June 9, 2009

Twins Draft Kyle Gibson, Three Other College Pitchers

As recently as last month University of Missouri right-hander Kyle Gibson was a consensus top-10 pick who Baseball America ranked as high as the No. 4 overall prospect in the draft, but his velocity dipping into the mid-80s late in the season caused his stock to drop. Gibson initially explained his struggles by saying that he'd been experiencing forearm tightness, which is often the precursor to significant elbow problems, but further examination revealed a stress fracture in his forearm.

While far from good news for a young pitcher, a stress fracture typically represents less of a long-term risk than standard arm injuries and most reports suggested that Gibson would be sidelined for weeks rather than months. Of course, rumors began swirling that Gibson had something more serious wrong with his arm and when the Twins' first pick rolled around last night his name remained on the board. That wasn't particularly surprising, but that the risk-averse Twins actually selected him was a shock.

Gibson was believed to be a fairly painless signing even before the injury and the Twins certainly target those types of players on draft day, but taking the plunge on a top-10 talent who scared other teams off due to a big question mark is way out of character. Whether or not the risk proves worthwhile depends on the accuracy of the Twins' medical evaluation and Gibson's healing power, not to mention his actual development as a pitcher, but before knowing any of that the pick strikes me as a pleasant surprise.

While considered one of the draft's elite pitchers Gibson doesn't project as an ace, but everyone from Baseball America and MLB.com to ESPN and Baseball Prospectus seems to agree that he's capable of becoming a solid No. 2 or No. 3 starter and will be on the fast track to the big leagues once he gets healthy. Most of the scouting reports on Gibson were written before his velocity declined and the injury was discovered, but here's part of Baseball America's assessment:

He relies on two-seam fastballs more than four-seamers, usually pitching at 88-91 mph with good sink and tailing action, though he can reach back for 94 mph when needed. He has two of the better secondary pitches in the draft, a crisp 82-85 mph slider and a deceptive changeup with fade that can generate swings and misses. All of his offerings play up because he has excellent command and pitchability.

He repeats his smooth delivery easily, and his 6-foot-6, 208-pound frame allows him to throw on a steep downhill plane. If there's a knock on Gibson, it's that he hasn't added much velocity during his three years with the Tigers, but that hasn't stopped him from succeeding as soon as he stepped on campus. He led Team USA's college team with five wins last summer, including a victory in the gold-medal game at the the FISU World Championships.

And here's part of the ESPN.com scouting report:

Gibson has been a candidate for the 2009 draft's first round since a strong freshman year at Missouri. He's tall and projectable, already showing a solid-average fastball at 89-93 mph with good downhill plane. His changeup is ahead of his slider, although both project as above-average pitches. On days when he has the sharp slider, he'll miss plenty of bats. He's a first-rounder and a high-probability arm who should end up in the middle of a big league rotation in fairly short order.

There are tons of other similarly worded scouting reports, but the basic idea is that Gibson is a 6-foot-6 right-hander with a low-90s fastball, two solid off-speed pitches, great command, and a strong track record pitching against good college competition. He had a 3.21 ERA and 131-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 106.2 innings this year despite pitching through an injury for part of the season and playing in a hitter-friendly environment that averaged over 11 runs per game.

Gibson has been on the path to a top-10 pick for several years now, but a potentially short-term injury dropped him into the Twins' laps and they uncharacteristically decided to roll the dice. Time may show that the other teams were smart to pass on Gibson because of his uncertain health status, but I'm glad that the Twins gambled on him and added a high-upside arm to the organization that they really had no business getting with the No. 22 overall pick.

After snagging Gibson in the first round the Twins stuck with the college pitcher theme, taking Indiana left-hander Matt Bashore at No. 46, Florida right-hander Billy Bullock at No. 70, and Jacksonville State right-hander Ben Tootle at No. 101. In reading some of the pre-draft scouting reports Bullock sounded like an intriguing player who could be a solid fit for the Twins with one of their first two picks, so picking him up at No. 70 is another nice surprise.

Initially a starter, Bullock moved to the bullpen this year and became the Gators' closer while posting a 2.64 ERA and 50-to-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 48 innings. His control is spotty, no one seems to think much of his off-speed stuff, and serving up seven homers in 173 at-bats is a red flag, but Bullock also regularly works in the mid-90s with his fastball and was frequently dominant for one of the best teams in the country. Keith Law of ESPN.com calls him "the top college closer in this draft class."

Tootle had limited success as a college starter, posting a 4.56 ERA and 58-to-35 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 51.1 innings against mediocre competition this year, but was slowed by a stomach virus that caused him to lose 20 pounds and fared much better last year with a 3.79 ERA and 79-to-29 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 86 innings. Tootle is another guy with iffy secondary stuff and a big-time fastball, so like Bullock he's a boom-or-bust pick who could end up as a hard-throwing reliever that the bullpen has craved.

