Monday, May 31, 2010

Mess with Texas

Twins 2, Texas 1

This was a bit of a replay of the 2 games the Twins lost on Wednesday. They got 13 men on base, but only managed to get 2 of them home. In a moment that encapsulated the first 2 months of the season, they loaded the bases for Joe Mauer with no one out in the 5th, only to see him ground into a DP. A run scored on the play, however, and that turned out to be the difference.

Kevin Slowey pitched into the 7th inning! And he would have finished it if he hadn't given his only free pass of the game with 2 out and 2 on in the inning. Oh well - baby steps. Thank goodness Jose Mijares was able to retire PH Nelson Cruz in what turned out to be his only PA of the series. The Twins were very fortunate to be facing Texas at a time when Cruz couldn't be in the everyday lineup.

Twins 8, Texas 3

For a while it looked as though the Twins were going to stick Carl Pavano with yet another hard-luck loss. They could muster only 1 H off CJ Wilson through the first 2 times through the order. Then, a 2-out single by Denard Span followed by a 2-run HR from Orlando Hudson began a stretch in which 7 of eight batters reached and scored. The big blow came when Delmon Young raked a 2-run double into the LF corner with the bases loaded and none out. In my last post, I predicted that the Twins would get 5 RBI H with the bases loaded over the next 16 games. One down.

After batting around in the 7th, the Twins momentarily forgot how to play defense in the 8th, committing 2 errors in the inning. That's 20% of the errors they had committed in the first 48 games. Jesse Crain did a nice job pitching around it and allowing just the 1 unearned run. Carl Pavano had a Blackburn-esque performance, allowing just 2 ER on 7 H with 1 BB and only 1 K. That makes it 7 of his 10 GS in which he's gone 7 or more IP.

Twins 6, Rangers 3

Last night was my anniversary, so I didn't get a chance to watch this game. It looks like it was a relatively shaky game from Scott Baker, though he still hung in there for a QS. The bullpen did a terrific job, allowing just 2 H over the final 3 IP.

Everything that happened in this game was overshadowed by the collision between Span and Hudson on the game's final play. Luckily, Span was OK - the Twins don't have a great backup plan if something happens to him. Hudson is headed for some radiology on his left hand, which hopefully will come back negative. The Twins can patch 2B for a little while, but Hudson has performed as advertised this season, and the drop-off from him to the next guy on the depth chart is pretty significant.

It was tough to drop the Yankees series, but the Twins bounced back strong, sweeping a Rangers team that started the weekend in 1st place in the AL West. The Rangers are usually a pretty good offensive team, but the Twins held them to 7 R in the 3 days, with 0 HR allowed. I can't remember the last time the Twins played Texas without giving up a HR. Whatever anyone might like to say about the Twins in comparison to the leaders of the AL East, they showed this weekend that they belong in the conversation about the best teams in the league.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

3rd Split: 7-9

Overall Record: 28-20
1st in AL Central by 2.5 games

Other splits: 11-5, 10-6

After playing consistently excellent ball in all phases of the game over the first 32 games, things tapered off for the Twins in this split. They were narrowly outscored, 69-68. Those figures represent about a 17% drop-off in scoring and a 22% increase in runs allowed. They had been 5-3 in 1-run games, but lost 4 of 7 in recent weeks.

The pitchers had their share of clunkers. Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano each had starts in which they allowed multiple HR and more R than IP. Jesse Crain, Ron Mahay and Jon Rauch each got clobbered on multiple occasions, and Matt Guerrier finally allowed a HR. On the plus side, Nick Blackburn worked 7 or more innings in each of his starts and Alex Burnett got back to being pretty reliable in long relief. The pitching staff remains 3rd in the AL in ERA.

The offense continued to struggle with the bases loaded (with one notable exception!), but that didn't stop them in the first 2 splits. I attribute most of the decline in runs during this stretch to warning track power: the Twins have failed to put a ball in the seats in 9 of their last 10 games, though they routinely tantalize us with drives that die just short of the wall. They had been averaging about a HR/G, and had they kept that up, the difference in runs scored during this split would have been negligible. Eat your Wheaties, boys! However, they remain 5th in the AL in scoring.

Only the defense maintained the standard that had been set in the first 20% of the season. The Twins committed just 4 errors and allowed only 1 unearned run, remaining the runaway leaders in the league in those categories with 10 and 4, respectively. Even so, the IF without JJ Hardy was noticeably worse, so I'm very happy to have him back at SS every day.

Thanks to the season-opening series in Anaheim, the Twins' historically dreadful late-May west coast trip will consist of just 2 cities and 7 games instead of the typical 3 cities and 10 games. Those 2 cities, Oakland and Seattle, host two of the weaker lineups in the league, so if the offense can return to its early-season form, even allowing for continued futility with the bases loaded (which is unlikely), that trip should go OK. Then, June and interleague play, the time when the Twins have traditionally hit the accelerator during Gardy's tenure as manager. The fundamentals of this team remain very strong, so I'm expecting good things in this next stretch.

Bold prediction: At least 5 hits with the bases loaded, including another grand slam.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Reflections on Deflections

Twins 0, Yankees 1
Twins 2, Yankees 3
Twins 8, Yankees 2

Coming into the series, the Twins and Yankees were pretty evenly matched in terms of league stats. They were nearly side-by-side in the rankings for scoring, pitching and defense. Taken as a whole, compare what the two teams were able to do this week:
  • The Twins scored 10 runs, the Yankees 6.
  • Each team hit 2 HR.
  • The Twins had 3 SB, the Yankees 0.
  • Twins starters allowed 4 ER on 20 H and 3 BB in 19 IP. Yankees starters allowed 7 ER on 19 H and 5 BB in 18.2 IP.
  • Twins relievers allowed 2 ER on 5 H and 1 BB in 8 IP. Yankees relievers allowed 3 ER on 7 H and 5 BB in 7.1 IP.
  • The Twins turned 4 DP, the Yankees 6.
  • Each team committed 1 error.
It looks as though the Twins measured up just fine against the defending champs. (Perhaps the Yankees would have done more damage on offense if Jorge Posada and Curtis Granderson had been in the lineup. Or perhaps the Twins' pitching would have contained those guys as well.) So why didn't the Twins win the series?

It was perhaps more unfortunate for the Twins that Tuesday night's game was suspended due to rain, because the Twins were a lot closer to wearing down AJ Burnett than the Yanks were to wearing down Scott Baker. Then again, facing the Yankee bullpen in the 6th is an opportunity the Twins wouldn't have had without the rainout. And the Twins would have cashed in, except for this: Joe Mauer's leadoff liner struck the pitcher in the lower back and caromed high in the air, straight to A-Rod for an out.

Everything else in the series turned on that event. If that ball doesn't hit the pitcher, if it hits him and bounces before it reaches an infielder, if it hits him and deflects into foul territory (like a certain play from the first game in NY), Mauer reaches, and things are different. Let the rest of that inning play out exactly the way it did: Justin Morneau walks (Mauer to 2nd), Michael Cuddyer pops out (1 out), Jason Kubel doubles (Mauer scores), Delmon Young grounds out to deep short, Morneau scores (2 out). The bounce that liner took off the pitcher cost the Twins the 2 runs they needed to win the game.

Win that game and the Twins lose a squeaker late in game 2, then win emphatically in game 3, taking the series 2-1 and splitting the season series. What would everyone be saying about them then? This team is for real? It can keep up with the big boys? It's exorcised the demons that have plagued previous Ron Gardenhire teams?

The fundamentals of this team remain excellent. They are experiencing uncommonly bad luck while hitting with RISP, especially with the bases loaded. They are getting an unusually small number of HR out of their fly balls at Target Field. These things should even out if everyone remains patient. Meanwhile, are you going to let something as capricious as a deflection off a pitcher's backside color your opinion of what the 2010 Twins can be expected to accomplish? I'm not.

Monday, May 24, 2010


Twins 15, Brewers 3

The Twins came back from their road trip on a 3-game losing streak. During those 3 games, they had allowed the opposing starters to amass 24 IP while issuing only 3 BB. They took out all their aggression on poor Dave Bush, who retired just 1 of 10 hitters while walking 2 and allowing more runs than the Twins had accumulated in the previous 3 games combined. The Brewers brought 13 pitchers to this series, and quickly ran out. The Twins eventually led 15-0.

