Thursday, July 17, 2008

Choosing to Believe

We spend a lot of time talking about run differential and PECOTA and small-sample sizes and what not. Instead, today, as we finish our break, let’s try stripping away the expectations and the back stories and see where we’re at:

We’ve played 95 games. That’s longer than a full season for most sports. It includes 300+ at-bats for starting hitters and 100+ innings for solid starting pitchers. And here’s how many wins each of the above winning teams in the American League have right now:

57 - LA Angels
57 - Boston
55 - Tampa Bay
54 - Chicago Sox
53 - Minnesota
51 - Oakland
50 - NY Yankees
50 - Texas

Now, can you tell me with any level of assurance which four of those teams are going to come out on top over the next 67 games? Of course you can’t. Nobody can. These teams are too close. We’re talking a seven game difference between eight teams, with 67 or so games left to play. For that level of precision, our statistical tools start to work against us.

Want to discount small sample size? Too late. We have less than 70 games left this season, and so small-sample size is a legitimate issue – and with every game played it’s increasingly likely to mess things up.

Wanna talk about run differential? Its predictive power is also reduced with each game that is played. And its predictive power is taking a shot this year anyhow. The top team on that list should be seventh according to run differential.

Trust player-projection systems like PECOTA? They're fun, but now they are missing more than a half-year of data. And it’s the half year that is most indicative of a player's future performance.

Maybe it’s time to set aside the offseason analysis and take a fresh look at this race, including a fresh look at the Twins chances. Forget the players that left, the veterans that didn’t pan out, the money not spent, and the missing power. Instead, focus on the improvement, the youth, the speed and the potential. Or if you don’t want to embrace those things, how about the random chance that the Twins make up just two games over the next 67? On either of the teams in front of them?

As for me, I’m choosing to believe. I don’t fully understand what has happened to Denard Span, Alexi Casilla, Brian Buscher, Nick Blackburn, and Glen Perkins. I don’t understand how a team can score this many runs without hitting for more power. And I don’t understand how a starting pitching staff can be this good without striking more people out. I fully admit it. I don’t get it.

And I don’t care.

The fault is in my understanding, not in the rest of the world’s execution. And I couldn’t be happier to be wrong. Bring on the pennant race.

Twins Takes

In case you missed it (and let's face it, NOBODY who comes to this blog missed it) Francisco Liriano's agent, Greg Genske, is asking the player's union to investigate if the Twins kept Liriano in AAA just to limit his service time. I speculated in the past that Liriano's agent impacted the decision to have Liriano pitch (and get shelled) three times this April, largely because he was worried about service time....

And if you think that little ticking clock wasn't at the top of his and his agent's mind, you're kidding yourself. You can be damn sure there would be plenty of resentment if he "wasn't being given a chance" as Bill Smith so aptly put it.

Three starts later, things were much clearer for the team, the agent, and probably the player.

Looks like I was right and I was wrong. There's little doubt that early season call-up was impacted by the agent. But it looks like giving up 13 walks and 13 runs in 10 innings didn't fully convince Genske that maybe he wasn't the best judge of when Liriano was major-league ready. I wonder how many more walks and runs it would have taken?

By the way, if you really want to dive into whether Liriano's return to the majors has been delayed by the financial incentive of keeping him at Rochester, it has been debated (mostly) intelligently for months over at a discussion board called The first four pages follow Liriano's return to the majors, but on this page (back in May) the debate starts about the motives for keeping him in Rochester. I sounded off several times in the thread. I used to think that "Jericho" was just a bitter know-it-all and Liriano roto-owner. Now I wonder if he isn't Genske.

Billy Beane - Boy Genius!
For the second time this month, the A's trade away one of their front-line starting pitchers for spare parts/minor leaguers. This, despite being three games out of a playoff spot and having a run differential that is third best in the AL. I suppose it's possible Beane isn't working covertly for the Anaheim Angels, but I'm not sure what else he could do if he was.

In general, I like and admire Beane, but how can he not be absolutely savaged for these trades? I spoke above about how it might be time to let go of back stories and expectations and try and evaluate things without swimming within those antiquated points-of-view. Is it time to do the same with Bean? Imagine if someone like Bill Bavasi or Jim Bowden did this. It's possible that the baseball blogosphere would spontaneously combust like a potted plant.

Opportunistic Week
The Rangers coming to town doesn't exactly fire the imagination, but compare that list of contenders above to the Twins schedule this next week. The Rangers and the Yankees are two of the teams that the Twins will be competing against for a playoff spot, and the Twins don't have a winning record against either of them. Winnning the series against both would be nice, but the Twins have a chance to absolutely bury either of them with a sweep.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Finding a Trump Card

The card player has ground it out. He's survived, he's played well, and now he smiles to himself. It's the trump card. He has it, and the game changes. This won't be one he grinds out, hoping to survive. This is one he needs to take. He needs to shoot higher.

The Twins missing trump card has become obvious in the last two weeks as three games slipped away. Twice versus Boston and once versus Detroit a game was lost because there wasn't a dominant presence to step on the eighth inning's neck. But it turns out that guy hasn't just been important this year. For the Twins, that second best bullpen guy has mattered a lot, usually being the one of (or even the) most important pitcher on the staff. This year, he's the missing trump card.

That might be hard to believe. We traditionally measure a player's effectiveness using cumulative and full-season statistics, and in that context the best middle reliever doesn't usually shine. After all, they usually only pitch half the innings of even the fourth best starter. Certainly, the market hasn't recognized them as being particularly valuable, with the exception of whoever the Yankees had targeted to serve as a bridge to Mariano Rivera.

But we use those full-season statistics for a reason. We don't know the situation a ballplayer faced when he walked to the plate. It could be when the team was down by five runs with the bases empty, or it could be when the bases were loaded late in a one-run game. We assume that those situations "even out" so we can judge the batter by his overall stats.

But that randomness doesn't apply to the best non-closer in the bullpen. He's only rarely used in games that have been decided. The majority of his appearances happen in close games - and late in close games. His impact on any game in is signficant. And you can see just how significant using the Win Probability Added (WPA) stat.

I could spend the rest of this entry writing a definition of WPA, so let's start with this one from Wikipedia:

Win Probability Added is a technical baseball statistic which attempts to measure a player's win contribution by figuring how much each specific play he made altered the outcome of a game.

There's an elegant beauty about how it's figured with precision, but I don't want to go into all of that. Suffice to say that it gives extra credit for performing in crucial situations, almost no credit for performing in non-crucial situation, and absolutely no credit for fielding, which is probably it's biggest weakness. And it has other limitations, such as difficulty in predicting a player's future impact, since it doesn't know what kind of situations a player will face.

But it is really, really good for evaluating how big an impact a player had on a game or a season. And for the Twins run this decade, it shows just how effective the best non-closer in the bullpen has been. Below is a list of who that player has been each year, and how they ranked against the entire rest of the team (not just pitchers) in WPA:

2002 - JC Romero - Best WPA on the team
2003 - Latroy Hawkins - Best WPA on the team
2004 - Juan Rincon - 6th best WPA on the team
2005 - Jesse Crain - 2nd best WPA on the team
2006 - Juan Rincon - 6th best WPA on the team
2007 - Pat Neshek - 2nd best WPA on the team
2008 - Matt Guerrier - 6th best WPA on the team

The ability to use a certain player at a certain point is a key weapon for a baseball team, allowing a manager to leverage his best performing players in the most critical situations. A dominant bullpen arm, be it a closer or otherwise, essentially gives the manager a trump card to use wherever and whenever it most suits him.

Gardenhire is doing a decent job of playing the cards he has been dealt, given the injury to Neshek and the decline of Rincon. But as Bill Smith schmoozes this week at the All-Star Game, he needs to understand that the Twins are at least one card short of a winning hand. And it his his responsibility to get that trump card.

Twins Takes

Got an email from a friend this weekend after Saturday's game...

What's Gardenhire's effing problem? Tying run on second, two outs in the eighth, removing Reyes because a righty is now at the plate, and he goes to Bass because it's not yet the ninth so Nathan is off limits? Lame. Bass got out of the inning fine, but these are the kinds of small decisions that do cost teams ballgames.

I can't argue with this. In general, I think the rending of garments about how the Twins use Joe Nathan is misguided, but my friend is right. Nathan had worked both nights before, but he had also thrown just nine pitches in Friday's game. If he isn't used in that situation, exactly when will he be extended? And it further demonstrates the necessity of getting that second dominant bullpen arm.