Flipping the leadoff switch

Once it became clear at the end of spring training that Carlos Gomez would be the Twins’ everyday center fielder and leadoff man, here was my take:

I’m as excited as anyone about Gomez’s future, ranking him as the Twins’ top prospect, but it’s likely a mistake to put him in a position to receive the most plate appearances of anyone on the team while batting directly in front of the lineup’s most dangerous hitters. There’ll no doubt be flashes of brilliance while Gomez shows off his amazing speed on the bases and in center field, but leading off should primarily be about getting on base and at 22 years old he doesn’t figure to do that especially well.

That was March 27, so it only took Ron Gardenhire four months, 99 games, and 418 poorly divvied up plate appearances to come to that same conclusion. Of course, correctly predicting that Gomez would be woefully ill-suited to hit atop the lineup — and spending four months campaigning for a switch–hardly qualifies as genius on my part. In fact, it should have been obvious to anyone focusing on his on-field performance and minor-league track record rather than getting caught up in his speed and potential.

Baseball Prospectus projected Gomez to hit .249/.301/.361 this season. Baseball Think Factory had him at .241/.299/.346. The Hardball Times pegged him at .247/.293/.337. In other words, three of the top performance-based projection systems around combined to predict that he’d produce an average hitting line of .246/.298/.348. When Gardenhire finally pulled the plug on Gomez leading off prior to Tuesday night’s game, he was hitting a near-perfect match for the projections at .247/.281/.345.

Gomez’s track record suggested that he’d hit around .250 with horrible plate discipline and little power, and that’s exactly what he’s done thus far. If the Twins are aware of such projections, they certainly didn’t pay any attention to them, choosing to hand their raw, 22-year-old center fielder a job that set him up for likely failure. It took a 5-for-57 (.088) slump to finally convince Gardenhire that it was time to reverse a decision that never should have been made in the first place.

For now, Denard Span replaces Gomez atop the lineup while trying to prove that his breakout is more legit improvement than sample-size fluke. He carried a 283/.348/.348 career line in the minors into this season and batted just .267/.323/.355 at Triple-A last year, which is a performance that would make him as ill-suited for the leadoff spot as Gomez. However, unlike Gomez, he’s shattered all projections by hitting .340/.434/.481 in 40 games at Triple-A and .341/.437/.466 in 30 games with the Twins.

Pre-2008 2183 .283 .348 .348 8.4 14.7 .065
2008 289 .340 .435 .475 14.2 18.0 .135

Prior to this season, Span looked like a No. 9 hitter at best, but whether because of laser-eye surgery or good, old-fashioned development by way of maturation, he’s looked like a prototypical leadoff man for the past four months. Lots of weird things can happen in 289 plate appearances, and the 60-point jump in batting average obviously won’t last very long, but Span has upped his walk rate by 70 percent while producing 108 percent more power. He’s been a completely different player.

If Span maintained his performance so far this season, he’d be one of the best players in baseball, but even if his batting average dips back to .280 or so while his current rate walk rate and Isolated Power both decline by 15 percent, he’d end up hitting around .280/.360/.395. Toss in some good speed and that version of Span would be an ideal leadoff man. With that said, following six mediocre years with four good months leaves plenty of reason to be skeptical, and Span may yet turn back into a pumpkin.

Beyond that, even if the new and improved Span is here to stay, he seemingly won’t have anywhere to play once Michael Cuddyer returns from the disabled list. Between signing a long-term extension this winter and hitting just .252/.324/.376 between hand injuries Cuddyer isn’t going anywhere whether the Twins want him to or not. Delmon Young was acquired at a huge cost this offseason and has turned things around recently after a brutal start. And Jason Kubel has been the team’s third-best hitter.

That leaves Span as a fourth outfielder unless the Twins are willing to take Gomez’s demotion a step further by platooning him in center field, or several steps further by sending him down to Triple-A. Given how long it took just to bump him from the leadoff spot, my guess is that sending Gomez to Rochester would require a 5-for-500 slump, give or take a couple of bunt hits, but a Gomez-Span platoon would seemingly be a good fit considering their complimentary handedness.

