Monday, April 30, 2018

Is the Real Kyle Gibson Standing Up?

The Minnesota Twins are nearly through their first month of baseball in the 2018 season. To say it's been a debacle would be putting things nicely. After an offseason that saw the 25 man roster get substantially better, as well as infused with more depth, the results have been nothing short of underwhelming. With players across the roster performing below expectations, Kyle Gibson has been a very solid bright spot.

A former first round pick for the Twins, Gibson has never lived up to the promise after being selected 22nd overall in the 2009 draft. A college pitcher out of Missouri, the expectation was that he could rise through the system quickly, and be an impact arm at the highest level. The numbers in the minors were acceptable, but probably not as glowing as the Twins brass would've hoped. Then there was Tommy John surgery, and further delays on getting him to the big leagues. Now with five big league seasons under his belt, it's been somewhat of a roller coaster ride.

Gibson's 2nd and 3rd major league seasons (2014/15) had the makings of a guy who could be a rotation fixture. Despite the club's struggles, Gibson was a reliable arm that you gave you something consistent, even if it wasn't top-of-the-rotation stuff. The past two seasons, the former Tigers pitcher has been optioned back to Triple-A, looked like a non-tender candidate, and then turned things back in what has appeared a relatively unpredictable manner.

Going into the 2018 season, the big question mark for Kyle was whether or not his pitching down the stretch for the Twins could be considered a new norm. Over his final 11 starts, he owned a 3.55 ERA and a .720 OPS against. Shrinking the sample to his final eight starts in 2017, Gibson's numbers were even better with a 2.92 ERA and a .684 OPS against. For a guy who seemingly had already developed the book on himself, this was uncharted territory. He had gone from a question mark for the upcoming year, to being a virtual lock in a Twins rotation that would open a season with postseason aspirations for the first time in a long while.

Now five turns through the rotation in 2018, and Gibson has done nothing to dispel the notion that the end of 2017 was for real. He's compiled 27 innings of work and has a 3.33 ERA to show for it. The 10.0 K/9 is a career best, and nearly four strikeouts more than the 6.4 K/9 career average he has to this point. Gibson's 1.259 WHIP is a career low, as are his 6.7 H/9 and 0.3 HR/9 numbers. If there's something to nitpick at, it's the 4.7 BB/9 he's currently conceding, which is definitely a career worst.
So, what do we make of it all? Well, despite being an extremely small sample size, there's clearly something going on here. MLB's Daren Willman pointed out recently that Kyle Gibson's slider is currently producing the most swing and miss results in comparison to any pitch thrown by any other player across the entire league. What's equally as impressive, is that Gibson's curveball comes in third on the list. Looking at his career usage rates, Kyle is deploying his slider and curve at almost identical rates to what he has always done. That suggests that the pitches themselves are not getting batters of balance. There's something else at play here.

When diving into Statcast data on, we can see that Gibson's spin rates have been on an upward trajectory for the past four years. In 2018, through his first 27 innings, he's put up career best marks for both his slider and curveball. You can take a bit deeper dive into the understanding of spin rates with Mike Petriello's piece from 2017 here. It's not that Gibson's numbers are exceptional when compared across all of baseball, but they are noteworthy among starters, and definitely jump off the page in comparison to his previous output. Generating a better pitch quality, while also garnering more movement across the zone is something that has absolutely help the Twins former first round pick.

Thanks to the improvements to his pitch quality, Gibson's results are currently correlating directly with the process. A 70.2% contract rating is the lowest he's ever allowed in his career, and represents and eight percent improvement in that category. He's also getting swinging strikes at a 13.1% clip, which is over a 3% boost on his career average. The best part of all of this, is that things look somewhat sustainable.

Quality of contact ratings (soft/med/hard) are virtually identical to where they were a season ago for Gibson. His 4.2% HR/FB ratio is probably going to rise as it normalizes a bit, but being a sinkerballer, the home run has never been something that's plagued him too heavily. The .275 BABIP is lower than his .328 mark in 2017, and .308 career total, but it isn't completely out of whack either. In fact, Gibson owns a 3.11 FIP number to date, which suggests that his controllable production is even a bit better than what the actual output has dictated.

