Monday, June 30, 2008

Contradictory Positions

Tigers 5, Twins 4

This was a tough loss to swallow. The Tigers had been playing shockingly poor defense, and Glen Perkins found himself in the 4th inning as the Twins built a 4-1 lead. I was almost ready to feel comfortable - then Jesse Crain came in with one out in the 7th and failed to induce a swing from Edgar Renteria, who had been hitless up to that point. Placido Polanco jumped on the first pitch and blooped it into an uninhabited area for an RBI single, and I was suddenly reminded of April. You remember, the first trip to Detroit, when the bullpen imploded on back-to-back nights after the Twins had been leading through 6+? Dennys Reyes came in to try to get a ground ball from Carlos Guillen - he did, but it rolled into LF for another RBI hit. Suddenly, our recently invincible bullpen was showing some cracks.

Matt Guerrier got the Twins out of the 7th, but couldn't avoid damage in the 8th when he allowed a 1-out RBI 3B to recent call-up Matt Joyce, who scored on a bloop single by Curtis Granderson. The Tigers have now won 6 in a row - the Twins must stop them tomorrow.

Gardy was ejected in the 3rd for his favorite reason: the plate umpire warned both benches after the other team's pitcher tried to hit one of our players. I agree with Gardy's reasoning completely. It's clear that they wanted to send a message for an inside pitch that Perkins threw in the 1st under Guillen's chin, but pitching inside was just part of Perkins' game plan. When Armando Galarraga sent 2 straight pitches behind Joe Mauer, obviously trying to hit him, the proper response should have been to throw Galarraga out of the game. By warning both benches, James Hoye sends the message that the Twins trying to pitch inside is equivalent to the Tigers trying to hit someone, and that's not fair.

With Gardy out of the game, 3rd-base coach Scott Ulger became acting manager. It's easy to second-guess his decision to remove Perkins after Granderson's 1-out single in the 7th. Perkins had only thrown 91 pitches, and prior to that hit, he'd been cruising, retiring 10 batters in a row. I'd like to see a young guy like him get the opportunity to work out of a spot like that - he's going to need to learn to do it sooner or later. But I can also understand making the move. After Livan Hernandez, Perkins has been the Twins' shakiest member of the rotation, and the bullpen had been rock solid, going 2 weeks without allowing an ER. Crain had been particularly good, so I can't fault Ulger for starting with him. The bullpen is going to give up runs every now and then - too bad it had to be tonight.

Offensively, there were enough hard-hit balls right at Tigers defenders (5, accounting for 6 outs, I believe) that I'm willing to shrug my shoulders and write this game off as just not our night. What's amazing to me is that, for as badly as the Tigers misplayed bunts/infield hits/fly balls, resulting in most of the Twins' runs, they positioned themselves perfectly on so many occasions. And they made some good plays when they needed to: Polanco cutting off Morneau's 1st-inning single before it could sneak into the outfield (saving a run), Ryan Raburn charging in on Carlos Gomez' bloop single in the 9th, keeping Denard Span from going first-to-third, from where he would have scored easily on Alexi Casilla's deep fly to center. I guess they must be a team of contradictions, but they're rolling now.

I was pleased with Span's re-entry into the lineup tonight. Dick Bremer had scarcely finished introducing him when he had to scurry over to the line and make a sliding catch of a slicing blooper on the game's first pitch - a fair ball. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Cuddyer wouldn't have gotten to that. Span grounded weakly into a DP in his first AB, then worked the count 2-1 before lining out to RF in his second AB. His sinking liner just fell in before the diving Raburn for an RBI 2B in the 6th, and he started the Twins' 9th inning rally with a single up the middle.

I also want to mention that Francisco Liriano had himself a fine outing for AAA Rochester tonight. He threw 7 scoreless innings vs. Lehigh Valley, allowing 4 H, 1 BB and 9 K. 7 of his last 10 outings have been Quality Starts, and his average during that stretch is 6.1 IP, 3.90 ERA, 1.14 WHIP. Looks to me like he's capable of eating as many or more innings as Livan, while allowing considerably fewer base-runners in the process. They can't call him up soon enough for me.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

I Wish They All Could Be Interleague Games

Twins 5, Brewers 0

That's a song by the Beach Boys, right?

I can't remember the last time the Twins had any trouble in Interleague Play. Generally, they finish up at least a few games over .500. This year, as in 2006, they wound up with the Majors' best interleague record at 14-4. According to Blyleven's California math, that makes the team 2 games under .500 vs. the AL. Since that's who they'll be playing from here on out, they'd better do something about that.

Today's game was a pleasure to watch on so many levels, but I have to start with Kevin Slowey. In his last start, he was just as good, but he had trouble finishing guys off, allowing a lot of foul balls that lengthened ABs and got him over 90 pitches in just 6 IP. Today, his stuff and location was just a bit better, and those fouls turned into harmless fly balls and strikeouts. He did a great job of moving his fastball around and hitting his spots, only using his secondary pitches about 25% of the time. This was his 2nd career CG, and first career shutout. It leaves him with a string of 16 consecutive scoreless innings. Over his last 4 outings, he's thrown 29 IP, 19 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, 24 K for a 0.93 ERA and 0.72 WHIP. He's quickly finding himself at the big-league level, and should be a steady performer for the remainder of the season.

Everybody in the lineup got at least 1 H today, except for Brendan Harris, who managed to get himself called out looking at three straight pitches in the same spot on the outside corner in the 3rd. When is he going to start trying to protect that part of the zone?

Ben Sheets looked awesome early. Thanks to a couple of double plays, he faced the minimum through the first 3.2 IP, throwing 43 pitches to that point with 5 K. When Alexi Casilla flailed at his curveball for strike 3, it was Sheets' 5th K in a span of 7 hitters. But the next 3 hitters changed the game with their superior patience at the plate. With Cuddyer heading to the DL, Jason Kubel moved up to the #5 spot, putting the Twins' 3 most disciplined hitters in a row. After quickly falling behind 0-2, Joe Mauer worked sheets to 2-2 before getting a curveball a little up that he could pull into the RF corner for a 2-out 2B. Justin Morneau followed with a 5-pitch walk. Kubel also hung in there after an 0-2 start, battling to 2-2 before getting a curveball up that he could serve into LF for an RBI single. Those 3 ABs cost Sheets 20 pitches, getting him off the CG track he'd been on early.

Brian Buscher led off the 5th with a hit similar to Kubel's, and scored 2 outs later when Carlos Gomez grounded one just inside the bag at 3rd for an RBI 3B. It was only Gomez' 2nd XBH in the past 18 games, so he was overdue for one to find a gap. In the 6th, after Kubel walked, Delmon Young pounced on a hanging curveball for his 2nd HR of the season. It was great to see him open up and pull a ball like that. Finally, it was nice to see Mike Lamb get a hit in the 7th - it was his first start since June 13. He came around to score when Brewers RF Corey Hart failed to hold on after diving for Casilla's drive in the gap; it fell for a 2B.

With their stupendous interleague run over, the Twins must now turn their attention to a difficult stretch of games before the All-Star break. They finish up this home stand with 3 games each vs. Detroit and Cleveland, then travel to Boston for 3 and Detroit for 4. The Tigers are charging up behind the Twins, so these head-to-head games will be an important test to see if the Twins can keep a division power in their rear-view mirror.

Denard Span will join the team in place of Cuddyer beginning tomorrow. I think this is long overdue. He should be given the opportunity to start in CF tomorrow night vs. RHP Armando Galarraga - Gomez hasn't had a day off in a while anyway. I'd like to see Span get every opportunity to prove that he belongs in the leadoff spot for the Twins, as Buscher has been able to do at 3B. This is the first step in upgrading the team for the 2nd half.

5th Split: 13-4

Overall Record: 44-37
2nd in AL Central by 1.5 games

Just about every successful Twins season that I've charted has a split like this somewhere. It's fascinating to zoom out when the season is over and see that, generally, they played .500 ball give or take a game or two, except for this one magnificent 2-week stretch when everything came together. The starters provided Quality Starts in 13 of the 17 games. The relievers allowed just 11 ER, and only 3 of those came since the team left Cleveland 14 games ago. The defense improved with just 10 errors, after committing 46 in the first 64 games. And the offense clicked to an average of 5.47 runs/game. Good times!

Juan Rincon was cut early in this split, and Brian Buscher was recalled from AAA Rochester. As noted above, the bullpen appreciated not having Rincon around, and Buscher was far better for the lineup (.353/.375/.451) than Mike Lamb had been (.222/.260/.299). But the most important change came in the rotation. As I boldly predicted, each of the young starters averaged at least 6 IP/start during this split. Well, almost: Blackburn came up 1 out short on Friday. But the effect was the important thing - by pitching deeper into the games, the young starters took the pressure off the bullpen, enabling everyone to be used in ways appropriate to their roles and talents. For example, the two lefties in the 'pen, Craig Breslow and Dennys Reyes, combined to throw just 8.1 IP during this split. And they were very effective, allowing just 1 ER on 2 H, 2 BB with 6 K. At this point, everyone should feel confident that the starters will regularly work deeply into the games, and 1 of the 12 pitching spots should probably be converted to a bench spot.

The steady offensive output came in spite of a poor showing from the lead-off spot. Carlos Gomez hit just .213/.243/.227 with 18 K and 3 SB. Since his career-high 12-game hitting streak ended in Cleveland, he's been even worse: .197/.235/.212 with 17 K and 2 SB in 15 games. I have no doubt that Denard Span could far exceed those numbers if given an opportunity, while making a negligible net impact on the Twins' CF defense.

Brendan Harris ends this split in the midst of a 10-game hitting streak in which he's shown considerable power, yet his overall numbers for the split are only .262/.286/.459 with 13 K. Lousy plate discipline + below-average range at a crucial defensive position < good enough. I'd like to see Harris replaced in the lineup as soon as a suitable option can be acquired.

You have to feel good about where the Twins are right now. Their record sets them on pace to win 88 games, a number that would not only exceed my expectations for this team, but that would also likely see them in contention for the division title into the final week of the season. As this young team continues to improve (in particular, the rotation), I think that goal might very well be reachable.

Bold Prediction: Francisco Liriano and Denard Span will be recalled by the end of the next split (2 games after the All-Star Break).

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Streak is Dead

Brewers 5, Twins 1

Oh well, the streak had to end some time, and I have to admit that it's sort of a relief that it's over. I've heard so many people saying, "Don't tinker with the lineup, it's all working right now." And it was - mostly. But as I pointed out earlier, the flaws in the current Twins roster will prevent them from being serious contenders, no matter how many wins they could string together against struggling NL teams. Now that the streak is over, I hope the front office will feel free to tinker away.

Look no further than the man on the mound tonight. This was your average Livan Hernandez game: 7 IP, 5 R, 4 ER, 7 H, 4 BB, 5 K. Usually he'll allow a couple more hits and a couple fewer walks, but the resulting 5.14 ERA and 1.57 WHIP are pretty much right on the money. The Brewers had a terrific game plan against him tonight, exhibited from the first 3 batters: lay off the stuff on the fringes of the zone, and wait for something to tail back over the plate, going up the middle or the other way when you swing. Ricky Weeks drew a lead-off walk after falling behind 0-2 because he wouldn't chase out of the zone. JJ Hardy got a pitch to drive into left-center, Ryan Braun got one to drive into right. Just like that, the Twins were down 1-0.

In the 2nd, Mike Cameron drove a ball to the wall in right-center (despite his bat exploding in the process), and the Twins helped the Brewers out by trying to pick him off: he took 3rd when Livan's throw hit him and rolled into short CF. He was able to score though the next two hitters failed to get the ball out of the infield.

I've got to give Livan credit for adjusting his game plan after being smacked around in the 3rd. In that inning, he again allowed a lead-off walk, then a 1-out walk to Prince Fielder. Corey Hart drove a double to RF, scoring one. They intentionally walked Russell Branyan, then Bill Hall drove the first pitch he saw to the gap in right-center for a 2-RBI 2B. At that point, Livan had thrown 2.1 IP, allowing all his runs on 4 BB and 5 H (3 2B). From then on, he allowed only 2 H in 4.2 IP with 4 K. He started throwing his fastball inside more to the heavily right-handed lineup. I wish he'd been pitching like that out of the gate.

I think the game turned in the bottom of the 2nd, when the Twins had a golden opportunity to show themselves, the fans, and the Brewers that this was going to be another night of comebacks for them. After Jason Kubel drew a 1-out walk, Delmon Young promptly lined a single to right. Brian Buscher then worked the count to 3-1, got caught half-swinging at a pitch that was probably ball four, then struck out swinging at a pitch that was definitely ball four. Brendan Harris also battled to 3-2 before swinging and missing at ball four in the dirt.

What a different game it would have been had those two elected not to swing at those pitches! Manny Parra was already at 40 pitches after 2 IP - what if he were at 40 pitches with only one out in the 2nd, the bases loaded, having just walked in a run? I'm not saying that Gomez or Punto would have continued the inning based on the swings they had tonight, but I doubt Parra or his manager would have had the confidence to keep going through 7 IP. Psychologically, the lead wouldn't have seemed quite as big all night, especially knowing that Parra was vulnerable. Considering that Parra allowed 6 BB in his last start, it should have been part of the Twins' game plan to make him throw as many pitches as possible. It could have been 6 BB again tonight had Buscher and Harris been a bit more patient.

It was tough to expect a win tonight with Casilla and Cuddyer both suddenly out of the lineup with finger injuries. It sounds like Cuddyer's might be fairly serious, meaning a Span call-up might be in the offing. If that happens, I think he should be given the opportunity to supplant Gomez as Buscher has supplanted Mike Lamb. Just put him in the lineup, watch him play well, put him in again. On the bright side, Kubel's performance tonight vs. LHP (1-2, HR, 2 BB) should ensure that, even if he's not playing in the field, his bat should be in the lineup no matter from what hand the pitcher throws.

Anyway, now we can soberly look at the team not as a magical winning machine, but as a club that, while seriously contending, has some serious deficiencies to correct. Not hitting lefties very well, for example. The pieces are available to sell, the needs should be clear. Let's make some moves, Mr. Smith!

10 in a Row

Twins 7, Brewers 6

A fine comeback for the Twins, and the winning streak reaches 10 games. Both of those elements were missing from last year's disappointing season. There were several times last summer when the Twins would rattle off a few wins (2nd-half sweeps of Oakland and Baltimore come to mind) and I'd think, "at last, they're going to get rolling." Then they would backslide as quickly as they'd surged.

It's hard to imagine a winning season without a long winning streak taking place at some point. They had the 11-gamer and two 8-gamers in 2006, the 11-gamer in September 2003, the 15-gamer in 1991. Subtract those winning streaks, and those Twins teams were only a few games over .500 - with the streaks, they were pennant winners. A period of over a week in which just about everybody is playing well, and they're getting the breaks as well.

While it was routine for the 2006 Twins to recover from early deficits, last year's team rarely showed so much life. So it's most encouraging to see the team continue to battle against one of the better teams in the NL after falling behind by 3 runs. It's been almost expected for the Twins to come back and score in the half-inning after falling behind, and it happened again last night. Our starter was chased after 4.2 IP, and we came right back and chased their pitcher after 4.2 IP, narrowing the gap to just 1 run. The way things have been going, 1 run is no concern at all.

Nick Blackburn was pretty dreadful last night, so dreadful, in fact, that I'm not worried in the slightest, though this makes 2 starts out of 4 in which he's been beaten up pretty badly. All 6 R he allowed came on 4 HR; other than that, we're looking at 5 H and 5 K in 4.2 IP. He came into the game having allowed 7 HR in 15 GS cover 93 IP - that's a guy who knows how to keep the ball in the yard. So I look at last night's results and clearly see a fluke. His fastball was out of control: when he could get it to sink, he couldn't throw it over, and when he threw it over, it didn't sink. Dick and Bert made much of how he'd thrown just 89 pitches in 16 days prior to the game last night, and sinker-ballers tend to have trouble when they've had too much rest. I'm sure he'll be back to business as usual when he faces the Tigers on Wednesday.

What is it that happens to Joe Mauer at the plate when he comes home? He was already hitting about .100 points higher and over .200 points of OPS better at home when this week began. He went 1-9 in San Diego, but last night was 2-4 with a BB, 2B, HR, and his 2 outs were a fly to warning track in CF, and a liner to second. Glad he'll be home for the next 9 days. He now has 3 HR in June, about the number I figured he'd hit every month, leaving him with 15-20 by the end of the season. He'll really have to pick up the pace to meet those numbers now.

Alexi Casilla continued to show why he's ready to stick in the big leagues. He worked the count to 3-1 before turning on his 4th HR, followed Gomez' inning-opening bunt single with one of his own in the 3rd, then made a spectacular diving stop on a Prince Fielder grounder in the hole. Two of those plays weren't friendly to his finger, and he's day-to-day with a middle-finger sprain of his left hand. Those are the ones that can really nag a baseball player, so I hope Punto can fill in ably for a few days while Casilla gets better.

Another big win for the bullpen, as Brian Bass, Matt Guerrier and Joe Nathan combined for 4.1 IP, 0 R, 3 H, BB, 4 K. Bass looked particularly good, getting 2 K in his 2.1 inning stint. He's doing a good job of keeping his stock relatively high. Guerrier had to walk somebody (of course), although I thought the ump could have wrung him up on the 2-2 pitch.

