- Nick Blackburn pitches his third complete game of the season in Twins’ 6-2 win
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
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
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 superstar. Again.
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.
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.
First off, I have a new blog. Well, it’s basically the same as this one, just on a different site. I’m not sure yet if I’m going to permanently move or not, so I guess this is just sort of a trial run. I’ll probably simply paste the same entry over here for the most part, just to make my life a little easier. Except the other site will provide an uncensored version of whatever I post over here, so that might be interesting. Plus the other site will be strictly devoted to baseball, so if you don’t wish to read about hockey or basketball or whatever other crap I sometimes post here, please feel free to visit my other site instead. And, in light of recent events, there will be some basketball crap at the end of this post.
I did a recap of Wednesday’s loss to Pittsburgh here, but I want to discuss Francisco Liriano and whether he should be moved to the bullpen in greater detail. Frankie did surrender a pair of two-run homers, but for the most part he pitched a pretty good game against the Pirates. He struck out six and, most importantly, only walked one through seven innings. It’s just that he got burned badly by the few mistakes he made and didn’t get any run support. Twins fans have been understandably frustrated with Frankie’s struggles this season, and some have been calling for him to be bumped from the rotation in favor of Anthony Swarzak. The organization itself has been patient and maintained their faith in him as a starter, with good reason I might add. Liriano has actually been showing steady improvement over his last four starts, though he doesn’t have much to show for it in terms of his 2-8 record. His K/BB ratio has improved from an awful 1.76 in May to 2.57 through his past three starts. His walk rate has decreased from a season-high 5.04 BB/9 in May to 3.32 in June, and he’s holding opponents to a .229/.308/.414 line. Subsequently, his ERA has dropped from 7.12 through the end of May, to a season-low 3.79 and his WHIP has improved from 1.85 to 1.21. Obviously, this is an extremely small sample size and he’ll need to prove himself against tougher lineups than Seattle and Oakland, but as long as his K/BB ratio continues to improve, there’s reason to be optimistic about Frankie as a starter.
Oh, and Nick Blackburn pitched a complete game against the Pirates this afternoon, so Bert Blyleven can shut up about that now.
- Wolves finally get around to doing what should have been done 10 years ago
New president of basketball operations David Kahn has officially fired Kevin McHale. That’s right, the worst GM in the history of Minnesota sports won’t be back with the team in any capacity next season. Not in the front office, not as a coach, not even as a janitor. Oh, don’t get me wrong, McHale did some good things for the Timberwolves as GM. He drafted Kevin Garnett. And when he traded him to Boston, he did get Al Jefferson in return (plus eight benchwarmers, but that’s beside the point). The Wolves did make eight straight playoff appearances under McHale, but only got past the first round once: when they lost to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals in the ’03-’04 season. They haven’t made the playoffs since, and haven’t even posted a winning record in four seasons. Worse yet, attendance has been flagging, and season ticket holders would probably have started rioting if McHale were kept on. So Kahn was left with little choice but to fire McHale, even though he was actually a pretty decent coach. I have no idea who the next coach of the Timberwolves will be, but the list of potential candidates looks pretty good. I’m not sure it matters much who they get, since the roster is so bereft of talent (besides Big Al, of course) that it will be years before the Wolves are serious contenders in the Western Conference. Still, as much as the move was justified (and long overdue), I do find it really sad that Kevin McHale will probably be more widely remembered as a failed GM than as the basketball legend he truly was.
- Anthony Swarzak shuts down Cubs, then gets optioned to AAA Rochester
Swarzak pitched the best game of his young career against the Baby Bears, scattering four hits and striking out six while walking only one. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to keep his spot in the rotation, and Swarzak was notified of his demotion right after the game. Glen Perkins will most likely be activated from the DL on Tuesday, and with Denard Span and Michael Cuddyer out an indefinite length of time, the Twins can’t really afford to carry an extra pitcher at the sake of a shorter bench. They have called up backup catcher Jose Morales in the meantime, and how long he’ll stay with the team depends on Michael Cuddyer and Denard Span (more on that in a minute).