To step out from behind the numbers, there's a few things that we can say with near certainty. First and foremost, we're dealing with a small 27 inning sample size. There's a possibility that this portion of the season becomes and outlier as opposed to a reflection of change. That being said, we can also determine that two pitches Gibson throws are being tossed across the plate in their best forms of his entire career. At the age of 30, he's developed strong secondary pitches, and pairing that with his sinker has been a very nice development.

I don't expect Gibson to strike out double-digit batters per nine innings over the course of 2018, and thinking he'll walk nearly five per game seems foolish too. There's no doubting that his repertoire boost has worked to his benefit however, and that could be the key that unlocks all of his potential, whatever that may be.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Time for Sano to be Picky

Miguel Sano is one of the Minnesota Twins most prolific hitters, and right now, he's also one of their worst. Through 17 games in the 2018 season, he's had 75 plate appearances and owns a .191/.253/.426 slash line. What's positive is that there's a very clear path to righting the ship. The downside is that the path is one that doesn't come easily for players toting power bats.

Thus far, Sano has struck out 32 times while drawing just eight walks. Extrapolating those numbers over a full 162 game season gives us a 305/57 K/BB ratio. Both of those numbers would be a career high, the strikeouts would be an MLB record, and it would be nearly a doubling of his 178 whiffs in 2016. To be transparent, I have no real problem with a three true outcomes type of hitter, but right now, Sano has to right the ship in order to produce more of the two positive outcomes.

Let's start with some good news. Sano owns an 18.2% swinging strike rate. That number is tied for 3rd worst in all of baseball, but it's directly in line with how he finished 2017. It's also in the same company as players like J.D. Martinez, Javier Baez, and Yoenis Cespedes. If you aren't a fan of swinging and missing, a more encouraging number is Sano's contact rate (63.3%) and his contact rate on pitches in the strike zone (78%). The former is a slight improvement from 2017, while the latter represents a new career high. To summarize, it's not as if Sano is missing hittable pitches, and he's got a very similar approach to what he's always done.

Here's where things get off track however. The Twins third-basemen owns a career worst 33.2% chase rate. That number is up four percent from a year ago, and expanding the strike zone doesn't allow for him to truly harness his power. We see that evidenced by his hard hit rate as well, which at 35.1% is the lowest mark of his career. After owning the 4th best hard hit rate in baseball last season, Sano's current total puts him barely inside the top 100 among qualified hitters this year.

Given the fluctuations in contact quality, it also matters how Sano is putting the ball in play. While the goal should always be to elevate the baseball, doing so with hard contact is a must. Right now, Sano has a career high 51.4% fly ball ratio, but he's dropped his line drive rate to a career worst 10.8%. With his HR/FB number dipping to 21.1% after 27.5% in 2017, we can see a perfect storm of negative events. Miguel is currently hitting the ball weaker, more up than on a line, and fewer baseballs are leaving the yard. For a guy looking to walk or homer nearly as often as he strikes out, the process has become a bit busted.

Earlier I noted that the blueprint for a fix is there however, and that remains true. As a right handed batter, pitchers have decided their best opportunity to work around Sano is to attack the zone low and away. The graph shown allows us to see that Miguel has helped out his opponents far too often this season. When he's offered at pitches, nearly 10% of the time he's doing so with little opportunity of making anything positive happen. Unless he waits back significantly and drives the low and outside pitch to right field, it's hard to get any lift or power generated on a ball you're reaching for.

Over the course of his career, Sano has shown an ability to go to all fields. While his spray chart skews home runs more to the pull side, the opposite fences aren't ignored. There's plenty of scatted doubles to be had the other way, and three of his four career triples have been sent to right field. The goal isn't necessarily to make Sano a hitter determined to use all fields as much as it is to impress upon him that dictating plate appearances is something that a batter of his caliber should be doing. Given the opposing pitcher is aware that mistakes will put them a run down, Sano must be more choosy in regards to the times he takes the bat off of his shoulder.

It's still early in the year, and there's plenty of opportunity for the ship to be righted. This isn't the blistering start that the Dominican native got off to a year ago, but it's hardly a death sentence either. If Sano is really going to be a three true outcomes hitter that's fine, but the process has to be one conducive to productive results.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Reinforcements Needed in Relief

After a drubbing to the New York Yankees in their first matchup since the Wild Card loss last season, the Minnesota Twins had some questions to be answered. Jake Odorizzi struggled, and the bullpen provided little in the form of relief. With position player Ryan LaMarre finishing out the game, Paul Molitor needed some reinforcements, but the question now is; where do they come from?

