Wednesday, November 30, 2016

All or nothing, and it's nothing

Chris Carter -- not to be mistaken for the retired football player; this guy knows how to spell Chris -- hit 41 home runs for Milwaukee this year. This tied for the National League lead in home runs, which is generally considered something worth having on the roster.

The Brewers cut him loose Tuesday. Non-tendered him. Go play for somebody else, fella. They signed Eric Thames, who washed out of American ball three years ago and has been starring in the Korean league, to fill the roster spot.

Carter is pretty much the epitome of the all-or-nothing hitter. He struck out 206 times in 2016; nobody in the NL whiffed more often. And 206 isn't even his career high; he piled up 212 K's in 2013, when he was with Houston. His 2016 batting average was .222, which is (a) low and (b) higher than his career batting average, .218.

And on top of that, he's not a particularly adept defensive player either.

Add it all up, and you have a player that both Houston last year and now Milwaukee find eminently replaceable. (Houston non-tendered him last winter.)

WAR, or at least the Baseball Reference version, agrees; last year Carter scored at -0.1, this year at 0.9. Milwaukee invested 644 plate appearances in him and got little return, even with the 41 long balls.

Letting a 41-homer guy walk is something that probably wouldn't have happened even 10 years ago, Teams would have perceived value in that many homers, even with all the outs that accompanied them. But in the age of analytics, the counting stats -- the narrative stats, as I described them recently -- matter less than they once did.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Hunter, Cuddyer, Hawkins in the the front office

The Twins announced on Monday the hirings of Torii Hunter, Michael Cuddyer and LaTroy Hawkins as special assistants.

The trio will be in uniform at spring training and be involved in minor league instruction and scouting. Cherry-picking some intriguing tweets from Mike Berandino of Pioneer Press about their intended roles:

Falvey, of course, is Derek Falvey, the new head of baseball operations and in a sense an example of the lack of diversity, racial and otherwise, on major league front offices. Increasingly, the men at the top -- and they are and have been all men -- have similar backgrounds, rooted in academics. The selection of Falvey to run the Twins operation may have been the last straw for consultant/headhunting firm Korn Ferry, which was bounced by the commissioners office shortly afterwards.

Hawkins, Hunter and Cuddyer are not of the Falvey-Thad Levine mold. They played 55 years in the majors, and any college they've had came in the offseasons. Hunter in particular has spoken of wanting to become a general manager; that kind of ambition is hardly out of place, but unlikely to be met without some form of apprenticeship even if the pendulum swings back toward the ex-jock at the head of the organization.

From all appearances, Falvey and Levine intend to give these three real jobs with real responsibilities, not just ceremonial appearances. And we'll see what they do with those chores.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Narrative stats versus evaluative stats

A few things crossed my path during my wanderings on the interwebs last week, and this tweet by Patrick Reusse on the yet-to-be-finalized Jason Castro contract is as good as any to get rolling:

Not to be snippy but .. yeah, it's been pretty obvious for a few years that Reusse, who was a darn good Twins beat reporter some 40 years ago, is out of touch with the advances in the game. He basically rejects any concept or stat that would have been unfamiliar to Gene Mauch and Earl Weaver.

In any other field, that would be silly. You'd be a terrible doctor if you knew nothing more than was known in the mid 70s, for example. In sports, cutting off your knowledge decades ago makes you "old school."

Joe Posnanski doesn't share Reusse's aversion to modernity. He had a series of blog posts this week examining the statistical differences between Rick Porcello (winner of the Cy Young Award) and Justin Verlander (who finshed second despite having more first place votes). The first post is here; the second, written after a response from Baseball Reference's Sean Forman, is here.

And in between came this piece by ESPN's Sam Miller on the same general topic: the ins-and-outs of Wins Above Replacement. Miller's piece, rather than being in the context of the Cy Young contest, is about Robbie Ray, who is either awesome or replaceable depending on which form of WAR one uses.

Read these pieces, and you might sympathize with Reusse. But we shouldn't.

The key question is: Why are we using the statistics?

You want to use stats to help tell the story of a game or the season? You want the traditional stats, what I think of as "narrative stats": wins and losses, RBIs, saves, etc, They get to the heart of what happened.

You want to use stats to help evaluate the talent and skills of a given player? You want the new age analytical stats, stuff you can't glean from the tables of the box score. They are designed for a different purpose, and they are necessarily less precise. And in some cases, such as Ray, they may not provide a clear answer.

The traditional stats are acts of accounting; the analytical stats are acts of interpretation.

If you are, as the Twins front office effectively did the past couple of weeks, deciding whether to invest $8 million in 2017 in Trevor Plouffe or Jason Castro, you're going to be more successful if you use the analytical stats (including pitch framing).

If you are, as the Cy Young voters were, trying to decide who had the better season between Porcello or Verlander, you're better off with the narrative stats. I have no problem with saying both that

  • Porcello had the better 2016 season and
  • Verlander is the more talented pitcher.

The analytical stats point you to Verlander. The narrative stats point you to Porcello, Different stats, different purposes. Nothing wrong with that.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Sunday Funnies

1934. Moe Berg is a seldom-used backup catcher on the Washington Senators team, and he is not in prime condition when he is suddenly inserted into the lineup to catch on a hot, humid day in Philadelphia.

