Monday, August 9, 2010

Happy Birthday, Drew Butera

Twins 6, Indians 5

I was hoping that this crap was behind us by now. Francisco Liriano allowed 7 H in this game, 6 of which came to the first 11 hitters he faced. 2 of those were choppers over the mound, and 2 were grounders that would have been DPs had they been slightly differently placed. Liriano came out throwing strikes (6/8 first-pitch strikes in the 1st, 16/25 pitches overall), and the Indians were generally hacking early in the count. They enjoyed a one-night resurgence of Liriano's horrible luck on balls in play: the Indians went 7 for 14, and only 2 of the 7 cleared the IF in the air.

That was irritating enough. But what really burned me was the way the Twins reacted to it. They seemed to decide that Liriano needed to start pitching backwards because the Indians were teeing off on his fastball. But what really happened in the first 2 innings? 3 grounders to start the game (2, unfortunately, for H), then a one-armed fly just fair down the RF line, a BB to Matt LaPorta with a base open (not unwise, as we'd soon discover), and a good piece of hitting by Jason Nix on a fastball down and away. The 3rd run of the inning scored on a grounder too poorly hit to be a DP. The 2nd inning started with a nibbling BB to the #9 hitter, then 2 more grounders. After that, Liriano struck out the side.

To sum up: through the 1st 2 IP (14 batters), Liriano got 4 K, 2 BB, 1 fly, 1 liner, and 6 grounders. Other than the 2nd BB, I don't really see a problem there. But he spent the rest of the night starting nearly every hitter with a changeup or a slider, and ever more frequently found himself behind in the count as a result. Those secondary pitches work best when the hitter needs to have an early trigger because they're worried about the mid-90s fastball. The Indians laid off, and Liriano got more and more out of sync as the game went along, eventually tying a career worst with 6 BB and leaving with 2 out in the 5th.

The offense fought back valiantly, scoring a flurry of late runs led by some clutch hitting by Alexi Casilla. He knocked in 4, including the tying runs after they were disallowed by a rather suspect replay review. The Twins didn't get to savor the comeback for very long, though. LaPorta took Matt Guerrier deep on the 2nd pitch of the bottom of the 9th, and that was that.

Twins 7, Cleveland 2

Whatever else is going on, Carl Pavano can be relied upon to keep the Twins in it deep into the game. He had just one hiccup in the 4th when he allowed 2 R on 4 H. But he was able to make big pitches when he had to in the 6th and 7th, each time escaping 2 RISP with 1 out situations without conceding a run.

The Twins lost Casilla in the 3rd inning when he turned his ankle scoring the 2nd run of the game. Luckily, Orlando Hudson could come off the DL on Sunday, and Casilla's injury didn't appear serious enough to put him back on it. Casilla's play the last two weeks has been inspired, and everyone should be hopeful that he'll be able to compete for the 2nd base job next year.

For the 2nd straight night, the Twins clustered 5 R in the last 3 innings, sparked by the 1st big league HR from Trevor Plouffe and a 4 H night from Joe Mauer. This game was the 7th straight in which Mauer didn't catch - all of them were started by Butera instead. Odd, since Jose Morales is also on the bench, and he's a much better hitter. Butera managed to get on base a bit in the Tampa series, but he went 1 for 6 in Cleveland, dropping his line back to .202/.240/.330.

Twins 5, Indians 4

Brian Duensing's start went much the same as his previous start against the Rays: a shaky 1st inning with 3 ER allowed, then a gutsy recovery for a QS. This was an example of when to adjust away from the fastball. Duensing got walloped early, allowing 5 of his 9 H to the 1st 8 batters, 4 of which were scalding liners. But Duensing doesn't get a lot of strikeouts - his stuff isn't good enough to get swings and misses. So he throws his offspeed stuff in the zone, just to keep the hitters off balance. He's used to throwing it in the zone, he's good at it. And it worked.

Offensively, the script was pretty close to the finale of the Seattle series. There, too, the Twins were stymied by a nondescript LHP for the first half of the game, only to explode for a big crooked number in the middle innings. They batted around in the 5th, starting with a big HR from Jim Thome, and later a 2-run 2B from Hudson. The final run, the eventual game-winner, scored when 3B Andy Marte dropped a would-be GIDP from Young and had only enough time for 1 out.

Duensing's pitch count was right around 100 after 7 IP, but lefty Shin-Soo Choo was leading off the 8th, so Gardy opted to play the matchups and leave Duensing in. I love that move - way to challenge your starter! Duensing got him, then Guerrier redeemed himself with 2 very quick outs, including LaPorta. Matt Capps had his first perfect inning for the Twins with 2 K to preserve the win.

About Butera

7 straight games with Butera in the lineup got me a little worked up. Yes, he throws out base stealers, we've all seen him do that. Better than Morales could, no one doubts it. Supposedly, he calls a great game. But I didn't see that with Liriano on Friday. The Twins gave up 6 or more R in the 3 of the 7 games. He can call whatever, but it's the pitchers who make the pitches, and they should be able to do that whoever is behind the plate. So I have a hard time giving him any extra credit there.

He is a horrendous offensive player. And that's even including the little hot streak he's enjoyed over the last couple of weeks. Since July 21st, he's 11 for 40 with 3 doubles, a triple, and a homer. That's .275/.326/.425. That's the hot streak. It raised his OPS from .397 to .570. Think about that. The peak of his season still couldn't clear .600. And he's a bad baserunner, too. How many times have we seen him break back to the bag on a ball to the gap or a grounder with the IF back? He's tentative. He has poor instincts. He seems to know he's a liability out there, so he plays to try not to make things worse. But he certainly doesn't make things better.

There's nothing in his minor league track record to suggest that he can improve. He turns 27 today. He's not a prospect anymore. There's no more upside. This is as good as it gets.

When he's in the lineup, it means that either Mauer or Thome isn't. Mauer's been on a little hot streak lately, too. Since the All-Star Break, he's hitting .435/.495/.694, raising his OPS to .868. The Twins give away .300 points of OPS if Mauer sits. Thome's OPS is .948. Even against LHP, Thome's .737 OPS dwarfs Butera's .387.

People like to say that Butera is Pavano's personal catcher, because Pavano feels more comfortable throwing to that target than to big, tall Joe Mauer. Well, get over it, Carl. Because here's the thing: Pavano is going to be set up to start 2 games in any playoff series the Twins might make. As I noted last time, that Divisional round series is going to be against either the Rays or the Yankees, teams the Twins played tough this season, but still wound up 2 games under .500 against. Now, against those teams, where every play, every PA, every pitch is critical, is anyone seriously suggesting that the Twins are going to willingly weaken their lineup so significantly as to take Mauer or Thome out?

Obviously, the answer is no. With no more than 3 consecutive games in any playoff series, there is no reason to sit your best catcher. That is especially true when your best catcher is one of the best players in the game. And that goes double for when his backup can't hit. Butera isn't going to get anywhere near home plate in the playoffs.

So when is Pavano going to start getting comfortable with Mauer? There's no problem with giving Mauer a rest at least every 5 games, especially with the shoulder trouble he's been having. Maybe it can wait until the 2nd half of September, until Pavano's last 3 or 4 starts. Meanwhile, start mixing in Morales here and there, maybe against some of the less prolific base stealing teams. He's enough of a hitter to be an asset even with his shortcomings behind the plate. We could even think of it as phasing him in - while gradually phasing Butera out.

No comments: