Sunday, March 27, 2011

Mechanical flaw responsible for Span's 2010 offensive woes?

There have been a lot of theories thrown around this off-season attempting to identify the reasons behind Denard Span’s 2010 regression:

He’s been hitting with two-strikes more frequently.

The transition to natural grass from turf has shaved points off his batting average.

He played too much and needed more rest.

While all of those were factors to some extent, more tangibly, Twins Hitting Coach Joe Vavra recently acknowledged a slight flaw in his mechanics last year that he believed contributed to his offensive woes.

In conversations with Vavra on the subject of Span, 1500ESPN’s Phil Mackey wrote that Vavra attributed the increase in grounders on the center fielder not keeping his head as still as he had in previous season:
"A little bit of a mechanical thing. He was raising up off the ball when the ball was coming in. Usually the head's really still, and with him he was raising up a little bit. So when he went to swing it, he wasn't seeing actually what he saw out of the (pitcher's) hand. He was kind of creating a little different up and down trajectory, or plane of the ball. So he was either on top of it or underneath it, but he wasn't squaring up as much as he had been. It was just hard for him to get rid of. He's much better now."
Reviewing video footage of Span’s swing dating back to 2008, there is ample visual evidence of additional bouncing this season. Comparative to his two prior years, Span’s 2010 mechanics demonstrate a wellspring of pre-swing movement:

Whereas in his first two seasons with the Twins Span remained relatively still prior to moving his front foot forward, he has since implemented a bit of a squat. What you will also notice is that Span’s top half loads up more, pulling his front shoulder inward towards the plate as he brings the bat back. Either of these variations could be causing his eye level to change planes as Vavra mentioned. And because of that, it would make complete sense that he would be striking the top half or lower half of the ball more frequently.

Clearly, the pre-swing movement needed to be ironed out and toned down if Span hopes to get back on track as one of the game’s best lead-off hitters and, judging from Vavra’s comments, it sounds like that was a big focus this spring. Yet, I’m not entirely convinced that the bouncing is the only influential factor for his regression.

Last May, after Span trudged into the first two months of the season with an absurdly high groundball rate, I noticed that he was positioning his hands slightly different than he had in the past. Because of Vavra’s comments, I went back to explore some of the footage.

As you can see from the side view, Span’s starting point with his hands has shifted noticeably since his rookie season:

In 2008, Span kept his hands fairly low, well below his front shoulder level while leaving his bat almost perpendicular to the ground. The following year, Span transitioned to holding the bat higher with his bottom hand parallel to his front shoulder. Additionally, he cocked the bat slightly at an angle towards his head. Meanwhile, this past season, while maintaining a similar level, Span wound the bat even further behind his head.

I’m not going to pretend to be Joe Vavra and say I know why Span made the adjustments. This progression could have been designed in order for Span to generate more power in the hopes of creating a whip effect in this swing. Likewise, the alteration may have been added to improve his zone coverage as raising his hands also gives him the ability to handle pitches up in the zone better. Then again, it could be that Span simply felt more comfortable at the plate that way.

Regardless of why, it makes me wonder if it increases the amount of time from the start of his swing to the point of contact. As he wraps the bat further back, the distance the bat needs to travel grows. Even if it elongates his swing a fraction of a fraction of a second, there are still ramifications. In addition to playing a role in his grounders, the shift may also play a part in his decrease in productivity on fastballs:

Denard Span’s production and power versus fastballs

Runs Above Average
Slugging Pct
*via &

In 2008, his first season with the Twins, Span blasted away on heaters. In 280 plate appearances that ended on fastballs that season, the lefty hit .313/.425/.467. The following year, with almost double the amount of plate appearances, Span hit .303/.390/.377, a sizeable drop in power for sure. Certainly, the jump in sample size could have an effect on the overall numbers but in 2010, the returns on fastballs dropped once again for Span as he hit .272/.356/.348.
Could drawing his bat back further each year have led to this decrease?

I’m not trying to make any definitive connections, rather I’m simply suggesting where there is smoke, there’s fire. Because Span has experienced incremental decline in his power numbers the past two seasons – particularly against fastballs – one has to wonder if the slightly longer swing is, at the very least, partially responsible as well. To me, while Vavra is untangling one aspect of his swing in Florida, it appears that there is another element of his mechanics that may need some addressing too.

As the catalyst at the top of the order, the Twins need Span to get on base regularly throughout the season one way or another. Even though he has shown he is quite capable of doing so through the virtues of a walk, Span is also a high-contact hitter and requires a considerable amount of those to be turned into hits to buoy his elite on-base percentage. While the baseball gods may help elevate his depressed BABIP next season, refining his mechanics could go a long ways to ensure he doesn’t need the assistance of the diamond deities to guide ground balls away from infielder’s gloves. 

