Tagged: Nick Blackburn

Mired in Mediocrity

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At 43-43 44-43, this team is exactly average.  I’m certainly not the first person to notice this, nor am I the first to point out
that it’s mostly because all of the great talent on this team is
balanced by players who have no business on a major-league roster.  The
awesomeness of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau is balanced by the
suckitude of well, the entire second half of the lineup.  Nick
Blackburn is putting up the best numbers of his career, while Scott
Baker and Francisco Liriano are putting up the worst.  The comparison
between the best and worst players on the team is stark:

Hitters:

Joe Mauer:          .389/.461/.651/1.112 OPS  4.3 WAR
Justin Morneau:   .313/.390/.582/.971 OPS  2.8 WAR
Jason Kubel:    .306/.364/.540/.904 OPS  1.3 WAR
Denard Span:  .288/.375/.377/.752 OPS  1.7 WAR

Matt Tolbert:  .178/.272/.225/.497 OPS  -0.9 WAR
Nick Punto:   .211/.322/.234/.556 OPS  -0.2 WAR
Carlos Gomez:  .218/.277/.318/.595 OPS  -0.3 WAR
Delmon Young:  .270/.296/.349/.646 OPS  -1.2 WAR

The pitching is a slightly different story:

Pitchers:

Nick Blackburn:  2.94 ERA   4.94 xFIP  1.272 WHIP  1.82 K/BB  2.0 WAR
Kevin Slowey:  4.86 ERA   4.38 xFIP  1.412 WHIP  5.00 K/BB  1.4 WAR
Joe Nathan:  1.35 ERA   2.42 xFIP   0.750 WHIP  6.14 K/BB  1.4 WAR

Scott Baker:  5.31 ERA  4.24 xFIP  1.221 WHIP  3.90 K/BB  1.3 WAR
Francisco Liriano:  5.47 ERA  4.53 xFIP  1.490 WHIP  2.02 K/BB  1.3 WAR

Obviously
guys like Luis Ayala (0.1 WAR), Sean Henn (-0.2 WAR), and Jesse Crain
(-0.2 WAR) haven’t been helping much, either.  The good news is that
none of these guys are in the bullpen right now.  The bad news is that
they were here long enough to cost the team wins.

There
are a couple of things worth noting here.  First of which is that, as
much as both Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano have struggled this
season, both are still above replacement-level (that is, both are more
valuable than some scrub picked up off the waiver wire), and both
obviously have tremendous upside.  So, unless the Twins are absolutely
blown away with an offer for either one, it would be wise to hang onto
them for now (and no, Jon Garland and his 5.28 xFIP is not that guy). 
Secondly, despite his .270 batting average, Delmon Young is still one
of the worst hitters in the lineup.  His .349 slugging percentage is
anemic, his 58/6 K/BB ratio is the worst on the team, besides providing
crappy defense in left (-9.1 UZR).  No wonder the Rays were so eager to
get rid of him.

Of course, this is
pretty much the way the Twins have operated for the past decade, so
none of this comes as a surprise.  The likes of Ramon Ortiz, Sidney Ponson, and Rick Reed have rounded out a rotation fronted by Johan Santana and Brad RadkeDustan Mohr, Michael Restovich, and Michael Ryan have all patrolled the outfield alongside Torii Hunter.  After Corey Koskie left, guys like Tony Batista and Mike Lamb were manning third base until Joe Crede came along.  Jason Tyner, he of the one major league home run, was the DH for 31 games in three seasons with the Twins (when Rondell White and Ruben Sierra weren’t available, of course).  Tyner, by the way, was featured on the “Best Persons in the World” awhile back when his current (former?) team traded him away for nothing.  And then there was the Luis RodriguezJuan CastroLuis Rivas infield, with Terry Tiffee on the bench.  And these weren’t even the worst Twins teams.

Obviously
there was a lot of talk about the Yankees’ payroll during the series at
the Dome, and it’s true that having a larger payroll gives a team more
flexibility. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a “Woe is us, how can we
ever keep up
with the Yankees and Red Sox?” post.  Simply spending a lot of money
doesn’t necessarily guarantee that a team will even make the playoffs
let alone win a championship, and there is much more parity baseball
(especially the AL) than pretty much any other major professional sport
in this country.  It’s just that a smaller payroll
gives a franchise a much smaller margin-for-error when making trades,
signing free agents, and even in the draft, since a bad move can
hamstring such an organization for decades. 

The Nick Swisher trade is a very good
example.  Now, the Yankees
acquired him from the White Sox for next to nothing, but even if he
doesn’t work out, the team isn’t completely sunk.  The Yankees
technically have six outfielders since acquiring Eric Hinske from the
Pirates, so they don’t really need Swisher and could easily trade him if
he starts to decline. 
Compare that to the Delmon Young trade (I know, I know, they’re not
really the same since the Young deal had a much higher risk, but bear
with me).  The Twins gave up a lot to
acquire Young and he has yet to live up to his potential.  To be fair,
Young isn’t the only terrible hitter on this team (and he hasn’t even
entered the prime of his career yet), but he needs to put up better
power numbers to make the trade worthwhile (and to justify giving him
so much playing time).  At this point, though, it’s hard to argue that
the Twins wouldn’t be a better team
with Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett.  Worse yet, his poor performance
and perceived attitude problems mean the Twins would have a tough time
getting anything of value for him should they consider themselves
buyers the trade deadline.  Like it or not, they’re pretty much stuck
and simply have to hope that Young will eventually start to develop
some power.

By the way, I tend to consider the
Young trade karmic retribution for the A.J. Pierzynski trade. 
Although, when you think about it, the Young trade is even worse. 
Pierzynski was at least competent both at the plate and in the field,
and Giants fans only had to put up with him for one season.  Delmon, on
the other hand, is the gift that keeps on giving.
 

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Giving the Bullpen a Couple of Days Off

  • Nick Blackburn pitches his third complete game of the season in Twins’ 6-2 win

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Blackie (yes, that’s really his nickname) absolutely dominated the Tigers in Sunday’s rubber match, keeping them off the scoreboard through eight innings.  He struck out six and only walked one, and although teh Kittehs recorded seven hits, they weren’t really able mount much of a threat until the eighth.  Unfortunately, Blackie lost his bid for a shut out when Brandon Inge clobbered a two-run homer in the ninth, but he quickly recovered to finish the inning and (most importantly) give the bullpen some much-needed rest.  After pitching 13 innings in Friday night’s marathon exercise in futility, the relief corps will get two full days of rest (some relievers even have three, as Francisco Liriano pitched seven innings on Saturday) before the Yankees come to town on Tuesday night.  When his sinker is working, as it was yesterday, Blackie is a bullpen savior (indeed, he needed only 109 pitches to get through nine innings).  His 116.1 innings pitched are fifth most in the league, and only Zack Greinke has thrown more complete games. 

However, even though Blackburn is putting up some of the best numbers of his career, it’s still way too early to declare him the team ace (or talk about extending his contract).  He wasn’t much better than average last season, and his poor peripherals suggest that a good deal of his success this season is probably due to luck.  Coming in to yesterday’s game, Blackie had a very good 3.10 ERA, but his 1.67 K/BB ratio and 2.3 BB/9 rate are at career lows.  I wrote elsewhere that if those numbers don’t improve, he will likely finish the season with an ERA much closer to his 4.98 xFIP.  The good news, though, is that some of his peripherals have indeed been improving.  While his 1.80 K/BB ratio is still rather low, and he still gives up a lot of hits, his BB/9 rate has been steadily declining the past few months (from 3.08 in May to its current 1.00).  A lot of it has to do with the fact that his fastball is nasty.  The velocity tops out at around 91 mph but the movement on it has been absolutely filthy, and as long as he can sustain that kind of break on his fastball, his strikeout rate should start to improve.  Blackburn will likely keep rolling through the second half of the season (and hopefully the playoffs).

  • Twins once again send three representatives to the All-Star Game

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Joe
Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Joe Nathan are all set to represent the
Twins in the ASG.  Kevin Slowey probably had a good chance of joining
his teammates in St. Louis, if he hadn’t gone down with a wrist injury
(he is supposed to have an MRI on it today.  UPDATE:  it is just a strain.  He was treated with a cortisone shot and should resume throwing in a few days).  You could probably make
the case for Nick Blackburn too (Joe Nathan did), since he is sporting
a 2.94 ERA and 1.27 WHIP, but I have no problem with the likes of
Justin Verlander and Mark Buerhle getting the nod instead.  I’m not
going to get into a huge debate over who got snubbed and who didn’t
deserve a starting spot, there’s already plenty of that on the
internets.  I don’t think there are many glaring oversights on either
team, other than maybe Ian Kinsler and Torii Hunter (who should be
starting), and the ASG isn’t something I get all worked up about
anyway.

Justin Morneau has indicated
that he will probably decline an invitation to the Home Run Derby, if
asked.  It’s probably just as well.  His tendency to fade down the
stretch probably doesn’t have anything to do with participating in the
HR Derby, but why take that chance?  Anyway, this way people won’t get
mad at him for beating a much-flashier superstarAgain

Joe
Mauer is making his second consecutive start in the ASG, and his third
career appearance.  Even after missing the first month of the
season, he’s still far and away the best catcher in the AL.  Although,
5 of the 31 “greatest minds in baseball” think that Victor Martinez
should have been the starting catcher.  That’s right, a guy batting
.303/.382/.506/.888 while making half of his starts at first base
deserves to be the starting catcher, while the guy batting .389/.465/.648/1.113
should be on the bench.  Yes, let’s give all of the voting power to
these people, clearly the fans are too stupid to get it right.

Joe
Nathan is also quietly having one of the best years of his career.  His
last blown save came against the Yankees on May 15th, and he hasn’t
surrendered a run since.  Not an unearned run, not an inherited runner scoring,
nothing.  His 2.40 xFIP, 6.14 K/BB ratio, 11.6 K/9 rate, and 1.9 BB/9
rate as well as 1.35 ERA and 0.750 WHIP are all at or near
career-bests.  He’s been getting hitters to chase pitches outside the
strike zone a little more, which has made him extremely effective even
when he doesn’t have his best stuff.  

Nothing Good Ever Happens With 2 outs and a 2-2 Count

Ugh, there are a lot of recaps of last night’s horror show of epic proportions, but I think this one really sums it up.  It was a choke job so epic, even Yahoo! sports featured it on the front page (at least it was on the front page, looks like it’s gone now).  Great.  How do I feel about it?  I feel just like this guy:

vomiting.jpgThe Twins are rumored to be shopping Delmon Young, and I was going to write a detailed post about Delmon and his numbers and compare him to Carlos Gomez, but I’m just not in the mood right now.  I know there’s still plenty of baseball left to play and blah, blah, blah, but really today’s game against the Brew Crew is going to seal the Twinkies’ fate.  If they win, they will live to torture us another day be back to .500 and at least keep pace with the Tigers.  If they lose, well, then it means that I was right.  And I hate that.

Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down

  • Getting over the .500 mark is just too damn hard

Once again, a starter pitched well enough to get the win, and once again, it was all in vain.  Of course, this time Nick Blackburn screwed himself out of the “W” when he surrendered three runs in the bottom of the eighth (with a little help from Michael Cuddyer), allowing Oakland to tie the game.  Sean Henn and Matt Guerrier then conspired to give up the winning run in the bottom of the ninth.  Had they managed to close out this game, The Twins would have reached the .500 mark for the first time in nearly a month.  Instead, the Twinks have fallen to 30-32 and are currently trailing the division-leading Tigers by four games.  Oh, and their league-worst road record is now 9-20.  Not good.

