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.

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Posts about On the road

No place like home

Posted by: Nick Nelson Updated: August 25, 2010 - 1:37 AM
With the Twins nursing a 3.5 game lead in the AL Central and with the White Sox looking ahead at a more imposing final stretch (10 of Chicago's 37 remaining games come against the Yankees and Red Sox), some Twins fans are cautiously beginning to shift their attention toward potential postseason match-ups.
 
It's a question that has been posed to me often: Who would you rather face in the first round of the playoffs, the Yankees or Rays? Since those two teams have pulled away in the AL East and there's very little chance that the wild card will be coming from any other division, it's almost inevitable that the Twins would face one of those two clubs in the first round should they make it to the playoffs.
 
Determining which team the Twins would face is simple. If they maintain their slim lead over the Rangers in the win/loss column, the Twins would face whichever team finishes second in the East and enters the postseason as wild card. If the Twins finish with a worse record than the Rangers but still edge the White Sox and win the AL Central, they'd face the AL East champs in the Divisional Series.
 
Determining which team the Twins would want to face is a little more complicated.
 
Most fans would opt for a match-up against the Rays without a second thought. The Twins have played Tampa Bay very competitively this year, both at home and on the road, and let's face it: the Rays just don't have that same intimidating aura surrounding them as the Yankees. Given the Twins' hideous track record against New York over the past decade, it's almost impossible to believe there's not some sort of mental block at work.
 
But it's no coincidence that the Rays are tied with the Yankees atop baseball's best division; they are a really good team that would pose several match-up problems for the Twins. For one thing, the Rays possess an outstanding rotation led by an ace southpaw who wreaks havoc on left-handed hitters. They also lead the league in stolen bases, which could make them a nightmare for a Twins team whose likely Game One starter is abysmal at controlling the running game.
 
All things being even, yeah, I'd probably rather see the Twins face the Rays than the Yankees in the first round. New York's powerful lineup and the prospect of trying to win a game in Yankee Stadium are daunting enough. But all things are not even. Because, while both the Yankees and Rays are near-locks to make the playoffs, it's completely unclear at this point which team will do it as division champ and which will do it as the wild card. That's an important distinction, because the latter will have to go on the road for the first two games of the ALDS.
 
If they finish the year with a better record than the AL West champs, the Twins will hold home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs. To me, that's more important than which team they match up against. Despite switching ballparks, the Twins have been as reliant as ever on their home field advantage this season, posting a tremendous 40-22 record at Target Field as opposed to a pedestrian 32-32 mark on the road. Throughout the history of the franchise, the Twins have traditionally leaned on winning in their home park to advance through the postseason, and while they no longer play in the quirky Metrodome, they would hold a distinct October advantage over opposing clubs (especially a warm weather/dome team like Texas/Tampa Bay) who aren't accustomed to the chilly outdoor conditions that the Twins will be able to acclimate to in September.
 
I learned first-hand last year in Game 163 how a team can feed off the emotions of a packed house in a pivotal ballgame. Target Field in September won't be the deafening, raucuous spectacle that the Metrodome was, but opposing teams will be none too comfortable trying to compete in that small space packed to the brim with, for my money, the best fans in baseball.
 
Of course, gaining that home field edge is completely dependent on the Twins finishing with a better record than the Rangers. So as long as the White Sox don't make a September surge, it could turn out that these last two games in Texas, along with the three-game set between the Twins and Rangers next weekend in Minnesota, may prove to be the most important ones on the remaining schedule.
 
Whether it's against the Yankees or Rays, the Twins will be in much better position in the playoffs if they force their opponent to beat them in Target Field.

A look at Denard Span's walk drought

Posted by: Parker Hageman Updated: August 13, 2010 - 12:12 PM

To say that Denard Span has had a rough 2010 season might be a significant understatement.

