Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Comment Thursday

Fourth of July weekend is beginning a little early in the Geek House. Not because I'm taking an extra day off - I'm not. But fortunately, just about everyone else is. So let's dedicate today's comments column to everyone who stretches their long weekend, and in so doing, pushes the rest of us into a holiday state of mind. Let's get to the comments....

A Few Questions I Have This Week

Since comments are a little light this week, let's start by answering the questions I asked on Sunday night, keeping in mind that we're only halfway though the week.

Q: Is Detroit a contender?
A: Nominally. Could they win the division? Yeah. But let's give it the "scary" test. Would you ever find yourself saying "You know what scares me? The Tigers. They're scary."

Well, if they were real tigers, the answer would be "yes". Tigers, rare as they are, are one of the few natural enemies of man. They won't hesitate to hunt us in their natural habitat and they enhance their power and viciousness by being incredibly sneaky. They almost always are able to attack from behind. In fact, people walking through a tiger's territory sometimes wear masks on the back of their heads to try and fool them.

And for this Tigers team I would have said "yes" during this offseason. Ditto through April, even though they looked dreadful. Even last week during their 17-4 run I might have replied affirmatively. But after watching the bulk of this series and three other ones I'm comfortable saying that the only way they're dangerous is when they attack from behind. And while they're not pussycats, I don't feel the need to walk around with a mask on the back of my head either. Unless maybe it's of Joe Nathan. That should keep them at bay.

Q: Can Denard Span help the club this year?
A: Yep, or at least he can if he stays on the team. Dick Bremer made a good point last night about how different the Twins offseason might have been if Span would have shown this year's development last year. Would there have been as much ruckus about Hunter leaving? Would they have courted the same teams during Johan trades if they didn't need a center fielder? Would the Twins have ended up with the Mets' Fernando Martinez instead of Carlos Gomez?

By the way, the 19-year-old Martinez is playing pretty well in AA right now. It's worth noting that he was injured again this year and missed more than a month with a hamstring strain.

Q: Speaking of ever, will Ron Gardenhire ever let Span bat leadoff?
A: Still don't know. Span looks like he would be an infinitely better fit there than Gomez, but so has Casilla for over a month.

And if we really want to talk about switching around the lineup, I know it's not traditional, but what if we sprinkled these guys around in the lineup a little? It seems counter-intuitive to have any of them batting in the middle of the order, but it sure would be nice to see one of these speed bugs show up each inning or so. And, to be honest, I'd rather have both Casilla's and Span's disciplined bats in the middle of the lineup over Delmon Young's right now. At the very least, maybe move one of them to the seventh spot?

As far as I know, I've never seen a simulation which tried something like that. Let's take it a step further. What if we divided a lineup into three types of players - lead-offs, general hitters, and power, and assigned each group three of your players. And then what if you just alternated them with a leadoff batter being followed by a hitter who was followed by a slugger. If the Twins did something like that, I'd probably divide them something like this:

Lead off - Gomez, Casilla, Span
Hitters - Mauer, Harris, Buscher
Power - Morneau, Kubel, Cuddyer

And then the lineup would look like this: Casilla, Mauer, Morneau, Span, Buscher, Kubel, Gomez, Harris, Cuddyer.

Gawd, that looks ... awful. What am I writing? Did someone slip something into my ice water? Let's forget this conversation ever took place, OK?

Q: Will Glen Perkins be in this rotation after the all-star break?
This brings us to our first comment of the week....

TT said...
And two of [Perkins] last three [starts] have been [quality starts].

They really need to make room for a guy [Liriano] who has given up 5 runs in each of his last two games at AAA while never getting out of the 6th inning. Perkins has had two starts that bad all year - and they were both almost a month ago. Perkins job is, or should be, at least as safe as Nick Blackburn's.

I guess we can both throw numbers around, but Perkin's ERA in June, even after that nice start this week, is 4.67. That said, he's now had three quality starts in his last four, and this last start was impressive. He might be the best at working inside of all of the starters, especially when he establishes it early. His control is still inconsistent, and that's what worries me. But he seems to be overcoming that after a rough stretch.

Your point about Blackburn is a good one. Blackburn's starts lately have been better than Perkins', but he also had a rough spot and had his turn in the rotation skipped once for "elbow soreness". I think of him as more established because he's been in the rotation longer, and that's usually a valid consideration with this coaching staff. They both still have plenty to prove, but they've both surprised me, and in a good way. I recognize that they're very good.

Which sucks for Liriano. Yes, he's given up some runs lately, but he's also improved his control and is back to striking out a guy per inning. Maybe more importantly to the cynics, calling him up now (or at least soon) is late enough in the season that he won't end the season with enough service time to be a Super 2 arbitration-eligible player. That could save the Twins a couple of million dollars per year over the next four years. What to do with him is a nice problem to have.

Bitter Aftertaste
neckrolls said...
Gardy was ejected in the 3rd inning - Scott Ulger made all the pitching changes (and non-changes).

I need to ask - does anyone really understand why Gardy gets thrown out in these situations? He's not protecting a player. He's not arguing a close call. It seems like he's just throwing a fit about a rule he doesn't like, which would be fine, but I'm not even all that sure about what he doesn't like about the rule.

In this case, it sounds like he was mad that his guy got thrown at twice while their guy was thrown at once. But no real harm was done in any of the three episodes. You can argue that the umpire allowed the teams to state their positions and then, when it looked like one team was going to carry it a little further, he issued the warnings. He probably should have done it after the first close pitch to Mauer, and Gardy has every right, and maybe the responsibility, to point out that out to the umpire. But why get tossed over it? No harm was done. What further point is made by throwing a petulant fit?

And if his issue is the whole "warning" rule, one could argue that it's made to protect teams exactly like the Twins. This team, especially under Gardy's leadership, has absolutely shied away from any kind of beanball retaliation, even when it is clear their hitters are being thrown at. This year that seems to be a little bit different, with a little more feistiness, and it makes me wonder if the previous passive behavior was a result of Radke and/or Santana's leadership.

Again, I think Gardy is a much better manager than he is generally given credit. And in the big picture, this is small potatoes. But this has been an ongoing issue during the Gardenhire regime, and his reaction seems to be wholly ineffective at best, and puzzling, embarrassing and self-destructive at worst. Which brings us to our last comment....

Anonymous said...
It's a great question: does the manager stop managing after being ejected? I've always assumed the answer is no.

In the Twins case, I believe the answer is "yes". And furthermore, I believe Gardy's puzzling, embarrassing and self-destructive fit might well have cost the Twins that first game of the series.

I suspect that Gardy really does leave these kind of on-field decisions to one of his coaches because I keep seeing that delegation philosophy within the organization. You can sense that GM Bill Smith (and Terry Ryan before him) is sometimes legitimately frustrated with some of Gardy's playing time choices, but he will not interfere because he also understands the benefits of having some boundaries, like not having a manager look over his own shoulder. You get the same feeling when the team talks about the draft. You get that feeling when they talk about their minor league coaches. You even get that feeling with Gardenhire and his players. And I'd be shocked if it didn't extend to Gardy's staff. The idea of establishing limits in power to allow direct reports to do their job and face the consequences seems to be fundamental to this organization.

And that raises the question about whether Ullger was doing what he thought he was supposed to do, or what he wanted to do. Or, as I said on Monday night:

"But was Ullger sticking with Guerrier because he thought Guerrier was the designated eighth inning guy? If Gardy would have been making the moves, would it have been done differently, because he's more comfortable second-guessing himself than Ullger is second-guessing his boss?"

I have a high opinion of Gardenhire's feel for the bullpen, and tend to think it would have been played a bit differently, and turned out differently, if he was the one pulling the strings. That's part of why I wrote what I did on Monday night. It's rare that you see him miss an opportunity that gives his bullpen a clear advantage.

OK, that does it for this week. This weekend the Twins get a chance to bury the Indians and then bury the shovel. We'll talk to you on Monday and see if they take advantage of it.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Bitter Aftertaste

"Slow, old, and a little indifferent." That's how I described the Tigers in the second series versus the Twins this year, though I also mentioned how explosive they could be in the first series. Then, last month, we saw both in the same series as the Tigers sandwiched an explosive 19-3 victory with two anemic outings. Last night we saw both in the same game.

