Kirby Puckett

Kirby Puckett

Sunday, April 30, 2017

How Sano Turned the Corner

     This season has been better than the average year for the Twins. It hasn't been amazing, they probably won't go to the playoffs, but it's been better. Ervin Santana is pitching like he's trying to become the best Johan Santana in Twins history, Max Kepler is barreling up balls left and right, Jorge Polanco has been steady, and since this is an optimistic column let's just not bring up Byron Buxton. But perhaps the most encouraging sign this season has been the clear improvement of Miguel Sano. In addition to rocking some tremendous new braids, the young corner infielder has come out of the gate hot, hitting .297/.435/.649 with six homers. After an excellent rookie season, Sano took a minor step back in 2016 with his batting average dropping 33 points. Let's take a look at what he's doing differently this year.
     The most obvious difference is that Sano's drawing more walks this year. Last season, in 495 plate appearances, he got 54 free passes. This year, he already has 18 in just 92 plate appearances. To put that into percentages, he's nearly doubling his walk rate, jumping from 10.9 percent to 19.6 percent.  Despite those walks, he's being more aggressive within the strike zone. When he's gotten a pitch in the strike zone, he's swung at it 71.3 percent of the time. These better decisions have lead to him barreling up more balls than any other time in his career. According to Fangraphs, he's hit the ball hard 52 percent of the time, compared to his 40 percent mark from last year. Similarly, his percentage of balls that are softly hit have dropped, from 10 to four percent. His strikeout rate is still too high, at 32 percent, but that's still a slight decline from the last two years.
     Now that we're done with the boring analytical stuff, let's discuss the important part: watching him. He hasn't been chasing after the low breaking balls that tend to plague young hitters (see: Oswaldo Arcia). He also appears to be more comfortable taking the ball the other way, putting pitches on the outside corner into the right field gap, one of which went for a triple earlier this year.
     As far as defense goes, it will never be Sano's strength. But he's made some clear improvements. After settling back into third base after the ill-fated right field experiment, he hasn't been terrible. So far he's made several great bare-handed plays like this. Statistically, his fielding percentage is up to .958 from .896 from last year, even if the range isn't quite there. Just getting up to adequate in the field would be a big bonus.
     Being a Twins fan takes an incredible amount of patience. Since 2010 we've had to do a lot of waiting. For Buxton, for Sano, for Berrios, for a more modern front office. And while we're still waiting for a lot, Sano becoming a star might be one thing we can stop waiting for.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

MLB Preview 2017! NL Edition

My NL preview is a litttle late. Sue me. Here are the predictions.
1. Washington Nationals
I broke down the Nationals last week. You can see most of my thoughts on them here.
2. New York Mets
This is a solid overall team, with a potentially elite rotation if everyone stays healthy. That said, I'm just not sure they have enough to take down the Nationals. They'll need a MVP-caliber season from Cespedes, some production from Curtis Granderson and Jose Reyes in addition to everyone staying healthy.
3. Atlanta Braves
If I had to choose a team to surprise people, I'd go with the Braves. Dansby Swanson has the potential to be right up there with Corey Seager and Francisco Lindor for top young shortstops in baseball. From there, Freddie Freeman quietly had a monster season last year, hitting .304/.400/.569 with 34 homers and Ender Inciarte is one of the most underrated players in the league, hitting .281 last year and saving 15 runs with his glove. The biggest question is pitching. Beyond Julio Teheran, they're going to need R.A. Dickey to turn back the clock and Bartolo Colon to be consistent at age 43.
4. Miami Marlins
This isn't a bad lineup, especially with the 3-4-5 combination of Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna. That said, the staff was already thin before the death of Jose Fernandez, and when Edinson Volquez and Wei-Yin Chen are your top starters you're going to have problems.
5. Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies are like the Twins of the NL: They have a few exciting players that'll be fun to watch this year, that said, very few of them are pitchers and contention is out of the question until they shore up the rotation. Odubel Herrera and Maikel Franco will be enjoyable, but if they're not up feel free to change the channel.
1. Chicago Cubs
I don't even have anything to say about the Cubs. They're bringing back everyone from last years team except Dexter Fowler, who they're replacing with a full year of Kyle Schwarber. If everyone stays healthy I don't see any scenario where they don't make the World Series again.
2. St. Louis Cardinals
The Redbirds savvily added Dexter Fowler, both bringing in the leadoff hitter they need while also taking away a key contributor from their biggest rival. Overall, this roster isn't quite as strong as some recent Cardinal teams, particularly beyond Carlos Martinez in the rotation but this is the St. Louis Cardinals were talking about. They find a way to win infuriatingly often and with unknown players.
3. Pittsburgh Pirates
If I trusted Josh Bell a tiny bit more I would have taken the Pirates over the Cardinals. First base is a gaping hole in Pittsburgh and I'm just not sure he'll be able to put together an entire productive season at the plate. Andrew McCutchen wasn't quite as bad as it seemed last season, but I think he is better this year regardless; he had a career low BABIP last season.
4. Cincinnati Reds
The Reds ahve the potential to be good in a year or two. Joey Votto continues to be one of the best hitters in the league, and Devin Mesoraco is a solid backstop. Billy Hamilton made strides last year, to the point that he's no longer a complete liability with the bat. As with many teams, the problem is in pitching. Robert Stephenson and Brandon Finnegan both have the potential to be good, but to expect that this year is too much, especially in this division.
5. Milwaukee Brewers
This most important of the Brewers' season will be what that they can get for Ryan Braun at the trade deadline. Needless to say, that isn't a good thing. Other important parts of the Brewers season, in descending order: Orlando Arcia's development, Jonathan Villar continuing to hit, Bernie Brewer's mustache, and their fans not breaking too many things before the Packer season starts.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers
I currently have an irrational hatred for the Dodgers for refusing to budge and give up any more than Jose De Leon in a potential Dozier trade this offseason. Dozier would have joined a potent lineup with Justin Turner and Corey Seager. Instead, Los Angeles cashed that De Leon trade chip in on Logan Forsythe, who isn't as good as Dozier but hit .268 with a .333 on base percentage and adequate defense in Tampa Bay.
2. San Francisco Giants
Their even year magic ended last season, but this is still a pretty good team. They added Mark Melancon to remedy their biggest problem: blowing leads. There's no reason to think he's meltdown on opening day is an indicator for the rest of the season. Beyond him. this is a pretty steady and balanced roster that should contend for a playoff spot.
3. Colorado Rockies
The lineup is good. Obviously. This is Denver. D.J. LeMahieu is one of the most underrated second basemen in the league, hitting .348 last year and posting a miniscule 12.4% strikeout rate, very valuable given today's strikeout crazy time. The biggest question mark is the pitching. Both Tyler Anderson and Jon Gray posted better fielding-independent numbers than their ERAs would suggest but the key here will be rookies Jeff Hoffman and Kyle Freeland. Hoffman, the centerpiece of the Troy Tulowitzki trade, is starting the year in the minors but figures to be up eventually. Freeland is a former first rounder who was solid in the minors. If they play to their potential Colorado could be dangerous.
4. Arizona Diamondbacks
I actually kind of like this roster. Paul Goldschmidt keeps quietly putting up huge numbers and being one of the best overall players in the league. Speaking of underrated, A.J. Pollock's back after being injured for most of last season. Still, Zack Greinke doesn't seem to be coming back anytime soon, and beyond Goldschmidt and Pollock, the lineup is pretty thin.
5. San Diego Padres
The Friars have a starting lineup that will be good in 2019 and a pitching rotation that would have been good in 2013. They also have someone named Kevin Quackenbush. So that's fun.
MVP: Starling Marte
I'm going with a bit of a surprise for MVP, but Marte has been one of the best outfielders in baseball for the last few years. Last season he hit .311/.362/.456, stole 47 bases and was arguably the best defensive outfielder in the NL. I predict he takes another step forward in 2017, bringing a little more power like he did in 2015 when he hit 19 homers and takes home the award in a pretty wide open NL field.
Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw
I'm taking Kershaw for the same reason I chose Mike Trout to win MVP in the AL: He is so indisputably better than everyone else I'm taking him every year until someone proves to be better than him.
Rookie of the Year: Dansby Swanson
I was really surprised when I saw Swanson didn't lose his eligibility last year. As one of the few rookies with an impressive big league resume already, he's the obvious choice.
Wild card game: Giants over Cardinals
NLDS: Cubs over Cardinals, Dodgers over Nationals
NLCS: Cubs over Dodgers
World Series: Indians over Cubs

Sunday, April 2, 2017

MLB Preview 2017! AL Edition

1. Boston Red Sox
How does the phrase "David Price third starter" sound? Even if he's not as good as he used to be this team is loaded. Mookie Betts will be an MVP candidate again, and an improved pitching staff with Chris Sale and a full season of Andrew Benintendi should compensate for losing David Ortiz. Also: I'm calling it right now. I think we see the good version of Pablo Sandoval this year.
2. Toronto Blue Jays*
The East gets pretty tough here. The Sox are clearly the class of the division, but then the Blue Jays, Yankees, and Orioles are all tightly bunched together looking for second place. Toronto's going to miss Edwin Encarnacion, but Buatista and Donaldson lead a lineup that should score enough runs for a capable pitching staff. They won't be as good as last year, but that's okay.
3. New York Yankees
Here's a team that's really hard to project. The one thing we know for sure is that the bullpen is going to be dominant. What we don't know is whether Gary Sanchez will be able to build on his unbelievable rookie year or how he or Greg Bird will fare in a full big league season. There's a lot to like here, but there are just too many questions.
4. Baltimore Orioles
Manny Machado is a stud, but ultimately Baltimore is going to need pitching if they want to contend. Best case scenario: Machado wins MVP, Adam Jones is an All-Star, and Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo hit enough homers to compensate for a somewhat weak starting rotation. Worst case scenario: Davis and Trumbo combine for approximately 700 strikeouts, the Orioles go into a freefall without a legitimate number one starter and Machado flees for New York in the offseason.
5. Tampa Bay Rays
With the exception of Kevin Kiermaier, everyone on this team peaked at least two years ago: Matt Duffy, Evan Longoria, Chris Archer. The East is a strong division and there just isn't room for the Rays to contend.
1. Cleveland Indians
The defending AL champs have a chance to be even better this year. They signed Edwin Encarnacion to a reasonable three year 60 million dollar deal and they'll get Michael Brantley and his five tools back at some point. Throwing them onto a team that didn't lose anyone from last season? This could be fun.
2. Kansas City Royals
I really wanted to pick the Royals to win the Central but couldn't quite justify it with the Indians making improvements. Regardless, the Royals had my favorite trade of the offseason, flipping one year of a closer (Wade Davis) to the Cubs for a 25 year old power hitting outfielder in Jorge Soler. If Soler plays to his potential, this could be a very dangerous lineup along with Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas.
3. Detroit Tigers
A year ago, it looked like the Tigers run of dominance was coming to an end. Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera were a combined 69 years old, Justin Verlander had clearly peaked several years earlier and it was only a matter of time before they had to rebuild. A year later, Martinez and Cabrera haven't shown any signs of slowing down, Verlander had a resurgence, getting healthier, increasing his velocity and becoming a Cy Young contender again. Even better, young Nick Castellanos (.285/.331/.496) and Michael Fulmer (3.06 ERA) emerged to provide some much needed youth in Detroit. I may have them in third, but this is a tough division and I wouldn't sleep on them.
4. Minnesota Twins
This entire site is devoted to the Twins, so I won't waste my thoughts here. There's a longer column coming soon.
5. Chicago White Sox
Every GM should study the White Sox offseason as a lesson on how to rebuild. In the span of two days, they flipped a top pitcher that they only had one year of control left on and a very good but not great outfielder into arguably the top pitching and hitting prospects in the game, along with a pitcher who can hit triple digits. Nothing's going to happen this year, but stay tuned on the Sox.
1. Texas Rangers
This is a pretty complete overall team. Cole Hamels should contend for a Cy Young. That along with a lineup with no holes in it should be enough to win a division that's solid but unspectacular.
2. Houston Astros*
Very similar to the Rangers, there's a deep and talented lineup in Houston, particularly with a terrifying top three in George Springer, Jose Altuve, and Carlos Correa. The biggest question here is hitting. Dallas Keuchel probably isn't going to contend for a Cy Young again but Lance McCullers is only going to keep getting better. Ultimately this is a very good team, but to ascend a level they're going to need to add some pitching.
3. Seattle Mariners
The Mariners have emerged as the trendy pick to make the playoffs this season but it's going to be tough with two objectively better rosters in their division. The Cano-Seager-Cruz combination should put up some runs, but there isn't enough depth lower in the order and Felix Hernandez won't be able to do it himself as far as the pitching staff goes.
4. Los Angeles Angels
This is a sneaky-good team. Beyond Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, they have some solid OBP guys with Yunel Escobar and Kole Calhoun and Cameron Maybin quietly had a very solid season last year, hitting .315/.383/.418 in 391 plate appearances. However, there just isn't enough pitching for a playoff run. As a Twins fan, I say this pretty confidently: Don't trust Ricky Nolasco as your number two starter. You will be disappointed.
5. Oakland Athletics
This is a terrible team playing in a terrible ballpark. Don't watch the A's unless you're really missing
Trevor Plouffe.
MVP: Mike Trout
Yeah, it's a safe pick, but he's the best player in the league and there isn't even a close second. I'm taking Trout until someone proves to be better.
Cy Young: Corey Kluber
Michael Brantley returning should only provide more defense behind him, Chris Sale wasn't quite up to his otherworldly standards last season, I'll take someone proven.
Rookie of the Year: Andrew Benintendi
It's always tough to predict ROY because it could easily be someone who doesn't make an opening day roster. I'll go with Benintendi just because it's a sure thing that he'll get at bats barring an injury.
Wild card: Blue Jays over Astros
ALDS: Indians over Blue Jays, Red Sox over Rangers
ALCS: Indians over Red Sox
NL coming tomorrow. Stay tuned.