Monday, September 3, 2007

TWIT: No smoke, no mirrors

Weekly Roundup

What happens when the luck that brings about consecutive winning weeks despite sub-par performances abruptly runs out? How does an ugly sweep in Cleveland and a series split with Kansas City at home sound? The sadly funny part of the miserable week is that the Twins actually managed to score a few runs- not a lot, but about 4 per game instead of their customary 2- and still dropped five out of seven. If you want to put some perspective on how bad the week really was, consider the optimism that ran rampant coming into the week as the Twins looked to be closing in on the Indians and threatening to make the division competitive, regardless of how poorly the Tigers chose to play. Instead, the Twins have sunk back to 9.5 games out of the divisional lead, and having no real chance of playing another meaningful game this season.

The secret about “the secret”, for those of you who entertain yourselves with clich├ęd contemporary metaphysical quackery, is that positive thinking can operate as a zero sum game. For instance, if you really believe you’re going to get a parking space close to the front door of your office, then you also believe that everyone else is going to be walking. In this week’s Cleveland series, it didn’t matter how much Twins fans believed the team was starting to come around, because Cleveland has had even better vibes emanating from the city all year. Instead of God or luck, these games were to be decided by skill, an ungrateful fate for the Twins. The Indians proceeded to demonstrate three different ways to win games: chipping away at Carlos Silva steadily on game one, putting a close game out of reach against an inferior reliever (Carmen “the great” Cali) in game two, and building up an early lead against Johan Santana in game three before holding off a late charge by the Twins. It would be nice if the Twins were able to duplicate some of those game types, but they all require timely hitting, sometimes including extra base hits, and that’s just not what this team does.

On the other hand, the week did feature one luminous bright spot, Scott Baker’s very good game. No, he wasn’t perfect, and Baker’s nerves were clearly frayed by the time he issued a five pitch walk to start the ninth. Nonetheless, Baker’s game is the type of event that generates interest and enthusiasm for a team that has faded from the pennant race. In his autobiography, fan pleasing former owner Bill Veeck writes about the importance of giving the fans something to root for, no matter what the team’s position in the standings. Sometimes that means promoting a rivalry, sometimes it means playing the spoiler, and sometimes it means publicizing milestones and personal achievements. With the best pitcher alive on the roster, the Twins could certainly try to get their PR machine behind Johan Santana’s final month push for the Cy Young, although the Twins bats would also have to get behind him, and that’s a far more precarious proposition.

Biggest Success

Some notes on Baker’s 24 up, 24 down start:

-With five ground balls and 13 fly balls, Baker actually set himself up well for a low-hit game. Even though grounders are typically preferable to fly balls because of their non-proclivity to turning into homeruns, there is a much higher likelihood of groundballs turning into hits (almost always singles). By keeping the ball in the air, Baker is walking a tightrope of low-BABIP, but a larger risk of giving up round-trippers. It’s not the worst tightrope to walk, as Johan Santana has walked the same one two a pair of Cy Youngs. With the organizational focus on throwing changeups, don’t be surprised to see more fly ball pitchers coming through the Twins system in the future.

-Remember how Johan Santana’s terrific game score of 93 came up just short of Eric Bedard’s stellar 15 stirkeout start earlier in the year? Scott Baker took a different route to the total score of 93, but arrived at the same destination. By completing the extra inning and finishing the game, he made up for his deficit in strikeouts to Santana, and the two base runners issued by each pitcher equaled out to a game score than can only be considered second-best.

-Even though the Royals have improved their offense over some of the more anemic lineups of recent years, they were still a prime candidate to get snubbed. The 5-0 loss dealt to them by Baker was the 8th game of the month of August in which the Royals totaled 1 or 0 runs. Binary- useful for programming, but pretty hopeless for run production.

Biggest Disappointment

I’m none too happy about the fact that Boof Bonser and Carlos Silva have melted down over the last several weeks, but I’m even more annoyed that the offense is so hopeless that every bad start is an automatic loss no matter who they are playing.

To my mind, the real underbelly of the Twins lineup is the fact that they have pressed a bunch of guys who are no better than 25th men into semi regular service, at least in a platoon role. Nick Punto could be useful as a secondary utility guy who seldom sees the plate. Alexi Casilla could be a very good major leaguer in a couple of years but has convinced me that he is not yet ready. Garrett Jones, Rondell White, and Lew Ford are all getting playing time because Terry Ryan seemingly forgot that the team has to play three outfielders and a DH. Why else would he enter the season with Hunter, Cuddyer, an unreliable Jason Kubel and nothing else?

Since the All-Star Break, this quintet has accumulated 394 plate appearances, about 2/3 of a season’s worth, meaning that in a single month of the season, they have amounted to approximately two full-time players. In those at-bats, they have combined for 67 hits, 49 of them for singles, and only 24 walks. That batting line works out to .188/.230/.264. The starting pitcher with the best OPS-against in all of baseball is Chris Young at 535. Since these five guys have been managing only a 494, it’s equivalent to having two league average players in the lineup everyday who have to bat against 1999 Pedro Martinez every time they come to the plate. Terry Ryan has fielded two everyday players who are as bad as Pedro Martinez is good.

The Big Picture

There has been some talk lately that the Twins might be interested in acquiring some position players in the off-season (hello!), and Colorado’s Garrett Atkins has crept onto the list by virtue of top prospect Ian Stewart’s gently nudging him out of the mountains. But what effect would leaving this mountains have on Atkins? That’s the relevant question to ask of any departing former Rockie, considering the collapses of once elite players like Ellis Burks and Vinny Castilla.

The normal home-away caveat about Rockies players does apply to Atkins, as his 2005 road averages were only .238/.301/.347, a 253 point OPS nosedive. In 2006, his career year, his OPS only lost 66 points, and he managed to slug .531 away from Coors Field. This year, he’s back down to .247/.319/.427 and a 146 point OPS deficit. Interestingly, his 2005 and 2007 numbers are submarined by losing at least 50 points of BABIP away from home, indicating that his approach stays the same through thick and thin air, but the results are different on the road. I take this to be a positive sign, that he can find some sort of middle ground, without the highest highs of Coors, but also eliminating that atrocious road performance. His .281/.348/.466 line this year looks sustainable to me, and having Cal Ripken and Tony Perez as two of the top three PECOTA comparables hints at good things to come. He may not be an All-Star caliber player, but he would fill a gaping hole for the Twins at third base and in the right-handed power department. If he could be had for Boof Bonser, I would make that trade in a heartbeat.

On the Horizon

I’m sure many fans and analysts circled this week on the calendar at the start of the season, as Cleveland comes to town followed by a road trip to the Cell to visit the suddenly cellar-dwelling White Sox. Santana will get two starts this week, which means two opportunities to pump up that wins column for a Cy Young surge. We might as well get used to cheering for non-pennant related activities, because this year is starting to look suspiciously like 2005. Still, for the true baseball fans, Sabathia and Santana facing off in an oddly timed Monday day game will be a great game. I suggest that everyone watches and tries to attribute the lack of scoring to Sabathia’s brilliance.

No comments: