Monday, September 30, 2013

Gardenhire without Anderson? Not likely

Rick Anderson (left) and Ron Gardenhire were
teammates in the Mets organization in the 1980s,
and Anderson has been Gardenhire's pitching coach
for 12 seasons in Minnesota.
Long-tenured managers tend to be linked to long-tenured pitching coaches. Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan. Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone. Tommy Lasorda and Ron Perranoski. Tom Kelly and Dick Such.

And, yes, Ron Gardenhire and Rick Anderson. Anderson has been Gardenhire's pitching coach all 12 seasons that Gardenhire has managed the Twins

We can expect a decision soon, perhaps today, on whether Gardenhire will remain the Twins dugout boss. One bit of speculation has Terry Ryan telling Gardenhire he can stay — but Anderson cannot.

Gardenhire, who can reasonably expect to get other job offers if he is out in Minnesota, would probably reject that proposition. I doubt Ryan would make such an offer, partly because I don't think Ryan is Machiavellian enough to make the offer with the intent of making Gardenhire be the one to cut the ties with the Twins.

For better or worse, and quite probably for better, managers get more say on the pitching coach than on the other members of the staff. Friction between the manager and the pitching coach, be it on a personal level or professional, is too obviously counterproductive. 

When Kelly retired after the 2001 season, Ryan dismissed Such almost immediately, either to clear the position for the choice of the next manager or because Ryan wanted Such out. It's impossible to imagine that Ryan would have fired Such had Kelly remained.

Such was Kelly's pitching coach. Anderson is Gardenhire's. Period, end of sentence. If Gardy stays, Andy stays.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Pic of the Week

I'd say these three were giving each other a piece of
their minds, but if you added it up you might still
be shy a fully functional brain.

What we have here are three guys in the wrong.

You probably know this incident already: On Wednesday Carlos Gomez hit a long home run off Atlanta southpaw Paul Maholm. The two apparently have had a contentious past — Maholm, I know, has hit Gomez twice with pitches — and Gomez stood at home plate for a good while to admire his blast. The he jawed with various Braves on his slow trot around the bases (which, if you'll recall, is rather unlike Go-Go, who is known from sprinting out his homers).

And when Gomez approached home plate, there was Brian McCann, the Atlanta catcher, blocking the path and spoiling for a fight. Which then broke out.

Paul Nauert is the home plate ump in the photo. Why he stood by as McCann set out to toss a lighted match on the gasoline Gomez had spread over the game is a mystery. How it is that he ejected Gomez but not McCann is even more baffling. (The first base ump, Doug Eddings, was credited with tossing two Braves after the ruckus, first baseman Freddie Freeman and reserve catcher Gerald Laird.)

Gomez got a one-game suspension. McCann was fined an unspecified amount. It's not public information if anything was done about the umpiring crew that let things get out of hand, but were it my call, none of the four would be working a postseason game.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Ex-Twins watch: Jamey Carroll

Jamey Carroll has
just four hits in 42
at-bats since the
Twins sold him
to Kansas City.
Jamey Carroll picked up the 1,000th hit of his major league career Friday. One thousand hits is a lot for a career utility infielder — Nick Punto, for example, has 757 hits — and testifies to Carroll's longevity and perseverance.

There probably aren't a lot more hits in his future, quite possibly none. He's 39, and the decline in his numbers is obvious: a .290 batting average in 2011, .268 in 2012, .211 this season. The Royals hold a $2 million option for 2014; I can't imagine they'll exercise it.

If this is the end, it's still been quite the impressive career in its own way. He didn't make his major league debut until he was 28, but he still carved out a 12-year career and, by Baseball Reference's reckoning, earned more than $18 million in the process.

Not a great player by any means, but not everybody is cut out for greatness. Carroll found a niche he could fill, and did so competently for more than a decade.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The rise of the Tribe

Terry Francona and veteran Jason Giambi
celebrate after Giambi's walk-off home run
Tuesday against the Whit Sox.
The Cleveland Indians — 68-94 in 2012, a lousy won-lost record that actually understates how bad they were — are on the verge of claiming a playoff berth.

The Indians certainly behaved during the offseason as if they were on the verge, and it mystified me. They surrendered draft picks to sign borderline Type A free agents (Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher); they enticed Terry Francona out of the broadcast booth to manage; and, yes, they traded for a high-level pitching prospect in Trevor Bauer, the one move of the offseason that made sense from my perspective for a bad team.

It's difficult today to see how some of those moves helped. Swisher hit .245/.341/.417, which is hardly eye-popping production for a first baseman-right fielder-designated hitter. Bourn, a leadoff hitter, saw his on-base percentage drop about 30 points from his established levels and saw his stolen bases essentially halved. Bauer, perhaps stubborn to the point of uncoachability, spent the season undermining himself; it's a lot easier now to understand why Arizona was so ready to discard him. Mark Reynolds, signed to provide power, was released in mid season.

And yet the Tribe has 89 wins already. How'd it happen?

Mainly pitching and defense, and maybe more the latter than the former. Somebody — be it Francona or pitching coach Mickey Callaway or somebody else — unlocked the puzzle of Ubaldo Jimenez, who went from 9-17, 5.40 in 2012 to 12-9, 3.38 in about the same amount of work (31 starts and 176 or so innings each year). The Indians had a take-a-chance reclaimation project pay off: Scott Kazmir has given them 28 starts, 151 innings and a 4.14 ERA. Justin Masterson rebounded well from his 2012 disappointment. Danny Salazar came out of the minors in the second half with power stuff.

And the outfield defense probably had no small part in the pitchers' success. The additions of Bourn and Drew Stubbs gave Francona three legit center fielders (the third being holdover Michael Brantley); the trio didn't hit much, but they didn't give up much either. It's not easy to split the gap against these guys.

Francona got a lot out of his bench, too: Mike Aviles, Ryan Raburn, Jason Giambi and Yan Gomes provided 45 homers in bit roles.

There was some good fortune involved: the Indians are 30-17 in one-run games, 10-2 in extra innings. Those are rather high numbers.

And, not to be churlish about this, but the unbalanced schedule didn't hurt Cleveland much either. They got to feast on the carcasses of the White Sox (17-2) and Twins (10-6 with three games to go); that's 30 percent of Cleveland's wins to date. There may well be better teams in the AL East (Baltimore and New York) who are out of the hunt because the Tribe's schedule was so much softer.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Contemplating Brian Duensing

Brian Duensing has allowed four home runs in 59.2
innings this season, three of them to left-handed hitters.
Brian Duensing has spent the entire 2013 season in the bullpen. This has been the first season in which the lefty hasn't split time between relieving and starting.

The shift to full-time relief work hasn't been a resounding success — 4.07 ERA after Wednesday's two-out appearance, and for a while he was surplanted as the primary left-handed set-up guy by rookie Caleb Thielbar — but a 4.07 ERA is a darn sight better than the ERAs he put up in 2011 and 2012. His strikeout rate is up sharply (his walk rate is also higher) this year, and his home run rate is lower.

And the Twins are making noises about him as a rotation candidate for 2014. Ugh.

The Twins obviously have rotation problems, and one can hardly blame Ron Gardenhire and Terry Ryan for looking under rocks for answers, but Duensing has enough of a track record at this point (545 major league innings and 61 starts) that it's fair to wonder why they'd pick that one to check.

It's worth noting that last year at this time, Ryan was talking about having both Duensing and Anthony Swarzak prepare during the offseason for potential starting jobs. Neither man ever started a game this year, and neither was given even a cursory look as a starter during spring training (Swarzak, of course, was hurt for most of camp). So the Duensing-as-a-starter talk may be just a bit of end-of-the-season wind.

My view on Duensing as a starter hasn't changed from last year: He needs to demonstrate that he has a way to attack right-handed hitters to succeed in that role.

Duensing's platoon stats this year are odd. He has habitually feasted on left-handed hitters and been abused by right-handed hitters — which is why a bullpen shift made a lot of sense for him — but this year lefties have hit him at a .294/.331/.437 clip, righties .271/.359/.377 (per Baseball Reference, which hadn't been updated with Wednesday's outing).

I take this to be a small sample size blip and not indicative of a true change in ability. Even if it isn't a fluke, the overall numbers don't exactly call out to give this man a larger role.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Minor league all-stars

Josmil Pinto
is the catcher on
Baseball America's
all-star team.

The dead-tree edition of the Baseball America issue in which Byron Buxton was named minor league player of the year arrived in my mailbox this week. Buxton's honor was announced almost two weeks ago, so the cover story was hardly a shocker.

I was briefly surprised by the cover image, however — Buxton running the bases in the Twins' major league uniform. It must have been made during his one-day spring-training call up back in March.

The same issue includes BA's minor league all-star team from all levels — four Twins farmhands are among the nine position players — and its classification all-stars, selected from the six levels of minor league ball.

The four on the overall all-star team: Catcher Josmil Pinto, first baseman Chris Colabello, third baseman Miguel Sano and center fielder Buxton. That's a pretty impressive share of the roster, and it would be carping (if accurate) to note that none of them are pitchers. Yes, the Twins need pitchers, but there are plenty of holes in the lineup too.

Colabello is the one guy on the roster who isn't a prominent prospect. He's also by far the oldest player on either the first or second teams on BA's list. There's no question that he had a big year in Triple A — .352/.427/.639 — but major league pitchers have carved him up pretty well.

The Twins were well represented on the classification teams as well.

Triple A: Colabello, who was the Triple A player of the year.
Double A: Pinto
High A: Sano and Buxton, with Sano the High A player of the year.
Low A: Buxton and outfielder Adam Brett Walker, with Buxton the Low A player of the year.
Short-season: The Twins don't have a short-season affiliate.
Rookie: Shut out. (Kohl Stewart, the Twins' first round pick, didn't have enough innings to qualify).

And here I don't think it's unfair to note the lack of pitching on the list. BA is saying that on no level of the minors did the Twins have one of the four best starters or the best reliever. The Twins farm system had a very good year with position players, less so with pitchers.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Reading between the lines of the Mauer shutdown

Joe Mauer ends his 2013 season with a slash line of
.324/.404./.476 and the third-highest OPS+ of his career.
The Twins made official Monday what most of those still paying attention to their season had come to expect: Joe Mauer's 2013 season is over. Even if his concussion symptoms continue to improve, he runs into the limitations of the calendar. The season ends Sunday, and he's not going to be ready.

Mauer told the media that he expects to be ready to roll come spring training, and what's more, he expects to be behind the plate. That's been Mauer's stock answer for years about the ever-present question about when or if he'll change positions: I'm a catcher.

What I found interesting was what Terry Ryan said on the radio pregame show. Ryan has, throughout the month-plus that Mauer's been out with this concussion, essentially agreed with Mauer. Monday evening, that changed.

In the radio bit, Ryan specifically said he's not making a categorical statement now about Mauer's future. He needs to talk to people before he does that, Ryan said, and specifically mentioned Mauer and Ron Gardenhire.

I draw three inferences from this.

  1. As I said here earlier this month, if the Twins want to make Mauer a first baseman (or right fielder or anything other than a primary catcher), they will do well to have Mauer on board with the decision. 
  2. Given Mauer's public position on where he wants to play, the discussion is really only necessary if Ryan is inclined to move his franchise player from his preferred position.
  3. If Ron Gardenhire is in his final week as Twins manager, his input on what to do with Mauer isn't all that relevant. Implication: Gardy will be the manager next season.
The circumstances have changed in the past four weeks. Mauer's concussion has persisted longer than Ryan anticipated when it occurred. And catching prospect Josmil Pinto has been one big bright spot in a pretty miserable September for the Twins. (Pinto had two more hits Monday night, including the game-winner in the 11th inning.)

All this points to Mauer as the Twins first baseman next year. But Ryan left himself wriggle room Monday.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Catchers and wild pitches

Wild pitches and passed balls are, on the field, the same thing: A pitch is not caught, and a baserunner advances (or, on a third strike, the batter reaches first).

Joe Mauer practices blocking balls in
the dirt during spring training.
The only difference is that on a wild pitch the blame is attached to the pitcher, and on a passed ball it's put on the catcher.

In reality, it's not that simple. The league leader in passed balls will almost always be the catcher who has to handle the most knuckleballs. The passed balls that occur when R.A. Dickey pitches are less about the catcher than about Dickey's knuckleball -- but the catcher gets the blame.

And it figures that, just as gifted defensive shortstops reduce their pitchers' base hits allowed, the better defensive catchers prevent wild pitches.

The Twins this year have had four catchers work at least 100 innings. Joe Mauer has three Gold Gloves on his resume. Ryan Doumit is regarded by the people trying to measure catcher defense as perhaps the worst backstop in the game. Chris Herrmann and Josmil Pinto are rookies, and Pinto in particular is viewed as a raw receiver

The wild pitch rates are illuminating:

  • Mauer has allowed 16 wild pitches in 658.2 innings, or .22 per nine innings
  • Doumit has allowed 17 wild pitches in 373.2 innings, or .41 per game.
  • Herrmann has allowed 7 in 204.2 innings, .31 per game.
  • Pinto has allowed 6 in 117.1, .46 per game

Mauer and Doumit have been charged with three passed balls apiece; Herrmann and Pinto none. Add the passed balls into the mix, and Mauer is up to .26 per nine innings, Doumit to .48.

To put this in a larger context, the American League teams have a total average of .37 wild pitches per nine innings. So Mauer is considerably better than the league average, Herrmann a bit better and Doumit and Pinto are worse.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Pic of the Week

Wladimir Balentien of the Yakult Swallows
watches his 56th home run of the season
leave the yard. The homer broke the
Japanese home run record set 49
years ago by Sadaharu Oh.

Wladimir Balentien showed good (but not great) power in the minor leagues. He also showed almost no strike zone judgment, with such walk-to-strikeout ratios as 33-to-160 early on. Those ratios improved as he moved up the ladder.

When he reached the majors, with Seattle and then Cincinnati, he got only sporadic playing time (559 plate appearances over three seasons) and didn't do much with it: 15 home runs and a slash line of .221/.281/.374.

So it was off to Japan for the native of Curacao. There he debuted with 31 homers but a .228 average. Second season, another 31 dingers, .281 average.

And this year: 58 home runs (according to Baseball Reference this morning) and a .341 average. Wowzer. (And about as many walks as strikeouts, further testimony to his growth as a hitter.)

Japan's majors aren't at the same level as the American big leagues — just ask Tsuyoshi Nishioka — but this is still an impressive accomplishment.

The 29-year-old has a long-term contract with the Yakult Swallows (another three years to run), so I doubt he's headed back for another crack at the American majors.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Late night Twins game: Oakland 11, Twins 0

Oswaldo Arcia after his first-inning strikeout
Friday. He had two of the Twins' 13 strikeouts.
Game story here

Box score here

An 11-0 final score makes it pretty obvious that the losing team didn't do anything well enough to win, and that was certainly the case Friday night for the Twins.

They didn't hit well, they didn't pitch well, and they sure didn't field well. The Twins were charged with four errors, and anybody watching Oswaldo Arcia flounder in right field in the third inning knows that was an understatement.

Arcia lost one ball in the lights — it was ruled a double — and let another ball get past him for a two-base error in that inning as the A's scored their first three runs.

After his error, I tweeted:

That may have drawn the most response of any tweet in my admittedly skimpy tweeting career. The consensus: He's not a good outfielder, but Josh Willingham or Delmon Young are worse.

It's arguable, but all three are brutal. According to Baseball Info System's plus-minus and runs saved defensive metrics for this season:

  • Willingham (599 innings in left field) is -14 in plus-minus, -8 in runs saved. 
  • Arcia  (696 innings in left and right) is -23 and -13 combined.
  • Young (503 innings in right for the Phillies and Rays) is -19, -11. 

Plus I've never seen either Willingham or Young get hit in the head by a fly ball as Arcia did earlier in the season.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Late night Twins game: Oakland 8, Twins 6

Twins third baseman Trevor Plouffe takes a tumble on the
bullpen mound Thursday night while chasing a foul ball
in the expansive space in the Oakland stadium.
 Game story here.

Box score here.

Trevor Plouffe took an 0-for-5 Thursday in that sewage-oozing dump in the Eastbay they now call the O.Co Coliseum. (One would think, at this point, that corporations would pay to NOT have their name attached to the place.) Then he left the game nursing a sore left wrist that has apparently bothered him much of the season.

