Friday, July 29, 2011

Division Race

August 23, 2011

Division Leader's (Detroit's) Pace - 88 wins

Twins winning percentage needed to get to 88 wins - .942

August 18, 2011

Division Leader's (Detroit's) Pace - 86 wins

Twins winning percentage needed to get to 86 wins - .800

August 3, 2011

Division Leader's (Detroit's) Pace - 86 wins

Twins winning percentage needed to get to 86 wins - .679

August 1, 2011

Division Leader's (Detroit's) Pace - 86 wins

Twins winning percentage needed to get to 86 wins - .667

July 30, 2011

Division Leader's (Detroit's) Pace - 86 wins

Twins winning percentage needed to get to 86 wins - .643

July 29, 2011

Division Leader's (Detroit's) Pace - 85 wins

Twins winning percentage needed to get to 85 wins - .632

July 28, 2011

Division Leader's (Detroit's) Pace - 86 wins

Twins winning percentage needed to get to 86 wins - .638

July 26, 2011

Division Leader's (Detroit's) Pace - 86 wins

Twins winning percentage needed to get to 86 wins - .650

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Its Time to Take some Dynamite to the STRIB's Twin Coverage

This headline is a take off on a headline from today's Twins coverage on the Star Tribune web site. I haven't read the story, but there is a reason for that. Mostly what you get from the Strib is misinformation, speculation and pot-stirring that does more to mislead than inform. I suppose that isn't only true for their Twins coverage, but that is a different subject.

Competition from the internet has pushed the "professional" journalists into little more than blogging fans. Its impossible to distinguish between what is their own speculation and what is reporting from talking to Twins officials. Worse, because they get paid to attract readers, the stories are increasingly sensationalized. They reflect the emotions in the comments section of the daily paper, rather than providing any analysis. Lets look at each of four writers who regularly "report" or comment on the Twins:

Lavelle Neal

In his youth, Neal reported what he heard from Twins officials. Often reading his reports would provide insights into the management and front office's thinking. But that was years ago before he got his legs under him. Now it appears he simply finds some source that will confirm his own opinions. Worse are the attempts to "buddy up" to fans. The goal seems to be less about giving fans information about the Twins and more creating an interesting media persona.

Joe Christiansen

Like Neal, Christiansen once provided news about the Twins. And like Neal, he now seems to mostly provide confirmation of his own speculation.

Howard Sinker

Sinker is a former Twins beat writer pretending to be "just a fan". At least what he imagines is just a fan. He was not really all that useful as a beat writer, as a pseudo-fan he is embarrassing. There are literally dozens of real fans out there who are blogging and tweeting their reactions to games. Sinker's stuff is just cynical pandering to fans emotions by someone who knows better.

Pat Reusse

Maybe I have been reading his stuff too long, all the way back to his start at the St. Paul paper. I actually laugh at some of his pandering. He is pretty transparent about using his column to stir the pot to get callers to his radio show. On the other hand, when he is only applying his cynicism to baseball and the Twins he provides a real counter-balance to his "fanboy" colleagues and bloggers. He actually does understand the game, has been around long enough not to get excited about some kid tearing up things at AAA and doesn't get fooled by the Twins PR.

When he isn't being self-consciously cynical, he is a pretty good reporter and analyst. On the other hand, there need to be more times like that. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be what the STRIB is looking for.

My favorite Reusse column was attacking the Twins for a roster move, after having spent half a season urging them to make that same move. He was, afterall, just a scribbler for the local paper. But it was a stupid thing to do and the "professionals" in Twins management should have known better. I liked that level of self-awareness and not taking himself too seriously. Unfortunately, far too many fans do take him, and others, seriously.

Anyway, now is the time for the STRIB to start thinking about next year's coverage. They have a bunch of talent in their "bloggers" section that could easily produce more with a press pass and a little money. Twinsgeek is a real fan, not a fake version. Hand Seth Strohs a press pass and have him do reports on the Twins minor leagues. Find someone who wants to report on Twins games, not the stadium food and local restaurants.

In the meantime, I pretty much ignore what appears in the STRIB. It isn't realiable and you will hear it repeated all over the web anyway. The best Twins news coverage is actually on the Twins site itself. And there are a lot better and more interesting commentaries on the internet than the STRIB offers.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Why Twins aren't Sellers

The Twins are 8 losses behind Detroit and there are some people who think they should throw in the towel. The deadline for trading players without passing them through waivers is this Sunday. The idea would be for the Twins to try to ship off some of their veteran players for young prospects who might be able to help in the future.

