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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TwinsCentric: Kennys Vargas Is One Reason To Keep Watching

Posted by: Parker Hageman Updated: August 8, 2014 - 11:11 AM
What makes this time of year somewhat tolerable for watching Minnesota Twins baseball is getting the opportunity to see players like 24-year-old Kennys Vargas develop at the major league level.

Vargas's imposing stature grabs your attention right away. A hulking human, the Puerto Rican had tipped the scales at 280 at one point during the seasons, making him almost better suited for a defensive lineman position. Because of that, analysts have thrown around comparisons to other large hitters in history like David Ortiz and Mo Vaughn.
 
Ortiz is the most frequently recited comp based upon the pair's relationship that blossomed in Fort Myers and Vargas's admission that he based his left-handed swing Ortiz's. From this example -- his Futures Game double last month at Target Field -- you see the big leg-kick and hands-drop, a la Big Papi, from the left-side:


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In New Britain, Vargas displayed power from both sides of the plate but hit 11 of his 17 home runs from the left side with this swing:

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When he joined the team in Chicago, his swing was changed slightly. Though the big hand-drop before the swing was still prevalent -- as was the large leg-kick -- he had closed his stance. Most noteworthy is that the White Sox pitching staff did not let him see very many fastballs. According to ESPN/trumedia, Vargas saw 47 pitches and just 14 of those were fastballs. The vast majority were changeups and an assortment of breaking pitches:

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While the results were not bad for Vargas, his swings often produced bloops to the opposite field as the plethora of off-speed pitches disrupted his timing.

As the team returned from Chicago for a series at home against the Padres, Twins Daily reader Willihammer astutely pointed out that Vargas had altered his swing. Instead of the leg-kick and hand movement, he was keeping himself still and his weight back:

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In at least the example above, Vargas kept his weight back effectively on the hanging breaking ball and was able to send that ball effortlessly into the stadium’s overhang. The Padres, for their part, sent more fastballs Vargas’s direction than the White Sox did.

For those older fans who remembers the Twins teams at the turn of the century, this all should sound familiar. In 2001, David Ortiz was struggling to stay healthy and the Twins had him go through a series of adjustments at the plate to improve his overall approach. This from The Sporting News of that year:

“This season, the club would like to see Ortiz take advantage of the power potential in his 6-4, 230-pound frame. He has made several adjustments, including lowering his hand position in his stance and shortening his leg kick.”

After Ortiz was released, he joined the Red Sox and continued to implement his big leg-kick swing and generated plenty of power and the ability to drive the ball to all fields, like the Twins had wanted him to do.

This is not an attempt to open up old wounds from the past or berate the organization for a decision that probably still haunts them to this day, but the comparison is uncanny.

To be sure, Vargas, a player who came straight from Double-A, is coming from a league whose pitching landscape is often filled with talented power arms but are still learning to locate their secondary pitches. Many analysts will tell you that if you succeed in Double-A, you should be able to succeed at the highest level. While that may be true in some cases, developing hitters miss out on the experience gained at Triple-A where pitchers do not have the same sexy velocity as their Double-A counterparts but are able to locate breaking balls and changeups. Players like Oswaldo Arcia and Aaron Hicks both have seen what can happen when pitchers can deploy secondary pitches with precision. What Vargas learned in his weekend in Chicago is that pitchers at this level can spot a change down and away with regularity.

Hitting is an evolution and Vargas’s tweak may just be a temporary adjustment until he feels more comfortable with the mix of pitches he is now facing rather than a long-term change to his swing. Either way, Vargas represents a reason to watch the Twins even as the team wallows at the bottom of the division yet again.


Over at TwinsDaily.com...

TwinsCentric: Will Alex Meyer pitch for Twins this year?

Posted by: Nick Nelson Updated: August 6, 2014 - 9:13 AM
With the Twins once again buried in last place and their starting pitching staff once again ranking among the worst in the league, fans have been asking the same question for much of the summer.

When will Trevor May and Alex Meyer get the call?

By all appearances, both of the highly rated pitching prospects have been MLB-ready for some time. May and Meyer rank fifth and sixth, respectively, on the International League ERA leaderboard, and they're both in the top three for strikeout rate.

Yet, both have been left to dominate in Triple-A while the Twins give starts to lesser talents like Kris Johnson, Logan Darnell and Yohan Pino. We're now almost a week into August, and still there's no clear indication that either May or Meyer is even on the verge of a promotion.

