Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Most Improved Prospects: Strikeout Rate

#5 - Garrett Olson - Inf | 23 years old | 16.6% K% in 2007 - 13.5% K% in 2008 | 3.1% decrease
Drafted by the Twins out of Maine's Franklin Pierce University in the 4th round (126th overall) in 2006, Olson first went to Elizabethton where he batted .313/.396/.381 in 147 at-bats at the short-season.  The 6'-2" right-handed batting Olson was sent to low-A Beloit in 2007 where he failed to replicate the same output as he did in 2006.  He witnessed his strikeouts spike to 79 and his overall slashes fall to .217/.285/.317 in 438 at-bats.  Twins officials opted to keep Olson at Beloit to open the 2008 season where he responded with a 30/17 K/BB ratio in just under 250 at-bats.  Encouraged by this, Olson was sent to high-A Ft Myers where he regressed significantly as evident by his 38/9 K/B ratio and his .201/.249/.258 batting line.  Still if you are looking for a silverlining on this 4th round draftee, it is that he dropped his strikeout percentage by 3.1% normally a sign of someone developing better plate disipline.  Unfortunately for Olson, his increase in walks was nearly as pronounced as his strikeouts (just +0.79% increase in BB%) meaning his career on-base percentage of .299 isn't likely to improve much.  On top of that, turning 24 in 2009 and still being around A-ball doesn't bode well for Olson either.
#4 - Matt Moses - Of/DH | 23 years old | 19.8% K% in 2007 - 16.0% K% in 2008 | 3.2% decrease
I detailed Moses's minor league career extensively a week ago when he landed, coincidentally enough, as the #4 Most Improved Walk Rate in the system.  Sure, nearly 30% of his total hits went for extra bases but you have to factor in his age, that statistic looks unimpressive.  Without going too much further into his career background once again, let's attribute this improvement to none other than his fourth tour with New Britain in the Eastern League. 
#3 - David Winfree - RF | 22 years old | 21.6% K% in 2007 - 17.3% K% in 2008 | 4.3% decrease
Like Moses mentioned before him, Winfree also finished the year as #3 Most Improved Walk Rate in the system.  But unlike Moses, Winfree's improvement carries an air of legitimacy.  His first introduction to AA New Britain was marred by a large drop in walks and large increase in strikeouts (26/106 BB/K) but his second dance proved much more reassuring that he is on the right track (41/87 BB/K) and stroking the ball all over the field (42% xbh%).  Another reason to like Winfree: he mashes left-handed pitching.  According to Minorleaguesplits.com, Winfree hit .292/.370/.608 in 120 at-bats against left-handed pitching in 2008.  In 402 career at-bats against southpaws, Winfree has maintained a steady .296/.354/.520 batting line. 
#2 - Daniel Berg - 1b/Of/DH | 23 years old | 26.6% K% in 2007 - 21.1% K% in 2008 | 5.4% decrease
Another member of the Most Improved Walk Rate squad (#5), Berg's success at reducing his strikeouts is somewhat surprising.  After spending a season split between Elizabethton and Beloit in which he struck out 59 times in 211 at-bats, Berg took on a full season at Beloit and saw his strikeout total swell to 103 in 333 at-bats.  The Twins front office moved him to high-A Fort Myers where Berg shaved his strikeout total to 49 in 222 at-bats and was advanced to AA New Britain where he struck out 18 times in 48 at-bats.  Striking out 44 fewer times in 2008 has led to additional balls put into play.  Since Berg hit line drives on 20% of the balls put in play, the results have been a .350 babip, leading to a .278/.374/.400 batting line (this is a hefty improvement over his 11% line drive rate in 2007).   
#1 - Johnny Woodard - 1b | 25 years old | 27.6% K% in 2007 - 21.3% K% in 2008 | 6.2% decrease
In 2003, the Twins used their 3rd round draft pick (88th overall) to select a powerful first baseman out of Consumnes River College in Sacramento.  Woodard, just 18 years old, would report to the Gulf Coast League Twins where that power failed to appear (8 extra base hits in 41 hits).  The following season, brought along slowly, Woodard would start at Elizabethton where he would led the team in on-base percentage (.385) and tied for second in home runs (8) in 194 at-bats.  This performance drew attention of Baseball America who ranked him on the Twins Top 30 prospects.  In 60 games with low-A Beloit, Woodard smacked eight home runs, in a season that had him sidelined all of April and June with a fractured foot.  However 2006 would be another lost year for Woodard who play in only 23 games with the Fort Myers Miracle but the slugger reemerged in Beloit in 2007 hitting .273/.390/.473 with 10 home runs in 205 at-bats.  This earned him a promotion back to Fort Myers where he struggled, striking out 64 times in 164 at-bats - totaling 126 on the season.  Once again at high-A Fort Myers to start the 2008 season, Woodard was limited to 245 at-bats but he greatly reduced his strike outs to 64.  His biggest detriment is his inability to hit same-sided pitching - in 195 at-bats, Woodard has hit only .190/.325/.318. 

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Friday Flotsam

  • The Twins named Fort Myers Miracle pitching coach, Eric Rasmussen, the new Minor League Pitching Coordinator after the Detroit Tigers wooed Rick Knapp away from the organization to be the Tigers' pitching coach.  For the past ten years Rasmussen has been the Miracles' pitching coach helping groom the likes of Pat Neshek, Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Anthony Swarzak and so on.  In 2008, the Miracle pitching staff led the league in ERA and strikeouts.   Back in 2004 Rasmussen was asked to evaluate the progress of Scott Baker, now a potential ace for the Twins.  Rasmussen told the Naples News that "(Baker) is on track.  He mixes his pitches really well and he's got a good competitive spirit. His fastball is above average and he's got a slider like all these guys, that when it's on, it's an average big league pitch.  Most of these guys, when they were in high school, they threw hard enough to where it didn't matter, there's not much need for a changeup. That's the pitch, the one that needs to be developed in pro ball here."  Now, as the pitching coordinator for the entire farm system, Rasmussen will be able to keep sending that message. Indeed, the emphasis of the Twins organization had been to drive home not only the ability to throw a changeup but to throw it often.  This policy had bode well for the team's staff. It worked for Johan Santana* (who throws it 28.7% of the time in 2008), Francisco Liriano's is harnessing his more often (20.0% of the time) and Glen Perkins is starting to spot his more frequently (15.7%).   

*Santana's changeup development has been attributed to Bobby Cueller who was the AAA Edmonton pitching coach in 2002 when he instructed Santana to throw his changeup in every count.  "He always had the pitch," said Cuellar, "Johan had to learn to trust it. I told him, 'Don't be afraid to throw it at any time. Trust it, and it will do what it is supposed to do.' It's the hardest thing for a young pitcher to do."  Throwing a change nearly 30% of the time is certain to make an appearance in every plate appearance.   

  • Rick Knapp was very instrumental in working with the pitchers in the Twins' system.  Matt Garza recently told the Detroit Free Press that "[Knapp's] big thing is throwing strikes.  He wants you to be able to throw any pitch in any count for a strike. That's his philosophy."  Another Free Press, this time Mankato's Ed Thoma, penned another tribute to the departed pitching instructor.  Knapp's indoctrination of strike zone command within the minor league system has paid dividends since 2001 for big club.  Since 2001, the Twins have been either first or second in AL in walks allowed per game:
    2001 - 1st (tied) - 2.7
    2002 - 2nd (tied) - 2.7
    2003 - 2nd - 2.5
    2004 - 1st (tied) - 2.7
    2005 - 1st - 2.1
    2006 - 1st - 2.2
    2007 - 2nd - 2.6
    2008 - 1st - 2.5 
  • More minor manuvers: former Twins catcher Tom Nieto has been named the manager of the AA New Britain Rock Cats, succeeding Bobby Cuellar who will be assuming Stu Cliburn's position as pitching coach of the AAA Rochester Red Wings.  Nieto was brought into the Twins organization in Feburary of 1987 when the team packaged Neal Heaton, Jeff Reed, Yorkis Perez and Al Cardwood to the Montreal Expos for closer Jeff Reardon and played in 1987 and 1988 at which point he was traded to Philadelphia along with Eric Bullock and Tommy Herr for pitcher Shane Rawley.  



