Monday, July 17, 2017

Appreciating Max Kepler

Photo Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Time and patience are two key aspects when it comes to developing prospects. Max Kepler fits this mold more than a lot of other young players. When the Twins signed him as a teenager out of Germany, the club knew of his athletic ability but Europe hasn’t exactly been a hot bed for MLB prospects.

Kepler has played just over 200 games at the MLB level and he has found a way to provide value through all aspects of his game. There are areas that could still improve but Kepler is on a course to be an above average big leaguer for years to come.

Only two short seasons ago, Kepler exploded at Double-A on his way to winning Southern League MVP honors. He hit .322/.416/.531 with 56 extra-base hits across 431 at-bats. These numbers were an improvement from his career totals in the minor leagues (.281/.363/.446) and many prospect followers believed he had put it all together.

Following a brief September call-up in 2015, Kepler became a main-stay in the Twins line-up during 2016. He struggled through his rookie campaign by hitting .235/.309/.424 with 17 home runs and 20 doubles. Hitting isn't the only part of his game as he provided 4.4 runs on the bases according to BsR and six defensive runs saved. 

Kepler has made measurable strides in his second full MLB season. Compared to 2016, he's raised his batting average over 30 points and this has helped him to get on base almost 34% of the time. His improved his wRC+ from 93 in 2016 to 108 in 2017. According to both Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, the only position player worth more WAR this season is Miguel Sano.

He's hitting the ball hard as well. Last season, Kepler hit the ball at an average exit velocity of 89.4 mph. He ranked 81st among 225 hitters with a minimum of 250 balls in play which ranked him higher than the likes of Kris Bryant and Nolan Arenado. This season, his average exit velocity has dipped to 88.4 but he ranks 64th among 147 players with 200 at-bats. He's hitting the ball harder than Anthony Rizzo,  Joey Votto, and Evan Longoria. 

Earlier this season, I identified Kepler as one of a trio of players who was helping to spur Minnesota's defensive turnaround. He ranks in the top-12 among AL outfielders in defensive runs saved. This spring MLB Advanced Media introduced a new Statcast metric called Catch Probability, which measures how likely a fielder is to catch a given ball in play based on its distance and hang time. Kepler leads MLB in "three-star outs" as he has gone 15-for-17 in those opportunities. Three-star outs have a 51-75% chance of being caught. 

To stay in the hunt for a division title, the Twins need young core players to perform at a high level. Jacque Jones was one of those players for the Twins in the early 2000s. He didn't have a season worth more than 2.0 WAR until he was 27-years old. Kepler has managed that total in each of his first two seasons and he won't be 25 until next February. 

Kepler may never be an All-Star like Miguel Sano or track down fly-balls as well as Byron Buxton but he is slowly improving. His offense and defense continue to improve and he is part of the team's long-term plans. Fans should appreciate the value he has brought to the 2017 version of the Twins. 

Show your appreciation for Kepler in the COMMENTS. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Twins Minor League Report (7/14): Murphy, Stewart Lead Lookouts

Photo Credit: Seth Stohs, Twins Daily (Max Murphy)
Defense has been key for the Twins turnaround this season. Fans saw a key error from Jorge Polanco on Friday night caused Jose Berrios to throw 30 extra pitches. This meant he was pulled after only collecting five outs. Pitchers rely on the defense behind them and it can be tough when defenders can't make the play.

Errors ran rampant for multiple Twins affiliates on Friday. Which clubs would be able to avoid these defensive woes? Read on to find out...

Rochester 4, Lehigh Valley 1
Box Score

Rochester's pitching staff hurled a gem in this one as a final inning run was the only thing stopping them from collecting a shutout. Justin Haley earned his first victory of the season after limiting the Iron Pigs to three hits. He didn't allow an earned run and he struck out two. Craig Breslow, Alex Wimmers, and Michael Tonkin all pitched scoreless innings with Wimmers and Tonkin each collecting two strikeouts. Jake Reed allowed three hits and a walk in the final frame but limited the damage to one run. 

