Monday, August 29, 2011

Quick Hits: Slowey's outing, Valencia's defense, Hughes' adjustments

Despite a promising outing from Kevin Slowey (7 innings, 6 hits, 2 earned runs with 2 walks and 3 strikeouts), the Twins starter managed to induce only two swing-and-misses the entire evening.  Admittedly, his mechanics look much better than they did thorough 2010 but I will always wonder if his wrist surgery will influence his ability to throw a decent slider – perhaps an explanation for why his swinging strike rate has dropped from a pre-surgery rate of 8.7% to 6.5% ever since including a low 3.3% this year. At this point, with the starting rotation in shambles, Slowey should get an ample opportunity to audition for a spot next season.

It had been 105 plate appearances since the last time Tsuyoshi Nishioka drew a walk before coaxing one off the otherwise precision-geared Mark Buerhle in the top of the third inning on Monday. It’s just another tidbit that illuminates how overmatched Nishioka has been at the plate.

In the eighth inning of last night’s game, Dayan Viciedo knocked a soft chopper between the mound and Danny Valencia. Because of the pace of the ball, Valencia needed to make a play on the run while charging across the diamond. Instead of fielding the ball, Valencia muffed it, allowing Alexei Ramirez to score when the ball trickled away. While the Twins pitchers absorb the brunt of it, the infield defense is one of the more substantial reasons the staff has seen a significant spike in ERA over last year. Going around the horn, the infield has seen a big jump in the amount of plays made – including going from saving 10 runs in 2010 to giving away 21 runs in 2011, the second-lowest total in baseball, at third base.

Luke Hughes who has had a sudden power surge, going 5-for-10 with a double and three home runs in the past three games, has made a slight mechanical adjustment (how much do I like pointing those out?) in which he has raised his hands above his head during his pre-swing position. This is a very similar adjustment to what Delmon Young did back in June (only to drop it for several series and then pick it up again). Reviewing’s video archives, this appears to be a change that Hughes made after he was sent back down to Rochester at the end of July. It has certainly worked well for him as prior to his recall he had 13-for-39 with four doubles and a pair of home runs in his previous 10 games before being summoned to the Twins.

After giving up 5 or more runs in 16 of the past 24 games prior to Sunday’s game against Detroit, the Twins pitching staff now has two consecutive games of holding opponents to three runs. Is it a coincidence that Rene Rivera was behind the plate the past two games

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Twins front office got one right with Jim Thome

Since taking over as general manager of the Twins in late 2007, Bill Smith and his front office staffers have signed over 50 free agents. And, without question, Jim Thome has been the best of the Smith era.
While the majority of those 50-plus signings spent their time as minor league roster filler, since taking over the big chair, Smith has signed the likes of Adam Everett, Craig Monroe, Mike Lamb, Livan Hernandez, Joe Crede and Orlando Hudson. With maybe the exception of Hudson, none of those players have even come close to matching the on and off-field production of Jim Thome.
Like the bulk of Smith’s free agent acquisitions, Thome had flaws which dropped him into the Twins’ price range. His 2009 was marred by nagging injuries that wreaked havoc on his ability to catch up to fastballs. Baseball analysts began to question whether his career was entering an inevitable slide and, at that time, I reached the same conclusion based on the data that suggested a decline in power and bat speed. Because of this, interest in Thome was tepid at best so the Twins were able to land him for basically a pauper’s wage of $1.6 million.
Meanwhile, Thome spent the 2010 season feeding big ol’ s&*tburgers to everyone who doubted his ability to play at the elite level. His isolated power mark of .344 that year was bested only by Toronto’s Jose Bautista who managed to lead the league with 54 home runs. Not only did his power return but he also showed that he could still catch up to big league fastballs – including this 93 mile per hour one thrown to him by Chicago’s Matt Thornton:
Because of injury concerns, Thome’s playing time was understandably rationed - that is, until Justin Morneau’s concession in Toronto forced him into a more regular role. In his last 179 plate appearances that year, Thome mashed to the tune of .301/.436/.664 with 15 home runs and helped propel the Twins to the top of the AL Central.
Due to his clubhouse presence in addition to his on-field performance, the Twins justifiably re-signed him for the 2011 season, offering him $3 million. Thome reportedly turned down more money from Texas to return to Minnesota – a place where he felt had as good an opportunity as any to win a World Series.
With injuries, ineffectiveness, steady decline and decay of the team around him, Thome put together a solid if unspectacular season of his own. Considering he smacked nearly 34% of his fly balls out of the park in 2010, a figure well above his career rate and not encroached upon since his Phillies days, it was expected to see a decline in that area. That rate tumbled to 21.8% this year – perhaps a sign of his age as it was his lowest rate in a non-injured season. Likewise, his line drive and walk rates both took a hit which led to his on-base percentage dropping from .412 to .357. Nevertheless, he was certainly one of the Twins’ best hitters even if he had a noticeable drop-off from his contributions the previous season.
In all, Thome has provided the team with almost unparalleled production from their DH position:

