Saturday, July 31, 2010

Day Two of the Matt Capps era

Fourteen pitches for Matt Capps in his Twins debut Friday, 11 for strikes, and one hit allowed in a shutout inning.

Good enough. A couple more notes connected to the Twins' new closer:

* Nick Blackburn was demoted to make room on the roster for him. I had figured it would be Anthony Slama, for two reasons: Blackburn has the guaranteed seven-figure contract, and Blackburn was the most logical choice on the staff for long-relief duties.

Blackburn's demotion is in reality a positive sign for him. He's going to pitch in Rochester, not rot in the pen, and that gives him a chance to fix whatever it is that ails his pitching. I say a chance, because I continue to believe that his struggles are rooted in his level of ability.

* Jon Rauch declined to talk to reporters Friday about returning to a set-up role. He'd have several million reasons to be disappointed that the glory job is no longer his; a 35-40 save season would be a selling point for him as he enters free agency.

I don't mean to say that Rauch is pouting about it; I'm not close enough to tell. Ron Gardenhire painted a picture of a team-first response by Rauch, and that may be accurate — or it may be a bit of blue-sky thinking.

I'll be interested to see when Rauch next pitches in a close game. He was bypassed Friday, even as Jesse Crain was used for the third time in four days. Rauch's ERA in July is 5.40 but that's less than nine innings. He's had three straight scoreless outings — not clean outings, to be sure, but then Capps' debut wasn't 1-2-3 either.

Friday, July 30, 2010

A tip of the Capps

The Twins on Thursday night traded Wilson Ramos and a minor league pitcher of little obvious importance to Washington for relief pitcher Matt Capps, who is to supplant Jon Rauch as the ninth-inning saves specialist.

For a Washington-centric view of the trade, click here.

Either Ramos has been badly overhyped in these parts (possible) or his performance this year, and in particular his inability to deal with breaking balls, has lowered his value (also possible). I was envisioning Ramos as the centerpiece of a trade for a higher caliber of pitcher — a Cliff Lee or Joakim Soria — and in that light, this deal is a disappointment. Ramos, I suspect, isn't viewed by other organizations as that good a prospect.

Capps made the National League All-Star team this year, but that's more a reflection of the "All-Star for every team" rule than of his talent. I like Capps, but if the Twins valued him because he's a "proven closer," that's a mistake. In terms of his talent and ability, he's more like Matt Guerrier or Rauch than a healthy Joe Nathan.

That said, I have been increasingly uncomfortable with Rauch in the ninth-inning job. Aaron Gleeman (who does not like this trade) has suggested repeatedly that by limiting Rauch to the ninth inning the Twins have dissipated one of his strengths — his durability.

Capps will still be under team control next season — arbitration eligible — and with Rauch, Guerrier and Jesse Crain all in the final years of their contracts, that was apparently an attraction for the Twins as well, especially with the uncertainty about Nathan's return. But if Capps winds up with 40 saves, he's likely to be an expensive piece of Nathan insurance.

I think Capps will be a slight improvement in the ninth inning on Rauch — and Rauch will be more valuable in the sixth, seventh or eighth innings than, let us say, Anthony Slama. So it's a deeper bullpen, at least for the remains of this year. Whether that's sufficient reason to surrender Ramos ... I'm skeptical, but but it may work out that way.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

On Target: Home-road splits, individuals

This month's check on on Target Field is playing is a bit different. Rather than big-picture team stats home and away, I'm going to look at seven of the most frequent Twins hitters and how they're faring. I'll use OPS and home runs, and add comments as I deem appropriate. (The Twins have played 50 games at home, 52 on the road). Sample size is, of course, inadequate to make any final judgments.

Michael Cuddyer
Home: OPS .830, HR 5. Road: OPS .753, HR 5

Comments: He's been the most publicly unhappy with the hitting background at Target Field — particularly about the trees — but he's hitting better at Target Field, both for average and for extra bases.

Orlando Hudson
Home: .822, 2. Road: .670, 2

Huge difference there. He hasn't done much of anything at bat on the road.

Jason Kubel
Home: .788, 6. Road: .745, 6

Pretty even.

Joe Mauer
Home: .793, 0. Road: .882, 6

His on-base percentage is slightly higher at home, but the power is much higher on the road.

Justin Morneau
Home: .914, 4. Road: 1.205, 14

His slugging percentage on the road is .757. Wow.

Delmon Young
Home: .882, 4. Road: .943, 10

On-base percentage is almost identical home and away. The difference is completely in power, and particularly in homers (no triples anywhere, and one more double at home than on the road).

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Contemplating Danny Valencia

I've not been too high on Danny Valencia. Entering the season he was an old prospect with middling power numbers and little control of the strike zone, reputed to play mediocre defense and to grouse a lot.

And now ... well, after 14 hits in his last four games, he's hitting an even .400. It's just 90 at-bats, 98 plate appearances, but his OPB is .449 and his slugging percentage is .511.

Nobody can seriously believe that he's really a .400 hitter; I suspect that if he played every day the rest of the way he'd hit under .300, but that is at least in the realm of possibility.

The most impressive piece of his stat line to me is his walk-strikeout ratio: eight walks, 11 strikeouts. That matches his walk total in Triple A last season (282 pate appearances).

If he's really capable of a BB/K rate close to 1:1, he's a bona fide major league hitter, even if not a slugger. But he has no track record of that in the minors.

