Thursday, October 23, 2008

Maybe We Have It All Wrong

You watch a game like this, and you wonder if Bill James was shaking his head.

I know all the theories, and I've crunched the numbers. I know about the importance of taking a walk, and hitting for power, and run differential, and high correlation factors. I laugh at ridiculous stats like 'productive outs'. I roll my eyes as Dick Bremer praises Twins players for the outs they make.

But then then I watch the Phillies piss a game like this down their leg, and I think how much different this game could've been if they just chopped the occasional pitch towards second base.

The Phillies didn't lose this game because they didn't hit for power or get on base. They lost it because they couldn't advance runners when they didn't hit for power or get on base. I count one opportunity in the second inning, one in the third, and one in the fourth. And those aren't times that they needed a clutch hit. Those are times that they just needed a dribbler, a sacrifice fly, a simple ground out, to advance a runner.

We can claim that clutch hitting is not a skill, but putting a ball in play? That's a lot harder to write off. And we can claim that this is small potatoes, that these "little things" come out in the wash of a long season, but the season isn't long anymore. And, frankly, the season is never long when one is in the playoffs, and like it or not, the playoffs are the most important part of a season for a quality team. And, for that matter, for an organization. And a community.

Tonight we saw two very good teams match up, but only one of them played good baseball. Appropriately, they won. That isn't something that Bill James would be able to predict. But I like to think he would approve of the result.

Reasons to Root for the Phils - #6
They have the single best mascot of all time, the Phillie Phanatic. This sounds like faint praise. It's not. He's clever, athletic, fun, obnoxious, crude and genuinely funny.

Still have doubts?

OK. Imagine the toughest, most cynical crowd ever - that's the entire city of Philadelphia. These guys don't just boo Santa Claus - they pelt him with snow balls. And now imagine needing to dance around like a clown in front of them and keep them entertained. Just how entertaining would you need to be to do that for, say, 30 minutes?

The Phanatic has done it for 30 years. And he's absolutely beloved in that city. That's how good he is.

I'll give an example. The Phanatic likes to spend time on the corner of the opposing team's dugout, leading the crowd in "jinxing" the other team. One time, a member of the other team hit a fairly hard foul ball towards the far end of the dugout. After taking one bounce off the hard Veterans Stadium turf, it bounded over the dugout and into the stands....

where it was caught by the Phanatic?

At the crack of the bat, the Phanatic had started running on top of the metal dugout to the far end. Midway, he broke into a feet-first slide. After sliding 10 feet or so, he stuck out one hand and timed it perfectly, stabbing the ball in mid-bounce as it flew past him. And THEN he popped up like you're taught to do when sliding into second base, just before he got to the end of the dugout.

I'm a fairly athletic guy with decent hand-eye coordination. I could practice that with a friend throwing the ball exactly where I wanted it and not make that catch one times in ten. He did it with a batted ball, without any warning, on one try, while wearing that ridiculous green suit. Trust me when I say this to you - if you have any exposure to him at all, you cannot help but love the Phanatic.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Yo! Siding with the BASS-bowls

I got the the email on Monday:

Subject: Tough Break for the Phils

They were the scrappy overachievers that managed to outduel the big money Mets late in the season for the second year in a row to represent the underdog league against the perennial AL home field advantage of the defending World Series champions Evil Empire Too.

Now they'll just be the BASS-bowls who ruined the greatest sports story in the history of baseball.

Except "BASS-bowl"[1] was a seven letter curse word, which I think you're going to be seeing used quite a bit here over the next few days.

And I gott say, speaking as an adopted son of the city of Philadelphia, they're OK with that. If anything, this city would absolutely relish the role of the bass-bowl that craps all over America' favorite sports story.

And here at the Twins Geek Observatory, we're OK with that, too. This playoff run has given me a chance to reconnect with my second favorite baseball team, and the first team I ever had season tickets for. I'm going to document some of that reconnection over the next few days, as finish each story off with the "Top 7 Reasons to Root for the Philly".

