Monday, November 30, 2015

Why Plouffe stays at third

A comment on Friday's post wonders why the Twins aren't considering Trevor Plouffe for the outfield instead of contemplating such a move for Miguel Sano. After all, Plouffe was in the process of becoming an outfielder in 2012 when Danny Valencia's Twins tenure imploded and Plouffe wound up at third.

Indeed, that idea has crossed my mind (and entered the blog) more than once. But Terry Ryan has ruled it out. Four (explicit or inferred) reasons:

Squatters rights. This is not unique to the Twins. Teams rarely force an established player off his accustomed position to make room for a newcomer. They may sound him out, but if there is resistance, they'll generally leave the veteran alone and shift the kid -- or trade the veteran. Why? Because having a central figure of the team angry and resentful is bad -- bad for the manager and bad for the rookie trying to establish himself. (Note: This is a general observation, not necessarily specific to the Plouffe-Sano dynamic.)

I have a co-worker who rejects that thinking. If my boss tells me to do something, I do it; if I don't, I might get fired. But there are a lot more people capable of doing my job or his job than are capable of playing baseball at that level. It's a rare skill set. (The trade option is, in a sense, a variation of firing the player, except that he doesn't wind up unemployed.)

Plouffe isn't the player he was when the Twins had him in the outfield. He's heavier (by some 15 pounds) and older (29) than he was back then. It's a good guess that, even though Sano outweighs Plouffe, Sano is faster and simply a better athlete. Neither is likely to be an outstanding defensive outfielder, but Sano has better tools to bring to the job.

Plouffe is a better defensive third baseman than Sano. Play Sano at third and Plouffe in an outfield corner, you have a (presumably) below average defender at both positions; play Sano in the outfield and Plouffe at third, you have a below average outfielder and a good third baseman.

It's all posture. If the theory this is all about maintaining Plouffe's trade value is correct, which is more likely to be part of it: Plouffe's too good at third to move or We have to move him to make room for Sano?

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Sunday Funnies

Gerry Arrigo ptiched in the major leagues for 10 seasons, beginning in 1961 with the Twins and ending in 1970 with the White Sox.

In between he pitched for Cincinnati, where he encountered the young Johnny Bench when the Hall of Famer to be was just a rookie.

"He thought he had a fastball," Bench recounted years later of Arrigo. "He was pitching to a hitter I knew he couldn't possibly throw it by. I called for a curve, and he shook it off, a curve again and he shook it off, a curve one omre time and he shook it off. He finally threw a fastball outside.'"

And the distainful Bench merely reached out with his bare hand to catch the "heater".

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Off track, just a little bit

This specific issue comes out of the NBA and the Timberwolves, but it's applicable to baseball and the Twins:

The Wolves won Friday night in Sacramento with rookie Karl-Anthony Towns playing just 21 minutes. The game before that, they won with Towns playing just 22 minutes.

Sitting the Number One overall pick for more than half the game has some observers critical of coach Sam Mitchell:

My sense of it is: It's a long season with a hellacious travel schedule. Towns is 20 and a year out of high school. The history of the NBA is filled with talented young big men whose bodies couldn't take the stress: Sam Bowie, Greg Oden, Bill Walton ... Why beat the kid up if you don't have to? Wiining with Towns playing 21 minutes is easier on him than winning playing him 31 or 41 minutes.

In baseball, the prevention of injuries is the current sabermetric holy grail. It's almost certainly the same in the NBA, which has perhaps accepted analytics more readily than baseball has. We certainly see more teams sitting specific players on one side or the other of back-to-back games.

The NBA and MLB have some parallel issues: A lot of games packed into half a year with tons of travel, long overnight flights and sleep disruption. Baseball teams are already trying to limit pitcher workload -- not only in game, but in season. We may soon see more attention to position players as well.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Outfield options: Miguel Sano

Miguel Sano finished
third in the Rookie
of the Year voting.
Miguel Sano told at least one reporter at the end of the major league season that he'd be playing third base for his Dominican team in winter ball. Any other positions? the reporter asked. No. Third base, was the response.

A few weeks later, the Twins started talking about Sano as an outfield option and said they would ask his winter league team to play the young slugger in the outfield.

If that has indeed happened, word of it has yet to reach me. I wouldn't be surprised if it doesn't happen; Caribbean teams are not beholden to a major league parent, and they are trying to win. Estrellas de Oriente is no exception.

Still: We know a healthy Sano is going to be in the Twins lineup. They have veteran incumbents at third base (Trevor Plouffe) and first base (Joe Mauer); they presumably will have a pricy import (Byung Ho Park) at DH/1B; and they have outfield positions available. So there is some logic to the idea.

I continue to have a difficult time taking it seriously, however.

There are no 260-pound outfielders running around in the majors these days; that's Sano's listed weight, and that might be a tad light. The Twins have no shortage of legitimate outfield talent on hand; unproven talent, to be sure, but talent. One thing that helped improve the 2015 Twins was better outfield defense; stuffing Sano out there figures to be a step in the wrong direction.

Give Paul Molitor enough time to talk about Sano as an outfielder, and he'll concede that the big guy might never actually play out there for the Twins.

My expectation is that Plouffe will be traded in the next few weeks, and that will make Sano the likely third baseman for 2016. That would be for the best.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving

One sign of Thanksgiving: I haul out
 this old pic of a turkey in my mom's oven.