This I know: He's playing for a manager given to sticking with the hot hand regardless of the underlying skills, and he's hot. And with two infield regulars on the disabled list, somebody's got to play.

He's going to get plenty of opportunity to find his true level.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Tale of two pitchers

Identify these 2010 stat lines:

Pitcher A: 128.2 IP, 4.06 ERA, 1.236 WHIP, 41 BB, 97 K
Pitcher B: 137 IP, 4.01 ERA, 1.182 WHIP, 28 BB, 120K

It's fairly close, but Pitcher B appears to be having the better season, right?

Pitcher A is Matt Garza (photo above), who threw a no-hitter Monday night. Not just a no-hitter — a 27-batter no-hitter. One man reached, on a walk, and he was erased on a double play. Yeah, the Tigers are missing some key players, but it was a marvelous game from a talented young arm.

Pitcher B is Zach Greinke, last year's Cy Young winner, who got embarrassed Monday night by the Twins (eight runs in four innings); Greinke's ERA rose 42 points in that outing, from 3.59 to 4.01.

Greinke has made three starts against the Twins this season. He's 0-3 with a 10.29 ERA in 14 innings against Minnesota. Against everybody else, he's 6-7, 3.29 — not Cy Young stats, but quality work for a bad team.

Monday, July 26, 2010

6.66: The mark of the Blackburn

I'm not getting too giddy about the past weekend; the Twins went 4-3 in the past week, but they were playing Cleveland and Baltimore, and 4-3 playing those teams is a disappointment, even though they've gained ground on their rivals.

Being in a glass-half-empty mood this morning, I'll note that Nick Blackburn gave no indication that whatever's wrong with him has been fixed. The Twins seem to believe the problems are from the neck up. I think the problem is deeper than that, that he's failing as a pitcher because (a) he's not good enough to get outs without a lot of help and (b) this team is too slow afield, especially in the outfield, to supply that help.

Blackburn gave up three runs in two innings mopping up Sunday's win and now has a devilish ERA of 6.66.


Contrary to my speculation earlier in the day, the Twins filled Orlando Hudson's roster spot with a catcher, Jose Morales.

The implications: We may be seeing more of Joe Mauer as DH with Drew Butera catching, at least until either Hudson or Justin Morneau returns. There's not a lot of other reason to carry three catchers, and despite the report that Morales has been taking grounders at first base in recent days, I have difficulty imagining him getting playing time there other than in an emergency.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Ow-ie-oh, Magglio (and other injuries)

Magglio Ordonez fractured his right ankle on the pictured slide Saturday and was almost immediately reported to be out six to eight weeks.

This had ramifications immediate and long term. For the here and now, the Detroit Tigers have lost their usual No. 3 hitter, and they've had enough trouble scoring runs with him in the lineup. It also means he's highly unlikely to meet the at-bat requirements to get his contract extension to kick in, potentially allowing the Tigers to get out from under his heavy salary this winter.

The Tigers have already lost Brandon Inge to a fractured hand; the third baseman is also out six to eight weeks. And Carlos Guillen, their current second baseman, left Saturday's game with a pulled leg muscle. In Guillen's case, an injury is hardly a surprise, but that doesn't make it any less a problem.


The Twins have injury/roster issues of their own. Orlando Hudson probably would be on the disabled list already if they had an easy move to make. But they don't:

  • Justin Morneau has reportedly begun some workouts, but still has hurdles to clear before returning from his concussion. LaVelle Neal speculates Aug. 2 for Morneau, but even that might be optimistic.
  • Matt Tolbert isn't able to throw yet.
  • Brendan Harris — who has reportedly started to hit down at Triple A — is no longer on the 40-man roster, and the easy ways to open a slot on the 40 are gone.
  • Luke Hughes, who is on the 40, is out with his own injury.
  • Trevor Plouffe has limited experience at any position other than shortstop.
  • Even Alexi Casilla, who has gotten the playing time at second since Hudson's injury, is hampered. A note in the Pioneer Press when he was activated off the DL said he still has "minor discomfort" when swinging the bat right-handed (which may have played into his eighth-inning bunt on Friday against a lefty reliever).

Upshot: If Hudson goes on the DL today, it may be for a 13th pitcher.


Poll results: 30 responses to the "who'll win the AL Central" poll. Twenty-one (70 percent) picked the Twins, seven (23 percent) picked the White Sox) and two (7 percent) the Tigers.

New poll up.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The end of the road for Jamie Moyer?

Jamie Moyer may not be the worst regular starting pitcher in the National League -- five other qualifiers have worse ERAs -- but he's in the running.

Plus he's 47. And now his elbow hurts.

Even if he can avoid ligament replacement surgery -- and I suspect that would be in the offing for a 27-year-old pitcher with this injury, as incomplete as the diagnosis may be -- it's bound to be difficult for him to continue pitching.

His has been an odd, even unique, career. I wrote a column earlier this year marveling at his longevity.

As he said in the piece linked to above, if this is it, he's had a great career.


Nice job tonight by Brian Duensing, not so nice from Anthony Slama. I know I'm more skeptical about Slama than a lot of people, but the notion espoused earlier this week by Tom Powers of the Pioneer Press that Slama will soon be closing is just silly.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Ralph Houk, 1919-2010

While I was gallivanting around Target Field and the abodes of my in-laws, a longtime manager named Ralph Houk died.

