July 14, 2010

Anatomy of a collapse (Part 2: Hitting)

I wrote Monday about how the pitching staff has primarily been to blame for the Twins limping into the All-Star break with a 15-22 record since June 1, but the lineup hasn't been much good during that 37-game stretch either. Through two months the Twins led all non-AL East teams by scoring 4.92 runs per game, but since June 1 they've managed just 4.24 runs per game for a dropoff of 14 percent (including a 33 percent dip in walks from a once super-patient lineup).

Here's a look at the individual hitting performances since June 1:

                     PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
Denard Span         161     .247     .308     .363     .671
Joe Mauer           147     .260     .333     .389     .722
Delmon Young        142     .338     .359     .537     .896
Jason Kubel         140     .300     .336     .492     .828
Michael Cuddyer     134     .254     .321     .393     .714
Justin Morneau      131     .298     .344     .529     .873
Nick Punto          120     .260     .347     .327     .674
Orlando Hudson      100     .231     .290     .319     .609
Jim Thome            65     .286     .385     .679    1.064
Danny Valencia       64     .310     .375     .345     .720
Matt Tolbert         49     .214     .292     .333     .625
J.J. Hardy           34     .212     .235     .273     .508
Drew Butera          27     .130     .192     .261     .453
TOTAL              1377     .265     .321     .409     .730

Jim Thome has clobbered the ball since June 1, batting .286/.385/.679 with an extra-base hit every five at-bats for a team-high 1.064 OPS, but started just 13 of 37 games. Delmon Young was the most productive regular during the 15-22 stretch, batting .338 with five homers, 12 doubles, and 31 RBIs in 37 games to continue a breakout year. However, amid all the hard-hit balls and bad-intentioned swings he seems to have lost his new-found plate discipline.

Young drew 13 walks in 161 plate appearances through the end of May, which was almost as nice to see as his power arriving, but since then he has a grand total of one non-intentional walk in 142 trips to the plate. Clearly walks become an afterthought when someone is hitting .330 with power, but ultimately returning to his hacktastic ways is a bad thing for Young and hopefully he can combine the good hitting with a more selective approach in the second half.

Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel have more or less duplicated their career totals since June 1, but Joe Mauer hitting just .260/.333/.389 in 34 games represents one of the worst stretches of his career and leaves him with a sub-.300 batting average at the All-Star break for the first time in seven seasons as a big leaguer. The slump has dragged his overall season line down to .293/.368/.424, which is doubly disappointing coming off his MVP-winning career-year.

There's nowhere to go but down after leading the AL in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage while doubling your previous high for homers in one of the greatest catcher seasons ever, but obviously a 240-point drop in OPS is a massive letdown. With that said, Mauer's current .293/.368/.424 line is basically identical to his 2005 (.294/.371/.411) and 2007 (.293/.382/.426) production, and not far from his pre-2009 career mark (.317/.399/.457).

Of course, the Twins didn't pay $184 million for the pre-2009 version even if there were plenty of reasons to be skeptical about the new-found pop sticking around and hitting .260/.333/.389 since June 1 is just plain unlike Mauer. I'd heard rumblings about Mauer playing through some injuries even before he sat out the final game of the first half with shoulder soreness and his recent performance is certainly uncharacteristic enough for that to seem plausible.

Michael Cuddyer started 13 of the past 22 games at third base as Ron Gardenhire sacrificed defense to get him in the same lineup as Thome, Young, and Kubel. Unfortunately not only has that downgrade defensively contributed to some of the pitching problems, Cuddyer has hit just .245/.302/.306 at third base and .254/.321/.393 overall since June 1. On the other hand, like Mauer his season line (.267/.334/.432) is still pretty close to his career mark (.269/.343/.455).

Cuddyer has done his job versus left-handed pitchers, hitting .292/.424/.521 as much-needed right-handed thump in a lefty heavy lineup, but he's struggled all year with men on base while hitting a putrid .257/.290/.394 off righties and the ugly at-bats are magnified by Gardenhire's refusal to move him lower in the batting order. If nothing else his performance certainly hasn't justified hurting the defense by starting Cuddyer at third base. That's just bad on bad.

Cuddyer hasn't hit righties all year and hasn't been good enough against them throughout his career to make up for a bad glove at third base. Similarly, both Thome and Kubel aren't good enough versus lefties to warrant starting against them if it means sacrificing defense. In other words, shifting Cuddyer to third base merely gets him starts versus righties and Kubel/Thome starts versus lefties, neither of which is really needed. It's like killing no birds with two stones.

Denard Span and Orlando Hudson were ideal table-setters after two months, combining for a .375 OBP and 74 runs in 51 games atop the lineup, but Span has batted just .247/.308/.363 since June 1 and Hudson spent nearly half of the 37-game slide on the disabled list, returning to hit .231/.290/.319 after Matt Tolbert hit .214/.292/.333 in his place. Combined with Mauer's slump, the three guys getting the most plate appearances have had an OPS around .650.

In addition to poor performances from everyone but Thome, Young, Kubel, and Morneau since June 1, the Twins have hit into more double plays than any team in baseball during that time to continue an historic season-long weakness. Not only do the Twins lead baseball with 102 double plays at the All-Star break, that's 10 more than any other team, 56 more than the least DP-prone team, and on a pace to shatter the all-time record of 170 by the Red Sox in 1990.

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When a team goes from 31-20 to 46-42 fans start calling for all sorts of moves to be made, but realistically what can and should the Twins do? Some of the most plausible "solutions" involve guys like Mauer, Cuddyer, and Span simply hitting better and ultimately there's more to worry about with the pitching and defense anyway, but here are three other ideas that don't involve dumping half the roster or trading half the farm system ...

1. Find a right-handed hitter to take at-bats from Kubel and Thome against lefties.

Against left-handed pitching Kubel has hit .235/.337/.365 this year and .239/.318/.358 for his career, while Thome has hit .190/.244/.310 this year and .238/.339/.420 for his career. Neither guy has any business starting regularly versus southpaws and the Twins would be better off giving those at-bats to just about any semi-competent right-handed hitter, including in-house options like Jason Repko or Danny Valencia.

2. Stop playing Cuddyer at third base or at least bat him lower versus righties.

The whole idea behind playing Cuddyer at third base is flawed, because he's not good enough to make it worthwhile versus righties and Kubel/Thome aren't good enough to make it pay off versus lefties. It's only necessary because Gardenhire won't bench Cuddyer versus righties, so weakening the defense is the only way to also get Young, Kubel, and Thome into the lineup. Short of a benching versus righties, at least move Cuddyer behind Thome, Kubel, and Young.

3. Call up Jose Morales from Triple-A to serve as Mauer's backup

Morales has hit his usual .274/.377/.379 in 54 games at Rochester since returning from wrist surgery, so it's time for him to reclaim the backup catcher gig. Drew Butera seems like a good guy and has done a nice job defensively, but his bat is so bad that he's just not an MLB-caliber player. Butera has hit .157 in 56 plate appearances after batting .211/.268/.292 at Triple-A, so the Twins are basically letting the pitcher bat for himself whenever Mauer isn't in the lineup.

July 12, 2010

Anatomy of a collapse (Part 1: Pitching)

When the Twins woke up in Seattle on June 1 they were 31-20 and riding a five-game winning streak that gave them a season-high 4.5-game lead over the Tigers (and 8.5-game lead over the White Sox) in the AL Central. They were clicking on nearly every cylinder, with the pitching staff allowing the second-fewest runs in the league and the lineup scoring more runs than any team outside of the powerful AL East.

Through two months they had the second-best record in baseball, were on pace for 98 wins, and looked capable of running away with the division. Instead they've fallen apart. After losing two of three from the Tigers over the weekend the Twins are now 15-22 since the calendar flipped to June, turning a 4.5-game lead into a 3.5-game deficit in under six weeks and limping into the All-Star break in third place at a disappointing 46-42.

Here's a look at their run scoring and run prevention during the good times and bad times:

                      RS/G     RA/G
Through May 31        4.92     3.82
Since June 1          4.24     4.85

Through the end of May the Twins scored 4.92 runs per game, but since then they've managed just 4.24 runs per game for an offensive decline of 14 percent. And the decline of the pitching staff has been even steeper. Through the end of May the Twins allowed 3.82 runs per game, but since then they've coughed up 4.85 runs per game for a pitching (and defense) drop of 27 percent. Let's dig a little deeper and look at the individual pitching performances since June 1:

ROTATION                IP      ERA      FIP
Carl Pavano           60.1     3.13     4.29
Scott Baker           42.2     5.48     4.56
Francisco Liriano     41.2     4.75     1.90
Kevin Slowey          40.2     5.31     4.58
Nick Blackburn        36.0    10.00     7.48
TOTAL                221.1     5.41     4.53

While going 15-22 the Twins' rotation had a cumulative 5.41 ERA, with only Carl Pavano under 4.50 and Nick Blackburn checking in at 10.00. However, their cumulative Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) was a much more reasonable 4.53, with Pavano, Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey all right around 4.50 and Francisco Liriano at an excellent 1.90 thanks to his great 51-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio with zero homers allowed in 41.2 innings.

