Friday, June 26, 2009
The Twins have been frustrating in their inability to vault above the .500 mark, but as of late they have certainly been playing better than their record would suggest. With 357 runs scored and 334 allowed, their Pythagorean W/L record stands at 40-34. That's better than their current 37-37 mark, and suggests that they've been somewhat unlucky (though it's worth noting that their Pythagorean numbers may be a bit skewed by that 20-1 victory in Chicago earlier this year).
Even with the disappointing outcome of their home series against the Astros and with that fateful Nick Blackburn error that cost them a sweep in Milwaukee, the Twins have won nine of their past 15 ballgames and are starting to perform a lot better on the road. The Tigers continue to play well and have now won seven straight games, but they'll cool off and the Twins are doing well to keep themselves within striking distance. The Tigers are preparing to embark on a nine-game road trip that will conclude next weekend in Minnesota, so the next week of baseball should help clear things up atop the AL Central.
I'm hopeful that the Twins can win their series in both St. Louis and Kansas City to end this road trip on a high note, and I'm especially hoping they win on Saturday and Monday and improve to 9-0 while playing in my presence. Either way, it should be a fun weekend of baseball in the heart of America. We'll see you next week.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Ever since then, Valencia has been remarkably consistent. He has moved up the minor-league ladder at a steady pace of about one level per year, and at each stop has posted numbers fairly close to his overall minor-league hitting line: .303/.363/.485. That's great production, obviously, and combined with improving defense it makes Valencia a bona fide prospect at a position where the Twins have lacked consistent production for several years.
He isn't spectacular in any aspect of the game, but he also lacks huge flaws, which makes him a relatively safe bet to succeed as he moves up. Valencia hails from a respected college program, possesses the ability to hit for very good average and power from the right side of the plate (much needed assets in this organization), and has reportedly made significant strides defensively since being drafted. Valencia has moved through four levels in two-and-a-half years as a pro and has had success at each one. I'm going to keep liking him until he gives me something not to like.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
I also just learned as I'm writing this that Danny Valencia has been promoted to Rochester, but I'll touch on that more later this week... maybe tomorrow.
Friday, June 19, 2009
* Despite once again performing dreadfully with runners in scoring position, the Twins were able to complete a series win over the Pirates yesterday, riding a complete-game gem from Nick Blackburn to a 5-1 victory.
A day after going 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position, the Twins went 1-for-11 yesterday, continually failing to capitalize on opportunities to break the game open. Brian Buscher's late two-run homer made the game look a lot less close than it really was. This team has got to start putting together better at-bats with runners on second and third.
On the (very) bright side, Blackburn sparkled again, coming within one out of a shutout before surrendering an RBI single to Adam LaRoche with two outs in the ninth. Blackburn notched only two strikeouts over his nine innings of work, but allowed just six hits and got 16 outs via ground ball in the sterling effort. He's now 6-2 with a 3.09 ERA this season, and will warrant serious All-Star consideration if he can keep this up for a few more starts.
* Several Twins fans I spoke with prior to the start of yesterday's game seemed disgruntled that Joe Mauer wasn't in the starting lineup. I found this to be a bit shocking. I don't know if people realize how much Mauer has been playing this year.
Since Mauer returned to the lineup on May 1, the Twins have played 46 games. Of those games, Mauer has appeared in 43 and started in 41. That means he's appeared in 93.5 percent of the team's games since his return, and started 89.1 percent. For comparison, in 2008, Mauer appeared in 90.1 percent of the team's games and started 85.8 percent of them. Russell Martin, who led all major-league catchers in games played and at-bats last year, played in 95.7 percent of the Dodgers' games and started 90.7 percent of them.
So basically, since joining the team, Mauer has been in the lineup at nearly the same rate as last year's major-league leader, in spite of the Twins' initial insistence that they'd be cautious with his playing time due to the back injury that kept him sidelined for the first month of the season. And through all that, he's still hitting .425. Amazing.
* After doubling in yesterday's game, Nick Punto now has one more extra-base hit than Delmon Young this season.
