Thursday, February 26, 2009

Notes from Game 2

Twins 10, Reds 4

I was bummed that not even the Reds bothered to broadcast this game, so my all my comments are based on the box score and the write-ups.

Nick Blackburn followed Glen Perkins' outing last night with 2 solid innings. It would have been nice to see a strikeout in there, but at least 4 of the 6 batters he faced put the ball on the ground.

The Twins used 8 pitchers in the game, and 7 of them did quite well. The one that didn't was Philip Humber. He gave up 4 R on 4 H and a HBP in his 1 IP, and it didn't sound like the hits were cheap. Meanwhile, R.A. Dickey had a scoreless inning with 3 K. As I said yesterday, it is possible for Humber to pitch himself out of the last bullpen spot. He'll need to put this outing solidly behind him the next time he takes the mound.

I know it's only been 5 AB, but Brian Buscher looks like a man on a mission. At least he's proving that he's got more slugging potential than he showed last season. Brendan Harris had a nice game, too.

Carlos Gomez didn't get a hit, but he didn't strike out in 3 AB either.

Denard Span got a start in left field and went 1 for 3. Keeping the pressure on Delmon Young, no doubt.

Looking forward to listening to the game tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Back to Baseball

Boof Bonser's exploratory surgery revealed a partially torn labrum and rotator cuff, and he now will likely miss the 2009 season. This is bad news for Boof, who was surely looking forward to improving upon what was, overall, a calamitous 2008 campaign. It was not a sure thing that he would be a solid contributor in the bullpen, but his stuff certainly fits the role, so this injury will cost the Twins some depth they might have used out of the 'pen this year. However, the overall impact on the roster won't be terrible. Philip Humber will now almost certainly make the team (he'll have to utterly stink to risk a trip through waivers after Brian Bass was protected last spring). If the Twins elect to go with 12 pitchers, there may be a slot for Jose Mijares. There may also be a spot for some as yet unsigned reliever - Dennys Reyes is still available! But it also gives them a rationale to leave camp with only 6 relievers (Joe Nathan, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Craig Breslow, Luis Ayala and Humber), providing an extra bench spot for this spring's Matt Tolbert. Or for last spring's Matt Tolbert.

Twins 5, Boston 2
Twins lead Mayor's Cup 1-0

It was great to turn on Gameday and listen to TRN again. I was even excited to hear this year's crop of bummer PSAs between innings. And I couldn't wait to find out how the 2008 wunderkinds were growing up on the field.

Glen Perkins was reminiscent of many of his starts last season - at least the first 2 innings of those starts. He was efficient despite allowing a hit in each inning, only struck out a batter every other inning and got 5 fly ball outs. Yep, that's his game.

It was good to see a lot of patience by the hitters vs. Tim Wakefield. It's gotta be tough to face a knuckleballer in your first game, but the Twins made him throw a ton of pitches and dinked their way to a crooked number in the 2nd. Morneau, Cuddyer and Kubel all drew walks.

How typical to see Delmon Young come out hacking at the first pitch in his first AB, get behind 0-2, then come up with an IF hit (ground ball, of course). In his 2nd AB, he wisely followed Kubel's walk by taking a couple of pitches and working ahead 2-1, but then grounded into a DP. No progress there so far.

Brian Buscher was the only player who hit Wakefield hard, and he ripped a double in his 2nd AB. Could he be locked in after being displaced by Joe Crede? Or will this spring be like last year, when he hit a HR in his first game vs. Boston, then scuffled the rest of the month?

Buscher's replacement at 3rd, Danny Valencia, also came up with a couple of hits.

I wasn't terribly surprised to see that of Crain, Nathan and Ayala, it was Nathan who struggled. He's the one whose role is secure, and so he has nothing to do this spring but tune himself up. Maybe a bit less of a mental edge than the other guys had.

Good to get the Mayor's Cup started on the right foot (I want that cup!). I can't wait to see what the rest of the guys have in store tomorrow. Baseball is back!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

An Upgrade at Third Base?