Spring training started with him lacing a foul shot off of his own mother, then he got off to a slow start brought on by struggles to hit on the road and, to top it off, teammate Orlando Hudson taught him what the capital of Thailand is at full speed. Now, he hasn’t drawn a walk in over a fortnight.
Although his walk rate has never been particularly outstanding, it has remained above average in his first two seasons with the Twins. This ability to coax a walk gave Span a two-pronged threat at the top of the order, able to reach base either through a hit or a walk thereby supplying him with an on-base rate of near 40%. However, this season is the first in which his walk rate has dipped below the league’s norm and with it, so too has his on-base percentage suffered.
Over the course of the past two weeks, the Twins have witnessed Span’s OBP slowly erode. After scratching his way back to a .350 OBP with a decent month of July, that figure has since plunged down to a new low of .336 for Span. This decline is due in part because of a depressed BABIP but also responsible is the dip in his walk rate. In the past 13 games played Span has not been dealt a free pass in a stretch of 59 plate appearances, by far his longest stint without one since coming up from Rochester in ’08.
The explanation for this recent disappearance in his walks is because opponents are attacking the strike zone early in the count more frequently. Since the date of his last free pass, teams have started him off with a strike in 57% of his plate appearances. What’s more is that since August 1st, pitchers have been increasingly aggressive, throwing him a strike in over 70% of his plate appearances and putting him in the pitcher’s debt immediately.
After the first pitch
 
Count 0-1
Count 1-0
Through July 27th
47.7%
40.8%
July 27th – August 11th
56.9%
31.0%
 
As you can see, part of this is self-inflicted as Span has opted to watch more initial strikes pass by then he did earlier in the season: 
Span’s first pitch taken
 
Ball%
Strike%
Through July 27th
51.3%
48.7%
July 27th – August 11th
40.9%
59.1%
For the most part, Span has been a very patient hitter in his career. Since arriving at the major league level, the Twins outfielder has demonstrated a keen understanding of the strike zone and has avoided chasing after pitches that fail to enter that regulated airspace. According to Fangraphs.com, in the past three calendar years Span has offered at just 18.4% of all out-of-zone pitches, the seventh-lowest in baseball during that time. This is notable not only because not swinging at potential balls is a prerequisite for a walk, but also leads to more favorable counts for the hitter.
With this aspect of his game removed, Span has been forced to hit his way aboard often behind in the count – a proposition that has been equally as difficult in that time. Since July 27th when he last walked, Span is 14-for-57 (.246). This absence on the base paths has resulted in Span scoring just four runs in those past 13 games. By comparison, Hudson, who bats directly behind Span, has scored five times in the past four games alone. As the top of the lineup fixture, the Twins need Span to figure out ways to get on the bases regularly in order to become a run-producing force he has been in the past. 

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All about pitching

Posted by: Nick Nelson Updated: August 11, 2010 - 12:02 AM

At the outset of the season, any of three different teams could have reasonably been picked as favorite in the American League Central: the Twins, Tigers or White Sox. All three had been contenders within the past couple years, and all three had made moves to improve their roster during the offseason. Many pegged the Tigers -- who'd pushed the Twins to a tiebreaker the year before and infused some young talent over the winter -- as the most dangerous divisional opponent. Personally, the team that scared me most was the White Sox, and for one key reason: pitching.
 
Between Mark Buehrle, Jake Peavy, Gavin Floyd, John Danks and Freddy Garcia (not to mention top prospect Dan Hudson in the minors), the Sox entered the season with a deep rotation that ranked as easily the best in the division and perhaps the best in the league.
 
Sure enough, the White Sox have rebounded from a slow start to put on a clinic here in the middle months. Since dropping 9.5 games out of first place with a 24-33 record on June 8, Chicago has gone 39-17 and rocketed to the top of the division. The hugely impressive run has largely come as the result of consistently outstanding work from Chicago's starters, who rank fifth in the AL (and first in the Central) with a 3.95 ERA.
 
