Minnesota Twins

Kyle Gibson and the First Pitch Blues

Kyle Gibson struggled in 2016. This is hardly news for Twins fans after a 103 loss season. In the midst of the #DealDozier sweepstakes the Twins have several other areas that will have to improve if they are going to compete with a division which is weakened from 2016, but with an emerging super power in Cleveland. The primary reason the Twins must trade Dozier lies in his value reaching its peak; this fact, combined with the difficulty mid-market teams face in producing enough front-line pitching talent to win a division (never mind the World Series) also bring us back to Gibson. If the Twins are to take a step forward in 2017, Minnesota’s 2009 first rounder will have to rebound to help anchor a rotation made up largely of unreliable pieces outside of Ervin Santana.

In 2015 Gibson appeared to be developing into the number three starter the Twins had hoped for when drafting him as a first round value play in 2009. In 194 plus innings he posted his best ERA 3.84, WHIP 1.28, SO/9 6.7 while posting a 3.96 FIP, all very tidy numbers. By contrast in 2016 his numbers jumped to a career worst ERA 5.07, WHIP 1.56, and FIP 4.70. What’s interesting in Gibson’s case, is some of the numbers which underlie his 2016 struggles.

Anecdotally, Gibson seemed to struggle early in the count in 2016, with hitters being very aggressive at attacking his first pitch. Below is a heat map of Gibson’s pitch percentage on 0-0 counts against lefties with his two seam fastball (the pitch he most typically starts off a hitter with). As you might expect from a ground ball hitter, the majority of Gibson’s pitches were located down and away versus left handed hitters.

final-lhp

Here’s a similar look for right handed hitters in 2016. As you can see, Gibson typically locates down and in or down and away to right handed hitters.

rhp

The biggest issue Gibson faced in 2016 was that opposing hitters picked up on this tendency and drilled his two seam fastball. On the first pitch of an AB, opposing hitters crushed Gibson to the tune of a .467 average while slugging .907 off him. Gibson also gave up 17 XBHs including 8 HR on the first pitch of an AB. In 2015, hitters slugged a much more respectable .538 in first pitch situations, giving up 10 less XBHs. Below is a similar heat map for Gibson’s two seam fastball location in 0-0 counts in 2015, his best season as a Twin, where he spread the ball around the strike zone significantly more.

old-rhp

One of the few clues we have been given about the proclivities of Derek Falvey and Thad Lavine came through their signing of Jason Castro, an offensive struggler known for his pitch framing. This is perhaps indicative of a desire of the front office to put a greater emphasis on more detailed statistics and analytics than Terry Ryan. Castro is undeniably a defensive upgrade over Kurt Suzuki, who struggled in various defensive metrics throughout his tenure with the Twins. One attraction of Castro in addition to his pitch framing is his experience and quality in leading a staff and as a signal caller. Gibson struggled significantly with Suzuki in 2016 to the tune of a 6.15 ERA with opposing hitters managing a .359 BaBIP, compared to a 3.72 ERA and .293 BaBIP when caught by Juan Centeno or John Ryan Murphy. This trend is also true of 2015 (Gibson’s best season as a Twin) in which he performed significantly worse when Suzuki was behind the plate compared with Chris Hermann or Eric Fryer.

Whatever the exact reason behind Gibson and Suzuki’s lack of chemistry one would think Castro will be a shot in the arm to a pitcher the Twins desperately need to take a significant step forward in 2017.

Ryan Firing the Result of Twins’ Lack of Identity

The Twins fired Terry Ryan Monday in a move which surprised the Twin Cities sports media in its timing if not its necessity. The hapless Twins sit at 33-58 going into Tuesday’s play, the worst record in the American League. An organization famed for its loyalty, loyalty to a fault, finally made a move separating the Twins from a direction which has seen them in a slow decline from playoff regulars to AL punchline.

Remarkably, in a sporting landscape where the pressure to win is insurmountable, particularly in larger markets, the Twins commitment to loyalty has led to a stagnancy which has mired the organization in mediocrity. This is the same loyalty that kept Ron Gardenhire in a job long after the Twins needed a new direction. This is the same loyalty that led the Twins to build a farm system around ‘pitch to contact’ and a reticence to embrace analytics in ways that have led other mid-market franchises to great success (see 2015 Royals). Make no mistake, the Twins are behind the times and the buck should not stop with just Terry Ryan.

