Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The secret stats

When Bill James started his pioneering work some three decades ago, he was consistently denied access to the scorecards. The Elias Bureau, baseball's official statisticians, had them, and they wouldn't share the information with an outsider for love or money.

That attitude ultimately led James and others to start Project Scoresheet, which led to the creation of STATS Inc. and Baseball Info Systems, and, along other tangents, to Retrosheet and Baseball Reference. If you want play-by-play info from games gone by — what James sought to buy from Elias in the 1980s — it's on the web, and it's free.

For a good while, there was more sophisticated baseball information available to the fans than the teams, or at least a good many of them, themselves took advantage of. That's past now.

Let somebody start doing some innovative Pitch fx analysis and start posting the results on a website, and pretty soon a tech-savvy organization will call, offer the analyst a job — and order the site shut down. You work for us now. James himself works for the Red Sox, and he is limited in what he can share with the public as a result — and he was, after the struggle with Elias, outspoken about his desire for openness in baseball research.

This came to mind while reading this Thomas Boswell column from the weekend about the Washington Nationals offseason. This is Nats GM Mike Rizzo talking about the trade for Doug Fister:

The Nats statistical analysts consider Fister (14-9) a virtual duplicate of [Jordan] Zimmermann right down to “average velocity off the bat.”
“They do it differently, Zimmermann with velocity, Fister with movement. But they get the same results,” Rizzo said.

Average velocity off the bat.  Boswell cites Fister's won-lost record out of habit, but that's not what gets Rizzo revved up. It's how hard batters hit the ball off Fister — and Rizzo has actual data to back it up.

And it's not information available to the masses.

Most — maybe all — teams have their own statistical systems to evaluate defense. We outsiders have access to such metrics as ultimate zone rating and plus-minus; the teams have that access too, plus their own analysis.

We're back where we were when I started following baseball, when the people running the teams truly knew more than even the most sophisticated fans did. For a good part of my adult life, that hasn't necessarily been the case.

As a Twins fan, I just hope this development isn't leaving my team behind. I have, truly, no idea if Terry Ryan and the people advising him know what the average velocity off the bat is for Ricky Nolasco, or even for Sam Deduno. I do know they'd be better off with the knowledge than without.

A hole in the glove

A glove on display at the Hall of Fame museum with a
hole in the palm. I think this one is Frank Frisch's.
A few days ago, in writing about the mass of material at the Hall of Fame, I said I was still picking up on stuff during repeat visits to the displays. Here's an example:

In his autobiography, "Nice Guys Finish Last," Leo Durocher (Hall of Fame manager) tells of growing up in the same city in which Rabbit Maranville (Hall of Fame shortstop) made his offseason home. (Durocher and Maranville were essentially the same player — outstanding defensive shortstops with flamboyant personalities who couldn't hit a lick, and their playing careers overlapped a few years.)

The black glove is Rabbit Maranville's. It does not
have a hole cut into the palm.
Maranville advised the young Durocher to cut a hole in the palm of his glove; this, Maranville said, would give him a better feel for the ball. And Durocher did so, playing for years with his palm exposed. Then, Leo relates, as he was about to cut out the palm of a new glove, he asked himself why he was doing this — and opted instead to thin the leather instead of removing it all together.

So ... now I'm looking at gloves on display in the Hall of Fame museum, and I start noticing a number of infielder gloves from that era with holes in the the palm. Frank Frisch, for example — Durocher's manager and double play partner on the Gas House Gang — his glove has a hole in the palm.

Know whose displayed glove doesn't have a hole? Rabbit Maranville. Go figure.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Hall of Fame vs. the museum

The blog author takes a break in a row of
seats from the long-gone Shibe Park/Connie
Mack Stadium in Philadelphia.
The sign over the door says: "The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum." And, indeed, if you pay attention, it's easy to tell the difference.

The Hall of Fame, per se, is just that: A hall. It's a long gallery of plaques — we came up with a count of 240 — of the players, umpires and executives who have been formally enshrined.

This is the place we mean when we talk about whether Jack Morris should be in the Hall of Fame.

It's also pretty close to the last place visitors are supposed to get to.

Enter the building, and you are quickly herded to the left for admission and off toward the museum. Which, as I explained in an earlier post, is an exhausting proposition. Rewarding, to be sure, but exhausting.

On one of our tours of the museum, we encountered a man (wearing a Philadelphia Phillies cap) who was surprised to find Pete Rose memorabilia in the exhibits about the Big Red Machine dynasty of the mid '70s and again in the display about the Phillies of slightly later vintage. "I didn't think they let anything about him in here," he said.

That illustrates, I think, the difference between the Hall of Fame and the museum. Rose's gambling transgressions have barred him from the Hall of Fame. They haven't kept him out of the museum. One cannot tell the story of baseball in the 1970s and '80s (and part of the '60s) without Rose, and he is well represented in the museum.

It's two different functions under one roof. (The research library, which is of more limited mass interest than the plaque room and the museum, is a third function.) We tend to get the two functions jumbled up, which is how the Phillies fan wound up surprised to see any acknowledgment of Pete Rose,

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Sunday Funnies

The Philadelphia Phillies were, in the 1920s, '30s and '40s, the dregs of the National League. They played for much of that period in a dump known as "Baker Bowl", which was not merely cramped and uncomfortable but downright dangerous (seating sections twice collapsed during games, in 1903 and 1927).

The combination of bad baseball and lousy accommodations did little to encourage attendance.

The story goes that during one boring midsummer game the writers in the dilapidated press box at Baker Bowl started throwing water at each other. The water fell through the cracks in the wood floor into the seating area below.

The Phillies owner burst into the press box to castigate the scribes. "Knock it off!" he ordered. "Don't you know there are paying customers sitting down there?"

One of the writers lunged for his typewriter. "My god!" he bellowed. "What a story!"

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Cooperstown in the offseason

The blog author at the main door of the National
Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, all decorated
for the holidays.
I have been to Cooperstown twice, at drastically different times of the year.

The first time was Induction Weekend of 2001, when Kirby Puckett and Dave Winfield (and Hilton Smith and Bill Mazeroski) were inducted. The little village was packed with thousands of visitors; it wasn't easy to move about on Main Street or in the Hall of Fame building.

The second time was the week before Christmas. There were some visitors, but there was never a problem getting a table at lunch time at the Doubleday Cafe. Many of the memorabilia shops and restaurants that dominate Cooperstown's Main Street were closed — there's something odd about seeing a sign in a retailer's door that says Closed until after Christmas, but so it was.

Winter is the offseason for Cooperstown's tourism for cause, of course. But to a large degree, I came away from this trip convinced that if one's motive is to absorb as much about the game of baseball as the Hall has to offer, the offseason is the time to go.

Here's the thing: There's too much there to grasp in a day, or two days. My wife and I went to the Hall five days, and each day I noticed things that had eluded my attention previously. Yes, one can rush through the three floors of the museum — not to mention the plaque gallery — in a day, but understanding what's there is another matter. I found that  after one floor, my brain was numbed.

Go there in the summer, and the crush is on. Hundreds of people are trying to see the same stuff you are. Go in the winter, and you can dawdle and study without blocking somebody else's view of Honus Wagner's bat or Mariano Rivera's muddy spikes. You can take a lengthy pause at the broadcast exhibit and wait to hear Herb Carneal's call of the last out of the 1987 World Series (yes, it plays in rotation).

There are drawbacks to going in the winter. We had vague plans to visit the research library and perhaps investigate the connection between Mankato and Deacon Phillippe, a pitcher who starred in the first NL-AL World Series. But the library operates on very limited hours in the winter (and even if it had been open, they prefer a couple weeks notice to line up the material). The support businesses around the Hall are limited. And, while we were on the whole fortunate with the weather during our visit (it was 55 degrees on Sunday), winter in the Catskills can be pretty heavy on the snow.

The trip and its timing could have backfired. It didn't. And I got more out of this longer, leisurely visit that I did out of the more frenetic one a dozen years earlier.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Catching up

Kurt Suzuki has played seven years
in the majors, most of them with
the Oakland Athletics.
I was gone for the past week -- a holiday week in Cooperstown, actually, something I'll be posting about in coming days -- and in keeping the spirit of the venture I avoided actively blogging. Yes, there were fresh posts each day, but they were all pre-written and scheduled to be posted. I took note of the Ryan Doumit trade just before leaving town, and everything since was canned.

