Not On Target

Target Field, while extremely pleasing in terms of architectural aesthetics, is not my favorite place to take in a game. I’m finding, with each new visit, some unpleasant downsides.

The contrivances and distractions around the actual product are simultaneously unnecessary, overwrought and irritating. There’s an horrifically garish mascot race between a cast of characters unworthy of itemization; a pointless fan contest whereby a randomly chosen family segment gets two disparate, utterly arcane questions about some Twins player and tries to answer them for prizes; and a never-ending deluge of fan shots on the jumbotron, set to various songs or themes and captured by roving remote videographers. They have sing-along time in the eighth inning.

At and near field level, the park is (and as a longtime Cubs fan and Wrigley rat, I can assure you this is no small thing) delightfully well-lit. It’s genuinely nice. The upper deck, though, is dreary, and there are several seating areas in the park’s upper reaches that lack easy access to bathrooms or concessions, in addition to being dark and often cold.

None of which prevented me from paying the wonderfully modest fee of $12 for an upper-deck seat directly behind home plate for Monday night’s game there, on Jackie Robinson Day. I got a Diversity Day T-shirt on my way into the park, and actually, the things are pretty cool.

To restate, for all the over-the-top nonsense that has become too much a part of the experience, Target Field is beautiful:

Even on steel-gray days, the vista is hard to beat.

Even on steel-gray days, the vista is hard to beat.

Pre-Game Notes

So I happily settled into my seat, about an hour ahead of game time, and read George F. Will’s Men at Work while I waited for baseball. A couple quick things from the managerial section of that piece, that would stick in my head as I took in the game:

  • Tony La Russa, whom Will profiles for that part of the book, was simply dogged about accumulating information. Dave Duncan had thick binders full of hand-drawn charts of pitch types and locations, how often batters swung and how they did when they swung. The Oakland Athletics, for whom those men toiled at the time of Will’s tracking of them, were awash in information about opponents’ tendencies. They knew how often opponents swung at first pitches, which directions they hit the ball, all kinds of things that most teams back then (the late 1980s, heading into the early 1990s) did not know, or knew only in the way that old men know when it’s going to rain.Oakland held team meetings prior to every series to arrive at consensus on how they would defend every opposing hitter, and how they would attack every opposing pitcher. This included not only defensive positioning, but notes to certain defenders on what to be ready to do against various batters, and where to pitch them so as to maximize the effectiveness of their defensive alignments. It also included, for Oakland’s batters, notes on what to expect in certain counts, ways some pitchers tipped pitches and what any former teammates of said pitchers can tell about their mentality or plan.I wonder whether these meetings still take place. I imagine their scale is at least diminished. So much of the information that La Russa and Duncan collected and culled, then delivered in those meetings, is now amassed automatically and electronically, and can be distilled and analyzed just as easily by an individual holding an iPad. I chose my seat for the game primarily so as to be able to take in these macro things, like defensive positioning. More on that later.
  • Will indulges in a long digression on advance scouts and sign-stealing. Coaches, in Will’s narrative, are engaged in a perpetual war fought primarily by proxy, by spies in each dugout and by code-crackers all over the diamond. Some batters peek at the catcher for location of coming pitches. Some coaches lock in on whoever gives the opponents’ signs, in the hopes of seeing a pitchout or squeeze play coming in time to thwart the tactic. It’s especially true, or so it seems, when two skippers who know each other well face off.Since managers Ron Gardenhire and Mike Scioscia each have decade-plus tenures in their current positions (for how much longer?), I keyed in on a few of the things Will described, hoping to pick them up. I saw a few, and will mention them down the road, but ultimately, the reverse angle, the same seats out in center field looking in, would have better served that particular investigation.
  • Tony La Russa spoke Spanish before he spoke English. I think I knew this already, but it catches me every time. What an advanmtage it must be for a manager in today’s game to be effortlessly bilingual. Lou Piniella had the same blessing, if memory serves me well. Manny Acta came to English later than those two, but Hell, he speaks it more cleanly and concisely than Piniella. On the other hand, it must be very difficult for modern managers who know very limited Spanish, or for Ozzie Guillen, who knows so little of any language, to communicate in the clubhouse.

The matchup for the evening had a pretty thorough symmetry to it. Joe Blanton and Kevin Correia each signed two-year, eight-figure free-agent contracts this winter. Both deals were widely panned, and with good reason, I think. Both managers, as I said, have been in their seats forever, but both, to a greater or lesser extent, are in some jeopardy of losing their job. Each team has a thin and beleaguered bullpen and is offense-centric. Neither is designed to win games 2-1. Despite the fairly brutal cold, one could foresee a fairly high-scoring game.

