Monday, January 31, 2011

Denard Span says Target Field hurt his numbers too

Denard Span recently told the Pioneer Press’s John Shipley that he plans on rebounding offensively in 2011.

After hitting .305/.390/.422 in his first 1,087 plate appearances with the Twins, the organization decided that they had their center fielder and lead-off hitter for the foreseeable future and handed him a five-year deal worth $16.5 million dollars heading into spring training last year. Unfortunately, Span’s first season with the new financial security was nowhere close to his prior performance. In 705 plate appearances in ’10, he hit a very pedestrian .264/.331/.348 making some wonder if he can repeat that type of production again.  

What did Span feel was the source for his decline? Like many of his other teammates, he too chose to finger Target Field as a major culprit.

In acknowledging his struggles at the plate in 2010, he noted that while he wasn’t affected by the ballpark’s supposed home run-zapping power, but rather the switch from the artificial surface of the Metrodome to the natural grass infield of Target Field shaved plenty of would-be hits off of his numbers:
"It just seemed that hits (up the middle), last year at Target Field I wouldn't get those, and did at the Metrodome," Span said. "It just felt at times like the infielders were catching up to those up the middle. It seemed like the grass would slow it up just a little, and I was out bang-bang at first."
More or less, the numbers confirms Span’s perceptions. After demonstrating success at avoiding outs when putting the ball on the ground prior to 2010, fate’s pendulum swung the other way to see a large amount of those grounders finding leather.

In his first two seasons, with the assistance of the artificial surface of the Metrodome for 81 games, Span significantly outperformed the league’s average, even besting the norm by an astonishing 48 points last year. The move to the natural grass slapped Span’s totals, helping remove 64 points from the previous season to finish well-below the league’s average in 2010:

BABIP on Grounders
League Average

To be sure, Span wasn’t the only prevalent Twins hitter to experience this phenomenon. In 2009, Joe Mauer took home the AL batting crown with a .365 batting average thanks in part to a .288 batting average on groundballs. This past season, Mauer lost 38 points on his groundball BABIP (.250) and witnessed his overall average drop to .327.

Of course, it’s hard to completely fault his new home as the source for all of his woes. While Span expresses that the new stadium snagged hits away from him, he still hit a fairly robust .302 at Target Field, just ten points lower than his average at the Dome from 2008 to 2009. Whereas a few more groundballs may have been converted to outs because of the grass infield, as a big line drive hitter to center, Target Field’s ample area up the middle likely provided Span with a few more hits that would have been tracked down at the Dome compensating him for the losses on the ground.

Likewise, the 64 point drop in his groundball BABIP isn’t all due to playing on grass an additional 81 games a year. There is probably a fair share of bad luck mixed in as more of his balls in play were simply directed at gloves rather than openings in the defense. The reality is that the transition away from the Astroturf may repress his numbers to some extent, it is unlikely that it will be as influential of a factor in 2011 as his groundball BABIP reverts back to the league and his career norm. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The two sides of Nick Punto

When the retrospective history on Nick Punto is completed, the subtitle will read “The man who couldn’t hit but boy could he field”.

Dating back to 2005, when he became steady presence with the Twins or at least a common sight subbing in as a pinch runner or defensive replacement, Punto has swung lethargic lumber. In that time he has hit .248/.323/.325 with the third-lowest OPS (.647) among qualified players. Among the more light-hitting infielders, he also struck out an inordinate amount of the time (18.5%) rendering his fairly impressive speed useless when the ball failed to meet the bat.

Where he was considered useful - at least in some managers’ opinion - was in his ability to lay down a bunt. In his 2,274 plate appearances since 2005, Punto laid down 45 sacrifices, by far the most by a player who did not spend any time in the National League, the more small-ball-oriented of the two leagues. Likewise, the scrapper also managed to reach safely 45 times for bunt hits. This was by far the most by any American League hitter in that time.