The Twins have long been accused by their fans of espousing a little too Minnesotan of an attitude to a GM who has brought limited success in recent seasons, particularly in his second spell at the helm. While the Twins enjoyed a consistent playoff berth in the early 2000s, their recent direction has been uninspiring, 2015 breaking a run of 4 straight 90+ loss seasons

Remarkably, it seems as if some may reflect on Ryan’s second spell with the Twins as a success, as David St. Peter mentioned his success in rebuilding the farm system since 2011. This is a baffling statement, given the primary means of restocking a farm system is losing a whole bunch of games and having consistently great draft position. Do the Twins have one of the strongest farm systems in baseball? Significantly improved from 2011? Sure, they better.

Rob Anthony has been tabbed with the interim GM title. The Twins would be wise to ensure this tag does not become permanent. The Twins need a clean break from their ‘within organization’ hiring practices. ‘The organization’ has not worked in quite some time. Alarmingly, Dave St. Peter will take on a significant role in the hiring process as Mackay of ESPN 1500 noted after a round table with the media.

It would be wise for St. Peter to stick with his presidential duties and allow baseball minds to take the lead in hiring a GM who will be critical in establishing the Twins direction for the next decade. The Twins recent woes have been indicative of one simple and undeniable fact, the franchise lacks  an identity. They have over-invested in sub-par free agent pitching (Nolasco, Hughes extension, Santana to an extent) whilst simultaneously stocking their farm system. Every mid-market baseball fan knows that free agency isn’t where its team earns its stripes. Look at the outstanding example provided by Rick Spielman down the street. The Twins have the chance for a clean break and a reshaping, rather than reshuffling of the organization after the dismissal of Ryan. The assertion of Pohlad that the new GM is beholden to Paul Molitor for the 2017 season is worrying. Not because Molitor isn’t well suited for the job, it sets a dangerous Jerry Jones-esque meddlesome precedent muddying the waters between organizational and personnel affairs. If the Twins want to start fresh, that begins with empowering their next, out of organization GM.

MLB Divisional Preview, Part 3: Don’t Sleep on Cleveland

By JDCam 02.16.15

There was greater parity in the AL Central in 2014. A strong off-season by its poorer clubs (White Sox) and recent playoff success (Tigers, Indians and Royals have all been in the last two seasons, including an AL Central World Series representative in two of the last three seasons) has led to the division shaking the mantle of one of the weakest in baseball.

In 2014, aside from the Royals remarkable run, the hapless Twins and White Sox got a little better (4 and 10 more wins respectively), while Detroit and Cleveland got a little worse (3 and 7 more losses than in 2013). With perhaps no team having a stronger off-season than the Chicago White Sox, the Central is shaping up to a slugfest four horse race in 2015.

1.Detroit Tigers

2014: 90 wins: Steamer 2015: 85 wins; Conway West: 84 wins (2nd); JD Cam: 85 wins (1st)

In: Yoenis Cespedes, Alfredo Simon, Shane Greene, Anthony Gose

Out: Max Scherzer, Don Kelly, Danny Worth, Rick Porcello, Tori Hunter

Things to like: Yoenis Cespedes: a healthy Jose Iglesias; a dominant middle of the lineup

Things to worry about: Miguel Cabrera and V-Mart coming into spring off of surgery; Pressure on a rebound season from Justin Verlander; an awful bullpen.

Cespedes will bring another huge bat to the middle of the Tigers already formidable lineup

Cespedes will bring another huge bat to the middle of the Tigers already formidable lineup

With V-Mart’s torn meniscus the latest in a series of winter challenges, the Tigers may have an uphill battle to retain their AL Central crown. The addition of Cespedes, pending the health of Martinez and Cabrera, creates the most formidable 3/4/5 combination in baseball. Detroit is counting on Justin Verlander returning to ace-like form and not going the way of CC Sabathia. The Tigers did little to improve their bullpen which hamstrung them the last few season both in the regular season and playoffs. The Tigers face a lot of question in 2015 but should still have enough to top the division for the fifth straight year.

