July 14, 2008

Twins Notes: Halfway Home

  • After following last year's 79-83 record by trading away Johan Santana and letting Torii Hunter walk as a free agent, the Twins came into this season with their lowest expectations since 2001. My guess that they'd "win at least as many games as they did last season" was more optimistic than most, but still looks likely to come up short as they head into the All-Star break with the league's fifth-best record at 53-42, 1.5 games back in the AL Central. Here's how that compares to past first halves:

    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.

  • Francisco Liriano hit a rough patch at Triple-A in mid-June, turning in back-to-back ugly outings, but has 20 straight scoreless frames in three starts since. He tossed seven shutout innings against Las Vegas on June 30, six shutout innings against Buffalo on July 5, and seven shutout innings against Durham in his latest start Thursday. Over that 20-inning stretch Liriano has a 24-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio while allowing a total of just 10 hits.

    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.

  • I've long since grown tired of Bert Blyleven as an announcer, but have always supported his Hall of Fame candidacy. Falling 13 wins short of 300 has kept Blyleven from a deserved spot in Cooperstown because far too many people continue to misguidedly judge a pitcher on his win total. In reality, an individual win-loss record is only partly due to a pitcher's actual performance, with several factors that he can't control (run support, bullpen support, quality of opposition, etc.) coming heavily into play.

    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.

  • On a related note, the growing number of people suggesting that Santana is having a poor season because of a mediocre 8-7 record couldn't be further from the truth. His 2.84 ERA ranks fifth in the NL and qualifies as the second-best mark of his career prior to the All-Star break. From 2004-2007, his first-half ERAs were 3.78, 3.98, 2.95, and 2.75, and Santana has a 3.47 career ERA in the first half (compared to 2.79 in the second half).

    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.

  • After going 0-for-4 yesterday, Carlos Gomez heads into the All-Star break in the midst of a 3-for-39 slump that includes 11 strikeouts versus zero walks and leaves him with an execrable .253/.287/.351 line for the first half. Over the past two months, Gomez has batted just .245/.279/.327 with a horrendous 61-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio while going 5-for-12 stealing bases. Gomez doesn't work counts, put together good at-bats, or get on base, yet Gardenhire refuses to move him from the leadoff spot.

    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.

  • Yesterday marked the second time in a week that Brian Bass was brought into a high-leverage, late-inning situation, and just like the first time he served up a home run. As a 27-year-old career minor leaguer Bass was a surprise inclusion on the Opening Day roster, but because he was out of minor-league options and coming off a career-best season at Triple-A the Twins decided that they didn't want to risk losing him on waivers.

    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.

  • Morneau going 5-for-5 with the game-winning homer Thursday against the Tigers probably didn't get the attention it deserved because the game wasn't shown on television locally, but the Elias Sports Bureau reports that he's the first player to go 5-for-5 with an extra-inning homer since Tony Perez on September 21, 1973. As you'd expect, that monster effort was good for Morneau's top Win Probability Added total of the year at .595, which would rank 25th in the AL as a season total.
  • Over the years one of my frustrations with the Twins' organizational philosophy is that they stress throwing strikes and avoiding walks for pitchers to an extreme degree without stressing patience and drawing walks for hitters. In fact, more often than not they acquire or develop hitters who have poor plate discipline while the pitching staff is filled with strike-throwing machines. Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan recently wrote about the one-way emphasis:

    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.

    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.

  • Not to be outdone when it comes to horrible analysis, during yesterday's game Blyleven's broadcast partner Dick Bremer named Carlos Quentin as his choice for the AL's first-half MVP. Quentin plays an offense-driven position in left field and calls a hitter-friendly ballpark home in Chicago, yet fails to rank among the AL's top 10 in batting average, on-base percentage, or slugging percentage. In fact, he has the second-best OPS among White Sox outfielders. No wonder my remote's mute button is worn out.
  • Morneau has accepted an invitation to this year's Home Run Derby, which is interesting given that last season both he and the Twins repeatedly suggested that his second-half power slump was due to the event messing up his swing. This time around Morneau heads into the All-Star break with just four homers in his last 41 games, so in terms of power there isn't much to mess up. Morneau heads into the break hitting .323/.391/.512, compared to .300/.352/.587 in the first half of his MVP campaign.
  • Taken by the Yankees with the 20th overall pick in the 1997 draft, Eric Milton spent just one season in New York's minor-league system before being traded to the Twins as the centerpiece of the Chuck Knoblauch deal in February of 1998. His Twins career was a solid one, but knee surgery ended his streak of 200-inning seasons at three and eventually led to Milton being traded to the Phillies for Carlos Silva, Nick Punto, and Bobby Korecky with one year remaining on his contract.

    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.

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