Monday, January 19, 2009

Best Season By Position

In 2003, Rob Neyer released a book entitled, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups".  The book dissected all of the baseball teams throughout history and Neyer submitted what he ordained as the Best Single-Season Performances for each position.  Using Baseball Musing's Lineup Analyzer, a tool that finds out how many runs per seasons a lineup would score, I decided to find out how correct (or possibly incorrect) Neyer was.   Inserting each Twins into the lineup nine times, I would be able to obtain how many runs per game the player would score if the lineup were constructed just of that player.  For example, a lineup that consisted of just 1975 Rod Carew would score 6.977 runs per game.
Each offensive position is listed below with both Neyer's pick and the Analyzer's pick including a small recap of the player's season and the player that had the second best season in Twins history. 
  • First Base - Neyer: Rod Carew, 1977 | Lineup Analyzer: Carew, 1977
Seems like a no-brainer when you consider that Carew was near .400 the entire season and it earned him his only MVP award. 
1st | Rod Carew | 1977 | 1.011 OPS | 8.159 runs per game
At the beginning of the 1970s, the Twins migrated slugger Harmon Killebrew back to the keystone after a journey that moved him across the diamond to third to allow Rich Reese to absorb innings.  Thankfully, the Killer's bat - one that earned him an MVP award - carried him that season as he swatted 49 home runs, but provided as much range defensively as an Easter Island statute.  By 1972, injuries caught up to the 37-year-old Killer and he no longer was able to stay on the field consistently.   The Twins attempted several replacements like Joe Lis, Craig Kusick, Johnny Briggs and even future manager Tom Kelly.  The Twins decided to move second baseman Rod Carew -- who had one three straight batting titles -- to first in order to lengthen his career.  Though he lost his efforts at his fifth straight batting title in 1976 to the Royals' George Brett and Hal McRae on the last day of the season, Carew came back to produce the best season of any Twins first baseman in 1977, leading the American League in total hits (239), batting average (.388), runs (128), triples (16) and intentional walks (15).  His final batting line of .388/.449/.570 was well above that of the American League first base average of .271/.338/.441, earning him his only MVP award and his 11th consecutive All-Star appearance.  The high-octane offense of Minnesota in 1977 (1st overall in runs scored) was denied postseason berth by a bad pitching staff, whose 4.36 ERA was 12th out of 14 teams, and dropped to 4th in the American League West, 17.5 games out of first.  
2nd | Harmon Killebrew | 1961 | 1.011 OPS | 7.760 runs per game 
Killebrew helped usher baseball into the prairie land by wowing the Bloomington patrons with moonshot dingers.  The 25-year-old Idaho-native slugged 46 home runs, 29 at the Met, and finished the year with a .606 slugging percentage.  Unfortunately, his introduction to Minnesota came in the same year as the great Maris-Mantle race to 61 as well as other first baseman like Detroit's Norm Cash and Baltimore's Jim Gentile's outstanding seasons which pushed the Killer to 11th in the MVP voting despite one of his best seasons of his career.  
  • Second Base - Neyer: Chuck Knoblauch, 1996 | Lineup Analyzer: Knoblauch, 1996 
Knoblauch's 1996 season essentially secured his shipment out of Minnesota, a bittersweet season in that respect.
1st | Chuck Knoblauch| 1996 | .965 OPS | 7.629 runs per game
After finished 1995 with a 56-88 record and 44 games behind the AL Central champion Indians, the Twins front office signed Paul Molitor and Greg Myers hoping to regain some competitiveness by shoring up the designated hitter and catching positions in Kirby Puckett's declining years.  Puckett, however, would never see the field in 1996 and would later retire.  In spite of the loss of Puck, the Twins would improve.  Molitor had a solid season (.341, 58 extra base hits, 119 RBI) but youngsters like Marty Cordova (.309, 16 home runs, 111 RBI), Rich Becker (.291, 12 home runs) and Scott Stahoviak (.284, 13 home runs) would be big factors in helping the Twins gain 22 games in the win-column following a dismal season.  It would be 27-year-old second baseman, Chuck Knoblauch, that would contribute the most.  While the American League's average second baseman would hit .281/.345/.404 in 1996, Knoblauch would compile a line of .341/.448/.517 adding 63 extra base hits, 45 stolen bases and 140 runs.  Overshadowed by 'roided-up mashers like Juan Gonzalez, Albert Belle, Rafael Palmeiro and an unheard of season by Brady Anderson who would all hit more than 45 home runs, Knoblauch would finish 16th in the American League MVP voting. 
2nd | Rod Carew | 1975 | .918 OPS | 6.977 runs per game 

In what turned out to be his last year as a second baseman, the 29-year-old Carew won his fourth straight AL batting title in 1975 with a .359 average. Manager Frank Quilici would begin to transition him to first base at the end of the season where he would assume the position full-time in 1976.  Carew would lead a bad Twins team (76-83, 4th AL Western) in hits (192), runs (89), doubles (24), RBIs (80), on-base (.421) and slugging percentage (.497). 

