Tuesday, June 26, 2007


It used to be that this team prided itself on creating pressure on the basepaths for the other team. These days they seem content to bluff.

About two months ago, the White Sox came to the Dome and took two of three games. What surprised me about that series was that the Twins, against a catcher that they specifically dumped because they didn't trust his defense, refused to steal a base. In fact, they didn't try.

A month later, AJ came back to town, pissed everyone off, so the Twins ran crazy and embarassed the White Sox. Whereas the Twins promptly went to Oakland and faced a similarly weak-armed Jason Kendall - and refused to run. And they lost two of three.

And it happened AGAIN last night. Ninth inning, one out, Bartlett on first and Cuddyer at the plate. But what's really important is who was behind the plate, who was Greg Zaun, who has thrown out just 3 of 18 basestealers. He's been below average for most of the last three years.

So Bartlett takes a big lead, with one foot on the outfield grass. And he bluffed. And bluffed. And bluffed some more. And then Cuddyer hit into a double play started by the second baseman - who wouldn't have been there if Bartlett was stealing.

Listen, I know some think it's some sort of sabremetric mantra to play station-to-station baseball. It isn't, but some think it is. But every rule has its exception, and that exception is when you
1. are in a tie game and
2. have a solid base stealer at first base and
3. are facing a helluva bullpen and
4. have a noodle-armed catcher behind the plate..

...you man up, close your eyes and run like hell. And it doesn't have to happen just because the noodle-armed catcher spiked your first baseman.

Monday, June 25, 2007

On-the-job Training

One of the basic strategies that teams use in baseball is that of the opposite side advantage. Basically, players, managers and fans understand that a if a pitcher and a batter share the same "handedness", the pitcher has the advantage. But if they are opposite, for instance a southpaw pitcher facing a right-handed batter, the batter has the advantage.

Coming into yesterday's game, Kevin Slowey has been defying that logic. Slowey is right-handed, and has been semi-successful versus left-handers, who have a .286 average with an 826 OPS. But right-handed hitters were lighting him up, batting .333 with a 1063(!) OPS. Slower is making the average right-handed batter look like Magglio Ordonez.

That's from a pretty small sample size, but you can expect those numbers to look even worse today. Both home runs that Slowey gave up and every RBI hit yesterday was by a right-handed batter. Watching the at-bats, one starts to understand why.

Yesterday, Slowey was incredibly successful in getting his fastball to paint the outside edge of home plate versus left-handers and right-handers. He has a second, slightly slower fastball with some movement that one would think would be especially handy against the right-handers, since it moves towards them. He used it all night to start outside of the strike zone and then move back to the outside edge of the plate, getting a called strike.

But after once through the order, the right-handed batters looked for that pitch, and began fouling it off (three of Slowey's four strikeouts came in the first seven outs he got). Ideally, Slowey would use the aforementioned pitch to bust right-handed batters inside, or throw some breaking pitches to upset a hitters timing.

But right now, Slower is having trouble doing either one. The pitches inside aren't far enough inside, and are getting pulled into the left field bleachers. The offspeed stuff is either missing the plate by so much that batters watch it for a ball or catch so much of the plate that it's being pulled into the left field bleachers. Which leaves the outside fastball, which is nice until he gets a little tired, and his control wavers and it finds enough plate to be pulled into...well, you get the idea.

He's going to need to make an adjustment, like learning to pitch inside a bit better, or disgusing the offspeed stuff a bit better, or working the strike zone up and down instead of just side to side. In fact, it looked like discovered that last tactic about midway through the fifth inning, allowing him to get through the inning without more damage being done.

It isn't hopeless, but he's going to need to learn on the job, and he's going to need to learn on the job quickly, because this team isn't the Pirates or the Royals or even the '98 Twins. This team needs Jason Bartlett to ride out a sophomore slump and Jason Kubel to refind his confidence and Slowey and Scott Baker and Boof Bonser to be productive first year pitchers. which might be fine if they weren't also trying to win 90-plus games.

That is the tightrope this organization walks, and I suspect you couldn't find five teams in the league that walk it better, and maybe not two teams that have walked it successfully as long. And it sounds corny, but they walk it together - the players, the coaches, the farm teams and the management - working on development and relying on patience.

But mostly, they need to rely on players like Slowey learning very, very quickly. And completing his on-the-job training.


