Fire Gardy

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Archive for August, 2009

Big hits, sports memories and baseball

For some reason,* I’ve been thinking about Jermaine Dye recently. And since the Twins starting a big series against the White Sox, one that has the potential to bury them (or the Twins), let’s go ahead and talk about Jermaine Dye. Everybody knows he’s quite the hitter, but that he looks as awkward in the field, a la Delmon Young. On the other hand, I’ve always thought he was a pretty good defensive right fielder.

* If you read the comments, you may know the reason.

Why in blazes would I think that, I can hear you asking. Well, I think it has a lot to do with how sports memories are created. And I don’t know if that actually works very well for baseball. I know you don’t know what I mean, so … let me try to explain.

Despite the fact that I live in Chicago, I rarely watch White Sox games. I really only watch them when a) the Twins are playing them, or b) when I see that they’re getting their doors blown off by the Yankees or something and I want to enjoy a little schadenfreude. As a result, my day-to-day exposure to Dye is limited. I only see a few of his highlights on Sportscenter all season, and I see him play about 20 games.

And what I see him doing is blasting home runs into the upper deck, over and over. I see him winning games in the 9th inning — one of my lasting memories of US Cellular field was a game I attended in 2006, Santana vs Contreras. Johan pitched that day, and pitched pretty well, and it looked like the Twins were going to win it. Dye hadn’t done anything all game, but he came up against Joe Nathan, in the 9th inning, with the Twins up 7-5, and a man on base. I was in the upper deck, down the third base line, but even from their I could see Dye’s brow clenched in the way it does when he’s concentrating, that look I’d seen dozens of times in the two years it’d been since he came to the White Sox. I knew, at the same time as everyone else in the stadium, that this man was going to do it. That Joe Nathan was not going to get him out. That the game would be tied, and that the White Sox would go on to win.

Soon, he blasted a monster home run that I’m pretty sure landed somewhere in rural Illinois. I was devastated. Also I was ridiculed by the drunken White Sox fans surrounding me. The moment is seared onto my brain. This is a sports memory. This is, I think, how they are formed. They’re just instants, single moments, snapshots in time that live on in your head when you close your eyes. It kind of faded into the background that the Twins ended up winning that game in extra innings — I didn’t even remember that until I looked it up. It was that moment when I knew Dye would get a clutch hit, that Nathan would blow that save, when I knew as well as 30000 White Sox fans that the Sox were going to beat the Twins that day.

And it seems like Dye does that to the Twins all the time. He’s getting big hits and making diving catches in the outfield. It seems like every time a Twins player rips one into right field, and I lean forward thinking this is going to be the big hit we need to break the inning open, and Dye is moving like molasses out there, and dreams of the ball clattering around in the corner and turning into a triple dance through my head — and then he explodes forward, dives or slides with his glove extended, and the ball invariably finds its way into his glove. Jermaine Dye is a good fielder, right? I mean, he gets to balls that it sure doesn’t look like most outfielders would get to.

In 2006, he was -22.5 runs defensively. In 2007, -21.6 runs. In 2008, -19.4 runs. In 2009, he’s been -14.5 runs so far, with some time to build on that. Jermaine Dye is a bad fielder. I have to reconcile the fact that it seems like he’s always making a great catch when I’m watching with the fact that, when I’m not watching, he apparently can’t field his way out of a barn.* I don’t fully trust the defensive metrics, but they never say a good defender is giving up 2 wins per year with the glove. That’s just horrible defense.

* Does that newly invented idiom work? I think it doesn’t. I doubt I’ll use it again.

And it’s not a fluke — it’s been going on for four years. This is his skill level. Is it possible that he actually fields better against the Twins than against other teams? Maybe, I don’t know. I don’t know of any stats that measure something like that — UZR or UZR/150 vs opponent? If someone knows where to find that, I’m in.

But this, I think, is why sports memories don’t work in baseball. You see someone do something great in a big moment, and it’s a coincidence. You see him do it three or four times, though, and he’s a clutch player. At least in your mind — if you’ve seen the scores and scores of times he’s failed in those situations, you might not think he’s “clutch.” You might not even believe in clutch* any more.

* Albert Pujols’ OPS in “late & close” situations is 1.047 — that’s amazing! He’s a clutch player! Except that his overall career OPS is 1.055 … he’s the same hitter all the time.

That’s the thing, though. Baseball is a game of failure. Even the best players, like Mauer and Pujols, fail all the time. ESPN shows the times Pujols blasts the grand slam, or hits the walkoff home run — but he’s a transcendent star, so they don’t show the times he pops out in those situations. Nobody succeeds every time in baseball, nobody.

I’m talking about hitting right now when I’m discussing clutch players — there’s no stat for “late & close fielding,” or anything like that. And nobody really even considers it possible, right? When someone turns a key double play to end a threat in the 9th, is it a clutch fielding play? When Torii robs a game winning homer, is it a clutch fielding play? You never really hear about that. But what I’m really trying to get at is that baseball is not really about these moments. I mean — it’s nothing but these moments, it wouldn’t be baseball without these moments, you wouldn’t love it without these moments.

The thing is, baseball is a lot more than those moments, though. If you had a guy who only performed in the big moments, you wouldn’t have a very good player; you don’t get to bat with the game on the line every day. In addition to all the big moments, there are a lot of small moments. Millions of them, really. And each player builds his value, just a little bit, in each one of those millions of moments. Sometimes he does well and his value goes up — other times he does poorly and his value goes down. You can’t tell by looking at one game which players are good — how many times has Punto got a couple of hits while Morneau goes 0-4 with 2 K’s? You can’t tell by looking at a month. You can’t really even tell by looking at one year.* It takes more time that that to put all these little moments together and try to figure out how good a player actually is.

