Monday, May 29, 2017

RIP, Jim Bunning

Jim Bunning at the 2016 Hall of Fame
induction ceremony.
We had a little news judgment debate Saturday at the Free Press: Whose death was more significant, Jim Bunning's or Gregg Allman? The majority thought Allman; I decided that the Hall of Fame and 24 years in Congress outweighed "Whipping Post" and a comically short tabloid marriage. I got both obits in, but I played Bunning's higher.

Not that I ever wholeheartedly embraced Bunning's HOF status. His record, in my view, is good but not outstanding: 224-184, 3.27. Not that it's a binary choice, but I'd go with Luis Tiant (229-172, 3.30) over Bunning. Bill James had a more favorable view of Bunning's record in some of his books, however.

Bunning did have a perfect game (1964, against the Mets; one is tempted to put an asterisk by it because it was the Mets, but even the Mets didn't get no-hit daily), and he did play a key role in one of the most storied collapses in pennant race history (pitching, and failing, repeatedly on short rest down the stretch as the Phillies blew a 6.5 game lead in the final 10 days in 1964), and he did play a key role in the hiring of Marvin Miller to head the players union.

The Hall of Fame's on-line bio of Bunning lists his primary team as Detroit, and he did play more for the Tigers than anybody else, but his plaque depicts him in a Phillies cap, which is more correct. There are four HOF pitchers with significant ties to the Phillies (none spent their entire careers there): Grover Cleveland Alexander, Steve Carlton, Robin Roberts and Bunning. Bunning is clearly the least of them, which is not an insult.

In Congress -- 12 years in the House, 12 in the Senate -- well, I follow politics fairly closely, and I can't remember any particular issue on which Bunning was a key figure. Time in 2009 named him one of the five worst senators, which isn't necessarily conclusive but something most officeholders would prefer to avoid.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Pic of the Week

Yankees manager Joe Girardi covers
home plate after being ejected by home plate
umpire Scott Barry.

A move right out of the Earl Weaver guide to making umpires hate you. We really don't see many theatrical manager arguments anymore, in large part because of replay. I don't think I miss them much.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Roster moves and injuries

Adalberto Mejia was indeed called up after Friday's game to make today's start. Adam Wilk, the lefty claimed off waivers from the Mets on May 10, was designated for assignment.

Wilk made two long relief appearances in some 16 days on the roster, working seven innings total. It was relatively easy to forget that he was on the roster, and I suspect that he's one of those guys who, when I look at the Baseball Reference page for this team five years from now, I'll think: Who was that?

Maybe he'll clear waivers and accept an outright to Rochester. Maybe he'll be claimed. I doubt anybody in the front office is overly concerned either way.


A worse loss for the Twins was announced Friday: Nick Burdi needs Tommy John surgery.

I saw his second professional game, working for Cedar Rapids in a game in Clinton, Iowa in July 2014, and wrote about him (and Kohl Stewart) here. I am fairly certain that if on that muggy, buggy night I were told that the major league team would be in first place entering Memorial Day weekend in 2017, I would have expected that one or both of those pitchers would be part of that.

But Burdi, who was overwhelming the Southern League this year, can't seem to stay healthy, and Stewart is struggling in Double A (22 walks in 24 innings).

Anyway: scratch Burdi for 2017 and probably 2018, at least in terms of getting to Target Field. He was supposed to be a fast mover, but ... pitching at around 100 mph is a cruel occupation.


Some injury news regarding established major leaguers:

Phil Hughes is seeking a second opinion on his arm issues. Glen Perkins is apparently going to pitch to hitters (what they call live batting practice) on Tuesday.

My lukewarm takes: Hughes isn't so sure his current issues aren't related to the thoratic outlet syndrome for which he had surgery last year. And I'm glad to see some progress for Perkins, but I'm not counting on him for 2017.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Widening the rotation

The Twins had an off-day Thursday. They have played 43 games so far; their opponent this weekend, the Tampa Bay Rays, have played 50. Nobody in baseball has played fewer games than the Twins to date.

The relative lack of games allowed manager Paul Molitor to sharply narrow his starting rotation this month. Ervin Santana, Hector Santiago and Phil Hughes have made every scheduled start (although Hughes went on the disabled list after his last start). Molitor has skipped a rotation spot at every opportunity and shuffled Jose Berrios (three starts this month), Kyle Gibson (two starts), Nick Tepesch (one start) and Aldberto Mejia (one start) in and out of the rotation and on and off the roster.

That approach is not going to work forever. The Twins have a shortfall of games played to make up in the remaining four months or so of the season, and the opportunities to skip a rotation spot will disappear.

Santana, Santiago and Berrios are the current givens in the rotation. Gibson is the current fourth, and while his leash is perceived to be short it's not obvious who will dislodge him. Sunday's starter has not, to my knowledge, been identified, but I expect it will be Mejia, which will require a roster move of some sort after Saturday's game.

