Monday, May 21, 2018

Kepler's Breakout Still In Progress

One of the most logical candidates to have a breakout season for the Minnesota Twins in 2018 was right fielder Max Kepler. The talented German had flashed ability to do it all down on the farm, and despite being a solid regular for Minnesota, didn't yet seem to have put it all together at the highest level. Now just under two months into the regular season, we've seen the start of the breakout, but rest assured that there's more to come.

In early April, I wrote about Kepler's approach at the plate. He's been relatively vocal about not intending to increase his launch angle, and instead hit the ball hard on the ground. Thankfully he hasn't followed through with that practice, and he's benefited from elevating the baseball in 2018. Getting more loft on the ball, while continuing to hit it hard, is absolutely a strong blueprint for success. What's even more encouraging for the Minnesota right-fielder is that we haven't seen the results indicative of just how good the approach has been thus far.

On the season, Kepler has posted a career best .803 OPS. He has 19 extra base hits through his first 169 plate appearances, and he's already tallied six longballs. The .250 average is just a slight bump from his .243 resting spot a year ago, but the .337 OBP is indicative of an approach that has yielded an incredible 22/20 K/BB ratio. After struggling to hit lefties last season, even to the point of being platooned against them, he's flipped the script entirely. Kepler owns a 1.120 OPS vs LHP in 2018, while posting a .694 OPS against RHP. The expectation should have always been that he'd hit both types of pitchers given his minor league track record, but this level of production is a very nice surprise.

As good as Kepler has been for Paul Molitor though, the best part is that we're probably just scratching the surface. In 2018 thus far, Max owns just a .256 BABIP to go with his .250 average. That number seems unsustainably low given the numbers surrounding it.

With as well as Kepler is elevating the ball, more impressively yet is how hard he's hitting it. The 44.1% hard hit rate is a career best by over 10%, and he'd putting the ball on the ground a career low 37.8% of the time. Despite those factors working in his favor, his 10.5% HR/FB rate suggests there's plenty of room for growth.

On top of the quality generated behind contact, Kepler isn't getting cheated at the dish either. His 7.7% swinging strike rate is a career best, and he's chasing pitches just 26.5% of the time, a career low. He's also setting another career high with an 83.5% contact rating. If anything, Kepler could be a bit more choosy in an effort to boost his pitchers per plate appearance above 4.0 (currently 3.91) in an effort to see something more juicy.

Trying to tie a bow on what the numbers are telling us, Max Kepler has basically put the big leagues on notice. He's driving the ball with authority, and creating the best contact numbers of his career. On top of that, he's doing it against pitchers who attack him from both sides of the plate, and he's created a blueprint that should only help his counting stats to further balloon from here on out. While Eddie Rosario and Eduardo Escobar have paced the Twins in the early going, a blistering stretch from Max could very well be right around the corner.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Berrios and Rodney Tweaks are the Difference

For the Minnesota Twins in 2018, two of their most important pitchers in the rotation and bullpen are Jose Berrios and Fernando Rodney. With Berrios serving as the rotation's bonafide ace, and Rodney bringing up the rear in games with a lead, Paul Molitor needs both of them to be right far more often than they aren't. Unfortunately, both have gone through a dry spell in 2018, but it appears a couple of tweaks has each right back on track.

Starting in the rotation with Berrios, we've seen both ends of the spectrum through the first two months of the season. Across his first four starts of 2018 for the Twins, Berrios own a 1.63 ERA and was allowing opposing hitters to compile just a .378 OPS against him. He tallied 29 strikeouts to pair with just five walks. For a guy who has had command issues in the past, the results were nothing short of greatness. Then however, we got to April 24th.

In the first game following his dominant outing in Puerto Rico, Berrios came up against the Yankees. He surrendered five runs on six hits in the Bronx and took his second loss of the year. Things didn't get better from there, and the four game stretch would turn ugly by the time the dust settled. From the 24th through May 10th, Berrios posted an 8.84 ERA and allowed a 1.027 opponent OPS. His stuff had seemingly left him, and it was his curveball that appeared most out of whack. Working with pitching coach Garvin Alston during a bullpen session, reports suggested the curveball had been fixed.

