Monday, August 30, 2010

Blackburn changes things up

In the middle of July, mired in a five-game stint in which he had allowed 28 earned runs in 22.2 innings pitched, Nick Blackburn was desperately in need of some re-tooling. The problem was fairly evident: he simply was not changing speeds enough

This was something that pitching coach Rick Anderson encouraged as far back into the season as June. At that time, opponents were slaughtering his fastball. Even with the mounting evidence and direction from his coaching staff, Blackburn stuck to his two-seam fastball that continued to be belted across the universe.

Now, after Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Seattle, Blackburn has made two consecutive quality starts. In those outings, the righty has worked 15.2 innings, allowing 10 hits while striking out 11 and walking two. This resurgence, notes La Velle E Neal, stems from Blackburn rekindling his relationship with the changeup, “tinkering” with the pitch in his starts in Rochester.

Looking back at his pitch usage, the data confirms that he has used the changeup more frequently since his recall:

Blackburn’s Assortment:
8/28 @SEA
8/23 @TEX
7/28 @BAL
7/18 vs CWS
7/10 @ DET
Said Blackburn after this past weekend’s near complete-game, shutout against Seattle: 
"Joe [Mauer] and I had these guys off balance, and they just weren't putting good swings on the ball. I was throwing pitches down the middle and they were looking for something else, and it was good. It was fun.''
Essentially, this was the byproduct of changing speeds better. As I stated back in July
“If you miss your spots, as Blackburn has done so routinely recently, the damage may be minimized by messing with the hitters’ timing. If you are missing spots and throwing at the same speed constantly, professional hitters will hammer those pitches. While location remains supremely important, if there is a deviation in velocity or break, this may incite hitters to commit too early to a pitch they would otherwise drive, turning it over on the ground. When Blackburn was tearing through opponents in May, he rarely showed the same reliance on his fastball in succession.”
In order to continue this success into the fall, Blackburn needs to commit to varying his speeds consistently. Good start so far.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tonight: Span or Repko in center?

Today, I assisted's Carson Cistulli in answering the question: Who should start in center, Denard Span or Jason Repko? 

For this particular instance, I favored Repko over Denard. Certainly with the Rangers starting the left-handed killing machine in CJ Wilson combined with Span's need to readjust his approach, today merits the opportunity to give the starting center fielder a night off.

However, there is a contingent of voices in Twins Territory that are crying for a more permanent switch. Because of Repko's defensive prowess and sudden offensive surge in his limited capacity, there has been rumblings to bench Span in favor of Repko altogether. This, of course, is absurd.

Admittedly, Span is in need of some respite, as he has been flummoxed by opponents who have altered their approach by firing strikes early in the count when data/scouting showed Span didn't swing. Repko, while playing effectively in small doses, does not have nearly the same skill set that an effective Denard Span has when it comes to leading off. The right-hander manages to strike out in over 25% of his big league plate appearances leading to a .300 OBP in his career. That just won't cut it in the lead off spot. The Twins need Span's presence at the top of the order and they need him to make adjustments quickly. 

  • Over at DiamondCentric, we are currently weighing options for the next shirt honoring Carl Pavano. Take a look at the potential styles at my Twitter account and please provide us with some feedback. 
  • Seth Stohs looks at last night's game and raises plenty of discussion points. 
  • Likewise, Andrew at Off The Mark takes a closer look at the decisions made late in last night's game. 
  • Nick Nelson examines the favorable atmosphere of home field advantage in the playoffs -- with a foregone conclusion that the Twins will be a part of that mix.
  • More on Jesse Crain's improvements via Pioneer Press.
  • Carlos Gomez is up to his old tricks in Milwaukee. In spite of a lowly .228/.285/.348 batting line as the recently added Lorenzo Cain, who has hit .314/.368/.431 in fewer than 60 plate appearances, Gomez still brazenly admits that he is "the man" for the Brewers. The money line? "At this point, Gomez appears to be really good at only two things -- running, and running his mouth."
  • Former Twins pitcher Matt Kinney was recently suspended for 50-games after testing positive for amphetamines. The 33-year-old Kinney was pitching for the Giants' AAA-affiliate in Fresno. 
  • Branden Harris, who was sent down to Rochester in late June, has been flustered in his demotion, saying “I can’t believe where I am. I don’t have that sense of entitlement, I just can’t believe how things went south so quickly. From signing the two-year deal, to having a good spring training, to here.”
  • Ken Lipshez of the New Britain Herald informs us that Bill Smith is still very much counting on Terry Ryan's seal of approval when concocting deals. 

