Friday, April 28, 2006
When he was with the Minnesota Twins, Romero faced [Jim] Thome often when Thome played for the Cleveland Indians. ... "Knock on wood, I've had success against him," Romero said of Thome. "We both respect each other. It's going to be a good challenge for me."Thome, who is a career .282/.409/.565 hitter, has batted .333/.412/.533 against Romero. Considering Thome bats left-handed and Romero throws left-handed, that shouldn't exactly be a great source of pride for Romero. The funny thing is that aside from Romero, Thome typically struggles against southpaws, hitting just .246/.346/.429 against them during his career.
Considering what goes in his deluded mind, within the next couple weeks I expect to see a quote from Romero about how he is known for his reluctance to adjust his athletic supporter in front of thousands of people.
Instead of keeping Liriano at Triple-A to let him pitch every fifth day or keeping him at the back of the bullpen to let him at least work multiple innings at a time, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports that the Twins are discussing whether he's "ready to pitch on back-to-back days." In other words, the Twins were so committed to their plan for perhaps the best pitching prospect in all of baseball that they completely abandoned it because Jesse Crain pitched poorly for 10 innings.
According to [LAPD officers], Manning was in a group that attacked a man in a Denny's restaurant after teasing him for working on a laptop computer.Thankfully Manning signed with the Bears and not the Vikings, because otherwise I think I'd be in serious danger. See, there's a good reason to do most of your writing from bed.
I think it's way too early for that. We're going to try to help him. We keep putting him out there [in the lineup]. There's a reason why we do that.Ryan also added some interesting thoughts on Morneau's problems at the plate:
He's got a lot of talent. He's got a lot of strength and he's got a lot of power. All he has to do is swing at strikes, and he's going to be fine. Taking a walk's not all that bad. Those are the things that young hitters -- I don't think they comprehend that taking a walk is a plus.That's a great thing for a general manager to say, but unfortunately that sort of philosophy hasn't filtered down to the actual players. What reason is there to believe that Morneau can learn to "swing at strikes" and realize that "taking a walk is a plus" when Torii Hunter hasn't improved his plate discipline one bit in a decade. Jacque Jones swung at everything for over 976 games in Minnesota and Morneau has taken up that awful habit for the past year and a half.
Plus, Ryan certainly isn't putting his money where his mouth is. He says all the right things about wanting hitters to swing at strikes and draw walks, but then he signs hacktastic out-makers Tony Batista and Juan Castro to take up two-ninths of the lineup. If you stick Morneau in a lineup with guys like Batista, Castro, Jones, Hunter and even Rondell White--who has zero walks in 20 games this season--is it any wonder that he can't stop swinging at everything?
Thursday, April 27, 2006
Deja VuPerhaps it's just a carry over from last season, but I'm already sick of watching the Twins' feeble attempts at scoring runs. The hitters were largely let off the hook for their mediocre early numbers because the pitching staff was horrendous, but when the pitchers finally managed to get their act together for a couple starts in a row the offense went right back to looking as bad as last season.
Look at what the opponent's starting pitchers have done against the Twins over the past five games:
There is certainly no shame in being shut down by the likes of Mark Buehrle, Freddy Garcia, and Jose Contreras, although it would have been nice to do a little damage against one of them. However, scoring a grand total of one run on five hits in 14 innings against Scott Elarton and Runelvys Hernandez is the same sort of pathetic hitting that was so depressing to watch last year.
Elarton had a 4.61 ERA last year and had been having significant control problems prior to facing the Twins this season. Hernandez had a 5.52 ERA last year and went 1-2 with a 10.52 ERA in three starts at Double-A to begin this season. Yet just like last season, it rarely seems to matter who the pitcher is or how bad he's been. Against the Twins everyone looks good and cruises to a Quality Start.
I'm not sure I can handle another season of 3-1 losses to guys like Hernandez, although I'll hold off complaining further in the hopes that Johan Santana can cheer me up this afternoon. Of course, if Santana has a good outing and drops to 0-4 because Mark Redman shuts the lineup down ... well, I may go insane (or insaner).
