July 26, 2010

Twins Notes: Delmon, Defense, Hudson, Haren, and Real Men

• I wrote about "the new and improved Delmon Young" a month ago, examining changes he'd made to finally start living up to his potential ... and since then he's hit .350 with five homers, 11 doubles, and a .564 slugging percentage in 30 games. The new-found patience he showed early this season has vanished, with Young drawing a grand total of one non-intentional walk in 123 plate appearances during that stretch, but hitting .350 makes that seem kind of trivial.

Hitting coach Joe Vavra had some interesting quotes about swing changes Young has made:

He doesn't have the head-shoulder drop any more. His head is not moving, he's [keeping] a firm front side. So he's kind of putting it all together, which is a good thing to see. He came into spring training on a mission. He had that weight drop, and he was on a mission to clean up some things that he needed to do, and he did.

We go out in that cage every day, and we try to solve issues and problems that come up. He listens real well, he tries different things, but he's his own guy. He gets out there and does what he thinks is going to help himself to be successful, and he takes what we do in the cage and it's all on him then.

Young is up to .322/.354/.528 with 13 homers and 28 doubles in 92 games overall this season, which is good for an .882 OPS that ranks as the highest from any Twins outfielder who played enough to qualify for the batting title since Kirby Puckett in 1995.

• Fans and media members love to talk about the importance of defense, but I'm realizing now that's mostly just lip service. Few people seemed to recognize the role defense played in Nick Blackburn's success in 2008 and 2009, just as few people seem to realize the negative impact defense--or more accurately, outfield defense--has had on the rotation this year. For instance, Francisco Liriano's batting average on balls in play is the highest in all of baseball at .357.

Liriano has a 133-to-36 strikeout-to-walk ratio and just two homers allowed in 122 frames, but because such a high percentage of balls in play have gone for hits his ERA is a half-run higher than it probably should be, his record is just 8-7, and he's not getting credit for an ace-caliber year. Blackburn, Scott Baker, and Kevin Slowey are also each among the league's 10 highest in-play batting averages, which isn't a coincidence and has played a big part in their struggles.

Denard Span in center field flanked by some combination of Young, Jason Kubel, and Michael Cuddyer in the corners simply isn't a good defensive outfield, which is reflected in the pitching and in the Twins' outfield ranking 24th in Ultimate Zone Rating. Baker and Slowey have often been lumped in with Blackburn, but as extreme fly-ball pitchers with xFIPs of 3.77 and 4.45 it's pretty easy to see they've been hurt by fly balls turning into extra-base hits instead of outs.

Orlando Hudson straining his oblique muscle Saturday is tough break for the Twins, because that injury tends to linger and he was hitting well recently after initially struggling in his return from wrist problems last month. Hudson has hit .285/.356/.387 in 80 games overall this year, including .293/.360/.393 in his last 25 games, which along with solid defense at second base makes him one of the most valuable players on the team.

Alexi Casilla will apparently be the primary fill-in at second base after returning from an elbow injury of his own last week. Casilla has played well in limited action this season, but is a career .246/.306/.315 hitter and not as good as Hudson defensively. Plus, because Ron Gardenhire equates defensive position to place in the batting order that means Casilla and his .306 career on-base percentage will likely be hitting second in the lineup for however long Hudson is out.

Justin Morneau felt good enough to work out over the weekend, but various reports make it clear that he's not close to coming off the disabled list. He hasn't played since taking a knee to the helmet while breaking up a double play on July 7 and Cuddyer has started all 15 games at first base in his absence, with Kubel in right field and Jim Thome as the regular designated hitter. Along with last year's back injury, Morneau has missed 42 of the past 123 games.

• You can cross Dan Haren's name off the Twins' trade deadline wishlist, as the Diamondbacks traded him to the Angels yesterday for Joe Saunders and three prospects. I'm underwhelmed by the package Arizona received, because Saunders is more or less a left-handed Slowey and none of the prospects are considered elite, but regardless of that Haren in Minnesota may not have been possible. He's a California native and reportedly had the Twins on his no-trade list.

