June 30, 2009

Awful News: Phil Miller Laid Off By Pioneer Press

David Brauer of MinnPost reports that Twins beat reporter Phil Miller has been laid off by the St. Paul Pioneer Press. In addition to being one hell of a nice guy Miller did a fantastic job covering the team, so this is terrible news for Twins fans. Kelsie Smith moves up to become the primary beat writer and will do a nice job, but the newspaper's Twins coverage can't help but suffer without Miller. This really stinks, on a personal level and as a fan who likes as much good content about the team as possible. Ugh.

Once you're done here, check out my "Circling The Bases" blog over at NBCSports.com.

June 28, 2009

What Happened To All The Bunt Hits?

Last year the Twins tied the all-time MLB record for bunt hits in a season with 68, while no other team managed even 40. Carlos Gomez led baseball with 30, which would have ranked sixth among teams, and Alexi Casilla was second in the AL with 16 despite playing only 98 games. Along with Gomez and Casilla combining for 46 bunt hits, Nick Punto chipped in seven, Joe Mauer, Denard Span, and Matt Tolbert had four apiece, and nearly five percent of the Twins' total hits came via bunt.

This season has been a much different story, as the Twins rank just sixth in bunt hits and are on pace to finish with fewer than half as many as they had last year. Much of the decrease in bunt hits comes from Gomez being relegated to the bench for 32 of 77 games after starting 143 times last season and Casilla playing his way back to Triple-A, because they obviously can't rack up bunt hits from the dugout or Rochester. With that said, bunting less often even when they're in the lineup has also been a factor.

Gomez laid down a bunt in 11 percent of his plate appearances last year, reaching safely 45.5 percent of the time to become just the fifth player since 1959 to bunt for at least 30 hits in a season. This year Gomez has bunted in just six percent of his plate appearances while reaching safely 27.3 percent of the time. In other words, he's bunted about half as often and done so about half as successfully. Much has been made of Gomez's decline at the plate, but bunting accounts for nearly the entire change.

Gomez is hitting just .225 with a .358 slugging percentage on non-bunts this year, which while terrible is no worse than last season when he hit .233 with a .348 slugging percentage on non-bunts. In terms of actual hitting he hasn't changed at all, but the difference is that bunts accounted for over 20 percent of his hits last year and Gomez batted .455 when he laid one down. This year bunts have accounted for just eight percent of Gomez's hits and he's batted just .273 when he lays one down.

Twins fans have heard all about Gomez's supposed potential offensively since the team acquired him as the centerpiece of last offseason's Johan Santana trade, but through over 900 plate appearances in the majors he's hit .227 with a .337 slugging percentage when not bunting. Those are putrid numbers and cast serious doubt on Gomez's ability to develop into an impact hitter, but the good news is that he remains one of the game's fastest players and is a career .433 hitter when dropping a bunt down.

Because of his great glove in center field Gomez will always have value regardless of how poorly he's doing at the plate, but given his success bunting and how horrible he's been when swinging away it makes no sense for him to be laying one down half as often this year. Joe Vavra and company surely have him focusing on putting together better at-bats and taking the ball the other way, which have the potential to make him a competent hitter, but in the meantime his only real weapon has gone missing.

Casilla bunted almost as often as Gomez last year, laying one down in nine percent of his trips to the plate, and was nearly as successful by reaching safely on 43 percent of his attempts. In addition to the bunting Casilla was also more successful than Gomez on non-bunts, hitting .265 with a .368 slugging percentage. Those non-bunt numbers still weren't good, but they're positively Mauer-esque compared to Casilla hitting .162 with a .210 slugging percentage on non-bunts this season.

As a team the Twins have gone from bunting once every 36 plate appearances and reaching safely 40 percent of the time in 2008 to bunting once every 51 plate appearances and reaching safely 28 percent of the time this year. That might not seem like a huge difference and certainly the lineup's dramatically increased power is a much more important change overall, but when it comes to the light-hitting speed guys like Gomez, Casilla, Tolbert, and Punto all struggling the lack of bunts is definitely curious.

Once you're done here, check out my "Circling The Bases" blog over at NBCSports.com.

June 25, 2009

Timberwolves Draft Rubio, Flynn, and Ellington

I'll keep my thoughts on the Timberwolves' point guard-heavy draft shorter than usual because various trade rumors could render all of this moot, but for the most part I'm pleased. Many people seem to be overestimating Ricky Rubio's odds of developing into an impact player rather than just a flashy passer, but his falling into the Wolves' laps at No. 5 overall was close to a best-case scenario and Jonny Flynn is one of the handful of guys from a fairly weak draft class whom I'm certain will be a good NBA player.

