Sunday, July 31, 2011

Will no move be a good move for the Twins?

Although the Denard Span-for-Drew Storen talks dominated the weekend, ultimately, like so many other deadline deals, nothing came to fruition.

For the most part, standing pat is a good thing. The Twins will keep their affordable center fielder/lead-off hitter as Span should give the lineup a much needed injection of vitamins O, B and P when he arrives on Tuesday in Anaheim. On the other hand, the front office missed an opportunity to buttress their bullpen with right-handed relievers.  

Part of the reason why Bill Smith left the swap meet without anything was because the market had a substantial markup on relievers. Arms like Koji Uehara, Mike Adams and Brad Ziegler were moved at fairly substantial costs. It is hard to envision the organization making a significant package for pitchers they would control for two years at most.

The Rangers traded a starting pitcher, Tommy Hunter, along with the powerful Chris Davis to obtain Uehara. Later in the day, the Rangers moved their fourth-ranked prospect by Baseball America, pitching Robbie Erlin, along with Frisco (AA) teammate Joe Wieland, to the Padres for Adams. Likewise, the A’s moved Ziegler – a player whom was supposedly not going to require a king’s ransom to acquire – and landed the slugging Brandon Allen and the left-handed reliever, Jordan Norberto.   

The Star Tribune’s Joe Christensen said that the front office called the Blue Jays and sought ex-Twin Jon Rauch, however, that deal never progressed. Given the fact that the Jays had just moved both Jason Frasor as well as Octavio Dotel in addition to the going rate of relief help, Toronto was likely seeking a sizeable return for Rauch.  

So the Twins exited the non-waiver portion of the trade deadline without addressing what might be their biggest area of need. Smith agreed that the emphasis of the day was trying to find help for the bullpen but was not overly concerned:
"That's been a target. We've been trying to add a piece or two in that bullpen that can help stabilize things, a little bit more experience, and unfortunately so far we haven't been able to do it. But again, the next phase of this starts this week with the waivers, and we'll be ready for that."
While Smith and company’s overall trade track record is spotty at best, they have been successful at bringing in help through the waiver wires. They originally grabbed Rauch in 2009 from the Arizona Diamondbacks and traded Kevin Mulvey for him. This past season they claimed the left-handed Brian Fuentes and flipped Loek Van Mil to Anaheim.

One thing to keep in mind is that from now until the August 31 waiver deadline, the Twins have 15 games against AL Central opponents – including nine against the Tigers and Indians. There is plenty of room to gain or lose ground within the next 31 days. If the team is able to make strides, the opportunity to add a bullpen arm still exists as teams like Oakland, Toronto and Tampa Bay will start funneling players through the waiver system.

Clearly, talent acquisition can be had post-July 31 and it is usually less expensive. But what happens if the Twins shit the bed completely in that time?

Selling is a bit more of a tricky proposition at the waiver deadline. Say the Twins manage to go 0-for-9 in those games, burying them deep in the bottom of the standings. They could send guys like Delmon Young, Jason Kubel, Carl Pavano or even Michael Cuddyer through the waivers. If or when a team claims them, the front office now is forced to negotiate within a 24-hour window with just one party instead of multiple teams. Suddenly, the return for the player has been decreased. If you look back at Baseball America’s Trade Central – dating back to 2004 – Jason Bay, then in AAA with the Padres, is about the only noteworthy return. In that sense the front office is gambling heavily that this below-.500 team is a legitimate contender.

Overall, the Twins did not improve their team at the deadline. At the same time, they didn’t hurt it either. Span and Justin Morneau should be returning in the next few weeks giving the offense a boost. They hung on to Kevin Slowey who could be rotation insurance or even a temporary right-handed arm out of the bullpen until someone else can be found.

All in all, the deadline silence is a reaffirmation that the club believes it can win the AL Central with the current assortment of players. 


Friday, July 29, 2011

Finding relief

The Twins most glaring roster deficiency was exposed late in the game on Thursday night.

With two outs in the bottom of the eighth and the Rangers leading by a run, Josh Hamilton laced a triple that split Ben Revere and Jason Kubel. Due to the overuse of the other arms (Capps, Nathan, Burnett, etc), the left-handed Phil Dumatrait, a minor league free agent that had spent the bulk of the season in Rochester, would be left to face the Rangers right-handed delegates.

