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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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.

Traveling with the Twins

Posted by: Nick Nelson Updated: March 24, 2010 - 10:15 AM
There is perhaps no greater summer adventure than the baseball road trip. It provides an opportunity not only to see your team play in a different ballpark, but also to experience a new city and bond with friends or family. Last year, I made a couple of baseball road trips, heading to Chicago with family to see the Twins play at Wrigley Field and traveling to the heartland in a rental van with some friends to see games in St. Louis and Kansas City. Both of the trips were absolutely amazing, with the baseball games serving as only small highlights in thoroughly enjoyable overall experiences.

Each spring, I like to take a look at the schedule for the upcoming season and pick out series that might provide road trip opportunities. There are several considerations to be made in selecting appropriate destinations. Is the distance drivable? Is the stadium nice? Are there cool things to do in the city when not attending the games? Is the series during a weekend, so I don't have to take a bunch of time off work? Are there people I can stay with to save on lodging fees?

With all of these things in mind, I went through the Twins' 2010 schedule and picked out a few series that make for nice road trip possibilities:

Chicago White Sox
(April 9-11, August 10-12, September 14-16)

Those early April dates provide an opportunity to hit the road right at the beginning of the season, as it is the Twins' second series of the regular season. I've been U.S. Cellular Field and didn't come away terribly impressed -- not much personality -- but Chicago is a beautiful city and unfortunately the Twins don't play the Cubs again this year. I figure that the Sox will be the Twins' fiercest competition in the AL Central this year, so that September series could loom large.

Driving Time: About 7 hours

Kansas City Royals
(April 23-25, July 26-28, September 27-29)

Of all the big-league ballparks I've visited, I think Kaufmann Stadium is my favorite. It's gorgeous, with big splashing fountains beyond the outfield wall, and the Party Deck in right field is a great place for a guy like me to hang out and watch the game while chatting with friends and sipping a beer. The huge parking lots surrounding the stadium are great for tailgating. And of course, since it's the Royals, you know there's a very good chance you'll be walking out happy after seeing a Twins victory. Be careful about that July series -- it'll be hot!

Driving Time: About 7 hours

Detroit Tigers
(April 27-29, July 9-11, September 24-26)

Detroit might not have the greatest reputation as a city, but I've heard plenty of good things about Comerica Park. The Twins and Tigers, of course, came right down to the wire last year, so another intense battle could easily shape up here in the 2010 campaign. The drive, nearly 12 hours, can be a bear but it does take you through some nice cities like Madison and Chicago. You could even stop in Beloit along the way to catch the Snappers, the Twins' Low-A minor-league affiliate.

Driving Time: About 11.5 hours

Cleveland Indians
(April 30-May 1, August 6-8, September 10-12)
 
The drive to Cleveland is similar to the one to Detroit, except that it's about an hour longer. The Indians' home park, Progressive Field, draws rave reviews so if you've got it in you to spend over half a day on the road, this is a good trip.

Driving Time: About 12.5 hours

Philadelphia Phillies
(June 18-20)
 
Alright, this is a pretty daunting drive by car, but the Twins don't play the Phillies very often and Philadelphia is a pretty awesome city. The main reason I've added it here is because the Twins play the Mets in New York the following weekend, so if you want to go all-out and do an expansive East Coast baseball road trip, here's your opportunity.

Driving Time: About 19.5 hours

Milwaukee Brewers
(June 22-24)
 
Quick vent session here: This year marks the second straight time the Twins/Brewers series in Milwaukee has taken place right in the middle of the week rather than on a weekend. What gives? Milwaukee is easily the quickest drive of any mentioned here, and with the "Border Battle" aspect and excellent tailgating at Miller Park, it makes for an awesome weekend trip that I've done multiple times in the past. Yet, scheduling the series in middle of the week makes this trip a tough one to pull off for us weekday working folk. Frustrating scheduling here.

Driving Time: About 5.5 hours

New York Mets
(June 25-27)
 
As I mentioned before, the Twins play in Philadelphia the prior weekend. If you manage to make it out there, the drive to New York is only two hours. Like the Phillies, the Mets are a rare opponent for the Twins, and of course there's a decent chance the Twins will face Johan Santana in this series. The Mets' stadium, Citi Field, is brand new and there are all sorts of things to do in New York. Although it is a sacrelige in the realm of baseball road tripping, I might even hop on a plane and fly out for this series.

Driving Time: About 20 hours
 
Last spring, me and John Bonnes talked at length about trying to organize a big road trip where a bunch of Twins fans could jump on a bus and follow the team to St. Louis and Kansas City, but ultimately the logistics became overwhelming. The idea continued to simmer in my mind, so I was very pleased to meet Scott Povolny at the TwinsCentric Viewing Party at Majors a couple weeks ago. Povolny recently launched a new company called TwinsTrain, which basically seeks to accomplish the same thing me and John futilely toyed with a year ago. Basically, for a reasonable all-inclusive fee, you can sign up with TwinsTrain and get all the arrangements of the road trip taking care of for you -- bus ride, hotel accomodations, tickets to a couple games, and some other nice perks. Destinations include most of the ones listed above. You can check out the web site (linked above) for further details, including prices and dates, if you're interested. I'll be tagging along on the Kansas City trip in late April, and I know the other TwinsCentric fellows are planning on making trips with TwinsTrain as well. As fellow Strib blogger Sooze mentioned yesterday, she'll be aboard for the Detroit trip in July.
 
