Friday, December 12, 2008

The Punto Signing

Nick Punto. Infielder, Minnesota Twins. Bats switch, throws right. Age 31.

2005: .239/.301/.335
2006: .290/.352/.373
2007: .210/.291/.271
2008: .284/.344/.382

The Twins signed Punto, the lightning-rod infielder, to a 2-year, $8.5 million deal yesterday.
Predictably, a significant portion of Twins nation is livid.
That's somewhat understandable, as Punto has never been anywhere near as good as Twins manager Ron Gardenhire oddly seems to think he is. In 2007 the Twins had their most frustrating season of the decade, and Punto took the brunt of the blame, as he posted one of the top 10 worst offensive seasons in major leauge history. When Gardy is gone from this planet, historians are going to dock him serious points when they look back and see he gave 472 at-bats to a guy with a .271 slugging percentage that year.

But a couple of things here, coming from someone who was as anti-Punto as '05 and '07.
As bad as Punto was that year, it's unfair that he was essentially the face of that team's failures, as Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Bartlett, Luis Castillo, Johan Santana and Michael Cuddyer, among others, all had down years that year. Not to the extent that Punto did, certainly, but it's not fair to heap all of the blame from that year on one guy.
As it is, Punto has never, and perhaps will never, be able to live '07 down. Many fans posting on the various blogs and newspaper comment sections have said something about Punto's "one good year", a reference to 2006, but guess what? Punto was actually even better last year. His OPS+ was 99 (in '06 it was 90), meaning he was essentially a league-average hitter.

His defense, well, I'll be honest. It's hard to say how good it really is/was.
Punto gets on web-gems all the time, and yes, there are plenty of times during the season when I see him make a play and go, "Man, that was one hell of a play."
But according to most fielding metrics, Punto was about average at third base, where he's spent most of his time in the field the last few years.
At shortstop he hasn't played enough to probably get a real good handle on, but for what it's worth, his Revised Zone Rating last year as a shortstop was .860. It was .688 at third base, which was worse than both Brian Buscher and Brendan Harris, if you can believe it.

I'm not sure to what degree I trust most advanced fielding statistics, but I do know that they seem to show that guys who make a lot of highlight-reel plays often do so because their range is somewhat limited. Adam Everett, for example, makes few spectacular plays (and consequently never wins any Gold Gloves), but, when healthy, consistently grades out as one of the best fielders in the game, because he just gets to so damn many balls.
To put it another way, a ball that your average shortstop makes a diving stab on, and fires from his knees for an out to land on ESPN's Top Plays, Everett gets to standing up, and simply throws across for a routine out. Which is why Punto's .860 is encouraging. If that's no fluke, he's going to get to a lot of balls at short.
Combine that kind of defense with league-average offense, and Punto is actually a bargain at $4 million a year.
Many fans probably would've been much more pleased if the Twins had gone out and acquired a "name" shortstop like Jack Wilson or David Eckstein, but those guys would've been more expensive and, I promise, less effective.

All of which is a long way of saying that if Punto repeats his 2008 performance - or even comes somewhat close to it, this is a good signing. If, however, he returns to the form of the worst offensive player in the league, and/or sacrifices consistent fielding for Web Gems, the Twins will probably wind up playing Brendan Harris and/or Matt Tolbert at short, and Punto will be back to a utility role, making $4 million to sit on the bench.

My guess is Punto will be OK. In fact, my biggest worry is that he'll get hurt.
His signing isn't necessarily great news for the Twins, but it was the best option available to them, and consequently, the right thing to do.

