Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Killing the Messenger

I saw the headline in the Strib and smirked. I read the story and smiled. It was going to fuel more Twins Territory energy than the lethal concoction of dollar dogs and Chuck Knoblauch. This was going to be fun.

La Velle E Neal reported yesterday that Ron Gardenhire was leaning toward starting Nick Punto at second base next year over prospect Alexi Casilla. Punto, of course, has posted a batting average significantly lower than, well, than most writers/bloggers weight, present company included. I wonder if Neal giggled as he wrote it in anticipation of the public reaction. Honestly, how could he not have?

The reaction was as conservative and placid as most internet-based stories. I counted three blog entries by noon, and several other blogs where the comments section was overrunning with reader reaction. The prevailing sentiment was that this was symptomatic of larger issue with the Twins and that Ron Gardenhire was an idiot.

Taken altogether, it wasn’t unlike an uprising. And the more I thought about it, the more the message was distilled into three short words that are a staple of angry mobs.

“Kill the messenger!”

Face it Twins Territory, Gardy is simply telling us an unpleasant truth that we already know: Alexi Casilla has done almost nothing to indicate that he is anywhere near ready to play at the major league level. Hell, I’ll take it a step further. Alexi Casilla has done almost nothing this year in terms of growth other than age a year. And any objective observer who hasn’t bought into the spring training hype and trade deadline excusathon would conclude the same thing:

  • This year he hit .269 in Rochester.
  • His plate discipline declined from last year.
  • His major league OBP is .278.
  • He’s been prone to boneheaded mistakes in the field and on the base paths.
  • Versus left-handed pitching he has been positively abysmal (454 OPS)

Put yourself in Gardenhire’s shoes. Compare that player to a guy who had .300 average last year when he discovered plate discipline, has an excellent glove and is guaranteed $2.4 million whether he plays or not. Which one would you lean towards starting there next year?

Even the decision to play Punto at second or third base in front of Brian Buscher and Alexi Casilla at this point in the season makes some sense. Again, whether we want to admit it or not, the Twins already "know what they have" with all these guys. So do we.

  • Casilla is a speedy slap hitter who hasn't shown, either at AAA or MLB, that he's ready for the majors.
  • Buscher is a late prospect, ala Lew Ford, whose upside is probably Ron Coomer, both offensively and defensively.
  • Punto is a starting middle infielder if he's hitting well and showing plate discipline, which he did last year. He’s a utility infielder if he isn't, which he did every other year.

Of the three, the one I feel least sure projecting next year is Punto, then Buscher, then Casilla. So why are we so worked up that Casilla is riding the pine?

Don’t get me wrong – this is really depressing news. It's most depressing because it is undoubtedly true. There isn't much help in the free agent market for second basemen, and there is no way that Casilla takes that job away from Punto in spring training if Gardy has it in his mind that it's Punto's.

But Gardenhire isn’t to blame that Alexi Casilla got a year older without getting a year better. That rests solely on Casilla’s shoulders. Or maybe we should blame Terry Ryan for using Casilla’s development as an excuse for the Luis Castillo trade. Or maybe we should look in the mirror for buying into the party line and wishcasting a player to be something he’s not. (Yet.) It seems thereare plenty of other accurate targets for our anger.

Let’s leave the messenger alone.

24 comments:

ubelmann said...

Here's the thing: Gardy doesn't need to say anything.

For instance, consider how he's handled the situation with the starting pitching going into next year. He's said specifically that Santana's the only guy who is guaranteed a spot. He's making it an open competition. Why not make second base a competition? Why give Punto so much of a leg up now? Is Gardy trying to motivate Casilla to work harder? I don't know.

The timing stinks, though. Even if Gardy waited until the beginning of spring to say this, it would be much easier (strictly as a fan) to handle than when we are hot on the heels of one of the most spectacularly bad offensive seasons in the last forty years or so. I think that Punto makes a lot more sense at second base than he does at third base, and I think he's unlikely to repeat what he did this year. Even setting aside Casilla for the moment, if the organization isn't even exploring non-Punto options at this point in time, they're being incredibly complacent. Even if they don't succeed, they ought to be battling their tails off trying to get enough quality on the roster to make Punto the backup middle infielder--a role to which he is suited quite well.

So I guess I don't mind killing the messenger when he's delivering an unnecessary message.

Anonymous said...

i heard denny hocking is looking for work.

Anonymous said...

Breaking news: Punto's performance last year was a fluke. Furthermore, he didn't hit .300 last year, John. He hit .290 with no power. His career numbers are .245/.315/.321/.636.

By comparison, Luis Rivas's career numbers are .262/.307/.382/.689. That's right, he's not quite as good as Luis Rivas for his career, and that's throwing in the career year from last year.

Why not play Casilla in meaningless games and see if, under the tutelage of the major league staff he can improve?

If Ron Gardenhire was saying we've resigned the 2004 Luis Rivas and installed him at second base next year and for the rest of this year, and we're not going to give our other young guys a chance, would you be on board with that?

SBG

Anonymous said...

I guess I disagree that the Twins know what they've got with Casilla, and therefore don't need to play him anymore this year (as you seem to insinuate). On the other hand, you also say that Punto is the the only one you would feel comfortable projecting, insinuating that there is still some unknown regarding Casilla.

I thought Gleeman did a nice job of summarizing my feelings. I'd be interested in your critique of his article. Did he quote Gardy out of context?

TBorg

brianS said...

I agree that Casilla has been bad, overall. Punto has been (much) worse.

During August (beginning with game 106 on July 31) he had PA in 28 games, going 24 for 105. 229/274/276. that is ugly. Of course, Punto went 127/210/155 in August.

Not including last night, since the start of September, Casilla has seen PA in only 6 of the last 15 (plus two appearances as a late defensive sub w/o PA). While I'm sure we're all thrilled by Nicky's 293/341/341 in those 15 games, Casilla line has been 308/357/346.

again, the Twins gain nothing by playing Punto and lose at least the opportunity for Casilla to work on his game on the field

Of course, Casilla still has things to prove even at the AAA level. But TR brought him up. That SHOULD have been to play, not to sit. Play him.

John said...

Lots to address here. I don’t want to go after individual lines TT style, so I’ll address some general points…

First the Punto bashing. I hear ya. He’s driven me crazy. My guess is he’s driven himself crazy. I have no idea why he sucks so much this year, but the thing is that I think I do know why he was good last year – he discovered some plate discipline. And I can’t believe that so many people who generally subscribe to K/BB ratios are so willing to write off the year as “a fluke” and start throwing career numbers around.

You can’t have it both ways, guys. You can’t scream for years that Jacque would reach the next level if he discovered some plate discipline and then write off Punto reaching the next level when he discovers some plate discipline.

And whether he hit .290 or .300 last year, he was exactly the player that you hope Casilla can eventually be (and clearly isn’t now). His BA was above average, his OBP was above-average, his fielding was out of his mind, and he stole 17 bases with five CS. If Casilla were to put up those numbers you would be doing cartwheels. Hell, if Casilla put up those numbers in AAA we would be doing cartwheels.

Which brings us to the big question that still needs answering, which is what happened to that guy. Punto carried over his plate discipline into the first half of the season and was still hitting .200. That, by the way, has since been abandoned. So if the Twins and Punto want to use the last two dozen games of the season to keep trying to figure out what the hell happened, power to them. Because the best chance at second base next year looks to be getting that guy back.

And I’m not suggesting they bury Casilla. I’d like to see him play, too. But it’s defendable to share time with Punto. I’d put money on Casilla being the better player in 2009 and 2010, but there is no evidence other than Casilla’s birth certificate that indicates he’s going to be the better player next year. If I’m missing it, by all means, show it to me.