It's not hard to see why people are frustrated, but at the same time, there are circumstances at play with both pitchers that need to be recognized.

May is very, very close. When he was seemingly nearing a call-up in June, he suffered an ill-timed calf injury that cost him a month, and he's been working his way back. Just now has he finally returned to a normal workload; he threw 99 pitches in his last start, the first time since mid-June that he's gone over 80.

He's already on the 40-man roster. Bringing him up is a simple move at this point. I have to imagine that May will be on the Twins within the next turn or two through the rotation.

The wait for Meyer will probably last longer. He might not even debut in 2014. And while that's unfortunate to hear, it's not something to get riled up at the organization over.

Last year, Meyer missed two months -- more than a third of his season -- with a sore throwing shoulder. It was very scary, especially when you consider that his size and delivery always elicited injury concerns from scouts.

Fortunately, the shoulder has been fine this year. He hasn't missed a start and has been making mincemeat of minor-league hitters. But when you look at this pitch count from start to start, it's obvious that the Twins are being very cautious with him.

Here are Meyer's inning totals and pitch counts for each outing with Rochester this season:

4/6: 5.0 IP, 79 pitches
4/12: 5.1 IP, 83 pitches
4/18: 3.2 IP, 77 pitches
4/23: 6.2 IP, 100 pitches
4/28: 6.0 IP, 100 pitches
5/4: 4.2 IP, 92 pitches
5/10: 4.0 IP, 92 pitches
5/15: 5.0 IP, 69 pitches
5/22: 5.1 IP, 79 pitches
5/28: 6.0 IP, 88 pitches
6/2: 5.0 IP, 78 pitches
6/7: 6.0 IP, 81 pitches
6/13: 2.0 IP, 51 pitches
6/18: 3.0 IP, 78 pitches
6/23: 3.2 IP, 73 pitches
6/28: 6.0 IP, 77 pitches
7/3: 6.0 IP, 86 pitches
7/8: 6.0 IP, 96 pitches
7/18: 6.0 IP, 88 pitches
7/23: 6.0 IP, 86 pitches
7/29: 5.0 IP, 96 pitches
8/3: 5.2 IP, 91 pitches

Looking at the game log, a few things stand out. First, he's only been allowed to pitch into the seventh inning once all season, despite the fact that he's routinely blowing away opposing lineups. Second, only seven times in 22 starts has he been pushed over 90 pitches.

Twins Daily member jokin was in attendance during Meyer's latest start in Louisville, and described the performance in a post here on our forums. His writeup noted that Meyer was pulled rather abruptly with two outs in the fifth despite "looking completely in command of the game," as the righty had surpassed the 90-pitch threshold.

This observation coincides with what we're seeing in Meyer's pitch count trends. There's a clear effort being made to monitor him very closely and pull him out of games where he's laboring or approaching that triple-digit pitch mark.

It's a lot easier to do that in Triple-A, where the games don't really matter, than in the majors. Big-league starters are expected to throw more than 90 pitches. And Meyer, whose command remains spotty despite all his notable strengths, could have some games where he hits that 90-pitch mark pretty quickly as he transitions to the highest level. That taxes a bullpen.

As a fan, I am dying to see Meyer pitch in a Twins uniform. But at the same time, I'm not going to fault the organization for taking every precaution with such a highly valuable arm, especially in a lost season. If they just want to get him through a full, healthy campaign, with the idea of having him try and win a spot next spring, I can live with that.

At this point, it might not make much of a difference. He has already thrown 112 innings this year, which is eight more than he threw total last year, between the regular season and Arizona Fall League. As careful as they've been with him, it's hard to imagine the Twins letting Meyer top 150 innings this season.

That means he might only have five or six starts left. While it would be nice for the fans if a few of those come in the majors, that also requires adding him to the 40-man and starting his service clock. Those aren't huge hurdles, necessarily, but they're factors.

Ultimately, it wouldn't shock me if the Twins let Meyer finish out in Triple-A, and it wouldn't really upset me.

International League hitters might feel differently.

TwinsCentric: Twins Minor League Starting Pitchers of July

Posted by: Seth Stohs Updated: August 4, 2014 - 11:08 PM

Yesterday, we looked at the top relief pitchers for the month of July. There were a lot of great bullpen performances and many honorable mentions as well. It’s much of the same today when we look at the Minnesota Twins top starting pitchers in July.

This list is a mix of top prospects and pitchers who deserve much more recognition.