If you're really upset about this move, there are a few things you need to understand:
1. Shortstop is the second hardest position to fill with a quality player, behind only catcher.
2. As such, there aren't that many good ones out there. The Twins were interested in acquiring JJ Hardy, but he would've cost them two starting-caliber players, and most scouts say he'd be better off at 3B anyway. Outside of that, the market was full of guys who aren't much better, if at all, than Punto, but would've cost twice as much.
3. The Twins aren't ever going to be big players in free-agency, or, usually, the trade market. So just get your Rafael Furcal/Matt Holiday/Jake Peavy fantasies out of your head for good. If you're holding out hope for the Twins to go out and get a "big name", you haven't been paying attention for the last few years. This is how the Twins do business. By avoiding risks. It's not sexy, but it works (for the most part).
4. Quit blaming Carl Pohlad. I hate him too, but equating the Punto signing to Pohlad's frugality is ridiculous. There's a reason teams like the Rangers, Orioles and Mariners always suck. They hand out huge contracts just for the sake of handing them out. Never learn. I like the fact that the Twins are thrifty.
Successful teams are built by making good baseball decisions, not by opening the checkbook (and yes, that even goes for the Yankees. Signing CC Sabathia was a good baseball decision. Carl Pavano, Johnny Damon, Kevin Brown, and many, many others, were not).
My guess is if Pohlad woke up one morning and told Bill Smith to raise the payroll to $250 million, the Twins would immediately embark on a long period of suck, as they'd bury themselves by throwing too much money at the wrong people.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Off-season targets may not be worth it

There has been speculation that this offseason will be a slightly quieter one for the Twins, and realistically, I suppose, it will be, compared to last year.Last winter there were the Torii Hunter and Johan Santana situations, the Delmon Young/Brendan Harris for Jason Bartlett/Matt Garza trade, the signings of Adam Everett, Craig Monroe, Livan Hernandez and Mike Lamb, and the contract extensions for Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, all of which were orchestrated by a brand new GM, Bill Smith.
For the most part, Smith struck out. The Santana haul was underwhelming. Monroe, Everett, Hernandez and Lamb were all, for the most part, failures, and the Tampa trade, after one year at least, looks lopsidedly bad.Of course, none of that prevented the Twins from finishing the regular season tied for first place.
So what’s in store for this off-season? A few things.

* An outfielder will be traded. As Carlos Gomez limped through a terrible rookie year, it looked likely that he’d begin 2009 in Triple-A, with Denard Span in center, Young in left, Cuddyer in right and Jason Kubel as the 4th OF/DH.
But Gomez finished the season strong, and got to more balls than any other CF in baseball. It now seems almost certain that he’ll be the Twins opening day CF next year. Perfectly fine.
But it means someone has to go. Ideally, that’d be Cuddyer. While Cuddyer is well-liked (understandable, he is one the nicest people in baseball), he is also a player whose skills are deteriorating, who’s coming off an injury-plagued season, and who’s overpaid.
For all those reasons, unfortunately, it’ll be hard to move him. Only a team like the Yankees or Dodgers would probably be willing to take on his salary, and even if those teams were looking for a right-handed corner outfielder, they’d probably come to the conclusion that they could do better than Cuddyer.
That leaves Young. Young is not a bad player, but it seems unlikely that he’ll ever become the Kirby Puckett-type player the Twins envisioned when they gave up their top pitching prospect to acquire him. Yes, Young has tremendous power. But he hits almost everything on the ground. You can have the most powerful swing in history, if 90% of the balls you put in play are groundballs, you won’t hit many home runs.
At this point, it’s hard not to think that Delmon is what he is: A .280-.300 hitter who will post an OBP around .310-.330 and a SLG between .390 and .450. He may top out at the high end of those figures (.300/.330/.450), and while that would be pretty good, it’s still no better than what Jacque Jones provided in his best years.
He’s also a poor outfielder with a seemingly boorish attitude.
I’m guessing those last two factors are the main reason the Twins have been leaking to the public that they’re shopping Young. Fine. He has more trade value than Cuddyer, simply because he’s cheaper and younger.
But the Twins should be prepared to find that potential suitors aren’t going to be as dumb as they were a year ago. In other words, don’t expect to fetch a top-of-the-rotation starter and a decent starting shortstop for him. I also suppose the Twins could look into moving Kubel, because they have a history of undervaluing players like him. Yes, he hit .272 with 20 homers, but he’s not terribly athletic and doesn’t bunt much, so I can see Ron Gardenhire urging Smith to trade him for a guy who “hustles” and “gets after it” and “makes things happen”.
I would argue that a .335 OBP and .471 SLG also help to make things happen, and that Kubel is a better fielder than Young, despite not being as fast. Young has a better arm, but that’s almost meaningless in LF.There’s not room for everybody. Someone’s gonna go. My money’s on Young, but I couldn’t begin to speculate what he’d bring in return.

