Friday, October 20, 2006
Perhaps the best way to describe Dexter is to say that it has many of the same qualities that great HBO shows have, from the intriguing, provocative plot to the quality lead character, but ends up letting a little too much of the Showtime influence sneak in. It's 95 percent of a must-watch, HBO-like series, but the missing five percent makes all the difference. Grade: C-plus.
It turns out that my linking to the article resulted in this blog sending more traffic to the Daily's website than any other referrer last week (you can see for yourself by viewing the Daily's unintentionally public site statistics). Basically, I'm not good enough to have written for the Daily, but am able to supply them with a huge percentage of their traffic whenever I feel like it. And no, I don't really have a point in all this (other than to confirm that I remain incredibly bitter about the whole thing).
Thursday, October 19, 2006
Small-Ball StatsWhile poking around the stats section of Fan Graphs doing the research for Monday's season-ending Win Probability Added update, I stumbled across some interesting numbers on the Twins' small-ball tendencies. Much is always made of the Twins "doing the little things" (regardless of it's validity) and that was played up even more than usual this year because of the "piranhas" nickname Ozzie Guillen gave to the light-hitting portion of the lineup.
With that in mind, I decided to look a little further into how often and how well the Twins slapped, ran, and bunted their way onto the bases in 2006.
INFIELD HITSIt's not surprising to see Luis Castillo with a ton of infield hits, because no player in baseball puts the ball on the ground more often. Castillo hit a ground ball on an MLB-leading 61.5 percent of his balls in play this season, which is amazing when you consider no other hitter was at 60 percent and a total of just seven other guys cracked 55 percent. Take a huge percentage of ground balls, add in a primarily left-handed batter with good speed, and you get 23 percent of Castillo's hits never leaving the infield.
While Castillo's 40 infield hits led the Twins by a wide margin, Ichiro Suzuki actually came up with 41 infield hits to narrowly lead all of baseball. Like Castillo, Ichiro is a speedy left-handed hitter (although he doesn't play on turf). It's certainly not shocking to see guys like Castillo and Ichiro racking up infield hits, but it is surprising to see Justin Morneau with 11 of his own. Some players with fewer infield hits than Morneau: Carlos Beltran, Scott Podsednik, Grady Sizemore, Brian Roberts.
Equally surprising is that Jason Kubel and Tony Batista somehow managed three infield hits apiece. Kubel because he could barely hobble down the first-base line for much of the season after his knee problems flared up and Batista because he runs like a ballerina carrying a piano on her back. Looking instead at infield hits as a percentage of ground balls (which adjusts for playing time and hitting style), Castillo (12.7), Shannon Stewart (9.5), Nick Punto (7.3), and Jason Tyner (7.1) led the team.
BUNT HITS BH PERCENTAGETyner led the team with 10 bunt hits despite playing 62 games, which is impressive on several levels. Projected out to a full-season's worth of playing time, Tyner would have led all of baseball with 25 bunt hits. Tyner successfully bunted for a hit on 77 percent of his attempts, which is remarkable given that 15 percent of his hits came via the bunt. To put that in some context, Corey Patterson, Willy Taveras, and Juan Pierre led baseball with 21 bunt hits, but were successful 51, 43, and 43 percent of the time.
Joe Mauer also did well bunting this year, dropping down six bunt hits while successfully converting three-fourths of his attempts. While Tyner did his bunting against drawn-in defenses that expected him to do so, Mauer laid his bunts down by picking spots when opposing third basemen were playing very deep, catching defenses off guard. Mauer didn't do it often, with bunts accounting for just three percent of his total hits, but it was another effective aspect of his wide-ranging offensive attack.
At the other end of the spectrum is Castillo, who often bunted and rarely got a hit. Despite faking a bunt to begin seemingly every plate appearance, Castillo managed just four bunt hits all year. His bunt-hit percentage shows how inefficient he was at something he builds his game around. In fact, among all MLB non-pitchers with at least four bunt hits, only Cory Sullivan (13.5) had a lower success rate than Castillo's 17.4 percent. If Castillo bunted in 2006, it was either a botched hit attempt or a sacrifice.
