Monday, August 26, 2019

What Has Arraez Played Himself Into?

The Minnesota Twins have had more than a handful of exciting points of player growth in 2019. Maybe none have been more impressive than Luis Arraez. From fringe prospect to primary second basemen, the rise has been nothing short of meteoric. At this point he’s all but destined to open 2020 as the club’s starting second basemen, but is that his long (or even near) term home?

Through 64 games and just shy of 250 plate appearances, he owns an .836 OPS and is batting .335. He’s never going to be a power hitter, and if he ever puts 10 balls out of the park in a single season any team would be ecstatic. What he can be though, is an ideal leadoff hitter with great average skills and elite on-base production thanks to plate discipline that’s otherworldly. He handles the bat to the point that Tony Gwynn would be proud of, and his approach at the plate in unwavering.

It is for those reasons that he’s played himself into the starting second basemen role when Opening Day comes knocking. Nick Gordon hasn’t yet made his major league debut, and as his chief competition, it isn’t surprising to suggest that Arraez would have a leg up. From a second base perspective alone, it’s worth wondering if that spot isn’t more circumstantial than anything else for Arraez.

Eventually the hope would be that Royce Lewis would make his MLB debut and take over as Minnesota’s starting shortstop. Jorge Polanco is not long for that position, even though he’s made strides this year. The arm is still questionable there, and Polanco has gone through bouts of inconsistency as he works through his throwing process. Signed to a long-term extension, Polanco isn’t like to move out of the organization any time soon, and an up-the-middle-tandem seems to be destined for Lewis and Polanco.

There also has always been the idea that Miguel Sano is not long for third base. Although he’s hung around the average-to-slightly-below mark this season, a body that big seems to profile more on the other corner. Thad Levine recently suggested that Minnesota doesn’t see Sano as an ideal fit at 1B presently, and they see third as an easier avenue to keeping him engaged in the action. As necessity pushes him from the spot though, they may need to re-evaluate their plans.

So, assuming Polanco slides over at short is filled, Arraez could find himself at the hot corner. This is all assuming the hit tool continues to play, but the position makes some sense. He’s almost always been a second basemen on the farm, and his time there has tripled the third action with the Twins. In 282 innings at second however, he owns a -6 DRS and -1.7 UZR. The 100-inning sample at 3B is incredible small, but he’s been worth 0 DRS and a -0.5 UZR. Minnesota will get plenty more data to evaluate prior to decision making time, but it’s a narrative to monitor.

If everything develops on an expected and linear track (which is to essentially say this won’t happen at all), then Lewis and Polanco man the middle for Minnesota by late 2020. At that point Sano could then move to 1B or DH (after Nelson Cruz is gone) and Arraez slides into the hot corner. Maybe Luis won’t continue to hit (seems unlikely) or maybe he’ll be dealt (not sure that’s probable), but second base doesn’t seem like the guaranteed long-term fit for the Venezuelan and I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with that.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Boomstick Became More than a Nickname for Cruz

Listen, Nelson Cruz earned the moniker “Boomstick” because he’s become one of the most prolific power hitters in baseball. While most nicknames are rooted in some level of fact, Mr. Boomstick may never have expected the output he’s seeing as a 39-year-old with the Minnesota Twins. The home runs continue to pile up, but he’s pulverizing the leather more than he has ever done before.

Plenty has been made about the baseball in play during the 2019 Major League Baseball season. It’s obvious that changes to the ball itself have been made, and we’re seeing homers at a higher rate than at any point since the PED era. For power hitters like Cruz, an already perfected ability has become that much more lethal. If we’re going to truly understand the difference though, it’s only sensible to dive into the numbers.

37.6%. That’s the career hard hit rate for Nelson Cruz. He didn’t become a full-time big leaguer until 2009 at the age of 28. From that point through the next eight years, he owned a hard-hit rate that fluctuated between 35-38%. As a power hitter who elevated that ball, that output would certainly be capable of sending the ball over the fence. He posted three different 40-homer seasons and compiled a tally of 262. Fighting father time, Cruz had to figure out how to expand upon the ability that had carried him thus far.

2016 was the last time Cruz played more than five games at a position in a season (he’ll play none in the field this year). Solely operating as a designated hitter, perfecting his craft with a wooden stick became the only goal. Maybe not coincidentally, the quality of contact also began to rise. No longer standing in the outfield for nine innings, and able to unleash effort in short bursts, Cruz touched a 40% (40.7%) hard hit rate for the first time in 2017. He then followed that up with a 42.3% hard hit rate. Continuing to elevate the ball with higher exit velocities, the homers kept coming.

Then 2019 happened.

For the Twins Cruz has posted a ridiculous 55.3% hard hit rate, a career low 36.6% ground ball rate, and turned in an asinine 34% HR/FB rate. Literally more than one-third of the time Nelson Cruz puts the ball in play, and it doesn’t touch the ground, it leaves the stadium. His hard-hit rate is nearly 5% higher than the next closest batter and he’s pacing baseball in HR/FB ratio. On Statcast’s leaderboards he owns the best Brls/PA% in the sport (13.7 with 2nd at 12.2), and trails only Aaron Judge in average exit velocity (94.5 mph).

Minnesota had an opening in the DH role going into this year, and they turned from an OBP centric lineup to one that could change the game on a single swing. Cruz was an ideal fit, and after turning down a shot with the Tampa Bay Rays, he landed in Minnesota on a 2yr/$26MM pact. That second season is a $12MM team option that the Twins will gladly pick up (and have Cruz on a discount from year one). It’s been one of the most successful free agent acquisitions in organization history, and the next chapters are still yet to be written.

At 36-years-old Nelson Cruz became a full-time designated hitter. At 39-years-old he produced what could be the best OPS of his career, a .662 SLG and what has a shot to be a new high-water mark in homers. Cruz has played in just 90 games for Minnesota (dealing with two stints of wrist issues), but his 33 dingers translate to a 59 per 162 tally. The man got older, got more specialized, and turned into a Rawlings’ greatest nightmare.

Friday, August 16, 2019

The Death of Unwritten Rules

As analytics have crept into the game of baseball and taken a foothold as the chief form of evaluation, players from all different eras rail against the game in its current state. The game has definitely changed to cater towards the exceptional athletes that play it today, and the sport has taken notice as well. Unwritten rules have forever (and will always) be part of baseball, but there’s a certain aspect still waiting to be phased out.

The idea that baseball polices itself has long been one that has held weight. As the game has adapted to use slogans like “Let the kids play” and adopted rule changes at bases and the plate, it’s clear there’s an emphasis on keeping these elite athletes on the field of play. With that in mind, it’s beyond time to put an end to the retaliatory pitch.

In last night’s Twins and Rangers game, outfielder Jake Cave swung on a 3-0 pitch and lined a single into the outfield. It was a 13-6 game and in the top of the 9th inning. Cave immediately apologized to pitcher Shawn Kelley upon reaching first base, and he appeared to have lost track of the count. Kelley overlooked the acknowledgement and after going 3-0 to the Max Kepler, plunked him on the arm.

Discussion from the booth, from Roy Smalley and Dick Bremer, immediately turned to that act as retaliation for Cave’s transgression. In a game that Minnesota was blowing out Texas, he had the audacity to swing his bat. Kelley couldn’t find the zone for a second straight batter, and then quit competing to hurl a ball into the arm of the Twins centerfielder. A sport that now has rules in place to protect its players, watched as a pitcher hurled a pitch into a batter, simply because he was upset.

I have no problem with avoidance of the mound, looking presentable on the field, carrying yourself with a level of self-respect, or any number of lesser unwritten rules. I do have an issue with the idea that a pitcher gets to throw a projectile at a batter any time they feel scorned or upset. While wearing a pitch isn’t the end of the world, taking a 90-mph baseball to any part of your body doesn’t feel good, and can certainly open the door to a more substantial injury.