* Despite the bullpen’s struggles, there won’t be any major additions to the relief corps.The Twins were supposedly interested in signing LaTroy Hawkins after they unwisely passed on him at the trade deadline, but he re-signed with Houston. Oakland’s Huston Street has been mentioned as a possible target, but he is rumored to be part of today’s deal for Matt Holiday.The fact is, the best way to build a bullpen these days is from within. As I’ve written nearly verbatim several times already this year, anyone the Twins sign via free-agency won’t likely be any better than Jesse Crain, but will cost at least $5 million a year.
The Twins will keep their fingers crossed that Pat Neshek is something close to his former self next year, that Crain and Matt Guerrier will bounce back next year with lesser roles, and that Jose Mijares can be as good as he was down the stretch. They’ll also give guys like Bobby Korecky, Phil Humber, Anthony Slama and Robert Delaney a chance to earn a spot. I’m actually fairly confident that Twins ‘pen will be solid next year, if not excellent.

* The Twins will look to upgrade at 3B and SS, but they may stand pat, and that wouldn’t be terrible.Nick Punto finished the season as the everyday SS after Adam Everett never got healthy enough to hold down the job, and Brendan Harris proved he lacked the range to do so.Punto responded with his most productive big league season, hitting .284/.344/.382. He wasn’t as dependable in the field at SS as he has been at 2B and 3B, but he was solid.
The Twins would love to have Punto back, and he would love to be back. But Punto wants to be back as the starting SS, and he wants to be paid like it. The Twins, understandably and correctly, are hesitant to make that commitment. Punto’s an excellent utility guy, but Matt Tolbert and Matt Macri could fill the backup infield spots cheaply and effectively, so there’s just no reason to give Punto very much money. He may test the market, and if he does, he could still come back to the Twins if he doesn’t get any great offers - a distinct possibility.
A couple names have been thrown around as targets for the Twins, none more attractive than Brewers SS JJ Hardy.Last year, at age 25, Hardy hit .283/.343/.478 with 24 homers, and the year before that hit .277/.323/.463 with 26 homers. In the field, he posted an .826 RZR - not great, but not terrible, either. Punto’s was .860.The Twins would have to include at least one of their pitching prospects and something more, I would think, to land Hardy.
Now is the time to sell high on Nick Blackburn, who simply doesn’t miss enough bats to be a consistent sub-4.00 pitcher in the big leagues.
If the Brewers were willing to offer Hardy for Blackburn and Glen Perkins, it’d be tempting. Likely the Twins would try to make a deal involving only one of those two, and try to sweeten it with someone like Kevin Mulvey or Phil Humber.
Delmon Young wouldn’t make a lot of sense here, because the Brewers have outfielders.
Another good option being mentioned is Atlanta’s 25-year-old Yunel Escobar, who hit .288/.366/.401 last year, and .326/.385/.451 in 94 games as a rookie the previous year. He had an .843 RZR last year.The Braves are trying to land Padres ace Jake Peavy right now, so the Twins would probably have to wait for that to get sorted out before being ale to make a move for Escobar.
It would be nice to have either of those guys, but it would also be risky to giveup one of the young starters. If the Twins pull the trigger on a deal that lands them a good, young shortstop, that’s a good thing. But if they decide to stick with Punto, and keep the pitchers in the process, that’s not terrible, either.As for 3B, the Twins have a solid option on the roster right now.
A platoon of Brian Buscher and Brendan Harris is likely to perform at a .275/.330/.400 level next year, and that’s being conservative. If they’re platooned correctly, they could far exceed those numbers. Buscher, the lefty, hit .316/.362/.437 against RHP last year, and while the right-handed Harris’s production against LHP (.265/.323/.391) was almost identical to his performance against RHP, for his career he’s a .295/.360/.440 hitter against southpaws.
Going with those two at the hot corner would be cheap and quietly productive, much like the Mike Pagliarulo/Scott Leius 3B platoon of 1991.
Having said that, it would seem that the Twins are making 3B a priority this offseason.
Casey Blake, Adrian Beltre, Garrett Atkins and Kevin Kouzmanoff are the names most frequently mentioned.
Beltre’s the best of the bunch, but since Scott Boras is his agent, it’s hard to believe he could be a long-term option for the Twins, and it wouldn’t make sense to give up Blackburn or Perkins for a one-year rental.Atkins has put up impressive numbers (3 straight years of at least 21 homers and 99 RBI), but that should be taken with a very large grain of salt, as he’s been playing in Colorado, which is still the most hitter-friendly ballpark in America. He’d be far more expensive than Buscher/Harris, and potentially no more productive.
Kouzmanoff, conversely, has been playing in pitcher-friendly Petco Park in San Diego, which makes his 23 homers last year more impressive. But his .299 OBP, 139 strikeouts and questionable defense would probably get me to take a pss.
Blake might be a good fit - he’s a former Twin, well known by the players and coaching staff, and he’s been pretty productive over the years. He’s 36, and apparently wants a 3-year deal, but if the dollars aren’t outrageous, I wouldn’t have a big problem with him being brought aboard, particularly because it wouldn’t be by trade.
Chicago’s Joe Crede will be a free-agent, and probably could be had for cheap, as he’s been hurt a lot in recent years. He hit 17 homers in 94 games this year and is considered a good glove.
I know it’s not what the fans want to hear, but I think I’d stand pat at 3B. I just don’t think there’d be enough gain in acquiring any of those guys to give up a good, young starting pitcher, or to offer Blake a 3-year deal. If I had to pick someone I think I’d pick Crede, because he involves the least risk. Also, he is my buddy Ryan Kessinger’s favorite player (or at least he was at one time).

