Thursday, April 29, 2010

Defense Was the Difference

Twins 2, Tigers 0

Francisco Liriano's resurgence continued with 8 more scoreless IP, with just 4 H, 1 BB and 10 K. He's now thrown 23 straight scoreless innings and has retaken his place as not only the Twins' best starter, but one of the best in baseball. Jon Rauch pitched around a leadoff walk in the 9th thanks to a fine play by JJ Hardy at deep SS to get a force at 2B.

Nearly as effective as Liriano, though not remotely as efficient, was Tigers' ace Justin Verlander. He also allowed just 4 H and 0 ER, but was driven from the game in the 6th after throwing 121 pitches - 9 more than Liriano threw in his 8 IP. The Twins offense turned the walk machine on against the Tigers' bullpen, drawing 4 more BB to go with just 1 H.

The only runs in the game scored on errors by the Tigers. A would-be inning ending flyball was dropped in the gap LF Ryan Raburn allowing the first run to score. The 2nd came in on an errant throw to 1st from 2B Scott Sizemore after he'd flagged down a Jim Thome grounder in short RF.

Twins 6, Tigers 11

I have to admit, I thought this one was in the bag after the Twins chased Detroit starter Max Scherzer from the game in the 4th inning. They were up 6-1 thanks to HRs from Thome and Luke Hughes (connecting in his first MLB PA) and some 2-out H from Denard Span and Orlando Hudson. With Scott Baker on the hill, things looked to be under control.

There's plenty of blame to go around for what followed, but I think the fundamental responsibility lies with Baker. He'd allowed 1 ER on 3 H to start the game, but got a big GIDP from Miguel Cabrera and got out of the 1st with no further damage. There were minor jams in the 2nd and 3rd, but nothing he couldn't handle. Then, with the game seemingly blown open, he began the 4th by falling behind Brandon Inge, then serving up a HR. He walked 2 other hitters in the inning, each of whom scored. Orlando Hudson wasn't able to start a DP on Johnny Damon's slow chopper, setting up an AB for Magglio Ordonez with 2 RISP and 1B open. I know it's tough to put somebody on in front of Cabrera, but Ordonez owns Baker to such a shocking degree that it probably would have been the right move. Ordonez delivered a 2-run single, of course, and the game was suddenly in doubt at 6-5.

The disastrous 6th inning hinged on a blown call by the umpires: Span made a running catch in left-center, but dropped the ball while trying to take it out of his glove. The umps ruled no catch, and there were again 2 RISP with 1 out, instead of a man on 1st with 2 out. A mistake by the umps, but Span could have made that easy on everybody by not dropping the ball. Anyway, the bullpen allowed the next 5 men to reach - a BB and HBP from Pat Neshek and then 3 straight 2B to greet Jesse Crain. Definitely the sort of breakdown the Twins had avoided up to that point.

Twins 0, Tigers 3

Dontrelle Willis was as good as he can be. He located well and took advantage of another generous (or appropriate, depending on how you look it at) strike zone. The Twins' lineup was depleted, with JJ Hardy and Justin Morneau resting little injuries and Joe Mauer finally getting another day off, just his 3rd in 22 games. Of course, he didn't really get a day off, because he pinch hit for Drew Butera in the 8th and caught the bottom half. I know Mauer is awesome and everything, but I doubt he has to PH there if it's Jose Morales or Wilson Ramos catching.

Carl Pavano was just about as good as Willis. The difference was what happened behind him. The Tigers promptly took the lead when leadoff man Austin Jackson singled and stole 2nd. Butera, heralded for his ability to throw out runners, threw the ball away, putting Jackson on 3rd, where he was able to score on a SF from Damon. The Tigers' 2nd R came when Jason Kubel couldn't come up with a diving catch on a liner. I like the effort, but it turned a single into a double, and from 2nd Sizemore was able to score on a soft single from Jackson. The 3rd R came when Delmon Young couldn't handle a short-hop as he charged a sinking liner with 2 out in the 8th. That's his best chance to keep the score at 2-0 with Ordonez off at the crack of the bat. Not an easy play, but one that, had it been made, would have given Young an excellent chance to nail Ordonez at the plate.

It took until April 29th for the Twins to suffer their first real setback of the season. They couldn't do what they had done in every previous series: match their weak hitting games to their weak pitching games. Baker's run support from Wednesday would have been plenty for Pavano today, and if you're going to give up 11 R, you might as well not score any. But there's no shame in losing a series on the road, particularly to a relatively strong team like the Tigers. They've just got to take care of business in Cleveland to come home with a winning trip.

Monday, April 26, 2010

I Like Our Bullpen

Twins 8, Royals 3

Carl Pavano recovered the form he showed in his first two starts, a nice rebound from the shellacking he suffered at the hands of the Royals last weekend. He allowed just 4 H with 0 BB and 5 K in 7 IP for his 3rd QS. He has a 17/1 K/BB ratio through his first 4 appearances.

By contrast, the Twins ground Gil Meche even more than they did last weekend, chasing him from the game in the 4th inning. They drew 5 BB off Meche in addition to 4 H, leading to 4 ER. How great to get into the KC bullpen so early in a series. They allowed 4 R in 5.2 IP, burning out 4 guys for Saturday. JJ Hardy and Jim Thome each hit their 3rd HR, and every Twins starter except Joe Mauer scored a run.

Twins 9, Royals 7 (12 innings)

This was the kind of game the Twins weren't winning for most of the season last year. Like Scott Baker on Thursday, Nick Blackburn wasn't sharp, but he wasn't as bad as the result either. For every drive to the gap he allowed there was a one-armed bloop - even a chopper up the middle that Blackburn knocked halfway back to the plate. On a better day, he won't give up as many XBH, and the poorly hit balls will turn into outs. At least he finally kept the ball in the yard. Though his numbers so far are ugly, he's really only had 2 un-Blackburn games so far. I'm still more comfortable with him than I would be with any of the AAA alternatives.

