Saturday, April 26, 2008

Welcome Back Pontoon.

The Texas Rangers pitching staff is in dire straits - a phrase that has become as commonplace in the recent years, as accepted as saying "there's turmoil in the Middle East". Aside from the veteran Kevin Millwood (3.32 era in 38 innings pitched) and the young Red Sox groomed Kason Gabbard (2.18 era in 20.1 innings pitched) the Rangers have suffered through futile innings provided by Vicente Padilla, Jason Jennings, Luis Mendoza and Scott Feldman. These arms are a substantial drop-off from the previous two. The front two are 2-2 in their 10 starts while the other four are 2-8 in their 14 starts. Of that last group, Feldman leds with a 4.50 era in his one start this season.

The free agent market has been brutal on the Rangers as of late - Chan Ho Park being the poster child for foolish investments as the Korean hurler failed to yield an era below 5.00 in his four seasons in Arlington - so the front office made a series of trades attempting to rebuild a starting rotation, a task that proved as easy as repairing Baghdad. The Rangers traded for Vincente Padilla in 2005 and then resigned Padilla to a lucrative contract in December 2006 in a thin free agent market. This back-loaded contract ($11 million + in 2008, 2009 and 2010) for the second-best pitcher of Nicaraguan decent (Denny Martinez being the best from the Central American country) has not returned the dividends that was expected following his initial 15-10 2006 season. In 2007 injuries led to only 23 starts and a 6-10 record (9-14 in total appearances) with a 5.76 era. This season in five starts Padilla is 2-2 with an era flirting with 5.00 (4.97).

Jason Jennings was signed this offseason to a 1-year, $4-million dollar contract after being a bitter disappointment in Houston (2-9 with 6.45 era in 18 starts), an organization that sacrificed Jason Hirsh, Tyler Buchholz and centerfielder Willy Taveraz. The hype that surrounded Jennings after his 2006 season with the Rockies was based on the idea that Jennings' pitching had "solved" Coors Field. Jennings had only allowed 9 home runs at home that year and his 3.78 was the lowest among the staff while throwing 212 innings. Still this season was a significant outlier in comparison to his previous three season where he had an era above 5.00. Following his debacle in East Texas last season, Jennings has taken the mound five times only to lose all five of them with a 7.46 era.

Feldman and Mendoza, 25 and 24 years old, have been fillers in the rotation. Feldman has dabbled in the Rangers bullpen since 2005 with various results and Mendoza made three starts in 2007 with the Rangers and maintained a 2.25 era in his 16 innings. This season in his three starts Mendoza has thrown 9.1 innings and has an era over 9.00. In his past two starts, he threw three innings in one and failed to get out of the second inning in his most recent outing. He has been, at best, a work in progress it would seem.

True, injury setbacks to Brandon McCarthy have clouded general manager Jon Daniel's vision for the 2008 season, however past transactions involving rising prospects such as John Danks and Edinson Volquez has left major league-ready pitchers barren in the Rangers system. Danks, one of the trading chips in the Brandon McCarthy trade, is enjoying a good start to the season with the White Sox. In four starts he is 2-1 with a 3.04 era over 23 innings and has yet to give up a home run. While Volquez's trade to Cincinnati brought Josh Hamilton to the Rangers but Volquez so far has thrived in southern Ohio. The hard-throwing righty is 3-0 in his 4 starts with a 1.21 era and 23 strikeouts in 22 innings. The three victories constitutes 33% of the total wins on a 9-win Reds team. Needless to say, these two arms, Danks and Volquez, would certainly be welcomed back to Texas if trades were able to be nullified. The outcome of this long history of pitching staff mismanagement has led to Sidney Ponson in the starting rotation.

This is the epitome of 'desperate times call for desperate measures'. McCarthy isn't expected to throw until the All-Star break and the Rangers are placing Mendoza on the disabled list (mercifully). When Daniels, new team president Nolan Ryan and Ron Washington went to the farm system, they found it, for the most part, void of major league pitchers. Currently 25-year-old Doug Mathis leads the triple-A Oklahoma staff with a 3.12 era and a 4-0 record in his four starts. In his 26 innings, he has struck out 19 while walking just 4. His 1.04 whip is the best in the rotation. Like the Twins' Nick Blackburn last year, Mathis is getting an absurd amount of groundball outs (64%). In a venue like the Ballpark at Arlington, this would seemingly be an appealing statistic considering the rate of which flyballs tend to leave the yard. Instead, the Rangers have opted to recall Ponson, a 31-year-old enjoying marginal success in the Pacific Coast League. In 5 starts, Ponson is 1-2 with a 3.47 era over the course of 23 innings. Ponson has struck out just 12 in that time while walking 9 leading to a whip of 1.47. Though some would argue there is negligible difference between a 3.12 era and a 3.47 era when you see that Mathis's FIP is 3.98 while Ponson's bloated 5.23 FIP reflects his girthy waistline it is apparent that Mathis has been pitching that much better.

Regardless of why the Texas brain-trust decided to bring Ponson back to the majors (the need for the omnipresent veteran in the rotation?), it should bode well for the Twins tonight.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

That's A Shame.

Three starts in to what should be a tour of the Twins minor league system rebuilding a surgically repair arm Francisco Liriano looks as comfortable as an enema on the mound. He is a shadow of the F-Bomb we familiarized ourselves with in 2006. So far in three starts in 2008 have yielded an average Game Score of 28 - a tiny 15 in the most recent.

What is most disturbing is not the loss itself, but rather his peripheral numbers at this point and the story they tell. After retiring just Mark Sweeney and being substituted for Brain Bass on Thursday afternoon, Liriano is carrying a paltry strike out rate of 12% and a bloated 23% walk rate. Simply, Liriano is not locating his fastball and therefore unable to use any off-speed pitch, let alone the facsimile that was his slider, to obtain a missed bat.