* (Fingers crossed) They won’t add a washed up starter to give their rotation a “veteran presence”.I actually have no confidence that this will be the case, but I’m adding it here for good karma, if nothing else.Livan Hernandez actually gave the Twins some quality starts/innings last year before getting released, and he qualifies as the best of their recent scrap-heap pitching veterans. The Twins would’ve been better off each of the last few years just going with the kids. Hopefully they won’t make that mistake this year. But if Blackburn or Perkins (or both) are traded, don’t be surprised if it happens. Part of the reason Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey were as effective as they were this year was their maturity and poise on the mound. I don’t care if they’re 17, they have enough veteran presence on their own. They don’t need to go sign Jose Lima.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

2008: A long look back

I’ve been playing NCAA Football ‘07 on PS2 lately. Have a season going with Oklahoma (I’m not a Sooner fan, I just like running the option with Adrian Peterson).
So I just beat Nebraska 59-0 in the Big 12 championship game to finish the regular season at 13-0. Peterson has rushed for 4,032 yards and 41 touchdowns.
So the Heisman trophy presentation comes on screen after the win over Nebraska, and who gets it? Some running back for Tennessee who had 1,700 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns.
What? Are you serious?

It’s kind of like how the Twins had to go on the road for the one-game playoff thanks to a coin flip, even though they won the season series. Doesn’t seem fair.