His life is probably worth a full-length biography: war hero (Bronze Star, Silver Star, Purple Heart earned in the Normandy invasion and Battle of the Bulge; his rank provided his baseball nickname, "Major"); third-string catcher for the Yankee dynasty of the '50s, behind Yogi Berra; winner of two World Series as Casey Stengel's successor as Yankee manager; manager for 20 years with a lifetime record of 1,1619-1531.

And a bit role in the creation of the Kelly-era Twins.

Step back to the 1986-87 offseason. Carl Pohlad has decided to reshape the organization he inherited with the purchase of the Twins. Andy MacPhail, then 33, was hired during the 1986 season as a consultant/general manager in waiting, and his recommendation to Pohlad was that Tom Kelly, then 36 and the interim manager, get the job on a permanent basis.

Pohlad balked, and it's not difficult to understand why -- his team's two most prominent leaders would be in their 30s. He wanted Houk.

Houk was 67, with 20 years of managing and a post as general manager on his resume. He had, after leaving the Yankees, helped rebuild the Detroit franchise and refocus the Boston Red Sox. If Kelly and MacPhail were fresh faces, Houk represented experience and wisdom.

But he wasn't all that interested in returning to the dugout, and MacPhail did want Kelly. The eventual compromise: Kelly got the managerial job, and Houk was hired as a consultant, the idea being that Kelly could call him for advice.

As the story goes, Kelly called Houk fairly regularly in 1987, less often in 1988, and by the end of Houk's contract, he was basically only calling Houk on a social basis. The Twins offered to renew the consultancy; Houk told them not to bother, Kelly didn't need him as a security blanket.

As a manager, Houk was more about dealing with personalities than strategy. Stengel was a lineup shuffler who never used a set pitching rotation; Houk was the opposite, a guy who preferred to set his lineup and rotation and let it ride until he had to change. Kelly was closer to Stengel in that regard than to Houk. If Houk was influential on Kelly, it was as a handler of men.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Second time at Target Field

My wife and I hit Target Field Wednesday afternoon, our second time there.

This time our seats were a bit beyond third base, just four rows in from the field. (For the home opener we were in the right field bleacher seats.) We weren't quite close enough to see Nick Punto sweat, but we were close.

The overwhelming takeaway of the fan experience from this one: Hot and sunny. No shade reached that deep into the bowl for a noon start. We went heavy with the sunscreen. As somebody seated near us said, the Dome was cooler and shadier.

I got to do a bit more exploring of the park this time (we were there when the gates opened), but I'll wait to comment on that until after tomorrow, when we take a tour.

As for the game: Francisco Liriano was good. Lots of strikeouts, command still an issue. Same as it ever was, of course. But he kept the ball in the infield, got double plays, and seven shutout innings are seven shutout innings. And he did throw first-pitch strikes to 20 of his 28 batters.

As I predicted some time ago, Joe Mauer didn't play. Drew Butera caught, started the decisive four-run rally with a bloop double and appeared to handle Liriano well.

Indians rookie Carlos Santana, who I expect to write about at greater length either here or in the Monday print column, also didn't catch. He DH'd, and poorly, striking out three times.

Jim Thome had an interesting game. He came to the plate four times and walked four times.

And, of course, Anthony Slama got to make a low-pressure debut with a six-run lead. Single, strikeout, strikeout, ground out. He got three swing-and-misses, which is a pretty strong number for 18 pitches.

Talking pitchers

My evaluation right now: Kevin Slowey did enough Tuesday to stay in the Twins rotation. He displayed better command than he has, he struck out seven men in his 5.2 innings, and two of the three runs charged against him scored after he left the game. He wasn't great, but greatness isn't the criteria.

So I say: Blackburn out of the rotation, Slowey and Baker stay in.

Of course, I have a higher regard for the value of strikeouts for a pitcher than the Twins organization does.


Jon Rauch was deem unavailable after taking a comebacker on the ankle, and when Jesse Crain warmed up in the sixth, Dick Bremer started speculating on who would be called on in a save situation.

Crain has been the most effective of the bullpenners this month, and on that basis I was happy to see him get the call in the sixth-inning game situation (bases loaded, two out). It didn't work, but that was the time to use the best reliever you've got.

But the notion floated by Bremer that Anthony Slama, who arrived in the Twin Cities during the game, might be the closer du jour was bizarre. Matt Guerrier would have gotten the ninth.

Of course, before that happened, Jose Mijares would have had to handle the eighth, and that didn't happen either.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Momentum, starting pitchers and Slama time

Silence any babble about momentum after Sunday's comeback. Inertia was the ruling force Monday, with Scott Baker's season continuing in the direction it's been taking — down.

The only encouraging thing from his outing was the post-game report that his elbow was not sore. But he certainly didn't pitch well — 13 baserunners and 14 outs.

Still, his leash has to be longer than Nick Blackburn's, and probably longer than Kevin Slowey's. Slowey starts today. If he gets shelled again, he's probably just as much at risk of being pulled from the rotation as Blackburn is, and I really hope that Blackburn doesn't start Friday at Baltimore.

But there's only one Brian Duensing on the roster. If Duensing takes Blackburn's place, does Jeff Manship take Slowey's? Glen Perkins has been reportedly pitching better in Triple A Rochester in recent outings, but his ERA is still north of 7 — and almost any callup will make him arbitration eligible, so the Twins have a real financial incentive not to bring him to the majors unless and until they're sure he's going to stick.