In other words the rotation as a whole didn't pitch quite as horribly as their 5.41 ERA suggests and in particular Liriano's secondary numbers were outstanding. That their ERA was a full run worse than their FIP shows that perhaps the starters had poor defense played behind them, received poor bullpen support, or maybe just had some bad luck (since we are talking about a very limited sample size here). That's the good news.

The bad news is that Blackburn had a 7.48 FIP in addition to his ghastly 10.00 ERA. It's rare for a pitcher's FIP to get that high, because the stat is designed to take bad luck, bad defense, and bad bullpen support out of the equation and ... well, few pitchers are still that bad once you strip their performance of those factors. For instance, no pitcher with more than 50 innings in a season has cracked a 7.00 FIP since 2006.

Blackburn's overall FIP this season is "only" 5.89, but he's compiled a 7.48 FIP since June 1 by striking out just 17 of 180 batters while walking 14 and allowing 11 homers. His strikeout rate has always been terrible, but he made up for it with great control and limited home runs. Now his strikeout rate is non-existent, with 91 percent of batters putting the ball in play since June 1, and he issued twice as many walks as before while serving up a homer every three innings.

BULLPEN                 IP      ERA      FIP
Brian Duensing        18.2     1.45     4.06
Alex Burnett          16.1     4.96     5.89
Matt Guerrier         16.0     5.07     4.70
Ron Mahay             14.1     2.51     4.60
Jon Rauch             13.0     1.39     2.97
Jesse Crain           12.1     1.46     2.96
Jose Mijares           8.1     2.16     4.40
Jeff Manship           5.1     3.38     6.01
TOTAL                104.1     2.85     4.38

Not surprisingly, while the rotation's ERA was much worse than their FIP the bullpen's ERA was much better than their FIP. During the 15-22 stretch the bullpen actually had a pretty looking 2.85 ERA, but inheriting runners from the starters and allowing them to score isn't reflected in the relievers' ERAs and their FIP was merely mediocre at 4.38, with only Jon Rauch and Jesse Crain below 4.00. Despite that Rauch and Crain were used for just 25 innings in 37 games.

In the past Rauch's durability was a major asset, as he averaged 80 innings per season from 2006-2009 while appearing in half of his team's games. However, now he's a "closer" instead of a "setup man" and so Ron Gardenhire has subjected him to the same extremely rigid usage patterns he employed with Joe Nathan, which is why four different relievers have more innings than Rauch since June 1 and he's on pace for just 62 innings in 59 appearances on the year.

Rauch has shown the ability to log tons of innings, but now that the Twins have entrusted him with the most important role in the bullpen he's on pace for 25 percent less work because the manager will only use him up 1-3 runs in the final inning. That means fewer innings for Rauch, who has a 2.38 ERA and 3.32 FIP, but also more innings for the lesser relievers and more work for Matt Guerrier, who Gardenhire is perfectly willing to wear out because he's not a "closer."

In the past few weeks Guerrier pitched three times in four days and then, after a short break, worked five times in seven days. Not surprisingly he began to struggle, taking the loss in three straight appearances. Rauch is capable of being a workhorse and Guerrier has worn down like this in the past, but since Gardenhire lets the "save" statistic dictate how he runs the bullpen Guerrier has pitched in 42 percent more games than Rauch since June 1.

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When a team goes from 31-20 to 46-42 fans start calling for all sorts of moves to be made and the pitching staff is certainly the most obvious place to point fingers, but realistically what can and should the Twins do? Some of the most plausible "solutions" involve guys like Slowey and Baker simply pitching better, but here are three other ideas that don't involve dumping half the roster or trading half the farm system ...

1. Blackburn needs a break from the rotation.

The misguided decision to hand Blackburn a four-year, $14 million contract this offseason when he was already under team control through 2013 complicates the situation, but whether he's injured or just finally tasting the downside of "pitching to contact" he's been bad enough for long enough that making a change is reasonable. I'm far from confident in Brian Duensing as a starter, but moving him into the rotation and shifting Blackburn to long relief makes sense.

2. If there aren't many save chances to be had, use Rauch more in non-save situations.

Gardenhire's rigid deployment of Rauch was fine when there was a steady flow of late leads to close out, but using the team's best, most durable reliever for 13 innings in 37 games simply because the "save" chances dried up is silly and a lesson in backwards managing. Gardenhire has unfortunately let Rauch's new role drastically alter the way he uses him, but that doesn't mean Rauch has forgotten how to pitch without a lead of 1-3 runs in the ninth inning.

