Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Notebook Dump (08.04.08)
Game: Twinks 7, Marinerds 3
Record: 63-51, 2nd place, 1.0 game back
Streak: 1 win
As Seattle Mariners' Raul Ibanez, foreground, rounds the bases, Minnesota Twins right fielder Denard Span, background right, robs  Mariners' Adrian Beltre of a home run in the seventh inning, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2008, in an MLB baseball game at Safeco Field in Seattle.
The Quote: "I never dreamed this. I've always had confidence in myself, but I never imagined I'd be helping this team this soon." - Denard Span, Twins Right Fielder
The Inning: One night after rewarding a pair of ticket-holders in the right field seats with souvenir home run balls and finishing the night 4-5 with 3 rbis, the Belle Fourche, South Dakota native, Jason Kubel, earned the right for a curtain call for the second consecutive game. While Kubel was certainly deserving of an encore, there was just one caveat: Jarrod Washburn. Washburn, the left-handed soft tossing starting pitcher, uses an assortment of junk to quelch any left-handed batter's advances. Deploying mostly a fastball (87.7 mph, 51%) and a slider (78.6 mph, 31%) to incite same-sided opponents into hitting a marginal .268/.316/.366 in 133 match-ups, Washburn has had some success against these match-ups. Kubel, meanwhile, had been one of manager Ron Gardenhire's favor platoon candidates limiting his plate appearances against lefties to just 20% of his total. This is justified as Kubel has been hitting just .172/.270/.297 against southpaws (not to mention 0 for 3 against Washburn in previous match-ups). Still, one of his two home runs against the left-handers came last night against reliever Cesar Jimenez in the 8th inning of Tuesday's game so Kubel was dispelling Delmon Young in left field for the afternoon in a "What Have You Done For Me Lately" managerial decision.
In the top of the 2nd inning, Washburn went to work on Kubel, starting with an 88 mph fastball that missed wide of the plate. The Mariners' hurler followed this with another fastball of like speed that cut the corner for strike one. Kubel worked himself into a count that he has found comfort in this season. With the count 1-1, Kubel had been hitting .423/.423/.577 - well above the American League average of .331/.336/.517. This count, usually considered even, clearly favors the batter as pitcher's are most likely locating a pitch in the zone to avoid falling behind. In this case, the pitcher on the mound is a "crafty" veteran who may have been aware of these circumstances. Washburn slipped Kubel a 76 mph curve that was up in the strike zone, which Kubel chased and pulled to first baseman Bryan LeHair (Is the Ball LeHair nickname already taken?) who flipped to the covering Washburn for the first out.
With one out, the Twins recent replacement for Craig Monroe, Randy Ruiz, came to the plate. With 30 years, 9.5 minor league seasons and 2 performance enhancing drug suspensions later the Bronx native Ruiz finally found himself with a team that could use his employment. Had the Twins front office not been so ambitious with the acquisition of Monroe from the Chicago Cubs this past off season, they may have found the ideal and inexpensive player with the necessary skill set ready to mash left-handed pitching from Day One. Instead, it took over a half a season to make this realization. Ruiz had punished left-handed International League pitching to a tune of .315/.386/.495. What's more is that Ruiz fared better against his right-handed counterparts, batting .321/.359/.511 with 13 home runs, making him not just your average platoon Designated Hitter. Without any real scouting report assembled on Ruiz yet, Washburn attempted to work both sides of the plate, missing with a fastball but getting him to chase a changeup wide of the plate for a foul tip. Washburn tried to work low and in then went high and in with his fastballs. The count now full, Washburn hit too much of the inner half of the plate with a fastball which the 235-pound Ruiz redirected to centerfield for his second hit of his young major league career.
A runner now on first and Washburn throwing from the stretch, Brendan Harris was due up. Harris has been one of the overlooked pieces of the Delmon Young-Matt Garza trade. On opening day, Harris was anointed the starting second baseman but after a poor showing at the plate in May (.217/.320/.289) and June (.242/.270/.379) was continued to be penciled into the lineup because of a revolving door of injuries to Adam Everett, Nick Punto and Matt Tolbert, not to mention the slump of Mike Lamb. The Twins received a vote of confidence in July as Harris hit .294/.355/.456 with an isolated power average of .162. This output he continued into the current month, through 19 plate appearances in August, he has outperformed all of his previous months hitting .389/.368/.667 with a mammoth .278 isolated power average, doubling more often then a Vegas blackjack table full of drunken Japanese businessmen. Washburn went to bust him up and in with fastballs, where, according to Inside Edge scouting reports, Harris is most susceptible: when swinging at pitches in that area of the strike zone, Harris is hitting just .182. Washburn used a pair of fastballs that Harris fouled off. On the 0-2, Washburn wasted a pitch that Harris laid off (in fact, just 7% of his swings have been at pitches that have been outside the zone away). Reconsulting his scouting report, Washburn went back up and in to induce Harris into a groundball to the left side of the infield, a result that happens 20% of the time when Harris puts a ball in play. Harris has a dreadful average on balls put into play that remain in the infield on the left side, just .179, so it took an error by the Mariners third baseman Adrian Beltre in order for Harris to reach successfully.
