Friday, July 14, 2006
Johan The GreatThe following article appears in the most recent edition of GameDay, the independent program that's available outside the Metrodome before every Twins game. I'd like to thank GameDay's editor, John Bonnes, for asking me to write something about my favorite topic. Enjoy.
No one ever wonders whether or not Nick Punto is one of the top dozen utility infielders in baseball or where exactly Willie Eyre ranks in the storied history of big leaguers named "Willie." For some guys, just being major-league players is more than enough to satisfy most everyone's curiosity.
However, once it's been established that a player is truly great--like in the case of Johan Santana--the mind naturally begins to wonder how great. For instance, is Santana the best pitcher on the Twins' staff? With all due respect to Joe Nathan's dominance out of the bullpen and Francisco Liriano's superstar potential, that answer is of course a resounding yes.
Is Santana the best pitcher in the entire American League? Santana unanimously won the AL Cy Young Award in 2004 and deserved to win it again in 2005. In fact, if not for the voters' maddening tendency to focus solely on individual wins and the lack of offensive support the Twins' lineup provided Santana, he would have cruised to back-to-back awards. In short, the answer is yes.
So he's the best pitcher on the Twins and the best pitcher in the AL, but is Santana the best southpaw in all of baseball? That question is a little more difficult to answer, because the competition is pretty stiff. Take a look at how Santana's combined numbers from 2004 and 2005--his first two seasons as a full-time starter--compare to the other top left-handed starters around MLB:
IP ERA W WIN% SO9 OAVGThere are some great pitchers on that list, but from 2004-2005 Santana led all left-handed starting pitchers in ERA (2.74), wins (36), winning percentage (.735), strikeouts (503), strikeouts-per-nine-innings (9.9), and opponent's batting average (.201). The only two major categories he didn't lead all southpaws in were strikeout-to-walk ratio and innings pitched, where Santana ranked second and third, respectively.
Santana is also putting together yet another Cy Young-caliber season this year, while many of those other lefties listed above have been less than dominant. In fact, with future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson's performance declining right around the same time that Santana began emerging, the torch has definitely been passed from The Big Unit to Johan as the premiere southpaw around.
It may seem difficult to go much further than that--best on the Twins, best in the AL, best lefty in MLB--but more than any other sport baseball lends itself to examination through history and numbers. If you're not satisfied in knowing that Santana is the best left-handed pitcher around today, the next step is to examine how he ranks among past southpaws.
Last season was Santana's "age-26" campaign and after going 16-7 with a 2.87 ERA in 231.2 innings his career totals looked like this:
G GS ERA W L WIN% IP H SO BBSimply amazing, and of particular note is that among pitchers with at least 50 wins, 1940s Yankees great Spud Chandler is the only one in baseball history with a higher winning percentage than Santana's .702 (Pedro Martinez is right on Santana's tail at .701).
With that said, rather than comparing Santana to other left-handed pitchers in each individual category, there's an easier way to go about determining his place in history. Thanks to a statistic called "Runs Saved Above Average" we can actually boil each pitcher's contributions down to one catch-all number.
RSAA compares each pitcher's performance to what an "average" pitcher would have done over the same number of innings, all while making important adjustments for such overlooked factors as home ballpark, league, and era. In other words, it's silly to compare raw, unadjusted numbers for someone pitching at Coors Field in 2005 and someone pitching at Dodger Stadium in 1975.
It's an apples-to-oranges comparison because the modern Rockies pitcher has all sorts of disadvantages, including a home ballpark that is death to pitching and an overall era that is extremely hitter friendly. In other words, not all 3.00 ERAs are equal, and RSAA accounts for that.
With a 59-25 record and 3.31 ERA in 856 career innings coming into this season, Santana's RSAA stood at 125, meaning he's been 125 runs better than your average starter over that time. Here's what the all-time RSAA leader board looks like for left-handed starters through the age of 26:
RSAAThere are some names on that list that you may not recognize, in large part because many of those lefties pitched during the first half of the 20th century. In fact, Noodles Hahn and Rube Waddell--where did all the cool-sounding baseball names go?--were both done pitching by 1910, and Hal Newhouser and Lefty Gomez were both finished before the Twins moved to Minnesota in 1961.
