May 31, 2005

Defense, with extra salt

There has been a lot of talk about the Twins' defense in my mailbox and on message boards of late, and the middle-infield combo of Nick Punto and Juan Castro put on quite a show last night. With that in mind, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at some early season defensive statistics (which are always to be taken with C.C. Sabathia-sized grains of salt).

First, a few definitions ...

  • ZR = Zone Rating, the percentage of balls fielded by a player in his typical defensive zone.
  • RF = Range Factor, (putouts + assists) / innings.
  • FLD% = Fielding Percentage, (putouts + assists) / (putouts + assists + errors).
  • IN/DP = Innings played at the position per double play turned.
  • Okay, now that we have those out of the way, here are some shortstop numbers:

    SHORTSTOP             ZR      RF     FLD%     IN/DP
    Jason Bartlett .831 4.24 .960 17.2
    Juan Castro .791 5.13 .991 13.6
    Cristian Guzman .823 4.65 .983 12.7

    Cristian Guzman's stats are from last season with the Twins, while Jason Bartlett's and Juan Castro's numbers are from this season. Also, Castro's numbers are only from his time at shortstop, not from second base or third base.

    If the above is to be believed, Castro has had more chances than either Guzman or Bartlett (which is often due to the pitchers on the mound), while Bartlett has been the best of the three at getting to balls in his zone, but the worst of the three at committing errors and turning double plays. Those stats do make some sense in Bartlett's case.

    I thought Bartlett's range was pretty great, as he got to several balls that I felt Guzman never would have come close to. At the same time, he booted more than his share of fairly routine plays and wasn't great turning two, both of which are reflected in the numbers. Of course, if you buy into all that you also have to buy into Castro fielding a lower percentage of balls in his zone than Guzman did, which is a tough sell on me.

    Now let's look at some third base numbers:

    THIRD BASE            ZR      RF     FLD%     IN/DP
    Michael Cuddyer .752 2.74 .921 42.3
    Corey Koskie .779 2.56 .963 71.7

    Again, Corey Koskie's numbers are from last season with the Twins, while Michael Cuddyer's numbers are from this season and only from his time at third base.

    These numbers are a little more straightforward. Basically, Cuddyer has had more chances at third base than Koskie did last season, but has made a lower percentage of the plays on balls in his zone and has committed more errors. All of those things match up with what my eyes tell me, although that doesn't really make the stats any more or less likely to be "true."

    Let's move over to second base:

    SECOND BASE           ZR      RF     FLD%     IN/DP
    Nick Punto .889 4.99 .992 16.1
    Luis Rivas .839 4.61 1.000 13.4

    Punto has had more chances than Luis Rivas and he's fielded a higher percentage of the balls in his zone than Rivas. Their fielding percentages are both nearly perfect, as Punto has the lone error in 426.2 innings between them, and Rivas has turned slightly more double plays per inning. Like with Cuddyer and Koskie, those numbers -- from Punto making more plays and showing more range to Rivas still turning a great double play -- match up with what my eyes tell me.

    And finally, here are the percentage of balls in play that the Twins, as a team, have converted into outs:

    YEAR      DER
    2001 .700
    2002 .705
    2003 .701
    2004 .688
    2005 .711

    Again, if those numbers are to be believed, the Twins' defense has been pretty damn good this season. Their DER ranks fourth in the AL and is better than in any of the past four seasons. Now, a pitching staff plays a role in a team's DER (although how big a role is the subject of much debate), and Twins pitchers have allowed the third-lowest percentage of line drives in the league this year.

    In my mind, the Twins are better defensively at second base and shortstop, but worse at third base. They are also likely worse at first base, but a) first base is almost impossible to judge based on basic defensive numbers, and b) Justin Morneau played about half the season there in 2004. Catcher and the three outfield spots should be pretty similar to last year, so the swap of pluses at second and short and a minus at third might just be why the DER is up a tick.

    UPDATE: I couldn't find mainstream confirmation of any of the moves as of midnight, but the Twins have reportedly placed Rivas on the 15-day disabled list, optioned Terry Tiffee to Triple-A, and called up Michael Ryan and Brent Abernathy. Personally, I think sending Rivas to Triple-A would have sent a bigger, better message, unless of course he's actually hurt.