Nick Blackburn continued his low-strikeout sorcery, taking a shutout into the 8th before it was broken up on a long HR by our old buddy, Carlos Gomez. He stood at the plate, admiring his handiwork, flipping his bat in Joe Mauer's face. He couldn't help himself. He's a knucklehead. Give me the quiet, solid contributions of Denard Span and JJ Hardy every time.

Speaking of Hardy, he wasn't able to come off the DL in time to face his former team, so the Twins brought up Trevor Plouffe to start at SS. He followed in the footsteps of Luke Hughes and Wilson Ramos by getting a H in his first MLB PA, not to mention assists from the first 2 hitters of the game. By the end of the series, he had failed to get a hit in 3 opportunities with the bases loaded. He's gonna fit right in around here.

Twins 8, Brewers 7 (12 innings)

Yes, the bases loaded. It became apparent to me over the course of the weekend that the Brewers were employing a bold new defensive strategy vs. the Twins. Analysis of the season statistics to this point revealed that the Twins are at their absolute worst (hitting under .170) when the sacks are full. So, every time the Twins got somebody on base, the Brewers' pitchers would immediately load the bases, whether by serving up a BB, H or HBP, it didn't matter. Sure, there were a couple of RBI BB and some SF, but just the one H in that situation all weekend.

Pop quiz: who was worse in the 9th inning, Ron Mahay or Jon Rauch? For me, it Rauch by a mile. Mahay didn't record any outs, but at least the 2 guys who put the ball in play against him put it on the ground. Rauch came in with the bases chucked (no problem for the Brew Crew!) and it went: booming 2B, sharp single, line-out (thanks for saving my giant butt with a diving catch, Alexi Casilla!) DP, BB, booming 2B off the wall in LF. Holy crap, he sucked. But hey, the Twins are 2-0 in games in which he's blown a save.

Corey Hart had an awesome weekend. A couple of HR and some terrific, game-saving catches in RF, including a sprawling catch against the wall to rob Delmon Young of the would-be game-winner with, guess what, the bases loaded in the bottom of the 10th. The only time he really screwed up was when he sent his throw well up the 3rd base line, allowing Mauer to come home easily with the game-winning R on a SF. Because the Twins can't get a hit with the bases loaded.

Twins 3, Brewers 4

Seriously, like Superman next to kryptonite, seeing the bases loaded takes hitters who would have swung the bat with authority with runners at the corners and brings them, sobbing, to their knees, trying to pull their batting helmets even further down over their heads. Milwaukee's decimated pitching staff, forced to shuffle it's intended spot starter when he was used extensively in extra innings on Saturday, gave up 11 H, 5 more BB (that made 23 for the series) and a HBP. But for all those baserunners, the Twins could only muster 3 R.

The non-beneficiary of that futility was, once again, Carl Pavano. He gave up a couple of HR, but was otherwise his usual, steady self, completing 8 IP while allowing a total of 8 baserunners. I consider that a QS. If 3 ER in 6 IP is quality, then 4 ER in 8 IP is even more quality. The ERA is the same, and those extra 2 IP are really valuable. Thanks, Pavano. I hope you didn't pull all your hair out.

Next up: the Yankees, and the Twins really need to win this series. Not just to prove that they can split with the defending champs. This Yankees team is really beat up, and has been forced to insert enough bench guys that I think the Twins will have to be considered the stronger lineup for this series. If they can't win against these Yankees, it's never gonna happen.

  • Jason Kubel might want to get hip to the fact that opposing pitchers aren't going to give him fastballs in hitters counts. I've seen so many occasions this season in which he's been wildly out in front of a changeup that drifts under the strike zone, helping the pitcher out by turning a ball into a strike. If he's looking for a changeup ahead 2-0 on Saturday, the Twins win that game in 9 innings.
  • Young had a really nice series, going 5 for 13 with a 2B and 5 RBI, plus 2 BB against 2 K. And it could have been 6 for 13 with 6 RBI had the RF been a little shorter. His game-tying ground-rule 2B in the 9th zipped over the left fielder's head, then his bid to win the game sailed to the wall in the RF corner. Power to all fields.
  • Gardy threw away Jim Thome when he PH him with 1B open and Nick Punto on deck. That's an automatic IBB. He obviously preferred to have Punto hit with the bases loaded over Plouffe. I can't say I agree with that. If it had been Alexi Casilla on deck, that's different. He's got a knack for those walk-off hits.
  • Brendan Harris has been really lousy this year. It's becoming apparent that his poor numbers in 2008 were not a fluke, but rather a portent of things to come. He's steadily sinking into Mike Lamb territory, and should be just as much a candidate for DFA as Jesse Crain.
  • Ben Revere had a pretty sick weekend for AA New Britain. His season line now stands at .327/.400/.392 with 17/21 SB, good enough for the top 6 in the Eastern League in BA, OBP and SB. Sell high, Bill Smith!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Walking Shoes

Twins 2, Red Sox 3
Twins 2, Red Sox 6

I'm going to talk about these games together since they were so similar. The only glaring difference between them was the starting pitching performances from the Twins. Scott Baker made a crucial mistake to David Ortiz - after seeing him swing through 3 high fastballs on the inner half between his first 2 PA, I don't understand why he got a pitch down and away to drive - and had some trouble getting the last out of the 6th, but it was still a QS with only 1 BB and 1 XBH allowed.

Francisco Liriano had his first bad game of the season. He failed to complete at least 6 IP for the first time, and walked 3. It's not so bad to allow 5 H in 4.2 IP, but when 3 of them are 2B and 2 are HR, that's not so good, either. Those were the first HR Liriano has given up this season. Even so, he struck out 6, and his peripherals for the season as a whole are all right where I'd like them to be. Like Carl Pavano, he's had 6 QS in 8 tries, and that's really all you can ask of a major league SP. And Liriano's bad game wasn't nearly as bad as Pavano's.

What was painfully similar about the two games of this series was the effort put forward by the Twins' offense. Credit is certainly due to Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester, a pair of top-notch young SP who have each pitched no-hitters already in their brief big league careers. But the Twins couldn't have made things easier for them.

When I mentioned this series in my last post, I noted that the Sox' staff had been beaten up in the Yankees series, and that it would therefore be a good tactic for the Twins to try to get into their beleaguered bullpen as early as possible. The Twins should bring their walking shoes, I said. Well, if they brought them, they didn't put them on. The Twins, entering the series tied for the most walks in the AL, facing a pair of starters who came into the game with over 4 BB/9, proceeded to draw exactly 1 BB in 17 innings against them.

Now, it isn't easy to make a good pitcher who's having a good night throw a lot of pitches. But the Yankees manage to do it just about every time out against the Red Sox. What I saw against Buchholz from the Twins was a lot of take the first pitch but hack at the second pitch. If that 2nd pitch isn't in the zone, you just helped Buchholz out. That doesn't happen if the game plan is for everybody to take 2 strikes. With the pattern I saw from Buchholz, rarely throwing consecutive pitches over the plate, the Twins may still have struggled against him, but nearly every PA would have resulted in a deep count, and he would have reached the 100 pitch mark well before the last pitch of the 8th inning.

In fact, as poorly as things went for the Twins, Buchholz was still at about 70 pitches through 4.2 IP. That's not a taxing pitch count, but it's not too bad, especially considering that Buchholz was abetted by a line-out DP, a bad pickoff call at 1B, and a terrible called K of Justin Morneau in which strikes 2 and 3 were both substantially off the plate. However, from the time Brendan Harris grounded out on the first pitch to end the 5th to Denard Span's leadoff IF single in the 9th that "chased" him, Buchholz only had to throw 30 pitches to get 10 outs. In 6 of those 11 PA the Twins put the ball in play on either the 1st or 2nd pitch. That's no way to run up a pitch count and get to the bullpen.

With Lester on Thursday it was even worse. He didn't walk a soul, and started the 9th inning with his pitch count at 84. Joe Mauer and Orlando Hudson each grounded out on the 1st pitch twice. Yes, Lester had great stuff. But the Twins didn't give him an opportunity to make a mistake. They were far too eager to swing early and hit his pitch.

