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Twins Notes: Bunting for hits and letting it fly

Carlos Gomez went 3-for-4 in Wednesday’s win over the White Sox, making him 7-for-15 with a homer, a double, and two steals since a one-game benching last week.

Carlos Gomez went 3-for-4 in Wednesday’s win over the White Sox, making him 7-for-15 with a homer, a double, and two steals since a one-game benching last week. He’s already bunted for a hit eight times this year, which accounts for nearly one-third of his total hits and puts him on pace for 50. During Tuesday’s broadcast Dick Bremer and Ron Coomer brushed aside a question about Gomez topping the all-time record for bunt hits in a season, which they said was 42 from Brett Butler in 1992.

Given their reaction to the topic, my guess is they simply saw the huge total from Butler and assumed Gomez wasn’t close to being on that sort of bunt-hitting pace. In reality, he’s actually on track to top Butler’s mark. According to Baseball Prospectus, since 1959 only Butler, Willy Taveras (38 in 2007), Kenny Lofton (31 in 1992), and Alex Sanchez (31 in 2003) have bunted for more than 30 hits in a year, so Gomez has a chance to make some history even if his pace slows considerably.

Twins fans might be surprised by Rod Carew‘s absence from the bunt-hitting leaders, but Baseball Prospectus’ historical data show that he never bunted for more than 30 hits in a season. However, despite Carew never producing a historic number of bunt hits in a single year, his 190 career bunt hits ranked fourth among all players from 1959-2007 and Dan Fox of Baseball Prospectus — who has since joined the Pirates’ front office—awarded him the crown of “Best Bunter of the Past 40 Years.”

Fox showed that among players who attempted to bunt for a hit at least 100 times from 1959-2007, Carew was the only one to be successful more than two-thirds of the time. Carew’s success rate? An astounding 80 percent. To put that in some context, Butler, Lofton, and Otis Nixon were the only three players to have more bunt hits than Carew from 1959-2007 and their success rates were 51, 59, and 46 percent, respectively. So far, Gomez has successfully bunted for a hit on 53 percent of his attempts.

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Francisco Liriano struggled for much of spring training before posting a 6.75 ERA and 1.71 WHIP in a pair of minor-league starts, at which point Triple-A manager Stan Cliburn suggested that he needed more time to regain his pre-surgery form before returning to Minnesota:

I would say maybe one more start here to get a little bit more command, maybe build a little bit more strength. That would be my call. Of course, I know it’s going to be a group decision. His health is good. His strength is good. His mound presence is good. He just pitched backwards, and maybe he just wanted to find out if he could use all his pitches.

Instead, the Twins called up Liriano shortly after Cliburn uttered those words and stuck him right back into the rotation. He looked shaky in his first two starts and then completely fell apart in his third outing last week against the A’s, allowing six runs on five hits and three walks without making it out of the first inning. Liriano’s first two post-surgery outings were recapped in plenty of detail over at my blog, and the third start featured the same decreased velocity and lack of command.

After going 0-3 with an 11.32 ERA, 13 walks and a .366 batting average against in three starts, his comeback was aborted Friday and Liriano was sent back to Triple-A. He rarely looked comfortable on the mound or capable of consistently getting big-league hitters out with the stuff he was working with, and LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Liriano will stay in Rochester “for a while.” Here’s what pitching coach Rick Anderson had to say about the three-start comeback:

Confidence comes with success. He’s got to get down there and clear his mind, and he admitted to me that he’s thinking too much about what he’s doing. I asked him, “How did you feel before you were hurt?” He said, “I didn’t think, I just threw.” He’s not to that point yet. When he does get to that point, he will have success, and success breeds confidence.

What Anderson said is true, but no amount of confidence is going to make up for Liriano’s missing velocity. General manager Bill Smith said Friday that “there’s no harm done” in calling up Liriano when the Twins did, but Anderson’s quote about his current lack of confidence may contradict that somewhat. Smith also admitted that the Twins rushed Liriano’s return timetable “just a bit” because of Kevin Slowey‘s biceps injury, which seems incredibly shortsighted.

