TwinsCentric was formed by Twins super-bloggers Seth Stohs, Nick Nelson, Parker Hageman and John Bonnes. Together they publish at TwinsDaily.com and have authored books, e-books and magazines that provide independent and in-depth coverage of the Minnesota Twins from a fan's perspective. You can contact them at TwinsCentric@gmail.com.
The first time I ever saw Ricky Nolasco pitch live was last March, when I was down in Ft. Myers covering spring training. In his first inning of work, the newly signed righty coughed up a whopping seven runs on six hits as the Mets drilled the ball all over the field.
That was Nolasco's second-to-last spring start -- akin to the third preseason game for an NFL team in terms of maximizing readiness for the season -- but I still put minimal stock into it, as with any exhibition outing. Nonetheless, the drubbing served as a prelude for a disastrous season in which opposing hitters batted .316 and slugged .505 against the righty, both career highs.
Nolasco's struggles in 2014 were magnified by the fact that he was in the first of four years on a free agent contract that was, at the time, the largest in franchise history. A rebound was already going to be imperative to a turnaround for Minnesota's embattled starting corps, and with the fate that has befallen the new holder of the largest ever Twins free agent deal, Nolasco's improvement becomes all the more pivotal.
Now that Ervin Santana has been suspended for 80 games, Nolasco moves up to take his place in the rotation, and will start Wednesday in Detroit. Which early signs should we be looking for as we gauge what to expect from the 32-year-old in his second year as a Twin?
The recipe for strikeouts isn't as simple as "more velocity = more missed bats," but for Nolasco that has been true. His average fastball speed topped out at 91.5 MPH in 2009, the only year in his career that he has averaged more than a strikeout per inning. His lowest readings have come in 2012 (90.0) and 2014 (90.1), and those seasons have featured his two lowest swinging strike rates.
Not only was the fastball velocity down a bit last year, but he also posted the lowest marks for each of his secondary offerings. I'll be curiously watching the radar to see how many of Nolasco's heaters touch 93 or 94 MPH this afternoon, and I'll be especially focused on where the breaking balls register. If his oft-used slider continues to flatten and sag toward the 70s, it won't bode well.
ATTACKING THE KNEES
Nolasco coughed up 22 homers in 27 starts last year, and for anyone who regularly watched him the culprit was obvious: way too many pitches left hanging up in the zone. His ground ball rate reached a career-high 46.6 percent in 2012 but has dropped in each of the last two years. He spoke in spring training about how important it is to him to work in the lower part of the zone and induce grounders, which was a struggle for him at times (he gave up a team-leading five homers in six Grapefruit starts). Can he keep Detroit's powerful lineup from elevating the ball?
Not so much from him, but more so from the players behind him. It'd be nice to see an uptick in strikeouts and grounders, as mentioned above, but realistically Nolasco is a guy who will allow substantial contact, and a fair number of flies and line drives. That puts pressure on the defenders -- particularly those in the outfield -- to make plays and help him out. If his batting average on balls in play is anywhere close to where it was last year (.351) he stands almost no chance of success. We need some signals that an alignment featuring Oswaldo Arcia and Torii Hunter in the corners is going to be less damaging than many fear.
Even after the crushing development that took place just days before the start of the season, I still think there's a realistic chance for the Minnesota rotation to be decent, but the loss of Santana means that a drastic improvement from Nolasco is more of a necessity than a luxury.
Paul Molitor recently shared the characteristics he is looking for in an ideal leadoff hitter: They enjoy long walks on the beach and an on-base percentage that is .370 or higher.
Santana, of course, and Colorado’s Drew Stubbs were the two players joining Cincinnati’s Joey Votto (2012), Jose Hernandez (2002) and Manny Ramirez (2000) to achieve a batting average on balls in play over .400 since the turn of the last century.
To contextualize: Since the 1961 season, there have been 33 occasions when a hitter with a minimum of 400 plate appearances has managed to produce/get blessed with a BABIP over .390 in a season. That is a small pool of players. The pool grows even smaller when you consider that four players managed to reach that milestone twice in their careers (Bobby Abreu, Derek Jeter, Roberto Clemente, and Rod Carew). Only Abreu managed to perform the feat in consecutive seasons (1998 and 1999).
While there are legendary hitters on that list like the aforementioned Jeter, Carew and Clemente, there are plenty of other one-hit wonders that managed to catch lightning in a bottle. There’s Reggie Jefferson who had a breakout year with Boston in 1996. Milwaukee’s Hernandez reached the list by limiting the number of balls he put into play (he struck out 188 times that season). Shane Mack, Mariano Duncan, BJ Upton, Phil Bradley -- there’s no rhyme or reason to this list.
The takeaway is that batting average on balls in play is comprised of some element of luck. You can be a great hitter with amazing speed like Ichiro Suzuki and manage to obtain a .390 BABIP just once in a 14 year career. Or you could be like Jefferson who, in 1996, figured out that if you can bang it off the Monster it won’t get caught and it will stay in play.
This is all to say that repeating the numbers Santana posted 2014 feels virtually impossible -- like finding a place that serves decent unicorn burgers. (So hard to find in the western suburbs.) It takes an uniquely talented hitter with a special level of luck to repeat that sort of action. So the question is: Is Danny Santana a uniquely talented hitter?
Ryan said his evaluators like Santana’s surprising power potential. “I think the one thing that people didn’t realize up here that hadn’t seen him, he’s got strength,” Ryan said after last season. “He can drive the ball. He’s not a banjo hitter, he’s not a singles guy. He can drive the ball from both sides. He can reach the fences so he’s going to keep the defenses honest.”
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When the Boston Red Sox signed Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada with a $31.5 million bonus last month, they were taking advantage of a flawed system that likely won't be in place much longer.
Although it's on a much smaller scale, the Twins appear to be preparing to make a similarly savvy move with 16-year-old Dominican shortstop Wander Javier when the international signing period opens on July 2nd.
Depending on which reports you choose to believe, the Twins either have very serious interest in Javier (La Velle says they are "definitely in on this one"), or they already have a tentative agreement in place (Kiley McDaniel of FanGraphs wrote that the shortstop is "widely believed to have a deal with the Twins").
If true, this signals that the Twins are not only on the verge of making their biggest financial splash ever on the international market, but also utilizing what may be one of their last opportunities to do so under the current favorable -- if somewhat ridiculous -- guidelines.
Boston's signing of Moncada stirred up some controversy around a subject that has been touchy for some time, with Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Drew Smyly summarizing the basic conundrum in a tweet: "It's not right that a Cuban 19yr old gets paid 30m and the best 19yr old in the entire USA gets prob 1/6th of that. Everyone should have to go through same process."
Unlike in the MLB amateur draft, there are no restrictions or limits on the bonuses that international players receive; it is an open bidding war among all 30 teams. Each club has a bonus pool that it is penalized for exceeding, but as the Red Sox showed, that tends to be a minor impediment.
This isn't exactly fair for special young baseball talents that happen to be cultivated here in the States and must go through a far more regimented process.
Last year, when the Twins selected 18-year-old shortstop Nick Gordon with the fifth overall pick, they signed him to a $3.85 million bonus, which was the slot-recommended amount. Meanwhile, reports suggest that the Twins are ready to hand Javier around $4 million.
One could argue that Javier (who can be seen here courtesy of FanGraphs) has more upside than Gordon did, but he's two years younger and considerably less seasoned.
Clearly the Twins like this kid, and you certainly can't blame them for making aggressive moves to bring him aboard, especially since the same approach may not be possible after next year. Momentum is building toward the institution of an international draft. New commissioner Rob Manfred has expressed interest in taking this direction, and it might happen when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2016.
If indeed the Twins make an historical investment to bring Javier aboard, they might be trying to get out in front of this coming development. And while it's extremely difficult to say how the teenaged infielder might develop -- he's got a great athletic build, with the defensive skills to stick at short, but his offensive ability is basically all projection at this point -- the last time the Twins took an international prospect plunge on this level was when they spent $3.15 million in 2009 to bring aboard Miguel Sano, who has transformed into a potentially franchise-altering talent.
There's little doubt that Major League Baseball needs an international draft. But until then, the Twins are wise to take advantage of the open market and outbid all others to get the player they want. It appears that they are committed to doing just that.
For additional coverage of spring training, head over to Twins Daily, where Seth Stohs is filing multiple daily reports live from Ft. Myers this week!
Aaron and John talk about whether the Twins should sign Brian Dozier to an extension, Paul Molitor's quotes about managing philosophies, chatting with Adam Czech of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association about a season ticket package giveaway contest for listeners, 612 Brew's new cans and where to get them, Mike Pelfrey as a starter only, and the difference between live radio and recorded podcasts with a drunk, show-crashing woman. You can listen by downloading us from iTunes, Stitcher or find it at GleemanAndTheGeek.com. Or just click the Play button below.
Meanwhile, Twins Daily's spring training coverage starts today. Parker takes a look at "catcher framing" and whether it is fair to Josmil Pinto. Brock brought you the best of the Twins Daily forums, including a potentially very exciting international free agent signing rumor.
“Everybody says, ‘Oh, he’s a good framer, he’s a bad framer,’ and that’s just an entertainment word. It’s just, he caught the ball correctly,” McKean said. “As long as the ball is received steadily with a strong hand, then it’s a lot easier to see the pitches. And every time they do that and they go ‘Oh, he’s a good framer,’ well, no, he’s just catching the pitch correctly. That’s just my interpretation. And I was in the big league for about 30 years, so I’ve seen all sorts of catching, and good catching will make it easier for umpires to call more strikes.”
From an umpire’s perspective that makes total sense. Little noise, little movement.
When Glen Perkins told 1500ESPN listeners that Pinto struggled with pitcher below or at the bottom of the zone, his observations were correct. The rookie catcher finished 78 out of 79 catchers in getting low pitches called strikes and the two examples below show why some of it is on him and some is on his pitcher.
In this example, Pinto calls for a 3-2 fastball on the outer-half from reliever Casey Fien. Fien obliges and throws heat that clips a hair of the corner:
Though by definition a strike, the umpire says it is a ball.
Part of it might be on where he caught it (see below) as well as the positioning of the umpire. In the interview with Baseball Prospectus, McKean said that the umpire’s positioning can put some areas of the strike zone in a blind spot. Like in the instance below, if he’s lined up on the inside of a hitter, the outer portion of the zone might be harder to track. In that situation, a catcher’s ability to receive the pitch correctly can mean the difference between a ball and a strike.
There are various reasons why a pitch’s outcome is considered a ball when it was actually in the zone. Believe it or not, some of it actually has to do with the pitcher as well. For example, while catching a Ricky Nolasco start against the Angels in early September, Pinto sets up on the outer-half calling for a slider. Nolasco misses his spot but manages to throw a decent slider that nicks the inside edge of the plate.
Data shows that the pitch crossed a portion of the plate -- albeit not by much. Still, Pinto is forced to shift back towards the inside and his reception of the ball does not do Nolasco any favors.
“[T]he problem you run into is, when a catcher moves out there, you move out there a little bit with him,” said McKean. “Then they throw the ball inside, and it’s in the strike zone, and it looks like he’s diving to catch it. And that’s very difficult to call a strike on. You can do it, and most of the time the hitter’s going to look at you and say, ‘Jimmy, how can that be a strike? He’s diving back to catch it.’”
While the umpire in this situation did not shift to the outside with Pinto, everything else mirrored what McKean described. Given the scenario it is hard to assign total blame on the catcher, yet the framing statistic would demerit Pinto in this instance.
One takeaway about this pitch is that Pinto does not receive it that poorly. Yes, he tries to pull his glove up after catching the pitch but as McKean told Baseball Prospectus, catchers who fail to catch low pitches palm up (as seen in the image above) often will have that particular pitch called against them. In that regard, Pinto is probably not as technically bad as the Marlins’ Jarrod Saltalamacchia. The 29-year-old backstop earned the dubious honors of being the worst receiving catcher in 2014 based on theStatCorner.com’s pitch framing statistic (24.4 runs below average).
Here is an example as to why he brings up the rear of the list. On a 3-2 count, his pitcher brings a knee-high strike which should end the at-bat in the Marlins’ favor. It is called a ball.
Admittedly, the 95-mile per hour fastball has some sink to it, running the pitch back towards the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig but rather than grabbing it palm up, Saltalamacchia catches it, well, like this:
In this case, it is hard not to wonder if a different catcher had caught this middle-zone/knee-high pitch with minimal movement if it would have been called a strike.
Let’s review another scenario. The New York Mets’ Travis d’Arnaud was considered one of game’s better receivers and well liked by his staff. "When the balls are down, he does something that makes them look like they're strikes," said the Mets’ Zack Wheeler in 2013. "It's ridiculous. I had a couple that I threw and I knew they were balls, but they looked like strikes after he framed them up."
How ridiculous can he be? Take a look at the location of this pitch.
There are several reasons that could explain why the umpire chose to expand his zone regardless of d’Anuard’s efforts. For starters, the Mets had just walked two batters in a row with the bases loaded. While umpires try to stay in the confines of the strike zone, they too are human and want to have the game end in under 17 hours.
D'Anuard also caught the ball with minimal movement but his pitcher also hit his target making the reception less of a challenge than what Pinto and Saltalamacchia faced.
According to StatCorner.com, Twins’ Kurt Suzuki remains one of the game’s worst framers as well. For whatever reason, Suzuki is unable to convince umpires that borderline pitches are strikes. That is, until two-strike situations. Whereas the average catcher was able to get a called strike on 3.7% of all out-of-zone takes with two-strikes, Suzuki coaxed strike three looking at a 5% clip -- only behind Boston’s David Ross and the Dodgers’ A.J. Ellis in that situation.