But I’m not going to focus on that. I have no sympathy for the Twins, particularly after they lost two of three to a bad (yes, the Royals are still bad) team at home when they had a chance to clinch.
And they actually played a good ball game in the loss to the Sox. I wasn’t expecting much from Nick Blackburn, but he sacked up and then some. He wasn’t perfect by any means - the Sox missed a few hangers, and of course, Jim Thome didn’t miss one - but you couldn’t have asked for more.
But John Danks was far better. He was nearly perfect. Everything had tons of movement, and he just didn’t make any mistakes.
The only thing that bugged me watching the highlight shows over and over today was how so many people were crediting Ken Griffey for his “great throw” to get Michael Cuddyer at home.
What? He was barely 30 feet behind second base and he two-hopped it. It was, in fact, a terrible throw. I could’ve got that ball home on the fly, and that’s no exaggeration.
It was such a bad throw, however, that it helped the Sox. AJ Pierzynski had to come out in front of the plate to catch it on the second hop, and by doing so, he took himself out of Cuddyer’s path. Cuddy made a valiant effort to slam into AJ to dislodge the ball, but because AJ was so far out in front of the plate he couldn’t get a real good piece of him. Had Griffey’s throw been better, there’s a good chance Cuddy would’ve caught him dead-on, and the ball just might have popped out.
(It was a great play by AJ, however. Ask any catcher how easy it is to try to scoop a short-hop throw from the outfield with a catcher’s mitt while keeping a leg in front of the plate with a runner bearing down.)

Anyway, the season has ended for the Twins. I probably won’t watch much of the first round of the playoffs, as I’m still too bitter. But I sure hope the White Sox and Cubs both lose, and once they do, I’ll probably tune in to Angels-Rays and Phillies-Dodgers.
The Dodgers-Cubs series offers a conundrum. Root for the Dodgers and their Anti-Christ leftfielder, or root for the freakin‘ Cubs?
I’m going with Man-Ram.
Ugh. Having said that, I need a shower.

So back to the Twins.
We’ll look ahead to 2009 soon enough, but for now, the question on my mind is just how are we supposed to (or how will we, in a few years) look back on 2008?
My buddy Rusty called from Houston after the game last night, and man was he pissed. He rattled on and on about AJ, about the coin flip, about how we wasted Blackburn’s gem, and he was pretty much right about everything he said.
But then he said, “I haven’t been this frustrated since…” whenever, and I was like, ‘What?’
I mean, I never really had high expectations for this team, so I can’t say I took the loss to the Sox that hard. I mean it sucks, and it really sucks that we lost to the Sox, in Chicago.
But I expected them to lose this game. Once they lost the series to KC, it was hard to really feel like the Twins deserved to be in the postseason, and it was equally hard to feel like they’d have much of a chance against the Rays (then again, it would’ve been nice to face a team that actually had less playoff experience than us for a change).
I can’t say I’m all that mad. More disappointed. I actually even kind of feel sorry for the players, because really, they let themselves down more than they did the fans. Most fans feel like the team overachieved. So they’re happy. The players know there’s a weak field this year, and they know that Detroit and Cleveland’s misfortune this year gave them a golden opportunity. They wasted it, and Cleveland will likely be back next year (the other three teams are kind of hard to peg for next year, at least right now).
And that’s why Rusty (and any sensible or knowledgeable fan) is so frustrated. The rest of the division tried to hand it to the Twins, and they gave it away. That’s frustrating no matter how bad you expected to be.

