Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Are the Twins Better?

We are only part way through the off-season, but the Twins are already emerging as a better team than last year. They definitely have some more work to do to solidify those gains, but their moves so far have put the team in a better position than last year at this same time. 

They still need to finalize a deal with for Nishioka, the Japanese league batting champion and gold glove infielder. Once that is done, the infield looks to be strengthened both offensively and defensively. Unless Danny Valencia regresses dramatically , and infield of Morneau, Casilla,  Nishioka and Valencia is likely to be an improvement both offensively and defensively from last year when Hudson, Hardy and Punto started the year. The youth of that infield makes it a higher risk, but the upside of having guys coming into their prime in those roles is step up. Hardy, of course, is not that old. But he sure played old, including the injuries. Hudson wasn't signed until later in the off-season and we may still see the Twins add some infield depth besides Matt Tolbert.

They also need to add one more starter, but it seems that they are on track to re-sign Pavano. Failing that, they will probably sign a veteran more likely to end up at the end of the rotation. In any case, Pavano is unlikely to repeat last year's performance. Nonetheless, the rotation will likely be better. All five of the other starters are near their primes with one more year of experience than they had to start last year. Duensing has emerged as a solid starter after starting last year in the bullpen. Liriano is starting to show the ace qualities people attributed to him. Baker, Blackburn and Slowey are all finesse pitchers who will benefit from another year of experience fooling batters. Of course, they probably won't ALL be better. But given their youth, the net impact ought to be better.

The Twins outfield will start the same as it started last year. The exception being that they now have a solid 4th outfielder in Repko. His bat is not much but he plays plus defense at all three outfield spots. We won't hear Gardy threatening to stick Cuddyer out in center again. Kubel continues to provide an offense-oriented backup for the corner spots. If the Twins can resign Thome, Kubel may get more playing time out there against tough right-handers. But regardless, with the addition of Repko the Twins outfield is a lot more flexible than last year. Span had a down year last year and at 26 you would expect improvement from him. 

The Twins biggest question mark is the bullpen. But that was also a question last season after Nathan went down. For all the current love of Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain, there were a lot of questions last winter about how reliable they would be. Rauch was really mostly unproven as a closer. And Mijares was a question mark as well. Condrey, of course, got hurt and never pitched. In short, people who think the bullpen is worse are comparing it to the end of the season, not the beginning. The Twins will start the year with Capps, Nathan and Mijares. The rest are questions, but with a long list of potential answers. Last fall, Perkins looked ready to help. Neshek may be fully recovered. And there is a long list of AA and AAA pitchers who have shown some promise. The chances are pretty good that the Twins will have to make some deals during the season to strengthen the bullpen. But that is exactly the same situation as last year when they added Fuentes and Capps.

The primary improvement for the Twins is the development of young players last year. Valencia, Casilla, Young, Duensing, Liriano and others all improved last year and we can expect similar imrprovements from the young players. For instance, Span had a down year offensively last year but at 26 you would still expect him to be improving.

As always there will be two keys to the Twins season. Injuries and the improvements of young players. While much is made of the "M&M" boys, the reality is that the Twins have often not had both of them in the lineup at the same time. If they can both stay healthy, the Twins will be hugely improved.  Likewise, The bullpen will be pretty solid if Nathan comes back and pitches well and if Neshek can maintain his velocity with another season past surgery. Of course, there will be injuries. But maybe not of the magnitude of losing and MVP or a premiere closer. And if there are injuries, the Twins have a lot of depth with the flexibility their players give them. The one place that is not true is catcher. While Butera is a fine defensive backup, the Twins lineup   is seriously weakened without Mauer in the number three spot.  Jose Morales may be able to step up, but his defense is not what the Twins expect.

In terms of young player improvements, those are hard to predict. But the Twins remain rich in players who are on the upside of their career. It is that natural improvement that has made the Twins better each of the last two seasons. Next year doesn't look any different. And the moves off-season to make the team younger are part of that.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Twins Bullpen

The Winter meetings are over and the results of the Twins off-season transformation of their bullpen are a lot clearer. The bullpen lost several key players to free agency, Rauch, Fuentes, Crain and Guerrier. It appears now that none of them will be back. So the bullpen is going to have a whole new look next year with competition in spring training determining the outcome. Here is how things shape up:

All but certain to have spots: Capps, Nathan, Mijares, Jim Hooey

Capps is likely the closer with Nathan's role depending on his recovery. My guess is that Nathan will pitch in a back of the bullpen role to start while they test his arm. Hooey apparently is a hard thrower with a fastball in the mid-upper 90's. If he gets the ball over the plate consistently he probably fits a setup role. Otherwise he is one of the middle relievers. Mijares is the left-handed setup guy and may be called on as the main guy to get the ball to Capps. 

That leaves three openings. I think the front runners for two of those positions are Perkins and Neshek. There have been mixed reports on Neshek, but he apparently lost velocity as the season went along in his first year back from surgery. If he shows up throwing hard in spring training he is likely to start the year in either a setup role or in middle relief. Perkins appeared to have fallen out of favor, with lots of predictions that his days with the Twins were over. But he appears to have rejuvenated his reputation with coaches with his performance last fall. If that performance carries over to this year, he will  likely be in a middle relief role.

The competition for those two positions and the seventh spot in the bullpen can be split between two groups. One is a group includes Burnett, Slama, Delaney, Manship and Diamond (their rule 5 pick). Burnett started out well in the bullpen last year and then faded as the league caught up to him. But he is still young and has major league talent. He would likely be the favorite for the 7th spot. Manship, Slama and Delaney are all pitchers who could take the 7th spot by default. They are old enough that sending them back to AAA for seasoning is probably not an issue. They need to show they can perform in the major leagues, but their chances to do that probably depend on more talented pitchers not being ready.  Diamond is a wild card. Some speculation is that he could be a situational lefty. I think whether he makes the role depends not only on his own performance, but how confident the Twins are in the six guys they have ahead of him in the bullpen. He probably is not going to be the best pitcher of the group, but the requirement that he stay in the big leagues may win out if the Twins think they can carry him in the back of the bullpen.

The second group is a bunch of young prospects. This includes Guttierez, Swarzak, Waldrop, Robertson, Province. These guys are probably all slated for AAA. With the possible exception of Swarzak, they will have to step up in spring training and force themselves onto the roster. Guttierez is clearly the guy with the most upside. If he does well at AAA, its likely he will be in the bullpen by the playoffs. Swarzak has had opportunities as a starter in the past, but he has probably been passed by on that list. He still has some time to develop but the clock is close to run out. Waldrop, Robertson and Province are all guys with some talent, but little experience above AA. 

Finally, there is one other possibility. If the Twins sign Pavano, then one of the current projected starters (Slowey, Blackburn, Duensing, Liriano or Baker) will likely end up in the bullpen. With the exception of Duensing, I think they are all out of options, so having them start at AAA is not an option.

To summarize, there are lots of questions with the bullpen, lots of answers and a lot of sorting out to do. I think some of it will get sorted out in spring training, but it is not unlikely that, like last year, the bullpen is a work in progress for most of the season. The best case scenario is probably that Nathan regains his form and pushes Capps into a setup role along with Mijares. Hooey shows command of an overpowering fastball. Perkins and Neshek demonstrate the potential they were believed to have and Guttierez comes up and provides an additional dominant arm for the playoffs. More likely several players fall short of those lofty goals or get hurt. Then the Twins will be looking to deal for additional relievers at the deadline.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Twins Playoff Roster

So Twins are past the point of no return and are now into discussions of the playoff roster. I am going to leave Morneau out of the discussion, because I don't really expect him to be back this year. 

Position Players (14 spots)

There are nine starters that are guaranteed barring injuries.  


The candidates for five backup spots are:

Catcher: Morales, Butera

Infield: Punto, Tolbert, Casilla

Outfield: Repko

Not likely: Plouffe, Revere

Pitchers(11 spots)

Starting rotation: (4 spots)

Two starters are set:

The other four are competing for what should be two spots:

Bullpen  (7 spots)

Six are set:

Competing for at most one spot along with the two extra starters:
Flores, Perkins, Manship, Bunett

Not likely:
Neshek, Delaney, Slama ( the Twins web site shows the last two no longer on the active roster - but I missed the move if they have been taken off) 


The starting lineup is set. I think the nine guys listed will start every game unless something goes seriously haywire. Given that the backups are there as pinch runners, pinch hitters, late defensive replacements and in case of injuries. That makes their role pretty limited. The main roles will be pinch running for Thome and late inning defensive replacement for Kubel. Repko is the only fourth outfielder available so he is set. It seems to me that  Butera is the odd man out if the Twins go with five bench players. The backup catcher is not going to play and Morales gives them a switch hitter on the bench. That said, do you really need three utility infielders? I don't know if that makes sense or not. We haven't seen much of Nick Punto recently and he may be the odd man out if the Twins go with 12 pitchers. Tolbert and Casilla have some of his flexibility and both are probably now faster than Punto. Punto's advantage is experience and his defense.

