Sunday, April 06, 2008

On-base Surprises

I don't know what surprises me more: that one week in into the regular season and it looks like we have two lineup changes, or that I don't seem to mind. Granted, neither of them are official or anything. But it looks like two guys are going to get a lot more playing time than anyone anticipated before this weekend's series versus the Royals.

The first is Matt Tolbert, who has played in six games, starting four of them. He received playing time in part because Adam Everett had a family emergency and because Brendan Harris has been fighting some flu, but that still means he was plugging those holes that Nick Punto was supposed to be filling.

But it goes further than that. Those incidents don't explain why he was starting at shortstop yesterday. I'll be surprised if he isn't getting at least one starting the Chicago series, and maybe two considering Mike Lamb (third base) is hitting just .143 so far. It looks like he currently has Ron Gardenhire's confidence. A .462 batting average can do that.

The second surprise is that the Twins plan to start Denard Span most days in right field during Michael Cuddyer's absence. That means that Span has just jump-frogged the capable combination of Jason Kubel and Craig Monroe, who will continue to platoon as designated hitters.

The initial reaction to both developments was a wince. Both smell like knee-jerk reactions. Neither player has been much of a prospect, but they've both been fairly hot, and their more respected competition has been somewhat cold. And that wince turns into a pained grimace when I think of the accolades and hype that are going to be thrown upon these guys by local coverage. It will make the Church of Puntocism that sprang up around here seem restrained.

But if you're watching the games, you can see what Gardenhire is seeing in those players. The Twins like to pontificate about "professional at-bats", and that's an easy thing for them to defend, because like porn, you can claim you know it when you see it. But I see it in their at-bats and both players spring performances show some results to support that assertion.

And frankly, so do both players recent stats. A couple of weeks ago I opined that Denard Span might just have turned a corner late last year, pointing to a large shift in his walk to strikout ratios. And, in his first major league game, he got on base with a walk, and didn't strike out. I'm not claiming he's Ricky Henderson, but he continues to bear watching.

And while Tolbert has never been a particularly high ranking prospect, the one thing he has seemed capable of doing is getting on base. Over the last two years in the minors, he's drawn 81 walks and struck out just 116 times. That's a damn fine ratio and helps explain why his on-base percentage (OBP) over those two years has been .350 over that time.

And this decade, getting on-base has been a real key for this team:
When the Twins have been above the league average in OBP, they've generally done well, and when they haven't, they've generally struggled. I'll admit, that's a pretty simplistic way to break things down, but it makes some sense. This team has always struggled to find power, but has been successful despite that ongoing deficiency. They've done so because they have been a little better at setting the table.
And so, I find myself warming to the surprises this first week has produced. I want to see if these guys are the disciplined hitters that their recent history suggests. And I want to see if the effect that adding to professional hitters might have on this lineup.

16 comments:

ubelmann said...

Getting on base is a key to scoring runs for any team. It takes more work to show that it is especially important for the Twins in particular to have a high team OBP.

TT said...

The reality is that the pattern is a lot less clear when you just look at how many walks the Twins have got each year:

2007 512
2006 490
2005 485
2004 513
2003 512
2002 472
2001 495
2000 556
1999 500
1998 506

The reality is OBP is much more a measure of how well the Twins are hitting than it is how many walks they get.

neckrolls said...

The thing about "professional ABs" is that they tend to mean deeper counts. Somebody who walks a lot is going to see 4+ pitches in those ABs. Long (5 or more pitch) ABs tax pitchers and get a team into the bullpen sooner. Not only are long-relievers usually less effective than late-relievers, the more innings a bullpen throws early in a series, the more fatigued they're likely to be as a group later in the series/season.

It's always a good strategy to try to have long ABs, particularly when a starter is throwing well. This is precisely what the Twins did not do in the Angels series, allowing the Halos to bypass their weakened middle relief and hand the ball straight from the starter to K-Rod. On Thursday, when they got Santana to throw a lot of pitches, they were able to get to him in his last inning, and score runs off the middle relievers in the 7th and 8th. Not enough to win, but a better performance by the offense.

