Wednesday, August 31, 2011

On Morneau's head and the Arizona Fall League

Another injury in a
lost season for the
2006 MVP.
Justin Morneau dove for a ball on Sunday, had headaches on Monday and was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome.


I don't doubt the description offered Tuesday by the trainer: That on one of the tests involved he tests slightly below baseline. I don't quarrel with Morneau's statement that what he has now is nothing like last season's problems, which cost him four months of play and really didn't clear up during the offseason.

I still see reason for concern here. The man dove for a ball and ran the bases aggressively Sunday, and he came up with a headache. He's had multiple concussions over the years, and that raises the possibility that he'll be increasingly more susceptible to them.

And that's not good for anybody.


Seven Twins prospects were named to play in the Arizona Fall League for the Mesa Solar Sox: Scott Diamond, Aaron Hicks, Brian Dozier, Cole DeVries, Chris Herrmann, Bret Jacobson and Bruce Pugh.

Chris Herrmann was a
sixth-round selection
in the 2009 draft.
Diamond is currently filling a gap in the major league rotation; in fact, he starts this afternoon. DeVries, Jacobson and Pugh are relief pitchers with live arms; they aren't particularly hot prospects, but they can't be ruled out.   

The best prospects are the three position players. Hicks is a real talent who is grinding slowly up the ladder; he had an up-and-down season in Fort Myers (High A), and his final numbers won't be impressive. I'm surprised to see him on this list, as the AFL is supposed to be for advanced prospects; I suspect he's a "taxi squad" player who'll get only limited exposure.

Dozier, a middle infielder, had a breakout year, and he may get a September call-up after New Britain's season is over. But I suspect the Twins will skip that to focus on further evaluating the likes of Trevor Plouffe, Luke Hughes and Tsuyoshi Nishioka.

Herrmann is a catcher/outfielder who is apparently capable at both defensively and has put up strong OBPs in a rapid rise to Double A. That's an intriguing skill set for a bench player on a roster with Joe Mauer splitting time between catcher, DH and other positions.

What's almost as interesting here are two important pitchers who didn't get named: Alex Wimmers and David Bromberg. Both had very limited innings this summer. Wimmers lost his command totally and had to have his delivery overhauled; Bromberg broke his arm on a line drive in April. I had thought either or both could be named to give them more innings. Perhaps the Twins have more extensive winter ball plans in mind for them.


Tragic number: 10

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Knocking on the cellar door

Poetry in motion: Danny Valencia and Tsuyoshi Nishioka
turn this soft grounder into an infield single — and allow
a runner to score from second base.
Decades ago, one of my buddies was in a play. I don't remember the name or the plot. All I remember was one of Ron's lines, which he delivered with gusto: "Down in the cellar with the rest of the rats!"

Which, it becomes increasingly clear, is the Twins ultimate destination this season. Monday night's sloppy loss reduced the tragic number to 12. It also left Minnesota a mere half-game behind the Kansas City Royals in their desperate battle for last place in baseball's worst division.

When Dick Bremer is repeatedly conceding that the Twins won't win the division — and he seemed to alert the audience to this fact Monday night with the frequency of CNN flashing "breaking news" on two-day-old stories — things have gotten so bad that even the professional optimists of the hometeam broadcast booths can't ignore it.

Monday morning's post cited some sophisticated defensive numbers that put a spotlight on Danny Valencia's shortcomings defensively. Joe Christensen gets specific on what he's doing wrong, particularly on plays to his glove side.

Note there the dissonance between the player and the manager. The manager is focused on the runs the Twins gave away Monday; the third baseman is focused on the runs the Twins hitters didn't create.

When everything is broken, it's not easy to identify what to fix first. The weekend announcement that the Twins will add three days to spring training — not for games, but for defensive drills — suggested that the first priority is going to be defense. Gardenhire's postgame talk about the defensive flaws suggests the same.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Measuring the defense

The Twins have had far too much of this in 2011.
Monday's print column deals with the question of who should play center field for the Twins in 2012, Ben Revere or Denard Span, and in the process of writing that I gathered up this information on the Twins overall defense that won't fit.

Using the two sophisticated defensive metrics available from Baseball Info Systems on my iPad app, the Twins entered the weekend:

  • Two runs below average at first base (-2 total); 
  • Minus 8 at second base (-10 total); 
  • Minus 22 at third base (-32 total); 
  • Minus 15 at shortstop (-47); 
  • Plus four in left field (-43); 
  • Plus 17 in center (-26); 
  • Minus 5 in right (-31) 
  • Dead even at catcher (-31); 
  • Plus 10 at pitcher (-21 total)

In plus-minus, which measures plays made or not made compared to MLB average:

  • Zero difference at first base;
  • Minus 11 at second (-11);
  • Minus 25 at third (-36)
  • Minus 18 at short (-54)
  • Plus three in left (-51)
  • Plus 34 in center (-17)
  • Minus 19 in right (-36)
  • Zero at catcher (-36)
  • Plus five at pitcher (-31)


1) The Twins entered the weekend having allowed 77 more runs than the average American League team. The BIS numbers suggest the defense is to blame for 21 of those runs. I’m inclined to believe that they understate the defensive problems.

2) There are voices on the Internet complaining that Ron Gardenhire is overly critical of Danny Valencia. These numbers suggest that Valencia's defense deserves heavy criticism.

3) BIS itself is wary of putting a lot of weight on a player's single-year numbers, and playing time at every position other than third base is badly fractured, meaning that sample size make individual conclusions even more suspect. 

But with that caveat, I'll note that Alexi Casilla and Matt Tolbert accounted for 517 innings at shortstop, while Trevor Plouffe and Tsuyoshi Nishioka combined for 637. Casilla and Tolbert (as shortstops) combined are -3 in plus-minus, zero in runs saved — in other words, almost exactly average defense. Plouffe and Nishioka are a combined -15 and -15. Similarly, the second base hole is almost entirely Plouffe (-8 and -7 in just 86 innings).

4) The obvious problem areas defensively: Third base, shortstop, right field, second base.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Pic of the Week

Prince Fielder after a seventh-inning RBI single on
Friday. No, I don't understand what he's doing either.

Prince Fielder is having a Prince Fielder season: Hitting around .300, leading the National League in RBIs and intentional walks. At this point, 2011 will mark the third time that he'll be top five in on-base percentage, slugging percentage and RBIs.

He's one of those players whose run-of-the-mill season makes him an MVP candidate, and will probably not win the award until he has a season that's even bigger than usual. If you give him the MVP for this year, why didn't he get it in 2007, when he hit 50 homers? Or in 2009, when he drove in 141 runs?

One thing that is out of the ordinary for him: He's drawn more walks than strikeouts.

I'm pretty sure I've written this already, but: Fielder is almost five years younger than Albert Pujols. Both men will be free agents this winter. Pujols has clearly been the greater player — but with the age difference, one can make a reasonable case that Fielder is the one to sign to a long-term contract.


Twins tragic number: 13

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Watching the odometer spin

This blog originated several years ago on the Free Press site in a very rudimentary form that, among its limitations, did not allow comments. In May of 2009, we shifted it to blogspot.