But if I was idle in terms of blogging for eight days, the Twins, in terms of shaping their 2014 team, were not. Time to catch up:

Kurt Suzuki signed. When the Twins traded Doumit to Atlanta, it was pretty obvious that they were going to add a veteran catcher. The chatter about free-agent backstops, once A.J. Pierzynski and Jarrod Saltalamacchia signed elsewhere, was about John Buck and Suzuki.

Of the two, I prefer Suzuki, although that's not saying a great deal.

Suzuki is a 30-year-old catcher who was worked hard by the Oakland A's in his mid-20s and hasn't been an effective hitter since. At one point the A's hit him third quite a bit, although he wasn't a legit middle-of-the-order bat. It was akin to the Twins hittting Brian Dozier third in September this year; somebody has to fill that slot, and Dozier/Suzuki were the best of a bad bunch of options.

Suzuki is essentially a generic catcher. He'll start if the Twins decide Josmil Pinto needs more minor league time, or if Pinto's troublesome shoulder isn't up to the task (Terry Ryan downplays the shoulder issue, but it has taken Pinto out of winter ball); he'll back up Pinto if the kid starts.

I hope it's the latter role.

Mike Pelfrey's signing also became official. I've said my piece on Pelfrey a few times already. I'm at a state of grudging acceptance and moving on.

Darin Mastroianni outrighted. The Twins had opened a 40-man roster spot with the Doumit trade, so they needed another to execute the two signings. Mastroianni lost his spot.

The outfielder remains in the organization -- he wasn't eligible to declare free agency -- and I think he still has a legitimate chance to make the club out of spring training. Not being on the 40 already is a bit of a hurdle, but not as big as proving that his 2013 ankle injury didn't steal his most important tool, his speed.

This wasn't a Twins move, but Liam Hendriks -- who the Twins lost on waivers to the Cubs in an earlier roster-opening move -- was waived by the Cubs and claimed by Baltimore.

Odd, this, because Baltimore had to pass on Hendriks for him be to claimed by the Cubs (when the Twins put a player on waivers, American League teams have the priority). So the Orioles passed on him when the Twins waived him but claimed him when the Cubs waived him.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Scott Diamond and ground balls

Scott Diamond had a difficult 2013.
The 2014 Bill James Handbook contains a nine-page essay by the sabermetric pioneer that digs into the "Pitcher Analysis" data. This is the segment, referred to frequently in recent weeks during posts about Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes, that records, pitcher by pitcher, how many strikes, how many balls, how many ground balls he got, how many swinging strikes, yada yada yada.

As one with a perhaps irrational belief in Scott Diamond — a belief that is probably a big part of my discontent with the re-signing of Mike Pelfrey, who may well keep Diamond out of the rotation —  the third part of the essay really caught my eye:

3. How important is Ground Ball Rate to success as a pitcher?

It isn't. At all.

James being James, he defends this assertion for a couple of pages. I'm not going to quote the whole thing, but his interpretation of the data makes sense. And in 2013, at least, the two groups of pitchers who had the lowest ground ball rates were the two most effective groups.

James' basic point: It's more important for a pitcher to get strikeouts than ground balls.

I believe that to be true. Yet I also believe that a ground ball pitcher — an extreme ground ball pitcher — can be effective.

Diamond was that extreme ground ball pitcher in 2012. He wasn't in 2013.

According to the Handbook: Diamond, in 2013, faced 576 batters. He got 227 ground balls (39.4 percent), 154 fly balls (26.7 percent) and 103 line drives (17.8 percent).  This appears to be on the high end of ground ball rates — the chart only gives bulk numbers — and it didn't result in a good season for Diamond.

In 2012, Diamond had 714 BF,  311 GB (43.5 percent), 149 FB (20.1 percent), 122 LD (17.1 percent). The difference is obvious. Fly ball rates up sharply, ground ball rates down sharply, line drive rate up a bit. 

What's more troublesome for the lefty: he threw just 62 percent strikes (not real high) in 2013 and had just 10 percent swinging strikes (extremely low). 

The 2013 Handbook doesn't give the same data for the 2012 season, so I can't directly compare Diamond's strike-throwing from year to year. But given the rise in his walk rate and the decline in his strikeout rate, it's a safe bet that he wasn't throwing strikes at the same rate in 2013.

None of this is really new information, of course. Diamond's 2012 success was based on doing the things he does well — throw strikes, get ground balls — extremely well, top-of-the-league well. In 2013, he declined in those things, and that won't work for him.

He doesn't have a swing-and-miss pitch. He has to work around that, and James' essay, without ever mentioning Diamond, tells us why that's not easily done.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas

Who needs reindeer games when
there's baseball to be played?
In honor of the holiday, here is a link to the official Baseball Reference page of Rudolph the Red Nosed Shortstop.

I particularly like the list of most similar players.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Ex-Twin watch: Nick Punto

Nick Punto with son Nash before Nash's
eye surgery last week. (Photo tweeted
by Natalie Punto).
I find this somewhat amusing: Nick Punto, derided by the stat-savvy on the blogosphere during his years getting regular playing time with the Twins, is now, in the bounce-around phase of his career, making the rounds of the most sabermetrically oriented organizations.

First, he signed with St. Louis. Then with Boston. Now, with an intervening trade to Los Angeles, he's signed with Oakland.

To be sure, he hasn't gotten the at-bats with these teams that he did with the Twins -- fewer than 700 plate appearances the past three years combined. But he did play in 116 games with the Dodgers last year, filling in around the infield, and in 2011, he was a lineup fixture in the NLCS and World Series as the Cardinals won it all.

Punto's 36 now, and he will never be an offensive force. But he was always a better player than his detractors recognized, and the willingness of some of the sharpest front offices to find space for him on their rosters even in his decline phase speaks to that.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Alex Presley and the stolen base

Alex Presley hit .283 for the Twins in September, but
he was an ineffective base stealer.
As a team, the 2013 Twins ran the bases well. They stole bases terribly.

Those assertions are supported by the baserunning stats in the 2014 Bill James Handbook.

Baseball Info Systems credits the Twins with a gain of 44 bases on baserunning. The formula, which excludes steals, encompasses extra bases on hits and fly balls and subtracts for baserunning outs. The Twins' 44 bases was third highest in the majors (behind only Tampa Bay and Oakland).

But basestealing? That was another matter. BIS has the Twins a -14 on steals. Only Arizona fared worse than Minnesota at stealing.

A fair chunk of Twins deficit is likely charged to Alex Presley, who came to the Twins from Pittsburgh in the Justin Morneau trade. Presley played center and led off pretty much every day in September, and he was 1-for-4 in steal attempts. He was 0-for-1 with the Pirates, and BIS has him as a -7 as a basestealer.

As a long-ago sportswriter quipped about a Brooklyn Dodger who similarly couldn't steal bases: There was larceny in his heart, but his feet were honest.

Were I running the Twins, I would be planning on a Presley-Darin Mastroianni platoon in center to open 2014. But I would be very wary of trying to steal bases, at least with Presley.

Presley seems to have the Greg Gagne basestealing glitch. Gagne, the Twins shortstop for their two World Series teams, was a fast man and a good baserunner, but he was simply unable to read pitchers to get the jump to steal. We frequently hear coaches assert that so-and-so will be a good basestealer when he learns to read pitchers, but it really appears to be something that can't be taught.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Sunday Funnies

A reporter asked Rickey Henderson about Ken Caminiti's claim that 50 percent of major leaguers were using steroids.

Henderson replied, "Well, Rickey isn't one of them, so that's 49 percent right there."

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Taking a hack at it (or not)

If Joe Mauer's swinging, it's probably not at the first pitch.
According to the leaderboards in the 2014 Bill James Handbook:

No qualifying hitter in either league (minimum of 502 plate appearances) swung at the first pitch less often than Joe Mauer, 6.8 percent. The only surprise in that to most Twins fans, I suppose, is that Mauer took a hack at that many first pitches.

But the second lowest percentage in MLB was Brian Dozier, who went for the first pitch just 8.6 percent of the time.