Friday, March 25, 2011

Unlucky Liriano?

If you had tuned in to Fox Sports North on Wednesday night, you were treated to a supernova-like outing from left-hander Francisco Liriano. The Twins starter blew through the Baltimore Orioles’ lineup, racking up a remarkable nine strikeouts, but managed to only last three innings as he burned out bright and quick.

I realize that striking out this bunch of Orioles is about as easy as getting accepted to St. Cloud State. For instance, the Birds’ sixth hitter, Mark Reynolds, has struck out in almost 40% of his plate appearances dating back to 2008. Likewise, Derrek Lee and Adam Jones both have k-rates above 20% in that same period of time. Ditto for outfielder Nolan Reimold. Vlad Guerrero – while not much of a strikeout candidate – swings at everything not tied down. Mix in a weak hitting Cesaer Izturis and back-up catcher Craig Tatum and Liriano’s ownership of this lineup, as impressive as nine outs all on strikeouts were, should not come at a complete surprise.

Had this been a game against a more historically patient team like the Yankees or Red Sox, Liriano may not have lasted even the full three innings. His fastball was constantly up in the zone and was frequently bailed out by his secondary offerings that hitters flailed at. His slider was solid while the velocity differential likely aided in keeping his changeup from being crunched as it routinely came in belt high. Nevertheless, because of the errant command, he continually found himself throwing four or more pitches per plate appearance, burning through more bullets than a Brian De Palma movie.

Not surprising, both the coaching staff and Liriano sounded less than satisfied by the gaudy strikeout totals. Said manager Ron Gardenhire on his 76-pitch performance:
"It was a little bit out there. But he got his work in and got to 70-plus pitches to build his arm strength up. But we were just hoping he'd get to five or six innings, not three. There were a lot of punchouts, but I'm sure Frankie was a little bit disappointed by the way he threw the ball tonight."
Liriano’s comments echoed his manager’s sentiments:
"I need to go deeper in the game and not try to strike everybody out. I wasn't really happy with how I pitched tonight."
There’s the rub for Liriano. In order to reduce the amount of strikeouts to lower his overall pitch count, he has to allow the hitters to put the ball in play more frequently. Of course, you will have to excuse him for not putting 100% of his faith in his defense to convert the out based on their track record in 2010.

Aside from Adam Jones’s at bat in the third inning in which he tried to put a hole in the sun with one of Liriano’s fastballs (not a bad location down-and-away), the Orioles managed to test the Twins defense just twice the rest of his outing. In the first inning, Jones fought off a pitch and gorked it on the other side of shortstop Alexi Casilla and in front of the suddenly beefy Delmon Young. One batter later, Guerrero bled another pitch through the infield between short and third.

Two weakly batted balls, two hits.

To me, this epitomized last year’s season for Liriano. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but when it came to help from his defense, he was one of the most unlucky pitchers in the game. Aside from Tampa Bay’s James Shields, Liriano was the runner-up for recipient of the Least Fortunate Pitcher Award, posting the second-highest batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Essentially, despite wielding some dominating stuff – leading baseball in swinging strikes, posting below average line drive rates, walk rates and allowing just nine home runs – Liriano finished the year with having the second fewest amount of balls in play converted to outs behind him.

What it amounted to was a death by paper cuts. Death, in terms of his pitch count anyways.

Normally I come to the table bringing statistical analysis or other such evidence to back-up the majority of claims I make here. This time, I’m making a purely speculative statement. It seems to me that based upon my recollection of the hits Liriano’s allowed last year many of those were similar to Jones and Guerrero’s singles on Wednesday night. Again, nothing too dangerous: a simple bouncer past an outstretched infielder or a blooper that fell in front of a charging outfielder.

In the end, those of us that are sabermetrically inclined tend to attribute that to bad luck. But what if those results are more than just bad luck? What if there is a bigger root cause that we’re not able to measure at this point?

As we all know Liriano is a strikeout-oriented pitcher. Roughly a quarter of all of his match-ups have ended with the hitter grabbing some pine. I am certain his fielders are acutely aware of this fact too, possibly making them wonder just want they are doing out there and who is that cute girl three rows above the dugout? Perhaps lulled into a less attentive state by anticipating Liriano to single-handedly dismantle the opposing lineups, his fielders do not get the same jump as they would with someone like Nick Blackburn on the mound who they know a hitter is going to put a ball in to play (for better or worse). Suddenly, with Liriano on the mound, those borderline bouncers and dying quails are a step or two out of reach as the fielders are not nearly as vigilant as they otherwise would be with the high-contact pitchers out there.