    In general though, these four moves probably have as small an impact on a baseball team as four moves could possibly have. The Twins lose a little defensive versatility by swapping Tiffee for Ryan as their lefty pinch-hitter, but they are equally mediocre offensively and Tiffee had played himself out of any meaningful playing time at third base anyway. As I've written here a number of times, Abernathy is a solid backup infielder and he certainly deserves a look after hitting .328/.394/.520 at Rochester.

    Today at The Hardball Times:
    - Disappearing Numbers (by Aaron Gleeman)
    - Business of Baseball Report (by Brian Borawski)

    Today's Picks (40-35, +$530):
    Atlanta (Smoltz) -150 over Washington (Armas)
    Arizona (Webb) -105 over New York (Zambrano)
    Toronto (Chacin) +110 over Seattle (Meche)


    May 29, 2005

    Twins Take 2 of 3 From Blue Jays

    Yesterday's loss at the hands of Roy Halladay was frustrating to no end, but the fact is that taking two out of three games from a good Toronto team, on the road, is nothing to be disappointed about. Plus, any time Joe Mays is matched up against someone with a Cy Young award on his resume, expecting a win is silly.

    Some notes on the series ...

  • I was very impressed with Orlando Hudson and Aaron Hill defensively. Hudson for his neverending range and hustle, and Hill for what looks like a great arm at third base. In fact, Hill's arm appears to be like Michael Cuddyer's arm, except he might actually have some idea where the tough throws are going to end up. Hudson has long been a favorite of mine, for whatever reason. He's not a great hitter and certainly has flaws, but he strikes me as someone I would really enjoy watching on a daily basis.
  • The lineup's collective effort against Halladay yesterday for pretty pathetic. There is no doubt that Halladay is a great pitcher, particularly when he is on top of his game like he was against the Twins, but hitters were flailing away at balls out of the strike zone early in the count all afternoon. At points it literally looked as if the Twins were trying to hurry their at-bats along in order to catch their plane out of the country.

    Jacque Jones had an at-bat in the fifth inning that looked similar to what might happen if a coach agreed to let a player take a few more swings at the end of batting practice if the player promised to take them really quickly. Halladay kept tossing breaking balls down and out of the strike zone, and Jones chased them all day. Jones wasn't alone by a long shot, but that at-bat -- in which he swung at four out of five pitches he saw and struck out swinging -- wrapped up the whole afternoon.

    As my favorite Blue Jays fan, Craig Burley (of Batter's Box and The Hardball Times), said to me shortly after the game, "This one was mailed in from the end of the first."

  • Of course, the Twins' starting pitching during the three-game series was pretty good too.
                       IP      H     R     ER     BB     SO     HR
    Johan Santana 7.0 4 2 2 2 8 0
    Kyle Lohse 7.0 6 1 1 0 3 0
    Joe Mays 7.0 10 2 2 1 3 1

    When a struggling pitcher and his pitching coach talk about making changes on the mound, it is usually nothing more than talk. In Kyle Lohse's case, there have definitely been fundamental changes in his approach. Pitching coach Rick Anderson appears to have convinced Lohse to simplify things on the mound, asking him to rely more on his fastball/sinker and slider than he has in the past. After nearly two years of struggling, Lohse has turned in three straight encouraging performances:

    OPP      IP     H     R     ER     BB     SO     HR
    TOR 6.0 7 2 2 2 1 0
    CLE 7.1 7 2 2 2 1 0
    TOR 7.0 6 1 1 0 3 0

    That's not going to win any awards, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. It is increasingly clear that Lohse is transitioning from attempting to be a power pitcher to attempting to be a ground-ball pitcher, ala Carlos Silva. That is, throw strikes, keep things simple by working mostly with your fastball, and let the defense work for you.

