Twins Notes

I typically try to keep my Twins-related ramblings to my blog, choosing to save my THT audience from overly-obsessive rantings about my favorite team. However, today I’ve got some Twins thoughts to share with everyone …

Paging Johan Santana … Johan Santana to the white courtesy phone …

My main man Johan Santana (“The Official Pitcher of Aaron’s Baseball Blog”) has struggled this year, coming into Saturday’s start against the Royals with a 2-2 record and a ghastly 5.60 ERA.

Santana gave up two doubles in the first inning against Kansas City and it looked like he was in for yet another rough outing. Then he settled down and actually got into a nice little groove. After Ken Harvey‘s double scored Mike Sweeney from second base to make the score 1-0 Kansas City, Santana retired seven straight hitters and 17 of the next 20, including six on strikeouts.

Just when I started to get optimistic about his finally turning things around and perhaps getting on track for the rest of the season though, things fell apart. Santana served up a solo homer to Matt Stairs, who came into the game hitting .211 against left-handed pitching, and then gave up a single to Tony Graffanino and a walk to Byron Gettis.

One moment he’s cruising along, retiring 17 of 20 batters, and the next minute he’s been taken deep by a guy who can’t hit lefties and he’s in trouble with two men on base and only one out.

So, with Santana at 101 pitches, Ron Gardenhire pulled the plug and brought in J.C. Romero to face Angel Berroa. Romero got ahead of Berroa 0-2, but then hit him with a pitch to load the bases for Carlos Beltran. Now, Beltran has been slumping of late, particularly against lefties, but I could smell trouble on this one immediately.

Sure enough, Beltran hit a bases-clearing double to make the score 5-2 Kansas City. And just like that, Santana had gone from a great outing to a bad one. His final line:

 IP     H     R     ER     BB     SO     HR
6.1     6     4      4      2      6      1

Ouch. Prior to the Stairs at-bat, Santana’s line looked like this:

 IP     H     R     ER     BB     SO     HR
6.1     4     1      1      1      6      0

Saturday’s outing has essentially been the story of Santana’s entire season. He has not pitched as well as he did in 2003 or 2002, but he has not pitched nearly as poorly as his lofty ERA would suggest. Santana has had a lot of otherwise solid starts ruined but a few bad pitches, and he’s had even more ruined by his bullpen.

If Santana had left Saturday’s start before pitching to Stairs, he would have been in line for the win and he would have had a 5.16 ERA (8% lower than he started the game with). Instead, he gave up the homer, Romero allowed both of his runners to score, and Santana left the game in line for the loss (which he got) and with an ERA of 5.61 ERA (.01 higher than he started the game with). In other words, for all the good pitching, his ERA was right back where it started.

Santana’s bullpen “support” has been horrendous all season. I went back through his 11 starts and looked at the runners he left on base for his relievers, as well as how many of them came in to score.

DATE     IR     IS
4/6       0      0
4/11      0      0
4/16      2      2
4/22      0      0
4/27      0      0
5/2       0      0
5/7       0      0
5/13      0      0
5/18      3      2
5/23      2      2
5/29      2      2
------------------
TOTAL     9      8

Basically, if Santana leaves a game with runners on base this year, they’re scoring. Eight of the nine runners he’s left for his relievers have scored. That’s just ugly. If, for instance, things were reversed, and eight of those nine runners were left stranded, Santana’s ERA would be a far less disheartening 4.42 right now.

According to Baseball ProspectusSupport-Neutral W/L Report, Santana has been hurt more by his relievers than any pitcher in baseball this season.

Another group letting Santana down this year is his defense. It seems as though there have been an inordinate number of bloop singles against Santana thus far and the actual numbers back up my observations. Last season, the Twins’ defense turned 73.0% of the balls put in play against Santana into outs. In 2002, the defense turned 70.3% of the balls put in play against him into outs.

This year is a totally different story. Minnesota’s defense has converted just 67.9% of the balls put in play against Santana into outs, which is among the worst defensive support that any starting pitcher in baseball has received this season. All of which is to say that Santana is by no means pitching well, but he’s also getting killed by both his bullpen and his defense, which is why it’s the end of May and he has a losing record and a 5.61 ERA.

We’re getting to the point in the season where Santana’s numbers are essentially destined to stink, unless he goes on an unbelievable run in the second-half. It’s a bit like trying to swim upstream at this point. Santana needs to string together several very good performances just to get his ERA back into respectability, which is what he was doing on Saturday. Each out brought the ERA to the 4.00s and then BOOM, all the work was lost and it was back to 5.61.

The New Second Baseman

It’s been a very long time coming, but I think the moment is just around the corner. With Luis Rivas and Nick Punto both on the disabled list, Michael Cuddyer has been given a chance to play second base on a regular basis lately and he’s done quite well.

This is something I’ve been calling for on a weekly basis for about two years now. Rivas is horrible and he’s been horrible — and consistently horrible too — for his entire major-league career. He can’t hit, he can’t field, he doesn’t even steal bases all that effectively, and he grounds into an incredible number of double plays for a fast guy. Most maddening of all, he’s a young player who has now been in the major leagues for five seasons without showing one bit of improvement.

Meanwhile, Cuddyer has been an excellent hitter in the minor leagues, hitting .308/.380/.541 in 139 games at Triple-A and .301/.396/.560 in 141 Double-A games. Once upon a time he was one of the better prospects in baseball and while he admittedly has not done particularly well at the major-league level thus far, even in his struggles he has out-hit Rivas by a sizable margin.

                PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      GPA
Rivas         1668     .261     .309     .375     .232
Cuddyer        387     .247     .319     .431     .251

There isn’t a person who has seen Cuddyer hit over the past three years who would say he has been good offensively, yet he’s been significantly more productive than Rivas (10 points of OBP, 56 points of SLG, 19 points of GPA). And that’s while Rivas has played every day for years and Cuddyer has been given brief stints of a week or two at ever-changing positions, before getting sent back to Triple-A or the bench.

Given a chance to establish himself at one position, to get his feet entrenched in the job like Rivas has, I have no doubt that Cuddyer would blow Rivas out of the water offensively.

Defensively, Cuddyer’s reputation is not good. He was originally drafted as a shortstop, but has moved all around the diamond, playing everywhere but center field and catcher. While I don’t foresee him ever being a great defensive second baseman, I have definitely been pleasantly surprised by what I’ve seen from him there this season.

Cuddyer has a very strong arm and he is athletic. He gets in trouble sometimes trying to improvise plays, but I think that has a lot to do with the fact that he’s been a second baseman for about three weeks. Give him half a season of playing the position every day and I guarantee he would be close to an average defender there. Give him a month and he’ll be better than Rivas.

I have learned, through many years as a fan, that the Twins often do the thing you want them to do, but it usually takes them an excruciatingly long time to do so. For instance, I would guess that they’ll finally cut bait on Luis Rivas after this season, which is something I’ve been asking them to do … for about three years.

They’re finally giving Lew Ford a chance to play regularly, but it took several years and several injuries for them to do so. Justin Morneau is finally up and (hopefully) being given a chance to establish himself in the major leagues for more than a few weeks, which is long past due.

And now Cuddyer is being given a chance to play every day and being given a chance to play second base. The first part of that has been the most frustrating to watch, but the second part is the most exciting to see.

On Saturday, with Corey Koskie sitting out against a lefty, Alex Prieto played third base and Cuddyer started at second base. Earlier in the year, Cuddyer would almost certainly have been playing third in this situation, so the fact that the Twins left him at second suggests to me that they’re interested in seeing where this goes long-term.

Michael Cuddyer at second base kills two birds with one stone — Cuddyer plays and Rivas doesn’t. Actually, it also helps to clear some of the LF/RF/DH/1B logjam in the organization, so I guess it actually kills three birds with one stone. That’s a pretty big stone.

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