After walking Kurt Suzuki to commence the bottom of the first, La Velle E. Neal suggests that Liriano began to take velocity off of his fastball in order to place it better. While it may be true that he was trying too hard find the strike zone, he actually threw above 90 mph as the inning progressed. The three walks were disturbing. Liriano had trouble establishing his fastball, throwing it in the zone only 52% of the time. When he was only able to locate his change-up in the strike zone 33% of the time, no Athletic batter - all of whom practice very good plate discipline - were not going to chase the off-speed pitch.

Liriano threw 35 pitches to 9 batters, only to record one out while walking three, giving hits to five and six runs, all earned. Analyzing pitch f/x data reveals that Liriano used his fastball (one that was ranging from 88-90) approximately 71% of the time and tossing what was categorized as a change-up 28% of time while throwing just one slider to Rajai Davis, who ended up being the last batter Liriano would face. In retrospect, the pitch f/x shows that Liriano had several pitches that probably were strikes however when it appeared evident that he was not hitting his spots, the umpire certainly was not going to give him the benefit of the doubt. This forced Liriano to throw the ball directly over the middle of the plate. As indicated in the chart below, too many pitches landed within the middle of the strike zone. A revamped, all-right-handed A's line up feasted on the fastballs (all five hits were collected on the pitch) while seven times Liriano tried to throw the substandard fastball by the batters and three times it was raked for a base hit.





Pitch Chart


< 20%














> 5%

Ron Gardenhire provided the media with post-game speculatory quotes that hinted that Liriano needs more conditioning. "We've seen him down there and up here, and now comes the time to figure out what the next best step is for Frankie to get him back to where we need him," Gardenhire said. "That's what we need to decide." After this, Rochester's manager Stan Cliburn appears prophetic. Cliburn had told Gardenhire and the front office that he believe Liriano needed additional innings in the minors prior to being major league ready. Had Gardenhire taken Cliburn's advice, Liriano's confidence might not need extra massaging while building not only his arm physically with another tour of Triple-A before May ends, but now his psyche needs work as well.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Game Notes #20

Twinks 5, A's 4 (Box Score)

  • Game Score 43 - Livan Hernandez looked strong for 4 innings but couldn't quite keep Oakland's wolves at bay. For one thing, the A's lineup did what they do best: made him earn each match-up. In six plate appearances prior to the fifth had Hernandez throwing five or more pitches. The second inning Ryan Sweeney dinged Livan for an 11-pitch at-bat. This certainly could have contributed to his decline later in the ball game. With one out in the fifth, Hernandez gave up back-to-back singles to Bobby Crosby and Chris Denorfia (who by the way, has one of the game best incomplete fu machu's in the game) but go the other Cretin graduate on the field to ground out to Morneau. With runners on second and third, the surging Kurt Suzuki singled home both runners to bring the game within one. The fifth it was visible that Hernandez was laboring, but by the sixth Hernandez was on fumes. Walking Jack Cust, the strike out, walk or home run guy, coaxed a walk then Emil Brown crushed a two-run home run to put the A's up by one. After a ground out by Ryan Sweeney, Denorfia hit a two-out double and Hernandez was saved by The Coliseum's vast foul grounds when Jack Hannahan popped out to Mike Lamb.

  • Twins are 5 and 0 when Hernandez's starts - The results are very desirable there is no question about it. Sure, everything about him is unsexy, including his strike out rate (8%) and bulbous head capable of stretch the hole in a cashmere sweater, but 5 starts and 5 wins is nothing to shake a stick at. Livan is averaging 50.4 as a Game Score over the course of those 5 starts which has undoubtedly led to several "lucky" wins. Three of those starts have been below 50 (the equivalent to a quality start) but the offensive production (5.36 runs of support) assisted in lifting the team to victory. Unlike Nick Blackburn who has pitched better in his outings (averaging 54 in 4 starts) but has been one run of support lower than Hernandez (4.11) and has been failed twice by his bullpen leading to a 1-1 record and a 1-3 record when starting. Again the results speak for themselves but I would speculate that Hernandez could hit a rough period as the run support drops.

  • .154/.154/.179 - Last 9 games for Carlos Gomez. He is 1 for his last 18 with 7 strike outs and no walks. Stats blog indicated prior to this drought that without his speed, Gomez might be hitting under .150, after all his bunt and infield hits had been leading the league. Currently Gomez has 9 infield hits with 5 successful bunt attempts however this is growing more and more worrisome as he is offering at bad pitches and terrible counts as well. Gomez opened the first 11 games of the season by hitting .292/.320/.417 and keeping pitchers and infielders off-balanced with those well-timed bunt singles. "When I'm on base, it's like I got one run already," Gomez said. "I can steal second, and then the other team's got problems. I'm on second and it's a groundball, I'll be at home." While always a threat once he gets to the bathpaths (9 stolen bases on 10 attempts) but is having a tumultuous time reaching base. Judging from the pitch f/x sequencing, you will notice that pitchers have begun throwing breaking and off-speed pitches low and away to Gomez that he has not been able to lay off.

  • 10-for-14 - Craig Monroe lifetime off of the A's Joe Blanton now thanks to a 3-for-3 night at the plate including the tying home run in the 7th - his third RBI of the night - and was a triple short of hitting for the cycle. Nice use of statistics Gardy: "Numbers. They can fool you sometimes. And sometimes they tell the story that you have to play out," Gardenhire said afterward. "Tonight was one night where he's had some success [against Blanton], so you play it out. It's just one of those crazy things in the game. No one knows how it happens. But he was on the ball."

  • .267/.333/.267 - Jason Kubel's line against left-handed pitching after singling off of Alan Embree to score the go-ahead run. The sample size is terribly small but Kubel has proven somewhat effect against left-handed pitching in his 18 plate appearances against the wrong handers. Meanwhile, in 16 plate appearances against left-handed pitching this season, Craig Monroe is hitting just .071/.188/.071. It will be interesting to see how Gardy handles left-handed starters when Michael Cuddyer returns from the DL.

Sunday, April 20, 2008


Last night in his first major league victory, Nick Blackburn kept a very good hitting Indians line-up subdued. "We faced him a couple of times last year," said Twins masher and enemy of the Baggy Travis Hafner. "He throws a sinker and does a good job putting the ball on the ground. I had some good pitches to hit, but rolled over on them [grounded out]." Platoon veteran David Dellucci echoed Hafner's quote saying, " "Blackburn pitched everybody a different way every time they came up. He's got a good sinker."

Not everybody shares that sentiment. Some have already suggested that because he is a control-artist that lacks a biting 'out-pitch' that he is somewhat susceptible to left-handed batters. Over the first four starts, the opposite is true. In 55 plate appearances against right-handed batters, the opponents have been hitting .333/.370/.375. Lefties, on the other hand (punny), are batting .239/.271/.348 in 48 plate appearances against Blackburn. What's more is that all five of his doubleplays were started by left-handed batters. Minor League's John Sickles wrote that "From a sabermetric standpoint, I am not enamored of the poor strikeout rate, but his control is sharp enough for him to help out as a fifth starter/long relief type. Grade C+." Conversely, Dave Cameron (USS Mariner) wrote at the FansGraph blog that "[w]hile this isn’t as sexy as blowing hitters away with 96 MPH fastballs or a power curve, the combination of throwing strikes and getting ground balls is a proven winner. This is the Aaron Cook/Jake Westbrook path to success - pound the strike zone with pitches at the knees, don’t put anyone on base without making them swing, and let your infielders do the work."

So far, that is the recipe for success. Certainly a 12% strikeout rate will lift eyebrows when attempting to gauge a prospect but couple that with a 2% walk rate and a groundball rate encroaching 60% and you get a major league pitcher. Blackburn has provided positive results for the team. In his four starts he is averaging Game Score of 54 - above the quality threshold - and has yet to yield a home run in his 25 innings of work. In those innings Blackburn has held a 58% groundball rate and only allowed solid, line-drive contact on 10% of balls put in play - his .329 babip is somewhat high for a groundball pitcher. If Blackburn is able to keep his groundball rate above 55% he will put himself in position of success. Last year, Fausto Carmona, Felix Hernandez and Chien-Ming Wang all finished with groundball rates over 55% and all finished with at least 14 victories.


Blackburn, like a Brian Bannister, suffers from being consistently overlooked because he does not produce gaudy strikeout totals or light up a radar gun. In the 7th round of that same draft, the Baltimore Orioles selected Joe Coppinger, Blackburn's rotation-mate in college. Coppinger never made it above high-A with the Orioles while Blackburn just finished a shutout of the Cleveland Indians in his 4th major league start. This trend would continue throughout his career.

As the 29th round of the 2001 amateur draft approached the Twins, the organization looked to pad the farm system's pitching portfolio. After all the Twins had used 13 of the 28 previous rounds to choose hurlers and it has been this philosophical mission of building around pitching where the Twins have found success. They develop from within instead of completing for overpriced free agent pitchers on the open market. 856 players had been selected before the Twins selected Oklahoma native Robert Nicholas Blackburn. Blackburn had carved himself a good college career at Seminole State College, a ju-co in Oklahoma that produced other major leaguers such as Eric Gagne and Lew Ford, but as a late round selection Blackburn's major league path was far from guaranteed. To date, of the 13 pitchers picked prior to Blackburn, only one of them has seen a major league mound, San Diego's Rule 5 steal Kevin Cameron who the Twins picked 13 rounds in front of Blackburn. This once again highlights the nature of uncertainty of the major league draft.

As a 20 year-old, Blackburn began his professional career at Elizabethton in 2002 along side highly touted 19-year-old Scott Tyler (who was the 2nd round pick following Joe Mauer). Tyler had the power and stuff to amass strikeouts by the dozens while Blackburn was more technical, relying on keeping additional baserunners off the bases and his defense to support him when groundballs came their way. As Blackburn sputtered to a 3-3 record in his 13 starts, Tyler whizzed to an 8-1 record in his 13. In 67 innings pitched, Blackburn struck out 62 and walked only 20. Tyler, on the other hand, struck out 92 in his 68 innings and had a 2.91 ERA in comparison to Blackburn's inflated 4.97. In 2003 both right-handers were elevated to then Midwest League affiliate Quad City where they experienced growing pains. Blackburn, in his 76 innings, finished 2-9 with a 4.86 ERA. He struck out only 40 batters in that period. Tyler continued to strike out opponents (110 in 103 innings) but walked 82 batters ending with a WHIP of 1.65 (Blackburn's was significantly lower at 1.24). In 2004, both Blackburn and Tyler began the season with Quad City (only now they were the newly anointed "Swing of the Quad Cities") but this time the experience proved to help the two pitchers win. Tyler finished the year 7-4 with a 2.60 ERA and 132 strikeouts in 104 innings. Blackburn went 6-4 in 86 innings pitched with a 2.79 ERA. When the Twins shuffled newly acquired Francisco Liriano from high-A to double-A, the Twins opted to bring Blackburn up to high-A over Tyler to finish the 2004 season. Over the course of 37 innings, Blackburn struck out 21 and issued only 7 walks. He was hit hard, as evident by his ERA that was above 6.00, but he threw well enough in his 7 starts to earn the right to begin 2005 with the high-A team.

It was around this time that it became apparent that the Twins valued Blackburn's ability to disperse outs through groundballs while Tyler's "fascist" strikeout approach was leading to erratic tendencies. Plus, as many washed-up prospects soon discover, hitters can hit fastballs. In 2005 Tyler pitching in 118 innings for the Miricle and struck out 109 in his first season of high-A ball. Unfortunately for Tyler, he also surrendered 18 home runs and walked another 48 batters. He finished the season 7-8 with a 3.96 ERA. Following the 2005 season, the Twins packaged up Tyler with Travis Bowyer for Florida's Luis Castillo. Tyler failed to pitch above double-A for the Marlins and has since moved to the Athletics organization where he currently in the bullpen for the Texas League affiliate.

In 93 innings with Fort Myers that season, Nick Blackburn struck out 55 but only allowed 5 home runs and just 16 walks. When New Britain was looking for another starting pitcher, they pulled Nick Blackburn up. In his first exposure to double-A, Blackburn tossed 49 innings, struck out 27 and walked only 10. He had the lowest WHIP on the team (0.92) and only surrendered one home run. Blackburn tossed 14 innings at triple-A Rochester to finish the year as guys like Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano were called up to Minnesota.

In 2006 Blackburn pitched a full season at double-A New Britain and threw 132 innings while finishing 7-8 with a 4.42 ERA. The organization, still not convinced if he was a starter or reliever, had him start 19 games and relieving in 11 more. Because of these results, Baseball America did not consider Blackburn one of the organization's top ten prospect to open the 2007 season (they didn't even project him to be in the 2010 rotation). Blackburn did throw better then the standard numbers suggest. His FIP (3.97) was lower than his overall ERA (4.42), his strikeout-to-walks (81-to-37) was strong and his groundball ratio (48%) merited a second look at the right-handed prospect. This was overshadowed by Matt Garza who during the 2006 season ascended from high-A to triple-A, posting sexy strikeout-to-walk numbers (154-to-32) and an absurdly low WHIP (0.88). As Garza was striking out nearly 28% of all batters faced, Blackburn finished 2006 with his highest strikeout rate of his younger career: 14%.

Last year the talk of the organization was Kevin Slowey. In 2006, Slowey had climbed from high-A to double-A accumulating 151 strikeouts (26%) and only allowing 22 walks (4%) in 148 innings. This earned him the number three overall Twins prospect (Garza was considered number one). Making 20 starts and throwing over 133 innings on his way to a 10-5 record, Slowey continued his control-based regiment in triple-A, striking out 107 (20%) and walking just 18 (3%). This stinginess with free passes and the ability to get strikeouts obtained Slowey a call-up to the big club. At the major league level, Slowey discovered that simply pounding the strike zone does not produce the same results as it had in the minors - this time it resulted in 16 home runs in just 66 innings. In spite of that, Slowey still finished 4-1, completing the season with a 14-6 record split between Rochester and Minnesota. Blackburn, meanwhile, started the season with double-A New Britain on his third tour of the Eastern League but was promoted to Rochester after compiling a 3-1 record with a 3.08 ERA in 33 innings of work. In that short amount of time Blackburn had stuck out 11% of batters faced and walked only 4%.

While Twins followers fawned over the Matt Garza's and Kevin Slowey's in 2007, Nick Blackburn's stock continued to rise. Selected for the Arizona Fall League, Blackburn threw 22 very strong innings, striking out 20 and walking only 2 - culminating the season with being honored as the MVP of the championship game. Baseball America shifted gears all-together and christened the number one prospect for the Minnesota Twins, declaring that Blackburn had the organization's best fastball and best control.

Because he doesn't strike out large quantities of batters at a time, Blackburn's ability will always be questioned. Results will have to speak for themselves.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Notebook Dump

Twinks 3, Rays 7 (Box Score)

  • In his previous three starts, Bonser had managed to strike out 4 and was getting strong with each outing - producing Game Scores of 46, 53 and 68 respectively. The offense had been uncooperative for the Twins righty who was only receiving 1.33 runs of support in those starts, this time however, it was certainly a different Boof this go round. His four lackluster innings complete with 6 earned runs and matched his walk total for the season (2) plus failed to strike out one member of the team that had 4 players that had struck out more than 112 times in 2007. The run producing pitches, including the home run to Eric Hinske and the rbi single to Evan Longoria, appeared to be up in the zone.

  • When Brian Bass replaced Boof in the 5th inning with the bases loaded and surrendered a two-run single to Nathan Haynes (who replaced an injured Carlos Pena). Right fielder Denard Span charged the grounder hard and missed it on the turf allowing the runners to move up. Earlier in the game, Span lost an Akinori Iwamura line-drive in the lights. These fielding mishaps coming in the wake of the Ivan Rodriguez escorted home run in Detroit recently. As I had suggested in the Rich Becker retrospective, rookies will struggle in the Metrodome outfield, partly because of nerves (Span had come into spring training determined to become the opening day centerfielder) but mostly because of the Dome's unforgiving terrain and backgrounds. "I saw the ball off the bat,'' Span said. "As it came down, I went blind and could not see it anymore. So I moved out the way.'' It takes a certain kind of crazy to be an outfielder in Minnesota, hard to do if you have a family to think about. I do think that Span will progress into a sturdy player but having Michael Cuddyer back in right field will certain solidify the outfield.

  • About 40 yards to Span's right is Carlos Gomez in center who has suffered defensively, less because of the leather but more because of his unbridled arm. "He always thinks he's going to throw everybody out," said coach Jerry White, who works with the outfielders. "He's got a lot of confidence."

  • Bass also injured his back in an intentional walk to Eric Hinske. He's listed as day-to-day for the time being. "[The doctors] don't think it is going to be long-term,'' Gardenhire said, "but we're a little short now. We used both of our long guys, and one of them is hurt now.'' If Bass is headed for the DL, the Twins might consider recalling Santana return Kevin Mulvey to the team. In his 3 starts, compiling a record of 2-1, Mulvey has tossed 17.2 innings while striking out 20 and walking just 3. Interestingly enough, 17 of those 20 strike outs have come against left-handed opponents. Though destined to be a starter, it would be interesting to see Mulvey audition in a long-relief role in the majors first.

