Thursday, March 30, 2017

Analyzing Minnesota's Early Season Schedule

Photo Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Baseball is finally back... well almost. Twins fans are eager to put memories of last year's 103-loss season behind them. Building off a young core, Minnesota hopes many players take the next step. There will be many factors that contribute to the team's 2017 campaign but a fast start could help the team avoid a repeat of last year's poor performance.

Most of the first month of the season is filled with battles against AL Central foes. In fact, the club only has three games outside of the division. These contests will be critical to understanding where Minnesota fits in the divisional pecking order.

Kansas City Royals 
Home Series: 4/3, 4/5-4/6: Road Series: 4/28-4/30
The Twins struggled against the Royals last season with a combined 4-15 record. Three of their four wins against Kansas City came at Target Field. Minnesota pitchers allowed 124 runs against the 2015 World Series Champions. Minnesota's 65 runs scored was also their lowest total against any inter-divisional opponent.

Minnesota will see the Royals top three starters (Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy, and Jason Hammel) in the first series. Ervin Santana gets the Opening Day nod as he posted a 4.55 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP against Kansas City last year. Hector Santiago fared even worse than Santana. He had a 10.93 ERA in three starts. Kyle Gibson faced the Royals three times and had a 6.75 ERA with a 1.85 WHIP.

Chicago White Sox
Road Series: 4/7-4/9: Home Series: 4/14-4/16
Minnesota's first road series of the year will come on the south-side of Chicago. The Twins went 7-12 against the White Sox last year including three road victories. Twins batters were outscored by 12 runs in those games (86 to 98) but that was the team's second highest run total in inter-divisional games.

Chicago went into rebuilding mode this off-season by trading away Chris Sale and Adam Eaton for a boat full of prospects. Lucas Giolito and Yoan Moncada will be names to watch in the years to come. For now, the Twins will have to hope their young core can find a way to win against one of the team's biggest rivals.

Detroit Tigers
Road Series: 4/11-4/13: Home Series: 4/21-4/23
The Tigers held Minnesota a 4-15 record during the 2016 campaign. All four of Minnesota's wins came in Detroit so the Twins will need to find a way to beat the Tigers at Target Field. Detroit scored 107-runs against Twins pitchers and Minnesota only saw 69 runs scored. Six of the team's first 22 games come against Detroit so the Twins will need to solve Detroit's curse in a hurry.

Detroit saw a rebound year in 2016 from many players in their core. Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, and Justin Verlander all looked like they were back to their old tricks. They finished in second place in the division and they have a chance to make a big step forward this year. It probably won't be enough to catch Cleveland but weirder things have happened in the baseball world.

Cleveland Indians
Home Series: 4/17-4/20
The defending AL Champions are the only divisional team the Twins play once in the season's first month. However, it is their longest series of the month (four games) and it does come at Target Field. Even with Cleveland running through the Central last season, Minnesota posted a 9-10 record against the Tribe while matching them in runs scored.

Cleveland rode tremendous pitching to being within a game of winning the World Series. This could result in a couple different directions for the coming season. The team could have a chip on their should and ride this momentum back to baseball's highest level. On the other hand, the team might not be able to overcome their October collapse and end up not living up to this year's lofty expectations.

Texas Rangers
Road Series: 4/24-4/26
Minnesota played two series against Texas in 2016 and won both of them. They finished with a 5-2 record and their .714 winning percentage, their highest total against any team. The Twins averaged almost nine runs per game while allowing less than 4.5 runs  per game. Minnesota had their two highest run producing games (17 and 15 runs) against Texas.

Even though the Rangers struggled against Minnesota, the club won 95 games and finished in first place in the AL West. Texas did this while struggling in multiple areas of the game. Only the Twins and Athletic allowed more runs. It seems likely for the Rangers to regress in 2017 and the Twins will need to take advantage this fall back to the back.

Minnesota finished 7-17 during last April. How will the club fare in the season's first month? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Tyler Jay and Baseball's Evolving Bullpen

Photo Credit: Seth Stohs, Twins Daily (Photo of Tyler Jay)
Twins fans were recently hit with the news that former first round pick Tyler Jay will be moved to the bullpen. This is disappointing news for many as the team used a high draft pick on a player they hoped could be become a strong starting pitcher.

