Monday, January 30, 2012

Should Ben Revere play center?

Before the spikes have even hit the turf at Hammonds Stadium, manager Ron Gardenhire has gone on the record as saying Denard Span is his 2012 center fielder.
"[Span's] going to lead off and be my center fielder. That’s my expectations. If somebody were to tell me that he’s not able to do that, then we’d have to ad lib. But if Denard comes in healthy, then he’s my center fielder, there’s no questions to me about that."
Apparently, Ben Revere, who performed admirably in center in Span’s absence, was just keeping the position warm for the incumbent.
There is probably little doubt that Gardenhire is basing some of his decision on the fact that Revere has a substandard arm. From the wisdom of the crowd, polled their readers to compile a collective scouting report on all players. Their contingency gave Revere’s Arm Strength a 4. This was by far the worst rating among all center fielders and a 90-point difference between him and the leader, Rick Ankiel. Also viewed critically was his release: the crowd said that his release rated as a 28, the third-lowest mark in that category too.
It doesn’t take advanced metrics to recognize that Revere has a weak arm. It takes a bit more scouting acumen to see that he has a long arm throw which delays his release. Combine these two factors and it equates to extracurricular activity on the base paths.
The question is what did Revere’s skill set cost the Twins and does it preclude him from being the starting center fielder?
According to, the website which warehouses a vast majority of the Baseball Info Solution’s defensive data, they peg Revere’s arm as the worst among qualified center fielders in 2012 (minimum 700 innings) – adding data to the fan’s observations. He managed to accumulate 3 kills (throwing out runners) but allowed 63.9% of runners who had an opportunity to advance to the next base did so during his watch.
Here’s what we know about Revere: He’s fast. Because of this, we might also assume that he gets to many balls quickly, even those that fall to the ground. If he can get to more balls quicker than slower center fielders like, say, Rick Ankiel, one would think it would have some effect in preventing coaches from sending runners around the bases. Until we have other data available like how quickly an outfielder gets to a ball or how much velocity someone throws or how quick their release is, we are simply not going to have a comprehensive overview of how to judge someone’s arm. Still, looking at how many times opposing teams have had the opportunity to advance a base on him (89) versus how many times they decided to move up (56), you have to reach the conclusion that Revere’s lack of an arm has an adverse affect even if he is able to get to the ball quicker than the rest.
Allowing runners to move up has been the crux of the argument for those wanting to keep Revere out of center. After all, in addition to patrolling the deepest part of the field, a center field has one of the longest throws to home plate among the three outfield positions and has a hefty chore when throwing to third base as well. In Revere’s case, opponents took note of his arm strength last year and used it to their advantage, wheeling around second-to-third or third-to-home. Understandably, if opposing teams recognize this opening, they will like walk through it at a high rate and put themselves in scoring position whenever possible.
That idea certainly makes a manager cringe but, ultimately, it might be the wrong thing to focus on when deciding who should man center field.  
Moving Revere to left field definitely cuts down the distance on the throws, giving him an opportunity to cut off runners advancing to third or home. On the other side of the coin is the fact that Revere can cover ground like no other. Last year, Revere finished tied for third in Plus/Minus among center fielders with a plus-twenty (+20) mark. That means he was 20 plays better than the average center fielder which added up to 11 runs saved.
What this boils down to is that by the Plus/Minus system, it is much more valuable to prevent hits than it is to allow the opposing team the opportunity to move into scoring position.
In terms of his arm, Revere has spent the offseason trying to improve in that area. Revere told 1500ESPN’s Judd Zulgad and Joe Anderson that he has been throwing “long toss with a football” to build strength. And while he may be able to add a few MPHs, his long arm action still needs to be pared down to shorten his release time. Additionally, there are no real precedence set to say how much a player’s arm can develop over an offseason so there is no way of telling how much Revere can improve his arm.
To be sure, Denard Span is no slouch in center himself, especially in his 500-plus innings there last year. While he was not quite at Revere’s catch ‘em all caliber, he managed to save six runs which ranked him as the 11th best center fielder according to the P/M system. In the end, moving Revere out of center may play towards his lack of arm strength however it might wind up costing the Twins some outs when he is no longer patrolling the spacious center at Target Field. 

