Friday, July 07, 2006
The Twins are finally giving Neshek a look in the bullpen several months after I began pleading with them to do so in this space, which is basically how things played out previously with (among others) Bartlett, Juan Castro, Tony Batista, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Luis Rivas, and Johan Santana. Here's all Neshek had to do at Rochester in order to get a chance in mid-July:
G W L SV ERA IP SO BB OAVGNeshek either won or saved 20 of the 33 games he appeared in, posted a 1.95 ERA in 60 innings, ranked third in the International League in strikeouts despite being a reliever, and posted a ridiculous 87-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio and .189 opponent's batting average. Oh, and he also had a 2.19 ERA in 82.1 innings at Double-A last season.
Interestingly, the talk of Neshek struggling against left-handed hitters appears to be a non-issue. He held lefties to .235/.278/.412 at Triple-A, compared to .157/.215/.281 against righties. That's a big difference, but this year at least it has more to do with his complete dominance over right-handed hitters than it does with any real struggles against lefties. He'll be very good.
This is far from an example of plagiarism, but rather what happens when people outside of Minnesota try to write about something happening in Minnesota. It's nothing new. If you were to look back through every mainstream media article about Santana, Kirby Puckett, and Kevin Garnett, I'd bet that at least half of them contain some reference to Bunyan or Prince.
Plus, can you imagine if the national media deemed it a noteworthy story every time a star athlete from New York or California dated a woman who has won a beauty competition? They'd run out of paper within days and test the limits of space on the internet. Mauer is simply carrying on a long tradition of people having absolutely nothing original to say about Minnesota.
ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption" had him on Tuesday. Stephen A. Smith's show is later this week. Other national shows have called the Twins and settled for rookie sensation Francisco Liriano or Cy Young winner Johan Santana.I suppose dealing with Stephen A. Smith is a relatively small price to pay for fame and a .390 batting average. Incidentally, how would you like to be Santana right now? He's been baseball's best pitcher for going on three years, leads the league in both ERA and strikeouts, and is at best the third-biggest story on his own team.
Vavra is a complete unknown to me, both as a person and as a coach, and other than reading what other people have had to say about him since the hiring there isn't much to base a potential opinion of him on. ... Perhaps more important than anything we could possibly know about Vavra the player or Vavra the coach is that he simply isn't Scott Ullger.Check out how this season's paces under Vavra compare to last season's numbers under Ullger:
YEAR COACH HR BB RSHomers and walks have each increased by nearly 10 percent, although a half-season's worth of games obviously isn't enough to draw any big conclusion's about Vavra's coaching. It's possible that Mauer and Morneau would have experienced similar breakouts under another coach, but there's little doubt in my mind that Vavra is far better than Ullger.
While Ullger used to openly rip guys for taking a patient approach at the plate and play into the Twins' odd tendency to treat young guys like dirt, Vavra actually says stuff like this about working with Morneau:
I think the biggest thing with Justin is just staying positive and emphasizing strike-zone discipline.Over the years I've criticized the Twins for their inability to develop impact hitters at the big-league level, but there are certainly some signs of that changing under Vavra.
Thursday, July 06, 2006
21 Steps Forward, 2 Steps BackAfter winning 21 out of 23 games to improbably claw their way back into the playoff picture, the clock struck midnight on the Twins last night as they lost a second straight game for the first time sine June 7. It's truly amazing--along with confusing, frustrating, and any number of other things--how quickly momentum can change in baseball.
One day a team is among the worst in the league and even the most diehard fans are about ready to call it a season. Then suddenly that same team can't lose, winning every series for a month while sweeping five teams in the process. And then, just as suddenly, that same team loses two in a row to a last-place team that had twice as many losses as wins.
Throughout the Twins' amazing run I've served the role as punchbowl turd by curbing enthusiasm a bit, and this is why. Winning 21 of 23 is fantastic and has without question restored my obsession with the Twins' season. However, the problem is that because of how strong the division is and how big of a hole the Twins dug for themselves early, they basically had to keep winning for the rest of the year.
