Thursday, April 06, 2017

Mauer and Buxton

The Twins three and four hitters, Byron Buxton and Joe Mauer, both struggled offensively in the first three games. Its a small sample size and I suspect most people aren't over-worried about Mauer. That could be a mistake, but Mauer didn't strike out in half his plate appearances as Buxton did. Buxton's lone hit came from beating out an infield grounder. This is not really what you want from a number three hitter.

The other difference is Mauer actually has a long track record of hitting major league pitching. Buxton doesn't. In fact he has never been successful at that task for more than a week at a time. The sports writers keep talking about his September performance last year. He actually had one hot week when he was first recalled from Rochester. After that his performance was pretty much the same as it was the rest of the year. On September 7th he had raised his season batting average to .225 and that is how he finished the year. He did manage to increase his OBP with a late surge of walks.

That was very similar to his performance when he was recalled the first time last year. He had a hot week and then went stone cold until they sent him back to Rochester. Its way too early to start thinking that will happen again, but his cold start certainly is not reassuring.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Jim Pohlad's Impatience

Jim Pohlad wants more wins now. And that explains a lot about the Twins organizational failures of the last few years. The Twins who used to be patient, have turned impatient. Instead of building a team they are trying to find a quick fix.

Jorge Palanco is not a shortstop any more than Miguel Sano was a right fielder. In normal times, the Twins would have let these players develop at their natural position. Danny Santana isn't a major league center fielder, but he could well have been a major league shortstop given some more time at the position in the minor leagues.

In the past, long term development would have been  a priority. But since 2008 winning  next season has been the Twins priority. The result is that players have been consistently rushed to the big leagues, playing at whatever opening might be available for them. And its not just the players listed above, you can easily make the case that Trevor May's upside was a reliable Twin starter. But they needed him in the bullpen. Likewise Alex Meyer, who may well turn into a star starter. Byron Buxton can certainly play center field, but he still is not making enough contact to be the offensive force people hoped for. Sano may also turn out to be an all or nothing slugger as the Twins seek whatever immediate benefit they can get out of these two potential stars at the cost of their developing the upside projected for them.

In short the problem for the Twins starts at the top. Its not the manger, general manager or baseball people that are the problem. Its the owner's impatient demand for "more wins", now.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Myths of the Offseason

Every off-season the media and bloggers create some urban legends that aren't really supported on closer look, but they get repeated over and over again until people start to believe them. It sort of works like political campaigns, interesting trumps truthful. Pun intended.

For the the Twins this off-season its the idea that Byron Buxton showed major improvement with his September performance. The reality is a bit different. He had a great first week - just as he did the first week in June when he returned from the minors. Unfortunately, like June, he couldn't sustain anything like that. He raised his batting average to his season average .225 with a 1 for 4 performance on  September 9th. He then hit .225 over the next 21 games to end the season at .225. It was an improvement over his earlier dismal performance, but I am not sure hitting .225 is going to be enough to keep him in center field no matter how many balls he runs down.

This is similar to last off-season when we kept hearing how good the Twins were at the end of the 2015 season, when again the reality was different. They had a great May.  It was their only real winning month of the season if you throw the October games in to September.  They were 10 games over .500 entering June.. But they were a sub-500 ball club from that point on. They were only 5 games over .500 by the end of June, 4 games by the end of July and then played .500 ball the last two months to stay at that level.

That was encouraging, given their struggles in recent seasons. But the second myth was that the Twins had somehow improved after the 2015 season. In truth they had lost their right fielders, Torii Hunter and their center fielder, Aaron Hicks. They also lost Mike Pelfrey, who was second on the team in getting outs, and Blaine Boyer who lead the relievers in innings pitched. In addition Brian Duensing was gone. Their additions were a potential backup catcher, some potential relief help and a potential DH. In short, far from building on the previous season, They were looking for an awful lot of people to have the best year of their careers just to hold their own at .500. That it didn't happen shouldn't really have caught anyone by surprise, but it did.

So here are this off-season's myths:

1. Byron Buxton's September showed he is ready.

2. Moving Miguel Sano back to third base will solve his hitting problems. Sano strikes out too much and its likely he will strike out more, not less, as pitchers see more of him.

3. Paul Molitor showed he was a great manager in 2015 and 2016 wasn't his fault. Molitor was a professional hitter and DH most of his career and it shows in his decisions. He is going to need several more years of managing before he is ready to lead the Twins to a championship, if he ever is ready.

4.   The new baseball people are smart young forward thinking people who will fix a backward, out of date, organization. In truth, like Molitor, they are going to have a learning curve. So far they have demonstrated they are smart enough not to make snap judgments. We will have to wait until later in the season and the next off-season to really judge how good they are. But if they are successful it will be because the Twins organization was already pretty good.

5. The Twins need to add pitching. In fact, the Twins need to see what they have before they start adding additional arms for the long haul. They will no doubt add some veteran options for the bullpen. But beyond that Santana, Gibson, Hughes, Sanchez, May, Berrios, Perkins et al need to be given a chance to see what they can do. Another Ricky Nolasco isn't the answer.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Arcia, Vargas, Santana, Rosario, Kepler and Polanco

Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco are the most recent examples of premature hype of young players based  on some success in a limited number of at bats at the major league level. Last season started with Vargas and Santana inked into the lineup, this season it was Sano and Rosario. Before that it was Oswaldo Arcia. In all of these cases, stories seemed to anticipate improvement the second year while the players couldn't even carry over into the following year their initial success.

The reality is that players are often called up because they are hot at AAA and that sometimes carries over to the big leagues. Then the scouts do their work, major league pitchers are able to use the holes in their game and they crash back to earth.  That is why Tom Kelly used to suggest you didn't really know what you had until 1000 at bats. Kepler looks like he is a winner and Polanco has been solid in a series of appearances. But, just as patience is often required for young players to establish themselves, even more patience is required before forming a firm opinion about players who have initial success.

There is a larger problem that the new focus on statistics has created. That is that during the season players, and teams,  numbers are heavily weighted to early performance. Last year the Twins were a sub-500 team for the last four months of the season, but their hot May masked that reality. The same thing happens with individual players. They start out cold and it looks like they are having a terrible year. Or, especially with young players, they have a hot start and it masks their poor to mediocre performance for a long time.

Right now Kepler, Rosario and Polanco are hot. Rosario's resurgence after returning from Rochester is particularly encouraging. But we need to have some patience before we start talking about roster positions for the future. Just as we need to be patient with talented players who struggle initially. For the last month the Twins have looked like they will be contenders next year. But the reality of that depends on those young players continuing to show they are ready for the big leagues. Chances are some will and some won't.

Monday, August 08, 2016

There is nothing wrong with Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton was sent down to AAA this week to make room for Trevor Plouffe. Buxton has repeatedly demonstrated his bat it not ready for the big leagues. In fact, he never really established that his bat was ready for AAA pitching. The Twins rushed Buxton to the big leagues because his defense played there and they had traded away Aaron Hicks who was the only other real center fielder they had.

The idea was his bat would develop in short order. It hasn't. That isn't much of a surprise for a guy who is just 22 years old. To put that in perspective, Torii Hunter played a handful of games in the big leagues at 22 getting less than 20 plate appearances. The next year he was part of the Twins youth movement and spent the entire season in the big leagues as the Twins center fielder. The next year he struggled mightily to start the season and was sent back to AAA. He tore up the league at AAA and was recalled for the rest of the season. The next year his offensive roll continued and he went on to become a Twin legend.

The reality of the Twins is that they have a lot of very young players who will likely need more seasoning at AAA. That includes guys like Sano, Kepler, Palanco and Berrios in addition to Buxton. That does not mean they aren't any good. It simply means that it takes time to adjust to the big leagues for even the most talented players. We remember the guys who have instant success and never look back. But the more typical path is that instant success is followed by failure and the need to adjust. Some guys do that while still producing just enough to hold a roster spot at the big league level, most don't.

What we should look for is the extent to which Buxton takes advantage of the next couple weeks to work on his bunting and base stealing. He should be focusing on those things that he can use at the big league level to take advantage of his outstanding tools. If he doesn't do that, then the real message is that he really isn't mature enough yet to make the jump. That doesn't mean he won't get there eventually or that he won't be a superstar when he does.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Too Late to Send Sano to Rochester

As I posted earlier, I think Miguel Sano should have been at Rochester this year learning to play third base and cutting down on his strikeouts. But it is unlikely he can learn that in the three weeks remaining in this year's minor league season. Wasting a full option year for those three weeks this season may well come back to bite the Twins by limiting their options if Sano continues to struggle in the future. They are better off letting Sano sit on the bench and get occasional use at the major league season. Then let him know that he is slated to start next season at Rochester unless he forces himself onto the roster in spring training. He's still a future star, but he isn't really ready to play at the big league level.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

New Stadium Caused Twins Failure

Pat Reusse at the STRIB suggests Target stadium lead to the firing of Terry Ryan. He suggests that the expenses associated with the new stadium has fundamentally changed the Twins business model. That the patience the Pohlad's had with rebuilding at the Metrodome no longer was possible with the need to drive ticket sales with immediate success on the field.

The reality is that business model is almost guaranteed to fail. Baseball is a zero sum game, for every winner there has to be a loser. So a business model that depends on consistent winning means being above average on the field all the time.Nine teams go to the playoffs each year, 21  don't.

The teams that are successful with that business model, like the Red Sox and Yankees,  have revenue streams so large that they can  sign players, their own and free agents, at the peak of their careers and continue to pay them as fading veterans. What would the Twins record have been over the last few years if they had signed Nathan, Santana, Hunter, Morneau, Cuddyer, Hardy and Liriano? Financial considerations were part of all of those players leaving and new revenue from Target stadium is not enough to change that part of the equation.

Of course, you can ask why can't the Twins be consistently above average with the right people making the decisions. And the answer is that baseball is set up to punish success. If your success depends on drafting and developing your core of players, each time you win you are pushed down the ladder on where you draft.  Its tough to build a championship core solely with players taken that late

You can see this with the Twins. For ten seasons, from 2002 to 2011 they drafted in the top of the first round only once, in 2008 when they took Aaron Hicks at number 14.  Their next highest pick was at round 20, where they took Denard Span, Chris Parmelee and Trevor Plouffe. Span and Plouffe are the most successful of any of the players taken at that level in the last 15 years.  Both are solid major league players,  but  neither one is the kind of player you build a championship team around.

In short, if you are going to rely as the Twins in the past have on drafting and development to build a core, then you have to have to have the patience to accept the cycles required to periodically rebuild. With five years of high draft choices and some solid international signings the Twins look like they might be ready to break out and compete in the near future.

Houston started its rebuilding process in 2008 when they took Jason Castro with the 10th pick. They added George Springer and Carlos Correa to their core with high pickes in subsequent drafts and emerged as a contender last year.   That is the player development model the Twins should be following. But the new business model, driven by an expensive stadium, doesn't allow them to wait.

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