Dumatrait quickly fell behind Michael Young – who was two-for-three on the night – and the Twins called a mound conference and made the decision to put Young on first to pitch to the dangerous Nelson Cruz, who was oh-for-the-game. The prevailing logic was that Young was swinging a hot bat while Cruz was ice cold. This would have been the perfect time for Ron Gardenhire to bring in his lights-out, death-to-same-sided-hitters right-hander out of the ‘pen.
The problem is there is no lights-out right-handed reliever.

Alex Burnett has ranged from brutal mess-to-adequate while Anthony Swarzak has been able to chew through multiple innings when need. Neither is ideal during those high leverage innings in the latter third of the game. Matt Capps now serves as the right-handed set-up man but given his heavy usage in the beginning of the season (which may have led to his poor performance) the Twins would be better served curtailing his deployment in the second-half. All three had thrown recently too. This left Dumatrait to battle Cruz.

With the non-waiver trade deadline a little over 48 hours away, let’s take a look at some of the arms the Twins have been associated with and some arms that they are not currently linked to but, for the sake of fiscal responsibility, should be considering:
Drew Storen (WAS):
He has got about everything you could want – youth, a power arm, ability to get a strikeout and club-controlled paychecks for several years. Of course, that doesn’t come cheap. The Nationals have reportedly taken a shine to Denard Span, who himself has an extremely team-friendly contract himself while playing a coveted up-the-middle position, and even Washington has changed their minds on whether or not Storen is on the trading block.  
While other analysts have been giddy over his age, cost control and potential to be the “closer of the future”, I am a bit more apprehensive of his mechanics and what that means for his health. Similar to his rehabbing teammate Stephen Strasberg, Storen also throws with the “inverted w” arm action. As Strasberg’s injury has brought the potential dangers of throwing with an inverted w to the forefront, there has been a laundry list of pitchers who use this method that ultimately wound up with UCL problems.
To be sure, injury potential exists for all pitchers. After all, throwing overhand is against the body’s natural biomechanics. Even guys who have impeccable conventional mechanics like Nick Blackburn and Scott Baker will inevitably having elbow issues. It’s just the nature of pitching. Then there are guys that carry around with them big red flags – like Storen’s arm action. If you are a team that plans to invest heavily in a player by committing one of your best young position players, you would want confidence that his UCL isn’t going to snap in his second year.
Unless the Twins find a way to pry Storen away without surrendering an everyday player like Span or a top prospect, the team would be advised to move along for now.  
Koji Uehara (BAL):
Uehara’s contract and Baltimore’s realistic asking price - the Orioles recognize that his age (36) and injury history tarnish his otherwise excellent resume - has made the Japanese reliever a highly desired target at the deadline.  
In the past two seasons, Uehara has gone all yakuza on opponents. His 8.77 strikeouts-to-walks ratio is second only to Edward Mujica. His 33.5% strikeout rate is the fourth-highest in baseball. His 14.9% swinging strike rate is the fifth-highest. His 0.82 WHIP tops all relievers in that time. This is an impressive track record.
What’s more is that Uehara’s contract would also provide the Twins with some bullpen assistance in 2012. The Orioles gave Uehara an incentive-laden deal which stated if the reliever pitched in 50 games or finished 25, his option for $4 million in ’12 will be triggered. Given the uncertainty with Matt Capps a free agent and Joe Nathan’s expensive option looming, Uehara would give the Twins a financially reasonable bullpen arm that has the potential to close if need be.
Rafael Betancourt (COL):
Like Uehara, Betancourt is a 36-year-old reliever that throws strikes. Betancourt also finds himself right behind Uehara’s 8.77 strikeouts-to-walks ratio with a very good 8.25, the third-highest mark in that category. He shuts down right-handed hitters (20.25 K/BB and .210 average since ’10) which would make him welcomed in the Twins ‘pen, however, unlike Uehara, opponents have an easier time making solid contact leading to a very high 15 home runs allowed (one more than Matt Capps). Part of it is due to playing in the thin Rocky Mountain air but it is a trait that has followed him over from his days in the smog-filled air of Cleveland.
If the Twins trade for Betancourt, he brings along the potential of two additional years as he is owed $4 million next season with a mutual option for $4.25 million in 2013 (that comes with a $25,000 buyout that would likely be exercised).
Matt Lindstrom (COL):
The one-time closer for the Marlins and Astros, the Rockies signed Matt Lindstrom to set-up Huston Street. Armed with a 95-plus mile per hour fastball complemented by a slider, you expect Lindstrom to be a strikeout artist but his K-rate is below the league average. He has a herky-jerky motion which disrupts timing but that fastball comes in extremely straight. On the plus side, Lindstrom has allowed just one home run despite playing in Colorado.  It’s possible that if the Twins were to acquire him, they may be able transform him just like they did Jesse Crain.
He’s younger than the aforementioned Uehara and Betancourt and also signed for multiple seasons. Lindstrom’s contract calls for $3.6 million in 2012 and an option for $4 million in 2013 which may be overpaying for that “proven” label.
Wilton Lopez (HOU):
The Astros grabbed Lopez in a waiver claim from San Diego and have received more than the minimal price they paid to obtain him back in 2009. The 26-year-old reliever induces a ton of groundballs (56.7% groundball rate) and is particularly effective against right-handed hitters. His strikeout-to-walk ratio (6.90) is fifth-best among relievers since the start of 2010 while limiting them to a sub-1.00 WHIP.
As the NL Central doormat, the Astros are sellers and it is likely Lopez – who hasn’t been tied to any rumors up to this point – might be available for a substantially lower cost than any of the other names on this list. He isn’t dominating but his skills against righties would add depth to the Twins bullpen.
Brad Ziegler (OAK):
You want a ground ball? Brad Ziegler will get you your friggin’ ground ball. So far this season, hitters have beaten the ball into the earth over 70% of the time. This sort of skill set is perfect for when there are fewer than two outs, a runner on first and a right-hander up. You can already mark the “6-4-3” on your scorecard in advance.
Like most side-winding types, Ziegler exhibits a significant platoon split, getting slapped around by lefties. Nevertheless, for situational use, Ziegler is one of the best. He’s making a $1.25 million this season which means the Twins would owe him less than $1 million for his services but he is about to hit his first year of arbitration this winter which will spike his earnings up.
Billy Beane, GM of the A’s, operates like he is a vendor within a Turkish Bazaar, buying and selling and finagling all over the place. He recognizes his team is in sell mode and has actually made it known that some of his pieces, like Ziegler, can be had for a reasonable amount. Ziegler would be a very functional component to the relief staff.
As a recent article in ESPN the Magazine pointed out, teams typically trade with teams that they have familiarity with. In the cases of Washington, Baltimore, Oakland and Colorado, the Twins have had recent interaction with them (although we might want to forget the outcomes of the Washington-Baltimore deals). This may increase the likelihood of a transaction happening between those clubs as opposed to forging ground to get Lopez in Houston or another team.

The Twins are focused on ensuring whatever move they make not only helps this season but also has an impact for next year – which is why the majority of these moves make sense as are all are available in 2012.  

Monday, July 25, 2011

So that happened...

It was the team’s worst throttling since the April 25, 1974 Kansas City massacre in which the Royals pummeled the Twins to the tune of 23-to-6. The only other time the team would allow 20 runs would be in their inaugural season in which they lost – once again in Kansas City but to the Athletics - 20-to-2.

Don't be fooled: neither Kansas City team had the offensive firepower nor hitter-friendly ballpark and atmosphere found at the Ballpark in Arlington. The Rangers ripped through Nick Blackburn and then the Twins bullpen. Ron Gardenhire continued to pull another arm out each inning like his relievers were Kleenex. After burning through four arms, he called upon the player whose has played just about everywhere else: Michael Cuddyer.

To me, it seemed that’s pitch f/x system had difficulties classifying the 16 pitches Cuddyer threw towards the plate, considering some four-seamers, others changeups, a few cutters and a pair of sliders. This isn’t unusual for the pitch f/x system to have difficulties labeling a pitch – especially one with the erratic tendencies of a super utility player. However, when asked about his repertoire after the game, Cuddyer told’s Rhett Bollinger that he did indeed through an assortment of pitches (or at least attempted to throw them).

Color me surprised.

You would figure that a player such as Cuddyer would get in there and grip and rip. Maybe try to throw that snap-dragon bender he had been working on while warming up with the fellow outfielders.

Judging from his short-arm, three-quarter inconsistent slot it’s easy to see why the fielder had difficulties putting the finishing touches on a sinker or pinpoint command of his fastball. Still, blessed with a good arm in the outfield, the radar gun, as well as the pitch f/x cameras, caught Cuddyer’s fastball traveling 88 miles per hour (a Delorean fastball). While we don’t have data to see how this compared to the franchises more recent position-player-turned-pitchers in John Moses and Dan Gladden, I would wager that he was throwing harder than they ever did.