Friday, January 27, 2012

Mauer needs a solid foundation

Joe Mauer has spent a substantial amount of time over the past few weeks on various media outlets attempting to erase memories of his contributions (or lack thereof) to the 99-loss season.
He’s working hard. He’s putting on weight. He’s eating Wheaties. He’s saying his prayers. He's drinking nothing but unicorn milk. He’s doing the Rocky IV training in Russia. He’s P90X-ing while Tae Bo-ing. Etc. Etc.
Merited or not, he has earned himself a reputation among the media types as being soft. KFAN’s Dan Barreiro had an on-going bit entitled “How Long Would Mauer Milk It?” alluding to various other afflictions (rug burn, paper cuts, etc) and the time the Twins catcher would spend on the bench. This also leaked from being a local gag to a more national sentiment. In fact, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Joe Cowley recently wrote that “Joe Mauer is the guy in the foxhole who’d rather push someone else onto the grenade than risk his hair getting messed up.” That’s a pretty damning view of his character, especially coming from a visiting columnist who does not see the inner workings of the clubhouse last year.
True, while he may have ticked off some teammates and writers with his spa treatment in the whirlpool facilities, when he was on the field his performance was substandard for the bar that Mauer had set. Clearly, one of the biggest mitigating factors behind this was his health. It is unfortunate that he has had to jump through these hoops to explain that he wasn’t 100% last year but that comes with the $23 million dollar territory.
During an interview on1500ESPN with Tom Pelissero and Phil Mackey, Twins hitting coach Joe Vavra discussed what he perceived as causes for Mauer’s disappointing 2011 season and the effects the various injuries and ailments had on his performance. Because of his leg injury, Vavra said that the Twins catcher had troubles “getting off his backside and favored his legs a bit.” This, he said, led to more head movement as well as him being “unable to turn on the ball.”
Vavra, a very astute hitting coach, said he first noticed the change in Mauer late in the 2010 season when he showed less of a tendency to turning on the ball. The subsequent offseason surgery and inability to fully recuperation likely exacerbated his leg issues into the “bi-lateral leg weakness” that sprung up. Without much of a foundation, Mauer struggled to pull the ball in addition to lifting the ball in the air.
As anyone who has spent one iota of time watching the Twins knows, Mauer’s bread-and-butter has been his ability to go the other way. Not only is he able to drive the pitch on the outer-half to left field, he often uses that inside-outside to muscle pitches on the inner-half the other way as well. After all, he’s a .436 career hitter when going oppo and, during his magical 2009 MVP season in which he smacked 28 home runs, a high percentage of his home runs were actually hit to left field (11 opposite field home runs).
Even though he made his millions feasting on left field, he still showed the potential to sock one to right every now and then. In 2011, that tendency decreased considerable. As you can see, Mauer’s ability to pull the ball has diminished some in comparison to the past several years and compared to his career too:
Similarly, Mauer had troubles lifting the ball to center as well, showing little power when smacking a pitch back up-the-middle:
Visually, his batted ball spray chart tells the same story. In 2009 and 2010 Mauer placed hits liberally to mid-to-deep center field and right field. That essentially evaporated in 2011 as only a handful of balls leaked out to (and over) the wall.
(Click to embiggen)
What all this says is that he did not drive the ball as well as he did as recently as 2010.
As the data showed above, Mauer definitely struggled to get around on pitches but what’s more is that he was unable to generate any lift. In 2011, just 21.5% of the balls he hit were of the fly ball variety – the lowest rate of his career. This put him in the category with punch-and-judy slap hitters like Ben Revere, Wilson Valdez, Derek Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki and Elvis Andrus – the only hitters ahead of him who hit fewer fly balls. Without a strong foundation, hitters have troubles elevating the ball and without elevation, you lose extra base hit capabilities.  
A year ago, Vavra cited Denard Span’s head movement as a major impetus behind his drop-off in 2010. That season, Span’s number declined as his groundball rate grew a bit. According to Vavra, Span was demonstrating too much head movement, rising up when the pitch was coming and causing him to shift the plane which led to less square contact. Now Vavra has made a mention of this being one of the issues for Mauer. If Mauer has been doing the same thing, it is not showing up on video footage of him (at least not to the extent that Span’s head movement had shown).Nevertheless, his 55.4% groundball rate in 2011 was the highest of his career and changing his vision plane would be a logical source for this increase.
What are the odds that Mauer can bring himself back up into shape for 2012?
Mauer had said he has rededicated himself this offseason, reportedly adding 30 pounds after shedding so much during the season last year, but mostly concentrating on his knee:
"My workouts at this point were focused on rehabbing the knee, and I really didn't get to work on other things. Being a baseball player, with all the other movements you need to make, you need to focus on total body, and I'm able to do that now.”
If healthy in 2012, Mauer should be able to turn on the ball a bit more, adding some lift and distance, and make people forget that he spent in the infirmary. He will likely never match that special 2009 season but as a high average/high on-base, solid defensive catcher, he is capable of being the anchor this team desperately needs.

Monday, January 23, 2012

What's left to spend?

This past week the Twins made several notable moves that affected their payroll – signing free agent reliever Joel Zumaya and coming to terms with several arbitration-eligible players including Glen Perkins and Francisco Liriano.

The Twins signed Zumaya to an incentive-laden deal that can be as little of a commitment as $400,000 if he fails to break camp with the team all the way up to $1.75 million if he reaches certain performance bonuses.

Shortly thereafter, the team agreed to deal with Perkins ($1.55 million) and Liriano ($5.5 million) while continuing to work on an agreement with their last arb-eligible player, second baseman Alexi Casilla. Casilla’s camp submitted a figure of $1.75 million while the Twins countered with a deal offered $1.065. Considering this organization does not enter arbitration with players regularly, it is assumed that the team and Casilla will eventually split the difference on a one-year contract.