While the timing of the news might have been unfortunate, it isn’t entirely unexpected. Swarzak hasn’t pitched that much better than the starters who have been struggling this season, namely Francisco Liriano and Scott Baker, and both of them have started to pick things up as of late. And while three of his five starts have been quality ones, his peripherals suggest that he isn’t quite ready to pitch in the major leagues. In his five starts, Swarzak has an ERA of 3.90 but with an xFIP of 5.63, a 1.34 WHIP and poor 18/10 K/BB ratio, that ERA should probably be closer to
6.00 (oops, I mean 5.00. proofreading is important). He had some very good outings against the Brewers and the Cubs, but he got smacked around by the Indians and wasn’t terribly impressive against either Boston or Oakland. Still, he does show some promise as a starter, after all, a three-pitch pitcher can make it in the bigs as long as those three pitches are pretty good. Swarzak will most certainly get another shot, whether it’s as a September call-up or because someone else is injured/continues to suck. At any rate, it’s nice to know that the organization does indeed have some pitching depth, and not just a surplus of arms.
- I guess you can’t have too many outfielders
Coming in to the season, the Twins’ outfield was awfully crowded and Ron Gardenhire was charged with the difficult task of finding playing time for all four outfielders (five, if you count Jason Kubel). Right field was the only position settled, with Denard Span, Carlos Gomez, and Delmon Young battling for the three remaining spots. This job has been made more difficult by the fact that two of them, namely Gomez and Young, have been very disappointing at the plate thus far. But now that Michael Cuddyer is out with a finger injury (go figure), and Denard Span is suffering from an inner-ear problem, suddenly the outfield doesn’t look quite so deep. It’s hard to say how long either one will be out of the lineup, both are still listed as day-to-day, but Cuddyer is scheduled to meet with a finger specialist on Monday so it’s a good bet he’ll end up on the DL. Span is recovering from what’s being called an “inner ear disorder”, but there’s no official word on when he’s expected to return to the lineup. Obviously, losing Span has hurt the most, since he’s batting .291/.380/.386 in the leadoff spot while showing a lot of versatility as an outfielder. Cuddyer might have more power, but he also strikes out a lot and can’t really play any other position than right field. In the meantime, Jason Kubel has been starting in right, and while his bat has been hot lately, he isn’t the greatest defensive outfielder and there’s always concern that playing in the outfield will aggravate his balky knees. Obviously, the Twins don’t seem to think either Cuddyer or Span will miss much time, or they probably would’ve called up another outfielder instead of a backup catcher.
Things got off to a really good start for the Twins in Oakland. They jumped out to a three-run lead early in the ballgame, with some timely hitting from the bottom of the order (and a bases-loaded, two-out walk by none other than Carlos Gomez). It looked as though the Twins were finally starting to put their previous road struggles behind them. But, as is apparently the custom in visiting ballparks this season, the pitching staff gave the lead right back. Rookie Anthony Swarzak suddenly couldn’t find the strike zone, walking Matt Holliday and Jason Giambi on eight pitches. He then hit Aaron Cunningham right in the head (who stayed in the game, though he suffered a concussion) and surrendered a three-run double. His night was over when he walked Orlando Cabrera, and failed to make it out of the fourth inning for a second consecutive start. In his defense, he seems genuinely frustrated by his struggles, but it’s clear that he isn’t quite ready to pitch at the major-league level. Once Glen Perkins comes off the DL, Swarzak will likely be sent back to AAA. It’s unlikely he’d even earn a spot in the bullpen with the control issues he’s had.
- Is Justin Morneau in a slump?