Along with Gibson and a pair of hard-throwing righties out of Florida the Twins also picked up Bashore after the 6-foot-3 southpaw posted a 4.07 ERA and 108-to-30 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 95 innings for the Hoosiers. He won't light up radar guns like Bullock and Tootle, but Bashore has an above-average fastball with the command that the Twins always target in starters and was one of the better pitchers in the Big Ten while going 5-1 with a 2.36 ERA during conference play.

I'd like to have seen the Twins address the system's glaring lack of middle-infield depth with a first-day pick, but they've had an awful lot of success with college pitchers in recent years and Gibson, Bashore, Bullock, and Tootle are all good values based on various pre-draft rankings. Gibson falling to No. 22 is particularly good fortune and the Twins were daring enough to take advantage, which combined with adding a productive Big Ten starter and a pair of potential late-inning relievers makes for a nice haul.


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

June 7, 2009

Stat of the Day: OPS+ for Catchers

OPS+ measures a hitter's all-around offensive performance within the context of ballpark, league, and era, accounting for the fact that hitting at Dodger Stadium in 1968 is much different than hitting at Coors Field in 2008. Here are the career OPS+ leaders among catchers with at least 2,500 trips to the plate:

Mike Piazza         142
Joe Mauer 135
Mickey Cochrane 128
Bill Dickey 127
Johnny Bench 126
Gabby Hartnett 126
Roger Bresnahan 126
Yogi Berra 125
Ernie Lombardi 125
Roy Campanella 124

Apparently this Joe Mauer guy was pretty decent even before the past six weeks.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

We just completed the inaugural season of Gleeman World 2 for WhatIfSports.com's Hardball Dynasty game and it looks like we'll have some franchise openings. Hardball Dynasty is not a fantasy baseball game, but rather a simulation of running a fictional MLB organization from rookie-ball to the majors. It's incredibly detailed and time-consuming with a steep learning curve, so first and foremost we're looking for owners who've played Hardball Dynasty in the past, although anyone is free to express interest.


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

June 4, 2009

Link-O-Rama

  • For posterity's sake and because looking at the numbers makes me smile, the first four hitters in the Twins' lineup have the following season totals after collectively going 10-for-15 with four homers, two doubles, four walks, 10 RBIs, and 11 runs scored in yesterday's blowout win against the Indians:
    1. Denard Span        .307 AVG     .395 OBP     .410 SLG
    2. Joe Mauer .436 AVG .519 OBP .845 SLG
    3. Justin Morneau .348 AVG .426 OBP .657 SLG
    4. Jason Kubel .322 AVG .374 OBP .532 SLG

    Here's hoping that Ron Gardenhire can resist the urge to fix what isn't broken by jamming Alexi Casilla or Matt Tolbert in there.

  • According to Sports Business Journal, the Twins have baseball's eighth-largest television audience with an average of 108,000 "households" per game, which is pretty amazing when New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit are the only markets ahead of Minnesota. Meanwhile, the Washington Post notes that the Nationals have seen their TV audience increase by 56 percent this season ... and are still drawing only 12,000 households per game.
  • The poor Gatorade machine that Carlos Zambrano went berserk on last week has been designated for assignment by the Cubs.
  • Apparently they don't have pitch counts in Seth Stohs' hometown.
  • Barry Bonds may have stumbled upon a new career.
  • "Amazing" by Kanye West has basically been running on an endless loop during the NBA playoffs, so this remix honors the subset of guys who rarely make any "Where Amazing Happens" commercials:


    "No matter what they'll never pass it to me, my range is as far as my arms can reach. I'm Caucasian."
  • People magazine calls Alex Rodriguez's relationship with Kate Hudson "somewhat serious," noting that "Hudson followed Rodriguez on the road late last month to Dallas" and the couple "worked out together in the fitness center" of the team hotel. If by some miracle Hudson ever makes a decent movie again--seriously, check out her resume since Almost Famous--the Hollywood media will no doubt start buzzing with talk of performance-enhancing drugs. Does human growth hormone help you act?
  • Apparently the "good-looking girl playing football in a bikini" craze is taking over the world of staged photo shoots: Kim Kardashian last week and Kristin Cavallari this week.
  • Kimbo Slice is a cast member for the next season of The Ultimate Fighter, which gives him another opportunity to be exposed as all hype and no substance against unknown fighters.
  • Trevor Born wrote one of the best Twins blogs around before falling off the face of the blogosphere in mid-2007, but it turns out that he's been kind of busy since then:

    University of Minnesota student journalist Trevor Born has been named this year's recipient of the Big Ten Conference William R. Reed Memorial Award. ... The conference annually honors the former commissioner by presenting this award to a student journalist ... who ... best exemplifies the spirit, ideals and dedication to the Big Ten and intercollegiate athletics.