The Twins will hold a press conference Sunday morning to announce the signing of All-Star 3rd baseman Joe Crede. I've always been fine with the Buscher/Harris platoon at 3rd, figuring that they'd combine for an .800 or better OPS if allowed to face opposite-handed pitchers, but playing obviously subpar defense. I certainly didn't feel that any of the available players this offseason were worth trading good players or signing to big, multi-year contracts. While surveying that field back in November, I had this to say:

As for the free agents, Crede is the best choice. He's been hampered by injuries the last 2 seasons, and is therefore likely to take a 1-2 year deal for reasonable money in order to try and raise his value for his next contract while he's still in his low 30s. If he could repeat his 2006 numbers (.283/.323/.506, 30 HR), the Twins would have the bat they're looking for, while also improving themselves defensively. If he performs closer to his career average, they're still getting good pop from their #8 hitter. But I'd definitely keep Buscher around in case Crede gets hurt again.

Despite demonic agent Scott Boras' best efforts to get Crede a $7 million guaranteed contract, the scenario I foresaw has played out. As this winter's glacial free agent market unfolded, it became clear that the teams that jumped in early ended up spending vastly more than they needed to (see: Raul Ibanez). Bill Smith is to be commended for sticking to his guns throughout the Twins' lengthy negotiations with Boras. By wisely assessing that the Buscher/Harris option was as good a temporary solution as anything else out there, the Twins kept themselves in a position to walk away from unreasonable demands.

The rough details of the contract illustrate a deal that is perfect for the Twins. Crede is guaranteed only $2.5 million, less than the Twins paid to Mike Lamb last year (and this year, for that matter). If Crede stays in the lineup for 525 PA, he'll receive $7 million - still a bargain for a veteran slugger who plays good defense. Crede has every incentive to produce, not only to earn as much money as he can this year, but to prove that he's durable enough and productive enough to merit an inflated contract next offseason. The Twins can wish him the best as they make room for the likely arrival of Danny Valencia some time in 2010, with some combination of Buscher/Harris/Luke Hughes briefly holding down the fort until then.

This move will ripple down the Twins' depth chart. Harris will surely become the Twins' primary bench IF, though his fielding isn't quite as good as that of Matt Tolbert. With 3 RHB on the bench in most games (Harris, Mike Redmond and either Delmon Young or Carlos Gomez), Buscher stands a pretty good chance of earning the final bench spot. He'll be the one to spell Morneau at 1B on the rare days Justin comes in from the field, and there's already talk of trying Buscher out at some other IF/OF positions this spring to increase his versatility. The odd man out will likely be Tolbert, although Gardy has signaled that the Twins might be inclined to come north with only 11 pitchers. That's always been the best idea, but they were handcuffing themselves by wanting to keep both Philip Humber and Boof Bonser in the bullpen. With Bonser now potentially facing some DL time with his shoulder soreness, that dilemma could be clearing itself up.

Fans should temper their expectations for what Crede will bring to the lineup, and not just because he was only able to play 144 games over the last 2 seasons. Despite the devastation he wrought on the Twins last year (.400/.429/1.050 with 7 HR and 17 RBI), Crede is just a .257/.306/.447 career hitter. That OBP is not much better than that of Carlos Gomez. It isn't that Crede strikes out too much (about once every 7 AB), he just gets under the ball a lot. That helps him hit a HR every 20 AB or so, but it also results in a lot of popups. His power numbers may not translate perfectly in the spacious LF at the Metrodome. Though his K/BB rate is much better vs. LHP (31/30 over the last 3 years, as compared to 96/38 vs. RHP), he's actually hit RHP much better recently (.276/.314/.495 compared to .224/.299/.375 vs. LHP, again from 2006-2008). In light of that, it might make more sense to give Crede days off against southpaws in favor of Harris, who is at .295/.360/.440 vs. LHP for his career, rather than subbing Buscher vs. RHP.

Because of his limitations as a hitter, it still makes sense to use Michael Cuddyer (.268/.344/.441) in between Morneau and Jason Kubel. The difference in career SLG% is minimal, and Cuddyer's significant edge in OBP will help sustain more rallies. Crede should still get plenty of chances to cap big innings from the 7th spot, where he typically hit in Chicago. If Delmon Young proves to be a regular and can consistently perform at the level he did from June through the end of the 2008 season, I'd even slot him ahead of Crede at #7 (although Crede isn't likely to hit into as many DP).