In the seventh inning, Earl Whitehill, the Washington pitcher, and Doc Cramer, outfielder for the Athletics, start doing that always-irritating cat-and-mouse game. Cramer gets in the box, then backs out; Whitehill takes the rubber, then steps off.

And behind the plate, Berg is bobbing up and down, getting in his crouch when it looks like the game will resume, standing up when the pitcher or hitter stalls again. And he's getting progressively angrier with both.

Suddenly he calls time. Umpire Bill McGowan asks why. Berg's response: He takes off his mask, his chest protector, his shin guards, piles them all on home plate and tells McGowan: "Ill be back when these two guys decide to play baseball. Right now, I'm going to go take a shower."

Saturday, November 26, 2016

From the Handbook: Joe Mauer's baserunning

Back, one more time (at least) to the Bill James Handbook series.

It used to be a given: Joe Mauer was never particularly fast, but he was a good baserunner.

He's older now, older and slower. And his baserunning is no longer a positive.

In 2013 -- Mauer's last season as a catcher, and his last as the Hall-of-Fame caliber hitter he had always been to that point -- Mauer was, by Baseball Info Systems' reckoning, a +15 as a baserunner. He was on first base for 31 singles and went to third on 12 of those. He went second to home on 10 of 18 opportunities. He scored from first three times on 11 doubles. And, most tellingly, he was never thrown out taking an extra base and never doubled off a base.

Mauer in 2016  was considerably less adept. He went first to third only five times in 23 opportunities. He was thrown out twice and doubled off once. All told. BIS has him at -2.

There are, to be sure, worse baserunners on the Twins than Mauer -- Trevor Plouffe, for example, was -14 last season, and Miguel Sano -4. And there's more involved than just speed: While Byron Buxton was a +28, Danny Santana was merely +1.

For his career, Mauer is still an impressive +93 -- astoundingly good for a catcher/first baseman. But it's slipping. Which should be no surprise. He'll turn 34 early next season, and the much-touted water system at Target Field does not include a fountain of youth.

Friday, November 25, 2016

The meaning of Jason Castro

The decision to commit $24 million and three years to Jason Castro, in a very specific way, illustrates a change in direction for the Minnesota Twins in this way:

In what I've identified as the MacPhail-Ryan era (1986-2015), the Twins have consistently emphasized offense from their catchers.

That is not to claim that they've had poor defensive catchers throughout that period. Joe Mauer, for 10 years, was not only one of the the game's most productive hitters, he was a superb defensive catcher as well. But the Mauers of the world are rare birds; most teams in most years have to decide which set of skills to emphasize at catcher and which set of weaknesses to live with.

Tim Laudner and Brian Harper, the regular backstops on the two World Series champs overseen by Andy MacPhail, were not particularly well-regarded catchers. But Laudner had power, and Harper was as good a contact hitter as could be found, regardless of position. A.J. Pierzynski, who preceded Mauer as the No. 1 catcher, was a better hitter than receiver. Ryan Doumit was a bat who caught. Mike Redmond's appeal was more in his bat than in his defense. The Twins spent a couple of years trying to convince themselves that they could live with Josmil Pinto behind the plate and only gave up on him after a concussion-riddled 2015.

They did have some glove-first catchers during that era -- Drew Butera, Henry Blanco, Tom Prince -- but they were intended to be backups to catchers who were good hitters.

Castro is not Butera-weak as a hitter. He has some power, with double-digit homers in each of the past four years. But how well that power will play in Target Field as opposed to the cozier Houston yard is a question; he's hit almost twice as many homers in his career in Houston as on the road in almost equal playing time.

The switch-hitter left-handed hitter is also markedly weaker from the left side of the plate, against left-handed pitchers, which can be covered up with a platoon (the other catchers on the 40-man roster, John Ryan Murphy and Mitch Garver, are right-handed hitters).

But that's about hitting. The new regime is putting a new emphasis on catching defense. As one who has preached for a long while that the easiest way to improve the pitching is to improve the defense, I certainly can't argue against that philosophic change. And as one who wanted to see the Twins increase their use of analytics, I certainly can't argue against the process that led them to pursue Castro.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving

Once again, I give you the bird on Thanksgiving.
The Twins certainly had a turkey of a season, but I remain grateful for the escape from reality baseball provides.

Have a good holiday, dear readers. I'm taking the day off.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A defense first signing

The Twins haven't announced it, and doubtless won't until after he's passed a physical, but a variety of reporters metro and national say the Twins and catcher Jason Castro have agreed on a three-year contract.

Castro made the All-Star team in 2013, when he was pretty much the best player on a horrible Houston Astros squad, but other than an occasional long ball he hasn't hit worth a darn since. But he is a better receiver -- specifically in terms of pitch framing -- than Kurt Suzuki, and in theory that will improve the pitching staff.

Well ... the idea is that they will say, "Man, the Twins pitching has sure gotten better."

I've no doubt that many/most Twins fans don't know that much about pitch framing numbers and other new-age evaluative stats. For that, I think, we can thank/blame a collection of broadcasters and columnists who either parrot an analytic-avoiding organization's company line or "know" nothing about catching other than that Joe Mauer's soft. Criticizing a move on the basis that fans are too ignorant to understand fails the logic test. Who's been teaching them?

Shipley's Pioneer Press colleague Mike Berardino provides some context here on the signing, Castro's pitch-framing metrics, and why that was of particular appeal to the new brain trust.

