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There’s been a lot of talk on this blog and others in the last few weeks about the status of Ron Gardenhire, and whether the Twins’ struggles have him on the hot seat with Terry Ryan. Opinions seem to range widely, all the way from “he’s been useless from the beginning, and the Twins won those three straight division titles in spite of him, not because of him” to “leave the poor guy alone, Terry Ryan screwed him with his offseason moves, and besides, there’s nothing wrong with managing by instinct.”
There are even a few people prowling the discussion boards (and TwinsGeek’s comments section) insisting that, while a few gentle second-guesses might be all right, Twins fans are shaming themselves when they become noticeably frustrated over the judgment of the manager of Our Only Base Ball Team. (This seems like an odd line of reasoning to Intern Sam, mainly because the sports blogosphere is not exactly known for employing a “We’ve Got Spirit, Yes We Do!” style of fan engagement, so it would seem odd for anyone who prefers simply to root, root, root and ignore the gaffes to even be reading the blogs in the first place. But to each his own…)
The fact is, though, it can be awfully hard to judge the performance of a manager from an outsider’s perspective, since most of the moves he makes in a given season aren’t quantifiable in any useful way. To sit down and separate out just how much of the blame for the Twins’ disappointing first half should be laid at Gardenhire’s feet is an impossible task given the statistical tools currently available to us. After all, Gardenhire doesn’t select the players on his team (as has become blindingly obvious in the last week or so,) so can he be held even partially responsible for the struggles of Rondell White, Tony Batista, and Brad Radke? Possibly, but we don’t know for sure.
What infuriates many Twins fans is really Gardenhire’s apparent unwillingness to see the game the way we, the fans, see the game, and to react accordingly. That’s not to say that he’s right and we’re wrong (or vice versa,) just an attempt to put the whole situation in some kind of perspective. (All that having been said, Intern Sam still comes down most frequently on the side of those who say that the Twins could do better than Ron Gardenhire, but he isn’t foaming at the mouth about it.)
Still and all, the Twins remain a club divided against itself, not in the sense of team chemistry, but in the sense that there are now clearly two sets of 2006 Twins: the good ones and the bad ones. We all know who belongs in what set, and it’s up to Terry Ryan to decide, for instance, how much longer Rondell White will be allowed to continue wasting a spot on the roster. But when a season goes south as soon as this one did, with a core of players as talented as the Twins have, there is always a temptation to chalk the whole thing up to bad luck and bad timing. After all, no one dreamed that White, always a steady near-.300 hitter, would have the meltdown of his career the minute he stepped inside the Dome, right? And Carlos Silva? Who would have imagined, after last season, that Silva would be the first guy yanked from the rotation?
Well, as it happens, there are a number of prominent statgeeks who have waded into the nasty business of player performance projection in the last few years, and this weekend, as Intern Sam relaxed in the Upper Club at the Dome, secure in the knowledge that at least Francisco Liriano is bulletproof, he began wondering how much of the current Twin misery was actually foretold by the so-called experts. To answer the question, we’ll turn to arguably the two most well-respected sabermetric publications in the biz: Baseball Prospectus, and The Bill James Handbook, both published annually. The authors of these tomes are not exactly colleagues (and anecdotal evidence suggests that they don’t always play well together,) but that should only help us, in that we’ll be looking at two independently reached conclusions.
Here’s how we’ll do it: below, I’ve listed the six regular players and starting pitchers who constitute the core of the Bad Twins team, along with their 2006 stats through June 11. Listed alongside are the 2006 projections for each player from the 2006 editions of both the Bill James and BP annuals. (One exception: since both annuals were sent to press before anyone knew Tony Batista would be playing in Minnesota in 2006, I’ve used the predictions from the 2005 annuals. This isn’t ideal, of course, but nothing Batista did in Japan in 2005 would have had much of an impact on his numbers, as best I can tell.)
Most of the stats are self-explanatory, but I’ll clarify two less common ones upfront. Bill James uses a stat known as “Runs Created” (RC), which purports to quantify how many of the runs a team scores over the course of a season are attributable directly to that player. I won’t go into the math here, but this is a fairly well respected (if limited) statistic, and it was from the RC stat that James eventually crafted his far more complex (and controversial) Win Shares metric.