There’s a level of respect shown to an opponent taking one base at a time or giving away pitches in a blowout game. That’s not a necessity though and is something the winning team does to show mercy. Expecting that to be the practice, and then reacting negatively when it doesn’t take place is lunacy. Minnesota wouldn’t have been afforded the good graces of the Rangers simply striking out should they have mounted a 9th inning comeback. Deciding when the game no longer is worth playing in the middle of it is not for any one person to opine. On top of that, this instance stemmed from a guy who clearly stated his intentions and felt bad for what he considered a misstep.

At the end of the day it isn’t that Jake Cave got his teammate Max Kepler hit. That’s what happened, but it was the idiocy of Rangers pitcher Shawn Kelley that decided an attempt to injure an opponent was fair response to him failing at his job. The easiest way to avoid having your feelings hurt in defeat is to steer clear of situations where you cause self-embarrassment. Last night the Rangers were an abomination, and then they doubled down on that fact in how they carried out the 9th inning.

Hopefully the Twins find no need to keep the beanball war going tonight, but I certainly hope every dinger that leaves the park ends with a bat flip landing mere feet from the mound and the pitcher that offered it up.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Baseball Cards Going Gangbusters in August

As the only card company with a Major League Baseball license, Topps makes sure to keep the hobby relevant throughout the entire calendar year with new products. In August, no month has been busier this season than the one we’re presently in. From the recently completed National Baseball Card day, to the upcoming retail and hobby releases, there’s truly something for everyone.

At the beginning of August, the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, IL hosted the National Sports Card Collectors Convention. It’s the biggest show in the country and rotates between sites each year. Highlighted in the baseball realm by the release of the always anticipated Topps Chrome, plenty of wax was ripped through during the Wednesday-Sunday event. As the doors shuddered on the show though, the card offerings don’t come to a close.

Last week a middle-end product offering debuted in the form of Topps Tribute. It’s a hit driven product with gorgeous thick stock acetate cards and on-card autographs. That was followed by the aforementioned National Baseball Card Day, and then this week saw the launch of a must have product every cycle.

Topps Heritage is one of the most important offerings to set builders each year, and High Number is the “Update” version of the line. Including all the top rookies and displaying them in throwback designs (1970 this year), it’s a can’t miss offering for collectors. High Number was joined in release with the relaunch of Bowman Sterling, a prospect offering featuring a different design than the traditional Bowman line, but still done up in Chrome stock.

Like Heritage before it, next week’s Archives is among the notable sets on a yearly basis as well. Taking current players and putting them in throwback cards is always enjoyable for collectors. This year you’ll find base cards with designs from 1958, 1975, and 1993. To bookend the month with another hit-driven product, Topps Five Star is a one-pack, two-card offering that has some of the most impressive patch autographs the hobby can deliver.

In total August is a collector’s haven. Topps has something for every budget and it’s impossible to overlook just how impressive the lineup this month is. Make sure to check out your local card store or retail corner for your next hobby purchase soon!

Monday, August 5, 2019

Buxton’s Body and Cave’s Opportunity

Over the weekend the Minnesota Twins were dealt a blow they’ve too often been a victim of this season. Byron Buxton, arguably the most important player on this club, hit the Injured List with what essentially boils down to a shoulder dislocation. The play in question was hardly an aggressive jolt to his body, but what initially resulted in a lineup scratching for soreness has turned into a month-long question mark. For Byron this theme gets examined again, and for Jake Cave the time is now.

Last season much was made of Buxton being injury prone. He dealt with migraines during an unfortunate time with the team down in Puerto Rico, and then broke a toe during a potentially unnecessary rehab stint. Minnesota rushed him back to the lineup and ultimately, he played just 28 games before being shut down (begrudgingly) in September. After a promising end to 2017, it was hardly the year anyone involved wanted.