Justin Morneau, on the other hand, took a cut at the first offering 34.9 percent of the time, the seventh highest rate in the American League. (The AL leader was Miguel Cabrera, 39.7 percent, and the MLB leader was another former Twins player, Carlos Gomez of Milwaukee, at 49.5 percent).

Is there some sort of meaning to this? The leaderboards contain outstanding hitters, or at least hitters having outstanding seasons, in both directions. Among the 10 AL regulars least likely to swing at the first pitch, besides Mauer, are Mike Trout (12 percent) and Dustin Pedroia (9.8 percent), and Shane Victorino (10.5 percent. Among the 10 AL regulars most likely to swing, besides Cabrera, are Chris Davis (34.7 percent) and Adam Jones (37.6 percent). There's nothing here to point to as evidence that one should, or shouldn't, avoid the first offering.

Here's another one that may not surprise Twins fans: Oswaldo Arcia swung and missed at 32.4 percent of the pitches he saw. That's the fourth highest rate among AL players who saw at least 1,500 pitches.

Arcia is sandwiched on that list between Mike Napoli, who hit .259/.360/.482 for the Red Sox, and Chris Davis, who bopped 53 homers for Baltimore, so this is hardly a fatal flaw. But it was certainly a factor in Arcia's yo-yoing back and forth between the Twins and Rochester.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Mike Pelfrey vs. Kyle Gibson

Mike Pelfrey was quite effective in July and August
after a couple weeks on the disabled list, then sagged
in September.
Theoretically, Mike Pelfrey and Kyle Gibson are similar pitchers: Tall (Pelfrey is listed at 6-7, Gibson at 6-6) right-handed, first round draft picks out of midwestern colleges, Tommy John surgery survivors. They're even fairly close in age (Gibson is 26, Pelfrey turns 30 next month).

And, perhaps most significantly, they are both oriented to a high-velocity sinker and lack a swing-and-miss breaking ball. They're geared to ground balls rather than strikeouts.

Pelfrey's return, added to the signing of Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes and the continuing presence of Kevin Correia, appears to push Gibson into a multi-pitcher scrum for the fifth rotation spot. Among the other candidates: Scott Diamond, Sam Deduno and Andrew Albers. Since Gibson has an option left, and Diamond and Deduno do not, Gibson may be a decided underdog in that competition.

The question remains: Is Pelfrey really a better bet than Gibson?

I have my doubts.

Let's compare the two with the help of the 2014 Bill James Handbook.

Pelfrey's fastball in 2014 averaged 92.4 mph; Gibson, 92.1.

Pelfrey threw his fastball on 73 percent of his pitches. Other pitches: 10 percent sliders, 9 percent splitters, 8 percent curves.

Gibson threw his fastball on 69 percent of his pitches. Other pitches: 17 percent sliders, 13 percent change ups, 1 percent curve. (That would be about one curve ball per game, and I suspect that's more likely a pitch identification problem in the system.)

Pelfrey's 680 batters faced hit 222 grounders (32.4 percent); Gibson's 238 major league hitters generated 92 grounders (38.6 percent).

Pelfrey threw strikes on 61 percent of his pitches, Gibson just 59 percent. Neither percentage is good. It leads to too many deep counts and too many walks.

The wild card here, of course, is that 2013 was, for both, the first full season after their respective ligament replacement surgery. But it has to be said: Pelfrey's "leading indicator" stats were in line with what he did before his injury.

As far as I'm concerned, Pelfrey and Gibson are the same pitcher. It doesn't make a lot of sense to pay one $5 million more to block the other.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Doumit traded to Atlanta

Ryan Doumit split his Minnesota playing time between
the outfield, catching and DH.

The Twins needed to open a spot on the 40-man roster for Mike Pelfrey.

They did so Wednesday by trading Ryan Doumit to Atlanta for minor league lefty Sean Gilmartin.

Gilmartin was a late-first round pick out of college by the Braves in 2011. He's reached Triple A already, but has been unimpressive there. Of particular interest to the Twins, besides his left-handedness and the possibility that he might still justify his draft status, is that he doesn't have to be on the 40.

I had surmised earlier in the offseason that Doumit wasn't a significant part of the Twins catching plans post-Mauer. Moving him clears some of the corner outfield/DH clutter. It also leaves the Twins with three catchers on the 40: Eric Fryer, Chris Herrmann and Josmil Pinto.

This may wind up being addition by subtraction; I assume the Braves had written off Gilmartin as a significant piece of their future and figured Doumit might be of immediate help. For the Twins, the roster spot may well be the point behind this transaction.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Around the Division: Kansas City Royals

Eric Hosmer, now 24, came on strong
last season during George Brett's
brief tenure as hitting coach.
Kansas City, long the weakest outfit in the generally weak American League Central, rose up to an 86-76 mark in 2013. They'd been down so long that that record felt, said general manager Dayton Moore, like winning the World Series.

Such irrational exuberance soon wears off. And the Royals — who last made the playoffs in 1985, a season in which they did indeed win the World Series — are going for it hard in 2014.

K.C. had a very young lineup last season. The oldest regular listed on their Baseball Reference page was 29. They did have the 39-year-old Miguel Tejada holding down second base for a few weeks until he got nailed for PED use, but the lineup was basically the fruits of what was regarded a few years ago as the most loaded farm system ever.

Which is not to say it was a good lineup, at least at the plate. The Royals were 11th in the AL in runs scored. It was a very good defensive team, but offense was an issue.

The Royals have acted on those problems. They traded a spare arm (lefty Will Smith) to Milwaukee for right fielder Norichika Aoki, who has a rare profile for a Royal: He doesn't strike out, and he draws walks. Aoki fits the defensive skill mode of the team, and he gives them a legitimate leadoff man.

And they plugged the second base hole by outbidding the New York Yankees (!) for Tigers refugee Omar Infante. Infante hit .315 for Detroit last season, working in the bottom of the lineup; the Royals appear likely to put Aoki and Infante at the top, to set the table for Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler and Alex Gordon.

I'd put Gordon second rather than fifth, but the fact remains: The Royals have improved the offense without damaging the defense.

I'm not as high on their pitching outlook. The 2013 rotation put a lot of work on three arms. James Shields led the AL in innings, Jeremy Guthrie was 10th, and Ervin Santana was less than an inning behind Guthrie. Shields is still around (last year of his contract, which is part of why the Royals figure to be all-in for 2014). Guthrie, 35 in April, is coming off arguably his career year; while he's been markedly better in Kansas City than he has been elsewhere, it's easier to see him falling off than repeating or improving.

And Santana is a free agent, with the Royals appearing content to let him go elsewhere and pocket the draft pick compensation. Junkballing lefty Bruce Chen, who wormed his way into 15 starts (and a 3.27 ERA) is also a free agent. Between the two of them, K.C. is losing 332 innings of 3.25 ball. That won't be easily replaced.

They signed journeyman lefty Jason Vargas to a four-year deal; he's unlikely to match Santana's 2013 in either workload or effectiveness.

Kansas City is really counting on Danny Duffy, who returned from Tommy John surgery to make five starts in August and September with a 1.85 ERA. He wasn't really as good as the ERA suggests, but he is talented. More than Vargas, he's the one the Royals need to have fill Santana's role in the rotation. I'm not sure he's durable enough.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Morneau to the Rockies

Justin Morneau with Team Canada
in the World Baseball Classic.
For Twins fans, it perhaps got lost in all the signings of free agent pitchers, but former franchise cornerstone Justin Morneau has signed with the Colorado Rockies.

When the Twins traded Morneau to Pittsburgh, I figured there was a good chance he'd return to Minnesota. But then Joe Mauer's concussion recovery dragged on, and Morneau showed almost no power with the Pirates, and the likelihood dwindled. When the Twins announced that Mauer would abandon catching, it was obvious that Morneau was not coming through that door.

And I'm fine with that. The former MVP turns 33 in May, and he has not been the same hitter since the notorious concussion that cut off what was shaping up to be a career season in 2010. Coors Field, the extremely hitter-friendly yard in Denver, may well recharge Morneau's numbers, but realistically, he's on the decline.

Sentimentally, Twins fans will miss Morneau. But there really wasn't a place for him on this rebuilding squad. He is no longer potent enough a hitter to force a team to make room for him.