  • In September's GameDay Magazine, I penned an article outlining how a good number of Major League teams are relocating their minor league teams to cities closer to the fan base.  Atlanta, Philadelphia and Seattle were all examples of how a system within close proximity could help kindle the local interest in prospects developing in the minors.  Add Milwaukee to that mix.  The Brewers have signed a four-year Player Development Contact with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Appleton, WI) in the Midwest League.  Brewers fans have the opportunity to drive two hours north instead of to West Virginia when they were playing in the South Atlantic League as the West Virginia Power.  


  • For years I have believed that the image in Major League Baseball's now ubiquitous logo was the image of Harmon Killebrew.  Turns out I have been living a lie.  A recent Wall Street Journal article profiled the creator of the marketing device who said that it is not based on any one player said Jerry Dior, the New Jersey native who worked on the graphic while employed at Sandgren & Murtha, the advertising firm that created the image.  His son once heard the reference on a radio broadcast where the commentator made mentioned of the Killebrew connection.  "That's completely untrue. It's not Harmon Killebrew. It's not anyone in particular," was Dior's response.   
  • The Denver Business Journal reported that the Colorado Rockies had a substantial decrease in their viewership on Fox Sports Net Rocky Mountain, a 4% decrease.  Naturally, when your team goes from a World Series contender to an NL West pretender, the local interest wanes.  Not surprisingly, the Twins were among the biggest gainers in viewership (+10.4%) as the team transformed from a 79-83 team that was 17.5 games out of first in 2007 to a 88-75 team that finished one game out of first in 2008.  Likewise, the White Sox saw a 68.9% increase in people tuning in as they went from 24 games out of first in '07 to winning the AL Central via Game 163.    
  • Speaking of the Rockies, Bill Elliot from the Edmonton Sun noted that in 2002 - the infamous Moneyball draft profiled in Michael Lewis book - Colorado's front office desired Denard Span in their ninth overall pick.  A deal with Span could not be reached so the Rockies selected left-handed pitcher Jeff Francis instead.  Span fell to the Twins at the 20th overall pick but not before Scott Kazmir, Nick Swisher and Cole Hamels were selected by the Mets, A's and Phillies. 
  • When Hollywood and Major League Baseball come together it is often to mixed results.  The examples of "The Natural", "Field of Dreams", "Pride of the Yankees" and "Bang the Drum Slowly" are just some of the movies produced about the game that spin a worthy tale about the diamond and have been viewed as classic works of cinema.  To a lesser extent "Bull Durham", "League of the Own" and "Major League" are as well but probably not as highly regarded to film buffs as they are to baseball fans.  However, the questionable decisions to greenlight the likes of "Ed", "The Scout", "Summer Catch" and "From Left Field" certainly lends credence to the notion that there should be people fired for even suggesting to waste film on these disasters.  So when rumors began swirling that Lewis's Moneyball will be adapted into a screenplay to star Brad Pitt as the A's general manager Billy Beane, the book's main character, has been met with plenty of raised eyebrows.  For starters, while the book is insightful and informative, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of action - at least any that could seemingly keep audiences transfixed to the big screen for 120 minutes.  A scene in which Pitt's Beane would spend 15 minutes filibustering about the merits of drafting college-level Nick Swisher over the high school arm of Cole Hamels in a draft room would probably be meet with anything but yawns from the general public.  Regardless of how the reviews read, I still will be interested to see how this story is laid out.  For those familiar with the central characters of the book, here is what Dirty Laundry envisions playing those roles. Supposedly this will be ready in 2011.  

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Fragile Pysche of Matt Garza

When the Twins selected Matt Garza, then a junior out of Fresno State University, they selected a pitcher on the rise.  Entering college, Garza admitted his arsenal was limited to a 90+ fastball which was feasted upon and began developing supplementary pitches. "I came into college with one pitch," Garza told La Velle E. Neal with the Star Tribune in 2005, "A fastball I could not control too well.  I was kind of fed to the wolves that year." In his first two seasons in the Western Athletic Conference, Garza had thrown 133.1 innings while posting a ho-hum 98/65 K/BB and allowing 20 home runs.  By his junior season however, Garza emerged as a preseason All-WAC member and the ace of the Bulldogs with his mid-90s fastball in conjunction three other pitches (curve, slider and changeup) that he could throw for strikes.  Now armed with the necessary breaking and offspeed stuff, the 20-year-old dominated the competition, striking out 120 in 108.1 innings – averaging nearly 10 strikeouts per nine innings.  Furthermore, Garza demonstrated command of the strike zone by walking just 37 in his 19 games and only surrendered five home runs.  For this performance, the WAC named Garza Pitcher of the Year in 2005. 


In June of that year, the Minnesota Twins made Matt Garza the 10th pitcher chosen (25th overall) in a solid draft class.  Topping the list were future All-Star candidates in Justin Upton (ARI), Alex Gordon (KAN), Jeff Clement (SEA), Ryan Zimmerman (WAS), Ryan Braun, (MIL) and Troy Tulowitzki (COL).  The Twins and Garza agreed on a $1.37 million bonus, which inspired the 21-year-old pitcher to tell the Fresno Bee "I'm ecstatic.  Any time someone says you're going to be a millionaire and they make it happen, you've gotta be happy."




Garza was shipped to Elizabethton, where his transition to pro baseball was seamless. In 19 innings Garza posted a 25/6 K/BB ratio (striking out 34% of batters faced).  Following a nine strikeout outing in six innings against Houston's Appalachian League affiliate, Greenville, the Twins opted to move Garza to single-A Beloit to replace Anthony Swarzak in July 2005.  There in 56 innings of work, Garza maintained a 64/15 K/BB ratio (27.2% k%).  Garza finished his professional debut with 76 innings and a 3.57 ERA split between two levels.  


But when the baseball season concluded, the NCAA found Fresno State in violation of the league's new academic measures.  The collegiate governing body stripped equivalent of one baseball scholarship from the program as five Bulldog players were cited for failing marks.  Garza was one of the perpetrators.  Apologetic, Garza called from Florida to offer support to the teammates in California he left behind.  Whereas Garza's low grades cost his former squad a premier player via scholarship, 2005's 2nd round choice from Winthrop University, Kevin Slowey, carried a near-perfect 3.96 GPA with him in his three years at school.  This is an interesting contrast between two of the most highly touted Twins pitching prospects - one being described as "temperamental" and the other being labeled "a student of the game".  What his educational makeup or character says about Matt Garza's development as a pitcher is debatable, but it speaks volumes towards Matt Garza as a team player. 


Nevertheless, with academic strife now clearly behind him, Garza focused on his blossoming professional career.  Because of the World Baseball Classic - which took several of the Twins' pitchers out of spring camp in 2006 - Garza was given the opportunity to pitch in front of the Major League coaching staff.  "Garza did fine," said manager Ron Gardenhire after one outing in the spring, "He's got a nice-looking arm. He's going to be a nice-looking pitcher. It's nice to get to see the young man throw the ball." 


Pushed by Minor League Director Jim Rantz, the Twins advanced Garza through the system aggressively.  After just eight starts in the Florida State League - in which Garza threw 44 innings with 53 strikeouts - the organization promoted him to AA New Britain.  Garza was now in a league where he was significantly younger than the competition but continued to thrive throwing 57 innings and striking out 68 with a WHIP of 0.95.  He had yet to be challenged.  By mid-July, Garza found himself in Rochester, making five starts and tossing 34 innings while striking out 33 and walking just 7.  Even before the conclusion of the month, former manager Tom Kelly and general manager Terry Ryan were monitor Garza's starts in person trying to determine if the raw but dominate right-hander could help the Twins in the near future.  Because of injuries to Francisco Liriano and Brad Radke, Garza's major league debut was accelerated.  On August 11th, 2006, Matt Garza took the mound at the Metrodome against the Toronto Blue Jays.  Garza would barely last long enough to hear the echoes of the National Anthem cease as the Blue Jays scored seven runs on eight hits in 2 2/3 innings. "It was a little more than I expected," Garza said of his debut. "I tried to play calm, but when I got out there and heard the crowd, the adrenaline got going really high, really fast and that's when the nerves kicked in. I couldn't stop shaking after that first inning."  In his ten appearances in 2006, Garza did nothing to solidify his position on a postseason roster, often appearing "jittery" in his starts.  So when the decision to retain Glen Perkins, Willie Eyre or Garza on the roster, it was Perkins that was chosen and Eyre and Garza the odd men out.