Orlando Hudson allowed the Twins' first unearned run of the season to come home when he dropped a knuckling liner in the 3rd. That was just their 2nd error of the season. Enter the bullpen, which held the Royals in check for the next 5.2 IP. Jon Rauch finally blew a save in the 11th, but the Twins gave him another chance in the 12th, and that time he held on.

Luke Hochevar definitely outpitched Blackburn, but the Twins did just enough damage to get him out of the game in the 7th - too early for Joakim Soria. Before the 4th inning, I went to get some food, and by the time I rejoined the game about 1 minute after the commercial break, the Twins had already cut a 5-1 deficit to 5-3, thanks to consecutive 1st-pitch 2B from Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer and a 2-base error from Scott Podsednik on Jason Kubel's first pitch drive. When John Parrish came on to face Morneau with 2 out in the 8th, the tying run was at the plate. The KC bullpen couldn't even hold the lead for 1 pitch, as Morneau bombed it over the CF fence for a HR.

I'll take my chances against the KC bullpen any time. Eventually, the Twins took the lead, then took it again for good. Wanna beat the Royals? Just be patient.

Twins 3, Royals 4

For the 4th time in the last 5 series, the Twins failed to convert their opportunity to sweep. Shrug. They're nice, they make up for some eventual series losses, but they're certainly not necessary. Kevin Slowey wasn't nearly as sharp as in his previous start, and this time the offense couldn't come up with a big hit to bail him out. Still, he made it into the 6th inning, and Alex Burnett ate up the last 2 innings of the game for the Twins' weary bullpen.

Despite scoring only 3 R, the Twins' offense was pretty well balanced. Denard Span was the only starter without a base hit, and they drew 4 more BB.

Big series in Detroit this week. The Tigers are the only Central Division team within striking distance of the Twins right now, so this is a great opportunity to further pull ahead of the pack.

  • Joe Mauer has started 17 of 19 games behind the plate, including Sunday's day game after a grueling, 12-inning night game. This is insane. I'm sure he feels good - the season's only 3 weeks old, why wouldn't he? But catcher fatigue is a slow burn, and we want him to have something left in August and September. I'm pretty sure this wouldn't be happening if anybody believed that Drew Butera was a competent Major Leaguer. This is why the Twins would have been better off with Wilson Ramos on the team - there's something to be gained from having enough confidence in the backup to rest the superstar once in a while. They can say that Jose Morales has to prove he can throw out base stealers before he'll get recalled, but that's also lunacy. Just get his bat in the lineup and give Joe a breather. If you're worried about SB, don't let fast guys get on base.
  • The Royals did a lot of damage to Pavano, Blackburn and Slowey over the past couple weekends. But they're currently leading the league in hitting, with particularly strong performances from Podsednik, Jose Guillen and Yuniesky Betancourt. Think that's going to hold up over 162 games? I'm looking forward to the next time the Twins face the Royals in June. Chances are they'll be hitting more like the Royals then.
  • Top prospect Aaron Hicks began the season 1 for 30 (.033/.171/.033) with 5 BB, 10 K and 0/2 SB. Since then he's gone 16 for 30 (.533/.622/.800) with 7 BB, 7 K and 4/1 SB. That gives him a nice overall line of .283/.403/.417. If he can maintain those rates, he should be in Fort Myers by early summer.
  • Since his ghastly season debut, 2008 1st-round pick Shooter Hunt has allowed just 3 ER (2.38 ERA) on 8 H and 4 BB (1.06 WHIP) with 17 K in 11.1 IP (13.5 K/9). Finally breathing through his eyelids.

Friday, April 23, 2010

First Split: 11-5

1st in AL Central by 2 games

Click here for a reminder of why I do these.

Remember last season, when the Twins didn't have a split more than 2 games above or below .500 until the final stretch in September? Things sure feel different now. A fast start is a big help toward a successful season. Not that the Twins haven't overcome slow starts in the recent past, or run down rivals who had fast starts. But crucial decisions get made based on records and standings in the middle of a season - whether to cash in the chips or deal for that extra piece that will make you even stronger in October. And morale is so important over a marathon season, for the fans as well as the players. Everybody can feel good about the way the Twins are playing right now, and they can remember this feeling and what it means about the potential for this team when they encounter tougher stretches down the road.

At this point, the Twins are in the top 5 in the AL in nearly every phase of the game. R, OBP, OPS, ERA, shutouts, Saves and Save %, BB allowed, WHIP, P/PA, RZR and UZR - it's all working. The defense has made only one error - a throw from LF that struck the would-be winning run just before the runner reached home plate in the 8th inning. All the routine plays have been made. This makes the Twins the runaway league leaders in fielding %, fewest errors and unearned runs allowed (0).

That defense has benefitted a pitching staff which, as usual, has been the stingiest in the league in issuing walks, especially since the first turn through the rotation. Other than a couple of tough innings from Jesse Crain and Jose Mijares, the bullpen has been stellar. Francisco Liriano is showing that he can recapture his dominance from 2006, or at least 80% of it, which should be good enough to make him a legitimate ace. The rest of the rotation has been solid in at least 2 of their starts to this point, generating 9 QS.

That's plenty for an offense averaging just over 5 R/G. The Twins have the 3rd highest OBP in the league despite having only 3 players hitting over .270. That's because they lead the league in BB, with Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Denard Span and Jason Kubel all drawing 10+ free passes so far. The lineup is almost certain to hit for a higher average down the road, so if they can keep drawing walks at this pace, they're going to bring home even more runs.

A bona fide contender, a spectacular new ballpark, gorgeous spring weather - what a great start to the season!

