Friday, February 27, 2015

Greek God of Walks or Nah?

Kevin Youkilis was introduced to us as "The Greek God of Walks" in the 2003 book Moneyball. Fans of the book and stats nerds eagerly awaited his MLB debut with the Boston Red Sox in mid-2004, hoping that Youkilis could prove the value of sabermetric thought - he didn't play flashy defense, hit for high average or light-tower power, but he also didn't make outs. He was considered an On-Base Machine, a Greek God of Walks.

Fast forward to today, Youk hasn't played since 2013 and his career can be considered with some distance. By any measure he was a great success, The GGoW made three all-star games, produced 32 WAR and starred on a World Series team. His reputation will always reflect that success and will also be linked to the popularization of sabermetric ideas. But was he really what we thought he was? Was his career misrepresented by a narrative?

Perception: The idea is that Youkilis, the GGoW, was a blue collar ballplayer who battled in every plate appearance to beat the pitcher. He would any victory he could get, be that a home run or a walk. He had to. Youkilis didn't have the physical tools to be noticed out of high school and was an 8th round pick out of college. But he made a great career by playing smarter than his opponents.

Reality: Kevin Youkilis was an awesome ballplayer in his prime. He did everything. He played a good third base, hit for average (career .281 BA) and for power (.478 slugging). He also walked. A lot. But not nearly enough to earn the title GGoW.

The reality is that only once in his career did Kevin Youkilis crack the top ten in the American League in walks. I brought this statistic up to a couple friends who know Youk's reputation and they both asked if this was maybe a misrepresentation. Maybe he didn't have enough plate appearances and his BB% (as a percentage of plate appearances) would prove his excellence. I went and looked up the supposed GGoW's MLB rank in BB% each year he had at least 400 plate appearances.

2006 23rd
2007 32nd
2008 62nd
2009 23rd
2010 20th
2011 15th
2012 51st

Even in BB% Youkilis was not an elite cultivator of walks. No doubt he was very good, but he was never in the league of Adam Dunn, Nick Swisher or Oakland's own Jack Cust. Maybe Youkilis was just a very good, well-rounded ballplayer. Not the cyborg with excellent strike zone judgement that many make him out to be. 

P.S. Ideally, if I had access, I would have liked to look at Pitches/PA. Andy recommended checking that out to see if it told a different story. However, I'll leave that for somebody with better access to stats and more time.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Twins 5th Starter Battle by ZiPS

La Velle E. Neal wrote in today's Star Tribune about the Twins 5th starter battle. Phil Hughes and Ervin Santana are going to lead the rotation and La Velle calls Kyle Gibson and Ricky Nolasco locks behind those two. There's an argument that Gibson and Nolasco don't deserve spots, but we can tackle that another day. As it's laid out in La Velle's scenario, this leaves one spot open to competition between Trevor May, Alex Meyer, Tommy Milone, Mike Pelfrey and Tim Stauffer.

Here's a look at how the five candidates stack up by FanGraphs ZiPS projections -

Note that Stauffer's projection is mostly based on bullpen work and looks slightly better as a result.

I think this tells us more about who will end the season in the rotation than who will be there in April. It's likely that Stauffer, Milone and Pelfrey are allowed to wear out their welcome before May and certainly Meyer are asked to take the hill at Target Field.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Hunter, Ervin and JR Graham

Crazy couple of months, huh? In any other year, $65MM of commitments would be huge news for the Twins. This year it's been pretty swamped by other teams (OK, mostly the Dodgers) wheeling and dealing like never before. I'm going to ignore all that noise and focus in on what the Twins have done and where that leaves them.

There should be no expectations of playoffs this year. But, unlike the past few years, next year might actually be good. Maybe. That's the position the Twins are in. They've spent the last four seasons tearing down the roster and rebuilding from within. The crop of young players developed has either reached the majors or is knocking on the door. Yet, with a young club comes many losses, probably about 90 of them.

Despite Kennys Vargas, Danny Santana, Oswaldo Arcia and Kyle Gibson earning their spot on ML team in 2014, there were still many holes to fill in the off-season. One corner outfielder was needed play opposite of Oswaldo Arcia. At least one starter was needed to prevent from Mike Pelfrey from depressing an entire fanbase. A reliever or two would be great to hold on to the few leads that happen.

Filling 'hole #1' will be Torii Hunter on a 1-year deal. He will likely take over in right field and let Arcia make his inevitable shift to left field. However, this is not the Torii that we remember from 2007 when he last played for the Twins. He's no longer the highlight reel generating centerfielder, he's now an old, quickly deteriorating corner outfielder who realistically, should have his 'glove' taken away from him the same way you might take away Grandma's driver's license. Seriously, it's best for everyone.

