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.
Over his career, Phil Hughes has seemingly been one solid secondary pitch away from taking over the world.
Since his prospect days, his curveball was considered this dangerous weapon. For Hughes, unfortunately, the pitch never manifested into that killer pitch as projected. Eventually, the pitch was unceremoniously dropped from his arsenal in 2012.
When asked why the deuce took the backseat to other pitches in his repertoire, Hughes cited his inability to execute as one of the main reasons.
“It was one of those things where basically it became a first-pitch strike pitch and that’s all I was using it for, and that’s not what I want it to be,” Hughes said in the clubhouse this spring. “But it was out of necessity because I was kind of looping it up there. It wasn’t a good thing.”
In his final year with the Yankees, Hughes certainly favored the pitch to start an at-bat off. While he threw the pitch just 11% of the time overall, he spun it up to the plate a nearly quarter of the time on the first pitch to a hitter. Opponents, trained to seek-and-destroy fastballs on the opening pitch, often allowed the big bend to sail past only to find themselves down in the count no balls and one strike.
As the at-bat would progress, Hughes had the tendency to then lean on his impressive fastball. Much like former Twin Scott Baker, Hughes would target the top of the zone with a 92+ heater and would register a high amount of swing-and-misses with an equally insane amount of foul balls.
With two strikes, and fear that the looping curve would be tipped out of his hand, Hughes stuck to the fastball and slider -- demonstrating a near fifty-fifty split in usage between the two. The results left something to be desired as his .253 opponent batting average against in two-strike situations, the second highest in the game last year, suggested that the current plan was not working. On top of that, his 44% foul ball rate with two-strikes meant he handed out a lot of souvenirs to the ticket holders in the gated community areas of the stadium but also that his pitch count increased quickly. This translated to premature clubhouse showers.
So with all that in mind, but without all the numbers to back it up and just ball guy-type intuitive stuff, Hughes focused on redeveloping the curve to be a legitimate weapon in those types of circumstances.
“Coming into spring it was a conscience effort to make sure I finishing that pitch and keep my hand out in front so you don’t pick up any spin or have it pop out of my hand,” Hughes explained.
Camouflaging your secondary pitches is one of the biggest keys in pitching and, to Hughes’ concern of keeping the curve from “popping” out of his hand, is a big one from that particular pitch. The looping curve, as he described it, is one that has the tendency to come out of the pitcher’s hand a bit higher than a fastball.
“A lot of times with curveballs, more than any other pitch, it will go above the fastball plane,” major league pitching instructor Tom House told the Washington Post in 2012. “And if it goes above the fastball plane, then the hitter knows it’s not a fastball.”
Which means they sit and let it pass. Or they swing out of their cleats at it. Either way, it becomes a less effective pitch.
Through three starts in 2014, it is hard to tell if the tinkering has worked. He has thrown more curveballs throughout each plate appearance but the amount of times hitters have swung at it has decreased. Plus, no one is chasing after the pitch out of the zone, which means it is not getting buried for strike three. While his strikeout rate has climbed so far this season and may not be directly due to his curveball (12 of his 17 K’s have come on fastballs) it is possible that just occasionally flashing the curve keeps hitters off of his fastball.
“It’s altering sequences,” Hughes said this spring, “I’ve gotten into some predictable sequences for the most part, so once I get my changeup and cutter going I can kind of alter those a little bit, you know, flipping a few first-pitch curveballs, always keeping it different, that will be good.”
In terms of his curve -- his large, looping pitch thrown around 74.1 mph on average -- hitters will see it mainly early in the count (16 of the 44 were thrown on first-pitch) or occasionally with two-strikes (another 18 were thrown in two-strike situations). In both instances, hitters refrained from swinging. Of the 44 thrown, just 14 (31.8%) have been offered at. That’s quite a low total for a curveball overall.
Does predictable sequencing explain why Hughes’ curveball has been roundly ignored by opponents? Or is the big loop helping hitters differentiate his curve from other pitches? Some attribute the modern hitters’ ability to lay off these slower breaking pitches to improved analytics and scouting reports.
In Boston, a Providence Journal article noted that the Red Sox staff was tightening up their pitch types, moving to cutters and splitters instead of sliders and curves, because the late break of the former would confuse hitters better than the looping curve or long tilt of the slider.