In normal circumstances it's certainly not the end of the world when a team that has been playing extremely well loses a series to the Royals, but in the Twins' case they simply don't have the margin for error to live with many setbacks. The All-Star break arrives after the next series, and even with all the progress they've made over the past month the Twins are still 8.5 games out of a playoff spot.
The White Sox have won 63 percent of their games dating back to the beginning of last season, and if they simply play .500 baseball for the remainder of this year they'll finish with 94 wins. For the Twins to top that, they'd have to finish 49-30 (.620). If you think the Twins can catch the Tigers instead, then they'll have to go 51-28 (.646) if Detroit wins half of its remaining games.
In other words, the Twins will have to be a great team for an entire half-season in order to make the playoffs, and even doing that doesn't guarantee them anything. After all, Detroit and Chicago could very well play .550 or even .600 baseball going forward, in which case the Twins have almost no chance of catching them.
The Twins picked a really bad year to "experiment" with guys like Tony Batista and Juan Castro, and picked the wrong division to get out of the gates slowly. In most other years and in most other divisions the Twins would have completely recovered from their slow start and would be in prime shape to make the playoffs. In 2006 and the AL Central, they're in really rough shape.
Great teams certainly drop games to horrible teams on occasion, but the point is that winning 21 of 23 didn't give the Twins the breathing room necessary to stumble very often. That's a difficult reality to deal with when there are 79 games remaining, but that's the task ahead when you must catch one of the two best teams in baseball in order to make the postseason.
In winning 21 of 23 games, the Twins gained a grand total of 3.5 games in their quest for a playoff spot. In losing two straight to the Royals, they quickly handed two of those games right back. The sloppy baserunning, rally-killing double plays, and shaky pitching made sudden returns after a month-long absence, and a couple more ugly losses would erase all the gains the Twins made and then some.
At this point in the season the Twins don't have the luxury of being able to take their foot off the gas like they did against the Royals. As depressing as it may sound given how well they played for so long, the Twins need to head into the All-Star break with a series win over the Rangers or they might be facing a double-digit deficit going into the second half.
Wednesday, July 05, 2006
2006 SABR Convention RecapEven before stepping off the plane, I had a feeling that my trip to Seattle for the 36th annual Society for American Baseball Research convention would be a good one. As two female flight attendants made the usual "thank you for flying Northwest Airlines" speech to bid farewell to exiting passengers after the flight from Minneapolis, the man directly in front of me looked one of them right in the eye and replied: "I have to urinate."
This didn't immediately strike me as crazy, perhaps because I had spent the last three hours reading Chuck Klosterman. However, as he calmly continued toward the exit after his pronouncement and then wordlessly made his way through the concourse to wherever it is people who have to urinate after plane rides go, it occurred to me that this man was insane. Four days later, as I boarded the plane back to Minnesota, I was shocked that I never ran into him at the SABR convention.
The first person I did run into upon arriving at the convention hotel was former Hardball Times staff member Maury Brown, who currently writes for Baseball Prospectus. After chatting with Maury for a few minutes—we had never actually met in person—I saw two familiar faces from past conventions in Mike "DeJesus Freak" McCullough and Anthony "Kiefer" Giacalone from Baseball Think Factory. SABR's only Jack Bauer look-a-like quickly headed to his room to put the finishing touches on his upcoming presentation, which was scheduled for the next afternoon.
After mocking Giacalone for that, McCullough and I met up with Joe "The Minnow" Dimino and Matt "Mr. High Standards" Rauseo, and the four of us headed out for some mid-afternoon drinking (and lunch, I suppose). We then registered for the convention, which inevitably led to jokes about how exactly the fat guys in attendance were supposed to make use of the youth-sized Eddie Guardado t-shirts and Mariners hats in each goody bag. It was decided that we should give them to Dimino, who at 130 pounds soaking wet could then have an Inspector Gadget-like closet full of the same exact outfit.
