|Spring Training 2010||2.33|
|Spring Training 2010||2.33|
News and notes from the Twins interdivision rivals:
Chicago White Sox
The White Sox appear poised to enter the season with a 12-man pitching staff, the final spot belonging to former Twins farmhand shortstop, Sergio Santos.
ANALYSIS: Santos, converted to a reliever in ’09, has a fastball that hums in at 96-98 MPH. In his 24 minor league innings last season, he proved that pitching takes more than velocity – you also need command. His 16 walks are of concern. Still, the Sox appear to love the radar gun readings along with his improved 11/5 K/BB ratio in 6.2 spring innings.
Phil Rogers thinks that catching prospect Tyler Flowers’s unimpressive spring training may have paved the way for an AJ Pierszynski contract extension.
ANALYSIS: Flowers, 24, was acquired from Atlanta in the Javier Vazquez trade in the 2008 offseason and was considered the team’s catcher of the future. Baseball America ranked him 99th on the Top 100 list thanks to his career .293/.406/.495 batting line. He’s demonstrated a good deal of power and patience at the plate but has only accumulated 119 plate appearances over AA ball. Also, after allowing 112 stolen bases in ’08 (catching 28%), it was clear that he was going to need some work as a receiver. Reports are that he’s improved defensively but his 2-for-18 spring leaves some uneasy about handing the reigns over to him in 2011. Say what you will about AJ, he’s been a catcher you can count out. His defensive skills are eroding and he’s never been one to post outstanding on-base percentages, yet he’s been around a 2+ WAR catcher for the Sox while slugging .420 in the past five seasons. At the same time, Pierzynski will be 34 years old after 2010 and looking for a raise over his $6.25 million annual salary. For an organization that is tethered to the hefty contracts of Jake Peavy and Alex Rios while rumored to be interested in acquiring first baseman Adrian Gonzalez from San Diego, they should be considering swapping to the cheaper alternative.
Ozzie Guillen was demonstrating some of his built-for-speed-not-for-comfort moves this past week, implementing a hit-and-run with backup catcher Ramon Castro on first and later had Gordon Beckham execute a suicide squeeze during Wednesday’s spring training game.
ANALYSIS: Putting the hit-and-run on with Castro, a player who was -11 bases as a runner in ’09, is probably ill-advised. Wasting a Beckham at-bat on a suicide squeeze is probably ill-advised. Naturally, it is only spring training and he could be testing the new car out to see how she handles. Guillen finally had some of his lumbering lugs from past teams off out of his lineups (Thome, Dye, etc) and has added speed but this small ball fetish might come at the expense of several runs over the course of the season. Even last year we saw a glimpse of what that would be like as the Sox steals of second base rocketed from 54 to 105 between ’08 and ’09. Of course this offseason Chicago lost Chris Getz and Scott Podsednik, two proficient base-stealers that were responsible for 55 of those swindles, so Ozzie is going to need to identify new motormen.
Paul Hoynes reports that DH/1B Russell Branyan will start the season on the 15-game DL with his back injury.
ANALYSIS: Back injuries can be tricky and often times linger. Ask Joe Crede. Nevertheless, last season Branyan showed the baseball world that he could be a full-time player. It was always assumed that he was a left-handed platoon candidate but Seattle gave him the opportunity at 33 years old to prove he was capable of tagging southpaws. After getting only 328 plate appearances in ten years against the sinister, he received 185 with the Mariners and hit .222/.321/.481 with 10 home runs. Not bad. Trouble now is keeping him healthy long enough to prove that he can do it again.
The Indians fifth spot in the rotation comes down to Carlos Carrasco or David Huff reports MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince.
ANALYSIS: Okay, so “comes down to” isn’t entirely accurate. Carrasco pretty much imploded in his outing on Sunday, walking six and giving up five runs in 3.2 innings of work. Said manager Manny Acta after the outing: "How can we make a decision when we haven't even seen the other guy pitch? You guys will know the decision the second after Huff pitches." At times, the 23-year-old prospect acquired from Philadelphia in the Cliff Lee trade last year has shown flashes of his potential. After posting a 36/7 K/BB ratio in 42.1 innings in AAA Columbus, he’s got a 22/15 K/BB ratio in 19.1 spring innings. The left-handed Huff has had a tumultuous spring as well, allowing 22 hits in 16.2 innings with an 8/5 K/BB.