On Tuesday night against the St. Louis Cardinals that appeared to ring true. Berrios posted a 2,389 RPM on his curve against St. Louis, despite averaging just a 2,327 RPM mark over his previous four starts. He also got swinging strikes on the pitch 15.7% (16/102) of the time, as opposed to the 10.6% (35/330) he generated in the four starts prior. With more bite on his breaking pitch, it appeared that Berrios was back to his normal self on the bump.

Out of the bullpen, the Twins needed Fernando Rodney to make a tweak as well. Despite still throwing gas at an advanced age, it has always been his changeup that Rodney has relied upon and thrived with. For whatever reason, he decided to abandon the pitch in coming over to the Twins.

During his first 8 outings, Rodney threw 6.2 IP while balooning to a 6.75 ERA with a .991 OPS against. He was tossing his changeup just 18.6% of the time, and finding very little success. Fast forward to today, and he's gone another 7.0 IP with a 0.00 ERA and a .350 OPS against. In that time span, he's been using the offspeed pitch 27.1% of the time.

Without having conversations with the closer, it's hard to determine why he'd abandon a regular usage of arguably his most effective pitch. Given the start to the Twins season weather wise however, it's worth questioning if the snow or cold may have played an effect. Grip can be tough on a major league baseball as is, throwing in suboptimal weather conditions no doubt only increases that reality. Right now though, it appears Rodney has things back in control and is utilizing his changeup more closely to his career norms. With a 35.6% career usage rate on the pitch, it's still a bit below where he's been, but things are trending in the right direction.

The Fernando Rodney Experience is always going to be a rollercoaster, but having him pitch out of the closer role is the most optimal scenario for the Twins. Allowing pitchers like Addison Reed and Ryan Pressly to be deployed in high leverage at any point during the game is of massive value. The same can't be said about Rodney, and keeping him effective in the 9th allows the Twins to best position themselves for wins on a nightly basis.

Minnesota continuing to push the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central will rest heavily on the shoulders of both Berrios and Rodney throughout the year. Making quick tweaks when necessary is extremely valuable, and keeping their respective focuses on point is imperative for sustained success.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Lance Lynn Only Doubting Himself

Seven starts into his 2018 season with the Minnesota Twins, Lance Lynn has been nothing short of an abomination. He owns a 7.34 ERA, 1.981 WHIP, and is surrendering 6.6 free passes per nine innings. All of those numbers are ugly, but what's most interesting, is that Lynn's secondary numbers suggest he could be very good if he stops doubting himself.

Now to be sure, doubt may not be the most appropriate word to describe what is going on with Lynn. At the core of his issues is simply the fact that he has decided not to throw strikes. Over the course of his career, Lynn has been in the zone 41.6% of the time. In his early years with the Cardinals, he attacked the zone at an even higher percentage. While not the same measurement, in 2018 for the Twins, Lynn has thrown strikes on just 58.5% of his offerings. In his first season back from Tommy John surgery last year, that number was 59%. In 2015 it was 61.5%, and in 2014 it was 62.6%.

Across the board, the most glaring issue for the Twins free agent acquisition is his inability to work in or near the zone enough to entire hitters.

In fact, if we look at some of Lynn's secondary numbers, his stuff is actually playing a bit better than career norms. His 2,300+ spin rate on average for pitches thrown this season is up from last year, and his velocity has seen about a one mile per hour spike as well. He's generating swinging strikes 10.8% of the time, which is a career best. His 30.4% chase rate is the 2nd best mark of his career, and he's allowing contact at a career low 75.9% mark.

Doing so many other things rate, it's fair to question where that leaves him.

There's a couple of things at play for the big righty. His repertoire seems to have shifted some this season. The four seam fastball usage is up nearly 8% over last year, and the sinker has dipped 10% to make up for it. In looking at the density of his pitches in the zone, we can see he's attacked completely opposite sides as well. Instead of working the left side and inner part of the zone against righties as he did so often in 2017, his 2018 balls have traveled to the right side of the zone with many of them floating over the heart of the plate.