This morning, according to my Google stats, the blog passed 100,000 visitors since that shift. Whether that's impressive or not depends on one's perspective. I know there are Twins blogs with more, and many with fewer.

But I'm pleased with how things have worked over these two-plus years, and I wanted to thank you the reader, without whom I would merely be shouting into a void.

Thome in Cleveland

A "welcome (T)home" in Cleveland on Friday.

When Jim Thome's plaque goes up in the Hall of Fame, his image will bear a Cleveland Indians logo.

Not the Twins, the White Sox or Phillies. Thome made his mark in Cleveland. He holds that franchise's career records for home runs, walks and strikeouts and is second in RBIs —and remember, it's one of the American League's eight original teams, 111 years old, so it has some serious history.

But he has not been warmly greeted as a visiting player in Cleveland since leaving for free agent riches after the 2002 season.  He had said they'd have to tear the Indians uniform off him for him to leave; all it took was silly money from the Phillies. Many Cleveland fans have not forgiven him for that.

From the Let's Go Tribe blog's piece after the Thome trade went through Thursday:

I've left the most ticklish issue for last: the psychological impact of Thome coming back nine years after leaving in acrimonious fashion on the Cleveland fanbase. Of course another Cleveland athlete has since managed to top Thome in acrimoniousness of a departure, but the events of November 2002 still remains a rather bitter chapter in Indians and Cleveland sports history. Usually at least once a season a columnist, normally from another market, remarks on how Indians fans should put aside their feelings of bitterness and cheer Thome. Of course, it's easy to say those things when you didn't have the emotional investment in him that Cleveland fans did, and feel the despair that came with that hero leaving like Cleveland fans felt. It's easy to tell someone else to forgive when you aren't emotionally involved. Yes, reason says that Thome made the correct financial decision for his family, and he made the decision that gave him a better shot of winning a ring. But we're fans, not philosophers.

So then he returned Friday in an Indians uniform. How was he greeted? Standing ovation.

Which is fitting and proper. Time wounds all heels, and heals all wounds. Big Jim was a big part of the best run the Indians have ever had. How he left doesn't change what he left behind.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Fare thee well, Jim Thome

Cleveland? Right down there.

Tragic number: 17.


So ... The Twins waived Jim Thome this week, and Cleveland won the claim on Wednesday, and the Twins and Indians agreed on a deal, and Thome agreed Thursday night to accept the trade.

Just in time for the Jim Thome Wind-up Walker giveaway tonight at Target Field.

I doubt anybody is particularly happy with this conclusion. It's just better than any of the alternatives.

Thome wants a shot at a World Series title. Cleveland has a better chance to provide that than the Twins do, but not a good one. He would have preferred Philadelphia, but the Phillies, as the top team in the National League, would have needed everybody else to pass on Thome.

There was a way to get Thome to Philadelphia. Step 1: Thome rejects a deal with Cleveland. Step 2: The Twins put Thome on release waivers, with Thome again utilizing his complete no-trade clause to reject any claims. Step 3: Thome signs with the Phillies.

That would have been ideal for Big Jim, but not so much for the Twins. They would still have owed him the rest of his salary, and they would get nothing from the Phillies. This gets the Twins the ubiquitous player to be named, and moves the remainder of his salary to the Indians. The savings is a small portion of their payroll, but considering that they were over budget from the moment they re-signed Carl Pavano, the savings are probably welcome. The player they get is unlikely to be significant, but you never know.

The only reason for the Twins to finangle Thome to the Phillies would be to make him happy — maybe even with a under-the-table agreement for his return. That may not interest them. Thome was a big help in 2010, not so much this year, partly because he was part of the injury brigade — which is to expected. He's 40, he has a chronic back issue, he can't play in the field. He has to hit A LOT to make using a roster spot on him worthwhile.

The Indians were probably only interested in Thome because they lost Travis Haefner, their regular DH, to a foot injury. With a healthy Haefner, they have no use for Thome. Even so, they're 6.5 games behind Detroit, and their chances of making that distance up are slim. And a significant portion of the Cleveland fan base resents Thome for leaving as a free agent after the 2002 season.

For the Twins in 2011: This deal opens a spot on the 25-man roster AND on the 40-man roster, which means almost anybody could be called up. As of late Thursday, there was no word on who was getting the call. My guess: Rene Rivera, which would give the Twins three catchers. He's coming up in September anyway.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Remembering Mike Flanagan

Mike Flanagan's 1987 card.
In the late 1970s and early '80s, I made a determined effort to transfer my baseball loyalties from the Twins to the Baltimore Orioles. It didn't take, for a variety of reasons, but I still think fondly of the Birds of that era, and careful readers of my blog and column will have seen evidence of how following that team affected my view of baseball.

One of the Orioles mainstay of that period was Mike Flanagan, 1979 Cy Young Award winner, whose body was found Wednesday afternoon on his Maryland property.

The Associated Press story on his death called him an Oriole "great." His 167-143 career record doesn't scream greatness, but a Cy Young speaks for itself, and this third-generation professional pitcher from New Hampshire did a lot more for the Orioles over the years than pitch. He was twice their pitching coach, served for about three years as general manager, worked in the broadcast booth — even threw the final pitch in the old Memorial Stadium before the move to Camden Yards.

If I were limited to one word to sum up Flanagan the pitcher, it would be tenacity. Earl Weaver, the Orioles manger, was a big proponent of the four-man rotation, and one big reason Weaver made it work was Flanagan, who literally went years without missing a start.

From Thomas Boswell, who covered those O's, in a piece entitled "Bred to a Harder Thing than Triumph" written after Baltimore's 1983 World Series win:

Flanagan is a gamer, an Iron Mike who pitches hurt. Once, he went 155 turns without missing a start. He has paid a high price for following the tough-it-out code of his father, his state and his manager. By ignoring various discomforts, Flanagan has seen his status shrink from superstar to that of the gut-it-out 15-to-18 game winner. He lost a couple of feet off his fastball somewhere along the way and will probably never get it back.

A second word: Wit. It was Flanagan who dubbed oddball reliever Don Stanhouse "Stan the Man Unusual." It was Flanagan who surveyed the O's rotation in 1980, the year after he won the Cy Young Award, and proclaimed it to consist of Cy Young (himself); Cy Old (the veteran Jim Palmer); Cy Now (Steve Stone, who won 25 games that season and copped the award) and Cy Future (Scott McGregor, who never did fulfill his end of the assessment).  And, added Flanagan, when you're washed up, it's "Cy-onara."

Word this morning is that Flanagan was an apparent suicide. If so, I guess the good humor and competitiveness only went so far.

On rooting for a losing team

As the Twins went about the process of losing yet another game to Baltimore on Wednesday night, I pulled out my copy of Jimmy Breslin's 1963 book about the infant New York Mets and ran across a passage that rings true still almost a half century later:

"I've been a Mets fan all my life." 
Nearly everybody was saying it by mid-June. And nearly everybody had a good reason for saying it. You see, the Mets are losers, just like nearly everybody else in life. This is the team for the cab driver who gets held up and the guy who loses out on a promotion because he didn't maneuver himself to lunch with the boss enough. It is the team for every guy who has to get out of bed in the morning and go to work for short money on a job he does not like. And it is the team for every woman who looks up ten years later and sees her husband eating dinner In a T-shirt and wonders how the hell she ever let this guy talk her into getting married. The Yankees? Who does well enough to root for them, Laurence Rockefeller?

