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.
For the past four years, we have produced an Offseason Handbook to put fans in the driver’s seat of the Twins franchise. Within it, we highlight all of the winter’s impending free agents, potential trade targets and review the organization’s strengths and weaknesses from top to bottom. This culminates with the presentation of our blueprints to improving the team.
In my blueprint, I laid out a fairly elementary explanation as to why the Twins failed so miserably in 2012 and, no, it was not a six-word piece that reads “JOE MAUER SHOULD HEET MOR DINGERS.”
While the starting pitching takes precedence and priority, the secondary issue was that scoring runs was also a weak spot for the 2012 squad. Consider this: Only three other American League teams finished with a lower runs per game average than the Minnesota Twins (Seattle, Cleveland and Kansas City). After focusing on repairing the rotation, I outlined several realistic moves that should help elevate the number of runs scored for next season but the move I would like to discuss here is this:
Sign Kevin Youkilis.
Yes, there is a huge hurdle to clear when it comes to Youkilis and that is his impending option for $13 million which the White Sox hold the rights to. Collectively, because of that hefty payday and his lackluster performance in 2012, we decided that Chicago will opt to pass and allow him to become a free agent. At which point, we estimate that the market will put him in the two-year, $14 million range (or perhaps even a one year, make-good type of contract).
Across the board, Youk’s 2012 production was at the lowest levels of his career. His power was down, his average was down and his on-base percentage was down. Even the mighty Greek God of Walks’ walks were down. It could be based on an age-related decline or something mechanical lurking in that funky swing of his, however, if you are basing just purely on his batted ball rates, there is indication that 2013 may see a change for the better.
For the most part, Youkilis’s batting ball rates were consistent with his career. His line drive rate was high but he had been hitting a higher percentage of ground balls the past two seasons and those did not find nearly as many holes in the infield as they once did (hence the significant decline in average and OBP). This resulted in a 54 point difference in his batting average on balls in play versus his career norm. Even if he maintains the higher ground ball rate and equals his near 20% line drive rate, he should experience some correction in those numbers.
For a guy who sprays the field in all directions regularly, Youkilis also has some pretty significant pull power. From 2008 to 2011, his .899 slugging percentage when yanking the ball was the fourth best in baseball, ahead of even Josh Willingham. Additionally, Youk’s numbers against left-handed pitching in that time was also among the best in the game. His 1.044 OPS in those years facing wrong-handers was the third-highest behind just Albert Pujols and David Wright. Admittedly, a lot of that power is derived from feasting on the close proximity of the Green Monster but even still, Youkilis had success on the road as well.
Obviously there are shortcomings when it comes to signing Youkilis. For starters, it denigrates the defense. Heading into his mid-30s, his glove work is not what it used to be. Likewise, as you will find in the blueprint, the subsequent move after signing Youk would be that Trevor Plouffe would be relocated to second base. Once again this downgrades the infield defense (and potentially increases the amount of souvenir balls thrown into the first base stands) but should increase the production in the lineup by putting a power-hitting second baseman in the order.
If he indeed bounces back, Youk’s addition would give the Twins the capabilities of moving Mauer up to the two-spot and insert a high quality right-handed bat with impressive on-base skills to, ultimately, score more runs.
If you purchase the Offseason Handbook (which you can download a free preview by clicking the link), you will read more about that specific move as well as other recommendations to improve the team. Not only do we provide our blueprints but we supply you with teems of information on the free agent, potential trade targets and the organization from top-to-bottom to allow you to create your own blueprint for success.
Likely Starter: Denard Span
|Kathy Willens, AP|
Potential Backups: Jason Repko, Ben Revere
When Denard Span burst onto the scene in 2008 and went on to cement his impressive rookie performance with an equally strong 2009 campaign, he eventually came to be viewed as a godsend by Twins fans. Not because he was, in the grand scheme of things, an especially spectacular baseball player, but because he finally provided a legitimate on-base threat at the top of the lineup.
Finally, a Twins team that had been searching for an answer at the leadoff spot since trading Luis Castillo midway through the 2007 season and had opened the '08 campaign with out-making machine Carlos Gomez filling the all-important role had found a young player with a good eye who'd managed a .390 on-base percentage in his first 1,000 MLB plate appearances. As icing on the cake, Span sprinkled in a little power and a lot of speed, leading the league in triples in 2009.