By taking a look at how he's attacking batters, or in this instance isn't, we can gather a good idea of what his batted ball numbers should look like. Issuing 6.6 walks per nine and over 11 hits in that same span, opposing batters are invited to be patient. As such, Lynn is issuing a career worst 40.8% hard hit rate as well as a 21.4% HR/FB ratio. Despite generating ground balls at a 48.5% mark, which is a strong total, he's allowing opposing hitters to sit back, swing hard, and deposit baseballs into the seats.

Of the 164 plate appearances Lynn has been on the bump for this season, 108 of them have presented scenarios in which either the batter or pitcher is ahead in the count. Across those scenarios, Lynn has been behind an astounding 65% (70/108) of the time. In the 70 plate appearances where Lynn has been pitching from behind, he's ceded 25 walks and allowed opposing hitters to compile a 1.251 OPS off of him. Conversely, when working ahead in the count, Lynn has given up zero walks while striking out 16 despite still allowing a .947 OPS.

Over the course of his seven year big league career, no one would suggest that Lynn is a command artist. A career 3.5 BB/9 for a starter is a bit above what you'd like to see. However, he's routinely made the process work because he's been able to throw plenty of strikes, get ahead of hitters, and put them away. Right now, Lynn has decided to nibble around the zone, strike out batters in part due to confusion, and be burned by his own inefficiency.

The good news is that Lynn had next to no spring training and has plenty of time to turn things around for the Twins. The bad news is that his room for error is becoming incredibly small, and we've reached the point in which he either needs to throw the ball over the plate or changes need to be made. The stuff is there for a very good pitcher to emerge. Lynn's overall ability, repertoire, and stuff is in a better place than it was a year ago. If he isn't in a place where he believes that it plays within the parameters of the strike zone however, it doesn't much matter.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Getting Late Early in Relief for Twins

The Minnesota Twins just finished up a four game set with the Los Angeles Angels. By the time Fernando Romero was done with his five innings against Shohei Ohtani, Paul Molitor was tasked with utilizing a bullpen coming off an extra inning affair and quite a bit of recent work. What the Minnesota skipper was also having to deal with, was being a man short from beyond the outfield fence. Phil Hughes was available, but he isn't an option either.

Hughes was jettisoned to the Twins bullpen after flopping in his first two starts of the year. Derek Falvey and Thad Levine likely saw this outcome coming given their decision to start Hughes on the DL out of spring training due to an "injury." Out of the pen, Hughes has been used in only the lowest of leverage situations, and has essentially taken on the role vacated by Tyler Kinley. Unlike the Rule 5 draft pick however, Hughes hums a fastball in at just 91 mph and doesn't really make anyone miss.

The obvious elephant in the room here, is the $26.4 million owed to the former New York Yankees pitcher through 2019. Terry Ryan made an unwise decision in extending Hughes less than a third of the way into his first deal with the Twins. Rather than seeing more of a sample size, the veteran pitcher was given a guarantee after posting an MLB record breaking season in 2014. On the flip side, it'll be on both Falvey and Levine to come to grips with that number being a sunk cost.

Right now, Paul Molitor and Garvin Alston are playing with a deck a few cards shy of a full set. The Twins have employed eight relievers often in the past few years, and that only highlights the importance placed on having quality options available out of the pen. As of May 14th, there's really only seven usable arms at Molitor's disposal.

When going the extra reliever route, a team is suggesting that they're comfortable with a three-man bench. Minnesota has a trio that includes Bobby Wilson, Gregorio Petit, and Robbie Grossman. Outside of Grossman's bat, that group is a combination of journeyman that have more of a scrapiness to them than any distinct characteristics. In short, the lack of another option is a trickle down effect from what is currently taking place in relief.

As things stand now, the Twins are leaving themselves short in the bullpen as well as off the bench, solely because a logical decision on Phil Hughes is being delayed.

At Triple-A, Alan Busenitz is making the choices at the big league level look even more interesting. The owned of a 95 mph fastball and strikeout stuff, currently owns a 1.13 ERA and a 13/2 K/BB ratio across 8.0 IP. A year ago in 35.1 IP, Busenitz posted a 1.78 ERA and 9.9 K/9 for the Rochester Red Wings.

Having made four appearances thus far with the big club in 2018, Busenitz has numbers that need improvement. Allowing three runs in just 4.0 IP, his 6.75 ERA isn't pretty. That small sample size doesn't overshadow the 1.99 ERA he posted in 31.2 IP a season ago however. In fact, I think the realistic performance lies somewhere in between. Busenitz is a better strikeout pitcher than the 6.5 K/9 he tallied in 2017, but he's probably not quite the guy who totaled just a 1.99 ERA either.

At any rate, having Busenitz at his disposal would give Paul Molitor another necessary option out of the pen. Rather than subjecting Zach Duke to overuse against righties, or taxing arms like Taylor Rogers and Trevor Hildenberger, Busenitz could be worked into the mix and provide yet another quality option in a relief corps that's been significantly revamped from a year ago.

Really what it comes down to is that Phil Hughes is the linchpin holding up multiple more adequate roster scenarios for the Twins. It's a tough pill to swallow when you're talking about that kind of money. Deciding to DFA Hughes isn't admitting defeat however. The reality is that he was trending downwards prior to his TOS surgery, and the list of successful recoveries is not a long one. It's time to thank him for what he's done, and push the water level of the club a bit higher.

Friday, May 11, 2018

May Twins Mailbag: You've Got Questions

With the Minnesota Twins having just rolled off a handful of wins in a row, and in turn helping to reshape their season, I thought it a good time to field some questions on the action that has taken place. For those following along on Twitter (@tlschwerz), I asked for submissions of questions pertaining to the Twins, where they are now, and where I see them going in the weeks ahead. There were plenty of great submissions and here's a handful of my favorites.
Right now, Eduardo Escobar is arguably the best thing going for the Twins. I recently wrote about his approach and the season he's put together in the early going. Based on his versatility and production, he's one of the best utility players in the big leagues. I'm less certain that the numbers hold up as a starter, but the floor should be a pretty respectable one as well. In regards to playing second base, the best answer I've got is that he should be able to.

No one has played much second for the Twins since Brian Dozier took over the position, and so any sample size is going to be small at best. While Escobar is awful at shortstop, he's plenty capable at third base. My feeling is that it would translate to the right side of the diamond just fine as well.
This is a loaded question because there's so many what ifs and other factors at play. What I do think awaits the Twins is more winning, internally grown talent, and a lot of roster turnover. While I loved this offseason for Minnesota, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine did a great job of not handing out any long term commitments. Sure, the window opening for a deep playoff run hinges on a group that includes the likes of Buxton, Kepler, Rosario, Berrios, and Sano, but the rest of the pieces are capable or being interchanged.

We're probably two years off from guys like Royce Lewis and Alex Kirilloff. We don't know what Gonsalves or Gordon will be at the big league level, and it's yet to be seen if someone like a LaMonte Wade or Brent Rooker will pan out. The core has been developed though, and it's a good one. Continuing to develop and supplement the group that remains should be the plan of action for at least the next 4-6 years.
When you have a guy that's as good of a fielder as Buxton is, even when he's not hitting there's a difference being made. As with Andrelton Simmons, his glove was incredibly valuable even in all the years that he didn't do much at the plate. I wasn't a huge fan of Buxton needing a rehab assignment in the first place. Sure he hadn't played in over a week, but he was dealing with migraines, not some body altering malady needing to be re-trained.

In more than a handful of the Twins losses, having Robbie Grossman in the outfield was a significant problem for Minnesota pitchers. Removing that part of the equation, the Twins immediately take a step forward. I hope there's a time Buxton finds the consistency at the plate that he's shown in flashes. I don't believe playing a few games at levels he's crushed is going to do much for sparking that.
The answer to this likely depends on your interpretation of what the losing that took place was. For me, that was the mirage. Now winning five in a row, or nearly 99% of your games like the Yankees, isn't a norm any team should get used to. The reality is that the Twins played some really bad baseball in the first month, and they're a much better team than the record indicates.