In terms of the starters, I think Duensing has all but locked up one of the spots in the rotation unless something happens over the last couple weeks to change that. I think Baker ought to be the other starter if he is healthy. While Blackburn has done well since returning, he has some experience in the bullpen and his sinker ought to work well there. Even if the Twins go with five starters, I think Slowey is the odd man out. 

The ideal thing would be for the Twins to have another lefty in the bullpen who can get lefties out. That would be Flores, but he has not pitched that well. Despite being a lefty, Perkins does not really do that well against left handed hitters. I don't think any of the other candidates for a spot in the bullpen are better than either Blackburn or Slowey. I would go with Blackburn as the seventh guy in the bullpen. 

My own take would be to go with five starters and seven relievers, which would put both Slowey and Blackburn on the roster. That means going with four players on the bench - Morales, Repko, Casilla and Tolbert. There are several reasons for that. One is that I don't think the Twins have a "big game" starter on their staff that you would definitely want out there twice in a five game series. Liriano is closest to that, but he hasn't really shown that he can step up under pressure. If Liriano starts game one, he will be available in the bullpen for games three four and five. I don't know that you want to use him that way, but it gives you another option. 

Another reason, is I just don't see much of a role for three extra infielders. While they might make a late inning defensive replacement for Hardy or Valentine, I don't think it is really necessary. And that is the only role Punto has. 

To be clear, this is what I think the Twins should do. My guess is that Punto will be on the roster and Slowey won't be. Its also possible Gardy will go with three catchers. Butera has been with the team the entire year, removing him for the playoffs is the kind of thing the Twins usually don't do. He may not have much of a role, but he belongs in the dugout. Morales is the only one of the reserves who really fits a pinch hitter role. I think he will be a bat on the bench regardless of the decision about Butera. 

Of course, we are still a couple weeks away from having any decisions made. Its possible one of the starters will pitch themselves out of a job. And, of course, Morneau may come back. Or that Hardy's arm will still be sore and the extra infielders will be needed to give him a rest. S I am jumping the gun, but thats what we fans can do. The Twins still need to nail this down and then they have some decisions to make. 

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Are the Sox finished?

The short answer is of whether the sox are finished is no. But you have to identify which "sox" you are talking about. 

The Yankees are now in second place in the East, six games ahead of the Red Sox, who they play six times before the end of the season. In short, the Red Sox still have their fate in their own hands. They just need to sweep the Yankees in those six games to reach the playoffs as the wildcard. Not likely. But in addition to the Red Sox, the Yankees also have four games against Tampa and three against Toronto. And they aren't exactly hot, having gone 2-8 in their last ten games If they continue to struggle like that in the next ten games, they could put themselves within hunting distance when they face the Red Sox in the season's final series.. 

Which brings us to the other "sox", the White Sox. They are 8.5 games behind the Yankees for the wild card spot. They are only 8 games behind the Twins. But the Twins are not playing the remainder of their schedule against the likes of Tampa and the Red Sox. They could take advantage of a Yankee collapse with a hot streak of their own. A Yankee collapse would leave three teams vying for the wild card spot and the White Sox could sneak in while the "giants" in the east beat each other up.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Top Ten Twins Prospects

This is a top ten list for 2010-2011.

Once again, they are in no particular order, but simply the players I think are likely to contribute the most at the major league level at some point in the next 8 years. I look out 8 years in terms of expected contributions, because most players have reached their peak by the time they are 27. While talented young players sometimes get to the major leagues quickly, it also sometimes takes several more years before they show their full talent. That time frame even may be a little longer this year for some of the international signings who will still be in their mid-20's eight years from now. 

I don't rank prospects because frankly just choosing the "best" prospects is at best a rough guess. Deciding whether Max Kepler or Miguel Sano will produce more at the major league level between now and 2018 is way beyond what is reasonable with the information available to the average fan like me. It is probably way beyond the ability of professional scouts who get paid to do this and have both the opportunity and experience to evaluate them first hand.   

As always, I am not considering players drafted this summer for the list. I also leave off the international signings from this year.

Ben Revere (OF)
The last couple years, I have said the question was whether Revere will develop the power the Twins saw when they drafted him. It appears the answer is no.  Even without home run power, he has speed and  high batting average that will allow him to contribute at the major league level. Perhaps even next year. 

Kyle Gibson

Gibson ran through three levels in his first professional season. He struggled a bit to start at both AA and AAA, but then settled in and pitched very well. He looks like he will be ready to join the rotation next season if there is an opening. 

Aaron Hicks

Nothing much changed with Hicks this year. He has shown himself to be exactly what the Twins expected, a highly athletic outfielder whose bat is also going to be special. He showed some progress with a good finish at Beloit. He may develop later than Revere. He is likely going up the ladder one level at a time, so he is still several years away.  But like the tortoise and the hare, Hicks is likely to surpass Revere at the major league level. 

Carlos Gutierrez

Gutierrez lacks the secondary pitches to still be on track to be a starter. It appears the Twins are ready to  settle for the late inning bullpen role many projected for Gutierrez when he was drafted. He will pitch in the AFL this fall and may compete for a bullpen spot next spring. He will likely start next year at AAA. 

Chris Parmelee

Parmelee was demoted from AA to Fort Myers, but then had a second half breakout after returning to AA. His bat started to display the potential the Twins saw when he was drafted. The power still hasn't fully developed, but that is a matter of time if he continues to hit like he did the last half at New Britain. He will play in the AFL again this fall.  He has been playing the outfield, but he may end up at first base.

David Bromberg

I have been a skeptic on  Bromberg. But he pitched well this year at Rochester after a mis-season promotion from New Britain. He is only 22 and clearly held his own against the older competition. He projects as a mid-rotation starter or setup guy in the major leagues. Despite being at AAA, he is likely a ways away from being ready to pitch in the big leagues. Gibson, Gutierez and Bullock are all ahead of him

Billy Bullock

Bullock struck out 105 batters in 74 innings at two levels in his first full year in professional ball. He actually got more strike outs after being promoted to New Britain. Unfortunately, he also walked 43 hitters. If he can refine his control, he looks like a guy who will be a major factor in the Twins future bullpen. That could happen next year, but he is probably a couple years away.

Miguel Sano

Sano was a highly touted international signing. At 17, he showed why in his professional debut. He already hits for average and power. He played a little shortstop, but his future is probably at third base. His bat will play there if it develops as projected.

Max Kepler-Rozycki

Like Sano, Kepler was a highly touted international prospect, but from baseball poor Europe rather than the baseball rich Dominican. Kepler did not show Sano's power, but he has a solid bat combined with speed. Because he plays the outfield, he is probably not in Sano's class. But  he showed why some people saw him as the best prospect to ever come out of Europe even if that is a pretty low bar. 

Angel Morales (OF)

Morales still has outstanding speed and power, although his power numbers were down at Fort Myers. This is a guy who could be as a superstar or a super bust. Morales continued problems making contact are a bad sign but he is still very young. He will likely play winter ball so we should see continued improvement next spring. It will be interesting to see whether he moves up to AA to start next season.

Dropped out of top ten - what I said last year with comment:

Trevor Plouffe (SS)

Last year: "Last year, I said Plouffe is probably still a year away from taking over as the Twins shortstop. That still may be true, but he came on the second half of the season at AAA. His errors remain a worry, but it is apparent his bat is just about ready. He will get a chance to win the shortstop position in spring training, but is likely to end up back at AAA"

Of course, once the Hardy trade was made, Plouffe's chance was gone. Its important to remember Plouffe remains a young player. He did not look like he has star potential in his major league debut. He could still be the Twins shortstop if and when Hardy leaves. But he is looking a bit like Brendan Harris, enough bat and glove to play in the big leagues, but not enough of either to be a major contributor. 

Deolis Guerra (P)

Last year: "Guerra was a touted part of the Santana deal but the Twins turned him into a project, working to improve his delivery. He has made progress this year, finishing the year at AA. Next year he will likely start the season at AA again. But if he develops as expected, he will likely have the opportunity to show his stuff in the major leagues at sometime next year."

Guerra faded at AA as the season progressed. His inability to keep up with the league is a bad sign.  

Wilson Ramos (C)

Last year: "A power hitting catcher with a plus arm and defensive skills. You can't get much better than that. I am just repeating what I said last year. If he can stay healthy for a full season, this kid has star written all over him."

