Monday, July 7, 2008
The Little Engine that... Could They?
Before getting into today's posting, I just wanted to point out that I did make a posting on Thursday night, so anyone who has not checked the site over the weekend, be sure to scroll down or click here. I posted several topics for people to think about and discuss. I wasn't going to spend much, if any, time on the computer over the weekend, so if people wanted new material to read, they would have to provide it and discuss. And I am actually rather pleased with just how much discussion there was. So, be sure to check that out. I know there are reports on minor league games. I understand Shooter Hunt had quite the debut with Elizabethton. I heard there that Carlos Gutierrez signed and will report to Ft. Myers. There are a lot of interesting things in those comments, so I would certainly encourage people to check it out.
Dayn Perry writes for FoxSports.com and wrote an article called Twins surprise run built on shaky foundation, which basically said that he doesn't think that the Twins can keep up this pace. At some point it will catch up to them. He lists a plethora of reasons that the Twins should not be playing as well as they have and it won't continue. To summarize them:
They traded Johan Santana.
They let Torii Hunter leave via free agency.
Control specialist Carlos Silva left as a free agent.
Francisco Liriano came up and was awful and had to go back to the minors.
Pat Neshek, their top reliever, was hurt for the season.
All that loss, and they won just 79 games last year.
"A pile of runs and a lack of defense --- Not your typical Twins team."
Starting pitchers 10th in the league in ERA.
"according to runs scored and runs allowed, the Twins' record should be three games worse than it is"
"Baseball Prospectus gives the Twins just a 7.1% chance of making the postseason. For comparison's sake, the third-place Tigers have a 15.3% chance, more than twice Minnesota's odds."
"that they're hitting .313 with runners in scoring position — that raises eyebrows, especially considering that the Twins are batting .276 in all situations. Most often when you see such a huge disparity between those two figures, it's a matter of luck."
"Despite their impressive runs total, they're a mere eighth in the AL in on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Given their below-average abilities when it comes to reaching base and hitting for power, the Twins have been exceedingly lucky to score as many runs as they have."
The final sentence of the article, "In other words, Twins fans shouldn't expect this to last."
I have to be honest, reading Dayn Perry is a frequent cause of frustration for me. So although I really try not to be one of those bloggers who reads main stream media articles and criticizes them, Perry is one that sometimes really makes me want to do just that. But believe me, the question or statement that he makes here is actually one that I have been arguing in my own mind about. I have said all along that I think that this Twins can will win 75 games this year. With their Sunday win over Cleveland, the Twins are now 50-38 and on pace for 92 wins! So, I have to look at what Perry wrote and address those things because I have asked myself the same questions. But I also want to touch on a few things that I do think give the Twins and their fans hope that things can continue.
Let's first address the three players he mentions. We have already talked about these three guys for too long. They're gone. Twins fans have been able to get over it, so should everyone else. I think Twins fans still acknowledge that Johan Santana (despite his 7-7 record with the Mets) is still one of the top hand full of pitchers in baseball today. His "Other" numbers more than prove that out. But his Win-Loss record proves that he alone can not win games without an offense, and he alone can only attempt to win a game for his team once every five games. Based on previous $100 million contracts given to pitchers, none of them are really worth it. Torii Hunter is hitting .267/.321/.443 with ten homers and 38 RBI. Pretty typical numbers for Hunter really, nothing special, that's for sure... not worthy of being in the Top 10 in 2008 player salaries. I think that Carlos Gomez is almost as good a defensive centerfielder already. And Carlos Silva, he was a terrific guy and Santana's buddy, but come on... $48 million over four years? No wonder their GM was fired! He is 4-10 with a 5.85 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP. Opponents are hitting .321 against him. So, they're gone. We miss them. But the Twins would not be a better team with them under contract.
Francisco Liriano came up too fast, no question. Our expectations were too high for him. The Twins needed to bring him up to prove to himself, themselves and Twins fans, that he had a long way to go and that recovery from Tommy John surgery does not just happen over night. That said, he is starting to show more and more. He seems to have found his control and is consistent with that. He is now starting to get more strikeouts. His velocity is not what it once was, but he is leaning now how to pitch. Seriously, long term, that could be scary for hitters. If you think he could ever get back to what he was before in terms of velocity and now he also better understands how to get hitters out, that is a potential Sandy Koufax type! Now again... I should be trying to manage expectations a little better. But when people talk about being able to acquire a player in July or August for a pennant run, Liriano might be as big an "acquisition" as anyone, including CC Sabathia.