The good news? By 2010 the Twins might be playing home games outdoors. With some luck, they may even have a major league-quality lineup in place by then.
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Rosen's Sports Sunday (and Twins Notes)A piece about me aired on Rosen's Sports Sunday over the weekend on the local CBS affiliate. I was hoping to have some video of the segment to link to, but unfortunately I've been told by WCCO that they are unable to post footage online because they "are under restrictions by Major League Baseball." That doesn't really make much sense to me, but it's probably not worth getting worked up over.
They came to my house several weeks ago and shot about an hour of footage, with me talking non-stop for at least half that time, yet the entire segment was about 45 seconds long. As with the story in Sports Illustrated and the piece on Channel 5 Eyewitness News earlier this month, the main focus was that I often write in bed. I'm not sure why that fascinates the mainstream media so much, but apparently it's the only thing worth covering when it comes to me.
Mark Rosen introduced the segment by making a weird face while he called me "a blogger who writes from his bedroom." And then the actual piece showed footage of me working on my laptop while sitting in bed, and had a few soundbites of me talking about blogging interspersed with clips of the Twins. Once it was over Rosen talked about how he now has a blog of his own on WCCO.com, and then they showed a 10-second clip of me giving him pointers on blogging.
I don't mean to complain, since it's flattering to be featured on TV, but I'm sort of amazed by how little actual substance ends up in these things. Not only was it incredibly short and failed to go into anything really meaningful, they cut out all of my one-liners about Sid Hartman and Ron Gardenhire. While you sadly can't watch the footage to judge the piece's quality for yourself, WCCO was kind enough to post a transcript online.
The highlight of the experience was the fact that Rosen's in-studio guest Sunday night was none other than Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Jim "Shecky" Souhan, whose lame attempts at hacky humor I've been known to criticize here. I'm not sure how familiar Souhan is with this blog, but I'm fairly certain that he's not a big fan of mine. It was amusing to know that he had to sit through a taped piece about me and then probably ripped me to Rosen during the commercial break.
While I wait for the Twin Cities' NBC affiliate to contact me for a fluff piece to complete my local TV trifecta, here are some Twins notes ...
Hitting styles vary, and working the count isn't for everyone. "I don't have time for that," Twins center fielder Torii Hunter said. "I'm more aggressive. I just hack. If I went up there and was patient, I wouldn't be the guy I am."It's a shame that Torii Hunter feels that way, because his lack discipline at the plate has kept him from becoming a great player. He has power and speed, and plays outstanding defense at a key position, but has never drawn more than 50 walks in a season and strikes out about 20 percent of the time. While Hunter is right when he says that he wouldn't be the same guy if he "went up there and was patient," I wonder if he ever considered that the new guy might actually be a better hitter.
Shannon Stewart's quote makes more sense, although it's odd that Stewart is often credited with being incredibly patient. From the moment the Twins traded for him everyone talked about Stewart as if he was a walking machine, even giving him credit for making the hitters around him more patient. That sounds good, of course, but it's not actually true.
While nowhere near the hacker that Hunter is, Stewart has drawn just 102 non-intentional walks in 1,394 plate appearances with the Twins. Over that same span the American League as a whole has averaged 101 non-intentional walks per 1,394 plate appearances. In other words, Stewart walks at almost exactly an average rate. Just one more reason not to automatically trust everything that comes out of Dick Bremer's mouth.
They're trying to walk me, bottom line. They're throwing everything in off the plate, trying to walk me. They're just not throwing strikes, and I'm not letting them walk me.Jones, like Hunter, has always been a hacker. He fails to understand that pitchers aren't trying to walk him--Jones is far from a dangerous hitter at this point--but rather realize that he'll chase crappy pitches outside of the strike zone, eliminating the need to consistently throw him strikes.