DH Production (2010-2011)

What's more impressive is that the Twins received this production - valued at $17.4 million by - for a small sum of just over $5 million.
Given the team’s steady descent to the bottom of the standings, the need for a part-time DH – one who would be a free agent at the season’s end - was essentially non-existent. So the Twins bid adieu to Thome – shipping him to Cleveland and saving him from the local abomination. For their part, the Twins will pocket the half-million owed to him for the rest of the season as well as receive a player-to-be-named later before an October 15 deadline. Nobody should get too excited about the return – it will likely be a C-list prospect – it is still something for nothing.
So even though the Jim Thome era has ended in Minnesota, let’s remember this as one of the few moves that the Twins front office got right.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Changes have made JJ Hardy a powerhouse once again

At the end of 2009, JJ Hardy was an offensive mess.

His overall numbers were bad but his power production had almost evaporated. He had gone from a hitter who had hit 50 home runs from 2007-2008 to one who hit 11. Unable to figure neither his problem out nor willing to pay his escalating salary, the Brewers shipped in to Minnesota for an equally perplexing talent in Carlos Gomez.  

Not long after the trade, Alex Eisenberg at compiled a marvelous progression of Hardy’s mechanical changes through his Brewers years. In determining his sudden drop-off in ’09, Eisenberg identified that Hardy had a significant arm bar in his swing causing him to have a longer swing in general. Knowing this, it is no surprise that Hardy struggled that year against left-handed pitchers who frequently targeted the outer-half of the plate. Likewise, another facet of his game that gradually worsened was his ability to turn on a baseball – this skill slowly eroded almost completely in his final season in Milwaukee.

Shortly after the Twins acquired him, I spoke with Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony who said that hitting coach Joe Vavra had seen the same thing – that he was barring out which led to a longer swing. The club went to work making some adjustments to his swing in spring camp. When he emerged, he had an overhauled swing.

Said Hardy last April:
“I shortened up my swing; my stance is a lot different. My hands aren't as far away from my body as they were in '09, which makes it a lot easier to get to the ball. It was a full year of creating bad habits, and it's taken some time to get rid of them, but I feel like I'm on the right path." 
While it may have been easier to “get to the ball” as evidence by his reduced strikeout rate (from 18.3% in ’09 to 14.4% in ’10) and increased contact rate (from 80.4% in ’09 to 85.5% in ’10), the power never manifested as his isolated power actually dropped in his move from Wisconsin (from .128 to .126). What’s more is that Hardy experienced a 4-year low in pulling the ball and for power:

% of Pitches Pulled
Slg% on Pulled Pitches

Without question, plenty of his power potential and wrist quickness was drained when he jammed his wrist in May. After returning at the end of the month with minimal offensive production, Hardy sat out the majority of June and came back with some pop in July, finishing the season hitting .302/.356/.436 over his final 227 plate appearances. Ignoring his late-season breakout and fixating on the shortcomings that paled in comparison (not to mention his growing salary), the Twins flipped Hardy to Baltimore for a pair of marginal bullpen arms.

Now, following a brief flare-up this spring, Hardy says his wrist in 100%.  Given that his output has put him on pace to have his best season at the plate since 2008 -- including 24 home runs up through Monday night – I tend to agree.

Part of the reason he has put up such impressive power numbers is that he has thrived when pulling the ball: he’s pulled almost half of his pitches to left (48.5%) and has his best slugging percentage that direction since ’08 (.907).

Look at Hardy’s home run-to-swinging strike chart from 2010 below. (Remember that these pitch f/x charts are shown from a catcher’s perspective so a right-handed batter would be on the LEFT side of the chart.) Here we see that only one of his six home runs (the green dots) came on pitches on the inner-half of the plate while the rest of his bombs came on pitches middle-away:

In comparison Hardy has been decimating pitches thrown inside this year:

Although factors such as a clean bill of health and hitter-friendlier ballpark have aided in his resurgence, Hardy has also made a slight change to his stance that is helping him exploit pitches on the inner-half better. As mentioned above, Hardy and the Twins worked diligently on getting him to keep his hands closer to his body – which offers better bat control – but it came at the expense of power. Once he got to Baltimore Hardy ditched the 2010 stance and has extended his arms while lowering them slightly:

The changes have provided Hardy with the ability to muscle it into the left field seats.