Shortly after that Giacalone rejoined the group, and we headed to dinner along with Chris Jaffe and the Stallard Clan (Mark Stallard, plus his lovely wife and baseball-clad infant son). The post-dinner plans involved christening the hotel bar, at which point Mike Emeigh and my roommate, THT's Ben Jacobs, arrived. When the hotel cut us off around one in the morning, I went looking for another bar with Jacobs, Emeigh, Rauseo, and Dimino. We ended up somewhere that had a DJ playing techno music as thin, well-dressed people danced, so naturally we fit right in and closed the place.
I saw my first presentation of the convention Thursday afternoon, as THT's own Steve Treder discussed "The Wizard of Waxahachie," Paul Richards. As is the case with so many people I "know" online, Steve and I had never met before. Yet as I milled around in the moments before his presentation began, finding a seat and kibitzing with the group of degenerates around me, Steve took the mic and said, "Sit down, Gleeman." He then delivered an outstanding presentation, which was immediately followed by Jaffe's similarly compelling presentation on "Evaluating Managers."
Once Jaffe's presentation was over I introduced myself to Jay Jaffe (no relation), and he joined several of us in the hotel bar for some between-presentation drinks. Jay is one of the only baseball bloggers who was around before I started back in August of 2002, and it was great to finally meet him. Jim Bouton strolled into the bar with his wife and looked around for a few seconds while standing a couple feet from our table, and since he's a hero of mine and was clearly looking for something I said, "Hey Jim."
Bouton quickly realized he didn't know me (and didn't want to) and we were no help for what he was looking for, but it's one of those meaningless moments that I'll remember. Unfortunately the slow service in the bar meant that we had to take our drinks to go in order to make Giacalone's presentation on "The Battle to Bring MLB Back to Seattle," which I'm certain would have been excellent even without the booze. That was followed by Vince Gennaro's thought-provoking look at "The Dollar Value of the Last Piece of the Puzzle," which is a topic Gennaro previously covered in a series of articles for THT.
The streak of outstanding first-day presentations continued with Mike Carminati's "Historical Review of Relief Pitching," Phil Birnbaum's answer to "Do Players Outperform in Their Free-Agent Year?" and Maury Brown's look at "The 2006 CBA and the Battles Within It." Examining how players perform in their "walk year" is actually something I covered in an article earlier this year for Fantasy Sports Monthly, and it was good to see someone who is far smarter than me come to a similar conclusion using far more exhaustive measures than I did.
With a day of research presentations under our belts, Dimino, McCullough, Jacobs, Giacalone, and I made our way to a sports bar for dinner and then headed back to the hotel for some late-night poker. Jacobs' friend Steve Marx, who won $275,000 while finishing 35th at last year's World Series of Poker Main Event, brought the chips. I'm not sure what it says about me, but at a convention full of household baseball names the guy I was most interested in bombarding with a neverending stream of questions was someone who got knocked out of a poker tournament by Phil Ivey.
Seattle resident and NBA.com writer Kevin Pelton also stopped by to join us for the eight-man tournament. As you might expect from a field that featured such widely divergent levels of poker ability, the best player emerged as the winner. That's right, I won. Marx finished third, finding McCullough as difficult to beat as Ivey was, and then I carved up McCullough like a Thanksgiving turkey heads up to win the tournament.
It was one of the finest moments of my life, if only because winning the (purely hypothetical) first-place prize paid for my drinks later that night while I watched, among other things, Rauseo argue about nearly anything he could possibly think of with SABR higher-ups Neal Traven, F.X. Flynn, Claudia Perry, and Dick Beverage. The beauty of the whole thing is that after listening to Mr. High Standards complain about how his incredibly high standards weren't being met, it was decided by otherwise highly intelligent people that he would be a perfect addition to SABR's leadership.
I woke up bright and early Friday morning in order to see Bouton, Mike Marshall, Jim Pagliaroni, and Steve Hovley on the Jim Caple-moderated Seattle Pilots panel. I went mostly to see Bouton, but Marshall and Pagliaroni stole the show in what was an incredibly entertaining 90 minutes that included Bouton singing and tons of Ball Four-esque stories. Bouton was also keynote speaker at the SABR Awards Luncheon (where John Thorn was given the prestigious Bob Davids Award) that began a couple hours later, and gave a strange but hilarious speech.