* Back at the .500 mark, the Twins haven't lost a series since dropping two of three to the Mariners early in the month, and they'll look to carry that streak forward as they take on the Astros at home this weekend, where they'll face three right-handed starters. The pitching match-ups:
Friday: Kevin Slowey vs. Roy Oswalt
Saturday: Scott Baker vs. Brian Moehler
Sunday: Glen Perkins vs. Wandy Rodriguez
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Personally, I remain a believer in Crain. I look at the solid numbers he put up last year in his first season back from reconstructive shoulder surgery, his quality performance in spring training this year and his excellent start to the regular season, and I see a pitcher who has proven capable of getting major-league hitters out. It seems clear to me that something is not right with Crain at this point in time, and moving him to the minors to get things sorted out is the right move. I'm hopeful that he can come back and be a contributor to the Twins bullpen later this season. Yet, as I look at the roster of the Twins' Triple-A affiliate, there's another bullpen arm that raises my intrigue, and that's Juan Morillo.
We haven't heard much about Morillo since his short stint with the Twins earlier this season ended quickly when he proved incapable of throwing strikes. Control has always been a cardinal issue with Morillo, which is why the Twins were able to pluck him off waivers from the Rockies in spite of the fact that he's one of the few pitchers in baseball who is legitimately capable of touching triple-digits with his fastball. The numbers during his initial stretch in the Twins 'pen were brutal: three appearances, two hits, five earned runs allowed and only one strikeout. Most perturbingly, he was able to get only 52 percent of his pitches into the strike zone. Yet, Morillo displayed a live arm and I vowed to track his progress with the Red Wings, hoping that he could discover some semblance of command and return as a potential impact arm later in the season.
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
For the rest of May, Mauer played like he was on a mission to prove that his home run in that first at-bat was no fluke. After adding a double and walk to finish that first game 2-for-3, he proceeded to bat .406 over the remainder of the month, launching 10 home runs, six doubles and a triple in 96 at-bats to finish the month with an insane .802 slugging percentage.
It figured that Mauer would slow down in June, and in a way, he has. The power production has tailed off -- over the first half of the month, he's notched two home runs and two doubles over 59 plate appearances, meaning he's averaged one extra-base hit per every 14.75 PAs after averaging one per every 6.42 in May. The June rate isn't bad -- it's about in line with his career rate of 1 XBH/12.84 PA entering this season -- but obviously it's nowhere near the gargantuan power rate he flashed during his first month.
And yet, while the power has dipped for Mauer, the hits have kept on coming. After finishing May with a .414 batting average, Mauer is hitting .415 in June. He's been held hitless only once in 13 games and he's collected multiple hits seven times. Whatever regression we've seen in the power department, it has yet to emerge in the batting average column. Mauer has shown no signs of slowing down his torrid hitting pace.
Now, I'm not going to start talking about any quest to bat .400; we'll have that conversation if he's still hitting at this level around mid-August. But I think it is appropriate to sit back and marvel at what Mauer has done through 181 plate appearances. He's already matched his career high for home runs in just a month and a half, and his OPS+ (229) is a Barry-Bonds-in-his-prime type of figure. If Mauer's season ended today, he would have the highest single-season batting average of any player with a minimum of 181 plate appearances in the last 50 years. Mull that over for a minute.
Twins fans don't need to be reminded of how special a player Mauer is, but it's worth expounding on how absolutely unbelievable his offensive performance has been up to this point. He's bound to hit up some sort of rut at some point, be it regression to the mean or the wear and tear of playing nearly everyday and frequently at a hugely demanding defensive position. It's almost impossibly difficult to maintain a batting average as high as Mauer's currently is, even if big slumps are avoided. (It's worth noting that, for instance, Nomar Garciaparra was flirting with .400 as he entered August in 2000 but ended up falling about 30 points short of that mark because he hit a measly .340 over the final two months of the season. By the way, how the hell did Nomar finish NINTH in the MVP voting that year??)
I would encourage everyone to savor this impressive run while it lasts, but who knows how long it's going to last. Mauer continues to terrorize opposing teams and no one can seemingly figure out how to pitch to him. He's having an historical season that will likely stand out as one for the ages even if his numbers start to gradually but surely decline over the next few months.
Which they will. Right?
Monday, June 15, 2009
I expressed some concern a earlier this month that the Twins' perfect record in games I've attended this season was going to come crashing down as I traveled to see them play on the road a few times. Fortunately, the team seems to have gotten its act together on the road just in time for the first of my road trips. After dropping two of three in Seattle to open the trip, they split with the Athletics in a four-game set earlier this week (narrowly missing a series victory) and then took two of three from the Cubs at Wrigley over the weekend.