“There’s more knowledge in a game now of bat paths and technologies and studies and charts and hot zones, so you can get a picture of somebody’s bat path and where they like to hit the ball,” Red Sox catcher David Ross told the Providence Journal’s Brian Macpherson. “Guys try to stay off that as much as they can off the fastball with a cut or a sink or sharp breaking stuff. The big breaking ball is pretty much obsolete.”
While Ross may consider the big breaking ball obsolete, Hughes still breaks his out, just not at the same rate as he did a few years ago while coming up with the Yankees when it was considered a plus-pitch for him. It was last year when Hughes started to feel that hitters were not reacting to the pitch the same and shelved it in favor of the late-break cutter. This season, while he’s thrown his curve more frequently than last year, it is still the cutter that is thrown in greater abundance. Unlike his curve, the cutter is (1) swung at, (2) swung at out of the zone and (3) missed at a higher rate.
So maybe the curveball is the savior of a pitch for Phil Hughes that it was made out to be in spring training. He still is doing many things right at this juncture, such as leading the staff in strikeouts and avoiding home runs. If, however, he can find some help in reducing his unsightly batting average on balls in play or the amount of foul balls that has blown up his pitch count so frequently, he might be able to stay on the mound beyond the typical five innings of work.
In 2013, the Minnesota Twins rotation was essentially in shambles from the get-go. Liam Hendriks started the team's fourth game of the season. Pedro Hernandez started the sixth.
Those two combined with Andrew Albers, P.J. Walters and Cole DeVries to make a total of 40 starts for the Twins last year. Now, they're all out of the organization, buried in Triple-A for other clubs (or in Korea) and unlikely to spend much if any time in the majors.
Meanwhile, the Twins have vastly improved their pitching depth, and that's reflected by the group that lies in waiting at the Triple-A level should the starting five experience anything resembling last year's plight.
As we know, the problems for the 2013 rotation started at the top. Opening Day starter Vance Worley was a mess, and the guy who would have held that assignment if he was healthy -- Scott Diamond -- also endured a horrible year.
But equally troubling was the lack of reasonable contingency plans behind the initially slated group, and that weakness was exposed repeatedly throughout the summer. Hendriks, Hernandez, Albers, Walters and DeVries were pretty clearly not major-league caliber talents, yet they combined to start about a quarter of the team's games while posting a 6.21 ERA.
This time around, the Twins are much more solidified at the top (their starting five have actually remained intact through two whole turns of the rotation) but ultimately it is inevitable that the team will need to tap into its depth when someone gets hurt or falls into a prolonged slump.
When that time comes, the options will be far more appealing than they were a year ago. The Rochester Red Wings rotation now includes two of the organization's Top 10 prospects in Alex Meyer and Trevor May, both of whom have looked sharp in early action. Kris Johnson, the eventual prize from Pittsburgh in the Justin Morneau deal, has put up a 2.70 ERA over his first two starts. Logan Darnell, who had a very strong season between Double-A and Triple-A last year, hurled four scoreless frames in his first start.
Incidentally, the only starter on the Rochester staff who hasn't performed well thus far is Scott Diamond, who was among the very last cuts for the Twins in camp.
Of particular interest among the group in Triple-A are May and Meyer, who have a real chance to make an immediate impact and become long-term fixtures. You obviously can't make too much out of the first couple starts of the season, but considering that command is likely the top question mark for both, it's encouraging to see that the two have issued a total of three walks in 19 2/3 innings (with a combined 23 strikeouts to boot).
In addition to those reinforcements waiting in the minors, the Twins have Samuel Deduno -- last year's most successful starter -- sitting in an ill-suited bullpen role waiting for a chance. He should actually be first in line, in my opinion, but he adds to an intriguing fallback mix that sets the club up for much more pitching success over the course of the year, even if things go amiss for some of the presently installed rotation members.
When you're done here, swing by Twins Daily today for:
* Cody Christie's rundown of Tuesday's Twins minor league action.
* Hang out and talk Twins with Seth and Jeremy.
* John's look at the best games to attend in the current Blue Jays series at Target Field.
Aaron and John's take a break from KFAN at Mason's and walk through the Twins various DL moves, review the trade for Eduardo Nunez, convince David Brauer to listen to the Talk To Contact podcast, wonder at the world going crazy about Joe Mauer, notice Brian Dozier's power surge, call random strangers "Babygirl," consider surgery on Aaron's torn ACL, and find out how to sell Joe Mauer a car. You can listen by downloading us from iTunes, Stitcher or find it at GleemanAndTheGeek.com.
