Thursday, May 31, 2007
There are many things that the Twins offense is known for and one of them is perhaps the most overdone catch phrase heard in sports in years (PIRANHA POWER!). But they don't have much of a reputation for patience. When it comes to walking, they aren't often mistaken for the Boston Red Sox or the Oakland Athletics. In fact, out of the Twins hitters, only Joe Mauer is really amongst the elite in terms of patience.
Thus, it was very interesting for this team to score seven runs on only seven hits along with eight walks. Walks were the theme of the game, which was eventually won by a bases-loaded walk by Torii Hunter in the bottom of the ninth that has roundly been attributed to David Aardsma not having enough time to warm-up. Hunter was clearly surprised with the walk, telling reporters, "I didn't know what to do. It was weird, man. That was something totally different. But I like it. We won."
However, Hunter was just the part of team effort in patience. Nick Punto was the standout, walking three times in the game to give him a team-leading 26 on the season. Punto is only hitting .237, but he still holds a fairly decent .337 on-base percentage, giving him a very impressive 0.100 isolated discipline. Interestingly, Punto's average has suffered because of his terrible hitting at home. Punto is hitting .320/.407/.400 on the road and only .177/.269/.219 at home. This is quite unusual, as from 2004-2006, Punto hit .293/.350/.415 at the Dome and only .241/.313/.296 on the road. While his overall offensive performance has been putrid over the past two months, Punto continues to take solid at-bats and his 30/26 strikeout-to-walk ratio is very good for him and its likely that those extreme splits will even out in due time.
Other than Punto and Hunter's walks, Jason Bartlett, Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau, and Jason Tyner all took walks, with Tyner's coming in the ninth and helping to set up Hunter's game-winning walk. The walks clearly haunted the White Sox, as five of them came around to score. Cuddyer is another important standout. He walked only 5 times in April but has drawn 16 in May. Cuddyer's solid month has raised his hitting line to a very good .302/.380/.484 with 37 RBI.
The team itself has been pretty good overall in terms of patience, as they came into the game with a .342 OBP to go with a team .276 average. That's a 0.66 isolated discipline, up slightly from the 0.60 they finished with last year. Overall, the Twins' .342 OBP ranks 7th in the majors while their 178 walks now rank them 14th. For a team that prides itself on being scrappy, the progress over the last month towards more patience, seen with hitters like Punto and Cuddyer, is a positive one for the Twins and certainly has contributed to their recent streak of series wins.
When an offense can wear down a pitcher, the way great offenses like Boston's do, and force them out of a game early, that team tends to win a lot. They can even drive an opposing manager so crazy that he relents to proclaiming, "I'm going to get fired? Good. Is this team going to get better having me out of there? I'd be too happy with it."
This has been the recent trend for the Twins, especially in the just-completed series against Chicago, which was displayed prominently in the win yesterday. Hopefully, when the Twins face the Oakland A's this weekend, they can mirror Billy Beane's "Moneyball" focus on patience while walking away with the series.
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Slowey's performance in Triple-A this year has been tremendously impressive for a number of reasons. He leads the International League in ERA (1.54) and WHIP (0.81), he's second in innings pitched (64.1) and fourth in strikeouts (57), and he's issued fewer walks than any other pitcher with 50+ IP. All this would seem to clearly indicate that Slowey has mastered the Triple-A level and is in need of a new challenge. The most exciting things about Slowey's dominance are the facts that he is still only 23 years old and he's in his first year at pitching at that level. Many pitchers that rank around him in various categories on the league leaderboard are either older or have more experience pitching in Triple-A.
Through his entire professional career up to this point, Slowey really has not faced any serious adversity. He has pitched well at every single stop in his journey through the Twins' system so far. After being drafted 73rd overall in the 2005 draft, Slowey pitched 7 1/3 effective innings in the Appalachian Rookie League before being bumped up to Beloit, where he posted a 2.24 ERA and 68/8 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 64 1/3 innings. He started his 2006 campaign pitching in High-A at Ft. Myers, where he was unspeakably dominant over 14 starts, posting a 1.01 ERA and 99/9 K/BB ratio over 89 1/3 innings. That performance earned him a promotion to Class-AA New Britain, where he finished the year with a 3.19 ERA over 59 1/3 innings.
Of course, just because a pitcher hasn't experienced any real problems in his climb through the minor leagues doesn't mean he won't hit a wall in the majors. Just ask Matt Garza. The major concern about Slowey is that he lacks a devastating arsenal. While his numbers in the minors are comparable to those of guys like Garza and Francisco Liriano, Slowey doesn't have the kind of nasty over-powering pitches that those two hurlers possess. He has a very good fastball that he can throw with great command, but most scouts describe the rest of his pitches as average. There is reason to think that this will affect him more in the majors than it has in any level of the minors. Of course, when a guy is able to post numbers like Slowey has throughout the minors with stuff that is not generally classified as dominant, it's evident that he really knows how to pitch.
That's why I feel that Slowey has a good chance to perform well in the majors. One of the biggest reasons that Garza struggled once he reached the majors last year was his lack of control. Overall, Garza pitched in 10 games and posted a 5.76 ERA last season. However, in the three outings where he issued fewer than two walks, Garza's ERA was 1.40. In the seven outings where he issued multiple walks, his ERA was 9.39. There is plenty of reason to believe Slowey can avoid these problems; he has issued a total of 35 walks over 285 innings in his career so far. That translates to a 1.11 BB/9 IP rate. For comparison, Garza's career BB/9 rate in the minors is 2.60.
In addition to his spectacular control, Slowey has not had problems with giving up too many home runs and he's shown a decent ability to induce ground balls. And, despite his purported lack of great stuff, Slowey has still managed to strike out more than a batter per inning on his way through the minor leagues.
All of these facts don't guarantee that Slowey is going to come up and start dominating major-league hitters. There's a very good chance the 23-year-old will have to go through an adjustment period and will encounter some struggles early on. But there are plenty of reasons to believe that he can help this team right now, and there is every reason to think that he will provide a significant upgrade over Ortiz. My prediction is that a Slowey outing this season will be similar to a typical Brad Radke outing; he'll get hit a little bit and maybe give up a few runs early on before making some adjustments and settling into a groove to finish well. I think Slowey will give the team a chance to win, which would be a refreshing change from Ortiz.
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
As usual, Santana followed his normal problem by giving up a few home runs to increase his total to 12 already this year, which puts him on pace to equal the amount Carlos Silva gave up last year (38). Despite that, the Twins offense managed to support Santana plenty, putting up 10 runs against starter Jose Contreras and the White Sox bullpen.
For the Twins lineup, that's a very good sign, considering how badly Contreras dominated Twins hitters the last time they saw him, as he put together a five-hit shutout only a few weeks back. This time around, the Twins hitters managed to do significantly better, not only scoring seven runs on ten hits, but also walking three times.
Several hitters had important big games, including Nick Punto, Mike Redmond, and Torii Hunter. Punto, who has been nothing short of awful offensively since the beginning of the season, went 3-for-4 with two RBI, a walk, and a run scored. He also stole two bases. Though he had been struggling, he is now 5-for-13 in his last three games and hopefully is starting to put things together. Redmond, on the other hand, had a much bigger hit as he continues to be hot in Joe Mauer's absence.
Since taking over for Mauer regularly on May 5, Redmond is 25-for-64 (.391) with a .531 slugging percentage. He has only had 5 RBI in that time, but he had a huge hit last night, with a bases-clearing double in the sixth to give the Twins an 8-4 lead. Redmond clearly has been spectacular and has done as good of a job as anyone could expect with Mauer gone.
As for Hunter, he not only went 3-for-5 with an RBI to raise his average to .317, but also made a great catch in support of Santana. In the eighth inning, Jim Thome appeared to crush a home run to left-center, but Hunter climb the wall in the very famous section of the park to take the home run away from Thome. Hunter has not been nearly as good defensively as he has in the past, but he has certainly made a few memorable plays in recent weeks.
With 16 hits in 37 at-bats, the offense certainly seemed to come out of its funk. However, only three of those went for extra-bases. They'll face a bigger test today, as John Danks has been good against the Twins this year, going 1-1 with a 2.84 ERA. It's a good thing for the Twins Boof Bonser is taking the hill, as he has been fairly dominant as of late.
Monday, May 28, 2007
Burnett, who possesses some devastating stuff, was baffling the Twins' hitters yesterday. The 30-year-old righthander allowed four runs (three earned) while pitching all eight innings in a loss against the Twins. He struck out eight and walked three. Burnett gave up just three hits, but two of them came off the bat of Morneau, who was also responsible for all the Twins' scoring in the game. In the third inning, Morneau came up with the bases loaded and hit a high chopper to the pitcher's mound. Even if Burnett had fielded the ball cleanly and made an accurate throw to first, Morneau probably would have beaten out the play and driven in a run. However, Burnett rushed his throw and it sailed over the first baseman's head, allowing Morneau to move to second and allowing another run to score. This gave the Twins a 2-1 lead. Morneau later extended that lead to 4-1 when he hit a towering two-run homer into the upper-deck in the sixth inning. That was it for the Twins' offense.
Fortunately, thanks to a great pitching performance from Carlos Silva, four runs would be plenty in this game. The Twins really needed Silva to step up and pitch deep into yesterday's game after Saturday night's 13-inning marathon had depleted most of the bullpen. Silva answered the call, pitching into the eighth inning while allowing just two runs. After he left the game to a standing ovation, Juan Rincon and Joe Nathan came in to take care of the final five outs and the Twins got their victory. The series win was the Twins' first at home since their season-opening sweep of the Orioles.
The Twins seem to be coming out of their funk and are playing more like the team I expected them to be this season. The offense has gained some consistency (they've scored 4+ runs in each of their past nine games) and should only get better once Joe Mauer returns, which could take place this week. Meanwhile, the rotation is looking pretty good. Johan Santana has been dominant, Boof Bonser has been impressive, Scott Baker has looked good in his two starts, and Silva made a big statement with his much-needed outstanding performance yesterday. Of course, the major weakness remains Ramon Ortiz, but it sounds like he's headed for the bullpen. The Twins don't need the guy who comes up and replaces him (likely Kevin Slowey) to step in and start pitching like Liriano, but if that player is able to pitch relatively well, this could become a very strong rotation.
In my mind, there are two major things that the Twins need to start doing consistently in order to work their way into contention: win at home, and win against divisional opponents. They haven't been doing either of those things very well this year, but the Toronto series was a step in the right direction toward the first goal and they can take another big step toward both goals by winning their series against the White Sox which kicks off at the Metrodome this afternoon.
Sunday, May 27, 2007
Several things stick out in Ortiz's start. For one, he gave up ten hits in six innings. For reference, that adds up to 40 hits in 21 1/3 May innings. Those are incredibly bad numbers to begin with. However, Ortiz also gave up three home runs to the Jays, adding up to nine so far on the year. He gave up six earned runs in six innings. That adds up to the following May stats: 0-3, 21.1 IP, 40 hits, 28 runs, 27 earned runs, five walks, 10 Ks, six home runs, and an 11.39 ERA.
With that in mind, Ortiz's good April seems like more of a fluke that originally considered. Ortiz was always a streaky pitcher, so it would seem that this is a matter of things evening out. Ortiz struck out only 14 hitters in 35 April innings and that has only continued in May with the 10 strikeouts. The result has been by far Ortiz's lowest strikeout rate of his career. That would only continue a downward trend that started in 2004, as his strikeouts have gone down just as quickly as his ERA has risen every year.
Hopefully, the Twins realize this and quickly end the experiment with Ortiz. It's unlikely that they would just eat his contract or even try to trade him, so the best move to hope for is a move to long relief that will clear a spot for Matt Garza or Kevin Slowey.
As for the game outside of Ortiz's ugly performance, there were some positive performances in what was a disappointing loss. Michael Cuddyer stood out, as he not only had several clutch hits, but started off the scoring with an RBI single in the third. Overall, Cuddyer went 4-for-5 with a home run, 5 RBI, and a walk. With his standout performance, Cuddyer raised his batting line to a more than respectable .290/.354/.479. Other than Cuddyer's 5 RBI, Justin Morneau was the only other Twins run-producer, with an RBI double and a important RBI groundout in the 11th to tie the game for a second time and send the game to further extra innings.
In total, the Twins had 17 hits, but wasted numerous opportunities to win the game. Today's game will prove a greater challenge, as unlike Tomo Okha, A.J. Burnett has been on fire lately, striking out 44 in 35 May innings so far. He will likely strike out a good deal of Twins hitters today. The best chance the Twins have will be to show patience, as Burnett's 31 walks on the year ranks him first in the AL.
Saturday, May 26, 2007
The offensive standouts included Luis Castillo, who went 2-for-3 with a walk and now owns a .336/.381/.371 line, as well as Michael Cuddyer, who hit a big two-run homer to give the Twins a 3-2 lead in the fifth. That gives Cuddyer 6 home runs and 31 RBI on the year. He has started rather slow this year, but he remains on pace to score over 100 runs, drive in 100, and hit 22 home runs. If Cuddyer really starts to heat up, those numbers may start to add up pretty quickly considering what he has done in a relatively slow start. Lastly, Torii Hunter's RBI single in the 7th to give the Twins the lead permanently added to what has already been a fantastic season for Hunter.
Pitching-wise, Baker was not nearly as good as he was in his first 2007 start against the Brewers last week. However, despite giving up three runs in only 5 1/3 innings, Baker had a good run in the game by retiring 10 straight batters. Baker's real problem, besides the game-tying home run he gave up to Frank Thomas, was the four walks he gave up in contrast to only two strikeouts. Baker ran into troubles last year when his fastballs ran high, as they often did last night, or when he lacked control. If he is going to have continued success, he needs to show the control he has shown in the minors.
On the other hand, those few good arms remaining in the bullpen did well again last night. Matt Guerrier, Pat Neshek, and Joe Nathan combined for 3 2/3 scoreless innings while striking out four, giving up three hits, and walking one. Nathan's ninth inning got a little hairy, but the breaking ball he threw to strike out Lyle Overbay and end the game was ridiculously nasty. The .294 OBA Nathan has allowed so far is unusual, but the ERA is a great 2.11 and he is still striking out plenty of batters. Looks like there was no reason to worry in April.
Tonight, a more interesting situation will appear for the Twins and their fans, as Ramon Ortiz will be starting after four straight awful outings. Many have now suggested Ortiz move into long relief, which I agree with, and if Ortiz has another atrocious start, the Twins should not think twice of making the move and bringing Kevin Slowey or Matt Garza up to claim their rightful spot in the rotation.
Friday, May 25, 2007
Many people have been stunned by the incredibly hot start Hunter has gotten off to this season, but what it is is actually a much longer torrid streak that stretches back to last season. Many will recall that he was a tremendous force in September of '06, when he hit nine homers and amassed in 27 RBI in 29 games. Since the 2006 All-Star break, Hunter has hit .304 with 28 HR and 89 RBI in just 106 games. For comparison, during that same span, the reigning MVP Justin Morneau has hit .319 with 25 HR and 88 RBI in 122 games.
The striking thing about Hunter's prolonged hot streak is that during those 106 games, he has collected a total of just 15 walks. This season, Hunter has drawn just eight free passes in 179 plate appearances, and that's after he walked twice in Sunday's game against the Brewers and was issued an intentional walk by the Rangers on Wednesday afternoon. Just how odd is it for a player to be putting up numbers like Hunter while showing almost no patience at the plate whatsoever? Among the 18 players in the major leagues with 10 or more home runs, Hunter is the only one with fewer than 10 walks. Among the league's top 40 RBI producers, only Hunter and San Francisco's Bengie Molina have drawn fewer than 10 free passes. It is extremely rare for a player to rack up homers and RBI at an elite rate without showing any patience at the plate, but Hunter has been doing it for almost five months now.
For years, Twins fans have bemoaned Hunter's first-pitch hacks and have wished that he could start to show more patience at the plate. But maybe those thoughts were misguided. The Twins' center fielder is as much a hacker at the plate as he ever was, but he seems to have gotten really, really good at it. Hunter is currently on pace to draw fewer than 40 walks this year. The last time he did that (with the exception of his injury-shortened 2005 campaign) was 2002. And 2002 happened to be the year Hunter posted career highs in batting average and slugging percentage. It also happened to be a contract year.
I'm not even really going to attempt to answer the question of whether or not the Twins should trade Hunter this July. That will be an issue worth tackling a bit further down the road. Right now, I think it's interesting to just sit back and marvel at Hunter's rare ability to combine great power and run producing ability with an utter lack of patience at the plate. The season Hunter is having brings back memories of successful hackers such as Andre Dawson and Jim Rice from the '80s, which is not bad company at all considering that both are borderline Hall of Famers.
So the next time Hunter comes to the plate following back-to-back walks and goes chopping at that first pitch, don't get frustrated. Patience isn't always a virtue.
Thursday, May 24, 2007
Yesterday's series-clinching 5-3 win over the Rangers was a nail-biter all the way. The Twins scored a run in each of the first three innings and added two in the fifth. This gave them a lead they would never surrender, but the Rangers always seemed just one swing away from tying the game or taking the lead. Boof Bonser struggled to hit his spots throughout the game and needed 101 pitches to work through five innings, but his end results were good once again. He picked up his third win in May, finishing with a line of: 5 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 6 K, 2 BB.
Bonser hasn't been in the big leagues for long, but already I'm starting to get the sense that he's the type of pitcher that will struggle a bit in the early going and then get better and better as he picks up steam. Last year, Bonser struggled a little bit during his first couple months in the majors, posting a 5.30 ERA over his first seven starts before being sent back down to Rochester for a bit. But he pitched very well down the stretch, posting a 3.62 ERA after returning to the Twins in August, including a September in which he went 4-1 with a 2.63 ERA.
This year, Bonser was roughed up in his first few starts and held a 6.89 ERA on April 15. Since then, he has posted a 2.70 ERA in seven starts and the Twins have won six of those games.
The one area where I'd really like to see Bonser improve is in his ability to pitch deep into ballgames. While Bonser's overall numbers are good (now 3-1 with a 3.88 ERA) and he's among the league leaders in strikeouts, he's averaged less than 5 2/3 innings per outing so far and has completed seven frames just twice in ten starts. With Ortiz and Silva already giving the bullpen plenty of work, you'd like to see Bonser step up pitch deeper into these games.
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Morneau provided almost all the Twins' offense with two home runs and five RBI. In the fourth, he hit a two-run homer to give the Twins the lead and in the following inning, he hit a three-run blast to push the Twins' lead to four runs. With the two big home runs, Morneau is second in the AL for homers with 13 to go along with 32 RBI and he now has a very good .285/.362/.570 line that in some ways feels more impressive than what he did last year. At this point in May last year, Morneau looked like he might have a trip back to Triple-A in his future, but this year, he is now continuing to establish himself as one of the premier sluggers in the AL.
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Silva got the start against the Rangers yesterday in a game the Twins ended up losing 14-4. He lasted just 4 1/3 innings while giving up nine hits and seven earned runs. His ERA rose to 4.47 and his record dropped to 2-5. After Silva came out of the game, rookie Julio DePaula very well may have earned his ticket back to Rochester, putting the game well out of reach with an atrocious outing. DePaula was shelled for seven runs (six earned) on six hits and three walks in just one inning. Silva and DePaula combined to let in 14 runs on 15 hits, three walks and three home runs.
It is becoming increasingly evident that the Twins cannot be a winning ballclub if they continue to start Ortiz and Silva in 40 percent of their games. I wrote recently that Silva's early success seemed somewhat sustainable and I maintain that he could probably be a serviceable No. 5 pitcher in this rotation, but when coupled with Ortiz his struggles become magnified. Meanwhile, Kevin Slowey holds a 1.76 ERA down in Triple-A and Glen Perkins (who will be out for a couple weeks after injuring a muscle last night) has posted a 3.80 out of the Twins' bullpen. There's no guarantee that either of these pitchers would be able to step into the Twins' rotation and light the world on fire, and even if they did there's no guarantee that the Twins would become a competitive team because they play in such a difficult division and because their offense has proven to be so dreadfully inconsistent. Yet, installing a Slowey or a Perkins would at least give fans a promising young player to get excited about watching every five days. Right now, it's becoming difficult to look forward to games started by Ortiz and Silva which have almost literally become guaranteed losses.
Monday, May 21, 2007
My weekend in Milwaukee was a lot of fun. I only attended one of the three games (Saturday night's), but I think it was the best one. I've got a lot of thoughts on the weekend's series, so I'll get right to them in the classic bullet-point format.
* Mr. Mosvick and I were highly critical of the Twins' decision to sign Ortiz in the offseason, and some readers commented that they thought we were being overly harsh. While Ortiz got off to a fast start in April, a few people popped up in the comments section to give us some grief for our doomsday predictions about the enthusiastic 33-year-old right-hander. The whole time, I responded by saying that I was happy and pleasantly surprised by the way he was pitching, but that by no means was I expecting the facade to last. His slate of starts during the month of May have shown exactly why I elected to reserve my optimism.
Ortiz was awful yesterday. He managed to putter his way through the first four innings with only two runs allowed, but he was treading a very dangerous line by allowing seven baserunners during that span and recording just two strikeouts. In the fifth inning, the Brewers finally got to Ortiz, picking up a pair of singles before Geoff Jenkins smashed a three-run homer to center field to tie the game at 5.
After stringing together five straight quality starts in April, Ortiz has dropped off a cliff in the month of May. In four starts this month, he has seen his ERA jump from 2.57 to 5.36 while his opponent's batting average has rocketed from .217 to .282. Ortiz has allowed 20 earned runs on 30 hits over 15 1/3 May innings, numbers that are nothing short of atrocious.
The Ortiz we're seeing right now is probably the one we should get accustomed to. As nice as his production over the first month of the season was, the Twins really need to start looking at the possibility of cutting bait on him. I say this not because I'm overreacting to a poor stretch of four starts, but because the way Ortiz has pitched over the past four games is pretty much in line with the way he's pitched over the past two seasons. He isn't giving the team a legitimate chance to win when he takes the hill, and that's unacceptable with the number of guys lined up to replace him. I realize that the Twins are none too eager to bring up Kevin Slowey or Matt Garza right now; one temporary solution would be swapping Ortiz and Matt Guerrier's roles on the pitching staff.
* For much of the early part of the season, there was a sentiment from many Twins fans (including my colleague here at NNTB) that Jason Bartlett and Nick Punto should swap places in the Twins' lineup, with Bartlett moving up to the No. 2 spot with Punto sliding down to the bottom of the order. While I was never expressly opposed to this idea, my opinion was that having them switch places wouldn't make a whole lot of difference. Those people got their wish about a week ago when Ron Gardenhire finally made the switch. Bartlett didn't respond particularly well, and yesterday he found himself back at the bottom of the order with Punto again batting second.
The fact of the matter is that these two have been equally bad and they are pretty much interchangeable at this point. I tend to think that Punto is a slightly better candidate for the 2-hole simply because he works the count more and is a better bunter, but both players have been extremely unproductive offensively. Bartlett is batting .240/.329/.295, while Punto is sporting a very similar .241/.323/.305 line. Of course, Punto takes a lot more heat because he plays third base, which I think is a tad ridiculous, but there's no way around the fact that both of these guys need to pick up the pace.
* Friday and Saturday night's victories marked the first time the Twins have won consecutive ballgames since late April, a span of three weeks.
* Aside from Ortiz, the other goat in Sunday's game was Dennys Reyes, who took the loss. Reyes allowed the go-ahead run to come across in the seventh inning when he gave up a pair of hits (both by left-handers) and threw a wild pitch. He now holds a 6.57 ERA and .367 OBA. It wasn't fair to expect Reyes to be as good as he was last season, but he has been absolutely horrendous this year. At the very least, I'd expect him to suppress lefties and avoid walks, but he's done neither of those things this year. Southpaws are raking to the tune of .370 against him, and he's issued nine walks over 12 1/3 innings while striking out 10. During those 12 1/3 innings, Reyes has also thrown two wild pitches and committed a costly throwing error. It's starting to look more and more like Triple-A farmhand Ricky Barrett should get a shot as this team's bullpen lefty.