Morneau's new contract reflects his diminished status: Two years, $12.5 million. Not terrible money, but he got $14 million last season. His pay has been more than halved.

So now Morneau, who was wearing 33 with the Twins in part to honor fellow British Columbian Larry Walker, will play for the team Walker is most identified with. The Rockies have not officially retired Walker's 33, although that is a possibility. But I imagine Morneau will get to wear 33 for the Rox.

And he'll be reunited with Michael Cuddyer, another former mainstay of the Minnesota lineup and the defending National League batting champ. (Coors Field, remember?) Another former Twin on the Rockies roster is LaTroy Hawkins, although there wasn't a lot of overlap between the Hawk and Morneau (a part of 2003).

Monday, December 16, 2013

Notes, quotes and comment

Liam Hendriks, dropped from the Twins' 40-man roster to make room for Phil Hughes, was claimed on waivers last week by the Chicago Cubs.

It figured that the Twins would give up on him this winter. It also figured that somebody would claim Hendriks, who had some success in the minors (although he struggled in Triple A last year). I'm made my "Rule of 30" argument often enough about him that there's no point in repeating it.

Hendriks is not a good bet to become an ace. I still think he can become an effective major league starter. The Twins demanded immediate success, or at least more than they got. Now somebody else will get to see if he's learned something from his struggles so far.


Ron Coomer is also going to the Cubs. The Chicago native is to be their new radio analyst, sidekick to play-by-play man Pat Hughes.

Keith Moreland had held the job for three years following the death of Ron Santo.

I was never that impressed with Coomer's "insights" on the Twins TV broadcasts, but somebody obviously thinks he has something to offer the audience.


Miguel Sano had his sprained elbow examined last week in Fort Myers, and the uberprospect has been cleared to resume throwing. A good sign, since his throwing arm is probably his second best tool (behind his power) and a big reason the Twins have stuck to the notion of playing him at third base.


Terry Ryan repeatedly professed last week to being unconcerned about Josmil Pinto's throwing shoulder, but the catching prospect is now done with winter ball after about three weeks of not catching.

A few months of Pinto not playing, in and of itself, does not disturb me. He and Sano and a few other Latin prospects might benefit from some time off from the game. But the shoulder was an issue during the summer, and I don't know why it wouldn't be an issue next year too.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Sunday Funnies

Another tale from Kirby Higbe's "The High Hard One":

Toward the end of the 1942 season, when the Cardinals were closing in on us, this guy got a chorus girl and sent her to Philadelphia, where the Cardinals were playing while we were battling Cincinnati in Brooklyn. There was hardly no way the the Phillies could beat the Cardinals, especially when one of their aces was pitching. So this girl was told to get a date with one of the Cardinal pitchers the night before he was going to pitch, and she did. Next day he shut the Phillies out on two hits.

When the girl came back, she was told she'd done a lousy job.

"A lousy job! He drank two quarts of liquor and I guarantee he didn't sleep a wink all night."

The Cardinals were coming to Brooklyn next, and the girl was given another chance.

The pitcher was due to pitch the second game, and she made a date with him.  She called in the morning and said she had been with him all night and she was dead tired and didn't see how he could be good for anything that day. But he shut us out on three hits and beat us 2-0.

That looked like pretty good medicine for a pitcher, and I asked why they didn't try it out on me.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Pelfrey's back, but why?

Mike Pelfrey:
Assuming he passes
his physical, he's
back in the Twins
Mike Pelfrey and the Twins have reportedly come to terms on a two-year deal, pending a physical.

Had this come before the the Twins landed Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes, I would have agreed. Now, not so much.

The money involved -- $11 million guaranteed plus incentives -- means Pelfrey ranks ahead of his fellow unimpressive holdovers from 2013.

The presumptive rotation:

Kevin Correia
? -- someone from the Scott Diamond / Sam Deduno / Kyle Gibson / Vance Worley group.

Somebody on Twitter said this gives the team depth. Well, only until the season starts. Diamond, Deduno and Worley are all out of options. They'd have to clear waivers to be sent to Rochester.

In truth, I'd rather have Pelfrey than Correia. There's a good chance that Pelfrey will be better in 2014 (another year removed from his elbow reconstruction, and his underlying stats were better than his actual results) and Correia was about as effective as he can be. But I'd rather see Gibson, Deduno and/or Diamond given a chance than either. Maybe -- maybe -- the Twins figure they can trade Correia.

Meanwhile, the Twins supposedly are still pursuing Bronson Arroyo and/or Matt Garza, either of whom would fit ahead of Hughes in that rotation.

The return of Jason Kubel

Jason Kubel: He's back, more or less, with the Twins.
The Twins on Friday signed old friend Jason Kubel to a minor-league deal.

It's a move that doesn't make sense to me on either end.

The Twins have plenty of minimal defense corner outfielders already: Josh Willingham, Ryan Doumit, Oswaldo Arcia, Chris Parmelee.

And, granted, Kubel had a miserable 2012 (.216/.292/.317), split between Arizona and Cleveland. But was his market really so limited that he had to settle for a minor league contract in a hitting environment (Target Field) he was known to have disliked before he left as a free agent?

Kubel turns 32 in May, and it's certainly plausible that he can bounce back as a hitter. It's also likely that his best years are behind him -- which is also true of Willingham and Doumit as well. All three are on the wrong side of 30.

If Kubel couldn't find a major league roster spot -- and he didn't -- that suggests a very weak trade market for Willingham and Doumit.

My real fear is that Kubel will become an excuse for the Twins to bat Arcia around like a ping pong ball. I don't want to see another year in which the kid strikes out three times on Wednesday, sits Thursday and Friday, pinch hits on Saturday and goes down to Rochester on Sunday. I want Arcia hitting cleanup on a regular basis. I want to see some patience with him.

There's a future in Arcia. There's a past in Kubel, Willingham and Doumit. Embrace the future.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Rule 5 withdrawal

Thursday was the annual Rule 5 draft, when major league teams pick through the players their rivals deemed unworthy of protecting on the 40-man roster.

I doubt that there is a team as devoted to exploiting Rule 5 as the Twins. Rule 5 provided Shane Mack, a key outfielder on the 1991 World Series champion team. It provided Johan Santana, who became the best pitcher in baseball for a few years. More recently, and despite a tightening of the rules that meant less talent was being exposed to the draft, Rule 5 brought the Twins pitchers Scott Diamond and Ryan Pressly.

This year, for the first time in memory, the Twins skipped Rule 5, or at least the major league portion of it. In effect, they determined that there was nobody available in the field of potential picks who figured to be more valuable than the least player on the 40-man roster.

Which is certainly possible, even with a number of replacement-level players on the 40.

The Twins didn't lose anybody in the major league portion of the draft either.

They did make two selections, and lost two players, in the minor league portion. I won't get into those picks; the only minor league Rule 5 guy I know of who so much as reached the majors for the Twins was Brian Buscher, who had two partial seasons at third base in 2008-09.

Figure these guys as organization depth. If they emerge as something more, great.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Colliding thoughts

Pete Rose runs over Ray Fosse in a famous play in the
1970 All-Star Game. Rose scored the winning run;
Fosse suffered a broken shoulder and never again
played to the level of his 1970 half-season.
The specifics of the rule hasn't been written yet, nor has the general concept been endorsed by the players union, but baseball is about to ban home plate collisions.

I have mixed emotions about this. Some highly memorable moments watching the Twins have involved home plate collisions: Kirby Puckett plowing over Terry Steinbach (Steinback held onto the ball). Dan Gladden putting Greg Olson upside down in Game One of the 1991 World Series (Olson held onto the ball). Torii Hunter blowing up the White Sox' Jamie Burke in 2004 (Burke did not get the out). One not involving the Twins that sticks in my mind: pitcher Norm Charlton running over Mike Scoscia, the master of blocking the plate.

And, of course, the Pete Rose-Ray Fosse play, shown above. It happened in the first All-Star game I actually watched on TV. It was sort of a seminal moment for me: this is how the big boys play baseball.

And yet, it is an undeniably dangerous play, for both the baserunner and the catcher. Denard Span's concussion in 2011 came from a play at the plate.