Happy Thanksgiving, all, and thanks for reading. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Outfield options: Eddie Rosario

Eddie Rosario
led AL left fielders in
assists, double plays
-- and errors.
As the Twins made their ultimately futile playoff push in September, Paul Molitor essentially went with three outfielders: Eddie Rosario in left, Aaron Hicks in center, Torii Hunter in right.

Today Hunter is retired and Hicks is a Yankee -- and Shane Robinson, who spent the entire season on the roster, has signed with Cleveland.

So Molitor's 2016 outfield is going to be markedly different than the one he went with at the end of 2015. 

Start with the one certainty for April's lineup: Rosario.

Rosario's plusses: He's a good defensive corner outfielder and probably passable in center, although the Twins have better options in the middle garden. He hit for more power (.459) than might have been anticipated and led MLB in triples with 15. He didn't fall off against lefties -- in fact, his slash line stats were all better against southpaws than against righties.

Rosario's minuses: His walk-to-strikeout ratio was abysmal: 15 walks, 118 strikeouts. His on-base percentage was a lowly .289, and that makes ludicrous the notion floated by some that he belongs at the top of the order.

Keith Law, the ESPN prospect writer, said in a recent chat that he expects Rosario to eventually be the odd man out of the Minnesota outfield. And if Rosario's inability to control his strike zone persists, Law's right. It's not possible to be a productive hitter striking out eight times for every walk.

But I'm not sure that what we saw in 2015 is what we'll see in the future.

The scouting word on Rosario as a minor leaguer was always: Outstanding hit tool, probably a bit shy on power. That was part of the motivation for the second base experiment in 2012-14, that a good singles hitter's bat plays better in the middle infield than in an outfield corner. But Rosario in the majors was more a power hitter than a singles hitter. The level of production was essentially what one might have expected; it simply took a different shape than projected.

Rosario is young -- he turned 24 in September -- and his development as a hitter was certainly detoured by his half-season suspension in 2014 and possibly by the position uncertainty. There's growth possible here. And, considering the talent the Twins have among young outfielders, he'll need to grow. But he is first in line for the chance.

The catching future

The Twins this offseason have, as noted in Monday's post, shed three catchers who have bounced between Triple A and the majors the past three years -- Eric Fryer, Chris Herrmann and Josmil Pinto. They also, during the season, moved Dan Rohlfing to the Mets organization.

This essentially clears the deck for the trio of catchers the Twins selected in the first nine rounds of the 2013 draft: Stuart Turner (3rd round), Brian Navarretto (6th round) and Mitch Garver (9th round).

Turner, who turns 24 next month, figures to be the primary catcher at Triple A next year. He didn't hit much at Double A Chattanooga (.223 batting average with a .306 slugging percentage), and he didn't hit much the two previous years either. Drew Butera is probably a good comp to him: the defensive chops to catch in the major leagues, not enough bat to be a useful regular.

Garver can expect to move up a rung to Chattanooga. He'll turn 25 in January. He has shown a good bat in the past, but his production fell off notably when he moved from Low A Cedar Rapids to High A Fort Myers. That's not a plus, obviously, but some decline is always likely with that transition because Fort Myers is a notoriously difficult hitting environment, while CR is one of the more hitter-friendly venues in the Midwest League. Anyway: Garver is certainly a better hitter than Turner, and also said to be weaker behind the dish, He's also been consistently old for his level of competition.

Navarretto was the one high schooler of the three, which is why he's a level behind the other two.  He turns 21 next month. He will probably be the No. 1 catcher for Fort Myers. What he showed in Cedar Rapids was an excellent throwing arm and a weak stick -- .217/.256/.281. I happened to witness one of his two homers.

If there's a major league regular in that trio, my money's on Navarretto, but that's strictly on the basis of his youth, But the Twins can't count on any of the three emerging, which is part of why they traded for John Ryan Murphy. I think it likely that Murphy will split time with Kurt Suzuki in 2016, then become the regular in 2017, perhaps with Turner as the backup

I also think it likely that the Twins will be targeting catchers again in the 2016 draft.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Have a heart, Rod Carew. Literally.

Rod Carew during the pregame festivities at the
2014 All-Star Game at Target Field.
The news Monday that Rod Carew is in need of a heart transplant was a bit of a thunderbolt, especially to Twins fans of my age. For a good chunk of the 1970s, Rod Carew was the focal point of the Twins -- perennial All-Star, perennial batting champion.

Steve Rusdin of Sports Illustrated broke the news.

One aspect of Carew's situation that seems to be getting misinterperted in the Twin Cities reports I've seen: According to Rushin, Carew is not actually on the transplant list. He's not healthy enough yet after surviving a major heart attack in September. He's on an artificial heart of sorts, an LVAD -- Left Ventricular Assist Device -- while he waits to get on the list and then for a matching donor.

The salient paragraph in Rusdin's piece about Sir Rodney's future:

Some patients keep the LVAD permanently when transplantation is not an option. At 70, Carew is near the age border for a transplant, though age standards are considerably more liberal in the western United States, where waiting lists are shorter. “I don’t know if I’m going to be bionic or what,” says Carew, who is concentrating now on becoming healthy enough to quality for the transplant list.
Carew is aiming to be at spring training, although he has been told that if he does go to a training camp this spring it will be the Angels (who train in Arizona), not the Twins. He's under contract with both organizations, and both renewed their deals with the Hall of Famer after his health crisis began, a nice gesture by the two teams he played for.