Incidentally, the Associated Press recap of yesterday's game included the following tidbit:
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire was agitated and fidgeting with his sunglasses after the game because he learned that Reyes' throwing shoulder had been bothering him since late April.
"Those are the kinds of things that a manager has to know before the ballgame. I found out after the ballgame," Gardenhire said. "I don't know if that's affecting his throwing, supposedly he's fine to pitch ... (but) all I know is a manager should know about things like that."
In light of the recent events that have transpired with Jesse Crain, this is not good news.
* I was fairly succinct yesterday in my comments about Saturday night's game, so I'd like to go a little bit more in-depth about what Scott Baker was able to do.
I've come across very few people in the blogosphere who have a better grasp of the game of baseball than Ubelmann, who has become a regular contributor at SBG's site and comments on this blog occasionally. Prior to Baker's start on Saturday, Ubelmann wrote an article predicting the type of contributions that can be expected from the young right-hander during his current turn in the Twins' rotation. Ubelmann concluded his analysis with the following paragraph:
So I think Baker’s going to be fine, if he gets a couple breaks in his first few starts, or the team just cuts him a bit of slack. He’s not Liriano, and he’s not going to single-handedly turn the team around. But he should be able to keep the score close and give the bullpen and the sharks a chance to win the game, and every now and then, he ought to turn in a performance that nearly wins the game by itself.I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with this take, and sure enough, Baker delivered a performance on Saturday night that pretty much won the game by itself. Baker was able to keep the ball down in the zone for the most part, as he set a career high by getting 11 ground ball outs, although he did leave a few pitches up which resulted in a pair of homers. Limiting walks and home runs will be the key to Baker's sustained success, and I think he can accomplish both those things if he can consistently keep the ball down in the zone. Of course, that's no secret, and it's something the Twins' coaching staff has vocally advocated each time he's been with the big-league club. Here in his third stint in the majors, it's time for Baker to make the necessary adjustments and prove he belongs.
* I was quite perturbed by the fact that Jason Kubel did not get a single start in this series, despite the fact that the Twins faced two right-handers. I realize that Kubel has struggled this year, but do the Twins really view Lew Ford as a superior option, even against righties? Ford went just 2-for-11 in his three starts.
* I have always spoken very highly of Miller Park, and once again I came away impressed after seeing a game there this weekend. It is just so much better than the Metrodome, and not even solely because the building and environment are nicer. There are a lot of things I really dislike about the 'Dome that don't even relate to its hideous appearance or the fact that it is extremely ill-suited for the sport of baseball.
For instance, I really like how the scoreboards in Miller Park display a pitcher's WHIP and a batter's OPS -- helpful statistics that are completely ignored in the Metrodome. Another vastly superior aspect of Miller Park is the food. The hot dog I bought at the game actually had grill marks on it! Imagine that. It's the little things that can make a sporting event enjoyable, and it seems like the Metrodome seems to mismanage even those, which certainly doesn't help to make up for the fact that it is a lousy stadium in the first place.
* Finally, here are a bunch of pictures from Saturday night's game that my girlfriend snapped on her digital camera.
A view from inside the stadium.
The outfield and scoreboard.
Hunter torques up...
... And follows through on his second-inning homer.
T.C. works his game.
Baker delivers amidst his masterful performance.
Blocked by the blond lady's head in this picture is Randall Simon, who was preparing to take a swing at the green-hatted sausage.
A view of the sell-out crowd.
The Twins celebrate the victory.
Sunday, May 20, 2007
1) What's gotten into Scott Baker?
In the first inning of last night's game, Baker gave up a solo home run to J.J. Hardy. In the ninth inning, he gave up a solo home run to Bill Hall. Between those two pitches, Baker was absolutely phenomenal. He finished the game with a line of 8.1 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 5 K. It seemed like a statement game from Baker, who, because of his horrible performance in 2006, was almost an afterthought coming into the season despite being just 25 years old. I've taught myself not to get too caught up in a good outing from Baker after his inconsistency last year, but there were several encouraging signs in last night's game. His control was excellent, as evidenced his ability to throw 71 of his 96 pitches for strikes and not issue a single free pass. He was economical and entered the ninth inning with a pitch count under 90. He seemed to get stronger as the game went on. Baker's previous career high for innings in a game was seven; last night he looked like he might go the distance before he allowed the ninth-inning homer and left game to a standing ovation from the numerous Twins' fans in attendance. The key for Baker will be to carry this success over into his next start.
2) When are opposing pitchers going to stop throwing meat-balls to Torii Hunter on the first pitch?
On Friday night, Hunter came up with a bases loaded in a 1-1 game, and Chris Capuano tossed a beach-ball over the middle of the plate on the first pitch which Hunter turned on for a game-breaking grand slam. Last night, when Hunter came up to the plate in the second inning against Brewers starter Dave Bush, he received another first-pitch gift and he drilled it into right-center field for a two-run homer that gave the Twins a lead they would never relinquish. Hunter is batting .414 with an .828 slugging percentage when he puts the ball in play on a 0-0 count. I'm surprised pitchers are willing to throw the ball anywhere near the strike zone in the first pitch of an at-bat against him.
3) How crappy are retractable roofs?
Last night's game provided a perfect example of one reason why I'm glad the Twins' new stadium will not have a retractable roof. There were some looming clouds before the game began, so they opted to close the roof. Granted, it did rain for what I'm guessing was about 20-30 minutes during the game, but for the most part it was a beautiful night to watch a game outdoors. Instead the roof was closed for the entire game. I'm a fan of Miller Park, but there's no doubt that the atmosphere is much better with the roof open. It's been closed for the last two games I've seen at the stadium, despite the fact that it could have easily been open for both.
4) Can the Twins switch to the National League?
Why not follow the path of the Brewers? The Twins have owned NL opponents, as they have now won 12 straight interleague games. They might be more well suited for the National League anyway, since their pitchers could probably provide more offensive production than their designated hitters.
Saturday, May 19, 2007
Bonser was outstanding, setting a career high for strikeouts with 11 over seven innings of work, while allowing just one run on three hits and a walk. Bonser is now 2-1 with a 3.91 ERA and .246 BAA. Bonser has looked like a very solid No. 2 starter up until this point, and his K/9 rate of 9.95 is simply outstanding.
Tonight Scott Baker makes his first start of the season against Dave Bush, and I'll be in attendance at Miller Park. I hope to be back with a full report tomorrow or Monday on all the action.
Friday, May 18, 2007
The next few series aren't "must-sweeps," and in fact they're not really even "must-wins." But if the Twins go into Cleveland and Milwaukee and get utterly dominated, it's going to be time to step back and consider whether or not this is a team that can really compete for a postseason spot.I said that on Tuesday, when previewing the Twins' series with the Indians. Three days later, the Twins don't have a sweep, or a series victory. In fact, they were completely and utterly dominated in Cleveland. The Indians outscored the Twins 25-8 on their way to a comfortable three-game sweep at Jacobs Field, where the Tribe now holds an extremely impressive 14-3 record. Whatever offensive momentum was generated by their 16-run outburst on Sunday night quickly died off for the Twins, as they managed just one run in two games after scoring seven times in a blowout loss on Tuesday night. All the ineptitude culminated yesterday afternoon in a 2-0 loss.
In his previous start against the Twins this year, Fausto Carmona set a career high for innings pitched in a game, delivering 7 2/3 frames of two-run ball as he defeated Johan Santana 5-3 at the Metrodome. Yesterday, Carmona did himself one better, tossing a complete-game shutout. In nine innings, he allowed four hits and two walks while striking out four. The Twins had only one extra-base hit, a double by Justin Morneau, but they did manage to get six at-bats with a runner in scoring position. Obviously, they went hitless in those opportunities. Carmona induced 19 ground ball outs, as opposed to just four fly balls and four strike outs.
For his part, Santana was on his game. He plowed through the first six innings, allowing just two hits and allowing just one runner to move past first base while striking out nine. Santana started out the seventh inning by allowing back-to-back solo home runs by Victor Martinez and Ryan Garko, and sadly, that put the game out of reach for the Twins. Santana now holds a 3.26 ERA, a .228 opponent's batting average, and a 4-4 record.
