Monday, April 04, 2011

Oh, Canada

The Twins don't match up very well against power-hitting teams in homer-friendly stadiums. This has been the case throughout recent years, and will likely remain true as long as they continue to emphasize pitching to contact and swinging for singles.

Last year the Twins went 3-6 against the Blue Jays, and over the offseason the front office only increased its emphasis on the aforementioned dynamics, so I hardly expected the team to fare well in its season-opening series against the Blue Jays in Toronto.

Still, I don't think anyone was anticipating the sort of hideous effort the Twins put forth in their first two games of the season. After a winter full of bad news, things had finally started to come together at the end of spring training for this group. Everyone had finally gotten healthy just in the nick of time, and the majority of key players had looked extremely sharp in exhibition play.

It seemed as though this team was ready to jump out of the gates and take some people by surprise. Instead, the Twins were blown out 13-3 on Friday and held to one hit in a 6-1 defeat on Saturday. They looked stunningly bad in every aspect of the game: starters failed to complete even five innings, defenders blundered repeatedly, relievers allowed deficits to grow, and hitters looked totally clueless.

The Twins salvaged the series by squeaking by in a 4-3 win yesterday, but it's tough to be encouraged by much of what we saw on opening weekend. Some thoughts:

* The short-term reaction to yesterday's game is to be relieved that the Twins escaped Toronto with a win. The long-term reaction is to be perturbed by how shaky Joe Nathan looked in closing out the victory.

Nathan entered with a two-run lead after Denard Span homered in the top of the ninth to provide some extra breathing room. That insurance run would prove crucial, as Nathan labored through his first save chance since 2009, allowing one run on two hits and two walks while throwing 31 pitches (only 15 of them strikes). Two of the outs Nathan recorded were line drives tracked down by sprinting outfielders at the warning track.

Facing the Blue Jays in Toronto in his first official outing since Tommy John surgery is certainly a tough assignment so I'm tempted to cut Nathan some slack, but what's most worrisome is the actual quality of his pitches. His fastball, which regularly sat in the mid-90s prior to surgery, topped out at 91 mph and on occasion failed to even reach 90. His breaking pitches, snappy and precise prior to surgery, registered in the low 80s and bounced before reaching home plate multiple times.

Nathan is only 12 months removed from having a ligament replaced in his elbow, and for most pitchers it takes longer than that to fully regain velocity and command. If his work in spring training and Sunday's regular-season debut are any indication, those capacities haven't returned yet for Nathan. It's not clear whether he can be effective in the closer role -- or even a late-inning relief role -- without them.

* The Twins have shown a lot of confidence in Nathan throughout his recovery process.

During the offseason, they let Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch and Brian Fuentes all walk as free agents, trusting that the departures would be largely offset by Nathan's return.

After Nathan struggled through spring training, posting a 9.72 ERA with more walks than strikeouts, the Twins continued to show confidence in him by awarding him the closer role despite Capps' almost flawless performance in Grapefruit League play.

Yesterday came Ron Gardenhire's boldest vote of confidence yet. Nathan had loaded the bases and thrown over 30 pitches in the bottom of the ninth, and the Jays had left-hander Adam Lind stepping into the box. Dusty Hughes was warm in the bullpen, ready to relieve the beleaguered closer, but Gardenhire remained in the dugout, leaving Nathan on to face Lind.

That confidence paid off, as Nathan induced a weak grounder to first to end the game, but one is left asking: should Nathan continue to pitch this way, how long will Gardy's confidence remain intact?

* In his final plate appearance yesterday, Tsuyoshi Nishioka stood with the bat on his shoulder with two strikes and watched at least two pitches from Rauch clip the strike zone. Fortunately for him, home plate umpire Paul Schrieber was apparently feeling generous and Nishioka ended up on first base with a walk rather than in the dugout with his sixth strikeout in three games.

The Japanese import has looked out of his element against major-league pitching early on. At the plate, he's been tentative, seemingly unaware that umpires at this level will call strikes on the edge of the zone. Many of the balls he put in play over the weekend came on weak contact created by defensive swings.

Regardless of all the enthusiasm created by a superficial spring training hit streak, a slow start should be the expectation for Nishioka. As with any rookie playing in the majors for the first time, he must adjust to a learning curve, and the transition is made more difficult by a new culture and -- in many ways -- a new style of playing the game.

* As one of his most avid supporters, I take no pleasure in saying that Francisco Liriano looked dreadful in his season debut on Saturday. His results weren't quite as disastrous as Carl Pavano's dud on Opening Night, but Liriano was able to work through only 4 2/3 innings, allowing four runs on four hits (two homers) and five walks while striking out three. Only 44 of the southpaw's 90 pitches met the strike zone. No one is going to be blaming this one on bad luck.