The bats weren’t exactly hot this afternoon, but the Twins did jump out to an early lead thanks to a three-run homer by Joe Crede.  Gosh, that signing is looking better and better every day.  Even though Crede’s batting average is a paltry .233, he’s clubbed seven homers in just 81 at-bats and now has ten already on the year.  He has been a tad on the injury-prone side (to say the least), but at least his back hasn’t been much of an issue so far (*knocks on wood*).  Of course, the organization is probably just trying to protect its investment, so they’ll likely keep him out of the lineup if he isn’t exactly 100%.

Joe Mauer went 1-for-4 and his batting average has now dropped to .410, and is in danger of not being the first player since Ted Williams to hit over .400 in a season.  STUPID CHEAP TWINS WHY DIDNT U TAKE MARK PRIOR INSTEAD!!!1!!1!   

Not surprisingly, Alexi Casilla was sent back down after Nick Punto was activated from the DL earlier this afternoon.  Casilla made a few unfortunate misplays that nearly cost the Twins in Tuesday night’s game, but for the most part he hasn’t been that bad since being recalled from Rochester.  He’s been hitting .308/.357/.385, which is a vast improvement over the .167/.202/.231 he was batting before his first demotion.  However, Matt Tolbert is more versatile, and Nick Punto obviously isn’t going anywhere with that $8.5 million albatross of a contract he signed in the offseason, so Casilla was sort of the odd man out of the infield.  Still, I would rather the Twins send Brian Buscher down instead, since he’s a liability both offensively and defensively and is seldom used anyway (he’s played in all of 32 games this season).

Frankie’s Odd Outing

  • Francisco Liriano was awful despite striking out seven hitters in four innings

060807_liriano_vmed_8p.widec.jpgAs Fangraphs notes, Francisco Liriano had statistically one of the strangest outings of the year against the Red Sox Monday afternoon.  He struck out seven batters in four innings, didn’t walk anyone, and still surrendered five runs on eleven hits.  While some of these balls were hit hard, and Frankie was struggling a bit with command of his fastball, he did get extremely unlucky in that pretty much everything that could have fallen for a hit actually did (Boston’s BABIP was .733, which is very unusual in combination with such a high strikeout rate).  He was also unlucky that Brian Buscher, who has the range of a telephone pole, started at third in place of Joe Crede (who is day-to-day after being hit on the hand with a pitch on Sunday).  Almost everything hit to third ended up in the outfield, and unfortunately it led to a short start for Liriano. 

Of course, Frankie certainly deserves his share of the blame for Monday’s meltdown, too.  His struggles with his command and his tendency to overthrow when he gets himself in trouble have been well-documented.  His numbers certainly suggest that he’s having trouble finding the strike zone, with a mediocre 1.88 K/BB ratio and an ugly 4.1 BB/9 rate.  The Twins have been patient with Frankie (and really all of the struggling starters) so far, but they can’t afford to do so much longer and expect to contend for a division title.  Anthony Swarzak pitched effectively enough against Milwaukee on Saturday, only striking out three and walking two but shutting out the Brewers for seven innings.  Obviously Swarzak will need more than one start to prove he can pitch effectively in the major leagues (his next start against Boston will be most telling), and Glen Perkins probably has the most vulnerable spot in the rotation.  Still, it isn’t unreasonable to think that a demotion to the bullpen is in Frankie’s future if he fails to show any significant improvement.

  • Nick Blackburn, on the other hand, has been remarkably consistent

Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey have proven to be the most consistently effective startersThumbnail image for medium_blackburn.jpg thus far.  Blackburn had one of his best starts of the season against the Red Sox last night, surrendering only one earned run on eight hits and recording a career-high seven strikeouts.  His 3.55 ERA leads the team, and although he’s given up a lot of hits this year, most of them have been relatively harmless singles.  Blackburn has also been stingy about issuing free passes (only 19 in 63.1 IP) and home runs (only 4), which is obviously very important for a contact pitcher.  His 4.12 FIP is very good for a sinkerballer (the league average is 4.50), especially since his .298 BABIP is only a little better than league-average.

