Wednesday, May 18, 2011

OtB Twins Notes: Liriano in the zone, Cuddyer's heating up and Mijares is down

The no-hitter in Chicago notwithstanding, Francisco Liriano turned in perhaps his best performance of the season on Tuesday night in Seattle.  In seven innings of work, Liriano limited the Mariners to one run on three hits while striking out nine and walking one.
Prior to the game, I tweeted that the key to success for Liriano would be to get ahead of hitters, something that he has not done well all season. In fact, even during his no-hitter, Liriano managed to get ahead of just 37% of the total batters faced that night. Meanwhile, last night he was able to jump ahead in 65% of his opponent match-ups, setting him up to use his slider and changeup more frequently resulting in the season-high nine strikeouts. Once again, Liriano was not particularly efficient, burning through 110 pitches in seven innings, but because he was working ahead of hitters – not to mention facing a fairly cushy lineup – Liriano showed flashes of his 2010 self. That’s a good sign by any measure.
The month of May has been kind to Michael Cuddyer: In 55 plate appearances since the end of April, the much-maligned right fielder is hitting .327/.400/.408 (16-for-49) with five runs driven in.
Last Friday, I analyzed Cuddyer’s approach and reached the conclusion that his power decline – much like that of Joe Mauer – is a product of various ailments in his lower-half. A day later Cuddyer hooked his fourth home run of the year into the left field bleachers and my Twins-watching, blog-reading, facebook-commenting Grandmother invited me to “eat my words”.

As delicious as those words would taste, I did mention that Cuddyer was given an opportunity to build on his numbers as the Blue Jays’ would trot out back-to-back left-handed pitchers. In a small number of plate appearances, Cuddyer has continued his ownership over southpaws, hitting .325/.400/.575 with three home runs when facing the sinister. On the other hand, he’s been downright pitiful against same-sided pitchers, hitting a middle infielder-like .235/.297/.294, thereby diluting his overall numbers.

Again, Cuddyer is a strong player, capable of muscling pitches into the stands as he did over the weekend but his timing is often off as demonstrated by regularly having his weight on his front foot well before some pitches arrive. Perhaps with missing a significant portion of spring training, it would take Cuddyer a month or so to get back into his rhythm. Still, he is certainly replaceable against right-handed pitchers – something the Twins should consider doing when Jim Thome returns from his rehab assignment.
The Twins placed Jose Mijares on the 15-day disabled list with reported elbow pain. After spending most of his career with decent command with occasional lapses, Mijares struggled mightily with his control in 2011:

First-Pitch Strike%
Swinging Strike%
As a rule of thumb, loss of control/command is an indicator of elbow problems while velocity decline is a sign of shoulder issues. Clearly, based on his inability to stalk the strike zone, the surfacing of an elbow injury isn’t a surprise. Fortunately, according to the MRI performed on Tuesday, there were no signs of structural damage.
When the Twins were piecing together their bullpen this past offseason, Mijares figured to play the key left-handed set-up role, even lauded for his development of a two-seam fastball that would help keep right-handed opponents at bay.  Mijares, however, must not have had confidence in this new pitch as pitch f/x has not registered him as throwing one yet this season and has walked an atrocious nine of 30 right-handed hitters faced. As the team asks themselves how they got to the point where they have one of the worst functioning bullpens in baseball (5.11 ERA, -0.9 WAR) after being consistently solid, Mijares’s ineffectiveness can be considered a prime reason for the regression.