Ramos was traded. He still has the tools to be a major league regular catcher, but there were some comments indicating the Twins had questions about his weight. Even if his weight problems reduce his mobility behind the plate, his bat and arm should still keep him in the major leagues. But it might be more as a backup catcher, DH and bat off the bench, rather than an allstar.

Rene Tosoni (OF)

Last year: "Tosoni is in the Arizona League. was injured this year. He hits for both average and with enough power to take a corner outfield spot. He is almost ready to contribute at the major league level. The question is how the Twins find a spot for him."

Tosoni was injured most of this year. He still has potential, but its not clear that he will stay healthy long enough to ever develop that potential. And he didn't show much at AA before he was hurt.

Tyler Robertson (P)

Last year: "Robertson remains one of the Twins top young prospects. He is still a couple years away but he has the potential to be a top of the rotation starter"

Robertson remains a prospect. But he really struggled at New Britain this year. He will pitch in the Arizona Fall League and that may determine whether he is protected on the roster.  He has the potential to be a top of the rotation starter but he is looking more like a bust right now. And he is likely at least a couple years away.

As I said above, I left last summer's Twins draft choices off the list just as I did last year. Shooter Hunt continued to give a good demonstration of why waiting for players to get a full year as a professional under their belt is a good idea. Sometimes players just don't make the transition to the professional game. Alex Wimmer may be great, but it would be a good idea to see how he does pitching every five days before making any decisions beyond what we knew when he was drafted. I have yet to see a first round choice who would not project as a top ten prospect in the fall after they were drafted, so you can just stick him on the end of this list if you are so inclined.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Cliff Lee

So the rumor mongers are going at it over the Twins making a deal for Cliff Lee. Those rumors include having the Twins givie up both of their top two prospects, Wilson Ramos and Aaron Hicks. There are a couple of things to think about with this kind of deal.

First, Lee is a free agent after this year and it is unlikely the Twins are going to be able to resign him. That means they are getting about two to three months out of him, plus whatever draft picks are provided in compensation for losing him. Normally adding a guy to the top of your rotation is a major upgrade since they replace the worst guy in the rotation. But Lee is likely to replace Slowey or Blackburn.  If you look at the ups and downs of those three pitchers, Lee is better than the other two, but there are periods where his performance was worse than either Slowey or Blackburn at their best. Lee  is a likely upgrade in the long run, but the Twins won't have him for the long run. Instead, they will get two or three months out of him. Those could be his great months, his mediocre months or his terrible months. Or he could get hurt and produce nothing. In any case, the Twins will never get another bite of the apple.

The second issue is the price. Ramos and Hicks are both guys who project as major league stars or maybe even superstars. The Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Torii Hunter type of players that you build championships around. When you give up one of those guys, you don't  find a replacement. Of course, Hicks is a long way from the big leagues and not dominating the Midwest league, Ramos has struggled some at Rochester. For people who re-evaluate prospects once a month those things are meaningful. But no one really should have changed their opinion about either one based on this season. There just hasn't been enough of it.  Rolling the dice on Lee is one thing, betting the house on him is another.

Which brings us to those draft choices. Its important to remember that which draft choices the Twins get depends on where Lee signs. If he signs with someone in the top half of the draft, the Twins get a second round choice - or lower. The only way they get a first round choice is if Lee sgns with a team in the second half of the draft that didn't sign a higher ranked free agent. They will also get a supplemental pick. The drop off after the first few picks of the draft is almost a cliff and it really only levels out some when you get to the 100th player chosen.  Its important to remember that the new compensation system for unsigned players is pushing even first round draft choices down the ladder some.  

The last time the Twins traded top prospects in this way was sending Denny Neagle and Midre Cummings to the Pirates for John Smiley to replace Jack Morris. Smiley didn't get them to the playoffs, the rotation had holes in it for years while Neagle became a 20 game winner. And the draft choices received when Smiley left? They mostly turned to dust as most draft choices do. Ramos and/or Hicks for Lee is a bad gamble, sending both of them is the kind of deal that keeps teams perpetually in the second division.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Mauer Batting Second?

With Orlando Hudson hurt, we are hearing the talk of moving Mauer to the number two spot in the order. The basic argument is that he will get more plate appearances (about 20 more over the course of the year) and he gets on base at a .400 rate. Most of the people advocating this also want to move everyone else up, putting whoever is hitting number two now toward the bottom of the order. The other alternative is to move someone else into the 3 spot, Kubel, Cuddyer and Young would be the likely candidates.  In any case, other players will also get some of the number two hitter's at bats - if he drops 6 spots to 8th in the order it would be about 120 plate appearances in all.

There are two problems with this, the benefits are not as great as you would expect and the costs are a lot greater.  Mauer with a .400 OBP will get on base 8 times in those 20 extra plate appearances, while a guy with a very low .300 OBP will get on base 6 times. Over those 120 plate appearances for all players, the average is likely going to be closer to .350, which means they will get on base 42 times compared to 36 times for players with a .300 OBP.  In other words, you are gaining about 6 base runners over the course of the season by moving Mauer into the number two spot and everyone else up.  Of course, there is more to the issue than just getting on base. Presumably getting on base will include a variety of hits, including some for extra bases.  

So what are the costs? The major issue, the reason your best hitter is usually batting third, is Mauer will come to the plate with a lot fewer base runners on base. Lets look at the impact just on the first inning. If Span gets on base at a .400 rate, Mauer batting number two will have a runner on base 64 times over the course of a season. With a .300 guy in the number two spot, he will come to the plate with two runners on 19 times (.3*64) and one runner an additional 29 times for a total of 93 plate appearances with 102 base runners. Of course that is assuming neither runner scores, but for the rough purposes here I think we can ignore that. 

However Mauer isn't the only one who loses RBI opportunities with a shift.  Morneau, now batting third, will also have fewer base runners. Those opportunities shift to the number 4, 5 and 6 hitters. Presumably Cuddyer, Kubel and Young. I am not sure that is a great new strategy to shift RBI opportunities to those three from Morneau and Mauer.  Its hard for me to see how shifting those 48 base runners away from both Mauer and Morneau is offset by an extra 6 base runners over the course of the season.

Those impacts are from the first time through the order. After that, if you just shift everyone up, the number nine hitter essentially takes over Span's role in the current lineup. Span is now hitting directly in front of Mauer where the number two hitter was before. And, of course, this all assumes that players do not change their approach based on the new situations they are in. That is undoubtedly not true.

There are a lot of good reasons for the tradition of putting your best hitter number three. Before proposing to change it, you need to consider what they are.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) Isn't Fielding Independent

To understand how far from reality the names of some statistics are look no further than FIP.  This is an acronym for Fielding Independent Pitching.

According to Wikipedia the formula for this statistic is as follows:

FIP=\frac{13HR + 3BB - 2K}{IP}

You will notice IP  (innings pitched) is the denominator. The formula for a pitcher's IP is the number of outs made while he was pitching divided by 3.

Of course "outs" are hardly fielding independent. Even a pitcher who strikes out one batter per inning has fielders who help get the other two.  

So, in fact, this statistic is not fielding independent at all, despite the label its creators put on it. Do the results of a pitchers fielders actually change the pitcher's FIP? Lets look at two scenarios where a pitcher faces 9 batters:

Scenario one:

groundball hit, groundball  hit, groundball hit,

strikeout, walk, walk, strikeout, home run, strikeout.

In this scenario his FIP is 13+6-6/1 for 13.0 FIP

Scenario 2:

groundball out, groundball out, groundball out,

strikeout, walk, walk, strikeout, home run, strikeout.

In this scenario his FIP is 13+6-6/2 for a 6.5 FIP

If the fielders catch those groundballs and turn them into outs, they cut the pitcher's FIP in half. 

Is FIP really "fielding independent"? Not hardly. But you wouldn't know it from its name or how it is used around the internet.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Looking Back at the Twins Drafts

Its getting to be that time of year again when Twins fans start to talk about the draft. This year the Twins will have only one first round choice and no supplemental choices since they didn't lose any ranked free agents. Unlike basketball and football, the baseball draft is much more a numbers game, with even top picks sometimes failing. And it often takes 5-10 years before you know a draft was a success, especially for teams that draft a lot of high school players.

So as we look at the last draft of the decade, lets look at its earlier drafts.

In 2001, the Twins made Joe Mauer their first draft pick of this millennium. At the time there was a lot of talk about two more advanced players, Mark Prior and Mark Teixera, and some people criticized the Mauer choice as a budget move. If it was, it was a good move as Mauer may turn out to be one of the greatest players ever to play the game.

In 2002, The Twin took Denard Span. He didn't move as fast as Mauer and a lot of people gave up on him. But he has come into his own.  He's not Torii Hunter, but he is a good major league center fielder and will likely remain the Twins leadoff hitter for a long time to come.