Pat Neshek's injury was a tough one for the Twins. Their top set up man, the 8th inning guy, was likely out for the year and the bullpen took a few weeks to sort things out. But they have been terrific for the past month or six weeks and deserve a lot of credit. As much as we prefer for them not to happen to our team, and specifically to a guy like Neshek, they are a part of the game that all teams have to deal with.
The won just 79 games last year. Again, this is where my 75 game win prediction came from, in part. Losing those three players and counting on as many as four pitchers with less than 50 big league starts and the ever-hittable Livan Hernandez left a lot of concern. You expect the young guys to struggle with consistency. You expect Livan Hernandez to get rocked. Add in that some of those young pitchers will hit some innings counts that they have never reached. How will their arms respond? How will they handle the mental angle of the game during a pennant stretch. We want to say that they all will stay healthy and that they will all be able to pitch well and with great poise in those situations, but reality says that we don't know. They haven't been their before, and part of me says that is overrated, but experience is never a bad thing.
"Not your typical Twins team." That is a statement that speaks to the Twins history of pitching and defense. And this is also accurate. The defense is not great, by any means. In fact, if not for Justin Morneau at 1B, the team could look even worse. But there are a lot of young guys playing new positions and in a new stadium and with new teammates. That does require an adjustment period and I, for one, would hope that we will see clear improvement over the second half of the year. Starting pitching? Well, a lot of the struggles in terms of ERA are the result of Livan Hernandez and Boof Bonser. Bonser is now in the back of the bullpen and Hernandez is what he is. Kevin Slowey, Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins have all been solid much of the time and factor in a possible return of Liriano and I don't have a lot of concern with the rotation.
According to Pythagorean W-L numbers (Which look at runs scored and runs allowed and determine how many wins that team should have, and amazingly, this proves to be fairly accurate), the Twins should have three less wins than they do this year. That's fair, and yet, a look at the Twins Pythagorean numbers this decade tells us that the Twins typically do win more games than they "Should." Since 2001, they have been (+4, +8, +5, +5, -1, +3, -1) relative to their expected wins. In other words, it has been normal for the Twins actual record to be a little bit better than it should be. I have discussed this already this year. I happen to think that this is directly related to the success of the Twins bullpen. The Twins will occasionally lose a blow out. They rarely win a blowout. But if they're in a close game and get a lead, they are generally able to keep that lead. So, it is certainly fair to make the statement that they do have a better record than they maybe should, but that is not necessarily surprising with the Twins.
The fact that the Tigers are listed by Baseball Prospectus as having more than twice as good a chance at making the playoffs as the Twins tells you that it is a questionable statistic. Sure, the Tigers have more home runs potential, but shouldn't actual runs scored stand for something. Shouldn't the fact that their pitching staff is a mess mean something? This is a strange one and yet, understanding the Twins, they seem to do so much better when they are an underdog, so let the majority think that way if they want.
I am definitely one of those people who questions the term "clutch." I definitely believe in "Clutch situations." Runners on 2nd and 3rd in the 8th inning with two outs, a two-run single is pretty clutch! But I am also one who believes that a player could be considered "clutch" if his numbers in 'clutch' situations is equal or better than his "normal" numbers. I also fully believe that given enough "clutch" situations, a players numbers will eventually move to the mean. In other words, if a player hits .275/.350/.425 throughout a season, given enough at bats in those situations, he will be something close to .275/.350/.425 then as well. Derek Jeter is called clutch because he has had some memorable, big, clutch hits in the playoffs. We remember those as opposed to all the times that he struck out, popped up, lined out, grounded into a double play, etc. Michael Jordan was a clutch performer because of all of his big, game-winning shots. Well, he shot and missed many other times. In reality, if he was a 55% shooter during his career (which he wasn't), you would expect him to make the "clutch" shot about 55 times if he shoots 100 big shots. In baseball, you would hope a .300 hitter would come through in the clutch about 15 times in 50 attempts. You would expect a .250 hitters to come up big 12 or 13 times in 50 "clutch" at bats.
With that set up, I do worry about the fact that the Twins have hit .313 in clutch situations and .276 overall. Reduction to the mean tells us that this number not only should, but WILL, come down over the course of the year.
The Twins do have a lineup that has few hitters that can take a walk like Joe Mauer. They have more free swingers. Carlos Gomez is the poster child for aggressive swinging on a team that includes Delmon Young. For a hitter as good as Justin Morneau, he doesn't take a lot of walks. So, Perry is absolutely right on the Twins lack of on-base percentage (which of course means a higher percentage of outs). As for the power, Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel lead the Twins with just 12 home runs. Craig Monroe, a part-timer is next on the list. There isn't a lot of power on the team. Carlos Gomez has been stuck on five for awhile. Joe Mauer hit his fourth over the weekend. Delmon Young hit a big one, his third, on Friday night. I do think that the Twins have a roster full of doubles hitters, and that they can be alright with a lot of doubles. I also think that they have several players, primarily those listed in this paragraph, who can hit home runs and I expect that they will at a much better rate in the second half. But again, another fair point.
To summarize, as much as we don't want to hear that Twins fans should not expect the team to play as well in the second half, I don't think that Dayn Perry's article is at all out of place.
But... I do think that there are several reasons for Twins fans to remain optimistic. Here are some and please feel free to leave comments below with other reasons...
The AL Central is not very good. The White Sox really do not intimidate me. They are a solid team, but I think at this point in the season, we are free to admit that the Twins team is solid as well. The Tigers still have a scary group of names on their roster, just not a lot of energy. Cleveland apparently is trading CC Sabathia to the Brewers and you would think that signals their waving of the white flag. And the Royals are apparently still a year away.
Through wayyyyyyy too much criticism, Delmon Young has been one of the team's top hitters the past six or seven weeks. He should only continue to improve.
The stars have come through. Joe Mauer will start in the All-Star game, and Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan both made the team as reserves. In other words, the team's key contributors have come through. Mauer not only was voted in, but he is the league's top hitting and fielding catcher.
The emergence of Jason Kubel as a legitimate power bat in the middle of the lineup. Despite his middling batting average and slow start, he has again been one of the teams best hitters since mid-May, a pattern that occurred last year and tells us that we can expect big things from him in the second half.
Denard Span, Carlos Gomez and Alexi Casilla. The speed is incredible. They are so exciting to watch. They will bring fans to the games and keep their attention. They will help television ratings. And they all can positively contribute and can get better. Casilla has proven a lot of people right and is a different player since his return. Gomez has stayed above water much of the first half. June was a rough month for him, but hopefully he learned a lot from it.
The looming return of Francisco Liriano is exciting.
Kevin Slowey and Scott Baker each missed about a month of time already this season, so they could remain strong the remainder of the year. Nick Blackburn seemingly went through a dead arm phase already, so hopefully he can remain strong. I am more worried about Glen Perkins holding up over the course of the year, but again, that is somewhere to fit in Liriano.
OR, maybe Liriano replaces Livan Hernandez around the trade deadline. Maybe the Twins can trade Hernandez for a couple of B level prospects.
The Twins do traditionally play better than their Pythagorean.
The team actually has some quality depth on the bench, with options. Craig Monroe can hit for power. Mike Lamb can't be that bad.
I understand that I am typically called overly optimistic, but I also do consider myself a realist. I do think that the Twins have played over their heads to this point in the season. I can't disagree with that. But I also thought that the team would come together over the first half and the young players would work through things in the first half and then we would be able to see marked improvement in the second half. To know that this team appears to have come together and the young guys are still learning AND they have been able to win... well, I happen to think that is also worthy of noticing.
What do you think? Can this team stay in it or will 'reality' set in? We may learn a lot more about this team in the next three days when they get to see Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jon Lester and Josh Beckett in Fenway Park.
I will be back tomorrow with a more "Normal" blog posting, including minor league updates. I appreciate your thoughts on this posting or anything you like, dislike or would like to see on this site. Have a wonderful week!