Even with Jay shifting away from starting pitching, there might be a small ray of light at the end of the tunnel. Baseball's use of relief pitchers has begun to shift in recent years. During last year's postseason fans saw the importance of dominant relief pitchers like Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman.

At the end of January, I wrote about the disappearance of the 200 inning starting pitcher. Managers have pulled starters earlier in games to use team's reliable bullpen arms. Batters are forced to adjust to a new pitcher with a different pitching repertoire. This can be one of the reasons for scoring decreasing across baseball.

Trevor May was a player I hoped could become the Twins version of Andrew Miller. May and Miller both began their careers as starters before being shifted to the bullpen. Unfortunately, May underwent Tommy John surgery last week and he will miss all of the 2017 campaign. This was devastating news for a young player still looking to establish himself.

With May out for the season, Jay has the potential to fill an even more important role in the organiztion. Miller and Jay have many things in common. Both pitchers attended college, throw left-handed, and were selected with the sixth pick in the draft. Miller, like Jay, is more comfortable in a relief pitcher role. The move also means Jay could make his way to Minnesota as soon as this summer.

Jay's "more comfortable in the pen, his stuff plays up and it could put him on the fast track," said Brice Zimmerman, the former radio voice of the Fort Myers Miracle.

Perhaps Minnesota's new baseball operations will utilize a more progressive approach to bullpen usage in the years to come. FanGraphs explains one part of the shift like this:

"During the course of a game, some situations are more tense and suspenseful than others. For instance, we know that a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth inning is more suspenseful than a one-run lead in the top of the third inning. Batting with two runners on and two outs in the eighth inning is filled with more pressure than batting in the same situation in the second inning. Leverage Index (LI) is merely an attempt to quantify this pressure so we can determine if a player has been used primarily in high-leverage or low-leverage situations."

A team's best pitcher is usually their closer but some teams and managers only use their closer in the ninth inning. What good does it do to leave your best relief arm in the bullpen? (Ask Orioles fans about Zach Britton use in last year's AL Wild Card game) If the opposition has the heart of their line-up coming up in the eighth inning of a one-run game, it makes sense to have your best pitching option on the mound to face their best hitters.

Tyler Jay has the ability and skills to be a high-leverage pitcher. Fans can expect to see his fastball move back up into the mid-90s and his slider could end up being a devastating pitch. He ceiling could be very similar to what fans saw with Glen Perkins during his All-Star seasons.

No one knows if he will be the next Andrew Miller but baseball is changing. Bullpens are evolving and Tyler Jay can still end up being one of the most important pieces of Minnesota's march back to respectability.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Can Zach Granite Follow Brian Dozier's Footsteps?

Photo Credit: Seth Stohs, Twins Daily
Developing MLB players is a tough task for any organization. There are so many factors that can impact the development of a team's top tier talent. Through the ups-and-downs of a players professional career, there can be moments where everything clicks or moments that push a player away from the game.

When the Twins took Brian Dozier with an eighth round pick, the organization probably never imagined he would turn into a hitter capable of belting 40 home runs. Now the Twins have another late round pick that is starting to blossom in the Twins system.

Can Zach Granite follow Brian Dozier's footsteps?

As a 24-year old, Dozier split the 2011 season between High-A and Double-A. He hit .320/.399/.491 with 54 extra-base hits in 127 games. He was almost a year and a half older than the competition in the Florida State League so it was tough to fit him into the Twins prospect picture. Because of the numbers he accumulated, the club would name him the 2011 Twins Minor League Player of the Year.

Granite was taken in the 14th round on the 2013 MLB Draft. He spent all of the his age-23 season in the Lookouts' outfield. He hit .295/.347/.729 with 30 extra-base hits in 127 games. His 56 stolen bases were the most steals by any minor league player last year. He was a year younger than the competition in the Southern League. Like Dozier before him, Granite was awarded the 2016 Twins Minor League Player of the Year. 

"He's one guy I was looking forward to watching play," Paul Molitor told the Star Tribune. "He's coming off a really good year with a lot of people speaking really highly of him. I like those kind of players. There's a place for those guys."