Jones also complained about the fans in Chicago booing him:
I'm angry right now, you know what I mean? ... I've seen friends go through it. Sammy Sosa hit 60 home runs three years in a row, went into a little slump and hey, like I said earlier, they have a right to voice whatever opinion they want to voice. But it's not going to make me play any better.As I've said before, I think fans booing a player on their own team is silly, particularly when he's been on the team for all of three weeks. As Jones said, the booing isn't going to make him play any better and as far as I know no one is accusing him of not trying.
Morneau now swings at just about everything (notice a pattern?), yet he doesn't make consistent contact and too often gives the pitcher an easy out because he's over-aggressive and pull-happy. After going 0-for-4 with two strikeouts against a mediocre right-handed pitcher who he should have feasted on last night, Morneau has now gone 18 straight at-bats without a hit and is down to .203/.257/.391 on the year.
Since June 1 of last season, this is what Morneau's combined numbers look like:
G AB AVG OBP SLG 2B HR BB SO
For once I'd like to see a young Twins hitter come up to the majors, do well early on, and then build upon that success by developing his skills further in future seasons. You wouldn't think it'd be all that much to ask for, yet when was the last time it happened? Who was the last young hitter to do well early on--like Morneau did, hitting .271/.340/.536 in 2004--and then steadily develop into an even better and more complete offensive player?
After some early success Twins hitters--Hunter, Jones, A.J. Pierzynski, Corey Koskie, Luis Rivas, Cristian Guzman, Doug Mientkiewicz, Matthew LeCroy, Michael Cuddyer--have either stagnated or regressed. Aside from David Ortiz once he got away from the Twins' coaching, no one has added considerable plate discipline or developed significant power, and no left-handed hitters learned to handle southpaw pitching. At this point I'd take some stagnation from Morneau, because he appears to be going downhill fast.
A hunter mauled by a black bear had been chasing the animal on private timberland when the animal turned the tables on its pursuers, officials said.Phew.
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
WPA Through 18 GamesYesterday's off day gave me a chance to update the Twins' Win Probability Added totals for this season. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, WPA tracks what each play does to change the probability of a team winning a specific game. In other words, Torii Hunter hitting a grand slam in a blowout win over the Blue Jays wasn't worth nearly as much WPA as Lew Ford drawing a game-tying walk with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning against the Angels.
On the surface Hunter's homer and the four RBIs that came along with it were more impressive, but in terms of actual impact on the game it pales in comparison to Ford's walk. Ford scratching and clawing his way to a free pass in a do-or-die spot against Francisco Rodriguez radically changed the Twins' chances of winning the game, while Hunter's grand slam basically just made things a little uglier for the Blue Jays in a game that was already pretty much in the bag.
The value of WPA is that it is able to account for both the event and the situation, and can spit out a value based on how things actually impacted wins and losses. It is far from a perfect stat and I'm certainly not comfortable relying on it to definitively decide who the best and worst players are, but it's certainly an interesting tool to have.
Before I get to the WPA totals through 18 games, I want to remind everyone that Will Young has been tracking WPA for every single game over at his blog. Will not only calculates the totals mere hours after the final out is recorded and posts them each night along with a handy graph showing how each team's odds of winning fluctuated throughout the game, he often includes an amusing bit of photo-shopping too.
It's not my intention to step on Will's toes, because I think what he's doing is great and I'll be linking to it constantly all season. In fact, his method for tracking WPA has additional value because he adds in a personal touch, adjusting the amount of credit given in special circumstances when a normal WPA calculation simply goes by what the play-by-play account says.
In other words, if Brad Radke gives up a 400-foot fly ball that Torii Hunter pulls back into the ballpark with a spectacular, homer-robbing catch at the wall, Will correctly gives Hunter the credit. Meanwhile, the by-the-book WPA calculation that I'll be tracking simply sees that Radke got an out in the situation and adjusts the Twins' chances of winning accordingly.
I've talked to Will about his methods for handing out WPA and I think it adds a ton of value to what is an excellent resource. However, I'm also curious about what the WPA totals look like without any biases or subjective adjustments thrown in. Think of Will's WPA tracking as a hot-fudge sundae and mine as a small bowl of vanilla ice cream. Most of the time the sundae is much better, but occasionally you just want the plain ice cream.
