Saturday, April 18, 2015

An early view of Santana at shortstop

Danny Santana has struggled in the field in the early going.
I'll start with the caveat: It's early. The Twins have played all of 10 games. But Danny Santana is not impressing me in his first sustained time at shortstop in the majors.

He made another poor throw Friday night on an attempted 3-6-1 double play, His return throw was a least a yard behind pitcher Mike Pelfrey. (Bert Blyleven tried to blame the missed connection on Pelfrey, a bit of commentary sufficiently inane that I suspect he's been ordered not to be critical of Santana defensively.) There was no error charged --  the batter-runner didn't advance, and the scoring rules say you can't presume the double play -- but it was a poor throw.

As it is, Santana has already been charged with more errors (3) this season than he was in his 34 sporadic major league games at short last season (2). Errors are, of course, a very blunt statistical tool with which to try to dissect defense, but such a high error rate indicates a problem, especially since official scorers tend to be sparing with the "E"s. There have been other misplays that have gone as fielder's choices or hits.

Again: It's early, far too early to start citing the metrics on Santana's defense. Perhaps he'll settle in and start playing more consistently, Or perhaps his attention will fade and the mistakes will increase. I don't know where this is going. I do believe he's living down to his reputation as a sloppy defensive shortstop in the minors.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Three series into the season

The Twins have now played nine games, which is 5.5 percent of the season. That's not a lot.

Still, we've seen already some of the problems foreseen with this roster. The glovework has been weak -- the outfield is short on range and the middle infield has problems turning double plays. The bullpen is thin -- any team needs more than one reliable right-handed arm in its relief corps, and Casey Fien is the only one who approximates that description.

These things are true and significant, and yet the Twins just took two of three from a Kansas City team whose strongest points are exactly those weaknesses -- outstanding defense and a a deep bullpen, especially from the right side.

A 3-6 record is certainly nothing to celebrate, but the Twins aren't as bad as they looked in the 1-6 stretch that opened the season, Nobody's that bad. But they're also not as good as management appears to think they are, My guess is that the roster shakeup -- and there will be one -- will come in about a month.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Roger Kahn, Leo Durocher and "Rickey & Robinson"

A fan in Pittsburgh holds a sign Wednesday honoring
Jackie Robinson.
Wednesday was Jackie Robinson Day, baseball's annual display of self-satisfaction over the
integration of the major leagues in 1947.

During the offseason Roger Kahn, who covered the Dodgers for the now-defunct Herald Tribune for a couple of years in the Robinson era and who became famous as the author of "The Boys of Summer," a marvelous book celebrating that team, hit the bestseller lists again with "Rickey & Robinson,"

I can't claim to have read all of Kahn's books, but I've read enough of them to expect him to write in the first person. I can't claim to have read all the books about Jackie Robinson, but I've read enough of them to believe I have a handle on the story of breaking the color barrier.

"Rickey & Robinson" is indeed in the first person, which grated on me somewhat because, at least regarding 1947, Kahn wasn't there. By the time he was handed the Dodgers beat, Rickey was in Pittsburgh and Robinson an established star. Still, the book relies so heavily on what Kahn says he was told over the years -- by Robinson, by Rickey, by others -- that I never figured out how it would work in a more distant third person.

There are details and claims that I haven't seen before (again, there are many recountings of this theme that I'm not familar with), and several of them are minor, But one notion that I haven't seen in print before seems rather significant, and I really wonder if it's true -- that the suspension of Dodger manager Leo Durocher for the 1947 season was based not so much on his sexual-marital scandal with actress Laraine Day as for throwing the 1946 pennant race for the profit of his mobster-gambling buddies.

Kahn is in his mid 80s, and everybody else he mentions in connection with this story is long dead. Durocher. "Shondor" Birns, the Cleveland racketeer who supposedly cleaned up wagering against the Dodgers in their best-of-three tiebreaker series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Ford Frick, then the National League president, who Kahn describes as deflecting his decades-later questions about Durocher in 1946 by talking about curling. Bill Veeck, who is Kahn's chief source on the story.

The notion of Durocher fixing a pennant race is so out-of-sorts with his win-at-any-price persona that I was immediately skeptical of Kahn's story. Yet upon examination, it is uncomfortably plausible.

Durocher was hanging out with a bad news crowd. He was habitually short of money. He did live by a moral code, it it can be called such, that was amazingly short-sighted and self-centered. I can't rule out the possibility that he shed some uncomfortable debt by mishandling his pitching staff at the end of the season.

And his selection of Ralph Branca to start the first game of that playoff series was, at the least, odd. Of the nine men who did the bulk of the pitching for the Dodgers that year, Branca (in his age 20 season) worked the fewest innings and had by far the worst ERA. Durocher frequently did the unexpected -- playing a hunch, he called it -- but off the stats, Branca was the worst possible selection.

The Durocher suspension was, at the time, as big a story as Robinson himself was, and losing Durocher was a blow to Rickey's plan, Today it's almost forgotten. Kahn's story, as far as I can tell, has drawn little attention. Durocher is in the Hall of Fame, a selection that suggests that if a dalliance with game-fixing was rumored at the time it didn't have legs. But if he did indeed fix, or semi-fix, the 1946 pennant, he doesn't belong in the Hall. I suspect I'll never really know.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

In the glare of the sun field

Part of the company line about moving Oswaldo Arcia to left field was the notion that the overhang in right field was preying on Arcia's mind. Getting Arcia away from the overhang, Terry Ryan predicted this spring, will make him a better outfielder.

