Friday, April 09, 2010

Angels Series Notes

Bigger Than It Seems
They are your first place Minnesota Twins.

Winning their first series of the year is exactly what you would expect from a team that is expected to challenge for the divisional crown. Because of the expectations heaped on the Twins, a triumphant first series might not seem especially important.

So let's rephrase this week's success. The Twins went into a 97-win team's stadium and took three out of four games, tallying 22 runs to the Angels' 12. And while the Angels lost John Lackey and Vladamir Guerrero from last year's AL runner-up, they also gained Joel Pineiro and Hideki Matsui to replace them, and now they have a healthy Ervin Santana. The Angels aren't just any team.

Our Twins get another very good litmus test this weekend, when they visit Chicago. We get to see if Francisco Liriano is ready for prime time. They face their likely division challengers on the road in a park where they've had little success over the last two years. And due to some messed up scheduling, the Twins should be tired as hell for today's game - usually the schedule makers would have allowed yesterday's game to be an afternoon start.

I'll be honest - I'll also be a little giddy. If they come out of this series with two wins, I'm be planning the parade before the home opener.

The Sacrifice Bunt
Lost in last night eventual 10-1 route was a somewhat controversial decision in the 7th inning which ended up being the wrong one. What we don't know is if there was a right one. With runners on 1st and 2nd base and no outs, and with the score only 3-1, Denard Span bunted to move the runners and gave himself up at first.

There are generally some pretty strong feelings on both sides of this decision. The first is semi-old-school: this is a great play, in part because it is automatically smart and sacrifices an at-bat for the good of the team. The second is more sabremetric, which teaches that most of the time bunting is stupid and costs a team runs.

In this case, neither is right. The baseline for this decision can also be evaluated two ways: which strategy is likely to score the most run vs. which strategy is most likely to result in a win. And in both cases, the answer is essentially a push. There is almost no difference is how many runs an average team playing against an average team will score if they bunt those runners over as opposed to swing away. And there is almost no change in the likelihood of winning the game.

But the key to that last paragraph was the italicized word "average". That is nothing more than a baseline evaluation. What really needs to be evaluated is how these teams differ from an average team.

The batter who was up at the plate, is decidedly above average, especially when it comes to getting on base. Above all, Span wants to avoid the double play, and with his speed, he's in a pretty good position to do so. On the other hand, he was 0-3 with three groundouts to the pitcher and second baseman last night. He was also involved in an injury break the previous night that required icing. He could very well be suffering a short-term decline in performance from it, and his manager (or Span) might have noticed that.

The batter following Span is Orlando Hudson, the team's #2 hitter, who is also an above average hitter. If Span bunts, it's his job to get a run home via a fly ball or smoked ground ball. In this case, he grounded out to a drawn in infield, and the runner from third could not score.

Finally, the sacrifice virtually ensured that Joe Mauer would come to bat. Mauer is obviously WAY above the average player, exactly who any manager would want to have up with two outs and a runner in scoring position. Again, it didn't work out, as he grounded out to third base and the Twins ended up with zero runs.

Obviously, that's just half the equation. We could also talk about the Angels pitcher, and to what extent he induced groundballs or strikeouts. Or evaluate their infield, which looked pretty strong in three of the four spots yesterday.

If the Twins have a weak hitter up in that position, followed by two strong hitters following, bunting is likely a winner, no question. If they have good hitter, followed by two weaker hitters, it's likely a mistake. In this case, they had three good hitters, which makes it less clear. I'm swayed a bit by Span's earlier at-bats that maybe he wasn't totally healthy last night. On the other hand, Hudson didn't impress offensively or defensively this series, though I expect him to be better over the season.

Whatever the smart decision was, this one didn't score any runs, so I think we can safely say it was the wrong one. What we don't know is if Span swinging away would have turned out any better. There may not have been a right decision here.


I don't know why we feel like we need to wait for a pennant race to come together as a community and get excited about this team. For all we know, this weekend might BE the pennant race. If the Twins sweep the Sox and take a 4.5 game lead over them in the first week....

OK, I'm being giddy again. But you can experience that giddiness and that sense of community with me tomorrow at Major's in Blaine for our Twins Viewing Party. It's a day game, so it starts at 12:05, though I would suggest getting there a little earlier for seats. $2 pints, two-for-one appetizer, a raffle for Twins tix, and lots and lots of Twins talk. I hope you can make it.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

On Imaginary Stats and Real Games

It didn’t take long for a flawed imaginary stat to impact a real game - negatively.