Grab a spoon ...
Joe Nathan 48.2% Luis Rodriguez -5.4%
The first thing that struck me about the above numbers is that 15 of the 26 players who have played for the Twins this year have posted a positive WPA total, yet because the Twins are four games below .500 the team total is -200.0. The reason for that is simple: Rondell White. White has been so bad thus far that his -125.3 WPA has nearly offset the combined contributions of the team's top three players.
Joe Nathan (48.2), Luis Castillo (44.2), and Joe Mauer (40.0) have each been worth slightly less than one win above .500, yet White has done nearly as much to drag the team below .500 all by himself. His .149/.157/.164 hitting line is not only horrendous, White has managed to fail in a remarkable number of important spots. Since WPA gives extra weight to at-bats that come in key moments, White's total suffers.
After White's jaw-droppingly low total, the next four least-valuable Twins have been pitchers. Carlos Silva's -93.2 WPA jives with his 8.33 ERA in four starts, and Kyle Lohse's -88.5 WPA matches up with his 11.57 ERA in three starts. Jesse Crain has been the worst of the relievers at -66.1 WPA, while Radke's -59.3 WPA ranking as just the third-worst total among the starters tells you all you need to know about the rotation's struggles.
Prior to the season I would have guessed that Tony Batista would be among the team's least-valuable players, but given his .279/.353/.459 hitting line thus far his -31.6 WPA is surprising. Batista has also come up with several memorable hits already and has two big WPA totals on his early resume--29.8 WPA in Game 7 and 25.1 WPA in Game 15--making his poor season total even more shocking. And remember that I didn't jury-rig these numbers one bit, so Batista earned them fair and square by coming up with games of -30.7, -21.0, -13.3, -12.8, -9.0, and -7.1 WPA.
Similarly, Juan Castro received a lot of praise for a hot start and some timely hits early on, but for the season his punchless .280/.308/.300 hitting line has dragged the offense down. Through 11 games Castro was among the team leaders in WPA at 31.2, but since then he's racked up a remarkable -45.5 WPA in seven games to push his season total down to -14.3 WPA. Once defense is properly factored in Castro becomes more valuable, but he's been far from the bright spot many fans and media members have made him out to be.
As a group the pitching staff has a cumulative -215.0 WPA and the hitters are at 15.0, which makes sense given that the pitching has been horrendous and the offense has simply been thoroughly mediocre. The few bright spots among pitchers have been Nathan and Francisco Liriano, who have each been nearly flawless, and Juan Rincon, whose one bad outing came when the Twins were already behind.
Among position players Castillo, Mauer, Justin Morneau, Shannon Stewart, Ford, and Mike Redmond have been very valuable, although nearly all of Morneau's value comes from the game-winning bloop single against Mariano Rivera in Game 11. Thanks to that hit Morneau had a 43.7 WPA for that game alone, which is the highest single-game WPA on the team. In terms of the impact on winning or losing a game, it's tough to top a game-winning hit off Rivera when your team is trailing with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Once you factor in some quick-and-dirty defensive value along with the WPA totals, the Twins' MVPs through 18 games are clearly Castillo and Mauer. That's not surprising given that Castillo has hit .404/.481/.468 with good defense at second base and Mauer has hit .316/.403/.421 with solid work behind the plate. Unfortunately, Mauer is a catcher who is not in the lineup every day and Castillo has already missed five games because of leg problems.
Nathan has also been fantastic, but thanks to Ron Gardenhire's hesitance to use him in non-save situations he's only gotten into five of the 18 games. The fact that Nathan has thrown 35 percent fewer innings than anyone else on the team and has been used about half as much as Rincon and Crain is simply poor strategy. Regardless of how bad the starting pitching has been and how few late leads there are to protect, a good manager would find a way to use his best reliever for more than five of the first 155 innings.
Oh, and one more thing: Bring on the Royals! (Please.)