We all die sooner or later. I'd prefer to see Carew hang around a few years more.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Good-bye, Josmil

Josmil Pinto spent
2015 in Rochester
and on the disabled
The Twins have moved rather aggressively to reshape their catching options for 2016.

Kurt Suzuki is still around, of course. But Chris Herrmann was traded to Arizona, Eric Fryer was outrighted and signed with St. Louis, and Josmil Pinto was claimed by San Diego. That's three catchers with major league experience cleared off the roster -- and one, John Ryan Murphy, added -- in roughly five weeks.

Pinto's departure had three causes: First, he isn't much of a defensive catcher, and it's not for lack of effort. Second, he was, by my count, sidelined three times by concussions last season. And three, there didn't figure to be a role for him on the roster. There are plenty of other DH options.

That he was claimed by a National League team suggests that not everybody is convinced that his defensive issues negate his batting. San Diego is a tough park to hit in, so even if Pinto gets playing time with the Padres, his numbers may not impress anybody.

The Padres have Derek Norris as their No. 1 catcher, and he's pretty solid. Austin Hedges was the primary backup, and he hit just .168, so there is an opportunity for Pinto to make the club. But he's one of four catchers on the 40-man roster.  He's got his limitations, and he's got competition.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Sunday Funnies

The great 19th century catcher/outfielder King Kelly is playing right field in Boston. The game goes into the 12th inning, and it's getting dark. With two outs, the batter drives a pitch deep to right. Kelly dashes back, leaps for a two-handed catch and trots back to the bench. The umpire calls the batter out and calls the game on account of darkness as a tie.

Kelly's teammates congratuate him for saving them a loss. One asked how deep the ball was hit. "How the hell should I know?" the King replies. "It went a mile over my head."

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Setting the stage for Rule 5

Friday was the deadline for teams to protect their current minor leaguers from the Rule 5 draft by putting them on the 40-man major league roster. The Twins elevated seven prospects -- and lost two players with some major league time, catcher Josmil Pinto and right-hander A.J. Achter, on waivers, Pinto to the Padres and Achter to the Phillies.

I'll probably write something in more detail about the Pinto move next week. Achter is a marginal reliever who had another good season in Triple A last year -- he has a 2.69 ERA in 99 Triple A appearances -- who might be able to wander into a decent major league season if given a chance, but lacks the dominant pitch to force a career. Good luck to both of them.

The seven additions include several pitchers who emphatically have that dominant pitch. I see four categories in the seven:

Hard-throwing right-handed relievers: J.T. Chargois and Yorman Landa.

Left-handed Triple A starters: Pat Dean and Taylor Rogers.

Left-handers with Tommy John surgery: Mason Melotakis and Randy Rosario.

Outfielder: Adam Brett Walker.

Landa and Rosario spent 2015 at low A Cedar Rapids, and I saw both pitch during my handful of Kernels games last August, Rosario as a starter and Landa as a reliever. I didn't write about Landa, but he did show some serious velocity; I wrote instead about Luke Bard, who wasn't put on the 40 and is eligible for Rule 5. Anyway -- while Landa and Rosario will be in major league camp, I don't think the Twins will elevate either to the majors this year.

Dean and Rogers are slightly surprising protects to me. I don't see either as a particularly likely candidate to ever be starters for the Twins. There are certainly a lot of rotation guys ahead of them.

Walker's protection illustrates the importance of the power tool. ABW has serious power -- and, like Oswaldo Arcia, little else to recommend him. I'm not particularly enthused about Walker's chances.

Melotakis missed 2015 with Tommy John surgery while Chargois returned from two years on the shelf. These two guys each have pitched in Double A and have realistic chances to be part of the reconstructed 2016 bullpen, although I doubt the Twins would graduate Melotakis in particular to the majors out of spring training.

The Twins now have 38 player on their 40-man roster. One of the open slots is slated for Byung Ho Park; the other may well go to a Rule 5 selection.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Good-bye, 'Sugar Shane'

Shane Robinson made it through the entire season with the Twins and set career highs in at-bats, hits and runs, but it's hardly surprising that the veteran reserve outfielder went elsewhere. He barely played in September/October before being removed from the 40-man roster and declaring free agency.

The Twins were interested in bringing him back on a minor league deal, which is all he got from Cleveland, but there's more opportunity for him to make the 25-man roster this year in Cleveland. The Tribe at this point are shy of outfielders and are said to be looking for one in trade.

Robinson is no solution to a lineup issue. He's a  bench piece with a variety of skills that make him worth using in specific roles. He's the opposite of Oswaldo Arcia, who has power vs. right-handed pitchers and nothing else to recommend him. As a fourth outfielder, Robinson makes more sense than Arcia, but so does, let us say, Danny Santana. I hold little hope that either Arcia or Santana will be productive major league regulars, but I hold no hope for Robinson in that regard either. The other guys have higher ceilings; they're just unlikely to reach those ceilings.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

From the Handbook: Molitor tactically, Part II

Part II of these managerial posts compared Paul Molitor to his predecessor. What about compared to the rest of the league?

Molitor was neither first nor last (with one exception) in any of the categories tracked by Baseball Info Systems. He wasn't often in the precise middle either.

He used 75 pinch hitters, for example; this is near the bottom of the American League in rankings, but almost twice as many as Kansas City's Ned Yost deployed. He allowed a starter to throw more than 110 pitches seven times; only Buck Showalter of Baltimore had fewer, but only three AL skippers topped 20. He used 124 different lineups; the league average was 128. (Yost used just 83, a remarkable figure for the 162-game season.)