Plans B and C for the rotation are in the major league bullpen. If Ron Gardenhire waits another week to move Manship into the rotation, he's going to encounter the same "stretch him out" issue with Manship that he has with Duensing. I'm sure he'd rather fix Blackburn and Slowey, but that seems increasingly unlikely.


Alex Burnett, who earlier this season was pitching his way into a key bullpen role, has now pitched his way off the roster. His ERA, which a month ago was under 2.5, has risen to 4.39, so it's not any surprise.

Anthony Slama (pictured), long a favorite of the blogosphere, got the call. Slama has been successful in the minors, at least by such traditional measures as ERA, but the Twins have not treated him as a true prospect. Two issues: He doesn't throw hard, and he walks people.

I'm a skeptic.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Thoughts after a stirring win

That was quite the ninth inning Sunday. A few thoughts after the Twins took three of four from the White Sox:

* The immediate Chisox fan reaction, as seen through comments on the Chicago Tribune gamer, suggested that this was the first time a third-place team has mathematically eliminated the first place team in mid July.

The flip side of that overreaction can be seen on this side of the rivalry, in such pieces as this.

Tom Kelly was big on this one: Momentum is tomorrow's starting pitcher. Which is akin to denying that there's any such beast.

* I'm pretty certain that the starting pitcher on one of these tomorrows is going to be Brian Duensing. I don't know who he's going to replace in the rotation, however. If Scott Baker's elbow barks today, it might have to be him. Neither Nick Blackburn or Kevin Slowey is a sure bet to stick either.

* Duensing's four innings Sunday included seven hits and a walk, which is a lot of baserunners allowed. Only one of them scored. He did induce two double plays, and Jason Kubel gunned down Paul Konerko trying for an extra base; those plays took three of the eight baserunners out of play.

* The single biggest key to that ninth-inning rally was right at the start, when Orlando Hudson worked Bobby Jenks for a 10-pitch walk. Things just snowballed from there.

* How many of us were dismayed when Jason Repko, rather than Jim Thome, had to hit in the ninth? That worked out pretty well.

Still, I was skeptical of the decision to pinch-run for Thome in the eighth inning down three runs. Odds were that if the Twins were to get back into the game, that spot in the lineup was going to come up. Had he represented the tying or go-ahead run, sure, pinch run. Down three, I don't see the logic.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The little victories of a backup catcher

Drew Butera — this is not a deep secret — is not a major league hitter. Saturday's 0-for-3 dropped his batting average to .148, which is 52 points below the Mendoza line, and his other numbers aren't any better.

It is really difficult to stay in the major leagues hitting .148, even if it's as a backup catcher with less than 60 trips to the plate as of mid July.

And yet I was truly impressed with Butera on Saturday evening.

Nobody has every been able to figure out a reliable statistical measure for catcher's work behind the plate. How do you put a number on the value of his pitch calling, when it's not solely his decision to throw a fastball inside on this pitch and the change down and away on the next —and when he's not the one who has to execute the pitch? How can you tell if the way he caught the pitch — smoothly or with a sudden jerk — subtly influenced the umpire's call?

These things stuck me Saturday:

  • Carl Pavano wasn't wandering away from the mound, wasn't shaking Butera off, wasn't holding endless conferences about what to throw next. Butera gave him the sign, Pavano threw the pitch. Right pitch or wrong pitch, the two were working in tandem. (Which I think is what was behind the pictured embrace.)
  • Butera threw out Juan Pierre stealing (one of two). Throwing out any base stealer with Pavano pitching is an accomplishment.
  • The Paul Konerko strikeout in the ninth inning was a thing of beauty.

That last deserves some description. Earlier in the game, Konerko hit an 0-2 fastball for a home run. Later, Pavano struck him out in an at-bat in which he stayed completely away from the fastball. Now, it's the ninth, the tying run's at third, and Konerko's up.

Pitch one: Change up, low; Konerko swings and misses. He's thinking: There's no way I'm seeing a fastball in this at-bat. But I want one.

Pitch two: A fastball, up, probably out of the strike zone. Konerko swings late, fouls it off. Bleepity-bleep, he threw a fastball past me. Can't let that happen again.

Pitch three: Change up, down and away, swing and a miss, strike three.

Butera called the pitches. Pavano threw them. Pavano gets the statistical credit. Butera gets a hug.

And a major league paycheck. Both are better than a ticket back to the minors.


Elsewhere on Saturday, Charlie Walters of the Pioneer Press was channelling his inner Sid Hartman with this suggestion that the Twins re-sign Mike Redmond, who was cut loose by the Cleveland Indians and is now a free agent. Quite obviously, Redmond would displace Butera.

Sid used to do this kind of thing a lot — urge the Twins in print to bring back some washed-up relic of a source. I suppose that kind of piece helps the writer make his copy quota and cultivate the player in question (I figure Redmond is done as a player, but he's going to coach and/or manage somewhere someday), but it's misleading for the reader. Bringing back Redmond can't really be a serious notion.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Gifts from Chicago

Four errors by the White Sox on Friday. Five unearned runs. And more anecdotal evidence for my belief that one underrated benefit to bunting is making pitchers field and throw the ball.

It's been said the more games are lost than won, and this one was lost by the White Sox. They obviously haven't done that much lately, and this one must have given Ozzie Guillen nightmares from last season, when the infield defense was sloppy.

