Friday, January 19, 2018

Jim Kaat and the end of the four-man rotation

The Twins announced Thursday that Jim Kaat is the latest "special assistant" in the organization.

As I said last week about Justin Morneau, the role of special assistant is generally vague and undefined. Kaat's addition appears to raise to 10 the number of former Twins with that title. Some are doubtless involved in scouting and coaching, and others are more, let us say, ceremonial. Kaat is 80, and he pulled back on his broadcasting career sharply some years ago (although he still does occasional games on MLB Network). I'll assume that his role is ceremonial, although from a public relations perspective his nostalgic appeal is probably limited to the oldest of Twins fans. (He last pitched for the Twins in 1973.)

He remains, however, vocal and articulate about pitching, and I've no doubt that that appeals to Derek Falvey in particular.

Did you know ... Jim Kaat was Pete Rose's first pitching coach in Rose's short-lived managerial career? The two were teammates in Philadelphia in the early 80s and apparently agreed that if and when Rose got to manage, Kaat would be his pitching coach. Rose got the Cincinnati job in 1984 and immediately installed Kaat, who left the post after 1985 and went into broadcasting.

I have it in my head that the 1985 Reds were the last team to use a four-man rotation for a significant portion of the season. I expected to find a citation for that assertion within minutes this morning, but it wasn't where I expected to find it.

But the Reds pitching stats sure look like Rose and Kaat were trying to go four-man. Tom Browning (38 starts), Mario Soto (36) and Jay Tibbs (34) all got more starts than they would in a strict five-man rotation. Another 40 starts were split up fairly evenly among Andy McGaffigan, John Stuper and Ron Robinson. The later two split the season between starting and relief, but McGaffigan was strictly a starter, and more than half his starts came on three days rest, all of them in the second half of the season.

Digging into it a bit more, I see Stuper was strictly a starter until June, at which point he had an ERA of 5.65 and was shifted to the bullpen. He never got another start in his career. Robinson was in the pen until July, when he got six starts, then returned to relieving, then got six more starts in September. For all these guys, there are a lot of three-days-rest starts.

So yeah, Rose and Kaat were trying to go four-man, but they couldn't really settle on a fourth. And then Kaat left, and Soto -- who had been a very good starter for six years -- collapsed in '86 and was never really effective again. The '86 Reds' starts numbers look more like a five-man rotation (with a heavy lean on Browning). And if anybody has tried to go with a four-man rotation since 1985 for more than a month or so, I missed it.


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Examining the broken free agent market

Spring training opens in less than a month, and almost all of the most significant free agents remain unsigned.

Jeff Passan offered on Tuesday this detailed analysis of why that is. He makes some good points about the implications of the broken market, which he traces to three legitimate factors:


  • A players union that has suddenly become ineffective on financial issues.
  • The acceptance by fans of the notion that being competitive is optional.
  • The rise of analytics in front offices.


It's the last that most fascinates me. Passan summarized the new generation of young, highly educated general managers' collective view of free agency:

The inefficiency of the operation and the expectation that they must spend money there offends their sensibilities. And they’re not wrong. Players’ best years come in their 20s. Most free agents, then, are asking teams to guarantee them large sums of money for multiple years based on the performance of years they’re statistically unlikely to repeat. It’s not impossible, sometimes not even improbable, for them to do so. It’s just a risk, and as teams weigh the risk against that of seeking the same production from low-cost players they have developed, it’s one they’re less and less willing to take.

Baseball's salary system has been built like this for a few decades: Player comes to the majors, plays three to four seasons for essentially the minimum (which, granted, is multiples of any salary I've ever had), then is further cost-controlled through three arbitration years in which the salary escalates. Now he's eligible for free agency adn the big bucks.

And now, also, he's around 30. He's free to hit the open market -- at the age in which decline should be expected.

I no longer remember who Bill James was writing about specifically all those years ago in one of his Abstracts (Jack Clark?), but he compared the player's career to a watermelon. One team, he said, ate the sweet part; another paid for the rind. The analogy, if not the specifics, stuck with me; the odd thing is that it has taken 30-some years for management to grasp that reality.

Passan theorizes that baseball's labor peace is in jeopardy. As matters stand, young players can't get paid because they have no leverage, and old players won't get paid because the odds are that they;re going to decline. Meanwhile the teams are swimming in money.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Notes, quotes and comment

The Twins announced Monday the signing of Addison Reed and the related designation for assignment of Buddy Boshers.

I think there's a pretty good chance that Boshers will pass though waivers and remain in the Twins system. He is, in my estimation, a good example of a replacement-level lefty reliever. Whether he stays or goes does not materially affect my estimation of the 2018 Twins.

---

Boshers strikes me, however, as the last "easy" deletion from the 40-man roster. Let's say the Twins sign Yu Darvish, or any other free agent. Who do they drop to make room?

There are just 14 position players on the 40, and 26 pitchers; that's a ratio that suggests a pitcher. I doubt that they would ax Rule 5 pick Tyler Kinley before spring training, and there are good reasons to keep everybody else. (Although adding a hurler the caliber of Darvish is worth losing an unproven arm such as Aaron Slegers or Dietrich Enns.)

I suspect, however, that they would be able to offload Kyle Gibson and his arbitration contract fairly easily. Darvish -- or Lance Lynn, or Alex Cobb, or Jake Arrieta -- would probably make Gibson redundant, and there are certainly teams that would have room in their rotations for him. Gibson's a safer bet than some options the Twins have, but they have alternatives with higher ceilings as well.

---

The Twins winter caravan hit Mankato Monday, with a handful of non-Minnesotan players getting a rough introduction to ice fishing on Madison Lake on a frigid day. Alan Buzenitz is a Georgia native, Robbie Grossman is from Houston, Jorge Polanco from the Dominican and Eduardo Escobar from Venezuela.

From the Free Press story

Busenitz and teammates Eduardo Escobar, Jorge Polanco and Robbie Grossman didn't know enough to dress warm. 
“It was pretty hilarious to watch those guys walking around in tennis shoes and no gloves,” said Scott Wojcik, a Miracle League board member, adding gratitude that they came out to support youth baseball.

Busenitz said he didn't realize ice fishing was on the day's itinerary and stuffed hand warmers into his tennis shoes to keep his toes from freezing off.
I find it hard to believe they were kept in the dark about the fishing expedition.


Monday, January 15, 2018

Adding Addison Reed

I didn't think much of the reported agreement Saturday between the Twins and veteran reliever Addison Reed. That goes to show the power of first impressions.

Reed got going in the majors seven years ago with the Chicago White Sox, so we Twins fans got to see quite a bit of him. The Sox made him their closer pretty quickly, so he piled up some big saves numbers early, but he really wasn't that effective, and they moved him on to Arizona after his 40-save 2013 (ERA 3.79).

Somewhere along the line he (a) ceased being the prime ninth-inning option for his teams and (b) became a genuinely effective reliever. He split last year between the Mets -- where he did close for part of the year -- and the Red Sox, where he was a bit home-run prone.

And suddenly, wow, the Twins have a pretty darn deep bullpen, and it's not a case where they're getting that depth by planning on the emergence of one of the prospects. They're not asking Fernando Rodney or Reed or Zach Duke to do anything other than what their track records are.

Projected bullpen:

Closer: Rodney
Setup 1: Trevor Hildenberger
Setup 2: Reed
LOOGY 1: Taylor Rogers
LOOGY 2: Duke
MR1: Ryan Pressly
MR2:  Tyler Duffey

You can shuffle those roles around however you wish. I prefer Hildenberger to Reed, and Rogers over ro Duke, but your mileage may vary, and Paul Molitor may defer to the veterans, and that's defensible.

All this, of course, hinges on Reed passing the physical, which I assume he will. 


Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Sunday Funnies

Zeke Bonura was a stereotype: A first baseman in the 1930s, a slugger who was less than adept in the field, slow afoot and supposedly slow of wit as well.

He was a college man -- Loyola University in his home city of New Orleans -- so I doubt he was truly as dumb as the stories have it, but that's the basis of a number of these tales.

He broke in with the Chicago White Sox under Jimmy Dykes and spent most of his career playing for Dykes, who despaired of ever getting Bonura to learn the signs.

Now, today we recognize the limitations of the sacrifice bunt, and particularly with a hitter as productive as Bonura, but managers of Dykes' era didn't have access to the analytics of today. Everybody was expected to bunt, even in that high-scoring era, and that included Bonura. The problem was getting him to realize that he was supposed to bunt.

One day an exhasperated Dykes simply yelled from the dugout at Bonura: "Bunt, you big meathead. Bunt! B-U-N-T, bunt!"

Bonura, perhaps figuring that Dykes couldn't seriously be giving such a command so openly, swung away.



Saturday, January 13, 2018

Notes, quotes and comment

A warm thought on a frigid weekend: FSN will telecast 11 spring training games this year.


---



No kidding.

Gibson is the only arbitration-eligible Twin who didn't reach a contract agreement before Friday's deadline to exchange figures, and there is an sense that he'll be the first Twin to go to an actual hearing since Kyle Lohse more than a decade ago. He's not a great starter, but his track record says he can be expected to give you 30 starts and a bit below league average ERA, and there is legitimate value in that. 

As the roster now stands, he'd be the No. 3 starter -- Ervin Santana, Jose Berrios, Gibson, probably Aldaberto Mejia as the fourth starter and, realistically, a rotating grab bag of prospects and rehab guys for the fifth slot.

But the slow pace of offseason moves not withstanding, I don't expect that to be the rotation by the time pitchers and catchers report in a bit more than a month. And this may be my tendency to be fascinated by the new shiny things, but there are unproven guys (including Mejia) who I'd rather see in the rotation.

But I've observed before, regarding the bullpen, that the Twins are minimizing their risk. Gibson isn't going to be great, but he's not likely to be a complete disaster either. High floor, low ceiling isn't a bad approach for the fifth starter, should the Twins be fortunate enough to land two guys to slot ahead of him.

---

As one who aims to make at least one visit to the Midwest League (specifically Cedar Rapids) each summer, this was interesting news:



Clinton is on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River, not far from Cedar Rapids. The LumberKings are affiliated with the Seattle Mariners.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Contemplating Eduardo Escobar

The Twins announced Thursday an agreement with infielder Eduardo Escobar that avoids salary arbitration: One year, $4.85 million for "Eddie the Stick."

They also announced that Miguel Sano would skip TwinsFest this year because of the sexual misconduct allegation and MLB investigation.

How the Sano situation will play out is uncertain, but I will be quite surprised if the slugger avoids a suspension. Beyond that, the status of his shin, which had a rod implant this offseason, isn't clear either.

Between those two factors, Escobar may be more than a prime bench piece for the Twins again this year.

Escobar turned out to be a different player than expected, although that may have been more about expectations and stereotypes than anything else. The idea when he came to the Twins from the White Sox when the Twins traded Francisco Liriano away in 2012 was that he was a light-hitting, good fielding utility man.

The utility man part has been accurate so far. But he's been more noteworthy for his power than his glove. Last season he hit 21 homers in a little less than 500 plate appearances, which is far more pop than was anticipated five and a half years ago. But his defense is a tick below average at best, and worse than that when pressed into outfield duties.

His on-base percentages aren't good, and the total package is not going to get him on any All-Star teams. But as a Plan B, he's pretty darn useful -- and every team needs a Plan B.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

From the Handbook: Ballparks and Park Indices

First impressions are lasting impressions. Target Field has, at least superficially, the same dimensions as the late Metrodome, but it got a reputation in its debut season as a difficult home run park, and I'll wager it continues to be seen that way.

The numbers don't back that up. From the 2018 Bill James Handbook:

In 2017, the Twins and their opponents combined to hit 232 homers in Target Field, 198 when the Twins were on the road. BIS puts the park's home run index at 114, meaning homers were 14 percent higher there than in the "average" MLB yard. That's not the highest (Yankee Stadium's was 132, for one), but it's pretty steep.