Bengie Gonzalez singled with one out in the third and moved into scoring position on a Engelb Vielma walk. A couple batters later, Gonzalez would come around to score on a wild pitch. In the fifth inning, Edgar Corcino tripled before Gonzalez brought him home with a sacrifice fly. Rochester was up 2-0.

The Red Wings added some critical insurance runs in the seventh inning. Matt Hague started the frame with a double. After a ByungHo Park hit by pitch and a JB Shuck single, the bases were loaded. With Corcino batting, an error by the first baseman allowed two runs to come around and score to push the lead to 4-0.

Rochester is now 10 games over .500 for the season (50-40). Since the calendar turned to July, the club has gone 8-4.

Chattanooga 9, Jacksonville 3

Box Score
These two clubs found themselves in a back and forth battle before the Lookouts went on a strong run to end the game. Kohl Stewart started and allowed three runs on six hits with a season-high seven strikeouts. Randy Rosario struggled with some control issues as he walked four batters in two inning but he escaped without allowing a run. Luke Bard struck out one and walked on in the final frame.

Max Murphy fell a home run shy of the cycle as part of a four hit night. TJ White drove in three runs including a two-run home run. Jonathan Rodriguez went 3-for-5 with a double and two runs. Dan Rohlfing was the lone batter to be held without a hit.

It was the third straight win for the Lookouts as the club has gone 11-4 so far in July.

Fort Myers 3, Charlotte 4
Box Score 
Fort Myers entered play on Friday night with an eight game win streak and things were looking good for the club as they jumped out to an early 3-0 lead. Tanner English lead-off double put the Miracle in position to score their first run on a Jermaine Palacios sacrifice fly. Mitchell Kranson added to the lead with a solo-home run. In the third inning, Sean Miller launched his first Florida State League home run in over 333 at-bats. He was greeted with the silent treatment in the dugout.

David Fischer kept the Stone Crabs at bay before allowing a three-run homer in the fourth. He ended the night after four innings with three strikeouts and four walks. Williams Ramirez and Michael Theofanopoulos each pitched two scoreless innings with Theofanopoulos striking out two and walking two. Alex Muren entered in the ninth and allowed a walk-off home run to the first batter of the inning. It was only the second pitch of the inning for Muren.

Cedar Rapids 0, West Michigan 3
Box Score
The Kernels were limited to three hits while committing four errors, a season high, which is a tough recipe for winning a game. Clark Beeker took the loss but he only allowed one earned run over five frames. He struck out five and walked two. Ryan Mason and Colton Davis combined for three shutout innings to end the game. Mason struck out two and Davis struck out one.

Lewin Diaz had the lone extra-base hit, a double, but he also had one of the team's defensive errors. Trey Cabbage and Ben Rortvedt each went 1-for-3. Cedar Rapids combined for 14 strikeouts and the team only had one opportunity to bat with runners in scoring position.

After winning four straight games through last weekend, the Kernels have dropped four straight including being swept by West Michigan. Friday's shutout was the club's third shutout loss in their last four contests. It was the team's first three-game sweep since June 12, 2016.

Elizabethton 3, Burlington 5
Box Score
After trailing 1-0 in the third inning, the E-Twins plated two in fourth to take back the lead. With two outs, Brent Rooker was hit by a pitch and Kolton Kendrick moved him to second with a walk. Colton Waltner, making his E-Twins debut, drove in both runs with a double. In the sixth, the E-Twins added to their lead as Kendrick and Waltner walked before a Mark Contreras single drove in a run to make it 3-1.

Charlie Barnes got the start and cruised through five innings. He didn't allow an earned run on three hits with five strikeouts and three walks. Blair Lakso ran into some late inning trouble as he surrendered four earned runs including three in the eighth inning. He struck out two and walked two in 2.1 innings. Jose Martinez finished off the game by recording the final two outs and allowing one inherited runner to score.

