August 24, 2010

Back on board the Crain train

Back in early June, here is what I wrote in response to a Twitter mailbag question that asked, "Why does Ron Gardenhire stick with miserable Jesse Crain?":

Amusingly, that was sent in before Jesse Crain blew the lead Saturday.

Coming into Saturday's game he actually had a 3.32 ERA and 14-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 19 innings since back-to-back ugly outings in April, but that's the problem with Crain (and why people call him things like "miserable"). He tends to be awful, then pitch well for long enough to reclaim a prominent late-inning role, and then immediately be awful again. Crain also has a career xFIP of 4.55, including 4.34 this year, so he just isn't very good.

Since then Crain has thrown 28 innings with a 0.32 ERA and .136 opponents' batting average, which definitely qualifies as "pitch well for long enough to reclaim a prominent late-inning role." In fact, for the past month Crain's average appearance has been in higher-leverage situations than every reliever in the bullpen except closer Matt Capps. He's been unhittable for 10 weeks and Gardenhire is relying on him more and more as the primary setup man.

As for whether Crain will fall back into his aforementioned pattern and "immediately be awful again" following this success ... who knows. He's dominated before only to falter when trusted too much and while my statement that "he just isn't very good" looks awfully silly right now an amazing 28-inning run still leaves his xFIP at 4.07 this year and 4.49 for his career. However, his current stretch of success actually goes back much further than mid-June.

Crain struggled so much at the beginning of last year that the Twins demoted him to Triple-A in mid-June, but since returning in late July he's thrown 87.1 innings with a 2.78 ERA, 77-to-33 strikeout-to-walk ratio, .215 opponents' batting average, and just three homers allowed. That qualifies as extended dominance, and while I probably should know better by now I'm fully on board the "use Crain in the biggest spots" bandwagon.

As for how Crain is having this success, the answer is actually pretty simple. Despite a mid-90s fastball Crain's most effective pitch has always been his slider. Prior to this year he threw the slider 25 percent of the time while using his fastball 65 percent of the time. This season he's thrown the slider 46 percent of the time while using his fastball 43 percent of the time. So he's gone from throwing nearly three fastballs for every slider to using more sliders than fastballs.

And his slider, which has always been very, very good, has been downright extraordinary this season. According to Fan Graphs his slider has been worth 4.20 runs above average per 100 offerings, which makes it MLB's ninth-most effective pitch. His slider has been so untouchable and he's thrown it so often that it masks the fact that Crain's fastball has been far worse than usual at -2.20 runs per 100 offerings. His fastball has been terrible and he's still dominating.

That's one hell of a slider.

August 23, 2010

Kevin Slowey’s injury opens rotation spot for Nick Blackburn’s return

There was no shortage of at-the-ballpark booing and talk radio-inspired emoting, but I didn't hear many coherent, logical arguments against the Twins pulling Kevin Slowey despite seven no-hit innings last week. And whatever cases that were made have probably gone silent now that Slowey has been placed on the disabled list with further arm problems following his poor follow-up outing Saturday.

It wasn't so much that the Twins wouldn't let him go from the 106 pitches he'd thrown through seven no-hit innings to the 130 or so pitches it likely would've taken to complete the no-hitter, it was that because Slowey had missed his previous start with elbow pain they never really wanted him throwing even 106 pitches in the first place. And now it looks like they were right. Or maybe Slowey would have aggravated the injury throwing 75 pitches anyway. Who knows.

Whatever the case, he's on the DL with an arm injury for the third time in three years and Nick Blackburn is back in the rotation following a month-long demotion to Triple-A. Blackburn fared well in four starts at Rochester, posting a 2.49 ERA and .229 opponents' batting average in 22 innings while inducing 65 percent ground balls, but his 13-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 4.12 FIP were significantly less confidence-inspiring.

Blackburn also rejoins the rotation with a very difficult matchup against the first-place Rangers and their top-five offense in hitter-friendly Texas. In terms of offense at home, the Yankees are the only team in the league with a higher OPS or more runs than the Rangers, so it's hardly an ideal way to ease someone back into the rotation. In addition to Blackburn's return the Twins recalled Anthony Slama, who's needed after Ron Mahay hurt his shoulder on a fielding play.

Dating back to last season Mahay has quietly done some nice work for the Twins with a 3.14 ERA, .244 opponents' batting average, and 33-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 43 innings, and while losing a situational left-hander certainly isn't going to wreck the bullpen it does hurt a bit more with fellow lefty Jose Mijares already out for a month after knee surgery. Glen Perkins is now the bullpen's sole southpaw and he's actually worse against left-handed hitters.

Obviously the circumstances are unfortunate, but I'm happy to see Slama getting another shot so quickly. He was anything but impressive in his first taste of the majors, but struggling in five innings to begin a career means almost nothing and his track record in the minors is certainly dominant enough to warrant an extended opportunity. He doesn't address the lack of lefties, but Ron Gardenhire did some of his best bullpen managing when not focused on handedness.

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

Here are the starting pitching matchups for the four-game series in Texas that begins tonight:

Monday: Blackburn (104 IP, 5.09 xFIP) vs. Rich Harden (74 IP, 5.83 xFIP)

Tuesday: Carl Pavano (174 IP, 3.91 xFIP) vs. Colby Lewis (155 IP, 3.86 xFIP)

Wednesday: Brian Duensing (84 IP, 3.99 xFIP) vs. C.J. Wilson (158 IP, 4.29 xFIP)

Thursday: Francisco Liriano (151 IP, 3.00 xFIP) vs. Cliff Lee (175 IP, 3.27 xFIP)

Remarkably similar matchups in terms of the pitchers' effectiveness and handedness. Righties versus righties, lefties versus lefties. Aces against aces, No. 2 starters against No. 2 starters, guys just back from Triple-A against guys just back from Triple-A. And the Thursday night bout is a doozy, with (according to xFIP, at least) the two best starters in the league facing off. And hopefully Liriano is over the "tired arm" period that got him pushed back to Thursday.

August 20, 2010

Link-O-Rama

• Not surprisingly, this news set the all-time AG.com record for number of people who sent me a story. Hollywood could produce The Aaron Gleeman Story starring Brad Pitt as me and I'd be less likely to see it than Black Swan.

• When it comes to old baseball cards, apparently "worst" is synonymous with "best."

• See if you can spot the biggest sex symbol of the 1990s in this photo from high school.

• I probably get to sleep before 1:00 a.m. at most a few dozen times each year, so if this data and research is accurate I should be a genius.

Headline of the Week: "Tila Tequila attacked at Insane Clown Posse festival‎."

Eric Fisher of Sports Business Journal wrote about NBCSports.com's blog-based growth.

• If you've ever wondered what Craig Calcaterra and I do all day, read this. If nothing else it explains why I like to think of myself as the Samantha Ronson of baseball bloggers.

• I was planning to make some sort of Kelly Brook-in-3D comment in linking to these pictures, but then the sheer number of possibilities overwhelmed me.

• It's tough not to root for Stafon Johnson given his ridiculously horrendous luck.

Suzanne Solheim interviewed Jeff Manship on just about everything but baseball.

• I'm not even really sure why exactly, but I find this incredibly funny:

I actually think Don't Stop or We'll Die's music is legitimately good, even without the humor.

Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune was on fire all this week. First he referenced Ultimate Zone Rating in an article about Danny Valencia, then he quoted Lester Freamon in a blog entry about the AL Central, and last but not least a throwaway line from one of his game stories was the inspiration for two of my posts on Hardball Talk.

• Even at 46 years old Jose Canseco is still better at hitting home runs than he is at spelling.

• Based on this story, Peggy Olson clearly didn't follow Freddy Rumsen's advice on marriage.

• Speaking of Mad Men, any fans of the show will also enjoy watching John Slattery's lengthy appearance on Kevin Pollak's Chat Show.

• Sad news but an incredibly compelling piece from my NBCSports.com colleague Mike Celizic.

• HBO has thankfully thought better of their decision to cancel The Life and Times of Tim, which is one of television's most underrated shows.

Bill Baer of Crashburn Alley put together a nice collection of resources for sabermetric stats.

• Here are some highlights from my NBCSports.com blogging this week:

- Mark Prior is "having a blast" playing independent league ball
- Bryan Bullington gets first career win eight years after being No. 1 overall pick
- Designated for assignment by Reds, should Micah Owings try hitting full time?
- Carlos Gonzalez makes a great catch, but loses to the still-undefeated wall
- Mike Leake moved to bullpen to keep rookie's workload down
- Nationals call up 22-year-old catching prospect Wilson Ramos
- A's send Chris Carter back to Triple-A with .000 average
- Despite monster debut, J.P. Arencibia sent back to minors
- Nationals president says draft pick signing setup is "silly"
- Shawn Chacon's grievance versus Astros denied by arbitrator

• Finally, this week's AG.com-approved music video is Aloe Blacc singing "Femme Fatale":

August 18, 2010

Twins Notes: Thome, Morneau, Mijares, Gibson, Revere, and Wimmers

• This offseason the White Sox chose not to re-sign Jim Thome in large part because manager Ozzie Guillen urged general manager Ken Williams to let him go, saying he preferred to cycle various players through the designated hitter slot and make the lineup less homer dependent. Thome signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract with the Twins and has batted .273/.391/.593 in 253 plate appearances, including last night's dramatic walk-off homer in the 10th inning.

Meanwhile, the White Sox have gotten a combined .235/.305/.399 line from the DH spot, with Mark Kotsay drawing the most starts at the position. There is still a ton of baseball left to be played and even with the Twins now up four games on the White Sox in the division you can realistically point to any number of players on either team as the "difference" in the standings, but it sure is easy to focus on Thome simply switching sides. He's been amazing.

Justin Morneau revealed Friday and then repeated yesterday that he's yet to get through a single day symptom-free since suffering a concussion from a knee to the helmet while breaking up a double play on July 7. He's finally been able to take batting practice this week, but the Twins officially abandoned any timetable for his return. Here's how he described the situation to Phil Mackey of 1500ESPN.com:

At first it was wake up in the morning, feel good for about 10 minutes, and then the rest of the day not feel great. It's gone to wake up in the morning, get here, feel good, we start doing stuff, feel good, then get home and symptoms come back. Obviously you can't start pushing it too hard.

It has to be slow progression like we've done and hopefully that day's coming soon. I'm optimistic, just with how it's gone each day from where we started. Obviously it's taken longer than I thought or than I'd like, but I think they've handled it well and they want to make sure I'm ready to go when it's time to go back out there.

Morneau also talked about the frustratingly unpredictable nature of concussions:

When it happened, I thought two days after I'd be feeling all right. The thing about it, it's unpredictable. Coming in tomorrow, everything could be feeling good, could make it through the whole day. It could be next week, it could be two weeks, you never know. It's unpredictable. That's the part that's most frustrating.

You know, you hurt your knee, your MCL, it's 4-6 weeks. OK, you do a certain type of rehab, if everything goes good you can make it back in four weeks, and you kind of have that timetable. With this, it's different with every single person that goes through it.

Morneau has no doubt talked to his friend, fellow Canadian, and former Twins third baseman Corey Koskie, whose career was wrecked by a concussion at age 33. Koskie was playing for the Brewers in 2006 and hitting .261/.343/.490 through 76 games for one of his best seasons when he suffered a concussion while chasing after a foul ball on July 5. He never played again, finally retiring after going through several years of false starts and setbacks and frustration.

Obviously there's no reason to assume Morneau will mirror Koskie's sad tale, but there's a real possibility that he won't play again this year and legitimate reason to worry about his future. Combined with his missing the end of last season due to back surgery I'm starting to sense a certain segment of the fan base becoming frustrated by another long absence, but this is not an injury that Morneau can simply will himself to come back from. This is beyond toughness.

