Monday, January 03, 2011

A Handful of Predictions for 2011

Seeing as that this new year is just three days old and we are still a month away from pitchers and catchers flying down to the warmer climate to trot off their holiday weight, it is probably very premature to make these predictions. Even so, in no particular order, here are four things I expect to happen in the 2011 season:

Denard Span will be on base more.

After posting his career low on-base percentage in 2010 (.331), the Twins center fielder should be primed to rejuvenate that mark this year.

When pitchers adjusted to Span’s patient approach by buzzing strikes in on the first pitch more frequently, the left-handed lead-off man was often put in debt in the count. This led to fewer walks overall as his rate decreased for the second straight season, lowering from 10.4% to 8.5%. Nevertheless, because of his keen eye at the plate (his 18.5% out-of-zone chase rate is the fifth-lowest in baseball since 2009) and his ability to make contact (90.9% contract rate since ’09, seventh-highest), Span will continue to exercise judicious decision-making in the batter’s box moving forward.

But that wasn’t the only factor towards his reduced on-base percentage.

Span, a habitual line drive/groundball hitter, witnessed his batting average on those balls diminish greatly in 2010. Since more of his batted balls went to gloves in 2010, Span had a fair share of hits taken away from his totals and thus decreasing his on-base percentage.

Batting Average on Balls In Play
Line Drives

In all, this led to a 59-point decrease in his batting average on balls in play, significantly influence his overall numbers. Part of this BABIP decline may have to do with his minor yet potentially impactful alteration with his hand position, bringing the bat closer to his body at the beginning of the year. This led to an inordinate amount of grounders in the season’s first-half. Later in the year, it appeared that Span was getting his hands further away from his body, resulting in more line drives as the season progressed.

As noted above, Span maintains terrific plate discipline skills. Likewise, because of his ability to utilize the spacious center field area at Target Field with a high percentage of line drives, Span is poised to be the catalyst at the top of the order that the Twins envisioned when they signed him to a long-term deal.

Danny Valencia will encounter the proverbial “sophomore slump”.

This one isn’t that hard to foresee. After all, his batting average on balls in play was at an inflated .345 – a hearty fifty points higher than the league average. But that’s not the reason that I anticipate some decline in his numbers.

Often, communication and scouting reports move at various speeds throughout the league. Someone who can’t handle breaking pitches might be discovered immediately and word spreads like wildfire. Other times, certain holes and tendencies are not exposed until after the season. Take Denard Span for example. It took nearly two years for teams to pepper the strike zone early in the count in order to put Span at a disadvantage and it kept him off the bases in 2010.

In Valencia’s case as the 2010 season progressed it became clear that, while demonstrating great plate coverage, he had a soft spot in the zone: down and in.

 Whereas the 2010 season was a dance of trial-and-error for opponents when facing Valencia, as this information gets disseminated through the league, teams will attempt to exploit this weakness while avoiding his strengths in 2011.

Of course, this doesn’t automatically mean Valencia will have a down year, just that he will struggle more this coming season. To be sure, the Twins third baseman has shown that he is a monster when it comes to hitting up and out over the plate. In fact, according to Inside Edge his .203 well-hit average on pitches up in the zone was the second-best in baseball behind teammate Joe Mauer. Unlike some overeager rookies who tend to yank that pitch, Valencia uses the “big part” of the field – hitting 21.3% of balls in play to center field.

Jim Hoey will have a Grant Balfour circa-2008 emergence for the Twins.

Okay, this one is not based on anything remotely scientific, but bear with me on this.
Both Hoey and Balfour are cut from the power-pitching ilk, born from the same lineage that loves lighting up radar guns. Likewise, both had various arm injuries sidetracking promising careers. Balfour required Tommy John surgery in 2005 at the age of 27 while Hoey had his foray with Tommy John in 2004 at 21 years old. More recently, while attempting to correct his career path, a tear in his labrum required additional surgery for Hoey.

In Balfour’s case, the Twins decided to cut ties with the right-handed Aussie after the 2005 season, shortly after his date with the surgeon. He would sign a minor league deal with the Reds only to be selected off the waivers by the Brewers at the end of the ’06 season and rehab in their system. Before being called to Milwaukee, the Brewers shipped Balfour to Tampa for Seth McClung in the middle of the ’07 season. It was there with the Rays in ’08 that Balfour regained his health. That year, Balfour, tossing a 94.6-mph fastball, carved through opponents, striking out 82 in 58.1 innings of work and leading to a very impressive 1.54 ERA.

The savvy Rays front office targeted a talented yet damaged product and received an amazing value as Balfour has become an integral part of the Tampa bullpen the past three seasons.

Minor League Comp.
G. Balfour
J. Hoey

Many skeptics question Hoey’s control, particularly given his walk rate in the last two seasons. Certainly, his 5.9 walks per nine innings is un-Twins-like however this is more likely a byproduct of his recovery from labrum surgery as prior to that Hoey averaged just 2.5 walks per nine innings. Like Tommy John, recovering from labrum surgery can be a long, tedious process. Fans may recall Jesse Crain’s road back after a similar surgery in 2007 in which he didn’t appear fully recovered until the second-half of the 2009 season.

If the Twins coaching staff can help him regain his control this spring, Hoey could be a big contributor in the bullpen this coming season and beyond.

Scott Baker will be the second-best pitcher in the rotation.

I know what you are thinking, “If that is true, the 2011 season ended up being an unmitigated disaster”, but hang on. Scott Baker is actually much better than advertised.

Since 2008, Baker has held one of baseball best strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.39 K/BB, 11th-best), showing both the ability to avoid walking hitters and striking them out when necessary. These are the foundations of a very good starter: No walks, high amount of strikeouts.

Of course, that is just a part of the pitching equation, the other part happens when hitters put the ball into play.

Because he likes to work up in the zone and above it, hitters find it easy to get underneath Baker’s offerings. This is why he is a predominately fly ball-type pitcher. This is not a problem in and of itself but there were two factors that influenced his season in 2010.

In 2008 and 2009, Baker had an outfield defense that had both Carlos Gomez and Denard Span behind him. This past year, with Gomez gone, not only did Baker have Delmon Young and Michael Cuddyer covering more real estate in Target Field, when Justin Morneau’s season-ending concussion required Cuddyer to relocate to first it was Jason Kubel who was pressed into duties in right field, further diluting the defensive talent.

This means that more balls found grass and shot gaps than in previous seasons:

BABIP on Fly Balls

To compound the problem, in the middle of the season, Baker revealed that he was having tendonitis issues in his elbow. It was this that likely caused him to drop his release point. With the lowered release point, we see flattening of his fastball and some loss of command in the zone leading to more hard hit balls.

If Morneau returns from the concussion and Cuddyer able to return to his normal position, this should improve Baker’s outfield defense over the assortment at the end of last sesaon. (Of course, platooning in the speedy Jason Repko in Baker’s starts would be an ideal alignment.)  Likewise, since he opted to have a minor procedure in the offseason to correct his elbow issue, Baker will likely return to his pre-tendonitis release point where he had much better command. Together, this should reduce the amount of hits surrendered and leave the 29-year-old righty with his low walk, high strikeout stuff.