Lance Lynn missed virtually all of spring training, the bats have been much colder than you'd expect, and the weather was anything but normal. I had this team pegged for 91 wins coming into the year. At this point, I still think they're more than capable of winning 85.
There's no doubt Santana has a spot when he comes back, but who he takes over for remains in flux until the point in which he's ready to go. I still think it'll be June before we see him, and there's plenty of time for this to work itself out by then. Guys could get injured, Romero may need more seasoning, Lance Lynn may not settle in, there's plenty of options. The two arms I don't see going anywhere are Jose Berrios and Kyle Gibson.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Steady Eddie is Launching and Laughing

The Minnesota Twins were going to be without Miguel Sano at some point during the 2018 Major League Baseball season. Whether from a possible suspension, complications due to a rod being inserted into his leg, or the normal wear and tear a body of that size can endure, the reality is he would miss time. When that point came, Eduardo Escobar was going to be the man that filled in. What wasn't expected is that the utility man would raise the bar. Then again, maybe we should have seen this coming all along.

Back in 2015, I wrote a piece entitled Twins Cash Check Formerly Known as Francisco Liriano. The point of that article was that Liriano had run his course within the organization and was flipped to the Chicago White Sox in a move that was largely forgettable. Escobar was a part of the return however, and he posted a 2.6 fWAR in 2014. As a part time player, he'd carved out a nice role for himself and the 2015 spring training continued to carry that momentum forward. Since that point, he's posted yearly fWAR totals of 1.9, -0.2, and 1.7. Outside of 2016 in which Minnesota went in the can as a whole, he's been incredible valuable.

Now having played in 29 of the teams first 32 games, Escobar finds himself with a 1.4 fWAR (best on the team) that projects to a 7.1 mark over the course of a full season. There's next to no chance that pace continues, but for the sake of context, Joe Mauer won the MVP in 2009 with a 7.6 fWAR season. Right now, Escobar is playing like nothing short of the Twins team MVP.

The great thing about what is currently taking place for the Fogo de Chao loving infielder, is that he's not doing anything too out of the ordinary. His .341 BABIP is far from inflated, he's swinging through roughly the same amount of pitches, and neither his contact or chase rates are out of whack. His 35 home run pace is probably unsustainable, but far from crazy after launching 20 a season ago. The jump from a 12.8% HR/FB rate to a 15.9% HR/FB is noticeable but doesn't scream crazy either. If we're looking for a change, things could potentially be explained by a more gradual one.

At the time of first tracking in 2015, Escobar posted a 13.4 degree average launch angle on his base hits. Year over year, he's improved that number to 14.1, 17.1, and now 18.5 this season. Getting lift is something we've seen the game embrace as it positively correlates with the quality of hits generated. Simply put, hitting the ball harder, further, and higher is only going to positively impact an individual's overall results. Eduardo's double, triple, and home run totals seem to agree with that notion as well.

I'm not going to boil this outburst from the Twins utility man down solely to a launch angle adaptation. I think there's plenty of factors at play, but it seems apparent that his growth as a hitter has definitely contributed to the current surge. What's arguably more important in this whole scenario, is just how valuable Escobar is to the Twins roster makeup as a whole.

The talk of the offseason was in regards to how the Twins will retain Brian Dozier going into the 2019 season. My inclination all along has been that they'd either flip him for something, or allow him to walk with a qualifying offer tied to his name. Given what the market showed this last offseason, there's a decent possibility that Brian could accept that offer and return to the Twins on a one-year deal. Regardless, the totality of his age, production, and value going forward seems somewhat replaceable for Minnesota. Trying to find another Eduardo Escobar could be a more daunting task.

Over the course of a full season, fWAR totals around 1.5-2.0 are relatively easy to come by. Escobar plays many positions, but is probably below average defensively at all of them. That being said, he's a very good teammate and provides a strong clubhouse presence. He'll be just 30 years old next season, and the familiarity of backing up all over for the Twins is something he's done since he was a 23 year old. Staring at an average annual value south of $8 million or so per year, that's a commodity that Derek Falvey and Thad Levine may not be so keen on losing.