Seems like that should count for a little bit more than a first-pitch strike. That said, Suzuki’s magic may simply be the skill of pitcher Phil Hughes. Hughes had a whopping 12% called strike rate on pitches out of the strike zone when there were two-strikes. His cutter became an outstanding weapon that he deployed on left-handed hitters as such:
Despite going around the plate, Hughes hit his target. Suzuki will receive positive points for framing even though the bulk of the work is done by Hughes’ pitching.
“What a pitcher does has a lot to do with it,” Suzuki told me last spring training. “If he’s all over the place, he’s obviously not going to get those borderline calls, not matter how good you make it look. If you are around the plate consistently, you are going to get those calls. There’s definitely an art to it, you look at the Molinas, they are pretty good at what they do.”
As McKean noted, the art of framing is actually the art of catching properly. In this context, Pinto has some work to do to become a better all-around defensive catcher. Umpires cannot be robots. The current catcher framing measurement system has plenty of flaws that give credit and punish receivers for mistakes of their pitchers. They are influenced by reactions around them, positioning and because ofbiases. In a 3-0 count, a pitch out of the strike zone is likely to be called a strike 17% while a 0-2 pitch is likely to be called a ball 39% of the time. Until statisticians can factor in targeting and weigh the counts properly, catcher framing stats will remain imperfect.
After taking a year off to recover from elbow surgery, Miguel Sano is back in Twins camp and opening some eyes with his prodigious power. Folks around the compound have marveled at his strength during batting practice sessions in which he has routinely driven baseballs well beyond the outfield walls.
If Sano's bat isn't major-league ready, it is very, very close. Finding a place in the lineup for him will not be difficult. Finding a place in the field for him... well, that's another story.
More than two years ago, I posed this question: Is Miguel Sano too big to stay at third? At the time, he was 19 years old and listed at 240 pounds -- already as big as any third baseman in the majors. Taking all factors into account, I concluded that "the odds seem heavily stacked against him remaining at his current position, especially with an organization that values steady defense more than most."
Now, he's shown up to camp at a whopping 260 pounds, and he looks it. According to 1500 ESPN's Derek Wetmore, the gain occurred "because for parts of his recovery period from last year's Tommy John surgery ... [Sano] wasn't able to run or do workouts like he ordinarily would."
There's also the fact that the young slugger seems to have little interest in keeping his weight down. In his own words: "I eat everything ... I don't like the nutrition. [I eat] whatever I want. If there's something here I'm eating."
At age 21, Sano is already bigger than basically any third baseman in baseball. Pablo Sandoval is in the conversation; he's listed at 245 but is also five inches shorter than Sano. Nevertheless, it's rare for a guy that size to stick at the hot corner, and that's before you account for the questions that already surrounded Sano's footwork, accuracy and consistency -- not to mention the challenges he faces in learning to throw with a surgically repaired elbow.
For their part, the Twins are publicly trying to maintain optimism that Sano can stay at third, as best they can. But the skepticism shows through when you read quotes like this one from Paul Molitor:
"I was working today on the bunt defenses; he's trying," Molitor said. "There are things that are going to be a challenge for him. We've got to keep an eye on him. He's a big boy. He carries it pretty well, but you've got to have some athleticism. He's got to keep that ... if he wants to play a corner-infield position in the big leagues, especially third base."
The Twins had their frustrations with Trevor Plouffe's defense, at least up until last year, and there's a good chance that the hulking Dominican will make Plouffe's range and reactions -- even in those early days at third base -- look stellar by comparison. Even if he does carry his weight well, it's difficult to imagine Sano offering much in the way of lateral movement or spryness when it comes to, say, charging and fielding a bunt.
If (when?) the Twins decide that third base just isn't going to work out, there's been some talk of moving him to an outfield corner, but that seems like a less than ideal alternative. His lack of mobility would be an issue, particularly with Oswaldo Arcia patrolling the other side, and he also has zero professional experience playing anywhere other than the infield.
The more likely destination would be first base or designated hitter. This is unfortunate because it would mean putting his powerful arm -- rated by some scouts as an 80 on a 20-80 scale -- to waste, and even more so because it's going to be very tricky to find room for him at either of those spots.
Joe Mauer obviously is entrenched at first base, and while many fans have pondered the notion of moving him to an outfield spot, the Twins have never openly considered such a switch. More than likely, he's going to remain at first until his contract expires in 2018.
So we're left with DH, where Kennys Vargas is currently penciled in. Vargas is young and unproven enough that there could be an opening here, but obviously everyone is hoping he can stick and the idea of him and Sano in the same lineup is beyond tantalizing. Unfortunately, it's growing more and more difficult to see how that's going to feasibly work.
What do you think? Where can Sano fit in if the Twins want to get his bat up as quickly as possible?
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