Monday, July 16, 2018

Into the break

Well, that was a wacky one Sunday, and the Twins go into their four-day vacation on a hgih note. A few comments:

* Did a 9-2 homestand take the front office out of their expected/projected sell mode? My guess is not.

That came against a fairly weak set of opponents. Tampa Bay is a competitive team; the Orioles and Royals are not. Yes, the Twins made up four games in the standings, but they remain 7.5 games behind Cleveland, and the schedule is about to get a bit tougher.

* The Twins got a dose of Tampa Bay's "opener" strategy Sunday, with Ryne Stanek working the first two innings and making a planned early departure. (The Twins scored a run against him, ending his streak of nine straight "opens" without allowing a run.)

As I understand what the Rays are doing, they have basically three kinds of pitching plans:

  • Traditional starter. We saw this in the first three games of the series, with Blake Snell, Nathan Eovaldi and Chris Archer. They are the only true starters on the Rays staff at the moment, and Eovadi and Archer have each been on the DL in recent weeks.
  • Starter in the middle. The opener goes an inning, maybe a batter or two more, and then a pitcher enters with the intent of working through the order (18 hitters) at least twice. This is generally how Ryan Yarbourgh has been used. 
  • "True" bullpen games. This is what we got on Sunday. The Rays used nine pitchers, none of whom got more than six outs.
Yarbourgh, who pitched Sunday and got five outs, is basically a misplaced starter. The rookie lefty is second on the team in innings pitched with just five official starts in 24 games pitched. He's averaging almost four innings an appearance.  Sunday's outing was a bit briefer because he pitched three innings on Wednesday and an inning on Friday.

* So we aren't to read anything into the fifth inning use of Fernando Rodney; he pitched early because he had a plane to catch in order to make his appointment to become a citizen, which is an excellent excuse. 

Unfortunately, Trevor Hildenberger blew the save in the ninth, which means Dick-n-Bert will be vocally worried about the lack of a proven closer the next time Rodney isn't available for the ninth inning.

* Botton of the 10th. Jake Cave leads off with a double. Mitch Garver bunts him to third, and Dick-n-Bert are happy. The real result of that bunt is that the bat was taken out of the hands of the Twins two best left-handed hitters, because Joe Mauer and Eddie Rosario were walked.

It worked out for the Twins, obviously, as Brian Dozier's fly ball got over the wall for a grand slam. But I was sitting there muttering that the Twins deserved to see him ground into a double play. I'd rather they take three shots at scoring Cave from second with Garver, Mauer and Rosario against a righty than two shots at scoring him from third with Dozier and Escobar.

* I've read game stories out of both the Twin Cities and Tampa Bay, and still have no idea what the two bench-clearings were about. 

Were the Rays peeved that Dozier took advantage of their extreme shift and provoked a balk?Probably, but that's as much their own fault as were the throwing errors that put Dozier on third base to begin with. 

I'm going to chalk it up to general crankiness and forget about it. 

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Pic of the Week

George Rusch, 4, of Alexandria, Va., swings
 a bat at the virtual reality home run derby
Saturday at the All-Star FanFest in Washington.
I'm old. I have no experience with virtual reality and no real interest in trying it. "Real" reality is challenging enough for me.

That said, he looks like he's having fun.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

A few thoughts on the shift

My Free Press colleague Jim Rueda had a piece in today's edition about the shift making inroads in amateur baseball as seen in the Mankato area -- colleges, high school, town ball, Northwoods League.

Executive summary: The local coaches are seeing more shifts from opponents, particularly a few opponents, but seem wary of the tactic themselves. They cite lack of specific data on individual hitters and, by implication, doubt that their pitchers have the command to "pitch to the shift."

My sense of this, which applies what the data says about hitters in professional ball (majors and minors) to amateur ball -- which may not be the wisest assumption to make -- is that those are not sound reasons to avoid shifting.

Point one: Almost all ground balls are pulled. It does not matter if it's a left-handed hitter or right-handed. Very few grounders go the other way. Balls hit the other way are almost always hit in the air -- line drives, popups or outfield flies.

And that's what the shift is for, ground balls. Line drives are likely to be hits regardless of defensive alignment (the batting average on line drives is over .750). Popups to the opposite field might test the range of that lone infielder, but they're still generally catchable. Outfield flies, the shift is irrelevant.

Conclusion: More shifts equal fewer ground-ball hits allowed.

Point two: That data comes without pitching to the shift. Logan Morrison (to drag a specific MLB example into this) doesn't try to hit where it's pitched. His approach is about launch angle -- get the ball in the air. Pitchers don't need to try to get him to pull the ball; they need to try to get him to hit it on the ground.

That's a different concept. Don't worry about in and out. If you get ground balls, they're going to pull.

Point three: These rules are universal enough that some MLB organizations employ blanket shifts all the way through their minor league systems. The book Big Data Baseball tells how the Pirates' farm director took short lengths of PVC pipe to their various minor league locales, drove them into the ground and told the infielders: You will play all left handed hitters here, all right handed hitters there, no exceptions allowed or tolerated.

Specific individual data? They don't need that. The general principle is enough to act on.

There is a fourth point, however, that does undermine the shift in amateur ball: Bunts. High school and college teams bunt more than pro teams do, often a lot more. You can shift on Morrison or Chris Davis of Baltimore with impunity; they might bunt once a year if that, and they just aren't very confident in that skill. That's probably not the case with high school and college teams.

Maybe that's enough to keep the shift from becoming as prevalent in amateur ball as in the pros.

Friday, July 13, 2018

No LoMo (for a few games)

Logan Morrison was placed on the disabled list Thursday; with the All Star break coming up, the slumper-slugger may miss only six games with what is described as chronic hip impingment.

The way he's played, we might wish it were more. He has a dismal slash line (.193/.287/.367) and has looked at least as bad afield when he's playing first base in Joe Mauer's stead.

That last may be deceiving. Morrison grades out in the metrics, at least as listed by Baseball Reference, as a slightly better than average first baseman. It may be that Mauer is so good that Morrison's flaws are glaringly obvious, or it may be that Morrison's miscues have been particularly costly and thus stand out in our memories.

But the biggest issue with Morrison is the bat. He simply hasn't hit. Part of it may be, again, bad luck -- he has lost a few "home runs" to Target Field's high right field wall, and his batting average on balls in play is a dismal .213. But it should also be noted that Morrison's 38-homer outburst in 2017 was markedly higher long-ball production than in his previous seasons.

Most of us thought the Twins had made a coup by signing Morrison late in spring training. It certainly hasn't worked out that way.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Contemplating Addison Reed

The Twins put Addison Reed on the disabled list (triceps) Wednesday and recalled Alan Busenitz from Triple A. This is at least the third call-up for Busenitz this year, maybe four. None have been for very long.

This is apparently Reed's first time on the DL, which is rather impressive for a hard-used reliever in this era. It probably ensures that he won't be traded this month, not that his pitching of late was making any contenders salivate at the thought of adding him.

Reed was supplanted weeks ago in the bullpen heirarchy as the primary set-up man by Trevor Hildenberger, which seemed plausible even after Reed's signing. Hildenberger had a rough spring training, I think in part because he was working on a breaking ball, and there was no question coming into the season that Paul Molitor trusted Reed more.

But that's changed. Reed's now allowed eight homers in 41 innings, and several of those long balls led directly to losses.

To a degree, heirarchy matters less than depth. Good teams need deep bullpens, the deeper the better. Whether as the primary eight-inning guy or a seven-inning guy or a strand-these-runners specialist, Reed was supposed to deepen the Twins 'pen. By the time he conceded that there was a problem affecting his pitching, he was unusable in game situations.  Now it's Busenitz's turn, at least for a while.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Taking stock

Jake Odorizzi stated the obvious the other day: The Twins have dug a deep enough hole for themselves that it isn't enough to win series. They need sweeps. They need a long winning streak.

Tuesday's loss to the punchless Kansas City Royals ended a five-game winning streak and contained way too many of the elements that have made 2018 a disappointment for the Twins:


  • A disasterously short start (this time by Aaron Slegers)
  • A baserunning blunder (Logan Morrison trying to turn a leadoff double into a triple down four runs)
  • A leaky bullpen (Addison Reed, who ballooned his ERA to 4.83)
  • A ninth-inning rally against mop-up relievers to make the final score look better.

Just a dreary, noncompetitive game. Just another in a season riddled with them.

Mike Berardino suggested in a game story during the weekend that the Twins might be able to move themselves out of the "seller" category before the nonwaiver trade deadline at the end of the month. Ken Rosenthal, as plugged into the web of trade rumors as anybody, said from the FS1 studio that the Twins were in wait-and-see mode -- talking trade but not yet ready to pull the trigger.

Games like Tuesday's should make the decision easier.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Gone and back

Ryan LaMarre, who made the Minnesota roster out of spring training, bounced up and down, got some regular playing time in center with Byron Buxton's rehab assignment/demotion and was finally waived by the Twins, was claimed by the Chicago White Sox.

I found LaMarre an easy player to root for, but that hardly overcomes his limitations as a ballplayer. He looked like a good defensive outfielder (the metrics didn't really agree), displayed little power at the plate and made too many baserunning mistakes. In that last he was hardly unique on this team. Jake Cave has a higher ceiling.

LaMarre was a fringe guy on the Twins. He'll be a fringe guy with the White Sox.

---

The Twins announced that Felix Jorge had been released and then re-signed to a minor league contract. 

The mechanics here are ... interesting, at least to me. Jorge was called up twice last season for spot starts and spent the offseason and much of season on the 40-man roster but sidelined by a triceps injury. The Twins DFA'd him at the start of the month to create a spot for Willians Astudillo.

So Jorge cleared waivers -- and then apparently, the Twins released him and re-signed him rather than outright him. The advantage for the Twins: If and when they decide to put him on the 40 again only to decide to take him off, he won't have the option of declaring free agency. He had that opportunity this time around.

This is probably all academic anyway, certainly in the short term. Jorge is a long way from being a factor for the big league club.

---

Closer to being a factor for the big league club: Ervin Santana is apparently expected to be restored to the Twins roster and rotation after the All-Star break. Barring a trade or injury involving somebody else, this is presumably not good news for Aaron Slegers.

A bit further away: Michael Pineda, signed to a two-year deal by the Twins last winter while he recovers from Tommy John surgery is slated to go on a rehab assignment later this month. He might get a month to six weeks in the major league rotation this year. I don't think the Twins were counting on that when they signed him.