Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Dangers of Anticipation

It looks like we'll need to wait until at least Sunday.

No, I'm not talking about how long we'll need to wait to to get this team out of this funk, though that's probably true too. I wrote a little bit last year about how the Twins always have one gut-wrenching west coast road trip like this. (And then David Wintheiser was kind enough to actually research it and tell me I'm imagining things in the comments. But I would like to revisit that. Our record might not be terrible, but it's bad. And I remember our worst losses and worst moments of the season happen on these trips.) In any case, I'm not talking about this trip. (Ever, hopefully.) No, I'm talking about....

Joe Crede's shoulder received a shot (probably cortisone) yesterday to reduce the inflammation, and so we'll likely need to wait until Sunday to find out if he needs to go on the disabled list. If he does, there isn’t any question what the Twins should do. They should call up third base prospect Danny Valencia. Of course, that doesn’t mean they will.

God help us if they don’t. First, it means we’re going to be treated to a couple of grimace-inducing moves like recalling Matt Tolbert, handing shortstop to Nick Punto and platooning Brian Buscher and Brandon Harris at third base. There’s nothing to like about that last sentence.

And we'll also watch the Twins blogosphere self-combust in a flash of blue flame. Nobody wants that.

But God help Valencia if they do. He will be the latest in a new Twins tradition. In the Ron Gardenhire era we Twins fans have annually psyched ourselves up about a minor leaguer who is having a great year. And annually, we've anticipated similar success to spill over to the majors. And annually, we've been disappointed. The results have varied, but they've almost never exceeded our expectations.

That, by the way, should be expected. Any reasonable sabremetrician would tell you they can’t really predict a two-month performance for a seasoned major league player, let alone someone dealing with jumping to that level for the first time. That doesn’t mean minor league performance is not important. It just means that it is important for telling you about the long-term future of the player, not the near-term results.

So let's look back at the participants in our mid-season tradition. We'll see why we got excited, and whether they met our expectations that year. Then we'll just add a note about the path their career took after that.

2002 – Michael Cuddyer
The Hype: In 2002, the Twins had an incredibly stable lineup for eight of the nine lineup positions. There was Ortiz, Pierzynski, Mientkiewicz, Rivas, Koskie, Guzman, Jones, Hunter and ... the three-headed Kielty-Mohr-Buchanan-stein. Cuddyer was supposed to be the last piece of that puzzle. He was hitting .311 with 20 home runs in Rochester when the Twins traded away Brian Buchanan to make room for him.

Result: His impact in 2002 was good, not great. He played part time for a little over a month, made a trip back to Rochester for a couple of weeks, was called up again at the end of August, and played much more in September. He was the hottest right fielder going into October and so he started in right field for the playoffs, where he struggled defensively, particularly against the Angels. But expectations were that he was that final piece.

He was, but not until 2006, when most of those other guys were already gone.

2003 – Justin Morneau

Hype: Morneau was a top prospect who started the year in Double-A, but was promoted to AAA in late April when Todd Sears was injured. By early June he was hitting .308 with 13 home runs (in a little over a month) and was called up to the Twins, mostly to get time at DH. (Wanna guess who he replaced? Would you believe Chris Gomez?) Twins fans were hoping he would be the power bat the team was lacking.

Result: He struggled. Doug Mientkiewicz had the first base job, so Morneau was going to need to force his way into the lineup to play regularly, but it wasn’t close. He hit just .227 with three home runs before he was demoted at the end of July. He was recalled for September, when he played a lot more, but was left off of the postseason roster and finished the year with a .226/.287/.377 line.

He made a much bigger impact in 2004, but struggled in 2005 and the beginning of 2006 until he broke through, eventually winning the AL MVP in 2006.

2004 – Jason Kubel
Hype: Like Morneau, Kubel was a top prospect who started the year in Double-A, but was promoted in mid-May. BTW, he replaced Morneau, who had been promoted to the majors. Like Morneau, he put up obscene numbers (.343/.398/.560) in Rochester. And like Morneau, he was called up to the majors, this time in late-August so he would be eligible for the postseason. He was viewed as a late-season gamble to provide some punch in the playoffs.

Result: Decent. He didn’t play every day, but when he did, he hit well enough (.300 BA, 2 HR) to make the postseason roster. Later that fall, he tore up his knee in the Arizona Fall League, which delayed his career as a productive regular for several years.