As the rest of the Twins shamefully went three-and-out against the Oakland A's in the ALDS, Garza was honored in the offseason.  USA Today named him the Minor League Player of the Year in 2006 and earned the praise of his manager.  Ron Gardenhire told the newspaper "He's confident in his ability, but not to the point where he doesn't want to listen to anybody. He takes everything in. He understands that no one knows too much in this game. He knows he still has a lot of things to learn even though he's had a lot of success in the minors.  That's pretty special in a young player."


When spring camp began in Fort Myers before the 2007 season, it was assumed that Garza would be a part of the rotation.  "They say there is a spot open, so I'm pitching my [behind] off to get it," he said. "They said I'm not ready, but if I'm in Triple-A, I'm going to do what I did last year. So I'm coming out of the gate firing." But Garza was experiencing lingering neck problems, unable to pitch off of the mound for the first-half of March, which sidelined him for a period of time.  Predicated on this, the decision was made to send Garza to the minor league camp and allow veteran Sidney Ponson to hold the fifth spot in the rotation much to Garza's furor.  Reports said that Garza was visably "upset when he arrived in a golf cart at the minor league complex".  By mid-May, Garza was at full boil over mode, disgruntled with the amount of pressure applied to make him hone his seldom used off-speed pitches.  "I know how to pitch," Garza said [to Pioneer Press reporter Kelsie Smith] by phone. "I didn't get up here because I don't know how to pitch. I said (to Rochester pitching coach Stu Cliburn), 'Just let me pitch. You guys just relax. Yeah, I was in a funk for April. My bad. I'm sorry I didn't deal with disappointment the way you guys thought I was going to.  I know I can throw my off-speed pitches for strikes. It's just that I was pressing because I was trying to make them happy, and I can't be that guy anymore. ... I told my pitching coach, and I hope he relayed the message (to general manager Terry Ryan and director of minor leagues Jim Rantz), I said, 'I can't do it, man. I've been scratching my head and not sleeping well at night because I'm trying to be something I'm not.' "


In the same tirade, Garza blamed his poor results at the end of 2006 on a "dead arm", mostly due to his lack of conditioning in the previous offseason.  Rantz, who was instrumental in bringing Garza up to the big club in 2006, responded to these claims by saying "If you had a dead arm, I would think that your velocity would really show that.  He threw hard, so if that's what he said, that was his thinking. We didn't think that." According to Fangraphs.com, Garza's fastball while with the Twins was averaging 94-mph, far from a telltale sign of fatigue. 


As the Twins tried to keep pace with the front running Indians and Tigers in 2008, Garza was recalled from Rochester, who in 16 starts with the Red Wings had thrown 92 innings while striking out 95 and walking 31.  On the last day of June, Garza rejoined the team in Detroit, but had some explaining to do about his earlier comments.  "Being sent down was the best thing for me, just for the fact that it helped me gain trust in my pitches. I'll throw a changeup (on a) 3-2 count, and not say, 'Oh my God, maybe maybe maybe,' " he said. "I want to be the best pitcher I can be. If that means I have to take a couple of steps back in order to go forward, they know what's best for me."  In all, Garza pieced together a good development season, throwing 175 innings between Rochester and the Twins, striking out 162 and walking 63. 


The 2007 season concluded with a whimper and without a postseason berth for the Twins.  Moving towards 2008, the team readied themselves for a rebuild mode, as newly annoitted General Manager Bill Smith allowed Torii Hunter to depart through free agency and dangled Johan Santana in front of several suitors.  With what appeared to be a surplus of pitchers, Twins began looking to flip one of them for an offensive addition.  Ot appeared obvious that Matt Garza and Kevin Slowey, two highly regarded prospects, were the commodities that would acquire the largest returns among all of the prospects in the system.  As Garza's ascension was at the forefront of Twins fans' attention, Slowey was putting together a good minor league portfolio even if his major league debut was met with less fanfare.  In 353 innings at five different levels, Slowey had struck out 342 and walked just 48.  In the end it would be Garza, possibly because of his history of butting head's with the coaching staff, that would be the candidate to headline a six-player trade with Tampa Bay that netted the Twins Delmon Young.




His initial review of the Tampa organization was also a not-to-subtle jab at Minnesota's ability to play tug-o-war with prospects:  "The best thing about this is that there's absolutely no pressure," Garza said during spring workouts. "I've got the No. 3 job, I know when I'm toeing it up and all I have to worry about is getting ready. Last year, I was kind of fighting an uphill battle. Here, I'm not fighting anything; I'm just going out there and pitching, and it's been one heck of a ride. It's been a blast."   


Later, Garza would remark that his tenure with the Twins was "disappointing. They kept a couple guys I felt I was, I could have done maybe, probably, even better than. It was a rude awakening, a humbling feeling.  My whole mentality was, 'Win a spot, win a spot, win a spot.  Now it's more get ready for that spot and take it to the next level. Try to be that guy. Everyone wants to be that (Johan) Santana. I want to take it to the next level." 


It is nothing new for a former Twins player to take the opportunity to vent about their experience as a Twins prospect.  After Todd Walker was traded he told the media that "I think [manager Tom] Kelly can go to the extreme when he talks about what a guy can or can't do.  Especially what he can't do."  More recently, David Ortiz told the Boston Globe "Something in my swing was not right in Minnesota.  I could never hit for power.  Whenever I took a big swing, they'd say to me, 'Hey, hey, what are you doing?' So I said, 'You want me to hit like a little bitch, then I will.'"  There seems to be a limitless amount of former players ready to opine about the franchise's policy of driving the ball to opposite field, becoming more focused on glove work or obtaining consistency with an off-speed pitch (as was the case with Garza) isn't beneficial to how the individual plays the game.  To some, these complaints are justified as evident by Ortiz's 40-plus home run seasons.  When Garza did it, it comes off prima donnaish. 


In just Garza's second start as a Ray, he left a game against the Mariners experiencing pain in his throwing elbow.  He would wind up on the 15-day DL with a radial nerve irritation, an injury that Garza insinuated began while pitching with the Twins last year.  The Twins manager was befuddled at these claims.  "He never missed a bullpen [session] or a start [here]." said Gardenhire, "I don't know what he's saying. I haven't read it and don't plan on reading it, just based on what you said. Everything was documented on Matt Garza and there were no injuries here."


On June 8th, Garza and catcher Dioner Navarro were face-to-face in the dugout tunnel at the Ballpark at Arlington and had to be physically separated by manager Joe Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey.  This was a continuation stemming from heated words exchanged on the mound during the game.  The battery mates ironed out their differences prompting Rays general manager Andrew Friedman to referred to Garza as a "recovering emotionalist."  Since the altercation, Garza began having "heart-to-hearts" with manager Joe Maddon and visiting a Cal State-Fullerton sports psychologist, Ken Ravizza, to address his issues dealing with his emotions and "accepting input from others".


Two big victories against the defending champion Boston Red Sox got Garza rewarded with the ALCS MVP following a 2-0 record and allowing just two earned runs in 13 innings while striking out 14.  No longer is Garza the number three guy avoiding pressure of big games by ducking the number one label, as he proclaimed when he arrived to the Rays camp in the spring - he will be thrusted into the bright lights of the World Series, squaring off with the likes of Cole Hamels.  Which Matt Garza will show up to the World Series? Will it be the one that went toe-to-toe with the Red Sox Nation?  Or the one that came toe-to-toe with Dioner Navarre?   Has all of the turmoil Garza's been through made him the John Smoltz type pitcher that he is so often compared to since Game 7 or will his emotions get the best of him? 


