Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Raging Against the Serene

Q: What kind of dumb-ass baseball writer stays up until midnight on a weeknight, writing notes about a West Coast game, and still manages to miss the most talked about story?

A: A Twins Geekish one, apparently. Because yesterday, after a 11-2 thrashing of the Mariners, the most talked about story wasn’t my favorite, which would have been how the Twins signed Ramon Ortiz at half the salary level of Jeff Weaver. (No, I didn’t think that would be anyone else’s story. I’m a geek. We’ve established that.) It wasn’t Luis Rodriguez showing Twins Territory some glove. It wasn’t even Torii Hunter, despite a grand slam and a shoulder/wrist injury.

No, the biggest talker yesterday (as judged by random chats I received) was Joe Mauer’s bunt in the fifth inning. If you missed it, there were runners on first and second base and no outs in a game that the Twins led 3-1. Weaver had started the inning giving up three straight singles to Piranhas, and given up a run. Mauer laid a bunt down the third base line which died in the Safeco rough, Seattle catcher Kenji Johjima raced up the line, and his throw just beat Mauer racing to first base.

Later that inning Hunter hit a grand slam that essentially decided the game, so nobody was arguing with the result as much as the decision. The debate raged in part because Mauer did something similar last week, bunting when it seemed like the Twins really needed him to swing away.

Judging from the feedback I received, the anti-bunt side has introduced some rather strange bedfellows. On the one hand, there are those who are pretty damn convinced that bunting is usually stupid, and that the Twins do too much of it. They’ve found themselves aligned with another crowd who just wants Mauer to start hitting for some power, or at least drive in some more runs, dammit.

Last week we talked about how a person’s philosophy frames their reality and this bunt seems to be another example. Those fans whose pet peeve is watching the Twins bunt themselves silly are livid because they think this is another example. And those that feel that Mauer’s popularity needs to be justified by some offensive fireworks are equally perturbed. But objectively, this was a completely justifiable decision, whether or not Hunter hit that home run.

Mauer’s bunt wasn’t necessarily meant to be a sacrifice. There is a reason that that Johjima had to play that ball, and it was because the third baseman was playing back. If the ball would have rolled a foot farther, Mauer would have been safe, meaning the bases would have been loaded with no outs. The actual outcome also really wasn’t so bad – runners on second and third base with one out and a very good chance to add to the lead with Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau up next.

I’m especially surprised that anyone who claims they’re baseball philosophy is steeped in sabermetrics should argue about this. I’m pretty sure we can do a quick study that shows that sabermetric theory practically DEMANDS a bunt in that position. Let’s find out.

One tool that is really handy for talking about in game strategies is something called Thorn and Palmer’s Expected Runs Matrix. It is just a cute little grid that shows, given a certain number of outs and people on base, the average number of runs that should score, based on 75 years of major league games. It was published in The Hidden Game of Baseball by Pete Palmer and John Thorn. It looks like this.

OUTSNone1st2nd3rd1st & 2nd1st & 3rd2nd & 3rdFull
0 Outs0.4540.7831.0681.2771.381.6391.9462.254
1 Out0.2490.4780.6990.8970.8881.0881.3711.546
2 Outs0.0950.2090.3480.3820.4570.4940.6610.798

- When Mauer came up to bat, the Twins could have expected to score 1.380 runs.
- Even though he failed to get a base hit, the Twins could have been expected to score 1.371 runs because he at least advanced the baserunners. And that was the (essentially) the worst case scenario.
- With the third baseman playing back, Mauer was trying to bunt his way onto first base, which would have put the Twins in a position to average 2.254 runs, which adds almost a full run to what they could have expected.

Now there’s plenty of details that one can quibble about here. For starters, I only highlighted the two most likely scenarios, and some worse stuff could happen, like Mauer popping up to the catcher. Of course, that works both ways, and Mauer often hits the ball hard enough to ground into double plays.

One might also argue that if you’re going to have roughly 1.3 runs sitting out there for your team to pick up, you would rather have Mauer batting against Weaver than Cuddyer, and I agree with that. That’s a good argument to not have Mauer sacrifice if the third baseman is anticipating the bunt, but not when he’s playing back and opening up a real opportunity for a bunt base hit.