3. Bring up Anthony Slama from Triple-A.

I've been banging the Slama drum for a while now and at this point I'm not sure what else the guy can do to get a shot in Minnesota. His numbers in the minors have been ridiculously good at every stop and he now has a 1.80 ERA, .152 opponents' batting average, and 79 strikeouts in 65 innings at Triple-A. His control is shaky and his raw stuff isn't overpowering, but so what? He's dominated at every level and is already 26 years old. Why not at least give him a chance?

July 9, 2010

Link-O-Rama

• Internet declares: "The feeling is mutual, Prince."

• I'd like to believe a large number of these were purchased ironically.

• I've once again missed my chance with Jenna Fischer.

Basketball-playing brothers Scientific Mapp and Majestic Mapp think this guy's name is silly.

• Whatever rare condition this woman has, I have the exact opposite.

Lori Loughlin is the Jamie Moyer of good-looking women, still getting it done at age 46.

• It seems like Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert took the LeBron James news kind of hard.

• My take on James: I have absolutely no problem with him choosing Miami, but he went out of his way to make the entire experience as painful as possible for Cleveland. In hindsight a guy from Akron, Ohio being a Yankees and Cowboys fan probably should have been a pretty huge tipoff, but it takes a special kind of man to go from the most beloved to the most hated athlete in the history of his home state by his own doing (and with Stuart Scott/Jim Gray involved).

Delmon Young is having a much better year than his older brother.

Johan Santana bounced back pretty nicely from losing to the Twins.

• My favorite headline of this week: "Lindsay Lohan punched by waitress on 24th birthday." Hey, it's the thought that counts, right?

• Speaking of Lohan, she apparently only dates Jewish girls now, which means my mom would be thrilled to have her as a son.

• New team. New plate discipline. Same old Torii Hunter throwing teammates under the bus.

• Sadly the Arrested Development movie likely will never be made, although perhaps Hollywood will reconsider after seeing Buster Bluth, action star:

That show getting canceled still upsets me.

• One of the craziest Win Probability Added graphs you'll ever see.

• As if the first two episodes of Louis C.K.'s new FX series Louie weren't spectacular enough, Ricky Gervais guest-starred on this week's show. And here's another hilarious scene from the previous episode.

Jake Peavy is likely out for the year with a gross-sounding "detached" shoulder muscle and Gordon Beckham has been terrible, but the White Sox have won 22 of 27 games and are now reportedly looking to trade for Adam Dunn.

• I've thankfully never watched the show, but my new goal in life is to be able to this.

• It'll be tough to blame Jim Joyce for this one.

• I actually know someone who was in the Duluth prison with Jerry Koosman and he was sad to see him leave because the former Twins pitcher was such a nice guy and good story-teller.

• As a big Sara Bareilles fan I enjoyed her live, streaming interview with the Associated Press.

Ozzie Guillen may be sick of Twitter, but I'm more addicted than ever.

• As always, the easiest way to ensure a link here is to say something nice about me.

• Now that I'm no longer writing the "Daily Dose" column at Rotoworld each day I've expanded my duties at Hardball Talk on NBCSports.com, pumping out an average of a dozen blog entries per day this week alongside Craig Calcaterra's usual 500. Some of the highlights:

- Don't look now, but the Royals are winning with Ned Yost
- Josh Johnson quietly moves past Ubaldo Jimenez as first half's top pitcher
- Brandon Webb still hoping to make 6-8 starts this season
- Cubs closer Carlos Marmol piling up strikeouts at historic rate
- Matt Stairs ties MLB record with 20th career pinch-hit homer
- Does a three-homer game mean Drew Stubbs is destined for stardom?
- Jonathan Sanchez is first pitcher since 1999 to win with 6+ walks and 3+ wild pitches
- Jordan Zimmermann takes first step on long road back from Tommy John surgery
- Marlins demote struggling starter Chris Volstad to Triple-A

• Finally, this week's AG.com-approved music video is the aforementioned Bareilles doing a live version of "Many the Miles":

July 7, 2010

Checking in on the Twins’ top prospects (and a possible Cliff Lee deal)

Twins prospects are suddenly a popular topic with everyone wondering what type of package the Mariners may accept for Cliff Lee, so I thought it would be worthwhile to check back in on my preseason top five prospects to see how they're faring and how it could impact a potential trade for the ace left-hander. In no particular order ...

Miguel Sano is a very, very long way from the majors, but the early returns on last season's record-breaking $3.15 million investment are looking pretty great for the Twins. Sano debuted weeks after his 17th birthday, homered in his first professional at-bat, and hit .344/.463/.547 in 20 games in the Dominican Summer League to earn a quicker-than-expected promotion to the rookie-level Gulf Coast League ... where he singled in his first at-bat earlier this week.