I'm not terribly concerned about Liriano's shoddy command; that's not uncommon for power pitchers early in the season (see Jon Lester's debut for the Red Sox). More alarming was the lack of bite on his pitches. His fastball sat several ticks lower than we typically saw it last season and was ineffective in setting up the slider, which itself was inconsistent in location and velocity.

When he's on top of his game, Liriano makes a living on mixing mid-90s heaters with biting sliders -- overpowering pitches that often miss the zone but induce a lot of whiffs. This style could be referred to as effectively wild. When the offerings are lacking as they were on Saturday afternoon, there's nothing effective about his wildness.

* Pavano was absolutely crushed on Friday night, but here's a fact to keep in mind. In his third start last year, the veteran righty allowed seven runs on 11 hits over 3 1/3 innings against the Royals (yes, the Royals). He followed that up with four straight quality starts in which he pitched at least seven innings. Pavano is susceptible to the occasional bombing, but he should be fine going forward.

* The Twins don't match up very well against power-hitting teams in homer-friendly stadiums. Have I said that before? Well it's a bitter truth as the club now heads to New York for a four-game series against the Yankees.

With no break in sight (the Twins don't have an off day until the 11th), the back end of Gardenhire's bullpen is worn down. The team's been very vocal about protecting Nathan's arm early in the season, and he threw a lot of pitches yesterday. Meanwhile, Jose Mijares and Matt Capps have appeared in consecutive games. It will be interesting to see how the manager deploys relievers over the next couple days, especially if he faces tight late-game situations.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the long post!

cy1time said...

I don't specifically recall NIshioka's AB against Rauch, but I thought that he showed a pretty good eye over the weekend. I thought that the umps squeezed him a little, a few strikes that wouldn't have been called against Mauer or Morneau. He might have to adjust to being a rookie, again.

Out of Florida, they said he was better from the left side than the right side. Romero made him look bad Friday night, but Romero made everyone look bad.

His defense was horrible, I'm willing to chalk that up to nerves. We saw some quickness and some range, though. I think it will be fine when he's got a few more games under his belt.

I'm still optimistic that we're going to be happy with what we get out of Nishioka.

Lucas said...

Well we got a lot of work to do, but it is nice to note, still very early in the season.

Really looks as if the Twins are going to make a move to get some more RP help in the future.

Scruffy Rube said...

Your logic about the Twins being susceptible to bad series in homer-friendly ball parks against power hitting teams rings true to me. But I wonder about whether it's the game plan alone or the psychological aspect of going up against teams we historically struggle against.

Over the past three years we've definitely struggled against Toronto (6-17) and New York (6-17), but we've held our own against similarly styled clubs in Chicago (35-20) and Texas (19-12). {I know that this might be skewed since I can't find road records against these teams, and home games at Target Field aren't "homer-friendly", but still, it seems that we can cope with some boppers...just not the ones out East}

I still agree with your premise, and think that as long as we have pitchers who throw to contact we'll get an occasional shellacking by teams that pounce on those pitches. But whenever I watch games against the Jays and Yankees, I see good players press and stress and panic (both on the mound and at the plate). Do you think it's just the game plan, or is there a little psychology factored in too?

Ed Bast said...

The most discouraging thing over the weekend for me was for about the 50th time in his career Liriano melts down in the face of even the tiniest shred of adversity. Becoming doubtful he's ever going to figure it out. It's baffling that some folks, e.g. hardcore stat heads, can continue to discount any "mental toughness" issues after watching a performance like that.

To piggyback on Scruffy's "psychological" take, in the paper today Gardy said they needed to "survive" New York and get back home. This perfectly summarizes the organizational attitude that prevents us from being serious contenders year in and year out. The Twins shouldn't be looking to "survive". They should be looking to win the damn series, hell, get a sweep. But when the manager completely lacks confidence, so goes the team.

Anyhow it's one series, on the road against a better team. Not the end of the world.

Anonymous said...

"* Pavano was absolutely crushed on Friday night, but here's a fact to keep in mind. In his third start last year, the veteran righty allowed seven runs on 11 hits over 3 1/3 innings against the Royals (yes, the Royals). He followed that up with four straight quality starts in which he pitched at least seven innings. Pavano is susceptible to the occasional bombing, but he should be fine going forward."

There you have it. No way you could argue with this type of well supported argument.

Ugo said...