Hardy’s success in Baltimore has made me think a bit about the Twins’ teaching methods. The Twins appeared to have given Hardy a makeover that led to a decreased ability to pull the ball. While this could have been a byproduct of his wrist injury, it would not surprise me to find out that the team was trying to rid Hardy of that habit. Clearly, the Twins are advocates for using the whole field – something that they have tried to pound into Danny Valencia for much of the season when he grew pull-happy. Before him it was David Ortiz. So was a part of Hardy’s offensive re-education while in Minnesota an attempt to get him to conform to the team’s “whole field” mentality?

Hardy may never have thrived with the Twins this season like he would have in Baltimore. In addition to a less forgiving stadium in Target Field, based on the team’s insistence on contact over power, Hardy may have been spreading his hits out more rather than into the seats in left field. He may have continued to work with his hands closer to his body rather than moving them out and generating the pop he has with the Orioles.

Whatever the case or lesson here may be, Hardy’s healing and minor correction in his stance has converted the almost-non-tendered shortstop to a surefire AL Comeback Player of the Year winner. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Twins' infield needs work this winter

Yesterday, Star Tribune columnist Pat Reusse put together his agenda for the Minnesota Twins this off-season. The gist of it focused on not re-signing any of the expensive veterans and channeling that money into areas of need – specifically the pitching staff:
“When the Twins discuss the rotation for 2012, this should be the plan:
No. 1 starter: Yet to be signed/acquired hard-thrower (doesn't pitch to contact); [italics mine] No. 2: Yet to be signed/acquired veteran starter with solid stuff; No. 3: Pavano; No. 4: Liriano; No. 5: Baker, with Swarzak, Blackburn or Slowey to fill in when Baker is on the DL.”
Mr. Reusse’s request is echoed throughout every radio call-in show and blog comment section that touches the subject of what the Twins should do next season (heck, it’s been the same thing repeated since the loss of Johan Santana). While I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment, the unfortunate truth is that there is likely little opportunity for the Twins to acquire anyone fitting that description.

In terms of free agents, Texas’s CJ Wilson is the top name on the market. The 30-year-old Wilson has emerged the past two years after being a bullpen arm for the Rangers, compiling a 27-13 record with an impressive 3.28 ERA (better when you consider his home environment) and 329 strikeouts in 378.1 innings of work. When you add the fact that Wilson’s workload was light during his younger years (just 280.2 at the major league level between ages 24 and 28), a team would land a pitcher they can be somewhat confident that his arm should hold up the duration of a contract.

Of course, the Twins are not the only team looking for number one types and Wilson will potentially be a hard commodity to reel in. In addition to the Rangers who would want him to stick around, the Yankees, Cardinals, Tigers, Cubs and other spend-happy teams will be at least slightly interested in him. Outside of Wilson, there is not a name on the free agent list that qualifies as what Mr. Reusse described.

The next route -- trading for a number one starter -- is perhaps just as difficult. For argument’s sake, let’s say the Rays decide to shop James Shields. Now the Rays have proven extreme good at extracting top value for their commodities and are better than most teams, however, any team with a number one-type will be getting plenty of offers. The Rays will likely be able to get a significant package for Shields (or any other top pitching talent) and the Twins appear unlikely to assemble a matching deal – at least be able to form one without hurting the system’s long-term viability. So, while there are teams that may be inclined to moving a few good arms, it would cost the Twins dearly when it comes to the already talent-depleted farm system.

Here’s hoping the Twins are able to find a pitcher that fits the bill of a number one starter but if the Twins want to improve their rotation in the short-term, the next best option is to improve their defense. Nowhere is this more needed than in the infield.

Consider this: the Minnesota Twins – once touted as the defensive darlings of the universe – have become the worst team in the AL at turning groundballs into outs.

American League Grounders
Defensive Efficiency Ratio
Blue Jays
Red Sox
White Sox

The Defensive Efficiency Ratio tells us in broad-based terms how many times a team has successfully converted a ball in play into an out. Breaking this down into the trajectory of how a ball is put into play, we can use this to give us some idea of how teams’ outfield or infield units perform. So far in the American League this year, nearly 77% (76.6%) of all grounders have been turned into outs, but the Seattle Mariners and the Los Angeles Angels boast the league’s top slot for keeping ground balls from becoming hits.

Around the horn, the Seattle Mariners’ infield has been fairly stalwart. Their shortstops have managed track and convert 74 plays on balls out of the standard shortstop zone while holding a very good .837 revised zone rating (converting 252 of 301 plays inside a shortstop’s zone) which is third-best in the AL. Meanwhile, Mariner second basemen have made 40 plays out of the normal zone while posting a .827 revised zone rating (5th-best in AL). This – along with some exceptional pitchers in Felix Hernandez and Micheal Pineda – have given the Mariners one of the league’s best ERA’s at 3.77. While King Felix and Prince Pineda were supplying strikeouts, rotation-mate Doug Fister – a groundball pitcher who is far from a strikeout pitcher - posted a 3.33 ERA thanks to his infield backup. Had the Mariners infielders had the slightest bit of lumber to compliment the glovework, they may have wound up competitive in the AL West.

The Angels, while not nearly as rangy as the Mariners infielders, have compiled an infield that does their jobs. The shortstops and second baseman have the third-best revised zone ratings (.843 and .844 respectively) among their peers while the corners demonstrate an above-average ability to make the additional plays out of the zone. The first basemen lead the league with 35 out-of-zone plays while the third basemen are fourth with 32 out-of-zone plays. Perhaps not surprising, at 3.49, the Angels own the AL’s best ERA.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the Mariners and Angels rest the Minnesota Twins. The Twins are the American League’s worst at turning a groundball into an out. Their 73.3% conversion rate in 2011 represents a significant drop over their 76.1% from a year ago.

The agglomeration of middle infielders has provided little additional support for their pitchers. The shortstops – mainly headlined by Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Alexi Casilla – have done a decent job of nabbing an extra 60 plays out-of-zone. However, that is overshadowed by the way the shortstop unit has performed within their designated zone: their .769 revised zone rating is the worst in the AL. One year ago, with JJ Hardy and Nick Punto manning short, the team had the AL’s best revised zone rating at the position (.839). Nishioka, once thought of to be a defensive upgrade at the position, has demonstrated regularly that he is incapable of holding down a starting job at this time.

At second, the Twins have added 27 out-of-zone outs (second-fewest in AL) with a .802 revised zone rating (fourth-lowest). While Casilla has done a decent job when able to be on the field, there is an obvious drop off in the quality of defense provided when Michael Cuddyer and, to a lesser extent, Luke Hughes is playing. In 2010 the Twins put up good marks at second with veteran Orlando Hudson. That year, the Minnesota second basemen posted a .833 revised zone rating and added another 42 outs that were not in their zone.

Perhaps the most substantial decline has been the defensive production at third. Danny Valencia – given the position full-time – has shown as much range as Gilbert Gottfried in 2011. Valencia and the few fill-ins have chased down just 19 plays out-of-zone this year. Comparatively, the Blue Jays have converted an additional 46 out-of-zone plays. More worrisome, like shortstop, the in-zone plays have dropped from a league-lead .780 in 2010 to .691 this season.

The Twins pitchers are pitch-to-contact. This strategy is not sexy but it can be successful if the necessary support is there – after all, for the majority of the century the team has won division titles based on this. All of this fumbling, bumbling and stumbling in the infield has led to more hits, more base-runners, more pitches and, ultimately, more runs for the Twins pitching staff in 2011. It is not hard to see an association between the infield defense and the staff’s ERA which jumped from 3.95 to 4.48.

Even if the Twins do bring in the marquee-number-one-with-a-bullet starter, they still need to address the defense for the remainder of the rotation. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

600 Naturally

And with two mighty lumberjack swings, Jim Thome sent the white orb whistling through the Detroit night air only to disappear on both occasions over the Tigers’ left field wall.

Those swings marked home runs number 599 and the 600th home runs of his career, placing him in an elite group of individuals – eight to be exact – who have circled the bases over 600 times in their careers. Yes, the modern era with the miniature ballparks, better equipment and other performance enhancers may have removed the sheen somewhat but Thome’s name undoubtedly helps restore some credibility:

Player (age)
Home Runs
HR Log
Jim Thome (40)

Thome’s first blast came in an empty Yankee Stadium on October 4, 1991. Just a young whippersnapper of a September call-up, Thome dispatched a shot deep into the third deck in the Bronx. How could those on hand realize that he would continue to mash taters for the next two decades?

Now, twenty seasons and 599 taters later, Thome has reached the incredible milestone. Congratulations Mr Thome.


To commemorate his remarkable feat, DiamondCentric has created a limited edition t-shirt that you can purchase at the website – www.DiamondCentric .com