Thank you, Mr. Breslin.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Eyeing the future: Brian Duensing

Brian Duensing is now 8-13, 5.12 on the season after
giving up seven runs in two innings on Tuesday.
Tragic number (Tigers wins and Twins losses needed to eliminate Minnesota): 20.


Brian Duensing got lit up again Tuesday.

True, the damage came after he stuck his pitching hand in the way of a comebacker, but he didn't come out of the game for that and said later it only hampered him for a handful of pitches.

Had he pitched well recently, one could give him a hard-luck pass for this clunker. But he hasn't. In 43.2 innings since the All-Star break, Duensing has allowed 68 hits, including 12 homers, and surrendered 36 earned runs.

His platoon splits this season are extreme. Entering Tuesday's game, he had smothered left-handers (.219/.242/.285) and turned right-handers into All-Stars (.321/.376/.546).

There's considerable Internet chatter about returning Duensing to the bullpen, where he'd get to face more left-handed hitters. (Baltimore on Tuesday had one left-handed hitter in the lineup, Nick Markakis, and he went 0-5.) I don't see that happening in what remains of 2011. The Twins have 34 games remaining to play, they have Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn on the disabled list, and somebody has to start.

But the bullpen is a reasonable option for Duensing in 2012. So is finding a new way to attack right-handed hitters. Clearly what he's doing now isn't working.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Pity this crew chief

If Hunter Wendlestadt is umping, there's a real
good chance that Ron Gardenhire's getting ejected.
Hunter Wendelstadt and Ron Gardenhire are like fire and nitroglycerin. Bob Davidson— who, I just discovered, grew up in Duluth, which doesn't speak well for Duluth — is probably the worst umpire in the majors. Brian Knight is in his first year as a full time ump.

That is three-fourths of the crew at Target Field for this series. This is probably the kind of umpiring crew one should expect when two of the worst records in baseball meet in late August.  It's not particularly good, and it's pretty confrontational, particularly when the Twins are involved.

Wendelstadt had the plate Monday night, and the odds are pretty good when Wendelstadt has that many calls to make that Gardy's going to be ejected. Gardy was (eighth inning); so was Danny Valencia in the same at-bat. I could tell from my seat more than 300 feet from home plate halfway through the at-bat that Valencia was (a) not going to get a call from Wendelstadt and (b) there was a pretty good chance that somebody was leaving the game. (Note: It's seldom the umpire.)

One thing that I took note of: When Valencia was ejected, Gardenhire (of course) popped out of the dugout, and crew chief Jerry Layne came in from second base. Layne had to know this was coming — there's no way for Wendelstadt and Gardenhire to get through a four-game series peacefully — and I'm sure he wanted to defuse the situation quickly if possible. (It's also possible that there are such conflicting reports coming back to the commissioner's office on the Wendelstadt-Gardenhire confrontations that they now want Layne to witness.)

Meanwhile, Davidson was down a third base feeling neglected. Expect "Balkin' Bob" to take action at somepoint to make sure we all know he's around. Valencia and Gardenhire were the first ejections of this series. They will not be the last.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Notes, quotes and comments

Nick Blackburn's
WHIP — Walks and
Hits per Inning Pitched
— is 1.60, second worst
among AL qualifiers.

Nick Blackburn got just four outs on Sunday— four outs, one hit and four walks. He left with a forearm strain, and he's destined for the disabled list, with Anthony Swarzak filling his rotation spot.

It really doesn't matter if a low-strikeout rate pitcher is one of the manager's "guys." He's going to lose out to ineffectiveness at some point, and even if the manager is too stubborn (or without superior alternatives), the pitcher's going to get hurt.

Blackburn has 148.1 innings for the season, 183 hits allowed, 54 walks and four HBPs. That's 241 baserunners allowed. The ineffectiveness part is certainly there.

And now, so is the injury part.


Swarzak pitched well in relief of Blackburn, getting out of the bases loaded jam and lowering his ERA for the season to 3.12. But like Blackburn, his strikeout rate is too low (4.5 K/9 so far this season) to believe that he's a long-term solution.


Curtis Granderson slides past Drew Butera with his inside-the-
park home run.

The Monday print column — on the virtues of Curtis Granderson — was written well before his exploits on Sunday. I touched it up after his inside-the-park home run to noted that he had tied Jose Bautista for the AL lead in homers.

But I failed to check on Bautista later in the day. Bautista homered Sunday as well, and thus maintained a one-homer lead on Granderson.

Taking nothing away from Granderson's hit — he smacked it well — but the Twins outfield play added a base or two to it.  Ben Revere and Jason Kubel converged on the wall, and the ball hit high enough on the fence that it ricocheted hard and back toward the infield. Ron Gardenhire fingered Revere as the guy who should have pulled back. Not that it mattered in the final outcome; Mark Teixiera followed with a traditional over-the fend homer, so the Yankees would have gotten two runs out of the two batters even if the Twins had held Granderson to two or three bases.

The multiple surfaces of the right field wall proved tricky from the time Target Field opened. It's bound to bite the unwary and the inexperienced from time to time.


The Tigers swept the Indians this weekend, but I took particular note of this bit of foolishness:

A couple weeks or so ago, there was a kerfuffle involving the Tigers when Magglio Ordonez tarried at homeplate to see his his home run went fair or foul, and Angels starter Jered Weaver took exception. Later, Carlos Guillen put on a strutting display after his home run, and Weaver threw his next pitcher over the head of Alex Avila (and was ejected).

OK, so the Tigers figure it's OK to stand at homeplate to watch homers leave, right?

On Sunday, Asdrubal Cabrera tarried at home plate to watch his ball go foul, and Detroit's Rick Porcello threw his next pitch behind Cabrera's back.

Conclusion: It's OK for Tigers to do it, but not for their opponents.

This is known as Tony LaRussa logic. 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Pic of the Week

Drew Butera goofs in the rain on Sunday in Cleveland.

This kind of thing — a player going out during a rain delay and sliding on the tarp — happens occasionally, but nobody ever did it with more flair than Rick Dempsey, who I think started the whole thing.

Once a year or so Dempsey would provide some entertainment for those fans sticking around during a rain delay with his Babe Ruth act. He would stuff a pillow or two under his uniform shirt and mimic the Bambino: Stand at home plate left handed and pantomime the Babe's swing, then trot down to first base —and then start doing belly-whopper slides into second, third and home.

Dempsey was the king of the rain delay sliders. All others are pale imitations.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Jim Hendry and the damage done

Jim Hendry is out as general manager of the Chicago Cubs.
He leaves a legacy of nine years of rosters crammed with the
irresponsible, the overpaid and the excuse-makers.

There was a time, kiddies, back a couple of decades ago, when it was easier to find a Cubs game, or a Braves game, on the local cable than a Twins game.