2. Cleveland Indians

2014: 85 wins: Steamer 2015: 84 wins; Conway West: 88 wins (1st); JD Cam: 84 wins (2nd)

In: Brandon Moss, Gavin Floyd, Scott Downs

Out: Asdrubal Cabrera, Justin Masterson, Nyjer Morgan

Things to like: Underrated rotation; Solid core of young hitters; Francisco Lindor’s debut

Things to worry about: Not enough offensive production; question marks surrounding young starters.

Top prospect Lindor should make his arrival sometime in 2015

Top prospect Lindor should make his arrival sometime in 2015

The Indians didn’t do much this off-season, but then, they didn’t have to. With a core of excellent young hitters (Brantley, Kipnis, Santana) and the emergence of 2014 Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, the Indians look primed to challenge the Tigers for divisional supremacy. Much will depend on the development of Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazaar, who could combine with Carlos Carrasco and Kluber to form a dominant rotation. Cleveland fans have to be excited by the possibility of top SS prospect Francisco Lindor making his debut in 2015. Do not sleep on the Indians; they should be competing for a wild card spot at worst come September.

3. Kansas City Royals

2014: 89 wins: Steamer 2015: 81 wins; Conway West: 80 wins (4th); JD Cam: 80 wins (4th)

In: Alex Rios, Edinson Volquez, Kendrys Morales, Kris Medlen

Out: Billy Butler, James Shields, Nori Aoki, Aaron Crow, Bruce Chen, Josh Willingham

Things to like: Alex Rios is due for an ‘on’ year; a dominant bullpen, high end young starters

Things to worry about: Inferior replacements for their lost pieces; not enough offense; risky rotation pieces

Will Alex Rios strengthen the Royals OF or continue his consistent inconsistency?

Will Alex Rios strengthen the Royals OF or continue his consistent inconsistency?

The Royals enjoyed a remarkable fall run hanging onto the coattails of an equally remarkable bullpen. The late inning trifecta of Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera and Greg Holland is as good as any in baseball. The Royals lost a huge part of their identity in Billy Butler in the off-season, as well as number one starter and a clubhouse leader in James Shields. They added to an already strong outfield by overpaying for Alex Rios and Edinson Volquez and Kris Medlen are worthy rotation gambles. KC caught lightening in a bottle in September last season but Royals fans should be prepared for an inevitable letdown.

4. Chicago White Sox

2014: 73 wins: Steamer 2015: 78 wins; Conway West: 83 wins (3rd); JD Cam: 82 wins (3rd)

In: David Robertson, Jeff Samardzija, Adam LaRoche, Melky Cabrera, Zach Duke, Gordon Beckham

Out: Marcus Semien, Dayan Viciedo, Paul Konerko

Things to like: See ‘in’ category; no more Adam Dunn; Carlos Rodon’s fast development

Things to worry about: An average infield; not enough rotational depth

No team got better this off-season that the White Sox. GM Rick Hahn deserves a ton of credit for aggressively addressing areas of need. David Robertson will give them much needed stability at the back end of their bullpen, while a one two rotational punch of Chris Sale and Jeff Samardzija is a formidable one, particularly with the emergence of Jose Quintana in 2014. The White Sox upgraded in the outfield, replacing Dayan Viciedo with Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche replaces south side legend Paul Konerko in the comfy confines of US Cellular Field which are LITERALLY made for him to mash 25-30 HR. If everything goes right for the White Sox they could challenge for the division, however a finish around .500 is more realistic and not to be sniffed at given recent seasons.

5. Minnesota Twins

2014: 70 wins: Steamer 2015: 76 wins; Conway West: 69 wins ; JD Cam: 73 wins

In: Ervin Santana, Tori Hunter, Tim Stauffer

Out: Jared Burton, Jason Kubel, Anthony Swarzak

Things to like: Ervin Santana and Phil Hughes at the front end of an improved rotation; a slew of young power bats; a more progressive manager in Paul Molitor; Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano and Alex Meyer making MLB debuts in 2015.

