Sunday, June 17, 2007

TWIT: Acceptable Outcome

Weekly Roundup

Six games against two winning teams, all of them at home. In that situation, I feel like one could make the case for 4-2 being the low and high-end outcome for the week. As it went down, the week created about as many mixed feelings as possible, with the Twins cresting early on during their pitching-rich sweep of Atlanta, then tumbling to a lucky win after a blown lead to prevent a sweep on Sunday against the Brewers. After getting wrecked 11-3 in the series opener on Friday, the weekly run differential ended up slightly positive, at 31-30 in the Twins favor. Setting aside the Friday and Sunday pitching meltdowns, the Twins allowed only 10 runs in four games. Those games do count, however, and the Twins were lucky to come out of them 1-1, largely thanks to Justin Morneau’s big day and the belated return of Joe Mauer’s bat.

Last week, I described the difficulty of winning with so much of a drag on the offense coming from the players formerly known as piranhas. In several of the games this week, it became abundantly clear that pitchers have changed their approaches against these hitters and no longer care if they miss with a pitch in the strike zone. The complete lack of power is preventing players like Punto and Castillo from taking advantage of a disciplined approach at the plate, and allowing pitchers to remain economical with their counts. Castillo, for instance, is currently drawing a walk in 6.2% of his plate appearances, down from 8.6% last year and 10.3% for his career. Why would Castillo be losing half of his walks this late in his career, when players tend to start picking up a few more walks? I suspect it has to do with the fact that pitchers tend to face four or five batters in a row in the Twins lineup who cannot really do any damage, even on a mistake pitch. If the lineup ends with Redmond, Tyner, Cirillo, Bartlett, then starts over again with Castillo- or includes Punto somewhere within that stretch- the likelihood of any of the hitters driving the ball is extremely low. As a result, there is almost no disincentive for a pitcher to throw right down the middle to save pitches, because extra base hits will not serve as punishment. On the other hand, Nick Punto, who has spent a good deal of time in the #2 hole, is walking more frequently than usual, possibly because he has a real hitter behind him. Putting Mauer after Castillo may help the top of the order somewhat, although the early returns have been unimpressive.

Biggest Success

Torii Hunter had a tremendous week, with 13 total bases and six runs batted in. Instead of picking him again and discussing the same issues that have been in play all year, I am going to give a sort of season achievement award to Pat Neshek, easily one of the easiest Twins to love. Neshek had an unsurprisingly excellent week, pitching four innings over three appearances, striking out four, walking one, and yielding one hit. Neshek has been an absolute rock all year, posting a ratio of 38 strikeouts to 24 base runners over 32.7 innings. Two homeruns over 32 innings is not an alarming rate, although his style will never allow him to be much better- lefties will occasionally get a read on him very early on and absolutely tag a pitch. Neshek ranks 11th in all of baseball in WXRL, a measure that combines a relief pitcher’s saved runs with the leverage of the situations in which he saved them. At 2.3 wins so far this season, Neshek is sniffing some pretty rare air, even without pitching in the team’s highest leverage situations. Without factoring in leverage, Neshek’s ranking catapults up to 8th in all of baseball, ahead of far better known pitchers like Jonathan Papelbon and Billy Wagner, also having strong seasons. The .162 BABIP is not nearly sustainable, even with his quirkiness, but the fact that he ranks third on the staff in VORP (17.4) shows that he can fall quite a bit and remain extremely useful. While I was once concerned that Neshek’s delivery made him so susceptible to lefty slugging that he would never be a successful closer, I am no longer worried about the seemingly certain departure of Joe Nathan.

Biggest Disappointment

I already got into Luis Castillo’s problems, so I won’t beat his .296 OBP to death. I will also give a free pass to Joe Mauer, working his way back into the lineup with a sub .600 OPS. Instead, I am starting to get more concerned with the plight of Scott Baker, who has been consistently bad since his initial success. This week, Baker started sharply against the Brewers in the series opener, then fell apart in the fourth inning. He started the inning by giving up two singles, which is fine, and he even rebounded by striking out Bill Hall. From there, he hit Johnny Estrada to load the bases- a crucial mistake. Clearly rattled, he left a pitch up against Geoff Jenkins, who pulled the ball way out for a grand slam. Baker finished the inning, but compounded the problem by giving up a single, a walk, and a two run double in the fifth, never truly regaining his composure. The point of rehashing this bad memory is that it serves to illustrate how Baker has repeatedly followed misfortune with mistake after mistake. To be a successful starting pitcher, he is going to have to find a way to rebound from mistakes, maybe by challenging hitters a little more, maybe by going to his breaking ball earlier in counts. One way or another, the 7.33 ERA and the 2.0 HR rate are problems that need to be solved.

On the Horizon

It does not get any easier from here, as the Twins open the week by traveling to New York to continue their interleague tilt against the Mets. If it is any consolation, the Twins get to travel in the evening while the Mets have to play a Sunday night game on the road before returning to Shea. On the other hand, that road game is played in the Bronx, so the Twins gain very little in that respect. The Twins will see a hodge-podge of salvaged fly ball pitchers in New York, from John Maine to Jorge Sosa to Oliver Perez. The first two are coming off of week starts, but Perez pitched a well-publicized duel against Roger Clemens on Friday, which he won with 7+ shutout innings. After the New York series, the Twins will head down the coast to play the Marlins, a disappointing team that has lost three straight series. As the rotation works out, Carlos Silva will get two starts for the week, which could be worse considering his recent run of effectiveness.

The Big Picture

With Detroit and Cleveland fighting through their interleague season, the Twins have picked up a couple of games on the leaders, now within 5.5 games of the division and 4.5 games of the Wild Card. With the Yankees coming out of their slumber, it seems reasonable that there will be more of a challenge in the Wild Card race, but it remains clear that the Twins are going to have to find some more offense in order to get themselves seriously in the discussion. Adam Dunn seems like an outstanding solution to that problem, as he plays for a GM who has shown an undue affinity for Twins players in the past and loves dealing with his mentor, Terry Ryan. While Dunn’s remaining salary would probably balance out to an additional $5 million for the remainder of the season, making the postseason can be worth more than $20 million in revenue for a team, so his addition would only have to increase the playoff chances by 25%, which seems eminently possible. Even though the Twins will almost certainly not trade prospects for a big ticket strikeout slugger in his walk year, the consideration fits into the bit picture, and that’s exactly where I’m leaving it.

1 comment:

Eric Fish said...

I do like that they ended the Vince Mcmahon-is-dead storyline and had a 3-hour retrospective for Benoit instead. That stuff is sad, man. I'll never do steroids again.