The profit-loss equation has long encouraged catchers to block the plate. We got a dose of the obstruction rule during the World Series. What's the (official) penalty for a catcher who blocks the plate before securing the ball? Runner scores. What happens if catcher doesn't block the plate before getting the ball? Runner scores. Might as well block the plate.

For years umpires let catchers obstruct baserunners. And, to be sure, some baserunners ran over catchers who weren't fully blocking the plate -- in part because catchers were adept at getting the shin guard into position to keep the runner from sliding home.

Now all that's supposed to end. We'll see. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Mike Pelfrey vs. Phil Hughes

Mike Pelfrey: Will he return or move on?
Another outwardly slow day for The Twins at the Winter Meetings.

I should perhaps note here that I'm not actually at the Winter Meetings. I'm freezing in Mankato and reacting to the reports from the reporters who are in Orlando. But if' the Twitter feeds are any indication -- Mike Bernadino of the Pioneer Press was comparing Chapel Hill, N.C., and Columbia, Mo, as college towns for a while Tuesday-- it's been slow.

Part of what's going on, the Twins are willing to admit, is waiting for Mike Pelfrey to make a decision.

The idea of bringing Pelfrey back probably does not delight many fans. Pelfrey was part of the problem in 2013: 5-13, 5.19 ERA, just 152.2 innings in 28 starts, less than six innings a start.

Of course, it was his first season back from Tommy John surgery, and he probably wasn't really ready to pitch in the majors as soon as he did. Still, even before he popped his elbow ligament while with the Mets, he was a low-strikeout guy with indifferent control who relied on getting ground balls.

It's who he is. Pelfrey at his best — the Pelfrey of 2008 or 2010 — could be a third or fourth starter for a playoff team. But he's nobody's ace.

Supposedly the Twins have offered Pelfrey a two-year deal at $5 million a year. And it certainly hasn't escaped the attention of Pelfrey's agent, the notorious Scott Boras, that

  • Phil Hughes had similar results in 2013 (4-14, 5.19, 145 innings) and 
  • the Twins gave him three years at $8 million.

Of course, there are other issues involved here. Pelfrey averaged 3.1 walks and 6.0 strikeouts per nine innings; Hughes walked 2.6 per nine and whiffed 7.5. Pelfrey, as noted in a previous post, threw strikes on 61 percent of his pitches; Hughes threw strikes on 67 percent.

And, of course, Hughes did his work with Yankee Stadium as his home office, while Pelfrey had the more forgiving Target Field.

The results were similar, but Hughes's process was better. Of the two, Hughes is the better bet to post improved numbers going forward. The Twins are justified in valuing him above Pelfrey.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Winter Meetings, Day One

Tony LaRussa, Joe Torre and Bobby Cox were
selected Monday for induction into the Hall of Fame.
The Twins -- and pretty much everybody else -- had a quiet first day of the Winter Meetings in Orlando, Fla.

The newsiest news for the Twins:

  • Terry Ryan said he doesn't anticipate clearing a roster spot, and that means the Twins won't participate in the Rule 5 draft at the end of the meetings; and
  • The Twins have not ruled out surgery for Miguel Sano, whose planned stint in the Dominican Winter League was cut off just as it began with a sprained elbow.

The possibility of Tommy John surgery for the megaprospect -- and right now that's all it is, a possibility -- started a mini-flurry of speculation about making the Joe Mauer position shift to third base rather than first. I don't think that's happening.

The biggest news overall was the Veterans Committee electing Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre to the Hall of Fame as managers. Or maybe the biggest news was the Veterans Committee bypassing Marvin Miller (again) and George Steinbrenner.

Cox, LaRussa and Torre were obvious picks. Miller, in my opinion, should have been in long ago. Steinbrenner, as far as I'm concerned, can wait an eternity. I wrote this when he died, and my opinion has not softened with time.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Around the division: Detroit Tigers

Doug Fister was 32-20, 3.29 in two-and-a-half seasons
in the Tigers rotation.
We Twins fans think Terry Ryan's been busy this offseason, signing two new starting pitchers. Ryan's got nothing on his Detroit counterpart, Dave Dombrowski.

As the Winter Meetings — usually the busiest period of the Hot Stove league — gets started, Dombrowski has already:

  • Hired a manager to follow the retired Jim Leyland;
  • Remade his infield, replacing three of 2013 regulars completely and moving the fourth to a different position;
  • Signed a new closer and moved his best setup man to the starting rotation;
  • Created a spot in the rotation by trading a very good starter.

It's a rather stunning makeover for a three-time division champ, albeit one that hasn't really met its expectations during the regular seasons.

I wrote at some length last month about the infield revamp; the only new development there is that Dombrowski has now explicitly said that Miguel Cabrera is moving to first base, with Nick Castellanos at third base.

Joe Nathan is chasing
a ring.
The new stuff revolves around the mound.

Begin at the end. Erstwhile Twin Joe Nathan, now 39, got a two-year deal (option for a third year) to close. The Tigers had issues in the back end of the bullpen the past two seasons, and rookie manager Brad Ausmus (assuming Nathan doesn't decline) won't have to do the juggling act Leyland did.

Joaquin Benoit, who finished 2013 as the Tigers closer, is a free agent, and Dombrowski has said he expects Benoit to sign elsewhere as a closer.

Drew Smyly, who went 6-0, 2.37 with two saves and 22 holds in relief last season, will move to the rotation. I had expected the lefty to take a starting job last spring; it will happen in 2014 instead.

And he won't be dislodging Rick Porcello, but Doug Fister.

Fister was traded to Washington for a package of utility man Steve Lombardozzi (son of the same-named second baseman of the 1987 Twins) and left-handed pitching prospects Robbie Ray and Ian Krol. It's an underwhelming return for Fister, who had quietly become one of the top 20 or so starters in baseball.

Dombrowski probably didn't get maximum value for Fister. I doubt that was his goal. His priorities in this trade were almost certainly

  • Opening payroll space for Nathan;
  • Trading Fister out of the American League;
  • Adding left-handed pitching to a thinning farm system.

Dombrowski achieved those things. That the general consensus around the game is that he could have made a better deal probably doesn't cost him any sleep. The "better deals" presumably didn't meet his targeted desires.

The Tigers aren't in a talent-accumulating position. They're in a talent-arranging position. They're out to win now, not to build a base to win from.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Sunday Funnies

This one comes from the late President Reagan:

“One day the great baseball manager Frankie Frisch sent a rookie out to play centerfield, and the rookie promptly dropped the first fly ball that was hit to him. On the next play, he let a grounder go between his feet and then threw the ball to the wrong base. Frankie stormed out of the dugout, took his glove away from him and said, 'I'll show you how to play this position.' And the next batter slammed a line drive right over second base. Frankie came in on it, missed it completely, fell down when he tried to chase it, threw down his glove and yelled at the rookie, 'You got centerfield so screwed up nobody can play it.’”

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Into the Winter Meetings

The Winter Meetings begin Monday, and Terry Ryan, the Twins general manager, has probably already made his biggest moves of the offseason:

  • Retained Ron Gardenhire as manager
  • Moved Joe Mauer to first base
  • Signed Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes for the starting rotation

Ryan has typically been the master of winter patience, waiting until he has the last open seat in the game of player musical chairs. This time he's stuck rather quickly.

He still has something in the neighborhood of $15 million in 2014 budget space and a team with holes. What might we look for from the Twins at the Winter Meetings and beyond?

A roster opening move. The Twins have the fifth pick in the Rule 5 draft, but at this point no way to use it, as the 40-man roster is full. The Twins take Rule 5 seriously. They almost always select somebody in Rule 5, and are more likely than probably any organization in baseball to find a way to keep that selection, so it's hard to imagine Ryan and Co. sitting it out this year. But first they have to clear a spot on the 40.

Catcher. Ryan indicated this week, after A.J. Pierzynski and Jarrod Saltalamacchia found new employers, that the Twins were willing to move ahead with Josmil Pinto as Plan A behind the dish for 2014. I suspect it's a case of willing but not eager. The options are thinning out, however.