The enigmatic Fausto Carmona threw seven scoreless innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Saturday.
ANALYSIS: "Pretty impressive by Fausto," said manager Manny Acta. "Seven innings in 70 pitches. Pitch ahead in the count, pound the strike zone and amazing things will happen. It's not a secret." The same could be said about Carmona all spring. After walking 70 batters in 125 innings in ’09 leading to a 6.32 ERA, the righty has given up only one run in his 20 spring innings - more importantly - walking only two. He’s shown as recently as 2007 that his sinking fastball can front a rotation but he’s been spotty with his command ever since.
MLB.com’s Jason Beck says Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski is getting numerous calls on the availability of some of his pitchers.
ANALYSIS: Obviously, the three likeliest to be moved are Jeremy Bonderman, Dontrelle Willis or Nate Robertson who are all owed $10 million or more in 2010. Who is on the other end of the phone and interested in the damaged (and pricey) goods is a mystery. The Mets are always up for some bad decisions. With Cliff Lee and Erik Bedard injured, the Mariners might consider picking up someone like Robertson – his groundball tendencies would play well with Jack Wilson patrolling short. If any of the three are moved, it’ll basically be a payroll reduction for Detroit and a wing-and-a-pray for the new team.
Manager Jim Leyland has officially announced that Austin Jackson will be the starting center fielder and bat leadoff on Opening Day for the Tigers.
ANALYSIS: Jackson made an all-out assault on spring training, going 19-for-56 with seven extra base hits. Unlike his minor league track record, Jackson has demonstrated patience at the plate and solid contact, walking seven times and striking out only eight. That’s not the Austin Jackson from the Yankees organization a year ago. In 2009, Jackson walked in just 7.2% of his plate appearances while striking out in 24.4%. Jackson attributes his improvement to a modification in his batting stride which is allowing him to pick up the ball better. If the Tigers want to place that at the top of the order all season long, more power to them, but you have to assume that Jackson’s major league numbers will wind up replicating his minor league ones rather than the spring training sample.
The Detroit Free Press’s John Lowe notes that Jim Leyland is hinting that Joel Zumaya will be back in the bullpen to set up the newly acquired closer Jose Valverde.
ANALYSIS: Zumaya hit 101 on the radar gun this spring. That’s a good sign for Detroit that he’s humping it up there following shoulder surgery last August. Still, he’s got an extensive medical history and has not made more than 30 relief appearances since 2006. If he can make it through the All Star break without hitting the DL, I’ll be shocked.
Kansas City Royals
Bob Dutton from the Kansas City Star says that Gil Meche had no shoulder stiffness after throwing in a simulated game on Sunday.
ANALYSIS: A week ago, Meche was sidelined with stiffness after coming off a 2009 season in which “shoulder fatigue” shut him down last August. The Royals have definitely taken advantage of Meche’s rubber arm. After throwing consecutive 200-plus inning seasons in ’07 and ’08, manager Trey Hillman had him throw over 120-pitches in three games in ‘09. His 132-pitch June 16th complete game against the Arizona Diamondbacks seems to be the Typhoid Mary of his pitching injuries – his productions dropped off significantly before reporting the fatigue ten days later. When healthy, Meche gives the Royals two above average starting pitchers and an outside chance of competing in the AL Central. If he’s unable to perform in 2010, Kansas City fans will have a long summer of watching pitchers shuttle in from Omaha every other week (as if that is any different from every other year).
Newly acquired center fielder Rick Ankiel was scratched from Saturday’s game with an ankle injury.
ANALYSIS: The team is uncertain of how long Ankiel’s injury could last and are preparing for using either Mitch Maier or Willie Bloomquist in center if Ankiel is unavailable by the start of the regular season. Neither is ideal but Maier held his own defensively in nearly 600 innings in center in ’09. What’s interesting is that Maier has shown an odd platoon disadvantage against right-handed pitching since being called up to KC. In his short career, the left-handed hitting Maier has a .755 OPS and struck out in 16% of his plate appearances against southpaws but holds an even low .610 OPS and a 21% strikeout rate against righties. Probably just a sample-size anomaly, but strange nonetheless.