Monday, August 23, 2010

OtB Twins Notes

With Kevin Slowey hitting the disabled list, Nick Blackburn will make a start tonight for the Twins. There are some indications that Blackburn has rediscovered his scorched earth policy in Rochester that made him so effective in ’08 and ’09. In 23 innings at AAA, Blackburn has amassed a healthy 65.3% ground ball rate according to Unfortunately, in his most recent start, Blackburn allowed five run (four earned) in 5.1 innings of work.

With Ron Mahay now sidelined with a shoulder injury suffered on his non-throwing arm, the Twins are now down to one left-handed option in the bullpen: Glen Perkins. As Nick Nelson commented last week, Perkins is far from an ideal candidate to assume this role as his career numbers do not necessarily reflect a pitcher that is dominate against same-sided opponents. While I agree with the stance, there are some signs that Perkins might be able to navigate some of the situational appearances adequately. Yes, his peripherals are not strong – a weak 4.7 K/9 versus LHB in AAA this year combined with inept career numbers isn’t reassuring – yet this season Perkins has been able to keep left-handers on the ground more often than not (he’s got a 51% ground ball rate). His hefty .327 batting average against the southports may have some to do with a suspect infield defense and his results may be better with the Twins’ high-quality middle infield. If the Twins do decided to push forward without any additional help as Phil Mackey alludes to, things may get dicey against upper echelon left-handed hitters.

Upgrades are certainly available in this area.  La Velle E Neal noted that the Dodgers’ George Sherrill and the Blue Jays’ Brian Tallet have both cleared waivers and can be traded to anyone before the August 30th waiver deadline. Of the pair, Sherrill is by far the more attractive option when it comes to facing left-handed opponents. Although his control has been extremely unreliable this season (as evidence by a 5.52 BB/9 this season), the Dodgers lefty is very tough on same-sided opponents. According to’s figures, Sherrill has the second-lowest well-hit average (.093) as a left against his compatriots this year. So, while his numbers against righties is grotesque (.418 batting average, 10/5 BB/K), he has fared much better against lefties (.191 batting average, 8/11 BB/K). Given the current ownership situation and 11-game deficit in the standings, the Dodgers may be interested in unloading Sherrill. However, Sherrill could also be an expensive proposition considering his contract of $4.5 million even prorated would be a high expense for someone who would be used in limited capacity for the remainder of the season.

Speaking of late season maneuvers, Sid Hartman implores GM Bill Smith to work his stuff in evaluating talent similar to what he did last year. Unfortunately, he does so beneath a very suggestive and borderline inappropriate headline: “GM’s magic wand is needed again”.

During Saturday’s broadcast, Jose Mota and Dick Bremer were discussing Jason Kubel’s towering blast on a hanging breaking ball thrown by Danny Haren from the previous game. Mota, a Fox broadcaster who had worked with the Angels broadcast team for year, noted that the Angels game plan when facing Jason Kubel was to avoid throwing him breaking balls. This, of course, seemed odd to me. For anyone who follows the Twins on a regular basis knows, breaking balls have long been Kubel’s kryptonite in the past. However, research shows that in the past 30 days, Kubel’s been lighting up the soft stuff, slugging .765 on curves and sliders. This sort of production against the slide pieces and benders should lead to an increased amount of fastballs to hit, something that opponents had tried to restrict at the beginning of the season.

Denard Span made an appearance on Thursday’s broadcast of the Reusse and Mackey Show on 1500ESPN. Span, whose walk struggles I documented on the previous Friday at TwinsCentric, was asked by Phil Mackey why the walks have vaporized. Span’s conclusion essentially mirrored what I laid out on Friday: Pitchers were starting him off with more strikes and setting him behind in the count. On Saturday, Span echoed the same to La Velle E Neal, telling reporters that "The way they are pitching me, the word is out that I usually take the first pitch and I've been watching strike one right down the middle. After that, then I'm getting the whole kitchen sink thrown at me.” With this in mind, be ready to see Span swinging more frequently early in the count.

One of the biggest assets that the Twins acquired this offseason at a minimal price was outfielder Jason Repko. Not only has Repko provided the Twins with superb defense in a pinch, he’s also generated some pop, slugging .508 in 69 plate appearances, hitting six doubles and three home runs. From the Great Falls Tribune, the city in which Repko’s professional career begin, is a good piece on the role player.   