I wrote the other day in some detail about Molitor's use of relievers on consecutive days; while he did that far more often than his predecessor, his 123 RCD was fourth in the AL and therefore not out of of step from his colleages. (The leader was Mike Scoscia of the Angels with 145; he had six relief pitchers he used on consecutive days at least 15 times each.)

Molitor's platoon advantage stat -- 59 percent -- was below average, but not close to the bottom. That was Brad Ausmus of Detroit at .47 percent; the Tigers had a very right-handed lineup. Five American League managers had lower platoon advantages than Molitor. Still, considering how often Molitor had at least two switch-hitters in his lineup, 59 percent is lower than I expected to see.

The one category in which Molitor was the trailer: he had the fewest "slow hooks" in the American League, with 27. My sense of the slow hook stat is that managers who rack those up have at least one starter they trust more than their bullpen who is nevertheless having a difficult year. Robin Ventura of the White Sox had the most slow hooks (66) in the AL; he had Jeff Samardzija. Ausmus was second (59); he had Justin Verlander pitching to a 6.62 ERA into July. Molitor trusted his bullpen more than those managers did and didn't insist on getting more innings out of, say, Phil Hughes.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

From the Handbook: Molitor tactically, Part I

2015 was something of a novelty for Twins fans: They got to see a new manager after 13 seasons of Ron Gardenhire calling the shots. And before Gardy, there was 14-plus seasons of Tom Kelly.

What, specifically, did Paul Molitor do differently in terms of moves than Gardenhire?

Here's a sizable difference: Consecutive days of use by relief pitchers. Gardenhire at one point (2007-2010) averaged more than 100 RCD a year. But his final four seasons, he was down to 82, 82, 78 and 82. Molitor shot that up to 123 last year, roughly a 50 percent increase, and notably more than Gardenhire's high of 115.

Five pitchers had at least 13 consecutive days usage for the Twins last year; Blaine Boyer led with 20.Two others had nine. Only three Twins relievers had 13 RCD in 2014, none with more than 17.

I think this is worth bookmarking. Ryan Pressly had nine RCD in his 27 appearances for Molitor, then he got hurt. Boyer spent time on the disabled list. Aaron Thompson had 13 RCD, lost effectiveness and was sent down, never to return. Pitchers get hurt, and some of these guys were and are marginal major leaguers anyway, so I'm reluctant to declare a bright line of causality. but this is worth monitoring. Molitor was aggressive about using relievers on consecutive days. It's possible that is counterproductive.

To cherry-pick some other possibly interesting data points: Gardenhire used an average of 125 lineups a year, with a high of 135 in 2005 and low of 97 in 2006. Molitor's 124 is right around Gardenhire's average.

Gardenhire's teams averaged 135 steal attempts and 51 sac bunt attempts; Molitor in 2015, 108 and 44. (Gardenhire's two lowest bunting years were his final two seasons). Molitor also stole less often in 2015 than Gardy did in 2014 and bunted more frequently. 

Gardenhire's hitters over his career had the platoon advantage 62 percent of the time. Molitor's hitters this year, 59 percent of the time. I believed, and declared often, that Molitor was more attuned to the platoon advantage than Gardenhire was, but this suggests otherwise. (I suspect the difference is that Gardenhire had a number of left-handed hitting regulars over the years that he simply refused to platoon despite the numbers, such as Jacque Jones and Jason Kubel; they faced more righties than lefties simply because there are more righties than lefties. Molitor's regulars tended to be right handed.)

Molitor put runners in motion 132 times, the closest of any manager to the AL average of 136. Gardenhire averaged 128 (but in his first two years, just 44 and 37; in 2012 he was up to 207). 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

From the Handbook: Overall baserunning

I commented on this -- specifically about base stealing, because the numbers were readily available -- during the season, but the difference between Paul Molitor the base runner and the team Paul Molitor managed in 2015 was remarkable.

Molitor's baserunning savvy was legendary. He was fast, certainly, but that was only part of it. He was aware and aggressive. He stole bases, and took extra bases, with extraordinary efficiency.

The 2015 Twins, not so much. And the quality of Minnesota's baserunning, as a team, was sharply lower than under Ron Gardenhire.

From the Bill James Handbooks, as compiled by Baseball Info Systems:

2013: Twins had an overall net gain of +30. They were +44 running the bases, -13 as base stealers. The base running score was third highest in baseball that year.
2014: Total, +109. On the bases, +82; stealing, +27. The total was second in baseball, the base running component first.
2015: Total, - 19. On the bases, -13, stealing, -6. Only seven teams had lower total scores.

Molitor had no connection to the major league team in 2013. In 2014 he was on the coaching staff and baserunning was a specific part of his portfolio. As manager in 2015, he doubtless delegated at least part of that aspect. But that's a stiff decline.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Taking the QO

Three free agents did something previously unheard of Friday: They accepted the one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer from their teams.

Pitcher Brett Anderson (Dodgers); outfielder Colby Rasmus (Houston); and catcher Matt Wieters (Baltimore) gave up their opportunities to seek multi-year deals and more money, probably because they (and their agents) realized that better offers might be difficult to come by.

That is almost certainly the case for Anderson, whose career has been marked by years of injuries. They lefty threw 180 innings this year in 31 starts for the Dodgers; both are career highs. He hadn't topped 100 innings since 2010, his second season in the majors. $15.8 million is a very nice payday for one good season in five years.

