Wednesday, May 14, 2008

2008: 1st Quarter Review

A quarter of the season has passed us by and the Twins rest uncomfortably in second place of American League Central, trailing the charging Cleveland Indians by a half-game. A year ago through 40 games the Twins were 18-22, 7 games back of the division leading Cleveland Indians following a 0-2 Johan Santana loss to the Indians and Fausto Carmona. Oddly enough, in 2006 the Twins were 17-23 and found themselves nine and a half games behind the Detroit Tigers after a 0-2 Johan Santana loss to the Tigers and flame-throwing Justin Verlander. Obviously both 2007 and 2006 yielded two completely different results even though record-wise both teams seemed to be riding the same track. The former squad finished 79-83, 17 games behind the Cleveland Indians, while the latter finished 96-66, first in division by one game. Nevertheless winning early puts yourself in a better position as the season progresses.

What we can say is that this ballclub is both overachieving and underachieving simultaneously. Using the Pythagorean Theorem the Twins should be 19-20, muddling around third in the division. Thankfully baseball doesn't follow mathematical logic. Instead the Twins have managed to steal a wins resulting in the 20-19 record rather than sinking to the bottom of the division with the Kansas City Royals. There are several key factors for why the Twins have started strong ranging from the starting rotation to filling in positions with the right people. Conversely, several decisions such as recalling Francisco Liriano too soon and the underproduction of several players have led to the Twins losing some critical games as well.

Gone right:

* Livan Hernandez. I wrote prior to the season that I was not in support of this signing due to a) Hernandez’s Opponents Batting Record including the National League leading home runs given up, b) the fact that he hasn’t pitched in the American League and c) the Twins have some outstanding pitchers in the system that should get the opportunity. The signing, to me, reeked of a Ramon Ortiz repeat. Now after a quarter of a season of starts, Hernandez sits at 6-1 with a 3.90 era and the Twins are 8-1 in his starts. Most importantly, he has managed to digest 57 innings as the rotation has gone through the ebb and flow of injuries to Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey in addition to the ill-prepared Francisco Liriano, has been a godsend to the Twins. There certainly are signs that the next quarters of the season might not go as smoothly as this first portion considering Hernandez is 2nd in the American League for home runs allowed (9) and hits allowed (72) but he has limited damage by having the 7th best overall base-on-balls per 9 innings (1.72). Credit the Twins offense as well as they are giving him plenty of run support per game (6.62) which helps his record.

Minnesota Twins' Livan Hernandez throws against the Boston Red Sox in the first inning of a baseball game Monday, May 12, 2008, in Minneapolis.

* Carlos Gomez in centerfield. In February, I had promoted using Jason Pridie at center strictly because he was the more polished of the minor leagues in competition for the job. Offense aside, I believed that a position as demanding as center requires additional seasoning. Like my assumption of Livan Hernandez, I have been wrong thus far. According to John Dewan's Fielding Bible on Bill James Online, Carlos Gomez is +5 in centerfield leading the Majors in defense at that position making Twins fans say cliche things like "Torii who?" (nobody says that). In 209 inning logged at center Gomez had posted the 10th best revised zone rating (.928) significantly better than the former centerfield (.862) while retrieving 23 balls out-of-zone, good enough for 2nd in the Majors. Gomez's fielding percentage took a ding (.958, last among qualified centerfielders) due to five errors due mostly to inexperience coupled with unbridled enthusiasm for his own arm strengthen (three throwing errors).

Minnesota Twins center fielder Carlos Gomez can't make the catch on a double by Chicago White Sox's Carlos Quentin during the first inning of a baseball  game, Thursday, May 8, 2008, in Chicago.

* The Emergence of Nick Blackburn. If you just look at the statistics and not the names, you would think that Nick Blackburn and Carlos Silva were interchangeable. The obvious similarity is that they both have a 3-2 record after 8 starts. Blackburn has thrown 50 innings to Silva's 52 however both are ruthlessly efficient (Blackburn uses 3.4 pitches per plate appearance while Silva deploys 3.6) with great control, using a sinking fastball to induce groundballs (Blackburn's 48% to Silva's 45%) while maintaining insanely low walk-rates (4.7% by Blackburn and 5.0% by Silva). Neither strikes that many batters out (Blackburn's 11.6% k% to Silva's 9.1%). But neither gives up too many runs either(Blackburn 4.11 runs per game to Silva's 4.33). The difference is that Blackburn is pitching better (3.38 FIP to Silva's 4.53) with few home runs (2 to 6) but significantly more affordable (The Twins are paying Blackburn league minimum $390,000 while the Mariners are paying Silva $7 million). The Mariners are paying and possibly overpaying for the piece-of-mind that Silva provides thanks to his averaging 170 innings per season however it is safe to say that so far in 2008 the Twins hardly notice the Chief's absence.

* Resigning Joe Nathan. 12 for 12 in save opportunities is why he is paid the big bucks. These aren't your inflated Todd Jones-type saves either. Six of those saves came in games with a one-run lead and another three came with a two-run lead. His most recent outing against Boston where he gave up two runs before recording the save skewed his numbers yet his .239/.271/.261 average with 11 strikeouts in 12 innings in save opportunities.

Gone awry:

* Power outages from Delmon Young and Mike Lamb. Through the first 40 games, both Young and Lamb have failed to hit a home run despite hitting in double-digits last year (13 and 11, respectively). In the American League this absences of home runs with at least 110 plate appearances puts them in the company of such sluggers named Pena Jr, Figgins, Lugo and Grudzielanek – guys who hit a combined 19 home runs last year. The only legitimate power threat without a home run is the Indians Victor Martinez who hit 25 home runs last year and has not yet hit a dinger in 145 plate appearances this year (but still has a .407 slugging average). When the Twins signed Houston Astros Mike Lamb during the offseason, they did so under the premise that Lamb would continue his power production at the Metrodome. Part of the Twins 2007 problem was that the offensive productivity was far from a power source in positions that were historically filled by sluggers, such as third base. In 2007, the Twins third basemen collectively hit 6 home runs and slugged .323 (lower than the shortstop at .334). Presenting Lamb with the possibility of 500 plate appearances in a season could result in 15-20 from a third base position if you extrapolate his numbers. While in Houston in 2007, Lamb hit 11 home runs in 353 plate appearances (3.1% hr%). To date in 2008, Lamb has not hit well – power or no power. In 117 plate appearances Lamb has hit .231/.259/.287 with six extra base hits. Young, meanwhile, is slugging .299 – down more than 100 points from his .408 season last year. His Hitting for Power, according to the Bill James Online, is in the 8th percentile among MLB right fielders as his isolated slugging average, it hovers at .035. He has just four extra base hits (10% xbh) in 154 plate appearances. Some claim that this lack of home runs is a result of Young trying to go opposite field yet in 2007, 2 of his home runs were to right and 2 went to left. The bottomline is that Young is failing to get elevation on the ball. He has hit groundballs on 63% of his balls in play and is creating line drives 13% of the time. That means he has hit flyballs in only 24% of the time.
I’d be inclined to add Joe Mauer to this list since the media rags on Joey Jo-Jo for not reaching the seats. On one hand his isolated slugging average is .090 and according to Bill James Online he is in the 36th percentile for Hitting for Power among MLB catchers but on the other he is slugging .421 with a 25% extra base hit rate resulting in 7 win shares.

* All we need is just a little patience. The team has drawn just 88 walks, 27th in the majors. Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Branden Harris have 42 of them. Our lead-off hitter, Carlos Gomez, has more strikeouts (39) than last year’s whiff king Jack Cust (36) but Cust has 32 walks while Gomez has had patience enough to walk just five times. One of this biggest, however, came in the bottom of the 9th of the May 9th game where Gomez was able to coax a walk off of Jonathan Papelbon leading to a steal of second and ultimately the winning run scored on Mike Lamb’s bloop single. Speaking of Lamb, he has walked just 5 times in 115 plate appearances. Last season Jason Kubel walked in 10% of his plate appearances. This season he had obtained just four free passes - a 2% walk rate.

* Injuries. Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Pat Neshek, Nick Punto, Adam Everett, Michael Cuddyer...Neshek, out for the season, is the most disruptive to the team's fabric. Gardenhire said that they will use Guerrier, Crain, Reyes and Rincon to bridge the bullpen from the 7th inning to the 9th - patching the hole in the 8th inning that Neshek's injury has created. Next to losing Joe Nathan for the season, the Twins could not have lost anyone more vital. Bullpen stability has a very strong correlation to winning. Look no further than the Detroit Tigers who have lost critical parts of the pen and are now loaded with high-caliber offensive talent but completely depleted when it comes to holding a late innings lead.

CHICAGO - MAY 08: Pat Neshek #17 of the Minnesota Twins leaves a game against the Chicago White Sox with an injury in the 8th inning on May 8, 2008 at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Illinois. The White Sox defeated the Twins 6-2. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

* The re-introduction of Francisco Liriano. 10.3 agonizing innings to date. 13-to-7 walks-to-strikeouts ratio. Thankfully his less-than-an-inning performance in Oakland wasn't televised. Five hits, six earned runs, three walks and no strikeouts...ouch.

* To platoon or not platoon? Yes, the Free Jason Kubel movement was full of feelgoodery and backpatting (myself including) but ultimately his futility against left-handed pitching got the best of him. Gardenhire provided Kubel with 31 plate appearances against southpaws that lead to a miniscule batting line of .143/.194/.143 with 9 strikeouts. So move Monroe into the DH slot against lefties? Craig Monroe hasn't handled lefties at all either this season hitting .148/.207/.148 in 29 plate appearances (but as a career .269/.315/.483 hitter Monroe deserves to face the lefties). The problem is that both Kubel and Monroe have been crushing righties. In 49 plate appearances against right-handed pitching Monroe has hit .348/.388/.739 with four home runs. Kubel, given twice as many plate appearances against righties, has hit .256/.261/.467.