Hey, if you didn't check it out yesterday, over at GameDay's Writers Blog, we're having a bit of a contest. You might remember The Bloggers Minute that WCCO did the last couple of years. The idea was to let a blogger sound off about something in a minute, which turns out is about 200 words.

We're taking turns over there, with me going first yesterday. A reader joined us in the commment section, and we should have one more posted each day this week. I'd also like to challenge the other Twins bloggers out there to take a stab at it and let me know and I'll be happy to link to it as the week goes on. It really is kind of fun (and challenging) to try and make a point and support it in 200 words or less. Good luck!

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Definition of ‘Can’t Afford’

Last week the Blue Jays put AJ Burnett on the disabled list with a strained shoulder. This was Burnett’s second trip to the DL since he’s joined the Jays, and they’ve limited him to just 35 starts over his first year-and-a-half with them. He joins closer BJ Ryan, who was put on the DL on 4/15, underwent Tommy John surgery a month later, and will be out until next year.

This isn’t the first time that the ace starter and elite closer have been linked, of course. They were both signed as part of the Blue Jays big splash following the 2005 season, and they both received two of the largest contracts that offseason dished out. The Blue Jays signed the talented and young (he was 28 years old) Burnett for 5 years and $55 million. The same rationale was used to justify the five-year, $47 million contract to Ryan, despite a grand total of 42 saves at the time.

This year, those two players represent $21 million of the Blue Jays (approximate) $81 million payroll, but really, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. After all, the Jays have a similar commitment to each of them through the next three years. Given the state of the Blue Jays current minor league system, and the age of some of their better players, it’s also increasingly unlikely that either will be part of a post season run, even if they do stay healthy.

So why are you reading about this on Twins blog?

Because at the end of next year, the Twins will have their own difficult decision to make about an ace starter and elite closer. Joe Nathan’s $6 million option year will conclude, and if he stay’s healthy, he’ll be the most successful closer to hit the free agent market since Billy Wagner signed his 4 year, $43 million deal. And Johan Santana, whose deal with the Twins ends at the same time, could be the most highly anticipated free agent to hit the market since Alex Rodriguez in 2000. You might recall that he signed a ten-year deal for a quarter of a billion dollars.

You might think that the italics in that last sentence were poorly placed. Indeed, what stands out to most people is the word ‘billion’, but it’s the duration of the contract that is more critical for pitchers. Because pitchers are far larger injury risks, which Blue Jays fans are finding out.

Twins fans will find that out soon, too. It’s popular right now for Twins fans or sports commentators to say that the Twins need to be willing to sign Santana to a $20 million deal, but the amount of money isn’t really the question. Terry Ryan hasn’t been afraid to commit money to a player for a single year, even if that player was Kyle Lohse, let alone a real talent like Santana.

No, the tough question is “For how long?”. Would you sign Santana to a seven-year deal through 2015? When he turns 36? Or Nathan to a four-year deal through his 38th birthday? Do you trust those elbows to say healthy that long? How about those labrums?

(And don’t look for an “insurance loophole”. First, because an injury that takes away five miles per hour from ace’s fastball isn’t significant enough to collect insurance. Second, the insurance for this kind of contract can jack it up a couple of million dollars more per year. And finally, insurance companies have become wise enough to not offer insurance for that length of a pitcher’s contract. That might tell you something all by itself.)

The other cliché you’ll hear right now concerning a long-term deal with Santana is that while he might be expensive, the Twins can’t afford to NOT sign him. That’s at least partially true. The Twins may have some other young talent to replace those innings, such as Francisco Liriano or Pat Neshek, but it would be devastating to watch Santana or Nathan find their way to the Yankees or Red Sox and block the Twins road to a third world championship.

But if you really want to see what a team can’t afford, imagine losing that talent AND 30% of the Twins mini-payroll because those arms are on the DL. The impact - and inevitability - of that devastating scenario is currently being illustrated by the wounded wings of some prized Blue Jays.

Twins Takes

Over on the GameDay Writers' Blog, we're playing around a little, and this week's challenge is to write a "Bloggers Minute", which is a rheotical piece that can hold an audience's interest, but still be around 200 words or less. I'm kicking it off (click the link) with a take on why Minnesotan sports fans are so down on the Twins. If you're interested in joining the fun, post a comment with your own 200 word take. I'd love to see what you got.