Twins Notes: Good play, bad batting order, ugly bullpen

If you missed it during yesterday’s game, Joe Mauer‘s diving play at the plate on a ball that deflected off Jose Mijares is among the best you’ll ever see from a catcher. Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune has a recap of the play and MLB.com has the video. And here’s the end result. As Mike Redmond put it: “That’s one of the best plays I’ve ever seen. Instinct-wise, that play was off the charts. I told him I don’t know how he did it. I would have thrown that ball on instinct.”

You won’t find tons of analysis about batting orders in this space, because few topics are discussed more and matter less. Batting orders certainly do matter, but as long as you’re doing a reasonable job putting the best hitters near the top of the lineup and the worst hitters near the bottom of the lineup the difference between “perfect” and “mediocre” is minimal in the grand scheme of things. In other words, I’m typically far more concerned about who’s in the lineup than where they’re batting.

However, sometimes the batting order is so obviously out of whack that it screams for an adjustment and Matt Tolbert hitting second directly in front of Mauer and Justin Morneau is clearly not an example of “putting the best hitters near the top of the lineup and the worst hitters near the bottom of the lineup.” Instead, it’s an example of a manager obsessed with sticking light-hitting, bunt-happy middle infielders between the leadoff man and No. 3 hitter. And it’s an example of something that costs the Twins runs.

Ron Gardenhire may love him, Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven may fawn over everything he does, and fans may have been excited when the Twins called him up to replace Alexi Casilla at second base, but Tolbert is arguably the team’s worst hitter and at the very least is among the team’s worst hitters. He’s hit .257/.314/.349 through 172 plate appearances in the majors after batting .287/.347/.417 in 582 plate appearances at Triple-A, and at 27 years old isn’t likely to suddenly get much better.

Yet because Tolbert is a small, scrappy, switch-hitting middle infielder with little power and the ability to bunt, Gardenhire is willing to a) give him the second most plate appearances on the team, and b) give added importance to those plate appearances by putting them directly in front of the team’s best hitters. Given the lack of other options, I’m fine with Tolbert as the short-term starter at second base, but batting him second in the lineup shows a fundamental lack of understanding about how runs are scored.

Peter Gammons of ESPN.com reports that the Twins are among a handful of teams that “are on the prowl for relievers,” which is either mildly amusing or incredibly frustrating given general manager Bill Smith‘s refusal to address the obvious weakness of the bullpen dating back to the middle of last year. Twins relievers have a 5.51 ERA along with the third-worst Win Probability Added in the league. And it’s not due to being overworked, because the bullpen’s 109.1 innings rank fourth-lowest in the AL.

The bullpen is a mess and prospects Robert Delaney and Anthony Slama are thriving at Double-A, so the Twins are thinking about calling up … Sean Henn. According to Kelly Thesier of MLB.com, Henn “features a 95-mph fastball” and “has posted a 1.23 ERA in 14 appearances at Rochester.” According to reality, Henn has thrown 1,354 big-league pitches with an average fastball velocity of 91.7 miles per hour, has a 7.56 ERA in the majors, and is a 28-year-old with 77 walks in 197 career Triple-A innings.

Not ready?

So, why not call up Delaney or Slama? Thesier writes that they “have caught some people’s attention at New Britain, but it doesn’t seem like they are quite to the point of helping the club just yet.” Gardenhire explains that “there are some pretty good pitchers there, but guys that are not ready.” In other words, as always the Twins must waste time and wins on veteran mediocrity before turning to their young talent. Hell, Delaney and Slama are 24 and 25 years old respectively, and can’t even get promoted to Triple-A.

Matt Garza has a 3.50 ERA and Jason Bartlett is batting .370/.407/.563, so naturally Sid Hartman is writing about how the “Twins-Rays trade may yet pay dividend.” He explains that at the time of the trade “there was a lot of enthusiasm among fans and the media” and “Smith received a lot of accolades,” as if that’s evidence of anything but “fans and the media” buying whatever the Twins are selling. In reality, the trade stunk from Day 1 and is getting progressively worse. Smith, of course, has “no regrets.”

Remember how Gardenhire said a few weeks ago that he wouldn’t use Mauer at designated hitter? Since returning from the disabled list Mauer has started 11 of 16 games at catcher and has been the DH in three of the other five games. I’m certainly not complaining, just saying.

Tim Kurkjian of ESPN.com wrote the latest in a long line of puff pieces about the Twins having “high-character players.” Worth reading, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Juan Rincon was designated for assignment by the Tigers after allowing six runs on 12 hits and six walks in 10.1 innings. Rincon has now played for three-fifths of the AL Central since 2007, so hopefully he completes the divisional tour.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Tony Wagner on 05/18/2009 - 01:23 pm.

    A rather bitter, negative piece… but I agree with every word of it!

  2. Submitted by John Gilbert on 05/19/2009 - 02:18 pm.

    As second-guesses go, this works. Tolbert goes out as No. 2 batter, so he’s no good. I think it was the next day, Tolbert singled home a key run to get the bullpen-challenged Twins to extra innings. I’m awaiting the apologetic follow-up.

    It’s not a second-guess, on the other hand, to point out that you said Joe Christensen had a write-up about Mauer’s great diving tag, then, in your lead, you go on to quote Mike Redmond about Mauer’s fine play. Unless Redmond said it to you, in which case you need a dateline, then you need to attribute that fine quote to Christensen and the Strib.

    As for over-simplification, saying a lineup must have its best hitters up high and its worst hitters at the bottom, you don’t suggest whether you’d waste Mauer, Morneau, Cuddyer or Kubel as the No. 2 hitter, nor to you suggest an alternative. A real baseball guy would know that you want an aggressive get-on-base guy leading off, then you can get by with a lighter-hitting No. 2 if he can walk, bunt, or otherwise scratch to advance the runner into scoring position for Mauer & Co.

    In your world, having all weak hitters at the bottom of the lineup assures that half the time you’d be conceding a dead inning to the other side. The most egregious thing, though, is to say that trying Tolbert at No. 2 “shows a fundamental lack of understanding of how runs are scored.”

    OK, we get it. Gleeman understands the game, Gardenhire doesn’t have a clue. Puh-leeze!

    –John in Golden Valley

  3. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 05/19/2009 - 04:15 pm.

    Wow, I did not think it was possible to come up with a defense to batting a guy with a .179 average second. But there it is. And apparently from a “real baseball guy” too.

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