Thursday, December 22, 2011

Twins close to signing Jason Marquis

Fox Sport’s Ken Rosenthal reported last night that the Twins were nearing an agreement with pitcher Jason Marquis to fill out the remaining open slot in the rotation.

Here’s what I wrote about him in the TwinsCentric Offseason GM Handbook:
“Jason Marquis’s one redeeming quality at this point is his ability to induce ground balls as his 54.5% worm-burning rate was in the top 12 among pitchers who threw a minimum of 120 innings. Outside of that, he offers very little except for maybe “veteran leadership.” After a midseason trade to the Diamondbacks, who wanted some of that sweet “VL” for their youthful rotation, Marquis fractured his fibula and was placed on the DL for the balance of the season. He’s likely staring down a “make good” type of contract in the face.”
To the first point – Marquis’s worm-killing abilities – he’s been very good in this department. Since 2008, while throwing a minimum of 500 innings, Marquis has induced the ninth-highest rate of groundballs:

Tim Hudson
Derek Lowe
Fausto Carmona
Aaron Cook
Justin Masterson
Ricky Romero
Joel Pineiro
Trevor Cahill
Jason Marquis

Now, in 2010, with a combination of JJ Hardy and Orlando Hudson patrolling the middle of the diamond, this might have been significant “get” for the Twins. Comparatively, last year’s model was nowhere close to the ’10 version. The more recent model managed to convert 73.1% of all grounders into outs which wound up being the worst conversation rate in all of baseball. Yes, the Twins did bring in Jamey Carroll this winter to cut down on the amount of blatant mistakes made by the ’11 shortstops but at his age, his range is far from being someone able to elevate a ground-ball pitcher’s game. While singles through the hole are not the source of major damage, we’ve seen what it can do when a pitcher has to throw more pitches, with more runners on base and gives the other team opportunity to connect with a big blast.

What exacerbated this problem further is that the entire staff (with the exception of Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano) was all cut from the pitch-to-contact clothe. The Twins rotation only struck out 14.8% of batters faced – second-lowest only ahead of Pittsburgh in 2011. Because of this woeful ability to avoid contact, the presumption was that the rotation needed to inject someone with a power arm capable of registering strikeouts. Unfortunately, Marquis does not help fit this bill at all: Since 2008, he’s 12.4% strikeout percentage has been the eighth-lowest in baseball.

Likewise, the Twins have long favored control artists, those that eschew walks and force hitters to put the ball into play. While Marquis gets plenty of in-play results, he is actually a bit on the erratic side when it comes to not allowing walks -- issuing free passes in 8.6 percent of plate appearances. Combine this abnormally high walk rate (for a control-based pitcher anyways) with a low strikeout rate and Marquis owns the second-lowest strikeouts-to-walk rate dating back to ’08 (1.44 K/BB).

Many probably want to compare Marquis to Carl Pavano based on their similar styles, peripherals, contact rates and batted ball results. Judging solely on those traits, yes, Marquis and Pavano are quite similar. The significant difference is what kind of pitches the pair get hitters to put into play. Since 2008, Pavano has been the foremost expert at getting hitters to chase after his pitch out of the strike zone (he’s gotten 33.9% of all out-of-zone pitches) meaning opponents are putting more “bad pitches” into play. In that same time, Marquis has been the fifth-worst in baseball at getting opponents to stray after pitches (just 25.7% swing rate at all out-of-zone pitches). Only Livan Hernandez, Brad Penny, Trevor Cahill and Aaron Cook have been worse than Marquis. To summarize: When Pavano misses the zone, he gets hitters to chase. When Marquis misses the zone, hitters hold and frequently draw walks.

Those are the essential shortcomings for the Twins in signing a guy like Marquis – he doesn’t fit the defense personnel (one that might be better at catching flies), could bring down the strikeout rate and walks a high proportion of hitters. On the other hand, Marquis is fairly consistent when healthy and able to throw over 190+ innings. (His season-ending injury in 2011, a fractured fibula courtesy of an Angel Pegan grounder off the leg, does not suggest that he will have any problems staying healthy in 2012.) The Twins need some stability in the rotation and reduce the need for the bullpen (which already figures to be fairly weak in depth). That’s about the best thing you can say about Marquis – he can provide stability – outside of that, do not anticipate too much.

Addendum: The bone chips which required surgery in 2010 does raise a bit of a red flag. In 2010, then with the Washington Nationals, Marquis was experiencing discomfort in his elbow. He attempted to rest and rehab through it but during a rehab start bone chips in his pitching elbow flared up and he decided to move forward with surgery. Like Nathan, Baker and Blackburn before him, it is possible that Marquis might eventually run down the same path where the trio of Twins needed additional time on the DL or, in Nathan’s case, Tommy John surgery. However, his pain-free 2011 season may be an indication that the bone chip issue did not or possibly will not reoccur.  

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Why Josh Willingham was built for Target Field

After engaging in a waiting game with corner outfield incumbent Michael Cuddyer, the Twins appear poised to move on to the next option in Josh Willingham.

As both Phil Mackey and Aaron Gleeman pointed out yesterday, the decision to move from Cuddyer to Willingham isn’t just based on their performance but also the additional picks that come with allowing Cuddyer to walk. From an organization-building standpoint, landing two free draft picks is a wise decision in and of itself. Then, on top of that, the team is able to sign Willingham for $3M less overall than the offer to Cuddyer (which may even be $7M in savings if Cuddyer gets his $30M that has been floated out by several national writers). It all adds up to the right move by the Twins decision-makers.  

What’s more, despite having similar offensive production the past two seasons, there is another advantage to signing Willingham if you consider his style might be better suited for Target Field.

The Twins organization puts a great amount of pride on getting their hitters to use the entire field. Unfortunately, in Minneapolis today, that gets you diddley-squat. According to observations made by Delmon Young in October, 
the former Twin said the configurations and the environment made using the entire field nearly impossible:
“Target Field changed my whole field of hitting. I usually tried to use the middle of the field, and if I pulled, I pulled, and if I went the other way, I went the other way.
At Target Field, when those balls turn into can-of-corn outs and I was fighting for playing time over there, I couldn’t afford to have a flyout to deep right field. I had to try to pull the ball to get a base hit.” 
As it turns out, Young was correct. Most of the home runs hit at Target Field by right-handers were pulled, a dozen were hit to left-center, five to center and just three went opposite field. This was a huge drop-off from production at the Metrodome when right-handers had 20 home runs to center and right field in 2009. If the Twins were going to get a right-hander with home run power, they would need to acquire a pull hitter to thrive at Target Field. That’s where Josh Willingham comes in.
In the simplest terms, Willingham is that dead-pull hitter the Twins need:

As you can see from his spray chart taken from the past two seasons, Willingham favors yanking the ball down the line – and this method has paid dividends for the 32-year-old outfielder. Over the past three seasons his weighted on-base average has been the seventh-best while his isolated power numbers (ISO) have been the fourth-highest among qualified hitters.  

Highest wOBA when pulling (2009-2011)
Mark Reynolds
Jose Bautista
Kevin Youkilis
Curtis Granderson
Carlos Gonzalez
Miguel Cabrera
Josh Willingham

Willingham’s pull-power served him well last year in Oakland where he slugged a robust .523 at the Coliseum ( We’re coming very close to having something named “Preparation H Arena” as seen in BASEketball, aren’t we?) when all right-handers only managed to .363 (only eight other stadiums were tougher on right-handed hitters in baseball last year). By comparison, righties compiled a .417 slugging percentage at Target Field.

What makes Willingham so exceptionally good at pulling the ball is his ability to hit the ball out in front:

In addition to making contact out in front, Willingham draws his power from a stiff front leg which helps with leverage and keeps his hands inside as his back arm stays close to his body at a little over a 90 degree angle – otherwise known as the “Power L” position. This combination, plus his natural strength, has led to a home run every 18.6 at bats since 2009.

In theory, this package should play much better within the home confines as opposed to Michael Cuddyer’s approach of using the entire field.

Cuddyer, a strong individual in his own right, allows pitches to get much further into the zone and therefore winds up with a much more even distribution of hits to all fields. As such, the vast majority of his home runs also have left the yard in the left-center gap – a more difficult act to do on a regular basis at Target Field – versus close to the left field foul pole where Willingham’s home runs land.

This isn’t to say anything that what Cuddyer is doing is bad, per se; it’s just the way he’s designed. Of course, these are just examples as he certainly does hit some out in front that travel a long ways but overall, he thrives on being the type of hitter that can poke an outside pitch to right or send one back up the middle. For Willingham, that’s basically unheard of.

While it may have been Cuddyer’s attempt at a polite kiss-off by not accepting the offer, it could end up doing the team a huge service by giving them two draft picks, payroll relief and a player better suited for Target Field in Josh Willingham. 

The Great DiamondCentric T-Shirt Giveaway

DiamondCentric has teamed up with tkTwinCities, a website dedicated to giving 20-somethings all the local happenings, to giveaway free DC t-shirts to their readers. First, read my piece on how we started DiamondCentric and our unintentional guerrilla marketing tactics on the website.  After that, log on to Twitter and tweet why you want or need a free shirt with the hashtag #tkTC. Three winners will be selected.

If you don't win, remember, we have a $15 sale now through Christmas on all Game Six, The Killer and Nothing Runs Like Revere shirts. 

Good luck!

Friday, December 09, 2011

The Twins are playing the waiting game with Cuddyer. Is it worth it?

Since the Twins locked up Jamey Carroll, Ryan Doumit and Matt Capps, their interest in the free agent market is at a standstill. That logjam is none other than Michael Cuddyer.
The Twins reportedly have an offer on the table for the veteran, one that is worth three years and $24 million, and are waiting for a decision.
The waiting game on Cuddyer is contingent on him exploring his option on the free agent market. In some ways that market has dried up but there are some suitors that could come into play quickly.
The Red Sox have entertained the thought but have stated their focus is on pitching not offense at the moment. Although the once aggressive Philadelphia Phillies have landed Ty Wigginton and Laynce Nix and recanted their interest, the Colorado Rockies, who have been shucking payroll left and right this offseason, are considering placing a three-year offer in front of Cuddyer’s agent. Meanwhile, the now Pujols-less St. Louis Cardinals have a ton of money to spend and could very well be in the market for a corner outfielder/first baseman-type. Similarly, the Baltimore Orioles, just a hop-skip-and-jump from his hometown, discussed the idea of signing him but haven’t been active.
Despite all of that interest from other teams, according to Lindsay Guentzel, word from Cuddyer’s camp is that he would like to stay in Minnesota and will do so if the offer was for $2 million more or a fourth year was added.
As it stands, the value of the contract – roughly $8 million per season – is a reasonable expectation to meet according to’s Value system. Outside of his 2010 and injury-filled 2008 seasons, Cuddyer has exceeded the $10 million mark dating back to 2006.  If the bidding starting to increase above the $10 million annual rate, the likelihood of being able to match that with his production decreases:
Michael Cuddyer’s Value
The value system takes in account Wins Above Replacement (or WAR), which factors in defense using Ultimate Zone Rating and weighted Runs Above Replacement, and research has shown that in order to purchase one WAR on the market, it will cost approximately $4.5 million. So, in Cuddyer’s case, his 2011 season was measured at 3.1 WAR (or a three-win player) which works out to $14 million.  
As decent as his season was last year, it is even likelier that if he didn’t receive a Jeremy Guthrie fastball to the wrist, he would have had an even better 2011 season.
Admittedly, it was noble of him to gut it out through the sore wrist but while the rest of the opening day lineup was drinking Tahitian Treat in the whirlpool, Cuddyer’s on-field performance suffered. Post-wrist injury - from August 22nd until the end of the season - Cuddyer manned up for 115 plate appearances, hitting .241/.287/.361 with just eight extra base hits including two home runs. It was a good example to set, however the balky back and the wrist were an obvious substantial power drain. In comparison, a healthy Cuddy was on pace to put up some very big numbers, hitting .295/.360/.485 with 18 home runs through his first 469 plate appearances. To put that in perspective, he went from hitting a home run once every 26 plate appearances to once every 57.
People harp on his defensive play – yes, he’s no speedster in the outfield – but this year he showed a much improved ability to patrol right field for the Twins.
Consider this: In 2010, when he had his knee issues, Cuddyer managed to get to 102 of the 116 plays within a standard right fielder’s zone (a .879 revised zone rating). Additionally, he was able to track down 15 more outs that were not in the standard right fielder’s zone. This amounted to a -20.6 ultimate zone rating – the third-lowest mark among right fielders with a minimum of 500 defensive innings. Meanwhile, he showed an impressive turnaround in 2011. This past year, working 639 innings in right Cuddyer was able to making plays on 101 of the 108 balls in his zone which led to a revised zoning rating of .935 (a career best for him). On top of that he nabbed an extra 41 plays on out of zone plays leading to an ultimate zone rating of 0.1. It is hard to gauge any defensive metrics on one year samplings but that is still an impressive improvement - particularly in his ability to get to out-of-zone plays. Did a healthy knee provide him with better wheels to chase down those extra plays? Or was it simply being position well by the coaching staff?
If he is able to sustain the 2011 level of defense next year – which at his age it is certainly not a given - he would not be such a liability in the field. Furthermore, with Justin Morneau’s ability to play first base in question, Cuddyer gives the Twins a player who has manned first in recent history (Ryan Doumit has played all of 251 innings at first and just 43 since 2006).
One area of the game in which he excels is his ownership over left-handed pitching. In the past two seasons, Cuddyer has posted a .929 OPS against southpaws – the third-highest among remaining free agents – and the Twins currently lack right-handed depth on the roster of that caliber. On the other hand, while that is considerable production, not far behind Cuddyer on that list are free agents Jonny Gomes (.859 OPS), Josh Willingham (.827) and Kelly Shoppach (.804). Those players may be able to be signed at a lower cost and replace Cuddyer’s output against lefties in the lineup but all of them have various flaws as well.
Then there are the numerous “intangibles” that Cuddyer displays which is highly valued.
Just by the hardware he’s brought home recently you can tell how well he is viewed by the organization. He’s won the Twins’ Bob Allison Leadership Award the past three year – bestowed upon the Twins player who best exemplifies determination, hustle, tenacity, competitive spirit and leadership both on and off the field. The past two years he’s won the Mike Augustin Award for the player who fosters a healthy relationship with the media.
Cuddyer oozes charisma all over everything, makes motivational t-shirts for the club, fields the tough post-game questions and apparently intervenes when Kevin Slowey was throwing his verbal feces at the beat writers (or something like that). He is to clubhouse demeanor as to one of thoseGrey’s Anatomy doctors are to bedside manner (full disclosure: I’ve never seen Grey’s Anatomy) yet odds are that the team would have lost 99 games last year with or without Cuddyer on the roster.
Still, it’s hard to write any of that off as meaningless. Sure, it doesn’t show up in his WAR or in the win column but that doesn’t mean that leadership is valueless. For a team like the Twins, who have plenty of young players taxiing up and down to the majors all the time, what does a clubhouse role model like Cuddyer provide? It is entirely possible that his example of hustle and tenacity rub off over time on the likes of Trevor Plouffe, Rene Tosoni or Joe Benson. It is very difficult to measure an effect like that analytically (if there is an effect at all) and assign a dollar value. At the same time, if you develop your organization well, then you should have various players able to step into that clubhouse leader role. After all, when Torii Hunter left, that created a void for Michael Cuddyer to fill. If Cuddyer leaves, it is definitely possible that someone else will take his place.
Cuddyer turns 33 in March, which means that he is a candidate for skill deterioration throughout the duration of the contract and the chances of injuries increases as well. If the Twins are serious about retaining him, they will also forfeit not one but two draft picks in 2012. Factoring this in, it should be a difficult decision to make, particularly if his asking price grows. The three-year, $24 million offer is completely reasonable but if other teams start driving that figure northward, it behooves the organization to shake hands, thank him for his contributions and move on to plan B.