All of which makes Santana's fifth-place standing even more impressive. Among "modern" lefties--that is, guys who began their career after MLB lowered the pitching mound in 1969--the only one from the above list who can top Santana's 125 RSAA through the age of 26 is White Sox ace Mark Buehrle.
At first glance it may seem odd that Buehrle saved more runs than Santana through the age of 26, but it's important to remember that Santana got a relatively late start on racking up his incredible numbers. Snagged from the Astros in the 1999 Rule 5 draft--think Houston would like to have that one back?--Santana spent the 2000 and 2001 seasons pitching out of the back of the Twins' bullpen, totaling just three wins, nine starts, and 130 innings.
He then spent a large portion of 2002 in the minor leagues, working with Triple-A pitching coach Bobby Cuellar to develop his now unhittable changeup. Santana spent all of the 2003 season in Minnesota, but didn't get a full-time spot in the rotation until late in the season. Santana's first year as a full-fledged member of the starting rotation came in 2004, at which point he was already 25 years old.
For comparison, by the time Buehrle turned 25 years old he already had three full seasons in Chicago's rotation and 53 big-league wins under his belt. The aforementioned Noodles Hahn had 106 wins on his resume by the age of 25. That Santana was able to make up as much ground as he did despite giving everyone else such a big head start is a testament to his brilliance.
It's impossible to predict how many RSAA Santana will end up with in 2006, his age-27 season. He's on track for another spectacular year and it's safe to say he'll end up somewhere around 40 RSAA (Santana totaled 54 in 2004 and 39 in 2005). If you give him credit for 40 RSAA during his age-27 season (and give Buehrle, also 27 this year, 30 RSAA) here's what the age-27 leader board would look like:
RSAAThat's amazing company. Newhouser, Waddell, Gomez, and Whitey Ford are all in the Hall of Fame, Sam McDowell was a six-time All-Star, and Barry Zito won the AL Cy Young two seasons before Santana. He's unable to make up significant ground on Newhouser, but by the end of this season Santana could very well be the owner of the No. 2 spot on the list or at the very least prepared to overtake Buehrle early next year.
Finally, here's how the RSAA leader board through age 27 looks for left-handed pitchers if we limit the pool to guys who pitched after baseball lowered the mound in 1969:
RSAAThat list paints a pretty good picture of exactly how extraordinary Santana has been. Despite spending his first two seasons as a mop-up man and not getting a chance to start every fifth day until the age of 25, Santana is neck-and-neck with Buehrle for the top spot and significantly ahead of big names like Barry Zito, Steve Carlton, and Vida Blue.
Along with being the best pitcher on the team, the best pitcher in the league, and the best lefty in baseball, you can add "best southpaw of the modern era through the age of 27" to Santana's growing list of accomplishments. Now the only question is, what can he do next?
Thursday, July 13, 2006
At The Break: Part 3 (WPA)I've spent the All-Star break examining how the Twins look after (slightly more than) half the season, first discussing the team's outlook heading into the second half and then putting the pitching staff under a microscope. Today I'd like to take a look at the Twins' individual Win Probability Added totals at midseason.
This is the third WPA update I've posted here, with one coming after 18 games and the other coming after 56 games. I'm not going to go over the details surrounding WPA today, partly because it's sort of boring and partly because it's ground I've covered already. If you're interested in learning more about what the numbers below actually mean, click here or here.
The short version is that WPA is the combined contribution made to increasing or decreasing the chances of winning each game. Each 50 points of WPA is worth one win above or below .500. In other words, someone with 100 WPA has pushed the team from winning 81 games to winning 83 games, while someone with -100 WPA has dragged the team from 81 wins to 79 wins.
Here's how the Twins stack up through 86 games:
Joe Nathan 286.6 Luis Castillo -4.4Joe Nathan led the team in WPA after 18 games (48.2) and after 56 games (165.5), so it's no surprise that he remains on top. As discussed in some detail yesterday, Nathan has been about as dominant as a pitcher can possibly be, and his WPA reflects the fact that he's pitched almost exclusively in crucial situations while being nearly perfect in those spots.