In 2003, the Twins took Matt Moses. His bat was supposed to carry him, but it didn't carry him very far. He never really got beyond AA.

In 2004, the Twins had two extra first round choices, the picks were Trevor Plouffe, Glen Perkins and Steve Waldrop. This draft demonstrates the patience required to really know how a draft came out.

Plouffe just had his first brief stint in the majors and impressed the coaching staff. It looks like he is ready, but is blocked by last year's deal for JJ Hardy. It looks a bit like a repeat of the experience Span had when the Twins brought in Carlos Gomez.

Last season, Perkins looked like he was going to be a regular in the rotation, or at least a stalwart of the bullpen. Right now he back at AAA struggling to put things together after ending last season early with an injury. He seems to have burned some bridges with the club's management. But he is probably not going anywhere until he shows he is ready to pitch again in the major leagues.

Waldrop suffered an arm injury and is just now playing his first year at AAA, working out of the bullpen. He looks like he may be ready if there is an opening. But he is not on the major league roster.

In 2005, the Twins took Matt Garza who turned out to be extremely talented and also extremely hard for Ron Gardenhire to deal with. He got dealt to Tampa for Delmon Young.

In 2006, the Twins took Chris Parmelee. Parmelee was considered a slugger and he still is. Unfortunately he makes contact so rarely his opportunities to show off that power are limited. He was just demoted from AA back to A ball after struggling in his first year at New Britain. He isn't finished, but he is not on a fast track of any kind. At best he looks like an all or nothing guy that bats low in the order.

In 2007, the Twins took Ben Revere. Like the choice of Mauer, this was criticized as a financial move. Unlike Mauer, Revere is unlikely to be a hall-of-famer. But he has shown that the Twins knew what they were doing. He is the organizations fastest player and top base stealer. He has hit over .300 at every stop. He was criticized as a slap hitter when drafted and he has yet to show any real power. But it is likely, like Span, his power numbers will improve as he gets more mature. He is never going to be a big home run threat, but a guy who hits balls into the gap and can run like the wind is likely going to be a productive major league player. The other knock on Revere is his defense, He isn't a polished defender yet and his arm is never going to be a plus.

In 2008, the Twins had two choices. Aaron Hicks and Carlos Guttierez.

Hicks has everyone excited as a guy who has both speed and power. But he is very raw and is not on a fast track. He started the year at Beloit with a very cold bat. He then got very hot for a while raising his barring average in to the .300's. That hot streak ended and his hitting has fallen back to the mid-.200's. He may get a promotion in June, but its possible the Twins will let him play out the year in low A ball.

Guttierez was coming off arm surgery when drafted. Because of the surgery he had been used as a closer his last year in college. The Twins, however, drafted him as a starter. He has a great sinker, but needed to work on auxiliarly pitches as a starter. He has been used carefully as they try to build his stamina.  Last year they moved him to the bullpen to finish the year in order to avoid over-working him. He is back at New Britain this year and doing well. Given the Twins depth in pitching, its possible they will give up on the idea of him starting. But he has the potential to be a number one or two starter if he can develop pitches to go with his sinker.

In 2009, the Twins took Kyle Gibson. Gibson didn't pitch last summer and is already at AA this year where he now seems to be thriving.

In general, recent drafts will seem better than earlier drafts. This is because guys like Gibson are all about projection and tools. Whereas players who have been around a couple years have usually started to show a few warts. But its important to remember Joe Mauer, the first pick of this decade, is just reaching his prime. Drafts in baseball require a lot of patience.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Run Probabilities versus Win Expectancies

Over at Twinsgeek there is an interesting set of data that is provided to discuss late game decisions:

"historically what percentage of games were won by the home team carrying various leads or deficits into the top of the ninth.

Leading by 5 - win 99.7% of the time
Leading by 4 - win 98.8% of the time
Leading by 3 - win 98.0% of the time
Leading by 2 - win 94.5% of the time
Leading by 1 - win 86.6% of the time
Tied - win 52.2% of the time
Losing by 1 - win 15.2% of the time
Losing by 2 - win 6.3% of the time
Losing by 3 - win 2.9% of the time
Losing by 4 - win 1.3% of the time
Losing by 5 - win 0.6% of the time"

I think the really interesting part of this data is that it clearly shows that not all runs are created equally. While the data here is only for one particular situation, I think the pattern is likely to apply regardless of the inning. 

In a tie game, the first run that scores in the bottom of the 8th raises a team's chances of winning by 66%,more than all the additional runs combined.  The second run raises the team's chances by 10% and the third run raises the team's chances by 4%. If the home team starts the bottom of the 8th down by a run, the first run it  scores raises its chances of winning by 243%.

On the other hand, when down by two runs, scoring the first run only increases the chances of winning by 141% and when down by 2 runs only 117%.

What this demonstrates, of no surprise to traditionalists, is that in a close game, playing for one run is by far and away the better strategy than playing for a big inning. If you are down by more than a run, then playing for the big inning makes more sense.  

One other note. I calculated the increases based on the formula  (chances after run scores- chances before run scores)/(chances before run scores). That is to say, the change in the probability a team will win. You an argue whether the percentage increase is more appropriate than just the straight number of additional games a team would win. But the pattern is the same either way. And, of course, these are averages. It may well be that in close games where both teams are scoring runs in bunches, the extra runs become more important. Or that a single run is more important in a pitchers duel. In fact, both of those are likely true. Those are the limits of all "probabilities" in baseball. There are so many variables that every situation is different and the average has only limited value for a specific decision or player.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Understanding the Psychology of Crackpot Stats

To understand how mob psychology can make common wisdom of complete nonsense consider these claims by Voros McCracken in 2001:

"There is little if any difference among major-league pitchers in their ability to prevent hits on balls hit in the field of play."
"The critical thing to understand is that major-league pitchers don't appear to have the ability to prevent hits on balls in play."

In support of that claim, McCracken goes on to site the following about pitchers' Batting Average on Balls In Play ( (H-HR)/(BFP-HR-BB-SO-HB) ):

"The vast majority of pitchers who have pitched significant innings have career rates between .280 and .290."

Of course McCracken's claim caused a sensation in the statistical community. It greatly simplified the troublesome need to consider team defense when evaluating pitching (FIPS anyone?) It all but eliminated the need to consider pitching when evaluating fielding. As a result, the statistical community developed all sorts of new statistics working from his premise and it has been extended to hitters.

Now you would expect some healthy skepticism of that claim. The obvious question is what was the league BABIP in 2000 when McCracken did his "study?" If the vast majority of successful pitchers, those that got a significant number of outs, are all above average in getting hitters out on balls in play you would probably conclude it is unlikely they have no control over it. But the league BABIP was and is around.300. That is 10-20 points higher than the figure sited for the "vast majority" of successful starting pitchers as identified by McCracken.

Now you might think this was overlooked all these years. It wasn't. That .300 average is sited on the Baseball Prospectus site as the "typical" BABIP for pitchers. In fact, that claim is itself inaccurate. The average (mean) for all pitchers is .300, but the typical (median) pitcher's BABIP is actually considerably higher since the best pitchers face more batters than those with higher BABIP. But either way, the best pitchers have the best BABIP, well above an average pitcher.

As others looked at the numbers and raised troublesome question about McCracken's basic premise finding numerous examples that contradicted it, they were explained as "outliers", ground ball pitchers, etc..Many pitchers had career BABIP  far lower than the .280 McCracken claimed and the range of career. BABIP for pitchers goes from as low as .250 up to .350. Very similar to the range in hitter's batting averages. Combined with McCracken's own data showing  the vast majority of successful starting pitchers have above average BABIP, you would think pitchers influence over whether a ball goes for a hit had been proven. Successful pitchers are successful, in part, because they get hitters to put the ball in play in ways that make it easy for their fielders to turn them into outs. That certainly is traditional baseball wisdom. And the actual numbers support it.

Nonetheless, McCracken's basic conclusion has become an urban legend. Like any urban legend, once believed, no amount of facts will cause people to abandon their belief in it. None of us like to admit we were enthusiastically wrong.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Twins Predictions for 2010

Over at Josh's Thoughts he suggests local bloggers make their predictions for the coming season. Here are some for the Twins.

Top Pitcher

The criteria for this are always a problem, I don't think people even agree on who the top pitcher for last year was. So here are my predictions in specific categories:

Strikeouts  -  Liriano
ERA - Liriano
Innings Pitched - Baker
Wins - Slowey

I think Liriano will be back but continue to struggle pitching deep into games. The result will be fewer innings pitched and a lot heavier reliance on the bullpen. Together those translate into fewere wins. Baker is going to get a lot of outs and pitch deep into games, but he will give up some runs while doing it. Slowey will get as many outs as Baker, but will give up fewer runs while getting those outs. The combination will translate into the most wins.