Given those recent transactions, here is the current 2012 projected payroll based on the existing knowledge found at Cot’s Contracts and the Star Tribune’s Joe Christensen’s prior assumptions:

As of right now, the Twins are anticipated to spend around $98.5 million on the 2012 team. That is significantly under the $115 million that the 2011 team was paid out, however, given the ownership’s desire to lower than figure, the drop-off should not be surprising. A few months after La Velle Neal’s interview with Jim Pohlad, the team fired general manager Bill Smith and replaced him with Terry Ryan. During Ryan’s reintroduction press conference in November, he gave a few more details regarding the payroll number:
“I think it's going to somewhere around 100 (million)." Ryan added, "There's nobody up here that wants to hide anything. If it's 95, if it's 100, if it's 90, we're going to make due (sp) with what Jim (Pohlad) and the family and (team president) Dave (St. Peter) give us.
At the $98.5 million mark, the payroll is right in that sweet spot of where Ryan was describing. Because of that, it isn’t necessarily a given that the team will seek to spend that $1.5 million remaining from the assumed $100 million payroll. If Ryan opts to close up shop right now and move forward with the present lot, no one could blame him.

Then again, that wouldn’t be in the best interest of the on-field product, especially considering the state of the bullpen.

Even though Zumaya could be a very capable arm, based on his injury history, there is no guarantee he can sustain the duration of the season (in fact, I would easily bet against him making the maximum of his contract). Outside of Zumaya, the Twins have a bevy of intriguing yet unproven right-handed arms. The most prudent thing would be to use that money towards signing someone like Todd Coffey or Dan Wheeler.

As I outlined recently, Coffey could be a valuable but inexpensive addition to the bullpen to stave off right-handed foes. Making just $1.35 million with the Nationals last year, Coffey figures to have his potential earnings diluted in the current plethora of relievers on the market and could easily be signed for $1.5 million or less. Meanwhile Wheeler, who is even more of a threat against right-handed hitters than Coffey, made a pretty penny in Boston a year ago ($3 million) but a shoulder injury at the end of the season combined with the deep market could also push him into that $1.5 million range as well. Either option would be a solid addition to deepen a fairly shallow bullpen.

For the Twins, who are down to their final few schillings, choosing to spend that $1.5 million to land a bargain bin-priced reliever would undoubtedly strengthen the pitching staff. 

Can a focused Burroughs be useful to the Twins?

On Monday, the Star Tribune’s Patrick Reusse recounted the tale of Sean Burroughs, a recent Twins minor league signing this winter, whose life was derailed by drinking and drugs in his twenties.  

In his first four seasons of professional ball in the Padres organization, Burroughs hit a remarkable .324/418/.453 in 1,653 plate appearances. Baseball America anointed him the seventh best prospect in 2000 then the sixth best in 2001 and finally the fourth best in 2002. He was the proverbial “can’t miss” prospect.

Unfortunately, he missed.

From 2003 to 2005, Burroughs hit .283/.343/.366 with the Padres. While in a different era his batting average may have been lauded, in the modern era that puts emphasis on reaching base AND hitting for power, Burroughs’ stock tumbled in San Diego.

People began to wonder where the power - the one that baseball minds predicted he would eventually develop - was.

Midway through 2005, the Friars traded for Joe Randa, who was having a solid season in Cincinnati at an extremely hitter-friendly ballpark. This was the beginning of the end for Burroughs in San Diego. Never mind that upon reaching the west coast and Petco Park Randa’s numbers tumbled to .256/.303/.395 – hardly an improvement over what Burroughs was providing them – but Burroughs’s off-field shenanigans likely accelerated his exit.

According to an article by’s Jenifer Langosch, Burroughs’ attention turned to partying that season:
“It began sometime in 2005, his fourth season with the Padres, Burroughs recalled, when he became more concerned with postgame plans than actually succeeding under the lights at PETCO Park. Burroughs struggled to pin down the reason he took the path he did, though one wrong turn was all it took to get stuck.
‘I was looking to just have fun,’ Burroughs said. ‘Have a good game and celebrate. Have a bad game and numb out. Once you start, you can't stop.’
Burroughs did a pretty good job hiding the extracurricular activities from his teammates, though the sudden dip in results suggested something was not right for a guy who was supposed to be a star.

The Padres would trade Burroughs to Tampa in exchange for another failed prospect in Dewan Brazelton but Burroughs would flounder in Florida as well. In 25 games for the Devil Rays, he hit .190/.320/.238 and earned a release in August. This begat a trail run with the Mariners the following season that lasted until June. After that, Burroughs disconnected from the world in Las Vegas, accumulating war stories which he claims would make Josh Hamilton blush.

The 30-year-old Burroughs cleaned himself up and earned a spot into the Diamondbacks system. While in AAA Reno last year, he produced well in 110 plate appearances, hitting .412/.450/.618. Impressed, Arizona buoyed him between the big club and their top affiliate, chiefly using him as a pinch hitter off the bench (58 of his 115 plate appearances can off the bench). In that limited time at the big league level, Baseball America’s one-time number four overall prospect hit .273/.289/.336 with five extra base hits.

While he’s a fantastic feel-good story worth of a Disney biopic, what are the odds we’ll see Burroughs at Target Field in 2012?

Based on his track record, it might be fairly decent.

In 2011, Danny Valencia was one of the worst rated defensive third basemen according to Baseball Info Solution’s Plus/Minus rating system (30 in MLB). Meanwhile, Burroughs has been a top defender in the game as recently as 2005. Yes, six years added to his odometer may have slowed him down some, but there are odds that his prowess still exists:

Furthermore, where the right-handed hitting third base incumbent has been thwarted by same-sided nemesis (a career .283 OBP against RHP), Burroughs’s little major league success is predicated on him being able to reach base against righties (.350 career OBP against RHP). If added to the roster, he provides a solid platoon option.  