Rasmus, too, might not have found much of a market. He wore out his welcome in St. Louis (with, apparently, some help in that project from his father) and Toronto. He hit 25 homers for Houston this year, but with three strikeouts to each walk drawn and a low .238 batting average, which equates to a subpar on-base percentage. He's 29 and has some well-established limitations. Again, $15.8 million is a very nice payday.

Wieters might be a different case. Even after two injury-shortened seasons in a row, he probably would have gotten a multi-year deal for more than the $15.8 million. I suspect he and agent Scott Boras are hoping/expecting that he'll have a better, less-injury plagued, season in 2016 and will be in position to try to cash in next winter.

The odds are good that the Dodgers and Astros didn't expect (or want) their QO to be accepted, that they expected the past pattern to hold true and the player to turn it down to test the market. The purpose of extending the QO, of course, is to get an extra draft pick when the player signs elsewhere.
Teams extended 20 qualifying offers this year, a stiff increase over previous years, probably because no player had ever accepted one.

Now three have. Some others, notably Ian Kennedy (Padres), probably should have. Kennedy is, like Wieters, a Boras client. My guess is that Boras expects that there are still a few teams who have not fully embraced the analytics and thus might take Kennedy's numbers with the Padres at face value. But really, a 4.28 ERA isn't that good to start with, and with San Diego as his home park, it's really pretty poor. (He did have more strikeouts than innings pitched; he also managed to give up 31 homers in 168 innings, a high rate any park, much less power-sapping Petco.)

We'll see next year if teams are more cautious about making qualifying offers. My guess is that they will.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Sunday Funnies

With no reliable flow of baseball photos, and desirous of an easy done-in-advance post for Sunday to maintain my consecutive days streak, I hereby resume "The Sunday Funnies" -- quips and stories that may not be strictly true, but can provoke at least a smile.

Ben Oglivie, noted slugger for the "Harvey's Wallbangers" glory days of the Milwaukee Brewers, was a rarity in big league clubhouses -- a man given to heavy reading. He studied philosophy in college, and was given to quoting the likes of Thoreay and Rousseau.

During an interview, Oglivie said: "One of the best quotes I know comes from Augustine. He said: 'The body manifests what the mind harbors.'"

Ah yes, said the writer, St. Augustine.

"Actually, it was our relief pitcher, Jerry Augustine."

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Thinking of France

I'm finding it a bit difficult this morning to think about baseball. I spent Friday night editing wire copy and photos on the Paris attack, and I was startled all evening when I checked my Twitter feed and saw people reacting to anything else. I don't say that to criticize anybody; I'm just explaining why I'm not posting something about the Twins today.

According to Baseball Reference, eight players in major league history were born in France. Probably the most prominent baseball figure born there is Bruce Bochy, the son of a serviceman who spent nine years as a backup catcher before going to win three World Series as manager of the San Francisco Giants. Charlie Lea finished his pitching career with the Twins; I remember watching him in the Dome in 1988.

I'm sure in a day or so I'll be ready again to distract myself with baseball. Today, not so much.

Friday, November 13, 2015

From the Handbook: Mauer's baserunning

Tradin' Terry Ryan had a quiet day Thursday -- his first without a transaction announcment this week -- so let's resume our glance through the Bill James Handbook 2016.

It has been a standard observation for years: Joe Mauer is not particularly fast, nor does he steal bases frequently, but he is an adept baserunner, often the best on the team. He reads balls well, he goes first to third, he is seldom caught taking the extra base or doubled off.

Until this year.

Baseball Info Systems, publisher of the Handbook, has been tracking baserunning since 2002, when Mauer was still a minor leaguer. By its calculations, Mauer is a +95 as a base runner for his career. (I wish I could say that that's 95 bases above average, or 95 runs, but BIS has a complex formula that doesn't lend its self to such a description. It's just +95.) Only 22 players, mostly obvious speesters such as Carl Crawford and Jose Reyes, scored better.

In 2013, Mauer was +13. In 2014,  +16. In 2015, -2.

Over the time BIS has been tracking base running, runners have gone first-to-third on 28 percent of singles. Mauer in 2013 was 12-for-31, about 39 percent; in 2014, 13-for-38, 34 percent. Last year, he was just 6 for 20. Now, 30 percent is still a bit above average, but it isn't what we've seen from Mauer in the past.

Mauer had one baserunning out in 2014, none in 2013. Last year, he was doubled off on linedrives twice and thrown out trying for the extra base twice for four outs.

Maybe it's age -- Mauer is no longer a 20-something, and the years behind the plate have taken a toll. Maybe it's a general approach to baserunning under the new regime; I'll write about this in a future post, but despite Paul Molitor's baserunning skill as a player, the Twins in general ran the bases less effectively in his first year as manager than they did under Ron Gardenhire. Whatever the cause, Mauer went from a clear baserunning plus to a slight detraction last season.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Another trade: Hicks for Murphy

John Ryan Murphy homers in a September game
against the Baltimore Orioles.
Another day, another move by the Twins: On Wednesday they traded outfielder and former first-round pick Aaron Hicks to the Yankees for catcher John Ryan Murphy.

I like this trade for both teams, and for both players. The Twins are spilling over with outfielders and lacked catching depth; the Yankees have an established (and highly paid) veteran catcher as a starter and a promising prospect pushing for the backup job, while their outfield core is aging and brittle.