Whatever the case, after finally making the correct decision regarding Gomez’s spot in the lineup the Twins could face an even tougher call once Cuddyer comes off the shelf at some point next month. Assuming that Cuddyer, Young, and Kubel are more or less locked into the lineup, can the Twins really bench Span if he continues to hit anywhere close to this well with Gomez looking totally overmatched at the plate while making an out 70 percent of the time?

Gomez has swung at more pitches outside of the strike zone than anyone in the AL save for freak of nature Vladimir Guerrero, and among the league’s 82 hitters who qualify for the batting title he ranks 71st in batting average, 81st in on-base percentage, 78th in slugging percentage, 79th in pitches per plate appearance, 74th in Isolated Power, 80th in walk rate, and last in strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’s the worst-hitting regular in the league overall and is batting .207/.244/.271 in 43 games since June 1.

Prior to the season, my stated preference was for Gomez to begin the year at Rochester while a place-holder manned center field, with the idea being that he could use additional minor-league seasoning after being rushed to the majors, and using up a year of his team-controlled, pre-free agency service time made little sense given that he was likely to struggle. At the time, my choice for that place-holder was a low-cost veteran free agent, but Span’s emergence has made him the obvious choice.

If Cuddyer gets healthy and the clock doesn’t strike midnight on Span, it should become obvious (or perhaps more obvious) that Gomez’s performance doesn’t warrant a starting job. If that time comes, will the Twins stick with him at Span’s expense? Will they move Gomez into a part-time role, platooning with Span? Will they make Span the full-time center fielder and send Gomez down to Triple-A? Moving Gomez from the leadoff spot is a start, but once Cuddyer returns, something else has to give.

Twins Notes: Service time, the new Jacque, and rumors

Francisco Liriano‘s agent made headlines over the weekend for filing a grievance with the Players Association alleging that the Twins are keeping Liriano at Triple-A to control his service time and delay his arbitration eligibility (and eventually his free agency). Liriano is predictably being ripped to shreds by fans and media members who feel that he’s out of line, but in reality his agent is seemingly much more to blame for the situation.

Ultimately Liriano has chosen to be represented by his agent and should certainly be held accountable for statements made on his behalf, but it sounds like Liriano expressed frustration with still being at Rochester — understandable given that he’s 9-0 with a 2.37 ERA over his last 10 starts there — and his agent fanned the flames by making a formal complaint. Luckily for Liriano, it appears as though both Gardenhire and Bill Smith have directed most of their vitriol at his agent. Here’s Liriano’s take:

I don’t know why they’re keeping me down here. I don’t know why. I’m a much better pitcher now than I was. My velocity is coming back, I’m throwing more sliders, everything is coming together. It’s not frustrating. I’ve got to be patient and do my job. Just keep on doing what I’m doing now.

Those certainly don’t sound like the words of someone who’s the driving force behind a grievance alleging a serious offense, so Liriano should probably be cut some slack. It seems unlikely to me that service time has played the biggest factor in the Twins’ handling of Liriano. Instead, it’s probable that they feel guilty about the way he was rushed to the majors in April and, because of that, are going out of their way to avoid bringing him back before he’s completely ready this time around.

In April, the Twins called up Liriano from Triple-A despite both his on-field performance and advice from the Rochester coaching staff suggesting that he was far from ready. He predictably bombed, going 0-3 with an 11.32 ERA before being sent back down with all sorts of confidence issues and new questions about his long-term outlook. As recently as three weeks ago, he turned in back-to-back poor outings at Rochester, so it’s tough to argue that they’ve kept him at Triple-A significantly longer than necessary.

Toss in the fact that Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, and Glen Perkins are all pitching well and Livan Hernandez‘s horrible ERA apparently doesn’t bother any of the team’s decision-makers, and it’s easy to see an explanation for why Liriano remains at Triple-A that has little to do with service time. Plus, if the Twins were so concerned about managing his service time at all costs they never would have given Liriano a rotation spot in April to begin with.