With that said, Ty Lawson is another in that handful and the Wolves sadly teased me by selecting him only to swap him for a future first-round pick. Obviously keeping Lawson after taking Rubio and Flynn would've been miles beyond overkill, but he was great value at No. 18 and I'm convinced that he'll have a strong career. Taking his North Carolina teammate, Wayne Ellington, was a good fit at No. 28 given the roster's complete lack of shooters and if nothing else he'll be a nice long-term bench scorer.

David Kahn's assurances that Rubio and Flynn will work in tandem are intriguing and drafting two point guards isn't so crazy when one of them is 18 years old and no sure thing to be freed from his contract, but I'm skeptical to say the least. However, at the end of the day the rebuilding Wolves' primarily goal should've been simply acquiring as much talent as possible and Rubio, Flynn, Ellington, and a future first rounder is a plenty nice haul in that respect. I'm very curious to see how it all shakes out.

Once you're done here, check out my "Circling The Bases" blog over at NBCSports.com.

June 23, 2009

Twins Notes: Covers, Promotions, Delusions, and Bingo

  • Joe Mauer is on the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated with a headline about his "chase" for .400, which is amusing given that going hitless last night pushed his batting average below .400 before the magazine even showed up on newsstands. There's a reason why no one has batted .400 in almost 70 years and it has nothing to do with any silliness about a "cover jinx." Here's a comparison between this week's cover and Mauer's previous SI cover in August of 2006:

    You'll notice that "hometown hero" appears on both covers.

  • Given a promotion after hitting .284/.373/.483 with seven homers, 25 total extra-base hits, and a nice 40-to-31 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 57 games at Double-A, Danny Valencia went 3-for-5 with a double in his Triple-A debut last night. Valencia ranked sixth on my list of the Twins' best prospects heading into the season and it looks like he may be ready to take over for Joe Crede as the starting third baseman in 2010. I'm not convinced that he'll have big power, but Valencia should be a solid all-around player.
  • Asked yesterday about the Twins' decision to designate Luis Ayala for assignment while calling up Bobby Keppel from Rochester, Ron Gardenhire revealed that Ayala was unhappy with his middle-relief role and requested a trade several weeks ago. As you can imagine that didn't sit well with Gardenhire, which explains why the Twins were willing to cut him loose despite Ayala proving reasonably useful in low-leverage spots. Here's some of what Gardenhire had to say:

    He wanted an eighth-inning role, that's why he signed over here. He wasn't pitching well enough to be an eighth-inning guy. So there you have it. His thoughts were if we gave him the ball in that eighth inning, he'd be able to do the job. My thoughts are if you're not getting them out, you're not going to pitch in the eighth inning. We're trying to win. So there's your difference.

    When you walk into my office and tell me you don't like your role--and he talked about his contract for next year--you lose me right there. I don't deal with that. We're talking about winning now. That's why he's out the door and another guy's in there to pitch. And it's not because he's a bad guy. His theories are a little different.

    Gardenhire has every right to react the way that he did and ultimately Ayala is expendable enough that he's not worth the hassle, but part of the reason why he "wanted an eighth-inning role" is that the Twins talked him up as a setup man when they signed him. He was never worthy of that job and Gardenhire deserves credit for realizing that when Bill Smith couldn't, but Ayala had reason to be delusional about his ability given what the front office no doubt told him about his likely role during the courtship process.

  • Back when Ayala signed in February nearly every story about the move included some mention of his supposed "sinker." Here's what I wrote at the time:

    Can the people who get paid to write about the Twins please stop referring to him as a "sinkerballer"? When the Twins signed Ayala two weeks ago Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Phil Miller of the St. Paul Pioneer Press both called him a "sinkerball specialist" and last week LaVelle E. Neal III called him "the sinkerballing Ayala." Ayala and the Twins may tell you that he throws a sinker, but he hasn't actually had an above-average ground-ball rate since 2004.

    Sure enough, Joe Christensen's story about Ayala being cut included a note about how "the Twins had grown increasingly frustrated with Ayala's inconsistency with his sinker." Shocking!

  • On a related note, remember all that stuff about how Sean Henn "features a 95-mph fastball"? Turns out, he's averaged 92.4 miles per hour with his fastball since being called up last month, which is very close to the 91.7 miles per hour that he averaged with his fastball in previous stints as a big leaguer. If only there were ways for journalists to research this type of data rather than just relying on the subjects they're reporting on to provide them with information.
  • I've toyed with the notion of creating a Bert Blyleven drinking game, but feared that too many AG.com readers would die of alcohol poisoning if/when he said "left the ball up" a couple hundred times during one of Scott Baker's starts. All of which is why Seth Stohs creating the "Bert Blyleven Bingo Board" is a much better (and safer) idea. It seems like fun, but playing would involve taking my television off mute during Twins games and my ears aren't prepared to take that chance.
  • Nick Punto's refusal to cease sliding head-first into first base has now created one injury along with zero base hits and countless moments of ecstasy for Dick Bremer. Yay for false hustle!