    A sophomore journalism major, Born is the beat writer for football and men's basketball at the Minnesota Daily, a post he has held since the second semester of his freshman year. Born was named the 2008 Sports Reporter of the Year by the campus daily publication and has spent time freelancing for the Associated Press. In addition to his excellence as a reporter, Born has excelled in the classroom, maintaining a 3.8 GPA in the University Honors Program.

    That's all, huh? Nearly three years ago one of these Link-O-Rama entries included my plan for "landing a newspaper gig" that involved "waiting a couple decades until Born is the editor-in-chief somewhere and hoping he remembers me." At this rate the "couple decades" timetable is going to look kind of silly.

  • Official Fantasy Girl of AG.com fourth runner-up Mila Kunis, looking good as usual.
  • In his latest first-round projection, Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com has the Twins picking a high-school pitcher, Matt Hobgood, at No. 22 overall. While that may indeed happen, it's worth noting that the Twins have selected either a high-school hitter or college pitcher with their first pick in every draft since 1997.
  • Last week's Link-O-Rama included the latest amusing installment of Between Two Ferns With Zach Galifianakis, so here's a 5,000-word New York Times article about the man himself.
  • Brad Pitt has begun "pre-production work" on the Moneyball film, which apparently involves wearing hats and boarding private jets.
  • On a related note, Moneyball isn't the only Michael Lewis book being made into a movie.
  • I'm on the fence about the "fire pit" at the Twins' new ballpark, but the Brewers using their parking lot for drive-in movies is a brilliant idea. Even their initial movie selections are good: Anchorman and Jaws the first night, The Sandlot and Major League the second night.
  • Friend of AG.com, Dodgers blogger, and Variety editor Jon Weisman put together a survey about the decade's best television and the results look surprisingly good to me.
  • David Dorsey of the Fort Myers News-Press wrote a nice article about the tallest pitcher in baseball, Twins right-hander Loek Van Mil.
  • Here are some of the highlights from my NBCSports.com blogging this week:

    - Craziness in the NCAA baseball tournament
    - RAR has Longoria, Ibanez as MVPs through May
    - Daily Dose: Busy day in Atlanta
    - Quote of the Day: White Sox are 'in trouble'
    - No one is watching the Nationals ... still
    - Zambrano is having a bad week
    - Quote of the Day: Holliday 'wants a chance to win'
    - The Strasburg Watch: Amazing year ends with loss
    - Nats fire pitching coach with Strasburg on horizon
    - Good news, bad news for first-place teams

  • Finally, since I'm no longer the lone human to not see the film, this week's AG.com-approved music video is Bruce Springsteen singing "The Wrestler":


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

    June 2, 2009

    Twins Through Two Months (Part 2: Pitchers)

    Starting pitching was supposed to be the Twins' strength this season after Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, Francisco Liriano, and Glen Perkins came together as one of baseball's best young rotations last year, but they've collectively taken a huge step backward through two months. Blackburn and Slowey have lived up to expectations, but Baker and Liriano have been big disappointments while Perkins' strong start unraveled thanks to an elbow injury. Here's a look at the overall numbers:

    TWINS STARTING PITCHING

    YEAR IP/G ERA SO9 BB9 HR9 AVG OBP SLG
    2008 5.9 4.32 5.6 2.1 1.2 .283 .324 .443
    2009 5.9 4.95 5.9 2.5 1.4 .280 .329 .462

    If asked to compare this year's rotation to last year's version most fans would probably guess that the numbers are vastly different, but that's not really the case. Yes, the rotation's ERA has risen 15 percent, which is ultimately the problem, but within that Twins starters have been remarkably similar to 2008. They're averaging the same 5.9 innings per start as last season--which would no doubt shock a lot of people--and have allowed a .280/.329/.462 line that's pretty damn close to last year's .283/.324/.443.

    Through two months this year's rotation has given up about 15 percent more walks and homers, which matches the rise in ERA. They've also struggled to limit big innings as hitters have seemingly bunched damage together more often, particularly against Baker and Liriano. More walks have led to a slightly higher on-base percentage, more homers have led to a slightly higher slugging percentage, and that extra damage coming in bunches has compounded the problems on the way to a 63-point rise in ERA.