Cooper, the managing editor of Baseball America, goes into a bit more detail on Murphy here.

I thought that Hicks was destined in Minnesota for a fourth-outfielder role, with Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler all higher-ceiling guys than him. I don't have to buy into the Miguel Sano as an outfielder notion to see little room for Hicks in the Minnesota outfield. I also think Yankee Stadium might help mask Hicks' flaws as a left-handed hitter by turning a handful of flyballs into homers.

And, to be blunt, the Twins really needed somebody who can be an alternative to Kurt Suzuki, who did not have a good 2015 and who is, as a catcher above the age of 30, has the arrow pointing down. Murphy isn't a budding star, but he might be a four-or-five year regular at a difficult position to fill. With Brian McCann ahead of him, he wasn't going to get that chance in New York.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A trade! A trade!

The Twins on Tuesday traded backup catcher Chris Herrmann to Arizona for minor-league outfielder-first baseman Daniel Palka.

Palka, a left-handed hitter, has hit 60 homers in the lower levels of the minors, including 29 last year for Visalia in the High-A California League. Power is an important tool, and he has it, but at 24 he's a bit old to be in A ball. Presumably he'll be at Double-A Chattanooga in 2016 to fill the Adam Brett Walker role of a right fielder who either hits home runs or whiffs.

More significant than the addition of a low-level outfield prospect is probably the deletion of Herrmann, who has spent parts of the past four seasons with the Twins but never got much playing time -- 389 plate appearances all told -- and didn't hit in what time he did get (.181 batting average). Herrmann was the primary backup to Kurt Suzuki last year, and now he's gone. The other catcher who spent some time with the Twins, Eric Fryer, took free agency after being outrighted last month.

I still suspect that if Herrmann were given regular at-bats in a platoon role he would hit a bit, but the Twins never saw fit to give him that chance. The Diamondbacks ran six guys behind the plate last season, and maybe Herrmann will get a shot there.

Meanwhile, the Twins have no obvious backup to Suzuki, much less somebody capable of pushing him for playing time. Josmil Pinto is the only other catcher on the 40-man roster. He missed much of 2015 with concussions and isn't a good receiver anyway, so the Twins can't count on him. Presumably there will be a more reliable option on hand when training camp opens, either via free agency (A.J. Pierzynski, perhaps) or by trade.

Baseball Amercia's analysis of the trade is here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Byung-ho Park effects

I didn't see this coming, but few if any outside the closed-mouth Twins organization did: The Twins on Monday landed the negotiation rights to Korean slugger Byung-ho Park.

In a nutshell: Park's Korean team, the Nexen Heroes, posted the 29-year-old first baseman. The Twins bid nearly $13 million for the right to sign Park. If they do sign him by the Dec. 8 deadline, the Twins owe the Heroes the $12.85 million; if they don't, they owe the Heroes nothing and Park plays in Korea next year.

It's rare, but not unprecedented, for a posting rights winner to fail to sign the player in question, so I expect the Twins and Park to strike a deal. Then what?

Park racked up big power numbers in the Korean league, bopping more than 50 homers each of the past two seasons. While there is no reason to expect him to hit 50 in the states, his Korean production was similar to that of Jung Ho Kang, who had a fine rookie season for Pittsburgh before suffering an injury on a take-out slide.

Park has flaws. He's limited to first base defensively, and he has, like Miguel Sano, a tendency to swing-and-miss. Inside fastballs are specifically said to be an issue for him. But if he hits as Kang did last year, there's certainly room for him in the Twins lineup.

But where? His likely addition opens a new window on the Sano-to-the-outfield chatter of last week. Pencil Park and Joe Mauer in to share DH and first base duties. If Trevor Plouffe remains at third base, the outfield is the only option to keep Sano in the lineup.

Which is, really, rather backwards thinking. Sano has to be in the lineup, and you work around that reality.

Can Sano play outfield? He hasn't in games, Even if he's passable in left or right, there's no way he's going to be as adept as Eddie Rosario or Aaron Hicks.

Which, as I see it, makes a trade of Plouffe likely. I'd rather have Sano at third than in the outfield, and it seems silly to stall Byron Buxton's emergence for anybody. I'm hoping that the Sano-as-an-outfielder notion is a smokescreen designed to bolster Plouffe's trade value by presenting the illusion that the Twins aren't trading him to make room for Park.

Even if they are.

Monday, November 9, 2015

From the Handbook: Defensive shifts

There are, I suspect, two types of sophisticated defensive metrics: the publicly available ones, and the proprietary ones designed by individual teams' analytics departments.

Baseball Info Systems, which generates the numbers in the annual Bill James Handbook, is prominent in the world of public defensive metrics. Its work has, among other things, laid out for public viewing the rationale behind the current trend toward infield shifts,

In his essay accompanying the shift stats in the 2016 Handbook, John Dewan says that major league teams shifted 13,298 times in 2014 and 17,733 times in 2015. (Those numbers represent balls put in play when the defense is in a shift, so at-bats in which the defense is in a shift early and out of it later aren't counted, and neither shifts in which the batter strikes out, walks, etc.) That's a 33 percent increase last year.

The shifts, by BIS' calculations, prevented 266 runs over all. That's a 36 percent increase over 2014's 196, and suggests that teams are becoming more efficient at shifting.

One other general point: BIS believes that the optimal number of shifts is more than double last year's total, that the upper limit is probably around 40,000 shifts. MLB isn't there yet, but if shifting continues to increase, 40,000 is possible in a few years.