First, Game One Notes....

The Seventh Inning Balk
There was a lot of talk, a little debate, and quite bit of disgust about the lack of a balk call in the seventh inning. I'll set it up: down 3-2, the Rays got their leadoff batter, Carlos Pena, on base because Ryan Howard bobbled an easy grounder to first base.

On the next pitch, Pena tried to steal second. Left-handed pitcher Cole Hamels was looking right at him, so he threw the ball to first base. Howard moved towards the throw, cut it off, threw to second, and Pena was barely tagged out at second base.

And the Rays dugout howled.

In their opinion, Hamels had essentially changed his mind in mid-motion, and that's supposed to be balk. But the key is those first three words, because the rule is more than a little nebulous:

Rule 801.1 (c) At any time during the pitcher’s preliminary movements and until his natural pitching motion commits him to the pitch, he may throw to any base provided he steps directly toward such base before making the throw

There isn't any doubt that Hamels did step - kinda - toward first base. Of course, he also stepped - kinda - towards home. Had his natural pitching motion committed him to the pitch? Was his step towards first base 'direct' enough? Those are all pretty subjective calls, and they're made in an instant, and they need to be made by a first base umpire who might very well be caught by surprise by the entire series of events.

This much is clear - if Pena would've broke towards second even a split second later, Hamels would have either delivered the pitch home or been called for a balk. And even with the possible balk, Pena would likely have been out at second had Howard not moved towards the pick off throw. It was that close.

Pulling Hamels
Hamels had pitched through seven innings, giving up two runs and providing the Phils all the help they could really expect. But he had also only thrown 100 pitches, leaving open the possibility that he could at least start the eighth inning. He didn't get that chance as manager Charlie Manual replaced him with Ryan Madson to start the eighth.

For some, this might be an obvious move, since there seems to be sort of an unwritten rule that starting pitchers shouldn't throw much more than 100 pitches in a game. But it's worth noting that Manual has not been afraid to stretch Hamels' pitch counts this year. He's thrown at least 110 pitches eleven times this year, and had thrown 120 pitches or more twice. And he's been reasonably effective, though he's been more susceptible to giving up home runs as his arm tired.

With it being a one-run ball game, that last fact probably played into the decision to pull him, but faith in Ryan Madson probably played into the decision too. Madson certainly deserves that faith. He's been used in high leverage situations in the bullpen all year, earning a Win Probability Added score of 1.23 this year. For some context, that's actually higher than Pat Neshek earned in the same role with the Twins when we were raving about him in 2007.

Fox Trak
Note to Fox: when your own announcers start mocking the accuracy of your ball/strike display, it might time to tweak it. Or retire it.

The problem seems to be that it marks where the ball was caught, but not where it crossed the plate. Fox does a nice job of tracking the flight of the ball, so you can often see how it curves or dips after it makes its way through the strike zone. But the Fox Track only seems to note where it was caught.

Which is why during the last series the announcers noted that it seemed like they never saw it show a strike. And they were right.

Reasons to Root for the Phils - #7
The Phillies have had the second greatest logo in the history of major professional sports.

What's cool about the 'P'? The middle is a baseball. And yes, I didn't notice that until I moved to Philadelphia (by which time it was no longer the logo they used). And yes, I didn't notice that the best major professional logo was both an "m" and a "b" and a ball and glove until about the same time.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Procrastinatory Notes

I've been procrastinating for several days, but when confronted with blogging or filing my quarterly taxes, blogging is going to come out on top. And so, fueled by the IRS[1] here are random Twins/offseason notes….

Peavish Speculation
When I posted a week ago about the Padres trading Jake Peavy, I only mentioned it as an example of how pitching could be interesting commodity this offseason. Seth took it a step further and wondered if the Twins could/should acquire Peavy, especially because they seem to be some a good fit for a trade. The Padres are looking to acquire young, cheap starting pitchers and a center fielder, and that’s precisely the chips the Twins can most likely afford to trade this winter.

