Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Not a Joke

Carson: Judge, I'm doing what you asked. Hobbs is a joke, a nobody from nowhere.
Judge: Yes, that’s just what concerns me, Mr. Carson. It's about time we found out
just who he is and where he's from.

from The Natural

Bobby Keppel is not a joke, and certainly not a nobody from nowhere. We know who he is, and where he’s from.

And yes, that's just what concerns me.

I’ll admit, I thought it was a little bit of a joke the first time I saw him mentioned in the dailies here. It was earlier this season, when the Twins were talking about who to call up (again) to try and fix the depleted bullpen. I expected to see the name Sean Henn (and ultimately, that’s who was called up) but the newspaper also mentioned Keppel.

My face made a scrunchy look. Who? A quick look at the statistics in Rochester confirmed that there was no way Keppel would be called up. At that point he had as many walks as strikeouts. I didn’t doubt the journalists had heard his name from some folks within the organization, but I figured it had been out of context. Because unlike Hobbs, these guys aren’t nobodies from nowhere. That’s especially true for the 27-year-old Keppel, who has been pitching professionally for 10 years.

And his track record is pretty clear. Keppel’s numbers are slightly below-average almost across the board, and I mean that in relation to other minor leaguers. 4.53 ERA. 5.2 K/9. 10.0 H/9. 1.41 WHIP. Those are his numbers in the minors. Keppel hasn’t been considered much of a prospect since 2005. He’s bounced through new organizations in 2006, 2007 and 2008. And now 2009.

The difference seems to be that in this organization, he converted to a middle reliever. It also probably didn’t hurt that he had a minor league contract that dictated he be called up by July 1st or he could become a free agent. The intersection of that contract, his minor league success, and a desperate need in the Twins bullpen got him his callup.

And he was used like a lot of fringe callups are – as a long relief guy in a low-pressure situation. His first appearance was when he relieved Kevin Slowey last Saturday in a game the Twins were already losing. He did well enough, getting through four innings without giving up a run, though the three walks he allowed aren’t usually the way the manager Ron Gardenhire's heart.

And then things changed. Suddenly, last night, he’s pitching when the Twins are holding a one-run lead in the sixth inning. That’s a little strange, but not unheard of because it’s still early in the game. Then he was asked to hold that lead for the seventh inning. That’s more curious. And then he starts the eighth?

That’s a lot more responsibility than Gardenhire usually imparts to a recent callup, and it means one of three things:

1) They see something in Keppel they really like
2) They don’t have a lot of faith in other members of the bullpen or
3) All of the above.

I’m hoping it’s #3, but #2 is in play. Lately those middle innings would’ve gone to RA Dickey, but he looked suddenly hittable Monday night. Jose Mijares and Matt Guerrier are working the eighth (though Mijares is on an awfully short leash), and Joe Nathan is obviously the ninth. That leaves Keppel and Henn, who has done everything in his power lately to ruin any confidence Gardy had.

So we can’t take tonight’s appearance as in indication that the Twins see something special. Gardenhire’s quotes after the game indicated as much, describing Keppel as a pitcher who has a sinker and is fine if he doesn’t overthrow the ball.

But he also indicated that is what the Twins have been looking for this season, and hoped that maybe they found it. Turns out, this year, a player like that has enormous value and you only need to look at this game's Win Probability scores to confirm it. Keppel’s 2.1 innings holding a one-run lead grade out as the most valuable pitching performance of the day. And anyone who watched that game would confirm it.

That's the glorious truth for Keppel: he doesn’t need to be Roy Hobbs to be valuable to this team this year. He just needs to be good enough to defy the odds. I’m rooting for him and hoping a different quote from The Natural comes to ming the rest of the year:

Pop: You’re going down. Roy: It took me a long time to get here. I won’t do it! (Pause.) I can’t. I came her to play ball.


I know, I know. I owe you stuff on the road trip. I'll try and get that up soon. Just needed to talk some baseball again.


Anonymous said...

11 groundballs to 4 flyballs so far.

Anonymous said...

He will end up being terrible just like Henn. They are hoping and praying he works out so they can get by on the cheap, like they always do.

They love the 94mph fastball. Big deal, he has problems throwing strikes.

Maybe if they keep him in mop up duty he will be ok, but that should be Dickey's role, which of course they are moving him out of, because of desperation.



John said...

Obviously the Twins need a legitimate late-inning reliever, and Keppel is not that.

Keppel though is a curious case, insofar as his stuff looks like it would cause minor leaguers more problems. One interesting thing is that, in his previous MLB stops, Keppel's fastball was 89-90, and so far its averaging 94. It also seems that he only recently became a sinker guy- last year in AAA Keppel gave up 26 home runs.

He remains quite hittable of course, and long relievers are not an especially precious commodity.

TT said...

Joe Nathan was the last "proven" reliever the Twins made a trade for. They had to give up an allstar catcher to make that deal.

The Red Sox gave up Lew Ford for the "proven" Hector Carrasco, who proceeded to pitch terribly. As I recall, he was resigned by the Twins after being released at the end of the season.

The Cubs gave up Kyle Lohse for a couple months of Rick Aguilera. The Red Sox gave up Frankie Rodriguez for Aguilera in an earlier trade.

The reality is that there are very few "proven relievers" and when one is available they demand a pretty steep price.

The reality is that no matter who you stick out there is going to be an experiment. The only way you really know is to watch the results.

If Keppel's 94 mph sinker is new, his prior stats are pretty much meaningless. His WHIP at Rochester was 1.150, the best of his career at any level. It may be an aberration or it may be his new pitch and shift to the bullpen has made him a lot better pitcher.