Thursday, July 31, 2008
Had the Twins scored a few runs against Gavin Floyd, one might have tried to argue that Hernandez "kept the Twins in the game," but with the offense's punchless performance, there's no way to look at Hernandez's outing as anything other than it truly was: an awful performance. And such outings haven't been particularly rare for him this season.
In just four innings last night, Hernandez allowed 11 base-runners (one of which, in fairness, was an intentional walk). He surrendered nine hits, raising his opponents' batting average to .341 for the season, and was uncharacteristically inefficient with his pitch count, needing 80 pitches to get through four frames. The poor outing came in a game that the Twin really would have liked to win against a contending divisional rival, and also came in the aftermath of a brilliant start by one young starter and a solid start by another one. In other words, there is little excusing last night's pitiful performance from Hernandez, a veteran who should be expected to come through for the Twins on nights like this. Instead of giving the team a legitimate chance to win and move into first place, Hernandez turned in his shortest outing since June 12 and suffered his team-leading eighth loss. The Twins will now have to count on Scott Baker to help them win tonight's finale, and in doing so avoid making no progress against the division leaders in this series despite having won the first two games in exciting fashion.
The trade deadline falls at 3 p.m. this afternoon. As I've stated before, I don't expect the Twins to make any type of significant move to bring in outside talent, and that's alright with me. In my mind, the most important trade the Twins can make right now is swapping the utterly hittable Hernandez out of the rotation in favor of Liriano.
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
At the same time, there can be nothing wrong with basking in the glow of immediate returns in short term as long as the basic principles of sustainability are kept in the background. With that in mind, its fairly certain that the MVP of last night's game was the Twins bullpen, which kept a close game going long enough for the Twins to get the insurance they needed to pull out a 6-5 victory that brought them within a 1/2 game of the Pale Hosers.
Jesse Crain, Dennys Reyes, Matt Guerrier, and Joe Nathan combined for three innings of solid relief work that -- while not dominating -- was effective. With two strikeouts via Guerrier, three hits allowed, and only one walk, the bullpen earned three "holds" and a save, despite the solo home run that Nathan allowed to Nick Swisher to bring the game within a run in the ninth. With so much negativity surrounding the bullpen situation lately, it felt almost necessary to give the unit its due when it did its job in preserving an important Twins lead and playing a significant role in a victory.
Of course, the bullpen was not the only player in the victory, as Glen Perkins did manage to battle through six innings to pick up his eighth victory, even though he was not terribly effective as shown by the nine base-runners he allowed. The offense was also not fantastic, despite scoring six runs, as they only had nine hits -- only one for extra-bases -- to go with two walks, but they made up for this deficit the way they have most of the year with an incredible five two-out RBI, two from Joe Mauer and three from Justin Morneau on a key three-run double in the fifth.
Tonight, the Twins face perhaps their biggest challenge of the series in Gavin Floyd. Floyd has gotten fairly lucky this year, with a very unimpressive 85/53 K/BB ratio (though he does have 10 wins, so there is no doubt his success is sustainable), a 4.95 FIP, a 4.76 xFIP, and a 4.80 RA that does not scream dominance by most standards, despite having only allowed 100 hits in 123 innings, but rather an extreme amount of luck. Nonetheless, the Twins have struggled against him this year, only managing to put up six runs and twelve hits in 21 1/3 innings so far this year. Of course, given these statistics, luck may finally show up on the Twins side and if that is the case, they could be divisional leaders by the end of the night.
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Monday, July 28, 2008
However, luck did turn around the last two games. The Twins greeted Fausto Carmona's return to the mound with a fervant onslaught, eviscerating Carmona's pitching for 9 runs in just 2 2/3 innings, with seven hits and three walks, including a Brian Buscher three-run blast to knock Carmona out of the game. In total, the Twins offense managed 15 hits and four walks Saturday night, the stars being Buscher, with his 3-for-5 night and five RBI, Delmon Young, who went 3-for-5 with two RBI, and Justin Morneau, who went 2-for-3 with a double, two walks, and two runs scored.