I'm actually having a fairly difficult time comprehending how the Twins' offense can be this bad. The struggles are nothing new to fans who have followed the Twins for even the last few years; the 2005 squad had similar difficulty scoring runs. Yet, with that team the offensive impotence was somewhat understandable. Joe Mauer was in his first full season after the knee injury in '04, Justin Morneau was struggling in his sophomore campaign, Jason Bartlett was taking his first regular lumps at the majors, and the team lacked a true lead-off hitter with an aging Shannon Stewart posting a .274 AVG and .323 OBP out of that spot. The team lacked a second baseman and Jason Kubel was out for the year after shredding up his knee the previous autumn. This year, the Twins seemingly had the pieces in place to be at the very least a middle-of-the-pack offensive club. Morneau figured things out and surprisingly captured the MVP award in '06, Bartlett seemed to have found his major-league stroke, Mauer had become one of the best pure hitters in the league, Michael Cuddyer had a break-out year and stepped up as a legitimate cleanup hitter, and Luis Castillo has provided a true lead-off man.
Yet, the Twins have struggled to score more than a couple runs per game on a remotely consistent basis. They have amassed three or fewer runs in nine of their 14 games this month, and not surprisingly they have gone 1-8 in those games.
One of the central issues with the Twins' lineup this year has been the lack of production from Bartlett and Nick Punto. I think most people expected these two players to regress somewhat from the outstanding performances they had last year, but both have fallen off a cliff. Punto currently sports a .625 OPS (.725 last year), while Bartlett is at .637 (.760 last year). These two were major catalysts in the team's dramatic turnaround last season, but so far this year their performances haven't been significantly better than the April and May performances put forth by Tony Batista and Juan Castro last year. I think this offense has a chance to turn things around and start scoring some runs, but much of that will depend on the ability of Bartlett and Punto (as well as Jason Kubel) to start hitting like they're capable of, because the rest of this lineup -- with the exception of the black hole at DH -- has been more than satisfactory thus far.
With Mr. Mosvick vacationing in Virginia for the next few days, I will hopefully be taking over blogging duties for the weekend. I'm departing for Milwaukee this afternoon, where I'll be taking in Saturday night's Twins/Brewers contest at Miller Park (drop a line if you'll be there). Hopefully I'll have Internet access in my hotel; if not, I'll have a full recap when I come back on Sunday.
Also, make sure to check out the latest edition of Jeff Straub's Podcast for the Minnesota Twins Fan Network, in which I make one of my frequent appearances for a lengthy interview.
Thursday, May 17, 2007
However, as I've said in recent posts, the offensive ineptitude really isn't news to anyone paying attention. Instead, the new development is with struggling pitchers. In Tuesday night's game, it was Ramon Ortiz who struggled, lasting only one inning. Last night, it was Carlos Silva. Silva did pitch six innings, but he also gave up five runs, seven hits, and walked three while only striking out two.
Silva didn't give up too many hits, at least by his standards, but his control was not great at all and ten base-runners is simply too many to comfortably allow against the Cleveland Indians offense. His ERA is still good at 3.56, but this was really Silva's first truly bad start of 2007.
Worse than Silva, though, was Dennys Reyes, who continued to provide evidence that his 2006 season was a giant fluke. If Silva had little control, Reyes had no concept of a strike zone. After entering in the seventh, he quickly gave up a hit and two walks before getting two outs, giving up a run, and giving up the mound to Pat Neshek. True, a 6.00 ERA in May isn't death for a reliever, but he has walked 9 batters in 12 innings while giving up 16 hits, giving him a terrible 2.08 WHIP. He still has struck out 10 hitters, but thats nothing new for Reyes' career. He has a career 1.63 K/BB ratio and a 1.43 K/BB ratio this year.
In 2005, Reyes posted a 35/32 K/BB ratio in 43 2/3 innings and in 2002, it was 59/45 in 82 2/3 innings. In other words, it would certainly seem that the old Reyes has returned. If that's the truth, the Twins need to be worried and need to consider making a move to bring up a guy like Ricky Barrett.
Lastly in bad pitching news, Jesse Crain's diagnosis appears to be very bad. In his post-game news conference, Ron Gardenhire noted that a doctor had diagnosed Crain with a torn labrum and a torn rotator cuff. The Twins will seek a second opinion, but regardless, Crain will not be out for only 15 days. In fact, it's likely that he'll now join Francisco Liriano in sitting out the seaon after surgery. If you recall, Brad Radke had a very similar injury and generally, it takes a year or more to return from such surgery.
As mentioned in my last post, Crain's loss is not the worst thing that can happen to the Twins, but it certainly creates a void in their bullpen, which has been key to almost all the success they've had this year. Despite Jorge DePaula's scoreless inning major-league debut, replacing a good Crain will be difficult.
The best news for the Twins? Today, Johan Santana is on the mound, giving the Twins the best chance they've had to win all series. Too bad they go up against Fausto Carmona, who's pretty hot right now. Hopefully, the Twins' bad luck leaves with me, as I take off to vacation in Virginia for a few days. Mr. Nelson should take over posting, unless he cannot secure a hard-line in Brewerville. In that case, I may have to return sooner.
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
The ebb and flow of the season for the Twins has not been very kind. They started off the season well enough, with the help of a friendly schedule, but since then the offense has hit a wall, Joe Mauer has gotten hurt, and Sidney Ponson was bad enough to get released. Ortiz's May has been very symbolic of these struggles. In April, Ortiz had a sparkling 2.57 ERA. In May? 16 runs (15 earned) allowed over 11 innings.
The difference is night and day, at least for a normal pitcher. However, with Ortiz, it really isn't much of a surprise. He's spent his career having a few great starts or a great month before being absolutely terrible the next month. Take 2004. That June, he was 2-1 with a 1.16 ERA and a .152 OBA. Then in July he went 0-1 with a 2.92 ERA and a .195 OBA. Very good numbers, but in August, Ortiz had a 5.84 ERA and allowed 50 hits in 37 innings for a .331 OBA. (By the way, if your wondering why I went back to 2004, its because he really didn't have any standout months in 2005 or 2006, as he never had an ERA below 4 in any month during the 2005 and 2006 seasons in which he had more than one start.)
With that, Twins fans shouldn't expect Ortiz to have a drastic turnaround too soon. As LaVelle E. Neal III notes on his blog, "the Washington writers warned me that (Ortiz) will have four good starts and then four awful ones. And tonight’s was awful." That would mean Ortiz's next start, scheduled against the Brewers on Sunday, might not be so great. That seems like a good prediction, considering how good the Brewers offense has been this year. (For those not paying attention, Prince Fielder and J.J. Hardy are tied for the NL lead in home runs with 12 apiece.) Hopefully Ortiz makes some adjustments, but his pitches had awful location during his only inning yesterday and he has looked all-too hittable in his last few starts.
As for Crain, a DL stint bodes badly for the Twins. It leads to a call-up of right-hander Julio DePaula from Triple-A, who holds 3.15 ERA and 10/7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 16 innings. DePaula has been a pretty good pitcher in his minor-league career, but his lack of dominance doesn't exactly predict immediate success at the major-league level. Crain going on the DL also hurts the Twins' chances of making a trade for offense by utilizing one of their right-hander relievers. Furthermore, the fact that Crain's ailment has been described as a "recurring shoulder injury" is always a bad sign. Once shoulder injuries start, for many, they don't end very quickly. Crain isn't an absolutely necessary piece of the bullpen like Joe Nathan, but when he's pitching at his best, Crain is very useful.
As for the offense, the main contributors leave only one surprise: Jason Kubel. Kubel, who for most of the year has struggled, hit his first home run of the year and went 2-for-4 to raise his batting line to .265/.311/.372. Kubel has eight hits in his last 21 at-bats, good for a .348 average. If Kubel keeps getting consistent at-bats, he may very soon start to show everyone what kind of hitter he can be.
Otherwise, Michael Cuddyer went 2-for-5 with a two-run home run in the first while Justin Morneau continued his recent hot streak, hitting two home runs to put him behind only Alex Rodriguez for the AL lead with 11 home runs. Morneau currently has a .281/.365/.568, showing both impressive power and patience, and making perhaps a more lethal offensive weapon than he was last year. Lastly, recent call-up Garrett Jones made his major-league debut, going 1-for-3 with a walk.
Today, Carlos Silva will take the mound against Twins-hater C.C. Sabathia. Sabathia was awful in his last start, but he also has 58 Ks in 53 2/3 innings this year and almost always does well against the Twins. With the offense starting to come around, the pressure will be on Silva to produce another quality start and give the bullpen some rest after last night's pitching breakdown.
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
The Indians have been outstanding this year, boasting a 21-14 record which places them second in the AL Central behind the Tigers. Most would agree that Indians underperformed last year, largely because their bullpen frequently struggled to hold leads. That 'pen has shown marked improvement this year, which has been a major factor in their terrific play. On the surface, it appears that their new closer Joe Borowski has been a disaster, as he holds a 9.00 ERA and 1.73 WHIP on the season. However, those numbers are a bit misleading. He blew a save against the A's on Sunday when he surrendered four earned runs while recording just two outs; he also had a horrendous outing against the Yankees in mid-April in which he allowed six earned runs over 2/3 of an inning. If you take those two duds out of the equation, Borowski has posted a 3.29 ERA with a 1.17 WHIP to go along 18 strikeouts over 13 and 2/3 innings, and he's racked up 12 saves on the season. Meanwhile, the rest of the bullpen has been quite good. Fernando Cabrera, who struggled quite a bit last season, holds a 3.24 ERA and 24/6 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 16 2/3 innings. Tom Mastny has posted a 3.31 ERA and with 15 strikeouts and two walks over 16 and 1/3 innings. Rafael Betancourt has posted a 2.45 ERA and has issued just one walk over 14 2/3 innings. Former Twin and lefty specialist Aaron Fultz has held southpaws to a .130 batting average while posting a 2.25 ERA over 12 1/3 innings.
Meanwhile, the offense has been solid. The Indians are averaging 5.29 runs per game (compared to 4.51 for the Twins); they trail only the Yankees, Red Sox and Tigers in runs scored. Grady Sizemore, who both Mr. Mosvick and myself picked as our AL MVP favorite in our preseason predictions, has cooled off considerably after a hot start and is batting just .238, but he's still drawing plenty of walks (as evidenced by his .381 on-base percentage) and he's 12-for-12 on stolen base attempts. In short, he could give the Twins some trouble. Travis Hafner was a huge pain for the Twins in a two-game series at the Dome earlier this season, when he reached base seven times in 10 plate appearances with a homer and double. Overall, his average and slugging percentage are down a bit from his career levels, but he's clearly still a major threat. Victor Martinez is hitting very well, Ryan Garko has emerged as a very good hitter, and Trot Nixon has done well offensively.
The Indians have been extremely tough to beat at their home park this season, where they are 11-3, and the Twins have not generally played very well lately. All of this would seem to indicate that the Twins have their work cut out for them, but hopefully the offense can pick up where it left off on Sunday and the Twins' arms can hold down the Tribe's powerful offense. A preview of the pitching match-ups:
Tonight: Ramon Ortiz (3-3, 3.80) vs. Paul Byrd (2-1, 2.84)
Both these guys seem to be pitching over their heads. Ortiz entered this season with a 4.85 ERA and 1.42 WHIP; those numbers are currently at 3.80 and 1.11. Byrd entered the season with a 4.32 ERA and 1.31 WHIP; he's currently at 2.84 and 1.29. Byrd has been hittable this year but he's gotten the job done when it's counted. Opposing hitters have batted .411 against him with nobody on base, but just .140 with runners aboard. That's not likely sustainable and it indicates that his ERA is probably artificially low. Left-handed hitters have had some real success against Byrd, batting .313/.374/.478. The 36-year-old right-hander doesn't issue many walks, but that shouldn't be a problem for the Twins' hacktastic lineup. This is a guy the Twins should be able to score some runs against. Look for big games from Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel. Ramon Ortiz is looking to bounce back from back-to-back rough outings. This isn't a great lineup to try and do it against, but I think he'll pitch well enough to win.
Wednesday: Carlos Silva (2-3, 3.00) vs. C.C. Sabathia (5-1, 4.02)
The Twins have been awful against lefties this year, and Sabathia is one who has always given them trouble. In his career against the Twins, Sabathia is 6-4 with a 3.85 ERA in 17 starts. This year, Sabathia has struck out 58 and allowed just 10 walks over 53 and 2/3 innings, but he's also given up nine homers already -- three times as many as Silva. Speaking of Silva, I wrote last Friday about how impressed I've been with the way he's pitched up to this point, but it's tough to see him dominating a lineup filled with tough left-handed hitters like Sizemore, Hafner and Nixon.
Thursday: Johan Santana (4-3, 3.35) vs. Fausto Carmona (4-1, 3.12)
I was infuriated on April 24 when the Twins last faced Carmona and managed just two runs over 7 and 2/3 innings, but the 23-year-old righthander seems to have used that outing as a springboard for success. He entered that start against the Twins with an 0-1 record and a 6.97 ERA, but in three starts since he's gone 3-0 with a 1.61 ERA. The kid is extremely hot right now, while Santana has been good but not amazing. If those trends continue, this could be a tough game for the Twins to win.
Monday, May 14, 2007
In light of Mr. Nelson's Sunday prophecy, the Twins not only released Ponson, but also shuffled the lineup. Jason Bartlett hit second, Michael Cuddyer moved up to the third spot, Justin Morneau batted cleanup in front of Torii Hunter, Jason Kubel hit in the sixth spot, and Nick Punto dropped to the number nine spot.
Was this the reason for the Twins 22-hit, 16-run outburst? It may have had something to do with it. Moving Bartlett up has always seemed reasonably, as he makes for a solid number two hitter. Moving Punto down isn't a bad move, as he is struggling with his average while he maintains the best discipline of active Twins. (Joe Mauer has shown better plate discipline, but by numbers, Punto has more walks and a higher Isolated Discipline of .094, just a tick above Mauer's .093).
However, moving Cuddyer to the third spot was most interesting and it seemed to play out well. Torii Hunter needs to be in a spot where he can swing away and drive in some runs and the fifth spot is a good position for that. Though Cuddyer doesn't have the patience or power of Mauer or Morneau, he is well suited to replace Mauer while he is out. The Twins do best having Morneau's big bat in the cleanup spot, so this might be a move Ron Gardenhire wants to stick with for the time being.
After all, the 3-4-5 of Cuddyer, Morneau, and Hunter 9-for-16 with 11 RBI and seven runs scored. Of course, Hunter himself had seven RBI on two home runs and a two-run double all by himself. That gives Hunter 29 RBI and a .618 slugging percentage on the year, both impressive feats for him given that he often struggles to start the season.
The best news for the Twins lately, which has gone relatively unnoticed, is that Mike Redmond has been on fire since replacing Mauer as starting catcher. Redmond has hit .500 (13-for-26) in his past seven games and with his first home run since 2005 last night, he's now hitting .307/.351/.409 with 12 RBI. Once again, Redmond is looking like the best backup catcher in baseball. If he can keep up the production in the seventh spot while Mauer remains on the disabled list, Redmond can at least help keep the ship afloat.
Of course, offense was the big story, but not the only story (besides ditching Sir Sid). Boof Bonser wasn't fantastic, as he gave up four runs in five innings while walking three, but he did strike out six to give him 45 on the year while also picking up his first win. It also didn't hurt that after a shaky past couple games, the bullpen pitched four scoreless innings, with Matt Guerrier, Pat Neshek, and Joe Nathan giving up two hits and striking out six in those four frames.
With an off day today, the Twins prepare to start a series with the Indians tomorrow night. Hopefully, the 16 runs they scored against the Tigers can serve as a catalyst as they go up against another good offense with a sloppy bullpen (Joe Borowski anyone?).
Sunday, May 13, 2007
I predicted a third-place finish this year and I've always viewed 2007 seaosn as something of a transitional one, so I'm not entirely surprised to see the Twins lagging behind in this tough division. With that said, this team is just painful to watch right now. They need to make some changes to give fans the appearance that they are at least attempting to win. The first step would be to get rid of Ponson. Glen Perkins pitched four innings in relief of Ponson yesterday, a sign that perhaps the rookie lefthander is being stretched out for possible insertion into the rotation. Perkins has a 3.26 ERA and opponents are batting just .246 against him, he would almost undoubtedly provide an immediate upgrade at the back end of the Twins' rotation. The Twins also need to make some sort of changes on offense, although Ron Gardenhire's options are obviously limited because of the players he has. Shaking up the lineup, or perhaps call up of a Garrett Jones or a Matt Tolbert from Triple-A, would at least be something.
The Twins aren't as good as the Tigers. But they're also not as bad as they've played lately. They need to find a way to prove that.
Saturday, May 12, 2007
Last night, the Twins gave away a good Santana start in a 7-3 defeat, as the Tigers handed him his third loss of the year. Santana struck out six and gave up six hits in six innings for another quality start, but the Twins offense couldn't put much together against Mike Maroth, despite getting nine hits off of the Detroit starter.
What happened? A few Twins hitters came up short when the Twins needed them most. Six runners were left in scoring position with two outs, including two by Torii Hunter. Hunter, who ended his 23-game hitting streak Thursday, is 2-for-17 in his last four games and last night things didn't go well at all for him, as he left five men on and grounded into a double play that nearly killed a big scoring chance in the first.
Of course, it wasn't all Hunter's fault, as Nick Punto and Jason Kubel also came up empty. Good thing for Kubel he made two good catches during the game or he might have made another big step toward the bench (or the minors). In the middle of all this offensive ineptitude, Justin Morneau had a good night, going 2-for-4 with a triple and a two-run home run in the bottom of the eighth to bring the Twins within two before Juan Rincon returned the four-run lead to the Tigers in the next half-inning.
Since the offensive struggles are nothing new, the most worrisome aspect of last night's game had to be the performance of the bullpen. In three innings between Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Rincon, and Dennys Reyes, the bullpen gave up seven hits and five runs while walking three and striking out only one. Those are some awful numbers, so it's a good thing that Joe Nathan and Pat Neshek weren't involved. However, if the bullpen starts to become less trustworthy, Twins fans will only have another reason to worry about the near future of this team.
Likewise, today's game probably won't make any Twins fans feel any better, with Sidney Ponson sadly getting another start, even though this team is now below .500 after last night's loss. Lets just hope this is the last one for Ponson.
Friday, May 11, 2007
Like many fans, I wasn't a big fan of the Twins' decision to pick up Silva's 2007 option following his disastrous '06 campaign. He was arguably the worst starting pitcher in the American League last year, and the way he was hammered in Spring Training did little to encourage fans that he was on his way back to 2005 form. Yet, much to my bewilderment, Silva has been the Twins' most consistent starting pitcher through the first six weeks of the season. Boof Bonser got off to a slow start and has struggled with his control, Ramon Ortiz has apparently begun to revert to his more recognizable form, Sidney Ponson has been fairly awful, and even the great Johan Santana has seen some ups and downs. But through it all, Silva has given the team a chance to win every time he's gone out. In seven starts, he has yet to allow more than three runs in a game, and yesterday he picked up his fourth Quality Start by going six innings and allowing three runs.
Silva's overall numbers on the season aren't overly impressive, but they do give some encouraging signs. Even though he didn't record a strikeout yesterday, he is averaging 4.3 K/9 IP, which is not necessarily great but is definitely a step up from the rates he's posted in his three previous seasons with the Twins (3.37 in '04, 3.39 in '05, 3.49 in '06). Opponents are batting .285 against Silva, which again isn't outstanding but is much closer to the number he posted in his great 2005 season (.290) than in his miserable 2006 season (.324).
The largest and most interesting change in Silva's game so far this year is that he is no longer relying on ground balls to get outs. Yesterday Silva put together a solid start despite getting more outs in the air (9) than on the ground (8), and that's not exactly out of the ordinary for him this year. His ground ball-to-fly ball ratio on the season now stands almost even at 62-to-54 (good for a 1.20 ratio). That's even lower than his ratio from last season (1.29) and down considerably from the rates he posted in 2004 (1.58) and 2005 (1.55). It also worth noting that while Silva was once heavily reliant on forcing opponents to ground into double plays -- he did it 28 times in '04 and 34 times in '05 -- yet that no longer seems to be a significant part of his game. Last season he induced just 16 ground ball double plays, and so far this year he's induced just four.
So while he's not allowing hits at an insane rate, Silva's peripherals look a whole lot more like the deplorable 2006 version than the successful 2005 version. And yet, the results have been very good. What is he doing differently? From my perspective, it seems that Silva is working outside of the strike zone more. It seems he has come to terms with the fact that his sinker just isn't as effective as it was in 2005. Last year, Silva didn't adjust for this issue and he continued pumping the ball into the strike zone constantly, which was basically just batting practice for opposing lineups. This year, he's worked on improving his change-up and he's pitching outside of the zone more. As a result, he's racking up much higher pitch counts and his 2.14 BB/9 rate -- while not bad -- is considerably higher than any he's posted in his previous three seasons with the Twins. At the same time, he's causing opposing hitters to miss more often and he's not giving up home runs at a ridiculous rate. Because of these factors, I think that Silva's success may be sustainable even though some of his peripherals would suggest that it's not.
Sometimes, when your team is playing as poorly as the Twins are right now, you have to look for some positives so as not to get too depressed. I think the way Silva has been pitching so far this year has to be seen as a major positive. And while the Twins didn't even resemble a major-league offense in getting shut out on 98 pitches by Jose Contreras yesterday, Silva went out and pitched a pretty good ballgame for the seventh time this season. Unfortunately, for the second time in those seven outings, his impressive work against the White Sox will go into the books as a loss because his offense could not provide a single run in support.
Thursday, May 10, 2007
They scored three runs, sure, but they all came late in the game and two of them were scored thanks to a Juan Uribe throwing error. They managed six hits but they were also no-hit by White Sox starter John Danks for the first four innings of the game. This despite the fact they put on a total of 12 baserunners, by walking six times.
Specifically, Justin Morneau looked terrible against Boone Logan last night, swinging pathetically at three curveballs with two on in the bottom of the eigth and chance to tie. Even worse was Jason Kubel, who killed any momentum the Twins had in the ninth after two walks, as he struck out against closer Bobby Jenks on three pitches. Kubel continues to look absolutely lost at the plate and he hasn't shown much recently to make me believe he's coming out of a slump. How long of a string should the Twins give Kubel? Considering that Josh Rabe is a worse hitter than Kubel is, even right now, the options remain slim.
Considering how weak the White Sox are right now, there isn't much excuse. Yes, they are 15-16, but Jim Thome is on the DL, Jermaine Dye is hitting .208 and Paul Konerko is hitting .209. In fact, no hitter in the Sox lineup last night ended the night hitting above .270. You have to question a lineup's strength when the hitter with the best average is Darin Erstad. Even with the nine hits last night, this is a team that has batted .218 when you factor out Thome's .340 average.
To be fair, the White Sox did come into the game with a 3.97 ERA for their pitching staff, but the rookie Danks also came in as their worst starter with a 5.02 ERA and an 0-4 record on the season. Taking into account both of these factors, the Twins should have been able to give themselves a chance. But both their hitting and pitching did not come through. The fact that they were so pathetic with the bats wasn't much of a surprise, seeing as how Danks happens to throw with his left hand.
The only real surprise was Ramon Ortiz, but it's really only a shocker considering his numbers so far this year. At some point, the bubble had to burst. Ortiz just isn't good enough to be posting anything close to a 2.57 ERA throughout a whole year. Sure, occurrences like a two-run bases-loaded broken bat single aren't reason to think Ortiz is terrible, but he also has allowed 10 runs in his last 10 innings, 9 earned. None of that is encouraging. Neither is his career low 3.6 K/9 ratio.
Is Ortiz going to end up putting up a 5.57 ERA like he did last year? That would seem a little bit harsh of a reaction to what has happened in his last two starts, but the ERA is likely going to be steadily increasing. The only truly encouraging thing that happened last night was the defensive gem of a play by Torii Hunter that probably won him another Gold Glove.
