Thursday, June 05, 2008

Juan Gone?

In his previous five outings prior to Tuesday's, Rincon had worked 7.2 innings and given up five earned runs while walking five and striking out four. In two of those outings the Twins brought Rincon in with three runners on base, all of which scored under Rincon's watch. Instead of entering games in which the victory hangs in the balance, the Twins are now forced to cherry-pick situations that Rincon has a high probability of success and the Twins have a minimal risk of losing. On May 19th against Texas, the Twins and Rangers were deadlocked at six a piece with the bottom half of the order coming to the plate in the top of the 11th. Rincon retired rookie Brandon Boggs (92 pa, .262/.319/.369 vs RHP) on a popped bunt but then gave up a double to Frank Catalanotto followed by walks to Saltalamacchi and Vazquez. With the bases now loaded and the game on the line, Gardenhire replaced Rincon with rookie Bobby Korecky who rescued the Twins by getting Kinsler to pop out to center and striking out Michael Young. That outing was followed by appearances in the 1-10 loss to Texas, the 3-19 game against the Tigers and the improbable 9-8 win against the Royals (although Rincon was used when the game was 3-6). On May 31st against the Yankees, Rincon send the sixth (Giambi, .907 ops), seventh (Cano, .597 ops) and eighth (Molina, .548 ops) batters down 1-2-3 in the top of the 11th, but ultimately lost the game in the 12th after getting Cabrera to ground out then gave up three straight singles to Damon, Jeter and Abreu. Brian Bass had to retire Giambi to end the inning.

"By no means are we giving up on him," Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson said. "We're just trying to find situations for him to have success and hope he builds off of that." The Twins are not quite giving up on him, but he has certainly been downgraded. On Tuesday, Juan Rincon was summoned to retire the Orioles less-than-formidable seventh (Ramon Hernandez, .625 ops), eighth (Adam Jones, .661 ops) and ninth (Freddie Bynum, .530 ops) batters with the Twins down by two entering the seventh inning. This non-critical task was the evident confidence builder. Hernandez had been struggling against right-handed pitchers this season, hitting .211/.245/.368 in 144 plate appearances. Likewise, Jones was having similar problems, hitting .233/.270/.344, while Bynum was a foregone conclusion (.211/.262/.281). Rincon, with all of his faults on the season, had handled right-handed batters well. Right-handed opponents were hitting only .204/.328/.278 off of him. The lead would be safe and the Twins, who have gotten quite good at scoring in the late innings, would scratch out two more runs off of the Orioles bullpen. Bing, bang, boom. Rincon, on queue, surrendered a double to right to Hernandez, followed that by launching a ball to the backstop then gave up a single back through the box to Jones to score Hernandez who had moved up to third on the wild pitch. Gardenhire emerged from the dugout, gave the left-arm double-tap - signaling the newly acquired Craig Breslow in from the bullpen - and just like that, Rincon's night was over. The next day, Rincon told reporters "I feel I've just had tough luck. This is a tough time. What do you want me to say? I've been working hard for it, but it's just not working. I'm working as hard as you can work. I definitely don't want to be in this spot, but things are not working and it hasn't been because of a lack of effort or a lack of commitment."

Gardenhire has come to Rincon's defense saying that his velocity has been the same but his location has been up in the zone. Evidence at Fangraphs suggests otherwise. According to their statistics, Rincon has had a steadily declining fastball and slider - his two weapons of choice. In 2005 Rincon, then 26-years-old, pitched 77 innings and struck out nearly 27% of batters faced. His fastball was averaging 94.1 mph and his slider was averaging 87.1 mph. In 2006 through 2008, both his velocity and strikeouts dropped noticeably. In 2006 Rincon's fastball was registering 93 and the slider was at 86.9 while his strikeout rate dropped to 20.6%. In 2007 his fastball was the same (93) but he had lost a bit on his slider (86.0) along with his strikeout rate (18% k%). This season, contrary to the manager's insistence, Rincon has had several more miles per hour shaved off both pitches. The radar gun is only averaging 91.0 mph on his fastball and his slider is at 84.4 mph. Along with the lowered velocity came a lower strikeout rate, just 15%. As the chart below will indicate, these numbers are seemingly correlated to his performance (as gauged by the Fielding Independent metric):






























Studying his pitch usage dating back to 2004 on, we find that there is small, if any change in the balance of his fastball/slider combination. On occasion an addition of a pitch may lead to greater success. Sometimes eliminating one will do the trick (as was the case when Joe Nathan was traded from the Giants and he all but ditched his curveball). Rincon, however, has been a two-trick pony since his major league inception. In 2004, he used his fastball 54% of the time and his slider 27%. Four seasons later, Rincon is still implementing the same two basic pitches, leaning more on his fastball (66%) over his slider (31%), but his pitches aren't getting to the batter as quickly as they once did.

Even though his pitch selection remains fairly consistent, one difference between the years has been the way he has pitched to left-handed batters. In 2004, the season in which he accumulated 102 strikeouts in 82 innings, Rincon was dominating left-handed batting, more so even than the right-handed opponents. In 189 plate appearances, righties hit .206/.285/.285 with a 27.7% strikeout rate. Lefties, on the other hand, were batting just .148/.239/.238 with a 39% strikeout rate in 138 plate appearances. The 2004 pitch data is incomplete and has numerous holes (17% of his pitches went uncharted), but it appeared that he was throwing fewer fastballs (56%) and more sliders (25%) to left-handed batters than he will in subsequent seasons:

vs. LHB



































As you will note, as Rincon's fastball velocity decreases from 2005-2008, his reliance on the pitch increases along with opponent's batting averages. Note too, that with the decline in sliders thrown, has directly correlated with his declining strikeout rate (minus the usage spike in 2006, but he threw more fastballs than the season before). As a player that finds his status of remaining a Minnesota Twins in serious jeopardy, it might be time to resurrect the formula in which Rincon originally obtained success. With Pat Neshek out for the season and Jesse Crain still rebuilding from his season off, Rincon was expected to be a vital part of the bullpen. These adjustments are necessary to avoid Rincon and his $2.47 million being thrown out the Dome's revolving doors.