Finally, one additional point that further supports his bunt is that up two runs with Ortiz on the mound and a helluva bullpen, the probability of scoring one or two runs was more important than trying maximize the total number of runs scored in the inning. Even a straight sacrifice is justifiable in that scenario.

We can be pretty sure that while he was in the on-deck circle, Mauer wasn’t sneaking time with an abacus to figure this all out. And that decision might have been made for the wrong reasons, so maybe it will bite back in a future game.

But Mauer’s job at that point wasn’t to drive Weaver from the game, and it wasn’t to justify the state’s man-crush by flexing his muscles. His job was to help his team score some runs, and almost any way you look at it, he accomplished that. We should probably save our rage for an event that deserves it.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Twins Much, Mariners Much Less

Got to watch a good chunk of tonight's game at a great little neighborhood restaurant*, talking with Dave about a Great Big Fun Idea™. Other little thoughts couldn't help but pop out too, so let's see what they were....

A Little Gush for Luis
Third Base has a bit of a bugaboo for this organization lately. Take away both Corey Koskie debacles, the Tubby Batista signing, and you still have a bunch of draft picks that aren't quite where the Twins want them to be. I wondered about that, and I managed to find this post from February where Taylor talks a bit about who the Twins might have in their future at the position. (BTW, is Taylor's blog on our list? Is his RSS feed on Needs to be.) But isn't there a guy they just drafted that should be on that list? Am I confused?

Anyhoo, Taylor lists Luis Rodriguez as #11 or #432 or something like that, which is fine. I've always thought Rodriguez a little underrated, but results are results, and I'm fine with his place. But you absolutely have to LOVE the play he made on Ichiro's second at-bat of the game. A diving grab, a throw from both cheeks that beats the fastest home-to-first runner in the game. If Punto made that play, we'd all be gushing. Luis, you get a little gushing tonight.

Weaver's Dream
Jeff Weaver started the game for the Mariners, and he deserves a whole article. Remember, this guy was the Tigers Opening Day starter as a 24-year-old back in 2001 (losing to Brad Radke 3-2). He was traded to the Yankees for Jeremy Bonderman and a bunch of guys. Then he was traded from the Yankees for Kevin Brown.

Last year he was released mid-season when the Angels called up his own brother, signed with the Cardinals, but went on a tear in the playoffs to earn a World Series ring. However, he couldn't come to an agreement with the Cards in the offseason and signed with the Mariners for $8+ million.

Remember, Weaver had been released just six months earlier but received an $8M contract. What's more, he signed that one-year deal five days later than Ramon Oritz signed with the Twins for about $5 million less money. Comparable pitchers, signed in the market at a similar time, one of which clearly has better stuff than the other based on tonight's game - and Weaver got more than twice as much money.

Boras Effect
And I think I know the answer to that obvious little riddle - it's Scott Boras. Weaver's agent is Boras, and I'll be damned if his client's don't make WAY more than comparable players. It seems to happen every damn time, even to the Twins. Remember when Twins fans were up in arms about the arbitration ruling that Kyle Lohse won? Wanna guess who his agent was?

It made me wonder who which agents represented the most grossly overpaid players this year. I knew that the agent for that 7-year, $126 million contract that Barry Zito got was Scott Boras. But how about the ridiculous deal that Gil Meche got? Turns out his agent is Casey Close, who I had never heard of before.

But that's also not good news for Twins fans. Because while none of the Twins big names have Boras as their agent, one has Close. That player is Michael Cuddyer. Just something to keep in mind.

But the best agent in the world wasn't saving Weaver tonight. Can anyone yank balls to left field like Hunter when he's on fire? Just an amazint at-bat.
  • Weaver works the outside edge of the plate and the umpire give him a huge strike zone out there for the first two pitches.
  • On the third pitch, Kenji Johjima is setting up six inches off the plate and even then Hunter needs to swing and just manages to foul one off.
  • For the fourth pitch Johjima gets up, walks 1/4 of the way down the first base line, and then gets into his crouch again. Amazingly, Hunter doesn't swing. Even more amazingly, it's called a ball.
  • And for the fifth pitch Johjima set up off the outside of the plate and low. And Dave says "Weaver had better not miss his spot". He does. The pitch is six inches higher and about three inches over. It's still on the outside of the plate, but it's over the plate and there was never a doubt where it would land.