At the end of the day, Escobar is front and center regarding this Twins current turnaround. That's not to say someone else won't pick up the slack shortly, and it's a fool's errand to realistically expect 162 game averages off of this current level of production. Even at a mid-range value for Paul Molitor though, Eduardo Escobar is a player that winning teams need to have around and he's a great asset for Minnesota.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Another Big Move Coming for Minnesota?

Update: The Twins put Miguel Sano on the DL today (5/1). Gregorio Petit was selected to join the 40 man roster and replace him on the 25 man roster. Dietrich Enns was DFA'd to make room for Petit. Given that the Twins are going with a fill in type player in Petit, I would assume that signifies a belief in Sano not being on the shelf for too long. Gordon would still make sense at some point in the not too distant future.

After yet another ineffective start for the Minnesota Twins, Phil Hughes was guaranteed nothing by the front office and Paul Molitor. His scheduled start was listed as TBD on the press releases, and eventually the news came out that he'd been demoted to the bullpen. Top pitching prospect Fernando Romero is on his way to the big leagues and will have a chance to stick in the major league rotation. With Miguel Sano being hampered by a hamstring injury, that may not be the only top prospect making a debut for Minnesota.

On Monday night when the Twins played the Toronto Blue Jays, Paul Molitor's bench included just two available options: Ryan LaMarre and Jason Castro. Given that neither of them are reliable bats at the current juncture, that's a pretty underwhelming set of reserves for a Twins club that badly needs to turn things around. With the promotion of Romero, I opined on Twitter that it signified the front office was echoing the statements of many fans. This level of performance is unexpected, and unacceptable. Instead of looking for band aids to try and get by, they were going to throw out their biggest pieces. That suggests to me that Stephen Gonsalves could soon be a rotation option, and Tyler Jay may not be far behind in relief. For the lineup though, there's one name that now jumps off the page.

Minnesota's 40 man roster has been exhausted when it comes to hitters. The only player currently available and not with the big league club is Jake Cave. The outfielder, acquired from the New York Yankees this spring, is slashing .188/.322/.261 at Triple-A Rochester through his first 19 games. With Zack Granite on the disabled list, Derek Falvey may be forced into another aggressive move.

It's probably time to wonder if top prospect Nick Gordon isn't ready for the big leagues.

Here's the thing, it makes no sense for Gordon to come up and sit. There's also little reason to put him on the 40 man roster and start his clock if the stint at the highest level is going to be a matter of days. In regards to both of those concerns however, there's a clear path as to how things could work out.

First and foremost, the playing time should be there. Eduardo Escobar is locked in as an everyday player right now. The utility man has filled in for Sano admirably, and is arguably the Twins best offensive threat going. Gordon, while not an ideal fit at shortstop, could immediately take over for Ehire Adrianza. The slick fielding Venezuelan would be a loss with his glove, but he's posted a .590 OPS and has never been a bat to rely on. Gordon would be making a big jump from Double-A Chattanooga, but his current .898 OPS in 23 games suggests he may be better than the level anyways.

Secondly, there's no guarantee that Miguel Sano is going to simply need 10 days to get his leg back to full health. Hamstring pulls are tricky, and rushing them back only leads to further aggravation. The reality is that even with the ability to backdate his DL stint to April 27, the Twins could be without their starting third basemen for a matter of weeks. When he returns, slotting him into a DH role while Escobar is going hot would continue to make room for Gordon to receive regular playing time.

There's a lot to digest here, and in Gordon, we're talking about a 22 year old kid with some question marks remaining in regards to his prospect status. That being said, his fielding deficiencies probably aren't going away, and that bat has continued to profile well. After a strong start to the 2017 season, he ended up with a .749 OPS. The .898 mark this year is solid, and that's bolstered by a .934 OPS over his last 16 games. Assumed the potential replacement for Brian Dozier, it's hardly a bad idea to get a look and see if he can't provide a jolt right now.

We could have our answer sooner rather than later, but if the Twins want a spark and another aggressive move, the kid with the bloodlines should be the place to turn.