Remember 2006’s spot starter Mike Smith and his glorious mane of hair that flowed out the back of his cap about two decades too late? You know, the guy that looked like he came rocking up to the stadium in a TransAm blasting Sister Christian? No, well, he only made a brief three inning appearance in Kansas City finishing the afternoon with three walks, a hit batter, a home run allowed and a 12.00 ERA in a Twins uniform. Sure, he’s a minor footnote in the Twins lore, but apparently, he’s a legend in the Can-Am League (the place where Eric Gagne went to die), currently tied for lead-league in wins (11)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Behind Mauer's second-half surge

In the first-half of the season, Joe Mauer turned in numbers that were unbecoming of a reigning MVP. He still maintained an above average walk rate and continued to spit out line drives out like sunflower seed shells however, the numbers just wouldn’t cooperate.

He checked into the All Star Break hitting  .293/.368/.434 (792 OPS) – slashes that were significantly below his career norms coming into the season. Since his low point (one which would be the majority of player’s career years), Mauer’s been wildly successful in the season’s second act. From July 15th on, he is hitting .442/.504/.681 (1.185 OPS) and has been a main catalyst in the team’s resurgence.

What has been the driving force behind this incredible hot streak?

When the going was tough, various analysts and speculators alike threw out plenty of explanations ranging from lingering injuries to pitchers changing their approach to positioning of the defense that had adverse effects on Mauer’s overall totals. It appears that all three played a partial role in his downsized totals, but it is most likely that the last factor has been the most influential.

Some observers suggested that Mauer was no longer driving the ball as well as he had in previous seasons, which was attributed to his various physical ailments. Nevertheless, using the Inside Edge-collected Well-Hit Average, we find that not only was he still hitting the ball with authority, he has been leading the league in this scouted statistic this season. In fact, he has shown more plate coverage than an episode of Man v. Food:

Mauer’s Well-Hit Average
MLB Rank
League Average
Middle (Vert)
Middle (Hor)

With his long arms and sugar-sweet swing, Mauer has given pitchers little areas of the strike zone to aim at without experiencing repercussions. Regardless of what the pitcher decided to throw (fastball, changeup, slider, kitchen sink, et al) and where, he was pasting pitches all around the field and yet, for a substantial portion of the year, he did not reap the dividends of doing so.

This is where the defensive alignment comes in.

As a hitter with a high percentage of ground balls, Mauer padded his batting average by sneaking numerous bouncers through the infield in 2009. Last year, he hit .288 on ground balls (65-for-226) while the rest of the league floundered around the .230 mark. Mauer particularly thrived at muscling grounders up the middle, hitting .632 on worm-burners in that direction (that’s over 60% of total balls in play becoming hits). Visually, we find that his spray charts reflect that the middle of the diamond was left unguarded last season:

Opponents had figured out his tendency when it came to these batted balls. Like most everything else, astute teams paid attention to this detail and fortified the midsection of the infield a bit more thoroughly in 2010. Suddenly, that escape route for grounders was no longer a viable option:

As you can obtain from the spray chart above, numerous would-be hits were thwarted near the keystone as teams shifted their shortstops and second basemen to squeeze the middle. While still scorching ground balls, Mauer did not get the same type of results he had the prior year. With this option removed Mauer’s average on ground balls took a decisively raunchy turn as the Twins catcher went 26-for-114 (.228 BABIP) on all grounders in the season’s first-half.

Perhaps partly due to the laws of regression and partly due to his own adjustments to the defensive shading, Mauer’s ability to record hits on grounders greatly improved. Assisting in raising that batting average back above .330 is the fact that he is able to achieve hits by way of land once again: Post-All Star Break, he is 19-for-48 (.395 BABIP) on ground balls.

To some extent, the same can be said about his line drive figures as well. While he was buzzing liners around the field at a .781 BABIP last year, a substantial number of those found their way to the awaiting defense this season as teams positioned themselves to expect drives to left field. Although opponents may shift the outfield around to accommodate for his opposite-field line drive tendencies, his ability to hit the ball solidly to all fields eventually resulted in clean hits which we have seen the past two months.

While battling injuries and still hitting the cover off the ball, Mauer had to solve the defense that continued to beat him in the first-half of the season. His second-half has certainly been remarkable thus far, but the Twins would benefit from an equally strong finish from their franchise player to keep their stranglehold atop the AL Central.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Sunday's game: One right decision, another questionable

After seven innings without allowing a hit and a comfortable four-run lead, Ron Gardenhire was in the unenviable position of deciding between allowing his starting pitcher to attempt history or risk injury potential.