Yesterday, the Twins offense didn't blow anyone out of the water, but they did rally in a very encouraging way. With the game tied in the ninth and lefty closer Rafael Perez on the mound, Morneau, who came into the game 1-for-8 against Perez, belted a game-winning double to center. Jason Kubel followed up with his own RBI single off the lefty. Anytime the Twins lefties hitters are doing that well against a tough lefty pitcher, then you know that things are looking up for the team. Here are a few other notes on the weekend:
* Yesterday's game also featured plenty of good pitching. Nick Blackburn bounced back from a rough start against the Yankees that featured some ugly defense by getting the opposite play behind him. Blackburn went seven innings, allowing only four hits and a walk while striking out three, lowering his ERA to 3.68. Of course, the two amazing catches by Denard Span certainly helped things. Span had quite the weekend in center field filling in for Carlos Gomez, who hurt himself Friday night making his own spectacular, athletic catch before hurting a disk in his back when he collided with the wall.
* Beyond the great starting pitching and the stellar defense of Span, one depressing statistic still lurks. Joe Nathan picked up his 28th save yesterday and with a scoreless inninig, dropped his ERA to a eye-popping 1.05. That goes along with a 0.91 WHIP and a 47/11 K/BB ratio in 42 2/3 innings. What is the problem? The continued underuse of Nathan, who has only three appearances in nine games since the return from the All-Star game. Nathan remains on pace for only 65 innings, so it is about time that Gardy starts to get slightly more flexible in his use, as Nathan could easily survive 70 or even a few more innings just fine, while increasing the Twins chances of winning in any close game.
* Lost in the 11-4 offensive shelling of Saturday night was good pitching from both Scott Baker and most of the Twins bullpen. Any improvement in the bullpen is good news for Twins fan, though its not all that meaningful that Brian Bass or Craig Breslow had solid scoreless innings in low-pressure situations. That is in fact the only places they have had much success this year. Baker, on the other hand, continues to show up as the Twins ace. Baker only pitched five innings Saturday, but he did manage to dominate many Indians hitters, striking out five. Overall, his numbers look impressive across the board, with a 3.38 ERA, a 1.11 WHIP, a .242 BAA, and a 81/18 B/KK ratio in 96 innings. Easily, the B/KK ratio is the most impressive statistic for a young pitcher, as it bodes very well for his future.
Today, the Twins will start an important four-game series against the White Sox at the Metrodome, starting with a matchup of Kevin Slowey and Mark Buerhle tonight. Hopefully, the Twins bats keep up some success against lefties and that may well happen, since the Twins have hit Buerhle well this year, with 16 hits and two homers in 13 2/3 innings against him this year, giving him a 5.27 ERA against the Twins so far in 2008.
Friday, July 25, 2008
The Dodgers keep making it clear to other teams that third baseman Andy LaRoche is available -- and if L.A. makes a move, he will likely be the chip used in a trade.
Despite reports that the Twins have given up on their attempts to pry Adrian Beltre away from Seattle, we're hearing those discussions are far from dead. The Twins' No. 1 trading priority is to upgrade at third base. One team that reportedly has packed it in on Beltre is the Dodgers, after they learned that Beltre's no-trade list specifically blocks his return to Chavez Ravine.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
The results weren't exactly game-breaking. The Twins lost 8-2, continuing their ineptitude at Yankee Stadium. Yet, Span reached base in three of his four plate appearances, going 2-for-3 with a walk. He took pitches and worked ahead in the count in three of his four trips to the dish. Simply put, he looked like a much better fit in the lead-off spot than Gomez. Of course, that much was obvious when you simply compared the two players' on-base percentages.
Swapping Span's and Gomez's spots in the lineup isn't going to make an earth-shattering difference in the team's offensive production. But, it is a very logical move and one that I'm glad to see Gardenhire finally make. Gomez can feel a little less pressure batting at the bottom of the lineup, while Span can put his on-base skills to use by batting directly in front of the team's best hitters.
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Monday, July 21, 2008
Baker took a perfect game into the sixth inning, retiring the first 17 batters he faced before rookie catcher Taylor Teagarden hit a liner just over the wall in center field to simultaneously break up the perfect game and the shut-out (and ultimately stick Baker with an excruciating loss as the Twins fell 1-0). Overall, Baker allowed only two hits and one walk while striking out eight over eight innings of work. He's been on quite a run lately; two starts ago he blanked the Red Sox for seven innings, and in his last start before the break he held the Tigers to two runs through seven innings before giving up a two-run homer early in the eighth. That Baker is pitching deep into games with effective results is encouraging, and what is more encouraging is that over these past three starts he's done so against arguably the three best offenses in the American League.
