Twins

8/9: Team Photo Day, Polanco at Short Again and Santiago's First Home Start as a Twin

It’s overcast and very, very warm at Target Field as the Minnesota Twins prepare for game two of a four-game set against the Houston Astros. It projects to be about 85 degrees at first pitch with a 65 percent humidity according to Weather.com.

Image courtesy of Weather.com.
Image courtesy of Weather.com.

The Twins won game one 3-1 on Monday night on the strength of six solid innings from right-hander Tyler Duffey, and a misplay in center field by former Twin Carlos Gomez on a ball that wound up being a triple for Twins catcher Juan Centeno. The win evened the season series for the Twins against the Astros at two games apiece, and pushed the Twins’ record in the last 10 games to 7-3 and 13-7 over their last 20.

It was Twins team picture day on Tuesday afternoon, which resulted in a few faces being around Target Field that hadn’t been seen in recent weeks. Phil Hughes said he’s been feeling good lately as he works back from Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, and Glen Perkins made an appearance as well.

Here’s how both teams line up today:

The Twins are getting a second look at Mike Fiers this season. Fiers faced the Twins at Minute Maid Park back on May 4 in a game started by Hughes. The Twins lost 16-4, and the list of players who suited up for Minnesota reads like an entirely different roster.

Here’s the starting lineup Fiers faced that day:

Fiers faced a drastically different lineup back in early May than he will tonight against the Twins.
Fiers faced a drastically different lineup back in early May than he will tonight against the Twins.

And here’s who pitched for the Twins that day:

There are also a couple names we haven't heard in a while on the pitching side of the May 4 matchup against Fiers.
There are also a couple names we haven’t heard in a while on the pitching side of the May 4 matchup against Fiers.

So needless to say, there isn’t a ton that can be gleaned from the fact that Fiers lasted just 4.2 innings that day, allowing four earned runs — including a home run to Brian Dozier. The 31-year-old Fiers is a fastball (four-seam), changeup, curve guy who’ll also mix in a cutter from time to time. He rarely breaks 90 mph with his fastball — very similarly to Houston’s next two starters Dallas Keuchel and Doug Fister — but mixes it up with a diverse repertoire.

Fiers has lost some of the strikeouts from earlier in his career (6.5 K/9 this year, 8.5 career) but has picked up some more help on the ground as his 41.1 percent groundball rate is a career high. Fiers’ fastball has been absolutely obliterated this season (.359/.410/.659), but he is very successful when he gets into spots where he can use his changeup (15 percent whiff rate, .632 OPS against). In fact, outside of the ugly numbers against his fastball, Fiers has allowed an OPS of .670 or worse on the rest of his pitches. It might behoove the Twins to jump on the first pitch against Fiers.

The Twins will also incidentally get a better look at their own guy, as Hector Santiago is making his second start with the club. The first one — in Cleveland — did not go particularly well, as he went just five innings while allowing four earned runs, including a pair of home runs. Santiago battled all day long, but ultimately the crushing blow was a mammoth three-run home run by Carlos Santana to left field.

Home runs have been an issue in the past for Santiago — he allowed an AL-high 29 last year — and as of this writing leads the league in walks with 59. Those are the two strikes against a guy who has defied much reason to have a career ERA of 3.70. In essence, he’s the anti-Ricky Nolasco in that he consistently posts ugly FIP numbers but pitches out of danger. On the other hand, Nolasco is a FIP/sabermetric darling who consistently underperforms those marks.

Santiago has a career ERA of 3.70 but a FIP of 4.65; Nolasco’s marks are 4.59 and 3.86, respectively. He’s also markedly younger (29 in December) than Nolasco (34 in December), though both are only under team control through next year. All told, it seems like a reasonable gamble for the Twins.

Santiago has been able to outperform those marks for a number of reasons. For one, he is routinely among the league leaders in popup rate. As for the home run issues, that’s part of the downfall of being a fly ball guy. His career groundball rate is just 34.1 percent, which is about 10 percent under the league average the past few years. In some ways that’s the risk with a fly ball guy, but he’s also got a pretty good compliment of outfielders to go with a solid home park in Target Field for that kind of thing.  

It’s worth noting that Santiago has just five swinging strikes in each of his last four starts. Swinging strikes are usually a pretty good underlying statistic for how dominant a pitcher is, or at least how good his “stuff” has been. Ten of Santiago’s 23 starts have resulted in double-digit swinging strikes. Among the 90 qualified MLB starters this season, Santiago’s 9.0 percent swinging strike rate ties him for 56th with a handful of pitchers — Chris Tillman, Jeff Samardzija, James Shields and Matt Wisler.

Incidentally, that’s 0.1 percent better than Ervin Santana.

Notes & Quotes

  • Monday’s game was played in two hours, 18 minutes — the fastest Twins game of the season.
  • The Twins are 20 games under .500 for the season (46-66), but are 15-20-3 in series’ so far this year.
  • Based on runs scored and allowed, the Twins have a pythagorean record of 50-62.
  • The AL West is the only division the Twins are over .500 against (16-10).
  • Of the Twins’ 46 wins, 29 are come-from-behind victories.
  • No team in baseball has a higher batting average in August than the Twins (.322). The Twins are also first in slugging percentage (.576), and second in home runs (14) and on-base percentage (.385).
  • Twins manager Paul Molitor on his expectations for Santiago: “I think we’re all aware that he has a tendency to get his pitch count up there, and command is usually the reason for that. His first start was kind of like that for sure. Other than a couple of pitches that were big damage, he hung in there fairly well. I try to think about the transition of being traded — taking care of your family first, then all the logistics of getting to Cleveland, getting acclimated with myself and the staff and a new catching tandem — it’s a lot. I would think it’s a little more settled for him the second time around, but you still got to go out there and pitch. But we like him. We like his mix, we like his makeup.”
  • Molitor on if being a veteran makes Santiago’s transition to a new team more easy or more difficult: “I think you have to look at the individual to some degree, but my impression would be that a guy who has been around and has had some tenure understands how that works and maybe would adapt a little bit more quickly.”
  • Molitor on Jose Altuve as an opponent: “He’s not very fun to manage against, I’ll tell you that. I’ve never seen him take a bad at-bat. He’s put together a couple remarkable seasons here. I’m not sure where they rank in some of the categories that he’s been compiling, but this year he’s elevated himself as an MVP candidate. Power is in the mix. Average is through the roof. Leading the league in hits. He’s a run machine, and even driving in runs. He’s just one of those guys that really understands his own game. He knows how to look for pitches. He knows how to protect with two strikes and use the whole field, and beat the shift. I think he sees space on the field and takes his approach accordingly depending on what the situation calls for. He runs the bases intelligently and aggressively and creates havoc. He’s a big piece of what they’re doing over there. I can’t say I’m glad to see him back in the lineup, but you want to play against the best, and he’s one of them.”
  • Molitor on same infield from the night before: “I didn’t want to change it too much. We’re going to continue to try to use the games that we have remaining to learn as much as we can and still try to compete and win. Jorge has been playing well; he’s probably had an upper-end week in terms of at-bats and how he’s been playing as I’ve bounced him around defensively. Fiers isn’t too dissimilar from (Collin) McHugh last night; not overpowering, but is going to mix in a cutter and a little bit of a split-changeup. I just like how he’s playing, and I think it’s wise to keep him in there and hopefully he keeps it rolling.”
  • Molitor on Polanco at short in the big leagues after not doing so in the minors this year: “I think it’s somewhat impressive, but you have to remember how many games he’s played (in his career) at shortstop. He takes grounders every day and probably works out there frequently. It’s different here in terms of speed, both in terms of how the ball is hit and where you play and who is running the bases and all those types of things. I think that’s one of the things that we’re trying to gauge where he’s at in terms of how he can slow the game down on the defensive side. He does that very well offensively. We’re trying to see the same on the other side.”
  • Molitor on Polanco making plays deep in the hole between short and third: “You talk about finishing plays….and that means all plays. One of the harder plays for a shortstop is to go over there and try find a way to plant or make an off-balance throw and unload the ball accurately with some velocity. I think he’s got it in him. I’ll tell you…his arm strength is better now than it was a couple years ago. When I saw him the most, besides spring training, was probably Cedar Rapids in 2013, maybe? I saw him play some games down there. Last night we saw some of those throws he made, and while they weren’t particularly long, they needed some strength, and he was able to finish. I kind of look forward to when the ball goes in his direction to see how he’s going to react and see what type of play he’s going to make.”
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