Thursday's struggles (and Wednesday's 0-for-4 in Chicago) shouldn't mask his impressive surge at the plate of late. Plouffe entered the game hitting .358/.380/.493 in September and had muscled his way into the third spot in the batting order. This kind of September performance by a player on a team out of the race used to be called a "salary drive," and with Plouffe eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter, the phrase probably fits.

For the season as a whole, his numbers remain pedestrian: .249/.302/.397, with 14 homers. It's been a bit of a step backwards for him at the plate.

Defensively, he's improved. The plus-minus and runs saved metrics I've cited here in the past have him as essentially playing league-average defense at third base, which would be markedly better than in 2012.

Of course, nobody really expects Plouffe to remain the Minnesota third baseman much longer, not with Miguel Sano climbing the ladder. Some figure Sano will have the job as early as April, some figure he'll come up in mid season, but he's coming. And Plouffe isn't good enough to keep him out.

One can envision Plouffe shifting into in a super-utility role: Some outfield time, some first base, some third base, some DH, maybe even a few middle infield innings here and there when the team's behind and offense is more important than defense.

But for that to work, he's going to have to hit more than he has this season. A OPS under .700 won't cut it.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Scott Diamond and the missing strikeouts

Scott Diamond allowed just three hits through six innings
Thursday, but couldn't get through the seventh without help.
Scott Diamond on Tuesday had his first quality start (in the majors) since July 26. He got his first win (in the majors) since June 20.

It came against the White Sox, one of the few teams indisputably worse than the Twins, but it still had the left-hander feeling a good bit better about his pitching.

Me being me, I'm struck by what didn't happen in his outing: A strikeout.

Diamond got 19 outs, and none of them on strikes. For the season, Diamond is averaging just 3.5 strikeouts per nine innings. The American League average is 7.6, so Diamond's K rate is less than half the average.

I had to laugh when I came across this phrasing in the Pioneer Press gamer: "... Diamond failed to record a strikeout for just the third time this season ..." The implication is that it's common for starters to get a zero in that part of the linescore. 

It isn't. Going K-less in three starts in a season is unusual. And not a good sign.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Contemplating Mike Pelfrey

Mike Pelfrey this month has given up 16 runs (15 earned)
in 13.1 innings.

Mike Pelfrey is staggering to the finish line this season. The veteran made his 28th start of the season Tuesday and couldn't get through the fifth inning: 4.1 innings, nine hits, three runs and his 13th loss of the year.

All, of course, at his usual deadly slow pace. I cannot remember a Twins pitcher in the Gardenhire era who seemed so reluctant to throw the ball.

Pelfrey's return from Tommy John surgery has had its ups and downs. That he spent the full season (minus three weeks on the disabled list with an unrelated injury) in the major league rotation is impressive by itself. Scott Baker had his ligament replaced at about the same time Pelfrey did; the former Twin spent most of the season rehabbing and made his Cubs debut Sept. 8, about five months after Pelfrey made his first start for the Twins. Even with the DL stint, Pelfrey has made just one fewer start than Kevin Correia.

But he got through six innings in only 12 of his 28 starts. He took the ball regularly, but he didn't go deep into games all that often.

Pelfrey's base record — 5-13, 5.34 — isn't much. But 2013 always figured to be a rehab season for him anyway. And he's averaging almost 5.9 strikeouts per nine innings, a career best (excluding his three-start 2012) and pretty easily the highest K rate among the 10 men the Twins have used as starting pitchers this year.

Pelfrey is on a one-year deal, so he's a free agent again this winter. He's apparently been telling people he wants to remain with the Twins, but he also has Scott Boras for an agent, and Boras' clients generally value the money over comfort level. I don't know how much outside interest there will be in Pelfrey; I don't know how much the Twins want to bring him back.

He's says he's been told he'll get at least one more start, and may get the ball for the season finale as well. To me, this suggests that the Twins are committed to giving him all the leash he wants — which probably has something to do with his interest in remaining. And on the theory that the second year back from the major surgery should be better than the first, the Twins could probably do worse than re-signing him.

But man, he's hard to watch.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Liam Hendriks and the Rule of 30

Liam Hendriks threw 41 pitches
in the first inning Monday and
got two outs.
One of my pet theories about pitching is the "Rule of 30," which holds that one should withhold judgment on a starter until after he's gotten 30 major league starts under his belt.

Greg Maddux, in his first 32 starts (over two seasons) was 8-18, 5.59. Randy Johnson — similar to Maddux only in that both are among the all-time greats — in his first 32 starts (over two seasons) was 10-13, 4.48, and walked five men per nine innings.

I can throw more examples out there, from Tom Glavine to Brad Radke, but the point is: It often takes pitchers, even very good ones, a while to figure out how their stuff works against major league hitters. There are exceptions — Mike Mussina comes immediately to mind — but the Rule of 30 is generally valid.

Which brings us to Liam Hendriks, who had a completely putrid start Monday. The Aussie didn't get out of the first inning: Five hits, three walks, seven runs. His 2013 ERA went from bad to worse: 5.25 entering the game to 6.87 leaving it.

Hendriks is 24. He's been up and down, between big leagues and Triple A, since September 2011, and Monday's game was his 28th start with the Twins.

I make Hendriks' career ERA now to be 6.01, and there's no way to sugar coat that. He dominated the International League in 2012 between sporadic call-ups to the Twins but was nowhere near as effective this year in Triple A. I get the sense that the Twins are about ready to give up on him and move on.