* Is Punto a .290 hitter like in 2006, or a .210 hitter like in 2007? Is he a .284 hitter like in 2008, or a .213 hitter like in 2009. My answer: No. And yes. It’s baseball.

I said this in the comments, but I know a lot of people don’t read those, so I’ll bring it to light here. (Even though I also know a lot of people don’t read this far down into my posts.)

The game is a lot larger than that one at bat you always daydreamed about when you were 10, win-or-lose in this moment. And in your dream you always win, and you idolize the players who do it in real life, who win the games at the end, who hit when it “counts.”

But you’re not 10 any more, and it always counts. Do you get hyped up more than ever for every at bat, like it’s football? Or do you relax more than you used to, accepting the games where we lose at the end because someone failed to come up with a hit in the 9th — perhaps realizing that they turned a key double play in the top of the 9th that even got us to the situation where we could win or lose in that particular at bat? Or do you just continue to “ignore” (not the right word, probably) most of the game and focus highly on those win-or-lose moments, staying a casual fan?

It’s each person’s choice. And there’s no wrong answer. But I feel like when you’re talking about who’s the worst player, you’re talking about their “value to the team.” And a player’s value is a whole lot more than a counter of the times they came through in the 9th inning.

So, yes. The big hits are the ones you remember, the moments that stick. I guess maybe that’s what defines a great player — someone you remember forever is someone playing in a lot of those highlight reels in your head. But I think there’s a lot more to it than that, and I think the beauty of the game is just that. All those tiny, meaningless moments. Every single day. All spring, summer, and fall.

Was this really about Jermaine Dye? Of course it was. But even more, it was about all the players.

Maybe now, just maybe, when you’re in the comments section talking about how badly Nick Punto sucks, you’ll have a better idea of where I’m coming from.

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Useless Offday Thoughts: The ballpark, and third base

This week saw the Twins set their season high winning streak at five games — by sweeping the lowly Royals and taking the first two from the Orioles, all at home, a truly impressive feat, to be sure — before dropping the final game of the Orioles series because, inexplicably, they couldn’t score any runs against Jeremy Guthrie. That guy was on my fantasy team for a while, and believe me: he sucks. But today is an offday, and on offdays I don’t dwell on the failings of the previous day. Instead, I try to avoid dwelling on how much I hate offdays by thinking about random, useless stuff all day long! So here are your useless offday thoughts to tide you over.

The Ballpark

Time is winding down to the end of the season, and the exodus from the dome. Everyone, of course, is excited about the new stadium. It’s going to be great, they tell us. Real baseball, played really outdoors. The team will have more money, so we can feel really great about the fact that the Pohlad family will be getting larger, sweeter profits* while they don’t actually spend the money on acquiring more players.

* Paid for by our ticket money, and our hot dog money, and our tax money. Well, your tax money. I don’t live there.

Are you as excited as I am?

Shockingly, Rob Neyer is pretty excited about the possibility of the Twins sucking once they don’t have the dome any more. He points to an article by Steve Aschburner that talks about the new stadium, but raises the issue that the Twins have enjoyed a significant home field advantage:

For all its affronts, though, the Metrodome hosted moments that Target Field will be hard-pressed to duplicate. The Twins, through the All-Star break, had gone 1,193-1015 in the monochrome building since it opened, including a 372-243 home mark since manager Ron Gardenhire took over in 2002. They have won six division titles while calling it home, with two AL pennants. Their World Series titles both owed much to the Dome, from its alien feel for St. Louis (1987) and Atlanta (1991) to the deafening crowd noise; the Twins won all eight Series games played in the Dome and lost all six on the road.

I’m pretty sure quite a bit has changed about the dome since the World Series victories decades ago, including the height of the baggy, the ground rules regarding the speakers, the bounciness of the ground, the actual surface of the grass, and probably some other things I’m forgetting. So I wouldn’t bring up anything that happened that long ago. That said, the fact that they’re 178 games over .500 since 1982 and that includes being 130 games over .500 since 2002 says to me that the Twins have had their best, strongest home field advantage during the Gardy Era. So maybe all those changes have helped the Twins.

Maybe the team is just better now than it was during the 90s. Is that possible? Neyer?

Teams that play in freaky ballparks — the Twins, the Rockies, the Red Sox, the Padres — tend to have larger-than-normal differences between their home and road records. This might be a home advantage and a road disadvantage, as was the case for many years for the Rockies. I don’t see why it has to be, though. My guess is that whatever home advantage the Twins lose in their home ballpark, they will not gain by playing better on the road.

Or it’s because the organization tends to model its players and its roster in a particular fashion because of the features of their home park. If you have a really fast infield and rock hard ground, you’re going to want a bunch of slap-hitting speedsters* in your lineup to take advantage of that … and that’s what the Twins have done over the years. Conversely, if you have short fences and long grass and wind that carries the ball you’re going to want a bunch of lumbering sluggers who put the ball in the seats … and that’s what the White Sox have done.

* At least that’s what you might think you want to do. The point is that this is what the Twins have, in fact, done. And that I’m giving them the opportunity to blame the dome for it. We’ll see what they do in the next 2-4 years to reshape the roster to better fit the new environment.

So the Twins will lose their “dome field advantage,” but many teams have an advantage at home (all of them, actually), so is it really that unthinkable that the franchise won’t be crippled by this move?