Leaving spring training, the Twins found themselves needing to juggle a bullpen to include Rule 5 pick Tyler Kinley. He looked promising with velocity out the wazoo, but in what we've seen thus far, little else has come with it. By including Kinley and Gabriel Moya (thanks to a timely Phil Hughes injury) on the 25 man roster, relief staple Tyler Duffey found himself making the trip to upstate New York. Since then, Alan Busenitz has also appeared out of the pen with the big club.

After the 13-run loss, and fourth straight defeat, the Twins optioned Busenitz back to the farm. He'd posted a 6.75 ERA across four innings of work, and while the seven strikeouts are nice, the eight hits are far too many. Moya had been jettisoned previously, as he owned a 10.80 ERA across just 5.0 IP. Giving up three longballs in his brief work thus far, a tweak has to be made as he's now allowed five in just 11.1 IP at the major league level. Kinley is still being held onto after being invested in as a Rule 5 player, but the 24.30 ERA across 3.1 IP simply is unacceptable.

To a certain extent, the problem for Minnesota lies in what moves they've already made. Getting Duffey back to the big league level is a good move. He's posted a 0.00 ERA across 11 IP at Triple-A, and owns a 14/1 K/BB. Behind him though, the options for Molitor and the front office are a lot of the names we've already seen. Busenitz and Moya both look like capable big league relievers to me, but neither has shown they are there right now. John Curtiss could be the next man up from Rochester, but he too would need to get off on the right foot. Outside of those names, there isn't another relief arm on the 40 man roster.

At Triple-A Rochester, Jake Reed (who's currently on the DL),  D.J. Baxendale, and Mason Melotakis are all names of intrigue. Of them, Reed probably has the most upside. None of those three are any sort of a sure thing however, and dipping down a level lower would be asking someone to make a big jump for the Twins. There is the option to ask a starter like Fernando Romero to work out of the pen, but unless he's used semi-regularly, that could be at a detriment to his development.

What this all boils down to is Paul Molitor needing more from the guys currently expected to bolster his pitching staff. Both Odorizzi and Lance Lynn need to be better out of the rotation. When entering from relief, it's been Addison Reed, Ryan Pressly, or bust. Trevor Hildenberger has to return to 2017 form, and Taylor Rogers desperately needs to string together a few strong outings. There isn't a golden ticket waiting to happen, and the cream really needs to rise to the top.

It's absolutely fair to note that the Twins have pitching depth, and it's also fair to suggest that there's a relative quality about it. That being said, the early season returns have been underwhelming, and the group as a whole must do some soul-searching to find out what more each individual can offer.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Odorizzi Shows Importance of Warmth

Thus far the Minnesota Twins have played just 12 games during the 2018 Major League Baseball season. When they have played, they've been met with suboptimal weather conditions more often than not. Playing in 80 degree heat against the Cleveland Indians down in Puerto Rico, Jake Odorizzi may have unintentionally displayed just how much of an effect the weather has on certain aspects of the game.

Over the course of his career, Odorizzi has hardly been the definition of an efficient pitcher. He's never reached the 200 inning plateau and there are no complete games on his big league resume. For a guy who's walked his fair share of batters over the course of his career, 2017 saw that category swell quite a bit. In his first handful of turns with the Twins, things hadn't slowed down in that category either. Then Jake was given the gift of warmth.

Against the Indians, Odorizzi threw 97 pitches across 5.0 IP and gave up four runs on six hits. Maybe most importantly, he walked just one batter while striking out six. The line looks worse than the outing was. Odorizzi served up a hanging curveball to Francisco Lindor on a 3-2 count at a point in which the ball should've been thrown nowhere near the strike zone. He then was teed off on by Jose Ramirez, and that should've ended his night. Left in a batter too long, Michael Brantley also got a solo shot in off the Twins starter.