2005 – Scott Baker
Hype: Baker was anticipated because he had raced through three level of the minors in 2004 and even positioned himself to help out the Twins bullpen in spring training of 2005. He started hot with Rochester and ended up posting a 3.01 ERA there for the year, in between several appearances with the Twins.

Good, but not enough to get the team over the hump. In May he was called up to help out in the bullpen for a week. In July he was called up for one start – and then called up for another a couple of weeks later. He took Joe Mays spot in the rotation at the end of August and finishing with a 3.35 ERA. It was not enough to get the Twins into the playoffs.

It was also enough to position him for the fifth starter job in 2006. And posting a 6.47 ERA over 16 starts was bad enough to keep him bouncing between the majors and AAA (where his ERA was just 2.47) that year. He reached the point we thought he would in late 2007 and has been a top of the rotation starter since, though he's struggled this year.

2006 – Matt Garza
Hype: Garza might have been the most hyped name on this list, and that’s saying something considering Morneau is on it. The Twins had been looking for starting pitching and in one baseball season Garza had rocketed from High-A ball all the way to the majors, posting a 1.99 ERA and 154 K in 135.2 IP. His first start had a rock concert atmosphere.

Result: Bad. He struggled with his command and anything resembling an offspeed pitch, looking alternately good and over matched in starts. Over 10 games (9 starts) he posted a 5.76 ERA.

He began the following year in AAA but was called up at the end of June after reportedly working on his offspeed pitches. He posted a 3.69 ERA in 16 starts before being traded to the Tampa Bay Rays.

2007 – Kevin Slowey
Hype: Slowey kept pace with Garza for most of 2006, but didn’t take the final step to the majors until June 1, 2007, when he replaced Ramon Ortiz in the rotation.

Result: Bad, then good, but not good enough. He struggled, being demoted in July with a 5.84 ERA. He was called up again in September and redeemed himself, with a 3.30 ERA and 29K in 28 innings. Of course, by the then Twins had fallen out of the pennant race.

He carried that September success into 2008, with a 12-11 record and a 3.99 ERA. He’s been less consistent this year, but has a major league career locked down.

2008 – Denard Span
Hype: I dislike ending with this one, because it is the weakest example of the hype machine. Any excitement caused by Span’s .340 BA and .434 OBP in Rochester was counter-balanced by the 678 OPS he posted there the year before. But there was at least a little excitement to see if this year hadn’t been a fluke.

Result: He's also different because he was great. I’d list him as the 3rd most valuable offensive player on the team last year, and WPA agrees. Technically, it didn't matter as the Twins came up one game short of a postseason berth.

So let's review that list....
- Morneau and Garza, the most hyped names on the list, struggled.
- Kubel and Cuddyer did well enough, but neither was a difference maker.
- Baker and Slowey pitched decently, not great, and the Twins missed the playoffs those years.
- Span probably had the biggest impact, the Twins just missed the playoffs, but he was also the least hyped.

Looking at Valencia, his path this year most resemble Morneau's callup year. Valencia hasn't put up the eye-popping minor league numbers that Morneau did at lower levels, but like Morneau, Valencia started the year at AA and really has mashed the ball in his short time at Rochester. Valencia has also been promoted quickly recently, as he was in High A ball just last June. That should be where the similarities end - Valencia isn't going to be another Morneau.

And strangely enough, for Twins fans hoping for a boost this year, they should hope he isn't. The hype machine hasn't served us well this decade.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Joe Mauer will Absolutely, Positively, No-Freaking-Way NEVER Hit .400! (Ever.)

Mea culpa. I didn’t mean it. It’s impossible. It can’t be done. I'm a true disbeliever.

Since I wrote that we shouldn’t automatically dismiss a ballplayer hitting .400, Joe Mauer has gone 7-38, dropping his average from .389 to .358. That must stop. So, in an effort at the ultimate reverse jinx, let’s take a look at some additional coverage and find out how there is absolutely, positively, no-freakin-way that Joe Mauer will ever hit .400. (Ever.)

One interesting, but frustrating, story was "Checking the Numbers:MauerQuest" by Eric Seidman on on Friday. Unfortunately, you can only see the first part of it unless you’re a subscriber, so I’ll attempt to summarize the methodology:

1) Treat Joe Mauer’s remaining at-bats as essentially random events.
2) The chance of a hit happening during those events is based on Mauer’s "true talent level," which he determines to be that of a .318 hitter.
3) Estimate how many at-bats he’ll have the rest or the season, which he determines to be about 420 at-bats.
4) Use a cool Excel function (BINOMDIST for you fellow geeks out there) to determine the chance that enough hits happen to reach a .400 batting average at the end of the season.