If that’s the case, they’ll have to play better — fundamentally better — just to stay roughly where they’ve been, record-wise. That’s a tall order, but of course their new ballpark is supposed to bring higher revenues and the related ability to compete financially with their competition.

It’ll depend on the actual environment of the new stadium, of course, but the Twins will have to change their roster to try to match what they’ve got. If the ball travels well, they’re going to want to ditch all their fly ball pitchers for ground ball pitchers and replace the ground ball hitters with fly ball hitters. Of course, Neyer would probably consider this “fundamentally better” baseball, and would say he was right all along. Fine. But it’s just going to be a natural process of fitting your roster to your environment.

In the end, everything probably comes out in the wash. But nobody should pretend the organization won’t lose something when it finally leaves that big old barn of a building.

Hopefully it loses a bunch of enmity from the press, who have always been annoyed that they have to travel to the untamed wilderness of Minnesota in the first place, and positively angered by the Metrodome. Beat writers will probably rave about the new stadium. Of course, Rob Neyer will continue to write bi-weekly screeds about how the Twins have no fucking business being in the major leagues, and should just send all their good players to a real team like the Red Sox.

But what really gets me is that everyone just naturally assumes that Target Field is just going to be a generic cookie cutter stadium plopped out of the same mold of a dozen others, and that the Twins won’t have a new, natural home field advantage. Everyone always gets annoyed when a new stadium has contrived “quirks,” like the crazy ass walls at Citi Field that serve no purpose but to mess with outfielders. Old stadiums had quirks because of limitations and constraints of the plot of land they were dealing with — and in case nobody noticed, Target Field is located on a lot way too small for a stadium, and is nestled between a factory and a river. It has a big ass limestone wall in right field.

Who’s to say that these constraints won’t lend themselves to some actual quirks in the new stadium that the Twins can take advantage of? Nobody knows what’s going to happen with that limestone wall. Will balls hit it and bounce unpredictably, rewarding left handed pull hitters? Imagine if every time Morneau smashed one off the baggy, it careened wildly in an unknown direction. Conversely, what if it bounces straight, and a line drive against it can fly all the way back to the infield? These are unanswered questions, but the fact that they’re there means there very well could be some home field advantage for the Twins next year. Don’t tell Neyer, he might hurt himself trying to figure out another fancy and backhanded way to say “the Twins suck.”

Third base

During the offseason, one of the glaring holes on the team was third base. With Punto “entrenched” as the shortstop, third would be manned by a mostly pathetic Buscher/Harris platoon, which would have been pretty inadequate both offensively and defensively. The main opportunities for upgrade were Casey Blake, Mark Derosa, Ty Wigginton, and Joe Crede.

Blake’s contract demands were way too high, and he went to the Dodgers. Bill Smith claimed the price to trade for Derosa was too high, so we missed on him. It was down to Wigginton vs Crede.

Wigginton was coming off his breakout season, having posted a 128 OPS+ and basically mashing the ball — Crede was coming off back surgery. Before the season, I figured Wigginton could be worth 3.0 wins, and Crede could be worth 1.9 wins (Crede’s worth was pushed down by injury risk, and Wigginton’s was probably buoyed by his strong 2008). So when the Twins claimed Wigginton wanted “Blake money” and decided to stop talking to him, I didn’t have a huge problem with it until he signed with the Orioles for Mike Lamb money. Once again, Smith looks like a liar, or an incompetent boob.

But … we have the benefit of hindsight! How have these two third baseman fared this season, and should the Twins regret this decision?

Wigginton: 91 G, .259/.306/.387, 8 HR, 33 RBI, 28 R, 40 K, 19 BB, -0.5 WAR Crede: 88 G, .229/.293/.421, 15 HR, 48 RBI, 42 R, 52 K, 29 BB, 1.9 WAR

So, yes. They’ve both seen somewhat limited duty, Crede’s due to a state of perpetual almost-injury, and Wigginton’s due to ineffectiveness. Personally, I’d rather my players be ready to play every day, but given the choice between being out because you’re hurt and being out because you suck, I think I’d have to go with hurt. Right? Gleeman’s take* on Crede’s state of “injury” this season:

Despite having to accumulate plate appearances to make money Crede has played in just 88 of 126 games, and the amazing thing is that he’s been out of the lineup 30 percent of the time without spending a second on the disabled list. Instead he’s missed 3-5 games every couple weeks, leaving the Twins to play with a 24-man roster for long stretches while essentially being “day-to-day” for five months.

Anyway, it looks like Crede’s got the advantage everywhere except in making contact and drawing walks. Overall, he’s been worth 2.4 wins more than Wigginton, which is huge, and points to the Twins having made the right decision between these two guys. (I’ll leave out whether it was good to let it get to that, but whatever.)

* By the way, I am amused that Gleeman’s article is titled “Twins getting what they paid for with Crede,” yet he doesn’t mention what they’re paying him or what he’s been worth, and doesn’t address value or cost in any way. Anyway, he’s right. Crede is guaranteed $2.5M with incentives that could push it to a total of $7M. So far this year, he’s produced $8.4M worth of value. Despite the low batting average, the lack of walks, and the nagging injuries, the Twins have actually gotten more than they bargained for when they signed Crede. Plus there was that walkoff grand slam!

Of course, Crede probably won’t be back next season, and we’re going to have to find another 3B option. Hopefully it’s Danny Valencia, and hopefully Valencia actually turns out to be good. Because the Twins have really, really struggled with that position lately.