OK, that;s the general stuff. On to the Twins specific shift data:

In 2014 -- with Ron Gardenhire as manager and Paul Molitor assigned to handle shifts (an assignment widely viewed as being an override of Gardenhire's preferences) -- the Twins deployed 478 shifts. Only three teams in the American League used fewer shifts.

In 2015 -- with Molitor now the manager -- the Twins used 724 shifts, sixth most in the AL. That's an increase of 246, That's a 34 percent increase.

The Handbook does not provide a team-by-team breakdown of runs saved by shifts, so I don't have a precise number for the Twins. Across the majors, teams saved 1.5 runs per 100 shifts, so if the Twins shifted at average efficiency they saved roughly 10 runs with the shifts. Ten runs sabermetrically equates to a win, so that's hardly an insignificant matter.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Pic of the Week

The scene outside Union Station in Kansas City, Missouri, where
Wednesday's World Series parade ended.
I guess the fans in Kansas City were a little excited about the Royals' World Series win. The city of Kansas City, Missouri, says 800,000 people came to the victory parade last week. That's more people than live in the city.

The Kansas City Star had this piece about the logistics and expense of the celebration.

(This concludes the Pic of the Week Sunday feature for another season. Next Sunday will begin the offseason Sunday Funnies.)

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Miguel Sano, outfielder? Please no

The word from Terry Ryan this week was that Miguel Sano is to play some winter ball this offseason, which he was prohibited from doing a year ago as he recovered from Tommy John surgery.

That's good. The bad news, or at least potentially bad, is that he's to play some outfield.

This is silliness. Nothing good is going to come of putting a 260-pounder in the outfield. Sano may indeed "run well for his size," but that means merely that he's more mobile than a block of granite. Sano is not faster than Eddie Rosario or Aaron Hicks. He has no chance of covering the ground in a corner outfield spot than they do.

And -- again -- it's not like they have to do something to get Sano's bat in the lineup. The Twins play in the American League. They have the DH. If the issue is about keeping him in shape and working on his defensive skills, they can rotate him at the corner infield spots with Trevor Plouffe and Joe Mauer.

Putting Sano in the outfield means (a) one of the young outfielders doesn't play and (b) means a weaker hitter is in the lineup to DH. It makes the lineup worse in multiple ways. And this fallacy, as it so often does, boils down to: He's too young to DH. Which is, again, silliness.

He's too good a hitter to leave out of the lineup, and he's not good enough with the glove to help afield. Those are what matters, not his age. If we're all fortunate, this notion will dry up before spring training ends, if not before.

Friday, November 6, 2015

From the Handbook: Using the changeup

A fifth of Kyle
Gibson's pitches in
2015 were changeups.
Thursday's post focused on Phil Hughes' ever-changing repertoire and mentioned Neil Allen pushing for more changeups from the Twins pitchers.

As compiled by Baseball Info Systems and published in the Bill James Handbook 2016, here's the percentage of changeups thrown in 2015 as compared to 2014 by five other Twins starters:

Kyle Gibson: 20 percent in 2015, 13 percent in 2014
Trevor May: 19 percent and 16 percent
Tommy Milone: 25 percent and 24 percent
Ricky Nolasco*: 6 percent and 10 percent
Mike Pelfrey*: 14 percent and 9 percent

*Nolasco and Pelfrey don't throw a "changeup" as defined by BIS. They use a splitter instead, and these numbers are for their splitters. Pelfrey's second number is from 2013, since he barely pitched in 2014.

What can we take from this? Pretty clearly there was a greater emphasis with Neil Allen/Paul Molitor on changing speeds than there had been under Rick Anderson/Ron Gardenhire. Milone barely changed, but he was already throwing his changeup almost a quarter of his pitches. Nolasco dropped off pretty sharply throwing his splitter, and I suspect his forearm/elbow issues had something to do with that.

Gibson was obviously a major change, from 13 percent changeups to 20 percent, and it appears to have been a significant pitch for him. BIS says he had the fifth best opposition OPS off his changeup in the American League (.545, rankings based on at least 100 batters faced).

Thursday, November 5, 2015

From the Handbook: Phil Hughes' repertoire

Phil Hughes threw his
fastball markedly less
in 2015 than in previous
The annual Bill James Handbook showed up in my mailbox this week, and I figured I'd spend a few days cherry-picking information.

One of the first pieces of data I looked up was Phil Hughes' pitch choices. Hughes has been ... inconsistent, let us say, from year to year about what he throws and how often he throws it. Oh, he has always thrown the fastball more than 60 percent of the time, but the secondary pitches vary so much from season to season.

To recap from previous Handbooks:

2012: 65 percent fastballs, 18 percent curves, 10 percent changeups, 4 percent sliders, 2 percent cutters. (That comes out to 99 percent, so presumably there are rounding errors involved).

2013: 62 percent fastballs, 24 percent sliders, 9 percent curves, 5 percent changeups, less than one percent splitters.

2014: 65 percent fastballs, 21 percent cutters, 14 percent curves, less than 1 percent changeups.

And now, from his disappointing 2015:

59 percent fastballs, 20 percent cutters, 16 percent curves, 5 percent changeups.

The only significant change is about five fastballs per game became changeups instead.