What’s interesting about Burroughs’s approach at the plate is that the left-hander has an inside-out swing, one that produces numerous opposite field and up-the-middle hits.

As you can see from Inside Edge’s hit chart from last year, Burroughs thrives at taking inside pitches the other way – a method that provides a high average but little power.  Here is a video clip that exemplifies this swing:

This resulted in Burroughs hitting .565 on balls hit to left while hitting just .143 when pulling the ball in 2011.

Although many baseball people thought Burroughs’s power would eventually develop, it is more likely that his approach would never allow for a great deal of home runs – much like a certain Minnesota catcher (with the exception of one season). 

Because of his keen batting eye and ability to get base hits by using left and center fields, Burroughs maintained an average of .317 and an on-base percentage of .400 in the minors.  While playing in the Venezuelan Winter League this winter, Burroughs continued by hitting .316 and posting a .396 on-base percentage in 136 at-bats. It is possible that given the opportunity to hit in more favorable situations against right-handed pitchers, he could potentially put up similar numbers.

If Valencia cannot improve on his defense and his struggle against right-handed pitching persists, don’t be surprised to see Burroughs in Minnesota. At the very least, Burroughs can be a Rochester reminder for the current starter – hopefully pushing him to improve his game. 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Twins add Joel Zumaya to the bullpen mix

The Twins have frequently been accused of not catering to power arms and also not taking risks on their offseason signings. On Sunday, they may have made inroads in both areas by agreeing to a deal, pending a physical, with former Tigers flame-thrower Joel Zumaya.

According to Joe Christensen, the Twins and Zumaya have agreed to terms of a deal worth $800,000, with the potential of adding another $900,000 of incentives based on innings pitched, pending a physical.

Fastest Fastball (2007-2010)
Joel Zumaya
Daniel Bard
Matt Lindstrom
Neftali Feliz
Jonathan Broxton
Brian Wilson
Jason Motte
Zumaya, the talented yet often injured pitcher, has drawn some interest this offseason. In early December, the free agent Zumaya was in Houston to throw off the mound in front of teams. Fox Sports’ Jon Morosi tweeted that a scout told him that “almost every team was there” to watch him. Reports from the Texas audition were that the 27-year-old right hander was throwing in the mid-90s, down slightly from his 98.5 mile-per-hour average from 2007 through 2010.

Based on this, several team courted Zumaya as a potential buy-low, reward-high type of arm. Both Boston and San Diego were engaged in talks with him but, as the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo reported, one AL team’s doctors did not believe that Zumaya would be able to pass a physical in order to be signed.  Because the concern, it is easy to see why he would be available for under a million.

As you can glean from the chart above, Zumaya’s fastball is pure diesel fuel. From 2007 to 2010, Zumaya averaged the hardest fastball in the majors. Although an impressive feat, his regular absence from the active roster was a true detriment.

After bursting onto the scene in 2006 as a hot-shot 22-year-old reliever, he supposedly destroyed his elbow in 2006 by playing Guitar Hero too much (a video game that is no longer available either). In 2007, Zumaya missed extended time when he dislocated his finger while warming up in the bullpen and threw just 33.2 innings that season. Those 33.2 innings would be the most he would throw in a single season outside of his rookie year. In November of 2007, he would require AC joint reconstruction in his throwing shoulder (which he injured removing items from his Southern California homes during one of the wildfires) and missed a substantial portion of the 2008 season. The following year he would re-aggravate the shoulder in July of 2009 and wound up on the DL as the pain kept him from being able to lift his arm above his head. Finally, in 2010 most Twins fans were witness to Zumaya’s elbow exploding (a fractured olecranon) on a 99-mile-per-hour pitch to Delmon Young. He would miss the entire 2011 season because of that last injury, which necessitated a subsequent surgical procedure to replace a screw that was inserted into his elbow after the fracture.

Given the laundry list of ailments, it wouldn’t surprise me that during his impending physical that those doctors discover that his elbow is being held together with rubber band and duct tape.

Clearly, there is an injury risk associated with him but when healthy, he’s been a dominate arm in the bullpen. Over his career, he’s thrown 209.1 innings, striking out 23.1% of all batters faced and holding opponents to a .213 average against. However, unlike the majority of his Twin counterparts, Zumaya’s been a bit erratic with his control. His 12.8 % walk rate dating back to 2007 has been one of the league’s higher numbers in that period. Because of the various injuries, you can see how they would affect his command, particularly in 2008 and 2009 when he was recovering from shoulder surgery (44 walks in 54.1 innings). Considering he is recovering from elbow surgery this time around, it is very possible that Zumaya will struggle with his control in 2012.

If things work out favorable for Zumaya in the health department, it is an exciting move that could transform the look of the bullpen, giving Ron Gardenhire a viable late innings right-handed option that was missing from the 2011 squad. At the same time, we must remember that Zumaya is coming off surgery that really has no comparables that would indicate how he will respond. Early indications suggest that the velocity is not quite what it was – as Phil Mackey tweeted, the Twins clocked Zumaya between 92-94 miles per hour – so while it is still good readings, you have to wonder if several ticks off the fastball (one that is thrown up and over the plate) translates into a few more hits. On top of that, there are some team doctors who simply do not think he would pass a physical let alone finish an entire season.