With about four hours to kill before SABR's group outing to Safeco Field for the Mariners-Rockies game, I headed to a nearby bar for drinks with Rauseo, Jacobs, Dimino, McCullough, Jaffe, and Giacalone. The female bartender did a shot with us (although the laws in Seattle made her do so away from the bar), at which point we spent the next hour arguing over exactly how good looking she was and which baseball player she compared to.
It was decided that she's a "one" on our newly-created "binary scale of hotness"—it was also decided that we should always "round up"—and she'd surely be equally thrilled to know that we deemed her the female bartending equivalent of Jamie Moyer. We then headed to the game (along with several gallons of imbibed booze), where we were joined by a disappointingly sober Treder and collectively proceeded to anger just about everyone in our section during the brisk 112-minute game.
Retrosheet's Tom Ruane sat a few rows in front of us and later told people that we were incredibly annoying, and we literally spent an entire half-inning (and an entire bag of peanuts) unsuccessfully attempting to hit Maury Brown in the head with food from 10 rows away. Mike Webber and his extraordinarily tolerant wife Ellen sat directly in front of our mob and shockingly seemed to enjoy the experience, although Ellen revealed afterward that she thought the group "could use some sensitivity training."
The walk home from the ballpark included one grown man leap-frogging over fire hydrants and climbing a parking meter lumberjack-style, two other gainfully employed college graduates attempting to climb a tree for no apparent reason, and three over-30 doofuses "racing" the final few blocks before one of them spent the next 30 minutes on the floor of the hotel bathroom. There are pictures of these incidents, but they likely won't be released to the public until after we're done blackmailing the parties involved.
After some re-hydrating at the hotel bar, a five-man team went out in search of dinner, which was surprisingly difficult to find at midnight. We came up empty after an hour of walking up and down Seattle's San Francisco-like hills, and nearly lost a man when he "yakked" in a parking garage. There are also pictures of that—plus a nice "thumbs up" after shot—and in fact they were later shown to a completely disinterested (or worse) Rob Neyer in the hotel lobby.
Having almost given up, we came across a guy in his early twenties who was wearing all black and claimed to "know a place to eat that's still open." Hungry and completely unable to discern wrong from right at that point, he became a cross between Moses and the Pied Piper, leading us down some stairs and into a dark alley. One of my brave compatriots informed me that "this is the part where we get mugged," but instead we were taken into a dimly-lit bar and the man in black proceeded to set up a table for us, complete with napkins, silverware, and menus.
It was as if God himself was smiling upon us, right up until a waitress came over to inform us that "the kitchen closed like two hours ago." Never discouraged, we continued our seemingly endless journey to reach our singular goal, as cries of "I would literally eat anything that can reasonably be classified as food right now" kept our faith alive. We finally came upon an actual restaurant, with lights on and numerous tables full of noshing patrons, and rewarded ourselves with the best food anyone has ever had at three in the morning after walking for two hours in Seattle.
For some reason I was up before noon Saturday, and had brunch with Webber and Bill Carle before the murderer's row of presentations began. Baseball-Reference.com's Sean Forman led off with a unique look at "Assessing a Catcher's Ability to Save Runs with Bruises," followed by Retrosheet's David Smith on the "Effect of Batting Order on Scoring," and Jeff Angus on "Punctuated Equilibrium in the Bullpen." Angus' presentation was excellent despite focusing on the White Sox, and it came as no surprise when Forman and Smith finished first and second for the coveted best-presentation award.
Then came two more presentations—one by Maxwell Kates and the other by Baseball Prospectus' Jonah Keri—followed by the Neyer-moderated CBA panel that included Marshall, economist Andrew Zimbalist, and former MLBPA lawyer Dick Moss. I enjoyed it quite a bit, not only because the discussion was interesting, but also because I find Marshall to be a fascinating mix of intelligence and curmudgeonry (which was sort of clear during the Pilots panel, but blatantly obvious when talking about the players' relationship with owners).
