Friday, July 10, 2009

Whew. Royals Acquire Yuni Betancourt.

I mentioned Wednesday night that several other bloggers and I will be releasing a new publication on Monday, and it will center around the trade deadline. As part of that, we had a section where we talked about players the Twins might acquire, and I was responsible for writing about Yuniesky Betancourt.

Unfortunately, the more I research about him, the more worried I got that the Twins might actually trade for him. Word came down this morning that the Mariners had pulled him out of a Tacoma game just before game time, and then I got really worried. Today we found out that it was a different AL Central team, the Royals, who traded two minor league pitchers for Betancourt.

So my writeup is ruined - and I couldn't be more pleased. Here's what I wrote up, in case you're wondering:

Yuniesky Betancourt | SS | Seattle Mariners
Betancourt doesn’t really justify anything more than a tweet except for one thing – he just feels like the kind of guy the Twins would get. He’s athletic, but underachieving, and the local media/blogosphere might burst into blue flame if they acquired him, but the Twins would say their scouts see something else. Kinda like the Kielty/Stewart trade. So let’s spend 100 words on him.

He’s the Mariners shortstop, and a 27-year-old (as far as we know) Cuban refugee who was promoted because of his slick glove and contact-hitting ways. The previous Mariners administration made him a centerpiece of their future with a guaranteed contract that pays him through 2011, but never pays him more than $4 million per year.

He signed that deal in 2007 and the decline started in 2008. He’s never been one to draw many walks (though he doesn’t strike out much either) and he hasn’t reached double-digit home runs. But that was supposed to be secondary to his defensive prowess.

That prowess has now been absent for a year-and-a-half and counting. Last year his Ultimate Zone Rating was -12.6, meaning he gave up almost 13 runs more than the average shortstop. This year, he’s at -8.3, which puts him on pace to be even worse.

So there’s absolutely no good reason to acquire Betancourt, and the Mariners would likely be glad to get rid of him themselves. Which is why I can’t shake that feeling….

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Up, Among the Stars

Antoine: As for you sir, have you read "Don Quixote"?
Cyrano: I have, and found myself the hero.
Antoine: Be so good as to read once more the chapter of the windmills... Windmills, remember, if you fight with them...
Cyrano: My enemies change, then, with every wind?
Antoine: ...may swing round their huge arms and cast you down into the mire!
Cyrano: Or up, among the stars!

- Cyrano de Bergerac

These days I hear plenty of descendants of Antoine Comte de Guiche. They're on broadcasts, the radio and print. They're telling me that Joe Mauer isn't going to hit .400. It's not a reflection on Joe, mind you, but nobody is going to hit .400. Nobody can. In the modern game, it's impossible.

But increasingly, the reasons behind their statement strike me as kind of fuzzy. Mathematics are sometimes mentioned, suggesting that even one small slump dooms the effort. But those mathematics haven't changed since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941.

Of course, that’s the real reason people ardently believe hitting .400 can't be done. It’s been 68 years. That's what drives the other reasons that are offered, such as the improvement of field conditions, the increased role of bullpens, or the better fielding of players.

But that's not reality. Evidence suggest that players are far more likely to hit .400 in this modern era than they were for the last couple generations. Some have already come closer than you think. And for you Twins fans, the evidence further suggests that Mauer is a pretty good candidate to hit .400. If not this year, then in the future.

Since Williams, there are thirteen players who have come within 30 points of reaching the .400 mark. Here's the list:

Check out that "Year" column. In the decade that Williams hit .400, only Stan Musial came close in 1948. In the 50's, only Williams 1957 year makes the list. There weren't any in the 60s, which is why, when Sir Rodney Carew made his run in 1977 it was big enough to make the cover of Time. So that's one close attempt per decade or less.

But more recently, it's become more frequent. In the 80s, there were two players that came close. In the 90s, it happened four times. And in the aughts there have been four more (if you count Mauer).

It isn't becoming harder to hit for a high average. It's becoming easier, or at least more players are getting close.

Looking at that breakdown by decade, the trend makes perfect sense. When was pitching most dominant? The 60s, and since then various rule changes have been implemented which favor the hitters. It's become a hitter's game. We've been seeing more offense than ever before. Why wouldn't we expect higher batting averages too?

And players have been getting close. I knew that Carew needed just eight extra hits, but three players have come quite a bit closer than that. Both George Brett and Williams (in 1957) were within five hits of glory, which is less than one more hit per month. And Tony Gwynn was just three hits shy in 1994. Are we really so sure that Gwynn couldn't have picked up one more hit every other month?

Hitting .400 is eminently possible, and it is more doable now than it has been in the last 70 years. Mauer also looks to be a pretty good candidate to do it. The previous batting titles suggest he has the necessary raw ability, but if you look at the chart again, he has a couple of other things working for him.

Of the thirteen close calls, eleven came from left-handed hitters, which Mauer is, of course. He's also very young, tied with "Nomah" Garciaparra and Todd Helton on that list as the youngest. Players don't need to reach that milestone in their youth. If it doesn't happen this year, it doesn't mean he won't have a few more opportunities ahead of him.

Hitting .400 isn't jousting with windmills. Players had come very close, they've been getting closer, and Mauer is a prime candidate. That doesn't mean it's inevitable or even probable. Seventy years of unrequited effort demonstrate just how difficult it can be. But it also demonstrates what makes it worthy of our attention. And there's plenty of reasons to hope we'll soon see a player raise himself to that level.

Up, among the stars.


Wow, three new developments here that I'm kind of excited about. Let's count them down...

#3 - After a week of waffling, it looks like I'm going to the Twins game this afternoon, and I'd be honored if you followed along with me on Twitter. My realtionship with that goofy little service is evolving, but I'm coming to the realization that it's a mighty fine venue for someone who doesn't get to write about 90% of the stuff he thinks about. I just need to discipline myself to actually stop and spit (twit?) it out.

#2 - I'm paying for a new utility that, at least for a short time, I'd encourage you to take advantage of. It's up there in the upper-right-hand corner. You can now sign up to receive an email of each new post that I put on this blog automatically, so you don't miss anything. That might be especially handy during the offseason, but I also thought it might be nice to have as we approach the trade deadline.

#1 - Speaking of the trade deadline, I'd really like to encourage you to stop by on Monday. You'll have a chance then to be one of the first ones to purchase and review a new e-book that I'm putting out with a few other talented Twins bloggers. We'll be finishing, editing and polishing it this weekend, and based on what I've seen so far, I'm pretty excited about it. I'm very lucky to have so many other talented, entertaining, analytical and independent writers cover my favorite team. There will obviously be lots more details on Monday. See you then!

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Tiger Recap

So the Twins come within a couple of bone-headed extra-innings plays of sweeping the Tigers at the Metrodome for the second time this year. And again I walk away wondering exactly how this Tigers team is leading the AL Central.

Which we'll talk about in a minute, but first, let's talk a little about the games.

Friday, the Twins:
1. started a guy (Slowey) who was put on the DL immediately afterwards,
2. watched their team leader (Morneau) ill-advisedly run like a berserker into third base in the fourteenth inning and
3. watched a another team leader (Cuddyer) have one of the most bone-headed plate appearances you'll see all year in the twelfth inning.

#2 has been talked about a lot, but #3 was far less forgivable. In the twelfth inning, Cuddyer strode to the plate with two outs, the bases loaded, and was facing Joel Zumaya who had thrown 342 pitches. OK, it was really just 50, but the point is that he was gassed, and when Zumaya gets that gassed he loses his control. Which he spent the last half of the inning demonstrating.

Patience was required, because the odds of Zumaya successfully throwing three balls into the strike zone (even the ridiculously large one that night) versus four outside of it was (at best) 50/50. And so Cuddyer correctly made sure Zumaya threw a strike before taking the bat off his shoulder. Which Zumaya barely did.

At which point Cuddyer seemingly panicked. The next two pitches were not close, with a high fastball and then another fastball that was at least a foot outside the plate, and Cuddy was hacking at them both. I get that Zumaya is humping the ball up there at triple-digits, but good golly. It looked like an at-bat by someone in the midst of some sort of physical shock.

Saturday - There was some more shaky baserunning in this game, this time by Mauer who didn't take third base in a ground ball to right field and nearly cost the Twins the game. But I really want to talk about Francisco Liriano.

Can we start a rooting section for this guy? In St. Louis last week we got some killer seats and literally pumped him full of happy thoughts for seven innings. Every inning it was "Great job Frankie!" or "Way to battle Frankie" or "You've got it today big fella!" I gotta say, I think it helped. And as we're watching the game yesterday, and as he's working into trouble and then giving up that home run, the person next to me, who doesn't watch baseball is saying "He struggles with his confidence, doesn't he?" Geez, you think?

The thing is, there is a whole state that is on this guy's side, and a state should be able to pump a guy up a bit. For whatever reason, that encouragement doesn't seem to be coming from the dugout. But that's what home-field advantage is for.

Sunday - There is no question that Nick Blackburn is the ace of this staff right now, and it's backed by more than numbers. It's backed by the fact that I feel more comfortable with him toeing the hill than any other pitcher. I don't give a damn how many people he isn't striking out. He's conditioned me now. I expect him to do a great job.

In the middle of today's start, I started wondering what the Twins do with him this offseason. Just based on results, he's a prime candidate to get a long term deal, ala Scott Baker. But the Baker contract hasn't gone so well. And it didn't go well the last time the Twins offered a long-term deal to a low-strikeout starting pitcher. That was Joe Mays.

So I love the guy, but the idea of giving him a Baker-like contract is an idea I'm going to need some time to get used to.

And we need to talk just a bit about Justin Morneau. I swear to gawd that we're overlooking this guy right now. In my mind he is still the most indispensable guy on this roster. I likely know the metrics and what they mean better than you do. I'm just saying - I think this team is worse without him than without Mauer. And that's not a knock on Mauer.
Detroit - So the Twins are 5-1 against the Tigers in the Metrodome and 1-1 on the road. And I gotta say, this Tigers team just doesn't scare me. These division races are usually decided in the 18 head-to-head matches teams play, and I can see the Twins ending up the season with a 12-6 record. And the Tigers aren't going to overcome that.

In fact, for the second time, I came away wondering just how this Tigers team leads the division. And I may have an answer.

Today, Brian Pietrzak of pointed out that the following this Yankees series, the Twins will be completely done with the Yankees, Red Sox and Devil Rays, and have just seven games left against the AL East.

The Tigers have a much harder road later, and had a much easier road so far. They start the second half with three games against at the Yankees, visit Fenway for four games the next month, and still have seven games versus the Rays and four against Toronto. The Twins have just seven games left against the AL East. The Tigers still have 21.

So I wonder if the difference here isn't strength of schedule. In any case, this Tigers team either needs to go on a big time run or play a lot better at home against the Twins. Or this division race is going to turn from a three-team race to a two-team race.