This is certainly an out-of-the-box move for the Twins. We’ve seen a steady history of safe bets - those low-risk/ low-reward acquisitions for the bullpen that have become the organization’s MO. Zumaya, who’s obviously a high risk with his injury history, yet he represents a very high reward. With less a million dollars invested, the Zumaya signing is a good gamble for Minnesota.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Coffey is for (setting up) closers

According to Phil Mackey at, the Twins have been in contact with a potential bullpen arm:
“On Thursday, a baseball source confirmed the Twins have been in talks recently with the agent for right-hander Todd Coffey, who owns a 3.68 ERA with 167 strikeouts and 53 unintentional walks in 205 2/3 innings over the past three seasons with the Nationals and Brewers.
On paper, backend depth in the bullpen was supposed to be a strength for the 2011 Twins as they had Joe Nathan and Matt Capps in place to handle the 8th and 9th innings to shorten games. Of course, in reality, Nathan’s return from Tommy John surgery was predictably premature while Capps would labor through arm issues of his own, leaving the Twins short in late inning arms – particularly from the right side.
Without question, the left-handed Glen Perkins filled the role admirably as the bridge  to the closer, even holding righties to a bullpen-best .259 batting average against. Yet, the Twins struggled to find a suitable candidate to square off on tougher right-handed hitters – guys who could be counted on to defuse a late inning matchup with Paul Konerko or Miguel Cabrera. Over the course of the season, the team trotted out young arms in Alex Burnett (789 OPS vs RHB), Lester Oliveros (706 OPS), and Kyle Waldrop (909 OPS). While the future may prove otherwise, based on their results none of those players seemed ready to handle more critical situations.
As those pitchers get the opportunity to develop in less vital roles - perhaps eventually marrying the skill with their natural talent and ascending in the pecking order - the Twins would require a more stable, more consistent right-handed member of the bullpen.
That’s where the 31-year-old Todd Coffey comes in.
Undervalued for most of his career and, outside of his sprint in from the bullpen, Coffey has toiled away quietly in the National League, producing splits that would make blue states proud. Over his seven seasons, he has keep righties at bay at a much better rate than lefties (.265 RH avg vs .317 LH avg). That mark has improved in the past few seasons as well. Since 2009, he’s kept righties at a .222 average.
While he had been given a more balanced workload in Milwaukee, facing righties and lefties a fairly equal amount, the Nationals played more to his strength by limited his engagements with wrong-handed hitters. This meant shorter outings and more selective appearances. It appears to be an ideal fit for the Twins – someone with late inning experience, who is tough on right-handed opponents and can be lifted easily for one of the plethora of southpaws in the ‘pen (Perkins or Brian Duensing).
But, is Coffey as good as advertised?
Interestingly, Coffey has seen his batted ball rates change significantly in the past three years. Early on in his career, Coffey was a ground-ball inducing machine, getting grounders well over 50% of the time. In 2010, that started to dip. Last year, his ground ball rate was at a career-low 43.6%.
What appears to be responsible for the decline is how he deploys his slider. Prior to 2010, Coffey was mainly a fastball guy who occasionally mixed in his slider but in 2010, Coffey up his usage of the slider to the point where he nearly threw it as much as his fastball (likely in response to the higher amount of match-ups versus same-sided hitters). But it wasn’t just the amount that changed; it was how he threw the slider as well.
In 2009, he would bury the slider underneath the zone, inciting any opponents who opted to chase after the pitch to go out of the strike zone to do so. Because of its trajectory and the fact that it was well underneath the hitting zone when it reached the plate, most hitters were forced to bat it into the ground or flail at it.


Meanwhile, starting in 2010, Coffey began to throw his slider more often for a strike. This meant in was in the zone more resulting in more contact and more elevation in said contact.

Along with the decrease in grounders, Coffey also witnessed righties hitting his offerings more solidly. According to Inside Edge’s Well Hit metric, in 2009, righties posted a .168 well-hit average. This past season, that number jumped to .221. In spite of that hard-hit rate, Coffey had a little help from his friends in the Nationals defense this year, helping convert 72.1% of balls in play into outs – also a career best.
As mentioned before, Coffey has a decent fastball/slider combination that when thrown together in the right mix, he may be able to avoid getting squared up regularly. Ideally, if the Twins do sign him to subdue righties, they show him the difference in how his slider is performing and see if he can resurrected the ’09 version at Target Field.    

Friday, January 06, 2012

A team building exercise

In introducing himself to his new fan base out west, Michael Cuddyer fielded questions from readers in the Denver Post. One question regarding the outfielder’s excitement towards switching ballparks – from Target Field to Coors Field – incited the former Twin to sing a familiar tune (emphasis mine):
“I'm a gap-to-gap hitter and I hit with power to the right-center field gap. At the Metrodome, I would drive the ball to the baggy out in right center, and I really peppered the ball. But if you hit the ball to right-center at Target Field, the ball would just die. It's a long way out there.
At Coors Field, I think I can take advantage of my natural swing and I won't have to try and pull the ball. When I'm going well, I'm driving the ball to right-center and I don't have to overcompensate and try to pull the ball. At Coors, I can pull those inside pitches down the line, but I think overall it's a more natural fit for my swing.” 
Stop me if you have heard this one before but since Target Field opened you have been subjected to a barrage of data, some scientific insight and anecdotal observation from players -- of which you can now add Cuddyer’s name to a list that already includes Delmon Young, Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel -- which speaks to the cavernous play of the Twins ballpark and the effects on the players.