I hope that Span and Tolbert continue to be grinders. Even if they don't result in a runner on base, a 6-pitch out is more valuable to the team than a 1 or 2-pitch out.

TT said...

Long (5 or more pitch) ABs tax pitchers and get a team into the bullpen sooner.

There is no evidence that hitters who draw walks create longer at bats. If you look at Mauer's long at bat the other night, he faced nine pitches, swung at 5 of them and didn't walk. On the other hand, I think it was Morneau who struck out on three pitches, never taking the bat off his shoulder. As long as the pitcher throws strikes, no approach is going to get the batter a walk.

Not only are long-relievers usually less effective than late-relievers,

How does drawing walks prevent you from having to face late-relievers? What evidence is there that drawing a walk on a pitcher who can't find the strike zone will get him out of the game faster than swinging at a grooved pitch when he gets behind in the count?

the more innings a bullpen throws early in a series, the more fatigued they're likely to be as a group later in the series/season.

That may help the teams that face them in the next series. But the argument that you can get an advantage in the third game of a series by wearing out a bullpen in the first two games doesn't appear to have any evidence to support it.

Just to be clear. Of those ten years I listed, the Twins won the most games in 2006 and 2002, those were years when they had two of their three lowest totals in walks. Whatever that shows, it isn't that the Twins success depends on walks.

Nick N. said...

TT, I think the point here is that getting on base one way or another is the most important function an offense can do. This current group doesn't have a lot of guys who are likely to hit for big averages (I would opine that Mauer and Kubel are the only true .300 hitters on this squad, at least presently), so it won't hurt if some guys can find other ways to get on. Like, you know, taking a walk. You can't always have a bunch of freakishly high batting averages like that '06 team did.

BradDad said...

What's infuriating is it's not rocket science: better OBP = more pitches for opposing pitchers = getting starting pitchers, etc. out of games earlier & deeper into their bullpen sooner.

For some reason, though, the Twins (a) don't like patient hitters; and (b) overvalue guys who fit best in the "2", "7", "8" & "9" holes (you know, the guys who nit the ball on the ground to move the runner to 3rd, etc.).

Last thing - the object of the game is score runs (obvious). Absent a lineup full of .350 hitters or HR hitters - and we're definitely "absent" that - you need guys to get to 2nd base where they score on the single.

TT said...

TT, I think the point here is that getting on base one way or another is the most important function an offense can do.

Isn't scoring runs the most important function? There are a lot of things that contribute to that and getting on base is only one of them. The ability to advance around the bases is probably more important.

it's not rocket science:

No, it isn't science at all and its not necessarily true.

"better OBP = more pitches":

Mauer used up nine pitches and didn't get on base at all.

"= getting starting pitchers, etc. out of games earlier"

Why is that an advantage if the starting pitcher is struggling to throw strikes? Don't you want to take advantage of that and give your teammates as many chances as possible to hit off him?

While last night was an exception, I don't think many teams are going to see getting into the Twins bullpen as an advantage - especially if the starter is struggling with the strike zone in a way that provides opportunities for a lot of walks.

it won't hurt if some guys can find other ways to get on. Like, you know, taking a walk.

Agreed. But batters don't take walks, pitchers give them out by not throwing strikes. And whether they throw strikes depends, in part, on how dangerous they think it is to catch the plate.

BeefMaster said...

Agreed. But batters don't take walks, pitchers give them out by not throwing strikes. And whether they throw strikes depends, in part, on how dangerous they think it is to catch the plate.

It's not an all-or-nothing proposition - the batter also has to take the pitch that the pitcher is throwing out of the zone. That tendency certainly varies from batter to batter - Kevin Millar walks a lot more than Vladimir Guerrero, and I don't think anyone would argue that pitchers are more afraid of grooving a pitch to Millar.

There is no evidence that hitters who draw walks create longer at bats.

I don't have any hard evidence of this, but checking out last year's leaderboards in P/PA and BB/PA, there appears to be a pretty strong correlation, at the very least.

TT said...

Millar had five more walks than Guerrero last year, and 35 more strikeouts and a bizillion fewer hits. That's what keeping your bat on your shoulder will get you.

BeefMaster said...