Honorable Mention

  • RHP – JO Berrios – Ft. Myers/New Britain – 5 GS, 2-3, 3.51 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 25.2 IP, 20 H, 7 BB, 17 K (.220/.290/.319)
  • RHP – Alex Meyer – Rochester – 5 GS, 2-0, 1.55 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 29.0 IP, 17 H, 17 BB, 34 K (.175/.298/.227)
  • LHP – Sean Gilmartin – Rochester – 6 GS, 1-2, 3.89 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 37.0 IP, 33 H, 12 BB, 31 K (.244/.311/.356)
  • RHP – Felix Jorge – Elizabethton – 5 GS, 2-1, 2.63 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 27.1 IP, 27 H, 8 BB, 27 K (.255/.319/.321)
  • LHP – Brandon Easton – GCL Twins – 5 GS, 1-1, 2.45 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 22.0 IP, 19 H, 6 BB, 15 K (.235/.292/.370)
     

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Number 5 – GCL Twins – RHP Alexis Tapia – 6 G, 4 GS, 3-0, 1.80 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, 25.0 IP, 17 H, 4 BB, 20 K

The Twins signed Tapia out of Venezuela in September of 2012. Less than two years later, he is making his debut in the States and doing a very good job in the GCL. Last year in the DSL, he went 2-1 with a 2.13 ERA in 11 games (7 starts). In 42.1 innings, he gave up 32 hits, walked five and struck out 31. He has continued that with the GCL Twins, giving up less than a hit per inning, minimizing walks and getting decent strikeout numbers. In July, opponents hit .193/.240/.284 (.524) against him.

Number 4 – GCL/Elizabethton – LHP Mat Batts – 5 G, 4 GS, 2-0, 1.80 ERA, 0.76 WHIP, 25.0 IP, 15 H, 4 BB, 27 K

The Twins used their 17th round pick this year on this four-year college senior out of UNC-Wilmington. He is also a former intern at Baseball America. However, it is what he has done on the mound since being drafted that has the 23-year-old on this list. He made just three appearances in the GCL before there was a need at Elizabethton. He then made four starts at Elizabethton. At the end of July, he was promoted to Cedar Rapids where he had a very good first start. In July, opponents hit just .179/.225/.286 (.510). He is not a hard-thrower, but he is a pitcher. He’s got the “Twins Pitcher” profile, throws strikes, mixes pitches, knows how to pitch.

Number 3 - Cedar Rapids – RHP Aaron Slegers - 6 GS, 2-2, 1.96 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 36.2 IP, 28 H, 5 BB, 31 K

At 6-10, Aaron Slegers has the ability to stand out in a crowd. After a strong start in Cedar Rapids this year, he struggled for a couple of months. However, he figured some things out in July and posted his best month. Opponents hit just .224/.267/.328 (.595) off of him. He gained control and command of his pitches. In fact, the 21-year-old was promoted to Ft. Myers and made his first start on Monday night. Slegers has a low-90s fastball, and as you would expect, a good, downward angle on his pitches. The Twins 5th round pick in 2013 out of Indiana, he will need some patience, but there is a lot of reason to be excited about his potential.  

Number 2 – New Britain – Tyler Duffey - 6 GS, 5-0, 3.10 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 40.2 IP, 34 H, 5 BB, 34 K

Duffey was the Twins 2012 fifth-round draft pick out of Rice University where he shared closer duties with Twins 2nd round pick JT Chargois. In 2013, he was moved into the starting rotation, and he has been very solid. He certainly has had some ups and downs as a starter, but when he’s on, he gives the feeling that he could pitch in the big leagues. His fastballs come in anywhere from 90 to 95 mph. He has a very good curveball, and his changeup remains his biggest question mark. Things were working well in July when opponents hit just .228/.259/.396 (.655) against him.

And the Twins Minor League Starting Pitcher of the Month is:

Cedar Rapids – RHP Chih-Wei Hu - 6 GS, 5-0, 1.25 ERA, 0.72 WHIP, 36.0 IP, 20 H, 6 BB, 38 K

The Twins outbid several teams for Hu’s services after he had a very impressive amateur career. He was a star in high school as well as in international competitions. The Twins signed him for $220,000 in August of 2012. He spent 2013 in the GCL, and he began 2014 in Elizabethton. In July, he made one start in Elizabethton before a promotion to the Kernels. In each of his six starts, he went six innings. Opponents hit just .156/.206/.195 against him. He has a fastball that can touch 95. He has a good curveball and a solid changeup. He even throws a palm ball. At 6-1 and 215 pounds, the 20-year-old has a sturdy frame. He has an advanced knowledge of pitching and has a chance to be very good.