The damage in the field is minimized by the fact that he'll only be around for one season and is legitimately a very good hitter. He'll slot in nicely to the back end of the middle of the lineup and provide some nice pop. Especially with Target Field's short left porch, he has a real chance of topping 20 home runs for the first time since 2011. Only five Twins have reached the 20 HR mark in the last 4 years, but with Hunter, Vargas, Arcia and Brian Dozier, there are four guys who have a real chance of reaching that mark this season.

With the outfield corners set and players slotted in at every other position (except centerfield, but I believe that's by design), Terry Ryan and his comrades moved to the pitching staff signing Ervin Santana to the free agency deal the Twins have ever given a pitcher. Now 32, Ervin has been a slightly above average, work horse starter in his career. However, for providing 200 innings year in and year out, he's had very inconsistent results.

For example, 2012 was a complete disaster with the Angels. But he bounced back with an excellent season with Kansas City and then one of his best years ever based on peripherals in 2014. Over those two seasons, he contributed nearly 6 WAR (FanGraphs style). That easily makes him the Twins second best starter, but would probably be a #3 on most playoff teams. Going forward, that's the Santana the Twins are hoping for. Is that the guy they'll get? Who knows, Phil Hughes and Ricky  Nolasco showed us that we don't know anything about predicting success. I'll venture a guess that he has one very good season, one good season, one bad season and one injured season over the life of his contract. In what order? You're guess is as good as mine.

The Santana signing actually helped the bullpen, if you can believe it. It knocks one of the starters, probably Mike Pelfrey, into the bullpen. Starters are a crapshoot when they go into the bullpen. Some failed starters can't hack in the bullpen, but some have their career re-birthed. Andy passed along this tweet from Mike Berardino, with special guest Brandon Warne:

I will say, I don't expect him to be arguably the best reliever in baseball. I don't even suspect him to be very successful at all. But he might be a good replacement for Jared Burton or at least replace Anthony Swarzak in garbage time.

I would love to get into all the implications of rotation moves, but it's still so much up in the air. The only guys, in my mind, who are guaranteed a spot are Nolasco, Hughes and Santana. That leaves two spots for about six qualified candidates. It'll be an interesting topic for spring training but is hard to discuss at this time.

The third move the Twins made happened just today. They selected JR Graham in the Rule V draft. Twins fans may remember another Santana, Johan, who was once selected in the Rule V draft. They may not remember Terry Doyle, Alejandro Machado and Jesse Floyd. Hits are much less common than misses in the draft and it's impossible to expect anything, really, out of one of the picks. THAT SAID, I really like JR Graham! As recently as last off-season, he was considered a future middle rotation starter (think Ervin Santana). He is small, but he has power stuff and throws strikes. Baseball America had his fastball in the mid-90's consistently, with a heavy and very effective two-seamer in the lower 90's, a solid slider and serviceable change-up. The rub is that he injured his shoulder in 2014 and showed diminished stuff throughout the season. The Twins are gambling on some of that velocity to return and if it does, they'll look smart as heck. He's the type that could be an absolute beast out of the bullpen. If he is fully healthy, he may even become a good starting pitcher. There's also the chance that he never does much. He's never pitched above AA and wasn't very good at that level, so there is plenty of reasons for the move to fail. However, it's a good move that has the potential to make the Twins look a lot smarter than Ryan Pressly did in 2013.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

AFL Notes October 22-25, 2014

AFL Notes October 22-25, 2014
It’s been six years since my last trip to the desert to watch the Arizona Fall League so when I had the chance to finally make it down I couldn’t resist.  I was able to watch parts or all of four games and see many talented players who will be Major League contributors.  I didn’t prepare ahead of time to take great notes on players nor was I able to really evaluate many players because I was mainly focused on a select few I found intriguing.  Here are the those notes.

October 22

When I got to the park with my uncle and saw that neither Byron Buxton nor Eddie Rosario were in the lineup I rather zoned out and just enjoyed watching high caliber baseball because there were no players I was dying to see.  One player who stood out on the Salt River Rafters was the first guy out of the bullpen, Brian Ellington.  

Brian Ellington (Marlins): His frame stands out as a lanky right hander standing 6’ 4” and 200 pounds.  Then you see his first pitch and the radar gun says 97.  He had a bit of an issue throwing strikes as the inning got started by walking the leadoff hitter and throwing balls on six of his first seven pitches but after that he settled down.  He had a long, loose arm that acted as a powerful whip to unleash upper 90’s heaters.  He also threw a slider that was in the upper 80’s and some downward tilt and when he stayed on top of the pitch, it looked like something that would generate many swing and misses.

October 23

This was the game I was most excited about.  First, I was able to see the beautiful Salt River Fields at Talking Stick.  The players are very spoiled being able to call that park home.  For a spring training base, it really doesn’t get any better.  

Second, the Rafters’ lineup was filled with players I was excited to see.

Byron Buxton (Twins): Coming off two major injuries I expected to see a Buxton who didn’t look like he was in midseason shape and that’s what I got.  His timing looked a little off but what I saw was a balanced swing that showed his quick hands.  He did lunge for pitches on the outer half of the plate instead of letting them travel a little more but that is just a sign of rust.  One ball he lunged for with two strikes was a slow grounder to short and he showed the speed that leaves scouts drooling as he put pressure on the shortstop who bobbled the ball and even if he had fielded it cleanly would not have had a chance to throw him out.  He did get a fastball in on his hands that he was able to fist into short center for another base hit.  He would come around to score and it was apparent how quick he is on the bases.  Later in the game there was a line drive into left center that looked like a base hit off the bat and he glided over to the baseball and caught it on the run to make it look like a routine play.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Assistant General Manager and VP or Pitching/Position Player Consultation

There is a change in the way Major League Baseball organizations are structuring their front offices.  They are expanding and roles are being redefined and even defined in the case of newly found positions.  

There are three teams who come to mind when I think about the new structures.  The first is the Cubs and how Theo Epstein is now the President of Baseball Operations.  He has the final say on every matter but it is still Jed Hoyer’s job as general manager to assemble the 25-man roster and 40-man roster along with other various aspects. 

The second team I thought about was the Arizona Diamondbacks.  Never in baseball has a person had the position “CBO” or Chief Baseball Officer.  What is that?  I don’t think anybody can clearly define it so why not give the position to Tony LaRussa who is a very respected baseball guy with an intelligent baseball mind.  From the sounds of it, he is in a similar position to Epstein and has final say on all baseball matters.  So after months of observation he fired Kevin “ The Gunslinger” Towers and restructured the organization.  Dave Stewart (player turned pitching coach turned assistant GM turned agent) is now the GM and he is in charge of constructing the major league roster. 

Arizona also hired De Jon Watson as senior vice president of baseball operations.  In an interview during a D-backs game this season he’s basically there to fill in the gaps of where the organization might be lacking.  Remember the game has changed a lot since Stewart was last in a front office so Watson’s experience will come in handy helping him right a very wrong ship in the desert.

The third front office with a new structure is something that doesn’t have to be described much as it has been well documented in the past and that is the Houston Astros.  They created a position called Director of Decision Sciences for Sig Mejdal.  GM Jeff Luhnow is an extremely intelligent baseball man so I’m not going to question him and I don’t think I could do the position any justice by trying to explain it.  

So the five paragraph introduction is basically is to say that I think something interesting could be done in a front office to help a GM with difficult decisions.  Two men would be responsible for filling the positions of “Assistant GM and VP of Pitching Consultation” and “Assistant GM and VP of Position Player Consultation.”

Don’t those just roll of the tongue?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Predicting the Top Prospect Lists

I'll start off with the disclaimer that I know little about scouting and this almost entirely based off reading way too many box scores and what I see on sites like Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America and Twitter. I'm doing this purely for fun and it's complete speculation.

So what I'm going to do here is post what I predict the various Twins top prospect lists will look like before they come out. FanGraphs is already releasing theirs and BP and BA will roll out over the fall and winter months.

Kennys Vargas (who I would have ranked between Rogers and Thorpe), Danny Santana (between Meyer and Gordon), Josmil Pinto (between Polanco and May) exhausted their prospect eligibility this year. We'll get an idea for their standing on BP's list as they usually include players 25 and younger on a separate list (depending on the cutoff, Pinto may not be eligible). Trevor May will still be eligible unless he somehow pitches 11 innings in his next/last start.

1. Byron Buxton - Hard to move him down as he's still the biggest talent in the entire minor leagues. We'll get to learn more about how he's recovering in the Arizona Fall League but I don't see much of any chance he falls from the #1 prospect in this system.

2. Miguel Sano - Much the same story as Buxton, however, I think he could have been jumped by a very good year from one of the other guys. That said, nobody made that kind of statement this season, leaving Sano at #2.

