Thursday, July 17, 2008

Choosing to Believe

We spend a lot of time talking about run differential and PECOTA and small-sample sizes and what not. Instead, today, as we finish our break, let’s try stripping away the expectations and the back stories and see where we’re at:

We’ve played 95 games. That’s longer than a full season for most sports. It includes 300+ at-bats for starting hitters and 100+ innings for solid starting pitchers. And here’s how many wins each of the above winning teams in the American League have right now:

57 - LA Angels
57 - Boston
55 - Tampa Bay
54 - Chicago Sox
53 - Minnesota
51 - Oakland
50 - NY Yankees
50 - Texas

Now, can you tell me with any level of assurance which four of those teams are going to come out on top over the next 67 games? Of course you can’t. Nobody can. These teams are too close. We’re talking a seven game difference between eight teams, with 67 or so games left to play. For that level of precision, our statistical tools start to work against us.

Want to discount small sample size? Too late. We have less than 70 games left this season, and so small-sample size is a legitimate issue – and with every game played it’s increasingly likely to mess things up.

Wanna talk about run differential? Its predictive power is also reduced with each game that is played. And its predictive power is taking a shot this year anyhow. The top team on that list should be seventh according to run differential.

Trust player-projection systems like PECOTA? They're fun, but now they are missing more than a half-year of data. And it’s the half year that is most indicative of a player's future performance.

Maybe it’s time to set aside the offseason analysis and take a fresh look at this race, including a fresh look at the Twins chances. Forget the players that left, the veterans that didn’t pan out, the money not spent, and the missing power. Instead, focus on the improvement, the youth, the speed and the potential. Or if you don’t want to embrace those things, how about the random chance that the Twins make up just two games over the next 67? On either of the teams in front of them?

As for me, I’m choosing to believe. I don’t fully understand what has happened to Denard Span, Alexi Casilla, Brian Buscher, Nick Blackburn, and Glen Perkins. I don’t understand how a team can score this many runs without hitting for more power. And I don’t understand how a starting pitching staff can be this good without striking more people out. I fully admit it. I don’t get it.

And I don’t care.

The fault is in my understanding, not in the rest of the world’s execution. And I couldn’t be happier to be wrong. Bring on the pennant race.

Twins Takes

Liriano
In case you missed it (and let's face it, NOBODY who comes to this blog missed it) Francisco Liriano's agent, Greg Genske, is asking the player's union to investigate if the Twins kept Liriano in AAA just to limit his service time. I speculated in the past that Liriano's agent impacted the decision to have Liriano pitch (and get shelled) three times this April, largely because he was worried about service time....

And if you think that little ticking clock wasn't at the top of his and his agent's mind, you're kidding yourself. You can be damn sure there would be plenty of resentment if he "wasn't being given a chance" as Bill Smith so aptly put it.

Three starts later, things were much clearer for the team, the agent, and probably the player.

Looks like I was right and I was wrong. There's little doubt that early season call-up was impacted by the agent. But it looks like giving up 13 walks and 13 runs in 10 innings didn't fully convince Genske that maybe he wasn't the best judge of when Liriano was major-league ready. I wonder how many more walks and runs it would have taken?

By the way, if you really want to dive into whether Liriano's return to the majors has been delayed by the financial incentive of keeping him at Rochester, it has been debated (mostly) intelligently for months over at a discussion board called rotojunkie.com. The first four pages follow Liriano's return to the majors, but on this page (back in May) the debate starts about the motives for keeping him in Rochester. I sounded off several times in the thread. I used to think that "Jericho" was just a bitter know-it-all and Liriano roto-owner. Now I wonder if he isn't Genske.

Billy Beane - Boy Genius!
For the second time this month, the A's trade away one of their front-line starting pitchers for spare parts/minor leaguers. This, despite being three games out of a playoff spot and having a run differential that is third best in the AL. I suppose it's possible Beane isn't working covertly for the Anaheim Angels, but I'm not sure what else he could do if he was.

In general, I like and admire Beane, but how can he not be absolutely savaged for these trades? I spoke above about how it might be time to let go of back stories and expectations and try and evaluate things without swimming within those antiquated points-of-view. Is it time to do the same with Bean? Imagine if someone like Bill Bavasi or Jim Bowden did this. It's possible that the baseball blogosphere would spontaneously combust like a potted plant.

Opportunistic Week
The Rangers coming to town doesn't exactly fire the imagination, but compare that list of contenders above to the Twins schedule this next week. The Rangers and the Yankees are two of the teams that the Twins will be competing against for a playoff spot, and the Twins don't have a winning record against either of them. Winnning the series against both would be nice, but the Twins have a chance to absolutely bury either of them with a sweep.

4 comments:

Jack Ungerleider said...