Not coincidentally the Twins rank 11th in the 14-team league with a measly .695 OPS from third base, which is nothing new for them. Corey Koskie was Minnesota’s third baseman from 1999 to 2004, hitting .280/.373/.463 with 52 extra-base hits per 500 at-bats, but since losing him to free agency five years ago Twins third basemen have ranked 10th, 13th, 14th, 11th, and 11th in OPS among AL teams.

Who would have thought that replacing Corey Koskie would prove to be so impossible?

30 comments

Talking about some players who left

I haven’t been around here in a while, so I figured now would be a good time to toss out a nice little blog post. Oh, and in case anyone’s paying attention, that sweep of the Royals just jumped us to 4.5 games behind Detroit, and we basically got ourselves right back into the picture. Quite satisfying, thank you.

As you all probably recall, I was pretty down on Torii Hunter when he left, and I didn’t like the attitude* he was showing towards the team and towards his teammates, and I didn’t think he’d age that well, and I thought his contract with the Angels would quickly turn into an albatross. That might still happen, but so far he’s been more than worth what the Angels are paying him. Of course, Gleeman still takes an opportunity to point out that he’s been right all along about Torii’s big tough-guy talk being a big load:

Torii Hunter’s tough-guy act took another hit recently, as he spent six weeks on the disabled list with a groin injury and then delayed his return thanks to “flu-like symptoms” after dining at the Olive Garden. Seriously. Hunter spent his final season in Minnesota publicly criticizing Mauer for not possessing the toughness to play through injuries, yet has missed 56 of a possible 284 games since signing with the Angels and has been in the lineup just eight more times than Mauer during the past five years.

I guess Torii shouldn’t have gone with the never ending pasta bowl. That’s something that seems like it sounds a lot better than it actually is. And yes, I basically just posted that quote to point out, once again, how ridiculously awesome Mauer is.

* Although my dad pointed out something interesting about Torii’s “attitude” in his last couple years with the team. He’d come up with a different generation of prospects, and all his friends were gone. The new core was already forming, and the team was clearly built around Mauer and Morneau. It’s got to be kind of tough for a guy, the face of the franchise, to sit there and watch as he’s slowly ousted from his perch in the center of the fans’ collective heart. And why would he listen to the new silent lead-by-example leadership of Mauer and Morneau when he’s several years older than they are and has been a vocal leader for years? Everything about how he wanted out makes sense to me, and I just can’t be annoyed with him for it.

And speaking of players who left, check out these two stat lines:

Player A: 3.78 FIP, 7.88 K/9, 2.48 BB/9, 1.08 HR/9, 1.21 WHIP, .296 BABIP Player B: 4.06 FIP, 7.40 K/9, 1.79 BB/9, 1.36 HR/9, 1.17 WHIP, .291 BABIP

Those aren’t that different, and if Player B could just keep the ball in the park a little bit more his FIP would probably drop down and be right in line with Player A’s. They’re remarkably close to the being the same pitcher. So … which one would you rather have? Let’s look at some more numbers:

Player A: 30 years old, $20M in 2009, $118M owed after 2009 Player B: 27 years old, $750K in 2009, $23.75M owed after 2009

Yeah, you probably know now who the players are. But which one would you rather have at this point? Is 0.28 points of FIP really worth $21.25M?

Just so we’re clear, Player A is Johan Santana. Player B is Scott Baker.

Does that change your answer?

For as bad as Baker has been, and for how discouraging that has been, just imagine if he had the big name like Johan, and we were paying him 25% of our payroll, and he was doing the same thing. You’d feel worse, wouldn’t you?

4 comments

2 comebacks in a row, and some ump bashing

Well, these last two games have been great.  I can’t remember the last time the Twins had a comeback win.  Let alone two in a row against a playoff caliber team.  I didn’t think it was possible. 

It was great to see Baker get out of several jams, although it would have been better if he didn’t get into said jams in the first place, but whatever.  We could have been down by way more than four runs.

In other news, I was reading LaVelle’s post game wrap up and found this little gem:

Funny…there was a memo on Gardy’s desk before the game talking about how hard umpires are working to get calls right and that managers should understand that. Hah!
Um, what?  Gardy should understand when an ump blows a call because they are trying?  That is bogus.  If an umpire gets a call wrong he should be held accountable.  I’m not saying take the call back, but there should be some review process.  The powers that be (umpires union, Selig, whomever) should review these calls and if the ump did indeed get it wrong he should somehow be reprimanded.  Suspension, fine, something.  It should probably depend on how much that one call affected the game.  If Jones went on to hit a homer and the Rangers ended up winning, obviously more scrutiny should be placed on that botched strike call.

I also liked the point I saw in the comments section: pitch location is completely thrown out the window when appealing down the line.  What is with that.  If the ball is in the zone, call it a strike.  I’m pretty sure that pitch Jones “checked” his swing on was a strike anyway so why the appeal?  The homeplate ump needs to ring him up there.  End of story. 

At least we won the game, unlike that one in Oakland a few weeks back.  Another case of umps not being held accountable.  I think Gardy has said it before, but umpires need to be calling balls and strikes, safe or out, not inserting themselves into the game and affecting the outcome.  The “human aspect” of the game is the goddamn players not the umps.

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Liriano to the DL, Humber up

The Twins placed starting pitcher Francisco Liriano on the DL after last nights game.  He managed to give up 7 runs in 2 innings of work, telling Gardy he had “nothing left in the tank”.  Not sure if he is physically or mentally done, but its probably both.  He will be replaced with the always entertaining Phil Humber.  Great. 

The Twins have exactly two pitchers who I can count on to get outs: Guerrier and Nathan.  They don’t pitch early in the game though, so it doesn’t matter.  Baker seems to be coming around, but does it really matter?  If we have 4 train wrecks and one decent pitcher in the rotation will that really help us make up the defecit in the division?  I highly doubt it. 