Following the error by Beltre, Ruiz and Harris occupied first and second respectively with Kubel being the lone Twin retired so far in the 2nd inning. The ensuing batter, Adam Everett, stood a very good chance of replicating Kubel's feat. Since the 31 year old returned from disabled list he had been held hitless in 6 at-bats. Prior to the injury, Everett was not of much use either as he hit .189/.235/.324 in 83 plate appearances through May 21st. Falling behind 2-1 to the career .245 hitter, Washburn did the one thing he shouldn't have. He grooved an 89 mph fastball down the middle of the plate, the one area of the zone that Everett has hit with success (.321 on babip). Everett slapped it to left in front of Raul Ibanez for a single and Randy Ruiz, the big boy that he his, puffed his way from second to score the first run of the game. For Everett, it was just his 8th rbi as a Twin.
Unnerved by this base hit to a player that had barely crested .250 in his career, Washburn walked Carlos Gomez on seven pitches. This was amazing on several accounts. One, Gomez typically sees an average of 3.4 pitches per plate appearance - the second fewest pitches in the American League per plate appearances (besides the current Mariner shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, who at 3.1 is the most efficient out in the American League). Two, Gomez drew a walk. This is event, like Halley's Comet, happens once every 28.1 plate appearances. This abysmal 3.5% walk rate is absurd for someone who was allowed to account for 415 plate appearances in the leadoff spot.
The bases now full of Twins for Denard Span who was approaching the plate for his second time in the afternoon. Span as been the Anti-Gomez since being given the lead off spot. As Gomez provide the Twins lineup with a .281 on-base average in his tenure batting first, Span has sported a robust .358 on-base average - a 27% increase in on-base percentage since the switch. Though Gomez reached first in what manager Ron Gardenhire described as "exciting", such as bunting and legging out infield hits, Span has been, by that standard, ho-hum, wasting 3.8 pitches per plate appearance before making his move to first. Compared to Gomez's 28.1 plate appearances between walks, Span likes to take the free base a little more frequently, walking once every 8.2 plate appearances. With the renewed production at leadoff Gardenhire is singing a different tune. "[Span'll] bat No. 1, and he'll play every day. I can tell you that," Gardenhire said following the game on Wednesday afternoon. And he should play everyday based on his July/August numbers: In his 103 plate appearances in July, Span hit .321/.412/.488 complemented nicely with a .167 isolated power average. As the calender turned, Span stayed hot hitting .263/.318/.526 in 22 plate appearances, smacking the ball with a .263 isolated power average. Though the sample size is small, Span, like the majority of the other Twins left-handed batters, has had success against left-handed pitching as well hitting .317/.417/.585 in 51 plate appearances this season. Back at the second inning at Safeco, Span was situated smackdab in the middle of a critical rbi spot. After striking out Span on four straight fastballs without a swing in the first inning, Washburn initiated the 2nd battle between the two with a 77 mph curveball on the outer edge of the strike zone that Span fouled off. Up 0-1, Washburn employed his 91 mph fastball that burned the outside corner that Span foul tipped back to catcher Jeff Clement. Now with the count clearly in Washburn's advantage at 0-2, he was in position to toy with Span. Get him to chase a ball out of the zone or climb the ladder, tossing one well above the strike zone. Instead, Washburn went to his aforementioned slider that he relies on with lefties. Obviously the intention was not to hang a slider, more than likely the desired location was to clip the inside corner or drop well outside the zone. Span turned on the 79 mph slider and pulled in clear into the right field corner. Ichiro raced to the ball as the Twins on base raced home. Span slid safely into third with his fourth triple and 13th, 14th and 15th rbis of the season ahead of him to increase the lead to 4-0. "It just kind of hung up there over the plate,'' Mariners catcher and Iowa native Jeff Clement said after the game - a game that happened to be the 63rd victory for the Minnesota Twins thanks to Denard Span.