I then walked several miles in search of sushi with Jacobs, Dimino, the Webbers, the Formans (Sean, plus his wife Sylvia and infant son Carl), and Greg Spira. Actually, they were in search of sushi and I was just hoping the restaurant had something that was actually cooked. It did, and so while everyone enjoyed all sorts of cultured delicacies, I scarfed down chicken and rice.
We made it back to the hotel in time to see Treder take second place in the SABR trivia contest, which is infinitely more impressive than it sounds given that one of the easier questions was, "Who finished second among NL hitters in hit by pitches in 1956?" Seriously. The highlight of the contest was without question the moderator, who while funny, immediately unleashed nervous laughter that was like Fran Drescher on steroids each time he cracked a joke. He had the back of the room thoroughly entertained as we sipped drinks, cheered for Steve, and tried to pretend we knew a few answers.
Following the trivia contest we retreated to the hotel bar to celebrate Treder's insane baseball knowledge and another great convention by basically drinking non-stop for three hours. The tab for my table was well over $200, although to be fair there were at least a dozen people crammed into the circle at all times. At one point a completely smashed middle-aged woman with bright red hair drifted over to our group and slurred, "Are you the baseball group?" When told we were, she said, "I'm a grandma" and then proceeded to make absolutely no sense while talking for three consecutive minutes.
When most of the table began to ignore her, she put her hands on my shoulders and said, "You're a spoiled bastard!" before sitting down in a chair next to me. Seeing that she was about 30 years to old for me (and, as someone else opined, "not nearly drunk enough"), I turned my back to her and left some poor guy whose name I can't remember to have his ear chatted off by her for the next 15 minutes. She finally left, telling everyone that her "old man is at the bar and is probably gonna be pissed."
Our next guest of honor was Neyer, who strolled over and said he wanted to "sit with the cool kids." I told Rob that he picked a great time to hang with us, because we were collectively about as drunk as physically possible. Perhaps the least-insulting thing he heard over the next 20 minutes was me telling him, "Don't take this as an insult, but your new book is in my bathroom." He shot back that "a lot of people tell me it's good to read in chunks," which I assure you is about the funniest thing an ESPN.com writer has ever said to a group of drunk SABR attendees at two in the morning.
Shortly before closing time Seattle native Ben "Runningbyrd" Byrd showed up looking to meet some of the guys he knows from Baseball Think Factory (and shockingly he was able to determine which table we were at). He also brought his lovely girlfriend Ainsley—immediately nicknamed "Runningbabe"—who surely had no clue what she was in for. Not only did they stick with us until the hotel bar kicked us out, the Byrds then led us to a still-open bar that was a few blocks away. You know, because it was crucial that we kept getting drunker.
My last memory from Saturday night was stumbling back to the hotel and having a heated, too-loud "discussion" with Rod Nelson about the state of online minor-league stat databases on the street right outside the hotel, which in many ways is sort of the epitome of the SABR convention. I know a group picture was taken at some point, which is surely hilarious for any number of reasons, and I was snoring within 10 seconds of getting back to my room.
Somewhere along the line an alarm must have been set, because I was up at 7:30 Sunday morning in order to catch my mid-morning flight back to Minnesota. As I boarded the plane and prepared to get some much-needed sleep, an elderly man in the seat directly behind me began singing what sounded like old country songs. Not humming or mumbling a few words, but literally singing. He continued as the plane finished boarding, eventually adding an annoying foot-tapping element to his routine.
As the plane began to take off and the evil eyes being exchanged continued to mount, the overly-tan, middle-aged woman in the seat next to mine rolled up her People magazine, leaned over to me—her jewelry clinking and obnoxiously strong perfume rushing through my nostrils—and said (in an incredibly thick New York accent): "This motherf***er is going to put me over the edge." She then summoned a flight attendant, saying matter-of-factly, "You better do something about this guy right now before I do."