It was the era of the superstations. WGN (with Harry Caray) carried pretty much every Cubs game; WTBS, later shortened to TBS (with Harry's son Skip) the Braves. In the 1980s and '90s, the Cubs and Braves won national followings — even with frequently lousy teams — simply by being there.

Harry and Skip are both dead now, and so is the era of the superstations making "local" broadcasts national. Someday the national appeal of the Cubs and Braves will wither away; it's already diminished, especially that of the Braves, who are no longer carried by TBS. The Cubs are less accessible than they were on WGN outside Chicagoland, but still there to some degree.

But when they are on, I almost always root against them, and that simply wasn't the case back in the day.

Randy Bush, who played on two Twins
World Series winners (1987 and '91)
is the interim general manager, but
will not be considered for the job
And that's Jim Hendry's fault.

Hendry left his job as general manager of the Cubs on Friday, at which point it was revealed that he had been fired almost a month ago; he was a dead man walking during the trading deadline and the period of signing draft picks. He held the job for nine seasons and lost it, he said Friday, because his team simply didn't win enough.

Which is true, but which doesn't really get to the heart of the matter. What has stood out to me over Hendry's tenure — not just as general manager but before that, as the Cubs director of player development — is his eerie ability to acquire players lacking in personal accountability.

Hendry lost his credibility with me in 1999, years before he landed the top job, when he drafted pitcher Ben Christensen in the first round. Christensen was notorious for the blinding of Anthony Molina, whom he hit in the eye with a warm-up pitch while Molina was on-deck. When Mickey Morandini, the Cubs second baseman, reached out to Molina, the Cubs released him.

Christensen didn't make it; he had injuries, but I wrote at the time that the Molina incident suggested that he lacked the emotional stability for the majors.

Christensen was the early poster boy for that kind of thing on Hendry's teams. Carlos Zambrano. Milton Bradley. Alfonso Soriano. Hendry's Cubs pouted publicly when Cubs broadcasters praised opposition players. Sammy Sosa walked out on the team in 2004; Zambrano walked out on the team in 2011. Nothing every really changed.

Jim Hendry had a fatal attraction to jerks, and his player choices transformed the Cubs from the Lovable Losers to just plain losers.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Whatever happened to the hook slide?

In the first inning Thursday night, Trevor Plouffe lined a hit to left-center and tried to stretch the single into a double. Curtis Granderson's throw was to the outfield side of second base, but Plouffe slid straight into the base, and Robinson Cano had just enough reach to tag him for the out.

And I thought — not for the first time — of the old hook slide, a neglected and apparently dead baserunning technique.

(This is not intended as a criticism of Plouffe specifically; I do plenty of that already. This is a general complaint.)

The classic, foot-first hook slide was a staple of Ty Cobb's. The runner, seeing that the infielder is positioned to one side of the base slides feet-first to the opposite side of the bag and "hooks" the corner of the base with his toe as he slides by. In the Plouffe play, he would have hooked the bag with his right foot, giving Cano little to tag.

A variation of this, which I do see on occasion, has the baserunner sliding around the base and reaching back with his hand(s) to grab the base.

I suspect the classic hook slide died out because

  • feetfirst slides have largely given way to headfirst slides;
  • baserunners are more concerned with trying to beat the throw to the base than with eluding a tag;
  • the idea of reading where the throw is going and sliding accordingly to some degree conflict with the teaching of committing early to a slide (to avoid injury).
There are, Nick Punto's fantasies of physics not withstanding, two reasons to slide: to stop quickly without overrunning a base, and to elude a tag. The first point is relevant to first base only when retreating to the base, and not relevant at all to home plate. The second point is relevant to all bases, and since the hook slide is specifically designed to elude the tag, it ought to have a more prominent place in the baserunning bag of tricks than it currently has.

I think that, had Plouffe used a hook slide, he would have gotten his double. Maybe he would have scored on Joe Mauer's subsequent single; maybe the game would have gone in a different direction. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

You don't want to be Luke Hughes right now

The readily confused
Luke Hughes
The Twins spent the series in Detroit shorthanded. For whatever reasons, they waited until today to do anything but wait on Michael Cuddyer's neck, Denard Span's head and Matt Tolbert's wrist. And with Jason Kubel leaving the team today for a family emergency, the Twins were down to a bench of zero healthy position players.

So they finally put Span on the disabled list and called up Luke Hughes. (They're still waiting on Cuddyer and Tolbert.)

And they still have zero healthy position players in reserve. Hughes went to the wrong airport gate and missed his flight to the Twin Cities. Amazing.

And that's why Joe Mauer is playing right field tonight, and why it's going to be very difficult to pinch run for Jim Thome.

Revere, Plouffe and the podcast

Ben Revere's first catch
Wednesday — an
over the shoulder grab
in the first inning of
a Delmon Young drive.

One could put together a pretty impressive highlight reel of Ben Revere plays, and he certainly added to his legend in the just-completed series against Detroit — two sparkling catches on Wednesday night, the collision at home plate as he tried to turn a triple into an inside-the-parker on Monday, a near-perfect bunt on Wednesday.

Spectacular stuff, without question. He is a fun player to watch.

He is, however, a strongly flawed player — little power, weak throwing arm and, off a half-season of major league play, not good enough a hitter to justify hitting leadoff.

I think he'll hit better than he has this year. He isn't overwhelmed by major league pitching, as Tsuyoshi Nishioka has been; the pitchers aren't knocking the bat out of his hands.

Monday's trade of Delmon Young means Revere figures to be a regular henceforth. Whether Revere plays center field or left, he'll be a substantial defensive upgrade over Young. And even at his current level of production, Revere's on-base percentage is roughly what Young put up.

And it's not like Young was hitting 40 homers a year.

Ben Revere couldn't dislodge the ball from Detroit catcher
Alex Avila on Monday

Trevor Plouffe figures to get regular time the rest of the way as the Twins try to figure out what role, if any, he should fill in coming seasons.

He was at second base Wednesday, and his inability to get the ball out of his glove on the pivot cost the Twins a double play.

And his strikeout in the top of the ninth with the bases loaded was interesting for what it suggested about how teams approach him. Jose Valverde kept pumping neck-high fastballs — he did mix in one splitter well out of the zone — and got Plouffe to climb the ladder.


I have a part in the latest "FreePcast" sports podcast, run by the capable Tanner Kent. Here's the link; it's FreePcast No. 4. I follow Shane Frederick on college hockey (specifically the controversy over the North Dakota nickname and logo) and Jim Rueda on fantasy football. I'm about two thirds of the way through.

I talk about the Young trade, Jim Thome's future and possible September call-ups, all in a voice made for print.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Ben Revere. Wow. Just ... wow

Third inning, Wednesday night, Delmon Young hits a drive to
right center, and Ben Revere ....

... makes the ...

Nice work by Associated Press photographer Paul Sancya.

Cy Verlander

Justin Verlander on Tuesday against the Twins:
7.2 innings, seven hits, one walk, eight strikeouts, one run.
Just in: Justin Verlander is good.