Saves leader - Guerrier

I think the closer by committee will really be Guerrier to start. I think he will handle the job well enough to hold the job until/unless the Twins trade for a closer. 

Twins MVP

Joe Mauer - The other candidate is obviously Morneau but if Mauer stays healthy his position is going to make him more valuable than anyone else on the team even if he doesn't put up the same MVP numbers as last year.

Twins Best Rookie

The only rookie on the opening day roster is Drew Butera and his role as temporary backup catcher means he can only win this category by default. So the question is who is most likely to contribute later in the year. I suspect the popular choice will be Danny Valencia. But, aside from my doubts about him, the Twins would have to move someone to make room. I doubt they are going to do that in the middle of a pennant race. The most likely spot for a rookie to get shot is at the back of the bullpen, so the question is which of the rookie pitchers in the minors is most likely to help out.

Kyle Waldrop - Waldrop is not on the major league roster. But he and Anthony Slama have both been kept around right up to opening day. I think Waldrop, a former first round sandwich pick, is the better talent.

Twins Most Improved Player

Delmon Young - I think the sleeper here is Jacques Jones, but he has no place to play. So unless someone gets hurt he will likely have to be most improved somewhere else. Young needs to be the most improved player or he is not going to play much. You can almost see Gardy straining to figure out how to have Thome in the lineup every day, so Young is going to be on a very short leash.

Biggest Disappointment

This is a hard category since it deals with expectations. I am going to put JJ Hardy here since I think some people look for his numbers from a couple years ago and expect that as a return to normal. I don't think that is going to happen and mid-way through the season we are going to start hearing complaints about his defense. By the end of the year, shortstop will not be seen as one of the Twins strengths.

Bold Predictions (think of several if you'd like)

The Twins will win 100+ games and have more than one 20 game winner. I think with their offense and deep starting staff the Twins are going to win a lot of games for the pitchers who are the most effective.

The Royals will surprise people as their young players break out.

Neither the Yankees nor the Red Sox will make the playoffs.

A.L. Central Prediction (Standings):
White Sox

Three Keys to Success for the Twins:

Keeping people healthy - this is always a key to success. For the Twins the most important player to keep healthy is Denard Span. Revere was impressive in spring training. But he is not ready to lead off and play center field in the major leagues at the same level as Span. Span is not the team's MVP, but he may be the most irreplaceable.

Finding an effective closer - this is Twins most obvious question mark. A lot has been made of the difference between the "average' closer and a great one. But the alternative to great is not average, as anyone who remembers guys like Dave Stevens can attest. A terrible closer, who goes through stretches of blown saves, would be a real problem. It will spill over into the rotation and offense as everyone else tries to step up to compensate.

Maintaining their defense - I think Gardy pays a lot of lip service to defense, but he usually ends up going with the guy who has the better bat. That is fine when most of your players are average to outstanding defenders. But this is a team with several players who are playing a new position (Span), whose defense has questions (Young, Cuddyer, Kubel) or may be in decline (Hardy, Hudson, Punto).

Monday, March 22, 2010

Mauer's Contract

Now that Mauer finally signed, there are mutterings about how much he will cost the Twins over the next 9 years. There is no doubt that this contract will be a constraint on the Twins payroll. Any large contract is. But if you consider that the Twins current payroll is about $30 million higher than last year, Mauer's contract still leaves them ahead of the last decade in terms of space on the payroll. And its not clear that this year's payroll is really the limit to what the Twins can spend. Some of that will depend on how attendance and spending at the new stadium hold up over the next few years as its newness wears off. And signing Mauer was no-doubt part of the strategy for keeping attendance up. This was a good business decision.

The other question is whether it was a good baseball decision. A lot of comparisons have been made to other players - Mauer got the fourth richest contract in history. But the scary thing about Joe Mauer is he may not have reached his potential yet. He is only 26 and his power numbers are likely to increase. Last year he hit a.most 30 home runs while missing a month of the season. He has the potential to win the triple crown as a hitter while continuing to be the best defensive player at the games most demanding position. Especially with better on base guys at the top of the order and with Morneau hitting behind him. If that happens, Mauer may contend with Babe Ruth as the best player to ever play the game. And Twins fans can spend the next nine years talking like Yankee fans about whether their hometown team will be able to win the World Series, instead of whether they can get into the playoffs.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Bullpen Competition

There are seven spots available in the bullpen. There are five that were mostly set going into spring traing: Rauch, Guerrier, Mijares, Condrey and Crain. Condrey and Mijares have had some struggles in spring training, but I doubt that those have changed their status. Both need to be ready by the start of the season, but unless they are seriously struggling their positions are probably safe.

With Nathan a question mark, there are one or two positions open. I assume Liriano has all but won the fifth starter position. The other pitchers still in camp are Neshek, Duensing, Perkins, Manship, Slama, Waldrop and Maroth. The last three are not on the major league roster.

Neshek has done well in spring training but still has not got his velocity up to 90-mph. As I understand it, he still has options left and if he isn't throwing at full velocity, they are likely to send him to Rochester to work on his arm strength.

Gardy made a comment about Perkins getting his work in because he was going to "be a starter somewhere". I think the Twins still hope to move him, but if not he is likely going to get the sixth starter spot pitching at Rochester. He also still has options left.

Duensing is still competing (along with Perkins and Liriano) for the last starter spot. Since I think Liriano has won that competition, Duensing is likely to end up starting at Rochester. But if both Perkins and Duensing are still around one of them will likely be in the major league bullpen.

Manship has struggled so far in spring training. Unless he can step things up in his next couple outings, he will likely start the season at Rochester. If he improves and Perkins is moved, he might get a major league spot as the long reliever while Duensing is at Rochester keeping himself ready as a starter.

This leaves the three non-roster guys. I am not sure where the room is found for them, but I don't think that will be the decisive question in choosing bullpen spots.

Maroth has the advantage of being a major league veteran. With two spots open, it seems likely that will be an advantage. If Nathan (or an outside guy) is the closer, then filling the last spot with someone inexperienced may be less risky. Of course Maroth has to show he can get major league hitters out. He had a rough start to the spring, but obviously they still think he could help them or he wouldn't still be in camp.

Slama has been turning fans heads. Likewise, Waldrop has had good success. The two of them need to show they can continue that success as the competition improves the rest of spring training.

I would call Duensing and Maroth the favorites right now, but Slama and Waldrop have legitimate shots at spots. I don't think Gardy wants Perkins around and will find a way for that to happen whether by trade or sticking him at Rochester.


Couple recent posts elsewhere on the Twins bullpen situation:

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Twins First Spring Training Cuts

With their minor league spring training opening this week, the Twins made their first cuts of the spring today:

Optioned RHP Deolis Guerra, RHP Loek Van Mil and INF Estarlin De Los Santos to New Britain (EL).
Reassigned LHP Jose Lugo, C Jair Fernandez, C Danny Rams, INF Steve Singleton and OF Rene Tosoni to their minor league camp.

For people unfamiliar with this process, the first three players are on the major league roster, so they have to optioned onto a minor league roster. The others are not, so they can simply be reassigned.

None of these players were really candidates to make the Twins this spring. The only surprise here was Rene Tosoni and it probably does not bode well for his future. I am not sure he was ever really a candidate to back up Span in center field, but his quick exit from the major league camp probably means he is not seen has having any role this year. Of course, that can change over the course of a season. The purpose of the minor leagues is to develop players and Tosoni is just arriving at AAA. So its not like he is a lost cause. Jose Lugo's early exit is also a bit of a surprise and an indication that he is going to be minor league roster filler, not major league depth.

Another  big surprise was a couple players who did not get sent out. Ben Revere hasn't played above A ball and is expected to start the season at AA New Britain. That he was not part of the first round of cuts indicates Gardy wants to take a longer look at him against better competition. Of course it may be that, except for Span, he is the only true center fielder in camp.  Chris Parmelee, another A ball player, is another surprise although Parmelee also played in the more advanced Arizona Fall League. It may be both of these guys are former first round draft choices that they just want to challenge. But its also possible they are closer to being ready than expected.

I suppose it is also a surprise that Toby Gardenhire is still hanging around. That demonstrates what being a jack of all trades, including a catcher, can do for you. It also helps to be the manager's son of course.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Is Portes for Real?

Juan Portes has had a very hot start to spring training. With only 10 plate appearances, he leads the team with three home runs. So the question is "Is he for real?". The answer is probably not. (obviously not, if you are talking about hitting 3 home runs in ever 10 plate appearances.) Despite being taken in the 14th round, Portes has always been a pretty good hitting prospect. His problem is that he doesn't have a position. He has moved around the infield and seems to be considered an outfielder now. But if the only position he really has is next to the plate, its tough to make it to the big leagues as a hitter.

