Friday, April 19, 2019

Ryne Harper and roster churn

Michael Pineda had a short start on Thursday, and Ryne Harper picked up the slack with 3.1 scoreless innings.

Which may be too much of a good thing for Harper personally. He emerged from that outing with the same 0.00 ERA with which he entered (8.1 innings), but it figures to be a few days before he pitches again. If he has options left, and I'm guessing he does, the Twins may ship him to Rochester to bring up a fresh arm.

This sort of roster shuffling has become routine, and it's part of why teams routinely go through dozens of players over the course of a season. The Twins last year used 54 players. The 1970 Twins -- a cherry-picked example, I freely admit -- used just 35. There is simply much more roster churn than there once was.

Is it an effective approach? Well, if the Twins demote Harper for a fresh arm, he's gone a minimum of 10 days. They lose, in effect, a week of Harper for the benefit of somebody being available to pitch the next three days. And in most cases, that's a somebody who's really only on the roster to work low-leverage innings -- there to pitch innings the manager doesn't want to put on the likes of Trevor May or Taylor Rogers.

The Twins presumably think Harper is better than Ryan Eades or Zack Littell. I'd rather see him stay than be shuttled.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Contemplating Tyler Duffey

Tyler Duffey is back in the majors, having taken the berth previously occupied by Andrew Vasquez. He threw two scoreless innings on Tuesday after the Twins fell behind; it wasn't exactly a mop-up assignment, but it wasn't high leverage either.

The intriguing aspect to Duffey's return is his declared de-emphasis of his sinker (two-seam fastball). His focus is going to be pairing curves with four-seam fastballs up.

Duffey made a splash in the final two months of the 2015 season as a starter. He used two different curves -- one sharp and faster, one bigger and slower -- and two different fastballs -- two- and four-seamers -- and went 5-1 with a 3.10 ERA down the stretch.

What we don't see in that mix is a straight changeup. Neil Allen, then the Twins pitching coach, was really big on changeups. Duffey spent spring training the next year working on a changeup. He spent 2016 in the rotation -- 26 starts, second most on the team -- but put up a 6.43 ERA in 133 innings.

So 2017 found him in the bullpen, where he spent most of his collegiate career before the Twins drafted and signed him out of Rice. He was good for about a month and a half working multiple innings with two or three days off between outings, but things got rough when the thinness of the bullpen prompted manager Paul Molitor to start using him on consecutive days. And he's had just 27 major league innings the past two seasons combined.

My sense on Duffey's repertoire is complicated:


  • Two different curves and two different fastballs should be sufficent variation.
  • There hasn't been a notable velocity difference between Duffey's two- and four-seam fastballs.
  • There also doesn't seem to be much movement on his two-seamer.
  • If a pitcher has two pitches of similar velocity and movement, he doesn't have two useable pitches. Duffey may grip them differently, but the hitters don't care.

This is a oversimplification, but as a general rule, pitchers who throw four-seamers are going for strikeouts; pitchers who throw two-seamers are looking for weak contact. Duffey's four-seamer isn't all that fast, but if he can command it in the upper part of the strike zone, it's doing something different than his curves, which are supposed to bend and drop.

Command is the key. Keep that four-seamer up, change the hitter's eye level, and use that curveball. He needs a good run here before some of the injured relievers start coming back -- especially since Ryne Harper gives the Twins another right-hander who specializes in curves.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The search for five

The number from Monday's Blue Jays-Twins tilt that matters was five, and not just because the Jays scored five runs to win it. It's because the game from the Twins viewpoint was about the No. 5 starter and a fifth bullpen arm.

The starter

Martin Perez's line in his first start of 2019 was good. One run in six innings? Yeah, we'll take that. Two walks and five strikeouts is certainly acceptable. The velocity was good, and he even hit 97 in his final innings. He threw 86 pitches, less than one might wish for from a starter, but he's been trapped by the sporadic schedule for the first three weeks of the season in the bullpen with limited pitches.

On the bad side, there were a lot of hard-hit balls, not only among the seven hits but several of the outs. And the Jays helped him with a pair of base-running gaffes.

The reliever

Left-hander Aldaberto Mejia was handed a genuine test: A 3-1 eighth-inning lead to protect against a lineup heavy with right-handed hitters. He failed.

The thing is, he was ahead of all the hitters leading up to the Teoscar Hernandez three-run homer that put Toronto up for good. He couldn't put any of them away.

Mejia's background is as a starter, and as such he should have weapons to use against right-handers. He didn't get them out on Monday, at least not before giving up the lead. It was not an outing that encourages manager Rocco Baldelli to increase his role.

The Twins bullpen has four guys Baldelli trusts (Trevor Hildenberger, Trevor May, Blake Parker, Taylor Rogers) and three he's tried to avoid using in winnable games (Ryne Harper, Andrew Vasquez and Mejia).

Four trustworthy relievers are not enough if the starters are going to go six innings max. And I've never believed that the Twins were going to avoid going to an eight-man bullpen for long.

