Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Spit-take! Mauer's MVP.

Baby Jesus wins MVP with crazy good numbers.  Here's some of the latest from around the world on our hometown hero's big award:

  • Patrick Reusse at the Star Tribune presents a hat-in-hand apology for his accusations in 2001.  Sort of. While Mauer's 2006 season should have satisfied even the stubborn of defenders of the draft-Prior crowd, the MVP award finally allows the crusty columnist to offer up a sincere apology...but then quickly disguised his folly in the same camp as those that insist on relocating Mauer from behind the plate: "You betcha, we members of the draft-Prior crowd were morons, although no more so than the na├»ve media types and masses of civilians insisting the wise course for the Twins was to move Mauer from behind the plate." Mr. Reusse, you drink your medicine and you drink it alone! 
  • It is an amazing turn around for Mauer from a year ago.  According to John Shipley's write-up at the Pioneer Press, Justin Morneau told reporters that his back was in such rough shape last November that Mauer could not get out of his car.
  • ESPN Rise, a magazine dedicated to all things high school sports, proclaimed Mauer the best high school athlete this decade in spite of playing just two years of sports (2000-2001).  
  • Confident that SI columnist Joe Posnanski has a man-crush on the Twins organization in general, starting with a bromance with manager Ron Gardenhire, Pos submits one of his patented curiously long posts dedicate to anointing Mauer the most coveted players on the planet - more so than Albert Pujols, but for good reason.  
  • Ken Davidoff of Newsday tweeted that the lone reporter that did not view Mauer as the league's MVP was Keizo Konishi. Konishi, a Seattle-based writer who declared Miguel Cabrera to be the league's most valueable player, will forever be known as the guy who did not understand what he was voting for.  Apparently, he was voting for "Most Likely to Get in a Drunken Knife Fight with Wife".
  • CBS Sports baseball writer Scott Miller heavily encourages the Twins to lock up Mauer now.  Like many national columnists, Miller placates the locals and resorts to Minnesota cliches like "when in the name of Lake Minnetonka...", "more Minnesotan than ice fishing..." and "maple-syrup coated voice".  That said, I would describe Miller's writing as "less substance than all of the CIS shows combined".  
  • Joe Christensen explores Mauer's current contract extension atmosphere with the Twins' front office.  Reportedly, the Twins are in contact with his agent, Robert Shapiro (father of Indians' GM Mark Shapiro), and are driving to get a contract in place before Christmas.  While Mauer's annual average salary could easily hit the $20 million mark, Christensen compares the Twins plight to that of the Rockies where they signed first baseman Todd Helton to a dehabilitating nine-year, $141.5 million contact chewing up 30 percent of Colorado's payroll.  In a very similar market to Denver, the Twins could experience the same type of handcuffing the Rockies are shackled with every free agent season, forcing a trade a Matt Holiday before his free agent year.  However, it should be noted that the Rockies have remained competitive through a very rich farm system and solid ROI's on trades like Holiday. 
  • I'm probably not the only one that has had enough of the Yankees playing the role of the guy-who-thinks-he-can-get-any-girl-in-the-bar, but if you are not LoHud Valley News's Sam Borden lusts after the Minnesota catcher in Yankee pinstripes.  Adds Borden, "Mmm. Yeah. Get me some..."
  • Meanwhile, Pioneer Press columnist and amateur psychologist Charley "Shooter" Walters plays the Endorsement Card, suggesting that the lure of added revenue on top of the AAV from the Nikes and Gatorades will entice Mauer to uproot from the plains and land square in New York City.  Shooter's unfounded hypothesis needless will send Yankees fans into a tizzy, much like this one from the Subway Squawkers.  
  • The honorable Peter Gammons at ESPN proclaims that the Twins chances of retaining Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau is "unlikely".  While a trade is certainly not off the table in the ensuing year, Morneau is locked in through 2013 and Mauer's when-not-if contract should keep him in Minnesota until at minimum until 2017 so the duo would play at least three more seasons together.  I would be very surprised to see Morneau actually finish his contract in Minnesota.  At the end of Morneau's contract, the lefty would be moving into his age-33 season which is when hitters have already begun to have broken down (especially heavier first baseman-types with no where else to move to except DH).  While he could still be a dangerous hitter, Morneau's trade value to the Twins would probably far exceed his extension value particularly if Mauer's contract is 30 percent of the payroll.



Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Why We Should Care About Pitching Independent of Fielding

When the 2009 AL Cy Young Award winner conceded during a press conference that he follows a lesser known three-letter acronym statistic (FIP) than the reigning mainstream accepted one (ERA), pundits took to the keyboards to either extol his virtues of being a forward-thinker or criticize his tomfoolery of shrouding himself in “new age” nonsense.   Why hesitation exists to embrace FIP is beyond my comprehension.  Yes, relinquishing what you are comfortable with is difficult, but it is worth it.  While it may be exhaustive to replace finely tuned DVD collection with a more elaborate BluRay, it makes the experience that much better.   But replacing ERA with FIP isn’t even comparable to DVD-BluRay, it’s like swapping Silent Film-for-BluRay, the technological upgradegoes leaps-and-bounds.
 