  • Shortstop - Neyer: Zoilo Versalles, 1965 | Lineup Analyzer: Cristian Guzman, 2001


The Twins are not exactly a team that was loaded with historically good shortstops.  Yes, Versalles won the MVP in 1965 but it has frequently been contested.  I have to cough when I proclaim Guzman as the franchise's owner of best season for a shortstop in 2001, because as everybody who watched Guzzie day-in and day-out share the same frustration - he strikes out alot and walks only by gun-point.  Interestingly enough, Neyer completed disregarded Roy Smalley's arguably best performance as a Twins shortstop. 

1st | Cristian Guzman| 2001 | .814 OPS | 5.356 runs per game
Guzman's 2001 lone season of relevance with the Twins coincides with their first winning season since 1992.  After two seasons with little substance behind his low contact, suddenly in 2001 his batted balls found more gaps.  His strikeout rate stayed the same as his walk rate declined but his average on balls in play skyrocketed from .284 in 2000 to .343 in 2001.  This would lead to his career-best batting line to date of .302/.337/.477 adding 50 extra base hits (14 triples and 10 home runs) as well.  Considering his stats were held up by a gaudy batting average on balls in play, it is no wonder why his numbers came crashing back down to earth the following season. 
2nd | Roy Smalley | 1978 | .795 OPS | 5.355 runs per game 
Smalley barely missed hurdling Guzman for the best offensive season as a shortstop according to the Lineup Analysis, falling short by a one-hundredth of a point.  In many ways, his season was far superior.  Smalley demonstrated far more patience at the plate, walking in 12% of his plate appearances (Guzman only mustered up walks in 4%) and had far more power potential, hitting 19 home runs to lead the Twins in that category.  Contextually, Smalley's season as a shortstop was an overall better performance in comparison to the league average shortstop.  In 1978, the average shortstop hit .254/.308/.332.  The majority were of the slap-hitting mold, recruited more for their defense.  Smalley's line of .273/.362/.433 far exceeded the expectations of a shortstop.  Guzzie's 2001 season in which he hit .302/.337/.477, on the other hand, was performed in a condition in which the average shortstop hit .273/.328/.415.  So whereas Guzman was only .009 better in OBP and .062 better in SLG, Smalley was .054 better in OBP and .101 better in SLG then his counterparts. 

  • Third Base - Neyer: Gary Gaetti, 1986 | Lineup Analyzer: Harmon Killebrew, 1969
There are a couple explanations for the discrepancy for the two conflicting choices.  For starters, the Lineup Analyzer weighs heavily for on-base percentage.  In the two years that Gaetti is cited by Neyer he had two pedestrian OBPs - .347 in 1986 and .353 in 1988.  By comparison, Killebrew had OBP of .427 in 1969 and .411 in 1970.  Neyer is probably leaning toward the gloves of which Gaetti supplied plenty and Killebrew none. 

1st | Harmon Killebrew| 1969 | 1.011 OPS | 7.921 runs per game
In 1969, the 33-year-old Killebrew presented possibly his best season of his illustrious career.  The Twins repositioned Killebrew back to third base for the third time in his career, he last played the hot corner regularly back in 1966.  True to his form, Killer was a defensive hack, unable to range well and making errors on balls he did get to, he more than made up for these shortcomings with his bat with a .276/.427/.584 batting line.  In what would be his lone MVP season, Killebrew played in all 162 games and led the league in home runs (49), on-base percentage (.427), RBIs (140) and walks (145).  After finished 7th in the American League in 1968, the Twins vaunted to the top of the newly formed AL West Division in 1969 - thier .599 winning percentage was only bested by Baltimore who would bounce them out of the playoffs in a highly contested three game series (the first two games were decided by one run in extra innings). 
2nd | Harmon Killebrew | 1970 | .975 OPS | 7.281 runs per game 
Killebrew followed up his MVP season with a solid encore.  In 157 games, Killebrew hit 41 home runs and drove in 113 more.  He would finish third in the MVP voting behind a cat-like Boog Powell and teammate Tony Oliva.  Once again the Twins found themselves second in the American League overall behind the Baltimore Orioles and once again the Twins made a three-game exit in the playoffs to the Earl Weaver-managed Birds.  Fans in Bloomington would witness the Orioles outscore the Twins 21-to-9 in the first two games before finishing them off in Baltimore.  Defensive problems manifested themselves for the now 34-year-old Killebrew who would go back to first base in 1971 to allow for the 23-year-old Steve Braun to handled third. 