Jason Kubel is a good example of why young players rarely break in as DH's. It usually takes close to a 1000 major league at bats before a player settles in and is productive. Kubel didn't become primarily a DH until 2008 with over 750 plate appearances. And he still has played the outfield about 50 games each year while primarily being the Twins DH.  You have to be able to play the field initially in order to get the major league at bats to prove yourself as a hitter. Contending teams just don't usually hand the DH spot to unproven rookies - in fact, no team does.

Of course, if Portes hits well enough, some team will find a way to get him in the lineup. But "well enough" is not they way Jason Kubel hit to start out, it means busting out of the gate with Kubel's numbers from last year. That is tough for a player to do. Portes may be a guy who does, but more likely he will remain a spring sensation.

The other thing to remember about spring training is that, in most games, there are really two games. The first half of the game the regulars play against one another. Then the second game is when prospects, who are likely going to start the season in the minor leagues, relieve the regulars and  play against one another. I haven't looked at who Portes faced, but it is likely those home runs weren't hit off major league pitching. Certainly not the quality of major league pitching he would face starting in April. That is another reason why spring training results don't tell you much - at least not until the last week or so.

I like Portes and have wondered when we might see him break out. But, absent a position, he is likely to remain one of those guys who tantalizes us as fans with his numbers at AAA.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Torii Hunter on Race

These comments by Torii Hunter are going to cause outrage by a few white folks who are still enamored of the idea that race is genetic.  But Torii is right. Dominican's are not African-American. They may still have problems getting a cab in New York, but they don't share the culture that makes people black. His concern that baseball is masking its problems with race by importing dark skinned latin players is not entirely unfounded either. Whether deliberately or not, the presence of dark skinned latin players has masked the declining number of African-American players in the game. That has been a special concern of Hunters and he has put a lot of effort into promoting baseball in his community. Its not clear that effort has been supported with any real resources from major league baseball. Certainly not the kind of resources that go into the Dominican and Venezuela leagues.  That has to be frustrating.

One of the best reactions was from Ozzie Guillen who suggests that Latin players are going to take over the game entirely. He may be right and that would be a shame for America's pastime.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

How important is Nathan?

A STRIB story on Joe Nathan demonstrated once again the danger of statistical analysis. The numbers may be right, the computer spreadsheet almost guarantees it. But they often don't mean what the people using them think they mean.  Here is a snippet from that article:


Baseball Prospectus compiled all the data from the past 10 years, and home teams that had a save situation entering the ninth inning -- leading by three runs or fewer -- converted 87 percent of those saves. Road teams converted 86.1 percent of their ninth-inning save situations.

In other words, whether it's Nathan or anybody else standing on the mound, the Twins have less than a 14 percent chance of blowing that save."

It actually doesn't mean that. It means that is the average, but some pitchers are below average - perhaps a long way below average.

The other problem is, as most people know, the real difference is not how well pitchers do with a three run lead. It takes a real meltdown to blow one of those and those are pretty rare for any quality reliever. If you dilute the sample with a lot of sure things - you get a high percentage of success. But it tells you nothing about the relative ability of the closers, it just means you have masked it with a lot of situations where failure is basically random.

A closer who blows three or four more games than the next guy costs his team three or four wins. That is enough to decide a close pennant race.  And if the alternative to Nathan pitches like Dave Stevens, it will be more than three or four games the Twins lose as a result.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Replacing Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan's his first spring training appearance with soreness in his surgically repaired elbow raises the obvious question, if Nathan can't pitch to start the season who do the Twins put in the closer's role. Almost anyone in the bullpen could be a candidate on a short term basis. Here is the list in rough order of likelihood:

Jon Rauch - The role of closer is one that puts a lot of pressure on a pitcher, as the veteran in the bullpen Rauch may be the most ready to step up in that role. He is not, by any means, the guy with the best stuff.

Jesse Crain - Based on his performance in a setup role, Crain would appear to be an unlikely candidate. But closers are a different breed. They pitch only one inning, go all out and need to handle pressure. Crain has pitched in that role in college and the minor leagues and his stuff might well hold up better under the lighter load of closing.

Clay Condrey - Like Rauch, he is veteran. Like Rauch, he really lacks the stuff to be a closer.

Pat Neshek - I would rate him higher, but having not appeared at all in the big leagues for a couple years it seems unlikely that he is ready to step in immediately in the closer role. He needs to be eased back into the role.

Jose Mijares - He has the stuff. He is a lefty. But he struggled in the pressure of the pennant race last fall. He does not yet appear to have the maturity and bulldog makeup of a closer. He may not be ready, but then no one else is either.

Matt Guerrier - In some ways, he should be at the top of this list. But I think his promotion to closer would be the peter principal at work. He can be a solid setup guy, but his stuff is not lights out and is not likely to improve in the closer role.

Francisco Liriano - He has the stuff, but he looks to be a potential ace in the rotation.

Anthony (corrected) Swarzak - He has the stuff to pitch in that role, but he may not be ready for the major leagues. Its hard to imagine the Twins putting a rookie in that role. Especially one who has struggled at the major league level.

Glen Perkins - I think he is more likely to be trade bait for a closer than to be handed the job.

Brian Duensing - I don't think they are going to move him out of the rotation and he isn't really closer material anyway.

One thing I think is important to note. The light work load of the closer and the critical situations in which they are used often mean they get better results than the same pitcher pitching more often would in a setup role. So numbers alone don't telly you a lot about who will be able to do the job. Having great stuff helps. But being able to handle the pressure is even more critical. A guy who can't come back the next day after losing a game is a disaster in the closer role where almost every time they are out there they are preserving a win the rest of the team has achieved. Three straight meltdowns can have the whole team pressing. With Reardon, Aguilera and Nathan, the Twins have not seen a lot of that in the past twenty five years. But anyone who remembers Ron Davis, or the brief period in the mid-90's when various pitchers struggled in the closer role, Nathan's arm troubles are alarming.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Is Denard Span Irreplaceable?

Ron Gardenhire and others have commented on the fact that the Twins don't have a candidate to back up Denard Span in center field who is likely to make the roster. In fact, unless Ben Revere made the leap from A ball to the major leagues in a single season, they don't really have any candidates to play center field every day in the entire organization. If Span went down today, its possible Jacque Jones would be out in center field opening day. Jones has not been a center fielder in almost a decade.

What has not been commented on is Span's role in the offense. Not only do the Twins lack a center fielder, but they lack any other players who fit the leadoff role. The next best guy with the combination of on base percentage and speed is proablay Nick Punto. Hudson gets on base, but he is slow and really much better suited to the number two spot. Harris doesn't get on base enough and lacks speed. Casillas? He needs to win a spot on the roster and he isn't an on base guy. The best guy is probably Joe Mauer - just like he is the best number two hitter, number three hitter ...

This lack of organizational depth at AAA in two critical areas is actually alarming. Putting Michael Cuddyer out in center field between Jason Kubel and Delmon Young is going to give the Twins perhaps the worst defensive outfield in baseball. A lineup with Nick Punto at the top looks a lot less formidable, especially if some of the other question marks, like JJ Hardy, come up with negative consequences.

There is a lot riding on Denard Span staying healthy. 

Friday, February 26, 2010

10 Myths about Steroids in Baseball

Myth 1) Steroids were not against the rules. 

Using steroids to enhance performance has been illegal in the United States for a very long time. This is like arguing there was no rule against knee-capping your opponent in skating so Tanya Harding boyfriend's knee-capping of Nancy Kerrigan was within the rules.

Myth 2) Steroids don't really help performance, at least not in baseball

Of course no one makes this argument any more. But it was a favorite for a while. Occasionally it gets resurrected in arguments about admitting Mark McGwire to the HOF.  Of course steroids by themselves don't have any effect, but used in the context of an exercise program they can and do have a dramatic effect.

Myth 3) Steroid use started in the late 90's

While we have no idea who first used steroids in baseball, their use in sports started at least in the 1970's. Given there are hundreds of players who see their dream of being a major league player disappearing and the difference in salary between being a AAAA player and  major league regular, you have to assume they started getting used in baseball pretty early. In the 1980's guys had started to show up in major league camps with 30 pounds of additional muscle from "hitting the weights" in the off-season. We started hearing about the benefits of "modern weight training". Its not clear that any of those terms were more than euphemisms for body-building techniques using drugs to enhance performance.

Myth 4) Steroid users are obvious, because they will immediately pop up to look like Arnold Swarznegger

While Swarznegger and other body builders made steroids popular, the effect they have depends on what exercises go along with them. Roger Clemens never really had that "steroid build", but his workouts were focused primarily on building leg strength.  The fact that a guy doesn't look like Hulk Hogan does not mean he isn't using steroids. On the other hand, if he does look like Hulk Hogan its not unlikely he is.  