  • Once you're done here, check out my "Circling The Bases" blog over at NBCSports.com.

    June 22, 2009

    Twins Cut Ayala, Promote Keppel, Ignore Delaney and Slama

    Luis Ayala is the latest in a long line of veteran free agents who didn't make it to the All-Star break with the Twins after the signing was criticized in this space. Handed a one-year, $1.3 million deal this winter as the Twins chose saving money on a veteran mediocrity rather than actually upgrading a bullpen that desperately needed another capable late-inning option, Ayala predictably proved to be merely a decent middle reliever by posting a 4.80 xFIP in 32.1 innings. In fact, my projection was "right around 4.50."

    Of course, the funny thing about the Twins' decision to designate Ayala for assignment yesterday is that he was hardly the least-effective member of the bullpen and his replacement is far from a good bet to provide an upgrade. Ayala was horribly mismatched as a late-inning setup man, but the Twins should have known that when they signed him and even while failing to fit their preferred role he was relatively useful as a rubber-armed middle man. In other words, he was who they (should have) thought he was.

    In a situation reminiscent of last month's swap of Craig Breslow for Sean Henn, the Twins have called up minor-league veteran Bobby Keppel to replace Ayala in the bullpen. At the time of the Breslow-Henn switch my analysis was that "it sure seems like the Twins chose the new lefty reliever over the old lefty reliever just because they felt the need to shake things up." Ayala-Keppel is the right-handed version of that same sentiment, right down to Henn and Keppel signing minor-league deals on the same day.

    Keppel is a 27-year-old veteran of a decade in the minors who owns a 5.16 ERA in 572 career innings at Triple-A, including marks of 5.67, 5.48, and 5.99 during the previous three seasons. Those horrible performances came as a starter and Keppel has worked primarily as a reliever this season for the first time in his career, which along with a nice-looking 2.44 ERA in 55 innings at Rochester apparently has the Twins optimistic about his potential. They shouldn't be, because he's basically a poor man's Ayala.

    Keppel is a moderate ground-ball pitcher with mediocre control and little ability to miss bats, managing just 28 strikeouts in 55 innings this season and 4.4 strikeouts per nine innings throughout his Triple-A career. He's looked good at Rochester thanks to the defense turning over 72 percent of his balls in play into outs and just one of the 47 fly balls hit against him traveling over the fence, but much like Henn he simply doesn't have a track record that suggests the ability to consistently get big-league hitters out.

    Since that swap of left-handers Breslow has a 4.39 xFIP in 18 appearances with the A's and Henn has a 5.04 xFIP in 13 appearances with the Twins, and dropping Ayala for Keppel figures to work out much the same way. Meanwhile, the Twins boast a pair of legitimately promising relief prospects in Robert Delaney and Anthony Slama, but the former was passed over for his Triple-A bullpen mate Keppel and the latter can't even get a promotion to Rochester despite already being 25 years old.

    Delaney has a 2.42 ERA, 50-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and .225 opponents' batting average in 48.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A, including 10 strikeouts versus just two non-intentional walks in a dozen innings since last month's promotion to Rochester. He's a 24-year-old right-hander who's thrived at every level, posting a 2.03 ERA and 235-to-38 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 222 career innings, yet the Twins are choosing Triple-A filler like Keppel over him.

    Slama had a 1.01 ERA with 110 strikeouts and a .173 opponents' batting average in 71 innings at high Single-A last season and has a 2.70 ERA with 53 strikeouts and a .225 opponents' batting average in 36.2 innings at Double-A so far this year, but the Twins inexplicably haven't even seen fit to let him join Delaney at Rochester six months after his 25th birthday. While two of the organization's top arms are at New Britain and Rochester, the Twins' bullpen ranks 11th in xFIP and 10th in Win Probability Added.

    Dating back to Pat Neshek's elbow injury last May the Twins have clearly needed bullpen help, but Bill Smith refused to bring in a veteran setup man at the trading deadline, targeted mediocrities like Ayala rather than legitimate upgrades this winter, and is now turning to a journeyman with a 5.13 ERA in 572 innings at Triple-A rather than give Delaney or Slama a chance. The situation has gone from frustrating to bewildering and the front office's decision-making under Smith continues to disappoint.

    Once you're done here, check out my "Circling The Bases" blog over at NBCSports.com.

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