The analogy is fitting in more ways than one considering silent films were of the era in which ERA was first conceived.  The Earned Run Average, as Alan Schwarz notes in his book The Numbers Game, developed during a time in baseball when fielding was an adventure.  Balls were often booted due to little padding in gloves, roughly 21 fielding errors per game.  In 1867, a newspaper decided to label any run scored without the assistance of a fielding error to be an “earned” run.  This metric, as Schwarz states, would be the root of how we evaluate pitching.  Therefore, the ERA evolved from efforts to judge batters and fielders, not pitching.  This, readers, is back-asswards.
 
Still, nothing was officially tracked.  Henry Chadwick, the man credited with inventing the boxscore and was an avid and influential statistician, refused to associate earned runs with pitching.  As a man who edited numerous journals on baseball at the time, his rejection of the earned run stuck and pitchers were most commonly ranked by wins or winning percentage.
 
In 1912, the openings of Fenway Park and Tigers Stadium signified major changes in the game’s economic structures as ballparks transitioned away from their wooden predecessors.  The statistical game was changing too.  Several years prior, the Earned Run’s biggest opponent and vocal baseball forefather, Chadwich, passed away creating a void as the gatekeeper of statistics.  A National League secretary named John Heydler, who saw value in measuring pitching in some form, introduced a newly refined version of the Earned Run to the world.  Instead of figuring out the average of earned runs per game, Heydler used innings – which is why we divided by innings then multiplied by nine.
 
In essence, it took 45 years for baseball to recognize that pitching needed some form of measuring stick for pitching performance.   Yet, it has been another 97 years and much of the baseball world is still using to the same prehistoric assessment of pitching. 
 
Since 1912 there have been endless amounts of changes in the game – ranging from equipment to training to the pool of players to the field’s themselves – but pitching is still measured within the same confines that were established in 1867 with little irony towards what it was actually gauging.  Over the years, teams still invested heavily on pitchers with low-ERAs suspecting they would remain miniscule forever, rarely considering the quality of the eight other men on the field or the field itself.  Conversely, many pitchers with high-ERAs were unfairly accused of poor results when, in actuality, no one accounted for the statuesque fielders or bandbox of a stadium adversely effecting their averages.
 
In the late 1990s, sabermatician Voros McCracken went about solving that.  He theorized what we do know is that baseball doesn’t happen in a bubble; there are limitless amounts of possibilities once the ball leaves the bat and that pitchers had little authority on what happened once a hitter made contact.  Despite everyone’s preconceived notions that good pitchers could “control” where the ball goes once in play (i.e. A pitcher could get that double play groundball if he wanted to) McCracken’s studies found that to all be a bunch of malarkey: The best pitchers at limiting hits one year could very well be the worst next year.  The researcher then set out to isolate all pitcher-influenced items and remove all defense-influenced items from the number.  What were left were five categories: Walks, Strikeouts, Home Runs, Hit Basemen and Intentional Walks.  The formula used to calculate his newfound DIPS (Defense Independent Pitching Statistic) drew much debate but his thesis was accepted.  A few years later, Tom Tango, best known for authoring The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, messaged the DIPS into a more commonly known FIP (Fielding Independent Statistic) which we find readily available at Fangraphs.com.
 
Why would we want to use FIP instead of ERA? 
 
The objective of evaluating talent consistently is the biggest one.  While ERA can help identify a good season, it does not hold more predicative value.  Studies have found that the correlation between a pitcher’s FIP and his future success is stronger.
 
For example, fortunate fly ball pitchers blessed with spacious outfields and distant fences guarded by speedy outfielders often can produce misleading ERA numbers.  Jarrod Washburn’s 2009 stint in Seattle is a textbook version of this scenario.  In spite of having below-average strikeout rate and above-average contact, Washburn maintained a tiny 2.64 ERA while exercising a .225 batting average allowed.  How was a career 4.13 ERA pitcher shaving one-and-a-half runs off of his ERA?  Defense and home park.  As a pitcher that surrenders fly balls nearly 43% of the time, his average on those fly balls should have been closer to the league average of .223.  Instead, Washburn’s alignment of Franklin Gutierrez, Ichiro and Endy Chavez snared almost everything floating past the infield (.130 average on fly balls).  Likewise, Washburn avoided giving up long balls because his home field, Safeco, was 24th of the 30 MLB ballparks in home runs allowed.  Prior to departing for Detroit, the difference between his FIP and his ERA was nearly 1.20 points higher in favor of his FIP.  Unless given the exact set of circumstances he had in Seattle at the beginning of 2009, Washburn is destined not to repeat his early season success.
 
FIP can also help weed-out better than expected talent.  Carl Pavano’s rotund ERA of 5.10 in 2009 was misleading in the sense that he was a much better pitcher than seemed.  While in Cleveland, Pavano tallied a high strikeout total and a miniscule walk rate but was burdened by bad defense (one that posted a .670 DER versus a league average of .696) leading to additional runners circling the bases to score.  Few more outs have been converted behind him and Pavano’s ERA may have looked much cleaner.  The only dings in his FIP (4.00 – 11th in AL) came in the form of home runs allowed.  Before his trade to Minnesota, Pavano played in the most home run restrictive parks in ’09 (Progressive Field, 30th of 30) yet allowed 1.36 HR/G (well above league average of 1.03) while in Cleveland.
 