Anonymous said...

here's the thing, if they are trying to figure out what is wrong with punto, start him at 3rd one game, short the next and then start him at 2nd base the 3rd game. Then he gets his 3 games in and Buscher and Casilla each get 2 games. you could even give him a day off, then everyone gets 3 games. it is stupid to have 2 prospects sitting on the bench when they could be playing and learning. at least give them a chance to make a better impression and improve instead of punishing them for mistakes. punto has never been punished for his bonehead mistakes and horrible play.

John said...

Now that I would agree with. I almost wrapped up the above comment suggesting a different alternate solution, which was to use the DH spot. It's not like we need to see Rondell any more.

John said...

But I'll add one more point to that thought - it's not like it matters. I think the outrage that is being shown about this topic is driven primarily by hoping against hope that someting Casilla does over this last two weeks justifies our spring training hopes. It's not going to happen. What Casilla does in this last two weeks of the season doesn't change who he is this year. We need to get over that.

Anonymous said...

What I would have like to have seen was Casilla playing every day this month, with tutelage from the major league coaching staff to show him where he is weak so that there is no doubt in his mind. Then, ship him off to winter ball to work on those weaknesses. Then, when he comes back to spring training, he may have made progress. If not, he's shipped off to Rochester and we live with Nick Punto. If so, maybe the Twins have a better solution in place. Not to try, though, what the heck?

SBG

Michael B. said...

One of the other wrinkles here is that Gardenhire may be sending a message that Punto is NOT going to be his third baseman next year -- in other words, the front office is going to have to come up with another body to fill that slot in the line up. That might help explain the odd timing of the announcement.

John said...

SBG,
I suspect Casilla's weaknesses are being conveyed to him whether or not his is playing. And not playing him probably drives home those weaknesses more than playing ever could. I assume winter ball, and a lot of it, is on the agenda. If not, that is a real problem.

ubelmann said...

John,

First off, I don't think it's really "Punto bashing" so much as it's "Punto observing." Obviously it doesn't take a rocket scientist to have noticed the guy has struggled this year, but when you step out and look at the bigger picture, I don't think you can reasonably expect him to be an above replacement level hitter next year.

As far as Punto's K/BB ratio went last year, yeah, he improved it, but it went away just like that. If you want to talk about potential, then sure, Punto has the potential to repeat that performance. When assembling a major league team, though, you ought to be looking at expectations rather than simply potential. What can Punto be expected to do?

Anyway, I wasn't stumping for Casilla to necessarily get the job over Punto here. (Because, in all honesty, Punto vs. Casilla misses the point--those are not the only two options.) My main point is this: The timing of this announcement royally sucks.

Whether or not he likes it, Gardy is part of the Twins' PR department. When he says something like this before the 2007 season is even over, and fans react negatively, I think you have to chalk that up as a bad PR move. He didn't have to say anything--keeping this plan to himself was a perfectly legitimate option.

And then if you get into the specifics of what Gardy said, it's even more frustrating. For instance, the idea that they "know what they're getting" with Punto when he's been completely bipolar the last two seasons. Or the implicit suggestion that Punto doesn't make rookie mistakes when he's routinely failed to get bunts down and made errors on the basepaths.

Honestly, I have no problems with Nick Punto. He's a player who is perfectly suited to be a backup middle infielder, and has been asked to do too much in an organization that hasn't been able to find better options. I do have a problem with the insinuation that he should be on the fast track for a starting job next year, when he has done very little to earn it this year and doesn't have a solid track record that would make him obviously a good candidate for the job.

Anonymous said...

He's said specifically that Santana's the only guy who is guaranteed a spot.

Where did he say that? I can't imagine that Baker will not be in the rotation next year.

And there are plenty of good reasons to reassure Punto that he has a place in the lineup if he comes to spring training and takes it and to make it clear to Casilla he needs to improve if he is going to have a shot.

I don't think organization is or should explore options at second base beyond what they have internally. Some people might not like that, but Gardy is merely stating the obvious. If the decision were today, Punto would be the starting second baseman. And its not really very likely that will change before opening day next year.