Told he needed to quiet down—and technically shouldn't even have had his CD player on while we took off—the man apologized as if he had no idea he had been loudly forcing his horrendous singing voice on a plane full of strangers for the past half hour. I fully expect to see both of them—the singing doofus and the pushy New Yorker—in St. Louis next summer for SABR37. They'll fit right in.
Tuesday, July 04, 2006
Twins 6, Royals 5I have very few hard-and-fast rules when it comes to this site, but here's one of them: If it's our nation's birthday, Johan Santana gave up five runs to the Royals the night before, and the Twins still won for the 19th time in 20 games, I will skip posting my recap of the SABR convention in order to write about the game. OK, so I made all that up, but you get the idea.
Unfortunately, my insights are limited (moreso than usual, even) because of two factors: Last night was the first time I've seen the Twins play since last Tuesday and there's only so much you can say about a team that simply doesn't lose. Rather than try to find new ways to express that the Twins are playing really well, here are some random notes inspired by the team's 11th straight win ...
YEAR AB 2B HR IsoPWhat's turned Morneau into a truly devastating hitter in the middle of the Twins' lineup is that he's hitting for increased power and a big batting average. Three hits last night raised his average to .298 on the year, which is up 20 percent from his career mark of .248. Back in 2004, when he had 19 homers and 17 doubles in 280 at-bats, Morneau's average was "only" .271.
Here are a couple stats to chew on: From May 19, 2005 to May 19, 2006, Morneau played 154 games and batted a pathetic .215/.287/.395 (although he did smack 24 homers and drive in 85 runs). On May 20, 2006 Morneau went 3-for-5 against the Brewers and has hit .361/.412/.707 with 13 homers and 41 RBIs in 39 games since then.
Morneau has absolutely destroyed right-handed pitching this season, but the biggest difference in his game has been the new-found ability to hold his own against left-handed pitchers. Take a look at his OPS totals against righties and lefties from 2003-2005 compared to this season:
03-05 2006 +/-Morneau has gone from good to great against righties, improving by 17 percent, but he's also gone from horrendous to solid against lefties, improving by 35 percent. In the long run his ability to post a .950 OPS against righties is what will make Morneau valuable, but his ability to post an .800 OPS against lefties is what can make him a star.
When you toss in Joe Mauer's .393 average against lefties this season after Mauer, Morneau, and just about every other left-handed hitter the Twins had struggled against southpaws prior to this year, Joe Vavra comes out looking really good in his first season as hitting coach.
With that said, since a horrible outing against the Mariners on May 1, Crain has tossed 24.2 innings with a 2.92 ERA and 20-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio. If he continues to pitch like that the Twins' pitching staff will be scary, because the two guys who followed him in relief of Santana have ERAs of 1.96 and 1.80, and the Twins have the only two starters in the entire league with an ERA under 3.00.
The last Twins catcher to reach 60 extra-base hits in a season? No one. Brian Harper holds the team record at 51 multiple-baggers and no other Twins catcher has topped even 50. Oh, and it's the Fourth of July and he's still hitting .391.
At this stage last year the Twins were exactly where they're at now: 46-35 and 9.5 back in the division race. Actually, setting the winning streak aside they're probably in much worse shape this time around. Back then the Twins were leading the Wild Card, whereas now they're 6.5 games out of a playoff spot.
Of course, if they never lose again I'm pretty sure the Twins will make the playoffs.
Monday, July 03, 2006
Back from SeattleI'm back from the 2007 Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) convention. Once I get a little sleep and let some of the alcohol leave my system, I'll have a full write-up of the experience and some thoughts on all the Twins-related stuff I missed while in Seattle.
In the meantime, feel free to debate whatever you want in the comments section. I'd suggest the Wolves misguidedly drafting University of Washington star Brandon Roy and then trading him for an inferior player in Randy Foye, and I'm sure some of you have something to say about the merits of a selection system that makes Mark Redman an All-Star over Francisco Liriano or Joe Nathan.