There's an underappreciated aspect to left field at Target Field, however. It's the sunfield in that park, and while that may be less crucial than it was in an era when night games were rare, it is still a factor at times.

I was in the lower left field seats for the home opener, a bright sunny day with a 3 p.m. start, which meant that the sun was getting progressively lower. Alex Gordon, the Kansas City left fielder who is by consensus the best at the position in the game, dealt with the sun in large part by taking flyballs side saddle -- he would, in effect, turn his back on the sun and catch the ball to the side, rather than straight on. By game's end, Gordon's center field partner, Lorenzo Cain, was shielding his eyes with his glove on each pitch.

Arcia made a nice catch in left-center Monday, a play that had his back to the sun. He clanked a ball near the left-field line, a play that had him running toward the sun.

The sun was an issue Monday. But major league outfielders should be able to cope with the sun. It's part of the job. Gordon and Cain found a way to do so. Arcia was less adept at it. That had nothing to do with the overhang, and everything to do with his outfielding skills, or lack of them.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Trevor May and a sloppy opener

That was one ugh-ly game, folks.

The Twins lost 12-3 and really didn't play even that well. And still I rise to the defense on starter Trevor May. The linescore says he gave up eight hits and five earned runs in 5.1 innings. Fact: he pitched a lot better than that.

Yes, he gave up a monster homer to Kendrys Morales, and yes, in the sixth inning the Royals started hitting balls hard.

But the second run scored because Brian Dozier and Danny Santana, trying to turn a spectacular double play in the third, neglected to get even one out. Just one out there would have allowed May to escape the inning with the fly ball that followed; instead it went as a sacrifice fly, and Kansas City took the lead.

Dozier and Santana failed again to convert a DP in the fourth inning, a failure that didn't lead to any runs. And in the sixth, the inning that drove May from the game, we saw a throwing error by Torii Hunter and a "double" that clanked off Oswaldo Arcia's glove.

It got worse from there, but frankly, once May was pulled and the bullpen called upon to squirt lighter fluid on the fire, I lost interest in keeping track of the miscues. There were plenty.

The friend in the next seat asked whether a right fielder should be expected to reach the sixth inning double that led to Hunter's throwing error. I suspect there are right fielders who would have caught that ball, but I don't know that for a fact. I know Hunter did not come close.

With better defense, maybe May gets through the sixth with, I don't know, two or three runs allowed. Which is a lot better than five runs in 5.1.

What I particularly liked about May's performance: he threw strikes: 78 pitchers, 54 strikes. He walked one man, and that was intentional. (One thing we can definitely say about Paul Molitor as a manager: He is far more willing to issue an IBB than Ron Gardenhire and Tom Kelly were. I don't regard this as a good thing, but that's a topic for another day.)

Monday, April 13, 2015

A bullpen based on March

The last seven men
to face Blaine Boyer
all got hits.
The Blaine Boyer Experience this weekend wasn't pretty.

On Saturday he entered the ninth inning of a tied game with one out and nobody on. He got his first batter out, then: single (misplayed by shortstop Santana), double, single, one run in and the third out at the plate.

On Sunday he faced four batters in the eighth inning of a one-run game: single, stolen base, single, home run, single. Added to Sunday's misery: It was all against right-handed hitters, and if Boyer offers a bullpen anything of value, it's facing right-handed hitters.

That's a fairly substantial if. Boyer is 33, has a lengthy track record -- Sunday was his 269th major league appearance over nine full or partial seasons -- and is what he has always been: A fringe reliever, the 12th or 13th pitcher on a 12-man staff.

So why is he suddenly getting key innings for the Twins? Three reasons:

  • Casey Fien has a balky shoulder;
  • Boyer had a strong spring training;
  • Tim Stauffer was awful in spring training

I see two groups of relievers on this roster. The first are the secure veterans: Glen Perkins, Fien, Brian Duensing, Stauffer. They entered camp knowing they would be on the roster; the first three knew what their specific roles would be.

The second group got roster spots on the strength of what they did in Florida last month: Boyer, J.R. Graham, Aaron Thompson. Graham is in a unique position as a Rule 5 draftee; he either sticks on the roster or goes back to the Atlanta Braves, and there's too much there to consider giving him up.

One week into the season, and the bullpen is a mess. I have no basis to judge if Fien should be on the disabled list or not, but if he can't take the mound and Stauffer and Boyer can't get outs, the right-handed portion of the relief corps is down to Graham, and there isn't enough of him for that.

Something must be did, and the likeliest candidate to do it to is Boyer. Stauffer's contract may be digestable, but December's decision to give him a major-league contract suggests the front office will wait until at least mid-May before admitting the mistake.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Pic of the Week

Kurt Suzuki tags out Adam Eaton for the final out
of the Twins' first victory of 2015.

Two things about this photo:

  • Suzuki is in a very awkward position.
  • What is Eaton doing, getting thrown out at home plate down six runs?
Not a smart play by Eaton.