That's it for tonight. I hope you all had as much fun watching the game as I did. And if you're not watching tonight's game, I'm not sure I can call you my friend. Bring on the King!

* Amore Victoria on Lake and Irving. If I lived within four blocks of that place, I would be there approximately four nights a week. If I lived six blocks, I would be there at least that often in the summer. I'm just saying.

Oh, and I would be eating that pistachio gorgonzola cream pasta thing right up until the time I had that first coronary. Hmmm, make that the second coronary.

Phoning It In: Five Years Ago

Sorry gang. I took advantage of yesterday's wonderful weather to have a date with The Voice of Reason. Pracna on Main, the Stone Arch Bridge, the New Guthrie - it was a helluva night to be out. Welcome back Spring.

So, anyhoo, I'm phoning it in, and I thoght I would just print whatever I did from five years ago, just for a little perspective. There isn't a ton there, but I do note that Joe Mays elbow started hurting. I think this was the first in his series of injuries...

The Tribe's Hot Start


ESPN's lead article on the MLB page yesterday was about Cleveland's 11-1 start, and how they were overlooked by a lot of analysts. I mentioned a few weeks ago that if Cleveland's young pitching developed, the Central division would be a three horse race. But Cleveland's hot start hasn't convinced me that they'll be a contender come the all-star break, let alone on Labor Day. To be fair to them, I didn't get to watch much of the series where they swept the Twins, but the concerns I have about that team haven't faded:

1) Their Starting Pitching other than Colon and Sabathia
This is probably the biggest concern. Their starting rotation consists of the best 1-2 combination in the AL Central, followed by a ton of question marks. Ryan Drese has an 8.40 ERA. Baez has a shiny 3.38 ERA, but has walked twice as many batters (10) as he's struck out (5). The big question is whether 39-year-old Chuck Finley can stay healthy enough to post numbers like he did in 2000 (218 IP, 4.14 ERA) or whether he'll have a year like last year (113.2 IP, 5.58 ERA). And even if he does stay healthy, they need one of the two youngsters to pitch consistently well.
2) Age
I thought we might hear during spring training that Travis Fryman had retired. Honestly. And Ellis Burks, who is sporting a 1203 OPS* right now, will almost undoubtedly need some extra time off this year. And unfortunately for North Coast fans, the replacement for both of them is Brady Anderson, followed by Will Cordero. This is still a pretty old team, and while that might mean something in terms of experience, it can also mean something in terms of productivity and health.

3) Their Schedule
This is dangerous ground, since the Twins have had a similarly easy schedule, but the White Sox have been at ANA, at DET, vs. MIN and vs. KC. The only really impressive series in those four was against the Twins, who have a history of struggling in Cleveland, were at the end of a very long road trip and looking forward to their home opener. This week the Tribe faces the White Sox and the Twins on the road and we may get a better feel for their true level of play.

4) Some Guys Are Hitting Over Their Heads
This is also dangerous, since some of their guys are hitting below where they should as well. But consider:

Certainly, Gutierrez should start doing a little better, and it's conceivable that Milton Bradley, at just 24 years old, will breakout this year to post a 850+ OPS. But there are some guys in that lineup who are off to amazing starts and neither recent history, career numbers, or age dependent projections anticipate that they'll keep it up. Sometimes a guy pulls a Bret Boone and keeps it up for the entire year, but I have trouble seeing that happening to anyone with the possible exception of Lawton.

So, I'm not writing them off, and it should help make it a more exciting race, but the hot start hasn't really answered any of my questions about this team. Of course, it's not like your average Cleveland Indians fan would start checking the mail for their playoff tickets anyway. I mean, after all, these are the Indians and they seem to exist strictly to break their fans' hearts. But if you're an Indians fan, for now, dream a little dream. After all, there was a team last year who rode two very good starters and an over-the-hill lineup to a championship....