It's somewhat surprising to see Francisco Liriano in the second spot, if only because he began the year pitching in relatively low-leverage situations out of the bullpen. As a reliever Liriano had 16.2 WPA in 22.1 innings, but since moving into the starting rotation he's racked up an incredible 238.7 WPA in 66 innings.
Johan Santana ranks third among Twins pitchers with 207.6 WPA, which says more about how great Nathan and Liriano have been than anything else. With two starts to go until the All-Star break, Santana was leading Liriano by a fairly wide margin. Then Liriano tossed 17 scoreless innings while Santana struggled, and they flip-flopped spots behind Nathan.
Even with two shaky outings to finish the first half, Santana still ranks among the top 10 starters in all of baseball in terms of WPA. If you count the work he did in the bullpen, Liriano ranks fourth among MLB starters behind only Brandon Webb, Jason Schmidt, and Jeremy Bonderman, Similarly, Nathan ranks fifth among MLB relievers behind Jonathan Papelbon, B.J. Ryan, Bobby Jenks, and Trevor Hoffman.
Juan Rincon also deserves plenty of praise, because with 193.3 WPA he's had nearly as big an impact as Santana and is among the elite non-closer relievers in baseball. The foursome of Nathan, Liriano, Santana, and Rincon was without question baseball's best in the first half, and with a combined 941.4 WPA those four pitchers pushed the Twins nearly 19 wins above .500.
The only hitters who have kept pace with the pitching foursome are Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, who each cracked 200 WPA in the first half. Much like the situation with Santana and Liriano, Mauer was leading Morneau for nearly the entire first half before a bad stretch right before the break involving some rally-killing double plays set him back.
Morneau now leads the hitters at 220.1 WPA, with Mauer second at 204.3. Once defense is thrown into the equation Mauer takes a sizable advantage, but we'll get into that more in a moment. The seventh and final player with a triple-digit WPA is Michael Cuddyer, whose 130.8 WPA is nearly double that of the next-closest player (Shannon Stewart at 68.0 WPA).
In other words, the Twins were carried an incredible amount by seven guys: Nathan, Liriano, Morneau, Santana, Mauer, Rincon, and Cuddyer. That group accounted for 1,496 WPA, while the 24 other players who saw action for the Twins combined for -1,091 WPA. Confused? Think of it this way: The top seven players pushed the Twins 30 games above .500 and then the other 24 guys dragged the Twins 22 games back down. Add it all up and you get a team that is eight games above .500 at 47-39.
Of those -1,091 WPA the "other 24" so graciously provided, nearly half came from three hitters who are no longer with the team. Rondell White brings up the rear at -216.8 WPA, which is remarkable given that he did all that damage in "only" 191 plate appearances. By comparison, it took Morneau 335 plate appearances to total 220.1 WPA.
The Opening Day left side of the infield combined for -225.4 WPA before Terry Ryan admitted his mistakes, and WPA doesn't even account for the horrible defense from Tony Batista and Juan Castro. Together, the threesome of White, Batista, and Castro combined for -442.2 WPA, pushing the Twins nine games below .500 purely with their offense despite not playing regularly after early June.
Along with the departed trio, Carlos Silva (-168.9), Kyle Lohse (-156.0), and Brad Radke (-116.0) give the Twins six players with triple-digit negative WPA totals. Lohse has the distinction of being sub par in both the bullpen (-19.5) and the rotation (-136.5), while Silva was actually effective as a reliever (30.4) in between horrendous stints as a starter (-192.0). Radke has just been plain bad, but his WPA has been slowly moving in the right direction since some very rough early outings.
While the triple-digit guys on both sides of the ledger have had the most impact, the players in the middle of the pack are probably the most interesting situations. For instance, I'm sure it would shock most Twins fans to know that Torii Hunter ranks seventh-worst on the team with -92.6 WPA. His actual value is much higher than that due to defense, but there's little doubt that Hunter has been a major disappointment.
The debate about whether the Twins should bring Hunter back next season (and in future years) has been raging on since the middle of last season. His WPA is one of many pieces of evidence that support my oft-stated opinion that devoting 10-15 percent of the team's payroll to Hunter is a mistake. Whatever you think of WPA in terms of player evaluation--and there's room for disagreement--it seems unlikely that someone so far in the red deserves $10 or $12 million from a small-payroll team.