Starting pitcher.  The Twins have added two starters; they're open to adding a third, but they don't have the urgency now that they did before landing Nolasco and Hughes. They remain linked to Bronson Arroyo and Mike Pelfrey; my particular case of Sid Hartman Disease — the irrational wish to bring back former stars — is focused at this point on Johan Santana, whose shoulder rehab has reportedly progressed to playing catch at 90 feet on flat ground. If they do sign a pitcher, I doubt it will happen before the Rule 5 draft, which is pretty much the final act of the Winter Meetings.

Trades? Unlikely. Ryan's said that he's more focused on free agency than on trades as a means to boost the 2014 team, because free agents don't cost players. (And, unsaid but implied, he's got more money to spend than trade chips to cash in.) The one real area of surplus he might have dealt from, second base, got dented with the news of Eddie Rosario's positive PED test.

But ... it's certainly possible that the Twins will create that roster space cited above by peddling somebody (most likely a bullpen arm) for a prospect who doesn't need rostering.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Phil Hughes in, Liam Hendriks out

Phil Hughes wore 65 with the Yankees, but with the
Twins he'll take number 45 off Scott Ullger's back.
Phil Hughes' contract was finalized Thursday, which meant that the Twins had to clear room on the 40-man roster.

The move: Liam Hendriks was designated for assignment.

It seemed the obvious move to me; I had predicted it Monday. But my Twitter feed had a brief eruption from people -- notably Twins prospect guru Seth Stohs -- unhappy that Hendriks was targeted.

Here's the thing, though: Hendriks simply hasn't been good at major league baseball.

Thirty MLB games, 28 starts, 156 innings -- and a 2-13 record with a 6.06 ERA.

I've been critical the past two years of the Twins' handling of Hendriks. I've argued that they were too impatient, especially in 2012, when he dominated the International League in between sporadic opportunities in the American League. I've noted, repeatedly, that many pitchers -- even some great ones, such as Greg Maddux -- struggled to find their way in their first season in a rotation. (I call it the Rule of 30 -- that one should judge a pitcher's stats on what he does after 30 major league starts.)

Even now, Hendriks hasn't gotten to 30 starts. I think it's possible that the Aussie will eventually emerge as a competent back-of-the rotation starter.

But that's the ceiling: A fourth or fifth guy. And the Twins have other arms who have come closer to achieving that status than Hendriks has -- Vance Worley, Scott Diamond, Sam Deduno, Andrew Albers. In that crowd, Hendriks was surplus inventory.

Mike Bernadino of the Pioneer Press figured Hendriks' future might be in the bullpen. Well, again, the Twins have no shortage of arms for that role. Hendriks might be a good long man, but the Twins have Anthony Swarzak already.

The Twins have 40 on the roster. If they're to play in the Rule 5 draft next week, and they almost always do, they'll need to clear another player off the deck.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Twins can't catch a veteran backstop

A.J. Pierzynski has caught
at least 1,000 innings in each
of the last 12 seasons, an
impressive feat.
It became obvious Tuesday that, while the Twins may have gotten the deals they wanted in the starting pitching field of free agency, they were missing out on the catchers.

A.J. Pierzynski, whose proposed return was welcomed by the sentimentalists in Twins Territory, opted instead to sign with the Boston Red Sox.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the Red Sox' No. 1 catcher last year and another reputed Minnesota target, moved on to his hometown (more or less) Miami Marlins on a three-year deal.

Which left Twins general manager Terry Ryan, during the Tuesday Ricky Nolasco presser, gamely declaring that the Twins are willing to go with Josmil Pinto as the No. 1 catcher.

Willing, perhaps, but not quite eager. This isn't the Twins after the 2003 season trading away Pierzynski to make room for Mauer. They wanted an established catcher to buy time to further marinate Pinto in the intricacies of catching.

But I infer from the apparent insistence on a short-term deal that the Twins believe Pinto can indeed become a capable defensive catcher. They don't want to block Pinto.

It's still early in the offseason. The Twins might still land another receiver. But I doubt they're eager to invest in the likes of John Buck, J.P. Arencibia or Kurt Suzuki. And I'm not particularly eager to see them in Twins uniforms.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Nolasco, Hughes and the Twins payroll

Ricky Nolasco will wear his accustomed No. 47
with the Twins -- a number used in the past by
Francisco Liriano, Corey Koskie and Jack Morris.
The Twins are investing at least $73 million in a pair of free agent pitchers. That's a considerable amount of money being sunk into a high attrition rate.

Ricky Nolasco, now officially a Minnesota Twin, is a soon-to-be 31-year-old — birthday in the middle of the month — with more then 1,300 major league innings on his resume.

Major league pitching is unnatural. The human arm is not engineered to hurl such a projectile that many times with that much force. To pitch is to damage the arm.

This is why four-year contracts for veteran pitchers are, as a rule, financial madness. Nolasco got four years, with an option for a fifth year.

Phil Hughes is younger (27, turns 28 in June) but with a lesser durability history. His three-year contract, not yet official, is also risky business.

In the abstract, these contracts look like mistakes. In the reality of the Twins, they are necessary overpays — and even if the commitments prove regrettable, they are unlikely to actually harm the organization.

Nolasco's contract ($49 million guaranteed) and Hughes' ($24 million) puts the current projected 2014 payroll somewhere around $83 million. That leaves plenty of room — more than $15 million — in the 2014 budget. After next season such veterans as Josh Willingham ($7 million), Kevin Correia ($5.5 million) and Ryan Doumit ($3.5 million) come off the payroll, which figures to open lineup spots for the touted farm system to fill cheaply.

The burden of these free agent deals is only a problem if it keeps the Twins from adding or retaining more valuable talent. That seems unlikely. There's still room in the budget now, and both contracts will expire before the Miguel Sano-Byron Buxton-Oswaldo Arcia-Josmil Pinto-Alex Meyer etc. wave of talent reaches free agency.

Nolasco and Hughes are, to be sure, nobody's idea of aces. Drop Nolasco on the Detroit roster, and he'd be surplus inventory. For the Twins, he's likely their Opening Day starter. Overpaid, perhaps, but valuable — and neither a burden nor a roadblock.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Swing and miss

Vance Worley:
Very low rate of
As I've noted in previous posts, Ricky Nolasco doesn't have an overpowering fastball (averages just over 90 mph, according to Baseball Info Systems), and he doesn't throw his fastball even half the time (44 percent fastballs in 2013, 45 percent in 2012, both figures according to BIS).

But he does get swings-and-misses: 17 percent. That's a solid rate for a starter. The Red Sox' top three starters, for example: Jon Lester, 14 percent; John Lackey, 16 percent, Clay Buchholtz, 15 percent.

Phil Hughes, on the other hand, does throw hard (average fastball exceeds 92 mph) and throws his fastball quite a bit (more than 60 percent of the time).

He gets, or did in 2013, somewhat fewer swings and misses, 14 percent.

This should be no surprise — Nolasco's swing-and-miss rate was considerably higher than anybody's in the 2013 Twins rotation, and Hughes would rank up there as well. (Listed in order of starts, each had at least eight):

  • Kevin Correia: 10 percent
  • Mike Pelfrey (free agent): 10 percent
  • Scott Diamond: 10 percent
  • Sam Deduno: 13 percent
  • Pedro Hernandez (released): 10 percent
  • Kyle Gibson: 14 percent
  • Vance Worley: 7 percent (wince)
  • Andrew Albers: 10 percent
  • Liam Hendriks: 14 percent
  • P.J. Walters (released): 10 percent

Andrew Albers:
Two-thirds of his
pitches were strikes.

Percentage of pitches that were strikes (called, swinging, fouled or put in play:)

  • Nolasco: 64 percent
  • Hughes: 67 percent
  • Correia: 63 percent
  • Pelfrey: 61 percent
  • Diamond: 62 percent
  • Deduno: 61 percent
  • Hernandez: 60 percent
  • Gibson: 59 percent (wince)
  • Worley: 63 percent
  • Albers: 67 percent
  • Hendriks: 63 percent
  • Walters: 61 percent

Hughes and Andrew Albers really do pound the strike zone.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Tender is the deadline (updated)

Today is the deadline to offer contracts to arbitration-eligible players; those who are non-tendered become free agents.

Also today, the Twins have a pair of free agent not-quite-signees in for physicials, the major hurdle in turning Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes into bona fide signees.