I had the pleasure of attending Saturday's game, a 2-0 victory highlighted by seven shutout innings from Anthony Swarzak (who was rewarded by being demoted to the minors right after the game's conclusion). On Friday afternoon, the Twins had notched a sound 7-4 victory and yesterday they lost a tightly contested battle in the ninth inning when the bullpen experienced a classic Crain Wreck.
Despite losing the finale at Wrigley, the Twins went 5-5 on this latest road trip, which qualifies as a reasonably successful one considering the abysmal 6-16 road record they'd entered the series with. The Twins' lineup is currently riddled with injuries with Michael Cuddyer, Denard Span and Joe Crede all battling ailments. That's troubling, yet there are a bunch of reasons for optimism. The members of the rotationall seem to be settling in and the bullpen pitching is better for the most part. Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer are continuing to cream the ball. Nick Punto and Carlos Gomez have started showing some signs of life at the plate. Brendan Harris is thriving in regular shortstop duty. If Cuddyer, Span and Crede can get back on the field, you've got to feel pretty good about this team's chances to make a mid-summer run.
Wrigley Field was as amazing as I remembered it and the Cubs fans were generally friendly and highly entertaining (particularly when making any reference to Milton Bradley). The Twins return home tomorrow for a six-game homestand and then take their show back on the road next weekend, first traveling to Milwaukee and then heading to St. Louis and Kansas City. I plan on attending games in both of the latter two cities, so hopefully the Twins can continue to improve their play on the road and keep their perfect winning percentage in games attended by me intact.
Thursday, June 11, 2009
As it turns out, that wasn't far from the truth. Span later told reporters that he was suffering from dizziness during the game and "just didn't even see the ball" during the aforementioned at-bat. Shortly after the ugly strikeout, Span was removed from the game, and yesterday he traveled back to Minneapolis to see a specialist about this recurring dizziness issue, which caused him to miss a pair of games back in late May as well.
This is peculiar ailment and Span seems as mystified about it as any of us. He notes that the dizziness may be attributable to his offseason Lasik surgery, which was performed on one eye and not the other (a fact I was unaware of) but says he's never experienced problems like this while playing baseball in the past. Said Span: "It's kind of scary."
There's plenty of reason for Twins fans to be scared, too, if this issue ends up keeping Span out of the lineup for an extended period of time. The huge success experienced by Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer and the strong slugging performances by Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer and Joe Crede this year have somewhat reduced the attention paid to Span's successful sophomore season. Many were skeptical as to whether Span would be able to back up his outstanding rookie campaign, which seemingly came out of nowhere, but he has continued to be an anchor at the top of the Twins lineup. With his abilities to consistently take lengthy at-bats, draw walks at a solid rate, steal bases and hit well against all types of pitchers, Span has essentially been a prototypical leadoff man, something this franchise has been seeking for some time.
If Span is out of the lineup, the Twins lack inspiring options to fill that top spot. Carlos Gomez has been Ron Gardenhire's default choice in the past, but placing a 587 OPS in a position to receive more at-bats than any other player on the team is terribly misguided. Other players who would seemingly fall into Gardenhire's leadoff mold, such as Alexi Casilla, Nick Punto and Matt Tolbert, are also offensive liabilities who belong nowhere near the top of the order. Mauer's on-base skills make him a logical choice to bat leadoff, but that's simply not a move Gardenhire would make.
Hopefully Span and his doctor can reach a conclusion as to what this lingering issue is and get it taken care of. He's been so solid and consistent in the leadoff spot that some fans may have come to take his contributions this year for granted, but be assured: you'll notice his absence in a hurry.
This afternoon I'm heading to Chicago, where I'll be catching baseball at Wrigley Field this weekend. I'd like to try and file a report of some kind this weekend, but you may not be hearing back from me until Monday or Tuesday. Enjoy the weekend!
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Major League Baseball's draft is a crapshoot, no doubt about it. Unlike the NFL draft where any top draft pick is expected to step in and be a contributor (if not immediately then within a few years), in baseball an organization is fairly lucky if any of the kids they select in the first few rounds end up being an impact player at the major-league level. As for players taken beyond the first round... well that's even more rare.