Given their record over the last month, I don't think the Twins are in sell mode. Any trades they make over the next week ought to be looking to strengthen the team for the stretch run. They have been winning without Span and Morneau With both of them back in the lineup in September the Twins should be able to take a hard run at whoever is in first place if they can get even a couple games closer before then.

The central need for the Twins is the same as most other contenders. They need pitching. Making deals for a couple relievers would go a long way toward eliminating their major weakness.

I don't think they should give up top prospects for rental players. But while they may not want to go "all in", the Twins should still be in. Its not time to throw in the towel and starting to look to future seasons.

Kyle Gibson

Who had the idea that Kyle Gibson was going to be called up this season? As far as I can tell, it was an invention of the media blogsphere. No one with the Twins was saying anything like that on the record and I doubt they said it off the record either.

It was obvious from the start of the season that a callup was unlikely unless something extraordinary happened. The Twins rotation was already six deep with proven major league starters. Regardless of how Gibson pitches at Rochester, he is likely going to have a learning curve once he gets to the big leagues. The middle of a pennant race is hardly the point at which you start that process.

They don't need to add him to the roster this fall. What possible purpose would it serve to call him up unless he is absolutely dominating every hitter he faces. He didn't do that last year even at lower levels. He is a solid prospect and will likely nail down a rotation spot at some point. But that happening this year was always very unlikely.

Liriano Overvalued

Francisco Liriano has been one of the players most overvalued by Twins fans. Part of this is the flashes of dominance that happen occasionally. Part of it is that many fans overvalue strikeouts. Liriano is one of the few Twins starters who often depends on strikeouts for his success. Although that was not the case in his no hitter, leading one local blogger to suggest it wasn't such a great game. Arguing he was more dominant in a game where he struck out more batters, but gave up several hits and runs. But while strikeouts are nice, more outs by any method and fewer hits and walks lead to fewer runs.

Liriano's problem is that, while he is brilliant at times, he is not consistent. What you are looking for in an "ace" is a stopper. A guy who ends a losing streak, virtually guarantees you seven innings to rest the bullpen and will consistently give the team a good chance to win. Liriano does none of those things. He is a good pitcher, who fits nicely into the middle of the rotation. But the top of the Twins rotation are guys like Baker and Pavano who are more likely to get batters out consistently. Of course, what you really want is a guy like Johan Santana who could both dominate and do it consistently. But those guys are few and far between. If they stay healthy, they end up in the Hall of Fame. Liriano does not appear to be in that category.

Pennant Race Update

Here is the current state of the Twins efforts to get back in the pennant race as of July 25, 2011:

Division Leader's (Tigers) Pace - 87 wins
Twins winning percentage needed to get to 87 wins - .656

This is the highest percentage of wins they have needed since July 7th when it was .658. You can see the history and get updates this at the link above.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Understanding Statistics - IP, K/9, ERA

One of the most misunderstood statistics is IP, "innings pitched", for pitchers. This misunderstanding then extends to a variety of other statistics which are based on it including K/9 (strikeouts per nine innings) and ERA (earned run average)

Formulas: IP=Outs/3 , K/9=K/(Outs/27), ERA=ER/(Outs/27)

Explanation: IP, "innings pitched", is a measure of how many outs were achieved while a pitcher is on the mound. Because there are three outs in an inning, the number of outs is divided by three.

Of course, an actual "inning" starts with no outs and ends with the third out. This is not the case with "innings pitched". A pitcher may have pitched in multiple innings and still have one or fewer IP.

K/9 measures the proportion of outs made by strikeout.

ERA measures the number of earned runs allowed proportional to the outs achieved while the pitcher is on the mound.

Statistical Artifacts:

Innings Pitched (IP) is a pretty straight forward. Its only important to remember that a double play, pick off, outfield assist etc. can all produce outs with little or no real pitching involved. Its theoretically possible to have an "inning pitched" without throwing a single pitch.

With K/9, the fewer outs a team makes, the higher a pitcher's K/9 will be for the same number of strikeouts. In other words, there are two ways to increase a K/9, one is more strikeouts, the other is making fewer outs.

ERA uses "earned runs". I am not going to spend a lot of time explaining the details of earned runs. But it is important to understand that once an error would have made the third out in an inning, the rest of the runs are "unearned" regardless of how they score. The second oddity is that, while outs are attributed to the IP of the pitcher who is on the mound when the out was made, runs are attributed to the pitcher who put the runner on base.

Why we should care:

IP is actually a pretty good measure of the quality of a starter. Obviously the goal of a pitcher is to get outs and IP measures that. Moreover, a team will need to get a certain number of outs in each game and season. That number is relatively fixed, varied from team to team only by extra inning games and home/road records. So a relief pitcher will need to get every out a starter doesn't get.

