Monday, August 20, 2007

TWIT: Same format, but now with more Johan Santana!

Any week where the Twins win two series by going 4-2 has to be considered a pretty good week, although this week made me consider what it would take to create an exception to that rule. For instance, the Twins took two out of three from Seattle, a solid team and a playoff contender, on the road for what should have been an impressive series win. On the other hand, the one loss was an eminently winnable game in which Johan Santana gave a quality start. The steady Matt Guerrier lost it on a walkoff blast by the once-but-no-longer functional Richie Sexson, a game-winner that came two innings after Joe Mauer made the third out of the inning trying to stretch a double into a triple while the team’s one hot hitter- Torii Hunter- waited in the on-deck circle. To give credit where it is due, the team rebounded very nice over the next two games, getting more production out of Torii Hunter, finally giving Matt Garza (he of the 2.02 ERA) his second win of the season, and managing a win despite Scott Baker’s 6.2 IP, 1 R no decision.

So all must be well and good, right? Three consecutive quality starts by the team’s three best pitchers, combined with an offense that managed 20 runs in a series, a feat that looked completely beyond their means in the recent past- that was the formula for this team to contend. Heading home, Texas looked ripe for a sweep. The team is openly auditioning for 2008 jobs, starting two catchers every day to see which one will be the better offensive weapon on the next contending Rangers squad- if that ever comes to pass. Plus, with a starting rotation as weak as the one in Texas (no pitcher on the staff has been consistently better than replacement level all year, and big ticket items Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla have been noticeably worse), even part of the offensive firepower exhibited in cavernous Safeco Field would be enough. Of course, once they played the three game set, the Twins managed exactly three runs, one of the unearned variety. Joe Mauer was oh for the series, Justin Morneau did not manage an extra base hit, and the team’s only salvation was a vintage start by Carlos Silva and one of the best starts in franchise history by Johan Santana. So 4-2 is a good thing, the Twins are still out of shouting range of the playoffs, and the Twins reminded me of just how ugly “winning ugly” can be.

Biggest Success

While preparing some of the topics for TWIT last night, I kept coming back to the fact that Johan Santana probably belongs in every category by himself, save for the biggest disappointment section. I don’t need to report the fact that he set a team and personal best by striking out 17 Rangers on Sunday, nor that he was throwing his best heat and his best changeup all the way through his 113 pitch outing. Everyone already knew that. Here are a few notes on the game as I saw it:

-With the team out of contention, the Twins owed it to their fans to leave Santana in the game for the ninth inning. Pitch counts are useful, especially in protecting young pitchers, but the Twins have always used Santana conservatively, and his mechanics remained perfect all the way through his classic outing. If he was reaching back for something extra, it would be time to take him out. But as long as he was within reach of the single game strikeout record, he deserves a chance to etch his name into the history books. Make no mistake, Santana was the draw at the gate in this game, and there was no good reason to take him out when he said he felt great, his mechanics showed no hints of over-exertion, and his results in the game were so good as to give him a shot at the all time record.

-As good as Santana’s start was, it does not have the highest single game score for a starting pitcher this year. That distinction belongs to Eric Bedard, who through a complete game two-hitter while striking out fifteen on only 109 pitches on July 7th. Santana’s game score of 95 falls three points behind Bedard and ties Justin Verlander’s June 12th no hitter against the Brewers. It is also one point better than Mark Buehrle’s no hitter on April 18th. Phil Hughes had a memorable start where he left a no hitter on the table in the seventh, leaving a truly dominant start with a sore arm. Santana’s strikeout-fest, Bedard’s dominant start, Buehrle’s no-no, and Hughes’s coming out party all share one common thread: the inept Texas Rangers.

-An interesting stat: Sammy Sosa, who recorded the only two hits off of Santana on Sunday, is 3-4 against Johan this year with a homerun, two walks, and one strikeout, a line of .750/.866/1.050. The rest of the Rangers are 3-47, no homers, no walks, and 29 strikeouts. Let’s hope Terry Ryan does not interpret this disparity to mean that Sosa has something left in the tank for the 2008 Twins.

-Sunday’s start slashed Santana’s WHIP to 1.01, only .03 points away from league-leader Chris Young and only .02 away from Santana’s fourth straight sub-1.00 WHIP season. That’s the type of dominance that makes him the best pitcher in baseball today, atop a list the has to include Brandon Webb, Roy Halladay, and Jake Peavy very near the top, and possibly the newly Mazzone’d Eric Bedard. Nonetheless, Santana’s recent stretch of a 2.79 ERA and .98 WHIP over a five year period as a starter pales in comparison to the primes of Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez in an even tougher pitching era. Maddux from ’92-’98 posted a 2.15 ERA and .97 WHIP, while Pedro dominated to the tune of 2.20 ERA, .94 WHIP from ’97-’03. (The Maddux and Martinez data appeared at Baseball Think Factory earlier this week as posted by Larry Mahnken)

Also, before jumping off of the positive thoughts train, notice that Tommy Watkins went 6-12 this week with three walks. Sure, all the hits were singles, but Nick Punto didn’t even get those. Good on ya, Tommy.

Biggest Disappointment

I’m going to point out that Rondell White is hitting .145 in 62 at-bats this year. Maybe after one more season like this, Terry Ryan (and especially Sid Hartman) will stop thinking of August 2006 as his true ability and see it for the fluke that it was.

What’s more troubling is the recent swoon of Joe Mauer. Whenever it seems like he is fining a groove and lining balls into the gaps, he has an 0-12 slump, or forgets how to hit for any power at all. Remember when he was supposed to start developing power? Remember when it looked like he was actually starting to do that last year? If Mauer is ever going to move off of catcher, he is going to have to either continue hitting .320, or learn to hit 20-25 homers a year to stay at the all-star level we expect out of him. Right now, he is really dragging. He managed five total bases all of last week in regular action. For the last month, his .372 slugging average would fit Nick Punto better than him. He has lost .086 points off of his slugging average for last year, and it is not all due to the drop in batting average. Last year, he got an extra base hit in 10.1% of his at-bats. This year, that number has shrunk to 8.7%. Perhaps he has fallen in love with the opposite field a little too much. In 2006, he hit 8 extra base hits to right or right-center field in the Metrodome, and he only has three all of this year.

The Big Picture

The biggest news impacting the Twins this week from the outside was the below-market extension for Carlos Zambrano. Big Z got about $18 million per year from the Cubbies to stay on the north side for another five years. As if on cue, Johan Santana responded by demonstrating that he is worth a good deal more than Zambrano. Even though the Twins have a pretty good track record of keeping their top talent, that is no reason to get complacent about Santana. He is going to require more than $20 million per year to stay in Minnesota, albeit some of it may get deferred into the future. Trading Santana is unrealistic and no return would be equitable; the Twins best chance to win in 2008 is with a below-market Santana at the front of the rotation, and Terry Ryan knows this. If Hunter and Nathan are allowed to walk over the next two off-seasons, the Twins could theoretically have Santana (~$22m), Morneau (~$15m), Mauer ($10m), and Cuddyer ($8m) combing for $55m of their payroll heading into the new stadium in 2010. The rest of the team is going to cost at least $25-30m, so the only way Santana is going to get paid is if Carl decides that the new stadium is going to bump revenue enough to make his heart grow three sizes. Don’t forget that a rotation of Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Matt Garza, and two of Glen Perkins, Kevin Slowey, Carlos Silva, and Boof Bonser could be a pretty good combination. I’m not trying to tempt fate, just calming myself down.

On the Horizon

Lightning round: Seattle comes to town for three before the Twins make their annual pilgrimage to the beautiful Camden Yards. The M’s will send Horacio Ramirez, Jarrod Washburn, and Miguel Batista, while the O’s will counter with Steve Traschel, Jeremy Guthrie, Daniel Cabrera, and Eric Bedard. My most anticipated matchups are Wednesday’s getaway day featuring Batista and Silva, a game that could be over before 3 p.m. considering how fast those guys work and how little patience both lineups exhibit. Sunday’s game will likely match Bedard against Scott Baker in a game between two very hot pitchers, albeit one with considerably more talent and the league lead in strikeouts.