At that time, Kevin Slowey had amassed 106 pitches, the most since his last start in which he threw 114, and, perhaps not coincidentally, had to be skipped a start due to some discomfort in his elbow. Recognizing that it was in his best interest to protect his pitcher, with Slowey’s health at the forefront of his mind, Gardenhire opted to go to his bullpen. This, of course, was the right decision.
Said the manager:
“I'm not going to let [Slowey] throw 125-130 pitches; it's just not going to happen. If he went back out for one more inning, he'd probably be around 115-120 and be done anyway. There's no way he was going to finish. He's got too big of a career ahead of him."
The interesting part involving the no-hit bid didn’t revolve around pulling Slowey. It was Gardenhire’s choice to use former closer Jon Rauch in the eighth inning.
Admittedly, Rauch had not seen action in five days and was at-risk of growing stale following a toe injury that kept him off the mound for a spell. It was obvious that he needed action. Of course, Rauch also demonstrated that he is the most hittable (10.0 H/9) member of the bullpen and his outing on Sunday reflected that. After getting overmatched rookie Chris Carter to freeze on a big, slow curveball for the inning’s first out, he surrendered back-to-back doubles to Cliff Pennington and Coco Crisp before walking Daric Barton. With the no-hitter gone and now the game very much in peril, Gardenhire called upon Jesse Crain to get his club out of a jam.
Needless to say, Crain has been to hell-and-back on the Twins bullpen hierarchy this season. Back on June 5th, Crain was summoned to solidify Francisco Liriano’s seven-inning, one-run gem in Oakland only to blow the save in the Twins eventual victory. Following that outing, Crain’s ERA was at a portly 5.33. Opponents were slugging .481 off of him, including 15 extra base hits in 25.2 innings of work. Because of his inconsistency, Crain’s high leverage card was revoked. He would be left to prove himself in situations when the game wasn’t on the line.
Crain has always had the raw stuff for the constructs of a successful reliever. He can blast a mid-90s fastball through the zone, which is velocity that over 99% of the Twins’ pitching staff would lust over, yet because it is thrown without much movement, it has proved to be extremely hittable. In the beginning of the season, Crain attempted to lean on his hard stuff too frequently and this got him tagged for 15 extra base hits.
Since that outing in Oakland, Crain has been arguably the most reliable member of the bullpen. In his last 28 outings, he’s allowed just one earned run, whittling his unsightly 5.33 ERA to a tidy 2.92. In that time, opponents have hit just .146 (12-for-82) with a lone extra base hit.
The biggest difference between the two stints is that Crain has since eased up on the throttle. His midseason renewal parallel’s his decision to employ his slider over his fastball:

Crain’s pitch selection:
OPS against
Through June 5th
June 5th through August 14th

To be sure, his slider has been particular devastating on opponents. According to’s sortable stats, Crain’s .092 batting average allowed on his slider is the seventh-lowest in baseball among relievers (and vastly superior to the .224 league average). Additionally, Crain has shown unbelievable confidence in this pitch. Not only will he throw it on the first pitch regularly (44% on 0-0 count), but he will also deploy it over his fastball during a full-count (74% on 3-2 count) with the possibility of a walk at stake.
Not that the manager should have considered putting a milestone ahead of the good of the team - be it by putting Slowey back out on the mound or foregoing the opportunity to allow Rauch to get some work in - but if the Twins had any inkling in exiting the afternoon with Slowey’s no-hitter intact, turning the ball over to Crain from the get-go would have be the most logical move. 

Friday, August 13, 2010

A look at Denard Span's walk drought

To say that Denard Span has had a rough 2010 season might be a significant understatement.
Spring training started with him lacing a foul shot off of his own mother, then he got off to a slow start brought on by struggles to hit on the road and, to top it off, teammate Orlando Hudson taught him what the capital of Thailand is at full speed. Now, he hasn’t drawn a walk in over a fortnight.
Although his walk rate has never been particularly outstanding, it has remained above average in his first two seasons with the Twins. This ability to coax a walk gave Span a two-pronged threat at the top of the order, able to reach base either through a hit or a walk thereby supplying him with an on-base rate of near 40%. However, this season is the first in which his walk rate has dipped below the league’s norm and with it, so too has his on-base percentage suffered.
Over the course of the past two weeks, the Twins have witnessed Span’s OBP slowly erode. After scratching his way back to a .350 OBP with a decent month of July, that figure has since plunged down to a new low of .336 for Span. This decline is due in part because of a depressed BABIP but also responsible is the dip in his walk rate. In the past 13 games played Span has not been dealt a free pass in a stretch of 59 plate appearances, by far his longest stint without one since coming up from Rochester in ’08.
The explanation for this recent disappearance in his walks is because opponents are attacking the strike zone early in the count more frequently. Since the date of his last free pass, teams have started him off with a strike in 57% of his plate appearances. What’s more is that since August 1st, pitchers have been increasingly aggressive, throwing him a strike in over 70% of his plate appearances and putting him in the pitcher’s debt immediately.
After the first pitch
Count 0-1
Count 1-0
Through July 27th
July 27th – August 11th
As you can see, part of this is self-inflicted as Span has opted to watch more initial strikes pass by then he did earlier in the season: 
Span’s first pitch taken
Through July 27th
July 27th – August 11th
For the most part, Span has been a very patient hitter in his career. Since arriving at the major league level, the Twins outfielder has demonstrated a keen understanding of the strike zone and has avoided chasing after pitches that fail to enter that regulated airspace. According to, in the past three calendar years Span has offered at just 18.4% of all out-of-zone pitches, the seventh-lowest in baseball during that time. This is notable not only because not swinging at potential balls is a prerequisite for a walk, but also leads to more favorable counts for the hitter.
With this aspect of his game removed, Span has been forced to hit his way aboard often behind in the count – a proposition that has been equally as difficult in that time. Since July 27th when he last walked, Span is 14-for-57 (.246). This absence on the base paths has resulted in Span scoring just four runs in those past 13 games. By comparison, Hudson, who bats directly behind Span, has scored five times in the past four games alone. As the top of the lineup fixture, the Twins need Span to figure out ways to get on the bases regularly in order to become a run-producing force he has been in the past. 

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Twins jump all-over Garcia, White Sox

The Twins reclaimed sole possession of first place of the AL Central by jumping all over Chicago starter Freddy Garcia and knocking him out prematurely en route to a 12-6 victory. While it may seem like a simple story of the Twins lineup seeing-ball-hitting-ball, there was much more preparation that presumably went into the team’s plan of attack against Garcia.

Garcia relies on a combination of speed changes and avoiding the middle part of the strike zone in order to navigate through a major league lineup with his substandard velocity (in fact, he has the 5th slowest fastball on average in the AL).  For the most part, Garcia chooses to stay away from the hitter’s swing by throwing the ball off the plate and enticing opponents into get themselves out. To left-handed opponents, Garcia dotted the outer-half of the plate 64% of the time, usually using his fastball that has more tail than the Playboy mansion. Righties have receive similar treatment, seeing pitches on the outer-half 57% of the time, but to his same-sided opponents, Garcia regularly deployed his changeup in hopes of getting those hitters to turn over on the pitch.

This approach, combined with 5.33 runs of support per game, aided in elevating the retread to a 10-4 record in spite of a bloated 4.62 xFIP on the season.

Prior to last night’s game, I tweeted that while Garcia loved to work away, the Twins had two very good hitters in Joe Mauer and Orlando Hudson that handled pitches on the outer-half extremely well. According to Inside Edge’s rankings through the well-hit average, Mauer’s .248 against pitches away was far and away the best in baseball while Hudson’s .169 well-hit average was the fourth best in the majors. This pair would work quickly to get the Twins on the board as Garcia played right into their strengths.

In the first inning, Garcia went to work on the left-handed hitting Hudson, hitting the outer-half of the plate with a mixture of pitches before hanging a curve middle-away that Hudson promptly hooked into the right field corner for a double. Mauer, following Hudson, took a changeup away for a ball before rifling the next pitch, a similarly located change, into the left-center field gap for back-to-back doubles to score Hudson for the first run of the game.

What I had failed to mention (or rather ran out of room in the strict 140-character limitations set by Twitter) was that the Twins had an entire stable of hitters that are very adept at covering the entire strike zone with authority. While not technically qualified among baseball’s leaders due to their lower total of plate appearances, both Jim Thome (.159 well-hit average) and J.J. Hardy (.115) were also much better than the league’s average (.095) at hitting pitches on the outer-half of the strike zone.

With the Twins holding on to their 1-0 lead in the second, Garcia tried to sneak a fastball away to Jim Thome who went with the pitch and drove it into the left field stands for his 15th home run of the year. After retiring Danny Valencia on a groundball, Garcia worked Hardy to a 2-2 count and flipped him a slider that the right-handed Hardy yanked into the left field bleachers as well.

This foursome punished Garcia’s approach thoroughly and chased him from the ballgame in the third inning with a secure 5-0 lead. Jumping out to a one-nothing lead in the three game series bodes well for the Twins yet Wednesday’s opposition, John Danks, isn’t nearly as transparent as his rotation counterpart is. The left-hander, who has significantly better velocity than Garcia, typically throws a fastball on the first pitch and early in the count but is quick to abandon the hard stuff in favor of his changeup (particularly with two strikes), which gets plenty of hitters to chase. Look for the Twins to attempt to get at him early in the count when he is still throwing fastballs. 

Also available, the newest DiamondCentric offering: “FranKKKKKKie” t-shirt. Pick yours up today!