Again, what galls me about this offensive (lack of) performance is that it was exactly the opposite of what the Twins should have been attempting to achieve given the context of what had just happened to the Sox in the Bronx. The Twins don't have the discipline to sacrifice AB early and throughout the game for the larger purpose of grinding down a pitcher. That's something they'll have to learn to do if they ever hope to abuse the Red Sox the way the Yankees do.

  • Jeff Manship came on in relief of Liriano in the 5th inning. A SP with the Red Wings, he was called up to face all of 5 batters before being sent back to Rochester after the game. Wouldn't that have been an ideal situation in which to give Rob Delaney his first MLB cameo? A short stint out of the 'pen - just what he's used to in AAA - in a low-leverage situation. Again, I wonder, what has that guy got to do to get a little respect around here?
  • Manship's spot will be taken by Trevor Plouffe, who will get to play SS this weekend while JJ Hardy continues to recover from his wrist injury. This is what the Twins should have done last week rather than bring up Matt Tolbert. Congratulations to Plouffe, who has been hitting very well at Rochester since last July. It's nice to see somebody with some upside get a look.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Canadian Lumber

Twins 8, Blue Jays 3

Kevin Slowey got a win, but he again failed to pitch into the 6th inning. This is getting old. Too many 3-ball counts from a guy with allegedly impeccable control. Especially to the first hitter you face after your offense puts up a 4-spot in the top half of the inning. As Dan Gladden said when the count went 3-0 to that batter, "C'mon, Slowey!"

Luckily for him and the Twins, Toronto 1B Lyle Overbay had the worst game of his life. He had already let a couple of playable balls skip past him for "hits" when he dropped a throw from 3B with 2 runners on in the 4th. That should have been the 3rd out. Instead, a run scored, and a 2nd came home when Overbay compounded his mistake by throwing wildly to 3rd in an attempt to cut down the advancing Justin Morneau. Plus he went 0 for 4 with 2 K and 3 LOB. Ouch.

Speaking of Morneau, damn! The other day I didn't mention his HR from Sunday afternoon, but how impressive to take a 2-strike curveball off the plate away and drive it out to the deep alley in left center. That's some power. Morneau displayed a different kind of power in this game. His 2nd HR traveled well over 400 feet in less than 3 seconds. How hard do you have to hit it for that to happen? With this little outburst, Morneau finds himself easily on pace to hit 40+ HR, but that's nothing new. Maybe this will be the year he actually keeps it up to the end.

Twins 2, Blue Jays 11

No need to dwell on this. If Carl Pavano can continue to deliver 3 QS out of every 4 times out, I will be well satisfied come season's end. When he's on, he's as good a mid-rotation starter as you could ask for. But when he's off, holy crap he's bad.

As bad as he was, I wonder about the decision to pull him after 4 IP. He wasn't tired, having thrown just 70 pitches. It was pretty evident after the Twins failed to score in the 5th that this wasn't going to be their day. 4 relievers had worked on Monday, and pulling Pavano there ensured that the 'pen would have to pitch another 4 innings on Tuesday. This put Ron Mahay in a position to fail. 2 things happened to him that shouldn't happen again this season: He pitched more than 1 inning, and he faced 5 RH batters. Even so, he got the first 3 righties out on 2 K. But anything beyond that is just pushing it.

As for the offense, if you're going to allow 11 R, you might as well only score 2. Props to Toronto SP Shawn Marcum - he was pretty nasty. You know a guy is pitching well when hitters make weak contact even though they're ahead in the count.

On to Boston, where the Red Sox must be pretty spent from their grueling short series in the Bronx. Especially their bullpen. Especially Jonathan Papelbon. The Twins should bring their walking shoes, and try to grind Clay Buchholz out of the game as early as possible to keep Boston's weary relievers exposed.

  • The overuse of the 'pen in this series forced the Twins to send Matt Tolbert back to AAA (he was pretty superfluous anyway) and bring up Jeff Manship so they'll have a fresh arm in the bullpen. Manship, really? That's who they want facing a powerful offense in a hitter's park? What does Rob Delaney have to do to get a shot?
  • The Manship move appears to be temporary, as a pitcher will be sent down once JJ Hardy is ready to come off the DL on Friday. Maybe that will be Manship, but it's also possible that this road trip could be the last hurrah for Jesse Crain. There are just too many good bullpen prospects at AAA to keep using a guy who's getting pasted every other time out there.
  • In the first AB of the series, Denard Span hit a little broken-bat blooper behind 2nd. It was a crappy swing, and he probably didn't deserve a hit there, but the Toronto SS had to make a really tough leaping, over-the-shoulder catch to keep it from being a hit. Lately it seems like something like that happens to Span at least once a series. When are those going to start falling in?
  • Michael Cuddyer has been slumping, though he's still hitting a fair number of bombs. He just likes to hit them to the deepest part of the park. It was nice to see one fall in for him yesterday afternoon for a 3B. Almost makes up for the Rios catch last week.
  • Prospects Joe Benson and Chris Parmelee were demoted back to Fort Myers on Monday, even though both of them were more than solid there in 2009. That's gotta be really tough to take for a young player. In happier news, Toby Gardenhire (.225/.295/.250 at New Britain) was promoted to Rochester. (cough) Nepotism! (cough)

Monday, May 17, 2010

Yankee Doodles

Twins 4, Yankees 8

Slow going against AJ Burnett through 6 innings. But Scott Baker had a sensational strikeout night (9 K in 6 IP) to help him pitch around some insanely poor fortune on batted balls - the Yanks were 10 for 18 on balls in play. The Twins got a couple of big RBI hits from Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau in the top of the 7th, and took a 4-3 lead into the bottom half.

Baker had a QS in his pocket and was approaching 100 pitches, but I like the decision to leave him in against hitters 9-1-2 in the Yankee lineup. Unfortunately, Francisco Cervelli led off with an IF H, then Derek Jeter got a 2B off of Baker's leg. Gardy tabbed Brian Duensing to face lefty Brett Gardner, and he got him on a shallow fly to keep the runners at 2nd and 3rd.

The next move forced Gardy to choose between two bad options: face the red-hot Mark Teixeira with 2 RISP, or put him on to load the bases for A-Rod, hoping for a DP. The way things have gone against A-Rod over his career vs. the Twins, I was hoping for option 1. Teixeira hasn't been very good against RHP yet, so maybe you let Matt Guerrier pitch to him, put A-Rod on 1st, then bring in Ron Mahay to face Robinson Cano. That might not have worked either, but it's what I would have preferred. Anyway, A-Rod lifted Guerrier's 2nd pitch over the wall left center for a GS. Same old, same old.

Twins 1, Yankees 7

I'll sum up this game by comparing a couple of batted balls from each team during the first 2 innings. Denard Span led off with a sinking liner to CF. Gardner came rushing in and laid out for a tumbling catch. I looked at three different slo-mo angles, and didn't find that any of them conclusively showed leather between the ball and the grass. That's how close that was to being a leadoff hit. Jeter, meanwhile, led off the game for the Yanks with a liner right past Francisco Liriano for a single and came around to score the game's first run.

In the 2nd, with a RISP and 2 out, Brendan Harris hit a liner back at the pitcher. It went straight into Andy Pettitte's glove for the last out of the inning. In the bottom half, with a RISP and 2 out, Jeter hit a sinking liner off the end of the bat that fell in front of Michael Cuddyer for an RBI single. Like Baker the night before, Liriano had a terrific K/BB ratio (7/0), though he allowed a costly HBP on an 0-2 pitch. But the Yanks managed to go 9 for 20 against him on balls in play.

It was still good enough for a QS, but this time Gardy went to the bullpen to start the 7th. Same result. Within 5 batters, the Yanks had put up a 4-spot, and the game was out of reach. The Twins eventually got a run off the Yankee bullpen, but Pettitte was able to shut the Twins out through 6.1 IP on just 2 H and 2 K. The Twins were 2 for 19 on balls in play vs. Pettitte. Phooey.

Twins 6, Yankees 3

Seemingly more of the same in the finale as would-be RBI H from the Twins caromed off the pitcher and were converted into outs, or went straight to the glove of Jeter for inning-ending DPs. Nick Blackburn continued the string of QS, walking just 1 but allowing 3 ER on 9 H through 7 IP. But the Twins trailed 3-1, and with Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera lined up to pitch the 8th and 9th, there wasn't much reason to hope that this game would have a happy ending.

The magic moment came with 2 outs in the 8th. Michael hit another liner with 2 men on, but this one hit the heel of Teixeira's glove and bounced away for an IF H, loading the bases. Rivera came in to face Jim Thome. He fell behind 3-0, and Thome got the benefit of a close call on 3-2 for a bases loaded walk. Don't like that, Yankees fans? Well, the 3-2 pitch to Morneau in the 6th was definitely a ball, and he was called out. So, it evened out. Jason Kubel came up next and ripped the first strike he saw into the short porch in RF for a GS. At last, a big hit with the bases loaded! And it came off Rivera! In Yankee Stadium! So many demons were exorcised with that swing.

To top it off, the Yankees got the 8th and 9th hitters on to start the bottom of the 9th, but Jon Rauch recovered to strike out Jeter, Gardner and Teixeira in succession to save the game. The only thing that could have been more poetic would have been a game-ending strikeout of A-Rod. But let's not push our luck.

Incredibly, a series that was for 25 innings a teeth-gnashing, hair-pulling frustration ended with elation. The Twins players could float out of Yankee Stadium on a cloud - I certainly felt great. Did we really expect to win 2 out of 3 there? Nobody else has. Big deal - they'll stick it to 'em at Target Field next week. The Twins dropped that series, but it kind of feels like they won it.

  • Kyle Gibson made his AA debut on Saturday, and it went pretty well: 7.1 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 10 K. A couple more of those and he'll be in AAA by July.
  • Danny Valencia has gone off with the bat. He's got a 16-game hitting streak, and has raised his season line to .305/.343/.405. No HR yet, but a team-leading 13 2B.
  • Trevor Plouffe has been perhaps Rochester's most impressive hitter. He's been consistent all spring, and is sitting at .300/.369/.479. If the Twins decide to stick with JJ Hardy beyond this year, Plouffe could be making himself into a valuable trade asset.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Delmon Young Has Arrived

A lot of people have written Delmon Young off. And I admit that between his weight, his attitude, his defense, his propensity to swing freely at anything that was heaved toward home plate, there wasn't a lot to like there. But there were concrete signs of improvement from the middle of the summer through the offseason which led me to conclude this winter that expectations for Young should be as high as ever this year.

And he has delivered.

After Wednesday's game with the White Sox in which Young went 3-4 with 2 2B, his line through 104 PA stands at .287/.337/.479. The BA is right around his career average. The OBP would essentially match the best of his career. The SLG% hasn't been seen since his September call-up in 2006. But that figure came with the help of a .317 BA. So the IsoD of .050 and IsoP of .191 that he's sporting right now are unprecedented.

Luck? Hardly. Young's HR/fly ball rate is between the highs of 2009 and lows of 2007-2008. His line drive, ground ball and fly ball rates are essentially unchanged from last year. The only difference that jumps out is that his BABIP is significantly lower than the well-established .338 he's put up for three straight seasons - lower by almost .040. So, if anything, Young has been unlucky at the plate so far.

Those who derided him for his hopeless plate discipline have nothing to complain about now. So far he's walked in 7.7% of his PA, a huge improvement over his previous best 5.6% rate in 2008. The 8 BB he's drawn so far in 2010 represent 2/3 of the total he had in all of 2009. At the same time, he's cut his strikeout rate nearly in half to 10.6% - better than Denard Span and Orlando Hudson and basically equal to Joe Mauer's 2010 mark.

How does this translate into games? Young has been swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone, and as a result is getting himself out less. He's also been less inclined to come up hacking in general, putting himself into hitters counts and forcing opposing pitchers to work. He's been using the whole field, as evidenced by yesterday's game in which he doubled into each corner and singled to CF.

And the results will very likely continue to improve. With a greatly reduced K rate, as his BABIP regresses back to his career norms, Young's BA should find itself safely over .300 by the end of the year. If he keeps up the IsoD and IsoP, that should put him in the neighborhood of a .900 OPS by season's end.

OK, so the bat's coming around. What about the defense? Thanks to his conditioning efforts over the winter, the leaner Young has greatly increased his range in LF. His UZR had been pretty brutal in 2008 & 2009, deep in negative territory. But so far in 2010 he's rating right around 0, and average, for him, is a huge improvement. He still doesn't make every catch, but he's no longer a liability out there.

Young has finally made himself into the corner OF everyone dreamed he could be when he was selected with the 1st overall pick back in 2003. He's always hit for a good average, but now he's adding gap power, good plate discipline and solid defense to the mix. He's definitely good enough to hit 7th in the Twins' lineup, and has earned the opportunity to be out there more often than not. And he looks like he's enjoying himself, which, added to everything else he's doing, makes him fun to watch. At last!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hit Your Spots

Twins 2, White Sox 5

Kevin Slowey is in the big leagues not because he has overpowering stuff, but rather because he has elite command of his pitches. His ability to locate his pitches is as exceptional, in its way, as Francisco Liriano's filthy slider - very few pitchers can match it. So it drives me bonkers when Slowey loses a game because he fails to hit his spots.

His problem through the first few starts of 2010 has been inefficiency: too many pitches in each AB are preventing him from getting through 6 IP. That was not the case on Tuesday, as he flew through the first 4 innings with under 40 pitches. He faced one batter over the minimum and appeared to be on track to go deep into the game. He became much more deliberate in the 5th, but that was appropriate for the situation he was in. Alex Rios led off with the a single, stole 2nd and moved to 3rd on a missed catch error by Orlando Hudson. With a runner on 3rd and nobody out, a pitcher is wise to approach things differently than when the bases are empty. And the results were excellent, as Slowey struck out righty Carlos Quentin, walked lefty Mark Teahen (who had touched him for a 2B earlier), then struck out righty Gordon Beckham.

He was one good pitch to the #9 hitter away from escaping the jam. Alexi Ramirez wouldn't chase anything out of the zone early in the count, and Slowey found himself behind 3-1. Walking Ramirez to load the bases for the light-hitting Juan Pierre, who came into the game with an OBP under .300 and 0 XBH, would hardly be a disaster. (Sometimes I wonder whether Slowey understands that, with RISP, it can be better to put a guy on 1st than to let him hit his way to 2nd.) The next pitch caught the heart of the plate, and Ramirez drilled it into the gap for a 2-RBI 2B. Pierre legged out an IF hit, then Slowey grooved one to AJ Pierzynski for another 2-RBI 2B. Then, with Andruw Jones batting, what was for me the worst pitch of the game: an 0-2 fastball smacked into right center to bring home Pierzynski. What is that pitch doing in the strike zone? Jones has struck out in over 25% of his AB this season - get him to chase something. I don't approve of the cookie to Ramirez, but I can understand it when the count is 3-1. On 0-2, the pitcher has to throw his pitch, but Jones couldn't have asked for better.

Three of the 6 straight H with 2 out in that inning were IF singles, including one from Paul Konerko. He's slower than some catchers, but Brendan Harris, playing short in place of JJ Hardy, was lucky to knock the ball down. With Hardy's superior range, I have no doubt that the inning would have ended there, and maybe Slowey could have stayed in to start the 6th. As it was, he was knocked out after 4.2 IP, and really has only himself to blame.

The game was lost in that inning, and not just because the Sox put up a 5-spot. Nick Punto and Denard Span had 1-out singles to start a rally in the bottom half. The lowest OBP of the next 3 batters was Hudson's .380, yet both he and Joe Mauer struck out swinging to end the threat. I'm not sure Freddy Garcia threw 2 pitches in the strike zone in those 2 AB combined. Hudson and Mauer flailed away at pitches well out of the zone. Just as annoying as a control pitcher missing his spots is when hitters with good plate discipline expand the strike zone. Those 2 got themselves out. Had one of them been more patient, maybe Justin Morneau's HR leading off the 6th could have come with some men on base.