Neil Allen, who debuted this year as the Twins pitching coach, came in preaching heavier use of the change-up. While I agree in principle, I thought that it was a mistake in Hughes' specific case; he had ditched the changeup almost completely in 2014 and had the best season of his career. With Hughes, they were fixing something that wasn't broken.

Did Hughes regress in 2015 because he restored the change to his repertoire? I don't know. Hughes said repeatedly during 2015 that he wasn't happy with his fastball, and his velocity was down a few ticks from 2014. Did Hughes throw his fastball less often because it wasn't effective, or did he (as supposedly happened decades ago with Dwight Gooden) lose something off the heater because of working on the changeup? What role, if any, did his back problem have in this? Or was he destined to decline anyway? (Certainly a possibility.)

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Gardy, Black and Baker

A few days ago, the Washington Nationals had settled on Bud Black as their manager. On Tuesday, they officially announced the hiring of Dusty Baker.

In between came an apparently contentious contract negotiation with Black, who found both the length of contract and salary too small. The Nats have gotten a reputation for low-balling managers, and that is apparently by design, Their initial offer to Black was a one-year contract; meanwhile, Don Mattingly got four years from the Miami Marlins, and the Fish have made a habit of paying people not to manage them.

The Black fiasco should be an embarrassment for the Nationals, but I suspect Baker's actually a better choice for Washington. For all his sabermetric and tactical shortcomings, Baker's well-established as a handler of egos, and that might be the biggest specific task for the manager of that squad.

And while he was justly criticized for his mishandling of a talented set of young pitchers during his tenure with the Cubs, Baker appears to have learned from that experience. He was the manager of the Cincinnati Reds when Johnny Cueto emerged as a star. In 2012 the Reds led the National League in run prevention; in 2013 they were fourth, this in an extreme hitter's park. in those two years, nine Reds made at least 30 starts. That's not a record that fits his reputation as a pitcher-killer, but that reputation ought to be outdated by now.

The Nationals had high expectations entered 2015, and failed to come close. There will be a good bit of roster churn there this winter, but they will still have Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer, and they will continue to have high expectations, perhaps higher than they ought to be.


Meanwhile, in San Diego, the Padres have reportedly offered Ron Gardenhire the bench coach job. That provoked this tweet (from a reporter who confidently informed the world that Rick Sofield would be the Padres skipper less than 24 hours before Andy Green was hired):

Assuming that Gardenhire doesn't need the job financially, I would think it's a question of: What's the best route for gaining the managerial job he really wants? My guess is that he (and his agent) will figure that he's better off remaining a free agent and waiting for somebody to get canned in midseason.

To be specific, there was a widespread expectation that Detroit would fire Brad Ausmus after their disappointing 2015, and that Gardenhire was his most likely successor. Ausmus has been retained for 2016, but the leash is probably short. There's a genuine logic to Gardenhire deciding to decline any coaching jobs to keep himself available for a managerial post.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A little baseball art

For the Love of the Game is a two piece bronze currently
on display between two buildings on Belgrade Avenue
in North Mankato as part of the annual sculpture walk.

Better-late-than-never department:

One of the 31 pieces in this year's CityArt Walking Sculpture Tour in the downtowns of Mankato and North Mankato was this baseball themed one. "For the Love of the Game." I finally got around this weekend to taking some photos of it.

It would easily have gotten my vote for the People's Choice award, but it wasn't eligible, I assume because the artist, Bobbie Carlyle of Colorado, put a $66,000 price tag on it and wasn't willing to commit to the winner's price of $10,000.

In a more amateur vein, here are the pumpkins my wife created for Halloween display:

These pumpkins greeted our trick-or-treaters Saturday night.
The middle one was her complex one -- Minnie from the original Twins logo throwing a pitch. Linda wasn't completely pleased with it, but I am an admirer of it.

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Royals are champions

That's former Twins catcher Drew Butera
celebrating the last out of the World Series.
He caught the last inning after Salvador Perez
was pulled for a pinch running during the
Royals' five-run 12th inning.

And so the season ends, with a truly deserving World Series champion. Kansas City had the best record in the American League, and they played like it for three rounds of playoffs.

It wasn't a bad series for a five-gamer. Two of the games went multiple extra innings, and the Mets had late leads in three of their four losses. Poor Jeurys Familia wound up charged with three blown saves, although in two of them he inherited the jam and he didn't allow a baserunner in Sunday's blown save.

I spent most of the Series listening to either the Mets or Royals radio feeds via the MLB At Bat app. It didn't synch up with the TV broadcast all that well, but I also didn't have to listen to Harold Reynolds. Anyway, there was an ad running frequently on the KC feed that said This is the greatest time to be a Royals fan.

Maybe. The George Brett era was pretty darn good. Brett, plus Amos Otis, Hal McRae, Frank White, Dan Quisenberry, Willie Wilson ... They dominated the old AL West for a full decade and went to two World Series, winning one. It wouldn't have taken a lot for them to have gotten to more Series; they just fell short in the playoffs a number of times.

These Royals have done something the Brett-era Royals didn't: They've gone to two Series in a row. How much staying power this model has remains to be seen. Alex Gordon, who I believe is their best player even if Ned Yost hits him eighth, will be a free agent this winter, and some other key components will start approaching that status in the next few years. Keeping the band together is not going to be easy.

But that's for the future. The players and their fans can celebrate now. And they will.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Pic of the Week

A boy outside Citi Field before Saturday's Game Four
catches a ball.
No trick-or-treating for this kid. But I suspect going to the World Series is sufficient treat.