Wednesday, February 20, 2008

On Lead Off Candidates and Road Trips

So here are somethings you would probably know about blogs if you thought about it, but you probably haven't.

1. We have day jobs. Thus,
2. We don't really have much time for this stuff. And so,
3. A lot of time, we don't really have much time to clean these up.

So, iIf you're looking for highly polished writing, blogs may not be your domain. Not that there aren't advantages that might offset that, like an incredibly high level of independence, or an ability to take risks. And sometime stories can be and are polished. But a good chunk of the time, we sit down to write, and don't necessarily know where we're going. You can either sit in the passenger seat with us and join us for the ride, or bark at us from the back seat.

So, with that introduction, welcome to my little late night road trip. The questions on the table are: who will be the Twins leadoff hitter next year? Should it matter? Will it matter?

Carlos Gomez - Probably the most popular choice is Gomez, the speedy, young, not-ready-for-prime-time center fielder that headlined the trade package for Johan Santana. The consensus opinion seems to be that he's not ready (and maybe not close to ready) to start at center field (or anywhere, really) in the majors. However, the consensus also says that his status as the "blue chip" in the Santana deal will mean the Twins must start the season with him on the major league roster.

I'm not sure I buy that logic. The Twins have never been a franchise to rush a player just because the fans thought that player should be ready. If anything, the opposite has been true, whether it's been Justin Morneau, Jason Bartlett or Pat Neshek. Or Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel or Matt Garza. Or Scott Baker. Or Bobby Kielty. Or Johan Santana, for chrissakes. How much further should we go?

And for all the talk about what the Twins MUST do, consider exactly how much they've cared about public relations in the last year. They traded away Luis Castillo in the middle of the season. They let the face of the franchise, Torii Hunter, walk. They traded away a pitcher who could legitimately lay claim to the best pitcher in the history of this team. And they traded away their top prospect from last year. These are hardly the acts of someone watching the popularity polls.

And finally, even if Gomez does shine in spring training and wins the CF job, would Ron Gardenhire throw the rookie into the leadoff spot? This franchise, and this coaching staff especially, loves to guard their young. There are high hopes attached to Gomez. If he is in this lineup, is there anyway it's above the eighth spot in the order?

Jason Pridie/Denard Span - Of course, the problem with dismissing Gomez is that there aren't any better alternatives. I laid out my choice for center field several weeks ago, arguing that a platoon of Craig Monroe and Jason Pridie gives us the best of both players. But neither of them have the bat smarts or plate discipline to bat leadoff, even against the opposite hand pitchers.

I suppose Denard Span could become the default choice if he either has a monster spring or seems like the least valuable prospect to be messed up long term. At least he can draw a walk, though I weep for this offense if that's what it's reduced to.

And if he makes the team, just how many outfielders do we have on this team? I count at least four others - Cuddyer, Young, Monroe, and Kubel - and just who plays center field if Span is banged up for a couple of days? So that means that either Gardenhire goes will just eleven pitchers (he's already said he wants 12), or one backup infielder (a moral deficiency for an ex-gloveman) or no "true" backup centerfielder. That's the kind of dilemna that makes Gardy reconsider much bigger decisions, justifiably or not. And he'd need to make that decision if Gomez makes the team, too.

Corey Patterson/Kenny Lofton - Earlier tonight someone mentioned Lofton and Patterson not signing yet, along with the line that has probably been repeated roughly 88% of the time their names have arisen during this offseason: "We'll see what happens when it gets closer to spring training." Um, HELLO! It is spring training! And two of the starting center fielders from last year's teams still haven't signed yet! And they're both lead-off type guys!

I wouldn't be shocked if one of them is on the Twins by Opening Day, and I would be shocked if the Twins haven't been in contact with their agents over the last week or so. After all, the top two in-house candidates for center field, Gomez and Pridie, were not with the Twins last year so the Twins may just have a lets-see-what-we-got approach. And with two solid free agent backup plans waiting in the wings, why not? So long as they're signed to one-year deals, there could be worse moves.

Joe Mauer - If it's not Gomez and it's not Span and it's not a free agent, then the Twins really have an issue that will be fun to watch solve. The only person left on the roster who is even remotely capapble of batting leadoff is Mauer, but that would mean sacrificing him from the middle of the lineup. Mauer-Cuddyer-Morneau-Young seem like a logical string of batters to handle the 3 through 6 spots, or maybe even the 2 through 5 spots in the order. But would Gardenhire thumb his nose at baseball convention by making them 1 through 4? Or even bat Mauer at leadoff and the other three in the 3 through 5 spots?