The fact is that for the most part the Twins carried the same core group of hitters from the Metrodome days into their new home. Hitters like Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel performed well inside that configuration but have scuffled since moving outdoors. They are not the only ones. In the final two years at the Metrodome, the Twins hit 152 home runs. However, now with two seasons into the Target Field era, they have hit just 98 home runs – the third fewest home runs at home in baseball. Injuries, age and other factors all should be consider yet the biggest change has to be the environment.

If you are a decision-making member of the Twins’ front office, what should you do?

One important aspect of constructing a roster is understanding how the personnel fit into your home ballpark. After all, you play 81 games a year at your home field, it’s best to find a lineup that plays best to that environment.

For instance, at Fenway Park in Boston, the left field Green Monster is whisper away from the infield dirt at 310 to 315 feet. Therefore, it would behoove the Red Sox to skimp on the left-handed starters – which they have, keeping Jon Lester as the only lefty in the rotation consistently dating back to 2000. Likewise, it would also benefit the club to fill the lineup with right-handed pull hitters who elevate the ball to left (or someone like left-handed like Adrian Gonzalez who is very adept at going the other way).

That’s one such extreme example but other stadiums have their own advantages. Dodgers Stadium favors power hitters to center field and it is no surprise Dodgers’ center fielder Matt Kemp paced baseball with 21 center field home runs (the next closest was 13 by Ryan Howard). Seattle, meanwhile, has struggled to find right-handed power considering Safeco Field is a challenge for righties -- an 82 Park Factor for righties, one of the lowest marks in the league.  

Circling back to the Twins, it has become evident over the course of two seasons that Target Field is extremely pitcher-friendly (to those pitchers who keep hitters in the big part of the park anyways). This is not a bad thing. There is no need to adjust the walls, just the mindset when targeting hitters.

No, the answer is not moving the walls in; the answer is in player selection.

This offseason, the Twins were faced with the need to fill two key spots in the lineup with impending free agents in Kubel and Cuddyer. Both were hitters that thrived as gap-to-gap hitters. Unfortunately this trait is punished somewhat at Target Field. To compensate, both hitters have admitted to changing their approach in the past two seasons to accommodate the difference in play. So, the Twins have replaced those long-time Twins with Ryan Doumit and Josh Willingham, two players who stay closer to the foul line than Kubel or Cuddyer.

Doumit, a switch-hitter, figures to replace Kubel’s at-bats as a designated hitter and part-time outfielder. And, while he hits from both sides of the plate, he will see the majority of his plate appearances from the left side. Production-wise, they both excelled when pulling the ball. Kubel has held a .437 weighted On Base Average with 174 weighted Runs Created. Doumit has been slightly better with a .446 wOBA and a 177 wRC+. The difference is that whereas Kubel pulled the ball 43% of the time in his career, Doumit yanked the pitch 53% of the time. Given his higher tendency to pull the ball and playing in Target Field that plays favorable down the right field line for left-handed hitters, if he can remain healthy, Doumit could be the superior power option.

Meanwhile, I had shown recently how Josh Willingham is the antithesis of Michael Cuddyer when it comes to hitting.  Transformed into a pull-happy right-hander thanks to the spacious Stadium in Oakland, Willingham displayed plenty of power directed towards the left field bleachers. Over his career, Cuddyer has pulled the ball 44% of the time while compiling a .435 wOBA and 171 wRC+. Willingham, on the other hand, has pulled the ball 49% of the time to produce a .520 wOBA and a 226 wRC+. So, unlike Cuddyer who seems to have become somewhat uncomfortable regarding his old environs and needing to change his approach, Willingham fits the mold just right.

Perhaps the Twins organization made intentional efforts to identify hitters like Doumit and Willingham whose skill sets include being pull hitters. Perhaps it was serendipitous that the pair fell to the Twins. Either way, from an on-field, team-building standpoint, this was the right direction to go.  

The truth is, being pull happy can weigh down one’s batting average and on-base percentage (as it did for Willingham last year) but it can certainly lead to more power – an area that the Twins have been lacking since the Metrodome days. This can be viewed as the great power experiment for the organization – a litmus test to see how this translates from theory to reality.  If Doumit and Willingham prove to be a success, it will be a blueprint for future player acquisitions. 

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Liriano makes a start in Dominican League

It is hard to pinpoint what exactly it was about Liriano’s 2011 season that went so haywire.

Was it that he was under-conditioned, pitching through an injury, struggling with his mechanics, lost his confidence, lost his mind, lost his dog, all of the above, none of the above?

Regardless of why, there are two critical factors that go hand-in-hand which Liriano needs to improve on from his poor 2011 campaign:

(1) Command of his fastball and (2) Getting ahead of hitters.

In 2011, Liriano demonstrated some of the worst command of the heater than almost every starter. Of all qualified pitchers (those who had thrown a minimum of 1,000 fastballs), Liriano’s 53% strike rate was the lowest. What’s more is that when he started his opponents off with the fastball -- which he did a little over half of all match-ups -- he managed to throw it for strike just 44% of the time, also the lowest in baseball. Meanwhile, in 2010, the left-hander was much closer to the league average of 64% by throwing his fastball for a strike 63% of the time (61% on the first pitch).

Intertwined with the command of his fastball is his ability to get ahead of hitters. Two seasons ago, Liriano threw strike one 61% of the time, putting his opponents at a quick disadvantage perhaps enticing them to swing at more out-of-zone offerings (34% out-of-swing rate in 2010, highest of his career) and more swings in general (a 46.5% swing rate). In 2010, however, Liriano wandered aimlessly. In just 49% of his match-ups was he able to achieve strike one – the worst rate in baseball. And it wasn’t just the first pitch last year, either. In 79% of his at-bats he was able to get a strike in one of the first two pitches (the worst mark in baseball and well below the 85% league average).

If Liriano makes significant strides in these two areas in 2012, considering his potent slider and improving change, there’s no reason not to think that he can’t rebound to his 2010 self.

Which brings us to his outing on Wednesday night.

Shortly before Christmas, GM Terry Ryan said that Liriano was not going to throw in the winter leagues but rather he would pitch at the Twins’ Dominican Academy and build his arm strength there. This was largely deflating to those who had witnessed how poorly he came into spring camp a year ago after skipping winter ball. However, midday yesterday the Liga de Beisbol website announced that Liriano would be starting for the Leones del Escogido.

Now, considering it was his first outing against live hitters since September 24, the proper amount of slack needs to be cut. Keep in mind there is plenty of time until April 1. Still, you have to watch for signs of improvement, especially in the aforementioned areas of (1) and (2). Against a C-list lineup (with Hiram Bocachica, who has been playing the Mexican Leagues the previous two seasons, batting third), Liriano’s fastball looked erratic and he struggled to locate the catcher’s target. In similar fashion to 2011, he mixed in his two-seamed fastball to right-handed opponents which ran up-and-away. Also like last season, of the eight batters he faced, he fell behind all but two. In all, one and two-thirds innings of work and 37 pitches required.

To reiterate, Liriano has plenty of time left to re-establish the command of his fastball and work at striking first against opponents. I'm not going to chastise him for one outing, however, if you were looking for early signs of progress in his first start in the winter leagues, you didn't get it. 

Monday, January 02, 2012

Farewell 2011

Yet another year has passed us by and I am headed into my fifth full season of operating this blog.

Strange how things happen over five years. It is amazing to me how this went from being a place where I posted my personal thoughts and findings -- doing so shrouded in anonymity because I was partially ashamed to admit that I was “blogging” (the word just sounds awful, right?) -- to an audience of, well, me to a place that has evolved  to the point where it has as many visitors as it does. Blows my mind when I think about it.

I would like to thank all of my regular readers for dropping in to digest my analysis. I hope that you draw as much entertainment out of the posts as I do from researching and writing them. Below, I have posted some of my personal favorite entries from the past calendar year so check them out if you missed any.

I will promise to try to try to make this site a better experience in 2012. I suppose that is also contingent on the Twins being a good team but I will try to make the most of it and provide informative pieces nonetheless. One of my biggest shortcomings is my inability to foster relationships with readers like fellow TwinsCentric writers like Seth Stohs and Nick Nelson do. I would like to improve in that area this year. Feel free to follow me on Twitter (@OverTheBaggy) if you have any questions or comments that are 140 characters or less. To sweeten the deal, if you follow me and tweet “I WANT A FREE SHIRT FROM DIAMONDCENTRIC” I’ll send one person a free DiamondCentric shirt.

Also, I should probably update my site’s description that was provided by considering Michael Cuddyer is no longer with the Twins. If anyone wants to attempt to provide me with some flattery, I’ll send a shirt if I use it.

That’s it for my ramblings. More analysis and video scouting to come. Happy 2012 all.

