Friday, August 15, 2008

Still Winning

Over their past three series, the Twins have gone 5-4. That's not a great record when two of the series were against the Mariners and Royals, but here's the bright side: all four games the Twins lost during that span were eminently winnable. In Seattle, the Twins dropped a pair of games after the bullpen blew late leads. The single losses to Kansas City and New York both came in 12-inning affairs. One can fume about the bullpen's ineffectiveness in most of those losses or the team's inability to close out wins, but I think it's a pretty optimistic sign that the Twins were hardly outplayed in any of the losses and -- had they taken care of business -- they quite easily could have gone 8-1 or even 9-0 during that span.

The Twins aren't flashy, but they continue to play well and win. They stepped up to the challenge presented by the Yankees this week, and haven't lost a series at home since early June. Many felt that the Twins' mid-season success was unsustainable, buoyed by fortunately timed hits and starting pitchers performing over their heads. Yet, here they are, just a game out of first place on August 15. And with Francisco Liriano recently joining the rotation and providing a massive upgrade over Livan Hernandez while Delmon Young's bat continues to heat up, these Twins don't seem to be going away. The final six weeks should be very interesting.

Here are some various notes to take you into the weekend:

* Carlos Silva, whom the Twins will face tonight in their series opener against the Mariners, recently ranted to the press about a perceived lack of effort from his teammates. Said Silva (while oddly referring to himself in the third-person):

"Maybe Chief [Silva] has to come and grab somebody in his neck and pin them to the wall," Silva told reporters. "I'm very close to doing that, so write that down.

"Maybe half of the team wants to do the best they can. I can talk about the starting rotation; we want to do our best every time we cross that line, you know?" he said. "But maybe half of the team doesn't have that mentality. They only think to finish strong and to put up the numbers. That's great, but that affects us. As a team, that doesn't work out.

"Instead of moving a runner, they want to get a base hit just because of the numbers. Instead of to get a ground ball, maybe I want to strike him out because of my numbers, you know what I mean? That's what we're doing right now.

"I don't care if we are 40 games behind, we should play better than this."

Silva's accusations are somewhat humorous, considering that as hard as he's supposedly trying he still sports a 4-13 record and 5.93 ERA. But furthermore, it's interesting to note that his brand of leadership involves calling out his teammates publicly rather than airing out complaints internally in the clubhouse. This is a commonality that Silva shares with another supposed clubhouse leader who left the Twins this past offseason -- Torii Hunter.

Hunter, of course, openly complained that other Twins players couldn't play at less than 100 percent, once threw a punch at Justin Morneau, and frequently had quotes in the papers with other veiled shots at his teammates. This type of "leadership" is ineffective and does more harm than good, creating hostility amongst players in the clubhouse.

Even without a clearly defined "team leader," the Twins are still succeeding right now, which is a strong indication that the whole concept is probably overrated. But the team does have quiet leaders -- Morneau, Joe Mauer and Joe Nathan most likely chief among them due to their seniority with the club. And I have not once seen any of these guys come out and complain about their teammates. Instead, they lead by example and if they're airing any grievances, it's happening in the clubhouse and not in the press.

The disruptive brand of leadership offered by players like Hunter and Silva is not missed.

* Considering how many of the Twins' losses this year have come as the result of a bullpen meltdown, what do you think the team's record would be had Pat Neshek remained healthy and effective? This is just a random question and I don't know the answer, but I'd be interested to hear some guesses.

* Adam Everett's recent mini hot streak would seem to have come about with rather ironic timing, seeing as how I spent Monday's post railing on the shortstop and concluding that he should be released post-haste. Prior to sitting out Wednesday's game against the Yankees, Everett had started five consecutive games, going 6-for-17 with a home run and six RBI during that span. Now I'm reading about how Everett is "quickly grabbing hold of the club's starting shortstop job."

The offensive boost has been nice and his run-producing contributions have certainly helped the Twins over the past week, but even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes and I have little doubt that soon enough Everett will revert to the incapable hitter he has been for the entirety of his career. Moreover, I'm not seeing enough of improvement in Everett's defense to make me believe he has any value at shortstop. While Everett has not committed an error since the one that cost the Twins a victory in their series finale against the Royals on Sunday, he continues to look unimpressive defensively at short. His arm continues to be erratic and even when his throws are on-target, they seem to move in slow motion.

Everett is still displaying solid range and getting to a lot of balls, but that doesn't do a whole lot of good when his arm is so weak. While chatting with Aaron Gleeman earlier in the week, he suggested that if Ron Gardenhire must continue writing Everett into the lineup, perhaps he should consider a position switch to second base. There, Everett's range would still be an advantage, and his poor arm would not be as much of a liability. Everett has played shortstop exclusively throughout his career outside of a late-game appearance at second a couple weeks ago, but there might be some merit to the idea of moving him closer to first base.

Of course, I still think the Twins are better off simply replacing him at short with Brendan Harris (829 OPS since July 1).

* After a horrendous start to the season, Jason Kubel went on a tear in May and June to bring his numbers back to respectability. Now, he has seemingly leveled off. At the end of June, Kubel was hitting .263/.324/.466; he currently sports a nearly identical line of .263/.327/.462. During that span, his batting average has never been higher than .267 and has never been lower than .259. His OPS has fluctuated within a 20-point window. All things considered, it seems fair to say that this is the true Jason Kubel.

If that's the case, there's no reason to be dissatisfied. Those are above-average numbers relative to the average AL designated hitter, and he stands as the third-best hitter on the team. Yet, I still believe that Kubel is capable of more. He might finish the season with numbers similar to the ones he has now, but I don't think he's done growing as a hitter. We'll see.

5 comments:

CovetedNOPrizeWinnerWithOakLeafCluster said...

Moving Everett to second, with Harris at shortstop, is a good idea. Compare "rest of year Marcel" projections of Everett and Punto, and you will not see much difference. I would rather play the guy who does not slide head first into first base. I would rather play the infielder who lets the outfielders catch the warning track ball. Everett has more range than Punto, and would certainly be the better second baseman.

Ryan said...

With a healthy Neshek, the Twins probably have around 75 wins.

ca said...

Might be worth taking a look at the Twins' inning scoring stats. These are stats for the entire season, including when Neshek was with the team, so they aren't perfect measures, and the exercise is somewhat crude, but I thought they might be interesting.

Neshek is primarily used in the 8th inning, but he's also seen some fairly significant 7th inning duty. So it's worth looking at blown leads in the 7th and 8th innings.

So far this season, the Twins have started the 7th with a lead 54 times. Of those 7th innings, 1 ended with the game tied and 4 ended with the Twins trailing. So they've blown 5 out out 54 7th inning leads--although that doesn't mean that the lost those particular games, since they could have mounted a comeback.

In the 8th inning this season, the Twins have blown 7 of the 55 leads they've had going into the inning (2 ties, 5 trailing).

It's worth remembering that Neshek was involved in letting two of those leads slip away.

For comparison, in 2007, with a healthy Neshek, the Twins blew 7/61 7th-inning leads and 4/64 8th-inning leads.

So, with about 6 weeks left in the 2008 season, the Twins have blown two fewer 7th-inning leads, but already have blown 3 more 8th-inning leads than in all of 2007.

Getting down to guessing. I couldn't expect that a healthy Neshek would have prevented every blown lead this season, but my guess is that the Twins would be three or four games better if he were available.

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