The one thing the Twins should be able to count on from a healthy Crede is above-average defense. Even if he doesn't hit as well as we'd all like, that piece of his game should give him some consistent value, especially from the bottom of the order. He and Punto, while not necessarily getting on base a whole lot, should make for a very strong left side of the infield. In fact, the Twins infield defense as a whole should be much better than last year, when shaky fielding was as big a reason as any that the team narrowly failed to make the postseason.

He's not a savior, but Crede does add value to the 2009 Twins, especially at the price they were able to acquire him for. Though it took them nearly a week into spring training to do it, the Twins have finally fulfilled their offseason objectives, and are as well-positioned as any other team to compete for the AL Central title.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Nick Blackburn is Better Than They Think

A lot of us were taken by surprise last winter when Baseball America ranked Nick Blackburn the Twins' #1 prospect. They saw something that most prognosticators didn't, but Blackburn's 2008 season seemed to prove them right. I would have expected Blackburn's projection for 2009 to be more optimistic based on that performance. (I suppose it is, relative to what was out there last year.) PECOTA has him throwing 160 IP over 25 GS, with a 5.22 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, and 75/42 K/BB ratio. This following a season in which he threw 193.1 IP over 33 GS, with a 4.05 ERA, 1.36 WHIP and 96/39 K/BB ratio.

Why the down projection? Is there some indicator in Blackburn's minor league history that would suggest a regression is likely? Was he just really lucky last year?

To answer the recent history question, here are Blackburn's BB and K numbers from each level over the last 4 seasons:

2005: 93.7 IP, 16 BB, 55 K, 1.5 BB/9, 5.3 K/9 at A+
2005: 49.0 IP, 10 BB, 27 K, 1.8 BB/9, 5.0 K/9 at AA
2005: 14.0 IP, 3 BB, 7 K, 1.9 BB/9, 4.5 K/9 at AAA
2006: 132.1 IP, 37 BB, 81 K, 2.5 BB/9, 5.5 K/9 at AA
2007: 38.0 IP, 7 BB, 18 K, 1.7 BB/9, 4.3 K/9 at AA
2007: 110.2 IP, 12 BB, 57 K, 1.0 BB/9, 4.6 K/9 at AAA
2007: 11.2 IP, 2 BB, 8 K, 1.5 BB/9, 6.2 K/9 at MLB
2008: 193.1 IP, 39 BB, 96 K, 1.8 BB/9, 4.6 K/9 at MLB

A couple of those stops have such small sample sizes that they aren't really worth talking about, but you can see the pattern. It should have come as no surprise that Blackburn was able to put up a BB/9 under 2.0 and K/9 between 4.5 and 5.0 in 2008. But PECOTA couldn't fathom it - those normal for Blackburn numbers were absolutely off the charts according to last year's projection. In its most generous version of his possible 2008, it couldn't see him doing better than 2.3 BB/9 and 4.0 K/9. Though it's significantly increased his forecasted innings and shaved a little off his ERA and WHIP, it still has him at 2.4 BB/9 and 4.2 K/9. Whah? Why should a pitcher entering his peak years suddenly have notably poorer control numbers? I don't buy it.

What about luck?

Here are his HR/9 and BABIP numbers over those same levels:

2005: 0.5 HR/9, .302 BABIP at A+
2005: 0.2 HR/9, .239 BABIP at AA
2005: 1.3 HR/9, .346 BABIP at AAA
2006: 0.7 HR/9, .310 BABIP at AA
2007: 0.2 HR/9, .267 BABIP at AA
2007: 0.6 HR/9, .255 BABIP at AAA
2007: 1.5 HR/9, .405 BABIP at MLB
2008: 1.1 HR/9, .329 BABIP at MLB

Again, giving a little less emphasis to some of the teeny sample sizes there, it should be apparent that a lucky season for Blackburn looks like 2005 or 2007 - HR/9 under 0.7 and BABIP under .300. It stands to reason that those rates could be significantly lower than 2008 in some forthcoming MLB season. PECOTA judged that Blackburn would need a BABIP of .288 to reach the ERA and WHIP numbers he actually accumulated last season. But by drastically exceeding the PECOTA BB/9 numbers, Blackburn made room for himself to have a lot more balls fall in for hits.

Setting aside the projections for a moment, I want to see what I can glean from the games Blackburn pitched last season. Checking out his game log, some things pop out at me:

Over his final 53.1 IP (27.6% of the season) he allowed 66 H (29.4%), 10 HR (43.5%) and 20 BB (51.3%).

He allowed 8 of his HR (34.8%) in 2 lousy starts.

He didn't get a win in 5 games he left with the lead, and had another in which the tying run scored on an error on what should have been the final out of the 7th inning. His offense only bailed him out of 2 of the games he left trailing.

In 16 starts from April-June, he threw as many as 95 pitches only once, despite pitching well enough to keep the Twins in the game into the 6th inning in 11 of them. Based on pitch count and the score, one could argue that Blackburn could have pitched deeper into 16 of his 33 starts last year.

15 of the 102 R Blackburn allowed were unearned, indicating that poor defense behind him extended several innings.

Based on that information, I would surmise that Blackburn would have easily surpassed 200 IP had he not been a rookie (Gardy would have let him get closer to 100 pitches more often early in the season) and had his defense played better behind him. With a bit better support from his teammates at the plate and in the bullpen, it isn't outlandish to think that he could have won 16 games. As the season wore on, he either tired, or the scouting reports caught up to him. Since his BABIP remained relatively unchanged, I'm inclined to think that he just hung more pitches, which would also explain the increase in walks - he just wasn't as good at locating over his final 10 starts. As a control pitcher with mediocre stuff, opponents know he's going to be around the plate, and that he's hittable, so they take their swings early. That will always result in a high H/9, but it will also help with his efficiency.

To get an even more focused idea of what a typical Blackburn start looked like in 2008, I'm going to throw out his 2 most exceptionally good and bad games. Namely:

4/2 vs. LAA: 7.0 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 6 K, 15/4 GB/FB (for the season, his GB/FB was 0.84)
7/2 vs. DET: 7.0 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 4 K
6/27 vs. MIL: 4.2 IP, 9 H, 6 ER, 0 BB, 5 K, 4 HR
9/14 vs BAL: 4.0 IP, 9 H, 6 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 4 HR (there were four different months last year in which Blackburn didn't allow 4 HR)

Removing those outliers leaves this line for his remaining 29 starts:

170.2 IP, 198 H, 74 ER, 15 HR, 37 BB, 79 K, 3.90 ERA, 0.8 HR/9, 1.38 WHIP, 2.0 BB/9, 4.2 K/9, just shy of 6.0 IP/GS.

As I think about what to expect from Blackburn in 2009, those last 4 rates are the worst numbers I'd anticipate. But because I think Gardy will allow him to pitch deeper into games this season now that he's got a full season and some big games under his belt, and because I bet he won't see quite as many defensive miscues behind him this year, and because I expect him to be able to maintain his BB/9 and K/9 rates from the first 4 months of 2008 a little bit deeper into 2009, and because I think there's a decent chance that his BABIP will be lower than last year's, I believe that Blackburn can put up even better numbers this year than he did in 2008. I certainly don't think he'll have any trouble outperforming the projections.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Latest Projection

In the run-up to last fall's election, a friend tipped me off to Nate Silver's polling projection site, Silver called the election with such striking precision that I thought I'd better check out his baseball projection system, PECOTA. It lives at Baseball Prospectus, and I treated myself to a premium subscription after the holidays. After familiarizing myself with a host of new stats (FRAA, WXRL), I checked out how accurately they had predicted the Twins' 2008 performance. They were miles off for most players, and certainly for the team as a whole, which they expected to win 73 games, as I recall (that page has been updated for 2009 now). So while it is nice to see that they anticipate the Twins winning 6 more games than they predicted last year, that still only gets us to 79 wins, 5 games back of Cleveland.

Obviously, I hope they have similarly underestimated the potential of the 2009 Twins as they did last year. The system is weighted toward the results of the previous 3 seasons, so it was understandable that many of the Twins' players would be undervalued when their lousy 2005 and 2007 seasons featured so prominently. But I would have expected much better this year, since the team performed so well in 2006 and 2008. However, the team as a whole is projected to score 769 runs, allow 802 and hit .270/.330/.400. Earlier this winter I calculated that if the Twins' veterans repeated their career averages and the young players, on average, maintained their 2008 performances, the team should score 814 runs, allow 671 and hit .285/.349/.426. Clearly, PECOTA doesn't think many Twins will achieve those performances. There's a lot there to quibble with:

Entering the prime years of his career, Joe Mauer is projected to underperform his career OPS by about .025 points.

In the prime of his career, Justin Morneau is projected to hit only 23 HR - the same number he hit last year after 2 straight 30+ HR campaigns.

They expect Denard Span to steal only 19 bases in 539 PA, just 1 more than he stole in 2008 in 411 PA.

Given 50% of the playing time at 3rd, Brian Buscher is projected to hit .250/.310/.390 (about the same as Carlos Gomez), which would represent a .099 point drop in OPS from his rather timid 2008 performance vs. RHP.

And on and on. As for the pitchers:

No starter is projected to throw more than 175 IP.

Scott Baker should perform in line with his career averages for K and HR, but give up 10% more walks.

Kevin Slowey should more or less match last year's numbers for K and HR, but give up 38% more walks.

Of the relievers, only Joe Nathan is expected to have a WHIP under 1.30. The Twins have had at least 3 pitchers in their bullpen under that mark in every year of Ron Gardenhire's tenure.

There are also some odd allocations of playing time: Jason Pridie gets 15% of the playing time at DH; Boof Bonser, Philip Humber and Kevin Mulvey split 29 rather poor starts; Jason Jones and RA Dickey each get 40 IP of long relief.

Basically, some of the contributions that really hurt the Twins' numbers in the projection are really unlikely to happen. Jason Pridie will never be the DH - whatever playing time he gets will be in the field, where his glove can be an asset. If something happens to Jason Kubel that prevents him from suiting up, it's much more likely that someone like Luke Hughes would be called up to fill those ABs.

Jason Jones was the Twins' Rule 5 pickup from the Yankees - he has to stay on the 25-man roster all season or he goes back to NY. Bonser and Humber are both out of options, meaning that they would likely be claimed off waivers if they don't stay on the 25-man all season. With Nathan, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier and Craig Breslow all locks to fill slots in the 'pen, and newly-signed Luis Ayala also likely to get a spot, that leaves 2 slots open for Bonser, Humber and Jones (assuming the Twins go with a 7-man bullpen). One of those guys, and the negative value he brings with him, will never throw a pitch for the Twins in 2008, and those innings will instead be taken by someone better.

As the spring training competition unfolds, PECOTA will update its projections, and I bet the Twins' expected win total will improve as things progress.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Twins Sign Somebody!

Namely reliever Luis Ayala, to a 1-year, $1.3 million contract.

Having just done a post analyzing Matt Guerrier's horrible 2008, I'm struck by how similar Ayala's stats are. Like Guerrier, Ayala doesn't have big strikeout credentials (5.83 K/9 for his career), yet neither of them had had a bad season until last year. Ayala's K/BB rate is just about 3/1, so he fits in with the Twins' pitching model. But, as with Guerrier, he was hurt last year by an unusually high BABIP and BB/9. And, as with Guerrier, it's reasonable to expect those numbers to swing back toward his solid career averages.

Not a bad pickup, although I'm not sure how useful it will prove to be having 2 Guerriers in the bullpen. Sadly, this would appear to dash my hopes that the Twins would re-sign Dennys Reyes, thereby freeing up Craig Breslow and Jose Mijares to be setup men and not just LOOGYs. Oh, well. At least we can't say the Twins didn't sign any free agents this offseason.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Guerrier Battles On

Yesterday, the Twins announced that they had come to terms with reliever Matt Guerrier on a 1-year, $1.475 million contract for 2009, the mid-point between their respective arbitration figures. Must be nice to get a 50% raise following your worst-ever year on the job. However, the good things in Guerrier's recent past suggest that he'll be well worth the investment.