The Twins as of this morning had 39 players on the 40-man roster, so they'll need to drop somebody to add both Nolasco and Hughes. Presumably the Twins will want to play in the Rule 5 draft at the Winter Meetings next week; that requires an open spot. If the rumors about adding a catcher and/or yet another pitcher are valid, still more spots will be needed.

The convergence of the free agents and the tender deadline is coincidental, and the decisions shouldn't be connected — by which I mean, the Twins shouldn't nontender Brian Duensing merely to make room for a free agent. Dropping one of their three arbitration-eligible players (Duensing, Trevor Plouffe and Anthony Swarzak) should be based on their projected salary via arbitration (which will be a sizable raise for each) versus their value to the team.

I expect the Twins to tender all three. There is room in the budget and roles on the squad for them. The one most at risk is probably Duensing, but I don't envision the Twins cutting him loose.

Still, there are cuts ahead. The front office, I'm sure, knows who will be removed from the 40-man roster. My guesses: Liam Hendriks and Kris Johnson, with Chris Colabello also a real possibility. Eric Fryer, as I said a week or so ago, will probably remain on the roster unless and until a catcher is added.

UPDATE: I was apparently a bit ahead of myself on the Hughes physical. A press conference is scheduled for Tuesday for the Nolasco signing. And the Twins indeed announced today that they were tendering contracts to Duensing, Plouffe and Swarzak.

Breaking down Phil Hughes

Phil Hughes's 2012 Topps card.
Away back in the winter of 2007-08, when the Twins were shopping Johan Santana, Phil Hughes was a hot Yankee prospect and the arm connected to a potential trade. It never happened, of course.

But now, unless something unforeseen jams up the process (like a physical that discovers he has cancer or something), Hughes is about to become a Twin after all. The Yankees, weary of his tendency to allow homers, made no effort to retain the 27-year-old righty and 2010 All-Star as a free agent, and he hopped onto the Twins' three-year, $24 million offer.

One thing I like about the signing: Hughes is a significantly different pitcher than Ricky Nolasco, who agreed to join Minnesota last week. Nolasco relies on his breaking balls and gets a conventional set of results; Hughes is more a power arm and is one of the most pronounced fly ball pitchers around. The Twins rotation now figures to have a more diverse set of skills and approaches, rather than being a steady parade of sinker-slider guys.

The numbers, as provided in the Bill James Handbooks:

In 2013, Hughes faced 642 batters. They hit 144 ground balls (22.4 percent), 106 line drives (16.5 percent) and 217 fly balls (33.8 percent).

In 2012, in which Hughes was more effective, he faced 815 batters, who produced 192 ground balls (23.5 percent), 118 line drives (14.4 percent) and 282 fly balls (34.6 percent).

Hughes' average fastball velocity is listed at 92.4 mph in 2013, 92.1 in 2012. In the season just finished, he used the fastball on 62 percent of his pitches, with slider an emphatic second choice (24 percent). He also threw a curve (9 percent), a change (5 percent) and a very occasional splitter (less than 1 percent).

His mix in 2012 was, according to the Handbooks, a bit different: 65 percent fastballs, 18 percent curves, 10 percent changes, 4 percent sliders and 2 percent cutters. I don't know if there was an actual change in the mix or if this is an issue with pitch identification.

The obvious issue for Hughes with the Yankees was his home-road split. Last season he was 1-10 with a 6.32 ERA in Yankee Stadium, 3-4, 3.88 on the road. He gave up 17 homers in 78.1 innings in the Bronx, 1.95 homers per nine innings.

Presumably there were several Yankee Stadium homers that won't reach the right field seats, or even the wall, in Target Field. But if the Twins continue to parade Oswaldo Arcia and Ryan Doumit in right field on a regular basis, there's no guarantee those balls are going to be caught, either.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Sunday Funnies

Joe Jackson -- "Shoeless Joe" -- was a feared hitter in his day. He was also notoriously illiterate.

One day as Jackson stood at the plate, a leatherlunged fan behind third base kept yelling at him: "Hey Joe! Spell cat!"

Jackson paid the heckler no heed, focusing on the pitcher. He got an offering he liked, lined it into the gap, sprinted around the bases and slid into third.

Then Jackson scanned the seats until he had located his tormentor. He spit tobacco juice in his direction and yelled back, "Hey, (expletive)! Spell triple!"

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Hughes news for Twins

Word started circulating Saturday night that the Twins had reached an agreement with Phil Hughes, 27-year-old free agent pitcher who has spent his career with the Yankees.

Hughes was on my list of pitchers I wanted the Twins to pursue, as was Ricky Nolasco, so this is not an unwelcome development.

Obviously he comes with question marks. Those are some pretty ugly numbers he's put up the past few years. He's an extreme fly ball pitcher, and the new Yankee Stadium wasn't a good fit for him, but the Twins outfield defense, as currently constituted, isn't going to help him much.

I'll write in more detail about Hughes for Monday.

The rotation as it stands now

Ricky Nolasco's 2012 card.
With Ricky Nolasco still awaiting his physical before he is officially in the fold, here's how I see the Twins rotation shaping up:

1) Nolasco. While he's nobody's idea of a Cy Young contender, he clearly has the best track record on this roster. A third- or fourth guy in a good rotation, such as the Dodgers last year.

2) A pitcher to be named later. The Twins will add at least one more veteran starter this offseason. Count on it.

3) Kevin Correia. He was better in 2013 than I expected, but even that level wouldn't keep him in the rotation of a playoff caliber club.

4) Kyle Gibson. It's time to see what he's got. If he doesn't come out of spring training in the big league rotation, something's wrong. Ideally, by the end of the season he will have climbed higher on this list.

5) Somebody from the grab bag of 2013 returnees. My personal favorite is Scott Diamond, but the front runner is probably Sam Deduno. Other possibilities would include Andrew Albers. Vance Worley and Liam Hendriks.

The rotation that opens isn't likely to be the rotation for 162 games, of course. If 2014 goes the way the Twins hope, Alex Meyer and/or Trevor May will push their way in at some point. I don't see either doing that to start the season.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Ricky Nolasco in context

My initial post after word broke about Ricky Nolasco agreeing to terms with the Twins was in part about about his repertoire. Some context might be in order.

A heavy majority of major league pitchers throw the fastball more than half the time — in an essay in the 2014 Bill James Handbook, James says that, counting the cutter as a separate pitch, 80 percent throw the fastball at least 50 percent of the time. More than half of pitchers throw at least 60 percent fastballs. (If you count the cutter as a fastball, reliance on the fastball is even higher, so these are conservative numbers.)

So Nolasco is an exception. He throws his fastball on just 44 percent of his pitches, or did so in 2013. He threw a breaking ball, curve or slider, just as often as his fastball — and a splitter, a pitch the Twins have apparently discouraged in their system, the remaining 12 percent.

A bit more on Nolasco as a pitcher: He faced 834 batters this year. Those batters (this, again, from the Handbook) generated 258 ground balls (30.9 percent); 146 line drives (17.5 percent); and 196 fly balls (23.5 percent). Of his 3,183 pitches, 64 percent were strikes, and 17 percent were swinging strikes.

In 2012, Nolasco's GB/LD/FB percentages were 34.9 percent/16.2 percent/23.7 percent. (The 2013 Handbook doesn't give the strikes/swinging strike percentages for 2012.)

OK, so what do those numbers mean? I don't really know. This kind of (in James' term) "fourth-level" data is fairly new. I've done a little digging into the numbers regarding some of the Twins pitchers — posts will come as soon as next week — but I'm not sure I really have a good grasp of the context of them. I will say this: Nolasco certainly isn't an outlier in any of these percentages the way he is in pitch selection.

One thing I find intriguing about Nolasco is that his "first and second level" results — wins and losses being what James calls first level, ERA second level— consistently lag his "third level" numbers (batters faced, strikeouts, walks, etc.) Nolasco's "component ERA" — a James invention that projects an ERA off a pitcher's secondary stats — is better, season after season, than his real ERA. Meaning that, for whatever reason, more runs score off him than one should expect from a pitcher who gets his strikeouts, hits, walks and home runs.

Nolasco's career ERA — we should remember, he's been working in pitchers parks in the non-DH league — is 4.37. His career component ERA is 3.89, almost a half-run lower. His career FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is 3.76, which again is markedly better than the actual ERA. His career ERA+ — which adjusts ERA for park effects — is six points below league average.