So last year, when Span's OBP dropped to .331, just a couple ticks higher than the MLB-average leadoff man, it served as a major buzz kill. In his first year after signing a long-term deal with the club, the new cornerstone center fielder went from being a major offensive asset to a thoroughly mediocre hitter with substandard pop.
The drop-off in performance could theoretically be attributed to any number of things (Span himself placed partial blame on the playing surface at Target Field, though he did manage a .302 average at home), but the main issue was that he simply wasn't hitting the ball as hard.
Fewer ground balls found their way through the infield for hits, contributing to a 47-point drop in batting average. He drove fewer balls into the gaps and over the fence, helping a explain a 67-point drop in slugging percentage. Span's speed (26-for-30 on stolen bases) and plate discipline (60-to-74 strikeout-to-walk ratio) remained intact, but when he put the ball in play the results just weren't nearly as sterling as his first two big-league tours.
So the key for Span this season, offensively, will be raising his average. And, contrary to his personal misgivings about the natural grass at Target Field, it's other ballparks that represent his greatest opportunity for improvement. Span hit just .228 on the road last year; if his overall hitting line this season can more closely resemble his .302/.371/.390 mark from Target Field he should be just fine.
On the defensive end, it's perhaps unfortunate for Span that he happens to be following a pair of truly transcendent center fielders. Torii Hunter had a lengthy reign as one of the game's best gloves, gaining a reputation for pulling homers back over the Metrodome wall, and Carlos Gomez established himself as a truly spectacular outfielder during his stint.
Span's first season as full-timer in center was a mixed bag. His speed enabled him to cover ground and he was by no means a failure out there, but he whiffed on quite a few plays that Twins fans have grown accustomed to seeing made. He won't be confused with Hunter or Gomez any time soon.
Like it or lump it, the Twins will roll with Span in center as long as he's healthy in the short-term, but I do wonder if down the line they will give consideration to shifting him back into a corner spot (where his range truly stood out) and letting Ben Revere take over.
Should Span go down with an injury at some point this year, you can bet Revere will get his chance early.
Predicted Hitting 2011 Hitting Line for Span: .285/.370/.380, 6 HR, 55 RBI
Twins fans will miss Pat Neshek, but we will all continue to cheer for him!
According to Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse, Twins left-handed reliever Jose Mijares is honing a new pitch for the 2011 season: the two-seam fastball.
Recently in camp, pitching Coach Rick Anderson was holding court with the local reporter when Mijares wander past. Anderson turned his attention to the relief arm and inquired what Mijares thought of his new weapon in development. According to Reusse:
“Mijares smiled widely and made a gesture with a hand that indicated the downward movement of an imaginary baseball.”
In general, the two-seam fastball, the four-seamer’s cousin, is thrown at a lower velocity but runs down and towards the pitching arm side of the strike zone. Whereas the four-seamer has success in the upper reaches of the strike zone, the two-seamer’s best served in the lower region of the zone and on the edges of the plate.
The two-seamer differs from the four-seamer as the four-seamed fastball has a tendency to “rise” (not actually rise, per se, it just maintains its same plane rather than dipping like the two-seamer). Having the two variations of fastballs can give a pitcher the ability to provide the hitter with a different look – such as hitting a different part of the zone or showing another type of movement. Some two-seamers can have aggressive downward movement – like Brandon Webb’s sinker – or it can be more subtle, closer resembling Kyle Gibson’s two-seamer.
Why would Mijares need this new pitch, especially if he’s got two above-average offerings and typically sees hitters only once as a middle reliever?
Mijares, while gifted with a hard four-seam fastball and a sharp slider that can miss bats, often struggles with getting the ball down in the zone. This is fairly evident when you consider that his 52% fly ball rate over the past two seasons is the ninth highest among relievers. While this trait is well-and-good within the home run resistant confines of Target Field, however, on the road he’s flirting with fire. Overall, research has shown that the two-seamer is much more likely to induce a groundball so adding this pitch could assist in a reduction of Mijares’s aerial shots and the risk of home runs with it.