A quick brace of comments before I get out of town for family reasons:

* John Gordon on the radio twice called Francisco Liriano "Konerko" when the Twins pitcher was facing the Chicago first baseman in the first inning.

* Jon Rauch was b-a-d — 14 balls, nine strikes. Jesse Crain was g-o-o-d — two batters, two out, four pitches, one strikeout.

* Jason Repko is reputed to be a center fielder, and if he is, he can be no worst than the second best defensive outfielder on the roster. He played Friday — as a pinch runner for the DH. I have yet to see him deployed as a defensive replacement since he came up.

* The Twins now have 13 pitchers (or at least alleged pitchers) on their 25-man roster. Last night's bench consisted of Danny Valencia, Repko and Drew Butera. Ugh.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Taking it Slowey

It appears that Kevin Slowey is at something of a crossroads.

He ripped through the minors with essentially one pitch — a 90-mph fastball — and an almost unique ability to locate it. He seldom showed a breaking ball or change in the minors; the hitters never forced him to.

He has essentially stuck with that approach in the majors, and entered this season with a 26-15 record. Part of that won-lost record, of course, is run support, not quality pitching. But he has, racked up walk-to-strikeout ratios of about 1 to 5 — and anybody who can do that is going to win.

But the wrist injury — from a line drive taken in his final start of 2008 — that ended his 2009 season prematurely so that he could have reconstructive surgery appears to have changed that. His walks are up slightly, his strikeouts down a touch. The ratio this year is a bit over 1 to 3.6 — still strong, but not as strong as he's used to.

More troubling is the loss of command as opposed to control. He's still throwing strikes, but not necessarily the strikes he wants. He said during spring training that the wrist may never feel right again; I suspect that the extraordinary ability to put his fastball in exactly the place he wants it is gone.

If so, he needs something more. More movement on the fastball. Or more curves, sliders, changeups. He can't be a one-pitch control artist anymore.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Big series in mid-July

The Twins open the unofficial second half with four games at home against the first-place Chicago White Sox.

The Sox are 25-5 in their last 30 games. They're not that good — nobody is — but they're better than the 24-33 team they were before the hot streak kicked in.

Getting the Sox now is probably better than getting them last week, but at this writing Justin Morneau's availability is uncertain, Joe Mauer is no more rested and recovered than he was before the All-Star break, the pitching issues remain unaddressed and management continues to be enamored with a slow lineup that waits for the long ball and has limited range in the field.

That's similar to what the White Sox had been the past few years. There were a lot of eyebrows raised when they opted for a speedier, contact hitting approach and decided there was no room there for Jim Thome. There still are Sox followers critical of that decision.

But this year it's the Twins who can't score from first on a double, who can't go first-to-third on a single, and who are in third place with an anchor.

Anyway: The Twins are 3.5 games back now. The Sox are justifiably feeling good about themselves. The Twins would make life a lot easier for themselves if they won this series.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Thoughts on King George III

George Steinbrenner III died today, and while I won't celebrate his death, I also will not celebrate his life.

Steinbrenner was a liar and bully. He was born on third base and not only thought he'd hit a triple but that he was being cheated of home as well. He dealt with his insecurities by belittling all around him. He bore all his life the aura of a spoiled, petulant child.

I'm sure he was a more complex man than that description admits. Most humans are. Yet it is amply supported by the public record, and it is a persona he appeared to not only accept but revel in.

He assembled the consortium that purchased the Yankees in 1973, and the team won seven World Series between then and now. An impressive record, yes — but the foundations for all those championship teams were laid during his two lengthy suspensions, when he was officially banned from active participation in running the franchise.

He will, I'm sure, someday have a plaque in the Hall of Fame. That plaque, no matter how carefully worded, is unlikely to affect my long-distance assessment of the man: He may not have been the biggest cavity of a horse's behind in baseball history, but he was in the running.

Monday, July 12, 2010

I haven't seen the Futures

At last check, 82 players had been named to one of the All-Star teams, what with excessive 34-man rosters and a bevy of injury withdrawals (including Justin Morneau but not Joe Mauer).

Which is part of why I'd much rather watch the Futures Game than the All-Star Game, much less Home Run Derby. The Futures Game is a minor-league all-star game of top prospects, the brainchild of Baseball America, pitting U.S.-born prospects against foreign-born.

Unfortunately, it's buried in the middle of Sunday's regular season games and aired on MLB Network, which isn't available on my cable system. It's easier to see the celebrity softball game, which is an All-Star event even more ridiculous than HR Derby.

The Twins had two prospects named to the teams -- Ben Revere to the U.S. team, Liam Hendricks, a pitcher from Australia working for the Fort Myers Miracle in High A ball, to the World team. Hendricks apparently had to drop out (not sure why), and Anthony Slama wound up on the U.S. pitching staff.

Revere went 0-for-3. Slama had a shutout inning, although he allowed three hits (and struck out one.)

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Dazed and confused

Saturday's announcement that Justin Morneau will skip the All-Star Game because of his concussion is correct, proper and wise.

Of course, if Torii Hunter were still around, he'd be implying that Morneau is being a wimp.

Morneau's withdrawal makes Miguel Cabrera the All-Star starter for the AL, and that might have been justifiable even if Morneau were healthy.

Dick-n-Bert have spent about a month hyping the "need" to vote often for Morneau; a few days after the announcement that Morneau won the fan voting, they agreed that Cabrera is the current front-runner for the MVP award.

Let's see ... Cabrera's the league's MVP, and he's a first baseman, but somebody else should start the All-Star Game at first base ...

Morneau's not the only one with a headache.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Very little Lee-way

For weeks, the Twins had been regarded as a front-runner in the Cliff Lee sweepstakes.

On Friday, the front office lost out on the star lefty, who was dealt to the Texas Rangers.

And the players on the Twins roster demonstrated why the here-and-now isn't promising enough to trade away the future.

  • Two baserunners were picked off.
  • Their best starting pitcher got five outs.
  • They failed to get an out on a sac bunt.
  • They turned five straight hits into one run.

The Seattle Mariners got a pretty rich package from Texas for Lee. The Rangers have a deep farm system, deeper than the Twins do — they should, given that they've been drafting ahead of the Twins for years — and they have a major league team that is playing well enough to encourage October dreams.

The Twins are playing more like a team that should look to jettison contracts in July, not add them. They have lost something like 4.5 games in the standings to the Tigers this month. This has not been a week or 10 days of a slump, but a solid month-plus of bad baseball. Sloppy baseball.

Friday, July 9, 2010

AP: Cliff Lee traded to Rangers

Texas has apparently won the Cliff Lee sweepstakes with a package headed by Justin Smoak, a highly regarded first baseman, and three minor leaguers.

Smoak's been in the majors for much of this season and hasn't hit much, but Baseball America had him as the 13th best prospect in baseball entering the season, which is considerably higher than they ranked Wilson Ramos. I can't tell you much offhand about the other three prospects, but Smoak's inclusion makes it a pretty rich package for a half-season rental.

At this point the Twins have to demonstrate that the players on hand are capable of contending.

Joe Mauer and LeBron James

Begin here: I didn't/don't/won't care where LeBron James plays basketball next year. It's the NBA; it's irrelevant to me. If he opted to pull a Jordan and play the outfield in somebody's farm system, I'd be interested; beyond that, nothing.

But I am struck by the parallels between James and one Joseph Patrick Mauer — both of them major stars in their respective sports, born within a few months of each other, drafted by their (essentially) hometown teams, with plenty of regular season successes on their resumes and no championship rings on their fingers.

One stayed. The other left.

I believe this: That at the pinnacle of American sports today, the greatest reverence is given to the superstars who stay put — who become, in the public eye, synonymous with the uniform.

Cal Ripken with Baltimore. Derek Jeter with the Yankees. Tony Gwynn with the Padres. Kirby Puckett with the Twins. You can come up with their equivalents in the other sports if you feel like it.

We prefer the guys who take the responsibility for the situation they're in and try to make it better. The guys who bounce around looking for a bigger payday or a cushier situation, not so much.

Had Alex Rodriguez stayed with the Seattle Mariners in the winter of 1999-2000, I believe he would be a beloved figure nationally. He's richer financially for the choice he (and his agent) made, but he's never going to shed the "A-Fraud" label. Brett Favre's become a national punchline for his waffling; I think the snickers would be far fewer and much softer if he hadn't turned himself into a wanderer chasing one more ring.

Maybe James is going to win a whole bunch of titles in Miami. Maybe the three superstars and a bunch of scrubs concept will fall apart over the reality of one ball per court. I don't know enough about pro basketball to have an opinion worth your time.

But his national persona — the LeBron James brand, if you will — is diminished today, diminished permanently. He's never going to get it back.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

I got it, I got it (crash)

I've no numbers to support this, so it may simply be a matter of flawed perception, but it sure seems that the Twins have more near-collisions (or actual collisions) in their outfield since Torii Hunter left. Or, perhaps more to the point, since Denard Span arrived.

Until this year, I was inclined to think that Carlos Gomez was a factor. Gomez certainly poached fly balls beyond the normal limits of his range, and Span was playing outfield corners for the first time in his career. But Gomez is gone, and the close calls continue.

Wednesday was a case in point. Span and Delmon Young bumped in pursuit of a Jose Batista drive to the gap; Batista ended up with an inside-the-park home run and Young ended up with a sore wrist. A few innings earlier, Young alligator-armed a fly ball only to have it go off the end of his glove for an error; it may simply be an error, or perhaps he was pulling back because Span was flashing into the vicinity.

Orlando Hudson and Span bumped in short center earlier this season; Hudson missed about three weeks as a result.

I don't know what the issue is here. Is Span slow to call his teammates off, or not doing so at all? Is his voice too soft to be heard over the crowd? Am I exaggerating the issue?

As the center fielder, Span is supposed to take everything he can reach. Everybody else — corner outfielders, middle infielders — is to defer to him. I don't think this is happening.

Earlier this season, the Texas Rangers had a similar issue involving Josh Hamilton, who has spend much of his time in center but is now a corner outfielder, and new CF Julio Bourbon. Hamilton still had the center fielder mindset, and Bourbon was too willing to defer to the larger man. They had a meeting, after which Hamilton said he told Bourbon something like: When you call for it, I'm going to stop.

Which is the way it's supposed to be. What I see too often in the Twins outfield is dangerous — the players and to the scoreboard.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Crain on track

Here are the career numbers of three right-handed relief pitchers (numbers gleaned early Wednesday from Baseball Reference and may not reflect last night's play):

Pitcher A (age 32): 443 innings, 3.70 ERA, 1.0 HR/9. 2.8 BB/9, 7.3K/9
Pitcher B (age 31) 439 IP, 3.36 ERA, 1.1 HR/9, 2.8 BB/9, 6.0 K/9
Pitcher C (age 28): 346.1 IP, 3.56 ERA, 0.8 HR9. 3.3 BB/9, 6.0 K/9

Pretty interchangable, right? Pitcher A has a higher strikeout rate, but his ERA is the worst. Pitcher B has the best ERA, but he's a bit more prone to the gopher ball. Pitcher C walks a few more men than the other two, but he does a better job of keeping the ball in the park. But these are small differences. None is great; all are useful.

Pitcher A is Jon Rauch. Pitcher B is Matt Guerrier. And Pitcher C, as you probably inferred from the blog title, is Jesse Crain.

Every team has players its fans love to hate. Crain is one of those for the Twins.

Crain pitched the eighth inning Tuesday to protect a one-run lead, and the Star Tribune game story noted that his ERA over his past 19 appearances is 1.04. This overstates his effectiveness; on June 10 he allowed three unearned runs — two hits and a walk in two-third of an inning — in a game the Twins lost by one. It helped his ERA, but he didn't get the job done that day.

He has been on most days, however. The fans may not trust him as much as they do Rauch and Guerrier, but that merely illustrates the limits of fan understanding.


A belated recap of last week's poll, on predicting Johan Santana's career wins total:

We had 27 responses. One said Santana would win less than 150 games; 13 (48 percent) said 150-199 wins; another 13 said 200-249. Nobody (in this poll) thinks he'll get past 250, and that probably means that nobody voting in this poll thinks he'll get into the Hall of Fame.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Blackburn "boycott"

Back in the ancient days of the Metrodome — when it was easy to treat the Twins as an impulse buy — I occasionally declared "boycotts" of particular starting pitchers, meaning that I would not spend money or a night off work to go watch that guy pitch.

I had, at one point or another, boycotts on Joe Mays, Rick Reed and Kyle Lohse, maybe on Carlos Silva as well. Mays and Lohse were, I believe, repeat targets. I declared a boycott on Livan Hernandez the day the Twins signed him, but other than him, pitchers had to "earn" the boycott with their work on the mound that year.

And the interesting thing — to me at any rate — is that my patience with starting pitchers almost perfectly matched that of the organization. I declared, if only to myself, that I was boycotting a pitcher; within a couple of days, the Twins would announce that so-and-so was out of the rotation.

The boycott concept is passe now. It doesn't matter who's pitching on July 21; I've got the tickets, and I'm going. It doesn't matter who's pitching the next time I have a day off and the Twins are at home; I'm not going. Target Field is not an impulse destination.

But Nick Blackburn has sunk to boycott territory. The Twins, I know, view him through different eyes than I do, or than even more stat-oriented types; if they didn't they wouldn't have signed him to guaranteed money this winter.

The Twins clearly don't care much about strikeout rates, much less more sophisticated metrics such as FIP (fielding-independent pitching) or xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching) — all stats that forecast this season's problems — but Blackburn's ERA today is 6.00, and even this front office understands that number.

It means less than ever, but I hereby declare a Nick Blackburn boycott. Something is going to give, long-term contract or no.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Delmon an All-Star?

I don't know what this says about me, but I've been far more interested in recent years in voting for the final roster spot for the All-Star teams than for the starting lineups.

I bring it up because Delmon Young is one of the five candidates for the 34th spot on the AL roster. And I'd like to see him make it because he's been one of the players Twins fans love to hate, and because everybody's already decided that he's a bust and the trade that brought him to Minnesota was a disaster.

That trade doesn't look so one-sided today.

To get to the online ballot at, click here.

Thome and the Killer

Saturday's multi-pitcher bullpen meltdown obscured the exploits of the Gentleman Masher, Jim Thome, who bopped two dingers and a double — 10 total bases and three runs scored — and passed Harmon Killebrew on the all-time home run list.

That list is a lot less exclusive than it was when the Killer retired. He stood fifth — behind Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Frank Robinson — for a long time, with Aaron, Ruth and Mays the only men with 600-plus homers. Now Killebrew is out of the top 10, and Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr. and Sammy Sosa are in the 600-homer club, with Alex Rodriguez just five short.

And no, this isn't going to be a steroids rant. Records are made to be broken, and those hitters of the 1990s and 2000s who were 'roided up were hitting off pitchers who were 'roided up, and had the stuff been available in the 1960s, you can bet players would have been using them then too. Human nature hasn't worsened in 40 years, and the competitive mindset hasn't changed either.

Killebrew played his final game in 1975, when I was still in high school. Jim Thome was five years old then. The two men played in much different eras — Killebrew's peak corresponded to the power-pitcher friendly 1960s, when the mounds were unrestricted, the strike zone was defined as the top of the shoulder and runs were exceedingly scarce — but their defining numbers are strikingly similar:

  • Killebrew hit 573 homers, drove in 1,584 runs and drew 1,559 walks.
  • Thome now has 574 homers, 1,590 RBIs and 1,646 walks.

Thome has scored more than 200 runs more than Killebrew ( 1,506 to 1,283) and has better slash stats, but context is important in all of these numbers. A run was a lot more valuable in 1968 than it was in 1998, because there were so many fewer runs in the '60s.

I wasn't all that impressed with the Thome signing when it came to pass; I figured there was a reason the White Sox made no effort to retain him. But the man has a .597 slugging percentage this season, and he has certainly earned his money and his at-bats.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The return of the Hardy boy

Shortstop J.J. Hardy (pictured) is supposed to come off the disabled list today, with Matt Tolbert going on the DL himself.

And we'll get to apply the John Mitchell test to Ron Gardenhire's roster use. Mitchell was the attorney general for Richard Nixon who famously said: Don't listen to what we say, watch what we do.

Gardenhire has said a lot of things about using Michael Cuddyer at third base to open playing time for Jim Thome. First he said he wouldn't do it. Then he said he'd do it during the non-DH portion of the schedule (when the issue was keeping Jason Kubel in the lineup). Then he said Cuddyer isn't his regular third baseman and that Thome isn't capable of playing more than a couple days in a row anyway. Then he started Cuddyer at third and Thome at DH in four straight games.

Hardy's return frees Nick Punto to return to third base, which he plays at a much higher level than does Cuddyer. Thome, on the other hand, hits at a much higher level than Punto.

At this point, Gardenhire's proclamations about playing time don't carry a lot of credibility. Watch what he does; don't take stock in what he says.

Friday, July 2, 2010

A loss to make me crabby

Or maybe it's just adding to the rest of my stress.

Any way ... the Twins lost Thursday because Nick Punto fumbled a two-out grounder to allow a run to score and because their two most reliable late-inning relievers — or at least the two Ron Gardenhire most wants to rely on — each coughed up a run in the ninth and 10th innings. It happens.

I'd like to go on an Alfonso Marquez (photo) rant here, but I don't want to overstate the importance of his hallucinatory safe call at third base in the 10th inning. Kelly Stoppach never got any further. The only damage caused was to Gardenhire's bank account, since he'll be fined for the ejection that followed; to Michael Cuddyer's fielding percentage, since he was charged with an error; and the extra pitches required to get out of the inning. Had Marquez gotten the call right, the Twins would still have lost that game.

And I don't want to overstate an evaluation of Marquez as an umpire. I really don't know if he's as bad as I think he is. He might be a competent, or better, umpire who simply made a mistake. It happens.

That call certainly bore the hallmarks of incompetence, however.


Silly broadcaster comment: Joe Mauer led off the bottom of the eight inning with a double. Justin Morneau followed with a fly ball to right, with Mauer advancing to third. And Dan Gladden said of Morneau: He did his job.

Not really. Morneau is the cleanup hitter. His job — not that he can be expected to be successful 100 percent of the time, or even 50 percent of it — when the go-ahead run is in scoring position, is to bring him home.

A give-yourself-up at-bat is the moral equivalent of a sacrifice bunt. As I wrote Thursday, I love the bunt. But you don't bunt Morneau in that situation, because you're looking for more than trading an out for a base from him. Matt Tolbert, Punto, Drew Butera — with those guys, it's a different story.

Morneau's fly ball helped. It set up Jason Kubel's sac fly, which set up Jon Rauch's blown save. But it simply passed the job of getting Mauer home to the next guy.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The beauty of the bunt

Last September I wrote a screed about the silliness that day of sac bunting on the road when behind.

For most of the winter, another blog's approving link to that post was one of the most prominent results when I Googled "baseball outsider." Even now, it's on the second page.

I find that ironic, because in the realm of Internet baseball writing, I'm about as bit a fan of the bunt as you're going to find. I just didn't like it that day, for very specific reasons, detailed in that post.

Wednesday, the Twins used the bunt in a way that I applaud, and in a way that was extremely profitable.

Bottom of the fifth, score tied. Nick Punto gets an infield single. Drew Butera bunts; Detroit pitcher Andrew Oliver throws high; Detroit's Carlos Guillen can't keep his foot on the bag (photo); Butera is safe on the error. Span bunts; this time the Tigers get the out, but Punto and Butera advance. Orlando Hudson plates Punto with a fly ball, Delmon Young drives in Butera with a single, Twins lead 3-1.

I like this sequence because:

  • Butera (.178/.213/.267) is as weak a hitter as plays a position. Might as well trade his inevitable out for a base.
  • Oliver is a rookie power pitcher. Power pitchers are generally not good fielders; bunting gives the kid more opportunity to screw up.
  • Span's bunt came not with the Twins behind but with them tied. Play for the win on the road, for the tie at home. And the second point remained valid. Let's try to force Oliver to make a play. (It was the catcher who handled Span's bunt.)

This comes from this year's edition of the Bill James Gold Mine:

Denard Span bunted 27 times in 2009, the most bunts in play of any American League player. Twelve of those were sacrifice bunts. Of the other 15, 10 were singles — a .667 batting average on efforts to bunt for a hit, or .370 if you include the 12 sacrifices.

Sabermetricians are often critical of the bunt, arguing that the sac bunt, even when successful, reduces the number of times the team can expect to score. But this misses a critical point: that the "Denard Span" bunt, where you're really bunting for a hit but you'll take the sacrifice as a by-product of failure, is a very good play. If there's a runner on first and nobody out and you try to bunt for a hit, you only have to bunt about .275 to make it a good play — assuming that you'll get the sac bunt even if the effort for a hit doesn't work. A good bunter can bunt much more than .275 — making it a good play.

I go beyond James in applauding the bunt, because I believe there are a lot of pitchers and corner infielders — even in the major leagues — who are uncomfortable dealing with bunts. Butera didn't get a hit, but he reached on an error and scored a run as a result.