Thursday, February 17, 2011

Again with the bunting...

I like Ron Gardenhire as a manager, I really do.

For starters, he seems to carry with him the immeasurable intangible of keeping his team motivated and focused over the long-haul of a 162-game schedule. After the announcement of his recognition of AL Manager of the Year but before the state’s dedicated Ron Gardenhire Day, Jim Thome offered this regarding the Twins skipper:

"I think he's done a great job of handling his players, and I think to be a good manager, that's key. You have to know each personality, and he does that. I think he knows everybody from top to bottom, and he does a great job with the on-field stuff, too. ... I've had good ones, and he's right up there, definitely, at the top of the list. It's definitely been a pleasure to play for him, that's for sure."

He sticks up for his players, both on the field and to the press. Over the course of his tenure with the Twins, Gardenhire has led the team to 803 victories, outperforming their Pythagorean wins estimate by 21 games in nine years. In fact, Gardenhire’s teams have underperformed their Pythagorean record only three times since his promotion and even then, each season it has been a difference of one win. Perhaps cultivating this type of clubhouse environment is the reason for doing better than the projections suggest they should.  

For that, he should win the Manager of the Year.

Plus the fact that he seems to share the same eating habits as Parks & Rec’s Ron Swanson. You have to respect that.

Still, if there is one thing that irks me about the manager - albeit a small, insignificant issue for me – is his stubborn insistence of maintaining a pre-1990s lineup construction mentality.
In a recent interview with the Pioneer Press’s John Shipley, the beat writer inquired what the manager would do with his lineup if neither Tsuyoshi Nishioka nor Alexi Casilla is capable of handling the number two spot in the order – would Gardenhire be so bold as to move Joe Mauer to that spot?

Gardenhire’s response was:
“Everybody talks about that, and yeah, I would. In fact, I have, and it wasn't the greatest.
Now, the scale of judgment on what represents greatness may be up for discussion, however, it’s hard not to deduce that Mauer’s time in the No. 2 spot has been anything but the greatest.

The authors of The Book: Playing The Percentages in Baseball – Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman and Andrew Dophin – found that the optimal two-hitter was someone who was a high-OBP guy and that the No. 2 hitter came up to bat in situations as important as the No. 3 hitter, only more often throughout a season.

For his entire career, Mauer has assumed the second position 284 times – the bulk of which happened in 2009 the year in which the two-spot was a nightmarish, revolving door of misfits. In his limited capacity of batting second, Mauer hit .398/.451/.707 in 142 plate appearances. He drove in 28 runs while scoring another 29 on his own in 33 games. Additionally, he did not ground into a single double-play in that time.

Gardy continued to say that:
“You got to understand, the No. 2 batter gives himself up all the time. If the leadoff hitter is on, we want him to hit a grounder to second and move the guy over. How many times do you want Joe walking to the plate expected to get the guy over? It happens; it's part of the game. But the second hitter is a bunt guy, really.
I’ve got several problems with that statement. The first of which being Gardy’s testament that the ideal No. 2 batter should be “giving himself up all the time.”

In the TwinsCentric 2009 Offseason GM Handbook and after the Twins signed Orlando Hudson last February I lamented the importance of having a strong offensive presence in the two-spot and NOT give yourself up. Once again to explain the significance of having a strong offensive presence batting second, I’m going to borrow from the write-up:
“In 1986, Bill James constructed a poignant analysis on lineup composition and revealed that the total runs scored and second spot in the batting order had the strongest correlation among any player in the lineup -- more than leadoff, third or cleanup.  Mr. James noted in his 1986 Baseball Abstract that ‘many managers tend to waste the second spot in the order by putting somebody there who isn’t one of the better hitters on the team...Too many managers will say ‘bat control’ as if these words were a magic wand, and place some .260 hitter with a secondary average of .150 batting second…’
 What Mr. James was trying to convey was that a sizable portion of baseball managers were submitting lineups that 1) had an excellent on-base oriented leadoff hitter, followed by a guy that 2) would slap the ball the other way or lay down a bunt thereby advancing the runner but surrendering an out, followed by 3) the team’s best hitter. Conceding the out was not advantageous for an offense. His solution to create an optimal lineup, one would want to enlist as many hitters in a row that avoid making outs – regardless of the out’s so-called productivity.” 
Bottom-line: Let’s not give away outs, it’s bad for business.

Secondly, moving the runner over is well-and-good, however, it’s better to put TWO runners on-base for the No. 3 and No. 4 hitters. Clearly, as a .327 hitter with a robust .407 on-base percentage, Mauer would do just fine getting on base as well as moving the lead-off hitter around the bases. In fact, it’s more likely that Mauer would do better under these conditions than some of the other options. When Mauer pulled the ball last year, he pulled it on the ground 79% of the time last year. With an opening between first base (since the first baseman would be holding the runner) and the second baseman inching over towards second to play for the double-play, Mauer should be given a larger target toward right to shoot a ball through.  

Critics of Mauer’s shift to the two spot would suggest that he would be set-up for more opportunities to ground into a double-play. This, too, is simply untrue.

Once again, research by The Book found that the No. 2 hitter comes to the plate in a double-play situation .09 times a game. Conversely, the No. 3 hitter hits under a double-play situation .18 times a game – nearly twice that of a No. 2 hitter. Extrapolating this over the course of a 162-game schedule, the No. 2 spot comes to bat an average of 14.58 times with a double-play in order. Meanwhile, the No. 3 hitter comes up 29.16 times over the course of a season. Again, while the difference may be negligible, but the decision to use a groundball-oriented hitter in the No. 3 spot (Mauer’s 49.5% career groundball rate) may be worth at least a win in the overall record.

The underlying message from Gardenhire was that he wanted more “team speed” this offseason, but what he may have been requesting was someone who was more skilled at bunting. Hudson’s strong OBP history and little record of dropping down sacrifices in his nine year career combined with leadoff Denard Span’s decrease in OBP left Gardenhire without bunter or bunt situations. Because of this, his team executed only 38 sacrifices all season – his No. 2 hitter laid down 10 of those. The previous season, the one with misfits and Mauer, the No. 2 spot dropped five bunts. Prior to that, an Alexi Casilla-led assortment of No. 2 hitters sacrificed 20 times in 2008. In my opinion, Gardy’s need for speed is also a euphemism for getting back to that ’08 type of play that.   

Although, he may fit the new two-hitter philosophy, I can concede that Mauer may not be the right choice to bat second. After all, having Orlando Hudson there last year added depth to the lineup and gave the Twins a strong offensive presence for five out of the six months (hitting .284/.358/.402 from April through August). Still, if the difference is having Mauer bat second versus insert a bunt-happy, groundball machine directed to record an out in the sake of “advancing the runner” – I’m taking Joe all day, every day.  

Again, lineup construction can wind up being a minor contribution – maybe costing or benefiting the team a win or three overall – yet for a team that has to play within the margins of what could be a very competitive run against the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers, that win or three could be very significant this year.