Four games is a small sample size, but it certainly seems to be the case. He struggled in Seattle, going 1-for-11 and chasing pitches well outside the strike zone. He also went 0-for-4 in Oakland last night, striking out three times, twice looking. And while it’s true that the Twins have faced three left-handed starters in a row, this shouldn’t be much of a problem for Morny. He’s always hit lefties pretty well, but this season he’s been murdering them, batting .380/..406/.663 with an OPS of 1.069 compared to .292/.409/.585 and a .993 OPS against righties. Morny appears to be pressing at the plate, and considering that he’s played in every single game this year, it’s possible that he just needs a day off. Michael Cuddyer and Brian Buscher might not be the greatest fill-ins at first base, but a slumping Morneau isn’t doing the team much good right now, either.
Tonight: I’ll just be happy if Scott Baker has a second consecutive quality start. The Twins have been waiting for their #1 and #2 starters to consistently pitch well all season, especially on the road. Of course, a win would be even better, but I fear that’s asking too much.
Oh sure, just as I was going to post something reassuring about the performances of our young staff, they done blowed up real good against an anemic Cleveland lineup. At home, no less. Well, I’m going to put it up anyway, because it’s the truth and I wasted an entire evening on this goddam thing. Both the starters and the bullpen haven’t been as bad as their overall records would indicate. The starting pitching in particular is about as good as it was last year, even though it kind of seems worse because of the disappointing performances by Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano to date. But even Scotty and Frankie haven’t been quite as bad as their respective 6.32 and 6.60 ERAs make them look. The Twins’ defense is ranked tenth in the league, and both Baker (4.74 xFIP) and Liriano (4.94 xFIP) appear to be getting burned the most by shoddy defense behind them. It’s been particularly bad for Baker, who also tends to give up a lot of home runs (he’s surrendered a career-high 14 going into today’s game against Cleveland). His last start against Tampa Bay was a good example of the problem he’s faced all year: the defense behind him failed to make a routine play, which put two runners on for the dangerous Evan Longoria.
Baker naturally gave up a home run and was charged with three earned runs since the misplay behind him was ruled an infield hit rather than an error (never mind, it was ruled an error, but what was a tie game was quickly a three-run deficit due to poor defense). Same thing for Frankie, whose last two starts (especially the one against Boston) probably would’ve been quality starts were it not for the defensive miscues behind him.
Defense doesn’t account for all of Frankie’s misfortunes, however. His 1.619 WHIP and poor 1.79 K/BB ratio show that he’s not exactly pitching like the ace he was expected to be going into the season. The Twins have been reluctant to pull Liriano from the rotation, and for good reason. His 4.3 BB/9 rate is horrendous, but his 50 strikeouts lead the team and he often pitches well through the first four innings or so. His stuff still looks pretty nasty when he’s on, which makes his struggles just that much more frustrating. And he was really good after being called up from Rochester last year, posting a 2.74 ERA, 1.188 WHIP and a very good 3.16 K/BB ratio. Part of the problem is that he’s throwing his changeup a lot less, 14.2% compared to about 20% in 2008. Whenever he gets into trouble, he relies heavily on his slider as an out pitch. And this worked well when he was still throwing around 95-mph before his surgery, but now that his velocity is somewhere in the low-90s he really needs his changeup to compliment his fastball and slider (although even then he was still throwing his changeup about 16-18% of the time). On top of all that, Frankie appears to be suffering from a lack of confidence in himself and his stuff, which is often much more difficult to fix than mechanical issues (although he seems to have those, too). The mediocre defense behind him is just making matters worse.
The other reason the Twins have been reluctant to move Frankie to the bullpen is that they don’t really have a suitable replacement. With a 2.08 ERA, Anthony Swarzak had looked pretty good coming into last night’s game against the Indians and was threatening to take Frankie’s spot in the rotation. But his 1.50 K/BB ratio and unsustainable 98.5 LOB% indicated that he’d probably just been more lucky than good, so it wasn’t really all that surprising when he got beat up by the Indians. He’ll probably move to the bullpen once Glen Perkins comes off the DL (which isn’t a bad thing, the ‘pen still needs help).