So there you have it. The top pitchers in the Minnesota Twins farm system in July. What do you think? How would you rank these starting pitchers?

For more much, check out the new TwinsDaily.com.

Gleeman and the Geek, Ep 156: Trade Deadline Recap

Posted by: John Bonnes Updated: August 3, 2014 - 8:54 PM

Aaron and John talk about swapping Sam Fuld for Tommy Milone, extending Kurt Suzuki, calling up Kennys Vargas, being a curmudgeon, looking for Alex Meyer and Trevor May, learning new things that sound dirty, overvaluing prospects, claiming Jordan Schafer off waivers, checking in on Aaron Hicks, Oswaldo Arcia struggling versus lefties, and moving into the penthouse. You can listen by downloading us from iTunesStitcher or find it at GleemanAndTheGeek.com. Or just click on the "play" button below.

Meanwhile at Twins Daily,

- Who is this guy the Twins picked up yesterday?

- Why was Friday a bad day for the Twins minor leagues

- What can we expect from Tommy Milone?

- Should the Twins consider a six-man starting rotation?

TwinsCentric: Will Kurt Suzuki's continue to hit?

Posted by: Parker Hageman Updated: August 1, 2014 - 9:06 AM

Over a Twins Daily, the discussion regarding what to do with catcher Kurt Suzuki leading up to the trade deadline was a highly debated topic.

 

On one hand, the Twins have a commodity that is having one of the best years of his career and his trade value might never be greater. For an organization trying to rebuild, capitalizing on this value would be beneficial by potentially bringing in new talent with the option of finding a new catcher in free agency again this winter if need be (though, admittedly, the trade market for Suzuki never seemed to materialize after the Cardinals and Orioles appeared uninterested in the backstop). On the other, you have a player who is well-respected on the team and provides a stable presence in a vital position. While not necessarily a defensive whiz, pitchers like Phil Hughes, Glen Perkins and Kyle Gibson have all touted and benefitted from his abilities.

 

Leaving those elements aside, let us simply focus on the question of whether or not Suzuki can sustain his offensive output over the duration of his extension.

 

As far as catchers, Suzuki has been an on-base machine as of late. Dating back to August of last year, he has had the third-highest OBP among American League catchers. That figure is buoyed by the best batting average (.306). At the same time, his power numbers have been awful. His isolated slugging percentage (.085) is the second-lowest in all of baseball in that duration. Nevertheless, with a position that places an emphasis on defense, having a handler who can produce those on-base numbers at the expense of power is a net positive. But can it continue?

 

When a player in the middle of his career suddenly has his best offensive season, there is an immediate tendency to consider it an anomaly. The belief is that because of this single-season spike, regression will often follow. For this reason, Suzuki’s 2014 numbers have rightfully been scrutinized. At 30 years old and in his eighth season in the majors, the Minnesota Twins’ catcher has significantly outperformed his numbers -- specifically the batting average and his on-base percentage.

 

Is he suddenly hitting rockets around the field? Absolutely not. According to ESPN/trumedia Suzuki’s Hard Hit Average (an observation-based metric from Inside Edge’s video scouts that measures if a ball was well-struck or not) has been the lowest since his 2009 season. No one watching would be fooled into thinking he is hitting frozen ropes around the yard but he’s hitting them where they ain’t. While he is in possession of his lowest Hard Hit Average in the past seven years, he has compiled his highest batting average on balls in play -- a gaudy .324 compared to his .274 career average.

 

To summarize, Suzuki's current success if based on the fact that he is hitting pitches softer than ever and is yet somehow finding seams and vacant real estate. That’s not reassuring, is it?

 

Small Changes

 

In spite of these key indicators that would suggest massive regression in his future, Suzuki’s improvement goes beyond luck.

 

At the beginning of the season when Suzuki came out of the gates on fire, I reviewed his video footage and noticed a small yet important change in his swing: He altered his front foot landing.

 

Look at the comparison of the clips below. In the first clip from when he was with the Washington Nationals in 2013, Suzuki swung his leg open slightly and landed toward the pitcher. In the clip from this season, Suzuki’s stride and landing would keep him slightly toward first base.

 

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This has allowed for improved plate coverage for Suzuki. Already a disciplinarian when it comes to the strike zone, he struggled with pitches on the outside portion of the plate.

