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Entries in Minnesota Twins (25)


Liriano Keeping Ball Down, Getting Chases

While the Minnesota Twins are buried at the bottom of the AL Central standings, few players have more riding on the rest of the 2012 season than Francisco Liriano. The 28-year-old lefty hits free agency this winter with an uneven resume that includes nearly a K per inning but also an Oliver Perez-esque walk rate and a middling career ERA+ of 98. He can look unhittable and bound for the next bus to Rochester within the same at-bat, much less start or season.

Liriano's walk year got off to a disastrous start, as he walked nearly as many hitters than he punched out, got taken deep often and was briefly banished to the bullpen. But, since returning to the rotation in late May, Liriano has been a different pitcher. His whiffs are up, his walks are down and his homer rate has all but disappeared:

First Five Starts (April 7-May 7): 26.2 IP, 7.1 K/9, 6.4 BB/9, 2.02 HR/9

Six Starts Since Returning to Rotation (May 30-June 25): 37.1 IP, 9.6 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 0.24 HR/9

All three of those happy trends hearken back to Liriano keeping the ball down. Check out his pitch location before he was booted to the bullpen, and since returning to the starting five:

Liriano's pitch location from April 7-May 7, 2012Liriano's pitch location from May 30-June 25, 2012To open the year, Liriano threw about 46 percent of his pitches low in the strike zone. Following his return to the rotation after spending some time in relief purgatory, Liriano has located 54 percent of his pitches down. That, in turn, has led to a spike in ground ball rate:

Liriano's ground ball rate by pitch location, April 7-May 7, 2012

Liriano's ground ball rate by pitch location, May 30-June 25, 2012

Liriano induced grounders 41 percent of the time before losing his starting spot. Since getting it back, he's burning worms 54 percent of the time. That's a good way to cut down on the whiplash from serving up some many homers.

Keeping the ball down has other benefits for Liriano as well. He's getting more chases on the low pitches he throws (35 percent since returning to the rotation, up from 31 percent prior) and hitters are swinging through more of those pitches at the knees. Here's his contact rate by pitch location from April 7 to May 7, and then from May 30 through last night's seven-inning gem versus the White Sox:

Liriano's contact rate by pitch location, April 7-May 7, 2012Liriano's contact rate by pitch location, May 30-June 25, 2012

Liriano got batters to miss 36 percent of the time they offered at a low pitch before going to the 'pen. Since returning to the rotation, batters are coming up empty half the time they swing at a pitch Liriano keeps down in the zone.

So, which is the "real" Francisco Liriano? The wild, gopher ball machine throwing a 91-92 MPH fastball and a flat low-80s slider to start the year or the dominant lefty sitting 93 MPH with a wicked mid-80s breaker we've seen since late May? That's a question that will soon cost GMs sleep.


My All Star Starters: AL Catcher

As I told everyone earlier, I will be profiling the main all-star vote getters for each position. Each article will feature the top four vote getters at the position, as well as one of my wild cards. Vote totals can be found here.

Today is all about the junior circuit backstop. These guys have one of the toughest jobs in baseball, squatting behind the dish for nine innings, constantly being required to remain alert and focused on every facet of the game, all the while taking 3-4 ABs per game. At this position, the greatest value lies in durability. Catchers will normally catch four of every five games, usually taking day games off after a night game, but the real all-stars make their time in the game count. 

#1: Mike Napoli, Texas Rangers  2,239,047

Napoli has made his living crushing the ball in Arlington over the past few years, hitting 41 home runs in the last year and a half. Historically, Napoli has annihilated left handed pitching, averaging .312 with a 1.005 OPS between 2008 and 2011. These are all-star type numbers, but this year has proven more difficult for Napoli, who seems lost versus south-paws. He is only managing a .150 AVG with a .604 OPS, significantly lower than his averages and breakout season in 2011. Below is a heat map of Napoli's Slugging percentage versus lefties over the two time periods indicated.