My guess is that the Twins’ handing of Liriano has little to do with service-time ramifications, but you wouldn’t see complaints from me even if it did. If keeping Liriano at Rochester for a few weeks longer than needed means that he’ll be under the team’s control for an “extra” year, it’d make plenty of sense. Unlike Johan Santana finally getting a full-time shot in the rotation or Jason Bartlett finally replacing Juan Castro at shortstop, there’s reason to be skeptical that Liriano is ready to immediately thrive.

Keeping Santana in the bullpen years after he’d shown himself to be the team’s most dominant pitcher was overkill. Letting Bartlett beat up on Triple-A pitching for a third straight season while Castro stunk at shortstop was overkill. Asking Liriano to make a few extra starts at Rochester to instill confidence that he won’t be a mess if the Twins call him up this time is totally different. Plus, would you rather have Liriano in the Twins’ rotation for the past few weeks or for all of 2012?

You won’t find anyone more eager to dump Hernandez from the rotation than me, and no one cries louder for young players to be given fair shakes, but being overly cautious with Liriano is a no-brainer, and if keeping him at Triple-A for a few extra weeks means delaying his free agency an extra year, that’s an easy call to make whether the Twins did it on purpose or not. Hopefully, his agent’s grievance will be deemed spurious and Liriano will be called up soon, so the focus can shift to his improving stuff.

Over at Stick and Ball Guy‘s blog, Ubelmann notes that Kubel and Jacque Jones have very similar career numbers against left-handed pitching. Jones has hit .230 with a .628 OPS in 1,096 plate appearances against southpaws, while Kubel has hit .217 with a .625 OPS in 190 plate appearances against them. In the early days of my blog, one of the frequent complaints was that Gardenhire refused to bench Jones against lefties despite his having zero business being in the lineup against them.

So far, the same is true of Kubel, which is why despite being one of his biggest supporters you’ll never see me complain about Craig Monroe starting over him against a left-hander. With that said, it’s worth noting that Gardenhire played Jones every day despite his complete inability to hit lefties, while Kubel has basically always been a platoon player. In seven years with the Twins, 23 percent of Jones’ playing time came versus lefties, whereas Kubel has batted against a southpaw just 16 percent of the time.

In addition to their nearly identical struggles against lefties, Jones and Kubel have also posted similar career numbers against righties. Jones has hit .290/.340/.476 in 3,897 plate appearances, while Kubel has hit .275/.328/.463 in 887 plate appearances. My guess is that Kubel will surpass Jones’ numbers against righties, because he’s still just 26 years old (Jones had his two best seasons at 27 and 28) and is improving the further away he gets from knee surgery, but so far they’ve been very close.

Left-handed batters tend to fare much worse against left-handed pitchers than right-handed batters do against right-handed pitchers. For instance, left-handed batters throughout baseball have been 12 percent worse against lefties than righties this year. By comparison, right-handed batters are just 7 percent worse against righties than lefties. Because they typically have far more extreme platoon splits, most left-handed batters are ideal candidates to platoon.

Elite left-handed batters tend to be good enough overall that they remain strong options against lefties despite the big drop in production. However, when it comes to non-elite left-handed batters like Jones or Kubel, teams can usually get better production against lefties from even a mediocre right-handed batter. Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer are certainly elite left-handed batters, yet even they’ve been mediocre versus lefties during their careers.

Mauer has hit .326/.419/.504 against righties and .291/.352/.367 against lefties, which is a 20-percent drop in production. Morneau has hit .296/.369/.534 versus righties and .258/.304/.437 versus lefties, which is an 18-percent drop in production. Kubel and Jones are similar in that they’ve been 17 percent and 22 percent worse against lefties, respectively, but the difference with Morneau and Mauer is that they’re good enough overall that they remain relatively productive after the versus-lefties drop.

Over the past couple of weeks, the Star Tribune has provided multiple updates on Adrian Beltre trade speculation, which has in turn provided a good example of why you’ll rarely see coverage of trade rumors from me. First, here’s a note from July 9:

Trade Winds

While the Twins don’t have a pressing need heading into the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, they do view shortstop and third base as two positions where they could benefit by adding a proven veteran. They have had internal discussions about Seattle third baseman Adrian Beltre, for example, but there are no indications those talks have extended to the Mariners.

Next, here’s a follow-up note from July 14:

Twins ask Seattle about Beltre

The Twins recently contacted Seattle to inquire about third baseman Adrian Beltre as they look for ways to boost their offense against left-handed pitching, a club source said. It’s unclear how deep the discussions got, but the Twins decided to act on the internal discussions they had about the Mariners slugger.

And finally, here’s the latest tidbit from yesterday:

Beltre trade doesn’t appear likely

After exploring a trade for Mariners third baseman Adrian Beltre, the Twins came away feeling they won’t have a match. Seattle’s asking price is steep because Beltre is under contract for next season and is one of the Mariners’ better all-around players.

To recap: First the Twins talked amongst themselves and decided that they’d be interested in acquiring one of the AL’s better all-around third basemen. Then they actually contacted the Mariners to discuss a potential trade for Beltre. And finally they realized that the Mariners weren’t going to trade him cheaply, thus ending the potential for a deal. Throughout all of that, my e-mailbox and the comments section at my blog were filled with the same question: “Why aren’t you talking about the Beltre rumors?!” That’s why.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Tony Wagner on 07/24/2008 - 05:32 pm.

    To be fair, before the recent slump, Gomez’s line was .274/.308/.382, which isn’t good for a leadoff hitter, but it’s certainly not debilitating, and we didn’t exactly have a lot of clearly better options either. Casilla and Span both looked just as unsuited to immediate leadoff duty earlier this year, and I note that your two preseason centerfield solutions in the linked article have either performed poorly at higher cost (Corey Patterson, .190/.224/.335, $3 mil for the Reds) or have not performed at all (Kenny Lofton, who made $6 mil last season). Can it really be termed a “mistake” for the Twins to have not anticipated uncharacteristic breakout performances (thus far) from Span and Casilla? I think it’s far more reasonable, given their performances and expectations, to say the Twins’ real mistake is more or less hanging on to Gomez as he slumped after Casilla and Span had proven themselves as more worthy candidates, which puts the duration of the mistake at about 3 weeks, not four months as you state.

    Also, I’m not sure the term “years” (plural) is appropriate in your statement “Keeping Santana in the bullpen years after he’d shown himself to be the team’s most dominant pitcher was overkill.” It appears the earliest that Johan could be termed the team’s most dominant pitcher would be around the end of June in 2002 (even though he still had some issues with control, as well as innings limitations), and he became a full-time starter for good on July 11, 2003. That’s about one calendar year exactly, although I could see how you could interpret the dates as covering multiple (albeit partial) “years” in the form of seasons.

    But, as I mentioned, if you subscribe to the theory of gradual increases in pitcher workloads, his innings limits would not have allowed a full-time starting gig much earlier than July 2003. Prior to 2002, his professional high was 160 IP in single-A in 1999. His second highest total was a scant 86, achieved in 2000 in the back of the bullpen during his Rule 5 season, followed by 43 IP in an injury-shortened 2001. Limiting him to 156 IP combined between AAA and the majors in his age-23 2002, followed by 158 all in the majors in 2003, seems almost exactly in line with the popular innings-progression estimates I have seen suggested for young pitchers with injuries, and Johan has certainly been the model of pitching health since then. Would you now advocate a significantly steeper innings progression for a young pitcher with his history? If not, then repeating the claim that the Twins erred by a significant length of time in regards to Johan seems disingenuous.

    It seems your concept of “mistake duration,” both historical and in the present, is a little ill-calibrated. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the points above, though.

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