Last but not least, no look at small ball could possibly be complete without examining the running the Twins did once they were on base. As a team, they ranked sixth in the league with 101 stolen bases and ranked fourth in the league with 42 times caught stealing, which means they generally did a good job picking spots to run. Within that team-wide success, however, was some pretty bad running from several guys.
As a general rule, you need to be successful at least 70 percent of the time for a stolen-base attempt to be at all worthwhile. The break-even point can change some depending on the specific situation--the number is often closer to three-fourths, but can sometimes drop closer to two-thirds in the late innings of a tight game--but for the most part each time you're thrown out wipes away around 2.3 steals. Using the 70 percent success rate as a baseline, here's what the Twins posted in "net steals" this year:
SB CS NETFor all the running the Twins did, everyone but Lew Ford, Michael Cuddyer, Punto, and Mauer probably would have been better off staying put. Castillo led the team with 25 steals, but added nothing in terms of scoring additional runs because he was thrown out 11 times. Similarly, Torii Hunter, Jason Bartlett, and Tyner likely cost the team runs by being thrown out on one-third of their attempts. The entire team had four "net steals" on 143 attempts and the Twins were actually one of the AL's better running teams.
UPDATE: The Twins went 31-for-37 (84 percent) stealing bases in "close and late" situations, when the break-even point is at its lowest. That's excellent and likely helped them win a number of tight games. On the other hand, that means the Twins were 70-for-106 (66 percent) in "regular" situations, which is an awful success rate when the break-even point is high and likely took a number of runs off the board early in games.
Overall, the Twins hurt themselves quite a bit when stealing just for the sake of stealing, but did very well when taking the extra base was crucial late in a tight game. Interestingly, Castillo was an amazing 10-for-11 in "close and late" spots, but a putrid 15-for-25 (60 percent) at all other times. Mauer (5-for-5), Bartlett (2-for-2), Tyner (2-for-2), and Cuddyer (2-for-2) were perfect close and late, while Hunter was caught on two of his three attempts.
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
LEN3's Terry Ryan InterviewThe Official Twins Beat Writer of AG.com, La Velle E. Neal III, has a somewhat revealing interview with Terry Ryan in today's Minneapolis Star Tribune. It's worth reading the entire thing, because Ryan was his usual honest and relatively forthcoming self, but there were a few specific highlights that are worth discussing further.
When asked about next season's payroll, Ryan indicated that it will likely rise because of the increased attendance this year. He said that this year's $63 million payroll "is probably going to go up a tad" and added that the team is "in decent shape" heading into the offseason. I suspect the Twins will have less money to work with in free agency than most fans seem to think, but an extra couple million would go a long way.
In response to a question about how the Twins can "get to the next level" after a disappointing and brief postseason, Ryan indicated that big changes aren't on the way. He stressed the team's "bright future" while opining that the fact the Twins "didn't hit well with runners in scoring position" during the playoffs isn't reason to "blow up the whole roster." I'm in complete agreement with Ryan there, because basing big decisions on what happened over the span of three games is beyond silly.
Ryan's reaction to being asked about the need for "depth in your starting rotation" was very interesting, because he immediately brought up Francisco Liriano despite Liriano not actually being mentioned in the question. Ryan seemed to indicate that he hopes to have Liriano in next year's rotation, saying the Twins "need to monitor what's going on" with him and adding that "he'll be a key ingredient to a starting rotation." On the other hand, "a starting rotation" may not mean 2007.
When asked whether there's "a concern that surgery will be needed" for Liriano, Ryan said: "There's a long way between making that decision and seeing whether or not he can go through the therapy and the process of rehabilitation." All of which seems to imply that the Twins are doing everything they can to avoid surgery and are still hoping rest will "fix" Liriano. As I've said all along, given the nature of his injury and how poorly his attempted comeback went this season, I'm not optimistic.