Carl Pavano has four complete games in his last seven starts and now ranks third in the AL with 143.2 innings, which is just two fewer innings than he threw combined during four years with the Yankees. Pavano has basically spent one full season in the Twins' rotation since being acquired from the Indians last August for mid-level pitching prospect Yohan Pino, starting 32 games with a 17-10 record, 3.73 ERA, and 140-to-35 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 217.1 innings.

Since the trade Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez, Adam Wainwright, and CC Sabathia are the only pitchers with more innings than Pavano, which is amazing given his history. Seth Stohs wrote recently that "the front office and advanced scouts who told the Twins' brass Pavano should be targeted deserve a ton of credit" and I agree, but numbers told the same story. At the time of the trade he had a 3.94 xFIP. Since the trade, he has a 3.95 xFIP and 3.73 ERA.

• Forgotten man Clay Condrey will miss the rest of the season with an elbow injury after not throwing a pitch for the Twins, which means they wasted $900,000 on a 34-year-old middle reliever they never really needed in the first place. For now he's hoping to avoid surgery while instead undergoing platelet rich plasma injections and the Twins opened up a 40-man roster spot for Anthony Slama by transferring Condrey to the 60-day disabled list.

• Speaking of season-ending elbow injuries, Joe Nathan played catch last Monday for the first time since going under the knife in March. Starting to throw again from flat ground is merely the first big step on the long road back from Tommy John surgery and Nathan is still not a sure thing to be ready for Opening Day next season, but so far so good. Mel Antonen of USA Today wrote a lengthy article about Nathan rehabbing away from the team in Tennessee.

• One of my pet peeves with the method stats are recorded is that pickoffs are not counted in stolen base totals. For instance, Span is officially 18-of-19 stealing bases this season, which is great, but he's been picked off an MLB-high five times. He was also picked off an MLB-high 10 times last season while officially going 23-of-33 on steals. He should stay tethered to the base at this point, but beyond that it's more evidence of the value of steals being vastly overrated.

• When the Twins struggled mightily with the bases loaded early on this season many people misguidedly tried to attach all sorts of "explanations" for the lack of production, when in reality extreme outcomes simply come with the territory when the sample size is merely a few dozen at-bats. Sure enough, FOX9 sports producer Seth Kaplan pointed out that since starting the season 7-for-47 (.149) with the bases loaded the Twins are 24-for-60 (.400) in those spots.

Kubel's grand slam yesterday was the seventh of his career and he's now hitting .400 with an .833 slugging percentage in 73 plate appearances with the bases loaded.

• Slama, on being called up from Triple-A to join a clubhouse full of equally mustachioed men:

I've been grooming this thing since April. I didn't know all this was happening up here, the mustache extravaganza. It's good to see some real men in here.


April 7, 2010

Twins Notes: Reliever Picking, Strawman Arguing, and Face Stuffing

  • If there was no such thing as a "save" the Twins probably would have left Matt Guerrier in to pitch the ninth inning last night after he breezed through a 1-2-3 eighth inning on just 11 pitches, but instead they brought in new closer Jon Rauch. And guess what? Just like most quality relievers would do about 90 percent of the time in that spot, he was able to protect a two-run lead for one inning against the bottom of the lineup. So far, so good.
  • There was a last-minute change to the projected Opening Day roster, as Clay Condrey was placed on the disabled list with a strained right elbow and the Twins called up Alex Burnett to take his spot in the bullpen. Burnett thrived after moving to the bullpen in the minors last year and ranks No. 21 on my list of the Twins' top prospects, but the move was surprising because he's just 22 years old and has zero experience at Triple-A.

    By choosing Burnett the Twins again showed how little faith they have in Anthony Slama's amazing minor-league numbers being for real. He's four years older than Burnett and had a 2.67 ERA with 112 strikeouts in 81 innings between Double-A and Triple-A last season. He's not on the 40-man roster, but the Twins could have made a spot by putting Joe Nathan on the 60-day disabled list and if a minor-league reliever is getting a shot it should be Slama.
  • Last night Ron Gardenhire had his first shot to get Brendan Harris into the lineup versus a left-hander, but my hope that he'd sit Nick Punto for a clearly superior option offensively proved to be wishful thinking. Gardenhire cited their career stats against Joe Saunders and wanting the better glove behind Nick Blackburn, but they had a meaningless 15 combined at-bats off him and despite his rep Blackburn's ground-ball rate is barely above average.
  • According to USA Today the Twins have the 10th-highest Opening Day payroll this year after ranking 24th, 25th, 18th, 19th, and 20th during the previous five seasons. I'd expect them to eventually settle into the 12-18 range, but for now being a "big-payroll team" is fun. Of course, even with the Twins at a team-record $97.5 million the Yankees are out-spending them by a cool $110 million and a total of five teams have an edge of at least $40 million.
  • Last week I wrote about the Twins finally getting somewhat involved in statistical analysis and a few days later an Associated Press article about new-school stats quoted Gardenhire:

    Sabermetrics has picked us to finish like fourth or fifth three years in a row. So you figure their numbers out. Numbers are good bases to go off things and try to figure things out, but for every number you throw out there that's not supposed to work, the human element's always coming.

    Bad pitch, guy gets a hit. But he's not supposed to, still rips a pitch in the gap. Those are all great things and, over the course of time probably prove out pretty good. But I like the human element and I like the heart way better than I like their numbers. And that's what I'll always stay with.

    I'm not even entirely clear about what Gardenhire is specifically talking about there, but I do know that "sabermetrics has picked us to finish like fourth or fifth three years in a row ... so you figure their numbers out" is just false and a strawman argument. Baseball Prospectus, for instance, has projected the Twins to finish first or second in five of the past six seasons, which is more often than the Twins have actually finished first or second.

  • Just a month after signing him to a minor-league contract the Twins have released Charlton Jimerson, which is no surprise. At the time of the deal I wrote that he "would be laughably overmatched in the majors" as a even a fourth outfielder and the Twins quickly replaced him with a better fit for that potential role in 29-year-old Dodgers castoff Jason Repko, who'll join Jacque Jones in the Triple-A outfield while competing for the same potential call-up.

    Jones is obviously the sentimental pick and had an impressive spring, but as a right-handed hitter Repko might be a better fit in an outfield/designated hitter mix with lefty bats Denard Span, Jason Kubel, and Jim Thome. He hasn't played regularly in the majors since 2006, but fared decently against lefties back then and has hit .291/.355/.470 overall in 230 games at Triple-A. Plus, unlike Jones he's actually played center field regularly in recent years.
  • Much like Jimerson, the Twins also released 29-year-old left-hander Mark McLemore after inking him to a minor-league deal last month. Seth Stohs notes that in addition to Jimerson and McLemore the Twins released a bunch of other minor leaguers like Jason Jones, Rene Leveret, Jonathan Waltenbury, Jeff Lanning, and Blair Erickson. As a 2006 sixth rounder who ranked 31st on my list of Twins prospects last year Waltenbury is the biggest surprise.

    Jones was a Rule 5 pick from the Yankees last winter and the Twins gave up a decent minor league reliever in Charles Nolte to keep him in the organization after not making the team, but he never struck me as a particularly worthwhile pickup. Leveret has hit .303/.390/.442 in four pro seasons, including .286/.363/.399 at high Single-A last year, but lacks the power to be a legit first base prospect. Lanning was an eighth-round pick just two drafts ago.
  • Speaking of Seth, during the Twins-Cardinals exhibition game last week FSN coincidentally showed him eating in the bleachers. Bert Blyleven had been talking about how relaxing it was at Target Field, so when Seth popped up on camera he said: "Now that's relaxing, that gentleman stuffing his face." And since this is the internet, naturally a bunch of other people who noticed one of their favorite bloggers on screen captured the moment for posterity:

    To see Seth "stuffing his face" in person check out the latest TwinsCentric event Saturday.
  • Last week Jeremy Greenhouse of Baseball Analysts interviewed me about the Twins, but somehow it segued into Lost and LaVelle E. Neal III's je ne sais quoi.