Despite losing Peavy for the season back in early July, the Sox have gotten excellent production from Danks (3.30 ERA, 1.12 WHIP) and Floyd (3.49 ERA, 1.25 WHIP) while Buehrle and Garcia have mostly been steady (last night's dud from Garcia not withstanding). The team also recently added Edwin Jackson, who has posted a 1.38 ERA and 13-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first two starts since coming aboard. (Not that I expect Jackson to be an asset down the stretch -- silly trade.)
 
As most readers of this blog are likely aware, starting pitching was an Achilles Heel for the Twins over the first half of the season, with 60 percent of the rotation turning in hugely underwhelming performances. Yet, since the All-Star break, the struggling Twins rotation has found its way back on track. Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano, who have been the unit's steadiest members all year long, have continued to dominate opposing lineups while Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey have shown marked improvement and Brian Duensing has performed well in the place of demoted Nick Blackburn.
 
Since the All-Star break, the Twins have gone 18-7. During that 25-game stretch, they've held opponents to an average of 3.3 runs per game. In all but three of the 18 victories, they have allowed four runs or fewer. The offense has been good, to be sure (as Phil Mackey noted earlier this week, the Twins have led the majors in batting average, on-base percentage, runs, hits, doubles and triples over the past month), but that is the sign of a team being carried by its pitching staff.
 
Of course, it is necessary to note that the Twins have faced a soft schedule since the break, but the impressive stretch includes a four-game series against Tampa in which the Twins held arguably the best team in baseball to a reasonable average of 4.25 runs per contest. More importantly, they did it on the road, where their ERA is nearly a run higher and they've given up almost twice as many home runs.
 
The Twins have a clear offensive edge on the Sox, even moreso if Justin Morneau is able to rejoin the team at full strength somewhere along the line. But, in order to come out on top of this well-contested division, the Twins are going to need to keep up their fine work on the mound.
 
Tonight, they will be forced to start Glen Perkins in a key game, and it likely won't be the last time their pitching depth is tested here in the final months. The Twins reclaimed first place last night with authority, but their ultimate fate hinges upon the continued health and production of the starting rotation. They won't be scoring 12 runs against a team like the White Sox very often.
 

Accountability

Posted by: Nick Nelson Updated: July 21, 2010 - 12:23 AM

When the Twins took the final three games of their series against the White Sox at Target Field over the weekend, it marked the first time they'd won three consecutive games since the end of May. This team has played well enough to remain safely above .500, sure, but they haven't been remotely consistent. Good wins that would seemingly build momentum are almost inevitably followed by depressing lulls in performance. That has happened again this week, as the Twins have followed up their thrilling ninth-inning, walk-off, series-clinching victory against Bobby Jenks and the White Sox by dropping two straight at home against the last-place Indians.

Last night's game featured another disheartening performance from Kevin Slowey, who seemingly ran out of gas at around 75 pitches, failing to complete the sixth inning for a 12th time in 19 starts. Fans who were already calling for Nick Blackburn's removal from the rotation (which now seems to be in the books) are now setting their sights on Slowey, and not without good reason.

We all look for scapegoats when trying to determine the roots of this team's continued inability to get going. We blame the manager for not acting quickly enough to replace players who are hurting the team. We blame the general manager for not calling up reinforcements soon enough, and for not more hastily seeking to pull the trigger on a trade that would bolster the front end of the rotation. We blame the team's slow plodding outfielders, as if their sub par range is costing the team dozens of runs. We blame plain old bad luck. (I myself am probably a little too guilty of that one; one cannot deny that there's more to all this losing than most of the team's players concurrently being snakebit.)

In the end, there's only one rightful party upon which to burden this thoroughly uninspiring performance: the players themselves. Be it because of injury or some other deterrent, too many members of this team are not playing up to their level of ability.