Baker now owns a 3.26 ERA and 1.09 WHIP with a 76-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 91 innings this season. Meanwhile, in New York, Johan Santana has posted a 3.10 ERA and 1.22 WHIP with a 116-to-38 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 130 2/3 innings. Certainly, Baker is no Santana, but he has been filling the role of team ace better than almost anyone could have realistically expected.
Friday, July 18, 2008
What does Peters conclude? Something that may not be all the surprising to those who watch and research baseball regularly: lefties have a big advantage in most areas. Peters' first question: how did the Hall of Famers do? Here's the results: 13 out of 61 enshrined pitchers are left-handed, which is more than twice the number of lefties in the regular population. Position players? 71 Hall of Fame position players batted right-handed, 59 left-handed, and eight were switch-hitters. Among the left-handed hitters are some of the game's greatest names: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey, Jr., Tris Speaker, Shoeless Joe, Willie Keeler, George Sisler, Tony Gwynn, Eddie Collins, Wade Boggs, Rod Carew, Mickey Cochrane and George Brett.
What is the reason? Peters claims that baseball is set-up naturally as a game for lefties to dominate. As a right-handed hitter swings, his momentum carries him the wrong way--toward third base. A lefty, already standing roughly 5 feet closer to first base, swings and naturally spins in the correct direction. This means, Peters says, that the lefty travels the 90 feet to first roughly one-sixth of a second faster than the righty. The obvious result is that this tends to produce more hits and a higher batting average.
And, of course, because most pitchers are right-handed, the left-handed hitter also tends to have a match-up advantage. Peters claims that "you get depth perception" as a lefty, whereas, as a right-handed batter facing a right-handed pitcher, the right-hander actually has to pick up the ball visually as it comes from behind the pitcher's left shoulder, which leads to the loss of split-second timing to pick up the ball.
Peters points out that, according to retrosheet.org, left-handers hit .272 against right-handed pitchers last season. Righties vs. righties hit .261. Against left-handed pitching, righties hit .281, lefties just .251. But there were 122,053 at-bats against right-handed pitchers last season, nearly three times as many as the 45,730 against lefties. Of course, he has a few counterexamples, the main disadvantage being a catcher who throws left-handed. Peters also points out that only 22 of 138 position players in the Hall were "pure" lefties, meaning that they hit and threw left-handed.
Peters' article isn't really anything too terribly new in that it isn't exactly sabermatric research, but in pulling from the Hall and from basic statistics, a clear trend does exist indicating that there is a bias for lefties. This, besides the more mathematical explanation, should suggest that organizations should consistently value left-handed hitters and pitchers. Organizations do tend to value lefties, but often it seems just for having one in the bullpen just for lefty-lefty specialty match-ups. They don't seem to value left-handed hitters as much, because they focus too much on the struggles of many lefties against left-handed pitchers without looking at the big numbers and the sample size.
In other words, if someone like Ron Gardenhire did a little basic research, the way Peters did, he might find out that in the long run, it's better to value a left-hander hitter like Jason Kubel (as well as Joe Mauer) being in the lineup as much as possible over getting obsessed with match-ups and smaller sample sizes. Granted, some lefties just plain cannot hit left-handed pitchers (Jacque Jones anyone?), but Kubel and Mauer aren't necessarily those kinds of hitters. Rather than "protecting" them and replacing them with right-handers like Craig Monroe, it might be helpful to adopt a central philosophy that similarly values lefties all across the board.
However, once again, too much probably shouldn't be read into this, since the study is not too in depth and is based of the examination of some math, some oberservations, some stats, and at that, some select ones from very talented players. Despite this, I think it is a point worth considering in what makes up the larger philosophy of both fans and organizations.
* For those paying attention, there have been some interesting developments with regards to Francisco Liriano. The left-hander started the day by making news through his agent, filing a grievance against the Twins for not calling him up from the minors after three straight starts without allowing a run, believing they did so to avoid arbitration for another year. It's probably not a good sign that the Twins' possible ace might be a little unhappy, but it is a good sign that he had yet another great start last night, going eight innings while giving up a seven hits and one run while striking out eighth and walking none. It's probably about time they just call him up and be done with it. Hopefully that means goodbye to Brian Bass and a permanent bullpen trip for Livan Hernandez.
