Thursday, May 24, 2007

Thanks Anne

The word came down yesterday, and most people who are fans of the blog medium recognized the signals. First are life changes, some gaps in posting, alternate writers, fewer and shorter posts, and no real end in sight. So it wasn’t a huge surprise that Anne Ursu gave us her farewell post at yesterday.

But it still sucks ass bats.

Anne was more than just a Twins blogger, and more than just a fantastic, creative writer. In my mind (and it’s admittedly a limited mind literarily) she pioneered a new style of sports writing, in the same way that Rob Neyer pioneered daily sabremetric baseball analysis, or Bill Simmons pioneered the fan’s point of view. She made real sports figures became fictional super heroes, characters in one of her stories, adding a dimension to sports that went way beyond anything to do with the actual games.

So while I enjoyed (and will hopefully again enjoy) her writing, what I really appreciate is the impact she’s had on the future of sports writing. She demonstrated what can be done, and inspired others to give it a try, and there are plenty of disciples that will continue to play with the medium. More than the morning laughs and the head-shaking off-the-wall concoctions, I think that will be her true legacy, even if its source is mostly forgotten in twenty years when it’s become a commonplace writing style.

In the meantime, I think it’s safe to say that our efforts are a fairly poor substitute, and it will be that way for a while. There is always a lull before the next writer takes the breakthrough to an even higher level. But it’s finding a place, and that is one of the real benefits of the Internet. When someone like Anne has a breakthrough, it’s like a virus, except like one in a science fiction novel, because it’s a virus that makes everyone it touches better.

That couldn’t happen a couple of decades ago, or at least it was rarer. Now, it just takes one person of vision and courage. Before, that person was just the beginning. At the very least they had to have an editor who matched them, not to mention an owner, or a president of media operations or an editorial board or whatever. Anne’s writing, as good as it is, wouldn’t have flown fifteen years ago in any major publication. In fact, it wouldn’t have gotten close, save maybe for a campus publication.

Now? Frankly, I can’t figure out why the hell some major publication hasn’t started paying her for a weekly baseball story. Surely they realize that this isn’t a niche style, accessible only to a few? That’s the beauty of her writing – it can be enjoyed even more by the casual fan. How has this not happened? I can only assume that Anne has had offers but decided to focus on her writing career instead. Either that, or every editor of any print publication in this town is a moron.

(I assure you, when the revolution comes and I’m in charge of a sports publication that actually makes money, this will be my first order of business. And “No” will not be an option, Anne. If you turn me down I will dedicate my life into turning Dash into a White Sox fan, just out of spite. A skinny, shirtless, hopped-up White Sox fan who thinks that Tom Gamboa is an Evil Teletubby. Ok, those last two words were redundant. I’m a little drunk. But you get my point.)

In the meantime, I wish Anne and John and Dash all the best in her little vacation. You deserve every extra minute you can spend with each other and probably five time more. Thank you for sharing your talent, inspiring our efforts, showing some courage and working your ass off for us over the last three years. It made things better.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


The Blue Jays are coming to town, and that got be to thinking: How is it that the Twins have been to four postseasons in the past five years, and the Blue Jays haven't been to any. And haven't been particularly close? AFter all, this is a franchise that is run by a well-respected GM, is historically known for developing players, and has had a huge influx of money to throw around. So what happened?

Pop quiz hot shot: Who were the top two teams in the AL East last year?
If you thought the Yankees and the Red Sox, you were right for most of the season, but the Blue Jays finished a game ahead of them, ten games behind the Yankees. This year, they find themselves that far out in May. What happened?

The easy answer is injuries. Stud closer BJ Ryan blew a couple of saves before undergoing Tommy John surgery. Slugger Troy Glaus has had a DL stint and there’s been talk of him having another. Leadoff hitter Reed Johnson sat out a game with a sore back in April. Turns out it was a herniated disk that required surgery, and he’ll be out until sometime in June. Starting catcher Greg Zaun caught a foul tip off his hand, which has kept him out for a month, and likely will be out a few more weeks. But the “When It Rains, It Pours” Award goes to ace pitcher Roy Halladay, who is out until at least next week after an emergency appendectomy.

But the other reason is something that Twins fans can relate to a really weak back of the rotation, seemingly by design. The Blue Jays don’t have a single starter outside of Halladay and AJ Burnett who has more than two quality starts. General Manager JP Riccardi clearly subscribes to the sabremetric principle that it’s OK to overpay for excellence, but mediocrity should be nabbed on the cheap. Unfortunately, that’ means his starting rotation consists of two ribeyes (who are making $22.5 million combined this year) and a lot of ground chuck.

Maybe more disturbing is that the ten games back they finished last year is as close as they’ve finished to the AL East division leader since Riccardi became GM in 2002. He received a contract extension (through 2010) before their spending spree last year, and he clearly has some strengths. He’s been pretty good about finding average performers at below-average prices, which explains all the fifth starters in the rotations. He’s been active in juggling his roster for deals, acquiring Glaus last year, and dumping Corey Koskie. And the enormous contracts that he’s awarded free agents have mostly been to young and talented players (Ryan, Burnett) who have a decent chance at earning that money (if they could only stay healthy).

And yet the high water mark is ten games back? Part of that is the division, but they’ve also had some money to toss around, as demonstrated by the ridiculous contract he gave to Koskie a couple of years ago and the $18 million he threw at 38-year-old Frank Thomas this winter. But what seems to have really hurt the Blue Jays is that they haven’t added any high-impact players into their farm system under Riccardi’s watch. That continued this year as their best prospect, 23-year-old outfielder Adam Lind, was called up in mid-April and has struggled, including being reduced to a bench player over the last week. But as you look at both sides of the ledger, you can’t help but wonder why exactly this team hasn’t been truly competitive in a half-dozen years.