So what we know is that FIP does a better job of predicting a pitcher’s success (and his in-season performance) than that of ERA, nevertheless, it is frowned upon by the establishment when mentioned, much like those who questioned blood-letting in the 18th century.  It does take a handful of prominent people within the game to change the mindset - and having a Cy Young winner reference FIP certainly assisted in advancing the metric.  If nothing else, it sent tenured beat writers’ scrambling to Wikipedia to figure out what Greinke was talking about.  Hopefully for a team like the Twins, using the stat more will help them avoid a catastrophe like Washburn or grab another low-valued pitcher like Pavano.  

Sunday, November 15, 2009

OtB's Around the Central (11.15.09)

News and notes from the Twins interdivision rivals:

Chicago White Sox

  • Chicago struggled to find a serviceable leadoff hitter for much of the 2009 season. For the team’s first 34 games, the Sox employed a potpourri of hitters including Dwayne Wise, Jayson Nix, Brent Lillibridge and Chris Getz before settling on the prodigal Scott Podsednik. The 33-year-old Podsednick shored up the spot, hitting .303/.355/.416 in 121 games. Because of his age and free agent status, the White Sox showed interest in acquiring Angels’ leadoff man, Chone Figgins, as Podsednick’s replacement. Figgins, who was on base nearly 40% of his plate appearances (.395 OBP) at the top of a Los Angeles lineup that scored an average of 5.45 runs per game, was looking for a multi-year deal with an average annual value of $10M. Chicago’s GM, Kenny Williams, admitted that his budget does not have the flexibility to accommodate Figgins’s demands. ''We don't have that kind of money,” said Williams. “Sometimes the minor [free-agent deals] are the major ones, in my mind. How many Novembers have you heard that line?''
  • In spite of the Sox paying $950,000 to buy right fielder Jermaine Dye out from his $12M contract in 2010, Dye has kept the window open for a possible return. ''First of all, I could come back to the Sox,'' Dye said in a phone interview Tuesday. ''I talked to [White Sox general manager] Kenny [Williams], and negotiations could still go on.” Dye told the Chicago Sun-Times, “Kenny talked to me about the fact that his hands are tied as far as spending money, but ... I could sign for less.'' Dye, who will be 36 at the start of the 2010 season, hit a torrid .302/.375/.567 with 20 HR in the season’s first half before cooling off to a tepid .179/.293/.297 with just one home run after the All Star break. Combine his eroded defensive skills with late season productivity decline and it isn’t any surprise that the Sox were not willing to pay him $12M when he has not encroached that value since 2006 (when he was worth $11.8M according to fangraphs.com).
  • When the Sox traded Jim Thome to the Los Angeles Dodgers at the waiver trade deadline, the left-handed Twins killer hoped the door was still open for the lumbering DH’s return. "Everyone knows my feelings toward the White Sox," the Peoria native said to the Chicago Tribune. "I enjoyed it here. It's home." The 39-year-old slugger most comparable to Harmon Killebrew according to B-R.com’s similarity scores, Thome’s experienced four consecutive seasons of power decline, witnessing his slugging percentage drop from .598 to .563 to .503 to just .481 this past season. He may no longer be capable of swatting 40-home runs, yet Thome has shown the ability to get on-base at a 36% percent clip or higher (then again, once on base, Thome is an immoveable object). For a relatively low salary, an AL team can acquire a beer league softball hitter that can coax a walk or too.
  • Third baseman Gordon Beckham, who will likely move back to short in 2010, is being touted as potentially claiming the White Sox’s first Rookie of the Year since Ozzie Guillen won the award in 1985. After beginning the season in AA Birmingham, Beckham ascended to Chicago as Josh Fields failed to secure third base. In 103 games, the rookie infielder hit .270/.347/.460 with 17 home runs while driving in 63 runs and scoring 58 more himself.

