8/25/2014 1:24 P.M. ET
Inbox: What's the key to Hughes' turnaround?
Beat reporter Rhett Bollinger answers Twins fans' questions
By Rhett Bollinger / MLB.com
MINNEAPOLIS -- It's the dog days of August, and the schedule doesn't get any easier for the Twins, who remain mired in last place in the American League Central.
The offense has carried Minnesota this month, as the club leads the Majors in runs scored in August by a wide margin. But the Twins still play plenty of teams in contention the rest of the way, including a series against the Royals, two series against the Tigers and Indians, as well as four-game sets against the Angels and Orioles.
The Twins need to finish 15-17 the rest of the way to avoid their fourth straight season with at least 90 losses. So it'll be interesting to see how they fare down the stretch, and with that in mind, here's this week's edition of the Inbox:
What's been the key to Phil Hughes' success? There's been a lot made about a change of scenery leaving the Yankees, but is there more to it than that?
-- Jacob G., Anoka, Minn.
Hughes has undoubtedly been the club's best pitcher this season and one of the best in baseball, according to Fangraphs.com's version of Wins Above Replacement. Hughes ranks fifth among all Major League pitchers, with a 4.9 WAR this season.
Hughes has posted the best walk rate in his career by far, walking just 0.8 batters per nine innings after walking 2.6 batters per nine last year. He's also posted his best strikeouts per nine as a starter, punching out 8.1 per nine innings. And home runs, which plagued Hughes at homer-friendly Yankee Stadium, haven't been an issue, either, as he's given up a career-low 0.7 homers per nine innings.
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The move to the more pitcher-friendly Target Field has helped, but it goes deeper than that. Hughes is also getting ground balls a career-high 36.8 percent of the time after inducing grounders just 30.8 percent of the time last year.
Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson deserves some credit for helping Hughes with his mechanics, and it also appears Hughes has found the right assortment of pitches to throw. Hughes scrapped his slider altogether and hasn't thrown a changeup since April.
Hughes has instead thrown his cutter 22.2 percent of the time to keep hitters off his fastball after not throwing it at all last season, and he has mixed in his curveball 14.5 percent of the time after throwing it 8.6 percent of the time in '13.
Add it all up and Hughes has looked like a bargain for Minnesota after he signed a three-year, $24 million deal in the offseason coming off a 5.19 ERA with New York.
Who could be called up in September once rosters expand?
-- Thomas L., St. Paul, Minn.
Twins general manager Terry Ryan is currently at Triple-A Rochester scouting players, and he said last week that he expects a handful to be recalled once the rosters expand on Sept. 1.
Expect at least two catchers to be called up, as Chris Herrmann and Josmil Pinto appear to be locks to be recalled. Outfielder Aaron Hicks has also played well in the Minors since his demotion in late June, and he is expected to be called up.
Minnesota will also bring up a few pitchers, and reliever Stephen Pryor, who was acquired from Seattle for Kendrys Morales, is expected to be among that group. Pryor has posted a 1.02 ERA in 17 2/3 innings with Rochester. Other pitchers on the 40-man roster, such as Kris Johnson and Logan Darnell, could also be recalled to pitch in long relief.
The wild card remains right-hander Alex Meyer, who is ranked as the No. 30 overall prospect by MLB.com. The Twins have been careful with him all season, limiting his pitch counts, as he's coming off a shoulder injury last season. But Meyer still could be recalled to get a taste of the big leagues as a reliever to limit his innings down the stretch.
What have been the early impressions of rookie Kennys Vargas?
-- Dan B., Eden Prairie, Minn.
Vargas has been impressive at the plate since being called up from Double-A New Britain on July 31, as he's played in 23 games and has 23 RBIs. The imposing 6-foot-5 slugger is hitting .337/.369/.537.
Vargas has shown off power with four homers and seven doubles, but he has also hit balls the other way with authority from both sides of the plate. He said his approach is to try to drive the ball to the middle of the field, and sometimes it leads to him driving the ball into the gaps the other way.
Defensively, Vargas is still a work in progress at first base, but with Joe Mauer entrenched at that position, he doesn't figure to be an everyday player there. Vargas, 24, seems more likely to be the club's designated hitter moving forward, as he can't play any other position but first base, and Ryan indicated the Twins don't plan to move Mauer off first.
It's been an impressive start to Vargas' career in a small sample size, but teams will start adjusting to him soon, and it'll be interesting to see how he fares the rest of the way.
Danny Santana is having a great year as a rookie, but he has been playing mostly center field instead of shortstop. What do the Twins see as his permanent position?
-- Tyler K., Minneapolis
Santana has been one of the club's best players this season as a rookie, hitting .324/.361/.488 with six homers and 34 RBIs in 72 games. But with a lack of depth in center field and the emergence of Eduardo Escobar at shortstop, Santana has made 47 starts in center and just 19 at shortstop.
But Byron Buxton is the club's center fielder of the future, so Santana isn't expected to stick there long term. The Twins still view him as a shortstop, so manager Ron Gardenhire has indicated he'll continue to mix him in at shortstop down the stretch to give him more chances there.
Buxton's timeline to the Majors has been pushed back due to his wrist injuries this season and his recent concussion suffered in an outfield collision on Aug. 13, but he's still expected to make his debut at some point next year. The hope is Buxton recovers from his concussion quick enough to play in the Arizona Fall League in October.
With Mike Pelfrey still under contract for next season, what do the Twins plan to do with him? Any chance he could be converted to a reliever?
-- Derek S., Rochester, Minn.
Pelfrey signed a two-year, $11 million deal before the season and posted a 7.99 ERA in five starts before undergoing season-ending right elbow surgery in June. Pelfrey is expected to be healthy and ready to go for Spring Training.
Given the success of Royals right-hander Wade Davis making the transition to the bullpen, Ryan was asked recently if he could see a similar move coming with Pelfrey. But Ryan said the Twins don't plan on moving Pelfrey to the bullpen.
Pelfrey will head into spring with a chance to compete for a spot in the rotation, and Minnesota will decide what to do with him from there. I think it makes sense to try him out as a reliever given his velocity and propensity to induce ground balls, but the Twins think it's too early to make that call, and Pelfrey has indicated he'd like to remain a starter.