For two consecutive seasons, the Twins appeared hell-bent on getting Matt Guerrier’s arm to explode in the socket. Guerrier, treated like an unlimited resource, belabored through a vicious drop in productivity in the second-half of 2007, which came in a year when he was used in 73 games for 88 innings. The following season his number was called a league-high 76 times. To make matters worse for himself, he was as inefficient as a corporate employee with a Twitter account. His bloated walk rate and nightly late fall thumpings seemed to reaffirm this notion. Because of this, many anticipated Guerrier to slink into a less demanding role in the pen in 2009 – this analyst included.
Unwilling to listen to what analysts had to say, Guerrier regained his status as an elite member of the Twins bullpen in 2009. Leading the league in appearances once again, he became more efficient, throwing more strikes and fewer pitches. His revival season which consisted of a 0.97 WHIP and a .212 opponent batting average has positioned Guerrier as one of the internal candidates for the vacant closer position. After Joe Nathan’s announcement earlier this week, Guerrier said that he would “welcome the challenge” and would “love the opportunity” to close - key phrase I like to use when up for promotion as well. He’s got solid credentials, but does he have upper management potential at Twins Bullpen Inc?
In many ways his spring has been a continuation of last season. The righty has thrown seven innings in six appearances, surrendering just one unearned run on six hits while striking out three and not issuing any walks. Combine this performance trend with the larger sampling of ’09 and Guerrier is well-deserved of the promotion. He’s worked in the high-leverage situations and has escaped unscathed in plenty of chances. After all, the results speak for themselves.
Nevertheless his 2009 performance review a cross-section of his body of work raises red flags, leading to questions regarding the probability of continuing this high level of success.
One of his biggest improvements between 2008 and 2009 was throwing from the stretch. When runners were on base in 2008, Guerrier was smashed more often than the writers of Hot Tub Time Machine. However the following year he became virtually unhittable under the same circumstances:
This development coincided with his ability to keep the ball down in the zone in 2009 while working out of the stretch. After elevating the ball into the upper third of the strike zone 34% of the time in ’08, Guerrier managed to stray up into that portion just 22% of the time in ’09. Instead, he worked low in the zone to induce softer contact hence, the decline in the OPS allowed. Even with his adjustments, like most law of averages cases, the probability that his “Runners On” OPS remains that low is unlikely.
Furthermore, Guerrier’s overall batted ball numbers merits a closer examination:
Across the board, no matter what method the ball was put into play, he posted averages below both the league and career marks. This serious syncline in these numbers does not correlate with any particular change in his approach. Usually when you witness batted ball averages shift this dramatically, it is associated with a new pitch or the increased usage of a pitch. Guerrier, by his own admission, hasn’t altered his approach at all and his pitch data corroborates his story. He simply used his same four-pitch arsenal only allowing greater amounts of contact. While he’s getting weaker contact, opponents are still doing so at a high rate and those numbers are ripe for regression.
Additionally, Guerrier’s always been susceptible to allowing a good portion of fly balls to wander over the fence (11.1% career HR/FB). His control and batted ball numbers served him well by limiting a majority of those to the solo variety this past season. As presumably more runners reach base in 2010, some of those homers will score multiple runs. That does not translate well in the one- or two-run save situations.
Without question, based on his recent track record, Guerrier has earned the promotion. The results were exceptional in ’09. Unfortunately, that does not always make you qualified for the job. Guerrier’s skill set is better suited for middle management where he can continue to toe the company line: Throw strikes and hopefully good things happen.
Minnesota Twins Assistant GM, Rob Antony, was kind enough to sit down with TwinsCentric’s Parker Hageman last Thursday in Fort Myers for a candid interview discussing the organization’s use of statistical analysis and preference towards traditional scouting:
TC: Defensive stats such as UZR have been made sexy by Seattle’s front office recently. Did the Twins look those kind of statistics when targeting players, like Orlando Hudson or JJ Hardy?
RA: When you look at Orlando Hudson, you can look at the UZRs and all that stuff and that’s all fine. That’s a piece. They say range is declining. Okay, what do our three scouting reports say? He still gets the ball – he’s never been fast, he’s never been a fast player – but he has all the quickness. He still has first-step quickness and he makes all the plays. So we will put more stock in that.
Just like JJ Hardy. He may not have the range he did when he was 24 at 27 now. He makes all the plays, he has enough arm and gets the ball. Our theory has always been: Make the routine plays – don’t beat yourself - and if you don’t get to a ball or two that is offset when you make all the plays. There are guys that may have 15-20 errors, a lot of them are routine errors. We’d rather have the guy that when there is a groundball to short, that’s an out. That type of thing. We scout that way, we look at it that way and we make our decisions that way.
There might be some out there that go jeez, they just traded for Hardy and signed Hudson. Our stuff says that if you look at it purely from statistical analysis and Zone Ratings and all that other stuff, defensively they’re not what they were. We’ve got people watching, saying that we know what this guy can do. That’s what we’re looking for.
TC: Do you guys have your own internal database that has this information or do you reference other websites?
We look through a lot of websites. We look at a lot of what you guys do. What you guys put together, we take all that information into consideration…the problem I have is that a few years ago when we traded [Jason] Bartlett to Tampa, they said the reason they wanted him was that he had the highest UZR, he’s got the best Zone Rating out of any shortstop. Alright. We watched the guy; we liked him and thought he was a pretty good shortstop too. A year later, people were writing “What happened to Bartlett?” His rating dropped off to 15th from number one. He wasn’t any different the next year – the stats said he was – but I’m not sure he was any different from the next year.
That’s why the defensive part of it is the hardest part for statisticians to get their hands around. And I think that’s still the case. I think that people have legitimate things that they base it on, to come up with those numbers and to rank guys out, but you treat it kind of with a grain of salt. You go with what your scouts are saying. Sometimes though you might call your scout and say “You’ve got this guy at a 6 range. The Zone Rating doesn’t back that up. You sure you want to stay with a 6 range?” He might say “I will stay with a 6 range, he’s got great first-step quickness” or he might back off and say “You know what, I didn’t see a lot of plays – he didn’t have to go to the hole that much – but he seems like he has first-step quickness.” Then he backs off from his 6 range.
It generates a good discussion. We don’t ever just sign a guy based on his written report. We call the guy that wrote the report. We want verbal confirmation; we want to hear his voice that he has conviction and belief in it. That’s a roundabout way of saying we look at all forms of information.
TC: But specifically, you are not collecting all this data, such as marking down plays that Bartlett made in the hole, or to his right?
We do not. We just hired a guy whose sole focus is statistical analysis. Gathering information and creating databases. This will be his first year. The guy that we brought in will start creating systems to build a foundation of our own that we can look at.
TC: Is that the way baseball organizations are moving in general?
I think so. This is such a competitive game and everybody is looking for that edge. We’re probably one of the last, if not the last, team to address it with a person dedicated solely to that.
TC: What took so long getting to this point of just now bringing someone on staff?
I’m not sure we bought into the stuff and we had always been so traditional. Terry Ryan was a scouting director, he was our General Manager. Mike Radcliff, Director of Player Personnel, he was a scouting director. We’ve always been really scout-oriented, people-oriented. We just have more conviction and belief in that. I think everyone has come to the realization that you cannot turn a blind-eye to that information. It is another piece of the puzzle that might give you a better informed decision.
TC: Obviously with extending Nick Blackburn and Denard Span recently, and the potential of extending Joe Mauer for eight or ten years, how do you project players for those years? Do you have a system that provides you with an expectation of what kind of results you might see in Year Four of their contract?
I’ll look at them individually. With Blackburn we looked at him and his body of work over two seasons. He averaged 200 innings, been a .500 pitcher both years and his ERA has been 4.02 or 4.05 or something like that. You look at him and then say okay, if he does that for the next three or four years, what would he make each year? Now it becomes a business decision of if you go year-to-year, what would he stand to make in arbitration next year and if he backed that up where would he go the next year? You start putting down the numbers and all the comps that he has and you base it off of if he just does what he has done. You don’t project that he is getting better – although we believe there is more in there. Instead of being an 11-11 guy, we believe he could easily be a 15-9 guy.
TC: That’s the scouting part?
That’s the scouting part. Then you take the numbers part, compare him to other players and compare what they got in arbitration. You consider what your exposure would be if you did go year-to-year with this guy. That way you limit your risk of injury if you go year-to-year. Heck, you can non-tender him if he gets injured. We looked at it and we ended up signing him to a $14 million deal. We looked at it, his comps, and what he can do and realized he would get more than that.
The other part is that we have our own checklist. That includes durability, health, makeup, does he deserve it. How is he going to handle security? There are some players that you just don’t believe that are going to keep driving to get better. They just settle in. Fortunately we haven’t had too many of those. So we’ve done a pretty good job of evaluating who the guys are.
Denard Span’s the same way. His contract is if he just does the next five years what he did his first two years. We believe there is a lot more in there. Even after that, [Span and his agent] conceded and we conceded that this is a discount. This is quite a bit less than he could have made going year-to-year if he just continued to do what he has done. In our scouting evaluations we think that he is one of the best leadoff man in the major leagues. And that was validated when some teams called and offered up substantial packages. There are other teams that look at him to same way we do. So that helps validated it a little bit because they are good teams that were willing to give up a lot for this guy. That’s the all-forms of information part of it.
TC: Prior to the Gomez trade?
We were actually pretty far down the road when a few teams called inquiring on Span.
TC: And there was a potential for a sizeable return?
Oh yeah. That makes you feel good knowing you aren’t alone out here thinking that this guy is pretty good. But there will also be people out there that think that we could have gone year-to-year and got him for that. We don’t believe so. The big one is the first year of arbitration. Because if he has a big year on a platform, he could jump up. Those guys can jump up $4 million. Now all of a sudden are we not going to be able to afford this guy a year or two down the road, are we going to have to move him because he is going to be making $10 million?
TC: So cost-control?
So you have some cost-control, you have a good player and a happy player who is thrilled we showed that confidence in him. We’re happy because we know what we’re paying him and we’re comfortable with that.
TC: How about evaluating players outside of the organization. It sounds that you grow comfortable with your own players and you can see their personalities firsthand. How do you go about finding that with players on the free market?
That’s harder and we haven’t done a lot of it. If you look at what we do, a lot of times it is just for a year or two because we still haven’t gotten away from our philosophy. When we go out and get an Orlando Hudson, we think Casilla could be an everyday second baseman. We just aren’t ready to bank on that right now. He hasn’t shown enough. If he had backed up last year like he had in 2008 then you might not do an Orlando Hudson. But for a year, now we’ll see if Casilla gets another look, another season to see if he’s ready to handle it. If not, we’ll have to go get somebody else. But there are also guys coming along. Trevor Plouffe played shortstop. If JJ Hardy shows that he is the guy and we end up keeping him for a while, Plouffe could go to second. Sometimes it acts as a stopgap.
When we went out and got Shannon Stewart everyone said “Well, there’s a rental for the rest of the year.” We ended up signing him to a three-year deal. That’s because he played and we had confidence and belief that he was our kind of guy.
We don’t do a lot of the free agents because a lot of times you wind up overpaying when you get into a competitive battle for him. It might not be what you think he’s worth. A lot of times we just back off; it’s just not worth the cost to get him. Then you have to take him for three years and he’ll be 34 years old and what’s he going to be at 35? So that’s broken down deals for us. We’ve tried to get guys at two years and an option or three and an option and they want four guaranteed. We are not going to go out that far and have a deal to become an albatross for us.
Mike Lamb didn’t work out for us when we signed him. But, you know, we weren’t in deep with a two-year deal.
TC: When you sign somebody like Lamb, who was coming out of the National League and an offensively generous ballpark in Houston, do you look at park factors?
We look at a lot of home/roads splits. We look at a lot of traditional things that I know people have gone beyond and gotten deeper. We’re big on OPS, we’re big on WHIP. We look at home/road. What’s Garret Atkins done home/road? Then you go, jeez, when there is that big of discrepancy the park obviously plays a huge role. Put him in the Metrodome and that’s equivalent to his road. How much do you want to give? What do you want to do with that? We definitely look at the factors.
With Lamb, we were looking for someone to come in and play a solid third base and, quite honestly, comparing him to what an upgrade on Nick Punto. And it was a weak free agent market; it was him and Pedro Feliz who were out there. Feliz was looking for three years at $5 million per year.