There are some notable differences between Granite and Dozier. Dozier came up through the Twins system as a shortstop but was never strong enough to stay at that position. Granite's speed has seen him play the majority of his professional career in center field. Dozier is still a below average defender and Granite has the potential to be above average. 

Both players have a very different approach at the plate. Dozier has developed into one of the best power hitting infielders in baseball. Granite wants to put the ball in play and use his speed to his advantage. His speed and defensive ability should help him fit into the big league line-up in the near future.

"I don't care who's on the mound, I think I can hit anybody," Granite said. "I've got the confidence to be here. Playing scared, that's not my game. I believe I belong, so hopefully somebody else does, too."

Granite will never be a big home run hitter. However, he's on a path to go from being a late-round pick to a MLB regular. This type of late round find needs to continue to happen if Minnesota is going to get back to respectability in the American League.

When will Granite make an impact on the big league squad? What type of MLB player do you think he will be? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Top 20 Twins Prospects: 1-5

Photo Credit: Linwood Ferguson, Captive Photons
With the season fast approaching, I have been spending time reviewing the top prospects in the Twins system. There are plenty of players to be excited about in the years to come. Here's a recap of the previous posts:
Prospects 11-20
Prospects 6-10

A year after players like Byron Buxton and Max Kepler impacted the big league squad, there's a chance that none of the players below will debut this year. Who will be number one?

5. Tyler Jay, LHP
Age: 22/ Highest Level: Double-A
Jay's first five 2016 starts were rough as he was knocked around for 11 earned runs in 19.1 innings. He failed to pitch more than five innings in any of these starts and opponents were getting on base 33% of the time. Over his next 38.1 frames, he posted a 0.70 ERA with 42 strikeouts and nine walks. He went 4-2 during this stretch as batters were held to a .OPS of under .500. He made his Double-A debut on July 10 and over his next two starts he allowed eight earned runs across 10 innings. His final three appearances came out of the Lookouts’ bullpen where he allowed one earned run on three hits. Jay, a left-handed pitcher, struck out lefties in 22 of their 66 at-bats while limiting them to a .645 OPS. Right-handed batters hit .249/.306/.355 with a 55 to 18 strikeout to walk ratio. His season would be done on July 30 after dealing with some neck and shoulder issues. In August, doctors diagnosed him with neuro praxia, or nerve irritation, in his neck.

4. Alex Kirilloff, OF
Age: 19/ Highest Level: Rookie
The Twins recently announced Kirilloff will miss the entire 2017 season as he will be undergoing Tommy John surgery. This takes little away from his promising future. Kirilloff skipped the GCL and headed to the Appy League. He was 2.5 years younger than the competition at this level. In fact, he never faced a pitcher younger than himself in over 230 plate appearances. He came out hitting well in his first full month as a professional. He batted .373 with a .919 OPS for the month of July. This included four home runs and seven doubles. He cooled a little in August as his average dipped to .232 but he was still getting on base over 30% of the time with six extra-base hits. Kirilloff, a left-handed batter, posted an OPS that was 155 points higher against right-handed pitching. Kirilloff started games at all three outfield positions while the majority of his appearances came in right field. In the outfield, he combined for four errors in 86 chances with seven assists.

3. Fernando Romero, RHP
Age: 22/ Highest Level: High-A
Romero made his presence known on his return to the mound in 2016. Even after missing all of 2015, he was almost a year younger than the competition in the Midwest League and he was over two years younger than FSL opponents. This resulted in 85% of his at-bats coming against older batters. He started the year by making five starts for the Kernels. He allowed six earned runs over 28 innings (1.93 ERA) with 25 strikeouts and five walks. Near the end of June, he was promoted to Fort Myers where he allowed seven earned runs across 29 innings (five starts). He posted a 26 to 5 strikeout to walk ratio while holding batters to a .225 average. From July 23 to August 25, he compiled a 1.62 ERA with 39 strikeouts in 33.1 innings. Left-handed batters struck out in 29% of their at-bats. He struck out 26 or more batters in every month where he made four starts or more. For the season, he set career best marks in wins, innings pitched, strikeouts, and WHIP. He made it an easy decision for the Twins to add him to the 40-man roster at season’s end

