Sunday, August 17, 2008

2008: 3rd Quarter Review

With 122 games finished in the 2008 season, the Twins are in the middle of a dog-fight for the American League Central with the last quarter of the season remaining. If anything, the play of the Twins at the end of the first quarter of the season (21-20) proved that the competition within the division was not shared between Detroit and Cleveland as most experts expected. Certainly the Tiger's dreadful 16-25 was an early canary in the coal mine that the Tigers were not destined for the 2008 postseason. Meanwhile the Twins, Indians, White Sox and even the Royals were separated by just one game at the conclusion of the opening quarter of the season. During the second quarter of the season (24-17) the Twins feasted on National League pitching and went 14-3 during a stretch of baseball between June 11th and June 29th. As the second quarter played out, the standings in the American League Central mprphed over the course of these 41 games: Cleveland, unable to gain momentum at the plate coupled with injuries to Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez, dropped from first to the bottom of the division going 15-26, slightly worse than the Tigers first quarter record. Conversely Detroit rebounded from the dehabilitation first quarter going 26-15, clawing their way out of the cellar and over the Indians and Royals, performing the way that most analysts anticipated when they acquired Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. The Royals declined significantly in second quarter capped off by a 12-game losing streak and finished 17-24 in that stretch of games. The White Sox powered their way to first by going 26-15 while hitting 62 home runs in those 41 games (1.52 home runs per game).
In the third quarter, the Twins managed to win 24 games while losing just 16 in spite of watching their bullpen deteriorate. After game 122, the Twins are knotted with the White Sox at 69-53 atop the Central with nine and a half games separating the two teams from the third place Tigers making it quite apparently that it will come down to either the South Siders or the Twinks (especially given the state of the Tiger bullpen) to claim victor. What contributions helped the Twins to climb into a first-place tie?

* Twins go on the offensive. As each quarter progressed, the Twins have improved with each of the passing three quarters. In the first quarter, the Twins were scoring 4.36 runs per game. In the second, they had improved the output by just under one run per game. By the third quarter of the season, the Twins were churning out runs, scoring a run more per game then the first quarter:
games avg obp slg hrs runs per game
1st Quarter 41 .264 .313 .374 23 4.36
2nd Quarter 41 .280 .341 .422 33 5.24
3rd Quarter 40 .288 .354 .429 31 5.45
Minnesota Twins right fielder Denard Span, right, reacts with centerfielder Carlos Gomez after Span robbed Seattle Mariners' Adrian Beltre of a home run in the seventh inning, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2008, in an MLB baseball game at Safeco Field in Seattle.
* Three Words: Keiunta Denard Span. One of the best improvements the Twins made all season came at Ron Gardenhire's pen stroke. On July 22nd in the Bronx Gardenhire started his day by writing in Denard Span's name at the lead-off spot. There has not been a better offensive catalyst out there. When Span reaches base as a lead-off hitter the Twins typically score 1.27 runs per inning. For comparison's sake, when Carlos Gomez would reach base leading off an inning, the Twins would score 1.22 runs. The difference is that under those circumstances, Span was reaching base 35% of the time while Gomez was doing so only 29% of the time. When he was recalled on June 30th with the injury to Michael Cuddyer, Span immediately became an immediate impact player for the Twins offense and defense. Since his promotion from Rochester part duex, Span has hit .318/.399/.480 with 16 extra base hits in 174 plate appearances. His high walk rate (11.4%) and low strikeout rate (11.4%) made him an ideal candidate to replace Carlos Gomez at the top of the order when Gomez's continued unsatisfactory lead-off at-bats amassed. Having Span in right field (.958 rzr) complements Gomez at center field, making it almost impossible for opponents to find flyballs finding the turf - and if they do manage to find the right-center the closing speed limits the possibility for an extra base.
* Releasing Livan Hernandez and Craig Monroe... These were maneuvers were a season in the making. Unlike Sidney Ponson in 2007 who was a disaster each of the seven times the ball was handed to him, the problem with Livan Hernandez was that his winning record (10-8) masked the reality that he was the worst pitcher in the league (6.34 xFIP). In his five starts in the third quarter, Hernandez went 2-3 with a 6.44 era as opposing batters hit an MVP-like .336/.372/.512 scoring 4.2 runs per game. In his outings leading up to the third quarter Hernandez was essentially the same pitcher except that he possessed an 8-5 record with a 5.22 era but the opponents mashed him just the same, hitting .342/.366/.503 but scored just 3.5 runs per game. Admittedly the 6-1 start helped the Twins out of the gate and allowed for Francisco Liriano to polish the finishing touches on his rehab in the minor leagues, but when he was finally deemed ready, it was time to jettison Hernandez. Craig Monroe was just a disappointment, plain and simple. His acquisition was based on obtaining a power bat to hit left-handed pitching. Unfortunately the opposite was true, he slugged just .230 against the southpaws and .605 against his right-handed counterparts. He did against the righties what was desired of him against left-handed pitching, hitting a home run every 13.8 plate appearances, making him a somewhat useful pinch-hitter but that was the extend of his use. With no place in the field and Jason Kubel doing just fine against right-handed pitching (.520 slugging) Monroe proved to be a waste of roster space. In 43 plate appearances in the third quarter of the season, Monroe hit just .162/.279/.297. It was apparent that Monroe's days in Minnesota were numbered.
Minnesota Twins pitcher Francisco Liriano throws against the Seattle Mariners in the first inning of a baseball game Friday, Aug. 15, 2008 in Minneapolis.

