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Archive for September, 2009

Let’s play two!

Game one of the Twins-Tigers doubleheader will start at 11am central time today.  Since I am at work I will only be following the gamecast, but feel free to follow me (@Robert_Short) and sirsean (@sirsean) on twitter to read any thoughts we have on the game.

Blackburn vs Procello.  The Twins need to win this game to set the tone.  As all of you have read the Twins need to win at least 3.  Do that and we are tied heading into a weekend series at the dome against KC, while the Tigers play the white sox in Detroit.  If we win all 4 we will have a commanding 2 game lead with 3 to play.  Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, one game at a time, etc. etc. 

Go Twins!

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Just Win, Baby

The Twins have 11 games remaining.  8 are on the road.  We finish up in Chicago tonight, then head to KC for the weekend.  Followed by a 4 gamer in lovely Detroit.  We sit 2.5 games behind the Tigers (the odd game will be made up Thursday, when we are off and the Tigers play at Cleveland), but we do kind of control our own destiny.  If we just keep winning we will win the division. That has to be comforting for the players.  While it would be nice for Detroit to give us some help by losing, it isn’t necessary.  If we can go into Detroit less than 4 games back and sweep them, we take the lead and head home to play KC.  Obviously, winning 11 straight games starting tonight will be difficult, it isn’t impossible.  We also don’t NEED the Tigers to lose to anyone other than us.  Oddly, Detroit is in the same boat. 

Manship’s poor outing last night was disheartening as his spot is due up at least once more.  On the broadcast last night Dick mentioned possibly using Liriano in that spot next Sunday.  Baker, Pavano, Blackburn, and Duensing have all been encouraging lately so hopefully they can carry that momentum into their next starts.  I’m sure Gardy will do some rotation shuffling with one off day left for him to work with. 

Mathematically the Twins have a 25.8% chance of making the playoffs, which makes us the only team alive in the AL race.   While the Yankees are the only team to have locked up a spot, the Angels and Red Sox are pretty much there.  Both the Twins and the Tigers are very flawed teams, but we are making September interesting. 

In the immortal words of Al Davis: Just Win, Baby!

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The early returns on Dayan Viciedo

Remember earlier this year when I complained about the Twins allowing Dayan Viciedo — the stud 20 year old Cuban defector who was described as “the next Miguel Cabrera — to go to the White Sox, who signed him to a 4 year, $10M contract?

Well, the early returns have not been great. Marc Hulet of Fangraphs describes him as one of 2009 “Prospect Duds,” saying:

Viciedo’s .692 OPS versus right-handed pitchers is cause for concern, as are the scouting reports that focused more and more on his lack of conditioning, which no doubt hindered him at the plate, as well as in the field. He showed worse range than Oakland’s Brett Wallace, widely considered to be a first baseman playing third base (especially based on his range). Unfortunately for Viciedo, he has yet to display enough power to be an asset at first base, and he lacks the mobility for even left field. The Cuban also performed poorly in a small sample size as the designated hitter in double-A, which could be a result of his focus issues.

Basically, Viciedo fields like a DH and hits like a CF … and that’s not going to work.

The hype around Viciedo was impressive, and it sounded great;* he was supposed to be able to step into the majors this year, and he was apparently the White Sox’s best hitter in Spring Training. Obviously, their scouts saw something in the way he was playing that the numbers didn’t pick up, because he sure wasn’t ready.

* Doesn’t it always?

I don’t see any reason to give up on Viciedo, and Hulet even notes that a) the sky is still the limit, and b) he’s still only 20 years old. So while I’m still pretty high on him, at this point I think it’s fair to say I was wrong for getting up in arms about the Twins passing on Viciedo, and it’s certainly not a bad thing that they don’t have $10M invested in a young prospect with declining prospects.

And that’s the thing about teams with more resources; they can afford to take risks that other teams with less resources simply cannot afford to take. The Twins can’t risk blowing $10M on some unproven commodity that might never turn into anything — even though taking those sorts of risks is how you build a great ballclub, without sufficient money you just can’t risk it.

All of which is another reason to be hopeful about Target Field: if it truly does increase revenue enough that the Twins can admit that they’re simply no longer a “small market” franchise, then perhaps they’ll start spending enough money that a $10M gamble doesn’t seem quite so unreasonable any more.

In the long run, I’d call that a good thing.