This leads me to this conclusion: Nolasco hasn't gotten the results he's capable of getting, and over eight seasons that's probably not a fluke. What he's done was good enough to get him a $49 million contract from a team whose rotation he instantly heads.

He makes the Twins better. He'd make them better still if the final results match the building blocks.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving

Yum yum yum
Another Thanksgiving, another year of the turkey photo. Gotta love tradition.

The 2013 Twins didn't give their fans a lot to be thankful for. We saw another 90-plus loss season that featured the end of Justin Morneau's time with the team and the end of Joe Mauer's time as a catcher.

But there's hope coming. I'm glad —thankful — I took the trip to Cedar Rapids in time to see Byron Buxton play. Buxton — and Miguel Sano and Alex Meyer and Eddie Rosario and others in an increasingly loaded farm system — offer a break from the decline of the past three seasons. Their time is coming.

Hope, as the Casey poem tells us, springs eternal in the human breast. In baseball and in other endeavors, that is always something to be thankful for.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Nolasco to the Twins

There's been no formal announcement of this signing, and won't be until he's passed a physical, but free-agent pitcher Ricky Nolasco switched his Twitter avatar to the Twins logo this afternoon, which would seem to indicate that he's struck a deal with Minnesota.

Nolasco is a 30-year-old right-handed starter who has spent most of his career with the Marlins. He's had six straight seasons of at least 10 wins and has a career strikeout rate of 7.4 men per nine innings, which is (a) about MLB average for all pitchers and a bit above average for starts and (b) a lot higher than any current Twins starter. He also has a good control record (2.1 BB/9 for his career).

According to Baseball Info Systems, Nolasco averaged 90.3 mph with his fastball last season. He doesn't throw that pitch as often as most pitchers; BIS says he threw the fastball 44 percent of the time. His other pitches: slider, 27 percent of his pitches; curve, 17 percent; splitter, 12 percent.

He finished last year with the Dodgers and made one playoff start, losing to the Cardinals in the NLCS.

No immediate word on terms, but it's a safe bet that This is the most expensive free-agent signing in Twins history: 4 years, $49 million guaranteed, with a fifth-year option, according to Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports.

One starter added. At least one more to go.

Kenny Rogers vs. Jack Morris

Jack Morris' last shot at the
Hall via the writers ballot
has plenty of competition.
The BBWAA on Tuesday released its Hall of Fame ballot. It's stuffed with Cooperstown-worthy players -- overloaded, really.

Giving the list a quick once-over Tuesday, I counted 12 players I would certainly vote for, and several others I might be willing to vote for. But the voters are limited to 10 names. If I did have a vote (and I don't), I'd have to discard a couple of players I'm sure belong.

There are four former Minnesota Twins on this year's ballot. Jack Morris (in his final year of eligibility) is joined by first-timers Jacque Jones, Todd Jones and Kenny Rogers. The two Joneses will probably get shut out, and Rogers is unlikely to get enough support to remain on the ballot in 2014.

Morris might get in this time, but I doubt it. He is at best the sixth-best pitcher on the ballot (behind Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling) and that's giving him the benefit of the doubt over some others.

Rogers, for one. The Gambler doesn't have Morris' Game 7, but Black Jack doesn't have Rogers' perfect game either. Morris has more wins; Rogers has the better winning percentage. Rogers's ERA+ for his career was 107, meaning he was 7 percent better than league average; Morris' was 105. Rogers had 51.1 career WAR (wins above replacement); Morris was 43.8.

I wouldn't vote for Rogers, not with this field. There are too many better candidates to vote for. But I'd vote for him before I'd vote for Morris.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Eric Fryer's roster spot

Eric Fryer: Do the
Twins really have a
major-league role
in mind for him?
The Twins, as noted in Monday's post, list four catchers on their 40-man roster: Ryan Doumit, Eric Fryer, Chris Herrmann and Josmil Pinto.

Doumit is an established hitter with a contract. Herrmann is a lefty bat who can play a competent corner outfield. Pinto is raw behind the dish but a promising hitter. And Fryer is ... well, he's probably a good comp for Drew Butera: a good defensive catcher, no real reason to believe he can hit in the majors. (Yeah, Fryer's major league slash line is .302/.400/.395; that's just 50 plate appearances. His Triple A batting average, over three seasons, is .208.)

Fryer is 28, and this is his fourth organization (Milwaukee, Yankees, Pittsburgh, Minnesota). Presumably he's out of options. Organizational depth guys like him lose a lot of value if they can't be organizational depth — if they can't be assigned to the minors. Fryer's on the 40, so to ship him back to Rochester will require passing him through waivers.

Which is why I have spent the offseason so far expecting the Twins to outright Fryer to Rochester. If he opts for free agency instead, so be it. This is probably as good an opportunity for a player of his ilk as he'd find anyway.

Instead, the Twins have kept him on the 40. (For that matter, the Dodgers have hung on to Butera as well, and I know he's out of options.)

Why? Here's a theory.

As matters stand — and the roster certainly is up for change — at least two and quite probably three of those four will be on the Opening Day roster. Doumit has seen a good deal of his Twins action as the designated hitter, and catching is such a specialized job, and so subject to injury, that managers are often loathe to skip having a reserve catcher on the bench.

Let's say that:

  • The Twins decide that Pinto will benefit from time in Triple A to polish his defensive skills; and
  • The Twins don't sign a free agent catcher.

In that case, there's a role for Fryer. Of the four catchers, he's probably the strongest defensively; with Pinto out of the mix, he's the one true right-handed hitter of the remaining trio (which isn't to say he's a better righty hitter than the switch-hitting Doumit). Doumit catches about 50 games a year, and Herrmann and Fryer split the rest.

I suspect that if the Twins do sign someone like A.J. Pierzynski, it will be Fryer who gets lopped from the roster. But if they need to make room for a starting pitcher, it'll be somebody else who loses their spot.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The catching market

Ryan Doumit, seen in a 2012 mound conference, is
seldom mentioned in talk about the Twins catching situation.
Joe Mauer's not a catcher anymore. For the first offseason in more than a decade, the Twins don't know who's their No. 1 backstop.

They have four catchers on the 40-man roster — Ryan Doumit, Eric Fryer, Chris Herrmann and Josmil Pinto — and good reason to shy away from any of them as 100-game starters. This has them prominent in speculation about a fairly rich crop of veteran catchers, which is rapidly dwindling.

With the likes of Brian McCann (five years, $85 million, Yankees) and Carlos Ruiz (three years, $26 million, staying with the Phillies) reaching big-ticket free-agent deals in the past week, and such veteran backstops as Jose Molina, Geovanni Soto and Brayan Pena finding 2014 homes as well, the primary speculation is about Jarrod Saltalamacchia and ex-Twin A.J. Pierzynski.

 My thoughts:

  • Importing a catcher probably means optioning out Pinto to work on his defensive skills. I'm pretty sure he can hit well enough to be a regular major league catcher right now.
  • Pierzynski, who turns 37 next month, is probably a good candidate for a one-year deal. Salty, on the other hand, is likely to at least match Ruiz' deal, and having him block Pinto doesn't make sense — unless the Twins are already convinced that Pinto will never be good enough to be more than a backup.
  • Doumit seems to be overlooked in all this.
The primary argument against Doumit as a regular catcher is, of course, his defense. He's a hit-first backstop — and, as it happens, so are Pierzynski and Saltalamacchia. But Doumit is regarded as less adept than the other two, and he didn't hit to his usual standards in 2013.

A secondary argument — and a good one — is that Doumit, who turns 33 in April, has a track record of injuries. He has just one 100-game season behind the dish in his career, and didn't catch at all in September after returning from an August concussion. He's not a good bet to carry the bulk of the load.

Doumit has one year left on his contract. If the Twins do bring in a established No. 1 catcher, Doumit isn't likely to catch as often as he has since joining Minnesota. If the Twins don't, then I would expect him to share the job with Pinto.

Which is my preference. I suspect Pinto will learn more about catching in the majors — especially with Terry Steinbach on the coaching staff — than in Triple A. The old Yogi Berra line about working early in his career with Bill Dickey — Bill is learning me his experience — applies.