Here's the breakdown:
2 Twins Game
4 Torn ACL
14 Rib Tips
18 DL Moves
26 Masons Food
27 Twins Trade
38 Bartlett’s Future
44 Trevor’s Defense
46 Aaron’s Stories
48 More Babygirl
56 Talk To Contact Podcast
64 Our Bar
68 Twitter’s Brand
74 Brian Dozier
76 Aaron Hicks
79 Return of Tanya
81 Buxton’s Wrist
83 Where’s Eddie?
84 Lou’s Return
86 Mauer’s Week
91 Mauer Buying A Car
98 Rioting Roommates
101 Hiring Randballstu
103 Why Taxis Stink
Let’s just say Jason Kubel’s return to Minnesota was not exactly met with wild enthusiasm from the Twins fandom.
Based on the previous season’s production -- a stomach-turning batting line of .216/.293/.317 (avg/obp/slg) with just five home runs in 290 plate appearances -- you could not fault anyone on the outside looking in. Nevertheless Kubel and those close to him maintained that, at 31-years-old, the left-handed outfielder-slash-designated hitter was not over the hill. After all, I’m 33 and I can still dress myself, cook my own meals and wipe my own bottom, surely Jason Kubel, a finely tuned athlete, could still hit a sphere thrown at him.
When he departed the Twins, he may not have thrown kerosene on the club but in his exit interview he criticized the home ballpark, suggesting it was frustrating to hit in the left-handed power suppressing stadium. To make matters worse, Kubel groaned to the Phoenix media of his displeasure to be a designated hitter -- suggesting it was “boring”.
[Writer’s Note: Oh, really? You know what I find boring, Jason? Working at an office for nine hours a day.]
Upon his return to his original organization, he insisted that he was just stymied by a quad injury that lingered throughout the 2012 season, and not aging or anything affiliated with that. His quad was now healed. Oh, and that whole Target Field configuration thing? He was fine now too.
Except all spring training, it didn’t seem fine. He went nine-for-fifty-two. A .196 average with two extra base hits and 17 strikeouts. Certainly some of those plate appearances against real, honest-to-goodness, major league starters and others against OH-MY-GAWD-THAT’S-JASON-KUBEL-type pitchers with a tight end’s number on their jersey. The while the spring training numbers are meaningless, the performance just reduced the overall confidence in the decision.
Still, the Twins brass continued to insist they saw a noticeable improvement out of Kubel despite what the numbers said. He was squaring up balls better in the latter portion of the spring and taking better at-bats. That, and the lack of outfield-slash-bench options, made him a prime candidate to head north despite not being on the 40-man roster.
Perhaps he needed to be above the Mason-Dixon line in order to hit because, once there, he put on a show. As the current American League batting average leader, Kubel has begun the season 13-for-29 (.448) with five extra base hits including one long blast at Target Field, a stadium which now can’t hold him.
Kubel’s biggest improvement at the plate has been his connectivity. Last year his swing was holier than the Pope. In his contact rate heat map from ESPN/trumedia, you see that his swings were often empty -- he swung-and-missed on nearly 33% of his swings, well above the league average rate of 22%. This season, while still above average, he has reigned the errant swings in to a more manageable rate (25%).
What’s more is that when Kubel did make contact last year, it was not only weak it was often late. His pull rate dropped considerably.
Where this really stands out is against fastball, a pitch that Kubel used to flourish when facing. As I wrote at the time of the Kubel acquisition:
“One of Kubel's biggest issues in 2013 was his inability to handle fastballs. According to ESPN Stats & Info, in 2012 Kubel hit .298/.368/.616 with 20 home runs and a whopping .309 well-hit average. That dropped considerably in 2013 when he finished the year hitting .261/.315/.400 with just 3 home runs and a well-hit average of .171 off of fastballs.”
Yes, the production was bad against the cheese but it was not until an examination of his spray charts when facing fastballs that it is clear that Kubel may be fully healed as he and the coaching staff insisted. Last season, he was unable to get around on the heat often hitting lazy fly balls. This year he is once again yanking that pitch into and over the right field wall.
All standard small sample size warnings apply however Kubel’s early season production in addition to these indicators are reassuring that he is in good health. If he can remain in the lineup, the Twins could wind up with a solid bargain out of a minor league signing.
There still is, of course, a lot of baseball left but, so far, the signs are good for Jason Kubel.
More at TwinsDaily.com:
One of the regular features of Twins Daily that gets great feedback each day is the Minor League Reports. Every day from the Minor League Opening Day - which was last Thursday - until Labor Day, you can find out how each of the Twins affiliates did, and which prospects performed. Here is the report for Wednesday's games in which the four, full-season affiliates combined to go 5-0.
Wins and losses are far from the most important thing in the minor leagues. Player development matters above all else. That said, winning is always fun. And, to be fair, part of a player’s development is learning how to win, and learning how to play team baseball. When a team is able to develop players while also finding ways to win, it is a perfect collision. On Wednesday, the Twins four affiliates played five games, and the result was five wins. Call it a good day. Of course, winning at the big league level does matter, and the Twins lost their second straight game to the Oakland A’s.
In other news, the Minnesota Twins placed Oswaldo Arcia on the disabled list and added Darin Mastroianni to both the 40 and 25 man rosters. Be sure to look at the Twins Rosters & Payrolls page for current rosters, salary information and much more.
RED WINGS REPORT
Rochester 7, Scranton/Wilkes Barre 6
For Scott Diamond, it was an improvement from Opening Day. However, it was still a rough one. The lefty gave up four runs on eight hits and a walk in just three innings. He was replaced by Yohan Pino who worked 2.1 scoreless innings. He gave up one hit, walked two and struck out two. Aaron Thompson was charged with two unearned runs in 2.1 innings. He gave up three hits, walked one and struck out three. Deolis Guerra came on and gave up a hit, but recorded two outs. Brooks Raley struck out the final two batters of the game to record the save.
The Red Wings bats got plenty of offense. Only Brad Nelson, who will be traveling home in the morning to be with his pregnant, overdue wife, went hitless. Chris Parmelee went 3-5 with a double. Danny Santana, James Beresford, Wilkin Ramirez and Chris Rahl all had two hits including a double. Also with two hits was Eric Farris.
ROCK CATS REVIEW
New Britain 5, Harrisburg 4
It’s been a tough go in the early season for Kennys Vargas. Coming into this game, he was batting just .100 (2-20). However, in this game, he went 2-3 with a walk (and is now hitting .174). In his first at bat, in the first inning, he launched his first home run of the year, a three-run shot. Nate Hanson continues his strong start. He was 3-4 in the game and is hitting .318. Aderlin Mejia was 3-3 in the game and is hitting .364. Of course, that’s the beauty of the early season statistics; he was hitting just .125 (1-8) coming into the game.
Pat Dean improves to 2-0 and just missed a quality start. The lefty gave up four runs on seven hits and a walk in six innings. He struck out five. BJ Hermsen and Jim Fuller each worked a scoreless inning. AJ Achter gets the save. He struck out two in a scoreless inning. That means he has pitched 6.2 innings and given up three hits, walked one and struck out 11 with the Rock Cats.
Game 1 - Ft. Myers 4, Charlotte 2
After getting rained out on Tuesday night, the Miracle and Stone Crabs played two on Wednesday. In Game 1, Mason Melotakis got the start. The lefty gave up one run on three hits in three innings. He walked two and struck out two. Alex Wimmers came on for his first appearance of the year. He threw three shutout innings. In the 7th inning, he got two outs but gave up three hits and a run. He left with two on and a two-run lead. Brian Gilbert came on and struck out the one batter he faced for the save.
Dalton Hicks went 2-3 and drove in three of the Miracle’s runs. Niko Goodrum drove in the other run with a bases loaded walk. Jorge Polanco added a double.
Game 2 - Ft. Myers 10, Charlotte 6
The offense showed up in Game 2 taking an 8-0 lead after just three innings, but the Stone Crabs made a game of it. Jorge Polanco led the offense. He went 2-3 with a walk, a double and a triple. Niko Goodrum continues his hot start. He went 2-4 with a triple. Adam Walker hit his second homer of the season, a long, opposite field blast.
Jason Wheeler had given up just one run through the first four innings, but he was unable to get the final out of the fifth inning. In total, he gave up six runs (just one earned due to Polanco’s fourth error of the year) on five hits and a walk. He struck out three. Tim Shibuya came in and got the final out of the fifth and worked scoreless sixth and seventh innings as well for the win.
Cedar Rapids 5, Great Lakes 3
Without question, the story in this game was about Aaron Slegers, and no, it’s not a tall tale. The 6-10 right-hander made his second start for Cedar Rapids and went six innings. He gave up just one run on four hits. He walked none and struck out four. Lefty Brandon Bixler, a 5-11 lefty, gave the Loons a completely different look. He went two shutout innings, allowing no hits, two walks and striking out two. Hudson Boyd came in for the ninth. He gave up two runs on two hits and a walk but kept the lead.
Mitch Garver got the scoring going in the second inning with a two-run homer, his second of the season. In the fourth inning, he hit his second double of the year and scored on a single by Tanner Vavra. Vavra went 2-3 with a walk and is now 3-5 in his limited playing time. Logan Wade was 2-5 with a triple.
TWINS DAILY PLAYERS OF THE DAY
Twins Daily Minor League Pitcher of the Day – Aaron Slegers, Cedar Rapids Kernels
Twins Daily Minor League Hitter of the Day – Kennys Vargas, New Britain Rock Cats
THURSDAY’S PROBABLE STARTERS
Rochester @ Lehigh Valley (6:05 CST) – Logan Darnell
New Britain @ Portland (5:00 CST) – DJ Baxendale
Charlotte @ Ft. Myers (6:05 CST) – Tyler Duffey
Cedar Rapids @ Great Lakes (11:05 a.m. CST) – Ryan Eades
It happened again on Tuesday. A local mainstream writer put out a column that was, to some extent, critical of Joe Mauer, and the reactions from fans were highly visceral on both sides.
The piece in question came from Patrick Reusse, suggesting that the impetus is on Mauer (who still hasn't driven in a run this year) to step up and carry the team back to respectability.
Some saw it as a reinforcement of the reservations they have long held about Mauer. Others saw it as another in a long string of unfair media attacks on the team's best player, a guy who has been used a central scapegoat and punching bag during the franchise's ongoing lull.
What is it about Mauer that makes him such a divisive and controversial figure among fans and writers? It's a question I've long pondered.
There's no question that Mauer gets far too much grief for a player of his ability and accomplishment. Traditional media types grumble because he doesn't fit the classic superstar mold, and fans follow course. He shies away from reporters, he isn't a vocal clubhouse fixture, he has missed time often due to injuries and he doesn't rack up big HR and RBI totals.
These overblown critiques have led to a swelling of backlash amongst those who, despite not even necessarily being huge Mauer fans, feel the need to position themselves as defenders.
After all, Mauer is the team's best player and one of the best players in franchise history. Maybe we should spend a little more time appreciating his strengths rather than bemoaning his shortcomings?
To be clear, Mauer does have shortcomings. He's not infallible, and that sometimes gets lost in the rush to defend him against outrageous detractions. He hasn't been able to stay on the field, which isn't really his fault -- a punishing position and bad luck have been chief culprits -- but remains a mark against him. He also doesn't hit for a ton of power and doesn't run all that well.
That means that although Mauer's abilities to spray line drives to left field and get on base at an elite rate are extremely valuable skills, they don't stand out as much in a bad offense. When other players in the lineup are hitting, Mauer will drive them in or get driven in. When the lineup is struggling, he ends up getting stuck at first and second base pretty often.
He doesn't create offense single-handedly in the way that someone like Justin Morneau did. And that's why, in a season like last year where the lineup was filled with underperformers, Mauer finished with only 47 RBI and 62 runs scored in 113 games despite a .324 batting average and .880 OPS.
When the offense is fully functioning, as it was in 2006 or 2010, Mauer is a transformative cog and an MVP-caliber contributor. When the rest of the players are scuffling, Mauer isn't really the type of player who will "carry" an offense, as Reusse beckons him to do in his latest column.
At least that hasn't been the case in the past. Maybe it changes here in 2014 with Mauer transitioning to first base full-time. Maybe he moves a little closer to the form he showed in 2009, when he truly could power an offense rather than facilitating it.
The signs haven't been real positive to that end, but it's still very early, and the 30-year-old is adapting to a new position while also shaking off rust after missing the last chunk of 2013 and dealing with lingering concussion symptoms during the offseason.
I know many people want to see Mauer take more of a lead in driving the offense's production. He's very highly paid (which seems kind of irrelevant at this point), he's the first baseman and -- above all -- he's the most talented hitter on the team.
I don't think those people are necessarily misguided, at least until they start calling him an overpaid slap hitter.
I myself would like to see Mauer take on a role where he's putting the ball over the fence more frequently, and is more aggressive early in the count with runners on base. If that doesn't happen, and he continues to be the Joe Mauer we've come to know, I'll still enjoy watching him. He's one of the very best.
But unless other players around him in the batting order are the ones stepping up, he may not have the means to make a profound impact on this club's run production.
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