Twins series preview

By Jason Wojciechowski on July 29, 2011 at 3:10 PM

The series

Minnesota comes to Oakland for a three-game set: Friday at 7, Saturday at 6 (weirdly), and Sunday at 1.

The opposition lately

The Twins come in at 49-56, good for fourth place in the Central, six games back of Detroit. Baseball Prospectus gives them just a 4.7% shot at the postseason -- six games isn't that much, but climbing over three teams is a tough task.

The Twins are 8-8 since the break and 5-5 in their last ten. They haven't won or lost more than two in a row since the All-Star Game. They're coming off a split with the Rangers in Arlington that played out like you expect a Rangers series from 2002 to look: 20-6, 9-8, 7-2, 4-1. (The Twins won the middle two games.)

They've recently brought Scott Baker and Jason Kubel back from the DL, but lost Alexi Casilla to a hamstring strain, putting him on the List today. Scrappy middle infielders Matt Tolbert and Luke Hughes (I assume they're scrappy -- they play for Ron Gardenhire, right?) were both called up today. Chuck James was optioned to Rochester, so we can all breathe a sigh of relief about that.

Minnesota's pitchers

The left-handed Francisco Liriano starts tonight's game. Liriano's FIPs since 2006 look like this: 2.59, 3.90, 4.91, 2.62, 4.30. (There are only five because he missed 2007 recovering from Tommy John surgery.) Liriano this year isn't striking that many guys out (19.4% of his PAs, compared to 18.4% league average), but he is walking too many (12.7% vs. 8.2% average). His K/9 and BB/9 graphs at Fangraphs (they don't appear to have graphs for the percentages, which is a shame) were much worse at the beginning of the year than they are now, though, so don't be lulled into the idea that he's a crummy pitcher.

(Note: when I speak of league averages and standard deviations, I'm using the 2010 data provided by Texas Leaguers here. Were I not lazy, I could figure these things out myself with 2011 data, but ... well, your refund is in the mail.)

Liriano's fastball comes in at 90-95 with quite a bit of horizontal movement. His two-seamer comes in just as hard, but with slightly more horizontal movement and three extra inches of drop. He also brings an 85 mph slider and an 84 mph change. He doesn't throw the change against lefties, as you'd expect, and in fact his slider and four-seamer are tied for his most-used pitches against port-side batters (158-157, or 39% to 38.8%). Against righties, expect to see about 50% fastballs (split 2:1 four-seamers to two-seamers) and 50% off-speed (split 1:1 changes and sliders) overall with the slider being the strikeout pitch of choice. If lefties can sit slider, they should do it, because outside of the fastball counts (1-0, 2-0, 2-1, 3-1), that's what he's coming with.

On Saturday, the A's see Nick Blackburn, Generic Righty (TM). Blackburn's FIPs the last four years: 4.43, 4.41, 5.04, 4.57. I fell asleep after the second one and was only able to finish the sentence post-nap. He gets there with a low walk rate (6.3%), an almost absurdly low strikeout rate (12.3%) and a whole lot of hard-hit balls (1.2 HR/9, .306 BABIP).

Arsenal-wise, you get five pitches, three of them fastballs (with the cutter coming in about two mph slower than the four- and two-seamers), a slow curve (77) and a change (80-85). The two-seamer, a very league-average offering in terms of velocity and movement, is the pitch of choice, making up nearly half of his pitches to both right- and left-handed hitters, especially on strikeout counts. Blackburn actually uses his curve to start at-bats with great frequency (34% to righties, 23% to lefties), but the usage drops significantly after that, especially to lefties. On fastball counts, both righties and lefties should expect a pitch with movement (usually a two-seamer, sometimes a cutter, the latter especially to lefties), not a straight four-seamer.