Yes, you could try blowing this entire theory out of the water but simply invoking someone like the Tigers’ Justin Verlander. Verlander, who averages 4.03 pitches per plate appearance (more than Liriano), exhibits a lot of the same qualities as Liriano but managed to produce a significantly lower .283 BABIP. Why, you would then ask, would a pitcher who seems to labor more through each match-up receive better defense? To that point, I have no real answer. It could have something to do with the makeup of their respective rotations. Detroit’s brimming with pitchers who tend to amass large pitch counts whereas the Twins boast pitchers who own three of the four lowest pitches per plate appearances spots. Then I would add, stop being a jerk, I’m just sharing a theory.

Indeed, once the technology like FIELD f/x is finally released, we will have a better understanding if that is actually a factor. Through the FIELD f/x system, we will be able to say with some certainty that Shortstop X is able to get to more groundballs Y distance away when Pitchers 1 through 4 are on the mound but his range is reduced when Liriano is pitching. Until the day that we are able to quantify and measure it, this remains conjecture.

You can’t often get a zebra to change its stripes and Liriano has developed as a strikeout artist and remains one. That said he needs to attempt to make inroads towards lowering his pitch count in 2011. What I would like to see is a hybrid of the strikeout artist and one that can dial up a grounder on one pitch occasionally, if for no other reason, to keep his fielders on their toes. After all, strike outs a fascist and ground balls are democratic – or so the Crash Davis idiom goes.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Closer Look At Kevin Slowey

For me, it’s hard to get immediately on-board with the Free Kevin Slowey movement. I suppose you could say I'm flying stand-by. 

Yes, without question, I believe that a healthy Kevin Slowey is a far superior option in the rotation versus the likes of Nick Blackburn. Across the board, Slowey has put up better numbers at the major league level. His opponent on-base percentage is lower as is his walk rate. He’s got a far better strikeout rate, demonstrating the ability to retire hitters without waking his defense. The statistical analysis of the two puts Slowey light years beyond Blackburn’s capabilities.

While Dave Cameron jotted all of those explanations down in a post yesterday, all of which – if you think along statistical lines – surely made you nod your head in agreement but, to me, it felt that his write-up did not paint the entire picture of the situation.

Undeniably, based upon Slowey’s numbers and minor league track record, it is easy to reach the conclusion that Cameron’s presenting. Slowey’s incredible strikeouts-to-walk ratio is worth salivating over by any GM. Yet, he seems to skim over the larger issue and that was the fact that hitters received the ball on a tee this year. There was little deception, just guile.

While he alludes to the fact that the Twins right-hander is susceptible to the long ball, saying he gives up “a good amount” of home runs, Cameron more or less glosses over to what extent Slowey’s been taken yard. Over the course of the same period of time Cameron cites Slowey’s impeccable strikeouts-to-walks ratio – noting that it is better than all but three high-quality hurlers – he fails to mention that his home run rate per nine innings is also near the top of the list. His 1.28 home runs per nine innings is currently the seventh highest since 2008 among those with a minimum of 400 innings.  To his credit, because he is so miserly with the walks, a small majority of those round-trippers have come with no one on base (48 of 74 career home runs allowed) so the damage is usually minimal.

That said, last year we saw somewhat of a different version than the one that had accumulated most of those stats dating back to 2007. This version of Kevin Slowey saw a decrease in pitch movement.

In 2008, pre-wrist surgery, Slowey appeared on the cusp of becoming an elite pitcher in the American League. That season, he three complete games including two shutouts on his way to 13 quality starts in 27 outings. What’s more is that he dominated right-handed opponents. In addition to holding them to a .637 OPS against, he posted a stupid good 57-to-3 strikeouts-to-walk ratio. Fast forward to a season removed from wrist surgery and Slowey struggled some to subdue the same-sided hitters. Righties produced a .807 OPS off of him while launching 15 home runs (opposed to nine in ’08) while he held a much more reasonable but still very good 49-to-11 strikeouts-to-walks ratio. Slowey still threw strikes in bulk; only now his secondary pitches weren’t getting the same break as they had been two years prior – perhaps a lingering side effect from the wrist surgery.