Coming off two rocky starts though, Odorizzi had to like where his command was while pitching in Hiram Bithorn stadium. Despite having watched the game, I'm not able to visually break down the performance as the Puerto Rican venue isn't set up with Statcast necessities allowing the transmission of data to Baseball Savant. Even while offering strikes at a 60% clip, the former Rays pitcher found himself avoiding three ball counts, entering just four prior to Lindor's home run. Two strikes were a common theme, and being ahead of hitters was a place he routinely was able to work from.

There's no benefit to Odorizzi, or his new teammate Lance Lynn, suggesting that their slow starts have been due to the weather. While every player has to deal with it, gripping a Major League Baseball is a tough ask from the mound when each pill is practically frozen. Combining that with the inability to get and stay warm throughout an outing makes an already difficult task one that seems like an uphill battle.

Minnesota gave up very little to acquire Odorizzi, but that doesn't change the impact they need him to have on their starting rotation. No matter what the weather looks like, Jake is going to need to improve on a process that's yielded a 5.25 FIP thus far in 2018. Coming off a 5.43 FIP a year ago with an already solid defense behind him, it was going to be more on his pitching ability to turn things around than it would be the other teammates around him. With his back injury supposedly behind him, the hope is that the Twins starter can get back to the days of walking sub-3.0 per nine and pushing the FIP back below 4.00.

With the weather eventually (we hope) heating up here in Minnesota as well as across the country, we should expect to see more good than bad from Odorizzi going forward. The expectation would be that Puerto Rico is providing ideal weather conditions, and starts like the one we saw against the Indians represent more of the norm than the outlier. The flip side to the equation is that as the weather improves, so too do the opportunities for hitters. The ball flies further and they too are able to get in a better rhythm. For now Odorizzi has to keep working on the process, and know that as surrounding factors improve, so to will the results.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Could Jose Be This Good?

The Minnesota Twins have played fewer games than anyone in Major League Baseball thus far in the 2018 season. With weather cancellations and scheduled off days, Paul Molitor's club has almost been off the field for as long as they've been on it. Of the 11 games they have played however, Jose Berrios has pitched in three of them. While it's too early to draw any substantial conclusions, if the immediate returns are any indication, the bar as to just how good the Puerto Rican can be has been raised.

Jose Berrios routinely found himself on top prospect lists in 2015 and 2016. He was considered a top 30 prospect across the league, and topped out at #17 on Baseball Prospectus' list prior to the 2016 season. The reports surrounding his ability on the farm were glowing, but the general consensus was that he profiled as a number three starter with the potential to reach #2 type heights. What wasn't expected was for Berrios to profile as an ace. Those expectations were shared by plenty around the game, but the one who likely disagreed with them, was none other than Jose himself.

A workout warrior, Berrios has made a habit of posting his beach sessions during the offseason. He's pushed cars and flipped tires, all while continuing to hone his game from the mound as well. The result thus far in 2018 has been nothing short of exceptional. Opposing hitters have been overmatched, and Berrios has kept his inefficiency bugaboo at bay as well. Keeping this up would put him on the trajectory entering into that ace conversation. So, how is he doing it?

Velocity isn't the key here for Jose, as he's sitting at 94.2 mph on his fastball. That's exactly in line with his 94.1 mph career average. He's also throwing his pitches in similar amounts in comparison to a season ago. Relying on his fastball just over one-third of the time, his curveball makes up nearly another third of his offerings. What is happening though, is that opposing batters are clearly having a tougher time with the pitches being sent their way.

In 2018, Berrios has upped his chase rate to 35.8% as opposed to just 30.5% a year ago. He's generating a career best 10.6% swinging strike rate, and the 78.6% contact rate is also a career mark. Owning the strike zone is also something Berrios seems to have focused on. His 66.7% first strike mark is nearly 10% better than his career norms, and it jumps over 6% from the 2017 output. When he's at his best, Berrios is filling up the zone and making quick work of opposing lineups. It's when he slogs through outings that there seems to be more opportunity for the opposing offense.

Right now, through a three game sample size, it's as simple as Berrios being locked in. His 24/1 K/BB is dazzling for a guy who's posted 5.4 BB/9 and 3.0 BB/9 in his first two big league seasons. If homer runs and free passes have been the straw to break his back across previous starts, he's simply eliminated those detractors for the time being.