Twins 3, White Sox 2

Now this is how it's done. Carl Pavano adjusted quickly after a rocky 1st trip through the lineup, allowing only 2 baserunners out of the next 18 hitters. 7 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 1 BB and 4 K on 96 pitches. He threw strike one to 20 of the 27 batters he faced. And they were quality strikes. The difference between a pitch on the corner and one 4 inches closer to the center of the plate is the difference between a lazy fly ball and a ringing double. I hope Slowey is learning something from watching Pavano go about his business. The veteran is averaging 6.2 IP/GS so far in 2010.

The baseball gods gaveth and tooketh away from the Twins' offense. The tying and winning runs score on 6-hoppers through the IF from Morneau and Span. But Michael Cuddyer's booming drive to left-center was pulled back onto the field by Alex Rios with a leap at the bullpen fence. The ball sounded good when he hit it, but I immediately found myself trying to help blow the ball over the wall. It's only been 18 rather cold games, but CF is looking like somewhere you don't want to hit the ball at Target Field.

Next, 3 at Yankee Stadium, and 2 each at Rogers Center and Fenway Park. I think the Twins might have won 1 game between those three locations in 2009. This next stretch is where they have to prove that they're for real this year. The Tigers just held the Yanks to 12 R over 4 games, and half of those came in the 9th of the one game the Tigers lost. The Yankee hitters better keep scuffling against Baker and Liriano this weekend.

  • Hardy was put on the DL retroactive to last Wednesday, so he'll be eligible to play in the final game of the road trip next Thursday. Meanwhile, the Twins chose to recall utility IF Matt Tolbert, though they already have 3 utility IF on the roster in Nick Punto, Alexi Casilla and Harris. This at the expense of Luke Hughes, Danny Valencia - who still doesn't have any HR but has been warming at the plate - and Trevor Plouffe, perhaps the most obvious replacement for Hardy. Plouffe is, after all, the everyday SS for the Red Wings, he has a reputation as a good defender, and he's been hitting very well since the middle of last summer. Plus, he was a 1st-round pick in 2004, and has been at AAA for the equivalent of almost 2 full seasons. You'd think they'd want to give him a little taste of the big leagues here. But no.
  • The Twins decided to add an extra reliever for the East Coast swing. They sent Wilson Ramos down to get regular playing time. They chose to call up not Rob Delaney or Kyle Waldrop or Anthony Slama, who have been kicking ass down there, or even Jeff Manship, but rather Jose Mijares, who has made 2 appearances on his rehab assignment and been rocked in each. He looks no kind of ready to face the ultra-patient hitters of the AL East powerhouses. But here he comes.
  • There were a flurry of moves made after I posted on Monday. 2/5 of the awful Rochester rotation has been replaced by Cole DeVries and Deolis Guerra. That opened the door for Kyle Gibson to move up to AA. Liam Hendriks moved up to A+, and threw a gem in his first game on Wednesday.

Monday, May 10, 2010

2nd Split: 10-6

Overall Record: 21-11
1st in AL Central by 3.5 games

Other split: 11-5

The Twins haven't shown any signs of slowing down through the first 1/5 of the season. They still sit in the top 3 in the AL in several prominent offensive, defensive and pitching categories. Perhaps most importantly, they went through a stretch of 21 games against division rivals and came out of it with a .667 winning percentage. And not because they swept KC but struggled against the Indians. They have a .667 winning percentage against all 4 AL Central rivals. That's a big reason why they've outplayed their nearest competition, the Tigers, by better than 3 games already.

The offense put up 83 R, nearly identical to the 81 R they scored in the first 16 games. This despite playing without Joe Mauer for about half of this split. Justin Morneau and JJ Hardy also missed significant time. The Twins are averaging about a HR per game and a SB every 2 games. They're still getting basically zilch with the bases loaded, though. I'm concerned about the depth of the bench - it's a big step down from the starters to Alexi Casilla and rookie catchers - but the team has been able to pick up injured players without breaking stride so far.

The pitching staff allowed 57 ER, nearly identical to the 56 ER they allowed in the first 16 games. Francisco Liriano finally gave up some runs, but Nick Blackburn returned to form, and Carl Pavano and Scott Baker have also put together a couple of excellent starts in a row. Jon Rauch and Matt Guerrier each blew a save, but the Twins split those 2 extra-inning games. Jesse Crain has gotten better, Alex Burnett has slipped a bit. The net effect is still pretty darned good.

The defense allowed 3 unearned R on 5 errors. That's actually significantly worse than what they delivered in the first split, but in a way that's sort of like pitching a 6-hitter the start after a perfect game. Sure, not as good, but how could it have been? Overall, the Twins are easily the surest-fielding team in the league, and their UZR is looking good, too.

The Twins will get a huge test in this upcoming split: 6 games against the Yankees, and 2 in Boston. It's time to prove that this team can be a threat to the titans of the East.

Bold prediction: The Twins will hit at least one grand slam during the next 2.5 weeks.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Way the Ball Bounces

Twins 0, Orioles 2

Carl Pavano turned in his 5th QS in 6 GS. This one was perhaps even better than his CG loss to the Tigers last week. He cruised through another 8 IP, allowing 2 ER on 6 H, 3 BB (and it looked like he got squeezed on the 3-2 pitch to Wieters) and 8 K. He made just one mistake all night - a hanging slider to Ty Wigginton, one of the guys tied for 2nd in the AL in HR. Oops! Make that all alone in 2nd in the AL in HR.

The Twins failed to score 2 or more R in the 1st inning for the 1st time since they were shut out by Dontrelle Willis in Pavano's last start. That's a shame, because if they'd scored 2 R there (or anywhere), they wouldn't have lost the game. O's starter Brad Bergesen came into the game with a ghastly ERA. He's a Nick Blackburn, pitch-to-contact type, and so far had allowed a BABIP of around .400. Those things tend to even out. Bergesen didn't strike out a soul, allowing 27 of the 29 batters he faced to put the ball in play. Instead of getting 11 or 12 H, the Twins got just 6.

Denard Span's liner to CF to open the game was an omen of things to come. Not only did the Twins hit just about everything where it could be fielded, they hit more than their share straight to a defender. I mean, a coach with a fungo couldn't have hit easier grounders. Wigginton rates as a poor defender at 3B, which can't bode well for his range at 2B. It was barely tested. The only times the defenders had to move, it was with super-slow runners at the plate like Jim Thome or Wilson Ramos. An offense will run into games like this over the course of the season. You hate to see it on a night when Pavano pitched so well (now 2 straight starts with 0 run support!), but that's the way it goes sometimes.

Twins 3, Orioles 7

Friday night's game was called fairly early in the day, setting up a double-header on Saturday. I have to commend the Twins for making this decision in plenty of time to give everyone who works at the stadium or purchased a ticket an opportunity to change their Friday night and Saturday afternoon plans.

The bad BABIP karma continued for the Twins in the matinee, only now it was affecting the defense. Francisco Liriano didn't have his best stuff - lower velocity on the fastball, less break on the slider. That led to fewer swings and misses, and more balls in play. It could be that he was still weary from throwing 120+ pitches in his last outing, or it could be that he didn't have a good feel for his pitches in the cold. Whatever the problem, he still threw first-pitch strikes to 18 of 29 batters and allowed hardly any hard-hit balls. There were simply a couple of innings in which a ton of those flares and bleeders found holes. I get annoyed when lazy analysts look at the box score and say that Liriano got roughed up. Just because a team scores a bunch of runs doesn't mean they swung the bats well.

The Twins' offense was listless all day, with the exception of HR from Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer which accounted for all the runs. The hitters struck out 5 times against O's starter Jeremy Guthrie, and they drew just 1 BB. The lineup was reminiscent of early last year, when the bottom of the order couldn't hold a candle to the top. Ramos, Brendan Harris and Nick Punto combined to go 1 for 11 with a HBP. Orlando Hudson collected 3 H, including a 3B. The other guys didn't put up much of a fight.

Twins 6, Orioles 1

Eek, a losing streak! Enter 2nd-tier Ace Scott Baker. He allowed just 1 ER (a solo HR) on 3 H with 0 BB and 8 K in 8 IP. After a rather poor first month, he's off to a terrific start in May: 2 QS, 15 IP, 10 H, 4 ER, 1 HR, 2 BB, 14 K.

Delmon Young was the big hero on offense, going 3 for 4 with 2 2B, 2 R and 2 RBI. He picked the team up in the 6th after they failed once again with the bases loaded - Cuddyer's GIDP got the eventual winning run across, but that's not what you're hoping for when you start an inning with 3 baserunners. Young's 2-out knock made it a crooked number in the 6th, and his booming ground rule 2B to CF in the 8th made it a 3-run game.

After that, things took a turn for the surreal: Nick Punto was intentionally walked to load the bases for Alexi Casilla. Joe Mauer came out to PH, his first appearance in over a week. He struck out for the 2nd out. Drew Butera, playing in his first game since Ramos was brought up last Sunday, then delivered a 2-run single to put the game away. It was his 2nd hit this season, raising his BA to .118. I take that as a sign that the Twins' terrible fortune with the sacks full is about to change.

Twins 6, Orioles 0

What goes around, comes around, and the Twins got their payback for Thursday night in the finale. Nick Blackburn turned in just about exactly the same performance the O's got from Bergesen: 0 ER on just 4 H and 2 BB with 0 K. The Orioles hit .167 on balls in play, and all 4 H were singles. The O's aren't much of a hitting team so far this year, but it seems evident that the adjustment Blackburn made to his delivery during his recent time off has him back to being as good as a pitcher of his skills will allow.

The piranhas made a big comeback this afternoon. Hitters 8-2 in the lineup, Harris, Casilla, Span and Punto, began the day with a combined SLG% well under .350. On Sunday they went 10 for 15 with 2 2B, a 3B, all 6 R and all 6 RBI. The rest of the lineup combined to 2 for 19. Way to bunch those hits!

For the series, the Twins outscored the O's 15-10 and didn't commit an error. The offense didn't really show up until about halfway through the 3rd game, although some of that is understandable. They were without Joe Mauer and JJ Hardy, and those 2 add a lot. Obviously, you'd like to see the Twins win a home series against the worst team in the league. But they're still 5-2 on the home stand and on pace to win 106 games this season, so I'm not gonna get bent out of shape about it.

  • At the end of Saturday's game, Young's OPS was .800. I believe that's the first time he's gone to bed with that mark after any significant number of PA as a Twin.
  • The league appears to be catching up to Alex Burnett. Over his first 5 appearances spanning 7.1 IP, he allowed just 2 ER on 3 BB and 10 K. But he's allowed a R in each of his last 4 appearances: 6.1 IP, 5 ER, 7 BB and 5 K. It shouldn't surprise anyone. Burnett hasn't pitched at AAA yet, and is still only 22. He was called up in sort of an emergency situation, pitched well enough to stay for awhile, but now ought to head back to the minors to get the seasoning he needs to sustain MLB success. When he's recalled in September, he'll be the better for it.
  • To replace him, why not give a shot to Rob Delaney? He was impressive enough last year to earn a spot on the 40-man roster, but not enough to get much of a look in spring training. In 47.2 IP at Rochester last season, he kept his BAA about where it had been at AA, but saw a huge surge in his BB/9 and HR/9 and a dip in K/9. He's made the adjustment so far this year: in 19 IP, he's allowed just 17 baserunners, 1 HR, and has a 21/5 K/BB ratio. At 25, he's paid his minor league dues and is much more ready to be a steady big league contributor than Burnett.
  • The Rock Cats are having a miserable season so far, and this weekend really rubbed some salt in their wounds. They lost 2 straight games they were leading going into the 9th, one of which was the result of an error, then lost 2-1 on Sunday and dropped to 6-23. Keep your heads up, boys...
  • It was indeed Osterbrock who was promoted to A+. I hope there will be a series of SP promotions throughout the system, so the Red Wings can get rid of the filler they've got as 3/5 of their rotation. Yoslin Herrera, Glen Perkins and Charlie Zink have been horrendous, each with WHIPs north of 1.80. Surely there's somebody in New Britain who can do better than that.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

First Sweep

Twins 10, Tigers 4

Since they were shut out for the first time last Thursday, the Twins have established a wonderful offensive habit: they've put up a crooked number in the 1st inning. After Denard Span struck out to lead off the game - the only K of Max Scherzer's outing - the next 4 batters reached and scored, culminating in Michael Cuddyer's bomb into the 2nd deck in LF. It was more of the same in the 2nd as the first 3 hitters reached and scored, with Span's 2-RBI 3B the big blow. After 2 innings, the Twins had built a commanding 7-0 lead.

Then the bad habits kicked in: the Twins have been letting up on bloodied starters the 2nd time through the order, swinging early in the count and enabling them to hang around for a couple more innings than they maybe should have. Span's 3B came on Scherzer's 45th pitch, but he was able to get the next 9 outs on just 27 pitches. Meanwhile, the Tigers were narrowing the lead to 7-3. Patience returned in the 5th, as Jim Thome took 3 balls, Cuddyer and Jason Kubel walked, and JJ Hardy and Wilson Ramos had RBI hits to put the game away.

While Joe Mauer's bruised heel heals, Ramos is on the roster at the expense of a 7th reliever. This actually has a wonderful effect on the pitching staff. Scott Baker had a QS and got the team into the 7th inning. With 1 out, super-rookie Austin Jackson doubled on Baker's 98th pitch. Lefty Johnny Damon and Baker's personal nemesis Magglio Ordonez were the next scheduled hitters. With an extra guy in the 'pen, maybe Gardy takes Baker out there. But with the 'pen depleted, you ask for more from your starters, and Baker stayed in and finished the inning. (That decision is easier to make with a 7-run lead, of course.)

Twins 4, Tigers 3

2 quick runs in the 1st inning off Dontrelle Willis thanks to 2-out RBI hits from Thome and Delmon Young. Willis was in essentially the same position as Scherzer after 10 batters, having allowed 6 baserunners while throwing 48 pitches. But, again, the Twins let up, as Willis retired 12 in a row, culminating in a 7-pitch 5th inning against the top of the order. The Tigers tied the game at 2-2, and Willis began the 6th with just 87 pitches. Cuddyer knocked him out with a booming 2B with 1 out, and then Delmon Young beat out a swinging bunt for an IF hit, setting up JJ Hardy for an RBI single and a 3-2 lead.

Short of striking out a handful of guys, Nick Blackburn was about as good as he can be. He used his time off to contemplate a slight change in his delivery, staying back longer, and the result was 18 groundball outs (including 2 DPs). He gave up his share of hits, of course - when all but 3 batters put the ball in play, that will happen - but nearly all of them were singles. I chuckled when Rick Anderson came to the mound after the Tigers began the 4th with 4 straight singles, 3 of which were grounders just out of the reach of Twins infielders. What was he going to tell him? Quit getting grounders? OK, Blackburn escaped the inning with 2 fly ball outs and a liner, then went right back to sinking.

Heading into the 9th, Blackburn had thrown just 85 pitches. Outside of the cluster in the 4th, he had scattered 4 H and a BB over the other 7 IP. He had retired 7 in a row - 6 on grounders - including the formidable veteran trio of Damon, Ordonez and Miguel Cabrera in an easy 8th inning. It was a save situation, and Jon Rauch was available, but Blackburn was in control, and at least looked unlikely to give up more than a single or two. So, of course, he served up an emphatic HR to the first man he faced in the 9th. Two outs later, Young was unable to make an over-the-shoulder catch on Alex Avila's drive to LF - it fell for a 2B.

On the next pitch, Hardy dove for a grounder deep in the hole, making a backhand stop. As soon as Nick Punto saw that, he went from his cutoff position back to third base, behind Avila, who rounded the bag hard in an attempt to score the would-be tying run. By the time he was held up, Hardy had flipped the ball to Punto, and Avila was a sitting duck for the final out of the inning. In the bottom half, Hardy drilled a 1-out drive off the wall in left center that caromed away from both OF for a 3B. The Tigers figured out that their best chance to get Ramos out was to throw sliders out of the strike zone. The 2nd bounced away from Avila, and Hardy trotted home with the winning run.

Twins 5, Tigers 4

A couple of curious lineup decisions for the finale. It's unclear to me why Kevin Slowey got the start on regular rest, giving Carl Pavano 6 days off since his CG loss to the Tigers last week. Especially since Pavano has owned the Tigers since coming to the AL Central, and Slowey came into the game with a career ERA north of 5.00 vs. Detroit. Kubel has killed Rick Porcello, so you have to get his bat in the lineup. But Young and Thome have both been swinging the bat well lately, so whom to sit? Why not give Cuddyer, who's played every game this season and came in 2 for 11 vs. Porcello, a rest? Nope, Thome sat out, and Cuddyer is now 2 for 14 against Porcello.