Things to worry about: Apocalyptic outfield defense; a still weak rotation; Joe Mauer’s decline.

Dozier is one of the bright spots in a roster still lacking enough rotation arms to compete for the division

Dozier is one of the bright spots in a roster still lacking enough rotation arms to compete for the division

Coming off the back of 4 consecutive 90 loss seasons the Twins front office unusually made a few moves this off-season, adding Ervin Santana to the front end of a rotation that was anchored by a remarkably under-appreciated season from Phil Hughes in 2014. The Twins added fan favorite Hunter for some vocal clubhouse leadership and while he will contribute offensively he is a defensive liability. Minnesota had one of the most productive offenses in 2014 a trend that could continue if Brian Dozier (Kyle Seager 2.0), Danny Santana and Oswaldo Arcia can continue to develop and Kennys Vargas can build on an impressive debut. Look for some of the Twins vaunted prospects to make their MLB debuts in 2015. The Twins should be better, but they aren’t ready to compete for the division yet. Look out AL Central 2017.

Elite Coaching Enabling Vikings, Twins Improvements

by JDCam 11.18.14

The Minnesota Vikings are a very different team in 2014. An early injury to incumbent QB Matt Cassel sparked the early initiation of the Teddy Bridgewater era in Minnesota and GM Rick Spielman has continued to make impressively impactful free agents signings as well as meaningful draft picks (Linval Joseph, Anthony Barr, Teddy Bridgewater to name a few). Despite this change the Vikings offense continues to sputter, struggling to cover up the loss of Adrian Peterson and overcome the struggles of an ineffective offensive line. One area the Vikings have improved significantly since 2013 is their pass defense, long an area of weakness that drew constant ire and frustration from Viking fans.

New head coach Mike Zimmer has preached discipline and the no nonsense approach to team defense that the previously ill-disciplined Vikings have long needed. Zimmer’s message is clear, losing is unacceptable. As trite as it sounds Zimmer has a ‘sound fundamentals’ approach that is having a huge impact in Minnesota.

Mike Zimmer has brought a 'no nonsense' approach to the Vikings D, sparking immediate improvement in 2014

Mike Zimmer has brought a ‘no nonsense’ approach to the Vikings D, sparking immediate improvement in 2014

Through the first 9 weeks of the season the Vikes passing defense went from joint 22nd in the league with 22 sacks to 1st with 30. They went from 30th in the league conceding 287.2 yards per game to 4th conceding only 213.6. They conceded 21 TD through this point in the season through the air in 2013, good for 31st in the league, in 2014 they are tied 15th with 14. Finally their pass defense rating has gone from 26th in the league in 2013, to 16th in 2014. Zimmer’s aggressive approach certainly seems to be having an impact, despite limited personnel improvement in the Vikings secondary an area of consistent struggle in recent seasons.

Conversely, Zimmer’s last employer, the Cincinnati Bengals have seen their defense go from dominant to ugly since his departure. Last season the Bengals defense stymied almost everything that came at them, conceding a miserly 19.1 points per game, giving up a balanced 209 ypg through the air and 96.5 ypg on the ground. The Bengals defense has plummeted this season since Zimmer’s departure, falling to 29th in the league, conceding 23.4 points per game and giving up 248.9 ypg through the air and a porous 143 ypg against the rush, including their recent Thursday Night Football domination at the hands of the once lowly in-state rival Cleveland Browns…at home. Of course Zimmer is not the sole reason for these changes but the numbers don’t lie, these trends are too stark to ignore.

A short way across town the Minnesota Twins made an announcement Thursday that drew little fanfare but could be similarly impactful for an organization that is filled with recent optimism after the recent hiring of home town hopeful and Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. The Twins decided to retain hitting coach Tom Brunansky after his second season with the club. Looking at the Twins offensive improvement, it is easy to see why. The Twins pitching woes are well documented and do not bear consideration in this article.