And after I posted this, I discovered that Twinkie Town has a much better assessment of our default ace.

Kevin Slowey got off to a bit of a rough start, surrendering twenty-two hits and posting a 7.94 ERA in his first two starts, but he’s settled down as well and has become one of the best starters in the rotation.  Both his command and control have been impeccable, posting a league-best 9.75 K/BB ratio and 0.65 BB/9 rate.  While he tends to be an extreme fly ball pitcher, Slowey has been pretty good at keeping the ball in the park, giving up the gopher ball at a rate of about 1.3 per nine innings.  Better yet, most of these home runs have come with the bases empty and thus keeping the damage to a minimum. 
 

  • Etc.

Is the Joe Crede signing the best thing Bill Smith has done so far as GM?  Well, considering that his other moves include the Santana trade, the Delmon Young trade (which is looking worse by the day), signing the likes of R.A. Dickey and Luis Ayala to upgrade the bullpen, and passing on Orlando Hudson in favor of Nick Punto, then it probably is.

Speaking of decisions that may come back to haunt them, the Twins have likely blown their chance to re-sign Mauer at a more reasonable rate.  Which means they probably won’t re-sign him at all.  I guess that’s good news for Red Sox fans.

O Happy Day

  • Twins thump White Sox 20-1

p20b.jpgThe Twins were simply trying to avoid being swept by the Pale Hose, and going winless on this road trip, and somehow managed to score twenty runs in the process.  Before the seventh-inning stretch, no less. While it seems like pretty much every Twin had a hit (Except for Nick Punto, who went 0-for-5 with 3 Ks.  Justin Morneau went hitless, too, though he did draw 3 walks, one of which was intentional), Joe Mauer certainly had a good day at the plate.  He hit the second grand slam of his career, as well as a pair of doubles, and drove in six runs.  Ron Gardenhire shook up the lineup a bit, batting Mauer second and moving Matt Tolbert down to the eighth spot, a move that is long overdue.  Mauer has always been more of a prototypical #2 hitter, since he hasn’t typically shown enough power to be a #3 hitter (although that appears to be changing), and it generally makes sense to have one of your best hitters batting second.  Gardy has always been reluctant to do this though, since he doesn’t like the idea of having four lefties batting in a row.  Perhaps this outpouring of offense will convince Gardy that it’s OK to bat a bunch of lefties in a row when those lefties include Denard Span, Joe Mauer, and Justin Morneau.

The Twins did get a lot of help from former Yankee fan-favorite Wilson Betemit, who spent the afternoon making a mockery out of the third base position.  Bartolo Colon really only gave up one earned run before being yanked in the second inning, the other seven came after Betemit failed to field a Nick Punto bunt.  Betemit didn’t help his cause at the plate, either, going 0-for-4 and stranding a runner on base. 

Nick Blackburn scattered four hits and shut out the White Sox through seven innings, and helped the Twins end a streak of a different kind:  the tendency of the pitching staff to give back the lead, often in the bottom of the inning.  This has been a consistent problem throughout the season, but it’s been particularly troublesome on this road trip.  Before leaving for the seven-game trip to New York and Chicago, the Twins had swept the Tigers and were tied for first place.  But the pitching staff blew at least four leads going into the later innings, costing the Twins at least as many wins and putting them 5.5 games behind the first-place Tigers (who haven’t lost since).  Had the Twins managed to hold those leads, they would probably have finished the road trip 4-3. if not 5-2, instead of 1-6 and would probably be trailing Detroit by just a game or two.     

  • But wait, there’s more

jakepeavy.jpgThis lopsided loss couldn’t have come at a worse time for the White Sox.  Jake Peavy was deciding whether to accept a trade to the Southside, and not surprisingly, he declined.  The outcome of this game probably had little to do with his decision, however, since Peavy has long expressed a preference to remain in the National League.  It’s also not terribly surprising that Peavy would prefer to remain in an extreme pitcher’s ballpark, such as Petco, rather than move to a hitter’s paradise such as the Cell.