2 more 1st inning runs for the Twins, and nearly a 3rd as Young's sinking liner to CF held up for the final out. Porcello needed 23 pitches to get through that inning. But the bottom of the order let up in the 2nd, going down 1-2-3 on just 7 pitches. A leadoff BB to Span in the 3rd set up Kubel for a 2-out RBI 2B - he stayed back and drove the ball to the gap in left center. The key sequence for the Twins came in the next inning, after Porcello walked Alexi Casilla with 2 out. Punto drove a ball to the track in RF, and the swirling winds contributed to a staggering drop for a 3-base error and run. Span immediately drove in Punto with a liner past the SS that probably should have been at least knocked down. Those 2 unearned runs were the difference between victory and defeat for the Twins.

Slowey was OK again, but still failed to get through the 6th. He got ahead of almost everybody, but couldn't entice anyone to expand the strike zone. He allowed 3 solo HR, but as Bert Blyleven likes to say, those won't beat you. Having gotten 23 IP from the SP over the previous 3 games, the bullpen was rested and effective. With the tying run at the plate in the 8th, Brian Duensing came in and dispatched the 2 batters he faced on 1 pitch each. Rauch was touched for a HR leading off the 9th, but retired the next 3 batters easily enough for the save.

Coming into the series, some of the power rankings had the Tigers ahead of the Twins, though the Twins led by 0.5 games in the standings. But it just depends on when you take your snapshot. The Tigers were coming in on a 5-game winning streak. Before it started, they were just 11-10, the sort of .500-ish record I think we can expect from them for most of the season. They've scored a lot of runs, but a lot of that comes from an unsustainable multitude of 2B and a soaring, .400+ BABIP from Jackson. When those things come down to earth, their hole-riddled lineup will have a hard time scoring enough to make up for a shaky defense. The Twins, meanwhile, have been winning at a consistently robust clip, pitching well, defending excellently, and scoring plenty of runs despite hitting very poorly with the bases loaded. The Tigers are now 3.5 games back, and I don't expect them to stay even that close for very long.

  • In the AB in which Kubel struck out with the bases loaded to end the bottom of the 6th on Wednesday, LHP Fu-Te Ni threw only 1 pitch in the strike zone. Kubel should remember that the next time those 2 match up.
  • Morneau has hit 6 HR, all on the road. Cuddyer has 4 HR, all at home.
  • Tuesday night's game was the 27th of the season, a convenient time to multiply stats by 6 in order to calculate the pace for the full season. The Twins are on pace to go 108-54, outscoring their opponents 864-612. That RA total is about 200 less than what PECOTA predicted. The folks at BP got some 'splainin' to do.
  • Glen Perkins has made 5 starts for AAA Rochester, but has accumulated just 17.1 IP. He's averaging more than a K/IP, but that's where the good news ends. He's walked 8 and allowed 31 H (including 5 HR) for a whip of 2.25 and a 10.90 ERA. I can't imagine a scenario in which he'd be useful to the Twins this season. It's time to take him off the 40-man roster (who would claim him off waivers? Why should we care if someone did?) and put Anthony Slama on.
  • Slama, pitching in relief in that game, was touched for a 2-run HR in addition to 2 BB. Of course, the HR came on the 57th pitch of the relief appearance, to the 11th man he'd faced. Be gentle with him, Tom Nieto - we're going to need him later!

Monday, May 3, 2010

3 Games, 3 Catchers

Twins 9, Indians 3

Another balanced game from the Twins' offense, as every starter reached base at least once. They abused their beloved former backup C, Mike Redmond, for 3 SB. And they got a bunch of 2-out RBI hits, including a HR from Justin Morneau in his first game back from his back issues.

Kevin Slowey was the beneficiary of a big early lead, but he almost failed to hold it. He was pitching pretty well, but seemed to need 4-5 pitches in every PA. He started the 5th inning with a high-ish pitch count in the 60s, then needed well over 30 pitches to get through that inning. His defense exacerbated the problem when Denard Span and Michael Cuddyer let Redmond's drive to right-center pass between them untouched - they called each other off simultaneously, so neither one caught the ball. That turned out to be the first of 5 H in 6 AB for the Indians. Had Redmond's ball been caught and everything else proceeded as it did, Slowey would have been out of the inning with 0 R allowed and 92 pitches, likely allowing him to start the 6th inning.

The Indians defense didn't do them any favors either. The Twins' 3-run rally in the 2nd resulted from an inability to turn a routine DP off the bat of Denard Span with the bases loaded. 1B Matt LaPorta couldn't dig out a low relay throw from 2B Luis Valbuena, allowing 1 R to score and giving the Twins an extra out. After Span stole second, Orlando Hudson delivered a 2-RBI single, though Fausto Carmona had pitched well enough to put his team in the dugout with 0 R allowed.

Twins 4, Indians 5 (11 innings)

All sorts of lineup shuffling for this one. Nick Blackburn needed family leave, so Jeff Manship was brought up to make the start. He was as good as anyone could have hoped, allowing just 2 ER on 5 H and 1 BB with a career-high 6 K in 6 IP. He was at just 86 pitches, but with 2 big lefties coming up in the 7th and the Twins clinging to a 1-run lead, it wasn't unreasonable to go to the bullpen at that point. And Brian Duensing delivered a 10-pitch, 1-2-3 inning. Then it went to Matt Guerrier, who'd thrown an inning on Friday. He got 2 quick outs, then allowed consecutive 2-out H to the Indians' three best hitters, tying the game.

That put the bullpen was on the spot - they needed to be rescued by the offense. But Joe Mauer had bruised his heel late in Friday's game and was unavailable, and a backup, though en route, would not arrive in time for the game. That meant it was Drew Butera behind the plate, for better or for worse, for the duration. He went hitless yet again, and had the crucial PA of extra innings: bases loaded, 1 out, GIDP. Butera's impotence with the stick made me wish that Alexi Casilla could have PH in that situation.

Alex Burnett had already thrown 1.1 IP, but Gardy tried to stretch him through the 11th. He gave up a BB, 2B and IBB to the first 3 hitters, then left a bases loaded mess for Jesse Crain to try to clean up. He almost did it, getting a shallow pop fly and a K before Asdrubal Cabrera, one of Cleveland's best hitters, ripped a game-winning single.

Twins 8, Indians 3

The Twins desperately needed Francisco Liriano to pitch deep into this game, but it got off to a rocky start for him. He threw the ball past 1B while attempting to get Cabrera leading off. Cabrera made it all the way to 3rd, where he scored on a groundout. Liriano then gave up a hit to Shin-Soo Choo, walked Austin Kearns, allowed Choo to steal 3B, then balked him in. After that, he largely settled down, allowing 6 H, 2 BB and 9 K the rest of the way. He was over 100 pitches after 6 IP, but manned up and got through a scoreless 7th, finishing the day with 123 pitches. That's one of the things Aces have to do: save the bullpen.

Wilson Ramos arrived from Rochester to make his Major League debut, and it could hardly have gone better. He went 4-5 with a 2B - more of an offensive impact in one start than Butera has made in 4. Span, Hudson, Morneau and Delmon Young also had multi-hit games, with Young hitting his 3rd HR and drawing his 8th BB. The Twins still weren't great with RISP, but put up 8 R thanks to the sheer mass of baserunners they accumulated, setting a season-high with 20 H and adding 5 more BB.

Mauer is probably going to be out for a few more days, and I expect Ramos to get the bulk of the playing time until he's healthy. Ramos was not hitting well at Rochester and is still rather inexperienced. But he's so much more talented than Butera, at least everyone can feel like there's a chance he'll get a hit when he comes to the plate. That will help soften the temporary loss of the reigning MVP.