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Goodnight, Sweet Prince

Well, Morneau is out for the rest of the year.  He has a stress fracture in his back, which was revealed by a CT scan yesterday.  That certainly is a bummer, but hopefully we can rally and end the season on a positive note by winning some games for Mr. Morneau.

5.5 back, 7 left to play against Detroit, their magic number is 14. Lets stay focused. Go Twins.

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Useless Offday Thoughts: Dwelling on Joe Nathan

Is it just me, or are the offdays getting more frequent as the season winds its way closer to the bitter end? Maybe it’s just that I desperately want to get the foul taste of yesterday’s lost out of my mouth, and thus today’s lack of a game seems unforgivable. That said, I bet the Twins need it. Losing like that is tough for the fans, but I can only imagine it’s tougher on the players,* and they could probably use a day off.

* Is anyone else glad that Redmond insisted on calling for Nathan’s breaking balls on a full count to two consecutive hitters? Because the radio guys said it looked like Nathan really didn’t want to throw those, and wanted to go with his fastball. He spun up a couple of hangers, and there you go. Can someone tell me why Mike Redmond is still on our team? And can someone also tell me why catchers seem to get worse at calling a game as they get older? Posada has gotten worse at calling games, Pudge Rodriguez has got worse at calling games, even Varitek has gotten worse at it. And I don’t remember Redmond actively doing shit he knows the pitcher doesn’t have confidence in before this season. This asshole has got to go.

Anyway, there’s been a lot of talk lately about Nathan, in the context of the old “is Joe Nathan okay?” conversation that we have every season around this time. Actually we usually have it a little bit earlier in the season, I think … but I contend that this phase of his season is based on innings pitched or appearances or something, not the calendar, and since we haven’t had as many leads this year as we normally do, we haven’t used Nathan as much. Usually the conversation bounces between the extremes of “we’re paying this old man too much money and he sucks!” and “he must be injured, he needs rest” and “he’s fine, just keep rolling him out there.” It’s easy to go to extremes when you’re talking about a closer: all his moments are in high leverage situations, and if he has a bad day, you lose, simple as that. So if he stuggles for a little bit, the team has a lot of trouble winning games.

But have we seen this before from Nathan? (Obviously, I had to pick where his struggles started and ended. Some years it’s more pronounced than others, and I had to just pick the best dates I could. You can disagree about the specifics, I suppose, but I think this ought to give you a general idea.) Let’s take a look at the numbers.

2004 opening phase, 4/15-8/18: 49 G, 51 IP, 0.35 ERA, 2 ER, 62 K, 15 BB, opponents: .160/.234/.211
2004 struggle, 8/19-8/24: 3 G, 2.1 IP, 23.14 ERA, 6 ER, 3 K, 2 BB, opponents: .600/.647/.867
2004 finish, 8/25-10/2: 17 G, 15.1 IP, 1.17 ERA, 2 ER, 20 K, 3 BB, opponents: .115/.164/.135

2005 opening phase, 4/5-8/30: 57 G, 58.1 IP, 2.31 ERA, 15 ER, 74 K, 21 BB, opponents: .177/.251/.263
2005 struggle, 9/3-9/6: 3 G, 3 IP, 6 ER, 18.00 ERA, 5 K, 0 BB, opponents: .462/.429/1.000
2005 finish, 9/7-10/2: 9 G, 8.2 IP, 0 ER, 0.00 ERA, 15 K, 1 BB, opponents: .103/.133/.138

2006 opening phase, 4/6-8/13: 46 G, 50 IP, 1.44 ERA, 8 ER, 71 K, 9 BB, opponents: .173/.216/.263
2006 struggle, 8/15-9/11: 9 G, 9.1 IP, 3.86 ERA, 4 ER, 11 K, 4 BB, opponents: .129/.222/.226
2006 finish, 9/12-10/1: 9 G, 9 IP, 0.00 ERA, 0 ER, 13 K, 3 BB, opponents: .100/.182/.133

2007 opening phase, 4/2-9/1: 56 G, 58.1 IP, 1.70 ERA, 11 ER, 60 K, 11 BB, opponents: .210/.250/.286
2007 struggle, 9/4-9/17: 6 G, 7 IP, 5.14 ERA, 4 ER, 7 K, 1 BB, opponents: .231/.259/.577
2007 finish, 9/18-9/30: 6 G, 6.1 IP, 0.00 ERA, 0 ER, 10 K, 7 BB, opponents: .182/.379/.227

2008 opening phase, 3/31-8/21: 55 G, 55 IP, 0.98 ERA, 6 ER, 61 K, 13 BB, opponents: .185/.239/.277
2008 struggle, 8/25-9/16: 7 G, 6.1 IP, 5.68 ERA, 4 ER, 6 K, 4 BB, opponents: .240/.367/.480
2008 finish, 9/18-9/30: 6 G, 6.1 IP, 0.00 ERA, 0 ER, 7 K, 1 BB, opponents: .050/.095/.050

2009 opening phase, 4/8-8/19: 49 G, 46.2 IP, 1.54 ERA, 8 ER, 61 K, 11 BB, opponents: .160/.217/.245
2009 struggle, 8/21-?: 6 G, 6.2 IP, 8.10 ERA, 6 ER, 9 K, 6 BB, opponents: .300/.417/.700

So my personal feeling about Nathan’s struggles is mostly correct: that he does, in fact, struggle every year, and it always happens at roughly the same time. He always gets through about 46-58 innings before he enters a sort of a dead-arm period and becomes hittable — in some cases quite a bit worse than hittable: he can put up some pretty ugly numbers during the struggle period.

Be the struggle period usually doesn’t last very long. In his first couple yars, it lasted just 3 games; his longest struggle was in 2006, which also happened to be his least struggly struggle period (his opponents OPS stayed below .500). In the other years, it lasted between 6 and 7 innings.

One thing that stands out for me is that his 2009 struggle period showed up in the smallest amount of innings in his career, though not (quite) the smallest amount of appearances. In severity, it’s middle of the road; his 8.10 ERA is 3rd out of 6, and his 1.117 OPS is also 3rd of 6. And we’re getting close to the end of it. It’s likely that it’s over now, and at most we can anticipate 3 more games during his struggle. While the Twins are at a point of the season where they can’t afford a struggling Nathan for three more games, it’s not really Nathan’s fault that he reached this level of usage this late in the season. He either should have gotten more save opportunities (blame the offense, or the starting pitching, or the bullpen), or should have gotten more non-save appearances (blame Gardy’s “old” fashioned closed-mindedness).

And the reason not to fear using him more often, given his dead-arm period? Look at his post-struggle numbers. In 45.2 IP, he’s given up 2 ER, for an absurdly awesome 0.39 ERA. Once his struggles end, Nathan dominates through the end of the season.

While it obviously hurts when we lose because of Nathan, I don’t think there’s anything to worry about. We’ve seen this before from him, and he’s always gotten out of it. We just have to hope he gets out of it soon and that the rest of the team can give him enough opportunities that his late-season dominance makes a difference.

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Stupid Off-day

I apologize for not having posted anything in a very long time.  I’m sure everyone missed me, but since college football is gearing up my attention has been focused on my Fighting Irish.  I will try to split my time accordingly between the the Twins and ND, they do  legally have joint custody of me.

The loss yesterday hurts, but remember we still have SEVEN games left against Detroit. 3 at home, 4 at Comerica.  It doesn’t really bother me that we have to play in Detroit.  From what I recall we don’t play unusually terrible there compared with say Cleveland or Chicago.  You won’t see Gardy bitching about a stadium we travel to 10 times a year and blaming said stadium on all of our failures.  Cough (Ozzie) Cough.  Excuse me.  We just need to keep winning, and getting quality starts from the back end of the rotation the rest of the season.  If Baker-Pavano-Blackburn-Manship-Duensing can pitch like they did the most recent time though the rotation for the entire month we will be in good shape.  Joe Nathan is going to spectacularly blow saves too often down the stretch. He is just too good. I’m going to chalk yesterday up to a bad day.  Nothing more.

The Tigers play the Indians at home this afternoon.  I for one will be following on gamecast and cheering on the Tribe.

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Do catchers really get worse at hitting as the season progresses?