Despite that, Ryan said the team has no thoughts of moving Liriano to the bullpen, saying "there's no worries that he can pitch the innings." Similarly, he said Jason Kubel's ongoing knee problems have not changed the organization's opinion that he's the team's left fielder of the future. Ryan called Kubel "an everyday outfielder" and added that "with a hard-working winter ... and making sure he's in shape and is prepared, he ought to come in looking to win a job" in spring training.
A lot of fans seem to have written off Kubel based on what was a pretty awful season, but it's important to remember that this was his first year back from a career-threatening knee injury. Not to mention that it was his rookie season, which makes struggles expected to begin with. He showed plenty of promise when his knees weren't rendering him completely useless and I'm glad to see that the Twins still plan on Kubel being a big part of the future.
Finally, Ryan hinted that Nick Punto will enter next season as the starting third baseman, although he stopped short of saying it's a certainty. Ryan acknowledged that "he's not a prototypical third baseman," but said Punto "showed he was a good fit this year." I'm hopeful that the Twins feel comfortable going with Punto at third base if needed, but are open to upgrading the position. From reading into Ryan's response a bit, it seems possible that he views the situation the same way.
There were several key questions that went unanswered, like what Ryan plans to do with Carlos Silva and Rondell White, but the stuff he did respond to gives some insight into how the team is planning to approach an important offseason. For now, I'll stand by my earlier prediction that the biggest moves of the winter will be a reasonably significant trade involving Juan Rincon or Jesse Crain, a veteran free-agent signing to fill in the starting rotation, and one veteran bench bat to split designated-hitter duties.
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
More Team MVP StuffYesterday in this space I reviewed the Twins' season-ending Win Probability Added (WPA) totals and used the numbers to come up with my team MVP rankings based on a few quick-and-dirty adjustments for playing time, defense, and position (because WPA doesn't properly account for those things). Today I'd like to continue the team MVP discussion by offering up a pair of alternatives to WPA that incorporate playing time, defense, and position into the equation without the need for tinkering.
In years past, before WPA became readily available, I've relied heavily upon Win Shares Above Bench (WSAB) and Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) in MVP discussions. The two metrics--one from Hardball Times and one from Baseball Prospectus--involve positional and playing-time adjustments while incorporating both offensive and defensive value. That gives WSAB and WARP a collective leg up on the relatively one-dimensional WPA.
However, WPA's primary advantage--and what makes it unique and worthwhile despite not being all-encompassing--is that it's able to place a player's contributions to his team in a much more detailed in-game context. In other words, metrics like WSAB and WARP look at production on a season-long level, whereas WPA examines what each individual plate appearance meant to a team's chances of winning or losing a specific game. Or, said another way, with WPA not all homers are created equal.
WPA, WSAB, and WARP each have their positives and negatives, which is why I think using all three together is perhaps the best option. So, along with my WPA-based team MVP ballot from yesterday, here are how WSAB and WARP rank the most-valuable Twins in 2006:
WPA WSAB WARPThe top of all three rankings hammers home a point I made yesterday, which is that few teams were as top-heavy as the Twins. While there's some shuffling at the top between the three metrics, they all agree that the team's five best players were (in some order): Johan Santana, Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Joe Nathan, and Francisco Liriano. Several otherwise productive players (Michael Cuddyer, Torii Hunter, most of the bullpen) take a clear backseat because the team was so superstar-driven.
In terms of comparing the three metrics, the most noticeable thing is that Hunter ranks much higher in the two rankings that don't take into account his poor numbers in crucial situations. WSAB and WARP view each of Hunter's hits as being equal, whereas WPA sees his relative failure to deliver in key spots. Similarly, Juan Rincon ranks much lower in WSAB and WARP, because unlike WPA, they don't fully adjust for his pitching in high-leverage situations (the same is somewhat true for Dennys Reyes).
