Monday, November 14, 2011

Dissecting the Bill Smith era: Statistical analysis

Despite his lack of a traditional scouting background,
Bill Smith didn't lead the Twins deeper into sabermetrics.

The Twins have a reputation for leaning far more heavily on traditional tools scouting than on new-wave statistical analysis. Terry Ryan, the once and current general manager, wishes to dispute that to a degree (at least in a Jim Souhan interview/column last week; no link because of the StarTribune's paywall), but I'm not completely buying it.

I have a certain sympathy with Ryan's general criticism of defensive metrics:

Defense is a difficult thing to quantify. And sometimes, what the statistic says about range, your eyes don't agree with.

Yeah. Like Delmon Young's suddenly solid scores in last season's Twins tenure.

But I don't think it helps the Twins to operate in ignorance of the metrics either. In that regard, I look at the infield portion of the much-reviled Matt Garza-Young trade (made by Bill Smith soon after he became general manager).

I've always, and simplistically, viewed the deal as three swaps: Garza for Young; Jason Bartlett for Brendan Harris; Eduardo Morlan for Jason Pridie. First-round pick for first-round pick, shortstop for shortstop, minor leaguer for minor leaguer.

Viewed that way, the Twins and Rays were basically even on the first and third parts. The Rays won the shortstop part, won it huge, and I think it was because the Twins (and specifically Ron Gardenhire) undervalued Bartlett's defense and didn't fully understand Harris' defensive limitations. The Rays were, and remain, more attuned to the metrics.

The same problem may be revealing itself in the rumored but not-yet-confirmed signing of Jamey Carroll with the intent of making him the regular shortstop. The metrics offer some red flags.

Ryan told Souhan that the Twins are more aware of the stats than they were two years ago, far more aware than they were 10 years ago. Perhaps. But in several ways -- the decision, for example, to commit long-term dollars to Nick Blackburn -- they show themselves to be not only behind much of the rest of baseball in the stats field, but oblivious to some of the most basic findings of the world opened by Bill James.

One can understand the reluctance of a skilled eyeball scout -- and Ryan is certainly that -- to embrace a line of thought that often is depicted as demeaning to his trade. Nobody wants to see his work devalued. Smith, on the other hand, doesn't have the scouting background of Ryan and Mike Radcliff. His failure to more fully grasp the implications of statistical research represents a missed opportunity for the franchise.

Two open eyes will see more than one.

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