Seth has his own speculation, but a trade of Carlos Gomez, Nick Blackburn, Anthony Swarzak and Trevor Plouffe would provide the Padres a package that includes two MLB player in critical positions, one player with major upside, a near MLB-ready pitcher, and a possible middle infielder for 2010. And it would give the Twins a starting rotation with a ton of upside that is locked up for the next four years. It’s not that crazy.

But it also gets rid of most of the chips that the Twins would use to upgrade their offense and specifically the left side of their infield. They can probably get by with another year or two from Nick Punto at shortstop[2], but the question is whether they want to patch 3B with Brian Buscher and Brandon Harris next year. Or whether they would feel more comfortable trading another young pitcher to help fill that, and import one veteran pitcher into the rotation.

The Minnesotan[3] in me says there is no way this happens. And to be honest, I’m not sure I want it to happen, especially given Peavy’s late-season injury. But it’s intriguing, and I’d applaud it if it does happen, just for the high-reward aspect it encompasses.

The Veteran Pitcher
So who will the veteran pitcher be, and when will they sign him? I’m going with 1/20 and Mike Hampton. You’re picks are welcome in the comments below. I’ll even give you a list, courtesy of an excellent analysis by Matthew Pouliot at Rotoworld:

Randy Wolf (Astros)
Kenny Rogers (Tigers)
Livan Hernandez (Rockies)
Orlando Hernandez (Mets)
Mark Prior (Padres)
Odalis Perez (Nationals)
Jason Jennings (Rangers)
Mark Hendrickson (Marlins)
John Patterson (FA)
Jon Lieber (Cubs)
Brett Tomko (FA)
Shawn Chacon (FA)
Josh Fogg (Reds)
Sidney Ponson (Yankees)
Claudio Vargas (Mets)
Tony Armas Jr. (Mets)
Jeff Weaver (Indians)
Shawn Estes (Padres)
Esteban Loaiza (FA)
Mark Redman (Rockies)
Josh Towers (FA)
Victor Zambrano (Yankees)
Kris Benson (FA)
Matt Clement (FA)
Glendon Rusch (Rockies)
Eric Milton (Yankees)
Justin Germano (Padres)
Steve Trachsel (FA)
Mike Maroth (FA)
Russ Ortiz (FA)
Kyle Snyder (Red Sox)
Jason Johnson (Dodgers)
Runelvys Hernandez (Astros)
Matt Ginter (Indians)
Mike Hampton (Braves)
Carl Pavano (Yankees)
John Smoltz(Braves)
Mark Mulder (Cardinals)

Ellis’ Contract
Second baseman Mark Ellis decided to stay with the Oakland A’s for at least the next two years when he signed a 2-year contract for $11 million yesterday. So what does this mean for Twins fans? It means they need to start managing their expectations.

Ellis is hurt, and he’s been battling a shoulder injury that made any multi-year deal a question mark. He’s just 31, but he had a crummy year in 2008, batting .233/.321/.373. In fact, he’s been sandwiching crummy years with very good years since 2003. And he’s been injured a lot, averaging about 130 games a season.

And yet, there is little argument that he is[4] the second best free agent second baseman on the market this year. The top guy is Orlando Hudson, and he’s hardly a premier player and he only stayed healthy for 407 at-bats last year. And you can argue that second base is a deeper position than third base.

Which is all just evidence that outside of pitching, the free agent market is very thin this year. If the Twins are going to make a big splash, it likely isn’t going to be with a free agent signing, even with all the payroll room they have. It’s going to need to be in a trade. And that likely will mean giving up one of the bats or arms we would like to have deemed “untouchable”. There just aren’t many other options.


[1] The hardest working, most patriotic agency in this great country!
[2] Though, to be honest, I’m a little worried about Punto’s defense. I know, I know – I’ve seen the highlights. I’ve also seen an awful lot of groundballs scoot between 3B and SS last year. I’m not raising a red flag, just something to collectively keep our eye on next year.
[3] As opposed to the Minnesotan on the outside of me.
[4] Er, was