Thursday, February 14, 2008

Hoping for Awesome

Earlier this week I dodged the real question that the Twins face with regard to Joe Nathan. The question isn’t is Nathan awesome? He is, and nationwide, everyone knows he’s awesome. And the question (today) isn’t whether he’s valuable. On Monday we talked about just how valuable he is, and we didn’t resort to ‘Saves’ to do it. No, the question today is should the Twins try to sign Nathan to a long-term extension, and if so, for how much?

Because while Nathan has been great, and exceedingly valuable, he might still be replaceable. At first glance, there’s only one obvious candidate. Pat Neshek has been every bit as dominant by just about any metric as Nathan, though his quirky mechanics and late-season injuries might (and should) give pause to fans. After him, there are lesser candidates both to replace Nathan, or to replace Neshek in the eighth inning.

For instance, there is Juan Rincon, who was Nathan’s heir apparent before last year, but his effectiveness has steadily decreased over the last three years. Or Jesse Crain, another young phenom who is, returning from a shoulder injury this season. (And just a quick note: that is often an injury that a pitcher doesn’t fully recover from.) And others will be able to bring up other candidates from the Twins stable of young starting pitchers. I can think of three off the top of my head.

And almost all of these suggestions will be worth at least a little consideration, because if there is one thing that the Twins have done well over the last twenty years, it’s been to develop a first rate bullpen. And that’s been especially true under manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson.

This is the tandem that turned LaTroy Hawkins from meltdown specialist to dominant right-handed setup man. They turned Eddie Guardado from left-handed soldier into a closer. They coaxed several years of usefulness out of JC Romero, which deserves combat pay on top of any accolades. And they’ve turned spare parts from other organizations, like Matt Guerrier, Denys Reyes and yes, Joe Nathan, into consistently reliable relievers.

Sooner or later, whether you’re an organization or an individual, you have to start trusting in your strengths. Developing relievers and closers has been a strength of this organization for twenty years with the last real flop being Ron “Shudder” Davis. It’s not a sure thing that the Twins can replace Nathan in the bullpen, but if you’re looking for a gamble that will save you $12 million, this is a pretty good one.

Which doesn’t mean you don’t offer Nathan an extension, it just means you do so from a position of strength. The Twins don’t need to get this deal done. They shouldn’t pull the trigger on this kind of deal unless they’re getting a contract that they think will be an asset over the next few years, and maybe they can offer money up front (and the guarantee of a multi-year deal) to get that concession. Above all, it CANNOT have a no-trade clause, in any way, shape or form. That’s a deal-breaker.

From Nathan’s standpoint, he has a choice. He can pitch for $6 million next year and then test the market. The closer market has exploded lately, including a $46 million, four-year contract to the 32-year-old Francisco Cordero. If Nathan pitches well this year, the 34-year-old can likely expect at least a three-year deal. That would probably come in around $40 million, which means he’ll make $46M over the next four years. Or he can take less money now, and have that money in hand, whether or not his arm falls off in 2008.

Does that leave the two sides enough common ground? Maybe. How about a deal that rips up the last year on his contract and gives Nathan a $6 million signing bonus, along with salaries over the next four years of $7M, $8M, $9M, and $10M. That brings the total to $40 million over the next four years.

That gives Nathan his big payday a year early at 85% of its value. It gives the Twins a premier closer attached to a very desirable contract that they can move if the team goes south. Nathan gives up $6M, but becomes wealthy beyond his dreams, and the Twins take on all the injury risk.

And if that doesn’t get the deal done, well, the Twins have plenty of options. The next step would be to begin negotiations with Pat Neshek on a deal, maybe as long as four years. He won’t get to arbitration until 2010, but you never have more leverage with a guy than when he’s not a closer. After all, the team gets to decide who is on the mound in the ninth. That’s an insight that the Twins have consistently leveraged in the spring, after they’ve confirmed their relievers are healthy.

The step after that would be to let Nathan have another great year and then trade him at the trade deadline, where relievers have been incredibly valuable. And Nathan’s next step would obviously be to become incredibly rich while picking the city in which he practices his craft.

Either way, both the Twins and Nathan have a chance to come out winners. So long as he stays awesome.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Usually, you don’t see this level of giddiness following a two-hour musical remembrance of the Holocaust. Not that it wasn’t warranted.

“Did you hear how we got the most applause?” were the first words out of The Chatty Chatty Princess’s mouth.

“Yes, you did,” knowing precisely why. And it wasn’t for the reason she thought.

We wound our way through other Children’s Choir members in the green room at Orchestra Hall, found our way out, and walked back to the car. Or at least The Voice of Reason and I walked. My 10-year-old probably thought she was walking, but was closer to twirling, despite never really going around in a circle. Meanwhile, I was preoccupied for the 323rd time by how freaking cold this winter was.

Cold and dark and sick. And not just me. The whole family has been cold and sick for weeks. And it was late and there were dirty dinner dishes stacked next to the sink and lunches to be made and laundry to be done and a stupid post on Livan Hernandez to write. My wife and I had already decided we would be going straight home.

So we hurtled down 35W as a monologue emerged from the back seat. Underneath it, I whispered, “I want pie”.

“Fine,” TVOR sighed.

I don’t know why the night called for pie. I suspect it’s some submerged childhood memory, or possibly it’s genetic, but after a night on stage, there must be pie. These last couple of weeks hadn’t been easy, for her or for us, and this was the payoff. This night without pie would be a flower picked but not smelled.

TCCP hovered approximately four inches above the booth bench in a perpetual state of motion. TVOR watched with a perpetual state of amusement. And I sat across from them, feeling around the table with my heart, soaking in the joy, in the same way TCCP had soaked in something else during that standing ovation.

The music and message had been strong, but the payoff for the parents wasn’t in the haunting tunes or pictures. Our payoff was a chance to join a throng in expressing the hope and emotion we felt towards our kids. And to watch the kids feel that. My not-so-little girl was apparently still riding that wave.

“What was your favorite part of the Oratorio?” asked my wife.

“Well,” she replied sheepishly, “when Osmo pointed to us, and we standed up alone, and everyone clapped extra hard.”

When that happened, I grabbed the binoculars, because I wanted to see her face. She thought the extra applause was about a job well done and songs well sung. But that was only the source of the initial applause. The extra applause was an early valentine. That extra wave she felt was love.

Baseball Stuff
Sometimes you just find the right writer in the right place at the right time. Yesterday that writer was Jason Stark. If you haven't read his blog about the congressional hearings yesterday, you're missing out.

Back tomorow with more on Joe Nathan and the right and wrong kind of contract the Twins should offer him.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

And He Shall Be Livan

OK, let's cover Livan Hernandez briefly. And really, I mean briefly, because it's late, I'm sick as a dog, and if I was even half of a writer I'd be telling about the Oratorio at Orchestra Hall that The Chatty Chatty Princess just sang in. Instead I'm writing about an overweight, overused veteran pitcher. And that's because I'm a bad father.

I could also be declared legally blind for not seeing this a mile away. Especially because on Friday night I was at a party with a bunch of other Twins geeks(again, bad father), and the topic of "What veteran free agent pitcher would you sign if you were the Twins" was raised. I said I'd rather they just went to war with the kids, another fellow thought they should try and get a veteran arm to soak up some innings, and I was OK with that if we could identify a guy with some upside.

But looking through our mental rolodexes we couldn't find a very good fit. Josh Fogg? Kyle Lohse? The guy we liked best was R. A. Dickey, the minor league knuckleballer that the Twins lost in the Rule 5 draft. Nobody (as far as I remember) came up with Livan. And that includes a half hour later when one of the guys started playing Elton John on the organ and broke into Levon. I swear to god I am not making this up.

Cause here's the thing - if someone would've mentioned Livan, I'm pretty sure he would have been the consensus choice. I expect this pick will be blasted in some areas, and that isn't totally unjustified. And I'll be reading them, because it will be interesting to try and determine if the reality they're advocating is really the result of a paradigm. Personally, I can't get too worked up about it one way or the other, and I'm not deadset opposed to it.

Is it a waste of money? Hell yeah, but right now the Twins have money to waste. Bill Smith has done some things well this year, but he's also flubbed a couple of doozies, and one of those is the Twins budget this year. He was way too conservative early, a trait he shared with the previous GM, and now they have money to burn. Not signing Hernandez isn't going to fix that. This is essentially a freebie. (And yet one more piece of evidence that the Twins should never be afraid to bid an extra couple of million dollars per year to re-sign their stars. )

Is it going to take away innings from younger pitchers? Probably, but it's not like there won't be plenty left. The starting rotation is still going to have 800 innings to spend on developing major league pitchers, and the bullpen will probably have a couple hundred more. I'm not going to weep for the 200 innings that will be soaked up by Hernandez, especially when I was willing to hand them off to R.A. Dickey.

The biggest problem with Hernandez is that he just might not be very good. This, in my opinion is the strongest argument. His ERA has been rising, his strikouts have been dipping, and his home run rates will make Twins fans remember Brad Radke and Carlos Silva - and not in a good way. The consensus opinion is that his arm has absolutely been fragged by overuse, and last year's 4.93 ERA in the National League is going to give attentive fans pause.

But on the other hand, he's just 32 years old. He has learned to survive more on guile than power, and his guile hasn't been seen in the American League ever. He also started very strong last year, with 5-2 record and a 3.36 ERA in his first 11 starts before there started being some reports of a sore neck, etc.

Finally, it's worth noting that Livan sure thought he's be doing better than this when he turned down the Diamondbacks offer of arbitration. He likely could have made more money by just accepting that than he did by signing with the Twins. And Livan, Livan likes his money. He makes a lot they say.

But maybe most importantly, it's not like he's bumping the best of the Twins pitching performers down to the minors. Given all the youth on this team, some guys were going to really struggle, and they were going to need to stay on the roster because there wasn't going to be many options. It's unlikely that those players, whoever they ended up being, would have posted the upper 4's ERA that the Twins are hoping they can coax out of Hernandez.

They also get a guy who knows how to pitch, and someone who can nominally be the #1 guy/horse in the rotation until a youngster steps up and grabs it (and someone will). Pundits will suggest that this signing will hurt some of the development of young pitchers, but I expect that the Twins signed Hernandez for exactly the opposite reason. We'll hear that they signed him to help the young pitchers by example and take the weight of the world off their shoulders.

Maybe that will end up as prophecy or maybe it will end up as irony. I don't know. But the Twins have developed about as many minor leaguers into regular players as any franchise in the majors. They probably deserve the benefit of the doubt on the strategy they choose.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Nathan More than his Saves

Let’s start with this concession: the Save is a bullcrap statistic.

I don’t really know how you can argue any differently. It is defined in three different ways, and really none of them have any objective basis. I’ll take it further. I believe it has slightly corrupted the game of baseball, resulting in a lower level of play and a truly inefficient use of resources.

But that does not mean that Joe Nathan hasn’t been one hell of a pitcher.

Because there is a non-bullcrap statistic that shows exactly how valuable he has been. It’s called Win Probability Added or WPA, and it should be a beautiful statistic, because it should bring the sabremetrics and traditionalists together. It’s truly a shame that it’s so rarely referenced in the media, but I suspect that’s partly because it isn’t particularly easy to explain, so let’s try and do so in less than 100 words.

“WPA measure how much a player does to help his team win games. It starts with a long list of probabilities pulled from 30 years of major league baseball. Every situation is listed along with the percentage of times that teams in that situation won. So, if a team goes into the bottom of the eighth down a run they have a 23% chance to win.

And from that starting point, each batter and pitcher can earn points by how much they help their team. So, if the leadoff batter gets on first base, his team now have a 31% to win, and the batter gets the 8 points difference, while the pitcher is penalized –8 points. If the next batter hits into a double play, then his team’s chances drop to 13%, and the second batter is penalized –18 points while the pitcher is rewarded another 18 points.”

Yikes, 149 words. Nobody is going to use that in a 750 word story. We’ll work on that. Feel free to take your stab at it in the comments section.

Anyway, over the last four years, the leader in these points on the Twins hasn’t been Johan Santana. And it hasn’t been Joe Mauer, and it hasn’t been Justin Morneau. In fact, it wasn’t Morneau even in the year where he was voted MVP. The leader over those four years, and individually in three of those four years, was Joe Nathan.

How can a guy who has only pitched about 70 innings per year be the most valuable guy on the team? Well, as you get nearer the end of a close game, every at-bat and every pitch count a lot more in WPA, because they count a lot more in a game. For instance, every time Nathan takes the mound at the bottom of the ninth with a one run lead and nails down the save, he gets 13 points.

Does that seem like a lot? Well, let’s not forget that these points haven’t just been assigned by some cognitive statistical society. They reflect the actual number of percentage points that player have helped their team over 30 years of major league history. He gets those 13 points because 13% of the time, a pitcher has failed to do his job in that situation.

Also, it works the other way, too. If Nathan gives up a two runs in that half inning, he loses 87 points. That’s the way it works for a closer. It doesn’t take too many blown saves over a season to wipe out all the “saves” that a closer might accumulate.

So Nathan’s ranking at the top of that list isn’t some statistical shell game. He really has been that valuable for the Twins. His impact on games is more than the number of saves he has, or his All-Star appearances, or his Cy Young votes (he’s finished in the top 5 twice). It’s even more than the intangible comfort that he gives the coaches and teammates. His impact can be measure objectively, and it’s been huge.

The ‘Save’ has had several negative impacts on baseball, but trashing it won’t get rid of it. The task at hand is far harder. It needs to be ignored, and replaced with a more concrete evaluation tool. We shouldn’t let a justifiable disdain of it cloud our recognition of Nathan’s performance.