  • To start the year in 2011, I made four predictions for the upcoming season.  The first was that Denard Span would have a rebound season. The second was that Danny Valencia would be mired in a sophomore slump. The third was that Jim Hoey would be this year’s version of Grant Balfour. The last was that Scott Baker would be the second best pitcher in the starting rotation.
Looking back, I clearly missed hard on the Hoey forecast. As I mentioned in the piece, I was not basing that prediction off of any founded data aside from the fact that the two were very comparable in the minors. Not having much movement/control of his fastball coupled with the lack of a secondary pitch proved that he was incapable of retiring major league hitters at this juncture. Toronto, who claimed Hoey on waivers, will attempt to see if he can learn a second pitch. While Hoey was a bust, the predictions of Span, Valencia and Baker were almost all spot on. Somewhat. Depending how literal you are, I suppose. 
My first prediction was that Span would be on base more in 2011. This technically did not come to fruition as Span posted an on-base percentage of .328 at the season’s conclusion. However, if he never was concussed, he may have had one of his better seasons of his career. He had a terrific start to the season, hitting .295/.365/.378 heading into the game in Kansas City in which he would receive a whiplash-induced concussion. Unfortunately, he struggled mightily after his attempted return, going 9-for-62 (.145) with just 3 walks in 65 plate appearances and dragging down his overall numbers. 
Valencia encountered the sophomore slump hardcore, which I detailed in June of this year, sourced to the Twins third baseman getting too pull-happy and a bit of regression in the amount of line drives that became base hits (just 63% in 2011 versus 77% in 2010). This one was not too hard to foresee. 
Lastly, Scott Baker emerged as perhaps the best starting pitcher (not second best as my prediction stated) in the season’s first-half. After having bone chips removed in 2010, Baker’s regained his fastball’s dominance and was able to locate significantly better in 2011. In the middle of a career-best season and holding a 3.01 ERA, Baker was in consideration for the All Star game when his elbow started barking again (a right forearm strain).  After resting and making a few more starts and a pair of relief appearances, Baker entered the 2011 offseason the same way he entered the 2010 – waiting to show everyone that he can withstand the rigors of an entire season.
  •  In February, I took the stance that it was a wise decision for the Twins to not sign Francisco Liriano to a long-term contract despite coming off a very successful 2010 campaign (14-10, 3.62 ERA, 201/58 K/BB ratio and a 2.95 xFIP). My take was that Liriano’s mechanics and injury history left too much volatility to incite the need for the organization to pounce and lock him up while having two years of club control remaining. For whatever reason – poor conditioning, injury, mentally unprepared or all of the above – Liriano regressed hard in 2011 and leaving the Twins in position to say they made the right decision.   
  • Throughout the winter, Kyle Gibson was heralded as the next man in line to enter the starting rotation. His midseason injury in Rochester, necessitating Tommy John surgery, delayed his arrival until at least 2013. The unfortunate career-derailing injury aside, this past spring training Gibson provided fans with glimpses of what makes him a strong pitcher. Based on footage captured by 1500ESPN, I documented his strengths in Why You Should Take Notice of Kyle Gibson. When he returns eventually, Gibson will be a groundball-inducing pitcher with the potential to add strikeouts along the way. 
  • One of the bigger talkers entering spring training was what would the Twins starting rotation be? Following a strong performance in 2010 after being shifted to the rotation in the last half of the season, lefty Brian Duensing was a highly touted candidate to land one of those available spots. Judging from some of his indicators (tough splits against right-handed batters, abnormally low BABIP and abnormally high left-on-base rate) combined with his ability to overwhelm left-handed hitters with a very good slider I found that Duensing was best suited for a relief position.  Duensing would go on to have one of the worst statistical years among any starter, mostly based on right-handed opponents obliterating him (which I covered in August). Now the Twins are moving him back into the bullpen where he should have been all along. 
  • Denard Span had come off a fairly disappointing offensive season in 2010. He had gone from hitting .305/.390/.422 in 2008 and 2009 to hitting .264/.331/.348. Hitting coach Joe Vavra mentioned that Span had some mechanical flaws that were causing him to not hit the ball square. In March, I took a look at Span’s progression in his mechanics over those three seasons and reached the conclusion that, yes, Span was moving a lot as Vavra said, but had also changed other things that may have affected his ability to drive the ball. I have not done so yet but reviewing this piece reminds me that I should study his 2011 film and see what – if any – changes he made in the season’s first-half when he owned a .295/.365/.378 batting line. 
  • In May, new arrival Tsuyoshi Nishioka landed on the DL with a fractured leg courtesy of a Nick Swisher slide at second. This play showed the wide cultural gap between how Japanese and Americans (or rather Western Hemispherians) play the game. Nishioka learned a painful lesson the hard way.
  • Justin Morneau struggled through April, hitting a utility-infielder-like .224/.289/.303, and the Kansas City Royals broadcast team announced that their home team had found a way to get the Twins first baseman out regularly: Pitch him away. Morneau had been pulling his hip open, committing to yanking the ball regardless of where it was pitched. A video review showed that this was indeed occurring. Morneau never got his mojo back and finished the year on the sidelines once again after another concussion (this time in the field). 
  • Matt Capps had an extremely rough 2011 season, a lot of which had to do with a forearm injury. Perhaps to compensate for this injury, early in the season, Capps demonstrated a peculiar tendency of shifting on the rubber depending if the hitter was left-handed or right-handed – something that he did not do prior to the 2011 season. In conferring with Texas Leaguers’s pitch f/x database, it showed that Capps had been landing his two-seamed fastball (his pitch of choice against lefties) over the plate more than previous years.
  • After the first month of the season, the Twins opening day shortstop, Alexi Casilla, was hitting a paltry .167/.227/.200. Then he went on a tear in May hitting .317/.394/.439. Casilla made some mechanical adjustments that helped add pop to his bat and bring his numbers back towards respectability. For whatever reason, his swing reverted back to his pre-May days by the end of June and a hamstring injury cut his season short. 
  • Like Casilla (and well, all of the Twins really), Delmon Young’s season started slow. As late as June 8, he was hitting .219/.250/.271 with just a solitary home run in 164 plate appearances. Young made some changes to his swing – most notably elevating his hands – which helped bring it all back into sync and restored his power. From June 11 onward, Young hit a much improved .287/.323/.442 with 10 home runs (and another five home runs in the playoffs with Detroit). 
  • Mijares: “Joe never called for a slider.” Mauer: “I called for a fastball but not over the plate.” Evidence.
  • Plenty of frustrated Twins fans were upset at the decision to unload JJ Hardy in the winter of 2010. That was amplified tenfold when Hardy went off for 30 home runs with the Baltimore Orioles. Would that have happened if Hardy was in a Twins uniform in 2011? Hard to say. The Orioles had Hardy make some changes in his approach and swing which helped him pull pitches with power and turn on pitches thrown inside.