Millar's five additional walks came in 100 fewer plate appearances, and more than a third of Guerrero's walks were intentional. Even including Guerrero's IBB, Millar drew a walk about 30% more often than Guerrero last year, on a per-plate-appearance basis.

I'm not disputing that Guerrero got better results - my point was that a walk is dependent on both the batter and the pitcher, not just one or the other.

TT said...

came in 100 fewer plate appearances

Guerrero also had about 100 more hits where he lost the opportunity to get a walk.

my point was that a walk is dependent on both the batter and the pitcher, not just one or the other.

I wasn't suggesting the batter's approach didn't effect how often they walked - only that ultimately they had no control over it. The pitchers have to miss the plate. If they don't, eventually the hitter will either strike out or have to put the ball in play.

The Millar-Guerrero comparison shows Millar with more walks, more strikeouts and fewer hits. That doesn't seem to show that keeping your bat on your shoulder is the best approach. Looking for a pitch to hit seems like a better approach than worrying about whether it is over the plate.

Nick N. said...

The Millar-Guerrero comparison shows Millar with more walks, more strikeouts and fewer hits. That doesn't seem to show that keeping your bat on your shoulder is the best approach. Looking for a pitch to hit seems like a better approach than worrying about whether it is over the plate.

Guerrero is also a freakish hitter who can get hits on balls out of the zone better than perhaps any other player in the game, so he's not exactly a generalizable example. You're generally right that sitting with the bat on your shoulder at all times is not a good strategy and that hits are more valuable than walks, but I also think you're underrating the value of being selective at the plate.

Nick N. said...

Isn't scoring runs the most important function? There are a lot of things that contribute to that and getting on base is only one of them. The ability to advance around the bases is probably more important.

There have been several studies that have shown OBP to correlate more strongly with run-scoring than any other mainstream statistic. You can't move runners around the bases if they aren't getting on in the first place.

TT said...

There have been several studies that have shown OBP to correlate more strongly with run-scoring than any other mainstream statistic

Which does not prove anything about the value of taking a walk, since OBP doesn't only measure walks. No matter how often it is ignored, correlation still does not prove causation.

If you look at the other information, I think you will find that OBP alone is not really a very good indicator of offensive success. When a high OBP is a result of a very high number of walks, it does not correspond well to runs scored.

Of course the other component of OBP is hits. No one doubts that a team with a higher OBP because it has the same number of hits and more walks is likely to score more runs - given equivalent power. The question is what happens when it has more walks and fewer hits.

Guerrero is also a freakish hitter who can get hits on balls out of the zone better than perhaps any other player in the game, so he's not exactly a generalizable example.

I don't think that is as unusual as you portray it. The same was said of Kirby Puckett. But it is true of many, if not most, players that they can hit some balls that are "out of the zone" and struggle on some pitches that are over the plate.

I also think you're underrating the value of being selective at the plate.

I didn't say anything about "being selective at the plate." The discussion was about strategies to maximize walks, which isn't the same thing at all. Looking for a pitch you can hit, i.e. "being selective", is an important part of hitting. But working counts for a walk is likely to result in fewer hits. And it is also just as likely to get you struck out.

John said...

If you look at the other information, I think you will find that OBP alone is not really a very good indicator of offensive success. When a high OBP is a result of a very high number of walks, it does not correspond well to runs scored.

I did a study of this a few years ago TT. OBP does correlate very highly with runs scored, higher than batting average, but lower than OPS. In fact, I don't tink I could find one higher than OPS using fairly common rate statistics. Now, to be fair, they're all very high, something like .90 of higher.

thrylos98 said...

This is interesting :)

I think that OBP is not the whole part of the story. OBP from 2001 has been fairly flat for the Twins. On the other hand, if you look at SLG, you'll have:

year SLG ERA Record place OBP


2001: .433 4.51 85-77 2nd .337
2002: .437 4.12 94-67 1st .332
2003: .431 4.41 90-72 1st .341
2004: .431 4.03 92-70 1st .332
2005: .391 3.71 83-79 3rd .323
2006: .425 3.95 96-66 1st .347
2007: .391 4.15 79-83 3rd .330


As you see SLG is the different between the 07 and 05 teams that missed the playoff and not as much OBP.