Thursday, May 01, 2008

Phoning In a Friday: The Comments

Hey gang, for about two months I've promised that I would start using Friday's entry to address many of the comments from the previous week's posts. And, of course, I haven't. Until today.

Some of you might wonder why I wouldn't just reply in the comments section. The answer is that way too often I don't check them until late at night, and by then replying seems a little silly because nobody is going to go back and check them out. Plus, this gives me an extra entry with very little required thought. Which is nice.

Before we jump in, I'll recommend to everyone that the come to the Twins game on Sunday and look for GameDay scorecard and programs, sold by the guys in the red vests. We'll be having our first "Customer Appreciation Day" of the year, which means the programs, scorecards, and Dugout Splinters will be absolutely free, instead of the usual price of $2. This will be the last time we'll give out the April issue, which was edited by Nick Nelson of Nick and Nick's blog, and features stories from Jesse Lund and Seth Stohs, so check it out if you're in the neighborhood.

On to the comments....

From What's Not Working - The Offense

ubelmann said:
That the offense is offensive is not only completely believable--it was completely predictable. We lost our most valuable position player from last year and were banking on all of our top hitters to both be productive and healthy, not to mention big steps forward from a pair of 22-year-olds. This is not the stuff that sure-fire improvement plans are made from.

You know how I said I add comments and they're way too late for anyone to read them? I think ubelmann and I were discussing this earlier in the preseason and at the end of the thread I was either tempted (or actually did?) offer to make a bet that the Twins would exceed last year's ineptitude. I would have done it in an email, but I don't think I have your email Mat.

And right now, it looks like it's a good thing I didn't. And since your comments are well documented, and given the several studies you site and the Twins existing performance, I have no choice but to .... well .... to stick my head in the sand and say I know I'm still going to be right about this dammit.

Dam said:
Remember Cuddyer who was batting clean-up before he was hurt missed over half the games. Offense will get better--Cuddyer will be healthy--Delmon will adjust to new team.

Yeah! Cuddyer! Young! How ‘bout you stick that up your PECOTA!?! We are not listening to ubelmann……we are not listening to ubelmann…

TT said:
I don't know that the current numbers have much meaning except that it is not an auspicious start. And that is hardly limited to their hitting. Only two AL teams have given up more runs per game than the Twins.

TT is right about the Twins pitching and it surprises me, so I’ve been meaning to study that too. Plus, otherwise, I need to be in denial on two fronts. And that takes a lot of effort.

From On Liriano and Important versus Measurable

Sbg said:
Just another point of reference: in the time that it takes a 93 MPH fastball to travel 60.5 feet, an 89 MPH fastball has traveled 57.9 feet, assuming no loss in velocity (which of course, there is). The slower ball is 2.6 feet behind the faster one! It seems to me that that 4.5% is very significant. But, yes, break and changing speeds, as we all know, is important, too.

I almost added that little computation to the story SBG. Great minds think alike. I didn’t because the more I thought about it, the less I cared. As a batter, swinging seem to be more about timing than distance. But that’s why I included the 4.5% thing. I’m glad someone brought it up.

SL__72 said:
And to follow up my last comment with something that is actually useful: Here is a really good article regarding fastball speeds.

You’re right SL_72, that was a really good article. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

It is written by John Walsh at the Hardball Times and he studied fastballs ranging from 80-97 mph and the affect that they have on hitters. He came up with some nifty results. I’ll quote his conclusions:

So, what did I turn up with this analysis? Well, keeping in mind the sample size and other caveats previous mentioned, I think I've learned that
1. fastballs outside don't depend much (if at all) on speed for their effectiveness;
2. conversely, inside fastballs are more effective the harder they are thrown (this one I already knew);
3. most of the observed effect appears to come from home runs: outside pitches are rarely hit for homers and when they are, a fast pitch is as likely to be hit out of the park as a soft toss;
4. a pitch thrown hard is more susceptible to the ump's bad call than a soft toss.

I could write a whole entry on this and how it relates to Liriano (though the study was limited to right-handed pitchers). And I wants me that data set badly. Thanks again for pointing it out to me SL__72.

From Stealing a Moment

jesse said...
I don't think the Twins are opposed to the idea of Gomez swiping home...or attempting to...but it just wasn't the right situation. You said it yourself--Morneau at the plate, and he swings from the left side of the plate. Not only is one of your best hitters at the plate, but with no obstruction the catcher could see the entire thing develop in his peripheral vision.

Anonymous said...
It is possible to steal home with a left handed batter. Ideally it would happen with a guy like Ortiz at the plate since the infield shift is on and the third baseman is a long way from the bag, allowing a longer lead.

I wouldn’t be shocked if the White Sox had a small shift on Morneau, because I got to tell you, I was absolutely stunned how far Crede was playing from the third base bag in that at-bat. It was almost as if the White Sox were daring Gomez to try it.

Hell, I would've even supported Morneau to trying a bunt down the third base line. I’m almost sure he could have beat out a throw.

As for whether it matters that Morneaus is left-handed, I don't rightly know. I can't remember ever reading something that broke down the strategies for stealing home. And it's not like there's much opportunity to talk about it anymore. Anyone have a good link for this? SL__72, what's going on? Asleep at the wheel? You used to provide such good links. What have you done for us lately?

BeefMaster said...
I wasn't watching the game, and I didn't notice on the radio - was the pitcher in the stretch? I guess I can see stealing home on a lefty in the stretch, if he's paying little enough attention to the runner that you can get a phenomenal jump (and he doesn't use a slide step every time), but I generally think of a steal of home as coming when the pitcher is throwing out of the windup. Is it more common against a stretch than I'm thinking? I've only seen a steal of home happen once in a major league game, and it was on a first-and-third double steal (Gladden at third, and Jim Dwyer, of all people, at first).

I only included this comment because I love the nickname BeefMaster. I used to know a guy nicknamed Beef in college. If I remember correctly, we met him at a party in Eau Claire where my buddy Matt and I knew just three other people, one of whom was Beef’s girlfriend. Matt and I decided we would meet people by doing vodka shots with strangers, and we talked Beef into joining us, but his girlfriend was having none of it.

But of course, he did. About every 15 minutes he’s sneak away from her, meet us in the kitchen with the rest of the party, and toss back a small shot of something clear and cold and awful. Probably Smirnoff.

And the point is that I think you can trust guys named some derivative of Beef. Even if he tells you he’s seen someone steal home. And with that, I wish you all a happy weekend.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Stealing a Moment

"Well, what I like best...'", and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was even better than when you were, but he didn't know what that that was called".
- from Winnie the Pooh

The score was tied, there were two outs, a runnner on third base and Justin Morneau was at-bat. And all I could think was that I almost wished he wasn't. Not because I didn't trust him to get the big hit. (He did.) But because I really wanted to see Carlos Gomez try to steal home.

It sure looked like he could have. Joe Crede, the White Sox third baseman, was playing at least 25-30 feet from the bag. Gomez could have taken a lead one-third of the say towards home and still beaten Crede back to third base. Frankly, it seems like nobody even considers that the opposing team might steal home. Even though it used to be so common that Babe Ruth stole home ten times in his career.

The situation certainly seemed to call for it. The Twins had been struggling to score runs. There were two outs. Morneau had looked terrible in his previous at-bats. And there was a left-handed pitcher on the mound.

And god knows that if any organization should be able to teach a person how to steal home in this modern era, it's the Twins. Rod Carew, who is at spring training every year, stole home 17 times in his career, and still holds the major league record with seven in 1969. But did you know that Paul Molitor also stole home at least ten times?

But today, for whatever reason, it was never really a threat. Gomez never took much of lead, never getting half as far from the base as Crede was. Go-go didn't even play games with the pitcher, as if it never evern occurred to him to consider bluffing, let alone actually doing it.

And, truth is, it probably wasn't a good time. After all, this is Morneau, and he did get the game-winning hit. Plus, I wonder if it's more difficult to steal home with a left-handed batter at the plate. And, it's likely that this is something that the Twins staff is afraid to work with Gomez on, because he does seem to be (as was aptly noted by Patrick Reusse yesterday) the most spontaneous player in baseball.

But count me as someone who is officially looking forward to Eating That Honey. I grew up with Sir Rodney, but to me he was the sweet hitter, not the sneaky thief. Sometime within the next couple years, we're going to see Gomez at least try that play. And the only thing I'm looking forward to more that it is the moment just before it, when the crowd is on their feet, and the whole ballpark, including the opposing team knows it's coming. And then....

Well, I don't know what it's called, but it's even better "than when you were". And I sure want to be there.

Monday, April 28, 2008

On Liriano and Important versus Measurable

The NFL draft and it's post-spin machinations invariably amuses me. Not that I blame teams for trying, especially because the analysis of their moves can be so completely ridiculous. Somehow, a college left tackle is graded "four stars", and some other right tackle is rated "three stars", and god help the team that chooses the second guy first, even if it's the right choice. In the near term, it's a bad choice, because the grading system says it's a bad choice.

But there are several biases inherent in a grading system, and one of the biggest is obvious, when you think about it. It's that each criteria needs to be measurable. Otherwise, it wouldn't be a criteria. It would just be an opinion.

And the reason that can be a problem is because that which is measurable is not necessarily important, and that which is important is not necessarily measurable. For instance, the criteria for a quarterback that is measurable might include arm strength or height or speed, but are those necessarily what you prize most in a quarterback? Or is it the ability to feel pressure, avoid turnovers, or read the tendencies of a free safety? And how the hell do you measure those things?

The answer, too often, is that you can't. And so the temptation is to make the decision based on the more objective criteria, even though you suspect, or even know) they're not as important. Because they are measurable, they become important. And that which is important, but can't be measured, becomes less important.

Of course, the beauty of such grading systems is that they can, through hard work, gradually improve in the long term. For instance, if you suspect that that avoiding turnovers is a prime criteria, perhaps you go through every game film of prospective NFL QBs and measure the times they could have thrown an interception versus how many they did. And then you do that for the prospective NFL QBs for the last five draft classes, and compare your results to how they did in the pros.

But if you've gone through that exercise, you know just how many difficulties that really presents. First, there's the data collection, which can itself be a time-consuming and tedious proposition. But even if you get the data, what are you comparing it to? The number of turnovers they had in the NFL? Over one year? Over their career? As a ratio to their touchdown passes?

And how do you decide which players to include in the study? All QBs that were mentioned in pre-draft literature? What if they're cut before their first season begins? Then what are you comparing them to? And if you only choose QBs that ended up starting, is there some built in criteria that allowed them to start? Like the fact that the matched those same non-important but measurable criteria you started out with?

The answer to all those questions is that you make a decision based on what you really want to know. For instance, switching to baseball, say you're interested in how important K/9 rates really are for a young pitcher. A Twins fan might compare to a pitcher's K/9 rate in AAA to their ERA in the first three years in the majors, because she wants to know what they can expect from that player prior to their arbitration year. But a roto player might compare it to their WHIP the next year, because they want to know what to pay for that player in next year's draft. And a Yankee fan might want to know how long their career lasts, because its not like the Yankees will ever quit paying him if he's successful.

Whichever that person chooses, it's important to know that it means they are answering a very specific question. The general sense might be that "K/9 rate in AAA is important", but the specifics matter, especially when it's "for the long-term outlook of that player" as opposed to "for next year".

All of which is why I grew increasingly uncomfortable as multiple sources evaluated the velocity of Francisco Liriano's pitchers ad nauseum this spring. It isn't that it isn't news. It's certainly news when a player's velocity changes after they have come back from injury. It shows that something is different.

But, of course, something is different almost constantly with pitchers. Maybe they're switching to a slide step when someone is on base. Maybe they're throwing more offspeed pitches earlier in the count, or when they're behind in the count. Or versus left-handers. Maybe they're raising their elbow a little higher, or changing their arm slot, or sliding to the left half of the mound. Or maybe the break on their two-seam fastball is a little greater today than it was last start.

No, we aren't obsessing about it because it shows a difference. We're obsessing about it because we think it's important. And it might be, but I don't know a single study that says velocity has anything to do with how successful a pitcher is in the majors, either short term or long term. I'll admit, it seems like it should be. But as I think about all the pitchers who have had successful careers, only a fraction of them have the ability to throw true gas.

Let's unpack this just a bit more. Reports are that Liriano threw 93 miles per hour before the surgery and 89 miles per hour after the surgery. So how much less time would a 93 mile per hour pitch take to reach the plate over an 89 mile per hour pitch? I'll add my back-of-the-napkin figures below so my fellow geeks can call me on it if I blow the math....

I get two one-hundreths of a second difference. It's certainly possible that is significant. But it seems equally possible that there are factors that matter more, like control or movement or the ability to change speeds.

But we don't obsess about these as much because we can't, and that's because they're not as measurable. But they may be twice as important.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

What's Not Working - The Offense

Last year we watched the Twins struggle all year because of an anemic offense. The bats finished third to last in the American League in runs scored (718), and they might have been lucky to finish that high considering that they were second to last in OPS (On-base Plus Slugging). New General Manager Bill Smith responded by overhauling the offense, replacing five of the nine lineup spots with new players.

The result? Would you believe it's worse? As of today, the offense ranks second to last in the American League in runs scored. And their OPS is actually 57 points worse than it was last year. Five of the positions in the lineup rank among the worst in the league at their position:

Right Field – 628 OPS ranks 11th in the AL
Michael Cuddyer has been hurt, so 1/3 of these at-bats went to Denard Span, and while Span might develop into a decent option in center field, he can’t provide the production of a bopper that typically mans right field. It’s also worth noting that while Jason Kubel (who got another 1/3 of the at-bats here) flashed some power in a hot start, he limps into this homestand with a discouraging .259 batting average and a gut-wrenching .281 On-base Percentage (OBP). The only guy who walks less than him with that many at-bats is….

Center Field – 639 OPS ranks 12th in the AL
The popular wisdom after Carlos Gomez remarkable first week with the Twins was that he would struggle at times this season, but he was just such a weapon that he had to be on the roster. We were mostly right. He’s struggling. And he’s a weapon. We’re just not sure for which team.

In 94 AB this season, Gomez has just 2(!) walks, which is why his OBP is just .271. For some context, the average OBP in the AL is .334. The median team OBP of a lead-off hitter is .351. No team has finished with an OBP lower than .286 from their lead-off hitters in this century. This isn’t just bad. This has a chance to be historically bad.

Shortstop – 523 OPS ranks 12th in the AL
To be fair, the Twins basically punted on this position offensively the minute they signed Adam Everett. He’s never been anywhere close to productive offensively but was supposed to be a defensive whiz. With Everett hurt, the at-bats have basically been split between Matt Tolbert and Nick Punto:

Matt Tolbert - 33 AB - 706 OPS
Adam Everett - 27 AB - 437 OP
Nick Punto - 24 AB - 367 OPS

April is hardly the time to panic. But when it is time to panic, this looks like a pretty good place to consider a change.

Third Base – 618 OPS ranks 14th in the AL
Not much is going according to plan for Mike Lamb so far this year. He was wooed by the Twins with promises of getting a chance to bat more versus left-handed pitchers, but so far only had 13 at-bats against them. And he traditionally feasts on right-handed pitchers, but is hitting just .246 against them with very little power. Lamb has had months like this – last May his OPS was just 598 – but it sure would be nice if it didn’t happen in his first month of a multi-year contract with a new team.

Left Field – 600 OPS ranks 14th in the AL
The Twins biggest offseason acquisition has been their biggest disappointment so far. It looks like Delmon Young is trying to work on driving the ball to all fields and control the strike zone, which would be great if it was working. Instead, he’s striking out just as much, walking just as little, hitting 30 points below his career batting average and slugging 100 points worse. And most of that damage has been inflicted immediately following Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau in the lineup.

The good news is that it sure looks like he’s trying to improve, and at 22 years old, he’s got a good chance of eventually making the adjustment that could lead to stardom. But that sure isn’t happening this month, and recently manager Ron Gardenhire has moved him lower in the lineup.