The Tigers entered the game with Magglio Ordonez on the disabled list. By the third inning, they had sought medical attention for two more of the veterans as the Tigers spent some time looking at catcher Ivan Rodriguez's knee and pulled Miguel Cabrera from the game with a hip flexor. They also had committed three fielding errors.

Their quite march to a meek loss was changed in the seventh inning. I suspect manager Ron Gardenhire will take a fair amount of abuse from at least two group of fans about pulling Perkins after 6.1 innings. First, Fans who think Ruining Arms is Good(FRAG) will wonder why Perkins wasn't allowed to get himself out of the inning when he had only thrown 91 pitches. After all, that's how Bert did it. Second, the Wins Are Statistical Tomfoolery group(WAST) will probably wonder if Gardy didn't take Perkins out so he could make sure his young pitcher had no chance to get a loss after that outing.

Both may be right, but there was nothing wrong with that move. Two right-handed batters were coming up, and both of them have hit significantly worse against right-handed pitchers this year. But for those who want to question a bullpen move, Gardy gave us a nice morsel to pick apart an inning later. Or rather a bullpen non-move.

The Twins were clinging to a 4-3 lead, the tying run was on second base and there was one out. Right-handed Matt Guerrier was pitching for the Twins, and so the Tigers announced that left-handed Matt Joyce would be a pinch hitter. Joyce not only hits right-handed pitchers better than left-handed pitchers, he almost only hits against right-handed pitchers. This year he has only two at-bats, and no hits, against southpaws. What's more, he was being followed by Curtis Granderson, another left-handed hitter who is hitting significantly worse against the southpaws.

Fortunately, the Twins had a southpaw sitting in the bullpen. Unfortunately, the active verb was "sitting". It was Craig Breslow, who sports a 1.47 ERA and 17 K in 18 innings. He's not only been lights out since joining the Twins, he's been lights out against left-handers, and even better against right-handers, if you can believe it. But he wasn't warmed up. He wasn't even off the bench. Apparently Gardenhire, for whatever reason, had decided it was Guerrier's game to win or lose.

It turned out to be the latter. Joyce hit a triple down the right field line and then Granderson singled to center field to drive in the winning run. Guerrier retired the next two batters (both right-handed) to get out of the inning. And Breslow did finally enter the game, but it was in the ninth inning. He retired the two batters he faced.

Those are the facts, and I'll follow it with the caveats. First, I've spent more than a little time praising Ron Gardenhire for developing, building and effectively using his bullpen, and it's deserved. Second, god knows that this isn't the first time this year that the Tigers have shown that they can beat up the Twins bullpen. Of their four wins this year against the Twins, this is the third time they've won it because they slap our bullpen like I slap mustard on a corn dog. (And I REALLY like mustard.) Finally, Bert and Dick mentioned that Breslow had back issues earlier that might have carried into this game. That might have played a part even though he did pitch later in the game.

But I sure hope that someone asked Gardenhire about this in the postgame press conference. Something like "I'm sure you debated bringing the left-hander Breslow in during the eighth inning. What factors made you keep him on the bench versus Joyce and Granderson?" Now, maybe Gardenhire can talk about those reasons ("I have lots of faith in Guerrier") and maybe he can't ("I don't trust Breslow in a high-leverage situation yet"). But the game likely hinged on that decision. It deserves to be answerd, and it really deserves to be asked.

I suspect the manager will do both about 20 times tonight. We'll pick at it, but Gardy will likely gnaw on it in between shots of cherry extract. I wonder which will be more bitter.

(Post Note: OK, I'm a dumbass. I was listening when Gardy was thrown out. I was watching when Ullger pulled Perkins. And as I was writing this, I must've seen the "highlights" of Gardenhire being thrown from the game at least three times. And yet, at no time, did I think "So this was Ullger making those decisions".

It raises another question which we likely won't really get answered publicly. Just how much influence does a thrown out manager have in a game like that? We know he shouldn't have any, so that will be the public answer. But was Ullger sticking with Guerrier because he thought Guerrier was the designated eighth inning guy? If Gardy would have been making the moves, would it have been done differently, because he's more comfortable second-guessing himself than Ullger is second-guessing his boss?

It adds a whole new level of helplessness to this depressing loss knowing that it may have resulted from Gardy's Holy Crusade Against Warnings. That sounds like a topic for a comment Friday.

