If you’re sensing that Minnesota Twins games are lasting deeper into the night than they used to — the games that don’t go into extra innings, anyway — you’re right. Through Monday, nine-inning Twins games this season were taking two hours and 50 minutes on average, three minutes longer than last year and six minutes longer than in 2007, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Six minutes over two years may not sound like much. But the trend is not good news for ticket-buyers with small children, baseball writers on deadline or home viewers forced to choose between the ninth inning and the 10 o’clock news. The Twins used to play the fastest games in the American League, a distinction that now falls to the Oakland A’s (2:42). Minnesota ranks seventh in the A.L.; no one should be surprised that Yankee games take the longest (3:12).
Unfortunately for Major League Baseball, the Twins aren’t alone. According to information MLB supplied to clubs this week, games across baseball are taking longer this season (2:54 on average) than last year (2:52) or 2007 (2:48), based on data through last Sunday. That’s largely because walks, pitches per game and strikeouts are up from last year. So is scoring.
Wonder if we’ll hear from Commissioner Bud Selig about this? Last May a Selig edict about picking up the pace, largely to address lollygagging by batters and pitchers, led to fines against Ron Gardenhire and Houston manager Cecil Cooper. I’m not sure what else Selig can do this time, other than tell umpires to call more strikes.
Why are Twins games taking longer? The hitters are more patient, so they’re seeing more pitches than they used to. And since the bullpen stinks, the staff is taking longer to get requisite number of outs.
The 3-2 count
Let’s peruse batting first. Opponents are throwing about 149.3 pitches per game against the Twins, up from 145.89 last year and 141.80 in 2007, according to baseball-reference.com. Hitting coach Joe Vavra’s attempts to stop certain hitters from hacking at the first pitch regardless of location appeared to be helping, at least until the boys arrived in The Bronx. Now the Twins are drawing more walks, 3.97 per game, than in 2008 (3.25) or 2007 (3.16).
“It falls a lot on having faith in the players who are batting behind you, not being afraid to get to two strikes, not being afraid to get to a 3-2 count,” said Michael Cuddyer, one of the hottest Twins hitters lately. “Having confidence in your teammates allows you not to be afraid.” (Of course, it’s a lot easier to trust the batter behind you if it’s Joe Crede or Delmon Young, rather Nick Punto or Carlos Gomez.)
The pitching evidence, though, is more anecdotal. The Twins’ average pitch count isn’t up by much — 141.9 per game, as opposed to 140.3 last year and 140.1 in 2007 — and they’re walking fewer batters than last year (2.90 per game, down from 3.24). But the game slows noticeably with runners on base, and Twins pitchers have had a lot of those lately.
As a staff the Twins are giving up 5.31 runs per game, up more than half a run from last year’s 4.57. (That’s all runs, not just earned runs.) Last year, the relievers allowed only 27 percent of inherited runners to score, second-fewest in the American League to Tampa Bay. Now they’re letting in 43 percent, tied for fourth-most in the AL. Those runs add up. So do the 20 home runs served by relievers, given the time it takes batters to circle the bases and high-five everyone in the dugout.
After weeks of inertia and fan griping about the bullpen, general manager Bill Smith promoted former Yankee farmhand Sean Henn from Class AAA Rochester and waived ineffective lefty Craig Breslow, whom Oakland claimed on Wednesday.
Don’t count on the lefthanded Henn being a dominator. The Yankees designated him for assignment 13 months ago after he pitched more than six years in their minor-league system as a starter without winning more than seven games in any season. The Yankees converted him to relief in 2006. As lousy as the Yankee bullpen was last year, think they would have cut Henn loose if he could have helped? In 66 2/3 major-league innings with the Yanks and Padres, Henn walked 52 and allowed batters to hit .307.
And while I can’t be certain of this, the unnamed Twins official who told the Star Tribune and mlb.com that Henn threw 95 m.p.h. for Rochester might be the same delusional chap who claimed Francisco Liriano hit 97 in a bullpen session in the Dominican Republic before spring training last year.
Henn’s fastball fell in 91-92 m.p.h. range when I saw him pitch for the Yankees, and again in his unsuccessful debut for the Twins on Tuesday night. Plus, like a lot of relievers, he always works from the stretch, which costs you a little velocity. If he threw 95 m.p.h. from the stretch, lefthanded, with decent control, he probably wouldn’t be in Class AAA at age 28.
But Henn can’t be any worse than Breslow, who departs with a 6.28 ERA. Gardenhire had so little confidence in Breslow as the situational lefty that he let Nick Blackburn pitch to the lefthanded Mark Teixeira last Saturday in New York with a one-run lead in the eighth, even though Teixeira already had three hits and was 5-for-5 career off Blackburn. Teixiera singled in the tying run, and Breslow served the game-losing homer to Alex Rodriguez in the 11th.