K/9 provides a general idea of how heavily a pitcher relies on strikeouts. To the extent there are productive outs for hitters, those outs are unproductive for the pitcher. So there are situations where a strikeout is better than an out. If two pitchers have the same number of outs, the one who gets more of them by strikeout is likely going to be more successful.

ERA is generally useful for evaluating starting pitchers. The better pitchers tend to have better ERA's. For relief pitchers it is a lot less reliable, both because of the statistical artifacts and sample size issues.

Why we shouldn't care:

Comparisons of innings pitched stop being very meaningful with less than about 160 IP. It is hard to pitch more than that without being somewhat successful, although obviously that success. But below 160, what happened while the pitcher got those outs becomes more and more important.

The central goal of a pitcher is to get batters out. How they do that doesn't matter as much as how often. K/9 measures the how, not the how often.

ERA is one of those statistics that means something in context. But single season ERA's are easily distorted by outlier components. Consider a season where a pitcher pitcher has 180 IP. That is 20 games of 9 IP. A single outing where a pitcher gives up 10 earned runs will raise their season's ERA by .50.

How its used or misused:

What is important to realize is that IP is no more a measure of how much a pitcher pitched, than the number of hits or walks. It is a way of measuring a specific result, the number of outs, while they are on the mound. The number of outs, of course, depends on the quality of the pitcher's fielders and the ballpark, as well as the pitcher's own contributions.

To understand how k/9 can be misused, take this blog comment complaining about the Twins closer:

"It's (Twins closer Matt Capp's) 5.3 K/9IP rate on the season. Consistent success is almost unachievable for a reliever allowing that much contact."

In fact, K/9 does not measure how much contact a reliever allows. It ignores hits entirely. This is probably partially the BABIP myth I discussed in an earlier post. But it is also misunderstanding of k/9. A simple example.

Two pitchers both face six batters:

Pitcher1 strikes out 2, gets a ground out and gives up three hits.

Pitcher2 two strikes out 3 and gets three ground outs.

Pitcher1's k/9 is 18

Pitcher2's k/9 is 13.5

Pitcher2 had fewer balls in play and struck out a higher percentage of batters faced but has a lower k/9.

Plouffe, Capps, Slowey and other Issues

Like many AAA players, Trevor Plouffe has nothing left to prove at AAA. The one thing they haven't done is prove they belong in the big leagues. Of course, that requires getting the chance. In Plouffe's case, he got that chance and the big league manager decided he didn't belong. At least not as the starting shortstop. At least, not yet. Of course hot minor league seasons will always lead to calls for a player to be elevated to the big leagues by impatient fans. But AAA success is only one indicator for whether a player will make it in the big leagues. 

I have always been a Plouffe fan. He has been on my top ten Twins prospect list for the last few years and last winter I had him as the Most Underrated Twins Prospect. He is starting to show the power that he was projected to have. His problem is that he lacks a defensive position if he can't play shortstop. Since being sent back to AAA, the Twins have had him playing in the outfield for the first time. Whether his bat plays there or not, the Twins don't have a lot of openings in the outfield. If Nishioka continues to struggle, the Twins may decide to give Plouffe another shot at shortstop. But that seems unlikely. If the Twins thought his defensive flaws were correctable, he would be playing shortstop every day at AAA. Instead they seem to be experimenting with him at other positions.

The other mini-controversy is who should be closing games for the Twins. Capps had been lifted in his last two outings in order to bring in Perkins to face a left hander. That can't continue. You can't hold Perkins in reserve to bail out Capps if he gets in trouble. Its obvious that for now the Twins are going to keep Capps in the closing role. Giving up on him is not really an option. They need for him to be successful if they are going to get back in the race. But, like Rauch last year, if he continues to scuffle they will make a move. The question then will be whether that is Nathan, Perkins or someone outside the organization. That is unlikely to happen until after the allstar break.

Kevin Slowey pitched last night. His next start would be Sunday, just before the allstar break. Sunday is also Scott Baker's next scheduled start if he is healthy. If he isn't the Twins will need to decide whether to go with Swarzak as a replacement or activate Slowey. My guess is that they will go with Swarzak and give Slowey another game at AAA. But the Twins are also going to need a 6th starter for a double header against Cleveland Monday after the Allstar break.  If he pitches well on Sunday, I would expect Slowey to take that start. What happens after that is anyone's guess. As Baker's injury reminds us, having depth in the rotation is always important. But its hard to imagine sending a solid major league starter like Slowey to AAA.

