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August 7, 2013

What You Need to Know

Meet Andrew Albers

by Daniel Rathman

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The Tuesday Takeaway
The Baseball Prospectus staff came together in this week’s Lineup Card to decry the game’s worst clichés. Here’s a cliché that did not make that list: You only get one major-league debut.

Scores of players have spoken those words after their first forays onto a big-league diamond. Stephen Strasburg said them. Mark Prior said them. And countless others have, too. But few players will cherish their first taste of The Show more than Andrew Albers, who toed the rubber for the Twins at Kauffman Stadium on Tuesday night.

Since 1916, as far back as the Baseball-Reference Play Index goes, only 44 pitchers have thrown a shutout in their major-league debuts. The most recent is Andy Van Hekken, who eight-hit the Indians on September 3, 2002. Albers did not become the 45th member of that club. Instead, he did something that only four debuting pitchers have done: work at least 8 1/3 innings without permitting a run, but leave the mound before the shutout is complete.

Kirk Rueter was the last to do it, on July 7, 1993, but he breezed through the minors after the Expos made him their 18th-round pick in 1991. Thirty years to the day of Albers’ debut, Danny Cox blanked the Phillies for 10 innings, only to give way to Bruce Sutter in the 11th and watch him surrender the lone run in the Cardinals’ defeat. But Cox, too, cruised up the organizational ladder and reached the majors about two years after finishing his collegiate career.

Albers took the road less traveled—and, as Jerry Seinfeld once said, “sometimes the road less traveled is less traveled for a reason.”

Seth Stohs, who covers the Twins as part of ESPN’s SweetSpot network, recounted the full story (originally published in 2012), when Albers’ promotion was announced. His post is well worth reading, but here is the gist:

  • He was drafted twice, first by the Brewers (12th round, 2004) out of high school, then by the Padres (10th round, 2008) out of the University of Kentucky.
  • He signed with the Padres in 2008, but suffered an elbow injury shortly thereafter; that injury eventually required Tommy John surgery, and the Padres released him in 2010.
  • Unable to find another minor-league hitch, Albers signed with the Can-Am League’s Quebec Capitales.
  • After a strong season there, Albers tried out for multiple big-league organizations, before enduring an arduous process to secure a job with the Twins. Off he went to High-A Fort Myers, at the age of 25.

Albers, with the non-prospect tag firmly attached due to his story and unspectacular stuff, performed well at every stop in the Twins’ ladder. From Fort Myers to Double-A New Britain to Triple-A Rochester, he threw strikes, kept the ball in the park, and used his command and pitchability to author a passable strikeout rate. In 22 starts for Rochester this year, Albers compiled a 2.86 ERA and a 116-to-32 K:BB in 132 1/3 innings.

When the Twins sent Scott Diamond down, he got the call. And he made the most of it.

Albers does not throw hard—he failed to touch 90 mph even on a radar gun that “tends to be hot”—and he lacks an electric secondary pitch. But he mixed his offerings well, and the Royals, who hit into 14 ground-ball outs, struggled throughout the night to square them up.

Eric Hosmer and Alcides Escobar each had two hits; their teammates went 0-for-23 against Albers and Casey Fien, who came on in the ninth to protect the shutout when the 27-year-old rookie, in the words of his manager, “was completely out of gas.” Albers walked only one batter and struck out only two. His relied heavily on his fielders, one of whom knows the road less traveled well.

As the Twins await a wave of prospects that in Jason Parks’ eyes represents the best collection in the league, Ron Gardenhire is trotting out a lineup of fill-ins around Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Albers’ teammates handed him a 3-0 cushion before he took the mound and padded it to 7-0 before he departed in the ninth. On a night when Mauer went 0-for-4, one of Albers’ fellow independent league alumni helped pick up the slack.

Brian Dozier and Morneau provided first-inning fireworks off James Shields, and in the top of the fourth, Chris Colabello joined the party. A product of Div. II Assumption College, Colabello spent seven years bouncing between two teams (Nashua and Worcester) in the Can-Am League before latching on with Double-A New Britain in 2012. On Tuesday, Colabello’s third big fly of the year—and of his big-league career—pushed the Twins’ lead to 5-0. Colabello later scored again, on a balk, as the Twins rounded out the night’s scoring with a two-run rally in the sixth.

Meanwhile, Albers tamed a Royals club that had hit .281 over its previous 13 games, permitting only five base runners to deal Kansas City its second defeat since July 22. He did not record the last two outs, but he nonetheless did something no Minnesota Twins pitcher had ever done:

And that is the story of how Andrew Albers put his name in the history books of a franchise he once had to beg for a job.

Tuesday’s Matchup in Review
Andrelton Simmons, who entered yesterday’s game 5-for-11 with three walks versus Gio Gonzalez, stepped in thrice against the Nationals lefty and went 0-for-2 with another base on balls. Hitting eighth in Fredi Gonzalez’s order, Simmons struck out in the third inning, the eighth of eight consecutive batters Gonzalez sent back to the dugout before allowing a double to opposing pitcher Julio Teheran.

The strikeout was Simmons’ first when facing Gonzalez, who slipped two curveballs past him for a two-strike advantage, climbed the ladder to change the shortstop’s eye level, and then coaxed a swing-and-miss with a chase pitch in the dirt.

Simmons’ walk came with one on and one away in the fourth inning, when he laid off a two-strike curveball similar to the one that got him to fish earlier in the game.

Gonzalez was unable to spot his changeup on the payoff pitch, handing Simmons the free pass to first. Simmons’ third meeting with Gonzalez, in the seventh inning, brought forth an example of a pitcher working backward across plate appearances, rather than within one. After feeding Simmons a steady diet of soft stuff early in the game, Gonzalez threw him six consecutive fastballs, and Simmons grounded the last one into a fielder’s choice to short.

The 23-year-old Simmons is now 5-for-13 versus Gonzalez, and since both are likely to play in the National League East for the foreseeable future, they won’t have to wait long to meet again.

Matchup of the Day
The Giants’ ninth-round selection in the 1998 draft, Cody Ransom has carved out a big-league career thanks to his pop against left-handed pitchers and his versatility in the infield. Now 37 years old, Ransom has donned eight different major-league uniforms. He played for the Phillies, the Cubs’ opponent this evening, back in 2010.

This season has been one of Ransom’s best in the majors—even though he is batting just .215 for the Cubs and .199 overall, counting an 0-for-11 stint with the Padres earlier in the spring. He has notched only 29 hits in 146 at-bats, but has made the most of those knocks: 18 of the 29 have gone for extra bases, and nine of them have cleared a fence. Chuck in 19 walks, and you’ve got a .277 TAv that mitigates Ransom’s inability to clear the Mendoza line. Erase his 9-for-55 showing against like-handed hurlers, and what’s left is a .220/.311/.527 triple-slash line versus southpaws. On the left side of the infield, that’s a useful player.

Ransom is 20-for-91 versus lefties this year, with seven of his nine doubles and seven of his nine homers. But Cole Hamels, his former teammate with the Phillies and Charlie Manuel’s probable starter tonight, is one lefty whom Ransom has never been able to crack. Granted, the sample is merely five plate appearances, but versus Hamels, Ransom has flied out, popped out, and picked up a strikeout hat trick on August 18, 2012.

The journeyman infielder has a rather well-defined, belt-high happy zone:

And that happy zone doubles as his power alley:

Venture into it, and you’re in trouble. Avoid it, and you’re safe.

But there’s more. That happy zone exists only on fastballs and, to a lesser extent, changeups. Ransom has not collected an extra-base hit on a left-hander’s breaking ball, curve or slider, high or low, inside or out, since the start of 2007.

And that is why Hamels ofted to soft-ball Ransom when they last matched wits nearly a year ago. He threw 18 pitches across three plate appearances, and 10 of them were changeups or curves. He earned the first two strikeouts on changeups—both looking, one on outside-corner paint, the other on a knee-high freeze pitch with a full count—and then worked backward to complete the hat trick with a swing-through on a fastball.

Hamels endured a rocky first half, but he improved from month to month, and was solid in June and July. Since the All-Star break, he has worked 20 innings over three starts without allowing a home run. Ransom has been in a 2-for-38 rut since the festivities at Citi Field, but he proved earlier this season that he can spoil a cruising lefty’s outing with one swing should he lay eyes on a mistake (7:05 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for on Wednesday

  • This afternoon, as the Athletics wrap up their quick two-game series in Cincinnati, Bartolo Colon will toe the rubber in a yard that might not be so friendly to his strike-throwing, homer-stingy ways. The right-hander has strung together 15 consecutive quality starts, a stretch that dates all the way back to May 14, during which he has been taken deep only four times. Colon last faced the Reds (and last visited Great American Ball Park) on June 14, 2007, when he was a member of the Angels, and when Jerry Narron’s starting lineup still featured the likes of Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, Edwin Encarnacion, and Josh Hamilton, not Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, and Shin-Soo Choo, who now play for Dusty Baker. One thing will be the same: his opposing pitcher, more than six years removed from his previous meeting with the Reds, will once again be Homer Bailey (12:35 p.m. ET).

  • Like most Twins pitchers, Samuel Deduno does not strike out many batters, but the 30-year-old right-hander has nonetheless established himself as a reliable starter over the past six weeks. In his last seven starts, dating back to June 27, Deduno has compiled a 2.74 ERA by inducing ground balls by the boatload to surmount a mediocre 26-to-20 K:BB ratio in 46 innings. Deduno’s 61.5 percent ground-ball rate is the highest such clip among all pitchers who have worked at least 50 innings, and he has not allowed a home run since July 8. Next up: a date with the Royals at Kauffman Stadium, where he tossed six scoreless frames on June 4.

  • Deduno’s opponent tonight will be Danny Duffy, who is ready to return to the majors about 13 months after undergoing Tommy John surgery. The 24-year-old Duffy made 14 rehab appearances (12 starts) split between Double-A Northwest Arkansas and Triple-A Omaha, and he amassed a 4.14 ERA while striking out 77 batters in 63 innings. He fanned 28 in 27 2/3 big-league innings last spring before succumbing to the elbow injury that ended his season (8:10 p.m. ET).

  • Kole Calhoun’s second tour of big-league duty has gone much better than the first. The Arizona State product was promoted to take Scott Downs’ spot on the big-league roster in late July, and he has picked up right where he left off in Triple-A Salt Lake. The 25-year-old tore up the Pacific Coast League to the tune of a .354/.431/.617 triple-slash line before getting the call. Since then, he has batted .333/.389/.606, and he slugged his third home run leading off against Yu Darvish last night.

    Calhoun appeared on our pre-season Angels’ top prospect list as a factor on the farm, and he certainly has been a factor through 11 games. So much so that, after projecting as a quality reserve outfielder coming into the year, he is now eliciting much loftier expectations from scouts. Calhoun will try to help the Halos avoid a sweep at the hands of the Rangers when he digs in against Alexi Ogando tonight (10:05 p.m. ET).

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

Related Content:  Minnesota Twins,  Andrew Albers

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