This year that the All Star game, Tim McCarver brought up a theory about how difficult it is for a catcher to win a batting title; his point was that what Mauer has done in his career, and is doing again this year, is truly remarkable. He pointed out that a catcher’s body gets beat up so badly during a game and over the course of the season, that it’s practically impossible for catchers to hit in their last couple at bats, and by the end of the season their bodies are done for. Well, in typical McCarver fashion, he said something that everyone’s heard a million times before — it’s a good thing he’s a highly paid analyst, otherwise we might hear something during a broadcast that we’ve never heard before. And it makes sense, too. Catcher is a very difficult position, and everyone’s heard those horror stories about guys who used to be catchers and now their knees are shot and their hand is all mangled up, and it’s pretty easy to imagine that while they were developing those long-term injuries, well, they might have been in a little bit of pain.

Baseball Prospectus doesn’t usually take things like that at face value, though. Tim Kniker opens the issue:

This seemed an interesting little theory from an ex-catcher that begged for some numbers to back it up. This comment also got me thinking about a potentially even larger issue: Does the wear and tear of playing at certain defensive positions on the field lead to reduced offensive production? Does this happens during the course of the game, and/or throughout the season?

I encourage you to click through and see the stats, as they’re pretty interesting. I’m not going to re-post BP’s stats here, since that’s basically their lifeblood and I don’t want to steal it. But I will talk about their conclusions.

Kniker broke it down thusly: He separated all the players out into their respective positions, and measured their batting averages* in each at bat of the game (ie, the 1st-3rd at bats, the 4th at bat, the 5th-plus at bats). Then he looks at what positions got better and worse in their progressive at bats.

* I was originally surprised he went with measuring batting average, but then realized that we’re talking about winning batting titles. So I guess batting average is the stat that makes sense in this discussion. Though I’d be interesting in seeing the research re-done using OPS or something. I feel like that would be more interesting and telling.

And as it turns out, catchers tend to improve as the game goes on more than almost any other position. Outfielders actually improve the least (and CF has it the worst). So the conventional wisdom doesn’t have it exactly right, it seems.

So what does this say about the original point, about Joe Mauer? Is he even better at staying at his level throughout the game, and is that is leading to the batting titles? It is interesting to note that his batting average was pretty consistent in his first three times up year-to-year, but in the one year he didn’t win the batting title, he had a very low batting average in his late-game plate appearances. One thing to point out is that every in year, he typically performed worse in late-game plate appearances than he did in his early-game plate appearances, as compared to other catchers.

In 2007, when Mauer failed to win the batting title, his late-game plate appearances were pretty poor (.243 in 2007 vs .351 in 2006 and .333 in 2008), but perhaps more interesting is that while most catchers improve a lot in each successive plate apperance throughout the game, Mauer does not (as much, anyway).

When looking at the course of a whole season, Kniker found that in 2008, catchers dipped -.024 points of batting average in their 301+ PAs vs their first 300, but that 2008 was an outlier and normally catchers don’t fall by that much in the second half. Really, the position as a whole is right in line with all the other positions. It appears that McCarver’s conventional wisdom about catchers getting beat up and it affecting their hitting just doesn’t hold up with reality.

Kniker concludes:

When we see the three years in perspective, the data suggest that there isn’t really a significant impact on catcher performance in terms of batting average during the latter portion of the long regular season. Perhaps the likely cause is that any fatigue that might occur with any one position’s performance at the plate is likely to be equaled by pitcher fatigue, such that it all evens out in the end.

I don’t know why he didn’t bring it back around to Mauer, but I’m going to go ahead and do that myself.

I’ve been thinking for a while about why Mauer’s able to hold up over the long season and seems to be able to hit like a DH despite playing C, and that maybe he’s just such a physical freak of nature that he’s able to withstand the beatings more effectively than most catchers. Apparently, however, that’s not the case at all. First of all, most catchers are not actually adversely effected by the physical beating they take, either in the game or over the course of the season. Secondly, Mauer is one of the few catchers who is adversely effected, and his hitting does suffer slightly (by “suffer,” I mean “improve less than others”). It’s just that Mauer’s talent level is so astronomical, and his numbers start so high, that he just hits better than anyone else anyway.

Calcaterra is absolutely right that the Twins need to sign Mauer to a long term contract, and they need to do it soon:

The smart money still has Mauer staying in his hometown, but if it gets to be spring training and nothing is done, the odds will begin to drop. The Twins don’t need the hassle, the bad P.R. or the spectre of the Red Sox or someone driving up the price. They need to get a long term deal done for Mauer this winter.

He’s the best player in the AL, and he shows you why just about every game. I’d enjoy it while you can, because Bill Smith doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who can do anything right.

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