Bold prediction: The team BA will be over .280 after the next 32 games.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Ace in the Hole

Twins 5, Indians 1

This was more like what I expect from Kevin Slowey: accurate, efficient, victorious. 8 IP, 5 H, 1 ER (on a solo HR), 0 BB and 9 K, all in just 98 pitches. The Indians came into the series hitting horribly, so why not attack the strike zone? This was the first truly Slowey-esque performance of the year, and hopefully a sign of more to come.

The offense ground yet another starter out of the game early. Justin Masterson found himself at 96 pitches after just 4 IP, having issued 5 BB to go along with 5 H and 6 K. For all that trouble he put himself in, it was actually his defense which let him down. By failing to get any outs on what should have been an inning-ending DP, they opened the door for the Twins to score 4 R in the 3rd and coast the rest of way.

Twins 6, Indians 0

Are you on the Francisco Liriano bandwagon yet? He went unscored upon for the second straight outing, allowing just 6 H and 2 BB with 6 K in 8 IP. When the Indians put the ball in play, they typically put it on the ground, including a GIDP to get out of the only real jam Liriano was in all night. As shaky as his control was in his first start, he's just one strike short of having allowed 1 ER in his first 21 IP, with 0 HR allowed. We're in business.

Few hits for the offense again, but 6 more BB, so when three of the hits came, there were RISP to drive in. Michael Cuddyer did big damage with a solo HR and 2-RBI 3B to pile on after Brendan Harris and Denard Span delivered 2-out singles in the 2nd.

Twins 1, Indians 8

Winning the first 2 games of a series does wonders for my blood pressure in the finale. I shrugged as the Indians blooped and bled hit after hit into the holes in the Twins' defense. The box score looks ugly, but Scott Baker was really in pretty decent form. He just had appallingly bad luck on balls in play. Alex Burnett finally allowed his first runs in relief. Shrug.

The Twins' offense did basically nothing the whole series and still won 2 of 3. Their only run today came courtesy of a dropped foul ball leading to a BB, followed by a balk, then a 2-out hit from Justin Morneau. Drew Butera got his first big league hit. They will be few and far between, I think.

  • The Twins completed their first home stand at Target Field 6-3. They can't be comfortable there yet, but it doesn't seem to matter so far.
  • They didn't commit an error in those 9 games, and have made only 1 in 16 games to start the season.
  • After beginning the season 1 for 30 with 10 K, top prospect Aaron Hicks is 6 for his last 15 with a 2B and HR (though 6 more K). His 7 BB in 12 games give him a still very good .111 IsoD.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Twins 10, Royals 3

The strategy against Royals ace and reigning AL Cy Young Zach Greinke has to be to get him out of the game as early as possible, especially since the Royals' bullpen other than Joakim Soria is highly combustible. The Twins set the right tone from the outset, with Denard Span and Orlando Hudson each drawing 6-pitch walks to lead off the game. No runs in the 1st, but everyone stuck to the plan, and Greinke eventually allowed 4 R (2 ER) before being ground out of the ballgame after throwing 108 pitches in just 5 innings. 4 IP from the non-Soria members of the bullpen were a sure-fire recipe for piling on, and for the 2nd straight game the Twins scored 8 or more runs despite getting 0 H from Joe Mauer.

Scott Baker continued to show that his opening day performance was just nerves. He was wonderfully efficient, coming out after 7 IP with only 92 pitches thrown. He walked 0 and struck out 6. Matt Guerrier continues to have scoreless innings despite never missing bats.

Twins 6, Royals 5

It looked like it was going to be more of the same on Saturday after the Twins broke through for 5 R off Gil Meche in the 3rd inning. He managed to hang around through 6 IP, though. Good enough for the Twins, as the Royals middle-relief surrendered the game-winning HR to Hudson, the very first batter they faced. Except for Jason Kubel, everyone in the lineup reached base at least once, and there were only 2 K to go along with 5 BB.

Nick Blackburn isn't quite himself yet, apparently because of some elbow soreness which will delay his next start. It's not out of the ordinary to see him allow 7 H in 5 IP, but when he's on, 5 of those will be singles. In this game, he allowed 3 2B and 2 HR. Normally, he does a pretty good job of keeping the ball in the yard, so he's certainly yet to put his best foot forward.

As for the bullpen, suddenly depleted with nagging injuries to Jose Mijares and Pat Neshek, Brian Duensing and Guerrier took the mound for the second straight game and pitched 3 scoreless innings to set up Jon Rauch, who allowed two to reach but preserved the 1-run lead for his 6th save in 6 chances.

Twins 5, Royals 10

Sweeps are nice, but not necessary, especially when you start the season with 4 straight series wins. Carl Pavano finally had a poor start, though if he gives the Twins 2 good ones for every bad I think we'll all take it. Alex Burnett turned right around from his demotion to Rochester earlier this week and threw 2.2 scoreless IP with 4 K. Ron Mahay added 2 IP with 3 K. But Jesse Crain, for the 2nd time on this home stand, came one pitch short of a scoreless inning, instead allowing Alberto Callaspo's 2nd 3-run HR of the day to ice the game.

It was heartening to see the relentlessness of the lineup in the face of an early 4-run deficit. The lineup ground out another 8 BB, bringing the tying run into scoring position a couple of times in the late innings and forcing the Royals to bring in Soria to put out an 8th-inning fire. Even in defeat, the Twins scored 5, and were just one big hit away from changing the game.