    Lohse entered this season with a career ground ball-to-fly ball ratio of 0.96-to-1. Pitchers as a whole averaged about 1.25 grounders for every fly ball over the last couple years, which means Lohse's pre-2005 ground-to-fly ratio qualified him as a "fly-ball pitcher." All of which makes what he's done of late pretty intriguing. Over his last three starts, Lohse has induced 46 ground-ball outs, compared to just 17 fly-ball outs, for a ratio of 2.71-to-1. Only Brandon Webb (3.55-to-1), Derek Lowe (2.87), and Jake Westbrook (2.72) induced a higher percentage of grounders than that last season.

    Lohse has never been able to rack up a lot of strikeouts, regardless of his style of pitching. And if you're not going to strike anyone out, you're going to need to get a lot of ground balls. It is the reason guys like Silva and Lowe can succeed despite batters making such good contact against them, and it is why I am suddenly hopeful about Lohse's chances of again becoming the solid middle-of-the-rotation starter he once was.

  • Thanks in part to Lohse's sudden transformation and in part to Mays' return from the disabled list, the Twins' starting rotation now consists of three fairly extreme ground-ball pitchers. Once upon a time the Twins -- with starters like Johan Santana, Brad Radke, Eric Milton, and Rick Reed -- had one of the most fly-ball dominant staffs in all of baseball. It is an interesting development considering the strength of the defense has long been Torii Hunter and Jones in the outfield, and the infield has seen a whole slew of changes this year.
  • Speaking of the new infield, I got an e-mail from someone during Saturday's game that read, simply:
    Ha. I thought you claimed Castro couldn't hit?!

    That of course came moments after Juan Castro homered for the second straight day. You'll find no one on earth happier about Castro homering in back-to-back games than me, but let's at least try to be rational here. Even after homering twice against Toronto, Castro is hitting .268/.302/.427 on the year. Now, if he could keep that up for the entire season, he would be a very valuable player for the Twins and a bargain at a million bucks. The problem is that he won't.

    Castro's homers shouldn't be especially shocking, because he has actually shown some decent home run power in the past. In fact, take a look at how his amazing power display so far this season (that's sarcasm, people) compares to what he did over the past three years:

                   AB/HR     IsoP
    2002-04 43.8 .132
    2005 27.3 .159

    Essentially, Castro has hit one "extra" homer this year, which accounts for the rise in his home run rate and his Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average). One extra home run in 82 at-bats goes beyond small sample-sizes into the realm of not meaning anything significant at all. In other words, if Castro doesn't hit a homer this week, he'll be right back at his regular homer rate from the past three years.

    What has changed to give Castro decent all-around offensive numbers for the first time in his career is the fact that he's hitting .268. He's not in danger of winning any batting titles, but that is likely not a sustainable batting average for a guy who came into this season as a career .226 hitter in 1,599 at-bats and has hit higher than .250 just once.

    I'll gladly eat a healthy serving of crow if Castro keeps this up, but let's wait until he has an at-bat total that isn't in double digits first. Oh, and just to be clear, I wrote the following in my "defense" of Jason Bartlett: "If the team had kept Bartlett at Triple-A this whole time, handing the job to Juan Castro or Nick Punto out of spring training, it would have been far less troubling than what has actually taken place." Castro starting at shortstop, by itself, isn't what I have a big problem with.

  • The Twins are now 29-20 on the year, which is a 96-win pace. Regardless of what the White Sox do -- and they certainly seem to be coming back down to earth in a hurry finally -- 96 wins will likely make the playoffs. Here's how this year's record through 49 games compares to the past four seasons:
    YEAR      W      L     WIN%
    2001 33 16 .673
    2002 27 22 .551
    2003 29 20 .592
    2004 27 22 .551
    2005 29 20 .592

    Interestingly, the only year in the past five in which the Twins have been on pace to win significantly more games than they ended up winning at the end of the season was in 2001, when they started 33-16, faded horribly down the stretch, and missed the playoffs. In the past four years -- which includes three trips to the postseason and, hopefully, a fourth this season -- the Twins have gotten off to very similar starts, winning either 27 or 29 games out of their first 49.

  • Today at The Hardball Times:
    - Murphy's A's (by Aaron Gleeman)

    Today's Picks (39-33, +$690):
    Chicago (Buehrle) -140 over Los Angeles (Washburn)
    Toronto (Lilly) -100 over Seattle (Moyer)


    May 26, 2005

    Link-O-Rama

    It's Friday, and you know what that means. No amount of headaches and frustrating Twins losses could possibly keep me from dumping a bunch of links you on heading into the weekend ...