The hitters' advantage is a muted a bit over a long time frame. In the three-year period 2015-17, Target Field's HR index is 106, a more reasonable figure -- but  still higher than that of, say, Houston's stadium (101), which is routinely referred to as a bandbox.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The tepid stove league

The Twins winter caravan rolls through Mankato next week (with an ice fishing tournament at Madison Lake no less), a sure sign that spring training is not far off.

And almost none of the most significant free agents have signed. Part of that may be that it is not a particuarly impressive set of free agents -- certainly not like next year's expected crop -- and each of the major names on the market has obvious flaws.

The Twins have so far inked a pair of veteran relievers (Fernando Rodney and Zach Duke) and a rehab project who might pay off in 2019 (Michael Pineda). But their main and self-proclaimed focus is Yu Darvish, generally regarded as the top starter on the market and with the added incentive that signing him won't strip a team of draft picks.

But even Darvish isn't attracting suitors with a sense of urgency.

The last time the offseason was this slow was probably during the collusion scam three decades ago. This time around the lukewarm market appears to be generated by three factors:


  • the flaws in the major free agents;
  • the structure of the luxury tax is compelling the usual market-making franchises to pull back on spending;
  • the prevalence of analytics has resulted in a every team essentially valuing players identically.
But something is going to have to break soon. Pitchers and catchers report to spring training in a little more than a month. 



Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Justin Morneau, special assistant

A bit of Twins news from north of the border:

The special assistant title doesn't tell us much about what role Morneau figures to have. Some special assistants seem to be pretty much for promotional appearances only; some pick up more emphatically baseball chores. Tom Kelly, until his health concerns, seemed to be pretty deeply involved in pro scouting as a special assistant.

But this does appear to put a period at the end of Morneau's playing days. He had hoped to return in the second half last season, but either didn't get an offer or didn't care for the offer(s) he received. He's one of the many players in baseball history who we can legitimately wonder what if. In his case, what if he hadn't sustained those concussions? You look at the season he was having in 2010 before he took that knee to the head at second base ... wowzers.

So, question: Who was better, Kent Hrbek or Morneau? Morneau has that 2006 MVP (which, in my mind and that of others of a more sabermetric bent than the electorate that year, should have gone to Joe Mauer) and a second-place finish; Hrbek finished second one year but only got votes in one other season. Career WAR goes emphatically to Hrbek, 38.4 to 27.3 (Baseball Reference version), and Hrbek got almost 900 more plate appearances in his career. They both had a rapid decline in their 30s.

I'll go with Hrbek, but it's close.


Monday, January 8, 2018

From the Handbook: Manufactured Runs, Productive Outs and Unproductive Outs

It's Dan Gladden's favorite play, or so I deduce from how often he praises hitters for it and complains when it doesn't happen: the groundball out to the right side of the infield with a runner on second and nobody out.

It is a longstanding staple of sabermetrics that the "productive out" is a fallacy. No out is productive. Production comes from avoiding outs.

Baseball Info Systems has been tracking the actual numbers for a few years now.  BIS has a six-part definition of a manufactured run, but it's rather commonsencial. You know one if you see one.

The Twins last season manufactured 164 runs. Only three teams had more. One of them was the World Series champs (Houston), and another was the Boston Red Sox, who won 93 games. The third was the San Francisco Giants, with the worst record in the National League.

Brian Dozier was involved in 26 manufactured runs, most on the team and ninth most in the majors. Byron Buxton was involved in 21, and Eddie Rosario in 18.

The Twins had 243 productive outs -- outs that advanced one or more runners. Seven teams had more (and another had the same number). The Twins with the most productive outs were left-handed hitters who pull a lot of ground balls: Rosario (31), Joe Mauer (30) and Jorge Polanco (29) -- Polanco, of course, being a switch-hitter.

Polanco and Rosario also led the team in unproductive outs, 88 and 77 respectively. (With relatively low on-base percentages, they make a lot of outs, period.)