Livan Hernandez vs. Manny Parra tonight in a battle of pitchers with 1.61 WHIPs. Hopefully the offense can do enough damage to make up for the starter again tonight.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Familiar Territory

Twins 3, Padres 1
Twins 9, Padres 3
Twins 4, Padres 3

After 70 games in 2006, the Twins were 35-35. They proceeded to finish out the first half with 11 straight wins (10 vs. NL opponents) and erase their slow start in April/May, putting themselves on pace to win 92 games (they would eventually win 96). Their overall run of 21 wins in 23 games that June began at the end of a humbling 3-7 road trip.

After 70 games in 2008, the Twins were 34-36. They have now won 9 straight games (all vs. NL opponents), and will finish the first half on pace to win no worse than 86. This overall run of 11 wins in 12 games began at the end of a humbling 3-7 road trip.

I don't mean to imply that the 2008 Twins are on their way to the playoffs at this point - the '06 Twins began their streak, in part, because they jettisoned the players (Tony Batista, Juan Castro, Rondell White to the DL) who had been holding them back up to that point. While the current Twins are in as good of shape as they are because they have dropped Juan Rincon, benched Mike Lamb, and have Adam Everett on the DL, they still have moves to make.

Brendan Harris and Brian Buscher are liquid hot at the plate right now, giving the Twins contributions from the bottom of the order for just about the first time all year. However, their combined lack of range in the infield was also on display in San Diego, as several of the Padres' grounders managed to just sneak by them for base hits. If the Twins are to win consistently in the second half, I really think they need at least one player on the left side of the infield with superior range.

The fact that the pitchers were in the lineup shortened the nights of both Slowey and Perkins. Had the series taken place under AL rules, I have little doubt that Perkins would have come out for the 6th inning and had an opportunity to keep the Quality Start streak alive. Even so, the Twins' starters have delivered Quality Starts in 13 of the last 15 games, during which time the team is 12-3. There are 4 good young pitchers in the Twins' rotation, and I feel like I can expect quality out of them on a regular basis. I can't say the same for Livan Hernandez. I'm sure he made a bit of an adjustment before his starts at the Dome, but he was also facing young, undisciplined teams who have been struggling offensively of late. He will probably not fare so well against the teams coming to MN for this home stand (Brewers, Tigers, Indians). As long as Livan remains in the rotation, the Twins have a pitching disaster staring them in the face every 5th day.

The nice thing about baseball streaks is that they end up requiring good play from just about everybody in order to keep them going. That has basically been the case with this streak, especially where the pitching is concerned. On the offensive side, Gardy has understandably kept pretty much the same lineup out there every night. Here are the stats of the regulars during the streak:

Gomez: .237/.256/.263 2B, 3 R, 4 RBI, 0 BB, 9 K
Casilla: .235/.297/.265 2B, 5 R, 5 RBI, 3 BB, 1 K
Mauer: .310/.412/.375 3 2B, 5 R, 4 RBI, 5 BB, 4 K
Morneau: .343/.395/.543 2B, 2 HR, 6 R, 11 RBI 3 BB, 4 K
Cuddyer: .286/.394/.464 3 2B, 3B, 4 R, 3 RBI, 5 BB, 3 K
Kubel: .280/.379/.440 2 2B, 3B, 8 R, 2 RBI, 4 BB, 3 K
Young: .238/.333/.333 2 2B, 4 R, 3 RBI, 3 BB, 4 K
Buscher: .429/.467/.571 2B, HR, 8 R, 10 RBI, 2 BB, 1 K
Harris: .367/.406/.767 4 2B, 3B, 2 HR, 8 R, 8 RBI, 2 BB, 7 K

Buscher, Harris and Morneau are on fire. Mauer, Cuddyer and Kubel are doing about what we expected them to do. Gomez, Casilla and Young are actually struggling a bit at the plate, but Casilla and Young have managed to contribute by putting the ball in play and working some counts. Gomez is the only one on the team who has not drawn a walk during the streak, and has continued to average a strikeout per game. Amazing that the Twins have managed to pull off such a successful offensive streak (6.2 R/G) while their leadoff hitter has a .256 OBP! Keep thinking happy Span thoughts...

With regard to the pitching in this series, compliments go especially to the bullpen. Twins relievers allowed just 1 ER in 10 IP in the series. All looked efficient and confident. It was especially good to see that from Brian Bass, who allowed just a ground-ball single in 2 IP, needing only 20 pitches. And Boof Bonser finally had a scoreless appearance. It would have been spotless had Morneau's glove not ripped apart on the would-be final put-out. I worried about Boof then - he hasn't handled it well when wacky things happen around him, but he allowed just one more man to reach and eventually struck out the side.

Kevin Slowey was very good on Tuesday, but still needed a few too many pitches to complete 6 IP. Again, I'm sure he would have come out for the 7th had they not pinch-hit for him in the top of the inning. But he still has too many ABs that last 5, 6, 7 pitches because the hitter is able to spoil Slowey's 2-strike pitches. When he get can those guys to either miss or weakly put the ball in play in just 3 or 4 pitches, then he'll be on to something.

Glen Perkins looked as good as I've seen him so far this year. He was doing a terrific job locating the ball and mixing his pitches. Only 2 of the 6 H against him were hard-hit, and one of his 2 BB was a 10-pitch marathon to probable All-Star Adrian Gonzalez. If he continues to pitch like that, he's going to be in great shape going forward.

Scott Baker had a rare game in which he struggled with his command (4-pitch walk to the pitcher leading off an inning - really?). Thankfully, he is mature enough by now that he can win in spite of his stuff, and pitched well enough to escape a couple of very dicey jams. In fact, had Casilla/Harris done a better job turning a potential DP in the 3rd, he would have allowed just 2 ER in the game today.

The Brewers, Tigers and Indians will pose a much tougher test than the clubs the Twins have been playing the past 9 days. Luckily, the games are at home, where we have already seen a fair amount of magic this season. Here's hoping our flawed collection of ball-players can continue to remind us of the 2006 squad.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Your 2008 Minnesota Twins

With 76 games in the books, it should be pretty clear to everyone what sort of team the 2008 Minnesota Twins are. Most regular players are between 250-300 PAs, most starters have made 10 or more starts, most relievers have appeared in 25 or more games, so the stats at this point are telling. Here are some of the the most illustrative team stats, along with their AL ranking:

BA: .272 (4th)
R: 365 (4th)
H: 716 (3rd)
2B: 135 (10th)
3B: 23 (1st)
HR: 46 (14th)
OBP: .327 (9th)
SLG: .394 (8th)
BB: 217 (12th)
K: 466 (6th)
SB: 48 (T-5th)
SF: 32 (1st)
Sac: 21 (T-3rd)
G/F: 1.34 (3rd)

Obviously, the Twins are a contact hitting team that doesn't over-swing (high BA, low HR & K), tries to use its team speed (high 3B, G/F and SB) and tries to do the little things (high SF, Sac). The offense is dependent upon timely hitting and running the bases - one individual rarely comes to the rescue via the HR. In order to build and sustain rallies, the Twins hitters have to put the ball in play.

Now, look at the pitching, ranking them so that good performance is 1st and bad is 14th:

BAA: .288 (14th)
ERA: 4.35 (10th)
R: 367 (12th)
H: 777 (14th)
BB: 187 (1st)
K: 426 (12th)
WHIP: 1.41 (10th)
HR: 86 (T-14th)
CS%: 30 (5th)
P/PA: 3.62 (1st)
OBP: .337 (10th)
SLG: .447 (14th)
QS: 40 (7th)

This is a pitching staff that throws the ball over the plate (low BB, P/PA) but doesn't have overpowering stuff (low K) and, consequently, often gets hit pretty hard (high HR, SLG, BAA, WHIP). It controls the running game pretty well, and is as likely to put together a QS as anyone. What this staff needs is a steady defense with tremendous range in order to run down all those balls in play.

How about it, D?

E: 53 (13th)
FPCT: .982 (12th)
Def Eff: .684 (13th)

Oops! That's not helpful. The Twins, so long known around the league for their pitching and defense, are bringing up the rear in those categories in '08.

Luckily, the rest of the division has major weaknesses as well. If the Twins want to stay in contention, they will need to make some changes. Their offensive formula is actually not a real problem (the 1st-place Angels are similar to the Twins in many categories, but have far better pitching and defense), so as they look to improve the defense, they might as well look for more of what they've got offensively - HR hitters will cost dearly and be in short supply anyway. On the pitching side, they need to cut down on hits and HRs while not adding walks. Here's how they should do it:

1. Remove Livan Hernandez from the rotation ASAP

Hernandez has, predictably, been the embodiment of everything that is wrong with the Twins' pitching staff. He has personally amassed 103.1 IP, 60 ER, 150 H, 16 BB, 34 K, 13 HR. Put another way, in 15% of the team's total IP, Livan has allowed better than 18% of the ER, 19% of the H, 8% of the BB, 8% of the K, and 15% of the HR. The walks are nice, so we'd want to replace him with someone whose BB/9 is also around 1.00.