3. Jose Berrios - Berrios had the best season of any Twins minor leaguer, jumping from Hi-A to starting in the playoffs in AAA. His total pitching line is 25 starts 140 IP 140K/38BB 2.76 ERA. Not bad for a 20 year old in the high minors. He'll likely spend most of next year in AAA Rochester building up his innings total.

4. Kohl Stewart - Stewart put up a 2.59 ERA in 87 innings in his full-season debut. And that's without the use of his best pitch (slider, which the Twins are limiting). He could be on the  Berrios path for 2015.

5. Alex Meyer - I struggled moving him below Stewart (Berrios seemed like an easy call), but his control regressed as he walked nearly a batter every 2 innings. We know he can dominate a lineup, but he beats himself far too often. I still have hope that he can be a frontline guy, but I'm thinking more and more that chance is shrinking.

6. Nick Gordon - The Twins' first round draft pick started off great in rookie ball, leading Elizabethton in hits en route to a .294/.333/.366 until he broke his finger. He was a top 5 draft pick and has looked good, but his ranking will all depend on how the scouts review defense and bat speed, the type of things we can't find in a box score. I, personally, would have him behind Polanco, but this being my prediction list, I'll slot him just ahead.

7. Jorge Polanco - Jorge is one of my favorite prospects on the Twins, anyone who follows us on Twitter knows that much. He's a 20 year old who's already hit well in AA and can play anywhere in the infield. He's got some pop for a middle infielder as well and could turn into the second baseman we hoped Eddie Rosario would be.

8. Trevor May - Don't think of this as an overreaction to his MLB starts this season. He's clearly nervous and it would be unfair to make too strong a judgement of his slow adjustment to the bigs. I still believe he could be a middle of the rotation guy, I just like the 1-7 guys more than him. He pitched plenty well in AAA to merit at least #8 ranking - which, remember, would be top 3 or 4 in most organizations.

9. Taylor Rogers - This is the biggest jump in the Twins system. Rogers added a few ticks to his fastball and crushed AA. Bits from scouts over the past six month have gushed about the Kentucky left-hander. I wouldn't be completely shocked if one of the lists from BP, BA or Fangraphs had him in their top 6 ahead of May and Polanco.

10. Lewis Thorpe - This is the lefty that everyone dreams on. Scouts have loved him since he signed in 2012 out of Australia. He started out slow in Cedar Rapids but finished as one of their top pitchers. He could also have some helium and move into the top 6 or so of some lists.

11. Stephen Gonsalves - I'm going to 11 just to include Gonsalves. He seems like the type of guy scouts might really love. He's a big, young lefty who struck out 44 in 36.2 IP in his full-season debut while walking just 11. It will be very interesting to see what the scouts who saw him over the year say about him.

A few others I considered: Eddie Rosario (perhaps I'm being too reactionary with Eddie, I wouldn't be shocked to see him in the 9-11 range), Travis Harrison, Adam Walker, Amaurys Minier, Nick Burdi and Zack Jones.

I would guess there are 7 top 100 prospects in all of baseball on the list, with the top 10 of these guys in consideration.

Also interesting to note that there are only four hitters on the whole list. Another reason the Twins don't really have to worry about paying for pitching this winter.

Let us know if we missed or under/overrated anyone @Pitchers_Duel on twitter!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Twins Free Agent Targets

2015 is when the Twins are going to start their turnaround. The cream of the prospect crop is reaching the majors - Arcia, Santana, Vargas, Pinto, Hicks, Buxton, Sano, Gibson, May, Meyer and Berrios. There are some skilled veterans who aren't yet past their expiration date - Mauer, Dozier, Plouffe, Suzuki, Perkins, Hughes and (hopefully) Nolasco. Combining these two groups will make for the core of the next great Twins team. At least, that's what they tell us.

In reality, the Twins struggled to improve as much as they may have liked in 2014. The pitching improved, but is still among the worst in the league. The lineup was actually very good, but still has some gaping holes. And at the end of the day, the team is going to need some help to make it out of the cellar of the American League.

The front office will be looking at a payroll of under $70 million for 2015 and have indicated that they intend to spend. The positions the Twins will attack, according to what I've read online and the general feel around the Twittersphere, are starting pitching and outfield. Let's take a look at some guys they will likely kick the tires on, starting with pitchers:

Current state:
Phil Hughes is the only pitcher to earn a guaranteed spot in the rotation next year. Ricky Nolasco will almost certainly be given every opportunity to pitch as he enters his second out of five years under contract. Kyle Gibson and Tommy Milone will be on the team, but haven't locked down a rotation spot necessarily. Mike Pelfrey is also slated to make $5.5 million next year and could be a factor at the back end of the rotation. And lastly, Trevor May, Alex Meyer and Jose Berrios are all extremely talented guys who pitched in AAA last season and should get a shot at some point in 2015. Not to mention a slew of extra lefties who could be serviceable, Kris Johnson, Logan Darnell and Sean Gilmartin.

What the Twins should look for:
Given this outlook, rotation spots are going to be difficult to earn next season. However, most of the candidates are young, injury-prone, unproven, not that good or some combination of those. So, that combo of uncertainty plus money to spend plus a need to improve the squad means that the Twins will likely invest in a pitcher. The situation also suggests that the Twins should invest in a certain type of pitcher. There's no need to sign an inning's eater type, like Correia, Nolasco or Pelfrey. They need a guy to pair with Hughes at the front of the rotation. However, it's unlikely they'll be able to draw one of the top pitchers on the market like Jon Lester, James Shields or Max Scherzer. That restricts them to a certain second-tier type with the upside to lead a rotation. This is our prototype.

Who fits the mold:
Josh Beckett -- I'm starting out with the most ridiculous suggestion. Beckett has the talent to be one of the 10 best pitchers in baseball but is inconsistent and often injured. Perhaps the Twins could strike at the right time and get next year's version of Phil Hughes.

Francisco Liriano -- A reunion with this strikeout artist would make sense as the Twins are lacking in frontline left-handed pitching and should be reasonably priced because of his injury history.

Ervin Santana -- Over the past 5 seasons, he's averaged 205 innings and 3.84 ERA. He's been home run prone and may resemble Nolasco too closely, but he has front-line potential as he showed with the Royals in 2013.

James Shields, Jon Lester and Max Scherzer -- Pipe dream of most Twins fans. I would hope they stay away from dishing out huge money on any of these guys who would help, but have their best years behind them and would be a financial drag for years to come.


Current state:
Oswaldo Arcia has right field on lock for the foreseeable future. Beyond that, there's nothing set in stone for next season. Center field could be occupied by Jordan Schafer or Aaron Hicks until Byron Buxton is ready - but we really aren't sure how long that will take. Left field could also be handled by Schafer, Hicks, Chris Parmelee or a prospect such as Eddie Rosario. Clearly, at least one outfielder is very much needed at least for 2015 and possibly beyond.

What the Twins should look for:
I've read they want a slugger. A big right-handed bat, like another Willingham or Cuddyer. This type of player would fit nicely in left field and the middle of the lineup. Howeveooking at the current construction of the roster and assuming Buxton isn't ready opening day, it's pretty clear they need a guy to man centerfield at least adequately. I would expect this to be where they spend most of their money, with only Cuban Yasmani Tomas probably out of play, as he's expected to make $75 million.

Who fits the mold:
Nelson Cruz -- If the Twins get their dream to come true, they'll end up Cruz. He can be slotted into left field and the #4 slot in the lineup between Mauer and Arcia. Not to mention the damage that right-handed sluggers have done in Minnesota. His gaudy home run total this season might drive up his price while his mediocre plate discipline and injury history tell us more about his actual value. Signing Cruz would almost certainly be an overpay but he is a good fit.

Colby Rasmus -- His career slash line of .246/.313/.438 isn't attractive. But it's excusable when you consider that he plays a solid centerfield, has thunder in his bat and is a solid-average baserunner. He might carry a higher price tag than some others but he also has more upside. He'd fit well on the Twins on a two year deal, starting 2014 as the centerfielder and then providing huge value off the bench once Buxton reaches the majors or taking over left field.

Emilio Bonifacio -- Emilio's triple slash line as journeyman isn't too outstanding .264/.320/.343. But he provides great flexibility in that he could play pretty much any position on the field. Flexibility would be very helpful if team officials think Buxton will be ready early on in the season and could use Bonifacio as a backup at nearly every other position.

So it appears Byron Buxton is the key to the puzzle. If the Twins want him to spend an entire season between AA and AAA getting reps, Colby Rasmus makes the most sense, potentially sharing the outfield with Hicks or Schafer. If Buxton could be ready early in the season, Bonifacio would be an excellent complementary piece and provide flexibility. Nelson Cruz would fit in left field regardless of what's going on in centerfield as Eddie Rosario looks less and less like a big piece of the future in left field. The Cruz scenario is more related to the Pohlad's grip on the purse strings.

I'd love to hear what you guys think about the off-season as well - any trade targets? Do they need bullpen help? How about leaving Santana in the outfield and signing JJ Hardy back? Tweet us @Pitchers_Duel or leave a comment!