Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Fifty Years, Two Styles

It’s sacrilege to admit such a thing, but I’m not much of a baseball book reader. To be totally honest, I’m not much of a book reader, period. Even in a household with kids just entering their second decade of life, I’m quite sure I’m the least proficient reader in the household, and probably by an order of magnitude.

So it is always with some guilt that I receive books to review. I know I’m not likely to read them all, and without a vacation or long flight coming up, I’m just as likely to not read them at all. But I didn’t let those misgivings stop me from requesting a copy of the StarTribune’s Minnesota Twins: The Complete Illustrated History by Dennis Brackin and Patrick Reusse or We’re Gonna Win Twins: 50 Years of Minnesota’s Hometown Team by Doug Grow. I’m glad I didn’t. They’re both excellent, and while they cover the same topic, they’re very different books, and that’s by design.

The Strib’s effort is trying to be an illustrated history that can be displayed on a coffee table or used as a reference book, and it succeeds. It’s big, it’s got lots of pictures from the Strib’s massive archives, and lots of fun lists like the Top 50 Twins that are distributed throughout it as sidebars. It is by far the more thorough of the two books when it comes to what happened on the field each season.

It should go without saying that both books are well-written in a concise, informative and accurate manner. Brackin, Reusse and Grow should need no introductions due to their tenure as journalists in the area, and I’m not likely to do them justice in trying to recap their careers.

That writing style is especially important in the Strib’s book. It is as extensive and informative as a textbook, and could have easily become a dry as one. Instead, it’s clean, and that neatness allows generous doses of Reusse’s pepper to spice it up. Thus it does double-duty as both something you can show off and actually enjoy reading.

By comparison, Grow’s book is smaller, plainer and with a significantly different goal. It has photos, but they are black and white, and a couple per chapter as opposed to the full scale graphics that the Strib’s book sports. Each year is a chapter, but each chapter might have only a couple of sentences recapping the Twins year, and the rest might be a story or a player that Grow wants to talk about.

And that’s the different goal - to tell a story. Grow’s is the book that I kept finding myself picking up, almost compulsively, the way one picks up a good novel. The chapters build on each other, foreshadow each other, drive one to keep reading. That’s a remarkable achievement considering that most of the readers know how this particular story proceeds.

He gets away with this by mostly ignoring those seasons begging to be ignored. 1985 is almost completely about Andy McPhail. 1986 is almost entirely about Tom Kelly. 2000 is about bobbleheads and I was shocked to find that 2005 was about blogs, including a somewhat bitter Twins Geek.

That’s why I didn’t like one feature that I suspect will be universally mentioned (and more than likely admired) by other reviews. At the start of each chapter there is a short paragraph of what on in each of the following: the world, the nation, the state, pop culture and the season. It’s somewhat interesting, but that belonged in the more structured Strib’s book. In this page-turner, it just got in the way. Get me back to the stories, dammit.

Neither book is cheap (the Strib’s is $30 and Grow’s is $25) but I’ve become a fan of paying for content that I like and is rare. Still, if I had to pick just one to buy…

I’d probably pick both. The Strib’s is probably the more essential guide, one that I’ll pull off the bookshelf when I want to research something. But to me, Grow’s was more fun, and the one that is going to have a longer life on my nightstand.


If you want to hear more about Doug Grow’s book, stop by the Townball Tavern in Target Field on Saturday afternoon from 2:00 to 4:00. He’s having a talk and book signing with Clyde Doepner, the curator for the Twins. It says that you’ll need to enter at the 5th street gate entrance, which I think is Gate 3 (or else Gate 6) near the LRT. That sounds exactly like the kind of event I would love, but I’m afraid I’ll be out of town that weekend, so I’ll need to get him to sign my book some other time.


I had the volume down on the broadcast during the ninth inning last night so I need someone to tell me – did Bert grouch about Francisco Liriano not pitching the ninth inning?

For the record, I wouldn’t have had any problem with sending Liriano out there after throwing 102 pitches. A common misperception is that there is this large body of evidence that teams are taking risks with their pitchers’ health at anything over 100 pitches. But the truth is that there is really only a small body of evidence (just one study that I know of) that suggests any kind of effect - and that’s mostly an effect in performance, and it starts at 120 pitches. So if Gardenhire felt like the bullpen could use the break or that getting the shutout would’ve helped Liriano’s confidence, I say go for it.

Not that I had any problem with throwing Crain out there either. He needed the work.


Thanks to’s At-Bat iPhone App, I’ve been listening pretty regularly to opposing team’s radio announcers. Last night’s Cleveland announcers, by the bottom of the second inning, had awarded the 2010 AL Central title to the Twins. Good times.


For more good times, you might want to follow me on Twitter this weekend. It could be especially interesting/embarrassing/non-existent as I’ll spend some time in Vegas. You’ve been warned.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Back-of-the-Napkin Analysis: Have Bullpens Become Better?

Sometimes it’s what you don’t see that’s important.

Monday night I was in my first live chat session, hosted by Phil Mackey of ESPN 1500. Semi-predictably, I settleD into the role of elderly curmudgeon, ala Patrick Reusse, except without the charm. That became especially apparent when the topic of bullpen usage came up.

In 1985, Bill James tackled the changing role of relievers in Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. He noted the changing roleS and predicted further changes. And he was right, as roles became more defined and we saw the rise of the one-inning closer by the 90s. No longer did we see the best relief pitcher enter the game at a critical time early in the game. Their new role was to protect a lead in the ninth inning.

It’s become a hotly debated topic, especially when a game is lost, and I find myself on the opposite side of it than many of my peers. I have no problem with stricter roles in a bullpen, even if that means "saving" the closer for the end of the game. I suspect there are long-term benefits that equal the short-term gain in using them in a more flexible manner:

TwinsGeek: But Mackey, managing a bullpen could be similar to managing any other group of people - they perform best when expectations are set.

Aaron Gleeman: Plenty of setup men seem to do just fine being thrown into all kinds of spots without knowing exactly when and where.

Phil Mackey: Right TwinsGeek, but they'd get used to it.

But Monday night was the first time I really asked myself the question:

TwinsGeek: So do we thing that bullpen's blow MORE games now than they did before 1985? Do we have any evidence of this?

Aaron Gleeman: John, bullpens now also have 3-4 extra pitchers and specialized roles. So you'd expect them to be better, in general.

So let’s do a little back-of-the-napkin analysis today around this. I’m hoping to get a sense whether:
  1. Have teams become better at winning games with close scores, and did this happen at about the same time as the rise of the closer?
  2. Is it possible that while saving the "closer" for late innings helps the team preserve late leads that it has had a similar negative impact on leads earlier?
I’m going to start by using this Win Expectancy Finder to record, year-by-year, what percentage of the time the home team was able to preserve a one-run lead in the ninth inning between 1977 and 2006. Then I’ll do the same for the seventh and eighth innings. And then I’ll chart it and see if I see any trends.

(On caveat – I’m going to skip two years. I’m going to skip 1999 because the site that I’m using doesn’t have any data for 1999. And I’m going to skip 1994 because it was the strike-shortened year. Because of that, I'm not comfortable with the sample data size, because I'm seeing some goofy results. For instance, in 1994 fewer teams could hold a one-run lead going into the eighth than could hold a one-run lead going into the seventh. Think about that for a minute.)

So, how does it look? For year to year comparisons, it’s a little bit of a mess:

Yikes, that's like my EKG during Game 163. It’s hard to see any trends here because the data jumps around a lot. So let’s smooth it a bit by taking the average for every five-year period instead…..

That’s odd. During the late 70s and 80s, bullpens didn’t change very much in protecting a ninth inning lead – that green line is pretty level at first. However, teams got about 5% better at preserving a win in the seventh or eighth inning between 1982 and 1990. That’s a very strange result if, as the theory goes, the best relievers were being moved to work strictly the ninth inning. I’d expect exactly the opposite – a slight uptick for that green line and declines in the red and blue lines.

I’d also feel a lot more comfortable if those lines evened off a bit in the 90s, but instead they decline slightly back to previous levels, except for the eighth inning guy who had a couple of very good years in 2001 and 2002. So there are obvious plenty of other factors impacting these lines. It might be that the previous increase in middle-relief effectiveness had nothing at all to do with the change in usage.

But I think one thing that I don’t see here is relevant. I don’t see any evidence that at any macro-level, the change in bullpen usage that swept through the 80s hurt team’s ability to hold onto one-run leads. We can claim that utilizing a team’s best relievers in this new modern way isn’t particularly smart, but it sure doesn’t look like it spectacularly stupid, either.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Second Chance for Twins Fans

For today's post, please click over to the Downtown Journal, where I wrote about the impact the Twins last new stadium had on the Twins.

Also, tonight I'll be taking part in a live chat at 8:00 Central over at the with Seth Stohs, Parker Hageman, Phil Mackey and Aaron Gleeman. I've never done one of these before, and am interested to see just how much trouble I can get into. I hope to talk to you there.