Scott Baker is a better pitcher than he has shown this year. Ditto for Slowey. Ditto for Blackburn. There's talk of trading for starters like Jake Westbrook, Jeremy Guthrie and Kevin Millwood; these are not better players than Baker and Slowey, and the Twins would be better served hoping those two can figure things out -- while hoping Brian Duensing conjures some of his late-'09 magic in the fifth spot -- than pumping resources into a doubtful upgrade.

Joe Mauer is a great hitter and a reigning MVP, not an over-matched kid who tries to lay down a bunt with one out and the go-ahead run in scoring position (and a hitter who's hopeless against left-handers due up next with a southpaw on the hill). What on earth was that?

Jason Kubel proved last year that he can be one of the league's most punishing righty mashers, but last night -- as he has done far too often this year -- he failed to seize an advantageous opportunity against a pitcher who is prone to getting clobbered by left-handed hitters.

Denard Span seems to be perhaps the most mystifying of all. He lets seemingly catchable balls drop in the outfield. He runs himself into outs on the base paths. He goes through prolonged cold spells and disappears offensively for games at a time. He has hit .198 on the road.

Span was in past seasons a young player with uncommon discipline. His keen eye at the plate was seemingly matched by his acumen around the field. He was sharp. This year, he hasn't looked sharp, and that's a trait he shares with far too many players on the roster.

People can rev up the "Fire Gardy" bandwagon and berate Bill Smith in the event that he doesn't make a loud move at the deadline, but ultimately the responsibility for this team's woes falls upon the players themselves. They're just not playing very well, and if you don't play well you don't win games and you don't make the playoffs.

On paper, I fully believe this Twins roster is good enough to win the American League Central by a fairly wide margin.

It's just really unfortunate that so many players aren't bringing their A-game.
 

The case of Nic Blacburn's missing K's

Posted by: Nick Nelson Updated: June 6, 2010 - 10:07 PM

The bullpen performed admirably in Oakland yesterday and a late two-run blast by Delmon Young (who had a tremendous series) pulled the Twins within one run, but ultimately the team came up just short in a 5-4 loss.

These factors made it all the more frustrating that Nick Blackburn put the Twins in such a huge hole to begin with. Despite pitching in one of baseball's most pitcher-friendly parks and against one of the worst offenses in the American League, Blackburn lasted just 2 2/3 innings and surrendered five runs on 10 hits.

After a terrible month of April, Blackburn seemed to be coming around in May when he went 5-0 with a 2.65 ERA and made a bid for Pitcher of the Month honors. Now, he's strung together his two worst starts of the year. Last week in Seattle he failed to complete four innings and yesterday he failed to complete even three.

In both cases, the opposing offense was terrible. In both cases, he allowed five runs on 10 hits, putting his team in a huge early hole on the road. In both cases, he failed to strike out a single batter.

That last sentence provides us with a pretty good explanation for Blackburn's struggles. He has now failed to record even one strikeout in five of his 11 starts this season. No other member of the rotation has done it once.

Blackburn has never been a strikeout specialist, but his inability to miss bats this year has soared to ridiculous heights. Of the 294 batters he's faced, he has struck out 17. His rate of 2.27 strikeouts per nine innings ranks as the lowest in all of baseball by a wide margin; next lowest is John Lannan at 2.90. The next lowest mark in the AL is Mitch Talbot at 3.91.

Blackburn's ability to put "sink" on the ball is a talking point for Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven every time he pitches, but no amount of sink is going to make up for such an exorbitant contact rate and Blackburn doesn't even induce ground balls at an elite clip. His 48.3 ground ball percentage ranks 35th out of 108 qualifying pitchers.

Hitters are making contact with 96 percent of Blackburn's offerings and they're elevating plenty of those pitches, so it should come as no surprise that the league is hitting .338 against the right-hander. This isn't the result of bad luck, as Blackburn's batting average on balls in play isn't too far above the league average and is basically in line with his career norms. It's not that a ridiculous number of balls in play are turning into hits behind Blackburn, it's that he's allowing a ridiculous number of balls in play to begin with.