  • Span went 5-9 with 2 BB and a HR over the weekend, raising his OPS from .617 to .700. Nothing to worry about.
  • Young went 4-9 with 3 BB and a HR, raising his OPS from .684 to .778. Also nothing to worry about.
  • Kyle Gibson threw a 1-hit shutout on Thursday night, and has overcome his debut to rank 4th in the Florida State league in ERA through 5 GS. He's got a .200 BAA, a G/F of just over 5/1, and a K/BB of 4/1 with nearly 9 K/9. How many more starts before he heads for New Britain?
  • There are 3 guys at Beloit who could deserve to take Gibson's spot in the rotation. Liam Hendriks, Daniel Osterbrock and Tom Stuifbergen all have ridiculous numbers so far. Since Osterbrock is the oldest and longest tenured at A-, I'd give him the first look. But I wouldn't forget about Shooter Hunt, who has shown in 7 appearances since opening night that he's put his control issues behind him. He has a 20/4 K/BB ratio in his last 13.1 IP, with a 2.03 ERA and 0.98 WHIP. At some point he should get another crack at the rotation, right?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

April Review

Twins Record: 15-8
1st in AL Central by 1.5 games

What a start. Thanks to a strong series of offseason pickups, most serious Twins fans were pretty excited about the potential of this team. So far, it's been justified. The Twins found a way to win their first 6 series of the season, jumping out to the 3rd best record in the AL.

They're among the league leaders in scoring, though the offense has struggled with RISP and several starters have poor BAs. They've made up for it by hitting 22 HR in 23 games and drawing a million walks. Well, 112 - 10% more than the next most patient team. Put that many guys on base, and you're bound to score your share of runs, even without the big hit. Those hits will come, and if the Twins can maintain their fantastic plate discipline, they're bound to score even more in future months.

They're among the league leaders in pitching. As usual, they are issuing by far the fewest walks. This contributes to the league's 3rd best WHIP. They're doing a good job of stranding the baserunners they allow. And, for once, they're keeping the ball in the yard, allowing fewer HR/9 than 9 other AL teams. Francisco Liriano hasn't allowed a HR in 29 IP, and 6 relievers have also avoided the long ball.

They're among the league leaders in defense. They've committed only 4 errors (one of which was a missed call by the umpires), resulting in just 3 unearned runs. They are enjoying favorable ratings from RZR and UZR. New acquisitions JJ Hardy and Orlando Hudson have improved the up-the-middle defense, while the slimmed down Delmon Young is covering a lot more ground in LF.

As the struggling members of the Twins' lineup and pitching staff regress toward their normal production, things should get even better. The Twins will get a chance to measure themselves against the Yankees in the coming weeks. It looks like this team should give them a better fight than last year's team did.

This month was relatively short, so I'll look at hitters with at least 25 PA and pitchers who threw 10 or more IP and/or made at least 5 appearances.

Getting It Done

Justin Morneau - Once again on pace for about 35 HR and 120 RBI. What really sets Morneau apart this month is his fantastic 14/21 K/BB ratio, pushing his OBP to nearly .500.

Joe Mauer - Just the 1 HR so far, making last year's total look a bit fluky. However, 8 2B and 1 3B, plus his typical 8/10 K/BB ratio bring him in at .345/.406/.500, which is still plenty awesome.

Jim Thome - I wondered how much he'd be used this year, but he's clearly got plenty left in the tank. He's got a .989 OPS with 4 HR in just over 50 PA. It's going to be hard to keep him on the bench if he keeps hitting like that.

Orlando Hudson - What a great addition to the the top of the lineup. He's followed Denard Span in each game, reaching base nearly 39% of the time and scoring 16 R.

Michael Cuddyer - .309/.346/.479 with 3 HR and a team leading 18 RBI, and he'd have had a couple more HR earlier this week if he'd hit his dead-CF bombs in any other park than Comerica.

Francisco Liriano - He was wild in his first start in Chicago - but even that was a QS. Since then he's thrown 23 straight scoreless innings with a 24/5 K/BB ratio and 0 HR allowed. What we saw in the DWL and Spring Training was legit.

Matt Guerrier - With a pedestrian 4/4 K/BB ratio in 12.1 IP, you wouldn't expect a reliever to be this effective. But Guerrier allowed just 1 ER in April, and it was not a HR. Even better, he's usually pretty efficient.

Jon Rauch - 7/8 in save opportunities, and the one save he blew didn't cost the Twins a win. Joe Nathan would probably have a better WHIP and K/9, but the bottom line couldn't be much better.

Carl Pavano - I thought he'd prove to be the Twins' 4th best starter, but this month he was #2. His outstanding 22/3 K/BB ratio in 31.1 IP is one of the reasons he's consistently pitched deeper into games than Scott Baker or Kevin Slowey.

Brian Duensing - Back in a bullpen role, Duensing has picked up right where he left off last year. In 10 IP, he's allowed just 2 ER on 8 H and 3 BB with 6 K, and he hasn't given up a HR.

Alex Burnett - I figured he'd just get a couple of mop-up opportunities before taking his rightful place in AAA, but an early injury to Jose Mijares opened the door for him to stick around. So far he's made the most of it, posting a 3.12 ERA and 11/3 K/BB ratio in 8.2 IP.

Ron Mahay - Signed too late to break camp with the Twins, Mahay has still made a big impact in just a couple of weeks. He hasn't allowed an ER in 6.2 IP with a superb 8/1 K/BB ratio.

So Far, So Good

Denard Span - The first of a quartet of hitters who don't appear, at first glance, to be performing well. Span is hitting just .211, but his career best K and BB rates give him an outstanding .128 IsoD and a still decent .339 OBP. His .244 BABIP so far is well below his career norm and is bound to turn around. 6/7 SB, and the one time he was caught he wasn't actually tagged out.

Jason Kubel - He's hitting just .219, but he's nearly doubled his BB rate from the past few seasons for a .352 OBP. His line drive rate is as good as ever. Too many strikeouts, but otherwise there doesn't seem to be anything wrong here.

Delmon Young - 7 BB are more than half the number he drew in all of 2009. He's also radically cut his K, while posting the best IsoP since his September call-up in 2006. His .208 BABIP is .120 lower than his well-established average of the past 3 seasons. And compare:
April 2008: .255/.298/.306, 0 HR
April 2009: .241/.276/.315, 1 HR
April 2010: .222/.292/.381, 2 HR
That's progress, even with the poor BABIP.

JJ Hardy - He's hitting just .220/.281/.366, but his K% and Iso are both heading in the direction of his All-Star caliber years of 2007 and 2008. His BABIP of .231 is .045 lower than his career mark, despite a healthy 20.6% line drive rate. He's batting 8th, he's playing flawless SS - I'm content.

Nick Punto - He only got to play 9 games before going on the DL, but his .709 OPS so far suggests we might be getting the "good" Nick Punto this year. Only one BB in 26 AB, though.

Kevin Slowey - A 3.77 ERA is nice, but the WHIP is at 1.50, he's walked way more guys than we're used to from him, and he's averaging fewer than 6 IP/GS. I'll take it, but he can do better.

Pat Neshek - He's been used very sparingly, but largely appears to have recovered his old effectiveness. His last appearance against the Tigers, in which he allowed a BB and HBP to the 2 batters he faced, was his only lousy game.

Need To Pick It Up

Brendan Harris - Like Span, Kubel, et al., Harris is proving useful enough despite a .200 BA thanks to an 8/7 K/BB ratio, good for a .327 OBP. Unlike those other guys, he's not established enough to get away with a .638 OPS - if he wants to stay in the lineup, he's going to have to hit more than that.

Nick Blackburn - His 1st start was effective even though he walked a career-high 4. His 2nd start was OK - he allowed 3 HR but kept the team in it into the 8th inning. The last 2 starts he's been smacked all over the park, leaving before the 6th inning.

Jesse Crain - The 1.27 WHIP is OK. The 9/2 K/BB ratio in 11 IP is nice. He hasn't left too many guys on base, though, because 7 of the 12 H he's allowed have gone for extra bases.

Scott Baker - He was jittery on opening night, allowing 4 ER on 5 H and 3 BB in 4.2 IP. Then we got 2 very good starts. He was pretty unlucky against the Indians on the 22nd. But he stunk on the 28th, letting a 5-run lead slip away. Also averaging fewer than 6 IP/GS.

Jose Mijares - A couple of solo HR on opening night, and way too many baserunners after that. I guess he wasn't healthy - perhaps related to his poor conditioning?