Today, the other surprise starter Carlos Silva takes the mound against Jose Contreras, who is now the worst White Sox starter after the Twins couldn't hit Danks. Contreras has a fairly high ERA at 4.88, largely due by his terrible 17/16 K/BB ratio. That means the Twins will have to be patient, but if it goes anything like last night, they will get the runners on and fail to bring them in. With that, things don't sound encouraging, but let's just Morneau has another big home run in him. He certainly didn't last night
Wednesday, May 09, 2007
Despite Hunter and Morneau's heroics, I think the real story of this game was the fact that Ron Gardenhire flat-out out-managed Ozzie Guillen. I've long felt that Guillen is the most overrated manager in all of baseball, still living off his team's 2005 World Series championship and receiving little national criticism for the fact that his team is grossly underperforming. Guillen did nothing but confirm my perceptions last night, as he made some truly boneheaded decisions late in the game that helped his team to a loss.
Guillen's first mistake came in after the seventh inning, when he elected to remove starting pitcher Javier Vazquez from the game. Like most mediocre starters the Twins have faced lately, Vazquez was cruising, having allowed just four hits and a walk with seven strikeouts through seven innings with the only damage coming on Morneau's solo homer. Unfortunately for the White Sox, Vazquez had thrown 107 pitches through those seven innings, and since 100 pitches seems to be the magic number for starting pitchers these days, Guillen decided to pull him. It was a bad decision that ended up hurting the team, but it was also a move that most major-league managers probably would have made so one can't hold it against him too much.
Guillen's bullpen management following Vazquez's removal, however, is indefensible. As usual, Guillen went through his relievers at a ridiculous rate, using five pitchers after pulling Vazquez. Only one of those relievers recorded more than one out. In the end, this left the White Sox with no southpaw to bring in against Morneau in the tenth.
Some of Guillen's in-game decisions were also bizarre. In the ninth inning, he elected to intentionally walk Nick Punto (who entered the game batting .229/.308/.314 and hitless in his last nine at-bats) to get to Jason Bartlett (who entered the game on an eight-game hitting streak and batting .318 over his last 13 games). The move didn't end up hurting Guillen, as Bartlett lined out sharply to right fielder Jermaine Dye to end the inning, but it was the first time Punto has ever been intentionally walked in his career with the Twins and it was certainly an obscure situation in which to do it.
The mistake that did come back to bite Guillen was his decision to intentionally walk Hunter in the tenth. At first blush, it doesn't look like a bad decision; the Twins had a runner in scoring position with one out and Hunter has been raking this season. However, because Guillen had no lefties remaining in his bullpen, putting Hunter on meant that Morneau would get a chance against righthanded reliever with runners on unless Michael Cuddyer hit into a double play. Cuddyer fouled out, and Morneau came to the plate and mashed a game-winning homer into the upper-deck off Nick Masset.
While Guillen baffled me with some dubious decision-making, Gardenhire made some smart choices that may have made the victory possible.
The move that most impressed me was Gardy's decision to send out Joe Nathan for the ninth inning in a tie game. In the past, the Twins' manager has shown a reluctance to use Nathan in anything other and than a save situation, and in home games that go to extra innings he has kept Nathan in the 'pen for later use while allowing lesser relievers to blow the game. Last night, Gardy seemed to have learned his lesson. When the Twins tied the game in the bottom of the eighth and set themselves up for an extra-innings affair, Gardenhire did precisely what a manager should do in such a situation: he began using his relievers in descending order of quality. Basically, here's what I'm saying: when a game gets into an extra-innings situation, the bullpen's job is to keep the opposing team from scoring for as long as possible until the offense can score a run and win the game. In order to accomplish this task, it makes sense to use your best relievers first. In the past, Gardenhire has not seemingly realized this, as he would go to pitchers like Jesse Crain or Matt Guerrier in order to save the closer and set-up men for later innings that often never materialized. Last night, Gardy sent out Nathan to take care of the ninth (which he did, with a 1-2-3 inning) and then sent out arguably his second-best reliever in Juan Rincon to take care of the tenth (which he did, pitching around a walk to take care of business). In the tenth inning, Gardenhire had his next-best reliever, Pat Neshek, warming up and ready to take over for Rincon if needed. This is the correct way to manage your bullpen in an extra-inning affair, and hopefully something Gardenhire will continue to do in the future.
Because Gardenhire didn't send out Crain to surrender a home run or Dennys Reyes to litter the bases with runners, the game made it to the tenth inning and Morneau was able to put an end to it. And while the offense was still far from effective (their performance against Vazquez was in fact quite pitiful) and Boof Bonser was a bit shaky despite some solid overall numbers, the Twins were able to come away with a victory and now have a good shot at clinching the series tonight with Ramon Ortiz taking the hill against the 0-4 rookie John Danks.
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
Mauer is going to missed big-time with the upcoming series against White Sox, Tigers, Indians, Brewers, and most likely the Rangers, if not the late May series against the Blue Jays. The Rangers and Blue Jays are losing teams right now, but either one could easily give the Twins trouble. After all, these Twins couldn't hit Jae Seo, Julian Tavarez, or Odalis Perez recently.
Even if the Rangers offense continues to struggle (.241 average right now), they are still hitting with plenty of power. And this is all ignoring the three series that Mauer's absence will hurt the worst: Tigers, Brewers, and Indians. The White Sox are only a .500 team right now, but both the Indians and Brewers are leading their divisions, while the Tigers obviously have been pretty good themselves.
What will it take to win? Other than what my associate suggested yesterday, which is the resurgence of Justin Morneau, is to hope that Micheal Cuddyer has a big month, to hope that Torii Hunter doesn't slow down significantly, and to make some serious moves. After all, the Twins have a lineup going out there that has gone homerless in 183 consecutive plate appearances. What kind of moves? As we have discussed before, Terry Ryan is more than a little cautious when it comes to trades, so it's hard to expect him to trade Scott Baker or a different pitching prospect for the offensive upgrade the Twins desperately need, even if they've been treating Baker recently like a C-grade prospect. At this point, with Baker's stock high and the Twins seemingly unwilling to give him another shot, it would make sense to deal him for a bat.
Obviously, a plan like that would be great for the Twins, but it's probably not going to happen, at least not soon. However, there is a "trade" that Ryan could easily make to improve their chances this month: Sidney Ponson for Baker or Kevin Slowey. The Twins don't really have many teams move to make, since they have no catching prospects ready to replace Mauer and, although Dennys Reyes hasn't been very good this year, Mike Venafro or Ricky Barrett likely wouldn't be better.
However, Baker or Slowey, or even Matt Garza, would certainly be better than Ponson has been thus far. This offseason, when the Twins signed Ponson, my sentiment was that they were screwing around and wasting time they didn't have. The experiment would go on for a while, he wouldn't do so well, and the Twins would lose some games they couldn't afford to lose. That's basically what has happened.
Sure, you could say that Ponson has been good recently (and the Twins certainly have, as Gardy remarked after the game that Ponson "did his job" and that he made "one mistake really ended up costing him," referring to his throwing error), as he's only given up four earned runs in his last 12 innings for a 2.92 ERA. However, even with a low ERA in those innings, Ponson still posted a 1.54 WHIP and .277 OBA, allowing 19 baserunners. Frankly, a 10/6 strikeout-to-walk ratio doesn't bode well and neither does a 22/15 strikeout-to-walk ratio overall.
I have to agree with Aaron Gleeman, who wrote in his post yesterday that the Ponson experiment needed to be ended, as Ponson isn't "fooling anyone" and has allowed 66 baserunners in 33 2/3 innings. That amounts to a 1.87 WHIP, good for worst in the AL and second worst in the bigs next to Anibal Sanchez's 2.07 WHIP. If those numbers don't stand out, then take a lot at the .338/.413/.563 line he's allowed to hitters. When you allow a .563 slugging percentage to opposing hitters, you are doing something wrong.
If the Twins want a chance, they'll have to make this move first. If they did make a move for a hitter, it would be best to try and get a DH with a short contract. We've mentioned Cliff Floyd as an option, but someone like Morgan Ensberg or even Jay Gibbons would help this anemic offense. (They also could have easily gotten Jack Cust if Oakland didn't snatch him up first.) Or, the Twins could make Seth Stohs happy and trade for Chris Coste, who is blocked in the Phillies' minor-league system and would solve the backup catcher dilemma while also providing a part-time DH who might potentially homer once in a while.
Those sound like desperation moves and they are. If the Twins want to stay competitive this month without the great Joe Mauer, desperation is going to have to become a theme for this team.