I'm hopeful that TwinsTrain succeeds, not only because Scott seems like a really nice guy but also because the core concept relates directly to something I harped on in my inaugural post on the TwinsCentric blog: synergy. It's an opportunity for Twins fans to get together and share their passion. It's the same reason we organized that gathering where I met Scott, and the same reason we've got a similar event scheduled for Majors in Blaine on April 10 (which I hope many of you can attend). The Twins have a terrific, optimistic and well-informed fan base, and the opportunities I've had to meet and interact with these folks have made this entire five-year blogging experience a rewarding endeavor.
 
Whether you choose to hop on board with TwinsTrain, rent a van with some friends or jump in the family station wagon with your loved ones, I strongly recommend road tripping to catch the Twins in another city this summer. As you can see above, there are plenty of great opportunities to do so.

Position Analysis: Left Field

Posted by: Nick Nelson Updated: March 16, 2010 - 11:19 PM
Note: This is one installment in an ongoing series of pieces I've down previewing each position for the 2010 Twins. Today I take a look at Delmon Young and left field; if you please, you can also go and check out my breakdowns of catcher, first base, second base, third base and shortstop.
 
***
 
Likely Starter: Delmon Young
2009 Stats: .284/.308/.425, 12 HR, 60 RBI
 

 Will this be Young's year? (Photo courtesy of Keith Allison)

Potential Backups: Jason Kubel, Jacque Jones

Yesterday, in preparation for writing this article, I sent out a message from my Twitter account asking Twins fans to summarize their feelings about Delmon Young in one word. The responses, predictably, were mostly negative.

"Frustrating."
 
"Baffling."
 
"Underwhelmed."
 
"Exasperated."
 
"Trepidation."
 
"Malaise."
 
During his time here in Minnesota, Young has never really been embraced by the typically warm fan base because, for various reasons, I think it's been tough for fans to get behind him. Off the field, he doesn't have a particularly good reputation (although, to his credit, he hasn't had any publicized incidents since coming over from Tampa). On the field, he has been a major disappointment, having posted similarly underwhelming numbers in each of his three major-league seasons. His style of play can be frustrating to watch; he doesn't get to many balls in the outfield, swings at just about everything at the plate and hits into a lot of double plays. And while Young has failed to establish himself as a Twin, the two key players that Bill Smith traded for him -- Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett -- have blossomed into stars while wearing Rays uniforms.
 
Through his first couple years here in Minnesota, Young also had the misfortune of being juxtaposed against Carlos Gomez, another young player who was competing for playing time in the outfield. While the flaws in Gomez's game were perhaps no less frustrating than those in Young's, Gomez had a much more fan-friendly allure. His energy, enthusiasm and glowing personality portrayed him as a vastly different character than the more quiet and reserved Young.
 
After hedging back and forth between the two promising outfielders for much of the last two years, the Twins finally made a full commitment to Young this offseason by trading Gomez to the Brewers for J.J. Hardy. Young enters this season with regular playing time in left all but guaranteed. He's 24, with three full years of big-league experience under his belt and with nobody breathing down his neck. Everything seems aligned for him to finally emerge and fulfill -- at least to some degree -- the immense promise he showed as an elite teenage prospect. But will it happen?
 
Young's defenders often point to his youth. After all, they note, the typical 24-year-old player is still getting his feet wet at Triple-A, not preparing for his fourth season as a full-time major-leaguer. But what's troubling is that Young has now amassed over 1800 big-league plate appearances and has not evolved one bit as a hitter. His offensive production has been nearly identical in his three full seasons, and that production -- .288/.321/.411 with an average of 12 home runs and 74 RBI -- is simply not satisfactory for someone playing a non-valuable defensive position (and poorly). The average American League left fielder batted .267/.338/.442 last year, so Young's offensive performance wasn't even average, and defensively he rated as one of the league's worst at his position. He struck out far more often than any of his past big-league seasons, and he drew only 12 walks in 416 plate appearances. This isn't exactly the type of progression you'd like to see from a hitter who should be figuring things out in his third full year against major-league competition.
 
Before we all go writing Young off, though, there are a few promising signs to be gleaned from his 2009 campaign upon closer inspection. For one thing, his overall numbers were significantly dragged down by a terrible slump that immediately followed the passing of his mother, which very obviously affected his focus on the field. In the weeks after returning from a (perhaps overly) brief absence from the team, Young was striking out in every other at-bat and his batting average sunk by about 60 points. Take out this understandably poor stretch of performance and his overall numbers look a whole lot better.
 
In addition, Young finished the season very strong, which always helps breed hope heading into the next season. During the 17-4 stretch that propelled the Twins past the Tigers and into the playoffs, Young hit .353 with four of his 12 home runs and 17 RBI. During those final weeks of the season, Young was consistently hammering the baseball, and his three-run double off the right-field baggy against the eventual Cy Young winner Zack Greinke in a must-win October contest still stands out to me as one of the most memorable moments in the Twins' amazing run.
 
Yet, the hot streak did not coincide with any discernible change in approach for Young. During that 21-game stretch, Young continued to hack away at the plate, drawing just two non-intentional walks in 92 plate appearances. And there are plenty of people -- myself included -- who believe that unless Young takes meaningful strides with his pitch recognition he'll never be able to take his game to the next level for an extended period of time. He's a great contact hitter with the body of an imposing slugger, but Young just isn't good enough to become an outstanding hitter while he's consistently swinging at bad pitches. Simply put, he's not Vladimir Guerrero.
 
So far this spring, Young has seemingly shown little interest in becoming a more patient at the dish, as he's drawn only one walk in seven games (and batted .176). But spring training stats are relatively meaningless and Young has at least indicated that he plans to become more selective now that he doesn't face the prospect of being benched after a bad day at the plate with Gomez gone. Of course, his comfortable leash in left field won't last forever; if he's not getting it done, Young will have to start worrying about Jim Thome -- who can nudge Jason Kubel into left field -- cutting into his playing time.
 
As it stands, Kubel will likely spend some time in left field with Thome serving as designated hitter against tough right-handed pitchers. That should benefit Young, who has been much more effective against lefties than righties over the course of his career.
 
It's now or never for Young. While he's only 24, this will be his fourth full season and now that he's in his arbitration years he's becoming quite expensive. If he can't take a legitimate step forward this year, I suspect that the Twins will seek to move in a different direction. There are certainly still those out there who believe in Young, as illustrated by those few tweets I received yesterday with positive tones like "optimistic" and "promising." And while those words ceased to describe my take on Young as I've watched him fail to make adjustments over the past three years, that doesn't mean I'm not hopeful.
 
Predicted 2010 Hitting Line for Young: .300/.335/.430, 15 HR, 60 RBI

Role Reversal

Posted by: Nick Nelson Updated: March 3, 2010 - 12:21 AM
Ozzie Guillen has never been too timid about stating his adoration for the Minnesota Twins and the way they play the game. At seemingly every opportunity, he has publicly complimented the organization, its players and its manager. Oftentimes, when the White Sox would play at the Metrodome and Guillen would rattle off one of his profanity-laced diatribes about his team's uninspired play in a post-game presser, one got the impression that the Chicago skipper secretly desired a gig in the opposing dugout.
 
It should come as no surprise that Guillen is partial to the "piranha" approach to run-scoring that he helped the Twins make famous a few years ago. During a 16-year playing career, Guillen posted a modest .264/.287/.338 hitting line while managing just 28 home runs in more than 7,000 plate appearances. Even when he was at his best, Guillen's value came from his speed and defense. That style certainly doesn't mesh with the way the White Sox have been constructed for much of the past decade, with an offense built around plodding sluggers like Jim Thome, Jermaine Dye, Paul Konerko, Joe Crede and Carlos Quentin. Chicago's offensive formula has been effective -- as illustrated by their World Series Championship in 2005 and subsequent AL Central title in 2008 -- but it has been drastically different from the one employed by the light-hitting Twins.
 
Today, we're seeing a major shift in philosphy for both teams.
 

The Sox have spent the past year parting ways with the likes of Thome and Dye while loading the roster with players fitting a different mold. Juan Pierre, who was signed during the offseason to play center field and bat leadoff, is a speedy runner who has consistently demonstrated an ability to hit for a high average but whose power is almost non-existent. Omar Vizquel, Chicago's new starting shortstop, is an all-glove guy who provides little with the bat, particularly at this late stage of his career. Mark Teahen, acquired in a trade with the Royals, hasn't slugged over .410 in any of the past three seasons.

Through moves like these, the White Sox are shedding their label as a straight power-hitting club while leaning more on speed and defense, not to mention an excellent and relatively youthful starting rotation. This is the formula that once epitomized Twins baseball.
 
Looking at the current Twins' roster, however, we find that they've strayed from that foundation. An outfield alignment of Delmon Young, Denard Span and Michael Cuddyer possesses plenty of offensive upside but may cover less ground defensively than any other trio in baseball. Glancing up and down the lineup, you're hard-pressed to find three guys capable of swiping 20 or more bases, but you're also hard-pressed to find three (OK, maybe four) guys not capable of bashing 20 or more homers.
 
Over the years, Chicago has regularly sat near the top of the league in long balls while the Twins have been at the bottom. As recently as 2008, the White Sox ranked first in the American League in home runs while the Twins ranked dead last. This year, there's a pretty realistic chance the Twins will out-homer the Sox. The last time that happened was the last time the Twins won the World Series, back in 1991.
 
The White Sox will be a team to monitor throughout spring training and throughout the season, as they appear to be the Twins' most formidable competitors for the AL Central crown. For the first time in ages, the Twins may have the more dangerous lineup in this heated rivalry, but conversely the Sox may hold an edge in pitching and defense. It's a strange
role reversal, but it should make for another great race in a division that has gained a reputation for improbable outcomes.
      

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