Thursday, July 17, 2008
There are a few reasons that I don't expect Bill Smith to make any major moves in the coming weeks. One is that the team is fairly well-set as it is. The rotation has been solid, and as cliche as it has become, getting back a healthy and effective Francisco Liriano could easily be the equivalent of a trade to acquire a very good starting pitcher. While the bullpen has been shaky at times, acquiring a difference-making reliever via trade tends to be far too costly. Offensively, the only positions where an argument could be made that the Twins should upgrade are shortstop, where Nick Punto is more than holding his own, and third base, where Brian Buscher and Brendan Harris/Matt Macri can seemingly form an effective platoon over the final months of the season.
The other reason I don't see the Twins making a move is that they really don't have the expendable pieces to bring back a player of value. Many fans seem to be trapped in the mindset of past years, where the Twins had a glut of young pitching from which to deal. This is simply not the case anymore. The Twins have four young starters who have fortunately proven effective at the major-league level, but none of these players are anywhere close to expendable. One can argue that Smith could trade a player like Nick Blackburn and replace him with Liriano, but then what happens if another starter gets injured or if Livan Hernandez's ineptitude becomes too much to handle? Suddenly, you're looking to unproven, mediocre minor-league players like Brian Duensing and Kevin Mulvey to join the rotation during a stretch run. Those who argue that Duensing and Mulvey themselves could become trade pieces for the Twins are clearly overrating the value of these prospects.*
* This is hardly unusual, it is very common for fans of a team to overrate the value of their own prospects. I've seen it especially often this year, and I've probably even been guilty of it myself. What people need to come to terms with is that the Twins really lack attractive high-level prospects right now -- in fact, I think that any team looking to send anything significant to Minnesota would start their inquiries with Ben Revere. And I totally stole this asterisk thing from Joe Posnanski.
Anyway, in spite of the fact that I find a trade unlikely, I certainly wouldn't put it out of the realm of possibility. The Twins stand just 1.5 games behind the White Sox for first place in the AL Central with 67 games left to play, and some small improvements could seriously boost their chances of overtaking the Sox and capturing a division championship.
The name that has been mentioned most frequently in relation to the Twins is Mariners third baseman Adrian Beltre. He's in the second-to-last year of his contract in Seattle, and the fledgling Mariners are reportedly open to the idea of moving him. Beltre has never come close to approaching the numbers he posted during his final season with the Dodgers, but he is a good-hitting third baseman who plays excellent defense and, with his ability to mash left-handed pitching, he could be an asset to the Twins. And as much as the deal he signed in Seattle looked like a mega-bust early on, in today's market the $12 million that he's owed this year and next looks pretty darn reasonable. Certainly, the Twins have the payroll flexibility in 2008 and 2009 to absorb that if they wanted to.
With all that being said, I find the idea of the Twins bringing in Beltre to be the stuff of pipe dreams. As I mentioned above, the Twins lack attractive trade pieces that are actually expendable, and the idea that the Mariners will let go of Beltre for a couple marginal prospects simply to have another team pick up his salary is just silly. The Mariners, who rank ninth in Major League Baseball in 2008 salary, are not a cash-strapped organization that is in dire need of shedding payroll, and there are no prospects coming up to push Beltre. I don't doubt that the Mariners would be willing to part with Beltre if the right deal came along, but it seems like many Twins fans are conveniently downplaying his value in order to convince themselves that the Mariners will deal the third baseman for peanuts. While Beltre never developed into the elite slugger that the Mariners hoped they were acquiring when they signed him, third basemen who play defense like him and hit for the type of power he does are not easy to find, and he's still only 29 years old. It's going to take a significant package to reel in Beltre, and I'm just not sure that such an endeavor would be worthwhile for the Twins considering the salary they'd have to take on and considering that they already have some reasonable options at the position as is.
Here's another third base option that might be a little more realistic and is worth keeping an eye on: Casey Blake. He was an unexceptional member of the Twins organization back around the turn of the millenium, but has since turned himself into a pretty nice player in Cleveland. Blake plays a decent third base, bats from the right side and shows solid power against left-handers. He is eligible for free agency following this season, so he'd probably be a rental, but he'd be a nice addition and could help the Twins offense down the stretch. It's not often that you see inter-divisional trades, but the Indians are pretty much out of the race and the Twins could offer them some decent young pitching -- maybe a Jeff Manship, or a couple lesser prospects.