Jose Mijares being out for a month following knee surgery is a tough break because he had a 2.16 ERA and 21-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 25 innings since a bad first outing on April 5, but his role has been so limited that the impact could be fairly minimal. Factoring in his Triple-A stint, Mijares was on the Twins' roster for 90 games and logged 25.2 innings. Not only is that just 46 innings prorated to a full season, he faced an average of 2.8 batters per appearance.

Mijares had basically been pigeonholed into a left-handed specialist role despite holding right-handed hitters to a .256/.316/.400 line for his career. Losing him for a month and possibly the rest of the season is tough in the sense that he's one of the Twins' best relievers, but he was being severely underutilized anyway and the bullpen might be better off if Ron Gardenhire got back to his old style where lefty/righty matchups weren't driving so many decisions.

Ron Mahay tends to be the first name fans bring up when pondering relievers to potentially bump from the bullpen, but he's quietly been very solid in a low-leverage role this season and has a 3.14 ERA with a 33-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 43 innings since joining the Twins last August. I'm not convinced that the Twins really benefit much from having a strict left-handed specialist, but Mahay is certainly capable of filling that limited role for six weeks.

On the other hand, keeping Glen Perkins around primarily to have a second left-hander in the bullpen makes little sense. He got a big out last night versus Kotsay, who's 0-for-22 off lefties this year, but Perkins is ill-suited for a role that matches him up mostly with lefty bats. For his career Perkins has allowed lefties to hit .327 with an .857 OPS and righties to hit .283 with a .786 OPS. And as Nick Nelson pointed out, it's been the same story in the minors.

• It doesn't mean anything for the big-league team this season, but the Twins promoting 2009 first-round pick Kyle Gibson to Triple-A last week puts him in line to possibly claim a spot in the rotation next spring. After signing for $1.8 million, Gibson made his pro debut at high Single-A with a 1.87 ERA and 40-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 43.1 innings. That got him a promotion to Double-A, where he had a 3.68 ERA and 77-to-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 93 innings.

Gibson moved up to his third level of the season Friday and tossed 5.1 innings of one-run ball in his Rochester debut, giving him a 3.04 ERA, .245 opponents' batting average, and 118-to-36 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 142 innings overall. Not bad for a 22-year-old in his first pro season, and Gibson has somewhat offset his pedestrian strikeout numbers with a strong ground-ball rate of 56 percent. He may not have No. 1 starter upside, but could be an MLB-ready No. 2.

• Gibson's new Triple-A rotation-mate Nick Blackburn has a 1.10 ERA in three starts since last month's demotion to Rochester, but an 8-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 16.1 innings isn't quite as encouraging. Blackburn has been very tough to hit with a .186 opponents' batting average and he's allowed zero homers while inducing 72 percent ground balls, but ultimately if he can't find a way to miss more bats or re-establish his pinpoint control it's tough to be very optimistic.

Plus, with Brian Duensing thriving as his rotation replacement there's little room for Blackburn as anything other than a long reliever unless Kevin Slowey's elbow issues reoccur. Duensing was brilliant Saturday, hurling a complete-game shutout of the A's, and is now 3-0 with a 2.43 ERA in five starts this year and 8-1 with a 2.62 ERA in 14 career starts. I'm still skeptical about his ability to be more than a fourth starter long term, but clearly he's not going anywhere.

Ben Revere was hit near the right eye with a pitch on August 3 and is expected to miss the rest of the season with an orbital fracture, but Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that he could be cleared to play in the Arizona Fall League. Prior to the injury Revere's stock dropped for the second straight year as his once-lofty batting average predictably came back to earth against more experienced competition and exposed his lack of secondary skills.

