Monday, June 27, 2011

Catching heat.

Because of one pitch, questions regarding Joe Mauer’s defensive abilities have surfaced.

Following Friday’s Jose Mijares versus Mauer incident, columnist Jim Souhan blogged on the stating that:
I've always been told by Twins people that Mauer is not an exceptional pitch-caller.
Then, after Liriano’s rough outing on Saturday, Souhan relayed more rumblings from the clubhouse on his blog:
“Liriano mentioned after the game that he didn't think the pitch he threw to Gomez was the right choice. Another shot at Mauer's pitch-calling?”
In terms of Souhan’s “Twins people”, it’s hard to tell if that is in reference to pitchers, coaches or front office members. Maybe it’s just people surrounding him in the press box. Or possibly all of the above. It should be noted that in my conversations with Rob Antony last spring, the team’s assistant GM offered nothing but a glowing endorsement of Mauer’s handling of the pitchers. 

Based on the current comments, it is hard to ignore what appears to be an growing sentiment that the pitching staff is growing frustrated with Mauer’s pitch-calling. Of course, this is not new nor is it the first instance of pitcher’s expressing displeasure in Mauer’s selections. In 2008, Nick Blackburn, Glen Perkins and Slowey were all cited as regular shake-off offenders. Reportedly, field management was not happy with Kevin Slowey shaking off the highly paid catcher as recently as last year. This year, Liriano has been fingered as a pitcher lacking confidence in his catcher choices.

For Liriano, the results seem to speak for themselves when it comes to his pairing with Mauer on the mound this year:

F. Liriano by Catcher 2011


Within this small sampling you can see that Liriano has not worked well with Mauer at all. Yes, those numbers are influenced by Liriano’s shaky start at the season’s onset when the bulk of his time with Mauer was but it just makes me wonder if Mauer’s approach when handling Liriano differs radically in comparison with Rivera, who Liriano has been magnificent with.

In fact, it appears that Rivera is the favorite receiver among the Twins pitching staff. At least by the numbers:

Twins Pitching Staff by Catcher 2011


Needless to say, actually digging into what differentiates the catchers requires much more extensive studies in pitch f/x for pitch selection. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple so I will not be exploring that aspect of the trio’s game-calling abilities today. Skimming the data from his starts against Texas and San Diego compared to his most recent one in Milwaukee, there does not appear to be any substantial difference in what was being called, just a disparity in where his pitches were being thrown.

Nick Blackburn credited Rivera has helping him rebound this season. According to’s Buster Olney, Blackburn’s renaissance came in a chat with Rivera before last month’s start against Chicago:
“The White Sox are aggressive and free-swinging at the plate, and Blackburn and Rivera decided before that May 4 start that they would work inside with fastballs. And this, in turn, would open up the outer half of the plate for Blackburn's offspeed pitches. The Minnesota right-hander allowed one run in 6.2 innings that day, results that reinforced something for Blackburn: If he pitched inside, aggressively, he would create more space for himself in another part of the strike zone. What this meant, too, was that Blackburn didn't have to be quite as precise with his command, because his margin for error with the strike zone would be larger.”
So, wait. Did Mauer or Butera not have Blackburn throwing inside prior to that start? Once again, that’s best answered through an extensive pitch f/x study.

Perhaps it extends beyond simply pitch-calling.

Watching Rivera work behind the plate, you can see why he might be able to coax more out of his pitchers. He’s very visual and moves around the zone, giving directions constantly. In his start against the Padres, Rivera pounded the dirt to make sure Liriano knew to get his slider down against the right-hander Ryan Ludwick. He did the same with Blackburn with Alexi Ramirez at the plate. That’s how you avoid any confusion on where you wanted that pitch and make sure you are on the same page as a pitcher.

Mauer isn’t nearly that mobile behind the plate. He doesn’t thrust his leg out to ensure he gets as low in the zone as possible. He doesn’t do the fake-out hop inside then jump to the outer-half of the zone that Rivera does at times. Does Liriano, who has been all over the board as a pitcher this season, need that kind of guidance that Rivera provides when he is behind the plate? Do the others, like Blackburn, respond better to this style of catching?

Because of Justin Morneau’s injury, Mauer may be moved from out behind the plate to first base on occasion, giving Rivera a chance to prove that his ability to handle the pitching staff isn’t just a success due to a small sample size. 

Friday, June 24, 2011

A quick look at the Mijares/Mauer controversy

Mauer has struggled in first week back

When Minnesota’s prodigal son returned to the lineup on June 17, the Twins were in the midst of a four-game winning streak. In his first plate appearance back, Joe Mauer scooted a groundball up the middle scoring Alexi Casilla and giving the Twins a 1-0 lead. Since then, however, he has gone 2-for-17 while appearing overmatched.
Prior to heading back to join the team, Mauer readily admitted that he was not 100% telling reporters that “Timing wise and hitting wise, I'm not where I need to be in midseason form.”
In terms of connectivity, Mauer is doing just fine in that department – showing that he is able to put the bat on the ball at a high clip. The problem is that his contact has mostly produced grounders. In fact, with a minimum of 50 plate appearances, Mauer’s 68.1% ground ball rate is the highest in the American League. That type of infield littering is typically reserved for slap-hitting, speedsters.
Perhaps because of the extended time off from baseball activity or his various ailments, Mauer has not shown the ability to stay in on pitches. Much like Morneau’s early season woes, Mauer too is pulling off of the ball with his front hip, leaving him susceptible to fastballs away and off-speed stuff.
Unlike Morneau, Mauer is able to keep his hands back much better so he's not turning over the ball as much but because he is still pulling out on his swing, he is unable to generate a charge when going to the opposite field. The below images provides somewhat of a perspective on what Mauer is doing different versus his 2009 campaign:
Focusing in on his front hip, you see that in the 2011 version (left) the hip has pulled off the ball. This leaves him hitting more with his hands - pushing and punching the ball on the outer-half of the plate. In his 2009 version, Mauer’s front hip is centered allowing him to create more power and ability to drive the pitch that is thrown away.
Because of this, Mauer has seen a precipitous decline in his ability to drive off-speed and breaking pitches so far in his truncated 2011 season:
Mauer vs. Off-Speed Stuff
Batting Avg.
Well-Hit Avg.
% Put In Play
League Avg.
Opponents appear to be taking advantage of this since his return to the Twins in June, giving him an increased dosage of sliders to upset his already disturbed timing. The Giants executed well against the left-handed catcher, working him down-and-away in his appearances in the Bay Area. With the exception of a line drive double play and a punched double to the left-center gap, Mauer routinely beat the ball into the ground.
With Milwaukee’s advanced scouts likely casing AT&T Park in preparation for the upcoming series, the Brewers pitching staff will likely follow suit and implement San Francisco’s blueprint when facing the Twins’ catcher.  

The Killer shirts have finally arrived to the DiamondCentric Headquarters this week. Expect shipping soon and be sure to pick one up if you have - part of the proceeds goes towards the Killebrew Foundation.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Is Delmon Young on the verge of breaking out?

It was less than two weeks ago in this space that I chronicled Delmon Young’s swing, which had become slower, and that his timing was all sorts of messed up.  
According to observations from FSN analyst Roy Smalley Young was putting too much of his weight on his front foot, leaving him to hit with just his hands. This left him unable to drive the ball in the manner in which he did just a year ago. His power numbers confirmed this as he was slugging .257 as recently as June 5.
With the problem identified, it would only be a matter of time before Young would respond and make the necessary adjustments. Because he had been reportedly standoffish about his mechanics, that “matter of time” could have been weeks or months before corrections would be made. Surprisingly, it did not take him long to incorporate a new approach at the plate.
After returning home from the latest road trip, Young unveiled a new set-up in his stance. It is minor but - after going 8-for-16 with a double and a home run in the Rangers series - it has become obvious that the small change has quickly yielded some positive results for the left fielder.
Let’s take a look at Young’s new starting point:
On the left you see Young’s pre-Rangers series hand set-up. Young is holding the bat at a 45-degree angle with his hands at shoulder level. Meanwhile, during the Rangers series, Young made a slight adjustment to his set position, raising his hands almost above his head while holding the bat nearly parallel to the ground.
What does raising their hands do for a hitter?
When Toronto's Jose Bautista overhauled his swing, one of the more critical changes he made was raising the level of his hands. Frankie Piliere, a former scout with the Texas Rangers, explained why this aspect of his swing improved his power:
“Overall, it appears he has made an effort to get his top hand more involved and get his hands moving through the zone quicker in general. To do that, he has put his hands in a higher position and is creating much more leverage. Rather than low and close to his body, we now see him with his hands not just higher but also further away from his body. So, before he even begins his swing, he is in a stronger, loaded position with his hands back.
So the new hand placement above his helmet provides Young not only with a better timing mechanism, allowing him to get his hands and hips synched more readily, but from that location Young is in a position to leverage his top hand better in his swing. This, in theory, should translate to an increase in power.
If we compare the two swings in the video from the side, we see that while Young eventually brings his hands to almost the same load position but, unlike the clip from earlier in the season, Young can generate more power with his hands starting at a higher point: 
June 11, 2011 - vs Texas Rangers

May 31, 2011 - at Detroit Tigers
Getting his hands through the zone quicker also means better plate coverage on the inner-half. One of his biggest flaws at the beginning of the year was his inability to pull pitches. However as of late he has echoed the hard-hittin’ version of himself from 2010, the one who drove the ball into right field with authority. Re-awaking that could mean some immediate offensive contributions for the surging team.
Of course, this doesn’t smooth over the holes in the other aspects of his game.
Although Young has made the adaptation in his mechanical approach that could set off a potential big streak for him, there are also other factors - such as his plate discipline - that may keep him from taking off. Young’s 2010 vast improvement was aided by a reduction in the frequency of strikeouts. So far this year, Young has reverted back to his pre-2010 tendencies. At 25-years-old with nearly 2,500 plate appearances under his belt, this part of his game is unlikely to go away.
It is quite a quandary for the Twins at this juncture. On one hand, you have a young, right-handed power source that, if the past few at bats are any indications of things to come, could be a big factor in lifting the team back into AL Central contention. On the other hand, he has demonstrated lackadaisical play in the field, been vocal about his displeasure for DH-ing (a position he is best suited for) and the Twins have a versatile outfielder in Ben Revere who offers speed and defensive upgrade.
Either way, if Young can add a few more extra base hits to the ledger over the next couple of weeks, he could be a very valuable asset to the Twins – be it as a middle-of-the-lineup contributor or as a potential trading chip.   

Sunday, June 12, 2011

OtB Twins Notes: Casilla's mechanics, All Star Cuddyer & scouting changes

Heading into Sunday’s game, Alexi Casilla has hit .352/.420/.465 with six doubles and a triple in his past 83 plate appearances dating back to the Arizona series, and he attributes the current streak on some mechanical changes.
Pioneer Press’s columnist Tom Powers recently spoke to Alexi Casilla about his offensive outburst. The middle infielder told him that he and hitting coach Joe Vavra had been studying the tape of his swing and it inspired him to make some changes.

According to Powers, Casilla said that “he discovered that he was standing too straight in the batter's box and that he also was slowing his swing in an attempt to hit almost every pitch to the opposite field.
Last week based on his conversations with 1500ESPN’s Phil Mackey whom Casilla also told that he was crouching more, I dissected his swing from the left-side. Looking over the footage, Casilla’s crouch did not standout. There may be some signs of him getting lower but, to me, the real change is his elimination of the pause in his stride. Now, thanks to Powers, we know that the reason behind implementing the stride pause was to hit more balls to the opposite field.
There is a longstanding Twins tradition of getting hitters to hit the ball to the other way. Some players have thrived, others, like the left-handed slugger David Ortiz, hated being forced to slash pitches to left field. Similar to the “pitch-to-contract” mantra that frustrates Twins fans, the “go the other way” offensive philosophy has also soured many people. Using the entire field is not a bad thing, however, when a player either intentionally changes his approach to fit that mold or is encouraged by staff to make the changes only to have his performance suffer, there may be a need to stop putting square pegs in round holes.

After a truly brutal start to the season, hitting .234/.300/.336 with just 5 runs batted in on May 13, Michael Cuddyer has flipped a switch at the plate. His recent production has made some within the club feel that he could be the team’s All Star representative this year writes Patrick Reusse.
Knowing Ron Gardenhire’s affinity towards the veteran, the statement certainly shouldn’t surprise anyone – it definitely shouldn’t qualify for KFAN’s Preposterous Statement award but it would be hard to justify Cuddyer over the crop of outfielders that the AL has.
Credit Gardy for trying to up-sell the utility angle given that there are plenty of better qualified outfielders in the league both offensively and defensively, but even teammate Denard Span, who can contribute defensively, on the bases and with the stick, has compiled a better season than Cuddyer. If Ron Washington, manager of this year’s AL team, is interested in putting together the best roster for hopes of home field advantage in the World Series, he’d likely want to go with someone like Span rather than Cuddyer.
At the same time, it’s the All Star Game. Who cares?
Nevertheless, let’s not gloss over the fact that Cuddyer is actually hitting the ball extremely well as of late. In his past 12 games, Cuddyer is hitting .318/.420/.618 with 8 of his 14 hits going for extra bases. Always been one to damage left-handed pitching, Cuddyer has posted a 1.142 OPS against southpaws so far this season, a total second in the AL to the manimal known as Jose Bautista. Part of the reason behind his gaudy numbers in recent games is due to the fact that the team has squared off against a good amount of left-handed starters.
As I wrote last month, Cuddyer is also coming off of several offseason ailments that were likely impeding his success at the plate. Combining more at-bats against lefties as well as being close to 100% again, it’s not a surprising to see Cuddyer surging. The Twins will see lefties in Chicago’s Mark Buerhle and Padres’ Clayton Richard over the next four games so it is possible that Cuddyer’s streak could continue for a while long.
Star Tribune’s Jim Souhan offered a pair of interesting Twins insider nuggets in his blog on Sunday.
In his talks with Dave St Peter, the Twins president hinted at “changes in their scouting operation”. Souhan also said the word around the clubhouse was that the players and staff are not interested in getting Joe Mauer back only to have him request to sit every other day.
It sounds like the talk regarding the changes in the scouting operation was driven from Trevor Plouffe’s defensive performance. Souhan says there were other instances but Plouffe has been the memorable. Plouffe, who has been in the Twins system since 2004, demonstrated that even after eight years of development, he still lacked the basic ability to complete accurate throws from short. Pushed along because of his bat and the team’s lack of depth at the shortstop position, Plouffe’s error totals never subsided as he advanced in the system. It is a good question to ask why Plouffe’s issue was never corrected.
In terms of Mauer’s return, it will be interesting to see how it may affect the fabric of the team now that the players seemingly have been building chemistry and winning ballgames without Mauer’s on-going dramas. In discussing his rehab assignment, Gardenhire told reporters that Mauer, who they wanted to send to Rochester for a handful of games prior to a potential return on Thursday, decided that he wanted to stay in Fort Myers – where he has a home.
Gardy provided some insight on the team’s logic to move him to Rochester:"He can count on one hand how many fastballs he's seen since he's been playing down there, and that's kind of one of those reasons you might want to send him to triple-A. He might see some fastballs there. There are some veteran guys who might know how to mix it up there. Those kids, they'll just be winging breaking balls all over the place."
Clearly, that makes sense. Before bringing a player back to the highest level, you’d like to get him some time facing off against the best competition so the transition back to the lineup is smooth.
Since the beginning of June, the Twins boast baseball’s best bullpen, allowing just three runs (1.01 ERA) in 26.2 innings of work.
If you dig inside those numbers, it’s not necessarily pretty. They have walked nine batters while hitting three more and striking out just 13.  Still, compared to the hot mess in April and May, it’s nice to see some progress. The ‘pen could get stronger soon too as according to LaVelle’s blog, Glen Perkins is close to returning this week replacing either Phil Dumatrait or Chuck James. I'd keep James over Dumatrait.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Danny Valencia and the Sophomore Slump Monster

Anyone who has spent time on the TwinsCentric space on Fridays knows that I often provide breakdowns of either what is influencing their poor numbers - such as the case of Justin Morneau or Delmon Young – or what changes might have helped elevate their game – like in the instance of Jason Kubel or Alexi Casilla. However, in attempts to quantify what is going wrong with Danny Valencia, I got nothing.
The simplest explanation behind Valencia’s decline is that the balls that he put into play last year became hits at a meaty 34.5% rate and has now dropped to a below-average 24.6% mark. In short, more of his balls in play are being hit at the defense.
Now, a good portion of the baseball analytical society would see this and reach the conclusion that where Valencia was the recipient of a very good amount of luck in 2010 but he has the misfortunate of being extremely unlucky in 2011. Part of my offseason prediction of Valencia having a sophomore slump was based somewhat on this idea. But, like Branch Rickey who said that luck is the residual of design, I don’t necessarily believe in “luck”, there usually is something tangible driving a player’s hot streak or a cold snap.  
For instance, in that case of Justin Morneau, he was clearly pulling out on his swing which left the outer-half of the plate exposed. Teams aggressively targeted this area of the zone when he was batting and the poor mechanics resulted in the sizeable drop-off in his totals. Meanwhile Young was not hitting inside pitches as well as he did the previous year which may be linked to a glitch in his hands/timing that is elongating his swing. Likewise, Casilla’s offensive outbreak came alongside a change in his mechanics from the left-side that allowed him to incorporate his legs more and led to more hits.
As with the cases of the three above, there usually are signs that help to reach a diagnosis. Morneau stopped hitting the ball to the opposite field. Young stopped pulling the ball. Casilla kept getting hits. Nevertheless, when checking out the indicators that might offer some enlightenment to why Valencia’s numbers are down, luck is the closest thing to an answer. After reviewing the video, comparing pitch distribution, pitch type, swing tendencies and so on, I’m stumped as to offer an explanation as to why Valencia is hitting so poorly.  
There is no sudden increase in the amount of pitches swung at outside the strike zone, no prolific jump in ground balls or infield flies, and no freakish decline in line drives, spikes in strike outs or dips in walks. Mechanically, he has not changed anything in his swing that would lead one to believe it is influencing the way he hitting the ball. Yes, he has a lot of pre-swing hand movement - which isn’t necessarily encouraged - but it is the same thing he did in 2010. Pitchers haven’t changed their approach either, essentially feeding him the same distribution of pitches and in very similar locations.
In fact, the only thing truly different between the two seasons is that he is now engaged. As far as I know no one has done any sort of comprehesive sabermetric study on how wedding planning could affect a player's ability to get hits.
As I said before, I hate to boil down Valencia’s performance as the result of good “luck” or bad “luck” but that seems to be the biggest difference between 2010 and 2011. Consider the outcomes of his line drives:
Valencia’s Line Drives
Liner Pct.
Batting Average on Liners
League Average
As you can see, Valencia has not had much success at getting his line drives to find open spaces. Is that the influence of bad luck? Or is that the product of opposing teams figuring out how to position their defense against him better now that they have collected data on him? Perhaps it is a little of column A and a little of column B?
Either way, it is a good sign that Valencia continues to put the ball into play the right way – on a rope. History dictates that if a player continues to hit line drives, a hefty portion of those ultimately become hits. If the line drives persist, Valencia’s overall totals should improve in the near future.