In 2019 he’s made a couple of different appearances on the Injured List, and while frustrating, no one in the room is more disappointed than Byron himself. Concussions have been a thing for Buxton over the course of his career, and the latest one suffered while simply diving forward for a fly ball had all the parameters of a fluke. With his head and neck surging forward and his face/chin driving into the ground, the jarring movement was enough to do damage. He missed roughly two weeks before being cleared (although that was complicated by the removal of his wisdom teeth). The shoulder injury was caused when tracking down a ball in the gap. There wasn’t a significant collision with the wall, but enough pressure was forced to cause harm.

Neither of the most recent maladies would fall into the category of reckless aggression for me. Minnesota has made strides in Buxton’s positioning, and through conversation with Byron, in hopes of sparing him from unnecessary hits. Taking matters into his own hands as well, Buxton told DanHayes of The Athletic that he bulked up this winter in hopes of a more durable stature. In short, I’m not sure there’s much to be done here than blame bad luck.

One of the most spectacular catches Byron has ever made happened in May 2017 against the Cleveland Indians. Flying towards the right-center gap, he leapt and used the wall as a sole stopping power for his momentum. The catch was great, the fallout was not. It’s plays like this that while spectacular, Minnesota is undoubtedly trying to avoid. Byron has the ability to generate 5-star catches (per Statcast) and lead the big leagues in Outs Above Average while rarely sacrificing himself going back on the baseball. Discussion about avoiding the wall has taken place, and even with a well engrained instinct to make all sacrifices, I believe the message of availability is there.

Whenever he returns, we’ll have to hope that the hot hitting follows suit (10-26  7 XBH since his concussion return). The Twins will continue working with him to find ways to avoid preventable injury, and they’ll chalk up situations like this one, as an unfortunate result and opportunity for strengthened health. Now it’s on Jake Cave to step up.

There’s no denying that Minnesota is worth without Buxton. He patrols the outfield and allows the corners to remain strong, while giving utility players one less spot they need to key in on. Max Kepler is an above average centerfielder, but he’s not Byron, and the guys around him now must pick up the slack. So far, we haven’t seen Cave do that, but the evidence is there.

Cave is not a good centerfielder. He lacks the instincts to adequately cover so much ground at Target Field. He is a serviceable right fielder though and that’s what Minnesota needs from him for much of the next month. The defense shouldn’t be called into question as much down the line, but that bat must begin to play. Though sporadic, his 103 plate appearances have results in a paltry .198/.320/.302 slash line. He’s got just five extra-base hits and hasn’t been a shred of the .786 OPS player we saw a season ago.

Still 26-years-old and having played less than 130 big league games, Cave is continuing through an acclimation process. 2018 showed us that the ability is there, and in 48 Triple-A games this season he owns a .352/.393/.592 slash line with 29 extra-base hits (seven homers). Jake has nearly doubled his big-league walk rate this year, and he’s trimmed a bit off his strikeout rate. Whiffing the same amount but chasing a bit less, his hard-hit rate is now over 41%.

Arguably the most egregious issue Cave has dealt with this season is his launch angle. Hitting the ball harder matters little when he dropped to a 16.1% line drive rate (from 25.7%) and a 17.9% fly ball rate (from 30.6%). A 10-degree launch angle a season ago has bottomed out to the tune of a 3.7 degree mark this season. Opportunity for success lies most within addressing this problem. It will be on James Rowson to work with Cave on getting back to what he was doing last season. Lifting the ball must be a part of his game and wasting significant quality barreled balls isn’t something a fringe batter can afford.

Over the next month we’ll definitely miss Byron Buxton. We need to spend less time worrying about how to change or overhaul his play style though. This is an unfortunate situation that the Twins face, but it isn’t one that’s been created by carelessness on Buxton’s part. To mitigate the impact of his presence, or lack thereof in the lineup, it will be on Jake Cave to rectify his 2019 output and bring the numbers he’s posted in Rochester to Minnesota.