Slowey’s slider, his main secondary offering to right-handed foes, was not getting the same downward bite it showed in 2008. Below are two of the heat maps found at that shows the location of his sliders against right-handed hitters. As you can see, in ’08 (on the left) Slowey placed his slider down-and-away in the zone. This past season (on the right), Slowey’s slider had a much higher tendency of staying up and in:

To provide more flavor, here are two isolated samples showing the different trajectory of Slowey’s sliders to provide you with an idea of the movement (or lack thereof). In the first clip, Slowey’s 2008 slider has great downward dip, falling under the swing of the Royals Miguel Olivo. In the second clip, Slowey’s slider fails to drop as the Mets’ David Wright tears it down the left field corner for a double:

2008 - via MLBAM

2010 - via MLBAM

What Slowey throws to Wright is your standard, run-of-the-mill cement-mixer slider. While it shares the same velocity to the one in 2008 (85 miles per hour), it had on average an inch less vertical drop. When you have a pitch with less drop and a mid-80s velocity, this gives the hitter ample opportunity to square up on the ball. And square up they did.

Because of the location, the results were extremely different, particularly in the groundball department:

Slowey’s slider versus right-handed opponents

% Thrown
OPS Against
 (via Inside Edge)

With a decline in grounders from this pitch, Slowey’s ability to keep right-handers from taking flight on him all but disappeared. In ’08, right-handed opponents took to the skies just 43% of the time. This past year, they went airborne a whopping 53% of the time – the highest amount by a non-left-hander.

In addition to his surgically repaired wrist, there was a noticeable difference in Slowey’s follow-through which may have been another factor in his loss of movement or at least somewhat responsible for his late season arm ailment.

These clips, from a start against the Brewers then one in Oakland back in 2008, shows a powerful and fluid back leg push from the rubber with an almost pendulum swing of his leg on the follow-through:

This was when his fastball was a devastating weapon with a decent amount of velocity in the low 90s with some sick movement to boot. That season, Slowey’s fastball was 13.4 runs above average according to Somewhere between 2008 and last year, Slowey abandoned this motion. Compare that to his follow through from his May 2010 start in Cleveland. In this instance, his back leg follows a more deliberate and methodical pattern:

Why the change?

My assumption is that based on the way the first follow-through rendered him almost unable to field his position (a similar knock on Liriano), the run-in with Juan Uribe’s line drive possibly made him alter his follow-through in order to put him in a better position to field (or avoid) lined shots. Under that circumstance, it makes complete sense to adjust. However, overall fastball movement and stamina may have come at the expense of the alteration.

Then there was the issue of the sore right tricep which landed him on the DL from August 22 through September 9.  While culling through video clips, I notice that in his start against Tampa Bay on August 5, the day before reporting the sore elbow, Slowey went so far as to make some fairly abrupt stops in his follow-through:

It hurts my arm watching these clips. You can see why he may wind up experiencing tricep discomfort. Slowey discontinues his motion altogether, putting a lot of strain on the arm.

These two factors working in conjunction – losing his slider or not engaging his lower-half – may have led to his inability to get himself through the prerequisite innings last year in order to qualify for that quality start that Ron Gardenhire desired. Without his slider, Slowey had troubles retiring righties regularly, most likely leading to more pitches in the early innings. Likewise, by not engaging his lower-half, Slowey likely tired out his arm sooner as well as added pressure on his elbow which culminated in a bout of tendinitis.  

You have to wonder if the coaching staff watched him throughout the spring and decided that he needed more time to work out some of the kinks. Like get his slider back or try to engage his lower-half more in his motion. If that happens to be the case, it’s not irrational for the coaching staff to have him work on these areas in the bullpen rather than the starting rotation.

While Slowey’s stuff actually took a significant step backward – leaving him exposed to right-handers - his precision tuned command guided him through the 2010 season. At least to the point where he was able to amount respectable peripherals despite hitters elevating more of his pitches. If you were trying to predict his 2011 season on the peripherals alone, you would have to assume that he was going to have a better year. It is possible that he needed just a year to get used to the new sensation in his throwing hand, that 2011 will witness a renaissance of movement in his pitches.

Until he proves otherwise, there is no harm keeping him in the bullpen until he pitches his way into the rotation or someone pitches their way out. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

End of the Neshek Era in Minnesota

The Pat Neshek era for the Minnesota Twins ended on Sunday with little fanfare. The 30-year-old right-handed reliever tweeted that he was “now a member of the San Diego Padres” and was heading west. Word spread quickly that the Twins had placed Neshek on the outright waivers, hoping to clear space on the 40-man roster, and the Padres nabbed him before he could clear and either get re-assigned or released.

Basically, Minnesota’s patience in Neshek’s ability to return to his pre-Tommy John surgery levels had run out. While most pitchers who undergo the procedure wind up having a rough re-introduction upon their return to the game, most find that in the second-year their velocities and control make a comeback. Consider Francisco Liriano’s 2010 season. In his second-year removed from the surgery, his results were almost polar opposites of his 2009 numbers. However, while Liriano took steps forward in winter ball and spring training prior to last season, demonstrating he had the stuff and the command to bounce back, Neshek, in his second spring training back since the surgery, had not showed anything indicative of a resurgence.