Danny Valencia has suddenly gotten hot. If he can sustain his recent burst of offense it will make a huge difference over the second half of the season. Its another hopeful sign that the Twins are going to make a race of it. 


Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Understanding Statistics- BABIP

This is the first of series analyzing statistics that are commonly used, and misused, by statistically inclined baseball fans. Last weekend I posted an article criticizing the misuses of BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) so I will start there.

Formula: (H-HR)/(AB-(HR+SO)+SF) (hits-home runs)/(at bats-(home runs+ strike outs)+sacrifice flies)

Explanation: The idea of BABIP is to measure how often a ball hit in the field of play turns into a hit. It is used to analyze pitchers, batters and occasionally team fielding.

Statistical Artifacts: All other things being equal, the more a player strikes out the higher their BABIP will be. Likewise, the more of a player's hits come from home runs, the lower their BABIP will be. These are what I call "statistical artifacts", how the act of measurement used effects the results. Whether there is any real difference between hitting the ball off the Green Monster or over it, one will improve a player's BABIP, the other won't.

Why we should care: Whether a batter makes a hit or an out is a combination of a lot of different factors, including some beyond the control of the pitcher or hitter. Like the outliers in any statistical measure, players with an extremely high or low BABIP are unlikely to sustain it from season to season.

Why we shouldn't care: The distinction between home runs and other hits is highly questionable. The idea is that fielders can't catch a home run (and it is therefore not "in play") while the performance of the fielder can turn a hit into an out or vice versa.

But this is really using a double standard. We have all seen hitters robbed of home runs by a leaping fielder. The home runs are the ones the fielder didn't reach. Of course, no fielder can jump 30 feet into the air on some home runs, its only the close ones that are really in play. But the same can be said of many hits. They were 15 feet over the head of the outfielder or shots through the infield. No fielder would have got to them. The adage "hit 'em where they ain't" has been part of baseball for a long time. The outfield bleachers are just one case of a place "they ain't".

How its used or misused: The most common use of BABIP and its major misuse is as a measurement of "luck". Like any baseball statistic, luck does effect the results. A single season of baseball is simply not enough to remove all meaningful random variations. Ted Williams was lucky to hit have hit .400. But there is a reason no one has done it since. The typical major league hitter, much less the Drew Butera's of the world, is not going to ever hit .400, lucky or not. Likewise, the typical player isn't going to have a BABIP of .400.

At the extremes we can be fairly confident what general effect luck had on the results. But, as with most baseball statistics, there is a lot of overlap where two players have the same BABIP but one was lucky and one was unlucky. That may be reflected in their BABIP relative to their previous career numbers. But you won't know that from the raw numbers from one season.

Like other statistics, the player's career trajectory needs to be taken into account. Improvement in a young player's BABIP over their previous career may result from real improvement in performance, while an older player's low BABIP may be a reflection of declining skills rather than bad luck.

In the case of pitchers, BABIP has been abused in the extreme. The suggestion has been made that pitchers have "little or no control" over whether a ball in play goes for a hit. This is not supported at all by the data. While good pitchers do have bad years when measured by BABIP, the career numbers of pitchers reflect a wide range of skills. With the best pitchers ending up with career numbers that are above average. As with hitters, all other things being equal, the more strike outs a pitcher has the higher their career BABIP will be. But even among high strike out pitchers, most good pitchers keep their BABIP below the league average of .300. To put this in perspective, there is not a single pitcher in the HOF whose BABIP is above that .300 mark.

This is not really surprising. Even among great strike out pitchers, two thirds of their outs come on balls in play. If you aren't getting anyone out the rest of the time, its going to be very difficult to make up for it with strike outs.

The use of BABIP for fielding is based in part on the claim about pitchers having no control over the results. If that were true, aside from luck, you might assume the biggest factor effecting BABIP is the team's fielding with the other big impact from park effects. Unfortunately, since pitching remains the biggest factor, BABIP is no more a measure of a team's fielding ability than any other measurement of results.

Conclusion: BABIP isn't really very useful in evaluating hitters or pitchers other than recognizing outliers. Its usefulness in evaluating teams fielding is based on a false premise. Its only really useful for winning arguments.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Is Phil Mackey really this big an idiot?

There is a new study by a group of scientists that concludes that reason is used to win arguments, rather than arrive at the truth.Here is a link to a NYT story about the study Reason Seen More as Weapon Than Path to Truth ( This certainly explains a lot about the use of baseball statistics and a lot of other "facts" we hear in the media and on the Internet.