Now, over the course of what will hopefully be a 200 inning season, expecting Berrios to carry the 24.0 K/BB ratio, or the 0.629 WHIP is a fool's errand. What's not out of the realm of possibility however, is that he repeats a consistent process that yields opportunity for current results. There isn't a pitch the Twins hurler throws that doesn't have significant movement. Making sure to appropriately line up even his fastballs so that they catch or entice the zone remains a must. The more Paul Molitor and Garvin Alston can get Berrios to work with high strike percentages, the better.

At the end of the day, 2018 was going to be an interesting season for Berrios after coming off a 3.89 ERA and 3.84 FIP during 2017. Even substantiating those numbers would make him a key cog for the Twins in the years to come. Pushing towards the dominating strikeout machine he's trended towards to open 2018 would absolutely push him into a conversation for the next tier.

Whether or not batters continue to make less contact, chase often, or whiff more against Berrios remains to be seen. Keeping the ball in the yard and forcing the batter to work will forever be the key areas of focus, and right now, it looks like he's dialed in.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Kepler Committing Even if He's Not All In

Over the offseason and into spring training, plenty of discussions were had with Max Kepler in regards to his approach. Media covering the Twins probed, and I'd imagine that hitting coach James Rowson continued to challenge the young German. After failing to take a big step forward in 2017, it continues to seem like there's so much more potential left in there. Through the early part of 2018 however, it seems that Kepler has made a few tweaks, and given his comments, they may come as somewhat of a surprise.

When talking with Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press back in March, Kepler said "I'm not going to be swinging up and doing all that." He not that "it's not about launch angle" for him, and that his goal is to get his "bat head in the zone as early as possible." There's nothing wrong with any of those comments, but in recent years, we've seen the data suggest that the best avenue for success when putting the ball in play is by doing so in the air.
Kepler 2017

The reality at the big league level, is that ground balls simply don't equate to consistently high-yielding results. Major league players are more than capable of handling routine plays on the ground, and most are just fine turning even the spectacular opportunity into an out. Whether lifting the ball for liners in the gaps, or sending it flying for home runs over the fence, success in the game today comes through the air.

Despite Kepler's comments suggesting he isn't ready to adopt that principle, the results suggest that he may have seen the fruits the process is able to bear. After owning a 12.7 degree launch angle on average in 2017, he's boosted that to a 14.2 degree mark this season. In doing so, he's also seen his fly ball percentage go from 39.5% in 2017, to a whopping 53.6% this season. While getting the ball in the air, he currently has (an unsustainable, but notable anyways) a 20% HR/FB rate in comparison to just an 11.5% mark from a season ago.

Obviously getting the ball in the air also requires you to make strong contact. In that department as well, Kepler has upped the ante. He's generating a career best 42.9% hard hit rate, and pitch recognition seems to be something he's a bit more honed in on as well. With a career 29.5% chase rate, and a 28.5% mark from 2017, he's toting just a 25.6% chase rate thus far in the current campaign.
Kepler 2018

For a guy like Kepler, being able to generate enough power for extra base hits will be key to taking the next step forward. While he does have plenty of speed at his disposal (he did have 13 triples in 2015 at Double-A), being considered a true threat as a corner outfielder relies upon some thump rearing its head. What's encouraging is that Kepler's frame has always suggested that it will come, and the output has displayed a reality that it may just be a small tweak here or there from sticking for good.

Right now, it's plenty early to be drawing any season-long conclusions, but you absolutely have to be impressed with the results. If Kepler was consulted right now, I'm not sure that he'd agree in his approach being changed at all. It's also not particularly fair to attribute his early success solely to the lift he's applied to the baseball. However, if he's being fair, there's little to detract from the results at this point, and we have a measurable process to point towards.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Mauer Appears to Have Found it Again

Through eight games in the 2018 Major League Baseball season the Minnesota Twins have played to a .500 record. Having had to deal with blistering cold, and even some snow, it's hardly felt like a true baseball season. If there's one thing that has felt warm and fuzzy however, it's been the look and output of first basemen Joe Mauer.

In 2017, Mauer returned to the land of .300 batting averages for the first time since 2013. He posted an .801 OPS bolstered by a .384 OBP all while looking the part of a guy that has a trio of batting titles under his belt. Having already transformed himself into a Gold Glove caliber first basemen, getting back to his old ways at the dish was a nice sigh to see. What's encouraging is that early returns in 2018 suggest that there may be more to come.