Which is understandable. A 6.01 ERA is a 6.01 ERA. I also suspect it would be a mistake. Hendriks hasn't cleared 30 starts yet, and the Twins probably haven't helped the learning process much by jacking him up and down either. I complained about this at times last year. I thought then that the team should have accepted the growing pains and stuck with him; I still think giving him a half-dozen more big league starts would have been the better route.

No, Hendriks isn't going to transform into Greg Maddux with regular rotation work, but he's still young enough to develop into something more than Kevin Correia. If the Twins cut Hendriks loose this winter and he emerges elsewhere as a competent major league starter, it will be less an indictment of the coaching staff than of the impatience the organization has displayed with him.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Reconsidering Kevin Correia

Kevin Correia has topped 173 innings this season,
the second highest total of his career.

I was not particularly happy last winter when the Twins gave Kevin Correia a two-year contract. I complained about it here and here at the time.

As the first season of that deal winds down, I have to admit that Correia has been better than I expected — a 4.31 ERA, about a run lower than I expected him to put up in his first season in the DH league. He built that ERA in part on his highest strikeout rate since 2010 and the lowest walk rate of his career. And he hasn't missed a start to date.

Correia leads the 2013 Twins in wins, starts, innings and strikeouts. (Also in losses, hits allowed and home runs allowed.) He will be their only pitcher to qualify for the ERA title.

Sam Deduno and Andrew Albers were better on a per-inning basis, but they didn't match Correia's workload combined.

The Twins got what they were after from Correia. But it's hardly a secret that a team with him as their top starter is a team with pitching trouble. And the Twins remain a team with pitching trouble.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Pic of the Week

Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates loosens up
in the on-deck circle in PNC Park.

I probably select a similar photo every year: Broad angle of sky and stadium and backdrop.

It's September, and I hadn't pulled one this year. So here's this year's model.

It has a likely National League MVP — I expect McCutchen to win it, and if he doesn't he'll be a close second — and one of the prettiest parks, and views from the park, in baseball for the backdrop.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

One early view of Kirby Puckett

Baseball America published this piece on Jim Weber, who has broadcast 5,000 straight Toledo Mud Hens games. He's the radio voice for the Triple A team since 1975 and hasn't missed a game since 1985.

Sorta puts Dan Gladden's vacations in perspective, doesn't it?

I'm mentioning it here because Weber tells this story about how his lack of scouting ability:

It's 1984, and Toledo is the Twins Triple A affiliate, and the young Kirby Puckett is their center fielder. The team is Maine on a road trip and he's told to get Puckett to an airport so he can catch a flight to go to the big leagues.

"I couldn't understand it," Weber told BA. "He hadn't been with us very long and he wasn't putting up numbers. He was just a young kid. So as he was getting out of the car, I told him, 'If you're only up there a couple of weeks, it's an experience. Enjoy it.'

"I thought for sure I'd be seeing him again in a couple of weeks after I dropped him off at the airport."

Friday, September 13, 2013

Scott Cubic Zirconia

Scott Diamond delivers a first-inning
pitch Thursday afternoon against Oakland.
So what are we to make of Scott Diamond, 2013? The left-hander, who had such a fine 2012 season, returned Thursday from his Triple A exile and ... wasn't good.

He was 4-0, 2.41 in August/September for Rochester and won his one playoff start as well for the Red Wings, so there was some optimism that he had rediscovered his magic.

And then Thursday against the A's: 4.2 innings, six hits, five runs, four earned, two walks and one strikeout.

The ERA went up some more, the strikeout rate went down some more.

Oh, one can argue that the Twins defense could have been better. Trevor Plouffe had a throwing error that led to the unearned run, and center fielder Alex Presley got turned the wrong way on a hard-hit ball that resulted in a two-run triple. Maybe Presley should have caught that ball.

I still come back to this: Diamond not only didn't make it out of the fifth inning, but he struck out just one of his 22 batters.

Diamond, as quoted in the Pioneer Press gamer, put it this way: "I just wasn't able to put anybody away."

Mike Bernadino, the writer whose story is linked to above, concludes the piece by noting that Diamond may have just two starts left "to prove he is still staff-fronting material." 

I like Diamond — as I wrote earlier this year, he's MFT, My Favorite Twin — but this is the hard reality: Until he finds a way to boost his strikeout rate, he's not only not "staff-fronting material," he's not mid-rotation material.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Notes, quotes and comment

First base umpire Bill Miller gives Ron Gardenhire the
heave-ho in the fourth inning Wednesday. The
ejection meant Gardy missed the worst parts of
a really terrible game by the Twins.
Baseball America on Wednesday named Byron Buxton its Minor League Player of the Year.

No great surprise here, especially given the hoopla BA gave Buxton at midseason, but no small honor for the outfielder. He's the second Twins farmhand to win the award, the first being Joe Mauer in 2003.

BA's story on Buxton is here. A chat transcript with BA co-editor John Manuel about the player of the year process and other items is here.


Mauer was reported Wednesday to have had a setback with his concussion recovery. The Twins still aren't ruling out his return to action this season, and I suppose it's possible, but I'll believe it when I see it.

In other catcher news with the Twins, Ryan Doumit has reportedly been told he'll not catch again this year. These last three weeks figure to be heavy on Josmil Pinto and Chris Herrmann, with a little Eric Fryer on hand to ease the burden.

Considering how gingerly Pinto was handled much of the season in the minors — he caught 74 games for New Britain and Rochester and DHed in 52 — amid talk of protecting his shoulder, it will be interesting to see how much the Twins use him behind the dish. This can be a very good training opportunity for him, with Terry Steinbach around to really drill into the nuances of pitch calling and receiving.


The Yankees announced Wednesday that Derek Jeter is done for the season. Not just the regular season, but the playoffs also, should the Yankees get there (and as of now they wouldn't).

Jeter is 39, and he played just 17 games with a .190 batting average as he never fully recovered from last fall's fractured ankle. So this has all the signs of being the end of one of the great shortstops — except that he's not going away.

He said Wednesday he's not retiring, and Yankee general manager Brian Cashman agreed: "I haven't seen his last game. No one has."

And Jeter has repeatedly rejected reality to substitute his own. I'll believe he's done playing when he says he's done playing.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A passing of the baton

Oswaldo Arcia accepts the congratulations of
third base coach Joe Vavra as he rounds the bases with
his sixth-inning solo home run Tuesday.
The Twins lineup the past few days has had the air of a new era — even beyond the absence of the injured Joe Mauer and the traded Justin Morneau.

The top half of the order was the same Monday and Tuesday: Alex Presley, Josmil Pinto, Brian Dozier, Oswaldo Arcia.

Three of those four opened the season in the minor leagues. The other (Dozier) opened the year at the bottom of the batting order.

And now they're filling the prime lineup spots — not only against another also-ran, as on Monday, but against a legitimate contender as well.

Obviously, Mauer's return, whenever that comes, will shake this up a bit. Maybe Mauer will hit second; maybe he'll hit third. (I'd prefer he hit second.) Presley figures to remain the leadoff guy; Arcia should be locked into the cleanup spot. Pinto, by process of elimination, will probably drop in the order.

But he'll probably remain higher in the lineup than the likes of Ryan Doumit and Josh Willingham — and he should. The veterans who hit in the middle of the order all year didn't produce. Now the kids get their turn.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Life in the Legends Club

There was plenty of leg room in much
of Target Field on Monday.
This is the fourth summer of Target Field and the third summer of a lousy home team. Monday's game was a rescheduled make-up game; it was hot and humid. The announced attendance was something over 21,000, and that probably overstates the number of fans on the premises.

I was amongst them, as was my wife. I had gone spelunking Monday morning in StubHub and found a pair of tickets in the Legends Club at a sharp discount, so we got to experience a new part of the ball park. (We'd seen the Legends Club during a tour, but seeing it empty and seeing it in action are two different things.)

I'll say this: If I had the time and money for season tickets,  that's the place. It was certainly nice to have the air-conditioned Carew room to retreat to periodically from the swelter.

It also does a nice job of extracting cash from the patrons.

One question that occurs to me at times looking in at high-rent district of a ball park is how much the people there know/care about the game itself. Bill Veeck wrote in his memoirs that in his experience the knowledge of the game increased the cheaper the tickets.

And indeed, the fellow in front of me asked me four questions over the course of the game:

"Is that real grass or fake grass?" (Real.)

"Did they trade Morneau?" (Yes, for the guy playing center field tonight.)

"But Mauer's still around, right?" (Yes, but he's on the DL with a concussion.)

"What happened to him, get drilled by a pitch?" (No, got drilled by a foul tip. Uh, you're not from around here, are you.)


The game itself was worthwhile. Josmil Pinto hit three doubles and drew a walk, and the most impressive ball he hit was probably the foul ball he banged off a window in the Twins office tower behind the foul pole. (Ron Gardenhire said after the game he can't remember anybody hitting one of those windows.) Kid's got his man strength.

He also gave a graphic demonstration of his rawness behind the plate, completely missing a Glen Perkins pitch that nailed home plate umpire Laz Diaz in the thigh in the ninth inning. That's no way for a catcher to win friends among the umps.

The Twins piece in the Baseball America that arrived in my mailbox Monday (bylined by Phil Miller of the Star Tribune, BA's regular Twins correspondent) drew a comparison between Pinto and Wilson Ramos, the catcher the Twins traded in midseason 2010 for Matt Capps. Pinto-Ramos is a comparison I've been thinking about a bit in recent days and expect to write about in some detail, but I'll just say here that I'm skeptical of the BA piece's implication that the Twins were willing to trade Ramos in part because they knew they had Pinto coming up. In 2010 Pinto, then 21, hit .225/.295/.378 in Beloit.

I like Pinto, and the Twins look like they have a good one there. They couldn't have known in 2010 that he'd turn into a masher.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Two puzzling call-ups

Shairon Martis is 26
now, but he pitched
in the majors for
Washington at ages
21 and 22.
The Rochester Red Wings were eliminated Sunday in the International League playoffs, which (a) concluded the season for the Twins minor league teams and (b) freed up the Twins to make the rest of their September call-ups.

Seven players got the call for the season's final three weeks or so: Pitchers Scott Diamond, Cole De Vries, Michael Tonkin and Shairon Martis; infielders Eduardo Escobar and Chris Parmelee; and catcher Eric Fryer.

Most of these were pretty obvious. Diamond, demoted for his ineffectiveness, went 4-0, 2.41 for Rochester and won his playoff start. De Vries, his season wrecked by a spring training injury, got it going late. Escobar, who had no previous history of hitting well, went .307/.380/.500 for the Red Wings; it wasn't a lot of at-bats (188 plate appearances), but that's a mighty attractive slash line for a middle infielder. Tonkin has a very real chance to be a bullpen factor next season.

And some are a bit surprising. Parmelee, for example: a .231/.318/.370 line for a first baseman-right fielder doesn't scream for his recall. I wonder how much playing time he's going to get; I wonder if this isn't his last chance to impress somebody.

Martis had a 4.26 ERA in 80 innings, mostly in middle relief; I doubt there's much there.

Eric Fryer gives
the Twins four
active catchers
going on five.
And Fryer ... he hit an unimpressive .215/.339/.365. The Twins already had three active catchers in Ryan Doumit, Chris Herrmann and Josmil Pinto — and Joe Mauer supposedly making progress in his recovery from his concussion. When Mauer returns, this gives the Twins five catchers. Even granting that several of those five can do other things than catch, that's a lot. I understand that Gene Glynn, the Rochester manager, really likes Fryer, but on the surface, there's simply no way Fryer rates with the other four.

My guess is that the Twins know they won't give either Martis or Fryer spots on their 40-man roster this winter, but they really want to retain the two as minor league free agents. (The Twins created the 40-man berths for them by putting Wilkin Ramirez and Sam Deduno on the 60-day disabled list; the other five were already on the 40.) This September call-up is, in effect, a bonus for them for being good organization guys in Triple A. A few more weeks of service time, some major league pay, a gesture of appreciation.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Pic of the Week

Chase Utley of the Phillies slides into third base in
Wrigley Field. Going counter-clockwise from the sliding Utley:
umpire Quinn Wolcott, coach Juan Samuel, third baseman
Donnie Murphy.
Not a play of significance in the season, not a illustration of some issue in the game. A mundane moment, perhaps, but one with a certain geometric symmetry. Just for an instant, they're all squared up.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Alex Presley and the stolen base

Alex Presley has been a fixture in center field since
joining the Twins in the Justin Morneau trade.
Alex Presley went 1-for-5 Friday night, which lowered his batting average with the Twins to .348. OK, it's just 23 official at-bats, and if he were really that good he would have forced his way into the Pirates lineup years ago, but his minor league numbers suggest that he might be a reasonable major league leadoff hitter.

This is the optimistic case for Presley: He gets on base, or at least he has in the high minors. (His on-base percentages in A ball are markedly lower than in Double A or Triple A). He doesn't have the power one wants from a corner outfielder, and he's been stuck behind Andrew McCutcheon for the Pirates center field job, and (again, the optimistic case) that's why he is 28 and hasn't cracked a regular lineup.

Optimism aside, Presley is viewed more as a reserve outfielder than as a possible quality regular. We saw an example Friday of why he's not destined to be a quality leadoff hitter.

Presley was on first base with one out in the ninth inning with Ryan Doumit pinch-hitting and the Twins down a run. When the count went to 3-2, Ron Gardenhire had Presley go. Doumit struck out, and Presley was thrown out easily.

Thrown out, it should be noted, by J.P. Arencibia, who came into the game, according to Baseball Reference, having thrown out just 24 percent of base stealers. Of the 17 qualifying catchers, Arencibia ranked 14th in throwing out base stealers.

Presley is 0-for-3 as a base stealer since joining the Twins. He was 0-for-1 with Pittsburgh. His minor league track record as a base stealer is unimpressive.

Some players are fast but simply can't get the jumps needed to steal bases effectively. Presley appears to be one such.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Seats no doubt available

The Twins today open one of their longer homestands of the year (nine games in 10 days). They do so with Justin Morneau no longer on the team and Joe Mauer on the shelf indefinitely.

September is generally a rough month for also-rans in terms of actual attendance, by which I mean bodies in the seats as opposed to tickets sold. School's back in session, the evenings start getting chillier. And in the case of the also-ran 2013 Twins, the two biggest names aren't there.

It is true that neither the Twins nor this weekend's visitors, the Toronto Blue Jays, will reach the postseason; it is also true that Toronto's biggest star, Jose Bautista, is out for the season. Still, I reject the cliche of "nothing to play for" and "meaningless games." The Minnesota lineups this weekend figure to be filled with unfamiliar names, but the novices and newcomers are playing, in a sense, for their futures, to make a good impression and enhance their chances of sticking in the majors.

The games are still worth the playing and the watching. But I'd believe that regardless; I'd rather watch a minor league game than any NFL game ever played. Certainly the casual fan's interest is going to be down. So expect to plenty of vacant seats at Target Field for these September games.

The Twins schedule this year was a mess from the beginning. Thirty-one of the 81 home dates — 38 percent — were in April and September, which one can pretty much guarantee will be the two worst months for weather. They had nine home games scheduled for the entire month of July.

If it's any consolation (and it probably isn't), nobody was happy with the schedule this year, and the players union reportedly is making an issue of it with the commissioner's office. The union's concern isn't about the bad-weather heavy Minnesota schedule, of course; it's unhappy with the bizarre travel demands put on the players.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Josmil Pinto and the base on balls

Josmil Pinto collects a pinch-hit single Wednesday.
Josmil Pinto has been a line-drive machine for the Twins. Not that 11 major league plate appearances, most of them coming against the lowly Houston Astros, proves anything, but it fits his minor league track record.

He hits. There are questions about his defensive abilities behind the plate, but he will hit.

His Baseball Reference page this morning is amusing. One of B-R's features is a 162-game average, showing what a player's rates translate to for a full season. Pinto's shows 108 doubles and a .700 batting average. These would be records. It also shows 162 runs but just 54 RBIs, a combination that if it were to actually occur would come from a slap-hitting leadoff man, not a ponderous catcher.

Just another illustration of the deceptiveness of small samples, and this is a very small sample.

