Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Contemplating Anibel Sanchez

The Anibal Sanchez signing, criticized here when the news broke last week, became official Tuesday. (For the record, the Twins opened spots on the 40-man roster by putting Michael Pineda and Trevor May on the 60-day DL. In the past teams had to wait until cusp of the regular season to make that move, but neither was going to pitch in April or early May anyway.)

The Twins are describing their addition of Sanchez as "analytics driven." This makes me feel a little guilty, or at least discombobulated, rapping his signing. I've been waiting years to see the Twins employ sabermetrics in forming their roster, and when they do all I can do is gripe.

So the question is, what numbers suggest that a pitcher with an ERA over the past three seasons of 5.67 is usable in a major league rotation?

To begin with, his walk rate is still quite good (over that same three-season span, 2.8 walks per nine innings) and his strikeout rate is respectable (8.2 K/9 in 2015-17; his K rate last season, 8.9, was better than that of any of the six most-used Twins starters). Those "leading indicator" stats are encouraging.

Then there is the notion that changing Sanchez' pitch selection can make him more effective. From Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com:

Opposing batters hit just .125 with a .188 slugging percentage against his splitter last season, but .337 with a .579 slugging percentage against his fastball, per Statcast.

There's a deceptively simple formula implied there: Stop throwing the fastball, throw more splitters.

I say deceptively because pitch selection isn't done in a vacuum.  Pehaps the splitter has been so overwhelmingly effective because the hitters are waiting for the very hittable fastball. Scratch the fastball, the hitters will start looking for the off-speed, and ... suddenly the splitter/change isn't so overwhelming. (Plus there is more stress on the forearm in particular with the splitter.)

Last year, according to the Bill James Handbook, Sanchez threw 49 percent fastballs, 21 percent changeup (his splitter), 12 percent sliders, 10 percent curves and 9 percent cutters. (I can hear Bert Blyleven now: "He throws all five pitches.") That's already a fairly low fast-ball usage rate, and a fairly high rate of off-speed stuff. How low (and high) can he go? It appears the Twins want to find out.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Gary Sanchez rule

MLB on Monday announced new limits on mound visits, by players or coaches, in a effort to speed pace of play.

Just as the rules established to protect catchers and middle infielders from collisions quickly got nicknamed for the stars who "inspired" the rule (the Posey rule for catchers, the Utley rule at second base), this one should bear the name of Yankee catcher Gary Sanchez, who wore a path out to the mound during playoff games last fall, changing signs with every hitter and sometimes during at-bats.

That stagnant approach was almost certainly been more manager Joe Girardi than Sanchez. Girardi had his strong points as a manager, but his uptight, controlling persona was very football-like, and that is not a complement.

So -- six mound visits per game without a pitching change. This includes coaches and managers, catchers changing signs, shortstops coming in to offer their advice on throwing strikes. There'll be no pitch clock this season.

Another, less obvious, related change is supposedly stricter limits on communication between replay rooms and dugouts. This is intended to make it more difficult to relay stolen signs, which had been cited as a reason for all the mound visits. A better move, in my opinion, would be to ban the replay rooms. If a missed call isn't obvious to the naked eye, it shouldn't be appealed to New York anyway.

The players aren't overjoyed with the new rule and are even less happy with the notion of pitch and batter clocks. But if they continue to lollygag, dawdle and stall, that will -- and should -- change. Play ball, fellows.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Hello, Odorizzi

The Twins on Saturday traded for Jake Odorizzi, an established right-handed starter, from Tampa Bay.

A bit less than a month ago I tried to imagine what Odorizzi would cost the Twins. I would have massively overpaid. So I have to like this trade for the Twins.

The Twins get two years of Odorizzi for a Class A shortstop, Jeramine Palacios. Palacios had a big first half at Cedar Rapids and was markedly less productive at the plate after moving up to Fort Myers. Fort Myers is a more difficult environment for hitters than CR, but not enough to account for the dropoff. 

Palacios was the fourth-rated shortstop prospect in the Twins organization (behind Royce Lewis, Nick Gordon and Wander Javier), so the Twins were dealing from depth here. I don't have an objective reason to believe this, but I actually think Palacios has a better shot at being a regular major league infielder than Gordon does.

So, the Twins rotation now has Jose Berrios,Odorizzi and Kyle Gibson as locks, Ervin Santana recovering from his finger surgery and returning probably in May, and one or one-and-half open slots to open the season, with Aldaberto Mejia and Anibel Sanchez probably the front runners for those places.

That's not a top-shelf rotation. But it's better than the rotation the Twins used most of last season.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Pic of the Week

Ron Gardenhire is notably trimmer this spring
 than he was in his final years with the Twins.
Many challenges await Ron Gardenhire as manager of the Detroit Tigers. I was and remain dubious that this job is a good fit for him. The Tigers are all-in on a tear-down and rebuild project, which means play the kids, and Gardy's consistent pattern with the Twins was to prefer an experienced player to fix problems.