The worst part is that we are wasting incredible seasons from Mauer, Morneau and Kubel (and to a lesser extend Cuddyer).  What reason does Joe Mauer have to stick around if we can’t surround him with the pitching we need to win.  I am in the camp that thinks he cares more about winning than the money (this may contradict something I have said earlier, but if you go back in the archives and look it up: fuck you).  How can the Twins upgrade their pitching this offseason?  It is clear there are problems in both the bullpen and starting rotation.  If Bill Smith takes the “well, our young pitcher will surely rebound from a bad 2009 and pitch well in 2010 so I won’t change anything” course of action, then he might as well book Joe a plane ticket to the east coast.  We have to open up the wallet and probably overpay for some pitchers.  It is damn near impossible to sign a good free agent player to a team friendly contract.  When the Yankees signed Burnett to that 5 year deal, they probably knew he was going to be bad for the last two, but that is just the price you pay for talent on the open market.  I don’t know what pitchers will be available this offseason via trade or free agency, but we need to take a good look at all of them.  I think we might have some bullpen answers in the system in Delaney and Slama, but as far as starting rotation?  There isn’t too much in the minors that we haven’t already seen.  Other than the Twins specialty, “projects to be a middle to back of the rotation starter at best, Phil Humber at worst”. 

What do you think the Twins can do to upgrade this offseason.  Or, if you are the optimistic type, what can they do over the next six weeks to make a playoff push?

14 comments

What a difference a day makes

This has been the pattern for what seems like the entire season.  The Twins lose a few (usually badly) and the sky is falling.  Twins fans go into a panic.  They start buying tickets to JFK or Logan for Joe Mauer.  Then we win and the Tigers and White Sox lose.  Suddenly we are just four games back.  Everyone starts thinking “You know, that Liriano isn’t so bad”. 

I admit, I think this way too.  You’d be lying if you said you didn’t.  Thats why baseball is great.  You can seemingly turn things around in one day.  For better or worse.  In football you have to wait a week, sometimes two.

Now that we have waxed poetically about the greatness of baseball, lets get back to the issues at hand.  The Twins looked good last night.  Awesome.  But remember, it was against the Royals.  They simply aren’t good. One of the best things we can take from this is Liriano’s performance.  Yeah, he beat up on a mediocre lineup, but I think this will help his confidence immensely.  He needed a good start, who cares who it is against.

After scrolling through the #Twins twitter feed last night, I noticed that many people were a little upset that both Guerrier and Nathan pitched last night in a “blow out” game.  Nathan hadn’t pitched in forever, so he needed the work.  Not using him enough is almost as bad as using him too often. A lot of people were clamoring for Manship and so was I (Go Irish!), but its not that big a deal.  If we only allowed Nathan to pitch in save situations he will have pitched something like 3 times since the all-star break.  How is that good for him?  I hate the save, and I really hate the role of “closer” in the sense that most AL managers use them.  If we are up by 4 in the ninth with a murders row coming up, do we want to be using someone like Brian Duensing, or Joe Nathan?  Its not a save situation you say?  Duensing it is.  That makes no sense to me, but I’m no big city lawyer (snaps suspenders).

Anyway, lets see if Pavano can have a repeat performance this afternoon.  A series win will be big here, especially since it looks like the Tigers can’t hang with the Red Sox.

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Wasting a truly rare opportunity

Everybody knows Mauer and Morneau are having great seasons, and I’m feeling pretty good about my Free Jason Kubel movement* from last year, and my criticism of the Cameron/Neyer Fuck Jason Kubel movement from the beginning of the season given that Kubel’s jumped up to just about as good as Mauer and Morneau — wait, just about as good? So the Twins have three of the top hitters in baseball this year?

* Although nobody else really followed the movement, and now the t-shirts make no sense, because why does he need to be freed now that he’s one of the best hitters in the league? I think it’s time for a new t-shirt.

According to Ken Funck at Baseball Prospectus, Mauer/Morneau/Kubel ranks 1-2-3 in the AL against RHP this year. That’s nice, but you have to face LHPs too if you’re going to be a star. So how do they fare? Once again, well: Mauer’s 1st, Morneau’s 2nd, and Kubel’s 4th (Youkilis sneaks up into third place, the asshole). He points out that such a feat is extremely rare: the last time one team had the top two players in OPS and another in the top 6 was the 1960 Yankees, with Mantle, Maris, and Skowron.

He relaxed the numbers a little bit, just looking for teams with three players in the top six, and found that it’s still rare but happens from time to time. It’s become increasingly rare — but has been the mark of extremely good teams. It’s happened three times since the start of divisional play, and all the other teams to do it went to the World Series (1995 Indians, 1990 A’s, 1971 Orioles). In fact … guess who was the last team to have three such great players and not go to the World Series.

If you guessed the 1964 Twins, with Allison, Killebrew and Oliva, you’d be right. Good company the Twins aren’t quite keeping, eh?

Funck has some amusing bits to say about the Twins:

The list is peppered with great players, great teams — and the 2009 Twins, who seem to be displaying an innate talent for doing less with more. The vast majority of teams with three players managing such gaudy production also paced their league in Team OPS+, and were thus able to bludgeon their opponents into submission; the Twins are currently fourth. Is there a reason? Well, the tenets of Minnesota Nice would require me to describe the bottom of the Twins batting order as “really trying very hard.”