* ...Gaining Francisco Liriano and Randy Ruiz. No, it is not the F-Bomb of 2006 nor is it the F-Bombed at the beginning of the 2008 season either fortunately. In his first three starts, just 10.1 innings of work, opponents hit .366/.509/.415 - with a horrendous 13 walks to 7 strikeouts. After the demotion to Rochester, Liriano returned with better velocity and a bit more confidence in his off-speed pitches. His next three starts since his return on August 3rd look like a different person. In those three starts Liriano went 18.2 innings and held opponents to a .167/.247/.273 batting line. Additionally he has struck out 15 batters and walked just 7. Scouts have said he still has a long way to go to get back to the 2006 form (if ever) but his location is down in the zone resulting in more groundballs (54% in August). When the Twins dropped Craig Monroe, they fished out possibly the best power-hitting right-handers in the organization. Some will hesitate to say that Ruiz should have been deserving of playing time at the onset of the 2008 season because of his lack of plate appearances above AA, but he continued his Van Damme-like assult on left-handed pitching in the International League with Rochester, hitting .315/.386/.495 off of them forcing the Twins to consider giving him his first major league at-bat. Since the Twins did not make a trade deadline deal, the Hernandez/Monroe for Liriano/Ruiz is looking like it could be the blockbuster that milks out a few more wins than the latter could have.
Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer and closer Joe Nathan, right, celebrate the Twins' 4-0 shutout of the New York Yankees in a baseball game Monday, Aug. 11, 2008, in Minneapolis. Nathan picked up his 32nd save.