There are a lot of assumptions there, and so the exercise ends up being useful in a look-how-I-can-model-the-un-model-able kinda way, meaning it’s for fun only. It might not be used that way, but I’m pretty sure that’s what it’s meant for. And he concludes that Mauer has a .0267% chance.

So what can you take away from it?
1. BINOMDIST. I love this function. I’m going to use it silly.
2. The method itself strikes me as mostly useless, because it becomes so dependent on a players "true talent level." I don’t know what that term really means. Even if we knew exactly what Mauer’s career average was ultimately going to be, how can we assume that was his talent level in the season when he turned 26? If he’s at a different plateau this season, it can make all the difference. Using all the same numbers Seidal uses, look at what happens when you assume that Mauer is really a .360 hitter or better this year:

That bottom line is Mauer’s true talent level in terms of batting average. The up-down axis is his chance of hitting .400. As the assumption of his true talent level increases, so do his chances of hitting .400, and it's exponential. For instance, if he’s really a .380 hitter this year, his chances are 7.8%

3. I wondered what this little exercise would look like if I evaluated Tony Gwynn’s chances of hitting .394 in 419 at-bats, like he did in 1994. I took his true talent level to be a .338 hitter, since that’s what he was over the course of his career.

The answer was .96%, or less than 1%. So Tony was pretty lucky that year, except for the whole "my-baseball-season-was-canceled-due-to-a-labor-strike-while-I’m-just-three-hits-shy-of-hitting-.400-and-kissing-destiny-full-on-the-mouth" thing. (Or maybe his true talent level in 1994 was considerably higher than his career average. I'm just saying.)

4. Seidman concludes his results paragraph with one of the greatest movie quotes of all time: "So you’re saying there’s a chance." Beautiful. We should probably all keep that in mind when referring to this .400 thing. Even if it’s possible, it’s unlikely. Of course, that’s what would make it so great.

That was kind of fun, but the post that blew me away was at a rarely posted Twins blog called Away Games, authored by someone nicknamed Chiasmus. I’m going to summarize it a little, but I hate to do so, because I would really rather you just click through. It’s comprehensive, using statistical methods and data that made my jaw drop, but the author manages to hide all that stuff and write the results in a simple, fun, self-deprecating style. This is exactly the sort of treasures that the internet is supposed to produce.

The author cites a study from 1986 by Stephen Jay Gould that argues that the reason it is harder to hit .400 is that baseball has improved to the point where batting averages are becoming less variable. It’s harder to have outliers of any kind, be it low or high. That’s why players don’t hit .400 any more.

Except that Chiasmus carries it a step further, continuing Gould’s study past 1986 into the steroid era. That’s where he finds some surprising results. First, that batting averages have gone up since then, which means it’s a little easier to hit .400. But he also finds out that batting averages also have become slightly more variable since then, meaning an outlier has an easier time stretching from the herd.

He then uses the method above on grander scale, determining the chances that MLB produces a .400 hitter in any given year. And that also has some surprising results, and I’m not going to share them, because I really want you to click over. Honestly, how many links do I need to give you people?

What do his findings mean for Mauer? It means he’s too young, should’ve come around about 10 years earlier, and that MLB has almost no chance of fielding a .400 hitter this year.

So there you have it. Mauer, and all of MLB is doomed. It’s impossible. It can’t be done.

(But feel free to go 3 for 4 tonight, Joe.)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Grudzielanek Twist

If you like dramatic twists, you had to love Sunday afternoon.

Seth Stohs broke the news on Sunday that the Twins had signed Mark Grudzielanek to a minor-league contract. And for the most part, I think Twins Territory stood around in stunned silence, formulating questions. Like, "Um, what was that middle part again?"

Well, that's why the Twins blogging community is always at the ready. First to break the news (Way to go Seth! I'm proud to say I knew you back when...). And second to break down the news. That's my job. So let's dive into some of the questions, starting with the most important....

Is this it? Is this the big move? Are we done?
On second thought, let's work on our dramatic pacing a bit and get to this question a little later. Instead let's start with...

Mark Grudzielanek? Is this another Bret Boone signing?
No, it's not. Grudzielanek has been very good, and I'd go as far as saying this is a complete steal. Or even a big middle finger to the rest of the GMs in major league baseball. If you're a fan of evaluating a guy objectively with some statistics, then you're likely a fan of Grudzielanek.

Up and down the line he has the traits that we've claimed the Twins were looking for. Let's count them: he's a right-handed(1) second baseman(2) who has primarily hit second in the order(3), hitting .299(4) last year with a 744 OPS(5). Over the last three years those numbers are consistent, as he's hit .300 with a 751 OPS.

To put that in perspective, those numbers are quite a bit better than Casilla gave last year. They're similar to what Delmon Young provided in 2008, except of course that Grudzielanek did it at second base.

He also did it while playing sound defense. One might not expect a 38-year-old to be exceptional at a position where you need quick feet, like second base. But the defensive metrics like UZR show Grudzielanek sported above average defense last year, and the year before, and every year since 2002. He's hasn't been a liability with the glove.

If you're looking for more subjective opinions, you could ask the Royals. After starting him for the last three years, they offered him arbitration, exposing themselves to a $4-5 million paycheck if he accepted. He didn't, stating at the time that he wanted to play for a team with a chance at playing in the World Series.

Ok, so is this it? Is this the big move? Are we done?
Easy does it. Dramatic pacing, remember?

Grumble. So if this guy was so good, how come he was available?
Injuries might have played into it. Grudzielanek only played in 86 games last year due to some back and ankle problems. He hasn't exactly been an ironman in his time in Kansas City, averaging about 110 games.

It's also worth noting that the market for second basemen this offseason was truly depressed. The top guy, Orlando Hudson, didn't sign until after spring training had started. He's been the bargain of the free agent season. A quality guy like Adam Kennedy had to settle for a minor league deal with the Devil Rays. He eventually had to catch on in mid-April with the Athletics, where he's being called their MVP.

It isn't inconceivable that Grudzielanek, with his injuries, was put in a position similar to Kennedy. Considering he had turned down a guaranteed $4-5 million deal, he might have hoped for another break. Or maybe he really was waiting for that last chance at a World Series. I don't know.

Here's what I do know. If Grudzielanek was playing in 2009 like he did in 2008, and the Twins traded for him, we would be a lot more excited about it.

Is this it? Is this the big move? Are we done?
It breaks my heart to say it, but yeah, this is probably The Big Move.

It probably shouldn't break my heart, because Grudzielanek compares pretty well to most of the other names we were considering. He's certainly better than Julio Lugo, the other freely available talent. I like him better than Jack Wilson. He's comparable to Kennedy and Cristian Guzman. I would only put him a shade below Felipe Lopez.

That leaves two guys who he is clearly worse than. Yunel Escobar of the Braves would almost certainly require a king's ransom, considering the Braves are publicly stating they would NOT give him up for Matt Holliday. In fact, since he was being dangled for a bit bat, he might not be available given that the Phils are racing away from the rest of the NL East.

The other guy, of course is Freddy Sanchez, who is a perfect fit for the Twins, even if his rather expensive contract vests next year. I don't believe the rumors reported by Sid Hartman that the Pirates were asking for Francisco Liriano in return, but Pirates GM Neil Huntington is no stranger to the art of leverage and public relations. He spent this week giving low-ball offers to Sanchez and Wilson, which simultaneously cleared the way for a trade while reminding rival GMs that he can keep these guys.

So the optimist looking for a deal might suggest that Grudzielanek at least provides leverage in this little game. A skeptic might wonder, given Grudzielanek's availability, why the Twins didn't make this move a couple of months ago. Or at least back in mid-June when they sent Casilla down for the second time. The timing of it looks an awful lot like Smith trying to get himself one more bargaining chip.

But I doubt it. Grudzielanek waited eight months to sign with a team that has a chance at the World Series. I'd be shocked if the Twins didn't make it clear to him that he would be their preferred starting second baseman. For better or for worse, this is the final twist the front office will be giving us. Time to sit back, and try to enjoy the rest of the show.

Update: I just heard Bill Smith talk about this on his show, and he's considerably less definitive about this trade than I thought he would be. It also sounds like the font expect Grudz to be available until mid-August. That gives Casilla one more chance, limits the impact of this deal and leaves the door wide open for a trade in the next week or so.


The Twins may or may not make another move to fill their needs at second base, but let's not forget the bullpen, or maybe you would like to see what our competitors are up to? You can get a ton of information about all of that, including previews of the Twins payroll situation in 2009 and possible other minor league call-ups in the TwinsCentric Trade Deadline Primer 2009 Edition. You can download it IMMEDIATELY and be neck-deep in this trading pseudo-season.