Yes, great. So we’ve managed to put together step one of having a transcendently great team: a core of transcendently great players. Step two, of course, is filling out the roster with players who don’t fucking suck ass at baseball at a monumental level, and I’ll leave it to you to guess my thoughts on how we’ve done with step two.

Funck points out that merely upgrading a few of the spots in the lineup from “terrible” to “average” would go a long, long way to making this one of the (if not the) best offenses in the league — and it’s somewhat damning of the front office that they’ve done nothing to do this.

The point is, it would take very little to improve this lineup to leverage the rare and wonderful production currently provided by Mauer, Morneau, and Kubel, and the window to do so may soon close. The elephant in the corner of GM Bill Smith’s office is Mauer’s contract, set to expire at the end of 2010. Even if the Twins are able to re-sign the St. Paul native at a hometown discount, that contract, along with built-in raises for Morneau, Kubel, and Cuddyer (who has a team option), will mean even less financial flexibility starting in 2011. Minnesota’s home-grown hitters are in their prime, and it will be a shame if such a compelling concentration of hitting talent goes unrewarded.

Is anyone else feeling confident that Smith can make some sort of push (probably in the winter) to complement The Big Three J’s with actual major league talent? I can’t see any reason to be confident that this rare feat won’t go unrewarded.

But for this season, the Twins get to be both of the teams in the last 50 years to have three of the best hitters in the league and manage to do nothing with them.

So we’ve got that going for us, which is nice.

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The White Sox stealing Rios is a big problem for the Twins

Yesterday, as I’m sure everyone knows by now, the White Sox acquired Alex Rios from the Blue Jays. Rios is the best position player on the Blue Jays, is 28 years old, and is under contract for the next 5 years. You might think the cost to acquire such a player would be staggering. You might think that if Bill Smith were to have engaged the Jays to ask for a trade, he’d come back and tell us they asked for our entire AA and AAA team, along with the Mississippi River and half of downtown Minneapolis. You don’t just get star-level position players in their prime for peanuts!

Well, actually, if you’re Kenny Williams of the White Sox, you can keep your peanuts. Because the cost to acquire Rios was … nothing!

It’s a good thing nobody’s come out to question Smith about what he really means when he says the cost in prospects is too high for certain players. Because most of them move around to other teams for a lot less than he claims was demanded. You can either believe that teams are deliberately keeping the price really high just for the Twins, or you can believe that Bill Smith is a timid/incompetent negotiator, or that he’s just afraid to do anything and is lying about everything. I’m leaning towards incompetence,* with maybe a little bit of liar thrown in.

* Hey, at least he’s better than JP Ricciardi!

The Twins made their big trade acquisition Orlando Cabrera, and the White Sox went and got Peavy. I didn’t much care for either move,* but I am particularly down on Peavy this year and in the coming years. Either way, there’s no doubt that Williams was more aggressive that Smith in trying to improve his team both now and in the future. Then the Twins make their splash on the waiver wire, trading away a minor leaguer to be named later to get The Disabled List** into the starting rotation. And the White Sox respond by picking up a great outfielder in Alex Rios and give up nothing. Literally, nothing.

* Although the Cabrera trade has been working out great so far.

** As you may know, during Pavano’s tenure with the Yankees, any time a player would get injured and go on the DL, the other players would call it “going on the Pavano.” I think that’s brilliant, and I’m trying to go with the reverse here. As in, instead of calling the DL the Pavano, I’m calling Pavano the Disabled List. I’m going to go ahead and say this could be as good a nickname as “The Blackburn” is. I’m going with it.

A lot of people have been saying the Blue Jays just had to get out from under Rios’s terrible albatross of a contract. Fangraphs has been doing a good job of discounting that bullshit:

Rios is a +3.5 to +4.5 win player in the prime of his career, and he’s due to make just under $60 million for the next five years. This is a really good contract for the Jays.* Rios is an outstanding player being paid less than his market value. He’s as far from being a Wells-like albatross as you could possibly get.

Vernon Wells contract is awful, and the Jays have to regret giving it to him every single day. Alex Rios’ contract is very good, and he’s one of the pieces Toronto should be building around. They are in no way similar.

* Yeah, this was written a few weeks ago, before JP Ricciardi sealed his fate by letting this contract go. Now it’s a good contract for the White Sox.

Alex Rios has an albatross contract in the exact same way that Delmon Young has a bad attitude. Which is to say that he’s an outfielder on a team that happens to have another outfielder with a big problem — in Rios’s case, Vernon Wells is in a virtual tie with Barry Zito for the worst contract in baseball; and in Young’s case, it was actually Elijah Dukes that had all the personal off the field problems — and since most sportswriters can’t be bothered to learn the names of players who don’t play in either their own market or in a real market like Boston or New York, these guys are elided into one amalgamation of a bad guy/contract because of nothing more than proximity.

So the White Sox improve their team this year, and assuming that Rios’s BABIP regresses to something realistic, they’ve improved themselves dramatically for next year and the next few years. Rios was an All Star caliber player exactly one year ago, and he’s doing all the same things now except his BABIP has dropped. It’ll come right back, and he’ll once again be great.

Twins fans, meanwhile, get to hope that Delmon Young turns his career around (and soon) so they don’t longingly eye every ledge they pass, wondering what it’d be like to replace the worst player in baseball with an ace and a star shortstop who happens to be 3rd in the batting title race.

Sure, it was an aggressive move by Williams, and the White Sox have taken on money. It’s their money that allows them to be that aggressive — but they’re doing exactly the right thing and setting themselves up to be an absolute powerhouse in the AL Central. Kenny Williams, as a GM, is perfectly suited to a team in a large market with a large payroll and an owner that cares more about winning than money. As the Twins gain more revenue and are able to increase their payroll, it remains to be seen whether Bill Smith can adapt to the style necessary to work with dollar amounts that large, contracts that long, and players that good.