Looking at the Twins' current roster, we see lots of guys taken with high draft picks contributing. Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Denard Span, Delmon Young, Glen Perkins, Kevin Slowey, Anthony Swarzak, Jesse Crain, R.A. Dickey and Scott Baker were all selected in the first three rounds of the draft. Sure, a team will occasionally get lucky and find an eventual big-league contributor a few rounds after the top three (Joe Crede was a fifth-rounder and Joe Nathan a sixth-rounder), and in rare instances a team will find a gem even beyond that (Jason Kubel in the 12th round, Nick Blackburn in the 29th), but for the most part we find the future major-leaguers among those first three rounds. Those are the ones I'll focus on in today's analysis. They took place yesterday, and the Twins had four picks. Here's who they took:
Round 1 (Pick No. 22)
Kyle Gibson - RHP, University of Missouri
Yesterday I predicted that Tanner Scheppers would slide to the Twins due to signability concerns and, in an uncharacteristic move, the Twins would snatch him up. Well, Scheppers did fall to the 22nd pick (in fact, he dropped all the way to 44), but the Twins instead went another -- almost equally uncharacteristic -- route, signing college right-hander Gibson. Like Scheppers, Gibson was considered a Top 10 type talent, but his stock fell for mostly different reasons. Gibson's mid-90s velocity dropped into the 80s late this season, and it was recently revealed that this was due to an arm injury. That's the bad news. The good news is that the injury was to his forearm, not his elbow or shoulder, and the damage was a bone fracture rather than anything involving a muscle or tendon. This breeds optimism that Gibson should be able to recover well from the injury.
Gibson certainly looked the part of a top college starter in the early part of the season. He has three pitches he can throw for strikes in any count and he shows a lot of poise and a competitive streak on the mound. Scouts love his size at 6-foot-6, though some might worry he's a little too thin. Most look at his combination of stuff, command and mound presence and see a sure-fire first-round pick.
Matt Bashore - LHP, Indiana University
The Twins tabbed another college pitcher with the compensation pick they received from Dennys Reyes' departure as a free agent. At 6'3" and 200 lbs, Bashore is a sizable left-handed hurler who reportedly dialed his fastball up to 95 mph during this past season. He was a top college prospect entering this year but lowered his stock a bit by going just 7-5 with a 4.08 ERA for the Hoosiers, although he did come close to setting a school record by notching 108 strikeouts.
While he's shown an ability to hit the mid-90s with his fastball, he'll likely sit in the low 90s on a consistent basis, and his success will likely depend on how he develops his secondary stuff. Not a bad pick, but nothing worth getting too excited about.
Round 2 (Pick No. 70)
Billy Bullock - RHP, University of Florida
The Twins used one of their top picks last year to select a college closer from the state of Florida: University of Miami's Carlos Gutierrez. In that instance, the Twins were clear from the start that their plan was to convert Gutierrez to a starter; they've followed through on that by having him open the season in the Ft. Myers rotation, and he pitched so well that he was recently moved up to Class-AA New Britain.
In spite of their success with this route, the Twins will likely keep Bullock in a relief role. Like Gibson, Bullock stands at 6 feet 6 inches, but he's got a bigger frame at 225 lbs. He really came into his own as closer for the Gators this year and is reportedly capable of hitting 96 mph with his fastball. Bullock has advanced stuff and could be on the fast track, particularly considering the unstable state of the Twins' bullpen.
Round 3 (Pick No. 101)
Ben Tootle - RHP, Jacksonville State University
A fireballer with an upper-90s fastball and a hard slider, Tootle seems like a prime candidate to end up in the bullpen as a late-innings reliever, although the Twins might try him as a starter first. Tootle is in the same camp as Gibson in that his value likely slipped a bit due to an injury; a bad stomach virus held him out of action for a month this year and deflated his overall numbers. Like Gibson's injury, though, Tootle's ailment doesn't seem like a long-term concern and if he can get back to full strength, he has a great arm with impressive potential.
The Twins have always liked to go after college pitchers with their early draft picks, and that was definitely true this year as they brought in collegiate arms with each of their first four picks. Tough to argue with any of those four picks. Gibson is a good low-risk/high-reward guy, Bashore is a hard-throwing lefty with decent upside, Bullock is a hard-throwing righty reliever who could potentially help the big-league club as soon as 2010, and Tootle is a fireballing righty with the ability to dominate. You'd be hard-pressed to argue that the Twins reached on any of their four picks today (in fact, both Gibson and Bullock were generally expected to go higher) and yet all four players should be signable. It was a good first day of the draft that can potentially add some exciting players to the Twins' farm system; today I suspect we'll see them use the middle rounds to bring in some position players.