Mercifully, the Rangers somehow didn’t score a run off of him in spite of the defense’s best efforts. Pending any more opponent outbursts, Cuddyer is likely safe to retire his pitcher’s glove and go down in Minnesota history with Cesar Tovar as the only position players with 0.00 ERAs.  

Sunday, July 24, 2011

OtB Twins Notes: Twins lineup grounded, Liriano's fastball and trade rumors

On Sunday, the Tigers Rick Porcello ripped through the Twins lineup with relative ease. With the exception of a handful of doubles from Delmon Young, Jim Thome and Danny Valenica, the right-hander kept the Twins at bay, limiting them to two runs on five hits over six innings of work.
Porcello, a career 51% ground ball rate, is just another earth-scorching starter that has dispatched the Twins in recent weeks. Add Cleveland’s Fausto Carmona (career 59.3% ground ball rate) and Justin Masterson (career 56.5% ground ball rate) to that list as well. There is a reason behind this and that is that the Twins have been truly awful against ground ball pitching this season.

According to, the Twins have the lowest OPS against ground ball pitchers in 2011:
AL Teams OPS vs Ground Ball Pitchers (2011)
Even the toothpick-swinging Mariners have managed a better showing.’s Jordan Schelling tells us that Ron Gardenhire was plenty disappointed in Francisco Liriano’s outing.
During the broadcast, fill-in analyst Roy Smalley made it clear that command of the fastball was going to be the focal point for Liriano in this start. Liriano, however, could not find the strike zone with it. According to Inside Edge, just 21 of his 46 fastballs (46%) wandered into the strike zone airspace. Credit the Tigers for not helping out the Twins lefty as they only chased on  two of the 25 out-of-zone fastballs. The lone bright spot is that for a pitcher who held the league’s lowest first-pitch strike rate, Liriano actually managed to get ahead of 12 of 17 of the Tigers’ hitters before falling behind. That’s…progress?
On Saturday, the Baltimore Sun’s Dan Connelly said the Twins have heavy interest in the Orioles’ Koji Uehara, sending one of their top pro scouts, Bob Hegman, to Camden Yards while Baltimore’s professional scouting director, Lee MacPhail, was at Target Field.
Uehera would be an outstanding addition to the Twins bullpen. Over the past two seasons, Uehera’s .183 average has been the eighth-lowest in baseball while his 8.77 strikeouts-to-walks ratio has been the second-best behind only Edward Mujica. What’s more is that Uehara thrives in making right-handed hitters look absolutely foolish. Since 2010, he has held a .169 average against, a baseball-best 0.64 WHIP versus righties with an otherworldly 54.00 strikeouts-to-walk ratio.

In addition to having a terrific season as a lights-out set-up man, Uehara’s contract is extremely team-friendly. Having a little over a million left on his contract this season, Uehara has a vesting option for the 2012 season for $4 million if he reaches 55 games (or 25 games finished). So far he’s 10 appearances (or six more games finished) away from having that triggered. For the Twins whose future in their ‘pen is still wideout, Uehara would provide a solid arm that could potentially close at low cost if Nathan or Capps are not retained.

For multiple reasons, back in December I lobbied the Twins to make a run at Uehara. It sounded like there were conversations but the pitcher, who had settled his family in the Baltimore-area, really wanted to remain an Oriole. Now would be a great time to pry Uehara away from the east coast. Teams often stick to one or two trading partners and the Twins have a comfortable relationship with Baltimore (and the Orioles should be more than pleased with their return on Hardy), so it would make plenty of sense for the two teams to hook-up.
During the appropriately titled, Ron Gardenhire Show, the manager told 1500ESPN’s Tom Pelissero that he wanted a “veteran bat” for off the bench, a switch-hitting one at that, in addition to a relief arm.
A quick scour of the soon-to-be selling teams reveals little to no options that fit that description. If the sticking point is a switch-hitter, only the Dodgers’ Aaron Miles, Athletics’ Coco Crisp or the White Sox’s Omar Vizquel qualifies.

While I can see Gardenhire being enamored by the diminutive Miles’s scrap-and-grit, his .284/.322/.355 career batting line does nothing for me. Crisp has performed well against lefties this season and has been above-average on the bases and in the outfield. However, the Twins have plenty of outfield options as is and trying to squeeze Crisp into the fray with Denard Span, Delmon Young, Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer and Ben Revere makes for a crowded room.