And on Twitter, he adds this disclaimer: 

Of course, I have gone into detail on the wild pitch/passed ball problems of the Twins 2015 catchers, Suzuki and Juan Centeno. They weren't adept at framing or blocking.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

From the Handbook: Tyler Duffey's pitches

Tyler Duffey went
9-12, 6.43 in 2016.
Back to mining the Bill James Handbook, this time from the section on pitchers and their offerings:

One of the many things that went wrong with the 2016 Twins was the marked decline in effectiveness of starting pitcher Tyler Duffey. He was one of their better starters down the stretch in 2015; he was not good in 2016.

I had two theories, not mutually exclusive, about what was wrong with Duffey:

  • The sharp increase in his 2015 workload caught up to him in 2016
  • The insistance of pitching coach Neil Allen that everybody on the staff throw a changeup had Duffey using a mediocre pitch too often

A variation of that latter: Trying to master a change detracted from his fastball command.

These numbers don't confirm any of those theories. But Duffey's pitch selection changed a bit this year from 2015;

2015: 58 percent fastballs, 40 percent curves, 2 percent changeups
2016: 54 percent fastballs, 39 percent curves, 7 percent changeups.

Assuming 100 pitches per start, that's just one less curveball per game. But he certainly essayed more changeups, throwing five more per game. His average fastball velocity was essentially the same (actually increased by 0.2 mph).

Seven changeups per game doesn't seem excessive, and anecdotally, I don't seem to recall him getting burned on the pitch. I'm more inclined to blame a deterioration of his fastball command. Whether that came from his workload increase or experimenting with a new pitch -- or both -- I don't know.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Turnover among the catchers

Mitch Garver caught
in the Arizona Fall
League for the second
straight season.
The Twins spent most of 2016 with Kurt Suzuki and Juan Centeno as their catchers.

Neither remains on the 40-man roster. Suzuki is a free agent after the expiration of his contract, and Centeno was outrighted Friday. Each was a better hitter than receiver last year, and the new regime appears to have defense as a priority behind the plate.

The Twins have two catchers on their 40 now: John Ryan Murphy and Mitch Garver. I wouldn't care to wager that either will be the main receiver in 2017, but it's possible.

I saw Garver in 2014 with Cedar Rapids. He was in his first full season of professional ball, hitting well and reportedly rather rough behind the plate. He's still got some bat, even though his raw numbers the past two years aren't quite as impressive as in the Midwest League, and the reports on his catching are improving. (Mike Berandino of the Pioneer Press had this piece recently about Garver's work on his defensive skills.)

Garver was the Twins ninth-round pick in 2013, a draft in which the Twins took catchers in the third (Stuart Turner), sixth (Brian Navaretto) and ninth rounds. Neither Turner nor Navaretto have hit, and neither was added to the 40, so Garver has clearly passed them on the depth chart.

But it seems pretty clear, both from what the new regime has said and from what their organizations have done in the past (particularly in Cleveland) that the priority behind the plate is going to be defense. Murphy had a miserable season hitting last year, both at the majors and at Triple A, but his defensive metrics score well. Garver may well be a better hitter, but that probably doesn't give him an advantage over JRM.

And it would hardly be a surprise if a veteran backstop were added this winter.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Sunday Funnies

Before the 1952 World Series, angry Brooklyn manager Charlie Dressen cornered pitcher Billy Loes.

"I see in the paper that you picked the Yankees to beat us in seven games," the ornery skipper barked. "What's wrong with you?"

"I was misquoted," protested Loes. "I picked them in six games."

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Plouffe, there he goes

Trevor Plouffe had
a series of injuries
that limited him to
less than 350 plate
appearances in 2016.
Friday was the deadline for teams to add Rule 5-eligible prospects to the 40 man roster.

In a related development, it was also the day the Twins released veteran third baseman Trevor Plouffe.

They also outrighted catcher Juan Centeno and lost slugging prospect Adam Brett Walker on waivers to the Milwaukee Brewers.

These moves opened three more slots on the 40-man roster, The Twins filled six of the seven vacancies with prospects: catcher Mitch Garver; outfielders Daniel Palka and Zack Granite; shortstop Engelb Vielma; and right-handed starters Fernando Romero and Felix Jorge.

Plouffe's departure is the biggest news, if only because manager Paul Molitor -- and Ron Gardenhire before him -- made the one-time first round draft pick a fixture in the middle of the lineup. He was always an ill fit in a key lineup role, with low on-base percentages and mediocre slugging percentages. He had made himself into a above-average defensive third baseman, but his varied injuries last year slowed his reaction to batted balls.

Presumably the new brain trust found little interest in Plouffe as trade bait, and the roster spot was deemed more valuable than the veteran. Certainly, with Miguel Sano's outfield venture deemed a failure last season, there wasn't an obvious role for Plouffe on the 2017 Twins. Sano's going to be the third baseman in Minnesota now.

Plouffe, who turned 30 in June, will land somewhere. I certainly don't wish him ill, but it was clearly time for him to move on.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Notes, quotes and comment

Gonna interrupt the stream of "Handbook" posts for a few days and catch up on the news.

Awards season

Nothing on the National League side to comment on: Everything is as it should be. Kris Bryant won the MVP as expected; Max Scherzer was certainly deserving of the Cy Young;  Corey Seager merited designation as the Rookie of the Year; and Dave Roberts works as Manager of the Year.