Baldelli used his big four pretty heavily against the Tigers Saturday and Sunday. He was clearly trying Monday to stay away from them in the seventh and eighth innings. What he would have done with the ninth and a lead, I don't know.

Harper made his first appearance in almost a week Monday, and he sliced through the 8-9-1 hitters in the Toronto order with two strikeouts in the seventh. He certainly brings a different approach than the rest of the righties in the Minnesota bullpen, and he's easy to root for. But no manager is going to be eager to lean on a 30-year-old rookie without velocity. If Harper is going to get a role, he'll have to earn it with more outings like Monday's.

Of note: Gabriel Moya and Matt Magill, two mainstays of the 2018 bullpen, are starting rehab assignments. Moya's probably the crucial one, as the Twins could really use a second reliable lefty in relief and neither Mejia nor Vasquez have been that so far.

My guess is that Vasquez and a position player are gone when Moya and Magill are ready to be activated.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Trevor Hildenberger, fireman

The bullpen gave the Twins a bumpy ride this weekend, but the late leads were held and the Twins got their chilly two-game sweep of the Detroit Tigers.

Blake Parker, who appears to be Rocco Baldelli's preferred ninth-inning arm, had consecutive appearances in which he lacked command of his preferred out pitch. He got through the first one on Saturday, but was pulled with one out and the bases loaded Sunday. Trevor Hildenberger threw seven pitches for two strikeouts and had a nice line postgame to discribe it:




Back in the day, before the term "closer" was invented, relief aces were known as "firemen." "Small kitchen fire. Baking soda," is evocative of that old bit of baseball lingo.

Hildenberger has now inherited 14 runners this young seasons. Only three have scored, all in that ugly meltdown inning against the Mets when Jake Odorizzi, Andrew Vasquez and Hildenberger couldn't throw strikes. 

For what it's worth, the Twins have five saves -- three for Parker, one for Taylor Rogers and now one for Hildenberger. Of Baldelli's four late-inning options (those three plus Trevor May), Parker is the one in whom I have the least faith. It may be that Parker just needs some warmer weather to rediscover his splitter. At any rate, the guys who got the Twins out of jams late were Rogers and Hildenberger. The roleless bullpen rolls on.

Friday, April 12, 2019

The "Crush" Crash

The Twins didn't play Thursday; it was yet another scheduled off day. They won't play today either, for reasons obvious to everybody living south of, let's say, Brainerd.

So let's talk something else. Let's talk about the astounding combination of incompetence and bad luck that is Chris Davis, the Baltimore Orioles first baseman who went 0-3 on Thursday. He has now gone hitless in 53 straight at-bats and counting dating back to last year.

This is the longest hitless streak for a position player in major league history. (Bob Buhl, a pitcher of the 1950s and '60s, went 0-for-88 to establish the overall record. He hit .089 for his career.)

Davis, unlike Buhl, is a hitter of some accomplishment. He hit 53 homers in 2013; he led the league in homers again in 2015 with 47, and has two other seasons with more than 30 dingers. He also has two seasons of 200-plus strikeouts and three more in the 190s and has never been known as a hitter for average. He's an all-or-nothing batter.

But "Crush" Davis -- a play on the Crash Davis character in the Bull Durham movie -- got the "all" result on his swings often enough that after that 2015 season the Orioles signed him to a seven-year contract at $23 million a season.

It would be an overstatement to blame the last two offseasons' free-agent freeze on Davis' implosion, but it would be silly to ignore it as a factor, Davis turned 30 before the 2016 season opened; in his 30s he is now .198/.295/.388.  His story is not the reason to avoid signing aging sluggers, but it has become a prominent cautionary tale.

Davis hit .165 last season, and is obviously .000 this year. He's hit a few balls hard this year, but not enough to say he's just hitting in hard luck. The .165 may be a pretty accurate measure at this point.

Cue Dire Straits and Mark Knopfler singing "Money for Nothing." If Davis were hitting .165, he would just draw scorn; .000 makes him something of sympathetic figure. And I do feel for the man. Failure on this level in the public space he occupies is not fun. He's not trying to be this bad, certainly, but he also seems unable to change that which once worked and no longer does.

The men who signed him to that contract are gone; the new Baltimore regime is without the emotional investment that Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter had in him. Much as ownership would like to get something out of the (almost) four remaining seasons on Davis' contract, there will come a time when playing him gets in the way of somebody they need to develop. I don't think that's the case yet.


Thursday, April 11, 2019

Babe Ruth's dead. Throw strikes.

Big picture: The Twins just finished a seven-game road trip that included five games without the DH (and without Nelson Cruz in the lineup) and emerged with a winning record. That's acceptable.

Big picture: They had a two-game series in New York facing Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard and emerged with a split. That's acceptable.

Small picture: Wednesday's loss feels inexcusable because the pitchers -- specifically starter Jake Odorizzi, rookie Andrew Vasquez and Trevor Hildenberger -- took the Twins out of it through their inability to throw strikes.