  • Left Field - Neyer: Harmon Killebrew, 1964 | Lineup Analyzer: Killebrew, 1964
In Twins history there has not been many hitters in Killebrew's league. It gets harder to set single-season records when Harmon played all over the diamond, too.  Only Larry Hisle (.902 OPS) and Shane Mack (.861) had comparable seasons while manning left field on a regular basis.

1st | Harmon Killebrew| 1964 | .925 OPS | 6.732 runs per game
In efforts to keep Vic Power and then Bob Allison in the lineup, the Twins moved Killebrew out to left.  Though slowfooted, Killebrew was decent with the glove when he could get to balls, committing just seven errors in 1,390 innings in the outfield in 1964.  The 28-year-old Killer would launch 49 home runs (1st in AL) and drive in 111 (3rd) but would strikeout 135 times (3rd). 
2nd | Harmon Killebrew | 1962 | .911 OPS | 6.507 runs per game 
Surprised that Killer would own the top four seasons for two positions?  Me neither.  After his breakout 1961 season at first, Killebrew was moved to third when the team brought in defensive wunderkind Vic Power, who was now 34-years-old.  In his book The Cool of the Evening, Jim Thielman noted that Power was essentially Doug Mientkiewicz before their was Doug Mientkiewicz -- a good glove, light hit first baseman.  While Killebrew hit 48 home runs and slugged .545 in a position he was far from suited for, Power had been hitting .290/.316/.421, well-below the league average for a first baseman (.273/.362/.454). 

  • Center Field - Neyer: Kirby Puckett, 1988 | Lineup Analyzer: Puckett, 1988
Yup, Puckett stands alone as the best centerfielder in Twins history.  It would not be Torii Hunter who would contest Puckett's seasons as the best either, but Lymon Bostock who had an OPS of .897 in 1977.  Too bad Puck had to suffer though strike-shortened seasons.  In 1994, Puckett was hitting .317/.362/.540 with 20 home runs and 112 RBIs in 108 games.  When baseball returned in 1995, he batted .314/.379/.515 with 23 home runs in 137 of the 144 games played. 

1st | Kirby Puckett| 1988 | .920 OPS | 6.660 runs per game
Puckett had just helped Minnesota secure its first-ever World Championship in 1987, when he followed that with an even better season in 1988.  He would have his highest-batting average of his career (.356) but would finish behind Boston's Wade Boggs (.366). In addition to that, Puckett would finish the season with his highest hits total (234), RBI total (121) and slugging percentage (.545) of his abbreviated career.  Although the Twins would improve by six games in the win-column following their World Series victory, the team would finish 13 games behind the Oakland Athletics in the AL West.  Puckett would experience a sharp decline in the power department the following year in which his home run total would drop from 24 to 9 and his slugging would drop from .545 to .465. 
2nd | Kirby Puckett | 1986 | .903 OPS | 6.429 runs per game 
Puckett's second best season also was the organizations' second best as well.  In 1986, after his first two seasons hitting just four home runs in 1,248 at-bats, Puckett smacked 31 in 680 that year (a career best).  His .328 average was third in the league behind Boggs and Don Mattingly.  Puckett performed at a much higher level than a league average centerfielder who would hit .266/.334/.406 in a season in which Puck would hit .328/.366/.537.
  • Right Field - Neyer: Tony Oliva, 1965 | Lineup Analyzer: Oliva, 1964
Oddly enough, Oliva's 1965 season does not even break the top two seasons of the Cuban.  Neyer says that Oliva's contributions in 1965 helped win the American League (true).  As a pure season goes, Oliva's 1964 was by far his best and therefore the Twins' best season as a right fielder.  In 1964, Oliva provided 4.3 batting wins to the team.  In 1965 it was 3.5.  By OPS+, Oliva's 1965 season of 141 was behind that of his 1971 season 154 and his 1964 season of 150. 

1st | Tony Oliva| 1964 | .916 OPS | 6.697 runs per game
Oliva's first full-season, one that earned him the Rookie of the Year honors, was also the best season by any Twins right fielder.  The 25-year-old Cuban native emerged on the scene to hit .323/.359/.577 with 32 home runs and 94 RBIs to boot.  The Twins as a team floundered in 1964, playing eight games below their projected Pythagorean Record of 87-75 to finish 79-83, sixth in the American League and 20 games behind the front-running Yankees.   Oliva finished fourth that season in the AL MVP voting, behind such baseball nobility as Brooks Robinson, Mickey Mantle and Elston Howard, even though Oliva had more hits, a better average, more doubles, runs scored and more home runs (with the exception of Mantle). Still, the Twins now had Oliva who would fit nicely along side Harmon Killebrew, Don Mincher and Bob Allison to help Minnesota reach their first postseason in 1965. 
2nd | Tony Oliva | 1971 | .915 OPS | 6.567 runs per game 
Oliva's knee injuries began to appear first in 1968, which caused him to miss 34 games.  Somewhat healthy by 1971, Oliva hit .337/.369/.546 with 22 home runs and drove in 81 at 32-years-old.  He would miss a portion of the year mid-season and sat frequently to rest.  In 1972, Oliva would be able to only play in 10 games the entire year.  The addition of the designated hitter in 1973 would resurrect his career for a few more seasons but he was far from the hitter he was prior to 1972.