Tuesday's win against the Twins gave the Tigers ace his 18th win of the season and 101st of his career. He's leading the American League in wins, innings pitched and strikeouts, and his ERA is more than a full run better than his career low.

As matters stand, he should win the AL Cy Young, easily.

The Tigers have a long tradition of great outfielders, starting with Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford and running through the likes of Harry Heilmann, Heine Manush and Al Kaline. They've had a scattering of Hall of Famers at other positions as well — most prominently Hank Greenberg (who did play left field as well as first base) and Charley Gehringer (second base).

But great pitching has not been a Detroit hallmark. The Tigers' career record for wins is held by Hooks Dauss, who won 223 games from 1912-26. If you knew of Hooks Dauss before reading this post, you are a baseball historian.

The only pitcher who made the Hall of Fame for what he accomplished as a Tiger is Hal Newhouser, who won a pair of MVP awards during World War II and racked up records of 29-9, 25-9 and 26-9 in the three years 1944-46. Newhouser won exactly 200 games as a Tiger.

Newhouser is almost certainly the greatest pitcher in Tigers history, ahead of Dauss and Jack Morris and Earl Whitehill and everybody else.

Verlander has a real chance to be the best. He's only 28, he's demonstrated that he's the rare hurler who can consistently throw 120 pitches without getting hurt, and this year he's learned pacing. He no longer tries to throw his best fastball every time. He saves the 99 mph stuff for when he really needs it.

As a Twins fan, I don't like seeing him pitch against the Twins; as a baseball fan, I appreciate what I see when he does.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Completing the Young trade

The player to be named was named Tuesday: Lester Oliveros, right-handed reliever who had a brief stint in the majors earlier this year but has spent most of the season in the minors. He's 23, has good strikeout rates in the minors and some command issues. The Twins saw him twice during his call-up, July 22 and 23.

As a member of the Tigers' 40-man roster, he had to go through waivers before he could be sent to the Twins.

Oliveros entered the season ranked by Baseball America as the Tigers' 17th best prospect; Cole Nelson, the lefty in the deal, was listed as No. 30.

Basically, the Twins added to their bullpen inventory with this trade. They didn't clear a spot on the 40-man roster, because Oliveros replaces Young on the 40.

Gone Young

Delmon Young went from hitting eighth for a fourth-place
team to hitting third for a first-pace team.
So many aspects to Monday's Delmon Young deal.  Let's start at the beginning.

The first trade: Bill Smith, the Twins general manager, takes a lot of Internet grief for trading for Young to begin with. He gets none from this corner, because I liked the trade — or at least the Young for Matt Garza portion — when it happened.

Remember: The Twins had just finished a disappointing 2007 season. Torii Hunter was going to leave as a free agent, Michael Cuddyer had had a mildly disappointing year and the rest of the outfield had done nothing. Young had a pretty solid rookie season and was just 21.

The problem I had with the trade was the Jason Bartlett for Brendan Harris exchange, and I was and am inclined to blame that more on Ron Gardenhire, who never seemed to buy Bartlett as a shortstop.

None of the six players involved in that trade are still with their acquiring team. Young hasn't become a star as anticipated, but neither has Garza. Garza and Young have had their moments, but consistency has eluded them.

The return: We don't fully know the return on this trade, because there's a player to be named involved.
What we do know is that Detroit accepted Young's contract, so the Twins save about $1.3 million there (which is probably more than sufficient to absorb any budget issues involved in signing draft picks Monday).

And they got Cole Nelson, a left-handed pitcher from Edina (native son bonus) whose numbers in High A ball this year aren't impressive.

But: He's 6-foot-7 and throws hard (Baseball America says he touches 95 with the fastball). He has, BA says, difficulty repeating his delivery (not uncommon for raw guys of that size) and that leads to control problems, and he's pitched much better since being shifted to the bullpen.

The odds are always against Class A relief pitchers making it in the majors, but there are worse players to take a chance on than a big lefty with velocity.

Young's future: He probably didn't have much of one with the Twins. I couldn't see the Twins keeping all three of their opening collection of corner outfielders (Young, Cuddyer and Jason Kubel) past this season. One, yes, two maybe, but not all three, not with Cuddyer and Kubel free-agent eligible and Young due a raise in arbitration.

Had Young remained through this season, the Twins were likely to non-tender him this winter, and he would leave for nothing.

Detroit sees him differently. Magglio Ordonez has been useless this season. The Tigers look at Young and figure: Even in a down year, he's more productive than Mags; even with arbitration this winter, he's cheaper than Mags; even with his awkwardness in the field, he's no real defensive downgrade from Mags.

For the Twins, Young was frustrating and excess. For the Tigers, he's fresh and an upgrade. And more than a two-month rental. He'll be there next season too.

The Twins future outfield: Figures to be very left-handed. Pencil Ben Revere in at left field and Denard Span in center. Assume the Twins re-sign one of the Cuddyer/Kubel pair but not both; that guy will split time between right field and either DH (Kubel) or first base (Cuddyer).

If it's Kubel, the Twins will have an all left-handed hitting outfield — and with Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau inhabiting the middle of the lineup, the team will overly lefty. Which is a reason for Cuddyer to be a higher priority than Kubel.

Big news day: Jim Thome, Delmon Young, draftees signed

Jim Thome's 600th career homer was his 11th of the
season, and his fourth off a left-handed pitcher.
News item: Jim Thome hit his 600th home run Monday night.

Comment: The milestone feels devalued in the wake of the Steroids Era, but 600 taters is a lot of mashing.

This may sound a bit cynical, but now that Thome's gotten No. 600, I expect the Twins to move him in a waiver deal. 

Thome would, I'm sure, like another chance to win a World Series, and that clearly isn't happening in Minnesota this year. There are probably contenders willing to take on the rest of his salary. Heck, somebody was willing to take on Delmon Young's ... but that's another item.

I doubt Thome will slide through waivers all the way to the Phillies, but that's a team that might be particularly interested in adding a left-handed pinch-hitter who could DH in the World Series.

Delmon Young in the Olde English D. His brother
Dmitri starred for the Tigers about a decade ago.
News item: The Twins traded Delmon Young to Detroit for Cole Nelson and a player to be named.

Comment: I expect to say more about this trade and its ramifications in a separate post. For now, this point: As disappointing as Young was in Minnesota, he's going to be a regular for the Tigers.

Jim Leyland said he's already told Magglio Ordonez that the regular outfield the rest of the way will be Young, Austin Jackson and Brendan Boesch.

Levi Michael is officially part of the Twins system.
News item: The Twins signed their Big Three draftees — first rounder Levi Michael and sandwich picks Travis Harrison and Hudson Boyd — for a total of $3.18 million, which is about $730,000 above the "slots" recommended by the commissioner's office.

Comment: Baseball America reported that almost half the first-rounders were officially unsigned 10 minutes before the deadline. When all was said and done, only one first-rounder went unsigned, that being the Blue Jays pick. 

This last-minute scramble is silly.

Monday, August 15, 2011

An unlikely infield move

Today's the deadline to sign
Levi Michael and other draft picks.
As noted in the Monday print column, today is the deadline for teams to sign their 2011 draft picks, and the Twins' top three selections — Levi Michael, Travis Harrison and Hudson Boyd — are all unsigned.