Here's what the team MVP ranking looks like when the three metrics are blended together to form one consensus ballot:
1. Johan SantanaWhen the metrics are combined, Santana and Mauer are basically a toss-up for top spot, with Morneau and Nathan one step behind them. The gap between Liriano in fifth and Cuddyer in sixth is much larger than any other one-spot drop, which goes back to how top-heavy the Twins were. I'd quibble some with the above ballot in a few places, but in general it looks pretty good. Santana gets my vote for team MVP, but I think there are reasonable arguments to be made for either Mauer or Morneau winning the award.
Since you're probably curious, here's what the same blending of metrics produces for a least-valuable player ranking:
1. Rondell WhiteIt seems odd for Rondell White to be the least-valuable player given that he was one of the Twins' best hitters down the stretch while hitting .321/.354/.538 after the All-Star break. However, even a hot second half couldn't erase White's abysmal first half, which saw him bat .182/.209/.215 while arguably being baseball's worst player. White's bad start was almost surely due to shoulder problems and his second half was great, but the overall line of .246/.276/.365 from a player with little defensive value is still awful.
Beyond that, there aren't many surprises. Kyle Lohse had a team-worst 7.07 ERA in 64 innings before being shipped to Cincinnati, Jason Kubel surrounded a hot stretch with enough overall uselessness to produce a White-like .241/.279/.386 line, and Tony Batista was every bit as awful as I expected when the Twins made the misguided decision to hand him a job. Lew Ford, Luis Rodriguez, and Willie Eyre were on the roster all year, but had their damage kept to a relative minimum by limited usage.
Feel free to cast your own ballot in the comments section.
Monday, October 16, 2006
WPA Update: Season TotalsDuring the season, I posted four "WPA Updates" looking at where the Twins stood in a stat called Win Probability Added. Trying to explain WPA is both complicated and boring, plus I've already attempted to do so here in the past. Rather than give it another try, I'll instead recommend that anyone interested in learning more about WPA to decide whether or not it's a worthwhile tool should read this WPA primer from my Hardball Times colleague Dave Studeman or go digging around at FanGraphs.
I happen to think WPA is both fascinating and somewhat maddening, which is why I post updates, but no more often than every six weeks or so. It's an intriguing way to evaluate individual performance and often reveals worthwhile information, but also opens a can of worms that can get sort of messy. If you'd like to check the previous WPA updates, you can see how things looked through 18 games, 56 games, 86 games, and 123 games. It's a unique way to relive the season.
And now, here are the season-ending totals:
Joe Nathan 516 Terry Tiffee -1Perhaps the loudest objection raised with each WPA update is that little-used guys like Ruben Sierra, Glen Perkins, and Alexi Casilla boast higher totals than season-long contributors like Mike Redmond, Brad Radke, Nick Punto, Luis Castillo, and Torii Hunter. That's an easy way to dismiss the numbers if you're looking to do so and it's admittedly confusing at first glance, but it's important to realize that WPA isn't a traditional "counting stat" like RBIs or runs scored.
Sierra wasn't worth more than Redmond solely due to a 27-to-21 lead in WPA, because WPA actually shows how far above average someone has been. With "average" as the baseline, analyzing the totals goes beyond merely adding them up. "Average" is a lot more valuable than it sounds, because at the most basic level a roster full of players who are exactly "average" would go 81-81, the "average" hitter bats .275 with 20 homers, and the "average" pitcher has a 4.50 ERA. And they'd have zero WPA.
Sierra had 27 WPA in 33 plate appearances thanks to a couple key hits off the bench in his brief stint with the team. Meanwhile, Redmond had 21 WPA in 190 plate appearances thanks to batting .341 as Joe Mauer's season-long backup. Because of how difficult simply being "above average" is, much of Redmond's value actually stems from coming to the plate 190 times without dragging the team down. In other words, simply treading water in a pool of average has lots of value.
The lengthy list of everyday players with negative WPA totals shows that "average" production for long stretches isn't easy, which explains why Sierra's WPA total is far less valuable than Redmond's and ultimately insignificant. Similarly, Radke's -14 WPA doesn't mean he was a bad pitcher, but rather that he tossed 162.1 innings while more or less keeping the Twins on track for a .500 record. Perkins can claim a positive WPA total that's better than Radke's, but he can't come close to Radke's value.
Along with the above-average issue, further adjustments should be made for defense and positional differences offensively, neither of which are accounted for by WPA. A prime example is Juan Rincon's 242-to-236 lead over Mauer. Lost in Rincon's higher WPA total is that Mauer contributed a ton of value defensively, catching over 1,000 innings for the league's second-best pitching staff and gunning down 38 percent of base-stealers, while Rincon barely used his glove at all.
Beyond that, 236 WPA from a catcher is more valuable than 242 WPA from a reliever, because catcher is perhaps the most physically demanding, least offense-driven position in baseball. WPA is based on comparing players to "average" without actual positions factored in, but "average" for a catcher is much different than "average" for a middle reliever. In other words, whether it's comparing Sierra to Redmond or Rincon to Mauer, using WPA to evaluate value is about more than adding up totals.
Even with the above WPA totals as a jumping off point, it's relatively difficult to properly adjust for playing time, defense, and position without completely revamping the whole system. Instead, I've tinkered with the numbers in an effort to find a middle ground that gives weight to those issues, makes adjustments, and spits out a more complete, all-encompassing ranking. Rather than any overly complicated math, I focused a few simple, logical changes.
Relative non-factors like Chris Heintz or Mike Smith were ignored, while high-playing time regulars got a bump. Strong defensive players received a boost, with catchers, shortstops, second basemen, and center fielders getting an extra bonus. Position-based adjustments were applied to everyone, weighing each hitter's production against the average at his position and comparing each pitcher's production to the average player in his role.
Once I accounted for all of that, here's what my WPA-based MVP ballot looks like (I'll leave out the least-valuable guys, so as not to embarrass anyone who might be making $4.3 million next season):
1. Johan Santana 11. Pat NeshekNot only did Johan Santana become just the eighth pitcher in baseball history to win the MLB Triple Crown by leading both leagues in wins, ERA, and strikeouts, and not only will he win his second Cy Young Award later this month, he also led all big-league starters in WPA:
Johan Santana 418You'll notice that places 2-6 are taken by NL hurlers. According to WPA, Santana was 31 percent better than his closest AL competitor, Roy Halladay. The value of an "average" performance from a starting pitcher is so high in terms of WPA that Santana is my clear choice for WPA-based team MVP. He was the best pitcher in baseball, led the league in both games started and innings pitched, and was able to post a 400-plus WPA when only two other starters topped even 350.
It may seem like a stretch for Mauer to jump ahead of Justin Morneau despite a 446-to-236 spread in WPA, but the difference in their defensive value alone makes a big chunk of that gap disappear. Further adjusting their offensive contributions for the fact that catchers hit far worse than first basemen makes Morneau's edge vanish. There are plenty of sluggers who matched or bettered Morneau's WPA total, but only Brian McCann can keep up with Mauer among catchers.
The rest of the ballot shouldn't be too surprising. Torii Hunter ranks lower here than he would on most fans' ballots, because WPA penalizes him for failing to come through in key spots (he hit .247/.319/.400 in "close and late" situations). Based on raw WPA totals, he actually ranked as the 10th-worst player on the team, but with defense and a positional adjustment offensively thrown into the mix, he moves way up. Somehow I doubt that'll change my reputation in some circles as a Hunter-basher.
Along with trying to determine who was most responsible for the Twins going 96-66, WPA also shows how top-heavy the team was. The Twins had five superstars (until Francisco Liriano went down), got star-level WPA from Michael Cuddyer and Rincon, and then saw a huge dropoff. They had three guys above 400 WPA and seven above 200, but just two from 75-200. For comparison, the Tigers had zero players above 400 and five above 200, but seven from 75-200.
So there you have it, WPA fans (and haters). Surely there's little potential for disagreement.