To understand where we are, we should probably take a look back at where we've been. The last time Mauer was considered "himself" in 2013, he was putting balls in play with a 37.4% hard hit rating. His chase rates (O-Swing %) and swinging strike percentages have really never gotten out of line, which indicates that his going well has always been a reflection of barreling the baseball. Fast forward to when things took a turn for the worst, and we find ourselves at the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Mauer's .732 and .718 OPS in those two seasons respectively are a career worst. It's no coincidence that those numbers were posted in conjunction with 28% and 29.8% hard hit rates.

Now let's jump back to the present. A year ago, Mauer looked like a revitalized and rejuvenated player. His 2.2 fWAR last year was a high water mark since the last time he was an All Star (2013), and it was backed by a 36.4% hard hit rate. What's great is that the early returns in 2018 don't make that look like an anomaly, and if anything, suggest that things may be trending even a bit better.

Sure it's early, so let's pump the breaks on another MVP type season, but Mauer's start is pretty eye-popping. Thus far the Twins first basemen has a career best 47.6% hard hit rate, and he's already put 11 balls in play with an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher. A season ago his total was 204 and right now he's on pace to slightly eclipse that with a total of 223. Diving in even a bit further to those barreled balls, 10 of the 11 have been hit 100 mph or harder. In 2018 Mauer generated exit velocities of 100+ mph on 105 different occasions. With his current pace, he'd nearly double that in 2018 as he tracking towards 203 occurrences.

What we're seeing in the early going from Mauer is a batter that's not only locked in, but one that isn't being cheated either. His 13.4% chase rate is more than 3% better than at any other point in his career. Having always had a very good idea of where the strike zone is, Joe is currently dictating at bats, than walloping the baseball when it comes into his hitting zone. Last season, Mauer's 13.9 K% was 26th among qualified MLB hitters. At just 10% out of the gate in 2018, only 15 qualified hitters have posted better numbers.

There's no denying that there's a level of regression awaiting its turn to set in. After all, Mauer has a current seven game hitting streak and owns a .375/.500/.542 slash line out of the gate. The .429 BABIP is incredibly high, but also reflective of the quality contact he's continued to generate. Even with regression though, the process has yielded results that should display a level of sustainability with the assumption that the blueprint is stuck to over the course of the season.

At the end of the day, Minnesota isn't going to watch Joe Mauer win another batting title by the end of his career (Jose Altuve exists in the American League). What is becoming more clear however, is that there's some serious ability left in the tank for a guy trending towards a Hall of Fame career. On the final year of his deal with the Twins, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine would be well served to bring this guy back for another couple of years. If Joe wants to keep trotting out to the diamond, it doesn't seem like his skills have told him that's a bad idea.

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Kinley Conundrum is Coming for Twins

Thus far in 2018, the Minnesota Twins have played seven baseball games. They've had to deal with frigid temperatures, some snow, and even a postponement in the early going. What they have yet to need due to the circumstances, is a fifth starter. That leash could soon be coming to an end however, and Rule 5 draft pick Tyler Kinley could be caught up in the heart of the shuffle.

Through the seven games, Minnesota has won three times by at least four runs, and they were beaten recently by the Seattle Mariners to the tune of a seven run deficit. Despite what would seem like a few opportunities, Paul Molitor has only inserted Minnesota's Rule 5 pick into one game. Kinley got an inning of mop-up work during the blowout loss to the Mariners. He threw 22 pitches over one inning and gave up a hit, run, and walk while tallying two strikeouts.

During his inning of work, it was ever apparent as to why the Twins both wanted to grab the former Miami Marlins prospect, and why they were able to. He topped out at 96 mph, reaching that velocity on nine of his 22 pitches. There was also three sweeping sliders at 88 mph that were offered to Mariners hitters. Just 50% of his pitches were in the strike zone however, and there were more than a couple that appeared simply non-competitive. Velocity and lack of command isn't a new blueprint, and it's one that many Rule 5 draftees possess. In being held back until this moment however, it seems widely apparent that manager Paul Molitor doesn't see the training wheels coming off any time soon.