The main theory behind why Guerrier was suddenly so bad at the end of last season has to with his overuse after Pat Neshek was hurt in early May. There is some truth in that, but I would argue that Guerrier's overuse had as much to do with him as his manager, and that there was nothing sudden about his poor performance in August.

First off, the usage. While Guerrier was called upon to pitch in numerous high-leverage situations last year, it wasn't the first time he'd been asked to do that. In 2007, he set career highs in appearances (73) and IP (88.0), along with his best ever K/9 and BB/9. That strong performance earned him a promotion from long-relief to the 7th inning role by mid-season. After Neshek's innings were limited over the final 2 months of that season, Guerrier assumed the role of primary setup man. While his numbers over those last 2 months declined as well - he allowed 6 of his 9 HR and 11 of his 23 ER in August and September - the decline was back toward his career norms, with a 3.58 ERA and 1.34 WHIP. That still left him with a season ERA of 2.35 and WHIP of 1.05, thanks to the improved K/BB numbers and an abnormally low .271 BABIP. That was not likely to be repeated in 2008, and it sure wasn't.

Guerrier was typically used 12-13 times a month in 2007, and that trend continued in 2008 - the only time he exceeded that was with the 15 appearances he made in May, but 3 of those were only to face 1 batter - something he did only once at any other time in the season. So, while he was certainly busy in 2008 (among the top 20 relievers in MLB in G and IP), he wasn't much more so than he was in 2007 when he was superb. In fact, the 344 batters Guerrier faced in 2008 were 7 fewer than he faced the previous year.

By the beginning of August last year, just before things went to crap for him, Guerrier had made 51 appearances (4 more than 2007) but had thrown 57.1 IP (4 fewer than 2007). The trouble was inefficiency: he needed 924 pitches to complete those 57.1 IP, where he'd only needed 854 pitches to get through his first 61.1 IP in 2007. Over the course of the season, Guerrier threw about 2 more pitches per inning than he had in 2005 & 2006, and 2.6 more pitches per inning than in his stellar 2007. And those 2 extra pitches were almost always balls.

I looked back over my archives to see if I could find any references to support my impression that Guerrier had been wild from the get-go last year. Sure enough, from the first week of the season I was mentioning that he needed to start throwing more strikes or he was going to get hurt. His career K/BB ratio had been a little better than 2/1 entering the season, but other than July, he never came close to that. 9 of his BB were intentional, but a lot of those were the result of trouble he'd gotten himself into. Throw in the inevitable rise in BABIP (up to .331) and you've got yourself a ton of baserunners.

So what happened in the last 2 months? Well, in 2007, Guerrier gave up 6 of his 9 HR, 11 of his 23 ER and 6 of his 21 BB after he'd reached the 900 pitch mark for the season. Last year he arrived at 900 pitches on July 29, and from there his ERA ballooned from 3.23 to its final mark of 5.19. 7 of his 12 HR and 24 of his 44 ER allowed came after that point, and his K/BB ratio was 15/14. Surely, there was some physical fatigue. There was probably also some mental fatigue from having to constantly pitch from behind in the count to escape jams in high-pressure situations. And I imagine scouting reports were adjusted, preparing opposing hitters to take a few pitches and work the count rather than try to hit the first strike they saw. Eventually, Guerrier's spiral must have fed itself: I knew he was going to get torched every time he went out there, and he probably knew it, too.

Tired arm, tired mind, patient hitters, timid pitching. A perfect storm of negative factors - some of his own making - that led to disastrous results. The Twins went 6-19 in games in which Guerrier allowed a run, including 3-10 over the final 2 months of the season. Needless to say, had he been the pitcher he was from 2005-2007, the Twins would have won the division.

Luckily, things are apt to be much better for Guerrier in 2009. First of all, his BABIP will probably swing back towards where it was after 2006 (.314). That will be especially likely if he regains the strike-throwing form he had prior to 2008 - something which is very much within his control. And the Twins' professed interest in acquiring setup help this offseason implies that Guerrier is no longer expected to fill that role. That should enable him to be used less often and in lower-pressure situations. Given all that, there's reason to expect that Guerrier will once again be a reliable member of the bullpen in 2009.