Anyway, my bad. I'll gnaw on this the way I said Gardy would be gnawing last night on that loss. And I suspect the bitter aftertaste is similar. Only I'll wash it down with some Diet Pepsi Max.)

Sunday, June 29, 2008

A Few Questions I Have This Week

Confused about your team? Me too, or at least a little. I was the optimistic one, but even I expected them to struggle in the first half of the season. But even at eight games over .500, there are still a bunch of question that have yet to be answered. For some fans, that's disconcerting. For me, it's like a cold beer on a summer patio - ignoring it wouldn't just be stupid, it would be sinful.

And there are some that I'm looking at especially close this week. Starting with:

Q: Is Detroit a contender?

I know, I know, it's supposed to be Twins questions, right? Well, I'm cheating a little, but not in the way you think. This is a question about the Twins, because the Twins will be facing the Tigers seven more times in the next two (that's the cheat) weeks. In fact, they'll only have one more series against them after the all-star break, and it will be at home in September. If the Twins smack down the Tigers by taking five of the seven games, the Tigers are going to have a fairly tough time making up the ground.

That's not unreasonable, because so far this season, the Twins are 5-3 versus the Tigers, but what's been striking is how one team has clearly dominated the other in almost each game. Early in the season the Twins bullpen blew two opportunities and let the Tigers regain a little swagger from their horrid start. In a three game series at the Metrodome the Tigers looked slow, old and a little indifferent. And in the last series in Detroit the Twins sandwiched two steady but solid victories around a 19-3 shellacking.

All year the Tigers have looked like a talented, but inconsistent, team. They can explode one night and implode (or maybe more disconcerting, fail to ignite) the next two nights. But they have won seventeen of their last twenty-one games making them one of the few teams that can claim to be hotter than the Twins right now. This week (and next weekend) we'll get to see firsthand if the team has changed, or if they've just been exploding a little more often.

Q: Can Denard Span help the club this year?

Be careful what you ask for - you just might get it. Last week I tried to find room for Span on the Twins roster, and today he'll find his way into the lineup at the expense of Michael Cuddyer, who will make his second appearance on the disabled list with a finger problem.

Span certainly profiles as someone who can eventually be a benefit to this team. In particular, since last last year he looks like someone who has gained an awareness that there is this imaginary box around home plate called "the strike zone", and that he isn't required to swing at pitches that are not in that imaginary box.

That mystical realization has led to an on-base percentage of .431 in Rochester. It's also correlated with a 60 point leap in batting average. But maybe most amazing is that it has led to a substantial spike in power, as he's sporting a .471 slugging percentage in AAA right now. That's over 100 points higher than he's ever had in a minor league season.

Q: Speaking of ever, will Ron Gardenhire ever let Span bat leadoff?

OK, "ever" is a strong word. After all, Gardy did allow Span to bat leadoff when he was here last time. Once. In twelve games. When Gomez didn't play. So Span may get a turn sometime when Gomez doesn't play. But will he ever get to bat leadoff and move Gomez to ninth in the order?

The initial answer will almost surely be "no", and Gardy will explain it thusly:
1. He doesn't want to put too much pressure on Span.
2. He wants Gomez to see as many pitches as he can.
3. He enjoys the challenge of fighting off that pulmonary embolism as he watches Gomez chase that eighth consecutive low-and-away slider.

Alright, I made that last one up. He would never say that. He probably wouldn't even say "That which does not kill me, makes me stronger." But he must be thinking it, because I know that Gomez has struck out on that pitch in 3/4 of his at-bats. So I guess #2 is taking care of itself - he's certainly getting to see plenty of that pitch. But I suspect he will in the #9 spot, too.

Q: Will Glen Perkins be in this rotation after the all-star break?

His manager barely disguised his disappointment after his last start. Four of his last six starts haven't been quality starts. He gets two starts this week. And finally, his start tonight is against the Tigers, against whom he had his most impressive performance of the season.

Why is that significant? Becuase they'll be gunning for him. He won't sneak up on them like he did after that 19-3 game. With Francisco Liriano toiling and waiting in AAA, this week could go a long way towards indicating if Perkins spends the end of July in Minneapolis or Rochester.