* Just Joe Nathan. It is easy to look past Nathan's contributions because he is doing what he is suppose to do with his 4-year, $47-million dollar contract but in the third quarter of the season, he IS the bullpen. Forgetting about his August 5th appearance in Seattle in which Gardenhire wisely deployed him from the bullpen in the eighth inning, but Nathan was unable to fix Matt Guerrier's mess - he has been downright nasty dominate. In the 18 appearances in the third quarter of the season, Nathan pitched 18 innings and struck out 20 (29% of batters faced) while walking 6 (8% of batters faced). Opponents hit just .131/.221/.230 with the one run surrendered coming on a home run that was meaningless to everybody minus the Swisher family. The problem is ensuring that the ball gets to Nathan, which did not seem to have a defined path this past quarter as Matt Guerrier (19 innings, 19 runs, 8.52 era) and Jesse Crain (16.2 innings, 11 runs, 5.40 era) failed to adequately safeguard late-inning leads. If this continues, Joe Nathan might be forced to be his own set-up man.
Seattle Mariners' Wladimir Balentien, bottom, is forced out at second as Minnesota Twins second baseman Nick Punto, top, makes the throw to first base for the double play in the fourth inning, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2008, in an MLB baseball game at Safeco Field in Seattle.
* Having Nick Punto on the roster. In 2007, that sucking sound heard at 34 Kirby Puckett Place wasn’t originating from letting the air vacate through the doors but rather the source was Nick Punto’s swing. His season wasn’t just bad. It was beyond the pale. The word “Puntoesque” became tantamount to the term “Mendoza Line”. Fans clamored to hold him down and tattoo EPIC FAILURE on his forehead. Sure, condemn Nick Punto's 2007 all you want, but when it comes to 2008 he has been an integral part of the team, especially in the third quarter when Alexi Casilla was forced onto the DL with a thumb injury. In 144 plate appearances between June 29th and August 16th, Punto has batted .269/.319/.400 while scoring 17 runs and driving in 15 more. In his limited time in the third quarter of the year, Casilla was hitting .313/.337/.385 in 103 plate appearances. You could certainly conclude that Casilla's on-base presences is more valuable, but Punto has had a OPS of .719 while Casilla's was .722. In this regard, Punto has been more than a suitable replacement number two hitter in Casilla's stead.
* Rays of Hope. One could have casted an eye of doubt on the winter trade of Delmon Young and Brendan Harris. After all, Matt Garza has been a fixture in the Rays rotation, compiling 143.2 innings and going 10-7 with a 3.63 era. Numbers that would have looked damn good on the Twins side of the ledger. But this quarter more than ever proved to be an ever increasing valuable. Prior to the third quarter of the season Harris was hitting .249/.309/.352 in 294 plate appearances with 4 home runs and 34 runs scored. Post-June 29th, however, Harris began muscling up. In 116 plate appearances Harris has batted .298/.353/.481 with 2 home runs and 14 runs scored. In the first two quarters, Harris had an extra base hit rate of 28%, this past quarter he had a 45% extra base hit rate. Delmon Young, like Harris, took 82 games to figure out his swing. In the first two quarters of the season, Young hit .281/.329/.378 with 2 home runs. After June 29th, Young has hit .320/.358/.469 with 5 home runs in 160 plate appearances.
Looking towards the last stretch of the seasons, what factors could come into play as we progress into the fourth quarter of the year?
Minnesota Twins pitcher Matt Guerrier stands on the mound in the seventh inning against the Seattle Mariners, Monday, Aug. 4, 2008, in an MLB baseball game at Safeco Field in Seattle.
* Passing on Chad Bradford. As noted early, the Twins bullpen is in rough shape. Not Detroit Tiger rough, but definitely ragged. The 7th and 8th innings appear to be, at best, a roulette situation between Guerrier, Crain and Dennys Reyes. Since the all star break, the relievers have produced a 4.42 era, inflated above the American League average of 4.29 in the second half of the year. Without any emerging bullpen candidates ready to assume set-up role in Rochester, the Twins had the opportunity to claim Chad Bradford off the waivers from the Baltimore Orioles. Bradford, the underhanded slinging righty, has induced groundballs on nearly 70% of the balls put into play. The Twins have said that their scouts looked closely at Bradford, but ultimately decided that he was not suitable for the Twins and passed allowing the Rays, a direct competitor for the AL Wild Card, to claim him. Whether or not this non-move proves crucial to the Twins playoff push remains to be seen but Bradford has already contributed to the Rays bullpen as in 3.2 innings of work, he has not be scored upon although he did allow one inherited runner to score.
Minnesota Twins pitcher Nick Blackburn throws against the New York Yankees in the first inning of a baseball game Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2008, in Minneapolis.
* Can the starting rotation hold it together? Nick Blackburn is flirting with the threshold for most innings thrown in his professional career. Currently with 144.7 innings logged he is encroaching on his season high of 159.7 rapidly. The reason the Twins took the opportunity to claim Jarrod Washburn was to place Blackburn in the bullpen to ensure he would be fresh for the playoffs. Needless to say, a deal could not be brokered between Seattle and Minnesota so Washburn remains in the Puget Sound area. The fact remains that the Twins have a lot of pitchers that are reaching the maximum amount of innings pitched in a given season. Glen Perkins is at 110 with his max of 134 which he threw in 2005 on the horizon. Francisco Liriano has thrown 152 innings combined between the minors and majors in 2008 - no one has to be reminded of how many innings he logged last year. It is the youth coupled with the concern that their arms could breakdown come September that makes front office's give pause when a pitcher like Jarrod Washburn floats across the waiver wires.