Thursday, May 22, 2008

Home run pitcher, meet home run hitter

As the Twins climbed back to a 7-7 tie in the 8th inning, manager Ron Gardenhire dispatched one of the league’s elite relievers in Joe Nathan and asked him to retire the five (Murphy), six (Laird) and seven (Byrd) hitters for Texas in the top of the ninth. This is obviously not the most critical of situations yet it was a pivotal place in the game so as not to succumb to the potent Ranger offense – even if they were not the most potent of the Texas lineup. The thought process of the Twins skipper must have been that the Twins had to hold the visitors here and attempt to eek out the winning run with his two bench maneuvers (Mauer and Kubel) and his weakest hitting starter (Lamb). When David Murphy reached on a single to open the inning, it was apparent that Nathan’s pitch count was going to rise. Nathan eliminated both Laird and Byrd on strikeouts but had Murphy reach scoring position at second with a stolen base (his fourth of the year). With first base open, Gardy decided to have Nathan intentionally walk the left-handed batting Ramon Vazquez in order to face the right-handed batting Chris Shelton.

Admittedly the decision to walk Vazquez was merited. In the past two weeks Vazquez has been hitting the ball extremely well. In his 39 plate appearances over the last 14 days, the 31-year-old left-handed batting utility infielder had been hitting .438/.513/.563 (despite being just 2-for-7 with two walks in his two games in the series thus far). On the season the majority of his playing time has come against right-handed pitcher - whom he thrived off of, feasting on them at a .342/.417/.493 clip. Putting Vazquez on first also produced a force at all the bases. Then again, Nathan actually has been more effective against lefties this year. In 38 match-ups against left-handed batters, Nathan has managed to strikeout 12 of them and holding them to a .200/.263/.314 batting line. It is reasonable to believe that Nathan could have won that battle. Thankfully, Texas manager Ron Washington ultimately decided to test that theory when he substituted the switch-hitting Jarrod Saltalamacchia in for Chris Shelton.

Nathan beared down on Saltalamacchia. So far during the season, Nathan has been a two-pitch pitcher to left-handed batters fastball (71%) and slider (21%). Nathan began by pumping three straight 95-96 mph fastballs to Saltalamacchia, all called balls. Nathan made the necessary adjustments and put two within the zone for strikes. Armed with the knowledge that within Nathan's repertoire was a very dominant slider that he had used frequently to obtain a strike out, the 22-year-old Saltalamacchia - a hitter that has been alternatively both patient (21% bb%) and strikeout prone (25% k%) this season - must have had his head swirling at 3-2 with the go-ahead run in Murphy on second. Would the veteran closer be crafty enough to drop a 3-2 slider on the highly-touted sophomore? No, Nathan opted for power and came with a letter-high 96 mph fastball that Saltalamacchia would chase for the third out, stranding Murphy and the Rangers in the ninth.

The focus then switched back to the offense, one that had not scored a ton of runs in the ninth inning. Runs have been difficult to come by for the Twins in the later innings. In 33 games the Twins batters have scored just 10 runs in 139 plate appearances in the ninth. Gardenhire used his first bench move to pinch hit Joe Mauer for Craig Monroe who had been 0-4 up until that point. Using Mauer first was a good move for several reasons. First, Mauer had been hitting .375/.385/.417 in his last 26 plate appearances. Secondly, Mauer has led off innings extremely well so far this season. Leading off 31 times in 2008, Mauer had drawn five walks and hit four of his ten doubles. According to Bill James Online, when Mauer leads off the inning the Twins have scored 0.42 runs that inning. When Mauer reaches base leading off the Twins score 0.93 runs (for reference, Gomez contributes more than a run at 1.75 when he reachs) however when Joe Mauer gets out the Twins have failed to score a run at all that inning. It would be a critical 90 feet to gain but the probability was in the Twins favor: Mauer, a player that reaches base over 40% of the time, facing the right-handed Joaquin Benoit, a hard-throwing former closer that has walked 15% of batters faced and has had 34% of his opponents reach base.

The outcome of the match-up was something that rarely occured when Joe Mauer stepped in the batters box: he struck out (only 7% of the time). Benoit buried a 93-mph hour fastball for a called strike and then swapped the speed for tomfoolery as he froze Joe with an 83-mph change-up. Up until this afternoon the Twins catcher had seen an 0-2 count just 10 times in his 171 plate appearances in 2008. What's more is that he only struck out once on the count that tips heavily towards the pitcher's favor. Benoit stayed with the change-up, one that was bound for the dirt, and Mauer did something that only happened 19 times all season out of 243 swings: he missed. Gerald Laird blocked the ball and tossed Mauer out at first to complete the strikeout. If you believe that statistics are a guiding principle in baseball, the Twins were in for a disappointing inning predetermined by the fact that the Twins have failed to score a run in innings that Mauer leads off and does not reach base.