The Twins assistant GM Rob Antony reported over a week ago that Neshek was likely throwing 89 miles per hour - although Antony admits that he did not have a radar gun on the side-armer at that time. Antony continued to say that the Twins were impressed by the development of Neshek’s slider which was showing “more depth” in his more recent outings. From 2006 to 2008, Neshek’s slider was an unbelievable weapon for the righty. In that time he was able to miss bats a whopping 42% of the time when he threw his slider. This past season, Neshek’s slider only was able to get a whiff 11% of the time as he struggled to even get hitters to offer at the often errant pitch. Certainly progress in this department would be crucial to any kind of return to his former dominant self. Still, none of that would matter if he didn’t have a respectable fastball available to set that pitch up.

Without putting too much reliance on the accuracy of the Hammond Stadium radar gun, during my visit on March 8, Neshek was averaging just 82-to-84 miles per hour. This is roughly the same velocity he was hitting in his limited time with the Twins in 2010. Lending further credence to the fact that his velocity was down was that he was ripped hard throughout his inning of work. He allowed a massive home run to Lyle Overbay and each ball off of the opponents bats’ were like ballistic missiles. In all this spring, Neshek had given up six hits (three of which were home runs) in six innings of work. Although he posted a decent 5-to-1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio possibly indicating that his control was on the verge of return, it was apparent that, despite their claims to the contrary, his stuff was not at the level the Twins were anticipating at this stage of his recovery.

That being said, even with his slow rehabilitation, it would seem to be a foolhardy decision to expose a pitcher with the potential upside of Neshek to the waivers in order to clear space on the 40-man roster when he had a minor league option left. What’s more curious about the decision is that the front office opted to hang on to a pitcher like the 28-year-old Eric Hacker, a minor league free agent signed this past winter, who has little upside and has had a more tumultuous spring than Neshek. In six innings, Hacker has allowed 13 hits and nine earned runs. Hacker, two years Neshek’s junior, has only sampled the bigs with Pittsburgh while producing some mundane numbers a career starter in the minors.

There may be other unspoken reasons for the Twins to take the chance on losing him to another ballclub aside from his performance alone. For instance, Neshek irked organization last year when he took to the social media outlets but tweeting and Facebooking his irritation over the “misdiagnoses” of his finger injury and the time lost due to the team’s doctors. Furthermore, there is the question of whether or not his unique mechanics may be a leaving may be leaving him susceptible to further elbow injuries. While Twins top brass likely did not take this into consideration given that not too many teams focus on the biomechanics of baseball, Neshek’s overall motion seems to place a lot of stress on his elbow and would make some wonder if he can ever fully recover. Opening up that spot for someone like Carlos Gutierrez or Kyle Waldrop – both of whom have turned heads this spring and have a future with the organization while Neshek dropped out of favor - makes sense both in the short-term and long-term for the team.

Credit is due to the Padres who have scooped up an arm that may have some use in it in addition to having the added comfort of a remaining option. While Neshek’s spring performance doesn’t inspire much confidence that he is heading towards the typical second-year after rebound from Tommy John surgery, San Diego can move Neshek to Triple-A and monitor his progress until he is deemed ready. If he can improve on his velocity and command, the Padres have scored a late innings arm that can overwhelm right-handed opponent, supplementing their bullpen at a very low cost. In short, it is a very savvy move for the NL West team. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Mijares developing a new pitch

According to Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse, Twins left-handed reliever Jose Mijares is honing a new pitch for the 2011 season: the two-seam fastball.

Recently in camp, pitching Coach Rick Anderson was holding court with the local reporters when Mijares wander past. Anderson turned his attention to the relief arm and inquired what Mijares thought of his new weapon. According to Reusse:
“Mijares smiled widely and made a gesture with a hand that indicated the downward movement of an imaginary baseball.”
In general, the two-seam fastball, the four-seamer’s cousin, is thrown at a lower velocity but runs down and towards the pitching arm side of the strike zone. This differs from the four-seamer as that pitch has a tendency to “rise” (not actually rise, per se, it just maintains its same plane rather than dipping like the two-seamer). It can give a pitcher the ability to give opponents a different look – hitting a different part of the zone or showing another type of movement. Some two-seamers can have aggressive downward movement – like Brandon Webb’s sinker – or it can be more subtle, closer resembling Kyle Gibson’s two-seamer.