Myth 5) Jose Canseco's accounts couldn't be trusted

This is arguable I suppose. Maybe there are other reasons to mistrust Canseco. But all sorts of people who attacked Canseco have turned out to be liars themselves. While not every one of Canseco's accounts have been confirmed, there aren't any that have been credibly disproved either. 

Myth 6) The ball was juiced

This was a claim made repeatedly during the steroid era to explain the sudden power surge. We now know there was another explanation. Its time to put the juiced ball myth to bed. 

Myth 7) Steroids only help hitters

Roger Clemens is the poster boy for why this isn't true. But it is doubtful that he was the only pitcher who used. There are people who argue steroids have an even bigger impact on pitchers than hitters. Although the physical signs may not be there. All those aging pitchers who "kept themselves in shape" may have been doing more than eating right and getting proper exercise.

Myth 8) Sudden jumps in production are common in players over 30

Most players have had their most productive offensive year before age 27-28. If you look at the average numbers there is a sharp improvement in performance up until that point, a leveling off and then a decline after age 30-32. Of course averages don't apply here. Some players age more gracefully than others and outstanding players have maintained high levels of production into their late 30's. But the jumps we saw in guys like McGwire and Bonds are extraordinary, not only in the size of the increase but the time of their career when it happened. 

Myth 9) Lots of players develop from singles hitters to home run hitters as they mature and put on muscle. So big jumps in home runs are to be expected.

There is no doubt that home run power develops later as players put on their "man muscles", as Torii Hunter refers to them. We saw that again with Joe Mauer. But that power potential is usually obvious. The players have the frame and gap power that projects to home run power. When a player hits 25-30 more home runs in one year than they ever have in the past, that is not a normal development pattern. It may have happened without the help of drugs, but not very often.

Myth 10) Baseball has cleaned up its act

While there is now steroid testing, it is not 100% effective at catching people who use steroids. In addition, there is no test for HGH (which, like steroids, some people now claim doesn't actually help performance). 

The larger problem is that baseball has not really rejected steroids the way they did gambling after the Black Sox episode. The players who were associated with that scandal were barred from baseball for life - in fact even after they died. Players who used steroids have been allowed to continue to play as if nothing happened. Admitted steroid abusers like Mark McGwire are hired to coach young players and  held up as role models for the next generation. While apologizing for using steroids, McGwire talks about how they helped extend his career.  Tony LaRussa and Mark McGwire keep blaming everybody but  Mark McGwire for his problems.The most recent person to "victimize" McGwire is his brother. McGwire claims his brother is lying too. 

For baseball, steroids is a PR problem. The clear message to players - don't get caught and if you do, apologize and it won't damage your career. If you expose your teammate's use, you will be ostracized and publicly defamed as a liar like Jose Canseco. The goal is to sweep the problem under the rug and hope it will disappear from public view. But that is dangerous both for the sport, and for young players faced with their career ending who hear the siren song of Mark McGwire, "at least it extended my career".

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Was Puckett on Steroids?

We hear about the side effects of steroid use, but mostly we see the positive ones. Mark McGwire destroys the historic home run mark and Barry Bonds destroys McGwire's new record. The negative side-effects are described as abstract "possibile side effects". But they are not only possible, they actually happen. But, like Bonds, McGwire and other players steroid use, openly discussing those impacts will not promote the game of baseball. The result is a "conspiracy" of silence that leaves many young people unaware of the real impact steroids can have.

The story of Kirby Puckett's career is that it ended "tragically" when he developed glaucoma. But there is an elephant in the room. Here is just one of many links that discuss the connection between steroid use and glacuoma and cataracts:

"With long-term use of steroids, cataracts or glaucoma may develop."

Moreover, Puckett ultimately died of a stroke. Strokes are another known potential side effect of abuse of steroids.

So is there evidence in Puckett's career of the kind of jolt in productivity that we now see as evidence of potential steroid use? The answer is yes - in spades.After hitting a total of  4 home runs in his first two full seasons ( and 41 doubles) in 1300 plate appearances, in 1986 at the age of 26 Puckett power suddenly "emerged" with 31 home runs and 37 doubles in 723 plate appearances. His strikeouts increased, his walks declined, but his batting average improved by 40 points from 1985. Puckett had gone from a 5'8" singles hitter to the next Hack Wilson in a single season.

Of course that doesn't "prove" Puckett was using steroids, any more than Bonds and McGwires power surge proved they used steroids. And Puckett's fans will use that as a defense, just as Bonds and McGwire fans did when the obvious signs of steroid abuse were pointed out to them. But there is plenty of evidence that Puckett's career end and death were both the elements of a classic greek tragedy, that which makes you great will bring you down.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Twins Rotation

This is going to be short because the rotation battle is pretty clearly defined:

Certain barring injury:

All but certain:
Until he shows he is healthy and able to pitch, last years injury leaves some questions. No one expects that to be a problem, but he has said he still has some pain and that is never a good sign.

Fifth Spot:

Everyone wants Liriano to take this spot by demonstrating he is back to his 2006 form. The other two primary candidates are Perkins and Duensing and neither one can compete with a 2006 Liriano. Assuming Liriano is something more than last ear but less than 2006, Perkins is probably next in line based on experience. But the more Gardy talks, the less I think he is really ready to put last year behind him. Duensing pitched well in the rotation last year. But its not clear if he can do that over a full season. The other two candidates, Swarzak and Manship, are longshots. Swarzak got the rotation call before Duensing last year, so a good spring training and continued struggles by the lefties could put him in contention. Manship is probably more showcasing himself for an early callup, but if the others all stumble he is a very longshot if he steps up his game. 

Sixth Spot: Obviously this is one of the losers in the group above. But it is important to remember that getting through the season with five starters would be very unusual. Whether the Twins hang onto Perkins may depend on whether one of the other pitchers is clearly ready to step in. If there is stiff competition for the fifth spot in the rotation, then Perkins may be gone. But if the 5th spot is filled by default, they may hang onto Perkins as the only guy who has shown he can pitch successfully in the major leagues, even if he isn't their first choice. That is also true, if Liriano takes the job, but Duensing and Swarzak struggle.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Top 20 Prospects in Twins Camp

The Twins catchers and pitchers start workouts Monday, so spring training is finally here. In addition to the issues of who will make the roster there are a number of prospects in camp. Most may not have much chance at a roster spot but are trying to show they are close enough to get called on if someone is hurt or fails. So here is a list, based on how likely they are to contribute this year. Obviously to contribute, they first need to get the opportunity, but they also need to be ready t take it.

1. Jose Morales - I think he is almost a lock to be the second catcher if healthy.

2. Brian Duensing - He is going to be in the competition with Perkins and Liriano for the fourth rotation spot and the seventh spot in the bullpen. He looked ready at the end of last year and will likely be the first guy called up if someone goes down even if he fails to make the staff out of spring training.

3. Drew Butera - I think he only needs an opportunity. The roto folks will never consider him a contributor because of his lack of offense. But his defense will make him a contributor as the second catcher.

4. Ben Revere - This may be a stretch, but I think by the end of the season Revere is going to be ready to contribute at the major league level. With the Twins thin in the outfield, especially center field, I think Revere has a shot at contributing in September even if there are no openings before then. By mid-season he may be the first choice if Span goes down.

5. Anthony Swarzak - After Duensing, I think Swarzak is the guy closest to being ready to help if there is an opening on the pitching staff. That could be as a starter or a reliever.

6. Alex Burnett - I think its likely Burnett will see time in the bullpen by the end of the season. He is close to ready and a season at AAA is going to put him over the top by September.

7. Jeff Manship - Manship may be ahead of Burnett on the opportunity list, but behind him in his chances to contribute if given the opportunity.

8. Rene Tosoni - He is ahead of Revere in his development and the thin outfield gives him a chance of helping early in the year. The bigger question is whether he can take any opportunity he gets.

9. Wilson Ramos - I think he is fourth on the depth chart and probably not quite ready, but if Mauer went down he might be the guy with the combination of defense/offense the Twins need. If it is later in the year he may be ready to step up and take the opportunity.

10. Luke Hughes - Hughes has one tool, a right-handed bat with developing power. He is getting to the age where that power could be enough to give him a shot if something happens to Thome.

11. Danny Valencia - He could win a roster spot out of spring training. He could also continue his AAA and winter ball struggles. I am skeptical he can contribute this year even with the opportunity.

12. Rob Delaney - Like Valencia, I am not sure Delaney can take the opportunity but he is likely to get a shot at some point.

13. Trevor Plouffe - Unless JJ Hardy gets hurt or his defense fails completely, Plouffe doesn't have much chance. He might get a callup in September but is not likely to be a contributor.