Gardy then deployed Jason Kubel to hit for Mike Redmond. The confidence in Jason Kubel had waned toward the end of April among the Twins faithful and press. The once lauded Kubel sputtered at the plate in the first month of the season, finishing with a 3% walk rate while striking out in 20% of his plate appearances. The four home runs, while noteworthy, were overshadowed by his inability to get on base. In 100 plate appearances that month, Kubel had reached base just 25% of the time. This led to a disappointing batting line of .229/.250/.365 for the month. As the calender turned to May, Kubel has once again regained presence at the plate. In 46 plate appearance so far in May, Kubel has found his patience and batting eye walking 11% of the time and reducing his strikeouts to 13%. For the month Kubel is batting .275/.333/.475. Like Mauer before him, Kubel had been hitting .333/.474/.400 in the past week. Digging in with a greater amount of concentration this month, Kubel drew a one-out, four-pitch walk from Benoit.

This, of course, brought up the 2008 whipping boy. There isn't a whole lot of statistical explanation for the significant decline in Mike Lamb's production. One difference between his 2007 experience with Houston and his 2008 tenure with the Twins is that he is putting the ball in play in a manner that lends itself for far more outs: fly balls. In 2007, Mike Lamb hit fly balls in 38% of the balls put in play. Currently nearly 50% of his balls in play have been skied. The other difference, naturally, is that of the 102 balls that were airborne in 2007, 10% resulted in a home run. The lack of home runs is definitely a glaring problem but the underlying problem isn't the ends, but it is the means. After hitting 42% of the balls in the air in April, Lamb has regressed in May hitting flyballs 56% of the time. This time though, Lamb did not lift a routine flyball to a Rangers outfielder. This time Mike Lamb chased a Benoit change-up for strike three.

Alexi Casilla, a player that is frequently viewed somewhere between prospect and an afterthought trivia answer to the question Who the Twins received from the Angels in the JC Romero trade, has found himself on the major league roster thanks to injuries to all of the middle infielders. His minor league numbers are somewhat difficult to interpret. In A and high-A, Casilla hit very well for both Cedar Rapids and Ft Myers. Even in 199 plate appearances in double-A New Britain Casilla played well enough to think that he was Luis Castillo's long-term replacement. Yet a move to triple-A and an introduction to major league pitching in 2007 was abysmal and only planted seeds of doubt within the minds of the fans. In the past four games, Casilla has emerged as a decent contributor with the bat. He has batted .273/.308/.545 and slugged his first major league home run, a three-run shot, while amassing six rbis to boot. Benoit fed the left-handed batting Casilla three straight fastballs before dropping a 85-mph change-up that Casilla fended off foul. The fifth pitch, another fastball, Casilla flied to Marlon Byrd in center.

Gardenhire's offensive maneuvers did not pay-off and now he was forced to make another difficult decision, one that had been presented to him just two days prior. On Monday as Joe Nathan finished the 10th inning with just five pitches, Gardy decided to use Juan Rincon to open the 11th inning instead of his elite reliever. Rincon walked two batters while getting only one out. This resulted in Rincon having to be lifted for Bobby Korecky who had to rescue him. For all intents and purposes, that move ended up being one of the best moves Gardenhire had made to date as Korecky ultimately scored the game winning run as well. However, similar to his decision to replace Nathan after five pitches on Monday night, Gardy traded Nathan for Brian Bass to begin the top of the 10th. While there are some differences between Monday's game and Thursday's. For one, on Monday Nathan threw only 5 pitches and the sixth, seventh and eighth hitters were coming up for Texas making it less than critical for your relief ace. Meanwhile Thursday afternoon Nathan threw 25 pitches in the ninth while the following inning had the Rangers first, second and third hitter. The last being masher Josh Hamilton, the best hitting in the American League right now. If there was ever a need for a relief ace, it would be to face the top of an order.

Brian Bass has been the mop-up guy for the Twins, the team has given him the opportunity to cut his teeth in low leverage situations. Batters are hitting him fairly well in those circumstances as well, batting .280/.368/.473 with three home runs. On Tuesday he finished where Glen Perkins had left off in the seventh inning, tossing 2.2 innings, striking out 2 and giving up one run most likely giving Gardenhire a false sense of security. Bass has given up five home runs in 29 innings of work, an absurd 21.5% of the flyballs hit off of him reach the seats.


Bass, not necessarily a strikeout pitcher (9.0% k%), whiffed both Ian Kinsler and Michael Young to start the 10th. This left just Josh Hamilton to circumvent. This presented several problems for Bass. For starters in his last six games, Hamilton had hit three home runs while batting .560/.577/1.000. He loved to elevate the ball. Hamilton destroys right-handed pitchers, hitting 9 of his 11 home runs off of them and slugging .630. He is the epitome of a dangerous hitter. This begs the question: Why is Brian Bass asked to retire him?

If Gardenhire is protective of Nathan, why wasn't Dennys Reyes used? Reyes, the Twins version of a LOOGY, last pitched on Monday during the 12-inning marathon game. In the 8th inning while staring down the prospect of facing Josh Hamilton, Gardenhire removed Matt Guerrier for the lefty-lefty match-up. Reyes struck out Hamilton. Unfortunately the switch-hitting Milton Bradley followed with a double and left-handed David Murphy singled him home resulting in a blown save. Still, Reyes has had left-handed batters baffled as in 33 match-ups opponents are only hitting .219/.242/.250 striking out 15% of the time too. Mostimportantly, Reyes is the only member of the pitching staff to not have surrendered a home run.

This gross mismanagement of the bullpen - twice this week - has resulted in one win (that required the first pitcher hit in an American League game since the 1970s) and one loss.