2. Stephen Gonsalves, LHP
Age: 22/ Highest Level: Double-A
For the third consecutive season, Gonsalves split time between two different levels. His first 11 starts came back in the FSL, where he finished the 2015 campaign. After allowing three runs in his first outing, he combined to allow three runs over his next six starts (36.2 IP). Overall at High-A, he had a 2.33 ERA and a 0.97 WHIP and a 66 to 20 strikeout to walk ratio. Gonslaves had one bad Double-A start in his second appearance (6 ER in 3.2 IP) before going on a dominant stretch for the rest of the season. Across 65.2 IP, he allowed seven earned runs (0.96 ERA) with 75 strikeouts and a 0.95 WHIP. He held opponents to batting .144/.263/.177 during that stretch. Batters never hit higher than .228 against him in any month. He struck out 20 batters or more in any month he made at least three starts. Over 80% of his at-bats came against older batters. Even though he is a lefty, left-handed batters hit 20 points higher than righties but they also struck out in 34% of their at-bats.

1. Nick Gordon, SS
Age: 21/ Highest Level: High-A
For the third consecutive season, Gordon was over two years younger than the competition. In 494 total at-bats, he faced a younger pitcher twice.  At the beginning of the season, only three players were younger than him in the FSL. Gordon got the season off to a good start as he hit .333/.363/.483 with nine extra-base hits in April. He ended June on a nine game hit streak. July saw him set season highs with 17 runs and 20 RBI. He got on base over 31% of the time in every month except August. Gordon, a left-handed batter, hit .315/.356/.431 against righties. A year after stealing 25 bases, he stole 19 and was caught 13 times. Overall, he had 35 multi-hit games and reached base in 74% of the games he played. After posting fielding percentages of over .960 in both of his professional seasons, he saw that number dip to .952. He was charged with 24 errors in 503 chances. Gordon carried over his strong regular season to the Arizona Fall League. As one of the younger players in the 2016 AFL, he hit .346/.418/.444 with six extra-base hits and 15 runs in 21 games.

Who is too high? Is anyone too low? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Leadoff Candidate Conundrum

Photo Credit: Brad Mills, USA Today
Recent years have seen a shift in the evolution of the leadoff hitter. Gone are the days of needing a speedy player to swipe bases in front of the power hitting middle of the order. Teams are more focused on players getting on base to start an inning.

Last year's World Series clubs, the Cubs and the Indians, are slated to start Kyle Schwarber and Carlos Santana in the lead-off spot. Both of these players don't exactly scream speed. However, they do get on base and can be a threat out of the leadoff spot.

Minnesota is also trying to decipher which player should be featured at the top of the order. Here are four candidates to consider:

Byron Buxton, CF
Minnesota's speedy outfielder has many of the tools to be a weapon out of the leadoff spot. Buxton is one of the fastest players in baseball. As recently as the 2013 season, Buxton stole 55 bases while primarily being used as a leadoff hitter. It's an interesting situation because Buxton could end up being used in multiple line-up spots throughout his career.

Joe Mauer told the Pioneer Press, "Buck’s so talented he could hit anywhere in the order and probably do pretty good. It’s fun to have that type of speed at the top of the lineup." Molitor will likely start the season with Buxton as the number nine hitter so he can be a "second leadoff hitter." This will also put less pressure on the budding star in his sophomore season.

Brian Dozier, 2B
Dozier seems like the most likely candidate to start the year in the leadoff spot. Last year, he hit 27 of his 42 home runs as the first batter in the order. He did this in 73 starts. For his career, he has hit .250/.317/.496 with home runs in 23% of his games. Dozier's career batting average of .246 doesn't exactly scream leadoff hitter but he has gotten on base over 32% of the time.

Dozier also adds in the ability to steal bases. Over the last two seasons, he has averaged 17 steals per season. "I just love the leadoff spot," Dozier said. "Just like Mollie, I like to ignite, get things going." Throughout his career, Dozier has been a very streaky hitter. If Dozier is in the midst of a cold spell, other hitters might be given the opportunity to take over the leadoff spot.