Monday, April 24, 2006
What Happened to the Pitching?Last Monday in this space I wrote that if the Twins can "manage to get out of April at .500 they'd be in great shape for the remainder of the season." Unfortunately, after losing two out of three games to the Angels and all three games to the White Sox, the Twins will have to go 5-1 in the next two series to finish the month at 12-12. Of course, if finishing the first month at 12-12 puts a team "in great shape," perhaps finishing the first month at, say, 11-13 still puts them "in good shape."
Beginning the season 7-11 is hard to take, but it's important to remember that the Twins have played one series each against six of the seven best teams in the league. They won't face a tougher stretch at any point during the remainder of the season and now get to play two of the next four series against the lowly Royals. A sub-.500 record at this stage doesn't bother me one bit, and being 7-11 against such a tough schedule despite what has been horrendous pitching is an accomplishment.
With that said, the pitching has been so bad thus far that counting on the staff to turn things around is far from a sure thing. Coming out of spring training the Twins appeared to have one of the best and deepest pitching staffs in the league and I opined that they could easily hold opponents to fewer than 650 runs this season. Instead, the Twins rank 12th among AL teams with an ugly 6.10 ERA and are on pace to allow a startling 972 runs.
STARTERS ERA RELIEVERS ERA
YEAR ERA AVG OBP SLG SO% BB% HR%
In addition to missing fewer bats and struggling to keep the ball in the ballpark, an overlooked part of the pitching staff's struggles has been the defense playing behind them. While it's natural to see a team giving up six runs per game and conclude that the pitching stinks, defense plays a significant and often overlooked role in run prevention. And whatever you think of the pitching so far, the fact is that the Twins' defense has simply not been very good at making outs.
YEAR DER LD% IFF%
The difference between 70.3 percent and 65.8 percent may not seem like much, but that means for every 15 times a batter makes contact and puts the ball in play one extra hit drops. Imagine if Joe Mauer could somehow find a way to coax one extra hit out of every 15 times he put the ball in play. Now multiple that by an entire team full of hitters and you really get a feel for how significant defense has been.
But before you go blaming the defense for all of the Twins' problems keeping runs off the board, take a look at the other two numbers shown above. LD% stands for Line Drive Percentage, which is exactly what it sounds like--the percentage of balls in play that are classified as line drives. IFF% stands for Infield Fly Percentage, which tracks the percentage of balls in play that are popped up within the infield.
LD% and IFF% are key in determining the relationship between pitching and defense, because while the defense is responsible for turning balls in play into outs the pitchers are responsible what types of balls are being put in play. Liners are difficult to turn into outs and pop ups are easy, so not all DERs are created equal. From the numbers above we can see that the staff has allowed 12 percent more line drives this year while inducing 53 percent fewer infield flies, which is another bad combination.
In short, there's plenty of blame to go around. The pitching staff has always pitched to contact and that's the case more than ever this season. Unfortunately, because of the number of home runs and line drives they've given up and the sub par defense being played behind them, that hasn't been such a great strategy. The staff has also made it hard on themselves by inducing very few easy outs, which puts further pressure on the slumping fielders.
The good news is that the Twins can't help but get more easy outs as the season progresses and improved luck should eventually help some of the bloopers find gloves. That will improve the DER, as will facing teams like the Royals that simply don't hit the ball as hard as the Yankees or White Sox. The bad news is that the problems with the defense aren't going away with Shannon Stewart looking lost in left field, Tony Batista looking like his feet are nailed to the ground at third base, and Justin Morneau looking like he's shackled to the first-base bag.
Plus, despite what Torii Hunter might have you believe there's little even a great defense can do when a ball flies over the fence every five innings. There are a lot of things that have to go wrong for a pitching staff like the Twins' to have a 6.10 ERA through 18 games, from poor pitching and sub par defense to tough opponents and bad luck. A lighter schedule will cure some of the ills, but right now the Twins' problems preventing runs stretch far beyond what playing the Royals a few times can fix.