  • Catcher - Neyer: Earl Battey, 1963 | Lineup Analyzer: Joe Mauer, 2006
It is hard to fault Neyer for this because in 2003, Joe Mauer was just a heralded prospect in the minor league system.  Since his introduction to the Majors, Joe holds the top two seasons as a Twins catcher.  Battey is the obvious second choice when it comes to Twins catchers all-time.  

1st | Joe Mauer| 2006 | .936 OPS | 7.209 runs per game
It should be noted that Mauer's incredible 2006 season, one in which he flirted with .400 for a portion of the year and was the first AL catcher to win the batting title, was better than all of the Twins past-and-present efforts among the outfielders.  After putting together a very good 2005 season following an injury that limited him to just 35 games his first season, Mauer started to lace the ball around the Dome.  His .429 on-base percentage was good enough for second behind Manny Ramirez and Travis Hafner (.439 each).  This production helped the Twins win the AL Central again after doing so from 2002-2004 and then declining in 2005.  In what was bound to stir controversy among Twins fans and statheads alike, Mauer finished sixth in the AL MVP voting behind teammate Justin Morneau, whose OPS+ of 140 was bested by the St. Paul native by four points.
2nd | Joe Mauer | 2008 | .864 OPS | 6.395 runs per game 
The Twins as a franchise have not had too many offense-oriented catchers in their history.  In fact, you can could them on one hand: Earl Battey, Brian Harper, A.J. Pierzynski and Joe Mauer.  Behind Mauer's .864 OPS in 2008, only Battey in 1961 and 1962 (.847 and .835 OPS, respectively) compete for the top spot.  Nevertheless, Mauer's second batting title season also qualifies as the second-best in team history.  Mauer would hit .328/.413/.451 in 536 at bats, gaining ground among sports writers would would improve Mauer's MVP placement by two spots.  Once again, Mauer would finish behind Morneau despite having identical OPS+ (137) and playing a far more demanding defensive position. 

  • Designated Hitter (1973-present) - Neyer: Chili Davis, 1991 | Lineup Analyzer: Davis, 1991
For the Twins, finding the the best Twins designated hitter is like spotting Gulliver among the dwarfs... Davis stands out.  There are a few notable efforts that were close to Molitor's second best season, including Pedro Munoz (.827 OPS, 1995) and David Ortiz (.839, 2002) but historically the Twins have not produced anyone who can just focus on hitting.

1st | Chili Davis| 1991 | .892 OPS | 6.462 runs per game
Chili Davis will go down as one of the best free agent signings in Minnesota history.  After his 1990 season in California in which he hit .265/.357/.398 and just 12 home runs, GM Andy MacPhail signed him to a two-year deal worth $4.5 million.  In 1991, Davis would hit .277/.385/.507 and a career-high 29 home runs while driving in 93, helping to propel a very good offensive lineup to the postseason and their second World Series title.  Davis would hit two home runs against Atlanta - a two-run home run in Game Two and another two-run shot in Game Three. 
2nd | Paul Molitor|1996 | .858 OPS | 6.169 runs per game 
The front office had a much different vision of what they expected in 1996 when they signed Paul Molitor to a
two-year, $5.525 million dollar contract.  Molly had just been a hero in Toronto when the Blue Jays won the 1993 World Series title, earned the MVP award that series.  Molitor played well, hitting .341/.390/.468 with 225 total hits including nine home runs and 113 RBIs.  He hit his 3,000 hit in a Twins uniform that year but the empty milestone went for nothing as the Twins finished 78-84 in 1996.  The 39-year-old Molitor would steadily decline in 1997 and 1998 before retiring. 
  • Most Efficient Lineup:
According to the Lineup Analyzer, this below, is the best suited lineup for this collection of talent, one that would average 6.694 runs per game.
1 - 2B - Chuck Knoblauch - .842 OPS
2 - 1B - Rod Carew - 1.019 OPS
3 - CF - Kirby Puckett -  .920 OPS
4 - LF - Harmon Killebrew - .952 OPS
5 - 3B - Harmon Killebrew - 1.011 OPS
6 - SS - Cristian Guzman - .814 OPS
7 - DH - Chili Davis - .892 OPS
8 - RF - Tony Oliva - .916 OPS
9 - C - Joe Mauer - .936