John said...

Ubelmann,

Gardy certinly could have kept his mouth shut, and certainly that would have been the smart thing to do politically. I agree, though he might have alternate reasons for saying what he said, such as lighting a fire under Casilla's or Punto's butts.

Obviuosly, I'm not as dismissive of that plate discipline as, well, seemingly everyone else. I'm a little baffled by this. Here's what I see:
1. Numerous stories in ST (2006) about Punto working with Carew to not swing at bad pitches.
2. A totally different K/BB rate for Punto in 2006.
3. A much higher BA and OBP for Punto that tailed off at the end of the 2006.
4. An early season slump in 2007 WHILE RETAINING THE K/BB RATE for the first half of 2007.
5. Lots of talk about how the Punto is hitting too many balls in the air because he's getting high pitches. Also we hear battling lingering injuries.
6. Still no improvment in BA as the first half ends.
7. Bewilderment from all sides. Some talk about how Punto needs to start putting the ball in play and using his legs.
8. A rapidly declining K/BB rate and no improvement in BA.

So I don't know what is going on. It's conceivable to me that the first half of the year was caused by a slump or some lingering injuries and the second half was caused by panicing about too much plate discipline. Or maybe MLB pitchers adjusted to Punto after last year and he hasn't adjusted back.

But I'm not convinced last year was a 'fluke' that can't be repeated. And I'm surprised that we're assuming a displayed skill can't be repeated.

brianS said...

re: nicky's plate discipline. I dunno.
Here are some numbers from 2006
K/PA and BB/PA by month
April 06 .14, .10
May 2006 .10, .10
June 006 .05, .16
July 006 .13, .09
August06 .13, .11
Sept 006 .13, .02

These compare favorably to 2005, when Punto struck out in 19.6 pct of PA and walked in 8 pct (although the walks aren't really different and really tailed off at the end).

In 2007, here are the monthly rates

K/PA and BB/PA by month
April 07 .12, .12
May 2007 .18, .15
June 007 .17, .12
July 007 .14, .01
August07 .17, .09
Sept 007 .21, .06

Looks to me as though he has maintained about half of the reduction in K rate he accomplished last year until very recently. But his success rate on balls in play has been atrocious.

In '06, Punto had a .332 BABIP, compared to 294 in '05, 300 in '04, and this year's horrific 251 (career now 293).

Is he better than this year's performance? Probably. But last year was a LARGE outlier. A ten percent (30 percentage point) increase in success on batted balls. That's a tremendous jump. those things just don't tend to happen sustainably at age 28 or 29, do they?

I promise to shut up on this topic now. sorry to drag it out, John.

ubelmann said...

But I'm not convinced last year was a 'fluke' that can't be repeated. And I'm surprised that we're assuming a displayed skill can't be repeated.

Like I said, we have to weight potential against likelihood. I agree that Punto could repeat '06, but I also find it unlikely that he will. Lew Ford, for instance, had a very good SO/BB ratio in '03 and '04, but has never come close to repeating that. Players aren't forced to retain improvements, even if they made real improvements.

It's also worth noting that in 2006, Punto's EQA was .254--he wasn't even a league average hitter last year when things were going really well for him.

Personally, I'd like to see where the various projection systems put Punto before I really put in my two cents for what he will do in 2008, but my guess would be closer to his career averages than his 2006 performance.

Looking at his PrOPS this year, for instance, based on the balls-in-play he's had, he should be hitting something like .247/.326/.318--so he's been somewhat unlucky this year. (Which is not hard to buy since anytime you get close to historic badness, you've probably had some bad luck working against you.)

That said, his career line is .243/.313/.318 right now, and that looks an awful lot like what his PrOPS line is from this year. I'm seeing a lot of indicators that Punto is a replacement level hitter, and not many that he is an above replacement level hitter.

John said...