The answer seems to be broader than this team, and the answer seems to be that getting to the playoffs in Major League Baseball isn’t as easy as it is in hockey or basketball or football, where about half the teams get in. To make the postseason in baseball, and awful lot has to go right at the same time, and the margin of error can be even smaller in a competitive division like the AL East. That’s a reality that Twins fans should know all too well after the years of suffering in the 90s, but we may have forgotten more recently.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

More Notes on K/BB (Part II)

Yesterday I commented on a couple of players, and courtesy of a two stupid glasses of Coke I drank at supper, it looks like I'll have the opportunity to continue tonight. (Getting old sucks.)

Denys Reyes
Sunday afternoon, I wondered what exactly was wrong with Reyes, and yesterday we found out that it was his shoulder. That's a reasonable, albeit convenient, way to explain his performance this year. But looking at Reyes's career numbers, one isn't struck by how he's slipped this year, but rather by how crazy good he was last year:

1999 39 72 3.80
2000 29 36 4.53
2001 35 52 4.93
2002 45 59 5.34
2003 10 16 10.66
2004 50 91 4.75
2005 32 35 5.15
2006 15 49 0.89
2007 9 10 5.84

Ignore the ERA column, and just compare those strikeouts to those walks. Last year Reyes' ratio was 3:1, which damn near doubles the results of most of his career. And this year it's close to 1:1, which is a lot closer to what it's been like for most of his career.

Again, this is in the good news/bad news category. It may very well be that while Reyes shoulder is part of the problem, it isn't the whole problem. On the other hand, if the Twisn can get a pitcher as historically bad as Reyes to improve his command for a year, there is still plenty of hope for Ramon Ortiz.

Torii Hunter
Hunter has been a torrid streak for most of the year, and damn but he's fun to watch when he's on fire. "Clutch" may not be a demonstrable skill, but it's sure fun to watch a supremely talented player bat when he's full of confidence, and Hunter is that player right now. A couple of years ago, he was being tagged with with a reputation of not coming through in big spots. This year, nothing could be further from the truth.

The question, especially in a contract year, is whether it will last. Torii has always been a streaky hitter, and I'd argue that his hot streak in 2002 was what lead to his current contract - a contract the Twins might not have signed in hindsight.

The biggest criticism of Hunter as a batter has been his selectivity. He chases too many bad pitches. He has always been a dangerous hitter, but lacked the plate discipline to become a hitter you trusted in tight spots. Good pitchers felt they could pitch to him. And for what it's worth, his recent hot streak doesn't demonstrate any change in that free-swinging philosophy:

1999 26 72 0.36
2000 18 68 0.26
2001 29 125 0.23
2002 35 118 0.30
2003 50 106 0.47
2004 40 101 0.40
2005 34 65 0.52
2006 45 108 0.42
2007 5 29 0.17

Whatever adjustment Hunter has made, it hasn't helped his batting eye. If anything, he seems to be less selective. Stay tuned.

Nick Punto
I was ready to put chuck Little Nicky Punto under a steamroller on Sunday afternoon. His two hits didn't look half bad in the box score, but he also got himself out on the basepaths, and then failed miserably - twice - to get the tying run home from third with one out. It drove me to look at some numbers for him as well. There's some relatively good news there:

2005 36 86 0.239
2006 47 68 0.290
2007 17 25 0.243

Again, look at the ratio between walks and strikeouts. Last year Punto discovered plate discipline, and coincidentally raised his batting average about 50 points. This year the batting average has been low, but it's been steadily climbing, and the the batting eye still looks like it's there. Punto might end up being the same player he was last year.

Now, you can debate whether that's enough from a third baseman, but make sure you question why it was enough last year, but not this year. I know this - it's certainly not enough if the Piranha can't also execute the things his team needs, like laying down a bunt on a suicide squeeze.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Weekend Notes: Scott and Ramon

A few notes on a few players as I watch the Twins piddle away the last game of this series...

Scott Baker
By far the most significant development of the weekend was Baker's start on Saturday, brining hope that the perceived abundance of pitching that the Twins have in Rochester is as ready as we hoped. The Twins have been and will continue to be criticized for the way they balanced their young and old pitching.

That's a little ironic, because their ulimtate solution makes everyone feel better about themselves. Those that felt the Twins should have promoted the youngsters early can say "they told you so", and those that felt the kids should start the season in Rochester can attribute Baker's success to how the Twins handled them. Really, it's a win-win for all armchair GMs.

(And the real GM is likely pretty pleased, too).

Ramon Ortiz
The contrast between Saturday's and Sunday's starts will likely add some fuel to the calls for examining Ortiz's place in the rotation. He lost yesterday on the two biggest criticisms he's received this year from the sabrementric types: he gave up hits and he gave up homeruns. But looking at his record historically, the home runs and hits he gives up aren't the key to his success.

See how that ERA line goes up and down in step with the K/BB and the BB/9 rate? Home run rate, strikeout rate, hit rate - none of them match the trend in ERA nearly as well as the two metrics above, and those metrics are what we use to deterine a pitcher's control. When Ortiz has his control, he's good. When he doesn't, he isn't.

That's eerily similar to what the Twins have been saying for the last couple of weeks. Ortiz's walk rate is the lowest in his career right now. In yesterday's loss he walked nobody, and he threw 2/3 of his pitches for strikes. Ortiz's performance over the last few weeks has been shaky, but there are plenty of reasons to believe he could return to April's form.

Shoot, I have at least two more I'd like to talk about from the offensive side, but I gotta run. We'll talk about those tomorrow, and don't let me forget to rant about Denys Reyes.