However, as much as it pains me to say this, the White Sox should probably consider themselves lucky that the deal fell through.  Whether or not Jake Peavy should be considered one of the best pitchers in the league is the subject of intense debate, since he does pitch in a very pitcher-friendly ballpark.  While his road numbers in general aren’t exactly terrible, his WHIP increases from 1.085 to 1.293 and his K/BB ratio decreases from 3.73 to 2.54 outside the pitcher-friendly confines of Petco Park.  Which indicates that Peavy might have a rough transition to the American League, and especially to the hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field.  And then there’s the matter of Peavy’s contract, which the ChiSox would have been on the hook for had he actually agreed to the trade.  $52 million over the next three years is an awful lot of money to spend on a guy who may or may not pitch as effectively in the AL, not to mention the prospects Chicago would have to give up in exchange.   

  • But wait, there’s more

On a completely unrelated note, the Wild have hired Chuck Fletcher as their new GM (sorry Pierre).  I’m not going to go into much detail about the hiring, since this is a baseball blog, except to say that this does like a very good hire (on paper, anyway).  This team is going to look very different going forward, which will be very interesting.  Still, it’s probably best to see what moves he makes first, including hiring a new coach, before getting too excited. 

Oh, yeah, and the Wolves have a new GM now too, but zzzzzzz….

More EPIC FAIL at Yankee Stadium

Well, I certainly can’t blame any of these losses on the starting pitchers.  Unless, of course, you want to blame them for not pitching complete-game shutouts, which is essentially what they’ve needed to do to beat the Yankees.  All three pitched well enough to earn the win in every single game of this series, but the bullpen and the offense haven’t exactly held up their part of the bargain.  Francisco Liriano gave up one earned run in six innings, and although he wasn’t particularly sharp, consistently managed to pitch himself out of trouble.  Which pretty good for a guy whose emotions often get the better of him when things don’t go his way and would subsequently let the game get out of hand (like in this game against the White Sox).  Nick Blackburn was also pretty effective, giving up a three-run homer to Mark Teixeira, but settled down nicely after that and surrendered only four runs through 7.2 innings.  Kevin Slowey pitched an absolute gem through 7.2 innings, striking out eight batters and outlasting A.J. Burnett.  Unfortunately, the two earned runs he surrendered in the bottom of the seventh kept him from actually out-dueling his Yankee counterpart and earning a much-deserved win.

While it’s tempting to blame the bullpen for everything, the truth is that the Twins left a lot of runners on base.  Yes, Joe Nathan deserves the blame for blowing the save on Friday night.  Yes, Craig Breslow surrendered a two-run homer to A-Rod in the bottom of the thirteenth in game two.  And yes, today Jesse Crain gave up the game-winning homer to Johnny Damon in the tenth.  But it doesn’t really help that Twinkies have stranded 34 runners on base in the first three games of the series.  Twice they loaded up the bases in today’s game, and twice they failed to drive in any runs.  It’s somewhat understandable that they couldn’t do much against A.J. Burnett, but the failure to do anything against a journeyman like Brett Tomko is simply inexcusable.  All of the games in this series have been decided by two runs or less, and the Twins have led going into the later innings in every single one.  But the failure to capitalize on scoring chances, and the failure of the pitching staff, particularly the bullpen, to hold the lead has been frustrating.  It is costing the team wins, plural.  And even if they manage to win the division anyway, which they could, so what?  They are likely to meet one of the AL East teams, such as the Red Sox or Yankees, in the first round.  And will likely get swept in the first round if they don’t do something to shore up some of the glaring weaknesses in the bottom of the lineup and in the bullpen.

By the way, how amazing is Joe Mauer?  This has to be the play of the decade.  I don’t care what it costs, Joe has to stay in a Twins uniform until he dies.