I had this morning an outside-the-box idea regarding Michael, a middle infielder who played at North Carolina, an idea rooted in these facts:

  • The Twins —as detailed in this post, and this one, and this one — have a hole at shortstop and are sorting again through their in-house options, even to the point of retrying players who've failed already;
  • Michael, as a three-year starter at a major university, ought to be a pretty polished prospect already;
  • Michael and the Twins have an apparent disagreement on how much he should get to sign;
  • There are raw shortstop prospects already at the entry levels of the Twins system (James Beresford, Niko Goodrum, Jorge Polanco, Daniel Santana), while the primary shortstops at the higher levels (Trevor Plouffe and Brian Dozier) are more likely utility men in the majors rather than regular shortstops.

So the idea: Sign Michael to a major-league contract, add him to the 40-man roster, give him a couple weeks at Rochester or New Britain, then bring him to the majors in September and add him to the collection of guys getting an early tryout for the 2012 season.

That proposition should be worth a lower bonus for Michael — his options and service time clock would start ticking immediately.

I don't expect this to happen. The Twins are habitually conservative about promoting prospects, and err on the side of giving them too little challenge after signing them. But I sure won't complain if it does.

The return of Trevor Plouffe

Trevor Plouffe gets
another shot.
Trying to interpret this series of moves and rumors ...

On Wednesday, the Twins shipped Trevor Plouffe back to Rochester to make room on the roster for Alexi Casilla. (I marked the occasion with this post, in which I opined that Plouffe may have played his last inning at short for the Twins.)

Thursday was an off day. On Friday Casilla reinjured his hamstring. He failed a test on Saturday and was put back on the disabled list, and the immediate report was that the Twins were looking at other options than Plouffe or Luke Hughes, with Ron Gardenhire talking vaguely about the waiver wire. By gametime, however, the word was out: Plouffe was returning.

By Sunday the reports were that the Twins had considered bringing in Double-A infielder Brian Dozier, who I referenced in this post. Dozier isn't on the 40-man roster, and I suppose Gardenhire's talk of waivers wasn't so much about the Twins acquiring a veteran infielder as it was about opening a roster spot for Dozier.

Brian Dozier has outhit
Plouffe at each level of
the minors. He also
played each level at
a much higher age.
Instead, it's the defensively inarticulate Plouffe for a third 2011 call-up, with the claim that he'll get regular playing time on this go-around —including at shortstop.

Ugh. For immediate purposes, of course, he figures to play second base. Casilla's obviously on the shelf for at least two weeks, and that takes us pretty much through August.

Which would mean any real shortstop time would come in September. If that indeed happens, I don't expect it will go any better than it did in May, when Plouffe played every day for two weeks and was about as bad in the field as any shortstop I've seen the Twins deploy. But I could be surprised.

Certainly it's not like Tsuyoshi Nishioka has played so well that he can't be dislodged.

Plouffe could play himself into consideration for the 2012 infield in the Twins' remaining 43 games. He could also play himself out of consideration. If the Twins free up space on the 40, Dozier might get some time also.

This figures to be one of the storylines of the last six weeks of the regular season for the Twins — sorting out the infield options for 2012.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Pic of the Week

Bert Blyleven was 48-37 in five seasons with Cleveland;
Roberto Alomar hit .323 in his three seasons there.
Another moment in the Bert Blyleven Victory Tour, as he and fellow Hall of Fame inductee Roberto Alomar threw first pitches Friday in Cleveland.

The Twins schedule has been kind to Blyleven in that regard. He played in the majors for five teams — Minnesota (twice), Texas, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and California/Anaheim — and the Twins have been in each of the American League cities since his induction July 24. (Pittsburgh wasn't part of the interleague draw for the Twins this year.)  So he's gotten pregame attention in four cities the past few weeks.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Contemplating Tsuyoshi Nishioka

Tsuyoshi Nishioka struggled defensively on Friday.
The good news for Tsuyoshi Nishioka on Friday: He had two RBI singles.

The bad news: He gave away a run in the field. And that understates his problems, as LaVelle Neal details here.

I opined at the end of June that Nishioka is a better defensive shortstop than Trevor Plouffe. I still believe that to be the case, but the margin is shrinking the more I see Nishi play short.

For what it's worth, the Baseball Info Systems metrics available to me through an iPad app says Nishioka, through 48 games at short, is -5 in plus-minus and has given away seven runs. Plouffe is -5 and -4, but his numbers were compiled in just 15 games. Sample sizes matters; those figures, in and of themselves, don't mean much. Our eyes agree with the numbers, however; the Twins have not gotten good shortstop play this season.

Nishioka is hitting a bit better  now — he has an eight-game hitting streak going this month, which isn't quite the same thing as hitting well (.321/.321/.357 in that stretch with five strikeouts and no walks)— and the birth of his son last week is probably good for him emotionally. But just as Plouffe's defensive woes made him unplayable at shortstop, games like Friday's suggest the same about Nishioka. His arm strength makes him a marginal shortstop at best; if he's going to combine that with bobbles and mental errors, it's a problem.

I'm not sure at what point the Twins write off their investment in him and move on to the next middle infielder. One factor is that he's 27 and a star in his native Japan; he was supposed to be a finished product, not a work in progress.

My expectation is that he'll get the rest of 2011, at least, to try to establish himself. The returns to date have been discouraging.

Friday, August 12, 2011

What's best for the team

On Wednesday, Ron Gardenhire deployed a starting outfield of Delmon Young in left, Denard Span in center and Ben Revere in right.

On paper, and considering the relative strengths and weaknesses of that trio, that is probably the least efficient alignment — well, excluding the ones that would put Young in center. Young has one above-average tool defensively: he throws well. But he was in the outfield spot that least demands arm strength. Revere has by far the weakest arm; he was in the position that most demands arm strength. Span has very good range in center; Revere might be a bit better.

Delmon Young has played 374
games in the outfield for Minnesota,
all in left field.
As I see it, the optimum alignment would be Revere in left, Span in center, Young in right. One could argue for Span-Revere-Young. Even Young-Revere-Span would have a case.

So why play it Young-Span-Revere? I have to assume it's because that's the way Young and Span want it. Span is said to have made it known that he is reluctant to vacate center field for Revere. Young hasn't played anywhere but left since coming to Minnesota. Gardenhire has a pattern of letting his veterans call dibs on their accustomed positions; if players such as Michael Cuddyer or Nick Punto are willing to move around the field, great, but the manager is not looking to force a regular to cede his usual place to make room for a reserve, even if the reserve is a better fit for the position.

I've said this before: Gardy is managing people, not Strat-O-Matic cards.

To be sure, playing Revere's popgun arm in right on rare occasion isn't necessarily a disaster. The most overrated defensive skill is an outfielder's arm strength. Yes, it's possible that a hitter might get a triple on a ball hit into the corner with Revere there that would be a double with a stronger arm; it's also possible that Revere would retrieve (or even catch) the ball faster than Young would. Over the course of a full season, Revere in right might well give up too many bases; in any one game, probably not.