On the AL side, the voters acknowledged the obvious in ROY (Michael Fulmer) and Manager (Terry Francona). But the other two awards deserve some comment, in one case because of old-school voting and in the other for new-school voting.

Mike Trout -- clearly the best player in baseball the past five years --  won his second MVP. I expected it to go to Mookie Betts, who obviously had a superb season and played on a team that won. The writers, this time, gave it to the best player even though it wasn't anything resembling a career year for him and even though his team was far from contention. And even though a wide range of September game broadcasts, when discussing the MVP possibilities, excluded Trout from the possibilities.

Trout in the past five seasons has finished second, second, first, second and first in MVP voting. He could easily have won all five seasons; the competing metrics that attempt to merge fielding and hitting into one figure often disagree, but they all agree each year that Trout is the best player in the American League.

The Cy Young voting was interesting, not least because of the Tweet storm it provoked from model Kate Upton, who is romantically involved with runner-up Justin Verlander. Rick Porcello won, even though Verlander had more first-place votes (14 to 8).

Had I a vote, I probably would have put Verlander at the top, but I also would have researched the question more thoroughly. A quick glance at Porcello's numbers suggest a stronger statistical case than I realized when the award was announced Wednesday. He's not an embarrassment as the winner.

But the biggest piece for Porcello was probably the gaudy won-lost record (22-4). Verlander was "only" 16-9. Perhaps most telling were the voters who ranked J.A. Happ (20-4) ahead of Verlander -- or, in the case of the two Tampa Bay-chapter voters who provoked Upton's ire, left Verlander off their ballots completely but found room for Happ. The only thing Happ had going for him was the won-lost record.

Old-school voting prevailed in the Cy Young contest, new age in the MVP.

Gardy in a dugout

Arizona hired Ron Gardenhire, not as manager but as bench coach. So he will presumably be advising new skipper Torey Lovello -- supposedly the runner-up to Paul Molitor when the Twins were replacing Gardy -- on when to bunt or change pitchers.

I've been skeptical that Gardenhire would get another managerial post. Taking a bench job at least puts him back in the game.

Korn Ferry fired

The search firm the Twins used to find Derek Falvey as director of baseball ops got axed by MLB this week because it was basically going to the same well (the Cleveland organization) over and over again to find candidates.

There does seem to have been a lack of diversity, not only racially but in background, of the people Korn Ferry promoted to teams for important front office positions. But I also suspect that owners wanted the kind of people Korn Ferry provided -- young, analytic, educated. That's certainly what I expected the Twins to demand, because it's what was lacking in the previous leadership model.

The search that produced Falvey was one of the last Korn Ferry did, and it may be that it was the last straw. But Falvey seems to be what the Twins bosses wanted.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

From the Handbook: Oswaldo Arcia, pinch non-hitter

Who was the worst pinch-hitter in the majors in 2016? The former Twin, Oswaldo Arcia.

Arcia got 13 pinch at-bats in 2016, scattered among four different clubs (Twins, Rays, Marlins and Padres.) He went 0-for-13 with five strikeouts.  Batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, all .000. Alexi Amarista and Brian McCann (each 0-for-14) at least drew a walk, and Amarista had a pair of RBIs.

Pinch-hitters are notoriously inconsistent from season to season, even the ones with successful track records. But 0-for-13 is pretty futile.

The thing is, Arcia fits a historic profile for a successful pinch hitter: Left-handed, free swinger, genuine power and genuine defensive liabilities (the latter being the reason good pinch-hitters aren't in the lineup).

A time-honored approach to pinch-hitting is: Swing at the first fastball strike you see. But Arcia's career is floundering in large part because he struggles to identify fastball strikes. Whether in the lineup or pinch-hitting, getting a good pitch to hit is an essential part of the formula, and Arcia simply fails at that.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

From the Handbook: Team defense

Only two player on the  2016 Minnesota Twins started as many as 100 games at a given position: Brian Dozier, 151 at second base, and Max Kepler, an even 100 in right field. One hundred is less than two-thirds of the games, so it's stretching things to assert that Kepler was the everyday right fielder. He had a majority of the playing time, certainly, but hardly an everyday guy.

So in evaluating and measuring the defensive skills (or lack of same) on this team, individual metrics are a bit lacking. There's hardly enough playing time for Eduardo Nunez, Eduardo Escobar and Jorge Polanco to be accurately assessed as shortstops.

But the Bill James Handbook does contain an intriguing table -- new to the book -- that assesses the defensive runs saved by each position for each team. And that is rather illuminating with the Twins.

The Twins had some ugly positions. No team's catchers cost more runs than the Twins (-18), No team's left fielders cost more runs than the Twins (-22). Shortstop cost the Twins 16 runs, third worst in the majors. Right field was -9, third base -8; oh, hello there, Miguel Sano.

Only three positions were in the positive zone for the Twins. First base was +8, the pitchers were +6 and centerfield was barely positive at +1. Second base was -1.

All told, BIS estimates that the Twins defense gave away 50 runs compared to the league average. That's not the worst in baseball -- Oakland was -71, and the Detroit Tigers were also -50 -- but it is certainly a problem.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

From the Handbook: Molitor's managing

The Bill James Handbook 2017 arrived at my residence this weekend, and I could probably mine the numbers for posts all winter.