In 2013 the Twins were in the bottom 10 (and often the bottom 5) in almost every major offensive category. They finished 25th overall in team offense with a .242 team BA, .312 OBP, .692 OPS. The Twins scored just 614 runs in 2013 6th worst in the majors and managed just 151 HRs. Brunansky entered at the beginning of the 2013 season and opened with an immediately disappointing season. In 2014 however he sparked an immediate turnaround. Simply looking at basic metrics the Twins jumped 18 spots to 7th overall in hitting. In 2014 the Twins team BA rose to .254, OBP rose to an MLB 5th best .324, OPS rose to .715 and unbelievably the Twins scored 101 more runs despite homering just 128 times. The Twins had limited personnel turnover between the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Most of the Twins significant offseason additions were pitchers, with the exception of catcher Kurt Suzuki, who posted a career year in his first season at Target Field. The Twins also saw impressive debuts from SS/OF Danny Santana who posted a .319/.353/.472 slash line through 101 games to finish 7th in the AL ROY voting. Kennys Vargas also debuted later in the season and despite some inconsistencies managed 9HR and 38RBI through his first 53 big league games. So what is it in Brunansky’s coaching and adjustments that caused such a turnaround for the Twins in 2014?

Tom Brunansky keyed the Twins offensive turnaround in 2014

Tom Brunansky keyed the Twins offensive turnaround in 2014

In a recent interview Brunansky opined that he wanted to challenge all the Twins hitters to ‘be more competitive’. I wanted us to compete on every pitch’. This all part of an improvement in spite of a career low .277 average from perennial team BA prop Joe Mauer. In short there doesn’t seem to be one factor at play here. The Twins simply got a little bit better at a lot of things offensively in 2014. Their SO% dropped from 23% to 21.3%, this doesn’t seem significant until you factor in that a drop of just 1% over the course of the season is akin to 62 less SO. Their BB% rose incrementally, their SO/BB ration fell from 2.68 strike outs per walk to 2.44. The Twins also increased their number of ABs per %, hit less ground balls and increased their team LD% (line drive %) by 2%. All of these incremental, seemingly unimportant statistical increases and decreases point to one conclusion; the Twins are becoming more competitive. They are striking out less, walking more, hitting the ball on the ground less and hitting more line drives. As with Mike Zimmer and the Vikes, the Twins limited personnel are benefiting from quality coaching and buying into a new offensive mindset. If both franchises can continue to build on these improvements and address areas of need, the long drought of highly competitive sports franchises in the Twin Cities may be coming to an end.

Gardenhire out in MN – A Long Time Coming?

by JDCam 10.04.14

The Twins released long time manager Ron Gardenhire on Monday bringing his 13 year tenure with the Twins to a disappointing conclusion. The uber-loyal Twins will now be looking for only their third manager since the 1986 season. In his career with the Twins, Gardy won the AL Central 6 times. He struggled more recently however, posting 90+ losses in each of the last four seasons. For the Twins part their managerial change is, I feel, not at all about personnel and pleasingly for Twins fans, much more about the culture of the franchise.

ESPN guru Tim Kurkjian reported the story quoting Gardenhire as ‘fiery’ and described him as an ‘affable everyman who turned the perennial AL doormat into a six time division champion.’ Those sentiments ring of truth but also gnaw at Twins fans who have seen the exit for Gardy coming for some time.

Gardenhire certainly did have his share of success with the Twins building his teams on a solid generation of minor league talent including Tori Hunter, Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer and having the bonus of acquiring cornerstones by trade including Joe Nathan and Francisco Liriano and outstanding organizational additions like rule 5 pickup And two time Cy Young winner Johan Santana. Gardenhire however was never able to replicate the regular season success in post season. In his 6 post-season appearances Gardy’s Twins managed just one series win, in 2002 before losing to the eventual World Series champion Anaheim Angels (or whatever they were called that year). In those 6 series losses the Twins only won 3 games! To be fair the Twins faced several of the great Yankee teams of the early 2000s. The gulf in class was unfortunately matched by a gulf in belonging.