Lets start with BABIP for hitters since this is the topic of a post on one of the local sports show blogs by a guy who apparently engages in amusing banter as the sabermetric guru with his dinosaur co-host as the foil. I say apparently, because I haven't actually ever wasted time listening to them. Here is the claim made on his blog:

"BABIP can vary depending on solidness of contact, luck, trajectory, etc., but it usually evens out over the course of a season for each individual hitter.

Even an elite hitter like Albert Pujols has a career BABIP of .312.

The word "lucky" might be too harsh.

Unsustainable? Yes.

To put Nishioka's .399 BABIP into context, no MLB hitter posted a mark that high in 2010. Austin Jackson led the league with a .396 BABIP, followed by Josh Hamilton (.390), Carlos Gonzales (.384) and Joey Votto (.361). Only nine hitters posted a BABIP higher than .350.

Anything higher than .350 generally requires a great deal of help from the baseball gods -- or consistently facing teams with nine statues on defense."

So does hitting .400, but we no one calls Ted Williams a bum because he couldn't repeat the feat. Nishioka's BABIP was extraordinary last year. In fact, there were only 6 major league seasons between 1960 and 2005 where a player achieved those numbers. The players? Rod Carew, Roberto Clemente, Ichiro Suzuki, Derek Jeter, Willie McGee and Jose Hernandez. Four of those players either are in the HOF or likely will be and McGee and Hernandez were not exactly one season wonders.

There are many players who have had multiple seasons and even career BABIP in the .350 range. Albert Pujols just doesn't happen to be one of them. On the other hand Nishioka's fellow Japanases batting champion Ichiro Suzuki is. His career BABIP is .354. Rod Carew had a career BABIP of .359. Its no fluke of the baseball gods that they put up outstanding BABIP for a single season, it was just an outstanding display of the talent they demonstrated throughout their careers.

So lets for a moment take a look at Nishioka's BABIP if we started with a neutral question. How good is that? How have other players with that sort of success done? The answer is that if Nishioka had put up those numbers in the major leagues, he would have marked himself among the elite hitters in major league history. This is the exact opposite of the conclusion our intrepid media stathead arrived at.

The real question is how did the mythology that getting hits in play is mostly "luck" come from? How did it become an article of faith for the sports talk show host who made this claim without so much as a reality check. The answer is easy. It supports his point. He is trying to win an argument, not find truth.

Buyers? Sellers? Neither? Both?

There is a lot of speculation out there about whether the Twins will be "buyers or sellers" at the trade deadline. This is an annual game played by the junior GM's in the blogsphere who have speculative roto-style wheeling and dealing as a significant part of their enjoyment of the game.

To put things in perspective. The Twins need to gain 3 games per month in order to win the division. To match that pace they will need to be 5 games out at the end of July. But what if they are 7 games out? Then they need to pick up 4 games per month in August and September, much tougher but entirely impossible. How about 9 games out? Still tougher. Not impossible but almost requiring that the teams ahead of them tank. If both Cleveland and Detroit are 9 games up it is very, very unlikely the Twins can catch both of them no matter how well Morneau hit's when he returns.

I laid out those scenarios, because frankly the most likely spot for the Twins to be in at the trade deadline is exactly where they are now. Of course, they may have played themselves out of contention altogether. But it more likely they will be neither out of the division race, nor really in it either.

What that means for deals is that the Twins will be cautious buyers and perhaps willing sellers for immediate help. As willing sellers they have a surplus in the outfield and at DH with both Kubel and Cuddyer becoming free agents at the end of the year. They also are six deep in their rotation with a couple prospects (Swarzak and Gibson) who might be able to step in if someone is injured.

As cautious buyers, the bullpen is the most likely area for improvement. Dumatrait and Mijares being the obvious weak links at this point. Although, Burnett's recent performance indicates he might be settling in he is still an unproven commodity. Likewise, Nathan may or may not be ready to step in to late inning situations. But by the end of the month, the questions about Burnett and Nathan should be answered. Its also possible Mijares will right himself over the next month. But adding a quality reliever seems like the Twins most likely target.

The infield is the other area for improvement. This is where the "cautious" buyer part comes in. I don't think the Twins are going to be ready to do a deal for short term improvement at the expense of their long term plans. Nishioka and Casilla are the Twins future middle infield. Its doubtful they will mess with that unless one or both really collapses in July. Much the same can be said with Valencia, although his continued failures with the bat are starting to look like permanent flaws rather than a bad streak.

What we shouldn't expect is the Twins to make a Capps-Ramos deal, trading the future for short term help. Nor should we expect them to trade away players who are still important pieces of winning this year, like Capps, Pavano, Nathan ... , for a handful of prospects who might help down the road.

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