“I think we did the right thing,” Smith said. “Maybe the best thing that will come out of this is everyone realizes he’s not ready.” Fair enough, but given how he pitched this spring and during his abbreviated stay in the minors, it’s unclear exactly what made the Twins think that Liriano would have success in the majors to begin with. Of course, my MinnPost colleague Pat Borzi recently wrote that the Twins may have wanted Liriano in the majors just to keep an eye on him regardless of his performance.

Given how Liriano pitched during his three-start comeback, it’s interesting to look back on offseason reports about his status. Early offseason updates included quotes like “everything is perfect” and “there are no problems at all.” In February, as spring training neared, Ron Gardenhire said that Liriano was “letting it fly” while throwing at the Twins’ academy in the Dominican Republic: “He threw two innings at the academy and they said he was averaging 93 and throwing it up to 96. Free and easy.”

It seems pretty obvious now that those reports were completely false, because Liriano averaged 88-91 miles per hour with his fastball last month, reached 93 mph on maybe a handful of pitches in three starts, and never came anywhere close to “throwing it up to 96” at any point. Nearly every report about Liriano prior to his arrival at spring training noted that he was looking good and throwing as hard as ever, which is astounding given what we know now.

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Liriano made his first post-demotion start yesterday afternoon at Triple-A and struggled, allowing four runs without getting out of the fifth inning. Liriano was chased from the game with the bases loaded and one out in the fifth frame, but reliever Ricky Barrett kept his final line from being even uglier by wriggling out of the jam without any further damage. Liriano needed 94 pitches to record 13 outs, and just 54 percent of his offerings went for strikes.

He walked five and allowed five hits, including a homer to Jeff Bailey, a 29-year-old veteran of 4,000 plate appearances in the minors who has appeared in three career MLB games. Liriano has made a total of 11 post-surgery starts if you include spring training along with his time in the minors and majors, posting a 7.03 ERA, 36-to-32 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and 1.94 WHIP in 40 innings. If you ignore his spring starts, he has a 9.00 ERA, 21-to-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and 2.25 WHIP in 24 innings.

Because a fifth starter won’t be required for a while thanks to multiple off days, the Twins replaced Liriano on the roster with reliever Bobby Korecky. He didn’t come close to cracking my annual ranking of the Twins’ top 40 prospects, but Korecky has a chance to carve out a decent MLB career as a middle reliever. Originally taken by the Phillies in the 19th round of the 2002 draft, the Twins acquired Korecky along with Carlos Silva and Nick Punto in exchange for Eric Milton back in December of 2003.

He’s spent parts of three seasons at Triple-A, posting a 3.31 ERA and 111-to-54 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 149.1 total innings. Korecky has been a closer in the minors, saving 110 career games, but he’s already 28 years old and his low strikeout rate combined with mediocre control make it unlikely that he’ll succeed as a late-inning option in the majors. With that said, Korecky has a 3.04 ERA in 365 pro innings and induces a high percentage of ground balls, so a middle-relief gig seems doable.

Joe Christensen of the Star Tribune wrote an article earlier this week focusing on what should be incredibly obvious by now, which is that on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and runs scored are a whole lot more important to an offense than batting average. Of course, that point is far from obvious for most fans, and far too many media members (including just about everyone covering the Twins on television or radio) equate batting average to offense on the team level.

To show the difference between team batting average and team offense, Christensen noted that the White Sox came into this week’s series against the Twins leading the league in runs per game despite ranking dead last in batting average. He could have just as easily and perhaps even more convincingly used the Twins as the example, because they’ve shown for years that “batting average” and “offense” are often very different things.

From the time they re-emerged as a competitive team in 2001 through last season, the Twins ranked among the AL’s top five in batting average five times in seven years. During that same span, they never ranked among the AL’s top five in scoring and were in the bottom half of the league all but one year. On average from 2001-2007, the Twins ranked sixth in batting average and 11th in scoring, including a 2006 season that saw them lead the league in batting average while ranking just eighth in runs.

None of that is a coincidence, because few organizations place more emphasis on batting average while focusing less on power and plate discipline. All of which is why the Twins haven’t finished with a higher ranking in runs scored than batting average since way back in 1987. For 20 years, the team has been better at hitting for average than actually scoring runs — and often significantly better — yet no one in the organization seems to view that as a problem.

Two decades passed in between the Twins producing a 30-homer hitter and the David Ortiz saga provided a glimpse into why that was the case, as the team tried to take a young hitter with tremendous power potential and essentially mold him into just another slap hitter. Back in 2004, when Ortiz was putting together the second of what are now five straight (and counting) 30-homer, 100-RBI seasons for the Red Sox, he said the following about his time in Minnesota:

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When I first came to Minnesota, that’s when I was told, “Stay inside the ball, hit the ball the other way.” I always was a power hitter in the minor leagues. Everything changed when I went to Minnesota. I would take a hard swing and my first manager would be in the dugout, saying, “Hey, HEY, what are you doing?”

Beyond the apparent lack of interest in encouraging slugging and inability to develop power hitters, the organization also repeatedly makes it clear that they care little about plate discipline, acquiring players who struggle to control the strike zone and seemingly refusing to coach them differently. When told last week that Delmon Young had chased more pitches out of the strike zone this season than any other hitter in baseball, Gardenhire said:

I watched Torii Hunter for like 10 years. You think Torii hasn’t swung? You know what? There’s nothing wrong with swinging. That’s why they give you a bat. This kid’s 22 years old. He’s got everything ahead of him. So let it fly. Learn as you go. He’ll learn the strike zone.

To start telling a guy to just “take, take, take,” sometimes that’s just not human nature. You don’t get to the big leagues, and you don’t become a big league player, by “take, take, take” and get walks.

Some people are paid to drive in runs. You think David Ortiz goes up there to walk? He’s paid to drive in runs. He walks because we walk him. On purpose. And that’s what’s going to happen to Delmon as he goes along, too. Right now, they know he’s going to chase a little bit, but that’s OK. I’ll take my chances with him letting it fly.

Gardenhire acting like he knows what makes Ortiz a great hitter while dismissing his outstanding plate discipline is amusing, given what Ortiz has repeatedly said about the Twins stifling his development. Torii Hunter is a fantastic all-around player and succeeds offensively despite lacking plate discipline, but possessing that ability is fairly unique and pointing to him as the model for Young hardly inspires confidence, given Hunter’s lowly .325 career on-base percentage and unspectacular .795 OPS.

Beyond that, in Gardenhire’s mind why are the only choices for a hitter to “go up there looking to walk” or “swing at everything”? What happened to being disciplined, showing patience, working the count in your favor, and putting together a good at-bat? How many seasons in a row does the Twins’ offense need to rank in the bottom half of the league while everyone in charge downplays the importance of plate discipline before people do the math?

The Twins have failed to draw an above-average number of walks every year since 1988. On average, during the 20 seasons since then, they’ve ranked 10th in walks, never placing higher than seventh. So far this season, they rank dead last in walks and on-base percentage, plus second-to-last in homers and runs. Oh, and as usual, they also rank fifth in batting average, for all the good that does them. As for Young, he’s “let it fly” to the tune of .265/.306/.314 this year and .290/.317/.407 for his career.

The names and faces change plenty on both sides, but beating the White Sox never gets old. After sweeping this week’s two-game series, the Twins are now 74-61 (.548) against the White Sox dating back to 2001 and have had a losing record against them in just one of those eight years. Meanwhile, the White Sox have gone 61-74 (.452) versus the Twins during that eight-season stretch, compared with 547-478 (.534) against everyone else.