Twins Takes
Joe Mays is hurt. It's "just" a sore elbow, so they're not planning on placing him on the DL and he'll only miss one start. They'll juggle the rotation a bit and give Tony Fiore, who was excellent in relief last night, a start. According to Gardenhire, he'll have 13 days between starts, so I have to wonder why they wouldn't place him on the 15 day DL, but maybe they'll do that only if they run into a roster crunch or need to replace Fiore with another reliever. Both situations are somewhat likely, with Buchanan possibly coming back soon and the starters continuing to melt down.
There was a lot of talk in spring training about the wealth of young pitching the Twins had, so you would think maybe Kinney or Santana might be called up if Mays needs to be out for an extended period, but none of the AAA prospects have done terribly well their first week.

That's after only 1 or 2 starts, so we certainly shouldn't read that much into those numbers. But we'll keep an eye on how our AAA starters are doing, partly because one of them could be needed to replace Mays, partly because I would love to see one of them replace Reed, and partly because the more chips Terrry Ryan gets to have at the trade deadline, the better the Twins chances of landing an impact player for the pennant race.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Stuck by Devil Rays

"This is the zero moment of consciousness. Stuck. No answer. Honked. Kaput. It's a miserable experience emotionally. You're losing time. You're incompetent. You don't know what you're doing. You should be ashamed of yourself."
"Stuckness shouldn't be avoided. It's the psychic predecessor of all real understanding."

- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

When it comes to hitting Joe Nathan, most of Major League Baseball has been stuck. No answer. Honked. Kaput. It's a miserable experience emotionally. They're losing time. They're incompetent. They don't know what they are doing. They should be ashamed of themselves.

And then, like a Zen parable, it's the figurative (and literal) children of MLB - the Tampa Bay Devil Rays - that embrace their stuckness and find an answer.

The change in Pirsig's attitude reflected above is his way of embracing "stuckness", the feeling of helplessness when a problem can't be solved. In the book, his example is a screw that is stripped and won't allow the mechanic to take the cover off the broken motorcycle to fix it.

After fruitless efforts to unscrew it, the stuckness opens his mind. He recognizes the stripped screw isn't just a 5-cent piece of metal, but a malfunctioning adhesive that is currently worth the entire price of the motorcycle, since it is stopping him from fixing it. That realization leads him to all kinds of solutions, such as drilling the screw out, or using a solvent. The solution becomes unimportant, almost trivial, once the realization is reached.

Against Nathan the challenge is how to handle a closer that throws a 95-mph fastball. He compliments that with a slider that looks like the fastball, except it dives a foot below where the fastball should be. And if that wasn't unfair emough, he can throw two off-speed pitches for strikes too? That's the kind of repetoire that makes a stripped screw look desirable.

The solution? It's the kind that can only develop after fruitless efforts to overcome the challenge, stuckness is achieved, and minds are opened. By embracing the fact that there already is almost no chance to reach base, previously inconceivable chances can be taken, even if they seem suicidal.

Q: What's the only thing worse than facing a 95 mph fastball/slider combo?
A: Facing a 95 mph fastball/slider combo and looking for something off-speed. Check that - facing a 95 mph fastball/slider combo and looking for something off-speed while you're behind in the count.

That's counter-intuitive to most batters, because it's awfully hard to catch up to a fastball when looking for something slower. The only reason to do so is when you've essentially given up hope. You do it because, darn it, you're not hitting the fastball anyway. You might as well look for a pitch you can handle.

And Sunday afternoon it worked, because when Nathan and Mike Redmond got ahead of batters, they started throwing off-speed pitches to keep the batters off-balance. Except that two Devil Rays, Akinora Iwamura and Dionner Navarro, realized they were hopelessly off-balance before their at-bat started, and were waiting for a breaking ball. They each got it when they had two strikes, and they each lined it into right field for a double.

And suddenly they were unstuck.

The good news for Twins fans is that it didn't take long for Nathan to adjust. He threw eleven pitches after that, and every one was a fastball or a slider. The next group that faces Nathan in the ninth will likely need to come up with their own solution.

But first, they'll likely need to recognize they're stuck.