The early indications, by the way, are not good.

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Useless Offday Thoughts: Stumbling, quick hits, Morneau, and quitting

The Twins continued to stumble this weekend, dropping a series to the division-leading Tigers that they really shouldn’t have. They’re supposed to be able to handle Gallaraga — and they didn’t. They roughed up Verlander and newly acquired Pavano shined. They smacked around the Tigers’ new toy Washburn, but “ace” Baker handed them more than we were able to score.

We’ve now lost seven of our last nine games, and are sliding pretty rapidly out of contention. The team is kind of up and down right now; winning big, losing big, losing close — but never winning close. This weekend really demonstrated the team’s penchant for that — and it does make it feel like we’re closer to being good than we probably are. It’s getting really easy to look back at all these close games and pick out ones that we really should have won, that were just out of reach, that slipped from our grasp at the last moment.

Of course, it doesn’t really work that way. You can only hope that we regress back to the mean in the near future — but it’s worth pointing out that the only accepted way to reliably outperform .500 in close games is to have a good, well managed bullpen with talented arms. I don’t think I have to point out that the Twins don’t have one of those; in fact, they don’t have any part of that. It’s a bad bullpen, with little talent, and it’s managed poorly.* I don’t think we’ll be winning more than our share of close games in the coming weeks.

* I think it’s worth pointing out that this doesn’t matter. Gardy could be The Official Genius Of Bullpen Management Of All Time, and the pen would still suck — there’s no amount of “putting guys in at the right time” that can paper over the fact that none of them can get through a scoreless inning.

As you can probably tell, I’m not feeling very optimistic right now about the Twins’ chances. But at least the early returns on the Pavano acquisition have been promising, and there’s always the chance Smith stays active on the waiver wire like he said he would. Realistically, though, it’s probably time to start taking what enjoyment you can from the games without hoping too much for a win, or being broken too much by a loss.

That it’s happened in early-mid August is somewhat disappointing, but that’s later than many teams.

But since this is an offday, which I still hate, let’s get some craziness in here. It’s time to start cheering up, folks.

  • For those of you who like a little schadenfreude — I personally don’t get off on it, but I know a lot of people love it — it must feel good to see the Red Sox get swept by the Yankees and drop to 6.5 games back … and into a tie with the Rangers for the wild card. If Boston fails to make the playoffs this year, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see them go on a Yankee-esque spree over the offseason … except without a free agent class as top heavy in talent.
  • I’m not a big rumors guy, but this talk of Alex Rios going to the White Sox on waivers frightens me. The mass media thinks it’s a great move for the Blue Jays to shed that salary — oh noes, he’s signed for the next 5 years! — because Rios isn’t currently living up to the hype he created by being fairly awesome at a young age. I think it’s kind of funny about Rios — nobody really knew who he was while he was building up a case as a pretty damn good player, all of a sudden people noticed and he got a big contract and they started paying attention, and he’s struggled a little bit to make the leap. So, given that he stumbled just while people were doing what they could to overrate him, the pendulum has now apparently swung back in full force. When Ken Rosenthal says the Blue Jays would simply be better off getting rid of his salary for nothing, that means he’s “rated” pretty low. On the other hand, Rosenthal is kind of a nut, and he tries to create news, and he seems to have something against the Jays right now,* and Rios’s contract is actually a bargain. I really hope the White Sox don’t get their greedy little mitts on Rios — that’d be a much more significant acquisition than Peavy, and would make their outfield (and lineup) pretty ridiculous. Can Bill Smith block this somehow? Do I have to go to Comiskey and start cutting phone lines or something?

* Remember all that “Halladay will be traded, I guaran-god-damn-tee it, because the Blue Jays suck now and will suck next year and will always suck so they don’t deserve Halladay as much as real teams like the Yankees and Red Sox” nonsense? Well, Halladay didn’t get traded. And Rosenthal still hasn’t backed down on his bullshit. Or apologized to Jerod Morris for screaming at him for reporting things as if they’re true when you pretty much just made them up on your own. Just saying.

  • I saw this morning an article about the interesting possibility of the collective bargaining agreement changing (soon?) to add a slotting system to the draft. I think Calcaterra’s take is better than the original article, so if you’re going to read only one then go for Calcaterra’s (as usual). It’s a good point that players who are drafted aren’t even eligible to be in the union — and most minor leaguers don’t get to apply to be in the union either. You have to wait until you’re on a 40 man roster. (I suppose that might be one reason the Twins talk about “rewarding” players by putting them on the 40-man, even though that sometimes leads to us losing a promising prospect in the Rule 5 draft.) I’m totally in favor of a slotting system in the draft, and it’d neuter the new strategy of the wealthy and successful teams to keep their farm system stocked — paying way over slot for guys who slipped past where they should have gone due to “signability concerns.” Take that out, and the draft’s ostensible goal — crappy teams get better picks so maybe they’ll get less crappy — is a little bit closer to reality. It may actually be possible that this changes in the next few years, and I’d be pretty happy about it.
  • Interesting article today over at The Hardball Times about the monster seasons being put together by Justin Morneau and Prince Fielder. It concludes with a bit of a fantasy slant, but the analysis of Morneau is pretty good: > While he had a great 2006, Morneau did not deserve the MVP that year. However, this season, he could top 130 RBIs and 39 home runs based on his ZiPS projections, which would actually beat his 2006 numbers. His wOBA is over .400 for the first time in his career, though it is still not at an elite level. This has a lot to do with his low OBP and walk rate. His walk rate has increased to 12.2 percent this year, but it is still far from great. His career OBP stands at .353, which trails Fielder’s career mark of .379. >Morneau’s limitations in getting on base have dragged his runs totals down. Even in his 34 homer season in 2006, he only scored 97 runs, and he has never topped 100. He isn’t a horrible run scorer, but in comparison to other first base options he could be better. It is worth noting that Morneau has a shot at his first 100 run season this year, but again, he could be scoring a lot more runs if his walk rate were better.