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Sunday Funnies

Bob Prince, long time radio announcer for the Pittsburgh Pirates, at Stan Musial's retirement dinner:

"It's ridiculous that we are gathered here tonight to honor a man who made more than 7,000 outs."


Saturday, January 6, 2018

Puerto Rico series still on

It was reported Friday that the Twins "home" series April 17-19 against the Cleveland Indians in San Juan, Puerto Rico, is still on for Hiram Bithorn Stadium.

I am of two minds on this. and fully aware of how little I know of the details. I know the ballpark was damaged by Hurricane Maria, and certainly know that the island as a whole is far from recovered from the storm. I would hate to think that getting the stadium ready for a handful of major league games is drawing resources away from the general public.

I also know that this series is meaningful to several players on the two teams and probably to many on the island.

So I don't know if this is the right call. But it's the call. And it is likely that the weather in San Juan will be warmed than in Minneapolis.

Friday, January 5, 2018

The opposite of delayed gratification

I did some traveling during the past weekend and at one point found myself listening to the MLB channel on SirusXM in which the hosts were "interviewing" Coloraro general manager Jeff Bridich, who was obviously determined to reveal only his name, rank and serial number. I couldn't help but wonder why he agreed to go on the air.

Example: Bridich was asked about Carlos Gonzalez, free agent outfielder who has had some big years in Colorado and is now, somehow, 31 years old. (Time flies when you're not really paying attention to a player.) Are the Rockies considering bringing "CarGo" back, or have the two sides agreed that it's best to move on? Bridich laid a lukewarm filibuster on them in which he conceeded that Gonzalez is indeed a free agent. (Another aside -- I think it's a rule on that channel than Gonzalez can only be referred to as CarGo.)

But my absolute favorite "response" came when the hosts asked him what was really a pretty decent question about the contracts he's given Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee -- three quality veteran bullpen arms. They noted that the "industry standard" for bullpen guys is two years max, but that trio each got three-year deals from the Rockies. The question: Why did you go three?

The honest answer is pretty obvious: We're in Colorado, it's a difficult environment for pitchers, we have to overpay to get free agents to come, and we'd rather overpay in contract duration than in average annual value. 

Instead of saying that, Birdich described three years as disciplined because it's shorter than five or six. Which it is, but nobody's signing relievers to five- or six-year deals. Darn few free-agent starters get contracts of that duration, and teams that do generally wind up regretting them.

I've been thinking about this on-and-off for a few days, because it may be of relevance to the team I care about as it pursues Yu Darvish, a free-agent starter who should get a large contract from whoever lands him.

A few points:


  • Whoever wins this bidding war will, almost certainly, overpay in one form or another.
  • I think it better to overpay in AAV -- average annual value -- than in contract length.
  • There are structual forces that prompt front offices to prefer longer term deals, even though they are probably more likely to become problematic.


Darvish is 31. Let's say that a team can sign him for a total of $100 million. I would think it better to do that over three years than four, and over four years than five, because the older he gets the more likely he is to decline/get injured. It's a variation of the thought that (from the team perspective) there's no bad one-year contract; it if goes sour, you're out of it at the end of the year.

So why do GMs go longer? Because, at least in part, they may not be there at the end of that deal. They get a little more immediate flexibility by stretching the money out an extra year (or more), and if things sour, the backloaded money is somebody else's budgeting problem.

It's the opposite of delayed gratification.


Thursday, January 4, 2018

The BA prospects list

My off-the-top of-my-head ranking of the Twins Top 10 prospects wasn't very good, and it certainly doesn't match Baseball America's:

1) Royce Lewis, shortstop
2) Wander Javier, shortstop
3) Alex Kirilloff, outfield/first base
4) Stephen Gonsalves, left-handed pitcher
5) Brusdar Graterol, right-handed pitcher
6) Fernando Romero, right-handed pitcher
7) Brent Rooker, outfield/first base
8) Nick Gordon, shortstop
9) Blayne Enlow, right-handed pitcher
10) Tyler Jay, left-handed pitcher

Three guys on the BA list who weren't on mine. Rooker is the one I will kick myself for forgetting. I not only should have had him on my list, but top 5. I think he's going to be very good if not great at the plate.