Whether something is wrong with Blackburn physically or the league has just completely figured him out, something needs to be changed because there's almost no way he'll succeed when allowing this much contact. He's had a tough enough time posting solid numbers with a K/9 rate in the 4 range in years past, doing so with a rate that is close to 2 is next to impossible, especially with a middling grounder rate.

With Blackburn, Brendan Harris and Denard Span all struggling to varying to degrees, Bill Smith's decision to tender them all unnecessary multi-year contracts during the offseason is looking iffy. At least we can look at the numbers and see that Harris and Span have been somewhat unlucky; Blackburn is due for more of the same unless he can get back to striking out a remotely acceptable number of hitters.

Twins need to set tables in Oakland

Posted by: Parker Hageman Updated: June 4, 2010 - 1:35 PM

Thursday night’s loss to the Seattle Mariners dropped the Twins to a 13-14 record away from Target Field, lending credence to the notion that the good bats may have failed to accompany the team on their flight from the Lindbergh terminal. 

Without a doubt, the Twins have run headlong into some superior pitching. The Mariners have had the luxury of trotting out two of the dirtiest pitchers in baseball, Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez, but also have received fine performances from Doug Fister and Jason Vargas. If tough pitching isn’t enough to slow a lineup, Safeco Field is a notoriously emasculating ballpark. As such, Minnesota will vacate the Northwest having scored just one run in each of the past three games.

One of the problems has been the lack of production from the top of the order. After taking strike three in his final at-bat to finish the series in Seattle 1-for-15, Denard Span’s average away from Target Field slunk to .186. Likewise, JJ Hardy and Matt Tolbert, Orlando Hudson’s two-hitter replacements, also went 1-for-15 with a walk in the injured second baseman’s absence. A combined 2-for-30 with two walks from the top gives the meat of the order little to work with. 

Certainly, with Hudson out due to a wrist injury, it greatly diminishes the table-setting capabilities (his 39 runs scored leads to the team) but Span has been almost nonexistent all season when playing on the road. This has been detrimental to the scoring process. As one of the league’s premier lead-off hitters, Span has reached base to lead off an inning 40 times, the most in baseball. According to BillJamesOnline.net, Span and the Twins score 1.15 runs per inning when he reaches base. Conversely, when he fails to reach the Twins score just .49 runs per inning. With a .460 home on-base percentage Span is doing most of this damage at Target Field. When traveling however, Span has exhibited a lowly .262 on-base percentage leading to fewer opportunities to drive him in. 

It is not as if Span has a skill set that is more conducive to his home environment, like Vladimir Guerrero’s hefty advantage in the heated bandbox in Arlington or the opportunistic right field wall at Yankee Stadium which inflated Johnny Damon’s overall totals a year ago. After all, Target Field has been an offense inhibitor as well. Basically, he has been coaxing fewer walks (12% BB% at home versus 9% on the road) while not making as solid of contact (22% line drive rate at home versus 14% line drive rate on the road) so it is easy to see where the drop in on-base percentage originates. In the end, Span’s road woes seem to stem from either a bout of small sample size bad luck (identified by a below average BABIP of .206), the psychological influence of traveling or perhaps a little of column A and a little of column B. 

The Twins high-octane offense has been driven by the combination of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau but that vehicle has been fueled by the ability of Span and Hudson to reach base regularly. Only this seemingly potent output is quelled on the road as the average of runs scored per game drops nearly a full run outside of the 612 area code (5.2 to 4.2). With a three-game series in Oakland starting tonight, the Twins need some signs of life from the top of the order, starting with Denard Span, in hopes of finishing the West Coast road trip with a winning record.  

 


Elsewhere in the TwinsCentric universe:

  • Seth has updated his Minnesota Twins Top 50 Prospect list. The number one stunner on the list is a new comer. Head over there to agree or disagree.
  • Order your "Thome Is My Homey" t-shirt, but if you already have keep an eye out for the next model very soon. 

 

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