1500ESPN’s Darren Wolfson tweeted to me that he believed that Seattle’s Chone Figgins would be a possibility given his struggles in the Northwest. Over the past two seasons since signing with the Mariners, Figgins has been every kind of awful there is at the plate. By any metric available, you can see that he has not performed. His OPS (594) is the second-worst in baseball. His slugging (.285) has been the worst among qualified starters. His wOBA (.275) is the fourth-worst (interestingly enough, four of the top five worst wOBAs belong to Mariners). There is little redeeming value for the Twins in Figgins.

It’s hard to pinpoint what happen to him that allowed him to spirl out of control. Since switching from the Angels, Figgins has expanded his swing zone, chasing after more balls and putting a greater amount of bad pitches in play. Could a different location with a different lineup allow Figgins to bounce back to pre-2010 form? It’s possible, as it seems that Seattle is the place where offense and dreams go to die.

On top of his struggles, Figgins is shackled to a fairly monsterous contract that includes paydays of $9 and $8 million in 2012 and 2013. It is hard to see Seattle agreeing to chew through a lot of that in order to make it more friendly for the Twins to take a flier out on Figgins. At the end of the day, the Twins need a hitter that can perform now, not a project like Figgins.

Beyond a crowded outfield, the Twins also have a plate full of designated hitting-types in Jim Thome and Jason Kubel. This means that the more veteran options with that oh-so-valuable “post-season” experience that are likely to be flipped (Hideki Matsui,Jason Giambi) have little versatility to offer.
St Louis Post-Dispatch’s Joe Strauss claims that the Cardinals, who have a need for pitching - both starting and a left-handed specialist - have been in contact with the Minnesota Twins.
This certainly could be an interesting landing spot for Kevin Slowey where the Cardinals love their strike-throwing starters and have done well reviving careers. At the same time, there is little St. Louis likely has available that would help the Twins immediately. There are a few intruging bullpen arms including the 27-year-old Mitchell Boggs who is arbitration-eligible at the end of the season. The Cardinals haven’t asked Boggs to work too many high leverage innings but he has compiled a decent season. For the Twins, he would be a nice right-handed option to reprive Alex Burnett in the 6th or 7th inning.
Because of limited amount of talent that could help the Twins this year, I would bet that the two teams are unlikely bedfellows.
According to Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (hat-tip, the Pirates are not pursuing Kevin Slowey.
On any other year of the millennium, the Pirates may have been a worthy partner to pry a decent relief arm away from but as current frontrunners of the NL Central, the Bucs are not likely to surrender any useful pieces.

Still, it’s interesting that Biertempfel says the team isn’t pursuing Slowey. While Slowey and his health is a mystery, it’s somewhat surprising the Pirates are not more interested in the right-hander. After all, the Pirates’ rotation, despite boasting the NL’s fifth-best ERA (3.61) also has the highest xFIP (4.09) suggesting that the sunny days might not last forever with this current group. Additionally, Pittsburgh’s starters have amassed the third-least amount of innings (586.2) indicating they may need some new blood.  
The Star Tribune’s Joe Christensen wonders is Kyle Gibson’s recent struggles in AAA have possibly made the decision to move Kevin Slowey for relief help that much more difficult.

Gibson’s most recent outing in Indianapolis yielded four runs on seven hits and a career-high five walks to just one strikeout. According to Gibson, he had difficulties with his off-speed offerings:
“I felt pretty decent, but my off-speed wasn’t really as good as it has been, so when I was behind in the count I couldn’t really use that to get myself back in the count.”
This has been somewhat of a disappointing string of starts for Gibson who, in the month of July, has allowed 24 hits in the past 14 innings of work. Of course, while the tangible issues with his secondary offerings are substantial, Gibson likely has some reason to gripe about his defense. Gibson owns the second-highest ground ball rate in the International League (57%) but backs that up with the third-highest batting average on balls in play (.346).

The Twins recently held an open tryout camp in Fort Myers and for the first time in six years, the team actually signed a participant: Custer, South Dakota native, J.R. Krogstad.
Evaluators were impressed with Krogstad’s 91 mile per hour fastball complemented by an 87 mile per hour slider. They signed the 6-foot-2 right-hander and shipped him to the Gulf Coast League were the former paleontologist is attempting to rise in the system. Krogstad is an interesting story even if it becomes a footnote in Twins history. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

Concern for Capps

During the Sunday afternoon pre-game show on 1500ESPN, Twins general manager Bill Smith addressed the current shuffling at the backend of the bullpen. As diplomatic as he could, Smith acknowledged that Matt Capps wasn’t performing up to snuff, and that Capps was disappointed in himself, but – most importantly – his ability to rebound would be essential to the Twins’ success this season.

Say what you will about the Twins decision to trade for him last year or committing $7.15 million for this season, but as they said in the movie Juno, that’s one doodle that can’t be undid, homeskillet. While fans can whine and grouse about the past, at this juncture, the GM is exactly right: The Twins need an effective Matt Capps.

This winter the front office had a bevy of right-handed hurlers including Capps, Joe Nathan, Alex Burnett, Pat Neshek, Kevin Slowey and Anthony Slama. However, injuries and ineffectiveness has left the team operating with a shortage of righties. Now, knee-deep in the fringe of a pennant race, the Twins have admitted they are targeting outside help in this department, including Toronto’s Jon Rauch and Jason Frasor. For the Twins, if Capps is able to regain his form, adding another arm would give the bullpen much needed depth from the right-side. If he isn’t, it’s simply swapping out one arm for another.

So, how big is that “if” for Capps?

The coaching staff has said it is an unspecified mechanical issue, which is somewhat odd considering how good Capps supposedly is at self-diagnosis. According this preseason interview with Baseball Prospectus’s David Laurila, Capps said he is very much a proponent of using video analysis to study his mechanics:  
MC: The last couple of years, video is something I’ve really started to lean on quite a bit. I look at different things, like past at-bats against a hitter. I also try to watch myself, especially [in spring training]. I go back and watch videos of myself to kind of see what I’m doing now compared to then. I want to make sure that I’m on the same page mechanically and where I need to be.
 DL: When you’re out of sync, what is typically at fault?
MC: I’m usually breaking down my back side, or I’m jumping too soon, or both. They kind of go hand-in-hand with each other. If I break down my back side, I tend to leap toward home plate. I get a little fast in my body and my arm can’t catch up. That’s usually the first thing I watch for, to see what my back knee and my hip are doing.
Even with Capps’s well-trained eye, the ousted closer recently told’s Tom Pelissero that they have not been able to pick anything out that resembles a mechanical issue:
"I've looked. Andy's looked. (Expletive), I'm tired, but who's not? I think the workload early in the year has finally caught up a little bit. But I'll get through it. (Expletive), if I keep the ball down and get a lot of movement and not too much everything else, I should have been fine the last couple weeks. I'll go back to that and I'll be fine."
There is little doubt that he has been leaving his pitches up. Opponents have gone from hitting it on the ground 51% of the time in 2010 to just 31% of the time this season. It’s flat and hitters have been letting him know that with resounding enthusiasm. With his fastball not achieving the same results as last year, the decline in his swinging strikes, his constant shifting on the pitching rubber, not to mention the fact that his pitches are not moving as well as they did a year ago, it begs the question: Is Matt Capps playing hurt?

The impetus for raising the question goes beyond the recent string of rough outings. It is because Capps’s motion contains what is referred to as hyperabduction of the pitching elbow. Hyperabduction occurs when a pitcher lifts his elbow above shoulder-level which places added stress on those two areas and has led to both labrum and elbow injuries. The shot below highlights this effect:

While his injury history has been relatively clean, Capps did land on the disabled list with shoulder bursitis and elbow swelling while with Pittsburgh. Although he has not had any bouts with injuries since 2009, the ugly results in 2011 raises the question if he is playing through an injury.    

Undoubtedly, there is a level of machismo in baseball that would spur a player to continue on despite a nagging shoulder or a barking elbow. Nick Blackburn pitched all of last year with bone chips. Scott Baker, with the aid of a cortisone shot, attempted to persevere through the same. Ditto for Joe Nathan in 2009. What’s more is that there is the added financial incentive to remain on the field – even at less than 100%. For someone who is a free agent at the season’s end, they need to audition for their next paycheck. For relievers especially, spending the season in the whirlpool won’t land you multi-year contracts.