  • ESPN.com's Chad Ford had his first mock draft posted about three seconds after the NBA lottery was finished the other night, and he has the Wolves taking Oklahoma State's Joey Graham with the 14th pick.

    Here's part of ESPN.com's scouting report on Graham:

    Negatives: His rebounding and shot-blocking need work. So does the jumper. He still needs to show the ability to do more off the dribble, and some scouts have questions about his work ethic. Has the tendency to disappear in games.

    Great, he'll fit right in.

  • Here's the coaching record of P.J. Carlesimo, the guy everyone seems to think will be the next Timberwolves head coach:
    YEAR     TEAM      W      L     WIN%
    1994 POR 44 38 .537
    1995 POR 44 38 .537
    1996 POR 49 33 .598
    1997 GSW 19 63 .232
    1998 GSW 21 29 .420
    1999 GSW 6 21 .222
    ------------------------------------
    6-YEAR TOTALS 183 222 .452

    Carlesimo didn't do much with a solid Portland team, winning 44, 44, and 49 games and going just 3-9 in the playoffs. Perhaps most importantly, the Blazers were very good before he got there and very good after he left. Then he moved on to Golden State and completely tanked, and also got choked by Latrell Sprewell (which I don't necessarily hold against him).

    I am not a big fan of giving jobs to coaching retreads. If you look at the coaches who have been successful in the NBA over the past couple years, guys like Gregg Popovich, Nate McMillan, Stan Van Gundy, and Mike D'Antoni had little or no head-coaching experience when they were handed their jobs. And guys like Jeff Van Gundy, Scott Skiles, Jerry Sloan, and Rick Carlisle had just one job before their current one.

    The notable exceptions are guys like Larry Brown and George Karl, but Carlesimo can't possibly be compared to them. If I were the Wolves, I would be looking for the next great head coach, not the next mediocre head coach who has already proven what he can and can't do with several other teams. Either that or you try to convince Brown that his next stop should be Minnesota.

  • Card Player Magazine recently ran a very interesting two-part excerpt from a new book entitled Aces And Kings. The excerpts (Part 1, Part 2) where mainly about Stu Unger, and earlier this week I also read that there is an entire book solely devoted to Unger coming out later this year. From all the stuff I've read about poker over the last couple years, no one person fascinates me nearly as much as Unger. His legend is unmatched, because Unger, who died of a drug overdose, is often talked about as if he had some sort of supernatural ability to play cards.

    Because of that, and the fact that his actual tournament playing record is pretty amazing (he won back-to-back World Series of Poker Main Events in 1980 and 1981, and then won again in 1997), I'm looking forward to reading One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey 'The Kid' Ungar, the World's Greatest Poker Player more than I have any book since I heard Michael Lewis was coming out with something about Billy Beane and the Oakland A's a few years back.

  • I find myself wondering about the personalities and playing styles of poker greats, because that is one area of the sport that has not been sufficiently covered during its explosion. Plenty is written about who is great and who wins, but not enough is written about why they're great and how they win. That's part of the reason why I read blogs written by Daniel Negreanu and Paul Phillips every day, and it's part of the reason why I am so looking forward to the book on Unger.

    I want to know more about these guys -- how they think, how they act, how they play, how they came to play poker for a living. I want to know why Gus Hansen is so successful in tournaments despite people calling his style reckless and his results lucky. I want to know what Negreanu does that makes him such a force in tournaments. I want to know exactly why Phil Ivey is considered by almost everyone to be the best player in the world right now, and I want the answer to go beyond stuff like "he's fearless at the table" and "he doesn't make any mistakes" that you hear every time the question is posed.

    To think of it in baseball terms (since I think of everything in baseball terms), we know guys like Hansen, Negreanu, and Ivey are .300 hitters, but we don't know what sort of specific skills they bring to the table. Do they walk a lot? Do they control the strike zone? Do they steal bases efficiently? Do they have a lot of power? Are they great defensively at key positions? Whatever the poker equivalent of that information is, I want it. I'm hoping the book on Unger goes into those things, because that's what I'm hungry to read about.