It seems that Napoli may have been figured out because he has been baffled. His general line from this season is as follows:

60 G, 45 H, 3 2b, 2 3b, 11 HR, 29 RBI, 29 BB, 67 SO, .234 AVG, .346 OBP, .443 SLG.

Per usual, Napoli has his long ball stroke intact, his 11 homers ranking him third among league leaders at the position. The problem is, there are not enough guys getting on in front of him (mainly due to Josh Hamilton clearing the bases before him, but we'll get to him when we get to AL Outfielders). The most alarming statistic there may be the strikeouts, pacing the American League lead at his position. While Napoli may have the big name, the numbers from last year, and a monstrous power stroke, The numbers just don't indicate an all-type season out of an all-star player.


#2: Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins 1,283,804

As chronicled in a previous article, Joe Mauer needed to be a force if the Twins wanted to contend this year, and thus far, some of his numbers have returned to form, in conjunction with his return to health. So far, his power numbers haven't returned to his Most Valuable Player Season, but the average is there, pacing the American League qualifiers at .314. He also has more walks than strikeouts (37/31), which has helped to bolster his strong .415 OBP. He has had a .355 batting average on balls in play, extremely close to his career average of .349, so there is little doubt that this Joe Mauer is legit. His righty/lefty splits have been fantastic, and he has taken a liking to left handed pitching, hitting a solid .356 in lefty-lefty matchups. Mauer's issue so far has been against the soft stuff.

As long as Mauer can continue to take advantage of mistake fastballs left on the inner half of the plate, he'll be a .300 hitter again by years end. His season line to this point is as follows:

60 G, 69 H, 14 2b, 1 3b, 3 HR, 33 RBI, 3 SB, 37 BB, 31 SO, .314 BA, .415 OBP, .427 SLG.

According to this line, Mauer is out hitting Napoli in almost every major category for catchers except HRs, which he makes up plenty for in terms of doubles boosting his slugging percentage. The 33 RBI tie Mauer for third in the American league at catcher thus far, indicating his ability to hit in the clutch with men in scoring position (.377 w/RISP and 27 RBI).

Mauer with Runners in Scoring Position

Mauer has been a stud and is definitely worthy of a few more all-star votes than he is getting. Minnesota fans need to hit the ballots and get this guy up there. 


#3. Matt Wieters, Baltimore Orioles 1,242,247

Early in his career, Wieters was heralded as the second coming of Mark Teixeira, but it took a long time for him to really get accustomed to the major leagues. Young offensive and defensive backstops are few and far between in baseball, increasing Wieters' value to the O's as a centerpiece in their future plans. For this piece, let's play guess that player.

Player A: 60 AB, 24 H, 6 2b, 1 HR, 7 BB, 13 SO, 10 RBI, .400 AVG, .471 OBP, .583 SLG

Player B: 164 AB, 33 H, 8 2b, 8 HR, 19 BB, 35 K, 22 RBI, .201 AVG, .294 OBP, .396 SLG

Did you get it? Player A is Matt Wieters from the right side of the plate while Player B is Wieters on the left. When facing right handed pitching, Wieters has had trouble with balls on the inner half, but he has pulled half 7 of his 8 HRs from that side which means he is out in front of balls on the outer half of the plate. When facing lefties, Wieters has shown a little more power throughout the zone, as well as the ability to hit for a significantly higher average. 

Wieters still has some work to do, but he is just a tweak here or there from being an all-star for years to come. Wieters line this season:

62 G, 57 H, 14 2b, 1 3b, 9 HR, 32 RBI, 26 BB, 48 SO, .254 BA, .341 OBP, .446 SLG.

Wieters leads all catchers in games so far, is tied with Mauer for the lead in doubles, tied for fourth in home runs and fifth in RBIs. He is in third in AVG among qualifying hitters, but not very much better then Napoli at the top of this list. While I do not think that this is Wieters' year to start, he certainly has all-star quality numbers and should definitely be considered for a nod on the bench.