After one batter, it looked like that was exactly what we would have. Peter Bourjos homered into the bullpen in left-center field on Kevin Correia’s sixth pitch. Correia got Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton out quickly thereafter, though, striking out Trout and Hamilton.

The Pitching Matchup

In fact, other than a Brendan Harris home run in the third inning, Correia dominated the Angels from then on. He mixes a four-seam fastball, a cutter and a sinker with a curveball, a slider and a changeup, and although not a single one of those offerings is above average (I’m not sure any is even average), they were all working as well as they ever do for him Monday night.

Correia doesn’t disguise his fastball variations very well. His four-seamer comes from a different, lower arm slot than his other offerings, and he stays taller through release of it. That pitch can sit at 90 miles per hour, with good release depth, but it’s fairly easy for hitters to read and he got only two swinging strikes throwing it 32 times Monday night, according to Brooks Baseball.

He also gives away his sinker a bit. When a right-hander throws a sinker, he rolls his wrist counterclockwise at release (this is called pronating, and happens naturally, but you exaggerate the motion as part of throwing the sinker), so that the two fingers gripping the ball move over the top of it and create downward motion. This is also why most sinkers have arm-side run. Correia’s moves nicely and he commands it really well, but the drawback is that in order to do so, he has very pronounced pronation and hitters can see that happening. To get outs and strikes with the sinker, Correia has to make it move a little bit more or a little bit faster or slower than the batter thinks it will, even given the fact that he recognizes it early. Correia was able to do that on Monday night, but it’s why his margins are narrow and nights like those are few and far between.

Correia threw 19 changeups on Monday night, mostly when ahead in the count, and 10 of them were balls. The rest of the results were pretty good, though. His change is a sort of exaggerated version of his sinker, but it’s much better-disguised because he can throw it just like his four-seamer. His grip does the work of pushing the ball down, slowing it down and moving it away from a left-handed batter. There isn’t much velocity separation there, but when you essentially have three fastballs, a changeup doesn’t have be very different from any of them in terms of velocity. It just has to look like one and act like another.

My elevation made it tough to read his breaking stuff. It certainly got a few Angels lunging, and he threw his slider through the back door a couple times against Hamilton, but nothing jumped out to me. Depth seems to be his salvation with both offerings.

To talk about his breaking balls, we need to talk about his mechanics. Correia uses a leg kick that I think makes timing his delivery very difficult. There’s this heel kick at the apex of his lift that sort of sets his whole forward progress in motion, but it also makes it hard for him to coordinate everything and repeat himself. He has a lot of spine tilt, leaning over his glove side to generate overhand action and downward plane.

Like most pitchers whose motions include that lean, he pitches from the glove side of the rubber so as to allow himself to run the ball back to the arm side and still find the strike zone. Yovani Gallardo is the most successful practitioner of that style. Unlike Gallardo, though, Correia has neither the sharpness of movement nor the command of his breaking stuff to use it effectively in the smaller window he gives himself with his mound positioning. He also tends to miss up and to the right with those pitches because of that tilt, which not only strains the arm over time but makes it difficult to be on time and on target at release, so he can really get hurt when trying to be fine with those pitches. His natural arm slot screams slider, but with the tilt, he’s at more of a curve height and plane, and though he throws both, neither is very good because of his mechanical deficiencies.

Enough about Kevin Correia. He had a good start, but it doesn’t feel like an especially indicative or impressive outing.

Joe Blanton is at once similar to Correia, and his polar opposite. Mechanically, he’s very different, although not better. He uses an abbreviated windup, which I like, and has a more efficient leg kick. He really struggles to generate momentum in his delivery, though, more than you would ever expect given his size. He doesn’t ride his back leg downhill well. He gets his weight forward, and though he delays trunk rotation well and stays tall, his center of gravity drifts and his front hip opens too soon. That steals some of his torque, and despite a strong glove-side upper body, he gets stuck in trying to finish over his front leg. The leg lands, and because his front hip has already flown open, he doesn’t have much power with which to catapult himself out over it. Instead, he hitches, and the momentum he has generated until that point in the delivery evaporates. His posture is fine, and he mostly is able to finish his arm swing, but the velocity is gone before the ball leaves his hand. It got worse as the game progressed on Monday, as his fatigue had his hip opening even sooner and he started missing badly.

Here’s how Joe Blanton pitches: Away, away, away. He focuses not on ground balls, but on pounding the strike zone. Whereas Correia succeeds, when he succeeds, by inducing weak contact and worm-burners, Blanton succeeds, when he succeeds, with a great strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’s no longer blessed with elite stuff, but he pitches away from contact whenever possible. Like Correia, he pitches from the first-base side of the mound, and like Correia, he uses that to maximize the value of his lateral movement. Against left-handers, he tries to start fastballs on the outside corner and run them off, discouraging the batter from swinging while making it hard for an umpire not to call a strike. Although the Twins’ big lefties teed off on Blanton a bit when he made mistakes, he got about a half dozen called strikes that way Monday night.

Because his velocity is fading, though, Blanton is more reliant than ever on his changeup, and that’s a problem. Recall that Correia does well with his change despite a very small velocity differential from his heat, because the changeup looks like one fastball but behaves like another. Blanton, too, has a small differential. Unfortunately, he doesn’t really have the multiple fastballs that lend it deception. He throws an occasional cutter, but basically, he’s a four-seam fastball guy whose four-seam fastball has enough fade to be used like a two-seamer when necessary. His changeup does basically the same thing as his fastball, and is not much different in terms of velocity, and that’s a major problem.

Correia and Blanton are each the third-best starters in their rotation, and that’s when everyone is healthy, which everyone isn’t. Is it a wonder both teams ranked among the five worst rotational ERAs in baseball after Monday night?

Oswaldo Arcia’s MLB Debut

Color me impressed. It surprised me that the Twins would call forth Arcia, 21, from Triple-A for such a brief stint—it looks like he’s headed back down when Wilkin Ramirez returns from the birth of his child this week. Now they’ll have to wait at least an extra week or so to call up Arcia for good, so as to ensure that he doesn’t become a free agent until after the 2019 season. Specifically, if he does go back down, he must be there 20 days in order not to have his service time counted as MLB time when he returns to Minnesota. At this point, a guy who could have been up for good by Cinco de Mayo may need to stay in Rochester until Memorial Day.

Still, seeing him for the first time, I had no trouble understanding the team’s enthusiasm and eagerness to see the bat play in the big leagues. He has good bat speed, okay contact skills and a violence and leverage in his swing that promises above-average power. He sharply pulled Blanton the first time up, a stung single to right field that became more when Josh Hamilton played hacky sack with it. He flew out in his second at-bat, and in his third, but the latter really caught my attention.

I had seen Arcia pull the ball, and it looked like his swing was built to do it. Blanton doesn’t throw especially hard, but the ease with which Arcia made sharp, square contact didn’t leave me thinking he would struggle to turn around even pitchers who do reach the mid-90s. I needed to find out whether he could make adjustments, though, when no opportunity to pull the ball presented itself.

Mike Scioscia did me a favor by putting Arcia in just such a situation. With two on and two out in the fifth frame, Arcia was due, and Blanton was done. Scioscia called forth Michael Roth from his bullpen, creating a lefty-lefty matchup.

Roth throws a straight 87 miles an hour, nothing nasty about it. Because of his peculiar delivery, though, with asymmetrical arms and an unusual throwing motion, it seems to come very suddenly off his very shoulder. His only hope is to pitch like Blanton, working a fastball through the strike zone but letting it finish off the outside corner, trying to induce swings at pitches the opponent can’t reach. This approach mostly works when the pitcher has the platoon advantage; hence Scioscia’s choice to get that advantage in a big spot.

The way to combat this (easier said than done) is to contact the ball well out in front of the plate, while it might still be in line with the fat part of the bat. At the same time, though, you have to stay closed, stride very straight and ensure your strength is behind the ball at the moment of contact. Some lefties will roll this over; others will flick it the other way without strength. Few are those, like Joe Mauer, for instance, who have developed the ability to stay on those pitches and generate strength as they attack them.

Arcia hit a low, long line drive. On a warm day, he would have had an opposite-field home run. If Oswaldo Arcia were the Angels left fielder, not Mike Trout, he would have had a clean double. As it was, he flew out, but to have stayed on that pitch and hit it so cleanly was evidence of an advanced overall offensive skill set.

I didn’t see enough to get a read on his approach, but he saw only four pitches in three plate appearances, on a night when everyone else on the diamond was preternaturally patient. He has an aggressive hitter’s body language and swing type, but I don’t know enough to say anything with certitude. He drew 51 walks in 534 plate appearances during his breakout 2012, in the high minors.

We should probably talk about Arcia, the non-batter, too. Yikes. I was struck by his lack of apparent athleticism. I knew him to be a below-average runner, but he also lacked the body control, the coordination, the physical intelligence that had been hinted at in the reports I read. Now, it was a frigid night, it was very windy and he was dealing with different lighting and depth cues than he had ever seen before. Still, he played left field poorly, even beyond the error he committed when he dropped a fly ball later in the game. He looked lost on everything.

Again, that all might improve. His range will always be limited, but he looks like a very real bat for even an outfield corner, and if he has four .270/.340/.480 seasons, it really won’t matter if he defends the outfield like Jason Kubel or Greg Luzinski.

Joe Mauer, Now With Power (Again(?))

Watching Joe Mauer hit is a joy few other things in baseball can match. I spent most of my night keyed in on pitchers, because it happens to be where my head is right now in terms of watching for things and seeing the physical game, but with Mauer at bat, my eyes wandered.

I sort of thought I would find that Mauer is pulling the ball more this season, because he is certainly hitting it with more authority. With the caveat that the samples are very small this early and it might change radically, I was, for the moment, wrong.

Here is his 2012 spray chart:

Mauer 2012

And here’s 2013:

Mauer 2013

 

(h/t: baseballheatmaps.com)

Again, too soon to draw conclusions, but he’s certainly not suddenly yanking the ball.

Instead, what I think is happening is that Mauer is gaining confidence in his back leg again. His left knee was the one that gave him trouble at the end of 2010, before the infamous bilateral leg weakness that plagued him throughout 2011. That’s the one twice operated upon. It’s really always been the left knee for him.

In 2011 and even 2012, I noticed Mauer not trusting his left, back leg as he finished his swing. He was always stepping out from under himself, or rotating to shift his weight to his right foot as soon as possible. I imagine occasional soreness is routine for catchers, but maybe Mauer mistrusted his knee when he felt them because of the history of the joint.

At any rate, when you don’t trust your back leg, you will tend to get out on the front foot more often; swing with less torque; and generate less bat speed and upward plane. This is virtually inevitable. You need that back leg to create power.

Mauer has that back now. Even if he hasn’t altered his swing path or his opposite-field mindset, he has gotten more aggressive and has punished pitches much more. I recently read a piece about Jayson Werth’s increased aggressiveness this season. Werth usually draws a lot of walks and leads the league in pitches seen, but hasn’t early on. The Nationals, though, feel this is a good thing, because the reason is that Werth (who really went into take-and-defend mode after returning from a broken wrist last year) feels much better and no longer hesitates to swing when he gets his pitch. I think it’s the same way with Mauer.

Consider these numbers: Mauer swung at just 22.5 percent of all pitches outside the strike zone in 2011 and 2012. He swung at between 52 and 53 percent of pitches within the zone, and a shade under 36 percent of all pitches. He swung and missed only once every 25 pitches or so. In 2013, he is swinging at 27.9 percent of pitches outside the zone; 55 percent of those within it; and over 41 percent, overall. He swings and misses once every 12 pitches. I saw him strike out swinging once Monday.

Clearly, though, it’s because he feels strong and knows he has a chance to impact the game when he does swing, perhaps more than he has since he was the league’s MVP in 2009. He was using his hips to guide the baseball Monday night, getting them clear and pulling the ball hard in the first inning, keeping them on a pitch and driving it out to left field later. When he was struggling, and even last season, when he was good, his front shoulder was in charge of his swing. That’s fine for bat control, but you can’t drive the ball that way. Mauer has power again, and he’s eager to use it, now.

Managerial Machinations

Defensive Positioning

I noted that I watched defensive positioning intently during the game. Some weird things happened.

For one, during Arcia’s first plate appearance, the third baseman for the Angels (Luis Jimenez) played in on the grass, while second baseman Howie Kendrick played several steps out onto the outfield grass, as if her were part of a pull shift. It was a peculiar arrangement for a rookie without a track record, but to the Angels’ credit, Arcia did pull the ball on a line–it was just too far toward the right-field line for Kendrick to make any kind of play.

Peter Bourjos is a very good defensive outfielder, but is putting himself in bad position by adhering to an ancient vestige of machismo. The generation of good defensive center fielders whom Bourjos would have watched closely, Jim Edmonds, Andrum Jones, etc., prided themselves on playing very shallowly, allowing them to steal bloop singles, because they felt supremely confident in getting back to anything hit over their heads. Bourjos was caught doing this against Justin Morneau in the third inning, and Morneau hit a double over his head just to the left of dead center to drive home a run. Bourjos had also been playing Morneau straight-up, although Morneau usually lifts the ball toward left-center field, but that sin was more minor. Still, the ball was playable, and Bourjos was not in position to play it.

Speaking of shallow outfields, right before the Bourjos homer that led off the game, I noticed that the entire Twins outfield was playing him as though he were Tony Campana or Otis Nixon. Bourjos doesn’t often hit the ball hard, but when he does, it goes, and he gets most of his offensive value from extra-base hits. Either advance scouting or coaching instruction failed the Twins there, but it never burned them. After the home run, Borujos’s subsequent plate appearances went groundout, groundout, strikeout.

A middle infield comprised of Brendan Harris and Howie Kendrick is going to allow some cheap singles. You just hope they don’t kill you. Unfortunately, the little ones did kill the Angels on Monday, partially because they were out of position. Mastroianni got a single on a hundred-hopper in the third inning, one probably 20 feet wide of second base on the shortstop side, but Harris had been shading him toward the hole, and Harris has terrible range. Mastroianni came around to score. Later, with Brian Dozier on third and two outs, Kendrick shaded Mauer up the middle to help Harris out, and wasn’t able to get to a ground ball through the hole. Mauer’s hit was one only 30 percent of defenses turn into outs, but Mastroianni’s would be an out if you replayed it with more than half the league’s other shortstops out there.

Last one: Bourjos was up with Luis Jimenez on first base in the fifth inning, and everyone knew he was bunting (this is Scioscia, after all) (or maybe Gardenhire and the Twins stole the sign!). The Twins put on a fairly aggressive bunt play, with both corner men charging but Dozier (the second baseman) selling out completely to cover first and shortstop Pedro Florimon on the bag at second. Had Bourjos pulled back his bat and swung, he had the infield as his oyster, and had he gotten down a good bunt, the Twins might have walked right into a trap by trying to throw out Jimenez. As it was, he fouled off the try, and Scioscia changed tacks.

Tactical Things

Scioscia cost the Angels a few times. After the failed bunt, he had Jimenez attempt a steal, but Mauer easily pegged him. It stunted what looked a promising rally.

He also failed to get guys up carefully enough. On a cold night, one can understand his reticence to dry-hump a reliever, but when Joe Blanton ran out of gas, Michael Roth had just gotten up. Los Angeles was fortunate to escape that jam, but later, Roth gave up a run because Scioscia didn’t have any support ready behind him. Ditto Mark Lowe. Part of all of this is the cold factor, and part is that the Angels just don’t have a bunch of guys who can parade in to the rescue on rough nights. But Scioscia didn’t run that relief corps well Monday night.

Gardenhire earned his own demerits. He bunted in a fairly indefensible spot. Because his team pulled away as the game wore on, though, he got out of their way, and it was for the better.

Brief Player Notes

Pedro Florimon looked like a player Monday night. He was the only competent defensive infielder on the diamond, except Justin Morneau. He also laid down a gorgeous drag bunt to avail himself of the combined immobility of Blanton and Pujols. I don’t know how much to believe in that as a skill, but he did it well. The stats mean nothing this early, but they look good, and the strike-zone control he has shown is encouraging.

Justin Morneau saved at least two throwing errors and was generally more agile at his position than I remembered him. He also had some great at-bats.

Josh Hamilton’s arm saved the Angels a run in the fifth frame. Trevor Plouffe laced a ball toward the right-field corner, but Hamilton cut it off, and because he throws really well, the Twins’ third-base coach stopped Chris Parmelee at third. Hamilton had been properly shading Plouffe toward center, so it was quite impressive to get over so quickly and freeze the runner.

Mike Trout is going to see his eighth-inning at-bat in his nightmares. Down three, he was leading off the inning, and worked a 3-1 count. But a check-swing dribbler in front of the plate wasted his work. Mauer made a great play to get a fast runner on that one, although Trout got a slow start out of the box, not expecting to be so unlucky on his check swing.

The two teams combined to swing at the first pitch just 14 times in 73 plate appearances, a display of collective patience topped only by the Astros-Athletics tilt on Monday. Correia benefited more from the batters’ passivity, because as soon as the count goes past 0-0, the hitter  has to think a bit. Correia is trying to create that uncertainty, and avoid contact for as long as possible. Blanton struggled, getting ahead but finding himself unable to finish hitters. Deep counts don’t help him as much. The Twins hit .400/..438/.733 after falling behind 0-1 on called strikes Monday night.

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