TC: I think it is fairly safe to say that I don’t think there were any projections out there that assumed Lamb would drop of as substantially as he did. [Baseball Prospectus 2008’s projection was .265/.329/.403].
TC: Working with Inside Edge, we noticed that Hardy was struggling with pitches on the outer-half of the plate, particularly from lefties, an area of strength for him in the past. Do you guys use information like that in any capacity? Do reports come in that show a hole in a swing that you might provide to [batting coach] Joe Vavra to look at further?
I think we look at some of that, but I’m not sure it plays a role in whether we acquire or not acquire. I think it’s more “Joe [Vavra], here’s all of the information we’ve got, we want to fix this guy, he’s had two good years and they’ve obviously figure out ways to pitch to him.” Joe talks to different people, finds out his swing got long, started to bar out a little bit and he’s a guy that is tough on himself when he starts to struggle. He never rebounded from that.
TC: Quite a snowball effect.
We’re hoping for a fresh start, number one. Number two, work on some of the mechanics. Joe’s looked at some footage of him. We got all that stuff, almost every at-bat from last year. They can break it down, sit with Joe and our people and go over all that stuff. That plays a role.
Just like when you get the advance scouting reports. We have an advanced guy that gets all the spray charts and all the different stuff. See how other teams have pitched him. We take our guys stuff and all the other information that we have and hand it over to Joe or [pitching coach] Rick Anderson. Here you go.
We still don’t get too far away from the strengths of our pitchers. If you start telling Nick Blackburn “Hey Blackie, these guys struggle against sliders. Pound the sliders today.” Now you’re asking him to be somebody that he’s not. In other words, if you have the good cutter going or sinker working, go ahead. We’ll take our chances with your best stuff against their stuff. And obviously you know what the weaknesses are. If you’re up two-strikes, go to the slider. You use it but you don’t change your game plan. We are aware of the weaknesses of the opposition.
And you also know where not to pitch a guy. You know, you throw it there it doesn’t matter if Lincecum, Cain or Blackburn is out there. If you throw it in that zone, he’s going to kill it. And Mauer’s great with that, he studies, he reads the charts and goes over it extensively.
TC: How about using Pitch F/X? Researchers have used the release points, various breaks and velocities to help identify both pitcher and hitter issues. Last season, after a blown save against the White Sox Mike Redmond and Ron Gardenhire both mentioned that Joe Nathan’s slider was flat. Nathan refuted this but after reviewing the Pitch F/X numbers reveal a decrease in the vertical drop and more horizontal movement. Do you see use for a system like this?
I think there is. And that’s another thing that the statistical analysis guy that he will need to look at. He needs to come to us and say, “You know what, this is good information. We need to utilize this.” What I do just scratches the surface. You need someone that is jumping on it. That is a prime example of that. There is more and more information out there now that doesn’t take manpower to generate, we just need to utilize it.
****Star Tribune Continuation****
TC: Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse says that FIP stands for “Fudge I’m Pathetic”. Do you know what FIP really stands for?
I just saw this one the other day…might have been in a Reusse column. Is it "First-Strike in Inning Pitched"?
TC: Close, it is a pitching statistic. "Fielding Independent Pitching". Basically it is similar to ERA but removes some of the defensive shortcomings or blessings – if you happen to have Seattle’s outfield last year. Measures a pitcher’s pitching ability rather than the fielding…
Removing some of the things that he can’t control, right? At least the defensive part of it.
TC: Exactly. Along the same lines, can you tell me what BABIP is?
I’ve seen this one...I’m not going to well on this quiz.
TC: That’s “Batting Average on Balls in Play”. It is the batting average on only the balls hit between the lines. It often is an indicator of a player’s “luck”. If a player is well-above the league-average of .300, they may be having more balls landing than should be and could regress. Especially if the hitter is hitting a high amount of groundballs and fly balls in play. And vice versa if it is lower. Nick Punto appears to be one of the latter players.
TC: Do you guys go through any specific websites for statistical information – Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America?
We get all that stuff, we go to it when we have a need. We get the prospect things. I like looking to see because it is an independent viewpoint. Who are the top 25, top 30 guys in this organization? Then we compare them to what we have when we break things down.
I’ll read MLBTradeRumors.com every day.
TC: It’s an addicting site, isn’t it?
Down in Fort Myers this past week, I had the opportunity to sit down with Twins Assistant GM, Rob Antony, and pick his brain about the organization’s use of statistical analysis. In his office in Hammond Stadium we covered a variety of topics with the din of the gathering crowd at the grandstand below. While a more detailed interview will be forthcoming on Monday, one portion of the chat was worth further examination.
Throughout the half-hour sit-down, I peppered in several questions from Doug Decatur’s GM IQ test from his book Behind-the-Scene Baseball. Decatur had worked as a statistical consultant for the Cincinnati Reds, Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros and concocted a series of questions based on statistical thinking that all GMs (or aspiring GMs) should have some understand of. This was to gauge the Twins’ current comprehension of accepted statistical theories.
One such topic was runs batted in. Bill James wrote in his 1987 Baseball Abstract that RBI is “more subject to illusions of context.” Essentially, RBI are heavily contingent on hitters ahead of your 100-RBI guy to reach base regularly while a high slugging percentage is a product that is, theoretically, independent of other players. Using his quiz, I created a hypothetical scenario asking that if Antony were going to sign a free agent, would he go after the guy with a higher RBI total or slugging percentage?
Antony replied that he would prefer the player with the higher RBI total. “Because you win with runs,” he said. “And I want that guy because you also have the correlation with a better batting average with runners in scoring position – he’s the guy that can step-up, the guy you want at the plate.”
Because Antony readily admitted that the organization had been reliant on traditional methods and had not dabbled too far into statistical analysis, the response was not at all surprising. At the same time, knowing that the statistical community commonly views RISP batting average as a small-sample size anomaly, I wanted him to elaborate further.
“I think guys are pitched differently when they have a chance to do damage and they can’t make adjustments. Then, sometimes the guy with a bunch of home runs and few RBI with nobody on base, they challenge him, and you look and a lot of those guys do their production with the team behind and they tack it on and enjoy a solo home run in the eighth inning.”
At the time of James’s publication, pitch data was not available to the general public and Antony’s contention throws a new wrinkle into the discussion. Do pitchers handle hitters differently with runners in scoring position?
According to Inside Edge data, hitters do witness a slight uptick in the amount of non-fastballs thrown while were tending to stay away from the strike zone once runners advance to second:
2009 MLB total:
How about more specifically? What barrage of pitches did Justin Morneau, who has 623 RBI since 2003, face once in RBI territory?
While the pitch type varies little, pitchers obviously respected Morneau’s power potential in 2009 and attempted to get him to swing at bad pitches. This had minimal effect as the Twins first baseman managed to produce a .908 OPS with RISP and a .866 OPS without RISP.
This is a steep contrast to someone like Delmon Young. After hitting in 93 runners in 2007 with the Devil Rays while procuring a rather pedestrian .408 slugging percentage, the Twins acquired him only to see his RBI total never reach his ’07 number. Reviewing his splits, you see that pitchers did not try to get too cute with the Twins’ left fielder:
Judging from the amount of pitches he sees in the strike zone under potential run-scoring conditions, a fair conclusion to draw is that pitchers have little fear of Young’s abilities. Whereas Morneau contended with having to sort through over 60 percent of pitches thrown off the plate in order to find a good one, every other pitch to Young was in the vicinity of the strike zone.
Still, Young’s.425 slugging percentage in ’09 appears to validate that slugging percentage is a better statistical device than RBI. Was there anyone that actually fit Rob Antony’s profile for high slugging but a poor hitter under an RBI condition? Down south, Texas’s Michael Young personified that theory this past year. Young put up monster slash-numbers (.322/.374/.518) while jacking 22 home runs but drove in just 68 runners. Pitchers approached the Rangers’ third baseman with more non-fastballs and fewer strikes when runners had reached second and Young wilted:
Under other circumstances, Young had a .959 OPS but that declined to .655 in scoring opportunities. Young’s ability to make contact dropped radically as well when pitchers bombarded him with off-speed offerings. Pitchers showed him different looks and he could not adjust with them.
While the opportunities afforded to a clean-up hitter and an eight-hitter differ as greatly as a graduate of Harvard and one of McDonald’s Hamburger University, there is truth that pitchers do handle hitters differently. As Antony noted, good hitters adjust. Even though I would maintain a preference for acquiring a hitter with a track record of better-than-average slugging percentages over the gaudy RBI guy, Antony’s preference for the opposite based on information from the traditional side of the fence does exist. Once again, this is another area in which traditional scouting and statistical analysis can intersect.
Consider this: Out of the fourteen American League teams, the Twins middle infield finished dead last at keeping groundballs from becoming hits.
AVG on GB
(All data provided by Inside Edge)
Because of the sheer volume of space, the positioning of the players and the constant shifting to covering second, the middle infield is perhaps the hardest region of the diamond to defend. Unlike the lines which are heavily fortified by the first and third basemen with backup in close proximity at second and short, the middle is about as unguarded as the Alaskan wilderness. This is why, on average, grounders escape through the middle at 36 percent clip versus just 20 percent if hit to the left or right. Though it would be easy to excuse the Twins gaudy number on the Metrodome’s turf, bear in mind that both Toronto and Tampa Bay - two other ballclubs that play on artificial surface - managed to produced slightly above average numbers in this category (.362 and .360 averages respectively). The difference came down to the personnel.
Using John Dewan’s Plus/Minus system, we can readily identify the Twins defensive shortcomings in this department. As you can see below, from ‘07 to ‘09, the shortstop position went from an area of strength to an outright liability when balls were hit to their left:
Plus/minus to shortstop’s left (toward 2nd base)
(All Plus/Minus data from BillJamesOnline.net)
In the Hardball Times Annual 2010, Dewan listed the Twins’ mishmash of shortstops and second basemen as the worst unit in all of baseball. According to his plus/minus system, the Twins were -59 plays worse than an average shortstop/second base combination. This downward trend began after trading away defensive stalwart Jason Bartlett and since then the position can be summarized in a Jack Johnson lyric: “It’s bad, getting worse so where’d all the good people go?”
In 2008, veteran Adam Everett was brought in to ease the pain of losing Bartlett but injuries limited Everett to just 41 starts at short that year. Nick Punto was serviceable in Everett’s absence and was subsequently extended in ’09. Punto’s injuries and offensive woes pressed the Twins into acquiring perhaps the league’s worst defensive shortstop measured by plus/minus system, Orlando Cabrera. Cabrera, who had spent the first-half of the season weighing down the middle infield for Oakland, had anchored the second-worst unit in the AL at defending the middle (.395 average) - no thanks in part to his limited playmaking capabilities going towards the hole - prior to coming to Minnesota.
With this deficiency in mind, the Twins approached the offseason hell-bent on rectifying this problem instead of a patchwork solution. They traded for the 27-year-old J.J. Hardy even before the Yankees stopped celebrating their 2,935th World Series championship. In acquiring Hardy, they not only received a shortstop with more pop potential than the previous tenants but also one with a solid defensive pedigree – at least in terms of converting plays up-the-middle while with the Brewers:
Plus/minus to shortstop’s left (toward 2nd base)
(All Plus/Minus data from BillJamesOnline.net)
Even if Hardy declines from his 2009 plus/minus numbers, as players are prone to do as they age, he still represents an infinite improvement over the existing aspirants. His acquisition, though shrouded somewhat in offensive uncertainty given his ‘09 results, gives the Twins a stable backbone in the middle of the infield unmatched since Bartlett’s departure.
Why is his leather addition that important?
It’s no small wonder that the team that has had the most success thwarting would-be hits last year did so by massively upgrading their shortstop position. The Texas Rangers shifted the aging incumbent Michael Young over to third base to make room for defensive prodigy Elvis Andrus, who accompanied the talented Ian Kinsler at second base, to reinforce the middle of the diamond in Arlington. Andrus’s +6 ranging to his left was a significant upgrade over Young’s -13 contribution in ’08. As such, the Rangers had a .307 batting average on groundballs up-the-middle which was substantially better than the league average and a considerable cost-savings from their .363 average allowed in 2008.
If the Hardy can help the Twins replicate the Rangers’ middle infield formula of success from a year ago, the club stands a good chance of returning to the 90-win mark and making strides towards repairing a slightly damaged defensive reputation.