Tuesday, June 09, 2009
A few notes on Twins-related topics...
* After struggling immensely over the first several weeks of the season, the Twins' bullpen has quietly settled into a very nice groove lately. Check out the numbers for Twins relievers since the beginning of May (coming into last night's game)...
Sean Henn: 7.2 IP, 3.52 ERA, .231 BAA, 5/3 K/BB
Even accounting for the continued struggles of Crain, that's a collective 2.79 ERA from current members of the Twins bullpen since the start of May. That's excellent. Of course, it's important to note that a few of these guys (most notably Ayala) aren't remotely likely to maintain this current pace, but the bullpen does deserve a lot of credit for showing tremendous improvement after a terrible first month.
Saturday, June 06, 2009
Coming into the year, it appeared that the Central would be a wide-open division, which is why many Twins fans held optimism about their team's chances in spite of its significant flaws. Thus far, the division has lived up to its billing. Detroit leads the Central with a 28-25 record -- the worst record of any first-place team in baseball -- and only six games separate them from last-place Cleveland.
Offensively, the Indians have been decent, so if they can get their pitching on track they have a chance to make a bit of a run, but up to this point they have been very, very bad. If they're out of first place by double-digits in July we'll undoubtedly be hearing a lot of Cliff Lee rumors.
Friday, June 05, 2009
This post isn't a redux of the tired Young vs. Gomez argument, as Gomez hasn't exactly been a world-beater at the plate in his own right. But Young's at-bats as of late have been mind-bogglingly terrible, and the poor approach has been reflected in his results. Over the past calendar month, Young has gone 10-for-55 (.182) with zero extra-base hits, three walks and 24 strikeouts. He's grounded into three double plays during that span. It's hard to imagine a rougher stretch at the plate.
Particularly troubling is the absurdly high strikeout rate. Young has always been somewhat prone to striking out, with a 17.8 percent major-league K-rate entering 2009, but this season he's been whiffing at an astronomical rate. With 41 strikeouts in 125 plate appearances, Young's '09 strikeout rate stands at 32.8 percent, and over the past month it's been 40.7 percent.
With his inability to put the ball in play with any regularity, Young has been limited to a paltry .231 batting average despite being relatively lucky on balls in play (.342 BABIP). He's got only four hits in his past 41 at-bats and the strikeouts are piling up more than ever. Young looks completely lost at the plate and he's showing no signs of snapping out of it.
Of course, what must be noted is that the majority of those 41 at-bats have come after Young's return from a leave of absence due to his mother's death. Prior to his trip to California to be with his mother in her final days, Young was batting .277 with a 648 OPS and a 24.4 percent strikeout rate. Those aren't good numbers but they aren't disastrous either. Since returning to the team after his mother's passing, Young has hit .098 and has struck out 21 times in 42 plate appearances -- 50 percent! He's fanned multiple times in seven of those nine games.
Without question, losing a mother (particularly at the age of 23) can turn a person's life upside down and make it impossible to focus on anything, particularly playing a sport. As such, Young's current mega-slump is at least partially -- if not totally -- excusable and understandable. What's not excusable is that his name continues to be written into the lineup everyday while he digs himself into a deeper and deeper offensive hole. Young was held out of the starting lineup yesterday for only the third time in 11 games since his return.
I think it's a well documented fact that I'm not a big fan of Mr. Young, but he's not as bad as his recent numbers suggest. In watching him listlessly flail away at the plate, it's pretty clear that he's not really there mentally right now, which is totally understandable given his circumstances. He needs some time to get his head straight. A stint on the bench might work, but would also be tough to work out given that the Twins are already short on healthy outfielders. The better bet would be to place him on the disabled list for a while, although I don't know what the official rules are as far as using the disabled list for mental health issues. (Dontrelle Willis was DL'ed by the Tigers earlier this season for anxiety problems; perhaps the Twins could make a similar move?)
Whichever way they want to go about it, the Twins need to get Young out of the lineup for a while. And once he's got his mind right, he should return to his rightful spot as fourth outfielder.