Brian,

I'm glad you posted those numbers, but I'm interpreting them a bit differently. That BB/PA is almost exactly as I thought it might be based on the list of my perceptions above. To me it says that Punto had a great eye in 2006 until Sept rolled around (which is when his BA went from .300+ to .290). And in 2006 his plate discipline was fine for the first half of the year and then it completely tanked.

As for the BABIP, wouldn't it make sense that it was higher the year he learned to lay off balls out of the zone? That makes total sense to me. To me the mystery still is why it plummeted this year.

John said...

Ubelmann,

I guess it would be interesting to see how common it is for a player that finds plate discipline and success one year to not show it again the rest of his career, or to keep the discipline but not have the succcess. And I would think the projection systems might help answer that.

As for last year's EQA, I still maintain that we would do cartwheels if Casilla posted those numbers. I mean, it's not like we expect him to hit for power. At middle infield, if Punto or Casilla can post close to the league average EQA, I'd more than take it.

I'm also of the opinion that this team needs some OBP guys in places like second base and that the power guys can come from 3B, LF or DH. If the Twins 2B can get on-base, I'll be more than satisfied.

ubelmann said...

I think it tends to be counter-productive to set narrow goals for certain positions. (2B must get on base, 1B must hit for power, etc.) It was that sort of thinking that made Doug Mientkiewicz an undervalued player during his time with the Twins, even though in '01 and '03 he was worth 3-4 wins (over replacement level) with his bat and probably 1-2 wins (above average) with his glove. For what he was making, he was pretty productive.

Excepting certain pathological roster conditions, I'm not too concerned with how players are producing runs, so long as they are producing them.

At 2B, Punto's probably worth ~1 win with his glove and ~0 wins with his bat. For $2M, that's not terrible, but that's not good, either. I'd like to see the Twins try to do better. Maybe they can't. I haven't looked at every possible trade scenario or free agent acquisition out there to see if it makes sense for the Twins to address this from outside the organization. (Then again, I don't get paid to do that.) I'm kind of disappointed if they're just penciling in Punto/Casilla and saying "good enough," because there's a lot of time before next April to try to improve the team in as many ways as possible.

(I would of course also feel better about having Punto around if I was sure that he'd be hitting 9th and that the Twins would have someone on the bench to pinch-hit for him in key spots. That would be a better way to maximize his all-glove, no-hit skill set.)

I agree that it would be interesting to see how players who have improved their K/BB ratio like Punto have fared in future seasons.

Spud said...

What's the deal with this Punto thing? Give me a guy who plays defense better than anyone on the team, busts his hump every play in which he is involved, and wants to win. All this focus on his offensive numbers and ignoring his defense is ridiculous. Sure, he had a lousy year at the plate. Big deal. The Twins have many more important issues for next year than Nick Punto. Like a DH that can provide some power, a third baseman that can hit with a little power (assuming Punto is either at second or utility), signing free agents, getting the pitching rotation squared away, etc. etc. etc.
Hell, if I'm coaching, Punto can play somewhere, whether he hits .200 or .300.

Kyle Eliason said...

What's the deal with this Punto thing? Give me a guy who plays defense better than anyone on the team, busts his hump every play in which he is involved, and wants to win. All this focus on his offensive numbers and ignoring his defense is ridiculous.

Congratulations Twins fans, we now have our own Brad Ausmus.

Anonymous said...

spud - i would love to match up my team with your team. you take punto and i'll take jon shave.

franorama said...

It's a small sample, but Punto has been borderline spectacular defensively in his late-season return to 2B.

I think 2B is his best position and perhaps that is showing. I think his offense since the move is comparable to Casilla's and his defense is far superior. Again, that might be a short term coincidence, but then again it might not.

I tend to agree with John that Casilla likely has a higher ceiling for 2009 or 2010, but I don't see a reason to rush him before he is fully formed and ready to be a major-leaguer when Punto might well be a capable stopgap 2B/utility man.