Cleveland Indians

  • The Plain Dealer’s Indians’ columnist, Paul Hoynes, covers some extensive territory, discussing the 2010 roster and some potential moves the club might make while financially strapped. One item of interest is the whereabouts of Grady Sizemore come 2012. Cleveland holds an $8.5M club option on Sizemore, however, given the organization’s penchant for freeing up payroll, a trade in 2010 or 2011. Because the option year can be waived by Sizemore if traded, the motivation may be to move him sooner rather than later. Sizemore is coming off a season in which injuries crusted over his stellar progress, producing the lowest offensive season (111 OPS+) since his rookie year. Cleveland would need a big first-half to pump up his value in order to get a ROI for an MVP-caliber center fielder.
  • Hoynes also notes that it is very plausible that the Indians will attempt to move closer Kerry Wood before the 2010 season. Following a solid season in which the righty worked 66.1 innings while striking out 84 and converting 34 saves with the Chicago Cubs, the Indians inked Wood to a two year, $20.5M contract -- with a 2011 vesting option for an additional $11M if he works in 55 games in 2009 or 2010. Since he threw in 58 games in 2009, Wood is Indians property for three seasons at $31.5M – a steep price for a closer on a team struggling to win 75-games making him a perfect candidate to be moved for more inexpensive parts. Part of Wood’s problem in Cleveland was his reluctance to use his slider (just 3.8% versus 22.8% in ’08), instead he used a harder thrown cutter and curveball only to see hitters stop chasing pitches outside of the zone (20.2% in ’09 versus 31.3% in ’08) leading to more walks (from 2.44 in ’08 to 4.58 in ’09). Retuning his assortment might help reestablish the dominance but the dollars owed is a high price for the majority of teams.
  • With the Indians set to allow utility man Jamey Carroll to test the free agent market, there are rumblings of Cleveland bringing back fan favorite Omar Vizquel to fill a need as a backup infielder. While the 42-year-old Vizquel might not be able to match Carroll’s positional versatility or ability to get on base, Vizquel has played stellar defense in limited capacity (32.9 UZR/150 in 196.2 innings at short and 56.1 UZR/150 in 101 innings at third in ’09) in spite of his accelerated age. The Indians like the idea of acquiring Vizquel who played in Cleveland during the club’s banner years and have fallen on hard time attendance-wise, slipping to second-lowest attendance in the AL this past season. The veteran infielder has expressed interest in playing only for a contending team, which Cleveland is sure to not be in 2010.
  • While the Indians are in the market for a veteran starter to add to the current crop of youth pitching (Jeremy Sowers, Fausto Carmona, David Huff, Justin Masterson and Carlos Carrasco), Terry Pluto does not think the tribe will bring back Carl Pavano because of his desire for a multi-year contract.

Detroit Tigers

  • Rumors of the Tigers shopping center fielder Curtis Granderson persists. With the Angels making a strong play for the outfielder, speculative packages includes shortstop prospect Brandon Wood who has had problems finding regular playing time at the major league level. This makes sense as Detroit has little long-term solutions for the shortstop position. Internally, Cale Iorg demonstrated nothing at AA in 2009 to reassure the organization that he is the future. In 491 PA, Iorg hit .222/.274/.336 while striking out 111 times (30.3%). Without payroll flexibility, Detroit’s solution would be to look outside the organization.
  • Interestingly enough even though they had a glaring need for a shortstop, the Tigers were never in contention for JJ Hardy from the Brewers. “I was looking specifically for a center fielder or pitching that was low (in) salary and low (in) service time,” Brewers GM Doug Melvin wrote. “I did not see a match so I did not call (the Tigers).”
  • Detroit is also rumored to be shopping starting pitcher Edwin Jackson. The 26-year-old Jackson compiled a 7-4 first-half record with a great 2.52 ERA and 97-to-35 K-to-BB ratio. During the second-half, Jackson, a predominately fly ball-oriented pitcher, saw a few more of the balls drift over the outfield walls as opponents slugged .500 off of him with 17 home runs. His completed the second-half with a less impressive 6-5 record and 5.07 ERA. For his third straight season, Jackson lowered his walk rate and incited more swing-and-misses however being arbitration eligible will mean a raise from his 2009 $2.2M salary and that does not coincide with owner Mike Illitch’s budgetary slash edict. Although Jackson’s original organization, the Los Angeles Dodgers, is interested in him, the Brewers have pursued Jackson as well. MLB.com writer Jason Beck believes Milwaukee outfielder Corey Hart might be the right trading chip in this instance.
  • Ken Rosenthal wonders out loud if the Tigers should look to trade Miguel Cabrera to the Boston Red Sox for closer Jonathon Papelbon, Mike Lowell and a prospect. In theory, the Tigers would be shipping a 5 WAR player who has a crippling $126M through 2015 left on his contract for two 2 WAR players and an estimated $20M in salary. Obviously, the move addresses two needs for the Tigers but ultimately frees up payroll -- one that reached $129M this past year -- after 2010.

Kansas City Royals

  • The Royals wasted little time filling in holes in the lineup, signing free agent utility man Wilson Betemit to a minor league contract. As a role player for the majority of his career, the switch-hitting Betemit shows a high aptitude against right-handed pitchers while hitting left-handed (.791 career OPS) but has not fared as well from the right side of the plate (.637 career OPS). A year ago, Betemit was in the White Sox system as an insurance policy for the fundamentally challenged Josh Fields. Now that the Royals have traded Fields, it is only fitting that they bring in his safety net as well.
  • After acquiring second baseman Chris Getz from the White Sox in the Mark Teahen trade, the Royals’ 2009 second baseman, Alberto Callaspo, is viewed as expendable. The switch-hitting middle infielder hit a robust .300/.356/.457 with 41 doubles in over 600 PAs. Some scouts are not confident his numbers are sustainable going forward, mainly because his inflated average has a lot to do with playing in a ballpark with a spacious outfield (.337 home BA vs. .267 road BA), but he is a high-contact hitter with some indications that he can work a walk. The power is most likely a mirage yet Callaspo would give a contending team a strong utility player.
  • Royals' GM Dayton Moore has made no indications that Zack Greinke, Joakim Soria or Billy Butler is available, but almost everyone else can be had. Along with the aforementioned Callaspo also available is David Dejesus and Gil Meche however the team is more likely to trade pitchers Brian Bannister or Kyle Davies before moving the previous three.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Seagulling the Michael Cuddyer Option

I’m not convinced that extending Michael Cuddyer was as heinous a decision as ESPN.com’s Rob Neyer made it out to be.  Without a doubt, Neyer raises some good points.  Neyer recognizes the face value problem of extending a 32-year-old, he examines the piece not the whole.  The organization is committing $10 million dollars to an aged player -- one that has already exited his peak playing years -- and is likely to see his offensive numbers decline while, at best, hoping his defense does not decline further from 2009 (where he could have been swapped out for an ottoman with a negligible difference).  Where this troubles me is that Neyer stops short of offering any useful solutions or viable alternatives.  In the corporate world, we refer to this as "seagull management" - where you fly in, dump on everything and then leave without offering anything constructive.

Committing to Cuddyer for 2011 goes against every fiber in my body when it comes to team-building.  Typically, 30-somethings should be traded for younger talent after they have career years, and Cuddyer's 124 OPS+ season very much qualifies as such.  However the current crop of free agent outfielders is far too deep for the Twins to extract promising players in addition to the fact that trading Cuddyer leaves the Twins scrambling for a viable third and fourth outfielder for 2010.  Hypothetically, even if you do trade him now for Javier Vazquez of the Braves, the current class of free agents does not have a legitimate right-handed hitting replacement that is not miscast as a outfield while they should be DHing.   

There are a few things that Cuddyer does well that is not easily replaced:  

  • Crushing left-handed pitching has been one of his biggest contributions since coming up in 2001.  His platoon splits are 70 OPS points higher when facing lefties (.848 OPS) in slightly over 1,000 plate appearances.  This past season, 15 of his 51 hits off of lefties cleared the fence - an amazing 29% home run rate - while producing an OPS over 1000.  
  • Cuddyer's power, in general, is outstanding.  According to hittrackeronline.com, 13 of his 32 home runs were of the "No Doubt" variety (40.6%).  This total placed him tied for third among some of the league's most prolific home run hitters in Mark Teixiera, Carlos Pena and Miguel Cabrera.  The average hitter typically hits 18% No Doubt home runs and Cuddyer has exceeded that.  People will point to his 15.5 HR/FB rate as an indicator that he's due to drop off in total but because of the sheer force, it is easy to suggest that Cuddyer is capable of generating 30+ home runs in 2010 and 2011.  
  • While his defensive coverage is shaky, Cuddyer still has a strong arm that keeps runners from advancing.  In 2009, just 41% of baserunners took the opportunity to sneak an extra base on Cuddyer.  This was by far the worst rate of his career but comparatively, free agent outfielders Jermaine Dye and Marlon Byrd allowed a 55% and 62% extra base rate respectively.  Even though Cuddyer's range isn't spectacular, his arm keeps runners from sliding up a base. 

Presented with the alternatives, the Twins had to move forward with Cuddyer in 2010, particularly if they wanted to be a playoff team that plays in the ALCS.  Which brings me to the decision-making necessary for exercising the $10.5 million dollar option for 2011.  

The dollar has been almighty in Minnesota for the past two decades and the $10 million marker appears to be a significant milestone because the club is limited to just a select few VIP members (Brad Radke, Johan Santana, Torii Hunter, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau).  It seemed exclusive to guys who were All Star, Cy Young and MVP-caliber players - which does not seem to fit the bill for Cuddyer.  However, Cuddyer's predecessors were paid during a time when $10 million was a substantial chuck of the pie:  

  • Radke's $10.75 million in 2004 was 20 percent of the payroll. 
  • Santana's $13 million in 2007 was 18.2 percent of the payroll.  
  • Hunter's $10.75 million in 2006 then $12 million in 2007 constituted 16.3 and 16.8 percent respectively.  
  • Morneau's $11 million in 2009 ate up 16.3 percent of the 2009 payroll.
  • Mauer's $10.5 million in 2009 garnered 16.1 percent of the 2009 wages.  

With Target Field's revenue stream expected to bump the payroll to $90 million, Cuddyer's $10 million suddenly represents just a 8.5 percent payroll allocation.  Hardly the same level of financial commitment made during the Metrodome's era.  Had this same situation presented itself several years ago, Cuddyer would be testing free agent waters without hesitation or apology.  The payroll paradigm has shifted and has given the Twins more flexibility -- the $7 million salary range is now the $10 million dollar salary range.  In short, what once viewed as a full-size is now a mid-size.  

Where exactly does Neyer think Cuddyer's replacement is coming from in 2011?  What the organization projected as it analyzed the 2010-2011 offseason free agent landscape was that Michael Cuddyer could very well be at the top of the class.  Naturally, the Twins could forge their way into the free agent market following 2010 and land either one of two premium outfielders in Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth.  Crawford’s pristine defense and solid contributions with the bat has pushed his price tag upwards of 5 years with an average annual value of $15 million, that is, if he hasn't already been traded and signed a new contract with his new team at that point.  Werth’s 2009 season meanwhile proved that he is more than a platoon player, as previously believe.  As a full-time player he smashed 36 home runs, tied for 8th highest in baseball, while supplying above-average defense in right field.  If Werth matches this contribution in the final year of his two-year, $10 million deal with Philly, he is certain to get a contract worth more than $10 million per year, most likely from the Phillies to retain him.  Even if either is available, both should achieve multi-year deals that would conflict with the internal development of Aaron Hicks or Ben Revere.  