As a Twins fan, the team always seemed to have a ‘happy to be here’ attitude. Their first post-season opponent always seemed like the logical last stop, the Twins an annoying irritation along the way, the most obvious discrepancy between the teams the massive gulf in class in starting pitching. While Gardenhire himself WAS a fiery character, always going to bat for his team and receiving more than his fair share of ejections, he failed to instill that same passion and heart in his players. The Twins never seemed like they thought or believed they would beat the Yankees in those early 2000s, they just seemed to be making up numbers. I wanted to see the same passion from the players that Gardy always seemed to exhibit, something like this;

OK, that was an exaggeration but still. Gardy’s Twins always seemed to somehow take on and embody that most famous of North Star state idiosyncrasies, ‘Minnesota Nice’. Too nice to take the series too far or make it too competitive turned the Twins became the underachieving also-rans of the early 2000s playoffs.

Santana

Johan Santana has been the only true ace Twins fans have enjoyed since the early 2000s.

Gardenhire’s own reaction to his dismissal is perhaps the MOST astounding part of this whole story. When speaking at the Twins press conference he stated that he was ‘completely fine with this’. Gardenhire is even quoted as saying ‘I think this is the right thing’. If ever there was an indication that a change in voice was needed, this was it! If you don’t think you should still have your job Gardy, why should I? Is this the voice and message of the manager whose job it was to get his team prepared, particularly mentally to face a Yankee franchise year after year that at worst could be described as dominant and at best dynastic? No wonder we got waxed every year! OK, maybe a little far but come on?! Despite a number of players expressing their displeasure and disappointment at the axing of Gardy, it may be a case of having never heard another voice as young pieces like Brian Dozier and Trevor Plouffe have known no other as their manager.

Looking once again at those 6 playoff efforts the Twins obvious issue was their lack of depth at starting pitching. Now at the beginning of the 2014 playoffs every self-respecting sport blog and website immediately begins ranking contenders various pieces, up first, starting pitching. You DO NOT win in the post season with poor starting pitching. Looking at the two years the Twins had their strongest team pitching, 2004 (27.6 combined WAR) and 2006 (23 combined WAR). In both years the Twins had a bonafide ace in Santana (who incidentally contributed (between ¼ to 1/3 of the team WAR alone). In ’04 after Santana took game one in New York, the Twins went to reliable number 2 Brad Radke before turning to Carlos Silva in game 3. In ’06 Twins again began with Santana before turning to Boof Bonser of the famous porn-stache in game two (yikes). Did Terry Ryan and the mega rich Pohlad family truly set up Gardy for a solid post-season run with a truly deep and competitive rotation? I don’t think so.

Terry Ryan

GM Terry Ryan never gave Gardenhire enough starting pitching to make a meaningful post-season run

Simply put, even with their best pitching the Twins rotation was never enough. After Santana was traded to the Mets the Twins struggled to their moderate successes in spite of their pitching. With the exception of Francisco Liriano, whose incredible rookie season was lost to Tommy John in 2006 and left Twins asking what might have been, the Twins got by with a number of pitch to contact ground ball specialists such as Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey and the most successful of the bunch, Carl Pavano. This is where the Twins spiral into mediocrity and subsequently woefulness really began.

Timing has not been on Gardenhire’s side in the last few years. The Twins have quietly amassed one of the best farms systems in baseball over the last few years (both through drafting and trades), more recently balancing out their typically outfield heavy prospect family with a slew of high end arms, untypically high velocity, high strikeout arms including Alex Meyer, JJ Berrios, Kohl Stewart and September debutant Trevor May as well as bullpen arms like Nick Burdi. Combined with uber-prospects Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton as well as emergent rookies like Kennys Vargas and Danny Santana the future looks much rosier in Minnesota, unfortunately for Gardenhire he won’t be the one steering the ship anymore. While Gardenhire certainly has a legacy to be proud of in Minnesota, Tom Kelly set Twins fans up with almost impossibly lofty expectations for post-season achievement. While the Twins organization has a ton to thank Ron Gardenhire for, he never quite hit the lofty heights of his predecessor. 6 AL Central championships was an impressive achievement, but one that will forever be slightly marred in the eyes of Twins fans by the uncompetitive nature of their team in the post season, as well as the last four seasons of stagnantly low quality baseball.