Pinto has drawn one walk so far with the Twins. Here's an oddity from his minor league numbers: Most years, he drew about one walk for every 10 plate appearances (which, coincidentally, roughly matches his current MLB walk rate). This year, at Double A New Britain, he shot up from walking 10 percent of the time to 14 percent.

Then he moved up to Triple A Rochester. The batting average and slugging percentages remained stable — Pinto hit .308 in Double A, .314 in Triple A; he slugged .482 in Double A, .486 in Triple A.

But the walks just disappeared. Seventy-five plate appearances for the Red Wings, just two bases on balls. That's not a lot of playing time, but the results are so extreme that they might be significant.

Or not.

Pinto has not appeared to be an impatient hitter with the Twins. He's averaging 4.55 pitches per plate appearance, well over the major league average. He hasn't swung at a first pitch yet.

Why his walks shot up in New Britain, and why they vanished in Triple A ... it's a curious thing.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Catchers masks and concussions

Joe Mauer blocks a ball in a spring training
drill. The metal in his face mask is
titanium — stronger than steel, but also
less absorbant.
Mike Bernardino on Tuesday published this piece posing the intriguing question: Is the growing popularity of titanium catchers masks linked to the rash of foul-tip concussions?

My immediate reaction was to doubt the entire premise. It seemed likely to me that we're merely more aware of catcher concussions, not that we're actually seeing more concussions.

But then I started thinking about the physics involved. Titantium is stronger than steel, so it doesn't bend as much when a ball smashes into it. It's also considerably lighter — which makes titanium masks more comfortable— which lessens the resistance to the force.

It's important to realize that it isn't the impact itself that causes most concussions — it's the movement that results from the impact. The brain floats inside the fluid-filled skull. The head is hit at one place, causing the head to move with the force of the blow. The brain remains relatively stable, but the skull crashes into it from the movement. That's where the injury occurs.

If indeed the steel masks absorb more of the blow without transferring it to the head, then yes, the titanium masks are more of a risk to the wearer.

According to Bernadino, both Joe Mauer and Ryan Doumit were wearing titanium masks when they sustained their concussions. So was Alex Avila of the Detroit Tigers, who has reportedly returned to wearing steel now that he's back in in the lineup.

Certainly the lighter weight of the titanium masks is an attractive feature. But the ultimate purpose of the face mask is to protect the wearer. Titanium certainly does a fine job of protecting the wearer from the ball itself.  It may not be adequate in protecting the wearer from the force of the ball — and that's no small concern.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Who's the decider?

Joe Mauer's concussion has revived the speculation
about a position switch — and the departure of Justin
Morneau opens first base.
I certainly can't claim to have heard everything Terry Ryan has said in his myriad interviews during the past week.

But I've heard enough to draw this inference: The Twins still view Joe Mauer as a primary-position catcher, and they won't change that view until Mauer tells them he thinks he should switch.

I hope that overstates the case. Ryan is hardly likely to announce a Mauer position switch without the player signing off on it first. Even if the consensus of the entire brain trust believes this is the time to move Mauer to a less rigorous position, the move would need the player's buy-in to be effective.

But if the team is indeed going to wait for Mauer to take the initiative, that seems to me a mistake. Players are generally the last to acknowledge the deterioration of their skills, at least for public consumption.

And make no mistake: when Mauer becomes a full-time first baseman, or right fielder, or whatever position he moves to when he moves away from catcher, it will be an acknowledgement that baseball's most physically challenging position is eating away at Mauer's ability.

As I see it, there's still a logical case to be make to keeping Mauer behind the plate. There's also a logical case to be made for moving him now. I've always come down in the past on the side of Mauer as a catcher. Today, I'm not sure which is the wiser decision.

And Mauer certainly has a role to play in making that decision. But it can't be his alone.


Here, by the way, is the link to my Monday print column on the Morneau trade.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The minor league vets

Alex Presley, acquired from Pittsburgh for Justin Morneau,
had three singles in his Twins debut.
The Twins' starting lineup Sunday had just one player (Brian Dozier) who hadn't seen some time in the International League this year. (Josh Willingham and Trevor Plouffe were there on rehab assignments.)

And yet it wasn't a truly young lineup. It was mainly minor league veterans.

Rookie catcher Josmil Pinto had two
hits in his major league debut, including
an RBI double in his second at-bat.
The lineup by ages and minor league plate appearances:

Alex Presley, 28, 3,096
Darin Mastroianni, 28, 2,599
Dozier, 26, 1,613
Willingham, 34, 2,242
Plouffe, 27, 3,564
Chris Colabello, 29, 3,474
Clint Thomas, 29, 3,098
Josmil Pinto, 24, 2,396
Doug Bernier, 33, 3,815

One player in the lot under age 26, and more than half have more than 3,000 minor league plate appearances.

The future, by and large, is now with this bunch. Remember, 27 is the most common age for peak seasons; 26 and 28 are the next most common. Remember too, major league stars seldom spend much time in the minors.

Don't take the broadcasters seriously when they talk about the youth of the Twins lineup. It will be young when guys like Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario and Byron Buxton crack it. Those guys aren't here yet.

It's really not even an inexperienced lineup. These guys have plenty of experience — most of it in the minors.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Pic of the Week

Mets baserunner Eric Young Jr. beat
Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins and catcher
Carlos Ruiz to third base after Ruiz caught
a pop up in the third inning Wednesday.

This was apparently sharp baserunning by Young, who was on second and noticed that third base was being left unguarded while everybody in the infield pursued the pop-up. You don't see many base runners tag up and advance on infield flies.

And the resulting image looks like baseball Twister.