On the Baseball Prospectus lines, Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) is included as well. This is a wildly complex stat involving ballpark effects, positional variances, and the effect of the tides on Cristian Guzman’s hair, but all you need to know to get the gist is that VORP is an attempt to measure, by runs per season, how much better or worse a player is than a fictional player whose skills exactly match those of an average replacement player available to an average major league team at minimal cost. Players above zero are better than that average, those below zero are below that average. (There are people who hate this stat, partly because it implies that an average major league ballplayer is worth nothing, but I feel that this is a largely semantic argument in an arena where semantics are meaningless, so I’m using it.)
Why go through all this silliness just to tell us what we already know – namely, that a lot of Twins are underachieving this season? Quite simply, as summer swings into full gear, Intern Sam would like to know once and for all whether anyone (or everyone) should have seen the train wreck coming a mile down the tracks. Let’s have at it…
2006 Stats: .190/.209/.224; 0 HR; 4 BB; 29 K
James: .284/.337/.461; 19 HR; 33 BB; 79 K; 75 RC
BP: .292/.338/.463; 13 HR; 23 BB; 57 K; VORP=15.7
Okay. It’s obvious that no one thought White would be the out-making disaster that he has been. Neither projection system thought he would be as strong as he was in 2005 (when he hit .313 and with an OPS of .836) but to say that Terry Ryan should have known this pick-up wouldn’t work out is unfair. The plan was for White to stay healthy by staying out of the field, and for him to hit something like the average of his career stats, which is what both James and BP projected him to do in ‘06.
It’s worth noting that the BP annual did have White listed as a 40% chance to collapse in 2006 (in BP-speak, a collapse is a 20% or more slump in overall production,) but that’s a marginal measurement at best, and given the Twins’ needs measured against their limited budget, we can’t really blame anyone but the baseball gods for what’s happened to Rondell.
2006 Stats: .236/.303/.388; 5 HR; 15 BB; 27 K
James (2005 ed.): .245/.284/.451; 30 HR; 32 BB; 90 K; 75 RC
BP: .253/.301/.428; 18 HR; 31 BB; 76 K; VORP=4.5
This is a bit tougher to figure. Both projections are in the ballpark as far as batting average and on-base percentage go, but neither forecasted the power drop. Of course, as I mentioned, these numbers are intended for the 2005 season, which Batista spent in Japan. I wish we had fresher numbers to choose from, since I suspect both models would have docked Batista considerably for having not seen major league caliber pitching in 18 months.
It’s worth noting that while Bill James sees White and Batista as equals as far as creating runs, BP’s VORP ranks Batista as barely better than its imaginary replacement player. Subtract the homers, and he’s surely well below average. So should we have seen this coming? Well. We did, didn’t we? This was the most controversial move Terry Ryan made in the offseason, and in this case, it appears that the fans were right, and the GM goofed.
2006 Stats: .234/.261/.312; 1 HR; 6 BB; 22 K
James: .241/.277/.355; 7 HR; 19 BB; 64 K; 38 RC
BP: .255/.287/.379; 4 HR; 9 BB; 32 K; VORP=1.0
The experts had it nailed here. Castro is basically your textbook replacement player, and nothing in his career prior to 2006 suggested that he would be even remotely useful as an everyday shortstop. It’s worth noting that both annuals made their predictions assuming that Castro wouldn’t be an everyday shortstop in 2006, because of course, the Twins had…
2006 Stats (AAA): .306/.328/.445; 1 HR; 8 BB; 26 K
James: .273/.343/.386; 7 HR; 47 BB; 67 K; 61 RC
BP: .271/.340/.394; 7 HR; 38 BB; 61 K; VORP=17.3
Now, on the surface, this may not look like a huge deal, numbers-wise. After all, even if the Bartlett predictions were dead on the money, it’s not like the Twins decided to replace Derek Jeter with Cristian Guzman when they kept Castro and demoted Bartlett to Rochester. But the truth of the matter is that Bartlett is 26, and the Twins need to find out if he can be their everyday shortstop of the future before he either gets frustrated and quits, or gets so old that he loses all trade value. Furthermore, there’s just no quantifiable reason for anyone on the Twins to have actually thought that Castro would put up better numbers.
Defense, you say? Baseball Prospectus’s rankings, which take both range and accuracy into account, say that Bartlett is three times the defensive shortstop Castro is. (The fact that he made a few errors last year is countered by his clearly superior range in the field. The laser-like focus on occasional errors to the exclusion of all else is the same kind of backwards attitude that causes Dick and Bert to spend hours extolling the ability of Tony Batista to consistently make good plays on “balls hit to him,” ignoring the obvious fact that he has a total range of about four feet to either side and is therefore a defensive liability.)