The Twins offense scored over 800 runs despite hitting only 111 homers. That’s a statistical anomaly not likely to repeat itself. While the Twins were genuinely better than expected this year, there was a lot of luck involved. They hit 20 points better than any other team with RISP. That, math majors, is called an outlier.
Not surprising, either, that while the Twins still finished with an excellent mark with runners on, that number spent most of the last couple months coming down. The Twins would’ve been in the playoffs if they’d got a big hit or two either in the KC series or in the one-game playoff against the Sox.
The Twins did not homer in their final six games of the regular season. I’m sorry, but an amateur team - using wood bats - shouldn’t go six games without a homer, let alone a major league team in a pennant race.
That simply isn’t major league offense. The Twins can talk up their small ball all they want, but the reason they had success scoring runs this year was not “flying around the bases and bunting and hit and running”, as Ron Gardenhire liked to claim. It was their unprecedented success in hitting with RISP. Once that started to slow, the Twins stopped scoring runs.
Don’t get me wrong. I like the Twins style of play. I like that they’re aggressive. Denard Span and Carlos Gomez and Alexi Casilla are exciting players that put pressure on the pitcher and the defense. But to win the big leagues, you have to be able to hit the ball out of the park more than once a week.
And remember, this team is perfectly suited for the Metrodome, but that’s only gonna be home for one more year. The Twins won’t be able to pound choppers off the plate to create rallies at Target Field. Then again, with Cuddyer contributing almost nothing and 3B Mike Lamb a total disappointment, small ball was really the only choice the Twins had this year. I’d say they took it as far as it could possibly take them.

As for the pitching staff, it was OK.
The rotation was the biggest and best surprise of the year. Scott Baker took another step forward as an ace, while Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn settled in as solid 2-3 guys. Francisco Liriano is at least a No. 2 right now. Glen Perkins was pretty good for a 5th starter. And don’t forget that Livan Hernandez gave the team several quality starts before predictably reverting to the line-drive machine that he is after awhile.
All five should return, but with so many quality arms in the minors, there’s no telling who the Twins might look to package in a trade for offense.
But if that doesn’t happen, they have five solid starters coming back with at least four or five strong minor-league arms to challenge them in spring training.

The pen was clearly the team’s weakness. With Pat Neshek gone, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier and Dennys Reyes all struggled to get leads to Joe Nathan.
They tried bringing back Eddie Guardado to fill that role, but ended up turning Jose Mijares into their primary setup guy only a week after calling him up.
I’m not saying the Twins should’ve been able to guess that would happen, but they could’ve been proactive sooner.
Rather than trying something different to fix the bullpen, they just kept trotting out Guerrier and Crain with the same disastrous results.
They continued to use Boof Bonser as a mop-up guy instead of trying him in short relief, and they refused to call up, not necessarily Mijares, but any of the several relievers who were having success in the minors. All because they didn’t want to lose Brian Bass to waivers (and then, of course, they ended up trading him to Baltimore anyway).
Boof eventually became the team’s only decent right-handed reliever, and Mijares was great in the 8th inning. Craig Breslow was also pretty good. But by the time the team trusted them it was way too late.

Give Ron Gardenhire credit. He guided this team through some awfully tough times. I think that outweighs any mistakes he made (pitching changes, lineups, etc.). And first year GM Bill Smith didn’t give him much help if you ask me.

The Twins had their chances in 2008. In fact, they had more than they deserved. But from the injury to Neshek, to the repeated blown leads, to the Republican Convention forcing them on the road for 24 of 30 games, to the lost coin flip for the playoff game, maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

88-75, 1 GB

More later.....not right now.


Well, don’t blame the Tigers.
I mean I guess you can blame them for getting their butts kicked, but don’t say they didn’t try to win. Jim Leyland brought in his best starting pitcher out of the bullpen when Freddy Garcia (who pitched well enough to ensure he’ll have a job next spring)got hurt. He used four different pitchers in the 6th inning.
They just lost. As was the case all year, the Tiger bats that everyone thought would form such a dominating lineup, came up short.

So now the Twins have to go into their personal house of horrors (actually, you could say that about almost any stadium in the AL) and try to win.
It’s a unique situation for the White Sox, who will be playing their third different opponent in three days. They’re 2-for-2. Can they make it 3?