That person, of course, should be Francisco Liriano. His current line at Rochester is 71.2 IP, 33 ER, 66 H, 24 BB, 59 K, 5 HR. But, if you throw out his first 3 starts in April, when he had no idea what he was doing, here's what's left: 58.1 IP, 25 ER, 54 H, 12 BB, 49 K. That's a 3.86 ERA, 1.13 WHIP. Good enough. I have no doubt that he'll perform exceedingly better than Livan. I think, at the worst, he'd probably perform like Glen Perkins, but with fewer walks. At best, he could be somewhere between Baker and Slowey. Either way, it can only help the team.

2. Reduce the pitching staff to 11 members by designating Brian Bass or Boof Bonser

Bonser has had a knack for giving up runs this year. To do the same comparison I did with Livan: 75 IP (11%), 54 ER (16%), 92 H (12%), 23 BB (12%), 53 K (12.5%), 9 HR (10.5%). While his H, BB, K and HR are more or less proportional to the rest of the team (which is to say, not good), he has given up far more than his share of runs. Since being moved to the bullpen, his K and G/F rates have improved, yet he's managed to allow one or more runs in 5 of 6 appearances.

Bass, on the other hand, appears to have lesser stuff, but has been mostly getting the job done. His line of 47.1 IP (7%), 26 ER (8%), 58 H (7.5%), 17 BB (9%), 21 K (5%), 9 HR (10.5%) suggests that he has, on the whole, been less effective than Bonser, except when it comes to giving up runs. But that's the bottom line, isn't it? He's also been much better recently: Since they were both annihilated in Detroit on May 24, Bass has gone 16 IP, 6 ER, 17 H, 3 BB, 7 K, 2 HR for a 3.38 ERA and 1.25 WHIP, while Boof has gone 13.2 IP, 12 ER, 24 H, 6 BB, 13 K, 1 HR for a 7.90 ERA and 2.19 WHIP.

With the rotation of Liriano, Perkins, Baker, Slowey and Blackburn all averaging about 6 IP/GS, there is clearly no need to have two mediocre long-relievers. Whether the Twins would find it more useful to stick with Boof, who has more talent, or Bass, who seems to use what he has better, is up to them. But they should bite the bullet and make that choice now, so that the offense can gain some options off the bench.

3. Down with Gomez, up with Span

I've only been lobbying for this since spring training, so it should come as no surprise. That magic "excitement" that Gomez supposedly brings to the game has been waning in June, almost to the point where I'm no longer aware of it. For example, Gomez has only 2 SB since May 11 in 8 attempts. He has also has just 9 XBH, 7 BB, and 40 K in those 40 games. Where's the chaos, the game-changing speed? He continues to rush himself in the outfield, bobbling grounders/transfers and over-throwing the cutoff man. He has provided the Twins with 11.45% of their ABs, but has only 9.8% of the XBH, 5.5% of the BB and 16.1% of the K. His line of .269/.302/.379 is below the team average.

Wasn't he supposed to be a 5-tool player? Mostly, we've just seen 2: speed and defense. The arm is too inaccurate to rate highly, the power has been minimal and the hitting mostly quite bad. When he comes up in the middle of a big rally, he's usually the one that makes an unproductive out. Without him stealing bases at a ferocious rate, I'm afraid the rest of his weaknesses get the better of him. He could benefit from 1-1.5 years in AAA, just as Baker, Slowey, Casilla and Span have.

In Denard Span, the Twins have someone who has accumulated more than twice the BB and fewer than half the K of Gomez in about half the PAs at Rochester. His SB efficiency, thanks to a recent slump, is about on par with Gomez'. He has shown he can drive the ball, hitting about 28% of his H for XB and tying his career high for HR in just 100 AB. I haven't seen any reports that his range would be a large net loss from that of Gomez, and his accuracy would make up for his less-powerful arm. Basically, I think he can make most of the plays Gomez makes and match or exceed his XBH and SB contributions while walking vastly more often and striking out vastly less. Span is much more likely to keep a big inning going than Gomez.

4. Upgrade the SS position

Brendan Harris has recently gone on a hot streak that has justified his existence at last after about 6 weeks of futility. We knew going in that he was a subpar fielder, but he hasn't been hitting either. He hit .277/.330/.361 in April (his good month!), .217/.320/.289 in May, and his recent spurt of 8 H in 5 G has raised his June numbers to .243/.270/.343. In his 240 AB (9.13%), he's drawn 20 BB (9.2%) against 58 K (12.45%), including 2/18 this month. He is 1/2 in SB attempts. And we all know that his range at 2B and SS is a joke.

By taking him out of the lineup, the Twins can hopefully acquire a SS who will put the ball in play more often while getting to far more balls in the field. The option that occurred to me as I watched the games last week: Christian Guzman. He's in the final year of his contract, so the Nationals should be looking to move him. He's only making $4.2M, so it won't bust the bank. We know he likes to play the Twins' brand of baseball, and he's been playing it very well for the past two seasons. He's currently in the top 10 in the NL in BA, and he's 7th among MLB SS in ZR. Offer the Nats Brendan Harris plus something decent from the minors (Brian Duensing?) and get the negotiations started. Bring Guzie back!

5. Get rid of Craig Monroe

His 6 HR have come in fairly spectacular moments, but Monroe has been an overall disappointment. He was supposed to be the right-handed power the Twins could bring in against lefties, but in 53 ABs vs. LHP, he's hitting .113/.190/.170 with 1 HR, 5 BB and 13 K. I don't know if it would be worth it to keep him around long enough to even out his splits (he's currently .286/.333/.600 vs. RHP with 5 HR, 5 BB and 25 K). You can see from his high K rate vs. either kind of pitcher, he's probably going to be the one who kills the rally. Looking at his overall numbers as a percentage of the total team ABs: 123 ABs (4.68%), 6 HR (13%), 10 BB (4.6%), 38 K (8.15%). The Twins may miss out on those all-in moments like his game-tying jack in KC, but they'll more than make up for it by filling his spot on the bench with some who can more consistently put the ball in play.

6. Trade the Leftovers

The available trade pieces on the 25-man roster are:

Livan Hernandez
Boof Bonser or Brian Bass
Mike Lamb
Brendan Harris
Adam Everett
Craig Monroe

Interesting that these were the guys brought in during the off-season...

From Rochester:

Anybody but Jose Morales and Trevor Plouffe, really.

Make those trades! Pick up Guzman. Go get a right-handed hitting 3B with plus range if you can. Add a veteran bench player. If there's a starter available who has better potential than the young guys, go for it. There are plenty of possibilities.

My revised lineup (Span, Casilla, Mauer, Morneau, Cuddyer, Kubel, Young, Buscher, Guzman) should have a little bit better range up-the-middle while putting together more positive ABs and striking out less. By dropping Monroe, Gomez and Harris, the Twins subtract 171 K (36.7% of the team total!) and replace them with Guzman (23 K in 333 ABs), Span (29/35 BB/K ratio in 165 ABs between AAA/ML) and Jason Kubel (17/22 BB/K since the embarassing month of April). Given their current K rates, this trio would have about 87 K in the same ABs as the group they're replacing - about half as many. Substituting those numbers, the Twins would currently rank #1 in the AL in fewest K, while also moving up the list in BA, OBP and fielding.

The pitching staff (Liriano, Baker, Slowey, Perkins and Blackburn in the rotation, Nathan, Guerrier, Reyes, Crain, Breslow and Bass/Bonser in the 'pen) should give up fewer hits while striking out more. When you take out Hernandez and Bonser, the already departed Juan Rincon, and the not-ready mess of Liriano's 3 appearances in April, the remaining staff has this line: 466 IP, 487 H, 184 ER, 59 HR, 119 BB, 312 K, 3.55 ERA, 1.30 WHIP. I expect Liriano's numbers to be in the neighborhood of Slowey and Baker, but with fewer HR, so he should be a positive contributor to the K/BB rate and WHIP. Who knows what his ERA would be. It appears that this pitching staff is capable of ranking in the top 5 or 6 in the AL in ERA and WHIP.

The Twins can compete for the division title this year while playing their brand of baseball. They just have to finish filling the roster with guys who actually play that brand of baseball well.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

From Modest Beginnings Come Big Innings

Twins 7, Diamondbacks 2
Twins 6, Diamondbacks 1
Twins 5, Diamondbacks 3

The Diamondbacks' pitchers did a great job of shutting down the Twins' offense in 21 of 24 IP. In the other 3, the Twins enjoyed timely hitting as fine as anything the White Sox did two weeks ago (minus the HRs). This makes 5 straight games in which the Twins have scored 4 or more runs in a single inning, nearly batting around as they do. It's beginning to feel like it's just a matter of time before everything starts dropping in, and that's a very good feeling for a team to take onto the field against pitchers the likes of Randy Johnson and Brandon Webb (and, coming this Tuesday, Jake Peavy). It's brought them all the way back from their atrocious last road trip and positioned them to once again compete for the division.

I didn't think it accurate to see in some of the write-ups that Randy Johnson got "knocked around" on Friday. That one bad inning began with an infield hit from Delmon Young, followed by a drive off the baggy from Brendan Harris for a double. Matt Macri chopped a 2-run single up the middle that seemed to take forever to get into CF. After Carlos Gomez flied out, Alexi Casilla delivered a bunt single, Macri hustling to 3rd on an errant throw from the catcher. Joe Mauer hit a SF to left, Casilla taking second on a close play at the plate. Justin Morneau grounded the next pitch into LF for an RBI single, and moved to 2nd on a close play at the plate. Craig Monroe capped the rally with a 1st-pitch HR just over the wall in left-center. 6 R on 6 H, but only 2 balls really hit hard. A lot of the hits Johnson gave up on Friday were the result of curious defensive placement - SS Stephen Drew played deep in the hole vs. most righties, and several of them took advantage by grounding singles up the middle that would have been routine outs given normal positioning.

Saturday night's big rally began with a well-placed bunt single by Mauer (despite a valiant fielding attempt from brand-new 3B Augie Ojeda). Morneau hooked a 1-2 slider into the RF corner for an RBI double, then moved to third when the short-hop throw from the cutoff man bounced away from the catcher. With the infield in, Michael Cuddyer grounded to short, then Jason Kubel walked on 5 pitches. Delmon Young went with a fastball on the outer half and drove an RBI single to RF, then he and Kubel moved up a base on a wild pitch. Brian Buscher worked ahead in the count, then drove a ball to the base of the wall in LF, scoring 2. Harris immediately grounded a pitch past the diving 1B, driving in Buscher. Gomez struck out on 4 pitches, none of which were in the strike zone. Casilla took the first 3 pitches for balls, then grounded the 3-2 pitch up the middle to drive in the 6th run. It looked to me like the only bad pitch of the inning was the double to Buscher - everything else was nice hitting by the Twins.

The fifth inning today began with a ground-ball single to CF by Kubel. Young followed with a fly to deep left that was blessedly lost in the day-game roof and fell for a double. Buscher took advantage by grounding a 2-RBI single up the middle. Harris grounded the 1st pitch he saw through the left side for a single. Gomez laid down a perfect Sac bunt, setting up Casilla for another 2-RBI grounder up the middle. Mauer reached on an error by the shortstop, sending Casilla to 3rd. He scored on a SF by Morneau - Mauer was nailed at 2nd trying to tag to end the inning.

Besides timely hitting from Harris, Casilla, Macri/Buscher, Morneau and Young, these innings had something else in common - they all had the Twins aggressively flying around the bases, forcing the D-backs into poor throws, and taking advantage by claiming extra bases. (Unfortunately, they all had an out from Gomez in the middle of them as well, though at least on Sunday it was productive.) They were, quite simply, the embodiment of how the Twins have managed to score the 4th-most runs in the AL while being last in HRs and 8th in OPS: put the ball in play, run the bases. This week, it's worked.

The other facet of this is the pitching. Twins pitchers have now delivered 9 consecutive quality starts since Livan Hernandez was last blown to bits in Cleveland. In this series, Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, and Hernandez combined for 20 IP, 3 ER, 19 H, 2 BB, 15 K. The bullpen allowed 0 ER and just 4 base runners in its 7 IP. For the home stand, the starters averaged 6.2 IP, 1.76 ERA and 1.12 WHIP. Washington and Arizona are, admittedly, not the hottest teams in the NL right now, but this result has to be a huge confidence boost for a young team. With strong contributions from mid-season call-ups beginning to supplant some of the veterans signed during the off-season, this home sweep vs. the NL is strangely reminiscent of 2 summers ago...

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Sweep Relief

Twins 2, Nationals 1
Twins 11, Nationals 2
Twins 9, Nationals 3

I'm a little off my schedule this week - I was supposed to have reconstructive knee surgery on Wednesday afternoon, but it was postponed due to an electrical problem at the hospital. My mom flew in to help me in my recovery, and since she is also a big Twins fan, we sat down to enjoy the rest of the game when we got home after dinner, then watched the Thursday finale together before heading off to my rescheduled surgery. I was in the hospital most of the day yesterday, deciding whether my pain was manageable enough to send me home (it was). I suspect I may have the time to blog a little more often in the coming weeks.

Coming home from a tough road trip, isn't it great to be able to face the worst team in the NL? You know you've got a chance for a sweep when Livan Hernandez can hold your opponent to 1 ER on 5 H in 7 IP. He needed just 77 pitches to reach that point, but Gardy perhaps remembered how quickly Livan's last good start (vs. CO) got out of hand in the late innings, and wisely turned the game over to Guerrier and Nathan. John Lannan pitched a very strong game for the Nationals, allowing just 2 R on the huge homer to Morneau. I hope Mauer and Morneau find their way into the All-Star game starting lineup - they have certainly been wonderfully consistent about getting on base and driving in runs.

Kevin Slowey delivered another quality start, despite not having his best stuff. He allowed another HR, but it was a solo shot, and otherwise he was able to work out the jams he got himself into. After walking the leadoff man in the 7th, Jesse Crain came in and loaded the bases with a BB and HBP, but also picked up 2 K and escaped unscathed. Then the Twins offense went off on the Nats' bullpen, lighting up 3 relievers for 8 ER on 8 H and 4 BB. There were bunt hits, triples, SFs, 2-out hits and walks. With Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer playing much better in June, the offense is very good when either Gomez or Casilla get on. It should be noted that Boof Bonser pitched the 9th inning, and, of course, allowed a run.

In the finale, it was great to see Gardy just let Perkins go for 8 IP. He wasn't having the greatest game, but the team built him a huge lead, so it wasn't too risky leaving him in there so long. I think it benefits him to be out there on the mound learning how to work with OK stuff and tiredness. He got hit pretty hard - Cuddyer made a couple of nice catches on liners to keep things under control, and he still missed his spots a lot, but I've got to think he's only going to get better. The Twins' 3-6 hitters went 7-15 with 3 BB and 7 R. Buscher is making a strong contribution in his first few games - I don't know whether the Twins will go back to Lamb or try to trade him. I like that Casilla, even though he's not getting hits the last few games, is still having productive ABs - drawing a walk, laying down a sacrifice, hitting a SF.

Span vs. Gomez

Denard Span has come back from his broken finger and picked up right where he left off at Rochester. In his first 3 games back he's gone 8-13 with 3 2B and 3 BB. His OPS continues to be in the high .900s. Gomez, meanwhile, has been quietly below average. In the month of June, he's hitting just .259/.292/.329 with 1 SB in 4 attempts. He's made the catches in CF, but made 2 awful throws over the cutoff man in Thursday's game, and has been bobbling the ball a lot recently even though he hasn't always been charged with an error. This month he has 4 BB and 18 K.

I'm hoping that, over the next week, Span will continue to produce at AAA, and the Twins' young rotation will continue to carry the team through the 6th inning every night. It's just about time to go down to 11 pitchers, cutting ties with Bonser. Once the Twins are ready to have 5 bench players again, I think Span deserves his shot.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Go Young

Twins 10, Brewers 2
Twins 9, Brewers 4 (12 innings)
Brewers 4, Twins 2

The road trip that began with a 4-game sweep in the unquenchable hell-fires of the South Side ended rather well this weekend with a series win vs. the Milwaukee Brewers. After being absolutely immolated by the Sox (12.12 ERA, 4.1 IP/start) to culminate a string of 11 games without a quality start, the starters have been quality in 5 of the last 6 games, including all three this weekend. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the pitcher who failed to deliver a quality start was none other than veteran "innings-eater" Livan Hernandez. Kevin Slowey (age 24), Glen Perkins (25) and Scott Baker (26) all did what Livan could not - they went at least 6 IP while keeping the team in the game.

Slowey was brilliant on Friday night, facing just one hitter over the minimum through 6 innings. 4 of the 5 hits he allowed were for extra bases, so eventually he gave up some runs, but he finished 8 IP with only 2 ER allowed. I hope this illustrates that Slowey is an actual Major League pitcher: in his last 7 starts, he's gone 5.2, 5.2, 6, 9, 6, 3 and 8 IP. Which game doesn't belong? Of the 8 starts in which he didn't get hurt, he's come within 1 IP or 1 ER of a quality start in 7 of them. His WHIP is at 1.14, tops among Twins starters with at least 8 starts. His K/BB ratio is 35/7. He's allowed 9 HR, most of them in his final inning of work, so he has an important adjustment to make in order to survive his 3rd trip through the order. But it's a relatively minor one for the International League's best pitcher of 2007. He'll be one of the steadiest members of this rotation for the remainder of 2008 and years to follow.

Perkins backed up his solid outing on Monday with another on Saturday. He got touched for 3 ER on 8 H (including a tremendous HR from Ryan Braun - but there's really no shame in that), but walked only one while striking out 6. I feel pretty comfortable for the most part when I see that he's going to start a game. He should get better as the year goes along.

Scott Baker looked solid in his two starts on the road trip. The 2-run HR by Mike Cameron spoiled his afternoon yesterday, but he tied his career high in Ks (4 in one inning!) and otherwise matched Perkins' line against a team that had been swinging the bats very well coming into the series. I'm even more confident when he's on the mound than Perkins.

Nick Blackburn, age 26, not seen in this series, is averaging 6.1 IP over the 13 starts in which he wasn't hit in the face with a line drive. I'm feeling pretty good about him, too, though he's the true rookie in the rotation. So it does not please me to see that he will skip his turn in order to rest some sore muscles. I was rather hoping they'd be skipping the old man, Livan, age 33 (or so). Though his former team, the Washington Nationals, are dead last in the Majors in runs and OPS, I don't know that Hernandez will be able to stop them. Please, Bill Smith, get him off the team soon!

The Nats aren't a great pitching team either, so hopefully the offense will be able to keep Livan in the game. I'm definitely looking forward to having the team back home, where they are above .500, and where Joe Mauer has an OPS about .200 points higher. Throw that in with the steady hitting of Justin Morneau and some occasional table-setting wonders from Carlos Gomez and Alexi Casilla and things could get interesting. It was great to see Delmon Young go 6 for 10 over the weekend, though he still needs to calm down a bit out there. Brain Buscher had a terrific re-introduction at 3B - I wonder if Lamb's job is in trouble?

The best part of the weekend for me, other than the pitching, was the performance of Jason Kubel. He went 5 for 13 with 1 walk, and 2 of his hits were HR, giving him 4 on the road trip. He looks fantastic at the plate, showing no inclination to chase bad pitches early in the count. Basically, he looks like the guy who was the Twins' best hitter during the second half of last season. Through the first half of June, he's hitting .325/.426/.700 with a 6/7 K/BB ratio. Yummy!

The Twins weren't playing particularly well when the road trip began, but the White Sox would have beaten just about anybody the way there were playing a week ago. Having weathered what will likely prove the most brutal stretch of games this year, the Twins are still in second place, just 4.5 games back. As the GM continues to trim the under- and non-performers from the roster, I feel good about where the Twins are right now. They have an excellent chance of being a better team in the second half.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Moral Victories

Indians 1, Twins 0
Twins 8, Indians 5
Indians 12, Twins 2

Another Thursday, another series lost. But I don't feel too bad about this one. It's hard to lose 1-0 games, but when it's the guy who was the best pitcher in the league last year who shuts you out, well, that's understandable. Obviously, the base-running was terrible, but when Sabathia is that on, you're just not going to win. It's when Vicente Padilla throws a shutout that I get upset. Besides, the valiant start from Scott Baker was precisely what the Twins needed, breaking a string of 11 straight games without a quality start.

I still quibble a bit with the sequence to Garko in the 1st inning: after getting ahead 0-2, Mauer and Baker tried to get him to chase consecutive sliders off the plate (yes!). Garko laid off, evening the count. At that point, I would have liked to have seen them bust him in, keep him thinking the ball might come inside. They went back outside, and even though the ball was 4 inches off the plate, he leaned out and lined it up the middle for the game's only RBI.

Still, a terrific effort from Baker, backed up nicely by Nick Blackburn on Wednesday. The Twins' most consistent starter so far this season, Blackburn showed that Friday's drubbing at the hands of the White Sox was a fluke. Boof Bonser did not inspire confidence out of the 'pen, and Gardy had to bring Reyes in to try to bail him out. Grady Sizemore was not fooled when Reyes tried to slip a breaking ball over the inside corner, and belted a 3-run HR (the first off Reyes this season) to bring the Tribe back within 1. Luckily, Jason Kubel, Justin Morneau, and next-generation piranhas Carlos Gomez and Alexi Casilla did enough offensively to keep the Twins in front. I must say, it was particularly gratifying to light up Paul Byrd - I've always been irritated that the Twins couldn't be patient enough to knock him around.

The Indians were certainly patient enough to knock around Livan Hernandez on Thursday, proving that his recent string of awful starts (5 GS, 24.1 IP, 11.20 ERA, 2.49 WHIP, 4 HR) is most definitely not a fluke. If the Twins had had the sense to deal him after his start in Colorado, they might have gotten a quality prospect or two, in addition to some extra payroll space. Now, if someone were to offer a Single A bench-warmer and a case of beer, I'd jump at the chance to unload Livan for some kind of return.

But the bad pitching didn't stop there. After Brian Bass doused the situation Livan left in the 4th with a quick DP and flyout, he proceeded to allow 3 ER on 2 H, 2 BB and a HBP while recording just 2 outs in the 5th before being relieved by Craig Breslow (who is, so far, a good pitcher). Boof followed Breslow and allowed 2 ER on 4 H in his inning, although he did strike out the side. Moral victories.

The Twins should have had the stones to shake up their roster before the road trip started, but I guess they just wanted to see which of their option-less pitchers still had it in them to contribute. In that respect, this was a productive series. With Juan Rincon designated for assignment earlier in the day, the Twins got to look at their three worst pitchers in Thursday night's game. All have been on a downward trajectory as bad as Rincon's, all needed to prove that they could eat innings and keep the team in the game, and they all struggled. Any of them (all of them?) could be taken off the 25-man roster at this point and make the team better.

The Twins finally have an off-day on Monday, the day Blackburn should start. Francisco Liriano has put together 3 straight outings in which his K/9 was greater than 9.00, and his control has been much better. He could hardly do worse than Livan. His next start in Rochester will be on Sunday. The Twins should skip Livan's turn in the rotation on Tuesday, pitch Blackburn on 5 days rest instead, then send out Slowey, Perkins and Baker on their normal rest. That would allow Liriano to start at home a week from Saturday. No "seasoned" veterans in the rotation, but when your veteran is as bad as Livan, I'll take the rookies. I would also send Bass down and recall Bobby Korecky.

Hopefully, those and others moves are coming soon!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

4th Split: 7-9

Overall record: 31-33
2nd in AL Central by 6.5 games

A week ago, the Twins were 6-3 in this split, scoring 5 or more runs in 6 straight games and looking forward to series against barely .500 Baltimore and Chicago. At that point, the pitching, which had been shaky for most of May, got even shakier, allowing 5+ runs in 7 of 8 games, while the offense reverted a bit to the April standard, scoring 3 or fewer runs in 4 of the last 7 games while walking just 13 times after greatly increasing that rate in the previous split. Those two things are not a winning combination, and the Twins lost 6 of the last 7 games (including 4 straight to the White Sox) to put themselves back under .500 and quite a ways back in the standings.

Twins starters have gone 11 consecutive games without a quality start. The beleaguered pitching staff has created an unusual situation with a 13-man staff, since the organization is reluctant to attempt to demote Brian Bass, Boof Bonser or Juan Rincon, fearing that they would be claimed by another team. Unfortunately, that leaves them in the bullpen to throw gas on the flames, and further thins an already flimsy bench.

Bonser began this split with the absurd 19-3 shellacking at the hands of the Tigers. He made one more, decent start against the Yankees, allowing 3 unearned runs early in the game thanks to a Nick Punto error, then looked reasonably good in two outings out of the 'pen (Gardy left him in there just an inning too long vs. the Sox on Saturday). He's really had only 2 clean appearances since the beginning of May, though. I'm ambivalent about him - I think the Twins should attempt to send him to the minors and see if they get away with it.

Bass was also thrown under the bus against Detroit on that Saturday. In 6 appearances since then, he's allowed 3 ER on 12 H and 0 BB in 9.2 IP, for a 2.79 ERA and 1.24 WHIP. In fact, if you throw out that Motown disaster, his season line looks pretty good: 3.63 ERA over 39.2 IP. The WHIP is too high (1.51) and he doesn't strike out a lot of guys, but I think he's done well enough to keep around over Bonser.

Rincon was the other victim of the Tigers mauling, but he showed no signs that it was a fluke. He allowed at least one earned run in 5 of his 6 appearances during this split, including 3 HR. His overall line: 8.2 IP, 11 ER, 16 H, 4 BB, 5 K, 11.42 ERA, 2.31 WHIP. I didn't think the Twins would re-sign Rincon this off-season, and I'm wishing they hadn't. He should be DFA.

It's good to have Scott Baker back in the rotation - I'm hoping he'll be able to do something about this:

Bonser: 4 IP/start, 11.25 ERA, 2.13 WHIP
Blackburn: 5.2 IP/start, 5.40 ERA, 1.44 WHIP
Hernandez: 5.1 IP/start, 10.13 ERA, 2.25 WHIP
Perkins: 5.1 IP/start, 5.57 ERA, 1.90 WHIP
Slowey: 6 IP/start, 6.50 ERA, 1.33 WHIP

That's the performance of the starters over the last 16 games, with the exception of Baker's line last Thursday: 5 IP, 3.60 ERA, 1.20 WHIP. As I've stated earlier, I think the thing that will most improve the rotation is expanding the strike zone - they shouldn't be so afraid to miss off the plate, especially inside, and should be less willing to give into hitters after long ABs. This is one good thing they can learn from Livan Hernandez. They've learned it by now, haven't they? Time to cut him before he does any more damage.

I'm not going to say too much about the offense here, other than that I'm pleased with the improvement Delmon Young has shown. In 10 games since he was finally benched in KC, he's hit .325 with 4 2B and his 1st HR for a .500 SLG%, and he has 6 RBI. Unfortunately, that has coincided with 0 BB and 9 K, and he'd had a pretty decent ratio going before that (17/32). Hopefully he can put the two pieces of his game together.

Bold prediction for the next split: Slowey, Baker, Perkins and Blackburn will each average at least 6 IP/start. The bullpen will revert to 12 pitchers. At least 2 veterans will be let go. Especially the ones named Livan and Rincon.


White Sox 10, Twins 6
White Sox 11, Twins 2
White Sox 12, Twins 2
White Sox 7, Twins 5

Two months ago, when the final game of the Twins' first series with the White Sox was rained out, I thought it was a lucky break. Though the Twins had split the first 2 games, the Sox were getting a ton of runs out of their meager batting average, hitting way too many homers and having a lot of big innings. They won't be so hot in June, I thought.

Well, once again, the Twins arrive one week too late for that to be true. This weekend the Sox were not only hitting home runs, they were hitting bloopers and bleeders and playing sick D and pitching pretty darn well to boot. The Twins would have had to be awfully sharp to withstand a team clicking like that. Sadly, they were not up to the challenge.

My wife had a baby shower this weekend, and there were out-of-town guests, barbecues, house-cleaning - basically, I only got to watch about 4-5 innings on Sunday and Monday afternoons (thank goodness). Kevin Slowey was the victim of a lot of poorly-hit hits: my (least) favorite was the sawed-off single by Alexei Ramirez with 2 out in the 2nd. Gardy and Slowey both characterized the game as one in which the Sox hit everything he threw up there, good, bad or ugly. That can happen when a team gets hot. I still think he doesn't stretch the plate as much as he could, but he didn't pitch as badly as his resulting line would suggest.

Glen Perkins recovered nicely from a couple of very poor starts. The missed DP opportunity by Macri and Casilla taxed him greatly in the 3rd, and probably cost him a chance of finishing 6 innings. Still, I have to really question some of the pitch selection, and Joe Mauer is to blame for some of this.

Leading off the 2nd, Perkins blew 2 straight high fastballs past Jim Thome to get ahead 0-2. The next pitch should also be a high fastball, possibly higher than the first two, but essentially in the same location. Thome likes to get his arms extended, as we know from seeing him in our division for most of the last decade+. He has great opposite-field power. And aren't we trying to establish inside today? Well, the 0-2 pitch has just above the knees on the outside corner, and Thome ripped it into the left-centerfield gap for a ground rule double. He would later score the first run for the Sox. If you're going to go down-and-away on the 0-2 pitch, it can't be hittable. Bad pitch-calling. (In Thome's next AB, with the bases loaded and 2 out, Perkins threw a high fastball by Thome to end the threat. How about that.)

In the 4th, Nick Swisher opened up extremely quickly on a well located fastball (letter high, off the plate inside) and crushed it about 400 feet into the LF corner, just foul. If he's that early on a fastball, this is the textbook moment to throw a changeup and slow the bat down. If they had, Swisher would have probably fallen down striking out. Instead. Mauer and Perkins threw the exact same pitch Swisher had just crushed foul, and this time he timed it a little better and crushed it fair.

Why does Mauer call these pitches? Is he such a smart hitter that he has trouble believing that other hitters don't think the way he does, that basic pitching patterns could actually bring positive results? This problem of location and pitch selection is something I expect to see improve as Mauer and the young pitching staff continue to gain experience.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Location, Location, Location

Orioles 5, Twins 3
Twins 7, Orioles 5
Orioles 3, Twins 2

Once again, a Thursday afternoon loss leads to an ultimately disappointing home stand. After hanging with the Yankees for four games, the Twins couldn't cash in against the slumping O's. I thought Baltimore played an all-around good series - they got solid starting pitching, dependable work from the bullpen, made a lot of plays in the field, and were pesky at the plate. They did a great job of hitting mistake pitches. And my goodness, there were a lot of mistakes from the Twins' pitchers.

The Orioles hit 6 HR in the series, accounting for 7 of their 13 runs, including the game-winner on Thursday. I was pretty amazed by the dinger Mora hit off Kevin Slowey in the 6th inning on Tuesday night - he turned very quickly on a low-and-in fastball down 0-2 in the count. All the other HR hit by the O's were off pitches belt-high over the plate. Even an unimpressive BA team like the O's can hit those.

Slowey and Scott Baker had similar starts: each easily got ahead of most hitters, but then struggled to put them away. Slowey in particular gave up several 2-strike hits, and Baker seemed to need 6+ pitches in each AB, reaching a pitch count of 99 through just 5 IP. I was frustrated by the HR Baker allowed - he'd thrown 8 pitches already to Markakis, 7 of them fastballs. With first base open and a right-handed batter coming up, I felt that was a time to be careful with the 3-2 pitch, maybe locate a breaking ball just off the plate and see if he'd chase, or try an off-speed pitch. Nope, belt-high fastball over the plate. Ding!

This brings up an interesting side-effect to the wonderful lack of walks from the young starters Slowey, Baker and Blackburn: they're so determined not to walk people that they offer too good a pitch when they're ahead in the count. Radadmes Lis was getting 4-6 inches off the plate from Tuesday night's umpire - Slowey could hit that spot, why not try to stretch the strike zone? This may also be a problem with still relatively young catcher Joe Mauer. If he sets up outside and they hit the glove, maybe they get the call. If he sets up on the corner and they hit the glove, maybe the hitter hits it hard!

This makes two straight starts in which Glen Perkins was utterly unable to command his stuff. Pitch after pitch right in the sweet spot. I hope it's only a slump. Good work from Boof Bonser out of the bullpen - keep that up!

The 13-man rotation resulted in some creative managing from Gardy late in Thursday's game: Kevin Slowey was used as a pinch-runner for C Mike Redmond, Kubel pinch-hit for DH Craig Monroe, and Mauer pinch-hit for LF Delmon Young. That meant Mauer had to catch, Kubel had to go to left, and Slowey became the DH. I thought Gardy would use Brendan Harris instead of Mike Lamb to start the 9th against LHP closer George Sherrill, but Harris was needed to pinch-hit for Slowey if it got to him (he was on deck when Casilla made the final out). With Punto back to the DL and Morneau dragging with a bum knee, I don't think the Twins can sustain a 3-man bench for very long. They have to decide to drop someone from the bullpen. Either Rincon or Bass would be the likely choices.

Carlos Gomez had a hit in each game, but overall was 3-14 with 3 K in the series. For the homestand, he was 6-34 (.176) with 9 Ks. If he doesn't start having better ABs soon, I'm going to start harping for Span again.

The Twins drafted a toolsy HS outfielder and 2 college pitchers in the first round on Thursday. One pitcher was a stretch, the other fell into their lap. Pretty typical draft, I'd say.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Yankess Go Home

Yankees 6, Twins 5
Yankees 7, Twins 6 (12 Innings)
Twins 5, Yankees 1
Twins 6, Yankees 5

I guess we shouldn't be surprised that two approximately .500 teams split a 4-game series. But as each Yankee came to the plate for the first time on Friday night, and the broadcasters reported that they all had .320 career BAs vs. the Twins, it accentuated what an accomplishment it is for the Twins to not lose a series to the Yanks, even if it was at home. The Twins performed quite well, overall, and had Nick Punto fielded that grounder in the 3rd inning on Saturday, it might have been a 3-1 series win for the Twins.

Glen Perkins simply didn't have it on Friday night. He couldn't locate his pitches, and not in the safe, "Oh well, I walked him" way, but in the "I fell behind and then threw a strike that was up and over the plate, so I gave up 5 ER in 4 IP with a 3.00 WHIP" way. This does not concern me. He was so good in his first 4 starts, anybody can have one bad one, especially a young starter like Perkins. If he keeps throwing good games 80% of the time, I can't complain.

Boof Bonser wasn't awful in his last start. Had his defense been perfect, he might have had an opportunity to finish the 6th inning and get a quality start. However, with 3 BB and only 2 K in 5+ IP, it certainly wasn't enough to stave off his demotion. Hopefully he'll be able to let it go a little more from the 'pen, and his K/9 totals can work their way up.

The biggest surprise of Blackburn's start was the 3 BB - goes to show what a patient team the Yanks can be. Still, he looked well on his way to another quality start before he was hit in the nose by a line drive. Looks like he'll be OK for Friday in Chicago.

On Monday, the Twins won once again in spite of Livan Hernandez. He gave up double-digit hits again in 6+ IP, and his season ERA is fast-approaching 5.00. If Francisco Liriano continues to perform well in AAA, it should become apparent very soon that the Twins will be better off with him in the rotation than Livan.

The bullpen performed brilliantly under considerable duress. In 19.2 IP (almost 5 IP/game!), they allowed just 3 ER on 19 H and 4 BB for a 1.17 WHIP. Craig Breslow had an impressive Twins debut, striking out 3 in 1.2 perfect innings. Joe Nathan pitched 3 consecutive days and did not collapse. Word is the bullpen may expand to 13 members on Thursday when Scott Baker returns from the DL. I don't think that's necessary, especially if the starters resume their recent habit of pitching deep into games.

The defense made just one error in the series. Too bad it proved to be so costly.

The Twins offense continued to carry the team, scoring 5 or more runs in each game. Michael Cuddyer led the way, going 9-18 with a 2B, 3B, HR and 6 RBI. Delmon Young was right behind him, going 8-18 with 4 2B and 4 RBI. Alexi Casilla continued to produce from the #2 spot, going 5-15 with 4 R, 3 RBI and 3 BB. Joe Mauer finally broke his HR drought. The only part of the lineup that disappointed was Carlos Gomez, who went 3-20 with 6 K, and only 1 R and 1 RBI. Hopefully he can shake it off and get back to kicking ass against the Orioles.

Monday, June 2, 2008

May Review

May Record: 15-13
Overall: 28-27, 2nd in AL Central by 2 games

Fitting that the Twins should conclude this month by losing an extra-inning game that would have been theirs in regulation had they played perfect defense. The 3 unearned runs that scored after Punto's error made it 23 total for May, adding 0.82 runs/game for the offense to overcome. The Twins lost 3 extra-inning games this month, and all three featured fielding or base-running errors which helped their opponent tie the score at the end of nine innings. Never mind the increased strain on the pitching staff caused by the poor defense - it costs wins as well. Had the Twins won two of those 3 extra-inning games, they'd be in first place, and would have had a great month at 17-11.

Thankfully, the offense came to life. This was especially apparent in the walks department: after finishing last in the AL in walks and OBP in April, the Twins came in 3rd in OBP for May. This led to a 2nd-place finish in runs scored, behind only Texas. The HRs picked up slightly, but the team went crazy with triples, and finished the month in 4th place in OPS.

Good thing the offense took a step forward, because the pitching slid back. The injury to Pat Neshek exposed the weaker links in the bullpen. Livan Hernandez predictably gravitated away from his exemplary April toward his recent norms. Boof Bonser started consistently giving up big innings, and has lost his spot in the rotation. Thankfully, the least experienced members of the rotation have proven to be worth the high prospect ratings they received, and they will soon be joined by Scott Baker (and possibly Liriano?).

For a young team with low expectations, any winning month has to be considered a success. As I write this, the Twins are within easy reach of first place, and remain several games ahead of pre-season AL Central favorites Cleveland and Detroit. If the Twins can continue to improve in June, the notion that this is a rebuilding year should be set aside, and the Twins should use their considerable cap-room and minor league assets to acquire an impact player or two for the second half.

On to evaluations of players with at least 35 PAs and pitchers with at least 7.2 IP:

Getting It Done

Justin Morneau - Just 9 of his 38 hits this month went for extra bases, but he led the regulars by playing in every game and hitting .336/.405/.496 for the month with 20 RBI and a 21/13 K/BB ratio.

Joe Mauer - The M&M boys are back! We're still waiting for Mauer's first HR, and he had just 5 XBH in May overall. But he reached base at a .442 clip, thanks to a .333 BA and 8/19 K/BB ratio. He was second in runs with 17.

Carlos Gomez - The 30/6 KK/BB rate is still a concern for a leadoff hitter, and his SB efficiency dropped to 6/10. But his approach at the plate has been much better, his K/BB rate is an improvement over April, and his 48 TB is second only to Morneau. He got his OBP up to .348, and if he can keep improving like this every month, he's going to be a good one.

Mike Lamb - He overcame his abysmal April to go .302/.340/.407 in May, and finally hit his first HR last week. He continues to be productive with men in scoring position, and has been serviceable at 3rd base.

Alexi Casilla - What a pleasant surprise he's been the last couple weeks. Though his average was horrendous in Rochester, he was walking about as much as he struck out, and that has continued with the Twins (7/8 K/BB). On top of that, he hit .340/.417/.520 with 2 HR and 13 RBI in just 50 ABs. He's made some costly errors, but his range is excellent. He's making a case for sticking in the Majors this time.

Joe Nathan - 5/6 in save opportunities, and the one he "blew" wasn't his fault at all. Too good to only get 11.2 IP.

Matt Guerrier - He gave up way too many walks (9), so his WHIP was a big problem for awhile, but he finished the month strong and wound up with a 2.12 ERA and 1.35 WHIP in 17 IP. The Twins desperately need him to keep that up!

Kevin Slowey - After coming up just short (in terms of IP) of quality starts in his first 3 starts after returning from the DL, Slowey put together 2 very good starts to finish the month. He allowed just 1 ER in 15 IP in those starts, ending May with a 2.87 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in 31.1 IP.

Nick Blackburn - He'll give up his hits (38 in 33.1 IP), but his control (5 BB in 5 GS) and his ability to get ground balls keeps him out of trouble and pitching deep into games. Hope his nose is OK.

Glen Perkins - He didn't have it Friday night against the Yankees, but his first 4 starts were terrific. If he can keep giving the Twins 4 out of 5 good starts, he'll have a place in the rotation.

Bobby Korecky - I'm not sure how long there will be room for him with the Twins, but he's done everything they've asked of him so far. His 0.91 WHIP was tops in the 'pen for the month.

So Far, So Good

Livan Hernandez - The 2.43 K/9 plus the 1.57 WHIP are a recipe for disaster, yet Livan has so far produced reasonably well. He averaged well over 6 IP/start, and he often manages to get out of the trouble he gets himself into. June is historically his worst month, so look out...

Jesse Crain - Like Livan, Crain managed to pitch effectively despite an atrocious 2.14 WHIP and 3.86 K/9. He'll need to drastically cut down on base-runners if he's to remain useful. However, for his 2nd month back from major shoulder surgery, not bad.

Juan Rincon - Way too many walks (12 in 15.1 IP) killed his WHIP (1.70), but he was mostly able to limit the damage, putting up a 4.12 ERA for the month with 0 HR allowed.

Brian Bass - Why is someone with a 6.61 ERA and 1.90 WHIP in this category? Well, if you throw out his appearance in Detroit (1.1 IP, 7 ER on 7 H), his overall numbers for May aren't too shabby: 3.00 ERA, 1.60 WHIP in 15 IP. Rookies are going to have bad games every now and then, but on the whole, Bass has done his long-relief job well.

Need to Pick It Up

Dennys Reyes - A lot of hits fell in against him this month. He was frequently used in situations that exposed his weaknesses (any time he pitches to a RHB, for example). Hopefully Breslow can take some of that pressure off, and Reyes will have better luck this month.

Boof Bonser - Boof just couldn't stay out of the big inning this month, and it cost him his spot in the rotation. Hopefully, he can be an asset to the bullpen.

Delmon Young - May was an improvement over April in terms of OBP (16/11 K/BB ratio) and power (4 2B, 3 3B), but we all had reason to expect even more. His defense has been terribly scattered for the last couple weeks.

Jason Kubel - He's showing some signs of life, and didn't get a whole lot of ABs early in the month. Still, his OPS should be comfortably in the .800s, not barely over .700.

Brendan Harris - Thank goodness he's drawing walks, or he'd be completely useless. .217/.320/.289, and his terrible defensive range is evident whether he's playing 2B or SS. I wish they'd kept Bartlett.

Craig Monroe - He hit 4 HR in limited action, and a couple of them were huge. But he struck out in 1/3 of his ABs, and the BA fell back to its 2007 levels (.216).

Michael Cuddyer - Lots of Ks (23) and not that many XBHs (7). 17 RBI for the month, but with Gomez, Casilla, Mauer and Morneau constantly on base, it could have been a lot better.

Matt Tolbert - He was only batting .212/.257/.303 before he foolishly destroyed his thumb by diving into first base.

Adam Everett - 6 of his 9 hits were for extra bases! That's about the only good thing I can say about him. Not that sorry he's not in the lineup every day - not sure I want to see him back when he's healed.