All in all though, I suspect this will be a pretty quiet trade deadline for the Twins, and that's fine by me. They are well-positioned as is, and have a very good chance of sticking with the White Sox for the rest of the season if they continue to get solid innings from their young pitchers and quality at-bats from their young lineup. Ultimately, Liriano may end up being the most important addition the team makes around the deadline.
Finally, since we're on the subject, I'll part with this inane trade rumor from everyone's favorite bull-"Shooter":
It will be interesting whether the Twins try to package Michael Cuddyer and Livan Hernandez in a trade for a slugging third baseman before the July 31 deadline, saving $20 million in guaranteed money to Cuddyer and $2.5 million to Hernandez. Denard Span ($390,000) would replace Cuddyer in right field, and Francisco Liriano ($400,000) would replace Hernandez in the starting rotation.
Yes, I'm sure plenty of teams will be willing to part with their "slugging third baseman" in return for an underperforming, injured right fielder and the league's most hittable pitcher, both of whom are severely overpaid. As I've often said, I wish Mr. Walters would heed the advice offered by his column title... "Don't Print That."
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
The Twins seem to be well-situated offensively. With the exception of Carlos Gomez, just about every regular is hitting pretty well right now. Ron Gardenhire will have a situation to deal with when Michael Cuddyer returns (what to do with Denard Span?), but for the most part, the offense seems set for the last couple months of the season.
Things are a little less clear with regards to the rotation. Let's break down each starter and what we can expect after the break.
Scott Baker has pitched like a true ace this season, having gone 6-2 with a 3.47 ERA and 68-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 83 innings spread across 14 starts. He missed a month early in the season due to an injury, which has limited his workload, but that may be beneficial down the stretch when his inning load for the season is quite low relative to his peers. Baker has limited hits (only 82 in 83 innings), shown outstanding control, and has displayed an impressive ability to miss bats with a solid strikeout rate overall and 7+ K in six different starts. He has been a bit homer-prone, having surrendered 13 dingers in his 83 innings of work, but that's hardly unusual for a fly ball pitcher like him. The key is limiting that damage by preventing hits and being stingy with walks. Baker has excelled in both those categories; that's why he's been the Twins' best pitcher thus far and figures to continue to do so the rest of the way.
Kevin Slowey had been pitching exceedingly well through his first 12 starts, with a 3.47 ERA and 1.03 WHIP, but he has struggled in his past two outings. He surrendered five runs over six innings of work against the Indians two starts ago, and his last time out he was shelled by the Tigers for six runs in just 3 1/3 innings of work. In both starts, Slowey was victimized by big innings. As a result, his ERA has shot up from 3.47 to 4.26, but I don't think there's any serious reason to worry. Finesse pitchers like Slowey are susceptible to rough outings from time to time (as I wrote on Friday), but I suspect he'll be able to bounce back from the ugly start just as he was able to bounce back from that 8 ER, 3 IP debacle in Chicago back in early June. That is, if he's healthy. He was scheduled to start the first game after the break on Friday, but has had his start pushed back due to a fingernail problem. This will be worth monitoring.
Nick Blackburn has been perhaps the team's biggest surprise this year. Sunday, he allowed only two earned runs over seven innings of work against a tough Tiger offense. He took the loss in the game, and while I'm sure that some (one specifically) will try to argue that he didn't "give his team a chance to win" because three runs came across on his watch and the Twins only scored twice, it was a Quality Start and a very impressive outing. He enters the break 7-5 with a 3.65 ERA and 64-to-20 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 19 starts. Now, just because Blackburn's success this season is somewhat unexpected doesn't mean we can't expect it to continue. He doesn't overwhelm hitters and doesn't strike many people out, but Blackburn pounds the strike zone and induces ground balls at a steady rate, which is a good recipe for lots of innings with a solid ERA. Sure enough, he's on pace to throw over 200 innings this year with an ERA that is better than the league average. This makes him a very valuable guy to have in the middle of the rotation.
Glen Perkins was not being counted on to be a member of this rotation prior to the season. He had never made a start at the major-league level and missed most of 2007 with a shoulder injury. Fortunately, he's stepped in as a starter for the Twins and has done a fine job anchoring the back end of the rotation. His 4.14 ERA and 43-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio are unexceptional, but plenty satisfactory for a No. 4 starter. He has surrendered 95 hits in 78 1/3 innings and his drop-off in K-rate is a bit alarming, but his aggressive pitching style has worked well. He might be due for some regression, but he's a good bet to remain relatively productive over the last couple months of the season and shouldn't have a terribly difficult time holding down his spot in the rotation.