Similarly, the two-seamer is often incorporated into a pitcher’s repertoire to provide them with another weapon to implement against opposite-handed hitters. Without question, Mijares has been lethal against southpawed swingers. In his career he’s struck out nearly a quarter of his opponents (24.2%) while holding them to a .188 batting average against. Righties, on the other hand, have not fared exceptional well but have seen more success against him. In the previous two seasons, Mijares has held a .272 average against for the right-handers. Undoubtedly, there will be occasions in which manager Ron Gardenhire requires Mijares to retire a powerful lefty only to leave him out there to work to the subsequent right-hander in a pivotal situation to save the other arms in the bullpen.
Mijares is not the only left-handed reliever attempting to add a pitch to battle righties. In Atlanta, free agent George Sherrill, who has decimated same-sided opponents for the majority of his career, was clobbered by right-handers last year. In just 95 plate appearances, Sherrill allowed 32 hits (.400 average) and walked 14 while striking out just six. This season, he’s re-adding a two-seamer to his stash that he ditched back in 2006.
Plenty of other left-handed pitchers have had made improvements after embraces the two-seamer.
Over the 2008 off-season, Jon Lester learned a two-seamer from the Braves’ Tim Hudson. According to Lester’s rotation mate, Josh Beckett, the left-hander discovered that the movement provided by the two-seam fastball was able to help him induce a grounder when needed. This past season, Lester’s groundball rates jumped from 47% in ’09 to a career-high of 53.6% last year. Perhaps it was because of MLB Advanced Media’s updated algorithm that identified more of his pitches being thrown as two-seamers rather than the catchall “fastball”, but the pitch f/x system categorized Lester as throwing more two-seamer/sinkers this past season – a possible explanation for the jump in grounders.
Rays’ phenom David Price is another two-seam fastball infusion success story. After a very good first year in the majors in 2009, the left-handed Price was still exposed somewhat to right-handed opponents. Those hitters hit .240 off of him while posting a m’eh 1.84 K/BB ratio. The introduction of the two-seamer in 2010 saw Price shave his right-handed opponents’ average down to .222 while improving his K/BB ratio to 2.25.
Obviously, both Lester and Price are two of the game’s premier left-handers but you can see the effects that their inclusion of a two-seamer did to their opponents. But it goes beyond just the results on the one particular pitch. Having the two-seamer in their arsenal allowed them to set-up other pitches inside or up as right-handers were forced to monitor the space low in the zone.
The suggestion here is not that Mijares could become a pitcher of Lester or Price’s caliber by simply adding a pitch. The real question is how much incrementally better he could be based on where he is today. If he can harness the pitch appropriately, the two-seamer would help reduce the total amount of fly balls allowed thereby shaving down some of the home runs allowed while giving him another weapon to use against right-handed opponents – making him a more complete relief pitcher rather than one that needs to be limited to lefties.
Another residual effect that adding another variation of the fastball is that if he’s able to control it Mijares might be able to reduce the number of pitches thrown in each at-bat. As a strikeout-oriented reliever, last season Mijares threw 4.3 pitches per plate appearance as he labored deep into counts. That was significantly higher than the league average of 3.84. By throwing a two-seamer more often, he may be able to induce contact but of the less devastating variety which could lead to working through hitters more quicker and lower his overall pitch count in a given outing. Because of his questionable conditioning, it would better serve him if he were able to lighten his workload in order to maintain throughout the long season.
To be sure, this isn’t a miracle pitch. There have been occasions in which a pitcher has attempted to integrate the two-seamer into their repertoire only to have it backfire. For example, last spring training the Braves’ Kashin Kawakami worked on making the two-seamer his pitch of choice. Unfortunately for Kawakami, far too frequently he would throw the two-seamer out over the middle of the plate against left-handers. His average against lefties went from .241 in ’09 to .290 in ’10 with a hefty increase in line drives hit.
Because Mijares is already equipped with a good four-seamer in addition to a deadly slider that has completely baffled same-sided opponents, the newfound two-seamer could help that success spill over into his platoon splits against right-handed hitters, transitioning into that "complete pitcher". If he can maintain good health – certainly a concern for him given his recent past – he’s clearly on the path to being the dominant late innings lefty which the Twins envisioned for him as he was developing though the system.
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