I doubt it. Traditionally, Gardenhire has built his lineups from the middle out. And yes, I mean "traditionally" in that Gardenhire has built lineups that way in the past, and that one could use that word to describe Gardenhire's lineup. (And actions.)

Alexi Casilla - Hmmm. While we're talking about prospects that might break out this spring, let's not forget Alexi. In the same way that Gomez could solve a lot of problems by hitting the ground running, so could Casilla, and maybe even moreso. If he seized the second base job from Brendan Harris, Casilla could bat leadoff, and Harris could be that second backup infielder and be a productive bat off the bench. In terms of producing the kind of balanced roster that makes the coaching staff all warm 'n cuddly inside, Casilla thriving might be the best case scenario.

???? - The real danger here becomes that the coaching staff doesn't like any of these options and instead looks to bring someone north who isn't ready. After all, Gomez might nominally fit that round hole, if if requires taking a power grinder to those pointy corners.

But, to be fair, the leadoff spot has been a significant piece for the Twins, despite what all the computer models tell us should happen. Shannon Stewart undoubtedly fueled the 2003 season, Luis Castillo's hot streak corresponded with the 2006 surge, and losing Matt Lawton in 2001 and Castillo in 2007 essentially ended all hope those seasons. For whatever reason, this spot has been an important one for the Twins.

And so the road trip ends, though I'm not sure where. I seem to have more questions now than when I started. I think it's an important role for the Twins - but not so important that the Twins should risk the development of underdone prospects by starting them there. I don't think the player who fills that role should come from center field - but I'm completely unable to identify anyone else to fill it.

And so I'll do what the rest of the organization will do. I'll sit and watch what develops over the next couple of weeks and see if an answer reveals itself. Huh. Maybe this road trip isn't over after all.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Reviewing PECOTA

So, yesterday I didn't post, and to be honest, it just kind of slipped my mind. And then it almost did again today. You would think after doing this for five years, it would sort of be second nature, and for the most part it is, but occasionally, I just kind of forget.

Fortunately, the editor of, Tom Genrich, provided links to a couple of other awfully well done stories. At the top of the page, he linked to Nick Nelson's solid spring training preview, which I appreciated because I just hadn't taken the time to think about all that stuff. I'd love to give my two cents on a bunch of that stuff, and hope to soon.

And then over at SBG's site, Ubelmann pointed out that Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA standings (subscription required) came out and had the Twins winning 74 games and finishing 4th in the AL Central. Ubelmann thinks that sounds about right. To me, it seems a bit low, but I haven't even done any back-of-the-napkin figuring on that, and we'll need to get to that later. Hey, a that's my second future column idea.

PECOTA, in case you're wondering, stands for Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm. For those of you who made it through that acronym and are still awake, it is what it says it is - it's a formula for comparing players to previous players based on their performance. The hope is that by looking at how similar players developed, one can predict how current players develop. And then, when you see how close it came to the results, it allows the owner to try and optimize the algorithm for the next year with new data.

You see it referenced more and more, and I'll admit I've become increasingly uncomfortable with the weight it's given. (3rd column idea!) It would seem to be especially difficult to trust it when used for a purpose for which it isn't really intended - predicting the results of teams instead of individual players.

After all, even if it nailed exactly the rates at which each player would perform, the results are still dependent on playing time. And then you need to convert those runs scored and run against to wins and losses. Every layer adds a level of uncertainty that makes the process seem increasingly masturbatory - kinda fun but mostly kind of pathetic. Kinda like blogging.

Anyhoo, in true PECOTA fashion, it seems like there should be a nice empirical test that we can fun to get a sense if we should pay any attention to it, and that is to compare last year's results to what PECOTA predicated. How did it do?
Well, for all my doubts, it didn't do a half bad job. It got three of the four playoff teams in the AL (just missed the Twins) and about three of the four (more or less) in the NL, too. Overall, on the average, it's usually off by a handful of 3.5 to 5 games. It was fairly accurate at predicting the general finish of a team.

On the other hand, it was off by seven games or more for 1/3 of the teams in the league, and seven games is plenty significant when the worst and best team in a league are 30 games apart. The Twins need to hope that PECOTA pegs them as poorly as it did last year - only in the other direction.