Joe Mauer, 1B
With a new analytic baseball operations department, Mauer could take over the leadoff spot. He is the most experienced hitter in the Twins line-up and he posted a .363 OBP last year. Derek Falvey's former team, the Indians, used Carlos Santana in the leadoff spot for over half of their games last season. Mauer batted leadoff on eight occasions last year while going 5-for-32 (.156 BA) with 10 to 4 strikeout to walk ratio.

It might make the most sense to have Mauer be the leadoff hitter against right-handed pitching. I made the argument that it might be time to use a platoon system with Mauer so he is getting the majority of his at-bats against righties. This would allow right-handed hitters like Kennys Vargas and/or Byungho Park to see more at-bats against lefties.

Robbie Grossman, OF
Grossman might be a sleeper pick to be the lead-off hitter. With a Rosario-Buxton-Kepler projected outfield, Grossman will likely make the team as a fourth outfielder. One injury to a starting player and his role will quickly become more important. If Dozier goes cold or Buxton slumps, Grossman might find himself at the top of the pile.

Last year, he posted a .386 OBP which was almost 40 points higher than his career total. Grossman's defense was so poor in the outfield that the new front office might search for different candidates. It also seems likely for him to regress closer towards his career totals for getting on base.

Who do you want to see get the majority of the leadoff at-bats? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Top 20 Twins Prospects: 6-10

Photo Credit: Linwood Ferguson, Captive Photons
Last week I began running through my personal picks for the Twins top prospects. The players I have ranked 11-20 include multiple players who could impact the Twins roster during the 2017 campaign.

While the Twins have multiple players ready to debut, the back-end of my top-10 includes only one player who will play with the Twins next season. There are many players to be excited about but many of the players with higher upside are multiple years away from Target Field.

10. Felix Jorge, RHP
Age: 23/ Highest Level: Double-A
In Jorge's first taste of the FSL, he showed why he is considered one the Twins top pitching prospects. Through his first seven starts, he posted a 2.00 ERA with 38 strikeouts in 45.0 IP. From May 26-July 5, he reeled off seven straight victories while averaging over six innings per start. Jorge was promoted to Double-A in July and struggled through his first six starts (5.06 ERA). He ended the year strongly in his last five starts as he averaged over seven innings and posted a 3.16 ERA. He set career best totals in wins, innings pitched, and he struck out over 100 batters for the second consecutive season. Following the season, the Twins added Jorge to the 40-man roster. If he continues to pitch well, Jorge could be a September call-up in 2017.

9. Lewin Diaz, 1B
Age: 20/ Highest Level: Rookie
Diaz has been over a year younger than the competition at every stop in his professional career. During the 2016 season, he hit .321/.366/.585 against older pitchers and only faced younger pitchers in 15 at-bats. Diaz, a left-handed batter, had an OPS that was 19 points higher against righties. He ended the year by hitting .352/.387/.563 with eight extra-base hits in his last 19 games. He also limited his strikeouts to 35 in 174 at-bats (20% of his AB). Diaz committed four errors at first base in 318 chances for a .987 FLD% which is better than his career fielding percentage. Like other players on this list, Diaz won't be making his debut for multiple seasons.

8. Adalberto Mejia, LHP

Age: 23/ Highest Level: MLB

Mejia spent his first six minor league seasons in the Giants organization before joining the Twins in the Eduardo Nunez trade. He began the year at Double-A where he went 3-2 with a 1.94 ERA and 58 strikeouts over 65.0 IP. In June, he was promoted to Triple-A where he pitched six innings or more in five of his seven appearances. After joining the Red Wings, he allowed 10 earned runs over 19.1 innings with 20 strikeouts. Mejia made his big league debut on August 20 as he allowed two runs on five hits over 2.1 frames. His final start of the year came back in Rochester as he allowed one earned run over seven innings with five strikeouts. Lefties hit .205/.247/.301 against him with 42 strikeouts in 146 at-bats. Mejia will factor get multiple opportunities to stick at the big league level this season.
7. Wander Javier, SS
Age: 18/ Highest Level: Dominican Summer League
Javier made his professional debut in the Dominican Summer League. In nine games, he went 8-for-26 (.308 BA) with two home runs and three doubles. He was pulled from a game on July 1st with a hamstring injury and he wouldn't appear in another game the rest of the season. The injury wasn't considered serious but the Twins let him rest until fall instructional league play. He posted a 3 to 4 strikeout to walk ratio against right-handed pitchers while combining for a 1.234 OPS (29 plate appearances). All but one of his plate appearances came against older pitchers. He made eight starts at shortstop and was charged with one error in 25 chances. Javier is many years away from Target Field but he has plenty of upside.