Luis Castillo has also been disappointing, although his -4.4 WPA means he's essentially had an average impact offensively. However, when you toss in sub par defense at second base, Castillo hasn't been the player the Twins thought they were getting this winter. Interestingly, Castillo ranked second to Nathan with 44.1 WPA after 18 games, but then dropped all the way to -30.3 WPA after 56 games. That means he's resumed being a positive contributor offensively since early June.
As their ugly WPA totals suggest, a big key to the Twins' season was getting rid of Batista and Castro. However, replacing them both with positive contributors was also extremely important. Jason Bartlett has been fantastic since coming up from Triple-A, playing good defense at shortstop and putting up 34.9 WPA offensively in just 90 plate appearances. Nick Punto's overall WPA is -10.7, but he's been in the black since replacing Batista at third base and has also been a huge defensive upgrade.
Jason Kubel's 43.2 WPA in 143 plate appearances makes it all the more maddening that Ron Gardenhire refuses to simply write his name in the lineup every day and leave him alone. Lew Ford continues to steal Kubel's at-bats despite -34.5 WPA in 208 plate appearances, which is even worse than it looks when you consider that he posted 44.1 WPA in a single game back in April (when he drew the game-tying walk against Francisco Rodriguez).
Luis Rodriguez has been Gardenhire's pinch-hitter of choice in a ton of key spots throughout the year, but he's mostly come up empty and as a result has contributed -78.0 WPA in just 71 trips to the plate. Compare that to Willie Eyre's relatively harmless -16.2 WPA in 30 innings of work, which is due in large part to the fact that Eyre's poor pitching has come in extremely low-leverage situations.
In fact, no Twins pitcher has been used in less important situations than Eyre. According to a stat called Leverage Index that tracks how and when players are used, here's the bullpen hierarchy (the higher the number, the more important the situation):
Joe Nathan 1.54Makes sense, right? Nathan and Rincon take the high-pressure situations, with Crain also getting into some relatively tight spots despite poor pitching. At the other end of the spectrum, Eyre and Lohse have basically been mop-up men. The "middle" situations have gone to Matt Guerrier (when healthy), Dennys Reyes (when in the majors), and Liriano (when in the bullpen).
Finally, here's what my WPA-based team MVP ballot looks like after factoring in some rough estimates for things like positional adjustments offensively, defensive value, and considerations for playing time (for comparison, I've also included my ballots from the first two WPA update):
There's plenty of room for quibbling, especially once you get past the first handful of spots, but I think that paints a pretty good picture of the Twins' season thus far. And with that, let the second half begin.
Wednesday, July 12, 2006
At The Break: Part 2 (The Pitchers)Earlier this week, I used the All-Star break as an opportunity to examine the Twins' team outlook heading into the second half. Today I'd like to switch the focus to the team's pitching staff, which has miraculously rounded into shape after a horrendous first month and now ranks third in the AL with 4.6 runs allowed per game.
Rather than focus on win-loss records and ERAs, what follows is a look at the Twins' pitching staff using an assortment of non-traditional numbers. While these certainly aren't mainstream stats and may seem confusing at first glance, they're actually relatively easy to understand and provide a unique glimpse into performances. Here's a chart showing the acronyms used below and the corresponding meanings:
SO% Percentage of plate appearances ending in a strikeoutPretty simple, right? If you're interested in learning more about the stats described above, click here or here. In the meantime, let's dive right in ...
SO% BB% STR%As usual, the Twins' staff is littered with guys who throw strikes. Of the dozen pitchers who logged at least 30 first-half innings, 10 walked fewer batters than the league average and 10 threw more strikes than the league average. The only pitcher who has been worse than average in both walk rate and strike rate is Kyle Lohse, which isn't surprising given how much he's clashed with management over the years.
In terms of strikeouts, Joe Nathan blows the rest of the staff away. Nathan struck out an incredible 37.4 percent of the batters he faced in the first half, which is 25 percent more than Francisco Liriano and 40 percent more than Johan Santana. It's hard to emphasize enough how amazing that is. Among all MLB starters, Liriano and Santana rank first and second in strikeout percentage, yet compared to Nathan they look like soft-tossers.