But I still have to wonder: Kevin Slowey was exiled and badmouthed for his reluctance to move to the bullpen. Young and Span don't shift for even a game, and there are no obvious consequences.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Contemplating Trevor Plouffe

Trevor Plouffe contemplated Tuesday's loss. On
Wednesday, he was demoted.
Trevor Plouffe started Wednesday night's game at second base. He had a hit in three at-bats, which raised his batting average to .202. He also struck out for the 28th time in 114 at-bats (he has five more K's than hits), bounced into a double play and committed a potentially pivotal error in the field.

After the game, he was demoted back to Triple A to make roster space for Alexi Casilla. I assume that the error wasn't the deciding factor, but it could have been.

The former first-round pick has yo-yoed between Minnesota and Rochester this season, and he has gone from a potential regular shortstop to a possible utility player. He's hit in Rochester this year (.313/.384/.635)  far better than he ever has in his previous three seasons there, and the drastic improvement in his walk rate suggests that the surge could be realistic, He is still only 25.

But even though he has cranked five homers in his two major league stints, he hasn't been nearly as productive at the plate in the majors, and if he's to become a multi-position player he needs not only to hit but to sharpen his defense. His PT at positions other than short in the minors has been minimal.

Seth Stohs, who is higher on Plouffe than I am, wrote a few days ago after giving up on the Twins as 2011 contenders that they should now play Plouffe regularly, moving him from position to position — including shortstop. They're probably going to do that with him in Triple A, except for the shortstop part. My guess is that Plouffe has played his last inning at short for Ron Gardenhire.

Which makes sense. Stohs envisions Plouffe as a "super utility" man — a regular who plays several positions. Like Ben Zobrist in Tampa Bay, or (this year) Michael Cuddyer for the Twins — or, in years past, Cesar Tovar and Tony Phillips.

What all those guys have in common: They hit well enough to play a corner — and a player who hits that well AND can handle shortstop defensively isn't going to spend time at first base or right field.  Tampa Bay's gone through a lot of shortstops this season, and Zobrist, like Plouffe, was primarily a shortstop in the minors, but he hasn't played an inning there the last two seasons.

Zobrist represents the template for Plouffe, and if Plouffe can get there, he's be a valuable player indeed. But he's not there yet.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Elbow room

Kyle Gibson slid in the
2009 draft because of
a stress fracture in his
forearm. Now he has
a partially torn ligament.
Scott Baker. Kyle Gibson. Anthony Slama.

Three right-handed pitchers, three elbow injuries, and — at least for now — three rehab projects without surgery.

All three are said to have strained flexor muscles in the right elbow. Gibson also has ligament damage.

I'm not orthopedic surgeon, but given the description of Gibson's injury in particular — a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament — I'm not optimistic that rehab is going to be the solution. It depends, as I understand such things, on where in the ligament the tear is (and now big the tear is). The ligament is at its thickest closest to the muscle, and has a better chance of holding together there.

I know that Nolan Ryan pitched for years with a partial tear in the ligament, and that Andy Pettitte was described for years as a potential Tommy John candidate. Neither ever went through the ligament replacement surgery. But most pitchers who have a partial tear wind up having the surgery.

Timing matters. If Gibson has the surgery soon, he'll miss the 2012 season but should be at full speed for 2013. If he spends the winter trying to rehab the injury only to get to spring training and find that it didn't work, he'll still miss 2012, and (like Pat Neshek and Joe Nathan) probably won't be ready to roll at the start of 2013.

Kevin Slowey returns
to the starting rotation.
I understand the reluctance to have the surgery. But it sure seems that the Twins often take the conservative rehab approach only to find weeks or months later that surgery was needed after all.


Baker's spot in the rotation will be filled by Kevin Slowey, not Anthony Swarzak. This is absolutely the right choice. While Swarzak has done well as a spot starter-long reliever, his strikeout rate remains down in the Nick Blackburn/Carl Pavano range — too low.

Even setting aside the whole issue of Slowey's inability/unwillingness to work out of the bullpen, the records of both men say Slowey's the better starter.

And even if the Twins would prefer not to have Slowey be part of their future, they're still going to be better off if he rebuilds trade value — and returning him to the rotation is a step in that direction.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Knuckling down

Tim Wakefield on Monday pitched
seven innings against the Twins, allowing
three earned runs, striking out five
and walking none. 
I'd rather not see the Twins lose, but if they had to lose Monday night I would have preferred to see Tim Wakefield get the "W." No luck there, either; the veteran knuckleballer left with the lead, but Alfredo Aceves vultured the decision.

So we still don't have a truly active 200-game winner. Wakefield is stuck on 199.

Watching him toss his flutterball got me to pondering, once more, the apparently dying knuckleball. When I started paying attention to baseball (1969) there were quite a few accomplished knuckleballers — future Hall of Famers Phil Niekro and Hoyt Wilhelm, plus guys like Wilbur Wood (the rare left-handed knucklerballer) and Eddie Fisher — and a few others, such as Jim Bouton, throwing the pitch without great distinction.

Today there's Wakefield, 45 and clearly near the end of his career, and R.A. Dickey, whose record this season with the Mets doesn't look as strong as last season on the surface but really isn't that much worse.

The Twins had Dickey in 2009, and he gave them a half season of good work, then deteriorated rapidly. The Mets have used him almost strictly as a starter, and he's been pretty effective.

Dickey's 36, which is normally a bad sign. But it's a rare knuckleballer who flourishes before age 30. They start late and finish even later. I suspect the pitch requires a sense of fatalism a 20-something hasn't developed. Nobody really controls the knuckleball. The pitcher lets it go and hopes it does something between his hand and the bat.

Which is why knuckleballers are the last to get a chance. Managers like to be in control. We'll pitch this guy inside, that guy outside, and don't throw this one a breaking pitch in the strike zone. There's no control with a knuckleball.

Right now, Dickey is the future of the pitch, although I'm still holding out some hope for Charlie Haeger, who's only 27 and has had some moments in the bigs. None of those moments have come this year, however, and he's not fared well in Triple A this season.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Lost in rotation

Brian Duensing's strikeout rate is
up this year. So are his walks allowed,
home runs allowed, batting average
allowed and his ERA.
My print column today contrasted the top heavy rotation of the 1991 Twins to the deep rotations of the Gardenhire era. One of the many things that went sour on the 2011 Twins is that rotation depth.

Forty-eight American League pitchers qualify as of this morning for the ERA title. Four of them —Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Brian Duensing and Carl Pavano — are Twins. (Francisco Liriano has just 111 innings pitched, 13 too few to meet the standard of one inning per team game.)

Baker's ERA is 10th in the AL; he's not the issue here. Duensing (4.56) is 42nd; Blackburn (4.58) is 43rd; Pavano (4.71) is 44th.

It isn't that the Twins have one above average pitcher and four average guys in the rotation. They have one above average starter and four bottom-dwellers. (Liriano's ERA is 5.03; even if you credited him with 13 extra shutout innings, his ERA would still be 4.50,which would be no better than 37th in the league.)