I’ve complained about Morneau’s awful plate discipline in the past, and pointed out that I’m impressed that he’s able to hit with such power and draw as many walks as he does while seeming to have intermittent (at best) ability to recognize a breaking ball and a penchant for chasing unhittable pitches low and away. Given that it’s literally the only thing keeping him from being one of the elite players in the game. (I mean moreso.)

Oh. And there’s one last thing. If you’ve gotten this far, you might want to do a little more reading. So I’ll send you over to Posnanski, where he’ll talk in his typically longwinded and brilliant style about what it means to “quit,” especially when you’re talking about a team sport. You know how people always say stuff like “oh, the team just quit,” or “yeah they lost, but at least they didn’t quit,” et cetera? Well, that’s what he’s talking about. And I think he hits it right on the nose.

Quitting in sports isn’t about QUITTING. No, I think it’s about something else. While I don’t think that players ever stop TRYING to do well, I do think that in a bad environment players will stop believing that any of it matters very much. And I think that comes closest to what we’re talking about here. This might not be the best comparison — and you might not even relate to this — but for me there was always a very different feeling when we played baseball games around the neighborhood than we we played official Little League games. Sure, we TRIED in the neighborhood games. I would suggest we tried just as hard as we ever did in the real games. But we weren’t wearing uniforms, and we didn’t have coaches, and we we didn’t have dirt infields, and there were no repercussions for messing up other than your friends busting your chops. There was this sense that the Little League games MATTERED in a way that the neighborhood games did not. You played with a certain attention and inspiration that was missing in the neighborhood games.

Although I will say that I always felt the extra attention and inspiration in the neighborhood games much more than in the official games. Maybe they shouldn’t have forced us to wear those stupid looking uniforms.

And after reading Posnanski’s post, would you say the Twins have quit? I wouldn’t.

That is all. Hopefully it tided you over a little bit while you contemplate why the Twins seem to have so many offdays lately.

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The Metrodome’s lease is good for the state, bad for the Twins

As we’re all well aware, the Twins’ time in the Metrodome is rapidly winding down. Finally, the Twins will be playing beneath bright blue skies rather than a marshmellow swastika. There’s been a lot of talk about how much more money will be available to the team once they’re in the new stadium — there have been plenty of complaints from the front office and the ownership over the years about how unfavorable their lease is and how signficantly it limits their ability to compete financially with other teams. How much more money, though, can the Twins expect?

I’ve frequently pointed out that the Twins are drawing really well this year — in the top 5 or 6 in both attendance and TV viewership — and are doing it in the 14th largest media market in the league. They should be generating a significant amount of revenue, and for some time I’ve been thinking that the front office is just complaining unnecessarily; they’re making plenty of money, and just aren’t being aggressive enough, or are valuing their profits more highly than they are the team’s success. It’s an easy trap to fall into, because it makes so much sense.

But it turns out that the Twins really do have a very unfavorable lease at the Dome; I’d assumed this for a while, and thought the money was going to the Vikings even when the Twins were the ones using the stadium. Instead, the beneficiaries of this lease are you chumps, the citizens of the state of Minnesota. According to some research by urban planner Judith Grant Long, analyzed by Baseball Prospectus’ Neil deMause, the Metrodome is the most public favorable stadium currently in existence.

The best deal, meanwhile, is an unexpected one: the much-maligned Minneapolis Metrodome, which turns out to have actually produced a $107 million profit for the people of Minnesota. It is, in fact, the only stadium in existence for which the public came out in the black.

That $107M began in 1982 and is in inflation-adjusted dollars, so it’s actually less than that in reality, but the point remains: the citizens of Minnesota have come out far better on the Metrodome deal than the Twins have, and far, far better than the citizens of any other state or city with a stadium — including those with “privately funded” stadiums.

government negotiators made sure to recoup their costs with a lease that guaranteed the public more than half of gross concessions revenues, one-quarter of stadium ad revenue, and 100% of parking fees. Even after paying for stadium operations and without collecting property tax, that still leaves the Metrodome as the singular case of a stadium that turns a public profit. (This may also help explain Twins owner Carl Pohlad’s incessant stadium demands* in the face of public disdain; notes Long, “Compared to the other owners, there’s no question why he’s a little peeved.”)

With the new stadium, those revenues will no longer go to the state, but will instead flow into the team’s coffers. It’ll probably make ownership happier, but it’s worth pointing out that we’re only talking about a few million dollars per year. It remains to be seen how much the team’s spending will increase. I anticipate it going up somewhat, but not game-changingly or anything.

* It’s worth pointing out that this article was written in 2005, before Carl Pohlad’s unfortunate passing and before the new stadium was agreed upon.

The most significant thing, I think, is that the fans keep coming out in droves and watching the games on television. If the Twins can start over-achieving their market-size, rather than under-achieving, it can only mean good things. And since I no longer live in Minnesota, the loss of the state’s income stream doesn’t hurt as much. (My taxes pay for the White Sox’s bloated payroll, thank you very much.)

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