The other two, Graterol and Enlow, are pitchers who haven't gotten out of rookie ball, and I am loathe to get enthused over those types. (That's particularly true of Graterol, who has already had Tommy John surgery.) The ceilings may be high, but I want to see more. There's a better chance of Zach Littell (No. 8 on my list, not on BA's) being in the Twins rotation someday than either Graterol or Enlow, just because he's already dominated Double A.

The BA list values high ceilings over high floors; my list was kinder to the high floor guys, like Mitch Garver and Littell.

A few other notes: Gordon dropping to No. 8 raised my eyebrows; he's not going to be on BA's top 100 prospect list again this spring after all. Kirilloff stuck at No. 3 despite not playing at all in 2017. Three 2017 draftees are on this list -- Lewis, Rooker and Enlow -- and just two international signings, Javier and Graterol.

Mike Berardino's byline appears on this year's list; he didn't do last year's, the first one he didn't do since takign the Twins beat at the Pioneer Press.


Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Royce Lewis, BA cover boy



So Lewis is atop BA's ranking of Twins prospects, and that makes sense to me. He was the first overall pick last June, he at least held his own in low A ball in August, and I sincerely doubt that Nick Gordon, the most likely position player alternative to Lewis, can be a quality major league shortstop. I don't think he'll hit with enough power to be a regular.

I don't know that Lewis is going to stick at short either. But right now the Twins are rather rife with shortstop prospects -- Gordon (who will be in BA's top 100 when that list in released), Lewis, Wander Javier, Jermaine Palacios. 

Anyway, BA's top 10 list for the Twins isn't in my hand yet, so I'll drop a off-the-top-of-my-head list on you now:

1) Lewis, shortstop
2) Stephen Gonsalves, left-handed pitcher
3) Fernando Romero, right-handed pitcher
4) Nick Gordon, shortstop
5) Wander Javier, shortstop
6) Alex Kirilioff, outfielder
7) Tyler Jay, left-handed pitcher
8) Zach Littell, right-handed pitcher
9) Mitch Garver, catcher
10) Akil Baddoo, outfielder

We'll see how that compares to BA's list.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

From the Handbook: Pinch-hitting

Darn near a half-century ago I was fascinated by a piece about the history of pinch-hitting. I can't remember who wrote it or when it was published, but I know it's hopelessly outdated today as a source of information about pinch-hitting accomplishments.

But the topic of pinch-hitting -- the art of coming off the bench for one at-bat -- is fascinating. It's a difficult task. The average MLB hitter last season hit .255 with a .750 OPS (On-base Plus Slugging). The average pinch-hitter hit .223 with a .648 OPS.

Four members of the 2017 Twins had at least 10 pinch-hit appearances.

Ehrie Adrianaza went 1-for-13 with a walk as a pinch-hitter. Eduardo Escobar when 2-for-9 with five walks (!), two of them intentional, so he had a really good on-base percentage. Neither had an extra base hit. Robbie Grossman was 2-for-10 with three walks and a double -- good OBP, but again, not much power.

And then there was Kennys Vargas. Vargas went 4-for-11 with a walk and a homer. He drove in four runs. Batting average .364, OBP .417, SLG 636. Not bad at all, Mr. Vargas.

Monday, January 1, 2018

From the Handbook: Average fastball velocity by age

This is a new one to the Bill James Handbook -- a year-by-year listing of the average fastball velocity of each pitcher.

This is probably most interesting for veterans. For example, Yu Darvish, the free-agent right-hander the Twins have made a display of coveting. Darvish just finished his fifth season of actual pitching in the majors (he missed 2015 with to Tommy John surgery) and had his highest FB velocity, 94 mph.

Ervin Santana, over the eight seasons shown in the chart, has been rather remarkably consistent -- 93 or 92 every season, with 93 for 2017.

One other Twins pitcher I'll take note of: Tyler Duffey was at 90 in 2015 and 2016, when he was a starter. Out of the bullpen in 2017, 92. I guess I would have expected a bit larger uptick.