It happened in the fifth inning of the season opener, when Scott Baker was trying to preserve a 3-3 tie. He was at his pitch limit, he had two runners on base and a dangerous left-handed hitter was coming up. What’s more, he looked gassed, and relief was ready. The next move was obvious: pull him.

But he stayed in the game for three more pitches: a strike looking, a foul ball, and then a mistake. A fastball drifted towards the middle of the zone, Angles batter Hideki Matsui singled, and the lead was lost. Baker was pulled for reliever Jesse Crain. But the Twins would never make up that run.

Why did Baker pitch to Matsui? Because of the “Win” statistic, a sloppy short-hand stat which unfortunately is usually the first one mentioned when evaluating a starting pitcher. He was 11-7 last year with a 3.48 ERA. A starting pitcher earns a win when they pitch at least five innings and when they were the last guy on the mound when their team took the lead for good.

Baker wasn’t going to be pitching in the sixth inning in any case. But if Baker would have been able to get Matsui out, and then the Twins would have scored in the top of the sixth (and held that lead for the remainder of the game), Baker would have got the “W.” Manager Ron Gardenhire was giving his Opening Day starting pitcher a chance to get the win. Once Baker blew that chance, he was pulled.

If you pay attention, you will see similar decisions made by Gardenhire the rest of this year. There is no question that he would have rather had Crain facing Matsui in that situation. He’ll even manage differently late in the season when there is no room for error. We’ve seen as much the last two Septembers.

However, most managers feel that leaving Baker in to face that last batter has long-term positive effects that offset the short-term risk of an unfavorable matchup. For instance, it gives Baker an opportunity to stretch his skills a bit. But mostly, it shows Baker that Gardenhire is on his side.

Because imaginary statistics like wins and saves motivate ballplayers. Just like hitters want to claim they hit 20 home runs or hit .300 last year, pitchers want to be known as a 15-game winner or a guy who saved 30 games. There are plenty of reasons why: personal, communal, and financial. And for a manager of any team, let alone a team of kids pulling down a minimum of $400,000/year, having a motivational tool is really valuable.

It’s about this time that someone out there is saying that those ballplayers should have all the motivation they need because of the money and fame that goes with the position. After all, don’t we all work as hard as we can each and every day in the office?

The difference is that for most of us, our job doesn’t stretch out abilities to their absolute limit. Baseball players’ jobs do. You’re talking about a game played by millions and millions of people all over the world. And from that set, the top 350 who can throw really well compete daily against the top 350 that can hit really well. It’s different that way than most other jobs.

Let’s compare it to a job I’m personally familiar with and which is often used as a straw dog in these sort of arguments: a teacher. I was a good math teacher, but let’s say I could REALLY teach and even be one of the top 350 teachers in the world. In a normal teaching job, I look brilliant, the same way that these guys did in high school or college ball.

But I’ve gradually been given tougher and tougher assignment, and now on a daily basis, I face one of the top 350 toughest teaching assignments in the world. So I’m in a under funded school in a ghetto, teaching Algebra II to underprivileged or at-risk kids with enormously overfilled classrooms. What does my day look like?

I need to be prepared long before I get into the classroom. I need to handle distractions outside my work. I need to show up early, stay late, make calls to parents and take care of myself. And when I’m in those classrooms, I need to be fully engaged and on my game – taking risks, teaching in different ways, reaching kids who don’t trust anyone’s reach. Sometimes, when I have a good day or a bad day, I don’t even know why, so I adopt silly superstitions. That’s how stretched I am – beyond any sort of reason.

Even if I was paid really well, even if I loved my work, the chances of me slipping are high. Any motivation I find, no matter how silly it might be, that drives me to stretch a little further is welcome.

And it’s especially welcomed by my boss, who is judged by my results.

This is how wins and saves have become a management tool in today’s game. It was silly and counterproductive to leave Baker in to face Matsui on Monday if a team must win that game. But the team didn’t need to win that game. It does need a dedicated and motivated starting pitching staff, all of whom want those imaginary stats, and all of whom are watching to see if the manager is willing to stick his neck out to get them some.

Wins and saves are sloppy statistics that are questionable for player evaluation. But for managers looking for motivational techniques, they serve a deeper purpose. And that’s how flawed imaginary statistics can impact a real season - positively.

Think the teaching analogy was a bit of a stretch? Let me hear about it in the comments below. Or, better yet...

Let me hear about it in person while we dissect Baker's next start. That will be Saturday, and we'll be watching at the Twins Viewing Party at Major's in Blaine starting at 12:00 along with Sooz, the TwinsCentric guys and host of other writers. We'll also be sipping $2 pints, wolfing down two-for-one appetizers, raffling off goodies (including two row 6 Twins tickets) and watching the Twins dominate the hated White Sox. Last months we had 60+ people show up, so get there by 11:30 if you want a good seat.

- Wondering who is in AAA that might help the Twins this year? Check out Seth's Rochester Red Wings preview.

- If someone wants to teach me how to waltz, I'm game.

- Want to know why Baker struggled Monday? Parker points out that Baker lost confidence in his off-speed pitches and relied purely on his fastball towards the end of the game.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Twins Tickets Available for Opening Day/Series

It looks like the Twins have released some tickets for Opening Day. From a press release...

Twins Announce Ticket Updates for the Inaugural Season at Target Field

Twins season ticket cap opens single-game inventory for high demand games – Good News for Twins Fans

MINNEAPOLIS-ST. PAUL, Minn. – The Minnesota Twins today announced ticketing updates for the Inaugural Season at Target Field. Due to the capping of season ticket sales at 24,500 tickets, inventory has been released for single game purchase for several games, including games of the opening home stand at Target Field.

As of now, tickets have become available for the following games during the Twins Inaugural Home stand at Target Field:

· Monday, April 12 vs. Boston Red Sox at 3:10 p.m. - 500 tickets

· Wednesday, April 14 vs. Boston Red Sox at 12:10 p.m. – 1,000 tickets

· Thursday, April 15 vs. Boston Red Sox at 12:10 p.m. – 1,100 tickets

· Friday, April 16 vs. Kansas City Royals at 7:10 p.m. – 1,900 tickets

· Saturday, April 17 vs. Kansas City Royals at 12:10 p.m. – 1,600 tickets

· Sunday, April 18 vs. Kansas City Royals at 1:10 p.m. – 1,500 tickets

· Tuesday, April 20 vs. Cleveland Indians at 7:10 p.m. – 3,000 tickets

· Wednesday, April 21 vs. Cleveland Indians at 7:10 p.m. – 3,000 tickets

· Thursday, April 22 vs. Cleveland Indians at 12:10 p.m. – 3,000 tickets

To date, the Twins have sold more than 2.6 million tickets for the 2010 season. In comparison, the Twins sold 2.4 million tickets during the entire 2009 season.

“Capping season tickets at 24,500 has allowed us to open up some inventory for single-game ticket sales,” said Paul Froehle, senior director of ticket operations for the Twins. “In addition, visiting clubs have returned some inventory they won’t be using. Fans are encouraged to check back often as seats may have opened up for some very desirable games.”

Limited season ticket inventory remains in the Champions Club and Delta SKY360 Legends Club.

Single-game tickets for the Inaugural Season at Target Field are available at, by calling 612-33-TWINS or 800-33-TWINS, at the Target Field box office and at Twins Pro Shop locations in Apple Valley, Minnetonka and Roseville.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

A Sigh of Relief

For several weeks I've maintained that the Twins likely do need to trade for a reliever, or do something drastic like move Francisco Liriano to that role, because thi in-house candidates have good enough "stuff" to handle the jib themselves. But what I haven't done is check out their strikeout rates. Let's remedy that.

K/9 is a pretty good back-of-the-napkin measurement of dominance. As a benchmark, a 6 is average and a 9 is great. Joe Nathan, for instance, had a k/9 rate last year of 11.7. Here are the rest of the guys.

Matt Guerrier - 5.5
Jesse Crain - 7.5
Jose Mijares - 8.0
Jon Rauch - 8.0 (with Twins)
Pat Neshek - 9.5 (back in 2007)

And the new guy, Alex Burnett? Well, it was only AA, but he posted an 8.5.

These aren't great, but they're good enough. The Twins will fond someone who can do the job.

-- Posted From My iPhone