Why would Mijares need this new pitch, especially if he’s got two above-average offerings and typically sees hitters only once?
Mijares, while gifted with a hard four-seam fastball and a sharp slider, often struggles with getting the ball down in the zone. This is fairly evident when you consider that his 52% fly ball rate over the past two seasons is the ninth highest among relievers. While this trait is well-and-good within the home run resistant confines of Target Field but on the road he’s flirting with fire. Overall, research has shown that the two-seamer is much more prone to inciting a groundball and adding this pitch could assist in a reduction of Mijares’s aerial shots and the risk of home runs with it.
Similarly, the two-seamer is often incorporated into a pitcher’s repertoire to provide them with another weapon to implement against opposite-handed hitters. Without question, Mijares has been lethal against southpawed swingers. In his career he’s struck out nearly a quarter of his opponents (24.2%) while holding them to a .188 batting average against. Righties, on the other hand, have not fared exceptional well but have seen more success against him. In the previous two seasons, Mijares has held a .272 average against for the right-handers.  Undoubtedly, there will be occasions in which manager Ron Gardenhire tasks Mijares to retire a powerful lefty only to leave him out there to work to the subsequent right-hander in a pivotal situation to save the other arms in the bullpen.

Mijares is not the only left-handed reliever attempting to add a pitch to battle righties. In Atlanta, free agent George Sherrill, who has decimated same-sided opponents for the majority of his career, was clobbered by right-handers last year. In just 95 plate appearances, Sherrill allowed 32 hits (.400 average) and walked 14 while striking out just six. This season, he’s re-adding a two-seamer to his stash that he ditched back in 2006.

Plenty of other left-handed pitchers have had made improvements after embraces the two-seamer.

Over the 2008 off-season, Jon Lester learned a two-seamer from the Braves’ Tim Hudson. According to Lester’s rotation mate, Josh Beckett, the left-hander discovered that the movement provided by the two-seam fastball was able to help him induce a grounder when needed. This past season, Lester’s groundball rates jumped from 47% in ’09 to a career-high of 53.6% last year. Perhaps it was because of MLB Advanced Media’s updated algorithm that identified more of his pitches being thrown as two-seamers rather than the catchall “fastball”, but the pitch f/x system categorized Lester as throwing more two-seamer/sinkers this past season – a possible explanation for the jump in grounders.

Rays’ phenom David Price is another two-seam fastball infusion success story. After a very good first year in the majors in 2009, the left-handed Price was still exposed somewhat to right-handed opponents. Those hitters hit .240 off of him while posting a m’eh 1.84 K/BB ratio. The introduction of the two-seamer in 2010 saw Price shave his right-handed opponents’ average down to .222 while improving his K/BB ratio to 2.25.

Obviously, both Lester and Price are two of the game’s premier left-handers but you can see the effects that their inclusion of a two-seamer did to their opponents. But it goes beyond just the results on the one particular pitch. Having the two-seamer in their arsenal allowed them to set-up other pitches inside or up as right-handers were forced to monitor the space low in the zone.
The suggestion here is not that Mijares could become a pitcher of Lester or Price’s caliber by simply adding a pitch. The real question is how much incrementally better could he be based on where he is today. If he can harass the pitch appropriately, the two-seamer would help reduce the total amount of fly balls allowed thereby shaving down some of the home runs allowed while giving him another weapon to use against right-handed opponents – making him a more complete relief pitcher rather than one that needs to be limited to lefties.

Another residual effect that adding another variation of the fastball is that if he’s able to control it Mijares might be able to reduce the number of pitches thrown in each at-bat. Last season Mijares threw 4.3 pitches per plate appearance. That was significantly higher than the league average of 3.84. By throwing a two-seamer more often hoping to induce contact but of the less devastating variety, Mijares might be able to work through hitters quicker and low his overall pitch count in a given outing. Because of his questionable conditioning, it would better serve him if he were able to lighten his workload in order to maintain throughout the long season.

Because Mijares is already equipped with a good four-seamer in addition to a deadly slider that has completely baffled same-sided opponents at times, the newfound two-seamer could help that success spill over into his platoon splits against right-handed hitters, transitioning into that "complete pitcher". If he can maintain good health – certainly a concern for him given his recent past – he’s clearly on the path to being the dominant late innings lefty which the Twins envisioned for him as he was developing though the system. 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