Rarely does a 17-year-old making his professional debut show good plate discipline and hitters from the Dominican Republic are especially known for hacking at everything, yet Sano drew 14 walks in just 80 plate appearances. Now, two of those walks were intentional and given how thoroughly Sano destroyed DSL pitching several others were probably of the quasi-intentional variety, but his simply not having an immediate aversion to free passes is a pleasant surprise.

• On the other hand, Wilson Ramos has been totally overmatched by Triple-A pitching, posting a hideous 41-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio while hitting just .208/.244/.319 in 52 games. Ramos showed reasonable enough plate discipline in the low minors, but since advancing to Double-A last year he has 14 walks and 64 strikeouts in 106 games. He's making contact at a palatable rate, but the total lack of patience is disturbing along with a .427 career slugging percentage.

Ramos remains a very solid prospect largely due to projecting as a good defensive catcher, but it was always wishful thinking to assume he was even close to an MLB-ready impact bat and that notion now looks silly. With that said, he's still just 22 years old and has fewer than 450 plate appearances above Single-A, so there's no need to sour on Ramos too much. However, if the Mariners view him as an acceptable centerpiece for a Lee trade, it would be very tempting.

• Much less tempting is a report that the Twins have offered both Ramos and Aaron Hicks for Lee, which is far enough above other rumored offers for Lee and previous midseason hauls for impending free agents that I'll assume it's off base. Hicks has been somewhat disappointing since a great debut at rookie-ball in 2008 and his .256 batting average in 143 games at low Single-A is a concern, but he also has 92 walks and 51 extra-base hits in those 143 games.

Few truly excellent prospects have .256 batting averages in the low minors, but his strikeout rate isn't absurdly high and a speedy 20-year-old center fielder drawing 92 walks in 638 plate appearances qualifies as an exceptional skill from which to build. Even with Hicks' stock falling a bit he's still a notch above the quality of prospect I would feel comfortable parting with for a half-season rental and compensatory draft prospects. His upside is just too high.

Ben Revere led the minors with a .379 batting average when he was at the same level and the same age Hicks is right now, but his OPS has dropped 200 points in the two seasons since then. Even coming back down to earth Revere has still hit .311/.372/.369 in 121 games at high Single-A last year and .307/.380/.361 in 64 games at Double-A this year, but the difference is that he lacks the patience and power potential to have the same type of room for growth.

In the past two years Revere has a .375 on-base percentage and .365 slugging percentage, while Hicks has a .363 OBP and .396 SLG. Almost identical, except Revere has done that with a .310 batting average and Hicks has hit .256. Obviously it's better to hit .310 than .256, but in terms of projecting future value Revere will have to bat .300 to make a major impact whereas Hicks could do so at even .275 because he'll tack on significantly more walks and power.

Kyle Gibson went through a brief rough patch at Double-A last month, but has bounced back with three straight impressive starts in which he allowed a total of two runs in 20 innings. He hasn't been nearly as dominant at Double-A as he was at high Single-A to start the season, as his ERA has nearly doubled, his strikeouts are down 10 percent, he's induced 15 percent fewer ground balls, and his opponents' batting average is up 20 percent.

However, some deterioration is expected as a player moves up the minor-league ladder and that mostly just shows how great Gibson was at high Single-A, because a 3.56 ERA, 51-to-17 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and 54 percent ground-ball rate in 61 innings at Double-A is still plenty strong from a 22-year-old. It's tough to project him as a future ace based on his performance so far because his strikeout rate isn't great, but one step below that seems doable.

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I'd probably shift the order around somewhat, but my preseason top five prospects would still be my midseason top five prospects. In terms of what I'd feel comfortable parting with in a Lee trade, my focus would be trying to sell Seattle on a deal built around either Ramos or Revere. Ramos because he's a bigger question mark than widely assumed and probably destined to be traded at some point anyway, and Revere because his upside is basically Juan Pierre.

If the Mariners are willing to take Ramos or Revere plus a mid-level prospect or two the Twins would be smart to pull the trigger. And if they're willing to include underrated reliever Brandon League along with Lee it would even make sense for the Twins to give up Ramos and Revere. I'd balk at anything beyond that, including a Hicks/Ramos package. Lee is amazing, but getting him for half a season guarantees nothing and that's just too much long-term value lost.

July 6, 2010

Cliff Lee rumors

I generally try to avoid getting too caught up in trade speculation here, but last night the Cliff Lee-to-the-Twins rumor mill started churning enough for me to believe there might actually be some fire behind the smoke. For now I'm hoping this report is wrong (or at least exaggerated).

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