    All of which is a long way of saying that the rotation should improve over the next four months, although it's worth noting that Twins starters ranked just eighth in the league with a 4.32 ERA last year, so even last season they weren't "great" as much as "solid and young." While big innings and ugly ERAs make it seem like Baker and Liriano have totally fallen apart, using Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) to strip away the impact of defense, bullpen, and luck paints a somewhat different picture:

    xFIP                2008     2009
    Kevin Slowey 4.14 4.43
    Scott Baker 4.25 4.74
    Nick Blackburn 4.55 4.90
    Francisco Liriano 4.40 4.94
    Glen Perkins 5.05 5.11

    According to xFIP, the rotation's decline has been the result of everyone basically pitching 5-10 percent worse than they did last season, which is a notion that'll be impossible to accept for people who can't get beyond Baker and Liriano both sporting an ERA in the 6.00s. However, neither pitcher has been as bad as his ERA suggests and Liriano in particular has been hurt by some combination of bad luck and poor defense.

    FRANCISCO LIRIANO

    YEAR SO% BB% GB% LD% LOB% BIP
    2008 20.3 9.7 41.6 18.1 68.9 .302
    2009 18.9 10.6 38.5 20.9 63.2 .333

    There's zero doubt that Liriano's performance has declined. His strikeouts are down seven percent, his walks are up nine percent, and he's given up 15 percent more line drives while inducing seven percent fewer ground balls. However, all of that isn't enough to take his ERA from 3.91 to 6.60. Liriano has also stranded just 63.2 percent of his runners while the Twins' defense has allowed a .333 batting average on his balls in play, both of which are among the worst figures in the AL and somewhat luck-based.

    Plenty of people will be quick to blame Liriano for all of that, but in reality defense and luck play a huge role. For instance, in Liriano's last start against the Rays there were at least three instances where the entire outing would've been viewed far differently had a ground ball been converted into an out. But as has been the case in many of Liriano's starts, the balls in play found holes, innings got extended, more damage was done, and his ERA ballooned higher. Baker is a similar story, albeit with more homers.

    Calls to remove Liriano from the rotation and replace him with Anthony Swarzak are being fueled by an over-reliance on ERA and lack of understanding about the nuts and bolts of pitching performances. Yes, Liriano has an ugly 6.60, but his 50-to-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 58.2 innings and other factors show that he hasn't been nearly that awful. Yes, Swarzak has a 2.08 ERA, but he also has a 6/6 K/BB ratio with an unsustainably amazing 98.5 left-on-base percentage and .205 average on balls in play.

    If this were 1989 or even 1999 it might make sense to champion a rotation switch by saying, "Swarzak has a 2.08 ERA and Liriano has a 6.60 ERA." However, this is 2009 and thanks to the explosion of data and research we know enough about what makes pitchers effective that ERAs fail to accurately depict either performance. Whether you choose to conclude that Swarzak has pitched very well or been very fortunate, if he keeps performing like he has through two starts his ERA will be closer to 6.08 than 2.08.

    While that's bad news for Swarzak, it's also good news for Liriano, Baker, and the rest of the rotation, which is likely to do a much better job keeping runs off the board for the final two-thirds of the season. Unfortunately the same isn't necessarily true for the bullpen, which has been about as bad as expected after general manager Bill Smith stubbornly refused to bring in the relief help that the Twins have so obviously needed dating back to the middle of last year. Here's how the primary relievers stack up:

                         IP     xFIP
    Joe Nathan 19.1 3.15
    Matt Guerrier 25.0 4.12
    Jose Mijares 16.2 4.46
    R.A. Dickey 30.1 4.99
    Luis Ayala 22.2 5.00
    Jesse Crain 14.2 5.61

    Jose Mijares' call-up and Matt Guerrier's bounceback have patched a couple of the gaping holes, but they've both been merely mediocre as far as primary setup men go and the rest of the bullpen can't be counted on in anything resembling an important spot. Plus, while Joe Nathan remains one of the elite closers in baseball and by far the Twins' best reliever, he's frustratingly been allowed to face a grand total of just 75 batters in 52 games and is quietly looking slightly more human at the age of 34.

    If last year is any indication Smith won't bother to bring in any veteran relief help at the trading deadline. Robert Delaney and Anthony Slama are good relief prospects who've consistently posted ridiculous numbers in the minors, yet the Twins just got around to promoting the 24-year-old Delaney to Triple-A yesterday and the 25-year-old Slama remains at Double-A. The Twins have been one good setup man short of a solid bullpen since Pat Neshek went down last May and there's no sign of that changing.

    Absolutely dreadful production from three lineup spots has the Twins' offense ranked just eighth in the AL despite Babe Ruth-like production from Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, whereas the pitching staff also ranks eighth in the league because the young starters have regressed while the shallow bullpen has unfortunately met expectations. I'm fairly confident that the rotation can turn things around, but the bullpen is going to need reinforcements to avoid remaining a clear weakness.


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

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