The final spot is where things get interesting. Livan Hernandez leads the team in wins with nine, but nearly every other number is ugly. He holds a 5.44 ERA, a 1.62 WHIP and 45-to-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 120 2/3 innings. Opponents are hitting .342/.368/.506 against him, which is pretty unbelievable. Essentially, he's turning opposing lineups into a bunch of MVP candidates. Since starting the season 6-1 with a 3.90 ERA, Hernandez has gone 3-5 with a 6.86 ERA and a ghastly .373 BAA. Over his past 10 outings, he has worked three Quality Starts, and those have come against Washington, Arizona and Cleveland. When facing tough offenses like the Rangers, Yankees and Red Sox, Hernandez has been hit hard, and he's been hammered nearly every time he's made a start on the road. Hernandez's strategy of lobbing 84-mph fastballs over the plate is clearly not playing well for the most part, and there's no reason to think it will get any better as long as he continues to allow nearly two hits per inning.
Meanwhile, Francisco Liriano has been brilliant in Triple-A as of late. He has reportedly reverted to his three-quarters arm slot after some attempted mechanical adjustments, and the results have been extremely impressive: three straight scoreless outings, with more than a strikeout per inning and a minuscule 0.65 WHIP during that span. There is little question that Liriano would provide a vast improvement over Hernandez immediately, but for the time being the Twins seem committed to their veteran innings eater. We'll see how long that lasts if Liriano continues to dominate while Hernandez continues to get knocked around like a piñata. Of course, Liriano could find his way into the rotation as a replacement for Slowey if the fingernail issue is more serious than initially thought.
Monday, July 14, 2008
If you're bored, head over to the White Sox blog Life in the Cell, where Nick Nelson has written a guest post giving Sox fans a mid-season report on the Twins.
Friday, July 11, 2008
The less said about this outing, the better … Brian Bannister just never did get the feel. Banny has this theory that for every 10 starts — he has two games where everything is working, two games where nothing at all is working, and the way for him to be successful pitcher is to make the most of those other six starts. Well, this was clearly one of the two bad games.
* And on a final exciting note, Francisco Liriano tossed seven scoreless innings in Rochester last night, striking out eight while allowing just three hits and a walk. Over his past three starts, Liriano has pitched 20 innings without allowing a run, and has given up 10 hits and three walks while striking out 24. After working on some changes to his mechanics, the Twins have let Liriano go back to his old three-quarter arm slot, and as a result he's starting to look a whole lot more like his old dominating self. Of course, this raises concerns over him reinjuring that elbow, but for now let's just bask in his awesomeness and hope that the Twins are seriously considering subbing him in to the rotation in place of Livan Hernandez as soon as we get past the All-Star break.
Boy, I am feeling a lot better about this team than I was 24 hours ago...
Thursday, July 10, 2008
Wednesday, July 09, 2008
I wrote this right after the Twins had suffered a two-game sweep at Comerica Park in a series where the Tigers scored consecutive comeback wins by beating up on the Twins bullpen while never having to face Nathan. Nearly three months later, we find a very similar situation unfolding at Fenway Park. The Twins bullpen has now lost the first two games of this important series against the Red Sox, and the All-Star Nathan has sat in the bullpen watching on both occasions.Free Joe Nathan!
Closer Joe Nathan will make $11.25 million this season as part of the new contract he signed at the end of spring training. The rest of the Twins’ 12-man pitching staff combined will make roughly $13 million this season. Obviously, Nathan’s workload won’t compare to that of a full-time starter, but just look at the way the bullpen innings had been divvied up so far entering play on Thursday:
Brian Bass: 11 IP
Pat Neshek: 6 IP
Joe Nathan: 6 IP
Matt Guerrier: 5.2 IP
Juan Rincon: 4.2 IP
Dennys Reyes: 4 IP
Jesse Crain: 3.2 IP
Despite being the team’s highest-paid player, Nathan hadn’t logged significantly more innings through 15 games than most of the team’s struggling set-up men.
To be clear, Nathan hasn’t been underused, at least not in a traditional sense. He is 5-for-5 in save opportunities, and his six innings through 15 games put him on pace for about 65 on the season, which wouldn’t be a terribly significant drop-off from his workloads during his first four seasons with the Twins. Furthermore, it’s difficult to argue too much with the way Gardenhire has run his bullpen over the past several seasons, and it’s especially tough to criticize his use of Nathan, who has thrived and developed into an elite reliever since joining the Twins while avoiding any serious injury problems. Yet, while the Twins’ bullpen blew late leads in both games in the Tigers series, Nathan sat in the bullpen and watched, waiting for a save opportunity that never actually came.
So, what I propose is this: bring in Nathan during the eighth or even seventh inning of tight games from time to time, and utilize his ability to prevent runs better than any other pitcher on the roster. If necessary, offset his extra usage by letting Pat Neshek or Jesse Crain get a few of those cushy saves where the team has a three-run lead going into the ninth.
This strategy may ultimately result in a few less saves for Nathan, but it also may result in a few more wins for the team. And, when you’re paying a guy such a high percentage of your total team payroll, shouldn’t that be the ultimate goal?
Using closers almost exclusively in save situations is an extremely annoying managerial trait that is certainly not limited to Ron Gardenhire. But as terrific as Nathan has been this year and as shaky as the rest of the Twins' relievers have been at points during the season, you'd think that maybe at some point the manager would try and diverge from traditional thinking. It's enormously frustrating to watch games slip away from the Twins because mediocre (or worse) throwers like Brian Bass and Matt Guerrier are on the hill in crucial situations while the dominant Nathan sits around waiting for an opportunity that never arises. Nathan has not recorded more than three outs in a game once this season, in spite of the fact that he did so seven times last year with no apparent ill effect.
The Twins bullpen was very solid during the team's recent winning stretch, so it's not necessarily appropriate to be overly hard on them for dropping a couple games against a tough offense in a hostile park. Yet, for two straight nights now the Twins have had very good outings from their starting pitcher erased by relief meltdowns while the team's highest-paid player and top bullpen weapon was kept out of the game in order to stringently stick to a traditional role that is built out of poor logic to begin with. That's a tough pill to swallow.
On the bright side, the bullpen won't likely have the opportunity to ruin a great starting pitching performance today with Livan Hernandez toeing the rubber for the Twins. For some reason, that doesn't make me feel much better.
Tuesday, July 08, 2008
There's no shame in getting shut down by Daisuke Matsuzaka. There's no shame in losing to the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Heck, there's simply no shame in losing when you've won 18 or your last 21 games. It was the manner in which the Twins lost last night that really got under my skin.
After getting seven fantastic shutout innings from Scott Baker, Ron Gardenhire was hit with a dilemma in the eighth inning. The game was still scoreless, and the Red Sox had their Nos. 2, 3 and 4 hitters due up. Gardenhire has generally done a good job of managing the bullpen this season and over the course of his tenure, but I can say without hyperbole that what he did last night was the single worse managerial decision he has made all year. He called on Brian Bass to pitch the eighth inning of a scoreless game. Bass, who should be the very definition of a mop-up man, was Gardenhire's first choice out of the bullpen in the eighth inning of a tie game against a very powerful lineup.
Bass surrendered a leadoff double to Dustin Pedroia, who moved to third on a ground-out by J.D. Drew in the next at-bat. Next, Manny Ramirez hit a single to right field, scoring Pedroia with the go-ahead run. Mike Lowell walked in the next at-bat, and that was the end of Bass' night. Great outing.
Let's take a look at some of the clearly superior options to Bass in this situation, followed by reasons as to why they are superior:
Leave Baker in. Baker's pitch count was only 94, and he had allowed only two of the past 13 batters he'd faced to reach base. He reportedly told Gardenhire he was gassed after seven innings, but if push came to shove he probably could have gone out for the eighth.
Jesse Crain. Had not pitched since last Wednesday, and he held a 2.80 ERA on the season. Crain came in after Bass had allowed three of four baserunners to reach and finished the inning without further damage. Unfortunately, it was too little too late. Mind-boggling that Crain was not simply called upon to start the inning if Gardy intended on using him anyway.
Boof Bonser. Granted, his numbers overall this season aren't good, and he got off to a bit of a rocky start in the bullpen, but over his past four outings he'd pitched five innings while allowing only one run on four hits and a walk while fanning seven. He also has good enough stuff that one could logically believe he'd be able to retire tough hitters like Pedroia and Ramirez.
Joe Nathan. He's the team's best reliever, why not use him as early as possible to make sure you can extend the game? I've always been an ardent supporter of the notion of using relievers based on descending order of talent in a tie game.
Craig Breslow. Has been effective enough against right-handers this year that we can reasonably believe he could have retired Pedroia, and then he would have gotten the left-handed Drew. Bing bang, two outs.
Dennys Reyes. Is not Brian Bass.
The only guy who really wasn't an option was Matt Guerrier, who'd pitch in three consecutive games over the weekend. Yet, instead of one of the aforementioned logical options, Gardenhire decided to call on Bass as his top option out of the bullpen. Predictably, the results were ugly. Even still, Gardenhire compounded the poor choice of putting Bass in the game by making another misguided managerial decision, which was to have Bass pitch to Ramirez with Pedroia on third and one out.
Ramirez is one of the great RBI men in modern major-league history. And if there's one thing Bass has done a decent job of this year, it's inducing ground balls. So the logical choice with the go-ahead run on third while Ramirez batted with first base open would have been to intentionally walk Ramirez and pitch to Mike Lowell with hopes of a double play. Instead, Gardenhire had Bass pitch to Ramirez, and the result was an eventually game-winning RBI hit.
Here was Gardenhire's reasoning for pitching to Ramirez:
"How's Manny been doing lately?" Gardenhire said.
Ramirez had batted .161 (5-for-31) with 13 strikeouts on Boston's just-completed 3-7 road trip.
This response represents a fatal misconception held by Gardenhire, which is that 31 at-bats represents any type of meaningful sample.
Monday, July 07, 2008
Yet, the Twins were able to get after Lee in the seventh inning, scoring three more times to take a 4-3 lead. The rally was far from explosive, but it was very much the type of inning that this offense has come to thrive on. The inning started off with a Craig Monroe walk (patience was a big key in this series for the Twins, who drew eight free passes in Saturday night's win). Then, Delmon Young hit a harder grounder to third that turned into an infield single when Andy Marte was unable to cleanly field it. Brendan Harris' sharp single to right in the next at-bat loaded the bases for a suddenly hot Nick Punto, who delivered a line drive single back up the middle to score Monroe and close the Twins' deficit to one run. Next, Span turned in perhaps the biggest at-bat of the game, working a five-pitch walk to force in Young and tie the game at three. Carlos Gomez's RBI ground-out in the following at-bat gave the Twins a lead, which was made permanent by the bullpen, and propelled them to their 18th win in the past 21 games.
Nowhere in that series of events do you see a game-breaking extra-base hit. Instead, the comeback was made possible by a combination of patience, luck and timely hitting, all of which have become trademarks of this surprisingly effective offense. The hitters on this team consistently put together poor at-bats early in the season and -- in turn -- many struggled to reach base with much regularity as the team posted a poor .305 on-base percentage in April. Since then, however, the offense has managed a very respectable .347 on-base percentage. This increase has been due to a variety of factors -- an increase in team batting average, improved discipline from players like Young and Jason Kubel, and the addition of Alexi Casilla.
In particular, it's nice to see young players putting together good at-bats. The lineup still features some free swingers (chiefly Gomez and Young), but Casilla and Span are capable of working deep into counts consistently. And regardless of your feelings about Punto, he's another guy who generally works the count and sees a fair number of pitches. Most see Punto as nothing but a stopgap at short and view the position as one that the Twins need to improve for the second half, but is it all that unthinkable that Punto could put up numbers this year similar to the ones he posted in 2006? And with the way he's excelled defensively at shortstop, wouldn't that basically make him a better version of what the Twins hoped to be getting in Adam Everett this year? I'm not all that sure that Punto isn't an adequate answer at shortstop for this team at present.
Tonight the Twins embark on a road trip which will prove to be a great test, as they play the Red Sox in Boston for three games and then head to Detroit for a four-game set against the Tigers. With a 32-18 record at the Metrodome, the Twins have proven that they can win at home, but they remain below .500 on the road and have pitched far worse in other ballparks (3.35 ERA at home, 5.39 on the road). This road trip would be an opportune time to reverse that trend, but doing so will by no means be easy.