OtB Twins Notes

With the numbers-trimming in camp on the horizon, Joe Christensen reports that top prospect Kyle Gibson will not be joining the team in Minnesota at the on-set of the season.
This move isn’t a surprise as the front office likely wants to keep their best pitching prospect from running headlong into arbitration too quickly as well as getting some additional seasoning at the AAA level. As I wrote about last month, Gibson’s got some outstanding stuff - not necessarily blow-you-away type stuff, but good enough to project to be successful in the near future by keeping the ball on the turf. Likewise, the team’s coaching staff shares that sentiment and his arrival at the big club is likely imminent as manager Ron Gardenhire said that[Gibson’s] got tickets in hand. One of them, I'm sure, will head to Minnesota at some point.” Again, it’s the matter of the front office agreeing with the field management in initiating his arbitration clock but it is not unreasonable to think Gibson’s time is quickly approaching.
In a radio interview with 1500ESPN’s Jim Souhan and Tom Pelissaro, Twins assistant GM Rob Antony told the pair that Neshek’s arm strength is improving but not quite back to his pre-surgery form.
At Tuesday’s game, Neshek weathered a tumultuous inning – giving up a bombastic drive into the palms off of the bat of Lyle Overbay and was rescued from another extra base hit by the outstanding range of Ben Revere who laid out on the warning track for the catch – and has managed to put up respectable numbers overall this spring. Of course the issue isn’t what his results have been in a handful of spring training innings but rather the process in which he has achieved them.

Earlier in the week, the radar at Hammond Stadium saw his fastball reaching just 84 at his speediest but sitting closer in the 82 range. All those outs that were recorded on Tuesday would fall under the category of “loud outs”. But now Neshek may have turned a corner. By Antony’s testament, Neshek’s subsequent outing saw him with a velocity that was northwards of his previous outing, “hitting 88, 89” and his slider had “good depth”. The caveat is that Antony did not have a radar gun on him in his most recent inning but felt that he had the best movement of his stuff so far this spring.

If Neshek can return to his pre-Tommy John performance, this would give the bullpen a significant boast and be able to provide Gardenhire with a good option against right-handed hitters that has been lost with the departure of Matt Guerrier (.205 average vs RHB in ’10) and Jesse Crain (.224 average vs RHB in ’10). Dating back to 2006, Neshek has held same-sided opponents to a .172 average with an impressive 11.74 strikeouts per nine innings. A little resurrection in that area would help stretch out the bullpen.  
La Velle Neal shares some notes regarding two of the Twins more intriguing starting pitching prospects not named Kyle Gibson: David Bromberg and Deolis Guerra.
Having spent last Monday and Tuesday in camp, I caught both Bromberg and Guerra’s outings on the backfield of the complex on Tuesday against the Pirates. Positioning myself behind home plate along with the scouts, I monitored their bank of radar guns that were constantly directed at the playing field. In general, Bromberg did not appear crisp – at least in respect to the vaunted command that he is celebrated for. While he mixed in three pitches of various speeds (a fastball that was hitting 88-89 regularly, a change that was coming in at 84 and a slow curve coming in around 74), he was a bit on the erratic side and missing his spots. To his credit, the large-bodied right-hander missed his spots too far inside and outside, avoiding missing out over the plate and getting punished.  From the perspective from behind the plate, you can see that Bromberg hides the ball well (especially from right-handed hitters) and that once he regains his midseason form, he should be able to build on his success at the higher levels.

Guerra, on the other hand, is a bigger mystery. Similarly statured to Bromberg, once rumored to have a mid-90s fastball, Guerra did not demonstrate anything that resembled that kind of heat on Tuesday. In the inning I witnessed, the radar guns said his fastball sat at the same level as Bromberg. While I was not privy to the heavily lauded 12-to-6 curveball, he did show a decent changeup and because of his long arms and legs, Guerra’s motion adds to the deception. However, the issue that I noted was that with both his fastball and change was that he seemed to have trouble throwing it consistently. Judging from his stature, you get mesmerized in what results he could be producing though because he seems to struggle with consistency in his control of all his pitches, unlike Bromberg this has not yet translated into a track record of success.
Randball’s Michael Rand wonders why Brian Duensing is so often overlooked.
Fair question.

Now with eight innings and a 7-to-1 strikeout-to-walks ratio under his belt this spring, it’s hard to present a discouraging word about Duensing’s inclusion into the rotation. The statistical community certainly can point to some numbers (such as left-on-base rate, strikeout rate and FIP) and say he’s performing over his head while the scouting-based contingency can simply rebuttal with Duensing’s continued success as a pitcher.
Given some of his tendency I outlined a week ago, I now firmly believe the truth lies somewhere in-between the two camps. He’s scheduled to experience some regression however he attacks the strike zone, hits his spots and mixes in three solid offerings to buoy himself as a starter.
What stats-oriented analysts (me included) have trouble grasping is that a small percentage of contact pitchers who do not possess the sexy strikeout rates or gaudy groundball numbers that do experience sustained success to some degree actually  exist. They are hard to identify as they are a rare breed but the Mark Buerhle’s of the world come from somewhere. Their spot-hitting and pitch selection do not show up within the’s warehouse of stats and yet given the right circumstances (i.e. defense, wide berth of a stadium, a potent offense) these types of pitchers can post season after season of below forecasted ERAs and higher than expected wins totals.
So even though Duensing’s statistical indicators makes some question his future potential, he has earned the right to demonstrate whether or not he might be the future Mark Buerhle. If it turns out he does regress, he’s always welcomed back into the bullpen.  