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Most Improved Prospects: Walk Rate

In 2007, the two top prospects that led the walk rate improvement list were Luke Hughes (#2) and Brian Dinkelman (#1).  Dinkelman followed up in 2008 with a solid performance at high-A Fort Myers (though he was two years older than most of the competition) and was revered by Baseball America as having the "Best Strike-Zone Discipline" but Hughes had a breakout season that has led to him being rated by Seth Stohs and the readers at Twinkie Town as the #10 overall prospect in the organization.  Previously, Hughes was a virtual unknown.  John Sickels's at MinorLeagueBall.com asked the question of where Hughes came from and noting that even Baseball America didn't have Hughes listed among the top prospects for the Twins.  Outside of Dinkelman and Hughes, third baseman Brian Buscher was fourth on the list of most improved and he has found himself a comfortable home as a third base platoon at the Metrodome.  Who is in this year's top five for most improved walk rate and are they tomorrow's Twins?
#5 - Daniel Berg - 1b/Of/DH | 23 years old | 8.7% BB% in 2007 - 11.04% BB% in 2008 | 2.35% increase
Dan Berg, the Twins' 30th round draft selection in 2004 out of Texarkana College, spent his third minor league season at low-A Beloit in 2007 where he posted a lowly .214/.298/.291 batting line with a 32/98 BB/K ratio in 368 plate appearances.  His .589 OPS was well below the Midwest League's average of .696.  This was a significant regression from Berg who had spent 2006 split between Elizabethton and a sip of coffee at Beloit where he finished with a respectable .245/.348/.445 batting line with a 27/56 BB/K ratio in 234 plate appearances.  His induction to his first full season above rookie ball was rough, as he struck out in 26.6% of his plate appearances.  In Berg's defense, the organization was uncertain as to where Berg would best help the club on the field.  He would bring his infielder's glove, outfielder's glove, first baseman's glove and catching equipment to the dugout each day as well as being mentally prepared to be the designated hitter for that game too.  When he was assigned to high-A Fort Myers in 2008, the Twins had all but shelved the idea of Berg being a catcher.  Berg would play the majority of his games at first base and some in left field (those familiar with the Defensive Spectrum should deduce that the Twins are not particularly high on Berg's defense).  In 262 plate appearances with the Miracle, Berg pieced together his best season yet, batting .279/.381/.414 with a 32/49 BB/K ratio.  This earned him a promotion to AA New Britain.  In minimal exposure in the Eastern League, Berg's .255/.327/.319 batting line in 55 plate appearances is far from exceptional.  Berg, who will be 24 in the 2009 season, has now compiled a career line of .234/.329/.350 with 102/241 BB/K ratio.  He will most likely begin the season at New Britain and will need to put up similar numbers to his Fort Myers stint in order to continue to climb the organization's ladder the added patience is a good sign that he can adapted to the higher level of pitching. 
#4 - Matt Moses - Of/DH | 23 years old | 4.49% BB% in 2007 - 8.16% BB% in 2008 | 3.67% increase
When the Twins spent their 21st overall pick in 2003 on the third baseman out of Mills Godwin High School in Richmond, Virginia the front office figured they had found Corey Koskie's replacement in the coming years.  In 2004 as a 19 year old, Baseball America labeled him as the 3rd best prospect in the system.  His .224/.297/.362 batting line in just 128 plate appearances thanks to a lingering back injury while at the Gulf Coast League and Midwest League failed to meet the expectations placed upon someone that was viewed as one the best pure hitters in the 2003 draft.  In 2005, Baseball America dropped him down to the 8th best prospect as the Twins advanced him to high-A Fort Myers as a 20 year old.  While there, Moses showed why he was deemed a top ten prospect hitting .306/.376/.453 with a 28/59 BB/K ratio in 298 plate appearances.  This earned Moses a midseason promotion to AA New Britain where he was unable to compete with the pitcher's that were four years older on average (24.5).  In 204 plate appearances in the Eastern League, Moses hit a lowly .210/.275/.366 but did manage to slug 6 home runs.  Regarding this season as substantial progress, Baseball America once again named him the 3rd best prospect in the system.  The team decided to start Moses at AA giving the 21 year old a full season to develop with older competition.  Though he produced well in the power department (15 home runs, 16 doubles) he was ultimately over-matched as evident by his 35/113 BB/K ratio resulting in a minuscule on-base percentage of .303.  Moses fell completely off of Baseball America's radar.  Instead of giving Moses the opportunity to grow in AA in 2007, the Twins decided to push Moses to AAA Rochester.  The aggressive promotion backfired in the organization's face and after 48 games and a .224/.244/.305 batting line, he was shipped back to the Eastern League.  Part of the problem was that Moses reported to camp thirty pounds lighter than his 2006 season.  On the whole, the season was almost a complete wash in his developmental path as he finished with a .248/.283/.362 line with a 21/93 BB/K ratio and just 6 home runs.  In attempts to allow Moses to refine his swing and approach at the plate, the Twins started him in 2008 at AA again.  While there, he improved his peripheral numbers, walking 35 times and striking out just 65 times - a huge improvement for Moses - but he was unable to avoid defenders in the field as indicated by his .270 batting average on balls in play.  Nearly a quarter of his flyballs hit, which he did so nearly 40% of the time, were infield flies.  Together, this led to a unreasonably low .230/.293/.318 batting line in his third tour of AA ball.  Moses's, though still young, may be on the path to being systematically phased out of the Twins farm system as third base candidates like Dan Valencia and Luke Hughes continue to show progress in stark contrast to the direction that Moses is heading.   Bottom line?  The future is bleak for Matt Moses. 
#3 - David Winfree - RF | 22 years old | 5.31% in 2007 - 10.16% in 2008 | 4.85% increase
Winfree was drafted from high school 12 rounds lower than the aforementioned Matt Moses in 2003 but proved from the onset that he might be the better prospect after being named the organization's Minor League Player of the Year in 2005 while batting .294/.329/.452 with 16 home runs and a 22/93 BB/K ratio.  Excluding his inability to draw a walk, one would have to say that was a very good season for one of the top right-handed power bats in the Twins system.  With vaunted expectations moving into 2006, a shoulder surgery and a thumb injury caused his season to sputter and out of frustration, Winfree returned home to Virginia Beach on a leave of absence.  After five days away from baseball, Winfree returned to Fort Myers where he hit 13 home runs from the end of July to September and was sent to the Arizona Fall League.  In 2007, the Twins started Winfree in AA, making efforts to transition him from the third baseman (who made 34 errors in the season he was named Minor League Player of the Year) to first base.  At the plate, Winfree witnessed his peripherals slide (26 walks to 106 strikeouts) and ended the season with 490 plate appearances, 12 home runs and a .267/.308/.426 batting line.  Recognizing that Justin Morneau at first base is an immovable object for the next few seasons, Winfree was once again repositioned in 2008 as a right fielder (which with Denard Span and Michael Cuddyer there, it is just the same dead-end).  His range was essentially an arm span, Winfree made improvements at the plate in his second year in AA as a 22 year old.  Winfree almost doubled the amount of walks drawn (41) and significantly reduced his strikeouts (86) all leading to a better on-base percentage .319 and his 19 home runs led the team.  The challenge for Winfree in 2009 will be to continue to show patience at the plate and start to develop into a DH with the capabilities of displacing Morneau at first if he needs an off-day without losing much in the power department. 
#2 - Steve Singleton - Inf | 22 years old | 2.05% BB% in 2007 - 7.28% BB% in 2008 | 5.23% increase
The switch-hitting Steven Singleton was drafted out of the University of San Diego (along with relief prospect Anthony Slama) in 2006 with the 336th pick overall.  The 20 year old was sent to Elizabethton where he quickly thrived, batting .340/.368/.556 with 18 extra base hits in 156 plate appearances.  In 2007, Singleton was moved to low-A Beloit where his statistics took a dive, finishing the year with a .271/.294/.346 batting line and 8/47 BB/K ratio.  This past season, the Twins started Singleton back at Beloit where he made wholesale improvement in his game by increasing his walks (from 8 to 19) and reducing his strikeouts (from 47 to 29) and batting .302/.348/.421 in 259 plate appearances.  This production earned the San Francisco native a promotion to high-A Fort Myers where he continued this output, batting .295/.371/.452 in 277 plate appearances, but most importantly posted a 26/24 BB/K ratio against stiffer competition.  For the season Singleton finished batting .301/.362/.439 with 11 home runs and a 39/53 BB/K ratio.  In order for Singleton to emerge as a viable second base candidate, he would have to perform at a similar level in AA in 2009. 
#1 - Chris Parmelee - 1B | 20 years old | 9.16% in 2007 - 17.93% in 2008 | 8.77% increase
Going into the 2006 season, Chris Parmelee was rated the #4 prospect in the Twins organization, brimming with raw power in the farm system that hasn't been seen since Justin Morneau was brought to the big club.  After being drafted out of Chino Hills High School (CA) in 2006 with the 20th pick overall, the Twins sent him to Elizabethton where the six-foot, one-inch, 221-pound lefty mashed 8 home runs in 206 plate appearances (3.2% HR%).  The next season the organization progressed him to low-A Beloit where he hit 15 home runs in 501 plate appearances (2.9% HR%) but struck out an Adam Dunn-like 137 times (27.3%).  The problem with Parmelee in 2007, however, was that he was unable to draw walks the way Adam Dunn could (9.1% BB%).  Strikeouts are frequently blown out of proportion by those that see a number like 137 and assume the worst.  As in, he is a free swinger, an all-or-nothing type.  His 2008 season, his second tour of Beloit, proved the naysayers wrong.  After 226 at-bats, Parmelee was hitting .239/.385/.496 with 14 home runs when he ran into the outfield wall and suffered a wrist injury that would shut him down for the remainder of the season.  He is still at least two years away from seeing Major League action (especially after a season-ending wrist injury).  Still, Parmelee's advancements in his strike zone judgement, going from 46/137 BB/K in 2007 to 52/83 BB/K in 2008, is a huge step forward. 

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The 2008 Starting Rotation: Analyzing By Game Score

    Game Scores, invented by Bill James, is a measuring stick of a pitcher's performance on any given day.  The advance statistic accounts for all of the events a pitcher can produce in a start (walks, hits, strikeouts, home runs, innings pitched, etc) and provides a tidy number in which to gauge a pitcher's effectiveness.  According to Baseball-Reference.com the formula they follow is as such:
Start with 50 points. Add 1 point for each out recorded, (or 3 points per inning). Add 2 points for each inning completed after the 4th. Add 1 point for each strikeout. Subtract 2 points for each hit allowed. Subtract 4 points for each earned run allowed. Subtract 2 points for each unearned run allowed. Subtract 1 point for each walk.
    Finishing with a Game Score of 50 is roughly the equivalent of tossing a quality start.  If your pitcher achieves a Game Score 50 or above, he has provided his team with a good opportunity to win the game - provided that the offense and bullpen comply.  For instance, in 2007, Scott Baker pitched eight innings against the Detroit Tigers while striking out seven but was tagged with the loss following a Marcus Thames home run to defeat the Twins, 1-0.  Baker's offense apparently had not made the trip with him to Comerica.  For his efforts, Baker was credited with throwing a Game Score of 76.  These are what are known as "tough losses": losing despite unbelievable pitching.  
    These also occur when a starting pitcher is victim of a shaky bullpen.  On August 10th of this past season, Scott Baker was lifted after seven innings of work in which he surrendered only two earned runs and posted seven strikeouts leading to a Game Score of 61 against the Kansas City Royals.   With a 4-2 lead, Ron Gardenhire gave the ball to Matt Guerrier who gave up two singles before Dennys Reyes allowed those two to come home to tie the game at four.  Later in the 12th, Craig Breslow would allow a Tony Pena single to score  Mark Teahan from second to end the game 5-4 Royals. 
    The opposite of "tough losses" are "lucky wins", those wins in which a pitcher fails to crest 50 on the Game Score meter yet secures a victory due to an glutton of offense.   while if you throw a Game Score below 50 you are hurting your team's chances of victory.
Nick Blackburn - 11-11 (4-7 in no-decisions)

GS > 50: 8-4 (3-1)

GS < 50: 3-7 (2-5)

Average Game Score = 48

High Game Score = 74 (7/2 vs. Detroit)

Low Game Score = 15 (9/17 at Tampa Bay)
    What will remain crisp in most Twins fans' minds was Nick Blackburn's performance on September 30th, 2008 for game #163.  The right-hander had spent his previous five September starts struggling, averaging a Game Score of 40, and being hammered by opponents.  In 24 innings, opposing teams clubbed seven home runs off of him and scored 18 earned runs in 24 innings.  Despite pitching well into uncharted territory for Blackburn late in the season, he was asked to toe the rubber on the final night of the year.  Over the course of six innings of work set to a background of a swirling black mass of humanity, Blackburn stymied the Chicago White Sox, deploying his fastball, cutter and slider to keep the sluggers off-balance.  Unfortunately one bad pitch to Jim Thome would be the difference as Blackburn was pegged with the loss, one in which he finished with a Game Score of 61.  The offense, unable to conjure up anything more than two hits - let alone a run - failed to adequately support Blackburn's masterful game, leaving him with the hardest "tough loss" to accept all season.          
GS > 90 = 0
GS 80-89 = 0
GS 70-79 =  2
GS 60-69 = 9
GS < 40 = 10
    In 33% of his starts he gave his team all the necessary pitching to claim victory, but only on four of those eleven occasions did he do so away from the 612 area code.  Aside from his gem in Chicago (who were 88-74 on 9/30), Blackburn's opponents that had a Game Score over 60 were well under .500 (the Rockies (15-27 on 5/16), Royals (21-31 on 5/27) and the Indians (45-58 on 7/27)).  This shows the bipolar pitcher that Blackburn is when he was asked to pitch outside the Dome.  Seven of his 33 starts in which his Game Scores were below 40 were on the road as he went 3-8 in 19 starts with a 4.97 ERA.  But before I get to carried away denouncing his appearances away from home, I should put his performance into context.  The Twins staff as a whole was miserable outside of Minnesota, posting a 5.12 ERA, and so Blackburn's 4.97 ERA wasn't too far removed from the league which posted 4.67 ERAs on average during away games.  But we should not allow his travel indiscretions to mire his contributions that he made at home where he was every bit as good as the number 1 prospect ranked by Baseball America. At the Dome, he threw two games in the 70s and posted a 2.95 ERA while going 8-3 in 14 starts.  Even though he lead the team in innings pitched and starts, he is most suited to be a fourth or fifth pitcher behind Baker, Liriano and Slowey in 2009.



 Scott Baker - 11-4 (6-7 in no-decisions)
GS > 50: 9-3 (5-5)
GS < 50: 2-1 (2-1)
Average Game Score = 55
High Game Score = 81 (7/20 vs. Texas)
Low Game Score = 28 (8/5 at Seattle) 
    Look at that again: 22 of his 28 starts were above a Game Score of 50.  In 78.5% of his starts, he pitched well enough to give his team the opportunity to win those games.  That is the definition of an ace.  In just about every way Scott Baker improved.  In 2007, he was striking out 16% of batters faced.  In 2008, he upped it to 20%.  In 2007 he finished the year with a 3.89 FIP.  This past season, he dropped that to 3.79.  The most remarkable this about Baker is that he did this while squaring off against some of the best number one pitchers in the league.  In three separate starts, Baker matched up against C.C. Sabathia (2.70 ERA), Daisuke Matsuzaka (2.90 ERA) and John Lackey (3.75 ERA) only to throw three of his best games of the year with Game Scores of 70, 72 and 71, respectively.
GS > 90 = 0
GS 80-89 = 1
GS 70-79 =  4
GS 60-69 = 4
GS < 40 = 3
    In only three of his 28 starts did Scott Baker take the mound and fail to deliver an outing that placed the Twins with a win's reach.  In Arlington on April 26th, Scott Baker left the game trailing 4-2 after 4 1/3 innings but did not factor into the decision in a game the Twins ultimately won 12-6.  On August 5th in Seattle, Scott Baker matched up against RA Dickey.  Baker went 5 1/3 inning but allowed six runs - three by way of a Raul Ibanez home run - and despite the Twins efforts to score against the weak Mariner bullpen, they came up short 8-7.  The next came on August 16th at the Metrodome when he was knocked around by the last place Mariners for four runs in just 5 1/3 innings but once again Baker, along with the Twins, eluded a loss and won in the bottom of the ninth on a Brian Buscher sacrifice fly to score Joe Mauer from third.   So where Baker faltered in those three starts, the offense and bullpen provided backup as the team actually went two out of three of those outings. 