This is where things begin to get a bit hairy for both the Twins and Kinley. With Ervin Santana still on the shelf (and frankly not looking like he'll be back before June), Phil Hughes is looking like the most likely candidate to be inserted into the Minnesota rotation. He could be needed as soon as Friday, and the expected move would be that reliever Gabriel Moya would be sent to the minors. In 2.1 IP thus far, Moya has allowed 2 ER on 1 HR and 2 H. It's a small sample size, and the numbers don't suggest much. While he has dominated in the minors, and looks the part of a big league reliever, he has the unfortunate burden of carrying options. What this does for Minnesota though, could be described as suboptimal.

In sending out Moya, Minnesota decreases their relief arms by two. Molitor already isn't using Kinley (for fair reasons), and Moya is no longer at his disposal. Coupled with the fact that Trevor Hildenberger simply has not looked right since spring training commenced and Zach Duke has been effectively (but equally ineffective) wild out of the gate with his new team, the Twins relief corps finds themselves immediately stretched. There's little denying that Alan Busenitz couldn't be helping the big league club, but right now there's just no avenue to make it happen.

While sorting this all out, Derek Falvey is also faced with a reality that could end up being somewhat of an "egg on face" situation. Sure, Kinley's velocity was intriguing enough to take a flier on, but he really didn't make sense for the Twins given the other options. During the roster shuffle surrounding the Rule 5 draft and beyond, Minnesota lost Luke Bard, Nick Burdi, and J.T. Chargois. Burdi wasn't going to factor into the plans this year as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, but both of the other two are on big league rosters and showing nicely.

As a Rule 5 pick, Bard has the same stipulations as Kinley does. During spring training with the Los Angeles Angels, Bard never appeared in jeopardy of missing out on the 25 man roster however. He's backed up the vote of confidence by turning in a 1.42 ERA across his first 6.1 IP this season. The eight strikeouts have equated to an 11.4 K/9, though he does have an ugly five walks in that same span as well. Chargois was a waiver claim by the Dodgers, and despite that suggesting he nearly passed through unclaimed, one of the best teams in baseball saw and avenue to improve their pen. He's rewarded them with 3.1 scoreless IP giving up just 2 H, striking out three, and working around 95 mph with his fastball.

Now is too late to boo-hoo over the loss of players that could have been capable of providing value in the Twins pen. What's going to be tough to stomach however is if Minnesota is forced to give up on Kinley after a matter of weeks, or even a month, and watch their alternative options thrive. At some point soon though, Paul Molitor and the Twins brain trust is going to face a crossroads that determines how they move forward. A team with Postseason aspirations can't have unusable assets out in the pen, and with guys scuffling out of the gate, there has to be more trustworthy options available sooner rather than later.

We shouldn't have to wait much longer to see how this situation plays itself out, and hopefully, the sting won't be too bad when all is said and done.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Twins Stars Being Attacked Similarly

Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton are arguably the Twins most notable young stars. On offense, they provide value in different ways, but Paul Molitor's hope is to get a high level of production out of each of them. So early into the 2018 Major League Baseball season, there's not much to be said about the sample sizes or returns. One thing appears certain though, opposing pitchers are attacking the Minnesota duo in a similar fashion.

Through their first four games, Sano and Buxton have seemed to be pulling off a handful of pitches when observing through the functions of the eye test. Both players have inflated swinging strike rates out of the gate (Buxton 22.7% Sano 21.2%), and it appears a good deal of the misses are coming in a similar place. When looking at the zone profiles for each batter, Sano and Buxton are both missing pitches in a near identical location.
Although opposing pitchers are making Sano work a bit more when it comes to pitch recognition, the low and away pitch presents a similar challenge for both Twins hitters. When Buxton is in the box, he seems to get a steady diet of fastballs in, with the out pitch being a sweeping slider or curveball that darts away. Bat speed isn't a problem for Buxton at this stage, but attempting to turn on a pitch darting away is almost always going to induce soft contact. Miguel may not be seeing as many pitches tail away, but the ball getting to that bottom right corner of the zone still doesn't present an opportunity for it to be driven out to left field.