David Pinto at uses his Lineup Analyzer to predict the offense for the 2011 Twins.
Pinto’s “best lineup” scenario has the Twins scoring an average of 5.32 runs per game – an improvement over MLB’s sixth highest last year. Of course, this scenario assumes that Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau will be hitting higher in the order given their impressive on-base percentages. Although both have been moved up in the order in the past, Ron Gardenhire is much more inclined to slotting either Tsuyoshi Nishioka (his stated preference to start the season) or Alexi Casilla in the number two spot. The more likely lineup will churn out an estimated 5.21 runs per game – an improvement nonetheless. 

Friday, March 04, 2011

Rounding out the rotation

On Wednesday, Ron Gardenhire stated that he fully intends on using Brian Duensing as a starter in 2011, presumably joining Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano in the rotation. By most accounts, Duensing had given ample reason based on his performance last season to keep him as a headliner rather than hide him away in the bullpen. Now, it is up to Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn to jockey for the final two positions.
While arguably capable of being a solid number two starter, Baker’s recent elbow issue has probably caused the coaches and front office to cringe a bit, hoping that he emerges from this setback without any further damage to his arm. News regarding Slowey has been surprisingly quiet this spring. Considering he has now had two consecutive seasons cut short with injuries, you would expect more updates on his developments. What we do know, however, is that in his one appearance this spring, he’s allowed three runs on a home run and issued two walks in two innings of work. Blackburn, meanwhile, had the same offseason surgery that Baker did but has (so far) appeared to return to the mound without the struggles, even going so far as saying his arm felt like new.
Of the three, I would speculate that Blackburn will to be the next suitor to receive Ron Gardenhire’s rotation rose.
Undeniably, Blackburn’s 2010 season was unpleasant – both for him and for us. After a terrific month of May, he unraveled faster than a Charlie Sheen interview as opponents took aim at what seemed to be his hanging fastballs. From June until mid-July, teams slugged .653 with 11 home runs over the course of 10 games. Nevertheless, after a brief stint in Rochester, he reemerged as a decent option for the playoffs (had they continued past Game 3). In his final nine games, Blackburn held opponents to a .356 slugging against and six home runs. With the exception of his debacle against Kansas City in which he allowed eight runs, he held opposing teams to three runs of fewer in those starts.
Just recently we learned that he went through all that while battling an elbow injury and, because of this, he admitted that he was forced to stop throwing his slider/cutter. Although this may seem minor, it likely played a significant role in Blackburn’s messy season.
Last May, right before his best run of the season, I used pitch f/x to present the case of his missing slider. Turns out, either opposing hitters either read the StarTribune’s TwinCentric content (highly unlikely) or they became well aware of his pitch selection shortly thereafter, decimating his sliderless repertoire post-May. According to Indians/Mariners slugger Russell Branyan, who had happened to run into Blackburn at a Garth Brooks concert (Author’s note: okay, Michael Buble concert), Branyan told Blackburn hitters picked up on that fact pretty quickly.
It’s no small wonder why his swing-and-miss rate plummeted last season upon the abandonment of his pitch that was best qualified to incite an empty swing:
Nick Blackburn’s Missing Bats:

Swinging Strike%
The difference between his post-May-prior-to-demotion-days and his late-season-recall-days in which he had some success is that he stopped throwing his two-seamer exclusively. He worked in his change-up more, giving the hitters something else to think about while at the plate. For the most part, this seemed to work.
Of course, despite the improvement after his demotion, as Jonathan Scippa pointed out at, righties were still crushing all over him. The conclusion is that without his slider/cutter, which he threw predominately to right-handed foes, Blackburn was more susceptible to big hits from same-sided opponents without that secondary option of the slider. Adding the slider back to his repertoire should help keep his same-sided opponents from laying into his offerings as much.
Keep in mind that given his abnormally high contact rate, coupled with his unusually low strikeout rate previous to the 2010 season, do not anticipate a sudden breakout season from the right-hander. It’s not as if adding the slider is going to transform him into Roy Halladay. What can be reasonable to think is that Blackburn can tone down that loud ERA – somewhere closer to the 4.00 number – while chewing threw 200 innings. If he can maintain an above-average ability to induce groundballs, shave a few walks off his totals and maybe even strikeout an extra batter or two per game, Blackburn is plenty capable of having a bounce-back season in 2011 and providing the Twins with a solid back-of-the-rotation starter.