It's not surprising that nearly the entire staff throws more strikes than average, but one major change from past seasons is that just four pitchers had a worse-than-average strikeout rate. Once upon a time the Twins built their staff around low-strikeout pitchers with good command, like Brad Radke, Rick Reed, Joe Mays, and Kenny Rogers. They still focus on pitchers who throw strikes, but now those guys more often than not also rack up tons of strikeouts.
The Twins have ranked among the AL's top three in fewest walks allowed each year since 1996, leading the league in 1997, 1998, 2004, and 2005. However, over that same 10-year span they ranked among the league's top five in strikeouts just twice and were frequently near the bottom. This year the Twins' staff has once again issued the fewest walks in the league, but this time around they also rank second in strikeouts (and miss leading the league by three measly whiffs).
No pitcher exemplifies the Twins' staff more than Nathan, who in addition to the aforementioned ridiculous strikeout rate has walked just 2.2 percent of the hitters he's faced (intentional walks removed). Nathan's 52-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 36 innings is as dominant as it gets outside of video games and little league. Santana, Liriano, and Juan Rincon also boast huge strikeout rates with better-than-average control, while Radke and Carlos Silva are remnants of the "here it is, hit it" approach.
GB% FB% G/FSantana and Liriano are similar in that they each strike out tons of hitters while limiting walks, but they're actually quite different in terms of style. Liriano is an extreme ground-ball pitcher, inducing 58.5 percent of the balls put in play against him to go on the ground, and sports a team-best 2.76 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio. Meanwhile, under 40 percent of Santana's balls in play are hit on the ground and his ground-to-fly ratio makes him a relatively extreme fly-ball pitcher.
Both styles can obviously lead to greatness, but all things being equal, forcing batters to pound the ball into the ground is the preferred way to do things because grounders never turn into homers. The Twins' staff as a whole isn't nearly as fly-ball heavy as it was in the past when fellow fly-ballers like Radke, Reed, and Eric Milton joined Santana in the rotation, but it still skews more towards air than ground in large part because of Silva's concerning transformation.
Once a ground-ball pitcher who relied on good infield defense and timely double plays saving him from big innings, Silva has become a fly-ball pitcher this season. His strikeout rate remains among the worst in the league, however, which means he's on very thin ice. Quite simply, if Silva doesn't either begin missing significantly more bats or get his sinker back working, his long-term problems will extend far beyond pitching poorly this year.
On the other hand, Jesse Crain has gone the opposite way, turning himself into an extreme ground-ball pitcher this year after inducing primarily fly balls in the past. What makes Crain's transition particularly encouraging is that he's struck out 19 percent of the batters he's faced this year, more than doubling his career rate of nine percent. Grounders and strikeouts are the best possible combination, so despite some Silva-like overall struggles this season, Crain is on a much better long-term path.
BABIP LD% IFF%Liriano's .283 batting average on balls in play leads the team, which makes sense given that he's an extreme ground-ball pitcher whose innings have come mostly since the Twins revamped their infield defense by replacing Juan Castro and Tony Batista with Jason Bartlett and Nick Punto. Santana's .287 BABIP ranks second on the team, in large part because he allows a relatively low number of line drives and induces a ton of easy-to-catch infield fly balls.
As a team, the Twins have just four pitchers with better-than-average batting averages on balls in play. That's due in part to some shaky early-season defense that had trouble turning balls in play into outs, but it's also because the pitchers' high number of line drives allowed have made it overly difficult on the defenders. In simple terms, line drives are tough to convert into outs and infield flies are incredibly easy to catch, with ground balls and regular fly balls somewhere in between.
Nathan is an interesting example of the line drive-infield fly relationship in action. He has a team-worst line-drive rate of 24.1 percent, which would typically lead to all sorts of trouble. The only other Twins serving up more than 22 percent line drives are Crain, Lohse, and Silva, and they each have a BABIP over .340 and sport ERAs of 5.03, 7.48, and 7.00 respectively. How does Nathan avoid a similar fate? The easy answer is that he's simply better than they are, but there's a more complicated version.
While Nathan has given up tons of line drives, he's made up for it by inducing a startlingly high number of infield flies. His infield-fly rate of 23.5 percent is 150 percent higher than the league average and nearly 50 percent higher than the next-closest guy on the staff, Santana. That means when Nathan allows a fly ball to be put in play--relatively rare to begin with given all the strikeouts--one-fourth of the time the defense had to do almost zero work to convert it into an out.
The bad news is that 23.5 percent is not a sustainable rate of infield flies over the long haul, but the good news is that Nathan's track record suggests his line-drive rate will come down significantly as well. Whatever the case, an overlooked aspect of both Nathan's and Santana's success is their consistent ability to induce easy-to-catch infield pop ups at a better-than-average rate.
One final thing worth noting is that Scott Baker went 2-5 with an ugly 6.06 ERA in nine starts before heading back to Triple-A, but given his component numbers he pitched quite a bit better than that. Only Santana threw more strikes than Baker's 68.5 percent, his strikeout rate was safely above the league average, and his walk rate of 3.7 percent ranked third on the team behind only Nathan and Silva.
Baker is perhaps the most extreme fly-ball pitcher on the staff, which leaves him vulnerable to some rough stretches, but his line-drive rate wasn't out of control and he induced a fair number of infield flies. If the Twins give Baker another chance in the rotation now that he's back from posting a 2.92 ERA in seven starts at Rochester, expect his pitching to "improve" significantly.
Tuesday, July 11, 2006
I'm generally in favor of giving All-Star spots to established stars rather than players having great first halves, but elite prospects in the middle of their first big year like Liriano are obviously an exception to that rule. In that sense I'm very pleased that Liriano is getting what he clearly deserves, although had Contreras not backed out of the game I wouldn't have mustered up much anger.
The chance to see Joe Mauer catch an inning from Liriano or Johan Santana tonight might be enough to make me watch the whole game. Plus, the best thing about Liriano making this season's team is that when they're introducing him on a stage in Cooperstown, New York 25 years from now he'll be a "12-time All-Star" instead of a measly "11-time All-Star."
Even Castillo has been far from a great acquisition. Not only has he missed 11 games with nagging injuries, Castillo is hitting just .280/.342/.355 despite a great start and has been mediocre at best defensively. And as Tom Powers discussed in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Castillo's overall lack of hustle has been tough to take:
Early in the season, I thought Luis Castillo was one of the most dynamic players I had seen. Since then, there have been times he has appeared absolutely lifeless. Sometimes he appears interested, sometimes he doesn't. I have to assume his knees are bothering him. Still, I've never seen a player who can go from looking energetic to lethargic, and maybe back again, from game to game.
The bad news is that I was wrong about White and, to a lesser extent, Castillo. The worse news is that I was right on the money about both Batista and Sierra. In a season that has seen several of the Twins' young players emerge as stars, that Ryan completely whiffed on his attempts to surround them with solid veterans is a huge part of why the playoffs are a long shot heading into the second half.
Sierra didn't help his cause by ignoring a take sign with two outs and a runner on second base in the ninth inning of Sunday's 5-2 loss to Texas.Sierra was brought in to provide veteran leadership and an impact bat off the bench, and as his track record suggested would be the case, he failed in both areas. An injury limited his damage to just 33 plate appearances, but worse than that is the Twins' continued inability to see the seemingly obvious uselessness of "veterans" like Sierra, Batista, and Juan Castro. I'm hoping Ryan won't make similar mistakes next season, but his track record suggests that he probably will.
Santana gave up multiple home runs in a game for the first time since June 2005.Santana doesn't have many bad starts, period, but it surprises me that his few shaky outings over the past year haven't involved serving up several homers. The lesson, I suppose, is that the eyes of even the most obsessed fan can always lie and even the biggest stat-head can learn something new from looking at the numbers a little harder.
Giving Kubel a day off occasionally is smart considering he's a year removed from a season-ending knee injury, but this goes far beyond that. Not only has he been benched for nearly half of the team's games since mid-June, Kubel is frequently replaced defensively in the late innings even when does start and is essentially being platooned against left-handed pitching. Of the Twins' last nine games against a left-handed starting pitcher, Kubel has been in the lineup just twice.
What makes Gardenhire benching Kubel against left-handed pitching especially galling is that he's the same manager who refused to sit Jacque Jones against southpaws well past the point it was clear that Jones couldn't hit them. Now Gardenhire has a 24-year-old rookie who has actually shown signs of hitting lefties well and he refuses to give him a chance against them.
Kubel has hit a very solid .303/.343/.485 against lefties during his brief big-league career and batted a robust .303/.390/.639 against them at Rochester earlier this season. Meanwhile, he's on the bench far more than Jones ever was under Gardenhire and those are numbers Jones could only dream about. And why? So Gardenhire can get Lew Ford and his .261/.333/.415 career line against lefties into the lineup.
It's amazing that with all that has gone on with the Twins this year, Gardenhire still isn't completely convinced that simply trusting (and playing) the young, talented guys is the way to win. At this point, I'm not sure there's any real chance of teaching this particular dog any new tricks, which means it's a good thing that Jason Bartlett came right out of the gates hitting .350.
Monday, July 10, 2006
At The Break: Part 1 (The Team)
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.
- Yours Truly, July 6Well, so much for that.
They're not quite "facing a double-digit deficit going into the second half," but the Twins head into the All-Star break nine games out of a playoff spot with just 76 games left to play. As bad as that sounds, it's even worse when you consider how many teams the Twins will have to get past down the stretch in order to make the postseason.
WILD CARD W L WIN% GBOvertaking Chicago during the final 76 games is one thing, because with a dozen games left against the White Sox even a nine-game gap is still somewhat doable. The White Sox won 65 percent of their games in the first half after winning 61 percent of their games last season. If for some strange reason they win just 50 percent of the time in the second half, the Twins will need to go 47-29 (.618) in order to tie them.
However, even in the unlikely chance that the Twins can climb past the White Sox, a postseason spot is far from guaranteed. Both the Yankees and Blue Jays will also enter the second half in front of the Twins, and given the lofty first-half winning percentages involved it seems likely that at least one of the three teams ahead of the Twins in the Wild Card standings will play close to .600 baseball after the break.
If the White Sox do that, the Twins have no shot. Chicago winning 60 percent of its remaining games would mean that the Twins have to go 56-20 (.737) just to tie them, which isn't going to happen. If the Yankees do that, the Twins have to go 49-27 (.645) to keep pace. If the Blue Jays do that, the Twins have to go 46-30 (.605) to stay even. In other words, for any sort of realistic chance at the playoffs the Twins must win a minimum of 48-50 post-break games.
And you're not alone if this entire discussion strikes you as silly given how the Twins limped into the break. The natural reaction is to say that even great teams have bad weeks and the Twins deserve a little slack after such an incredible run, but that misses the point. Because of their horrible start and the strength of the league, the Twins aren't in a position to have a bad week. Following up a stretch of 21 wins in 23 games with series losses against the Royals and Rangers is a huge blow.
That's surely tough to take for most fans, particularly following the unexpected euphoria of winning 21 of 23, but it's reality. If the goal is to have a 90-win season and stay marginally in the playoff picture for most of the year, the Twins have accomplished that and there'll be plenty to root for in the second half. If the goal is to actually make the playoffs after being left for dead in May, the Twins likely just fumbled away their chance.
Here's the second-half schedule, from which the Twins will likely have to find 50 wins just to make things interesting:
OPPONENT H R TOTThe good news is that the Twins went an MLB-best 30-10 at home during the first half and have 41 of their 76 remaining games at the Metrodome. The bad news is that they still have 35 games on the road, where they've gone a pathetic 17-29. If you're curious, the combined winning percentage of the Twins' remaining opponents in .520, which while impressive-sounding is actually identical to the AL's combined winning percentage for the year.
Coming into the season, I pegged the Twins as an 88-win team and predicted that they'd finish third in the AL Central. I didn't expect them to be nearly unbeatable for a month and certainly didn't expect the entire division to be looking way up at the Tigers in mid-July, but sure enough at the All-Star break the Twins are in third place and on pace to go 89-73.