 

According to ESPN/TruMedia’s data, from 2009 through July 2013, he hit just .230 on pitches away. Since implementing the changes after being traded to Oakland last year, he has batted .297 on pitches outside. No longer would he be pulling away from those pitches but better suited to drive them, as his line drive rate increased along with the changes.

 

Also note the position of his hands. Instead of moving them to load, as he is seen doing while with the Nationals, he keeps his hands back at the onset and has little movement when loading.

 

Along with the firm front side, Suzuki shows less head movement which appears to be resulting in improved contact. Because of this, assigning his offensive performance in 2014 to luck does not seem like the right conclusion.

 

Off The Bat

 

Along with the mechanical tweak, Suzuki’s approach has shifted as well.

 

At one time a marginal power producer, he has seen that decline significantly in 2014. Part of the impetus is the fact that he is no longer hitting fly balls. Instead, he is putting up the highest line drive and ground ball rates of his career -- also a product of his changes as he hits the top-middle of the ball more frequently. This is important to note because line drives and ground balls become hits more often than fly balls but at the expense of power.

 

If he is able to maintain this batted ball distribution -- which based on his mechanical changes seems plausible -- then Suzuki has a better chance of continuing to hit safely and thereby sustaining his on-base percentage.

 

Conclusion


To be sure, Suzuki will likely see some decline in his numbers over the next two seasons because of age and some balls not squeaking through the infield. After all, teams are deploying Tom Verducci's illegal defenses at an alarming rate this year and they may figure out a way to combat Suzuki's ground balls as well. Still, with his mechanical adjustment and his sound approach at the plate, Suzuki has the potential to continue this output at a similar level for the next two years.

TwinsCentric: Five players to watch in the next two months

Posted by: Nick Nelson Updated: July 29, 2014 - 11:51 PM
On his excellent RandBall blog, Michael Rand wrote Tuesday that despite being out of contention, the Twins' approach at the deadline isn't as cut-and-dry as "trade anyone with a pulse." There is value, Rand argues, in working toward a better finish and changing a culture of losing.

I very much agree with the general sentiment expressed here. The Twins desperately need to show more down the stretch this season than they have over the last three years. Another lifeless August and September would be unacceptable.

However, if that improvement is driven by players like Kurt Suzuki, Josh Willingham and Kevin Correia, who are not part of the long-term solution, what good does it do? At that point, all you're doing is costing yourself valuable draft slots, with no tangible positive takeaways to bring forward.

Maybe Terry Ryan will move those veterans before Thursday's deadline and maybe he won't. But regardless, these are the players we should be focused on here in the final two months, and what we should be looking for:

Oswaldo Arcia: His season has been one of the great disappointments of 2014, as he has taken a significant step backward following his promising rookie campaign. Any time he appears to be getting something going, he falls into another spell where he looks totally lost at the plate. An at-bat on Sunday that ended with him snapping a bat over his knee sums up his season pretty well, but a strong finish with a bunch of home runs would go a long way toward building optimism toward 2015.

Kyle Gibson: He has given us a lot to like this year, most notably an elite ground ball rate (fifth-best in baseball) and control that has improved substantially over the course of the season. But it's hard to get overly excited when he's giving up five-plus runs every other start. If he can eliminate most of the clunkers while staying healthy and working toward 200 innings, we'll be able to feel a lot more comfortable in his ability to help anchor next year's rotation.

Joe Mauer: We need positive signs. He was hitting .362 on a 12-game hitting streak before going down with an oblique injury, and now that he appears close to returning, he needs to pick up where he left off. It's tough to imagine the Twins returning to contention in the next couple years without Mauer being a major contributor. I'll be particularly interested to see if he can start evening out his K/BB ratio, which was still oddly unimpressive even while he was heating up.

Ricky Nolasco: Will the first season of his big new contract be an unmitigated disaster, or can he salvage something here at the tail end? Nolasco pitched hurt for months before landing on the shelf with elbow soreness. If he can't come back and perform for a stretch before the season ends, he's going to be a big question mark during the offseason that will make it difficult for the team to plan out its 2015 starting corps.

Byron Buxton: The top prospect may have positioned himself as the 2015 Opening Day center fielder if he'd remained healthy this season. Maybe he still can. He's finally got it going in Ft. Myers and should be moved up to New Britain very shortly. A good month there could possibly earn him a September call-up. With all their issues in center, the Twins have plenty of reason to want a look at him.

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