None of this nickel-and-dime stuff helped offset the reality that he was providing little-to-no value to the club with a bat in his hand. In fact, by’s account, he cost the Twins roughly 70 runs when standing next to the plate:

Batting Runs Above Average (2005-10)
Cesar Izturis
Pedro Feliz
Adam Everett
Jason Kendall
Clint Barmes
Willy Taveras
Yuniesky Betancourt
Omar Vizquel
Nick Punto

Of course, whatever damage Punto did with his bat, he almost completely compensated for with his extraordinary defensive skills.

At short, a position he played at in 1,881 innings since ’05, his 18.9 UZR/150 was the best in baseball, topping other glove lovers like Adam Everett, Omar Vizquel and JJ Hardy. One position to his right at third, Punto once again was considered the most elite defender there by the Ultimate Zone Rating standards. His 20.0 UZR/150 in 2,098 innings led baseball and surpassed notables such as Evan Longoria, Joe Crede and Ryan Zimmerman.

In fact, since 2005 when he first started making regular appearances in Ron Gardenhire’s lineups, Punto has been 62.6 runs above average in the field according to

Fielding Runs Above Average (2005-10)
Chase Utley
Carl Crawford
Franklin Gutierrez
Pedro Feliz
Andruw Jones
Ichiro Suzuki
Nick Punto

In those five seasons, Punto was paid approximately $12.9 million but provided nearly 9.4 wins above replacement (WAR). By comparison, the Twins paid the underrated Michael Cuddyer $27.1 million in that same period but received less than one more win over replacement from him (10.3). Clearly, the Twins were able to make their often demurred investment in Punto worth their while.

Now 33 years old in 2011, it will be interesting to see if the Cardinals will be able to extract the same amount of value from his defense and his baserunning prowess that the Twins were able to while Punto was in his mid-to-late 20s. Still, for the small $750,000 chunk of change, St. Louis will receive a versatile, above-average fielder. 

Friday, January 21, 2011

What to do with the starting pitching surplus

At the beginning of December, reports emerged that the Yankees had come calling to gauge the Twins interest in trading Francisco Liriano. According to the New York Post’s Joel Sherman, the organization’s response was, to paraphrase, “Ah, no.”
For obvious reasons, Francisco Liriano will be a fixture in the Twins rotation. While some might misguidedly question his ace status, Liriano remains, bar none, the best pitcher on the staff. It’s hard to argue that the top five finisher of all pitchers in the categories of strikeouts per nine innings (9.44, fifth-best), home runs allowed per nine innings (0.42, fourth-lowest) and the fielding-independent pitching metric (2.66, third-best) is somehow not the best on his own team’s rotation. With an infusion of luck and defense in 2011 to accessorize his domination, Liriano could easily be a contender for next year’s Cy Young Award.
Meanwhile, Sherman continued by saying:
“The Twins would, however, consider trading strike-thrower Kevin Slowey, especially if they are able to re-sign free agent Carl Pavano.”
Fast-forward a month later and suddenly the Twins have been able to re-sign Pavano, giving them six starting pitchers and only five rotational spots. Even Bert Blyleven’s California math would be able tell him that there are one too many starting pitchers - either someone has to move to the bullpen or someone will be shopped.
While it is very plausible that the team may choose to reassign one of their starters to the relief staff, it is just as likely that they may look to improve other areas of the roster by trading from their surplus, and the suddenly expendable Slowey could be on the move.
Slowey has built a strong pedigree in the minor leagues – succeeding with precision and guile despite college-level velocity - and has performed adequately in Minnesota. This unparalleled control has been one of the best in the game. Since 2008, Slowey’s 4.62 strikeouts-to-walks ratio has been the fourth-best behind only Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and the retired Mike Mussina. Nevertheless, after taking a Juan Uribe liner off of his wrist in 2008 which sidelined him for a couple weeks, the pain persisted in 2009 and eventually led to surgery. The outcome was the installation of two permanent screws in his throwing wrist.
This past spring, Slowey told reporters in Florida that his wrist had an entirely new sensation and that he wasn’t sure if he would ever feel the same again. By May, Slowey clearly appeared to be a different pitcher as all his pitches lacked the movement he demonstrated in the past. In his first eight starts, Slowey failed to complete six innings in all of his starts except for one, drawing criticism from his manager that he was trying to be too fine and nibbled around the plate instead of attacking the strike zone.
Even though he continued to rack up wins through July, thanks to his offense which eventually scored him 6.24 runs per nine innings in 2010, which masked his overall shoddy performance, Slowey continued to have troubles getting movement on his pitches.
Had the surgery been a simple clean-up of bone chips, I’d likely to chalk the decreased movement up to Slowey attempting to regain his feel for his pitches after the hiatus beginning in 2009. However, with two permanent screws it definitely raises the possibility of influencing the structural integrity of his wrist mechanics, impeding him from gaining the same action he had on his pitches before the surgery.
Perhaps the Twins viewed it as the same way. At July’s trade deadline, Slowey’s name was often cited as a potential candidate to be on the move. According to some reports, the right-hander was being offered to the Mariners as part of a potential Cliff Lee trade.
Obviously, the Cliff Lee trade never materialized, but Seattle’s interest in Slowey is very understandable. As a team with rangy, fly-catching outfielders, combined with a particularly pitcher-friendly ballpark in Safeco, Slowey’s fly ball tendencies would thrive in the Northwest. So it is entirely possible that Seattle could rekindle their interest in the relatively young and inexpensive starter.
Likewise, as Howard Sinker suggested yesterday, the Yankees may also be a potential suitor for Kevin Slowey. Per Sinker’s proposal, the Twins would send Slowey to New York and would receive the talented yet disenfranchised pitcher in Joba Chamberlain. Chamberlain, who has a lively arm that hits 95-mph and a very good slider that has kept right-handed opponents off-balance, has had numerous issues with his development and appears to have fallen out of favor with the Yankees. In addition to gaining a solid bullpen arm, the Twins would also save approximately $1 million in the process.
While in theory the Yankees are in desperate need of some rotation help to follow CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett and Phil Hughes, Slowey doesn’t appear to be a great fit in New York. As a right-hander hurler with high contact and ridiculously high fly ball tendencies that short right field porch would be tested regularly against the AL East’s squadron of hard-hitting left-handed sluggers. Then again, Hughes had one of the highest fly ball tendencies in the AL but like Slowey, he too was also saved by his offense that obliterated opponents and led the league in run support, resulting in the emptiest 18-win season in a long time.
To be sure, the Twins would probably benefit more by holding on to all of their six starting pitcher through the first few months of the season, preserving an insurance policy in the event of an injury. Also, by moving to the ‘pen, the Twins can limit Slowey to see opposing batters just one time through the order, a historical strong suit for him as hitters have shown the propensity to hit him harder in their subsequent match-ups. At the same time, don’t be surprised if the front office flips Slowey in efforts to improve the roster and save a few dollars in the process.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

It's Official: Pavano returns to the Twins

I’ve already submitted my assessment on what to expect from Pavano in the coming year, so his recent two-year, $16.5 million signing is no surprise. What is sort of interesting is some of the contractual stipulations.

According to Cot’s Contracts in addition to the $8 million he will make in 2011 and the $8.5 million in 2012, Pavano will receive $100,000 for hitting 190 and 200 innings in a season plus another $150,000 for exploring the 210 and 220 inning territory respectively.

Obviously this sort of performance clause is placed as a small incentivizer to ensure that he does maintain that current output. The Twins are signing him as their innings-eater to alleviate the need to strain the bullpen – a unit that is currently untested outside of recently re-signed Matt Capps and Jose Mijares. This small percentage of his overall payday provides a half million extra if he can work approximately six or more innings per start over the course of 32 starts, something that he has managed to do in the past two seasons.

The other stipulation within the new contract is that the Twins have agreed to not offer him arbitration after the 2012 season. This means that if Pavano, over the duration of the new contract, equals his performance of 2009-2010 and reaches Type A status again, the Twins will not hamper his marketability by attaching the need to forfeit a draft pick. Likewise, this will not put the organization in the unenviable position of having to offer him arbitration which he would likely happily accept at 37 years old. It basically acts as prearranged mutual breakup at the end of the contract.  

In the end, the Twins have landed a very good pitcher, capable of eating innings and providing a stabilizing force in the rotation during a time of tumultuousness uncertainty in the bullpen. 

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Thome's production is tied to his health

Back at the end of 2009, the commonly accepted belief was that Jim Thome was done.

During one Sunday Night Baseball broadcast, Joe Morgan took the opportunity to tell the nation that he no longer felt that Thome was capable of playing at an elite level. “See,” remarked Morgan, “he cannot get to the fastball.”

Jim Thome had just lifted a weak fly ball out to mid-left field, inciting Morgan’s analysis of the situation. In reviewing the video, you can see that the big lefty is barely able to get around on the Padres’ Heath Bell’s 95-mph fastball. As Thome trotted up the baseline, he returns to the dugout, gesturing to Dodgers’ manager Joe Torre and their trainer that his foot was giving him problems – again.

During the replay, Morgan continued: “It’s very difficult, you know, for Thome to get around on it. Even on 3-1. He is sitting dead-red on the fastball.”

To be sure, Morgan’s anecdotal observation was also reinforced with some pretty damning evidence (which I’m sure he would never care to read) that agreed with his statement. In addition to being overwhelmed by fastballs, which we will see shortly, Thome also had troubles pulling the ball with any authority:

Pulled HR%
Pulled Slugging%
(via &

After pulling 41% of his home runs in 2008, leading to a .685 slugging percentage on pitches pulled, Thome’s pull power dropped dramatically the following season. In 2009, he launched just 17% of his home runs to right and slugged a career-low .520 when pulling pitches. Of course, this most recent season, Thome thumbed his nose at Morgan and everyone else by demonstrating he could still mash to right field, sending 9 of his 25 home runs in that direction and amassing a hearty .779 slugging percentage.

The second indicator that Thome was running out of gas was the fact that he was unable to catch up to fastballs:

Lg. Avg
BA on Fastballs
Well-Hit Avg on Fastballs
Contact on Fastballs

Like Morgan said, Thome had suffered a noticeable decline in his contact rate on fastballs. In addition to that, Thome had not done the same type of damage as he was used to inflicting.

In 2007, Thome handled fastballs extremely well. That season, according to’s Pitch Type Value, he was 29 runs above average on heaters. The following year his production on fastballs started to decline noticeably as he was only 9.4 runs above average. In 2009, as his ability to make contact dropped to just 35%, he was 10.3 runs above average on the fastball. Nevertheless, like his sudden resurgence to pull the ball again, Thome confirmed that he could indeed get around on the hard stuff still. His numbers in this department were some of the best since his ’07 season as he finished 22.9 runs above average on fastballs.

Was age really the culprit behind his 2009 decline? How could he have rebounded so quickly in his late 30s when most players are making arrangements to coach single-A ball?

While age certainly could have been influential on this sharp decline, it now appears more likely that lingering injuries played a more substantial role in Thome’s 2009 drop-off than aging did. That year, Thome struggled with staying healthy. In fact, competing with a historically balky back was a nagging foot injury, identified in his plantar fascia, which cropped up in the spring.

Following a rather slow start to the season by his standards, Thome revealed that his left foot flared up on him, sidelining him for several games before being cleared to play again. Following a cortisone injection, for a good chunk of the season Thome appeared to be his usual self, launching 18 homers in 313 plate appearances from May 1 to August 16 while turning in a .257/.393/.514 batting line in that period.

In mid-August, however, Thome’s left foot once again impaired his abilities to play. The slugger sat out for another four games and returned only to provide a fraction of the jolt he supplied in the middle of the season. At the waiver deadline, Thome was traded to the Dodgers in a cash-saving deal for the Sox. Relegated to pinch hitter duties in the NL, his addition did little for Los Angeles. In his final 58 plate appearances of that season following his second foot injury, Thome hit .241/.276/.352.

As a designated hitter whose sole responsibility is to hit, Thome required that stabilizing force on his back foot. In an isolated instance below, you can see how this pain might influence a swing:

Focus on Thome’s feet - particularly the back foot. It is as if he is putting little to no pressure on his back leg. Typically, at the point of contact, hitters want to have just their toes touching the ground from their rear leg, pivoting and twisting that foot in order to gain power from their trunk and leverage the legs in the swing. In this example, there is very little leverage in the lower-half, meaning all of his power is coming from upstairs.

If his foot was causing him to alter his swing by placing less weight on his back leg, this would certainly affect his mechanics and result in a decrease in pull power as well as a reduction in bat speed. It is a stark contrast to his swing from 2010:

Here we see sound mechanics from his lower-half. His back foot is twisting effortlessly and his he is clearly capable of generating power as he was better able to put weight on his back leg. Because of this reign of health, Thome was able to put up the numbers that he did. Able to pivot and place pressure on his back foot, Thome demonstrated that he could turn on pitches and catch up to the fastballs that had thwarted his attempts in 2009.

What does this mean going forward in 2011?

Once again, age does play a factor. Naturally, injuries and ailments heal much slower and tend to loiter a bit longer on older players. However, unlike most of the AL teams interested in DHs, the Twins were not looking for a full-time player. Thome will likely be utilized in that pinch hitter, part-time DH role that was assigned to him prior to Justin Morneau’s concussion (provided the first baseman is ready to go in the spring). This rationing of his plate appearances should help keep him healthy.

As Joe Christensen relays, Thome felt that this rest helped rejuvenate him:
"A couple years ago, I was a little banged up. Not playing every day, I kind of healed up a little bit from the little injuries that I had the year before. Then, when I got home this winter and my body wasn't beat up, I said, 'Wait a minute, this may work out.'"
A healthy Thome is capable of inciting a charge into a fastball and yanking pitching deep into the right field stands. His .283/.412/.627 batting line last year is evidence enough of that.

Still, much like the end of last year, if the Twins start to get the urge to play him more regularly, he is liable to tweak his back as he did at the end of September. Although it would be statistically advantageous to place him in the lineup at DH and moving Kubel to the outfield against right-handed pitchers, this regular playing time might take a toll on his foot or back, rendering him useless later in the season. Management should practice restraint when using Thome in effort to avoid turning him into a paperweight on the bench. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Does the White Sox recent bullpen moves merit a response from the Twins?

After having arguably the American League’s most successful bullpen last season, leading the AL in strikeout rate (9.05 K/9), xFIP (3.79) and WAR (6.6), White Sox general manager Kenny Williams has continued to tinker with his relief staff.

Having already parted with the cantankerous closer in Bobby Jenks, who took the opportunity to offer some vapid parting shots at his former employer, choosing instead to replace him with Jesse Crain (which may or may not have been a move intended to keep Crain for destroying the Sox’s offense), the Sox have signed veteran left-hander Will Ohman to a two-year, $4 million contract.

Considering the cavalcade of left-handed hitters in the Minnesota Twins lineup, this should be interpreted as a direct assault on attempting to dethrone the reigning AL Central champions.

Ohman, who has held left-handed hitters to a .205 average in his career, will join the fireballing Matt Thornton and Chris Sale as Chicago’s lefties in the ‘pen, giving manager Ozzie Guillen yet another Southside southpaw.  

With Jake Peavy still an unknown, the Sox have a discussed a contingency plan of moving the hard-throwing Sale into the rotation if Peavy is not ready come April. Although Sale would give the Sox three proficient left-handed starters to complement Mark Buerhle and John Danks, his move from the bullpen would leave the Sox with just one lefty reliever in Thornton. The addition of Ohman assures the team that there will be at least two lefties in the event Sale is transferred to the starting rotation. On the other hand, if Peavy is able to begin the season as a starter, the Sox will be blessed with a surplus of lefties, which is a huge late inning advantage versus the Twins.  

Does this maneuvering by the White Sox require a response from the Twins front office?

Although the Twins have done well as team in terms of batting average against lefties (hitting .268, sixth best in baseball), most of those hits have not exactly packed a punch (.326 wOBA, 14th in baseball), leading to the natural conclusion that the Twins need a right-handed presence in the dugout to counteract Guillen’s bullpen strategy.

The popular name that continues to be bandied about by Twins fans is free agent Vladimir Guerrero. While he is a brand-name slugger that is coming off a bounce-back season with the Rangers and has slaughtered left-handed pitching  in his career (.412 wOBA against lefties), there are several reasons to be bearish on him.

Although Guerrero finished the season with a respectable .300/.345/.496 batting line, the bulk of the work was done in the season’s first-half. In the first few months of the 2010 baseball season, Guerrero hit .319/.364/.554 with 20 home runs in 354 plate appearances. Meanwhile, in the latter portion of the year, the right-handed free-swinger coasted in to the finish line somewhat, hitting .284/.336/.461 with nine home runs in 289 plate appearances.

The power drop-off coincides with Guerrero’s inability to elevate the ball in the back-half of the season. As you can glean from the chart below, Guerrero’s groundball rate spiked significantly post-July, resulting in fewer home runs and thus a degeneration of his power numbers:

To me, this is a solid indicator of age and nagging ailments impeding him for sustaining a high-level of production throughout the entire season. According to, he’s had no less than five instances where leg-related injuries have sidelined him for a period of time.

Even if Guerrero manages to repeat his 2010 season in which he avoided any lengthy time in the trainer’s room, there are other indications of a drop-off.  In spite of leading the Rangers with six “No Doubt” home runs (those home runs according to that cleared the fence by at least 20 vertical feet and landed at least 50 feet past the fence), lending credence to the notion that he is still very much capable of inciting a charge into the ball, he was also second on the team in “Just Enough” (balls that cleared the fence by less than 10 vertical feet, or that landed less than one fence height past the fence) and led the team in “Lucky” home runs (a home run that would not have cleared the fence if it has been struck on a 70-degree, calm day). Because his “Just Enough” rate of 31% exceeds the standard 27% in additional to relocating to an environment that has been, so far, unfavorable to home run hitters in comparison to the Ballpark at Arlington, a natural conclusion is that Guerrero’s numbers would experience some deterioration in his home run totals.

What’s more is that while the Twins would require his presence just a few times a week and to occasionally supplant Jason Kubel against left-handed starters, Guerrero is seeking a full-time job. Unless the front office or Ron Gardenhire can figure out how to carve out playing time between Jason Kubel, Delmon Young, Michael Cuddyer so that Guerrero is satisfied, the Twins appear to be unlikely suitors for his services. Rather, a team like the Rays, who have a vacancy at DH, would be able to provide him with his requisite playing time.      

From the Twins’ perspective, in a perfect world, the market for Guerrero would continue to dissipate, leaving Guerrero and his agent accepting a reduce contract with the understanding that he is a role player. After all, he’s mashed left-handed pitching and the Twins could use that. However, Guerrero wants a full-time position and has a desire to be compensated as such

“Given that left-handed pitchers represent a smaller universe compared to their right-handed counterparts, Twins needn't sign a right-handed hitter who is interested in 500-plus plate appearances – marquee guys like Paul Konerko, Maggilo Ordonez and Derrek Lee are going to want full-time jobs and also be compensated as such. What the Twins need is a player that can siphon off 250 plate appearances during those other 29% of match-ups against left-handed pitchers -- basically a right-handed version of Jim Thome last year.
Naturally, it would be nice to sign a formidable player like Vladimir Guerrero or Derrek Lee to a nominal contract, but both want more substantial role that other teams could guarantee. The Twins simply do not have the plate appearances to go around, limiting their ability to entice those types of players to signing with the team.

In the end, the White Sox recent moves likely require some sort of response from the Twins. What seems to be relevant is that the Twins seem to recognize that due to the statistical fact that right-handed pitchers greatly outnumber left-handed ones, there is no need to overpay for a role playing right-handed hitter. Plenty of hitters are on the market, including established hitters like Andruw Jones, Troy Glaus, Marcus Thames and Jorge Cantu to consider alongside Luke Hughes and Jeff Bailey. 

What seems clear, given the current circumstances, is that that option is probably not going to be Vladimir Guerrero.