It was the second straight loss for the E-Twins but the club has won six of their last nine games.

GCL Twins 2, GCL Red Sox 9
Box Score
GCL Twins pitchers only allowed two earned runs but five defensive errors lead to seven unearned runs. Number one overall pick Royce Lewis had yet to commit an error but he was charged with a throwing error and a fielding error. He also struggled at the plate by going 0-for-4. Humberto Maldonado went 2-for-4 with a double and an RBI.

Pertru Balan was charged with the loss even though he didn't allow an earned run. He scattered four hits and struck out five with two walks. Vadim Balan didn't make it through an inning on the mound as five unearned runs crossed the plate. He has yet to allow an earned run in six appearances. Matt Jones allowed the only two earned runs of the game in 3.1 innings. Zach Featherstone collected the final six outs by only allowing hit hit with a pair of strikeouts. 

Pitcher of the Day – Kohl Stewart, Chattanooga Lookouts (6.0 IP, 3 ER, 7 K, 1 BB)
Hitter of the Day – Max Murphy, Chattanooga Lookouts (4-for-5, 2B, 3B, 2 RBI)

Rochester @ Lehigh Valley (5:35 CST) - RHP Dillion Gee (1-0, 0.00 ERA_
Chattanooga vs. Jacksonville (6:15 CST) - RHP Dereck Rodriguez (3-1, 3.77 ERA)
Fort Myers vs. St. Lucie (5:05 CST) - RHP Cody Stashak (3-3, 3.76 ERA)

Cedar Rapids @ South Bend (6:05 CST) - RHP Griffin Jax (1-0, 2.84 ERA)
Elizabethton @ Greenville (5:00 CST) - TBD
GCL Twins @ GCL Red Sox (9:00 am CST)- TBD

Please feel free to ask any questions and discuss Friday’s games.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Three Unique All-Star Journeys

Photo Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
"If you don't know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else."--- Yogi Berra, MLB Hall of Famer and 18-time All-Star

Each professional baseball player's journey takes them down different paths. Some players seem destined for glory with high signing bonus and top prospect attached to their name. Other players spend each year wondering if they will have a job or if they will be pushed away from the game they love.

Even for the game's best players, there are ups and downs along the way. These experiences can help fans relate more to the players. They have their own struggles and search for the right mixture to be successful on the field. While each player took their own route to Miami, three Twins players can officially call themselves All-Stars.

The Experienced Veteran: Ervin Santana
Ervin Santana has been here before but it was nearly a decade ago. As a 34-year old, Santana is in the midst of his best professional season. His journey started as an 18-year old from the Dominican Republic and Baseball American had him in their top-100 prospects twice. Santana would debut as a 22-year old and spend his first 12 seasons in the Angels organization. He's made stops in Kansas City and Atlanta before putting it all together this season.

As a 25-year old first-time All-Star, Santana probably thought he'd make multiple return trips to the All-Star Game. So far this season, he leads all of baseball in complete games and shutouts. He's one of the main reasons the Twins have been able to stay in the playoff picture. This might be his final All-Star experience so you have to believe he is cherishing every step of this part of his journey.

The New Kid On The Block: Miguel Sano
Miguel Sano was a name known in baseball circles before he signed his first professional contract. As a teenager in the Dominican Republic, Sano was the top international player in the 2009 signing class. However, there were questions about his age and MLB stepped in to investigate. The results were inclusive and Sano signed a $3.15 million bonus to join the Twins organization. This tumultuous journey was chronicled in the 2011 documentary, Ballplayer: Pelotero.

There have been some other bumps in the road for the young slugger. He missed all of the 2014 season following Tommy John surgery. His 2016 campaign saw a sophomore slump as he struggled to live up to the hype of his monster rookie season. On Monday night, he took center-stage in Miami as one of the four American League Home Run Derby participants. His journey has taken quite the turn from the small dirt floor home his family occupied in the Dominican Republic.