 Kevin Slowey - 12-11 (4-1 in no-decisions)

GS > 50: 11-3 (2-0)
GS < 50: 1-8 (2-1)
Average Game Score = 53
High Game Score = 89 (7/29 vs. Milwaukee)
Low Game Score = 10 (6/8 at Chicago) 
    Here's one thing you can say about Kevin Slowey: he doesn't get cheated in his starts.  In only three occasions did he get stuck with "tough losses".  It is easy to gain a victory if you provide an offense with a quality start and in return they average 5.20 runs per game when you are on the hill.  On the other side of the coin, Slowey was not particularly lucky either.  Just once did he manage to acquire a "lucky win" in a start in which he wasn't his sharpest. His season's best on June 29th against the visiting Milwaukee Brewers.  The Brewers were sending the 9-1 Ben Sheets to the mound.  Both Sheets and Slowey faced the minimum before JJ Hardy hit a one-out double in the fourth.  Slowey would allow two more hits the rest of the night and not allow a baserunner past following the Hardy double.  The offense, meanwhile, was boosted by Delmon Young's second home run of the year and rallied for five runs off the hard-throwing righty. Slowey pitched a complete game and finished with eight strikeouts and no walks for the team's highest Game Score of the season at 89.   
GS > 90 = 0
GS 80-89 = 1
GS 70-79 =  4
GS 60-69 = 5
GS < 40 = 4
    In 27 starts Slowey gave the team an ample opportunity (Game Score of 60 or above) to win 10 times.  The Twins did win each of those 10 games as well something that cannot be said about Baker's nine (7-2) or Blackburn's eleven (9-2) of the same caliber. 
Glen Perkins - 12-4 (4-6 in no-decisions)
GS > 50: 8-0 (0-3)
GS < 50: 4-4 (4-3)
Average Game Score = 46
High Game Score = 75 (8/11 vs. New York Yankees)
Low Game Score = 20 (5/30 vs. New York Yankees)

    Here's a guy who was not handed one "tough loss" and he owes his offense a debt of gratitude for that.  Glen Perkins's record (12-4) significantly outperformed what would have been expect with someone posting a 5.14 FIP thanks to an extra run per start over the team's average (6.23 runs per game).  His season outside of that solid winning percentage was of mixed results.  He led the staff in home runs allowed (25) and was drilled for 12 home runs over the span of seven starts from August 22nd to September 27th.  Those seven games were ugly: 35 1/3 innings pitched, 23 earned runs, 14/10 K/BB ratio, a 5.86 ERA and a .333/.373/.647 opponent batting line with an average Game Score of 40 per start.  This could be indicative of several things.  The first of which being the total amount of innings pitched.  He threw 184 innings split between Rochester and Minnesota, well above his previous high.  The second ties the aforementioned inning count which was that Perkins was a year removed for a severe left shoulder injury that forced him to sit out the majority of the 2007 season.  Pitching in this territory certainly could have led to a tired arm, one that was throwing a fastball 2-mph slower than in 2007. What we should focus on were his eight games between June 9th and July 18th were Perkins did not allow more than 3 earned runs in any of those starts, averaging Game Scores of 52.  In that span, Perkins threw 50 1/3 innings, allowed 19 earned runs, posted a 26/14 K/BB ratio, a 3.40 ERA with an opponent average of .267/.318/.405.  This Perkins is more in tune with his minor league track record, where he had a 380/144 K/BB ratio with a 3.50 ERA in 367 2/3 innings pitched.  Another offseason of restrengthening his shoulder could result in a sustained performace in 2009 like his June-July stretch.   

GS > 90 = 0
GS 80-89 = 0
GS 70-79 =  2
GS 60-69 = 2
GS < 40 = 8
    Nothing spectacular here.  He spun two really good gems and a pair of solid ones but for the most part he posted Game Scores between 59-41 (46% of starts were winnable).  Four of his eight starts that falls under the category of "detrimental" in the month of September with Game Scores under 40.  Subtract those from the mix and he resembles someone that could provide a number three starter production in the fourth or fifth spot in the rotation.  Assuming that the shoulder has time to heal further this offseason, he will likely accomplish that in 2009 as well.
 Francisco Liriano - 6-4 (0-4 in no-decisions)
GS > 50: 5-0 (0-3)
GS < 50: 1-4 (0-1)
Average Game Score = 51
High Game Score = 72 (8/15 vs. Seattle)
Low Game Score = 15 (5/24 at Oakland) 
    Let's throw out the first three starts which includes his low Game Score of 15 against Oakland, m'kay?  That was a Liriano that was just regaining a feel for the ball and the strike zone.  Outside of those, Liriano pitched very well, averaging a Game Score of 56 in those 11 starts.  What is worth mentioning about that stretch of starts is that Liriano faced just one team that was above .500 - Tampa Bay Rays September 21st. Except for the Rays Liriano would face the Royals three times, the Mariners twice, the A's twice, the Indians twice and the Tigers once.  These are not exactly high quality lineups that would present a true test of his acehood.  Nevertheless he made highly productive contributions in the rotation and twice he was denied a victory by his bullpen and lack of run support (just 4.11 per start) after pitching well at Seattle and Oakland in back-to-back starts. 
GS > 90 = 0
GS 80-89 = 0
GS 70-79 =  2
GS 60-69 = 5
GS < 40 = 4
    Keep in mind that two of the four starts that were under a Game Score of 40 were of the first three starts of the year for Liriano - the others, unfortunately, came in September during a period when the team could have really used a win to avoid a one-game playoff.  A full offseason and spring training will certainly go a long ways to shifting these number back towards the 70s and 80s that he was twirling in 2006. 

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The 2008 Starting Rotation: An Analysis of the Record of Opposing Batters


Prior to the 2008 season, I studied the batting line of the projected three frontline starters for the Twins (Hernandez, Bonser and Baker).  This was a technique suggested by Bill James when trying to look beyond the standard record and ERA statistics.  The idea is that if your starting pitcher's batting line was comparable to Houston's Michael Bourne (.229/.288/.300) you have a pitcher of ace quality.  Conversely, if your pitcher's batting line looks strikingly similar to Albert Pojuls (.357/.462/.653), that hurler might already be booked for a flight back to one of the team's minor league affiliates (if not back to his hometown). 
Livan Hernandez
Comparable: Brian McCann
The findings showed that in 2007, Livan Hernandez made every batter hit like Victor Martinez - the 2007 version of Martinez, that is - who batted .301/.374/.505.  At the time I wrote that employment would be short-lived if Hernandez's results in 2008 emulated those of 2007.  In 24 starts in 2008 Hernandez's opponents batted .342/.375/.520, a lofty step backwards.  Hernandez saw the 2007 Victor Martinez and raised a 2008 Brian McCann, who hit .301/.373/.523 this past season.  The Twins continued to sign his paycheck well into June mostly because of a 6-2 record through 13 starts despite a .339/.369/.506 batting line against in those outings.  It would take a serious slide in victories over the course of the next 10 games (4-6) for the organization to consider cutting Hernandez loose.  Some teams, like the New York Mets, excrete desperation for starting pitching.  When Hernandez was designated for assigment by the Twins, Tony Bernazard, the Mets' vice president for player development, told the NY Times “We will look into anyone who is available.”  It would be the lowly Rockies that claimed him on the waivers.  His stint in Colorado would turn really ugly as National League opponents hit .345/.399/.571 off of him.  While most organizations would be intelligent enough to keep their distance from this sort of volatile there will be one or two ballclubs that will be willing to give Hernandez a spring training invitation because he finished the season with a winning record (13-11) and was able to work 180 excruciating innings.    
Boof Bonser
Comparable: James Loney
Boof Bonser is a curious case study.  The hopes of the organization going into 2008 was the Bonser would shed excess body weight return to the pitcher that appeared at the end of the 2006 season moving, but after making 12 starts and sporting a 2-6 record the Twins banished him to the bullpen.  His 5.97 ERA and record was a poor reflection of his performance as he was actually pitching better than either statistic suggested.  In those 12 starts opponents were batting just .267/.316/.418 (comparable to Miguel Tejada's season).  Once in the bullpen though, Bonser collapsed.  He faced 236 batters in relief, opponents hit .307/.353/.474 (Jose Reyes), while he couldn't keep runners from scoring as indicated by his 57.9% left-on-base percentage.  This was the worst strand-rate by any American League pitcher to log over 100 innings. The underlying problem that manifested itself in 2007 continued into 2008, which was that Bonser could no longer retire left-handed batters.  In 2007, Bonser turned all lefties into Kevin Youkilis. The group of wrong-handers collectively hit .349/.407/.563 off of Boof in 411 plate appearances.  This past season, lefties hit .315/.378/.489 in 243 plate appearances, a comp resembling Magglio Ordonez. This was an oddity considering that in 198 plate appearances in 2006, Bonser had limited left-handed opponents to .251/.305/.454 split.  What had happened over the course of the two seasons?  In 2008, Bonser used mostly fastball (63%), curves (19%) and sliders (11%) when facing lefties.  He would rarely use a changeup (6%).  The results of 2007 were the same: fastballs (58%), curves (23%), sliders (10%) and the occasional changeup (8%).  Yet in 2006, it was his changeup, not his slider that was his third most used pitch.  He used the changeup 12% of the time against lefties and was much more effective.  Because he is out of options, the Twins have tentatively labeled him the long relief guy in 2009, though judging from his splits, he would be better suited as a ROOGY. In order to return to the success that he experienced in 2006, Bonser should implement his changeup as his third pitch when facing lefties.     
Scott Baker
Comparable: Carlos Gomez

In 2008, Baker emerged and grabbed the title of staff ace, leading the rotation with the lowest batting line against of .247/.294/.381.  Coming into the season, Scott Baker also had the best record of opponents batting among the three starters in 2007 and I noted that Baker had the stuff to pitch his way into Brandon Inge territory, who in 2007 had a depressed .236/.312/.376 batting line.  Going sheerly off of OPS, Baker actually did slightly better than turning batters into Inge (675 OPS versus 678 OPS), but unfortunately for Twins fans, his closest comparable in 2008 was none other than Carlos Gomez (who had an OPS of 656).  Baseball-Reference.com has Boof Bonser listed as the closest comparable at age 25 for Baker.  Now that he is entering his 27-year-old season in 2009, the similarities between him and Bonser will deviate significantly.  Baker will assume his rightful position as a number one or number two starter in the 2009 rotation, giving the Twins an excellent right-left combo with Francisco Liriano, and, if he can remain healthy, should accumulate 200 innings for the first time in his career.   

Nick Blackburn
Nick Blackburn is the successful version of Boof Bonser.  They both had similar groundball rates (44.9% gb% versus 40.7%) and line drive rates (20.9% ld% versus 20.4% ld%) and opponents hit Blackburn just as well as they did Bonser.  Yet one of them was asked to start the one-game playoff against Chicago and the other was picking splinters out of his bulbous ass in the bullpen.  What separates Blackburn from Bonser?  The simple answer is that Blackburn can pitch from the stretch and Bonser can't.  With runners on base, opponents were hitting just .274/.307/.390 off of Blackburn as opposed to .306/.348/.481 when he was pitching from the wind-up.  Bonser, meanwhile, implodes when runners reach.  Opponents were batting .322/.349/.467 when Bonser was throwing from the stretch - which has led to Bonser's 57.9% LOB% versus Blackburn's 70.7%.  Blackburn's numbers leave me to believe that he is a number four/five starter, certainly a valuable one who gained postseason experience in his matchup with the Chicago White Sox and had thrown nearly 200 innings in his first full major league season, but if Blackburn is traded during the offseason to obtain a shortstop or third baseman, I wouldn't be surprised either.   
Kevin Slowey
Comparable: Kevin Kouzmanoff
Kevin Slowey's 2008 season reaffirmed that his minor league pedigree would follow him to the majors as he posted a 123/24 K/BB ratio, barely losing to Scott Baker for the team's lowest OBP allowed.  Twins fans might balk at seeing Kouzmanoff as Slowey's comparable considering that Kouzmanoff has been one of the rumored third basemen that the team has been interested in, but he almost has the identical K/BB (139/23) and hit just one home run fewer than Slowey allowed (23 versus 22).  Though they are very similar, Kouzmanoff's sophomore season was a huge regression while Slowey's sophomore year was a huge progression in development.  As a flyball pitcher, Slowey benefited from the speedy outfield duo in Carlos Gomez and Denard Span and also took a big step forward in preventing the ball from leaving the park as his home runs to flyball ratio decreased from 16.5% in 2007 to 11.5% in 2008.  Slowey's improvements suggest that in 2009 he will be a frontline starter with Baker and Liriano giving the Twins three solid starters to enter any big series.  
Glen Perkins
Comparable: Raul Ibanez/Melvin Mora
Yes, seeing Ibanez as the most comparable probably isn't a good thing but it does fit as Perkins surrendered two of his 27 career home runs to Ibanez.  Perkins was lauded because of his 12-4 record but led the staff in runs allowed per nine innings (4.83) and home runs allowed (25).  His success is exaggerated because Perkins received 6.23 runs per start from his offense - a full run higher than Slowey's 5.20 per game, who finished the season 12-11.  His high opponent average against is because batters are able to make solid contact, as indicated by his 22.6% line drive rate.  Perkins fell apart in September going 0-1 with a 7.45 ERA while opponents bashed him for seven home runs and hit .384/.421/.733 off of him in five starts.  His minor league stats suggest that he is probably better than what he showed in 2008 but not that much better.  The Twins should consider selling high now for infield help.  Both Seattle and Milwaukee will be looking for pitching help this offseason and have Adrian Beltre and JJ Hardy, respectively.  Then again, with the bind that the Twins were in for starting pitching after trading away Matt Garza, the organization might shy away from trading away pitchers with major league experience.   
Francisco Liriano
Francisco Liriano's 2008 season is hard to label.  His first three starts in May were disastrous in a foolhardy move by the front office.  In those three starts, opponents hit .366/.509/.415 skewing the final opponent batting record, unfairly making him seem comparable to Jeremy Hermida or Mark Teahan.  When Liriano returned from Rochester the second time, opponents hit just .258/.296/.360 - once again turning opposing team's lineups in Carlos Gomez.  Had Liriano had a full season with this performance, his 656 OPS against would have overtaken Baker's 675 as the team's best.  With an entire offseason to prepare for the next year instead of rehabbing, Liriano should be expected to be the Twins' number one starter in 2009. 

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

New and Improved: A Dissection of Grant Balfour

Once upon a time in the fast-paced 1990s, the Minnesota Twins drafted an Australian and transplanted him from the Land Down Under - where women roam and men plunder - to Fort Myers, Florida (which has three Outbacks) to develop what international scouts had discovered was a dominate fastball.     
Splitting his first three professional seasons with the GCL Twins, Elizabethton and Quad Cities, Balfour worked 247 innings with a record of 17-11 and a 213/84 K/BB ratio.  At 22 years old and his first season of A+ ball in Fort Myers, the Twins organization thought he would contribute most from the bullpen - able to rely on his fastball at full-tilt and not have to spread it out over six innings or more.  Balfour transitioned well.  The following season in 2001 he opened up the season in AA New Britain where in 50 innings of work, he struck out 72 and converted 13 save opportunities, earning a promotion in July, taking the roster spot of Quinton McCracken.  Like most prospects, Balfour's introduction to the higher level came with growing pains.  Unfortunately for Balfour, his first call of duty would be against the Seattle Mariners.  
The 2001 Seattle Mariners would score nearly six runs per game (5.74) on their way to 116 victories.  The young fireballer was like a lamb to the slaughter at Safeco Field.  Kyle Lohse would start the game and throw 4 1/3 ineffective innings, kindly leaving a nice mess of Bret Boone on third and John Olerud on first with only one out for Balfour to clean up.  His first major league matchup was with Mike Cameron, whom he would strike out for the second out.  He would walk Al Martin to load the bases but induce an inning-ending grounder out of third baseman David Bell to conclude his initial outing.  The next inning would not go so smoothly as he would give up a walk, sacrifice bunt then a bunt base hit to Ichiro (not a rarely feat considering he had 242 that year) followed by a sacrifice fly to give him his first earned run of his career. 
 Five days later, the Twins would find themselves doing battle with the same Mariners at the Metrodome.  Once again Kyle Lohse would be the starter who would last just five innings against the potent run-producing lineup.  Down 8-3, manager Tom Kelly would call upon Grant Balfour as his third pitcher of the night.  Balfour would surrender a solo home run to Ichiro followed a batter later with a two-run blast by Bret Boone.  The loss would move the Twins in a tie with the second-place Cleveland Indians.  Deciding that more calvery for the bullpen was needed if they expected to compete all season, Terry Ryan sent left-handed starter Mark Redman to the Detroit Tigers in exchange for Todd Jones.  One day later, Ryan would make room for his new bullpen arm by optioning Balfour to AAA Edmonton.  Jones, of course, would be no help as the Twins spiraled to the finish, going 25-39 the rest of the way.  Balfour would continue his trend in AAA:  In 11 appearances, he worked 16 innings while striking out 17 but walking 10 and giving up 10 earned runs.
Balfour would spend all of 2002 in AAA, posting very good numbers are the parent club would return to the postseason for the first time in eleven years.  In 2003, when Mike Nakamura was unable to provide relief to the bullpen, Balfour would be recalled in July.  In 26 innings of work, Balfour posted a decent 4.15 ERA and a 30/14 K/BB ratio.  His 2003 performance would allow him to return to the Twins bullpen in 2004 when he would toss 39.1 innings with a 4.35 ERA and a 42/21 K/BB split, but not before being placed on the DL for six weeks with a sore shoulder to the ire of the coaching staff.  Making it back to the playoffs, the Twins would keep Balfour and his mid-90s fastball on the postseason roster.  In the deciding Game 4, Balfour would be asked to replace Johan Santana going into the sixth inning with Twins 5-1 lead over the Yankees.  Balfour's two scoreless innings provided Ron Gardenhire with some brief reassurance that he made the right move, that is, until Juan Rincon surrendered a three-run home run to Ruben Sierra. 
Deploying a hard fastball (69% of the time) and a slider (10%), the Twins began dreaming of a 2005 bullpen that would consist of Joe Nathan, Juan Rincon, JC Romero and Grant Balfour.  It would, however, remain just that: a dream.  In spring training, Balfour began to indicate he had forearm tightness and missed the majority of spring training.  Since he was jerked back and forth from the minors to the majors, Balfour was out of options and would have to either start the season on the DL or pass through waivers before being outrighted to Rochester.  Balfour's inability to give the Twins coaching staff any sort of timeline irked them with the season opening swiftly approaching.  "He [Balfour] said, 'I felt fine for the first eight minutes, but not so good the last two,'" Gardenhire said. "What am I supposed to do with that? Is he good to go, or does he have a problem?" 
Doctors would confirm that it was a muscle strain, shutting him down for the remainder of spring training, making him a DL candidate to start the season.  After being cleared to begin throwing off the mound, Balfour experienced setbacks, noting pain in the forearm when throwing 80% in sessions.  At the end of April, the Twins decided to have Balfour get exploratory surgery done on the arm to determine once and for all if he would require Tommy John surgery.  The surgery would reveal an 85% tear in his elbow ligament necessitating the Tommy John.  "It was nice to go in there and find out why I was having trouble with my arm," Balfour said. "It rules out all the questions."
The surgery followed by rehabilitation would take Balfour out of the game for over a year.  After briefly working out in Fort Myers in the fall at the Twins complex, the team ultimately decided to offer a 2006 contract to Balfour.  It didn't take long for the Cincinnati Reds to take out a flier on him, giving him $340K in hopes that Balfour would be ready by the second-half.  "He was originally operated on by Dr. Kremchek, so we have a pretty good idea here of what's involved," Reds general manager Dan O'Brien said in January. "He's currently in rehab. He will be reporting to major league camp, but will not be physically able to compete for a job in spring training. If everything goes as planned, he could likely return about midseason."  Balfour would only throw nine innings in the Reds farm system before being claimed by the Brewers in October, selected by O'Brien who was ousted at his GM position and took up a special advisor role in Milwaukee. 
The 2007 spring training started off poorly for Balfour. "So far, not that great a couple of games," said Balfour, after giving up six earned runs on seven hits in just 3.3 innings of work. "I feel like I got some ground balls. There are other parts of the game where I could have made a better pitch and helped myself buy getting out of the inning. With two outs, I kind of let things slide instead of bearing down and getting more focused and getting the hitter out."  The regular season wouldn't be much better.  In July, Balfour was recalled along with Manny Parra, a left-handed prospect that had once pitched along side Balfour at the Futures Game in 2003, only to implode in his three outings, logging 2 2/3 innings will seceding six earned runs, four walks and four hits.  On July 30th, the Brewers shipped him to Tampa for Seth McClung, ending O'Brien's experiment of reviving the righty. 
According to Fangraphs.com, Balfour's fastball was only registering 92.9-mph while in Milwaukee, well below the 96-mph that he was hitting with the Twins prior to the Tommy John surgery.  In addition to the decline in his velocity, Balfour leaned heavily on his slider, spinning it nearly a quarter of the time.  The Brewers may have given up on Balfour too prematurely, because by August, Rays manager Joe Maddon was singing his praises.   "I definitely see a power arm," Maddon said. "I've seen him beat fastball hitters in fastball counts when they know a fastball's coming, and that's always nice to do that. I've been impressed. I would like to get to the point where you can start using him two days in a row. We see a possible bright future with this guy, so we want to take care of him. We want to get a good look and take care of him at the same time."
Once in Tampa, Balfour begin using mainly his fastball again (77%), which was regaining speed, up to 93.2-mph on average at the end of the season.  "The scouting of Balfour was really good," said Joe Maddon. "When Andrew [Friedman, the Rays' vice president of baseball operations] picked him up, he told me about his strike-throwing and velocity and all that other kind of stuff -- his breaking ball. This guy just needs opportunity. He's been waiting for this moment. He's interesting, because I think as he gains arm strength [based on recovery from surgery], he could be very good."  In his 22 innings with the Devil Rays, Balfour struck out 27 and walked 16 while allowing just one home run, providing a solid arm for the Devil Rays projecting into 2008. 
In 2008, his fastball had been dominate.  But it didn't begin according to plan.  The Rays decided to designate Balfour for assignment, effectively making him available to anyone that wanted to pay the waiver fee and opting to keep Scott Dohmann on the roster in Balfour's stead because of "overall strike zone command".  The Australian accepted his assignment to AAA Durham and continued his resurgence, working 23.2 innings, allowing just five hits and striking out 39.  On May 29th, with Rays closer Troy Percival needing DL time, the team decided to recall the flamethrowing right-hander that had been lighting up the International League. 
"Pitching is about confidence," Balfour said upon his return from Durham. "Get on a little bit of a roll and take it from there. Just go out there and drop a zero. Then go out there and drop another one. Like hitters getting hits. I just tried to roll with it as long as I could. Everyone loves to pitch in close games. I enjoy the pressure of key situations. I think you come in really zeroed in, really focused.  You should be focused every time you go out there. But when it's 10-1, 11-1, it's different. Guys will tell you that. It's different when the game is on the line."
Using his 94.6-mph fastball nearly 92% of the time, sprinkled in with an 86-mph slider has led to a groundball rate of 61% and a 12.65 K/9 - the second highest among AL relievers.  It is evident that not only is Balfour one-hundred percent healed, but he has a new-found confidence that has propelled the Rays bullpen deep into the 2008 playoffs.