  • I wish Scoop Jackson didn't try so damn hard to be incredibly cool all the time, but he and friend of AG.com Eric Neel teamed up for a very interesting idea at ESPN.com's Page 2 this week. I spend far too much of my time thinking about things like, "What would happen if [fill in the blank with a great, retired player] were playing today?" Jackson and Neel did just that, with Wilt Chamberlain.
  • You know someone is officially completely insane when they show up for their own murder trial looking like this.
  • Al Bethke made his second trip to a casino for some live poker and has a number of interesting observations. I keep meaning to go play some live poker myself, but then I start playing online and can't come up with a reason to get in the car and go drive somewhere so I can play fewer hands per hour and tip dealers.
  • I saw this on ESPN.com's front page the other day, and while it's not a link, I felt I had to share it with everyone:

  • This makes me very sad.
  • On the other hand, this made me laugh.
  • Stories like this one concern me. On one hand, it certainly seems like excessive force. On the other hand, if you put yourself in a position where a police officer might accidentally choose the wrong weapon to sedate you, I say you were pretty much asking for it. And yes, I'm a HUGE supporter of the police.
  • Anthony "Kiefer" Giacalone had a very nice "Division Diary: AL Central" article over at Baseball Think Factory earlier this week. It's a shame BTF can't find five other writers as good as Giacalone to write up the other divisions on a regular basis.
  • Stick and Ball Guy found out very quickly who is in charge once things become official. Oh, and congrats!
  • Anyone know anything about this new "Yahoo! Music Unlimited" thing? As discussed here last week, I need a new way to get my hands on some music, so I'm wondering whether or not this would be a good, relatively cheap option.
  • And finally, this week's Rotoworld column is ready for your perusal.
  • Today at The Hardball Times:
    - Dumb And Dumber (by John Brattain)

    Today's Picks (37-31, +$675):
    San Diego (Lawrence) -105 over San Francisco (Hennessey)
    Chicago (McCarthy) +125 over Texas (Young)

    Saturday's Picks:
    Boston (Clement) +120 over New York (Pavano)

    Sunday's Picks:
    Pittsburgh (Wells) -105 over Cincinnati (Claussen)


    Open Chat: 5/26/2005

    It is 5:47 AM as I write this, and I'm feeling a little bit better. I went to bed early last night, almost immediately after Travis Hafner's game-winning bloop single into left field off J.C. Romero. I hate losing games like last night's, because it could so easily have been a win. It was there for the taking over and over again, and the Twins just couldn't take it.

    It would have been a win if Joe Nathan hadn't chosen Ben Broussard's at-bat in the bottom of the ninth inning as the time to give up his first home run since August 19, 2004. However, when the opposing starting pitcher gets knocked out of the game with an injury after 4.2 innings and you can muster just one measly run in 5.1 innings against an unprepared, overworked bullpen, I suppose you don't much deserve to win anyway.

    Plus, it's hard to be too rough on Nathan, who has been about as good as a closer can possibly be for his entire time with the Twins. Last night's blown save was of the one-run variety, and it was still just his fifth in 57 chances with the Twins. That means he has slammed the door successfully 91.2% of the time, including 86.7% so far this season. Romero, on the other hand, is ripe for complaints and currently owns the least impressive 0.98 ERA in baseball history.

    Okay, that's all you're going to get from me today. Feel free to pick this up in the comments ...

    Today at The Hardball Times:
    - Ten Things I Didn't Know Last Week (by Studes)

    Today's Picks (37-29, +$910):
    Oakland (Haren) -110 over Tampa Bay (Nomo)
    Boston (Miller) -125 over Toronto (Chacin)


    May 25, 2005

    Twins 6, Indians 3

    Sorry about the lack of a new entry yesterday. I was working on some other writing stuff and also got smacked down by recurring headaches. In fact, my head was bugging me so much last night that I watched the Twins' 11-inning win over Cleveland with the lights off and a hand over my right eye. So yeah, I'm probably going to be dead soon. Until then, here are some quick Twins notes ...

  • There has to be some sort of limit established for the maximum amount of service time a player can have in the big leagues before he informs everyone that they are pronouncing his name incorrectly. Matthew LeCroy did this a few years back, telling everyone to call him "Matthew LEEcroy" and not "Matt LeCroix" after everyone had been referring to him as the latter for about a year.

    This time it's Justin Morneau who has decided he is sick of hearing his last name butchered. I'm inclined to give Morneau some slack, since he's really good and all, but it still bothers me. So now, after calling him "Justin moreNO" for three years, everyone has to adjust to "Justin MOREno" (rhymes with porno). And there's no time to practice, either, as Twins announcers Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven learned the hard way over the past two days.

    There is nothing harder on the ears than listening to two grown men trying to constantly remember that they aren't supposed to call a guy by the name they've been calling him by for the last three years. Bremer batted about .400 over the first two games of the Cleveland series, generally nailing the new pronunciation when he had time to think and getting it wrong when he was reacting to something, while Blyleven just sort of gave up after about two innings of each game.

  • Thankfully, Rhymes With Porno broke out of his mini-slump by going 2-for-4 with a walk and the game-winning three-run double in the top of the 11th inning last night. Lew Ford also had a good game batting between Joe Mauer and Morneau for the first time, going 2-for-3 with two walks, but I'm still not sure I like splitting the M&M Boys up. Yes, this alleviates some of the late-inning strategy problems, but I say when you have a #3 hitter as perfect as Mauer and a cleanup man as perfect as Morneau, you go with it. Not that Mauer batting second is a bad thing, of course.
  • I think we can officially say the bloom is off the Terry Tiffee rose. After hitting .273/.333/.500 in 48 plate appearances with the Twins last year and starting this season by going 6-for-22 (.318) with a homer and six RBIs, Tiffee is hitting .129 (4-for-31) with one RBI. He's also hit into an astounding five doubles plays in 58 plate appearances, which is a rate Torii Hunter laughs at.

    A lot of you guys are lucky I didn't save all the e-mails I got last month calling for Tiffee to replace Michael Cuddyer at third base. As for me, I'm feeling pretty good about my initial comments regarding Tiffee when he first came up from Triple-A last year:

    I don't know about you, but I can't get excited about a guy who'll struggle to post a .750 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) unless he hits .300.

    An intriguing role player? Absolutely. A future star? I doubt it. Someone Twins fans should count on replacing Koskie at third base next season? No way.

    And yes, I generally bring this sort of stuff up when I look good, but that's the beauty of having your own blog.

  • Some Twins-related links ...

  • Matthew LeCroy is now stalking Will Young. Or something like that.
  • Remember Bobby Kielty? Well, he's been one of the lone bright spots in Oakland's lineup this season. I still look incredibly silly about being against the Shannon Stewart-for-Kielty trade, but I may yet be right about Kielty becoming an extremely productive player.
  • Doug Mientkiewicz, on the other hand, is off to a horrible start with the Mets. Mientkiewicz, who was never lacking for good quotes when he was with the Twins, had this gem the other day when asked about the source of his struggles:
    Knee's fine. Wrist's fine. Now that lump of s*** that's about six feet off the ground, that's borderline.

    If ever there was a perfect guy to be playing in New York, Mientkiewicz is him.

  • Cristian Guzman is hitting .192/.231/.245 with six RBIs and nine runs scored in 44 games with the Nationals. And in an effort to show how unlike Samson he is, Guzman shaved his head the other day.
  • And finally, I participated in a "Minnesota Twins Roundtable" over at Beyond the Boxscore earlier this week. We probably didn't cover anything new for those of you who stop by here every day, but it's worth checking out. It's a good blog, too.
  • UPDATE: I just realized the silliness of me beginning this entry by saying it will be "some quick Twins notes" because I'm not feeling well and then writing 850 words. Oh well, I can't help it sometimes.

    Today at The Hardball Times:
    - News, Notes and Quotes (May 25, 2005) (by Aaron Gleeman)
    - Business of Baseball Report (by Brian Borawski)

    Today's Picks (37-29, +$910):
    Boston (Arroyo) -140 over Toronto (Chacin)


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