Finally, Sunday brings the dreaded Carl Pavano. Dreaded by me, mainly, because all of his pitches come in at the same basic speed with the same basic movement. The Texas Leaguers PITCHf/x tool says that Pavano has thrown no fewer than six different pitches at least fifty times: a four-seamer, sinker, and cutter at 89, and a change, slider, and splitter averaging 81-83. PITCHf/x analysis of the basic type that I do here essentially relies on binning, drawing distinctions between one pitch and another based on speed and movement, and classifying that pitch with a name. Once we've done that (or rather, once the various web tools have done that for us), we can look at what pitches a player is more likely to throw in certain counts to right- and left-handed batters. That approach is nearly useless here, though. I mean, look at this chart of velocity vs. spin angle for Pavano. Do you see multiple distinct pitches, or do you see a spectrum, variations on a theme? Pavano just puts a little more on, takes a little more off, sinks or cuts pitches as the situation requires. I have no ability to tell you, from looking at these charts, how Pavano is going to approach Coco Crisp with two strikes or Conor Jackson on 2-0.

(None of the above, by the way, is meant to make Pavano sound like Greg Maddux or something. Everything I've said above is meant to be descriptive of his approach and his repertoire, not his results.)

Minnesota's bullpen

Joe Nathan is back as the Twins' closer, and he's converted his last five opportunities, allowing no walks and one homer while striking out three in the five innings. He's had his issues, though, so a one-run game in the ninth inning isn't one I'd turn off in favor of mowing the lawn. Matt Capps has been slotted back in, accordingly as a setup man, but his strikeout rate has taken a frightful tumble this year. With Capps's struggles, Glen Perkins, a lefty but not a LOOGY, is probably the guy to expect in the eighth inning of a close game, and he's been lights-out: 44 whiffs to just eight unintentional walks, and not a homer allowed yet.

Behind those three guys are Jose Mijares, a lefty with command issues, Alex Burnett, Generic Righty #2 (TM), journeyman lefty Phil Dumatrait (another one who can't throw strikes), and a right-handed swingman, Anthony Swarzak (they still exist! Swarzak has started five of his fifteen games this year), who doesn't miss bats. It's not the most imposing middle part of the bullpen, but whose is?

Minnesota's offense

I mentioned already that Alexi Casilla hit the DL. This likely leaves Matt Tolbert to play second, although Luke Hughes could play there as well. Tsuyoshi Nishioka, who started the year at second with Casilla at short, became the team's shortstop when he returned to the lineup in mid-June, with Casilla sliding over to second. I did not realize this until now.

Denard Span is also on the DL with a concussion (he's been there since early June, unfortunately), and Justin Morneau just can't get healthy -- he's still out as well.

This leaves a lineup that should look something like this:

  1. Ben Revere, CF
  2. Tsuyoshi Nishioka, SS
  3. Joe Mauer, C
  4. Michael Cuddyer, 1B
  5. Jason Kubel, RF
  6. Jim Thome, DH
  7. Danny Valencia, 3B
  8. Delmon Young, LF
  9. Matt Tolbert, 2B

Drew Butera is the backup catcher and I'd expect him to bat ninth and catch on Sunday. Luke Hughes could get time at the bottom of the order at first, second, or third base. We could see Trevor Plouffe in right field with Kubel moving to DH -- Jim Thome isn't a 162-game guy anymore, so I'd bet on that happening at least once. Jason Repko is a backup outfielder, but he doesn't really ever start.

Revere, Young, Tolbert, and Valencia can't hit. Neither can Butera, Plouffe, or Hughes. (Plouffe has popped five homers in 102 PAs this year, though.) Nishioka might be able to, but hasn't in his 160 PAs in the majors. Mauer/Cuddyer/Kubel/Thome is a pretty fierce middle of the order, but even Mauer is slugging just .349. In the A's park, with the A's pitchers (Gonzalez and McCarthy as the bread, Moscoso the sandwich meat that could prove the weak link), I'd hope and maybe even expect the Twins to get chewed up.


My predictions last time were pretty good -- I said 8-4 loss (8-3 actual) and 5-3 win (7-5 actual). Emboldened, here I go:

Friday: 6-4 victory for the A's, following the pattern of Thursday's loss to the Rays but without the bullpen fully imploding.

Saturday: 3-2 loss, weirdly, as both teams throw their worst starters of the series.

Sunday: 5-1 win, as the Twin attack, led by Drew Butera, is helpless against Brandon McCarthy's strike-throwin' ways.