#4. AJ Pierzynski, Chicago White Sox 1,048,603

So who expected this? An absolutely monster year out of Pierzynski has him in fourth place in the all-star voting. Over the last four seasons, AJ has averaged approximately 11 HRs per season; This year he already has 12. Over the past four seasons he has averaged about 53 RBI; this year he has 41. Many baseball fans and fantasy junkies probably thought this was some kind of fluke, because it isn't often that a 35 year old ball player can flip a switch and revert back to prime form, especially at the catcher position. And believe it or not, his batting average on balls in play is actually lower than his average, pointing to a notion that he might actually be getting robbed of a few hits here and there. So what could possibly be the secret to his success? His swing rate is up, his miss rate is up, his in play rate is down, and his chase rate is up, but he continues to hit. Most of his hitting numbers are right around his career average, except for an astonishing 19.7% HR/FB ratio. 

If you take a look at the general location of Pierzynski's dingers, he has been unbelievable at pulling mistake pitches (middle-in) out of the park. AJ's Stats:

59 G, 61 H, 8 2b, 2 3b, 12 HR, 41 RBI, 14 BB, 27 SO, .285 BA, .330 OBP, .509 SLG.

Pierzynski could absolutely afford to take more walks, but he has also managed to limit his strikeout numbers, constantly putting the ball in play in his at bats, and when you do that, good things happen. His average ranks him second among qualifiers and he is second in the bigs in HRs and his SLG paces all qualifiers. This guy has been an absolute machine and absolutely deserves an all-star appearance just by straight numbers alone.


Wild Card: Jarrod Saltalamaccia, Boston Red Sox

My wild card All-Star for this segment is "Salty". This kid has been clutch in every sense of the word, and he is finally blossoming into the talent that the Red Sox and Rangers believed he would eventually be. The second switch hitter on this list, Salty leads all AL catchers in HRs and though he doesn't qualify, he has the highest SLG. Salty will not be voted in by fans, but managers and coaches could see how he has come up big for the Red Sox this year with some clutch extra base hits and decide that he is worthy of his first all-star appearance.

54 G, 46 H, 12 2b, 0 3b, 13 HR, 34 RBI, 12 BB, 49 SO, .263 BA, .307 OBP, .554 SLG



Starter: AJ Pierzynski

Reserve: Joe Mauer

3: Mike Napoli

4: Matt Wieters



Jered Weaver's No-Hitter

Click image to enlarge

Jered Weaver threw 121 pitches in his no-hit performance against the Minnesota Twins last night, striking out nine and walking one.

Weaver's heat maps show that he kept the ball away from Twins' lefties all night. He threw a mix of fastballs, curveballs, changeups, and sliders.

Of the 121 pitches that Weaver threw, only 49 actually located within the strike zone. This isn't surprising as Weaver's zone% is fairly low (45.8% since the start of 2011, bottom 12% of the league). What is interesting is the number of strikes that home plate umpire Mark Carlson denied Weaver.  Weaver threw 21 pitches within the strike zone that were not swung at by Twins hitters; only 12 of those pitches were correctly called strikes.  Take a look at the correct call heat map:

Click image to enlargeThe blue section to lefties down in the zone represents most of the missed strike calls. Carlson simply wasn't giving Weaver the strike at the knees last night.

However, you will also notice the large incorrect section outside to lefties. Weaver was actually getting a fairly wide strike zone. Of the 47 pitches Weaver threw out of the strike zone that were not swung at, 12 were called strikes.  Two of those strike calls were strike three calls, both to lefties.  However, neither of the two were outside pitches.  The first came in the 7th to Alexi Casilla - the small blue dot on top of the strike zone.  The second was the strike out of Denard Span in the 9th - that inside blue dot.

All in all, Weaver lost nine strikes in the strike zone and gained twelve strikes outside of the strike zone. Given the results, he's probably not complaining.