Today, let's examine what it shows about Paul Molitor's tactics in the season past.

Molitor in 2015, his rookie season as skipper, did not lead the league in anything. This year, he

  • used more lineups than anybody else in the AL
  • made more pitching changes than anybody else in the AL
  • and, of course, lost more games than anybody else.

Compared to 2015, he

  • pinch-hit slightly less often
  • called for more bunts, steals and runners-in-motion
  • issued fewer intentional walks and was less successful with the strategy

That last segment is ... a bit odd. Team generally pinch-hit more often when behind, and lordie, the 2016 Twins were behind a lot. Teams generally break out the one-run strategies when ahead or at least tied late; again, that was not the rule for the 2016 Twins. Even the IBB -- the intentional walks is a tactic best used by the trailing team.

All this suggests that Molitor spent the season trying to "make something happen." He didn't pinch-hit as often because he wasn't starting defensive specialists; he was starting weaker fielders in an effort to push the offense. Eduard Nunez and Jorge Polanco at short. Juan Centeno at catcher. Miguel Sano as a right fielder. Even Danny Santana -- he hasn't hit for Molitor, but Molitor plays him as if he will.

Juggle the lineup. Change the pitcher. Put on the hit-and-run. Molitor was the managerial equivalent of the famous cartoon of two buzzards, one saying to the other: "Patience, my ass. I say let's go kill something." Molitor may have been losing, but he wasn't passive tactically. Indeed, he may have been trying too hard.

Monday, November 14, 2016

On keeping Neil Allen

To the extent that the dismissals of coaches Tom Brunansky and Butch Davis has drawn fan reaction, it appears to be: How did Neil Allen keep his job?

Allen, of course, is the Twins pitching coach, and the Twins pitching numbers in 2016 were ... really bad. The team ERA was more than a half-run worse than the next worst team in the American League (Oakland). They allowed more hits, homers, earned runs and unearned runs than anybody in the league.

So it's a fair question: If you're shaking up the coaching staff, how does Allen get a pass?

I think there are two reasons, which intertwine:

* Manager Paul Molitor has one year left on his contract. Even as front offices take a ever-increasing role in decisions that were once left solely to the field manager, they seldom force a manager to have a pitching coach not of his choosing -- and particularly so when the manager is working to keep his job. If Molitor wanted Allen, he was going to get Allen.

* Allen has a plan. As explained in this piece, published a month ago by the Pioneer Press' Mike Bernardino, the new focus at all levels of the system will be on fastball command.

I can see this detailed, specific approach appealing to chief baseball officer Derek Falvey, whose reputation is based in large part on his work on pitching in the Cleveland organization. Allen has identified and quantified a specific, organization-wide problem and devised a specific, organization-wide plan to attack it.

Falvey said a week ago that he wanted to see who in the organization wanted to "get on the bus" of "evidence-based solutions". Allen already had a ticket.

But here's a curious thing. A decade ago, fastball command was the hallmark of the Twins system. It's why the Detroit Tigers hired Rick Knapp, then Minnesota's minor-league pitching coordinator, to be their pitching coach. As I recall, Jim Leyland, the Tigers manager at the time, said that the Twins keep calling up rookie pitchers who threw strikes, and he wanted some of that.

Since Knapp left, the Twins haven't fared so well at developing fastball command.

Which may mean that Eric Rasmussen, who has been the pitching coordinator since Knapp's departure, may be more in jeopardy than Allen was.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Sunday Funnies

Welcome back to the Sunday Funnies, this blog's weekly offseason recounting of funny, or at least slightly amusing, stories and quotes. As always, I make no guarantee of the literal accuracy of these tales. I also now will not guarantee that these are fresh; I've been doing the Funnies since, I believe, the offseason of 2012-13. Some unintended repetition is likely to creep in.

But I know this one is new, because I heard it this season:

Paul Molitor, now the Twins manager, was on the Twins coaching staff in 2014, Ron Gardenhire's last as manager. Joe Vavra, the first base coach that season, had surgery in midyear and Molitor wound up spending about half the season handling the first base coaching chores during games.

So Molitor is standing in the coaches box as Cleveland Indians first baseman Carlos Santana is tossing the warm-up grounders to his infield teammates, and Santana is chatting with Molitor, unaware that the first base coach was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

"Did you play?" Santana inquired.

"A little bit," Molitor deadpanned.

My guess is that the umpire overheard the exchange and leaked like a faucet. For the rest of the season, first basemen jokingly asked one of baseball's all-time greats: Did you play?

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Rangers stadium vote

You probably heard that there was an election this week.

One of the lord-knows-how-many items Americans voted on was a stadium proposal in Arlington, Texas, home of the Texas Rangers.

The current ballyard, which has gone through a variety of names and is now identified as Globe Life Park,  opened in 1994. I don't think anybody regards it as a bad stadium, but it seldom cracks the top five in stadium rankings either. I've not been there myself, but there is a consensus that it's not as good as Target Field or the stadiums in Seattle, Pittsburgh or San Francisco.

And there's no question that the Tampa Bay Rays or Oakland Athletics would love to transplant it to their respective cities.

Anyway: The city of Arlington and the team worked up a plan for a new $1 billion stadium with a retractable roof. Local taxes were to pay for most of it.

There was organized opposition to the proposal, but it passed easily Tuesday. The Rangers expect to be in the new stadium no later than 2021.

It's their city and their taxes, but I heartily dislike a sports culture that regards a 22-year-old stadium as disposable. This make two markets (the other being Atlanta) that is ditching a ballpark before it hits 30. It all strikes me as a waste of resources.

Friday, November 11, 2016

BA's Top Ten Twins prospects

The dead tree edition of Baseball America that arrived at my house this week features the publication's Top Ten prospects lists for the five teams in the American League Central. The Twins portion is not yet online went online in limited form this morning (you need a subscription to see it all).

A few comments:

* The listing and commentary has a different byline this time around. Mike Bernardino of the Pioneer Press had done the Twins prospect list the past few years; this year BA staffer Michael Lananna gets the credit. As one who likes getting multiple perspectives on the Twins prospects, having BA be different than the PioPress is a positive.

* This list is necessarily much different from last winter's. Five of the 10 "graduated" to the majors (Byron Buxton, Jose Berrios, Max Kepler, Byung Ho Park, Jorge Polanco). Another (Nick Burdi) missed almost the entire season with injury and dropped out of the Top Ten. There are four holdovers.

* Nick Gordon, Number One on the new BA list, struggled against left-handed pitching in the Florida State League and committed 24 errors. Lananna writes of Gordon:

 ....some scouts outside of the organization view him as more of a second baseman. The Twins believe he has the aptitude, instincts and short-area quickness to stick at short, but he'll need to continue to put in the time to learn hitters, properly position himself and refine his footwork.

It's my belief that almost every shortstop prospect, especially those who can hit, has his ability to stick at the position questioned. As I recall, some 30 years ago there was some notion that Greg Gagne was better suited to third base; Gagne turned out to be a pretty good major league shortstop.

* The BA list has six pitchers: Left-handers Stephen Gonsalves (No. 2), Tyler Jay (5) and Adalberto Mejia (6) and righties Fernando Romero (4), Kohl Stewart (7) and Felix Jorge (8). Only Mejia, acquired at the trading deadline from the San Francisco Giants for Eduardo Nunez, is likely to be a factor on the 2017 staff.

* There are red flags with each of the six. Gonsalves' fastball command is suspect. Romero just had his first injury-free season in three years. Jay's description paints him as more likely a high-floor reliever than a successful starter. Stewart's strikeout rates remain subpar. Jorge and Mejia project as back-of-the-rotation starters.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The coaching staff: Bruno and Butch

Tom Burnansky is
out as lead hitting
On Monday, the Derek Falvey-Thad Levine duo indicated that they would decide the fate of the major league coaching staff within 72 hours. Turned out to be more like 24.

Two got the ax: hitting coach Tom Brunansky and first base coach-outfield/baserunning instructor Butch Davis.

Everybody else, including pitching coach Neil Allen, remains.

As is typical (and decent) in such moves, the decision makers are bland and non-specific about the reasons for the ousters. Which won't stop me from naming two reasons: Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. Excuse the doggerel:

If the Twins get
where they want to go, 

the big reasons will be
Buck and Sano

Too many K's,
too many E's

too many pitches
fanning the breeze

Taking the fall
for Buck and Sano
a pair of coaches
Butch and Bruno

Brunansky had his success stories as a hitting coach. Brian Dozier, certainly. Kurt Suzuki hit better overall for the Twins than I would have expected. Robbie Grossman was surprisingly good at the plate,

But Sano regressed last year, and Buxton struggled overall, and they are, absolutely and without question, priorities 1 and 1A. Keith Law of ESPN said repeatedly in chats last summer that Buxton needed either a new organization or a new coaching staff. Buxton had a strong September, but there was a lot of tinkering going on during his repeated demotions and promotions.

If Chad Allen, who has been the hitting coach at Triple A Rochester the past couple years, gets Brunansky's position, his work with Buxton at that level will probably be a factor. No matter who is the hitting coach, better production from both Buxton and Sano is essential. They have to be better players in the future than they were in 2016.

As for Davis: The Twins outfield defense this year was awful, The Sano Experiment was a failure. As good as Grossman was at the plate, he essentially gave up the runs he created in the field. Even the center field-capable contingent -- Buxton, Max Kepler, Eddie Rosario and Danny Santana -- were prone to errors and misplays.

Blaming the instructors for the pupils' failures may be a bit unfair, but it's pretty common. Now Buxton and Sano will hear new voices.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Non-players in charge

One of the lowlights of Monday's Derek Falvey-Thad Levine presser -- as expected -- was Sid Hartman -- specifically his rambling demand that the duo "account for" the rise of front office bosses who didn't play pro ball.

(And one of the highlights was Levine's deadpan assurance that “I’m as offended as you are that this is happening.”)

In point of fact, there have always been people without on-field backgrounds running teams. The other day I discussed the Twins history of what we mean when we say "general manager" (the titles haven't always matched): Calvin Griffith, Howard Fox, Andy MacPhail, Terry Ryan, Bill Smith, Ryan again. One of those five men (Ryan) played minor league ball; none played in the majors.

But this is true: It is becoming increasingly rare for a former player to rise into a key front office job. There are many reasons, but one -- clearly in play in the specific example of the Twins new hires -- is the rise of analytics.

Major league baseball organizations are a bigger business than ever before. More revenue, more spending, more on the line. They are, typically, owned by people who have been highly successful in corporate America. These are people who are not only comfortable with the idea of drilling into the data about their businesses, they expect it from their underlings.

And they are increasingly unwilling to accept the magical romanticism that old-school baseball men frequently espouse. Twenty years ago, they didn't have much choice in the matter, but they have alternatives now.

Compare Torii Hunter's background to Falvey's. One signed a pro contract out of high school and spent his late teens, 20s and 30s playing baseball. The other spent those same years going to college and developing an intellectual skill set while climbing his way up the front office ladder.

Falvey is completely comfortable dissecting the torrent of data available in baseball today. Hunter, in the final few years of his career, was actively threatened by the defensive analytics that suggested that his on-field value was negligible. Hunter has said he is more interested in being a general manager than a field manager, but there is no way any team is going to go there.

There are diversity ramifications in this. The young men increasingly being tapped to run baseball operations are typically from elite universities and able to get started with unpaid internships. They are universially white and well-heeled. The age of analytics is creating a glass ceiling in baseball management. It's also rather similar to some of the economic barriers limiting African American youth from playing baseball -- the expense of travel teams, the lack of full athletic scholarships for college baseball.

Diversity on and off the field is, I believe, is a bigger problem for baseball than not having ex-players running the business. They are tangentially related; the only minority GMs I can think of off-hand were ex-players (Bob Watson, Kenny Williams, Ruben Amaro Jr., Dave Stewart), But it's connected to the specific skill set owners demand of their baseball ops bosses and the barriers that keep minorities from getting those skills.

But as the current crop of players become ever more comfortable with the analytics, that may change. One of the signficant developments in recent years has been the funnelling of distilled data from front offices to dugouts -- usable data that players can take advantage of on the field. It's not a foreign language anymore to these guys.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The new guys

Derek Falvey (left) and Thad Levine during Monday's
introductory press conference.

So what did we learn from Monday's "meet the new boss(es)" presser?

Various forms of "collaborate" are among Derek Falvey's favorite buzzwords -- and he's got an impressive set of buzzwords that he sprinkled into practically every response.

Thad Levine has a knack for well-placed wisecracks, be they ad-libbed or rehearsed.

And, perhaps most significant, they're here to hire, not necessarily to fire,

Falvey intends to beef up not only the Twins relatively paultry in-house analytics department but also their strength-and-conditioning and nutrition programs. He and Levine said that one of the things that made the Twins an attractive opportunity is that the organization has some many long-term employees.

The idea, boiled down: Falvey and Levine plan an organization that collects ideas from everybody and reaches "evidence-based decisions". This will involve a greater use of analytics than under Terry Ryan.

And those who can make the change are, basically, welcome to stay. Falvey and Levine made it explicit about Rob Antony, assistant general manager under Ryan and acting GM after Ryan was bounced in July; they want him to stay as assistant GM. Presumably the same is true for Mike Radcliffe and Deron Johnson, the director of player personnel and scouting director respectively. They're interested in retaining Ryan as an advisor.


“What we’re going to do is introduce a vision and give everyone the opportunity to get on the bus. We’re going to build out and go that way, then see who’s aligned with that vision.”
Meanwhile, a little roster news:

Falvey, Levine and Antony were to fly out to Arizona Monday for the general managers meeting; during that time, the two newbies will confer with Antony about the roster and the coaching staff, with some decisions about the coaches expected before week's end.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Today it begins

"It" being a new era in Twins history. In terms of running the operation, there have been two distinct eras: The Calvin Griffith years (1961-1984 or '86) and the MacPhail/Ryan years (1986-present).

Griffith transplanted a uniquely bare-boned, nepotistic operation from Washington to Minnesota. He was primary owner and served as his own general manager. A brother, Sherry Robertson, ran the farm system for years; two other brothers and a brother-in-law were also team executives. (The siblings were nieces and nephews of Clark Griffith, who had no offspring of his own; he formally adopted the oldest boy and the oldest girl but was guardian to the others as well.)

When Carl Pohlad purchased the franchise during the 1984 season, Howard Fox, one of the few non-relatives in Calvin's inner circle -- death had thinned his generation down down -- became general manager. He didn't hold the position long. Andy MacPhail was named general manager in 1985, spent 1986 getting a handle on things, and that offseason drastically reshaped the operation, bringing in Bob Gebhardt from the Expos as assistant general manager, Terry Ryan from the Mets as scouting director and promoting Tom Kelly as field manager.

And the Twins promptly won the World Series the next year (famous Gebhardt line: "We were just trying to get organized and we won the World Series") and did it again in 1991. Gebhardt left to become the first general manager of the Colorado Rockies. MacPhail left after the 1994 season to become president of the Chicago Cubs, and Ryan inherited the big job and held it, with the exception of 2008-11, when he stepped aside and Billy Smith was general manager.

Today Derek Falvey and Thad Levine are to be introduced as chief baseball officer (Falvey) and general manager (Levine). Presumably the operation is to get another face lift. We'll see if the new era is as long lasting as the first two.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Pic of the Week

As a newspaper guy, this fascinates me. This was, according to The New York Times, to be their sports cover when the Cleveland Indians won the World Series: a parody of Norman Rockwell's "The Dugout."

Follow the link to a better image and the details of the work.


This concludes the Pic of the Week series for the year. Next Sunday I'll resume the Sunday Funnies.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

A big celebration

The scene at Chicago's Grant Park during the Cubs victory
celebration on Friday.
Supposedly 5 million people came to the Cubs victory parade and rally Friday.

If that figure is accurate, it would be one of the 10 largest gatherings on record.

The Telegraph, a British newspaper, compiled a list in 2015 of the biggest gatherings on record, Most of them are religous events -- Hindu or Moslem pilgrimages, funerals, papal Masses.

"I believe in the church of baseball," Annie Savoy intones off camera as the movie Bull Durham opens. It may not be that far fetched to call the Cubs a religion. It certainly takes a sizable fevor to attract 5 million people to an event.

Friday, November 4, 2016

A No. 2 is hired

With the World Series over and the prohibition on major personnel announcements lifted, the Twins on Thursday confirmed what had been reported earlier: Thad Levine of the Texas Rangers front office will be the No.2 in the reconstructed Minnesota operation.

Derek Falvey's title is "executive vice president/director of baseball operations." Levine's in "senior vice president / general manager."

Titles are one thing, responsibilities are another. Levine's title is basically a match for that of the fired Terry Ryan, but the authority Ryan carried belongs now to Falvey. 

The Twins plan an introductory press conference with Falvey and Levine on Monday. Perhaps we'll get a sense of how the responsibilities will be divided, and what other changes are in store for the front office.

And then they can get to work. 

Thursday, November 3, 2016

On to the offseason

Meeting at the mound.
A World Series Game Seven. Extra innings in Game Seven. A rain delay in extra innings of Game Seven.

Until the final out was actually recorded, I half-believed that the game was going to continue, and continue, and continue, that the kids who were put to bed hours earlier would get up to find the Cubs and Indians still locked in this stuggle.

And then Michael Martinez, probably the weakest hitter (excluding pitchers) on either roster, hit a weak grounder to third, and it was over.

It was an outstanding World Series. It was a great Game Seven. And we're going to get throughly sick of the Chicago Cubs in a few years. They're the new shiny thing now, but -- unlike, say, the 2015 Royals -- they're built for years and have the resources to keep it that way.

And now the Twins can get Derek Falvey officially on board, and get going with their offseason.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Notes, quotes and comment

Eddie Robinson, the subject of Tuesday's post, was at Game Six that night; Fox showed him during its telecast.

As far as I know, Robinson wasn't involved in the pregame activities (Dennis Martinez, another member of the 1990s Indians, threw out the ceremonial first pitch). But he is, obviously, not persona non grata with the organization.


Baseball America's J.J. Cooper compiled an extensive list of minor league pitchers who hit 100 mph in the past season. Two Twins are on that list: Pat Light, who was acquired from Boston for Fernando Abad and finished the season pitching (poorly) on the big league club; and Fernando Romero, a 21-year-old starting pitcher who split 2016 between low A Cedar Rapids and high A Fort Myers. It was his first season back from Tommy John surgery, and one would have to say it was a success: 90.1 innings, 1.89 ERA combined.

I wasn't impressed at all in September by Light. Romero is a genuine prospect, but years away from the majors.

There are 62 names on Cooper's list. and he expects more names to be added as people around the game see the list and say, hey, so-and-so hit 100.

There are other high velocity arms in the Twins system. Nick Burdi is one, but he barely pitched after spring training (three innings for Double A Chattanooga). There are several others who I'm a little surprised didn't hit triple digits at least once.


One game left to the 2016 season. May it be a good one tonight.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The complications of history and honor

Joe Posnanski on Monday posted this piece about Eddie Robinson, the sole surviving player from the last Cleveland Indians team to win the World Series. He's 96, and as Posnanski notes, is the one remaining connection to the 1948 champs -- to Bob Feller and Larry Doby and Bob Lemon and Lou Boudreau and Satchel Paige and Joe Gordon (which is just to name the Hall of Famers on that team).

And today's Indians organization is, at least so far, ignoring him. They had a couple of players from their 1990s World Series clubs throw out first pitches (Kenny Lofton and Carlos Baerga).

The speculation is that Robinson is sidelined because when the Indians started introducing black players to its roster in 1947 -- Doby, remember, was the first black in the American League, arriving a few months after Jackie Robinson made his debut with the Dodgers -- Robinson, a Texan, made it obvious that he was against it.

I find the stories of baseball's segregation and integration a fascinating topic -- in no small part because it is a reflection of the larger society. Eddie Robinson was of what we like to call "The Greatest Generation." He spent three years in the Navy during World War II; we fought that war  in Europe against a racist ideology and fought that war in Asia while spewing our own racial invective. And then the soldiers and sailors came home and wrestled with the race question some more.

Eddie Robinson played for seven teams in his 13 years in the American League (missing only the Red Sox). He stayed in baseball for decades in a variety of roles -- scout, coach, farm director, general manager (Texas Rangers 1977-1981). He had a scouting role, according to this SABR biography, with the two Twins World Series champs.

I don't doubt that Eddie Robinson was uncomfortable in 1947 with the idea of being the teammate of a black man, and I don't doubt that he made his opinion known. I do doubt that he could have survived in the game as long as he did without evolving on the topic. Maybe he didn't evolve as far as I would like, but ... who among us is perfect?

Robinson may not be a Cleveland legend, but he is a link -- the link -- to a storied team. If Cub fans can cheer for a questionable personality such as Aroldis Chapman in this series, Cleveland and its fans can afford to embrace Eddie Robinson.