  • In each of the Twins' 4 losses so far, they've been within striking distance in the 8th inning: trailing 4-3 in the opener, tied at 4 in the finale in Chicago, and trailing 3-2 in their loss to the Red Sox. No games you want to turn off after a few innings so far.
  • Burnett is replacing Mijares, who had to go on the 15-day DL.
  • The Beloit Snappers have won 4 in a row, 3 by shutout.
  • Spencer Steedley, one of the AFL prospects from last year, has allowed just 3 H and 1 BB in his first 9 IP with 13 K. Even more impressively, he's wiped out righties about as well as lefties, something he didn't come close to doing last year. He pitched decently in 18.2 IP with the Rock Cats last year, so if he can keep this up for another 10 appearances of so, he could be looking at a promotion to Rochester for his 25th birthday on May 31st. Left-handed middle relief was one of the weaknesses for the Twins at the upper levels of their system, so Steedley's development would be most welcome, particularly with Mijares ailing and the Twins having to rely on the ancient Mahay.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Great Outdoors

Twins 5, Red Sox 2

What a beautiful way to begin the Target Field era: mild spring weather, solid pitching, and a bunch of 2-out RBI hits. Carl Pavano has been stellar in his first 2 starts of the season, completing at least 6 IP in each with a 10/1 K/BB ratio and keeping the ball in the yard. Matt Guerrier continues to get quick outs. Jon Rauch is 5/5 in converting saves.

Not much has fallen in for Denard Span in the first 8 games of the season, but he can still draw walks and run around once he gets on base. Joe Mauer had 3 hits on the day, and Jason Kubel hit the first official Target Field HR.

Delmon Young probably should have caught David Ortiz' drive to the wall in the 4th inning. It's tough on an OF when you turn one way and then the wind pushes the ball back over your other shoulder. That and lack of familiarity with the rather wide warning track cost the Twins an out there. I'm not sure the 2009 version of Young even gets to that ball, though.

Twins 3, Red Sox 6

Kevin Slowey disappointed me again, though he managed to keep the Twins in the game. He couldn't get on the same page with Mauer, and ended up throwing 98 pitches through just 5 IP while walking 4. That's an unbelievably high number for him. Despite his fine spring, he doesn't quite look comfortable out there yet.

Still, the game was within reach until Jeremy Hermida cleared the bases with a 2-out liner to the gap in left-center in the 8th. Jesse Crain missed his spot - the pitch was down, but it was supposed to be on the outer part of the plate. Span's dive was futile, but exactly the all-out effort necessitated by the situation - that was the game. It's unfortunate that the double to Adrian Beltre was so perfectly placed down the 3B line. It was a crisp 2-hopper - just the speed to start a DP - but not where Punto could knock it down and just fair.

I was most impressed by how unfazed the Twins' offense was by the sudden 4-run deficit. Michael Cuddyer homered leading off the 8th. Jason Kubel lined out to the warning track on the next pitch. Then Young doubled off the wall in RF. With a slightly different defensive alignment from the Sox' OF, the Twins could have easily begun that inning with 3 ringing XBH, bringing the tying run to the plate with shocking quickness. It's an explosive, relentless lineup.

Twins 8, Red Sox 0

I am heavily invested in Francisco Liriano's success this season. As Nick Punto said, "That's our wild card. I feel like we'll be as strong as he is." Precisely. So his poor 3/5 K/BB ratio in his first start made me uncomfortable. Today was a little more friggin' like it. Liriano settled down after getting into jams in the 1st and 2nd, finishing with 7 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 2 BB and 8 K. It'll take another outing like that to wash away the K/BB stain of his first game, but it's an awfully good feeling to see him put together a performance like that against one of the top teams in the league.

It took awhile, but the offense eventually figured out Tim Wakefield, smacking doubles all over the field and eventually touching him for 5 ER in 5.1 IP. Punto wound up 3 for 4 with 2 2B, raising his line to .269/.286/.423. Span doubled twice and has a .340 OBP despite only batting .189 so far.

I'm perplexed again by 3B coach Scott Ulger. Punto is really fast. Span lined a ball into the RF corner that went all the way to the wall. The Sox have to make 2 perfect throws totaling over 300 feet in order to throw out Punto at the plate. But Ulger had him throw on the breaks late, nearly catching Span between 2nd and 3rd. Span got back and Punto came home anyway, but I wonder why they don't stay aggressive there, particularly with the score already 5-0 in the 6th inning.

Other notes:

  • Alex Burnett finished the game on Wednesday, then was sent to Rochester to make room for Ron Mahay (Joe Nathan was placed on the 60-day DL to clear a spot on the 40-man roster), who finished Thursday's game. As a true LOOGY, Mahay should take a little pressure off Jose Mijares (who should be developing into a complete inning setup man) and Brian Duensing (who should mainly be used in long relief).
  • Span drew 5 BB in the series, including 4 on Wednesday.
  • Young also drew a walk in the series before smacking a couple of doubles the other way. He's started out .346/.379/.654 with 2 BB and just 3 K in his first 29 PA.
  • Kubel played LF on Thursday and made a nice diving catch behind Liriano.
  • Through 10 games, the worst OPS of the Twins' 3-7 hitters is Cuddyer's .878.
  • The Twins have committed just 1 error so far.
  • In 2009, the Twins didn't reach 4 games over .500 for the first time until September 19th. This year, they first hit that mark on April 10th.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Nip and Tuck

Twins 4, White Sox 3 (11 innings)

What a weird start to this game. Denard Span, Orlando Hudson and JJ Hardy singled to load the bases. Then Justin Morneau struck out, Michael Cuddyer popped up to RF and Hudson had a brain fart, and the inning was over with no damage done. The Twins wouldn't seriously threaten John Danks again until the 6th. Never mind Hudson - why was Span held up at 3rd on Hardy's hit? He's about the fastest guy on the team, and Juan Pierre has a weak arm in LF. The ball was grounded through the IF, Span got a decent jump, yet he was held up even though he was reaching 3B just as Pierre fielded the ball. Bases loaded, no outs, middle of the order coming up is certainly a likely run-scoring opportunity, but so is fast guy on 2nd, ground ball single to the weakest arm in the OF. If they'd played as aggressively in the 1st inning of the series as they did in the last, they might not have needed 11 innings to win on Friday.