Everyone looks great when they're hitting .379 like Revere did at low Single-A in 2008, but he batted .311/.372/.369 at high Single-A last year and .297/.365/.349 at Double-A this season. He managed just three homers, 32 total extra-base hits, and 70 walks in 207 games and 886 plate appearances during that time, which is why I suggested coming into the season that his upside is basically Juan Pierre. Right now he looks like a poor man's Pierre, which isn't good.

• Lost in the MLB-wide flurry of draft pick signings before the midnight deadline Monday is that the Twins signed their first rounder, Alex Wimmers, for the slot-recommended $1.3 million last week. Wimmers is unlikely to move through the system as quickly as Gibson, but he'll start out at high Single-A Fort Myers and has a chance to be in the Twins' plans as soon as 2012. In all the Twins signed each of their top 10 picks from what was a pretty standard "Twins draft."

August 16, 2010

Kevin Slowey and the no-hitter that was never going to happen

Kevin Slowey was brilliant yesterday, no-hitting the A's through seven innings, and many fans at Target Field booed when he didn't come out for the eighth inning. And then they booed far louder when Jon Rauch allowed a one-out hit on the way to giving up two runs. However, it was absolutely the right call by Ron Gardenhire. Sure, he could have left Slowey in to start the eighth, but between his pitch count and elbow issues a no-hitter just wasn't going to happen.

Slowey had his last start skipped due to elbow soreness and was slated to be on a relatively short leash yesterday. Those plans obviously changed somewhat when he failed to allow a hit through seven shutout innings, but Slowey was already at 106 pitches with six outs left to go. Under normal circumstances I'm sure the Twins would have given Slowey every opportunity to make history, but those weren't normal circumstances.

He's averaged 16.3 pitches per inning this year, including 15.1 pitches per inning yesterday, so realistically it likely would've taken at least 130 pitches to finish the no-hitter. His career-high is 114 pitches and he's thrown more than 106 pitches just seven times in 76 starts, so allowing Slowey to throw 20-30 more pitches than ever before just days after elbow soreness kept him from taking his turn in the rotation would've been something between silly and irresponsible.

And for what, exactly? No-hitters are great and I certainly don't blame anyone at Target Field for wanting to witness one in person, but there have been five (or six) no-hitters already this season and a total of 268 in baseball history. Allowing someone who missed his last start with elbow problems to go well beyond his previous career-high pitch count in an effort to get the six outs still needed to become No. 269 hardly seems worth any kind of risk.

When the best-case scenario is a 130-pitch no-hitter from a 26-year-old pitcher with a tender elbow that's a pretty underwhelming best case and with two innings remaining the odds were still against Slowey actually completing the no-hitter. Leave him in and there's a strong chance he ends up allowing a hit on, say, his 127th pitch, in which case the Twins would've gone from risking his health for a minimal reward to risking his health for zero reward.

All of which is more or less exactly how Gardenhire explained his through process afterward:

I would boo too. I mean, I was booing myself. But I also know what's right, and that's why I [pulled him]. I wanted to see a no-hitter myself, but I also know I'm responsible for this young man's arm. You just can't risk a guy's career. I'm not going to do it. Slowey is coming off an elbow injury and we're not about to even come close to risking this guy.

I'm not going to let him throw 125, 130 pitches. It's just not going to happen. If he went back out for one more inning, he'd probably be up around 115, 120, and he'd be done anyway. There was no way he was going to finish, and we're just not going to risk this young man. He's got too big of a career ahead of him.

Judging by all the hugs and handshakes he was doling out in the dugout between the seventh and eighth innings Slowey wasn't exactly crushed by the decision to pull him, although he did admit afterward: "I don't think it would be possible not to be a little bit disappointed." He also joined Gardenhire in seeing the decision as a smart one in the bigger picture:

More than anything I was encouraged. I was encouraged by the way it was presented to me, I was encouraged by the fact that Gardy and [pitching coach Rick Anderson] care a whole lot more about me as a person and as a pitcher in the long term than they do about winning one game, or having one accomplishment. I think that says a lot about them, and it says a lot about our organization.

Exactly, and I also think that reaction says a lot about Slowey.

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