Sunday's starter, Duensing, is getting hammered by right-handed hitters this season but has been deadly against lefties. There are those who believe that such splits indicate that he'd be better used as a relief pitcher.

That's possible. But I still see him as what Bill James calls a "Tommy John" type of starter — a relatively low-strikeout lefty who gets ground balls, avoids walks and keeps the ball in the park.

Two non-defining characteristics of such pitchers, and James describes them:

  • They tend to emerge at a later age;
  • They are very team-dependent. 

The 2011 Twins are not good enough defensively to help such a pitcher.


The "tragic number" — the number of Detroit wins and Minnesota losses that will eliminate the Twins — is 39. I'll start counting it down daily when it reaches 25 or so.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Pic of the Week

Brett Gardner of the New York Yankees reacts
to a game-ending strikeout.

Brett Gardner. Really? Who knew he's that strong?

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Contemplating Nick Blackburn

Nick Blackburn has already set a career mark for
most walks allowed, and has the worst WHIP
among AL pitchers who qualify for the ERA title.
Another poor outing for Nick Blackburn against the White Sox on Friday: He allowed 13 baserunners while getting just 16 outs, and that's not counting the two errors made behind him. He served up a pair of home runs and set a personal worst with six walks.

The White Sox did not draw a walk in their just-completed four game series against the Yankees. Blackburn walked two in the first inning Friday.

The wonder of it is that he allowed only four runs. It could have been much worse.

It often has. This was Blackburn's 23rd start of the season. He's allowed at least five runs in nine of those starts. He was the starting pitcher in Game 1 of April 28, when the Twins lost 15-3; the starting pitcher on June 27, when the Twins lost 15-0; and the starting pitcher on July 25, when the Twins lost 20-5.

And yet his ERA for the season is 4.58. That's not the worst figure in the league; it's not even the second worst in the Twins rotation (Carl Pavano is at 4.90, Francisco Liriano at 5.03).

It's also deceptive, because he's allowed so many unearned runs. Pavano has allowed 86 runs in 145 innings, or 5.34 runs per nine innings; Blackburn has allowed 85 runs in 135.2 innings, or 5.64 per nine.

Yes, his ERA understates his runs allowed by more than a run per full game. Astounding.

Blackburn has allowed 16 unearned runs  this year. The rest of the rotation — Pavano, Liriano, Scott Baker, Brian Duensing — has combined to allow 20 unearned runs.

In 2010, Blackburn allowed four unearned runs. His ERA was 5.41; his TRA (total runs average) was 5.65.

Look at that again: 5.65 runs per nine innings last year, 5.64 this year.

Methinks we have a trend here.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Late night: Angels 7, Twins 1

Francisco Liriano gave up 10 hits and seven runs
in five innings on Thursday night.
Game story here

Box score here.

The Twins continue to spin their wheels. They last won a series right after the All-Star break, July 14-17, when they took three of four from Kansas City. Since then, they've avoided actual long losing streaks, bu they aren't putting anything together, either.

We can sum up this one in the same way as the opener of the series in Anaheim: One run won't win many games, and one run wasn't close to enough to win this one.

Francisco Liriano wasn't effective, but neither was the Twins defense behind him. That will happen when a right fielder (Michael Cuddyer) is playing second base and a catcher (Joe Mauer) is playing first. As Ron Gardenhire sees it, five of the seven runs scored after the Twins failed to turn two makeable double plays.

Of course, if you wipe out those five runs, the Twins still lose 2-1.

Another what-the-heck-is-going-on moment came when Danny Valencia was thrown out at home plate in the eighth inning. There's no point in taking any risk to score when down 7-1.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The shortstop mess

Tsuyoshi Nishioka has generally appeared
overmatched at the plate this season,  and his
slash line of .208/.259/.233 agrees.
Tsuyoshi Nishioka now leads the Twins in playing time at shortstop— 42 games, 41 starts, 355.1 innings.

Alexi Casilla has 306.2 innings, Matt Tolbert 174 and Trevor Plouffe 133. Adds to to 969 innings, with Nishioka getting about 37 percent of the playing time, Casilla 32 percent, Tolbert 18 percent and Plouffe 14. (Rounding error means those figures add up to 101 percent.)

Offensively, Casilla is the only one who approaches acceptable. (His OPS — on base plus slugging — is .691, which ranks 62nd among the 83 American League players who qualify for the batting title and is roughly the same as Derek Jeter's and Torii Hunter's. Seven of the players behind him are are also middle infielders.) Plouffe has five homers, yes, but his batting average is below .200, his slugging percentage below .400.

Defensively, they all rate below average. The most recent set of the Baseball Info Systems metrics I have  shows Nishi as -2 in plus-minus, -4 in runs saved; Casilla at -4 and -2; Tolbert at -1 and 0; and Plouffe at -5 and -4. (Those numbers are shortstop specific.)

Tolbert may not be the best defensive shortstop on the roster — clearly Ron Gardenhire doesn't believe so — but, for what it's worth, he also comes off best of six men who've played second base in those metrics. Nobody's been quite the blooming disaster at second that Plouffe was at short, but if Michael Cuddyer (-3, -3 in 115 innings) gets enough playing time there, that can change.

The Twins spent last offseason trying to find multi-year solutions to their middle infield. At this point, Nishioka has hardly established himself as part of the solution. The ever-inconsistent Casilla, maybe.

I am growing ever more curious about Brian Dozier, who opened the season at High A Fort Myers and hit .322/.423/.472 there, then moved up to Double A New Britain, where he is hitting .307/.374/.458.  He turned 24 in May, so he's not particularly young for those levels (Plouffe is 25 and has tons of time in Triple A, a level Dozier hasn't touched yet).

Dozier may not be an answer. But I'm seeing increasing evidence that the players ahead of him aren't either.

Late night: Twins 11, Angels 4

Michael Cuddyer hits his fifth career grand slam.
Game story here.

Box score here.

This game pivoted on a curious decision by Anaheim manager Mike Scoscia.

Fifth inning, score tied at four. Joel Pineiro had gotten Matt Tolbert out, but then gave up singles to Denard Span and Ben Revere, then walked Joe Mauer in a fairly obvious pitch-around. That brought up Michael Cuddyer.

Pineiro threw ball one well inside -- and Scoscia pulled him for left-hander Hisanori Takahashi.

A curious decision because Cuddyer mashes lefties and really doesn't do that much against righties. It's true for his career as a whole and even more emphatically so this season. And Cuddyer lived up to his platoon splits by hammering the first pitch from Takahashi for the grand slam.

It was the first of two homers for Cuddyer on the night (he hit his second off a right-hander). Delmon Young doubled his season output for homers with round trippers in consecutive at-bats. Jason Kubel also homered (off Takahashi, a rare dinger off a lefty for Kubel). Yes, the Twins hit five home runs in one game. This is roughly 7 percent of their season total.

Give credit, also, to Anthony Swarzak, who threw five innings of shutout ball in relief of Scott Baker. Swarzak gave up one hit and one walk. Just one strikeout, but he threw strikes and kept the game moving, which Baker couldn't accomplish.