The Unexpected Closer: Brandon Kintzler
There had to be times when Brandon Kintzler thought his baseball career was over. He wasn't drafted until the 40th round of the 2004 MLB Draft. He never got higher than High-A with the Padres organization before they let him go. For the next three seasons, he bounced around the independent leagues including stops in Winnipeg and St. Paul.

Kintzler pitched well enough for the Brewers to notice and he took advantage of a new opportunity. He made his MLB debut in 2010 and pitched in the Arizona Fall League in each of the next two seasons. With the Brewers, he found some moderate success out of the bullpen but they didn't bring him back following the 2015 campaign. Other arms were ahead of Kintzler when he got to Minnesota. Glen Perkins getting injured and Kevin Jepsen pitching poorly allowed the door to open. He's been terrific this season as he leads baseball in games finished and his 24 saves are second in the American League.

Santana might be making his final All-Star trip. Sano is making his first of what many expect to be multiple All-Star appearances. Kintzler took the longest road to get here and he has to be happy about every step that he took along the way.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Twins Minor League Report (7/9): Gordon Stars, Garver Hits Three Out

Photo Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Twins top prospect Nick Gordon took center stage on Sunday as part of MLB's Futures Game. Gordon led off the game and started at shortstop for the USA squad and worked the count to 3-1 before a sharp ground out to second base. In his second at-bat, he was more aggressive as he swung at the first two pitches before popping out to short.

For his third and final at-bat, Gordon would follow a Brendan Rogers single with a single of his own. He'd move to third on a double and score on another double. Gordon finished the game 1-for-3 with a run scored including two hard hit balls.

Rochester: LHP Craig Breslow began his MLB rehab assignment
Fort Myers: LHP Alex Robinson promoted from Cedar Rapids
Cedar Rapids: RHP Tyler Beardsley activated from 7-day DL

Rochester 8, Syracuse 2
Box Score

Mitch Garver put on a hitting clinic in this contest. As part of a four-run second inning, Garver clocked his first home run of the day, a two-run shot. He step up with two-outs in the fourth inning and blast a solo-shot. Two innings later, he'd send his third ball of the day over the fence, his twelfth home run of the season. He ended the day 3-for-5 with four RBI. 

Garver wasn't the only one teeing off on Syracuse pitching. Bengie Gonzalez matched Garver with three hits including two doubles. He also walked once. Matt Hague, ByungHo Park, Ryan Strausborger, and Engelb Vielma all had doubles in the winning effort.

On the mound it took a combination of pitchers to get the win. Justin Haley continues to be stretched out in the Red Wings rotation. He pitched four frames while allowing one run on three hits. Craig Breslow made his first rehab appearances and saw a runner score after he gave up a walk and a double with two outs. Nik Turley pitched two scoreless frames for his third win. Mason Melotakis, Michael Tonkin, and Alex Wimmers put up zeros over the final two frames. 

Chattanooga 5, Pensacola 1

Box Score
Even with Gordon out of the line-up for the Futures Game, the Lookouts managed a solid win. Kohl Stewart made his best start since returning from the DL. He pitched six innings while allowing one earned run on three hits. He struck out six and walked one. Todd Van Steensel pitched two scoreless innings with a strikeout and a walk. Nick Anderson finished off the game with a perfect ninth including a strikeout.

Chattanooga got things going offensively in the third frame. LaMonte Wade doubled with before a Jonathan Rodriguez single put runners on the corners. Andy Wilkins brought them both in with his tenth double of the season. The Lookouts were staked to a 2-0 lead.

Things were still close until Chattanooga made some separation in the last two innings. TJ White and Max Murphy started the eighth with singles before a Travis Harrison walk loaded the bases. Dan Rohlfing walked to bring in the first run of the frame. With two outs, Ryan Walker would strikeout but a wild pitch allowed the team's fourth run to score. In the ninth, Rodriguez singled in front of a Wilkins hit by pitch. Murphy brought home Rodriguez with his first double with Chattanooga.