So with Crawford and Werth effectively erased from the whiteboard, the rest of the leftovers have turned sour.  There is what is sure to be the 37 year old remains of Jermaine Dye.  Even the White Sox realized that Dye's defense has long been detrimental and, with the exception of pounding a few balls over the fence, is only good as a base-clogger (27 home runs and 19 doubles in '09).  Yes, he could be had at a reduced rate but there is little ROI potential. Chicago bought him out rather than fork over $12 million in 2010 for a performance which is sure to fall well short in value.  

The Twins could enlist Marcus Thames' service. Thames will be a spry 34 years old in 2011.  While he might be good for a dozen jack-shots at a TJ Maxx price, the Tigers limited his reps in the outfield and haven't given him more than 350 plate appearances since 2006 (which, coincidentally, was the last time he was actual worth more than a replacement level player).  With another season to age, Thames might not even be able to bring the power that gives him his limited value.  After Dye and Thames, the list degenerates into your role playing types in Frank Catalanattos, Austin Kearns and Jody Geruts of the world. 

What about letting Cuddyer go and trying some internal options?  In reality, the Twins do not have anyone capable of immediately replacing Cuddyer nor a sure bet in 2011 either.  There are players on the cusp but needless to say there are a lot of 'ifs'.  Rene Tosoni emerged as a power and on-base threat in New Britain, hitting .271/.360/.454 with 15 home runs in 490 plate appearances.  As a left-handed hitter, Tosoni still hasn't demonstrated that he can handle left-handed pitching (.183/.285/.302 in 126 at bats in 2009) lending credence that he would require at minimum another year of seasoning before considering advancement to the majors.  Even if Tosoni has a follow-up breakout season splitting time in AA and AAA, his addition would be yet another left-handed bat in the midst of a very left-leaning lineup.  

Another potential candidate would be 23-year-old David Winfree.  Despite showing some pop from the right-side of the plate, Winfree has had three consecutive seasons in which his on-base percentage has been sub-.320.  From 2008 to 2009, his walk rate dropped from 8.2% to 6.1% as he moved from AA to AAA, not quite an affirmation of a MLB-ready hitter.  While progress in that department in 2010 will inspire some questions regarding the decision to pick up Cuddyer's option yet Winfree is far from a sure thing. 

The Twins made the right decision while attempting to construct a championship team. The money isn't as appalling as it once seemed thanks to new revenue streams.  The replacement options on the free market is less appealing while the internal options need another year in the oven.  Injuries and a downhill slide on defense can quickly turn this move from a positive to a negative as would a degeneration in his offensive output but with all of the facts today, ditching Cuddyer in 2011 would have created a problem, not solved one.  


Sunday, November 08, 2009

Analysis: JJ Hardy

You did not have to delve too deep into the TwinsCentric Offseason GM Handbook to realize where the Twins had a surplus. In fact, we wrote it out in play English: “Two quality players overlapping playing time should suggest an area of excess.” Thanks to Heater Magazine’s supplied Playing Time Constellation chart, one can easily glean that Ron Gardenhire treated his center field situation with a duel banjo system. For a while, Carlos Gomez would get his solo before giving stage to Denard Span, then back-and-forth, back-and-forth. This dizzying medley of center fielders was bound to grind to a halt at some point.

On Friday, it did.

The Twins took advantage of this trade chip in center to secure what might be the unanimously accepted best shortstop available on either the trade or free market this offseason, nabbing a former All Star shortstop that is just entering the prime years of his career – also under club control for several more years at a presumed discounted rate. It would be hard to get enthused over the current at-large crop of free agent shortstops as the short list is headlined with Orlando Cabrera (35) and Marco Scutaro (33) reigning supreme. One is a player on the downslope of his career unable to sustain an OBP above .325 while declining defensively and the other had a late foray into the starting lineup, providing above-average defense but shrouded in doubt about his offensive capabilities. The former is probably seeking a two-year deal in the ballpark of $8-to-$10 million while the latter is primed for a three-year, $30 million deal. In theory, JJ Hardy, at 27 years old, can provide the Twins with both high-caliber offense and defense at a reasonable bargain for more than just a season or two; he can be an answer, not a temporary solution.

At face value, it is easy to part with a player who had compiled a 645 OPS in slightly under 1000 PAs in a Twins uniform. However, giving up perhaps one of the best defensive center fielder in the game not named Franklin Gutierrez, who is also several years away from peak playing years, is not as lopsided as many have reacted locally. The Twins pitching staff - one with baseball’s highest fly ball tendency (41 percent) - would have enjoyed a Verizon network-like coverage of Gomez and Span sharing the same outfield. Additionally, Gomez started to make improvements in his zone discipline and line drive rates so with playing time, which means he is probably several OPS points higher in 2010 and further away from his train wreckage. Nevertheless, the Twins, a team that is probably an 85-win baseline team, needs talent next year, not two-plus seasons from now. Hardy gives them an established player while the Brewers can now be tolerant as Gomez learns to slow the game down.