6. Kohl Stewart, RHP
Age: 22/ Highest Level: Double-A
For the fourth consecutive season, Stewart was more than 2.5 years younger than the competition at his level. His first nine starts came in Fort Myers. In 51.2 innings, he posted a 2.61 ERA with a 44 to 19 strikeout to walk ratio. He held opponents to hitting .207/.286/.287. H was promoted to Double-A at the beginning of June. In three of his first seven appearances, he failed to get out of the fifth inning by allowing a combined 13 runs. In the other four starts during that stretch, he averaged 6.2 innings with a combined four earned runs allowed. From August through season’s end, he started to get in a rhythm at Double-A. Over his last six games (38.2 IP), he allowed 11 earned runs on 30 hits with 16 strikeouts and 21 walks. There's an outside chance he could debut this year but it seems likely for him to pitch most of the year between Double-A and Triple-A.

Who is too high? Is anyone too low? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Planning A Mauer Platoon

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel, USA Today Sports
Joe Mauer has been a mainstay in the Twins line-up for most of the last 13 years. He's won an MVP and three Gold Gloves while being selected to six All-Star teams. However, the All-Star version of Mauer has been missing from Target Field in recent years.

Mauer will turn 34 next month and he is turning into the elder statesman of the Twins clubhouse. A younger core of players is surrounding him and this could mean a shift in playing time. Mauer has two years remaining on his monster contract so he's not going anywhere but the Twins might need to start adjusting to an aging Mauer.

Batting Order Options
Mauer made his spring debut on Wednesday while batting in the second spot. Manager Paul Molitor is still trying to decide how the line-up will shakeout before the season begins. Byron Buxton or Brian Dozier will likely start the year in the lead-off spot and other players like Mauer are dependant on who starts at the top.

"How Buxton comes along, how that's going to affect Dozier in some regard, there's just a trickle down there in where people could go," Molitor told the Pioneer Press. "I still like Joe up there somewhere, against right-handed pitching in particular."

Is Molitor hinting at something more with Mauer? Will he sit more against lefties? Could he drop in the order against same-sided pitching?

Numbers Dropped Against Lefties
During the 2016 campaign, Mauer hit .272/.383/.410 against right-handed pitching in almost 450 plate appearances. His numbers dropped against southpaws as he hit 48 points lower and got on base 29% of the time. In 2015, Mauer hit .267/.327/.393 against left-handed pitching including 14 extra-base hits in 191 at-bats.

There were plenty of holes in his swing against lefties. There were only two zones where he hit at least .200 when facing southpaws and one of those areas was out of the strike zone.
Image courtesy of FanGraphs
Other First Base Options
Besides Mauer's dropping numbers against lefties, there are other options in camp who could platoon with Mauer. Kennys Vargas and Byungho Park both have a chance at making the roster. Each of them might be a better option when it comes to facing southpaws.

Vargas, a switch hitter, has hit .302/.360/.474 against lefties in over 211 MLB plate appearances. His .834 OPS is 141 points higher than his total against righties. Park suffered through plenty of struggles during his MLB rookie campaign. However, he is off to a good start this spring as he has two home runs. If he is able to stay healthy this season, he could be a player to watch.

New Men At The Top
During his first two years as manager, Molitor has controlled the line-up construction on a daily basis. According to the the Pioneer Press, he was having "regular batting order discussions with Jack Going, the Twins' director of baseball research."

With newly created baseball operations department, Thad Levine and Derek Falvey might have more of a say in line-up creation. This will remain to be seen in the year ahead. Molitor wasn't hired under the current regime so it will be interesting to see how their relationship develops over the course of the 2017 season.

Put yourself in the manager's chair. Should Mauer be platooned this year? What is the Twins optimal line-up against right-handed and left-handed starters? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion.