April 22, 2015

The art of platooning: Molitor vs. Gardenhire and Arcia vs. lefties

oswaldo arcia twins

Paul Molitor barely has his feet wet as Twins manager, but one noticeable change from Ron Gardenhire is the willingness to platoon. In his 13 seasons as manager Gardenhire essentially never platooned based on handedness, instead treating left-handed bats like Jacque Jones and Jason Kubel as everyday players despite their inability to handle left-handers and ignoring the potential value mediocre right-handed bats like Danny Valencia had as lefty mashers.

Molitor platooned more in his first couple weeks than Gardenhire did in some seasons, regularly benching Oswaldo Arcia and Jordan Schafer against lefties. That's a positive sign in the sense that platooning is a very straightforward, commonplace method of squeezing the most value out of non-stars and putting players in a position to succeed, but in this case the Twins constructed such a weak bench that their platoon options are pretty unappealing.

Not playing Schafer against lefties is a good idea, but Shane Robinson is such a weak overall hitter that his right-handedness barely makes a difference. Not playing Arcia against lefties is also a good idea, at least in the short term, but if the Twins still hold out any hope of him developing into an everyday player he'll need playing time versus lefties eventually and Eduardo Escobar, while better than Robinson, isn't exactly an ideal platoon-mate for a corner outfielder.

Mostly, though, it's just nice to see a manager willing to embrace a common, effective tactic after more than a decade of watching lefties flail away against left-handed pitching, potentially useful righties cast aside because they struggled in everyday roles, and batting orders remain unchanged regardless of the handedness of the opposing pitcher. And if the Twins' bench ever contains better options Molitor could do some interesting things with the lineup.

It'd be great to have nine everyday players and just trot them out in the same lineup spots no matter who was on the mound, but it's hard to find teams that wouldn't benefit from at least some platooning. Nearly every left-handed hitter in baseball history with a sizable track record has fared better against righties than lefties, often to an extreme degree. Because of that, with a lefty on the mound even good left-handed hitters are often worse than mediocre right-handed hitters.

For instance, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are MVP-winning left-handed bats and two of the best hitters in Twins history. However, looking strictly at production against left-handed pitching they both have a lower career OPS than mediocre right-handed hitters like J.J. Hardy, Delmon Young, and Trevor Plouffe. Having the platoon advantage makes a huge difference. Here are the career splits for the Twins' most-used left-handed hitters of the Gardenhire era:

CAREER OPS           vsR      vsL
Joe Mauer           .915     .749
Justin Morneau      .894     .705
Jason Kubel         .813     .676
Denard Span         .751     .726
Jacque Jones        .816     .628
Corey Koskie        .870     .707

On average those six left-handed hitters have an .843 OPS versus righties and a .699 OPS versus lefties for a collective decrease of 17 percent and everyone but Denard Span sees their OPS drop more than 125 points. Those decreases are larger than typical across MLB, but in general lefties tend to be 10-15 percent worse versus lefties. Of course, some lefty bats are good enough overall that they warrant keeping in the lineup against lefties even with the decreased production.

Put another way: Mauer's production against lefties drops 18 percent, but he's still decent with a .749 OPS. However, not many lefties are as good as Mauer overall and so most warrant benching at least semi-regularly. Gardenhire obviously didn't agree. Jones hit .230/.278/.350 off lefties, yet Gardenhire played him every day and kept him leading off. Kubel hit .233/.305/.375 off lefties, yet Gardenhire played him every day and kept him in the middle of the lineup. You get the idea.

It's possible that Arcia will improve versus lefties and/or become productive enough overall that he's worth playing every day and because he's still just 24 years old it's certainly worth investing some more time into finding out. More likely is that he's ultimately a platoon or quasi-platoon player, which is less a knock on Arcia specifically and more just the way things tend to go with good but not great left-handed hitters.

Considering his poor defense Arcia needs to put up big numbers to be worth having in the lineup at an offense-heavy position. So far he's hit .221/.262/.340 off lefties, which is 25 percent worse than his .249/.322/.489 line off righties. Even if Arcia gets better versus righties and turns that 25-percent drop versus lefties into, say, a 15-percent drop it shouldn't be all that hard for the Twins to find a random right-handed hitter capable of better against lefties.

Aaron Hicks, while hugely disappointing overall, has posted a .758 OPS off lefties in the majors and has always hit lefties much better than righties in the minors. Hicks may never develop into a quality regular, but he's already a quality platoon option. With a lefty on the mound he's a viable center fielder and/or better than Arcia offensively and defensively in left field. And that's the magic of platooning, which turns useless into useful by separating strengths from weaknesses.

Molitor has shown the mindset required to improve a lineup via platooning, but the Twins need to actually give him the pieces to make those moves worthwhile and a four-man bench of Robinson, Escobar, Chris Herrmann, and Eduardo Nunez doesn't qualify. Still, after 13 years of learning to view hitters strictly through Gardenhire's binary "everyday player or not" lenses it's refreshing to consider how open-minded managing might take better advantage of useful but flawed options.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Uber, which is offering a free ride to first-time users who sign up with the promo code "UberGleeman."

April 20, 2015

Gleeman and The Geek #190: Shane Robinson’s Priest Collar

Topics for this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode included returning to the radio on KFAN, Trevor May's promising start, Joe Mauer's changed approach, Torii Hunter and Trevor Plouffe playing at extremes, Byron Buxton's timetable, Danny Santana turning back into a pumpkin, small crowds at Target Field, what to hope for with Ricky Nolasco, bumper music choices, and mailbag questions from listeners.

Gleeman and The Geek: Episode 190

In addition to the direct download link above you can also subscribe to the podcast via iTunes.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Uber, which is offering a free ride to first-time users who sign up with the promo code "UberGleeman."

April 17, 2015

Link-O-Rama

"Gleeman and The Geek" is officially back on the radio, starting our fourth season on KFAN this Sunday at 4:00 pm. As always you can listen live on 100.3-FM and KFAN.com streaming audio or you can continue to listen to the show as a podcast via however you've been doing that already. We broadcast an hour live on the radio and then record another hour afterward in a side studio without any commercials, gluing the two pieces together for the final podcast product.

Rob Neyer of FOXSports.com wrote about my NBCSports.com blog-mate Craig Calcaterra and the criticism that comes with criticizing other writers.

• A national security expert wrote in the Washington Post that MLB forcing fans at every ballpark to go through metal detectors is "pure security theater" and "laughable."

Dana Wessel told the cute story of how he unexpectedly met his idol.

• I need two new owners my "Hardball Dynasty" league on WhatIfSports. Click here for details.

• You can't wear a spiked leather wristband and not expect people to mock it. Well, you can. But then it'll be even funnier.

• There's a vacant lot next to Calhoun Square and this summer Prime Time Wrestling "is planning five free outdoor shows" where "attendees just need to bring their own lawn chairs."

• I put together a guide to where the Twins' top 40 prospects are playing in the minors.

• If you like Boston Terriers, junk food, or dating you'll love this as much as I did:

The lesson to be learned is that meatballs are great.

• On a related note: This is a perfect representation of what life is like with a cat.

• Coincidentally the Cubs called up No. 1 prospect Kris Bryant on the same day his service time had been delayed long enough to push back his eventual free agency by an extra year.

Bryce Harper is still the youngest player in the National League.

• Grantland's oral history of the Orland Magic's non-dynasty was really good and included this what-if scenario from Shaquille O'Neal's agent about the Wolves winning the 1992 lottery:

Shaq was never adamant about going to L.A. or any big market. He went to LSU, so it wasn't like he was saying, "I need to go to some big market." Our strategy wasn't to force anybody to go anywhere. Maybe if he was picked by Minnesota he might have said, "I don’t want to go there."

Instead the Wolves picked third, missing out on both O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning.

Flip Saunders will surely disagree, but three-point shooting and playoff teams go hand in hand.

• It was another awful Wolves season, but television analyst Jim Petersen provided an ideal mix of passion, opinion, criticism, knowledge, and analytics. He's proof stats on TV can work.

• In the rare instances when the Twins talk publicly about their use of "statistical analysis" it comes across as rudimentary.

• Twins president Dave St. Peter took some shots at me during a Q&A session at the Minneapolis Star Tribune's new building and in doing so coined the phrase "Gleeman disciple."

• Seinfeld plus Limp Bizkit amused me way more than it should have:

The internet is an amazing place.

• As a Food Network viewer and Deadspin reader Drew Magary's appearance on "Chopped" was magical from start to finish.

• The photos from my podcast co-host John Bonnes' trip to Las Vegas are fascinating and scary.

• Congrats to Stu Neuman, Jon Marthaler, Brandon Broxey, and Clarence Swamptown on "The Sportive" winning the City Pages award for "2015 Best Sports Podcast."

• Restaurant recommendation: The Strip Club is a cozy gem in St. Paul. Tim Niver and Christy Niver treated us like family, every dish was fantastic, and I'm still thinking about the pork belly.

• Netflix recommendation: "Bloodline" is a slow burn, but Kyle Chandler, Linda Cardellini, and Ben Mendelsohn are all great and I enjoyed the 13-episode first season.

Jason Isbell has a new album coming out in July. His last album was amazing, as were the two lives shows in Minnesota that I went to.

• Some of this week's weird and random search engine queries that brought people here:

- "How did Aaron Gleeman die?"
- "Kid trips over man"
- "Spoon and Stable what to order"
- "How hard did Bert Blyleven throw?"
- "Heaviest center fielders"
- "Paul Molitor shirtless"

• Finally, this week's AG.com-approved music video is "See You Again" by Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth:


This week's blog content is sponsored by Uber, which is offering a free ride to first-time users who sign up with the promo code "UberGleeman."

April 15, 2015

Don’t act surprised: Twins build bad bullpen, get bad relief pitching

Minnesota Twins v Chicago White Sox

As part of the frustrating decision-making process that led to choosing the older, lower-upside option to fill nearly every up-for-grabs roster spot coming out of spring training the Twins now have a bullpen stocked with marginal big leaguers. To make matters worse their best setup man, Casey Fien, has been hurt and their lone standout reliever, Glen Perkins, continues to be in a role reserved for "save" situations that severely limit his overall usage.

All of which has added up to new manager Paul Molitor turning to an assortment of replacement level-caliber arms and repeatedly watching them fail, often in high-leverage spots. Twins relievers have combined to throw 21 innings with a 5.91 ERA and nearly as many walks (8) as strikeouts (10). Among all MLB teams the Twins' bullpen ranks either worst or second-worst in ERA, xFIP, strikeout rate, strikeout-to-walk ratio, and opponents' batting average.

Assuming that Fien's shoulder issues prove minor he'll soon be taking on a lot of the late-inning setup work that's been going to lesser options and in general the Twins' bullpen isn't as bad as it's looked so far because basically no bullpen is that bad. However, when you bypass better, younger, higher-upside options to give jobs to mediocre, low-upside veterans a bad bullpen is exactly what you get. No one, least of all the Twins, should be surprised by the early results.

This offseason 32-year-old left-hander Brian Duensing was a non-tender candidate because his inability to neutralize right-handers made him ill-suited for a setup role, but the Twins retained him for $2.7 million and kept him in a key role. They also spent $2.2 million on 33-year-old free agent right-hander Tim Stauffer, whose nice-looking raw numbers for the Padres came attached to a 90-mph fastball and included a 4.28 ERA away from MLB's most pitcher-friendly ballpark.

When the Twins signed Blaine Boyer to a minor-league deal in January it seemed like a move made mostly for organizational depth, because he's a 33-year-old journeyman with a 4.63 ERA in the majors and a 5.31 ERA at Triple-A, but he ended up making the team largely on the basis of a half-dozen spring training innings. Another former minor-league signing, 28-year-old journeyman Aaron Thompson, was chosen as the third lefty despite an underwhelming track record.

If healthy Perkins is a good closer and Fien is a decent setup man, but the Twins chose to fill the other five bullpen spots with Duensing, Stauffer, Boyer, Thompson, and Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham. And in creating that seven-man bullpen in which the only pitcher under 30 years old is there via the Rule 5 draft Molitor and the front office passed over several younger, cheaper, higher-upside relievers already in the organization.

Michael Tonkin is 25 years old and has pitched well in a few brief stints with the Twins, posting a 3.26 ERA and 26/9 K/BB ratio in 30 innings while averaging 94 miles per hour with his fastball. He was sent back to Rochester for his third straight season at Triple-A, where Tonkin has a 3.39 ERA and 85/21 K/BB ratio in 80 innings. He's young and cheap, he throws hard and misses bats, and he's fared well at Triple-A and in Minnesota.

Caleb Thielbar spent most of the past two seasons in the Twins' bullpen and pitched well as the third lefty, throwing 94 innings with a 2.59 ERA and 74/30 K/BB ratio. Ryan Pressly also spent much of the past two seasons in the Twins' bullpen, posting a 3.60 ERA in 105 innings. Pressly's secondary numbers were much less impressive, but he averaged 93 miles per hour with his fastball in the majors and has pitched well at Triple-A. They were both demoted to Rochester.

Lester Oliveros was acquired from the Tigers in the Delmon Young trade and missed most of 2013 recovering from elbow surgery. He returned last season to split the year between Double-A and Triple-A, posting a 1.64 ERA with 88 strikeouts and zero homers allowed in 66 innings. At age 27 his upside is limited and Oliveros' control can be iffy, but he throws in the mid-90s and has averaged 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings for his minor-league career.

Using the $5 million they spent on Duensing and Stauffer to acquire better relievers is something the Twins could have done this offseason, but even ignoring that possibility they had no shortage of intriguing, cheap, in-house bullpen options deserving of an opportunity and/or extended stay in the majors. They chose to give roster spots to none of them and the early results are what that flawed decision-making process deserves.


For a sadness- and anger-filled discussion of the Twins' rough opening week, check out the latest "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

April 13, 2015

Gleeman and The Geek #189: The Opening Week Blues

Topics for this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode included the Twins' rough opening week, Torii Hunter struggling in the cleanup spot, Trevor May joining the rotation after all, Blaine Boyer going as badly as expected, Harry's Razors giving listeners a nice discount, John Bonnes' trip to Las Vegas, Paul Molitor's willingness to platoon, where the Twins' top 40 prospects can be found in the minors, and hanging out at Mason's Barre.

Gleeman and The Geek: Episode 189

In addition to the direct download link above you can also subscribe to the podcast via iTunes.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Uber, which is offering a free ride to first-time users who sign up with the promo code "UberGleeman."

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