The bottom line here is that someone (Gardenhire?) clearly has a problem with Jason Bartlett that has nothing to do with his game, and no one is saying what it is. We’ll probably never know, but just for the sake of history, let’s not forget that the last time a Twins manager ran a middle infielder out of the organization because he just didn’t like the cut of his jib, we got five years of Luis Rivas while Todd Walker batted .291 and thumbed his nose from afar. And if that’s not enough to convince you that Castro over Bartlett is an error of serious proportions, consider this: in Baseball Prospectus’s list of player comparables, Bartlett is listed as being somewhat comparable to Jerry Hairston. Castro is Billy Ripken.
2006 Stats: 4-7, 6.17 ERA; 22 BB; 38 K
James: 10-10, 3.87 ERA; 28 BB; 108 K
BP: 11-10, 4.17 ERA; 28 BB; 104 K
Look, we all love Bradke. He’s been a workhorse for as long as most of us can remember, and Lord knows, he was good when practically no one else on this team was. But listening to Twins fans talk about Radke in the offseason always makes me feel like I’m back in college in the late 1990s, listening to Cleveland Indians fans explain to me how their team was finally going to get over the hump this season while conveniently ignoring the fact that their starting staff was still anchored by Charles Nagy.
Now, no, the Indians didn’t have Johan Santana, and yes, Radke had a great year in 2004 (despite his 11-8 record,) but the numbers said fairly clearly that Radke wasn’t going to be anything special this year, and even now that he appears to have turned his season around somewhat, he’ll probably finish not too far off from what’s predicted above. And that’s the best-case scenario. Am I saying the Twins should have dumped Radke, or found a trade in the offseason? No. I’m saying that it wasn’t hard to foresee that he is no longer a legitimate #2 starter, and certainly not a useful top-flight starter for a club hoping to contend.
2006 Stats: 2-8, 7.73 ERA; 10 BB; 22 K
James: 9-10, 4.11 ERA; 27 BB; 70 K
BP: 10-11, 4.47 ERA; 28 BB; 70 K
2006 Stats (ML only): 2-4, 9.22 ERA; 22 BB; 27 K
James: 8-13, 4.78 ERA; 47 BB; 109 K
BP: 9-10, 4.67 ERA; 42 BB; 87 K
The Baseball Prospectus crew says this far better than I ever could:
“[The Twins haven’t] really adjusted to the fact that their rotation isn’t good enough. While the Sox are making a point of improving their rotation… the Twins are playing make-believe, and continuing to crowd the rotation with the same good-enough guys who are no longer good enough. They’re hoping Brad Radke can be the pitcher he was in 2004 [and] wishcasting that Kyle Lohse might build on his 2003, instead of recognizing that was a good year from a fourth starter… And in doing so, they’ve crowded out their pitchers with real up-side, making only a single rotation slot open to Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, J.D. Durbin, and perhaps Boof Bonser.”
That’s kind of the 2006 season in a nutshell, isn’t it? The fact that it was written sometime in January just makes it all the more depressing. Because if the question is whether anyone in the Twins’ brain trust should have known that what they had wasn’t going to be good enough to compete in this year’s Central Division, the answer, clearly, is yes. That doesn’t mean there would have been any easy answers regardless, but at least by acknowledging that the chance of contention with this team was slim to none, the front office would have freed itself to spend the year finding out who the real major league players in the system are, and preparing to contend in 2007.
Instead, they’ve clung to mediocre veterans like Castro and allowed White and Batista to continue to flail away despite knowing for a fact that none of those players will figure in the Twins’ long-term future. Meanwhile, Bartlett rots in Rochester and guys like Kubel and Baker get jerked around just when they should be getting a chance to adjust to the majors.
I know this is a buzzkill of a column, and I apologize. The Twins took two out of three from Baltimore this weekend, Joe Mauer has apparently become the God Of On-Base Percentage, Liriano and Santana continue to dazzle, and there are plenty of reasons to keep going out to the Dome this season. This isn’t a Kansas City situation- the Twins have some unbelievable talent on the major league level, and a full-scale rebuilding shouldn’t be necessary to get the club back to playoff caliber. But the current strategy of signing (and keeping) other teams’ cast-offs in the hope that they’ll be magically transformed into the Boston Red Sox isn’t working anymore. And the numbers say that someone should have known better.