I’ve bitched about the individual losses all year long. Part of what makes baseball great is the ‘game-every-day’ mentality. The ability to shrug off a loss, because there’s always tomorrow. And I think a good manager (and yes, I’m counting Ron Gardenhire in that department) creates an environment where his players don’t ever get too up or too down. That’s how you survive a long season.
But in the back of your mind, you have to be aware of the fact that the race could come down to one game. There have been a lot of ugly losses that didn’t need to be. Against the Royals, against the Blue Jays, against the Mariners.
Remember Jason Pridie bobbling that base hit in his major league debut? If he fields it cleanly, the Twins are AL Central champs right now.
Taking losses in stride is fine, in fact, it’s what you should do. But not playing every game like it’s the most important one of the year is a mistake. This year, more than any, should be a lesson of that. You do everything you can to win every game every single night.
I’m not saying the Twins didn’t do that. But you have to wonder if, early in the year, the Twins put development over winning simply because they didn’t expect to be here.
And make no mistake, Gardy didn’t expect to be here. I think he thought the Twins were capable of winning 88 games, but there’s no way he (or anyone else) thought the Indians and Tigers would both fail to win that many.

So what’ve we got here today? The Twins were 2-7 at the Cell this year.
Nick Blackburn is on the bump. Of the Twins five starters, it’d be a toss-up between Blackburn and Glen Perkins as far as which one I wouldn’t want on the mound in such a big game. But they really have no choice.
Kevin Slowey is hurting. Francisco Liriano is coming off a bad start, and using him on three days rest in his first year after surgery is probably a bad idea.
For the year, Blackburn is 11-10 with a 4.14 ERA. He’s the only Twins starter to take every one of his turns in the rotation, and leads the team with 187 innings. He’s been valuable to the team, no doubt, but he hasn’t been as good as his numbers might indicate.
In those 187 innings, he’s allowed 220 hits. Opponents have hit .295/.332/.444 against him this year, which means he’s essentially made every hitter he’s faced the equivalent of Delmon Young only with more power.
Over his last five starts, opponents are hitting .340/.377/.620 against him. Albert Pujols.
For the year he’s 3-7 on the road with a 5.20 ERA, allowing a .318/.349/.456 line.
Blackburn has already faced the Sox five times, going 2-2 with a 5.67 ERA. In 27 innings he’s allowed 37 hits and four homers. Against the Sox, who have hit 234 homers, four homers in five starts is actually pretty good.
Three of the five starts Blackburn made against the Sox have come at the Cell. He’s 0-2 with a 7.20 ERA in those three, allowing 13 runs (12 earned) in 15 innings.

None of that news is good. Here’s what Blackburn needs to do:
Throw strikes. That’s obvious, but that doesn’t make it any less important. Blackburn is going to give up hits. He simply doesn’t miss enough bats (only 93 Ks in 187 IP this year) to string together lots of 1-2-3 innings. Guys that pitch to contact are going to give up hits. If you’re mixing walks in there, too, you’re in trouble.
Along those same lines, he has to keep the ball in the park. He can survive a homer, maybe even two, if they come with the bases empty. But even that would be tough in a hostile environment. Homers get the crowd into the game, and that can rattle a young pitcher.
He’s gonna need that sinker. As mentioned, there’s going to be runners on base. If the sinker’s working, that means double plays.

As for the Sox, they’re going with second-year lefty John Danks. He leads the Sox with a 3.47 ERA (9th in the AL). He’s 11-9, and in 187 innings has fanned 155. He had a 2.67 ERA at the All-Star break - 4.73 since.
Luckily for the Twins, Danks has been better on the road this year, though he’s still been OK at home. In 17 starts at the Cell he’s 4-6 with a 3.96 ERA, but the hits, walks and home runs allowed are almost identical, as is his strikeout rate, which suggests he really hasn’t pitched much differently home or away.

While the thought of the Twins having to face a lefty on the road in a big game would seem to be the perfect recipe for a Twins loss, Danks is one lefty the Twins have actually had some success against.
In 4 starts against the Twins this year, he’s 1-1 with a 7.91 ERA, having allowed 18 runs (17 earned) in 19.1 innings, allowing 29 hits and 10 walks.
The Twins are hitting .349/.415/.458 against Danks, meaning every Twins hitter has performed like Joe Mauer against him. Justin Morneau is 8 for 18 with 3 homers in his career against Danks.
So that’s encouraging.

The Call
Based on the fact that the game is at the Cell (thanks to a coin flip, baseball doesn’t use head-to-head tiebreakers), the Sox are the favorite. The Twins have been terrible on the road since the All-Star break. There’s nothing to suggest they should win this game, other than they’re due. If you’re a Twins fan, being due is about the best thing you’ve got going for you.
Of course, it’s been such a crazy, mixed up, goofy season that nothing would surprise me, and the neat thing about it coming down to one game, rather than a best of three or five or seven series, is that absolutely anything can happen. Nick Punto could get four hits. Danks could walk 10 guys. The stats don’t really matter on a single night, because anybody can have one good night.
My guess is the White Sox will win. But part of the reason I say that is in hopes that I will be proven wrong, because this team has been doing that all year.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Still alive....

Thanks to the Twins shitting themselves against the Royals, when simply winning 2 of 3 (at HOME!!!!!!!) would've been enough, the AL Central is still in the air.
The White Sox host the Tigers in a makeup game today. If they lose, the Twins are AL Central champs, and visit Tampa on Thursday. If they win, they'll host the Twins Tuesday in a one-game playoff.

Most of you will be at work during the 1 p.m. game. I will not be.
Lucky for you, I'll be live blogging the game here, so follow along while avoiding work.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Advantage Twins

It's amazing how much better things feel just from moving back into the Metrodome. As a fan, it's been hard to have much confidence that when you flipped on the tube over the last couple weeks you were going to see the Twins play well. Just seeing those gray uniforms gave you the sense that balls were going to be flying out of the park when a Twin was on the mound, and that their bats would be producing lots of grounders to second with runners on first.
But that sea of blue seats under the off-white artificial sky....suddenly the Twins are a good team again.
Tuesday night they were.
Credit is due to Ron Gardenhire. He had a decision to make at DH - Jason Kubel or Michael Cuddyer.
With righty Javier Vazquez on the mound, the standard option would be Kubel. But he entered the game 2 for 21 in his career against Vazquez, while Cuddyer was 12 for 31.
It seemed like just the kind of situation in which Gardy would outthink himself - go with the crusty, overrated veteran (yes, I'm calling Cuddyer all of those things) over the younger (but better) player.
But he didn't. He stuck with Kubel, who homered twice and tripled.
It's easy to credit him in hindsight. And I'm sure if Kubel had gone 0-for-4 many would've criticized Gardy for not going by the numbers. I myself would normally prefer going by the matchup stats, but with Cuddy less than 100 %, I was glad - yes, before the game - to see Kubel in the lineup (at this point Cuddyer is little more than a pinch-hitter, and it's unclear if he can even do that succesfully).
Hopefully the Twins didn't use up too many of their runs. I don't know if I belive in momentum in baseball, but they clearly seemed more ready to play than the Sox, and that's probably from being back at home. You get under the roof, and the Sox wilt while the Twins suddenly remember to be a good baseball team. And I don't think Ozzie Guillen's unpredictability seems to help them when they're in the Dome. He starts going crazy and his players just get swallowed up by the Dome quicker than usual.
So can they take it into Game 2? They have to. I really think the only way the Twins get in the playoffs is to run the table - 7 straight.
And Game 2 is the one to be nervous about. The Twins face Mark Buerhle, a lefty who they've occasionally hit hard, but also been dominated by many, many times.
He's 1-2 with a 5.79 ERA against the Twins in three starts this year - for his career he's 21-12 with a 3.85.
And longtime fans know, any time the Twins are going against a lefty - any lefty - there's a chance for one of those 1 run on 7 singles kind of nights.
The Twins counter with Nick Blackburn, who has an ERA of 10.22 over his last three starts, 6.57 over his last five. On the other hand, he has a 2.92 ERA in 13 starts at the Metrodome, so maybe he'll get back on track tonight.
He's gonna have to. As exciting as Tuesday's win was, it's just one win. They still have to win the next two.
Have to.