In the end, the best case scenario that Capps overcomes whatever mechanical issue they identify, he returns to being that consistent late innings pitcher in the second-half and any maneuver made at the deadline is just adding quality depth. On the other hand, if news breaks that Capps needs some DL-time, it should not come as a surprise. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

The power of Plouffe

You can say this about Trevor Plouffe: Whenever he shows up, he certainly announces his presence with authority.
When recalled in early May Plouffe smacked a home run off of Boston’s Tim Wakefield in his first at-bat. Last night, he matched that by displacing a Bruce Chen-delivered Rawlings into the left field foul pole.
This display of power a relatively new feature to Plouffe’s game. Despite hitting double-digits in home runs in 2010, slugging 17 home runs over the course of 489 plate appearances split between Rochester and Minnesota, the infielder is currently having one of his best power seasons. So far in 2011, Plouffe has topped that by hitting 19 home runs in just 296 plate appearances.
It is remarkable to go from hitting a home run every 28.7 plate appearances to tagging one every 15.6 plate appearances. For comparisons’ sake, last season Jim Thome popped off a home run every 13.6 plate appearances. So how is it that Plouffe suddenly pops off for this much power? It appears that Plouffe made some adjustments to his approach.
In early in the 2010 season, Plouffe demonstrated plenty of pre-swing bat movement – stirring the soup with his bat if you will. In this at-bat against Milwaukee’s Jeff Suppan, notice the constant movement of his bat. He continues to do this until the pitch is well on its way before he draws back his pre-launch point with his hands.

This is very similar to Danny Valencia’s bat-stirring prior to the pitch being delivered. From the side-view, you can see how far the bat has to travel from the starting point near his head to the loading, pre-launch point. It is noisy and, for the most part, unnecessary.

Meanwhile in this year’s version, Plouffe exhibits a much calmer demeanor at the plate, holding his bat still and reducing the distance it has to travel for it to reach the pre-launch position:

This improvement is better appreciated from the side view in which you can see his hands barely needing to cover any ground in order to get in the loaded position.

Another aspect that he has demonstrated better this year is a more violent leg lift/plant tandem then he did in the past season. This has created a firm front leg and allows for a more aggressive hip rotation which assists process of driving the ball.   
All of this has led to more connectivity, greater punch but most of all, lift. For most of his career, Plouffe was hovering around 45-50% in the ground ball rate department in the minor leagues. Meanwhile in Rochester this year, he has hit the ball on the ground just 31% of the time. In short, he is hitting the ball squarely.
The tall, long-armed Plouffe clearly has the body capable of generating power. In fact, he is built very similarly to last year’s shortstop JJ Hardy, who has been enjoying his first season with the Orioles. But, for the majority of his prospecthood, he failed to maximize his potential in that department. These latest adaptations have seemingly tapped into that source. Provided that the Twins can find a position for him, Plouffe could be a big offensive addition for the season’s second-half.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Quick Hits: Demoted Renes, Promoted Plouffe and Span

1500ESPN’s Phil Mackey tells us the Twins, in recalling Delmon Young and Trevor Plouffe, have send down the Rene’s – Tosoni and Rivera.
While the Tosoni decision was relatively straightforward, deciding between backstops Drew Butera and Rivera appeared more complicated. Butera has become the favorite for Carl Pavano, subduing the running game for the sluggish-in-the-stretch righty. Rivera, on the other hand, had coaxed some of the best work out of Francisco Liriano. Neither offered much in the way of offense but in his limited reps Butera has gone 12-for-37 (.327) in his last 36 plate appearances whereas Rivera had been an ice-cold 5-for-35 (.143) recently.

Meanwhile Plouffe’s returning with plenty of fanfare after decimating some AAA pitching. From May 1 to May 20, the shortstop performed extremely well at the plate, hitting .289/.404/.579 with 3 home runs and a pair of doubles. Then, opponents began to pick on a soft spot in his swing down-and-in. From May 21 until his demotion, he went 1-for-22 with just four balls hit out of the infield. Plouffe’s outpour of offense at Rochester suggests that either he’s (a) figured out how to handle that pitch or (b) AAA teams have not been able to exploit this spot.
Denard Span is inching closer to returning writes reporter Rhett Bollinger. According to the manager, Span will be re-evaluated either Tuesday or Wednesday by doctors this week and, if given the all-clear, will be assigned to Rochester for 7-to-10 days on rehab.
Between Ben Revere and Denard Span, the Twins would tout one of the best defensive outfield combinations in baseball. While Span has been much improved in his time in center, Revere has proven that with his speed he can not only cover the area in Target Field but would like patrol the land between the Red River and Lake Superior just as well.  Together, they have helped the Twins convert an MLB-leading 76 out-of-zone catches while making the majority of plays within their designated zone. Their joint efforts in the outfield would give the Twins' fly ball pitchers above-average support.

It’s not hard to imagine Span moving to a corner outfield slot in order to accommodate for the rangier Revere but if there is one position Span should not be moved from it’s the lead-off spot. Although Revere has adequately enough in Span’s absence, Span is clearly a more polished lead-off hitter. 

Friday, July 08, 2011

Nishioka makes strides from left side

Through the first 20 games in his short career, some pundits were already labeling Tsuyoshi Nishioka a “bust” and a “mistake” by the Twins front office. There were little indications that he would be someone who could handle playing at the highest level of professional baseball. Defensively, he played like with the jitteriness of someone on 27 cups of caffeinate crack while offensively, major league pitchers – particularly those of the right-handed variety – were chewing him up and spitting him out.
Perhaps because of JJ Hardy’s thunderous performance with his new team or Trevor Plouffe’s continued decimation of International League pitching, scrutiny over Nishioka’s lack of offensive contributions has taken center stage. While his numbers are still depressing, there is evidence that he might be capable for turning things around.
In the beginning of the season, Nishioka’s one-foot-out-of-the-box style of hitting from the left-side was easily defused by a steady stream of pitches on the outer-half of the plate. Scouts clearly saw this flaw in his game and opponents went to work exploiting this weakness:
Tsuyoshi Nishioka’s Pitch Location (Left)
(data from
With his momentum taking his body towards first, the switch-hitting infielder could do little but dribble and doink the deluge of fastballs and off-speed pitches with minimum oomph. Below is a prime example of this in action. The Giants’ Ryan Vogelsong runs a fastball down and away which Nishioka – whose weight is already moving towards first base when contact is made – bounces it innocuously enough to short:
After several weeks of watching this transpire, at the end of June, manager Ron Gardenhire had enough of Nishioka’s left-handed approach:
"He drifted off the ball again tonight. He's got to stay there. He can't drift off like that."
Helpless at the plate, with the language barrier - in addition to a technology barrier – the Twins seemed to have their own internal issues attempting to communicate with the scuffling rookie. Despite all of the obstacles, it appears that the team has found a way to get the message through to Nishioka. Not long after that, Nishioka appears to have made two changes that have provided the team with some reassuring signs of progress.
Posted in Joe Christensen’s Around the Majors blog, Amelia Rayno and Alex Prewitt wrote that Twins hitting coach, Joe Vavra, had provided the shortstop with some psychological and mechanical tips – the latter of which Nishioka did not care to divulge. In spite of the secrecy, after watching him since the Rays series and from consulting the recent clips of his swing compared to earlier cuts, we find that from the left-side of the dish, Nishioka has made an alteration that should help improve his overall coverage.
Here is a clip from April:
Compare that to last night’s swing:
In the first clip at Yankee Stadium, you see Nishioka swinging his front leg open more, planting the right foot towards the first base line. This motion already sets him up for struggles when being pitched away – and that is before the problems piled on when the rest of his body begins to drift off toward that direction in mid-swing. The second clip of Nishioka’s single back up the middle last night shows him striding and planting his lead foot towards the pitcher, keeping his front-side in more. This gives him the capacity to cover the entire plate. After all, look how much closer he ends up at the plate in comparison to the above clip in San Francisco.
The second change in what is a giant step forward for the rookie is his drastic reduction in the amount of pitches chased on the outer-half. While pitchers are still trying to work him away, Nishioka has begun to lay off those extremely tough pitches just off the plate.
The charts below show the location of the pitches Nishioka has swung at (viewed from a catcher’s perspective). What we see is that from April through June (top chart), Nishioka offered at plenty of the pitches on the far side of the zone. While those pitches are within the strike zone, they are very difficult pitches to hit well – a “pitcher’s pitch” as Bert would say. Since the beginning of July (bottom chart), he has refrained from swinging at those pitches.
In essence, Nishioka has made improvements twofold. The first being the mechanical adjustment that allows him to cover the zone better. As noted above, he is driving toward the pitcher more with his weight and has effectively increased his plate coverage. The second is that he is simply recognizing which pitches he can and cannot handle. So while he may be able to put that fastball on the black into play, the results are not likely going to be favorable. Taking that pitch is a much better decision.
This could be a significant turning point in Nishioka’s development in his first season stateside.  He still has a long ways to go in order to become one of the “better shortstops in the American League” as his former Chiba Lotte executive predicted, but Nishioka is at least back on the right path.

  • The National Parkinson Foundation of Minnesota has a great offer for Twins fans that can help the foundation. Bert Blyleven’s favorite foundation is offering tickets to an upcoming Twins/Royals game on July 16th.  It also happens to be the day his number “28” gets retired. For $24, fans get a seat in section 329 with the proceeds going to support Parkinson’s research. You can find more information on the organization and purchase your ticket here.