Nice read. I think your team will be fine when the seasons all done. The Twins always seem to pull through (why I always bet on them in futures).

As I Jay fan, I would gladly trade you those two wins to switch divisions for just one season.

lvl 5 Charizard said...

"The most discouraging thing over the weekend for me was for about the 50th time in his career Liriano melts down in the face of even the tiniest shred of adversity. "

Are you serious with this? He was terrible the entire game. His command was awful, he wasnt throwing hard, he wasnt consistent with anything. If you really think that start is a good example of lirianos mental weakness then you are just looking to make a point because he was bad for his entire start just just when he faced adversity.

Ed Bast said...

There's more to pitching than just throwing hard and getting strike outs. Good pitchers bear down and get outs even when they don't have their best stuff. Liriano seemed to quit after about 2 innings. "Well I don't have my best stuff so there's no use even trying." Liriano is not a pitcher yet, he's a thrower. I guess I was hoping to see a new Frankie this year. Instead it was the same old story.

Nick N. said...

There's more to pitching than just throwing hard and getting strike outs. Good pitchers bear down and get outs even when they don't have their best stuff.

Like Pavano did on Friday night? How come he's allowed to have bad outings without receiving your flimsy accusations of mental weakness and Liriano is not?

Anonymous said...

You couldn't have been more accurate...the entire team has looked like they need another two weeks of Spring Training. This weekend the timing was off, nobody knew the strike zone (it didn't help that the Twins/Jays drew the worst umpire crew in baseball - Joe West and Angel Hernandez never have a consistent zone inning to inning or team to team), communication was poor on defense, pitchers had command/control issues (Blackburn was the exception)....they just looked over-matched.

Ed Bast said...

Nick, don't get me wrong, Pavano was terrible. I guess I hold Liriano to higher expectations than you do, because I want him to be a guy who can go into Yankee Stadium and steal a playoff game for this club. I want him to be "the guy". He needs to improve and pitch up to his potential.

Pavano is declining, he overachieved last year, and with his stuff he tends to get blasted every now and then, particularly against good lineups. He's a nice pitcher, but it's unreasonable to expect improvement from him - at this point in his career, he is what he is.

I'd like to think there would be different expectations for Liriano and Pavano, but I guess I overestimated your opinion of Liriano.

Nick N. said...

I obviously think very highly of Liriano, but everyone's allowed a bad start here and there. When this actually becomes a theme I'll buy the complaints.

Anonymous said...

WHEN it becomes a theme??? We're there Nick!

Marshall Garvey (MarshalltheIrish) said...

I'm not going to defend Liriano's start by any means, but I don't really think it's a reason to blast his mental toughness just yet. I generally agree with Ed's criticism of him in that regard, especially with last year's playoff, but I'm holding faith he'll settle down and reach his potential, as well as Pavano. If he continues to underwhelm, however, then we'll have a problem.

Anonymous said...

It's kind of bothersome seeing quite a few comments jumping on the train to negative town this early in the season. I totally agree with the assertion that the strike throwing Twins match up poorly with power hitting free swinging teams such as the Jays.

I disagree with the notion that the Twins were ready to jump out the gates. There are just so many off-season issues resolving themselves during spring. Cuddyer, Young and Mauer all played around 1/3 of the teams spring games and while they may not have played much early in spring, all of those guys coming back from injuries plus Morneau and Nathan coming back is a lot.

I'm not surprised Nathan was shaky, I would expect a lot of nerves in his first save opp in such a long time. Pitchers recovering from Tommy John always take time to regain velocity and braking pitches so I'm interested to see where he is in a month or so.

Kind of the same deal with Nishi. I think folks who expected the great spring to carry over are a little naive. He is going to need an adjustment period, let's review in a month.

Trying to take some positives in a pretty poor weekend. Blackburn looked good on Sunday and pitched solidly, Span got off to a good start too. Hopefully the Twins can take a couple from the Yankees, despite being 2-17 in the last 19.

I have plenty of faith in the Twins over the course of the season, but am expecting April to be a tough month

USAFChief said...

I obviously think very highly of Liriano, but everyone's allowed a bad start here and there. When this actually becomes a theme I'll buy the complaints.

How many years does it take to become a theme, Nick?

Nick N. said...

How many years does it take to become a theme, Nick?

Last year he had a lot more good starts than bad ones. I'd settle for the same this year, or any year.

Anonymous said...

I was in Toronto for the Friday night game. It was horrible. It had to be worse in person than on TV! Thankfully we skipped the Saturday game & returned to witness the win Sunday, but I agree - Nathan didn't look great (I think I stopped breathing for that 1/2 inning).