But I suspect the biggest problem is lifestyle. Managing is a stressful job, and it was pretty obvious to even the casual onlooker that Gardenhire was getting much heavier and less healthy with every passing seasons in Minnesota.

Three seasons and a bout of prostate cancer have passed since Gardenhire was fired by the Twins. I didn't think he'd get another opportunity to manage, but the Tigers hired him, and he's largely reunited his old coaching staff (Rick Anderson, Steve Liddle, Joe Vavra). He sounds happy this spring. Let us hope that the likeable Gardenhire isn't going to resume killing himself with the stress this time around.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

He's low-risk until you put him on the roster

The Twins on Friday reportedly signed Anibal Sanchez to a major-league deal. The signing has not been made official pending a physical.

Sanchez was good -- years ago. Last season he put up a 6.41 ERA for the Tigers. The year before that, 5.87. The season before that, 4.99. I think you see the pattern.

When word broke Friday afternoon I figured it was a minor league deal, and while I wasn't enthused about that, it was acceptable. But the devotion of a 40-man roster spot, and the $2.5 million base with $2.5 million in incentives, suggests that the organization is serious about him for the rotation. (Apparently, despite the major league roster spot, the base salary isn't guaranteed.)

LaVelle Neal tweeted (and then deleted the tweet) that the Twins aren't done looking, but they thought Sanchez was an acceptable low-risk flier. But once Sanchez starts pitching, he's no longer low-risk. He's just a risk, even if he finished 2017 with four respectable starts.

Maybe the Twins' evaluators are correct. Maybe there's something left in Sanchez. I'd rather give somebody like Aaron Slegers the opportunity.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Spinning the rotation

With Ervin Santana sidelined for more than a month to open the season and the Twins' search for rotation depth frozen in the free-agent standoff, Paul Molitor this week hinted at the possibility of skipping a starter with frequency in the early part of the season.

As he and his pitching advisors see it, the Twins could get through April only using the fifth starter twice.

It's easy to see the rationale behind paring the rotation back to something like 4.5 starters. As Earl Weaver said, it's easier to find four starters than five. And at this very moment, the Twins have two pitchers they consider locks for the rotation to open the season, Jose Berrios and Kyle Gibson. The other slots are undetermined.

But there are reasons to avoid doing that. In the heyday of the four-man rotation, most teams used early-season offdays to skip their fourth starter with frequency, but not Weaver. He recognized that he would need his No. 4 sharp in the following months, and figured that more rest between starts in the early season chill was better for his aces.

And that's pretty much how I expect Molitor and pitching coach Gavin Alston to conclude this internal debate. I expect they would rather have Berrios, who turns 24 in May, make 30 starts than 34, and would rather not push him in 40-degree temps. And he's the high-ceiling starter, the guy who gives them any advantage to pushing. (There is little obvious gain to skipping, say, Aaron Slegers to give another start to Adalberto Mejia.)

What may lead to some rotation juggling is the April 17-18 series in Puerto Rico against the Cleveland Indians. Molitor recognizes that those games have an emotional resonance for Berrios, and I will be very surprised if Berrios doesn't get one of those starts. Not only does the setting matter for Berrios personally, but these are the top two teams in the AL Central, and having the Twins most talented starter pitch against Cleveland makes sense.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Trevor Plouffe and the New Reality

#OldFriend Trevor Plouffe this week signed a minor league deal with major league invite with the Texas Rangers. This figures to be some tough sledding for him, since the Rangers have Adrian Beltre at third and powerful Joey Gallo splitting time at third and first. If they're healthy, that doesn't leave a lot of at-bats at Plouffe's positions.

One of the oft-heard complaints in this winter of free agent discontent is that the chill has been felt on all levels. Players who expected superstar offers haven't drawn what they wanted; players who expected major league deals are getting minor league offers; players seeking minor league deals are getting frozen completely.

Or so the agents say, and maybe they're right.

My inclination is to view this as the market correction I've been expecting for years. At the top of the market, it's never made any sense to me that 32-year-old free agents got six- and seven-year contracts. J.D. Martinez is just in the unfortunate position of being the first one to find that pretty much every front office now recognizes the fallacy.

Well down the pyramid in Plouffe's specific case: The man is in his 30s, he was miscast as a foundation piece as a regular with Minnesota, and he hit .198/.272/.318 last season with two teams. There are no arrows pointing up with him.

Plouffe's career is being squeezed by multiple forces.

As a regular, he's being squeezed by his declining production and the embrace of analytics. Five years ago there were still a few GMs -- including the one in Minnesota -- who at least said a player's peak is in his early 30s. That's not the case now. Today's front offices are stuffed with people who've read the studies -- or conducted their own -- and know 31 is about four years past peak.

His OPS is under .600? We can get that from so-and-so out of Double A, and pay less in the process.

As a bit player, Plouffe is being squeezed by roster trends. The "deep depth" managers of the 1960s and '70s could probably not only carve out 250 at-bats for him but focus them on the pitchers he can do damage against. That's simply not happening in today's game, with half the roster spots going to pitchers.