Ian Kinsler .399
Johnny Damon .387
Chone Figgins .382
Brian Roberts .377
Grady Sizemore .374
Ichiro Suzuki .364
David DeJesus .359
David Eckstein .353
Akinori Iwamura .348
Curtis Granderson .347
Orlando Cabrera .342
Jacoby Ellsbury .336
Carlos Gomez .287
Gomez leading off is a mistake on two levels. First, his awful on-base percentage limits RBI chances for the lineup's best hitters. Gomez's .287 OBP is 14 percent worse than the AL average and ranks 81st among 83 hitters who qualify for the batting title. Only two regulars in the league have a worse OBP, yet the Twins bat him in a spot where getting on base is vital. Beyond that, Gomez simply isn't a good hitter and leading off guarantees that he'll come to the plate more often than anyone else in the lineup.
Talk of lineup construction tends to focus on how someone will influence players around them, but that impact is generally overstated. However, often overlooked is that a leadoff man will bat about 150 more times than a No. 9 hitter per full season, so leaving Gomez atop the lineup is handing 150 extra plate appearances to one of the worst hitters. That has a big impact, particularly when those extra trips to the plate involve making an out 70 percent of the time in front of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau.
Gomez is a tremendously exciting player who can wreck havoc when he gets on base, but unfortunately he's not much of a hitter at this stage of his career and is ill-equipped to set the table for the lineup's top hitters or accumulate the team's most plate appearances. When a player is hitting .253/.287/.351 with a 96-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio the goal should be to limit his plate appearances and lessen the impact of each trip to the plate, but leaving him atop the lineup has the opposite effect in both cases.
Unfortunately, Bass has pitched like you'd expect from a 27-year-old journeyman with a 5.08 career ERA between Double-A and Triple-A, posting a 5.31 ERA, 25-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and .313 opponent's batting average in 57.2 innings. Whether based on his underwhelming minor-league track record or the .313/.371/.536 line that he's served up so far in the majors, Bass has done nothing to show that he's capable of being a quality MLB reliever.
Despite that, not only has Bass thrown more innings than any other reliever in the AL, Gardenhire has suddenly begun using him in crucial situations after keeping him in a mop-up role for three months. As the boys over at Stick and Ball Guy's blog point out, Bass leads the team in negative Win Probability Added appearances at 14, which means that he's hurt the Twins' chances of winning in 40 percent of his outings despite rarely working in key spots. Passing him through waivers isn't the problem.
There's no doubt that the Twins deserve tons of praise for their method of developing pitchers, but shouldn't it be obvious that if avoiding walks and limiting pitch counts are so important for a pitching staff then it would make just as much sense to put together a lineup that draws walks and inflates pitch counts? Every season the staff ranks among the league's best in walks allowed and the lineup ranks among the league's worst in walks drawn, yet no one seems capable seeing the link.
There is a simple reason the 2008 Twins have exceeded expectations: They throw strikes. ... The Twins excel at one aspect of the game above all others, excel at it whether they have Johan Santana, Brad Radke or Livan Hernandez at the top of their rotation. They throw more strikes than any other team. They avoid walks. They limit their pitch counts, enabling them to stay healthy and durable.
Silva out-performed Milton in 2004 while saving the Twins about $8.5 million, and since then Milton has a 5.83 ERA while being limited to 66 starts in four years due to arm problems. He's currently recovering from Tommy John surgery and hasn't pitched in over a year, but returned to his original organization last week by signing a minor-league contract with the Yankees. During six seasons in Minnesota he went 57-51 with a 4.76 ERA in 978 innings, ranking 38th on my list of the best players in Twins history.
Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.