The bulk of the Twitter scorn seemed aimed at Vasquez, who was called up earlier Wednesday to replace Chase De Jong. (Once again proving that I don't understand the current front office, the Twins shipped De Jong back to Triple A after his Tuesday appearance.) Vasquez wasn't good, certainly (13 pitches for the lefty, just two strikes).

But the real villain was Odorizzi, who started the walk parade and concluded his outing by walking Syndergaard, the opposing pitcher.

Back in my youth, I read something that categorized a bases-loaded walk as a mental mistake on the basis that a major league pitcher should always be able to throw a strike. I've come to realize that that is not necessarily the case -- Jim Palmer has spent about three decades bragging that he never allowed a grand slam but conceding that he did issue some bases-loaded walks -- but walking the opposing pitcher, at least if it's not Shohei Ohtani, probably is a mental error.

My hope for Odorizzi -- who is a significant part of the Twins plans for the season -- and Vasquez -- who isn't -- is that this fiasco doesn't get into their heads. My fear, particularly with Odorizzi, is that it already has. He walked three of the seven men he faced in his previous start, he walked three in a row to finish this one, he tried mightily to throw a wild pitch and was saved on that by some sloppy baserunning by the Mets.

A case of Steve Blass Disease would be a big problem in the big picture.


Wednesday, April 10, 2019

deGrom, De Jong and de manager

The prospect of facing Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard in a two-game series in Queens was rather daunting; I would have been quite satisfied with a split. Now that the Twins have not only won the first game but battered the defending NL Cy Young winner -- well, rationally the split is still sufficient, but a sweep sounds a lot better.

If you were paying attention Tuesday night, you know how rare that game was. DeGrom had had 26 consecutive quality starts, tied with the 1968 version of Bob Gibson for most ever. His ERA last year was 1.70. And the Twins scored six earned runs in four innings off him. From the New York Post's Joel Sherman:

That was as many as he had permitted last July. Don’t look for the date — the whole month of July. That was as many as he allowed last August. That was one fewer than he let in last September. And it was six more than he had yielded in two starts to open 2019 ...
The Twins didn't pick on a punching bag Tuesday night. At least not until they got into the Mets bullpen.

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Chase De Jong, handed the ninth inning mop-up duties, was awful. He walked three, gave up four earned runs and basically looked like he had no business back in the major leagues.

To be fair, he hadn't pitched in a while; he was supposed to have started the opener for the Rochester Red Wings, but they got weathered out, and then he was called up to provide length in the Minnesota bullpen after Jake Odorizzi stunk things up last Friday.

I said on Twitter that De Jong was pitching his way off the roster. But ... the Twins bullpen is still in pretty good shape. De Jong shouldn't be available after throwing more than 45 pitches in that ugly inning, but the rest of the bullpenners worked short stints. Taylor Rogers didn't pitch at all, and Trevor Hildenberger and Blake Parker faced just one man each.

And Rocco Baldelli apparently intends to get Martin Perez some innings in this series. My guess is that even if Odorizzi throws six scoreless innings today, Perez gets the ball for the seventh. After all, there's yet another offday on Thursday, and who knows what the weather holds for the homestand to follow.

So De Jong, who is out of options, might stick around after all. His lousy outing -- and it was lousy -- didn't stress the rest of the bullpen.

---

Baldelli could have gone for the length from Perez after Hildenberger got the Twins out of the fifth inning. In fact, that's what I expected. Instead, he pieced the rest of the game together with a pitcher use reminiscent of Ron Gardenhire's -- one inning from Trevor May, split an inning between Aldaberto Mejia and Parker, an inning from Ryne Harper, an inning from De Jong. Nobody but DeJong was used hard, and all should be available today.

But I suspect that Baldelli would prefer not to use any relievers today other than Perez and Rogers. He's not often used anybody on consecutive days so far, although there have been so many off days that we probably shouldn't draw any conclusions about his bullpen use patterns.

Assuming that he does go for length from Perez today, he will have handled the 'pen in this series as if we were still in spring training -- give everybody a little work to stay sharp, give Perez some length to stay stretched out for his eventual entry into the starting rotation. Doing those things and winning the games is ideal.

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Multi-position man Marwin Gonzalez played a lot of first base with the Astros -- more than twice as many games, starts and innings at first than at third in his seven seasons with Houston.

Multi-position man Willians Astudillo entered Tuesday having played more third base in the majors than anywhere other than catcher and with just two innings at first in his brief big-league tenure.

But Baldelli on Tuesday started Gonzalez at third and Astudillo at first, La Tortuga's first big league start at that position. (Baldelli later took Gonzalez out in a double-switch, but Astudillo played the full game at first base.)

My interpretation of that: As long as Miguel Sano remains off the active roster, Gonzalez is primarily a third baseman. He has played four innings at first. He hasn't seen the outfield yet, and he hasn't been in the middle infield either.