After averaging 25 home runs, 84 runs scored and a .280/.333/.470 batting line in 2007 and 2008, Hardy’s stats went to hell in 2009, hitting 11 home runs and producing a batting line of .229/.302/.357. What exactly did the Twins receive and what can be expected of JJ Hardy in 2010?

While some baseball analysts are citing Hardy’s below-league average BABIP (.263) as an indicator that his 2010 season will resemble his 2008 campaign, I am not completely sold on that might be the case. True, his average on line drives of .674 was well below the league average of .729 but Hardy only roped pitches on just 14% of total balls in play (19% is league average). For a significant BABIP rebound effect to occur, Hardy’s line drive rate would have to be closer to league average. In addition to that, Hardy’s experienced a nasty downturn in line drive annually since 2006 – dropping from 19 to 17 to 15 to the new career low of 14.

Furthermore, Hardy’s ability to make contact has dropped as well:

Contact #’s

Contact%

K%

2007

86.7

12.3

2008

83.3

17.2

2009

80.7

20.5

Interestingly enough, Hardy’s walk rate has grown each year, suggesting that he still exercises good zone judgment. He is simply failing to make the same kind of contact. Low line drive rates and dropping contact percentage suggests something larger at foot beyond the realm of “luck”.

More likely, it is Hardy’s continual adjustments in the batter’s box that has been dragging down his numbers. As Alex Eisenberg at Baseball-Intellect.com points out in a must-read scouting report on the new Twins shortstop, Hardy has opened his stance more since 2007 and has extended his arms out over the plate instead of back where they were in ‘07. The results of these adjustments have wreaked havoc on his ability to detonate left-handed pitching. For most of his career, Hardy has demonstrated a high competency of handling left-handed pitching only to see that skill vaporize in 2009:

Vs LHP

HR

SLG

K%

2007

9

.579

8.3

2008

10

.574

12.0

2009

1

.229

21.7

Hardy experienced a glaring hole in his swing on pitches away. True to Eisenberg’s hypothesis, left-handed pitchers had a field day working him away. Instead of driving the ball with power, Hardy was feebly beating the ball into the ground. Once an area that Hardy would punish became his biggest Achilles’ heel:

Vs LHP Away

HR

SLG

Fly Ball%

2007

6

.697

51.7

2008

6

.678

56.0

2009

1

.194

45.5

So Hardy’s 2009 season hit some physical (which as Eisenberg notes, turned into mental) flaws rather than hitting balls at defenders.

If Hardy works out the kinks this offseason, can we expect him to rebound to his 25 home run average? I am apprehensive about that as well. Over at hittrackeronline.com, the database of every dinger measurement (get your mind out of the gutter) and the ‘true’ home run distances, founder Greg Rybarczyk had diligently categorizes three types of home runs:

No Doubts - Which means the ball cleared the fence by at least 20 vertical feet and landed at least 50 feet past the fence. These are your majestic home runs by the prolific home run hitters.

Just Enough -Where the ball cleared the fence by less than 10 vertical feet, or that it landed less than one fence height past the fence. These home runs barely cleared.

Plenty - Everything in between.

According to Rybarczyk’s work, the average hitter typically hits 27 percent of their homers that categorize as Just Enough, 55 percent that qualify as Plenty and 18 percent as No Doubts. Similar to the BABIP effect, if a hitter winds up with a higher percent of Just Enoughs, they may have benefited from a sizeable amount of luck (and vice versa). In both 2007 and 2008, 40 percent of Hardy’s home runs fell under the category of Just Enoughs. If anything, Hardy’s home run total dip in 2009 should have been expected as some of those fly balls ricochets off of the wall instead of clearing.

Also mentioned above, there are some question marks with his stance, but Hardy has a solid foundation and it appears that fixing him would take several tweaks instead of complete overhauls. Do I expect 25 home runs? No, but flirting with 20 isn’t out of possibility. His 2010 season will likely resemble his career batting line (.263/.323/.423) and for a shortstop, that’s solid production. At the end of the day Hardy’s acquisition solves several problems for the Twins. First, it solidifies the shortstop position with an above-average defender. As noted above, the free market for shortstops was less than appetizing and most likely temporary. Internally, Nick Punto, while riding a very good September and October (base-running gaffs aside), is an unknown offensively and has seen his range diminish enough to be shifted down the defensive spectrum. Secondly, Hardy’s right-handed bat, when swinging properly, damages left-handed pitching beyond repair. With the exception of Michael Cuddyer, the Twins are deficient in this area.

One acquisition, two problems solved.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Cross Him Off Then (Iwamura Edition).

The first of several second base options is now off the market.
 
The embers of Pittsburgh’s 2008-2009 fire sale were still smoldering when on Tuesday, a day before Game 6 of the World Series, Pirates GM Neal Huntington poured out the last of his Busch Light on the pile and acquired the 30-year-old Akinori Iwamura in a deal with the Tampa Bay Rays.
 
The 2009 season splintered for Iwamura when the Marlins’ Chris Coghlan barreled into his planted foot at second base, resulting in a left knee injury that required surgery to repair.  Prior to a dust-up at second base Iwamura was hitting a robust .310/.377/.406 with 14 extra base hits in 176 PA.   Upon his return to the lineup in late August, Iwamura hit just .250/.310/.355 with 5 extra base hits in his final 84 PA as a Ray.  His keen zone judgment (17.2 career out-of-zone swing percent) and line drive tendencies led to his use as the Rays’ leadoff hitter (that, and lack of other candidates) to which Iwamura produced a slightly below league average 733 OPS in his 1,203 PA in three years.
 
Much like the use of defensive stats in general, Iwamura’s value at second can be contested.
 
Fangraphs.com’s UZR system suggests that he was the 13th best second baseman in ’08 while Dewan’s Plus/Minus system places him several points lower at 19th.  Meanwhile, human analysis over at the Fans Scouting Report generously placed him as the 8th-highest ranked second baseman.   In truth, he falls somewhere in between those rankings – still a feat for someone who was adjusting to a new position on the opposite end of the defensive spectrum from where an aging player should be shifted.   At his natural position, third base, Iwamura impressed fans enough in 2007 to rank him ahead of Joe Crede and Nick Punto, two players who scored much better according to UZR and Plus/Minus.  For the Twins, having a guy that has the versatility to transition between positions would have been beneficial, particularly when injuries and ineffectiveness takes their toll.
 
While Iwamura easily embodies one of the top three second baseman available this offseason, Pittsburgh’s involvement is a curiosity.  As a team that is all but shackled to the cellar of the NL Central, unable to procure a winning record since 1992, the Pirates ventured into a rebuild mode that has outlasted three general managers (Ted Simmons 1992-1993, Cam Bonifay 1994-2001 and Dave Littlefield 2002-2007) and has been handed over to Huntington who has gone nuclear with the club.  Admittedly, Huntington’s vision for the future of the organization is solid.  By building a strong scouting department and acquiring prospect talent to replenish the bone dry system, Huntington is focused on the sustainable longevity rather than the immediate results – a boondoggle of a mistake many GMs find themselves in when trying to make a quick turnaround of a franchise.   Instead of overpaying for marginal veterans on the free market or swapping for the quick-fix trade (a la the Royals); Huntington has turned his attention on the foundation.
 
Which is why I do not understand obtaining Iwamura if you are helming the Pirate ship.
 
Iwamura’s one-year contract worth $4.50 million provides Pittsburgh with a stop-gap function in the infield.  Suddenly, Iwamura will be accounting for 10 percent of the Pirates payroll. At best, his addition will provide the Pirates with approximately 2 victories, raising their record from the futile 62-wins to 64.  In addition to absorbing the added payroll (which isn’t necessarily a problem since they have been under $50 million since 2004), they shipped a young relief arm in Jesse Chavez.   The 25-year-old Chavez’s fires a solid 94-mph fastball that was tattooed on occasion (9 of 11 HRs allowed) and has two very good out-pitches in his slider (35.9 chase pct, .333 WHIFF Avg) and changeup (27.1 chase, .264 WHIFF Avg).  With a lively arm, getting him to mix his pitches better seems to be his only impediment from being a stalwart contribution to a bullpen.  Is this the best allocation of resources?  Sending a good, young arm and adding 10 percent to your total payroll for a one-year player?
 
On the other hand for the Twins, this move would have made sense.  Iwamura’s 2 wins would help advance the Twins from an 87-win team to an 89-win team, his line drive ability projects well and his zone discipline would fit in nicely among the free-swingers’ club.  However, when you examine it more closely, would Iwamura’s acquisition really make that big of a difference?  On the roster, the Twins currently have Nick Punto who shares a myriad of commonalities with Iwamura despite being a year-and-a-half Iwamura’s senior.  They both are due $4.5 million in 2010, they have a very low chase percentage (Iwamura’s 17.2 versus 19.1), high line drive rates (20.2 for Iwamura, 20.4 for Punto) and both supplied roughly 2 WAR.  Iwamura holds an advantage in the power department but Punto’s defense is far superior.  If the Twins were to have made this move, it would have come at the expense of a B-quality prospect and the upgrade would have been minor. 

Ignoring Iwamura does not mean that the Twins have to stand pat either.

If you follow along Offseason GM Handbook, you’ll note that we highlighted plenty of viable options at second base.  Nick Nelson noted that it is an area of depth, more so than any other infield position.  Nelson encouraged the acquisition of Placido Polanco which would be a far better maneuver that trading for Iwamura.  In addition to providing the intangible “veteran” that is often cited as missing in the Twins organization, Polanco has provided Detroit with 3 or more WAR since 2007.  Likewise, in my blueprint, I encouraged the acquisition of Rickie Weeks, a young second baseman who had developed into a top-of-the-order threat in Milwaukee before a wrist injury ended his season.  Weeks is poised to return to a 3+ WAR player who is just entering their prime, but would necessitate a trade.

With Iwamura’s quasi-marquee name off the list this offseason the Twins probably avoided a lateral move, paying for the security of Iwamura’s track record rather then the unknown of Punto.  Nevertheless there are better ways to improve this team.