Hughes' ailment has been announced as "biceps tendinitis," which I regard as the current term for "sore arm." (This is not to mock or deny the injury.) There is no public timeline for his return. Until he is ready to pitch again, I expect Mejia and Gibson to get the ball on a more regular basis. I have higher expectations for Mejia than for Gibson at this point. Molitor and the rest of the decision makers dearly want at least one of them to do something good with the opportunity,

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Ervin Santana and the 1.80 ERA

Ervin Santana has made 10 starts this season, going 7-2 with a 1.80 ERA.

Wins are an exceptionally noisy stat, but he had seven wins total in each of his first two seasons with the Twins -- and now seven before the end of May.

More significant is the ERA, which is about 2.2 runs per nine innings below his career figure.

He's getting these results even though both his walks per nine innings and his strikeouts per nine innings have not only deteriorated from last season but are approaching career worsts.

According to Baseball Reference, Santana's FIP -- Fielding Independent Pitching, an attempt to determine what his ERA would be with an average fielding team supporting him -- is 4.10, which is pretty much in line with his career figure (4.22). The 2017 Twins have been a better than average fielding team, but I doubt that everybody's getting two runs per nine innings of benefit.

Well, let's check it out. Hector Santiago and Phil Hughes are the next highest pitchers on the staff in starts (nine apiece) and innings (50 for Santiago, 47 for Hughes). Santiago has a 3.96 ERA  and a 4.85 FIP -- a significant difference, but less than half what Santana is getting. Hughes, now on the disabled list, is the opposite -- his actual ERA, 5.74, is about a half run worse than his FIP, 5.29.

Small sample sizes are inherently noisy, and there are some subtle differences in the 2017 Santana -- a bit more movement on his pitches, a wider velocity differentation between his slider and changeup. His ERA in his final 18 starts of 2016 was 2.41, so we're really seeing a much longer run of markedly good results.

My expectation is that Santana's walk and strikeout rates will improve, which should lower his FIP. I also expect that his ERA will rise. Thirty-one hits allowed in 70 innings? That is not sustainable.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Jorge Polanco, shortstop

Jorge Polanco is
one ot three Twins
in the top 10 in
defensive WAR
in the AL as
calculated by
Baseball Reference.
Jorge Polanco played regularly at shortstop the last two months of 2016. He played the position like a pinball bumper -- 11 errors in 406 innings -- which essentially fit his erratic results in the minors.

And yet Paul Molitor persisted. He saw a major league shortstop in Polanco where almost nobody else did. And so far this season he has been vindicated.

On Tuesday John Dewan, founder of Baseball Info Systems, posted this piece on the Twins fielding improvement this year. 

After a rough start to his defensive career as a rookie in 2016, Jorge Polanco has been looking very comfortable at shortstop so far this season, saving the team five runs. In particular, Polanco has shined with his throwing arm, making seven plays above average in the hole between shortstop and third base.
As if to underline that second sentence, Polanco made two such plays in the ninth inning Tuesday night in the Twins shutout win over Baltimore.

Polanco has not hit quite as well as I expected (which doesn't mean he won't). He has been far better afield than I could have imagined. When you look for reasons the Twins are so much better this year compared to last, Polanco the shortstop is high on the list.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Add one pitcher, subtract one pitcher

A bit more than a week ago, in discussing the dominance of Jose Berrios in his first major league start of 2017, I noted in the Monday print column that the Twins had two veteran starters who were pitching quite well (Erivin Santana  and Hector Santiago) and one pitching acceptably (Phil Hughes). Berrios, optimistically, deepens the rotation:

That's the optimistic take, and it assumes not only that Berrios is suddenly a solid major league starter but that none of the Santana-Santiago-Berrios-Hughes combo gets hurt. That's ... unlikely.

Berrios was even better the second time out. But Hughes has since spluttered and gone on the disabled list.

Aldaberto Mejia, who opened the season as the fifth starter but didn't fare well with inconsistent work, returned for the second game of Sunday's doubleheader and got the job done: Seven innings, three runs. Do that every start, you're gonna make a lot of money, kid. He was immediately shipped back out as the Twns gamed their roster, but he figures to be back real soon.

Kyle Gibson started Monday and was SOG -- Same Old Gibson. He managed to both worsen a horrid ERA on the season (from 8.20 to 8.62)  and get the credit for the win. Twelve runs of support can cover a multitude of sins, and Gibson had a multitude to cover. Eighty-six pitches and just 48 for strikes?

Not that he's the sterotypical Twins strike-thrower;

Santana-Santiago-Berrios does not add up to a five-man rotation. I'm not sure at this point that inserting Gibson brings them to four, but that appears to be the short-term intent for lack of a better idea.

We don't know how badly Hughes is injured or even what the injury is. No matter what, he's out of the picture for at least eight more days. Presumably Mejia will get called up again for Saturday's start, although it's possible that they might try to get through with a bullpen game if they don't have to take innings from Adam Wilk and Justin Haley between now and then. If couse, if they do that, the 'pen is vulnerable going into another Gibson start on Sunday.

Bottom line:

  • Gibson may be at a career crossroads
  • Berrios' emergence hasn't really deepened the rotation after all
  • We're gonna see a lot of roster juggling this summer.