Looking back at their body of work as a whole, I don't think there's any reason to suggest that either Buxton or Sano is a dead pull hitter with a significant deficiency when it comes to going the opposite way. Both have a significant amount of thump in their bat, and hitting to the pull side, when possible, is going to be conducive of the most ideal results. What we can see based upon where pitchers are throwing them, and the contact that comes as a result, is that the "when possible" note holds some significant weight.

Again, just looking back over the small sample size that is the 2018 season, both Sano and Buxton have an instance in which they properly attacked the low and away pitch. Against the Orioles on April 2, both players were served pitches more towards their swing and miss zone (although Sano's was pretty close to middle in). Buxton sat on the pitch (a fastball as opposed to a slider), and drove it to right field for a single with a 106 mph exit velocity. Sano attacked his opportunity to the tune of a 110 mph opposite field home run. Despite not utilizing a breaking pitch, Orioles pitcher Kevin Gausman tried to attack the two Twins hitters in a place where they've shown a deficiency. Handled correctly however, both were able to execute a solid approach and generate favorable results.

Over the course of the full season, protecting the outside corner of the strike zone will continue to be a must for the pair. While Buxton isn't going to hit home runs at the pace Sano will, both have the opportunity to accumulate significantly more hits if they can read up on the book that's apparently out on them. Taking away opposing pitchers areas of opportunity only will help to raise their own threat level at the plate.

At any level of the game, getting away from the tendency to yank everything, or finish swings early, is a practice that requires real discipline. By trusting their bat speed, and knowledge of the strike zone itself, there should be plenty of baseballs that both Miguel and Byron can drive into right field. For now, opposing pitchers are likely going to remain focusing on that area of the zone, and it'll be up to the two Twins stars to force their hand.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Digesting the Twins Early Success

Through the first weekend of the 2018 Major League Baseball season, the Twins have experience both heartache and jubilation. From a walkoff loss to a pair of dominating wins, the emotions have run the gambit. While not trying to analyze everything from such a small sample on a granular level, there's been a few things that have stuck out across the first trio of games.

Having now just left Baltimore and embarked on Pittsburgh, everything Minnesota has accomplished thus far has come in the same city. Even in such a small sample, there's a few things that have taken place, and a few more worth monitoring as the season draws on.

Here are a couple of the highlights:

  • Lost in the walkoff lost, Jake Odorizzi was exceptional. He gave up just two hits, displayed the very strong spin rate that was part of his calling card, and sent seven Orioles hitters back to the bench. Using Fernando Rodney in a second inning after sitting through the offensive side was a curious move, and putting Addison Reed in during an incredibly low leverage spot seems to diminish his value.
  • Kyle Gibson followed in Odorizzi's footsteps well, but the results weren't quite as indicative as the process. Sure he allowed no hits through six, but the five walks highlighted a bit of a command issue. At the end of the day, that's a strong debut in 2018 for Gibson, and substantiating his second half in 2017 remains key.
  • Miguel Sano already has back-to-back homer games, and that's probably going to happen often this season. Unfortunately he also leads the league with eight strikeouts in 14 at bats, and is on pace for an incredible 432 whiffs over the course of the season. While there's no way that pace continues, the Twins need him to be a bit less feast or famine. I'm near certain Sano hits 30 homers, and 40 should be well within reach also. He's got to be an OPS monster though, and that will require a bit more plate discipline than he's shown early on.
  • Brian Dozier has a 1st pitch homer to lead off a game. I'd imagine that's something we'll be repeating plenty as well.
  • Jose Berrios missed a Maddux in his first start by eight pitches. His dominating performance against the Rockies may have been a bit more sexy due to the 11 strikeouts, but there's something to be celebrated in a complete game shutout.
  • Entering 2018 and making the team as somewhat of a surprise, Ryan LaMarre had a 2-37 output in the big leagues. He's now 2-2 with the Twins in a pair of pinch hit opportunities. Coming off the bench as a bat, he's continuing to do his job early.
  • With a few hits to his credit already, Byron Buxton has gotten off to a better start than in previous seasons. Opposing pitchers are still have some success making him chase sliders low and away. Either letting them go, or sitting back and driving them to right field would be a strong approach for the Twins centerfielder.
  • For a team with Postseason aspirations, and one looking to close the gap on the Indians in the AL Central, beating the clubs you're better than is a must. That's started out well with a series victory in Baltimore.