I don’t understand how a team can score this many runs without hitting for more power. And I don’t understand how a starting pitching staff can be this good without striking more people out. I fully admit it. I don’t get it.

I'm no expert, and I don't play one on TV, but I'll offer this opinion.

For the first point, scoring runs without hitting for power. For all the moaning about not enough home runs, Joe Mauer is the archetype for the current Twins offensive philosophy. Hit for average, take walks when given and rely on opportunistic power. You can't score runs with no one on base, unless you hit a home run. Consider the following rudimentary analysis. A team comes up to bat in a particular half inning and achieves a total of "4 bases". If you get those 4 bases via 4 singles you will most likely end up with two runs. Here's the challenge score more than two runs with 4 bases in any other combination. My contention is you can't. You most likely can't even get the two runs. You have to have speed on the bases to get the two runs on a double following 2 singles. When you look at the young guys, the ones who have spent time in the Twins minor league system (ex. Span and Cassia) understand the philosophy and have executed it nearly perfectly this season. Those players that came out of other systems straight to the Twins (ex. Young and Gomez) are having a little more trouble with the "plan". It's easier to teach guys plate discipline and hitting singles then hitting home runs. If you get enough guys trained that way you get a potent offense.

For the pitchers I would contend that a similar approach is in place. Call it "Bradke-ization" of the pitchers. Teach control and a healthy disdain for walks. Most nights that will make you an effective pitcher. Granted its tougher against the better veteran teams which may lessen the staffs effectiveness in the playoffs.

The other thing that helps a staff like this is the focus on defense. If the pitchers are comfortable that the team behind them with field the ball then they can pitch to contact and let it go. One of the other features of this staff is with the exception of Baker they are mostly ground ball pitchers. That helps with double plays which can be more effective than strike outs. Remember when Santana pitched the complete game against the Mets he had fewer strikeouts and more ground balls. It is a more efficient way to pitch.

That's my take. It also speaks to why a team like the Twins won't go off the deep end in trading for a veteran player. Unless they feel he will fit the game plan, why bring him in? This is a team that more than any other needs everybody to be on the same page, pulling the same way.

walter hanson said...

A couple of points to say about the second half coming up.

One, we can assume that if Boston and Los Angeles make the playoffs it will because the win the division. That makes the twins going for the wild card and division. Oakland will probably collapse because two good inning eater starters have been traded. Texas will probably have their normal collapse from lack of pitching.

The second thing is given what they did in the first half is there more potential for a better record. Tampa Bay apparently has done both the offense and defense right, but might have started to collapse. Chicago has so far seemed to do everything right, but what killed them in the second half last year was lack of timely hitting to score runs outside of homeruns.

The Twins have had some bullpen problems. If Guerrier and Crain perform up to their potential all the starters have to do is get to seventh with the lead and the win is usually in the bank.

If Mike C. comes back and starts hitting anywhere close to the 2006 standard the lineup becomes much better since Mike C will provide a right hand bat between Justin and Jason. Young (now batting seventh) who has been hitting for a decent average seems to be picking up his power numbers. The 8 and 9 hitters have performing much better. This is a consistent lineup 1-9.

Great potential for the Twins. Tampa Bay and Chicago may have peaked.

Walter Hanson
Minneapolis, MN

Kyle Eliason said...

Jack said: "Hit for average, take walks when given and rely on opportunistic power."

Again the old question, if you're suggesting clutch power, that if the Twins as club can hit for power at their choosing, why aren't they doing it all the time?

As of July 3rd, the Twins were hitting .313 with RISP and .276 on the whole (which includes batting with RISP).Link.

That says to me, sell high on the offense. Also, to have more fun with Jack:

"Joe Mauer is the archetype for the current Twins offensive philosophy."

Batting a prototypical No. 2 hitter out of slot? That's the key to an unconventionally successful offense?

TT said...

if you're suggesting clutch power, that if the Twins as club can hit for power at their choosing, why aren't they doing it all the time?

Hitters say they change their approach depending on the situation. They even practice to do it. There isn't any reason to think they aren't successful.

But it ought to be clear that there are tradeoffs. If you swing for the fences you are probably going to make contact less often, strike out more often and get on base less often.

The other thing is that RISP et al are misleading. The problem is that hitter are obviously far more likely to be hitting against a pitcher who is struggling with runners on base than when the bases are empty.

If you get those 4 bases via 4 singles you will most likely end up with two runs. Here's the challenge score more than two runs with 4 bases in any other combination. My contention is you can't.

I think your answer has a broader basis. The fact is runs respond in a non-linear fashion to hits. Getting the first couple hits in an inning will produce fewer runs than each additional hit.

The other thing to realize is that, while the Twins don't hit many home runs, they are 4th in the league in combined doubles and triples. They aren't really a bunch of singles hitters.