 Rodriguez finished the day 4-for-5 with a double and two runs scored. Wade and Murphy both went 2-for-5 with Wade collecting a pair of doubles. Rohlfing was the lone batter not to collect a hit but his walk to drive in a run was critical.

Fort Myers 4, Palm Beach 2
Box Score
Tanner English cracked two home runs and helped the Miracle to their fifth straight victory. Locked in a pitchers duel for the first four and a half frames, Jaylin Davis walked and moved to second on a balk. Shane Kennedy opened the scoring with an RBI single. English belted the first of his home runs to start the sixth inning and push the lead to 2-0. However, the Cardinals would tie the game in the seventh.

English stole the lead back in the eighth inning as he connected his second long ball of the day. The Miracle also added an insurance run later in the frame. Jermaine Palacios struck out with two outs but reached first base on a wild pitch. Mitchell Kranson singled and Zander Wiel walked to load the bases. Davis singled to drive in a run before Kranson was thrown out at home.

Cody Stashak scattered four hits over six strong innings. He allowed two earned runs and struck out two while walking a pair. Andrew Vasquez pitched a scoreless seventh as he has yet to allow a run since being promoted to High-A (14.2 IP). Tom Hackimer picked up his second win as he pitched two perfect innings with a pair of strikeouts.

Cedar Rapids 2, Peoria 1
Box Score
The Kernels found themselves in an early 1-0 hole after Anthony Marzi allowed back to back singles and a sacrifice fly. He did not allow any hits in his final five frames and face one batter over the minimum in that stretch.. His final line read seven innings with six strikeouts and one walk. Ryan Mason and Colton Davis each saw one base runner reach but they put up zeros to complete the win.

Peoria's lead wouldn't last for long. Aaron Whitefield tied the game with his tenth home run of the season. Things got crazy in the seventh. Gorge Munoz struck out but advanced to second on a wild pitch and a throwing error by the pitcher. Christian Cavaness hit a sacrifice bunt and the pitcher committed another error to put runners on the corners. Whitefield drove in the winning run on a sacrifice fly.

Cedar Rapids picked up their season-high-tying fourth consecutive victory and have a chance to sweep this four-game series on Monday afternoon.

Elizabethton 1, Johnson City 2
Box Score
The E-Twins out hit the Cardinals six to three but Elizabethton left five runners on base and went 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position. Edwar Colina was outstanding over seven shutout inning. He struck out eight, walked one, and allowed two hits. Jared Finkel took the tough luck loss. A passed ball by Rainis Silva and a Finkel throwing error allowed two unearned runs to score.

Brent Rooker started the seventh with a single. Rooker would come around to score after Shane Carrier reached on a fielding error by the third baseman. That was the end of the scoring for the E-Twins. Batters two through four in the line-up all struck out multiple times and no batter managed more than one hit. TJ Dixon reached base twice in three plate appearances.

Pitcher of the Day – Edwar Colina, Elizabethton Twins (7 IP, 0 ER, 8 K, 1 BB, 2 H)
Hitter of the Day – Mitch Garver, Rochester Red Wings (3-for-5, 3 HR, 4 RBI, 3 R)

Rochester - Scheduled Off Day
Chattanooga @ Pensacola (6:35 CST) - TBD
Fort Myers @ Palm Beach (6:05 CST) - RHP Sean Poppin (0-0, 0.00 ERA)

Cedar Rapids vs. Peoria (12:05 CST) - RHP Eduardo Del Rosario (7-4, 4.69 ERA)
Elizabethton vs. Johnson City (6:00 CST) - RHP Huascar Ynoa (0-1, 2.57 ERA)
GCL Twins @ GCL Orioles (11:00 am CST)- TBD

Please feel free to ask any questions and discuss Sunday’s games.