Francisco Liriano really disappointed me, even though he threw a QS and came one pitch short of finishing 6 IP with only 1 R allowed on 91 pitches. He allowed only 4 H, and one of them was a squib job up the 1B line in which the batter reached because Liriano slipped while attempting to field the ball. The fatal 2-RBI 2B from Alex Rios came on a good changeup down and away - you don't want to get beaten on your 3rd-best pitch in that situation, but I can't fault the execution of it. Rios just went down and got it. Liriano's fastball velocity was frequently touching 94-95 mph. But 5 BB and only 3 K. Ick. Bright side: he threw 20 balls to the 5 guys he walked, but he threw just 16 to the other 20 hitters he faced in the game. A 56-36 strike-to-ball ratio will rarely lead to that many walks. I'm not comfortable with him yet, but I'm still optimistic.

How did you like having Drew Butera behind the plate and Joe Mauer on the bench? Hardy did fine from the #3 spot, but Butera was utterly worthless hitting 9th, going 0-3 with 3 K. Gardy wisely had Mauer pinch-hit in the 11th, and he promptly drew a BB and eventually scored the deciding run. I know the Sox will try to run on Jose Morales once he comes off the DL, but the way he hits (especially against them), it will be worth it.

Twins 2, White Sox 1

This reminded me of the game from back in 2005 when Freddie Garcia took a perfect game into the 8th inning only to allow a solo HR to Jacque Jones. Johan Santana and Joe Nathan combined for a shutout on the other side, and the Twins won 1-0 despite having just 1 H in the game. It wasn't quite that dramatic on Saturday, but Jason Kubel's 2-run HR in the 7th was just the 3rd H Garcia allowed, and it accounted for the only runs of the game for the Twins.

It was enough because the real Scott Baker showed up: 7 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 3 K. He pitched deep into the game, allowed minimal baserunners, and always seemed to be in control. That's the guy who earned the opening day start. Jon Rauch picked up his 4th save in 5 days. I bet nobody guessed he'd be tested so extensively so early.

Twins 4, White Sox 5

Despite some early troubles, Mark Buehrle and Nick Blackburn each managed to hang around into the 8th inning. Between them, they walked 3 and struck out 1. A pitcher probably takes his lumps on balls in play in a game like that, but it's a really efficient way to pitch a game. I'd like to see the Twins win a game in which they score 4 early runs off Buehrle, but Blackburn had the 5th start of his career in which he allowed 3 or more HR. 5 out of 68 - they are rare indeed - but the 3 HR accounted for all 4 Sox runs heading into the bottom of the 8th.

A couple of curious non-moves happened (didn't happen?) in the endgame. Blackburn quickly retired the first 2 batters of the 8th, then gave up a groundball single to Carlos Quentin. With the RH hitting Paul Konerko heading to the batters box and Blackburn's pitch count still in the 90s, Gardy was right to leave him out there. Konerko also bounced a single, bringing lefty Mark Kotsay to the plate. Gardy brought Jose Mijares in to face him. So far, so good. Ozzie Guillen countered with Andruw Jones, a RH hitter. Gardy elected to let Mijares face him, and Jones singled on a 2-2 pitch to bring home the deciding run. Gardy then brought in Matt Guerrier to face Rios. Now I'm confused. If Guerrier was going to come in to face the next batter anyway, why did Gardy have Mijares face Jones with the game on the line? It didn't put his pitcher, or the team, in the best position to succeed.

In the 9th, now trailing by a run, the Twins had Michael Cuddyer, Young, Hardy and DH Brendan Harris scheduled to hit. Kubel pinch-hit for Young - obvious, perfect. He and Cuddyer were retired, but Hardy reached on a single. Jim Thome came in to pinch-hit for Harris - exactly right, a no-brainer. And Alexi Casilla came in to run for Hardy. Wait, no he didn't. The Twins were down to their last out, the tying run was on 1st, a hitter with extra-base power was at the plate - shouldn't the fastest available bench player come on to replace Hardy, who has merely average speed? Especially when Casilla could easily take over at SS in the happy event that the Twins could tie the game? Thome drove the ball to the wall in left center, and Hardy was thrown out at the plate by such a large margin that I can't reasonably say that Casilla would have made it, either. But it would have been a lot closer.

Other notes:

  • Young drew his first walk of the season off Buehrle. He has a 2/1 K/BB ratio through his first 21 PA, 2 HR and a SB. Tiny, insignificant sample size. But still the trend you want to see.
  • Kubel hit just .178 this week, but still has a .364 OBP thanks to 5 BB.
  • Young's throw attempting to cut down the go-ahead run on Sunday hit Quentin in the leg for the Twins' first E of the season. You have to score that as an error, but it isn't really a mistake. The defense has had a wonderfully steady week.
  • The non-Mijares members of the bullpen are off to a great start. Rauch has the weakest numbers of the bunch: 2.25 ERA, 1.25 WHIP. The bullpen is a strength.
  • In his first 4 games with the Red Wings, Danny Valencia has drawn 2 BB and hasn't struck out. Some early support for the theory that he will add significantly to his IsoD this spring, as he has in each of the previous 2 springs.

Friday, April 9, 2010

SoCal Series

Twins 3, Angels 6

Were you frustrated at the end of this game? I was. It felt too similar to the futile portions of 2009 (you know, April-early September). Scott Baker was still unable to pitch deep into the game, the bullpen served up a couple of HR, the offense couldn't quite string enough hits together to get a lead.

But I took a step back, since it's only one game. It really was very close to being a good one for the Twins. Baker's BBs to 2 of the first 3 hitters could be forgiven as opening day jitters. They both scored on 2-out singles, but he was pretty good after that. The HR he allowed in the 2nd was on a decent pitch, and it only cleared the wall by a foot or so. The bullpen was good outside of 2 flat breaking balls from Jose Mijares.

The Twins didn't quite get the bounces. Orlando Hudson's 2B came about a foot short of being a HR - that could have been another run. The 1st pitch to Delmon Young with the bases loaded in the 6th bounced well in front of the plate, but C Jeff Mathis threw his shin guard at it and stopped it cold - that easily could have been a WP and another run. Justin Morneau lined out to 1B to leave the bases loaded in the 7th - a bullet like that hit a few feet to either side could have brought in 1-3 runs. Some nights things just don't go your way - the Twins will play games like that at least every other week all season long.

Twins 5, Angels 3

Like Baker, Nick Blackburn had opening night jitters, walking the first 2 batters he faced. After that, he was typical Blackurn: 6.2 IP, 8 H, 3 ER, HR, 2 BB, 4 K the rest of the way. Lots of baserunners, but only 2 XBH, 11 ground ball outs, and he was stingy with RISP. I was amused to discover that his ERA after this game is 4.05 - essentially identical to where he finished up in each of the last 2 seasons.

The Twins still have a powerful lineup. Great to see Morneau hit a HR so early in the season after he scuffled the last couple weeks of spring training. It was important for JJ Hardy to get off to a fast start after his struggles last year - he's well on his way to resuming his power pace from 2007 and 2008.

The bullpen combo of Brian Duensing, Matt Guerrier and Jon Rauch threw 2.1 perfect IP. Rauch had 2 K in his first save opportunity. Joe Nathan couldn't have done any better.

Twins 4, Angels 2

Another strong all-around game from the pitching staff. Carl Pavano led the way with 1 ER in 7 IP. He allowed just 7 baserunners, 1 2B, and struck out 6.

Morneau and Hardy each homered for the 2nd straight game. Nick Punto got it going offensively with a 3B and a SB. Mike Napoli, though a better hitter than Mathis, clearly gives a lot away defensively behind the plate, as Cuddyer was also able to steal a base. Hardy made a sick play deep in the hole in the 9th inning to highlight another night of steady defense.

Rauch was touched for a run with 2 out in the 9th. He has apparently studied at the Fernando Rodney school for closers: give up your runs in the games where you have a 3-run lead.

Twins 10, Angels 1

I was disappointed that Kevin Slowey wasn't able to go deeper into the game, but once again the bullpen showed up, allowing just 1 H over 3.1 IP. For his first game back since last summer, it was a good enough showing, and his run support picked up right where it left off.

So much power! Brendan Harris and Jim Thome hit their first HR of the year, and defensive replacement (yes, you're reading that right) Delmon Young hit his 2nd. Young is still swinging early in the count, but he's at least looking for something offspeed: it was a changeup the he walloped in the 9th last night. After 10 scoreless IP to begin the season, I had a feeling the Twins would get to the Angels' bullpen in the finale. I think 7 ER in 3 IP qualifies.

What a start to the season, winning 3 of 4 from a playoff team on the road. The White Sox offense was pretty anemic against Cleveland's less than stellar pitching staff, so I'm hopeful that the Twins can pull off a series win in Chicago this weekend and come into the Target Field opener with at least a 5-2 record.

Notes from the first week:

  • The Twins didn't get an RBI hit with RISP until Jason Kubel's 5th inning single on Thursday. All their runs in the first 3 games scored on HR or SF.
  • Impressive that the Twins were able to win this series while getting such poor production out of their table-setters. Denard Span and Hudson combined to go 4-33 with 1 BB and HBP (.167 OBP). Just goes to show that this lineup can score runs in lots of different ways.
  • Hudson took quite a beating during the series. He was beaned in the kneecap, fouled a ball into his wrist, took a hard slide at 2B, and finally came out of the game late Thursday after wrenching his neck on a head-first slide of his own. I'm guessing he'll get tonight off.
  • That neck-wrenching slide came on a 2B off the glove of Howie Kendrick into short CF. Hudson legged that out, but laid back on his 1st inning hit that Torii Hunter cut off in the right-CF gap. Jim Thome later legged out a 2B on a ball hit to basically the identical spot. I know you don't want to give away outs in front of Mauer, but Hudson needs to be going for 2 on balls like that. If he had, the Twins might have scored a run that inning.
  • Glad to see that the Twins finally pulled away enough on Thursday to give Alex Burnett a major-league debut in front of his family. I think he'll get one or two more appearances like that before heading to AAA to make room for Ron Mahay.
  • Erick Aybar looks like the player Alexi Casilla is supposed to be.
  • I have no words for this play.
  • Established closer Jose Valverde has already blown as many saves for the Tigers as Fernando Rodney did all of last year. This increases my satisfaction with Rauch - sure, he'll blow a few, but almost everyone does - and also solidifies my expectation that the Tigers will be lucky indeed to match last year's win total.
  • There has been a lot of talk since last season about shortening games. Fewer mound visits? Grant fewer timeouts? The Red Sox and Yankees are the worst culprits, and umpire Joe West called them out. But an umpire can do more than anyone else to increase the speed of the game simply by calling more strikes. I can't tell you how many times in each game of the Twins-Angels series, for each team, I saw a pitch called a ball and went, "Huh? Where did that miss?" If borderline pitches were inclined to be strikes, you'd get more pitcher's counts, more defensive swings, more Ks, fewer BBs, shorter PA, fewer hitters per game. I'll bet the umps could cut 30 minutes out of a game just by calling letter-high strikes. If the catcher doesn't have to lift his mitt above his head on a ball over the plate (unless it's Mauer catching and Dustin Pedroia batting), it should be a strike.
  • Shooter Hunt's line from opening night in Fort Myers: 0 IP, 1 H, 5 ER, HR, 3 BB, HBP, 0 K. That's HBP, BB, BB, WP to score a run, BB to reload the bases, GS. Still some work to do there, I'd say.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Spring Wrap-up

Spring training is over at last. Carl Pavano and Kevin Slowey each pitched into the 7th inning this weekend. Joe Mauer caught a day game after a night game. Real baseball begins tomorrow. Some closing thoughts about the exhibition season:

  • Yesterday's win gave the Twins a record of 16-14. Spring training records don't mean any more than spring training stats. And yet, you feel better about players who put up good numbers in the spring, and you feel better about a team that can come out of the Grapefruit League with a winning record. A lot of exhibition games tend to be decided by minor leaguers, but in the case of this season, they caused more losses than wins. The Twins' regular lineup put up a lot of crooked numbers early in games, and the rotation generally pitched great. It was the Anthony Swarzaks and Jeff Manships and Glen Perkins that were on the mound when things got away from the Twins late. And consider the strength of schedule: 7 games vs. Boston, 5 vs. Tampa, 4 vs. St. Louis and 2 each against the Yankees and Phillies. 2/3 of the games were against playoff caliber teams, and the Twins held their own.
  • Most of the guys on the 25-man roster had a productive spring and look ready for the season. Of the hitters, only Justin Morneau and Alexi Casilla had trouble getting it going. Morneau will be fine. Casilla will be used infrequently. Pavano, Scott Baker and Pat Neshek were all excellent except for one poor outing. I'm a big proponent of concentrating all of one's sucking into as few games as possible, so those guys are fine.
  • I want to call special attention to Delmon Young, who hit .310/.349/.466 over 63 PA. I'm sure we'd all take those rates over his full season. Even better, he had 50% more fly ball outs than grounders, and a 2/1 K/BB ratio. Even better than that, he struck out just 8 times, 12.7% of his plate appearances, an enormous improvement over his 20% career average or last year's 23.3%. Sure, he had only 4 BB in 63 PA. Then again, he had 4 BB in 63 PA! Remember, he had just 12 BB in 416 PA last season. A 6.3% BB rate would also be a new career high. He's got to keep it up, but the signs of progress are there.
  • I thought Jacque Jones was washed up, but now I kinda want to see him show up for some portion of 2010. Good luck in Rochester, Jacque!
  • Clay Condrey hit the DL, bringing Alex Burnett into the Twins bullpen. That's somewhat of a surprise, considering Burnett hasn't pitched above AA. But he was on the 40-man, and he definitely has promise, so why not? He's going to throw all of 2 IP before they send him down in favor of Ron Mahay. He'll join Anthony Slama and Rob Delaney in what has to be one of the most lights-out bullpens in the International League. We'll see all three of those guys by September.
  • Wilson Ramos and Ben Revere both raised their stock a bit during their time in the Twins' camp. I hope they get traded for something spiffy - sell high, Bill Smith!
  • Target Field looks magnificent. I wonder when I'll get to go there...

Saturday, April 3, 2010

2010 Twins Preview: Bullpen

Jon Rauch, Closer
The biggest man in the majors has big shoes to fill: Joe Nathan has been one of the top 2 relievers in all of baseball since he became the Twins' closer in 2004. A lot of people think that strikeout stuff is crucial for a closer. That's great for someone who comes into a lot of runners-on situations. But for a closer, starting the 9th inning clean, give me a guy who doesn't give away first base and keeps the ball in the yard. Rauch has given up fewer than 3 BB/9 in each of the last three seasons, and, except for his initial stint in Arizona, has done a good job of avoiding HR. He'll be fine.
Expected line: 3.60 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 0.9 HR/9, 3.0 BB/9, 7.4 K/9

Matt Guerrier, RHP
Guerrier's late-season collapse in 2008 was as big a reason as any that the Twins came up just short that year. It was great to see him totally rebound last year, matching his outstanding ERA from 2007 and setting a career-best 0.97 WHIP. There were fewer K and more HR, however, so it's unlikely that he'll be that good in 2010. On the other hand, it's been more of the same in spring training...
Expected line: 3.70 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 1.2 HR/9, 2.4 BB/9, 6.0 K/9

Jose Mijares, LHP
He seemed to be in trouble a lot last year (on and off the field), but he always seemed to find his way out of it. If he keeps it up, he's going to get burned. I don't think he'll be able to match last year's tremendous numbers. Then again, he's likely to face a disproportionate amount of lefties, and he does pretty well against them.
Expected line: 3.50 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 1.0 HR/9, 3.4 BB/9, 8.0 K/9

Jesse Crain, RHP
In his second year back from shoulder surgery, Crain was as brutal in the 1st half as he was sparkling in the 2nd. His stuff looks pretty good - it's mostly a matter of consistently hitting his spots. When he returned from his midseason demotion, he cut his walk rate nearly in half and didn't allow a HR in 34 IP. That's great, but if he could get back into the 2.1 BB/9 territory he was in back in 2006, he would become my 2nd choice for closer after Rauch.
Expected line: 3.90 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 0.8 HR/9, 3.3 BB/9, 7.2 K/9

Pat Neshek, RHP
His elbow injury in early May of 2008 cast the die for the Twins' failure that September. As good as Neshek had been in the setup role up to that point, there's no way the Twins would have come up short had he been around for the whole year. Now he's back, but how much? How rusty is he? He looked great all spring until his Target Field debut yesterday. Is he going to have days like that? How often? He was way better than this before the injury, but joint reconstruction is tough to come back from, so I'm going to cut him some slack.
Expected line: 4.00 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 1.1 HR/9, 3.3 BB/9, 9.5 K/9

Clay Condrey, RHP
A reliable sinkerball pitcher is a great asset to have in the bullpen - the guy who can come in and get the double play. Condrey was getting grounders about 55% of the time his last two years in Philadelphia. He'll give up some hits that way, but he was able to limit HR allowed despite pitching in a hitters park. A good pickup if the sinker's working, which it most certainly wasn't in spring training (4 HR in 9 IP). If he doesn't get that fixed, he won't be long for the Twins' bullpen.
Expected line: 4.20 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 0.9 HR/9, 2.9 BB/9, 5.1 K/9

Brian Duensing, LHP
Duensing was one of the biggest difference makers late last season, a fringe player who had no business performing as well as he did. He's not talented enough to chase anyone out of a rotation spot, but he should be able to do good work in long relief, and gives Gardy another LHP to use in certain match-ups if he's already spent Mijares.
Expected line: 4.60 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 1.0 HR/9, 2.6 BB/9, 5.7 K/9

Remember, these are not projections. I don't represent that anybody will achieve these particular numbers in 2010. But they all have achieved something like them more than once in their careers, and so we know that they are capable of achieving (or surpassing) these numbers. I'm just setting the curve - the point above which I'll be delighted, and below which I'll be disappointed. It turns out that I have high expectations for the starters and the rotation, but not as much for the bench and bullpen. I guess that means that as long as the Twins aren't making a lot of substitutions, everything should go great!

Friday, April 2, 2010

2010 Twins Preview: Bench

Jim Thome, PH/DH
One of the most credible power hitters of the past 2 decades, Thome's spring proves that there's still plenty left in the tank. How many PA he will get depends a lot on Delmon Young. If Young takes the step forward we're all hoping for, Thome won't get a lot of starts. If Young gets off to a slow start, look for Thome to slot into the DH spot (especially vs. RHP) and Jason Kubel to head to the OF. That should be the case against select righties in any event - Young needs his off days! If Thome gets 500 PA, he may finish the season within striking distance of 600 career HR.
Expected line: .250/.360/.480, 3/2 K/BB

Brendan Harris, IF
I've never been too impressed with what Harris brings to the table. It seems like the upper levels of the Twins' system have plenty of guys who play multiple IF positions rather poorly, and some of them (like Luke Hughes) have a lot more power potential. Still, he got a 2-year contract, showed up to spring training in great shape, and knocked the ball around pretty well. His range in the field isn't good, but at least he catches the balls he can get to. He should get a lot of starts against LHP.
Expected line: .270/.330/.410, 5/2 K/BB

Alexi Casilla, IF/CF?
It's getting harder and harder to believe in Casilla. He had a solid stint in AAA last season, but he didn't do much in the bigs until the last AB of game #163 (and that was only necessary because he made a baserunning mistake earlier). Then he went to winter ball against lesser competition and didn't do much until his team was deep in the playoffs. He seems redundant for the Twins with both Harris and Nick Punto on the roster, though he may occasionally spell Denard Span in CF. Mostly, I think he'll be a PR after Thome walks. Definitely give him an AB in extra innings of a key game of the pennant race, though.
Expected line: .240/.320/.300, 88% SB, 3/2 K/BB

Drew Butera, C
I was firmly in the Wilson Ramos camp, so the decision to go with Butera disappoints me a bit. Butera's presence is going to encourage Gardy to start Mauer behind the plate a couple more times than he would have, which may have an impact on Joe's durability later in the season. Ramos would have been a viable PH option late in the game. And when Butera does start, he's going to give the opposition 3 or 4 easy outs. Don't start Punto in those games. Get well soon, Jose Morales!
Expected line: .150/.182/.150, 7/2 K/BB

Thursday, April 1, 2010

2010 Twins Preview: Rotation

1. Scott Baker
I was really disappointed by Baker last year. Not only did he come out of the gate with poor mechanics, leaving the ball up where he could get shelled for 7 HR in his first 2 appearances, but even when he was good, he couldn't pitch deep enough into games. He should have made the necessary adjustments coming into 2010, where I expect him to do what he did for the final 4 months of 2009, but with more IP.
Expected line: 3.80 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 1.0 HR/9, 2.2 BB/9, 7.3 K/9

2. Nick Blackburn
Blackburn is really the team's #5 starter, but his remarkably consistent work over his first 2 full seasons (plus the fact that, after Baker, he's the only member of the rotation who has had 2 full seasons recently) finds him getting the ball for the second game. There's something about him that enables him to exceed his peripherals. Yes, he gives up a lot of contact, but it's often very weak contact, so he's generally able to avoid big innings, and his pinpoint control keeps him from giving away first base. The most important thing for him is to keep the ball in the yard; he had 2 starts last year in which he allowed 3 HR, but he allowed just 19 bombs over his other 31 GS. He should benefit from the Twins' improved IF defense. There will be some rough stretches, but he'll be pretty good for a back end guy.
Expected line: 4.30 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 1.0 HR/9, 1.8 BB/9, 4.4 K/9

3. Carl Pavano
That he took every turn last year and nearly accumulated 200 IP was a tremendous achievement for Pavano. His ERA wasn't pretty, but a lot of that can be attributed to an uncommonly high BABIP. On the plus side, he posted the best K/BB rate of his career, and should also see gains as a result of having Orlando Hudson and JJ Hardy up the middle. The advanced metrics say his ERA should have been under 4.00 last year, so we'll look for things to head in that direction in 2010. The biggest thing for him is to just stay healthy.
Expected line: 4.40 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 1.1 HR/9, 1.8 BB/9, 6.4 K/9

4. Kevin Slowey
I hold Slowey to a particularly high standard. I guess it's because his control is so good, I can't understand why he ever puts the ball where it can be hit hard on a 2-strike count. But he does. If he can start doing less of that this year, he should be one of the stronger #3 guys in the league. At least the wrist doesn't seem to be bothering him, or if it is, it didn't show up in his spring numbers.
Expected line: 3.90 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 1.1 HR/9, 1.5 BB/9, 7.3 K/9

5. Francisco Liriano
I've been on Liriano's winter ball revival since mid-December. I think it's for real. It made me crazy that Gardy waited so long to commit to his role in the rotation. Liriano is the key to the whole season. He'll begin the year as the 5th starter, but he'll finish it as the Ace.
Expected line: 3.00 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 0.7 HR/9, 2.4 BB/9, 9.5 K/9