  • Adam Everett might also be headed to the DL with his shoulder ailment and the Twins are targeting Brian Buscher to take his spot on the roster if needed. Buscher has absolutely torn up the International League thus far: in 54 at-bats, Buscher has hit 4 home runs and is batting .352/.407/.611. These impressive numbers should be taken into context as Buscher is currently getting everything to land as indicated by his .395 babip. This high rate on his balls in play suggest that his batting line will equalize eventually. What Buscher's role would be once he reached the Twins is unknown. "We've got [Nick] Punto and [Matt] Tolbert,'' Gardenhire said Thursday. "That's pretty good there. Maybe a pinch hitter off the bench, a lefthanded-hitting pinch hitter.'' The Twins should consider having Buscher dispel Mike Lamb from third for several games while he finds his swing. Though four of his seven hits have gone for extra bases, currently, Lamb is only batting .156/.204/.244 in 45 at-bats once again placing a dire offensive situation at third base.

  • F-Bomb Day tomorrow. Rick Anderson is saying that just one bullpen session after his start in Kansas City he has made some small mechanical adjustments and this has improved his slider action. Look for it tomorrow. If you haven't read AG's analysis of his first outing in 2008 you should. Then supplement it with Baseball-Intellect's breakdown of his mechanics. Hopefully Anderson saw this as well when he began his tinkering.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

No Way That Just Happened...

You know that scene in Tommy Boy where David Spade and Chris Farley are driving along with what they assume is a deer carcass in the backseat of Spade's characters once-cherry car when suddenly the deer wakes up, groggy, yet alarmed and starts thrashing out the windows, seats and roof as Spade and Farley scamper into the middle of the highway to avoid the wrath of the deer? After the mayhem ended and the deer stood majestically on the hood of the trashed car then trots off into the forest at which point, seething with disbelief Spade sputters out "No way that just happened..."

Spade, of course, personifies every Twins fans that witnessed the inaugural game in Comerica on Monday night. For the majority of the game, the Tigers looked dejected, they looked liked a 2-10 team: Ivan Rodriguez misplays a pop foul to prolong the inning that resulted in several Twins runs, Miguel Cabrera pulled Carlos Guillen off the base on a routine throw from third, Clete Thomas over ran a Kubel line drive which scored more. After each miscue, the crowd rained boos on the lifeless Tigers. Then... they lifted their heads and blinked. They remembered that they have these big, sharp teeth and these big, sharp claws. Nick Blackburn experienced the wrath firsthand in the 6th inning. "Any time a team with that kind of lineup gets on a roll, it can get dangerous in a hurry," Blackburn said. "Against this team, any mistakes are going to be magnified. They can wake up at any time." Suddenly, there was some sort of roll-reversal. Denard Span escorted what would presumably be an Ivan Rodriguez extra base hit off of reliever Matt Guerrier but was converted into a home run when he failed to secure the ball in his pocket. No way that just happened.

Neshek was asked to rescue Guerrier for the second time in just over a week. On April 7th against the White Sox, Guerrier had allowed both Jim Thome and Paul Konerko to reach before Pat Neshek was asked to get Jermaine Dye, AJ Pierzynski and Carlos Quentin prior to facing Joe Crede, who nailed a broken bat grand slam. Even though it was Neshek's slider that left US Cellular, Guerrier was burdened with the loss. Eight days later, a similar situation arose a few hundred miles east in Michigan. Neshek, after giving this game to the reeling Tigers, left the clubhouse without addressing the reporters, for the second time in the day leaving Guerrier out to dry.

After the second out of the Tigers' end sixth inning was recorded, 14 of the next 19 Detroit batters reached base safely. What transpired was essentially a repeat of what happened a week prior to Nick Blackburn, who in the 6th inning of the April 7th game against the White Sox, turned a one-run lead over to Matt Guerrier. Tonight Blackburn handed off a two-run lead over to Matt Guerrier. The once vaunted Twins bullpen has looked awfully mortal in 2008. Through the first 12 games the relief staff has been highly ineffective in late & close situation (as defined by, late & close situations are PA in the 7th or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck). In those predefined situations, opponents were batting .294/.324/.441 with 10 runs score in 68 at-bats. Raise that batting line up a few points following the night in Detroit. Tonight was the first time Matt Guerrier allowed an inherited run to score when he surrendered a single to Edgar Renteria that scored Carlos Guillen from second. Inexplicably, Justin Morneau cut off the throw from Span which could have erased the hobbling Guillen had it been allowed through to the plate. Naturally it caught Renteria leaning towards second however there was a good chance the throw could have beat Guillen. There are certainly questions as to why Guerrier was asked to start the 8th inning. "We had a four-run lead. Neshek's a setup guy. If it's a three-run lead or a two-run lead, we use him in those situations. I would think Matt Guerrier could get through. At 9-5, I think we're doing OK there." Gardenhire said.

I do not need to reiterate the importance of lead-retention when it comes to a team like the Twins. In 2006 the Miracle Twins had a relief corp that held opponents to a .223/.276/.325 batting line in late & close situations. That season relievers combined to finish 26-10 with a 2.91 era. The lackluster Twins of 2007 contained a relief staff that possessed a significantly higher .258/.325/.413 opponent batting line in those same circumstances, they finished 20-18 with a 3.87 era. Through just the first 12 games, the bullpen managed to only lose the one game (the aforementioned Neshek debacle) but they have been substantially more hittable in the critical portions of the game, being touched up at .294/.324/.441.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Happy F-Bomb Day.

For the first time since the second inning of the game against Oakland on September 13th, 2006, Francisco Liriano will toe the rubber for the Minnesota Twins. Joe C reports that Liriano isn't nervous for his 2008 debut, however, Stan Cliburn, Rochester's manager, suggests that Liriano has to work on command issues. Cliburn has some apprehension for sending Liriano to the big club at this juncture. Jim Malendero wrote that "Apparently, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire had considered Cliburn's recommendation that Liriano pitch one more game in the minors, then rejected it."

Liriano is matched up against Brian Bannister who has become the Thinking Man's Pitcher. Bannister said that he is more prone to studying pitch f/x data rather than video alone because of the pitch detail. “Everybody can throw a fastball, but if one guy’s explodes in the last 10 feet and the other’s goes dead straight, there’s a huge difference” Bannister explained. “That’s where the magic lies: in tweaking your pitches in order to get the most out of your ability.”

It would appear that the Rochester manager believes that Liriano is one start in the minors away from being ready. The International League manager was going to limit to Liriano to a 100-pitch count if he were to toss for the Red Wings one last time. In his most recent start, Liriano needed 88-pitches to get through 4 innings. Extrapolating that, you would have to believe - if Gardenhire follows the same flight plan as Cliburn of 100 pitches - Liriano will be replaced in the 4th or 5th inning by Brian Bass. The numbers suggest that Liriano isn't nearly as dominating yet, his walk rate is high and the balls in play are more adept to be in the air rather than the ground.

Friday, April 11, 2008

AL Central Update

The 2008 season, still in its infancy, has seen numerous surprises in the American League Central alone. Detroit, instead of walloping opponents as predicted during the hot stove league, has sputtered to a 1-8 start while dropping its first 7 games. This incited manager Jim Leyland (always a colorful quote) to quell everybody in Motown's fears of duplicating their 2003 season which started in similar fashion by saying, "I haven't got the answer as to why we're not hitting," he said, "If I did, I would have told the guys. If it's puzzling to me that we're not hitting, it must be really puzzling to you (the media). You guys have been calling them (the Tigers) 'murderers' row' since spring. I don't give a (expletive) about the start." Conversely, Kansas City has gotten off to an equally surprising start, which began with a sweep of the Tigers at Comerica. In as much as the Tigers starting pitching has been failing to provide quality starts, the Kansas City Royals staff has thrown copious amount of high quality innings (a baffling revelation is comparison to previous Royals teams). Through the first 8 games of the season, Detroit's rotation has averaged a Game Score of 43 while the Royals have averaged Game Score of 55. More importantly, while the Tigers offense has only offer a mere 2.68 runs of support, the Royals have been bolstering the solid pitching with 4.00 runs of support per game. Meanwhile the rest of the division - the Twins, Sox, and Indians - have jockeyed for middle ground.

Kansas City Royals

  • Joe Posnanski continue's his man-crush on Brian Bannister, analyzing his first start of the season against Detroit, which resulted in a Game Score of 77. His second game came against the Yankees at the home opener at Kauffman where he made 5 innings and gave up 5 hits while striking out 6 and walking 4 but also recieved his second victory of the year. In three match-ups against Alex Rodriguez, Bannister struck him out looking all three times. "He made some great pitches -- there's not much you can do," Rodriguez said. "I can't really look back and say those were pitches I could have hit or crushed; perhaps maybe just fouled off. Today, he was much better than I was -- give him a lot of credit."
  • Maybe it is the rube in me, but I like the fact that the Royals have added Garth Brooks's "Friends in Low Places" as a sing-a-long similar to Boston's "Sweet Caroline".
  • Nomo returned. Not graciously I might add.

Chicago White Sox

  • I find it interesting when people call something "the Twins model". Chicago GM Kenny Williams has been comparing his building of his 2008 club to that of the 2003-2004 Twins which had AJ, Torii, Denny and Dougie, or as Williams describes them as "grinders": “You know, this job is one in which you never stop learning,’’ Williams explained on Monday, hours before the Sox rallied to beat Minnesota 7-4. “Early on, I thought throwing talent at the wall would bring a championship, and for three or four years, on paper we had the best team in the division. There were at least two of those years where Minnesota won the division, and then came out and even said, ‘That team there [the Sox] has more talent than us.’ That really made me rethink some of the things we were doing, the approach we were taking.’’
  • Like Detroit's Brandon Inge, Joe Crede went into spring training considered an expendable third baseman but has completely hit the cover off of the ball. ''Joe always seems that when the game is on the line, he's 'Mr. Clutch,''' Guillen said following Crede's broken bat grand-slam off of Pat Neshek. ''He's a cold-blooded player and always seems to come through.'' Crede already has 3 home runs in just 32 at-bats this season compared to 2007 when he had 4 total home runs in 167 at-bats while hitting .406/.429/.781 in that duration.
  • Through the first eight games, the White Sox have been carried by their offensive, averaging 6.34 runs of support per game while the pitching start struggles. The starters have been averaging a Game Score of 40 in those starts - twice failing to throw in the 20s.
  • AJ Pierzynski, like Joe Crede, is having a resurgence at the beginning of this season culminating in winning the American League Player of the Week for the first week of 2008. Through the first 8 games the former Twins catcher is hitting .429/.484/.786 with six extra base hits among his 12 total hits.

Cleveland Indians

  • The Indians recently bought out Fausto Carmona's arbitration years by signing him to a 4-year, $15 million dollar deal similar to the one the Cardinals signed Adam Wainwright to. In his first two starts, Carmona is maintaining his groundball trend which he established last season at a 66% rate, this year 88% of balls in play have been on the grass. He has shown erratic tendencies including walking 9 in just 11 innings.
  • Through 9 games, Cleveland was tied with the Twins but had a much different picture of how they reached that record. Averaging 4.22 runs of support per start, the Indians dropped 3 out of 4 games when they surrendered 6 runs or more. The Indians starting rotation has been producing nearly a quality start each outing (an average Game Score of 49) but it is the bullpen that has been failing, specifically closer Joe Borowski. In 2.3 innings Borowski has allowed 5 earned runs, including 2 home runs and already blowing one save. Cleveland might have to admit early that the lucked out in 2007 using Borowski as a closer: Despite leading the American League in saves, Borowski was only able to covert 84% of his opportunities and was nearly a full earned run higher (5.07) than every other closer with double-digit saves not named Al Reyes (4.90). Rafeal Betancourt and his 31 holds in 2008 is a great candidate to replace Borowski.

Minnesota Twins

  • Contrary to what preseason wags believed, the Twins starting rotation has been one of the most consistent in the division, next to the Royals, averaging a Game Score of 51 through 9 games. I'll admit Livan Hernandez's back-to-back starts have been good, he has been the recipient of 1 run of support more per start (5.01) then the staff's average (4.04). Even though as I am writing this Hernandez just finished 7 innings of scoreless ball against the Royals, I am not yet ready to proclaim him the ace. Call me bitter, but I am still reminded of the 2007 start of Ramon Ortiz: through his first five starts, Ortiz was 3-1, averaging a Game Score of 59 per start. In his last five starts as a Minnesota Twin, Ortiz averaged a paltry Game Score of 28 finishing 3-5 prior to being sent to the bullpen and then ultimately Colorado. Obviously injuries to Kevin Slowey and Francisco Liriano's inability to be ready come season open has validated the necessity to sign Hernandez, however, the ascension of Nick Blackburn has also proved that if the Twins have faith in their developed talent that they too can provide quality innings.
  • Even though people are hoping all over the Jason Kubel bandwagon - complemented nicely with a Free Jason Kubel campaign - I just want to go on record as saying that as early as January I believed that Kubel would be a vital piece to this Twins line-up and that the naysayers were in for a surprise (I appreciate Seth's support at the time, might have be the only other person to read that). I believe the debate between play Kubel and not-play Kubel was divided between the "results based" fans and the "process based" fans. Those who look strictly at the surface numbers (i.e. rbis, home runs, etc) would have been disappointed in his performance. The hype that followed Kubel up from the minors was large and his knee injury certainly detered his play. Last year, his line drive rate was back to where it had been prior to his injury and his second-half numbers not only had better results, but indicated that he had more patience and was rediscovering his strike zone by walking more and striking out less. I will go on record as stating he looks like the least happiest professional athlete ever to hit a major league home run.

Detriot Tigers

  • photoFinally winning their first game of the season has provided a sense of relief to the Tiger clubhouse. Back in December, I dissected the lineup and wrote four reasons why they could be grossly overrated. Regression was one reason, specifically for players like Renteria and Sheffield, but injuries to key players (such as the one currently to Curtis Granderson) could easily upset the balance. Of course nobody would expects the Tigers to finish in the cellar, especially with the talent laden lineup they have, but there is plenty of reason to believe that they are not as good as everybody once believed.
  • Outside of Carlos Guillen, the one player they wanted to ship out during the winter, Brandon Inge, has been their most consistant hitter in the first 8 games. He is batting .269/.387/.577 with 2 home runs and leading the team with 6 rbis. Meanwhile the offseason acquisition Miguel Cabrera has been hitting a measely .125/.300/.250 with a home run (his only rbi coming on that as well). Because of the injury to Granderson, Leyland has ignorantly opted to use Inge in center over Jacque Jones. For his career, Inge has played center just 25 times having a range factor of 2.12 (with the average being 2.34) while Jones has played 243 games in center in his career having a range factor of 2.43 above the average of 2.36.
  • Dontrelle Willis walked 7 in his 5 inning debut for the Tigers. This apparently was a record, said the Detroit Free Press: According to research done through and, Willis became the first big-league pitcher since at least 1956 to do all of the following in the same outing: throw at least five innings, allow no more than one hit, give up at least seven walks and not strike out anyone.
  • While time might be on the Tigers side, history isn't. The Rocky Mountain News' Tracy Ringolsby shows that only a handful of teams in history (eight to be exact) have started the season 2-8 and made the playoffs. One of them may be familiar: the 1991 Minnesota Twins.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Twins Notes

  • Michael Cuddyer found himself on the DL after a hard slide into the back of Royals' third baseman Alex Gordon's cleat. The injury will cost Cuddyer a 15-day stint on the DL and will also remove a potent bat against left-handed pitching. This creates a vacuum at the number 3 spot, one that Cuddyer had not satisfactory This season Cuddyer has come to the plate with runs in scoring position six times and only once did he manage to drive in a run (Gomez from third). In two of those instances, he struck out. Even though he had a slow start and lacked production at the beginning of the season, Cuddyer was still the logical choice to bat third over Delmon Young.

  • Interestingly enough, the Twins opted to recall Denard Span over the hot-hitting Garrett Jones in response to losing their number 3 hitter. Jones, in his first three games at Rochester, compiled 12 at-bats and accumulated 6 hits (2 extra base hits) while driving in 4 runs and scoring 4 more himself. Span, meanwhile, in his two games has received 9 at-bats and has managed to assemble a bell curve-like batting line of .333/.400/.333. All of his hits have been singles but he added two stolen bases while scoring once and driving in one. A year ago, the organization might have been tempted to recall Jones strictly on his current hitting streak only to receive offensive futility and defensive liability at the major league level. While I believe that Jones could be a useful part on a team that needs a left-handed bat in a pinch, Span offers more defense and on-base abilities that have been lacking in the early part of this season. Because he is left-handed, it makes Span less of an ideal replacement. As was the case on Monday's game against the White Sox, Gardenhire had a lefty-dominated line-up of Span, Mauer and Morneau batting 3-4-5.

  • The definition of a mutually beneficial relationship: Through 8 games, Carlos Gomez has scored five times and was driven in by Joe Mauer in all instances except one. The local pundits have often made a point of degrading Mauer's ability strictly because he finishes with a low rbi number for a typical three hitter. While I hold the philosophical praise of the RBI in contempt, I do believe that Mauer could eclipse the 100-rbi mark for the first time in his career if the duo continues this pace. In previous seasons, Mauer lacked the runner positioned on second base who could easily score on a single. Gomez completes that piece of the puzzle. It will be interesting to see how the revised Cuddyer-less line-up effects this dynamic what with Joey Jo-Jo shifting to the three hole and Span and occasionally Matt Tolbert shifted into the two spot.

  • You got Blackburn'ed: The new term for when Nick Blackburn strikes you out. In his full seasons Blackburn's strike out rate was typically at 10-13% while in the minors. So far in 2008, he's dispatching batters at a 21% strike out rate -- this output is not likely to sustain but it still proves that he very much belongs in the rotation even when Liriano comes back. Blackburn has been the recipient of both silent bats and imploding bullpens otherwise the rookie might be staring down a 2-0 start to his career instead of the 0-1 he currently has. In his 2008 debut, Blackburn limited the formidable Angels to one run - on his wild pitch - and struck out Vlad Guerrero three times. He scattered five hits in his 7 innings of work, compilign a Game Score of 68. In that game Blackburn was able to get groundballs on 80% of the balls put in play. The unfortunate part for Blackburn is that the Angels starter Joe Saunders who held the Twins scoreless while pitching to what amounted to a Game Score of 77. Last night against the White Sox, Blackburn pitched 5 innings and accumulated 5 strikeouts. His results were not necessarily ideal as he proved by his Game Score of 48, but he did leave the game with a 3-2 lead before the bullpen turned it over. Although two starts is not a proper measurement of skill, Blackburn, who is known as a groundball pitcher, induced groundballs at a 67% rate in those games.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Royals Series Preview

Twins 1-3 (2.06 runs scored per game/4.25 runs surrendered per game) | Royals 3-0 (4.03 runs scored per game/1.66 runs surrendered per game)

Up until today, the last time the Twins faced a Royals team with a winning record was August 23rd, 2003. On that day, the Twins found themselves in third place, a half behind the surprising Royals. Johan Santana dominated a line-up that still contained Carlos Beltran, striking out 10 in six innings. The Twins won that game, the final of a three game series at the Dome, and continued a second-half climb that culmenated in the second of four division championships. While the Twins went 46-23 during that stretch on the way to a 90-72 record, the Royals failed to sustain the level of play at the beginning of the season, finishing 32-38 in the second half dropping back to third in the AL Central.

(Perhaps the reversal of fortune could be attributed to career back-up catcher Tom Prince. In 2003, the Twins used the 38-year-old catcher in the first-half of the season and were 44-49 at the all-star break and were 7.5 games behind the Royals. On July 13th, the Twins released the aging catcher and several days later the Royals signed him. Up to the break, the Royals were 51-41, when they picked up Prince, they finished a 32-38, 7 games behind the Twins. Then again, Prince only played 8 games for the Royals which was hardly enough opportunity to appropriately sabotage a baseball team.)

Nearly five years worth of games have been played against Kansas City and they have all been against a sub-.500 opponent. Now, the only players that remains on either roster now is Juan Rincon, Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer for the Twins and just David Dejesus for the Royals. Naturally, the season is only four games old, but these Royals have shown signs that they are not quite the doormat that everybody thought they would have been. Sweeping a three game series from the Tigers at Comerica would have been a daunting task on paper before the season started. Detroit was a bit of a shall, lacking Curtis Granderson and having Miguel Cabrera scratched during one game, but the starting pitching, not to mention the bullpen, helped the Royals start undefeated. Zack Greinke and Brian Bannister combined to limit the potentially most potent line-up to only one run in the past two games. Furthermore, the once worthless Royals bullpen that could be counted on to hand over a lead on a moment's notice threw 4 innings of scoreless ball and only walked one batter.

While Kansas city Star's Sam Mellinger outlined plenty of reasons not to get too caught up in this fast start, there seems to be just as many reasons to think that this could be sustainable. Though three games are difficult to mount total optimism, this squad does have the parts to be competitive. After all, players like Alex Gordon, Mark Teahen and Billy Butler are all dangerous hitters - that's not even mentioning what Jose Guillen could conceivably contribute. The bullpen with Joakim Soria and Leo Nunez has legitimate talent that was lacking the previous seasons.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Game #2: Boofda.

Twins 1, Angels 9 (Box Score)

  • The critism will focus on his first inning of work where he was roughed up for two of three earned runs, but Boof Bonser threw marginally well throughout his 6 innings of work, good enough for a game score of 46. He gave up 3 earned runs - a 4th on an error - but he still kept his team within striking distance. He was failed both by his offense and in some respects his bullpen (albeit had the offense made it a one or two run game, Brian Bass would never had made an appearance). Revisiting the pitch f/x data, it appeared that Bonser may have been a bit "wound-up" in his 2008 debut. His fastball was cresting between 92-95 among those first twenty pitches, most likely causing the ball to level out instead of creating that tailing movement that induces groundballs (Bonser had a 45% groundball rate last year). As a result, Vlad Guerrero and Garret Anderson traded doubles on similar 95-mph fastballs. "I was all jittery and happy and just letting it ride," Bonser confirmed after the game, adding: "I was just happy to get the first one out of the way. I settled down afterwards and got going." The following inning, Bonser began to throw his fastball around 88 to 92 mph where he found more success. After the first inning and the nerves settled, his fastball was much improved which led to using the slider as the outpitch - 3 out of 4 strikeouts were on his slider.

  • What also needs to be said is that his opponant on the hill, Jon Garland, bested him by tossing 8 innings and scattering 6 hits while walking one. Garland, whose game score was 61, induced groundball outs on 70% of the balls put in play (17 of 24). The Twins, to my recollection, seem offensively futile against groundball pitchers in the past several years. I should check the statistics to see if this supports my memory. Garland, who had a 39% groundball rate last season, is hardly your prototypical groundball pitcher as is the instance of Carlos Silva who had a 47% groundball rate, but Garland throws a good sinker.

  • The Michael Cuddyer Ground-Into-Double-Play talley is at 1 in 2008.