On roster, but no real chance, Estarlin de Los Santos, Loek Van Mil and Delios Guerra are protected on the roster but both would need tremendous breakouts to get to the big leagues, much less be ready to contribute.

14. Anthony Slama - Slama has a shot at getting a callup in the bullpen, but again his actually contributing is less likely.

15. Kyle Waldrop - Not ready yet, but could be by the end of the season.

16. Brock Peterson - he may get a callup, but he is unlikely to be able to contribute much

17. Juan Portes - a long shot to get a chance, his bat might contribute if he is given one.

18. Jose Lugo - a lefthander who could contribute to the bullpen in that role

19. Mike Maroth - another lefthander

There are several additional players in camp who are there to fill out spring training rosters. I think the remaining catchers, Daniel Lehman, Danny Rams and Jair Fernandez fit that role. Likewise Toby Gardenhire, Brian Dinkelman and Steve Singleton.

20. Chris Parmelee is unlikely to be ready to help in the major leagues this year but he could break out and, like Hughes, his power is the kind of tool that can contribute at the major league level for a short period.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

How Old Are They?

I am often surprised by the relative age of players. I think of guys like Rauch being old while Guerrier as young. Here is a list of the Twins roster sorted by date or birth, oldest to youngest. Joe Mauer is still in the younger half of the 40 player roster. Delmon Young would live up to his name even if he was still a prospect  fighting for a roster spot. It makes you realize just how much better this team can still get.

Jim Thome 08/27/70
Joe Nathan 11/22/74
Clay Condrey 11/19/75
Carl Pavano 01/08/76
Nick Punto 11/08/77
Orlando Hudson 12/12/77
Matt Guerrier 08/02/78
Jon Rauch 09/27/78
Michael Cuddyer 03/27/79
Brendan Harris 08/26/80
Pat Neshek 09/04/80
Justin Morneau 05/15/81
Jesse Crain 07/05/81
Scott Baker 09/19/81
Nick Blackburn 02/24/82
Matt Tolbert 05/04/82
Jason Kubel 05/25/82
J.J. Hardy 08/19/82
Jose Morales 02/20/83
Brian Duensing 02/22/83
Glen Perkins 03/02/83
Joe Mauer 04/19/83
Drew Butera 08/09/83
Francisco Liriano 10/26/83
Denard Span 02/27/84
Kevin Slowey 05/04/84
Alexi Casilla 07/20/84
Luke Hughes 08/02/84
Rob Delaney 09/08/84
Loek Van Mil 09/15/84
Danny Valencia 09/19/84
Jose Mijares 10/29/84
Jeff Manship 01/16/85
Anthony Swarzak 09/10/85
Delmon Young 09/14/85
Trevor Plouffe 06/15/86
Estarlin De Los Santos 01/20/87
Alex Burnett 07/26/87
Wilson Ramos 08/10/87
Deolis Guerra 04/17/89

What does K/9 Measure

You will sometimes see the statistic k/9 (strikeouts/nine innings) called a pitcher's "strikeout rate". People will talk about this as "how often" a pitcher strikes batters out. The idea is that innings are a measure of opportunities a pitcher has to strike out batters and the strikeouts are how often they are successful. But, in fact, innings measure how many outs a pitcher got whether he had the opportunity to strike out 10 batters or 3. So k/9 actually measures the percentage of outs a pitcher gets  that are by strikeout. This makes the idea of it as "strikeout rate"  a little odd. We don't, for instance, divide a batter's home runs by their hits to determine their 'home run rate".

Does this matter? I think it does. Because there are two things that effect k/9. It goes up when a pitcher strikes a batter out and it goes down when they induce an out. A high k/9 may be caused by the ability to strike batters out or by the inability to induce batters to make feeble hits. The average ball in play  goes for a hit (minus home runs) about 30% of the time - for statheads the major league BABIP is about .300. If you are below average in that regard, as Randy Johnson was, you will need to strike out a higher percentage of the batters you face to be successful. But Johnson is a rarity, most successful pitchers are above average at inducing outs and the best pitchers are usually good at both. If you have a pitcher with a high K/9 you need to look at the hits they are giving up to determine whether that reflects a great strikeout artist or just an inability to get people out any other way.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Wishful Thinking

The claim made often is that, on paper, the Twins look like favorites in the AL central. But that is not only "on paper", it seems to be based on optimistic projections for almost every player in the lineup. Who are the players most likely to disappoint? Here is a semi-pessmistic list of players who could disappoint. Of course injuries and high expectations could make any player a disappointment, but these are players who seem to be most likely to not to quite live up to Twins fans hopes:

JJ Hardy. Almost every evaluation of the Twins has Hardy hitting and fielding the way he did a couple years ago.  But last year Hardy really struggled offensively and there are reports his defense has slipped as he has matured. He no longer has the range to be a plus at shortstop. Even Hardy's lose season averages last year may be optimistic, inflated by one hot month. If he continues to struggle the Twins will have a huge hole at shortstop.

Delmon Young: The Twins outfield looks solid, but it depends on Delmon Young hitting the way he ended the season, not the way he started out. That is a reasonable hope, but again until Young shows he can use his potential over a full season it is not a certainty. If he doesn't, with Gomez gone there are not a lot of options available to fill the hole. We may see Kubel in left and Thome at DH more than we want.

Jim Thome: Thome is old. He faded at the end of last season and didn't do very well in a pinch hit role. Its possible he will not be able to find his swing with irregular playing time for the first time in his career. Its also possible that fade was not a fluke, that pitchers found they could challenge him in ways they avoided to start the year.

Orlando Hudson:. Its not clear whether Hudson slipped and lost his job or if Joe Torre just decided to ride the hot bat in the playoffs. But it is a bit suspicious when an all-star,  gold glove defensive infielder is replaced in mid-season no matter how hot the other player's bat. Hudson is slow and his "gold glove" defense may not be what it was. If his OBP slips, the excitement about him in the number two spot in the order could fade to disappointment at a base blogging runner who fails to score even when he gets on base.

Kevin Slowey: Slowey is being counted on to fill a spot in the rotation, but reported his wrist was still sore form his surgery which had two screws put in it. Its possible that will change his delivery or effect his control.

Francisco Liriano The spring hype about Liriano's return to his 2006 form could turn out to be just that and Liriano will struggle the same as last year.

Michael Cuddyer  Cuddyer really stepped up when Morneau was hurt. Its not clear he can sustain that over an entire season. He could contribute to a disappointing outfield.

Carl Pavano. Pavano's arrival really transformed the pitching staff last year. Or maybe it didn't, but it coincided with improvement in the rest of the staff. Pavono may not be quite the pitcher some people have projected and he could easily follow a long line of disappointing veterans. He is not really an "inning eater". Instead he is a solid mid to back rotation starter. If he is asked to step up to the number two or three spot in the rotation he may not be up to it.

Joe Nathan  Nathan is going to start slipping at some point. This could be the year and the Twins don't really have anyone to take his place.

The rest of the bullpen:  The Twins bullpen looks solid, but ... any or all of its members could disappoint. Relief pitching is always high risk and the Twins are counting on a number of players who have had their ups and downs.

Of course there are also some players who could step up and surprise us. If you look at that list there is good reason for Twins fans optimism. Except for Hardy and Young, the downside for most of these players is either unlikely or not catastrophic.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Nick Punto

Nick Punto has been a very good player for the Twins. He has contributed to their long run of success since he arrived in 2004, handling three different positions with exceptional defense. Because he is so flexible, the Twins have been able to fill out an infield with the best available players at the other positions, knowing Punto can fill in wherever needed.

While his defense is outstanding, on offense Punto has had his ups and downs. He lacks any power, so his already low batting averages some years have been even emptier. Where he makes up for that is by working pitchers. There were several times last year that the top of the order benefited from a pitcher who was cruising along until worn down by Punto. He is not an easy out and that is reflected in his decent on base percentages even when his batting average is down.

He has not been particularly durable. When asked to play 150 games in 2007, he had his worst offensive year. Bad enough that even his stellar defense didn't make up for his lack of offense. That is largely the basis of all the abuse he gets. But he recovered with a lighter work load in 2008 and 2009. Still his durability is something to keep in mind this year when he will likely share third base with Brendan Harris.

Some people would call Punto the quintessential utility player. But he is really better than that. He is not Cesar Tovar, but he's not Al Newman either to name a couple of past Twins payers with similar versatility. Utility players don't get 400+ at bats year after year.

This may well be Punto's last year with the Twins. He is losing some of his defensive prowess as he ages and the Twins have Matt Tolbert ready to replace some of what he brings to the table. But he has served the Twins and their fans well up until now. It would be great if he could leave with a World Series ring.

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