As for the much-maligned bullpen, they got off to a rough start but have been pitching better as of late. Joe Nathan hasn’t surrendered a run since blowing a save against the Yankees on May 15th (Although he probably will now that I just jinxed him. Sorry, Joe). Matt Guerrier and Jose Mijares have been reliable, but not quite as good as their 3.55 and 2.60 ERAs would indicate (Guerrier has an xFIP of 4.12 and Mijares 4.56). Unfortunately, the rest of the ‘pen can’t be counted on for anything other than long relief, with R.A. Dickey posting a 1.42 WHIP and 4.88 xFIP despite his relatively low 3.06 ERA and Luis Ayala posting a 4.07 ERA, 1.60 WHIP, and 5.02 xFIP. Dickey has some value as a spot-starter, but Ayala’s been useless for anything other than mop-up duty. Jesse Crain looked a lot like his pre-surgery self early in the year, but he hasn’t been anything but terrible no matter how you look at it since coming off the DL (eep: 7.88 ERA, 5.44 xFIP, 1.63 WHIP, 1.22 K/BB).
- Carlos Gomez, sabermatician
Gomez may not be the best hitter in the league, but he clearly understands the value of defense and on-base %. He told the Star Tribune after Tuesday’s game: “Denard, me and Casilla — all we need to do is try to get on base and
try to play good defense,” Gomez said. “I know I do nothing with the
bat today, but I make a good catch. If I don’t do well with the bat, I
can do better with the glove and this helps my team. When you’ve got
Mauer and Morneau in the lineup, it makes a big difference. I know
they’re going to make some runs if I don’t get on base.”
Of course, with a mere .276 OBP Go-Go still needs to work on, you know, actually getting on base, but at least he grasps the concept. Which is more than can be said for Jeff Francoeur.
Before I get into how awful the Twins have been away from the Dome, I just want to say: OMG THE BULLPEN MANAGED TO NOT BLOW A ONE-RUN LEAD FOR ONCE. ON THE ROAD TOO. TRULY THE END IS NIGH. Anyway, at 25-27, the Twins are currently two games under .500 and 4.5 games out of first in the AL Central. And it’s really no mystery why our boys are struggling to stay above the .500 mark: their 6-16 road record is abysmal. While there aren’t many teams in the league with winning records away from home, few have such a record of futility as the Twinks. There are only two teams in the league with worse road records than Minnesota: Washington (6-20) and San Diego (8-19), and obviously neither one is likely to make the playoffs this year. While the Twins had lost 11 of their past 12 road games before beating Tampa on Sunday, four of those losses had been by one run and six of their last nine losses have been by two runs or less.
The Twins, like most teams in the league, have always played better at home than on the road. Most people like to blame it on the obvious home field advantage the Twins enjoy at the Dome, but the disparity between their home and road records hasn’t been as vast as people tend to think (they usually have a league-best home record and a road record somewhere around the .500 mark). In the seven seasons under manager Ron Gardenhire, the Twins have posted a worse road record through the end of May only once: in 2006, when they were 8-20. The Twins had gotten off to a slow start that year and were 24-29 on June 1st, 11.5 games behind the division-leading Tigers, before riding an incredible hot streak and finishing 96-66 to capture the division title (they finished with a 42-39 road record, btw).
Pitching has obviously been part of the problem, though the pitching staff as a whole hasn’t been that much worse on the road. As a team, the Twins have a road ERA of 5.16 compared to 4.53 at home. In road games, opponents are batting .272/.345/.485 against the Twins and the pitching staff in general is posting a 1.45 WHIP, 1.70 K/BB, and 6.15 K/9, compared to .273/.322/.427 with a 1.33 WHIP, 2.50 K/BB, 6.06 K/9 inside the teflon confines. Obviously these numbers aren’t great, but they’re not bad for a team whose one and two starters have been pitching more like back-of-the-rotation starters through the first few months of the season. For the most part, the pitching has been good enough to keep the team in ballgames as long as the offense has been productive. Unfortunately, this hasn’t usually been the case.
The lack of offense has really been the heart of the Twins’ struggles away from the Dome. There’s a very good assessment of the offense to this point here, and while it’s hardly surprising that the bottom of the lineup has been ice cold, these problems have been exacerbated on the road. At home, the Twins are batting a decent-enough .278/.356/.447 with an OPS of .803. On the road, however, the Twins are a mediocre .263/.335/.406 with an OPS of .741. The best hitters in the lineup, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, have put up some very good numbers on the road, but with the likes of Nick Punto, Delmon Young, Matt Tolbert, Alexi Casilla, and Carlos Gomez at the bottom of the order it’s not surprising that the Twins have averaged only 4.2 runs per game away from the Dome (which is actually skewed from the 20-1 thumping of the Pale Hose). And that’s an improvement over the 3.6 runs per game the team was averaging with Casilla and Tolbert batting second in the lineup. While Young, Casilla, and Gomez are all young enough that they should improve, it remains to be seen how much longer the organization will be patient with their development.
- Defensive miscues cost Rays, help Twins secure second straight series win
Starter Scott Kazmir wasn’t exactly sharp last night, allowing six earned runs, including a couple on wild pitches, but he didn’t exactly get much help from his defense, either. I think the official tally of six earned runs is actually pretty generous, it was probably more like four. There was a fly ball off the bat of Jason Kubel that outfielder Ben Zobrist probably should have caught that was ruled a hit. There was also a scorching line drive to third by Brendan Harris that Evan Longoria bobbled, though in his defense, that was a difficult play to make and was probably correctly recorded as a hit. Granted, the Metrodome is a difficult place for visiting teams to play, what with the lights and the roof and the horrid turf and stuff. But Tropicana Field isn’t all that different from the Dome, so I’m not really sure what to say about the Rays.
For his part, Nick Blackburn was pretty effective, holding the Rays offense to two earned runs on eight hits in seven innings. Seven of the eight hits he surrendered were harmless singles, and he walked only one batter, despite the fact that he wasn’t really feeling that well through most of the game. Blackburn and Glen Perkins, who were the weakest links in the rotation last season, have actually been the most effective starters for the Twins so far. Since he tends to give up a lot of hits, I wouldn’t expect Blackburn to finish the season with an ERA under 3.90, but he should pitch at least 200 innings and at least give the poor bullpen an occasional night off.
- In other news:
Carlos Gomez and his wife Gerandy now have a son. Both mom and baby are doing fine, and Go-Go should be back with the team on Friday.
Joe Mauer will also return to the lineup tomorrow night. No roster moves have been made yet, as Mike Redmond is dealing with a sore shoulder that might land him on the DL. Even though it would be tough to justify carrying three catchers, switch-hitter Jose Morales has been hitting so well from both sides of the plate that the Twins might want to reconsider sending him to Rochester.
Speaking of difficult roster decisions, Jesse Crain hasn’t felt any pain during his bullpen sessions and could be activated as early as Tuesday. Jose Mijares, who was called up to replace him, has been too dominant to send back to Rochester. R.A. Dickey, Luis Ayala, and Juan Morillo have all been struggling a bit recently, but Dickey is the only one the Twins can send down (Morillo would have to be placed on waivers). It will be interesting to see what the FO decides to do.
If parity has truly come to the American League, will anybody win 100 games in a season again? Or lose 100?
Zach Greinke finally gave up an earned run last night, his first in 43 IP. You know, I don’t want to hear anymore about how weak the AL Central is supposed to be. Even from me.
It turns out that the life of the average minor league ballplayer is actually pretty boring.
And in light of recent events, the late Bea Arthur reminds the kids to make fair play a part of their game. With a little help from some friends, of course: