June 30, 2008

2008 SABR Convention Recap

An hour-long delay in Minnesota got my trip to the 38th annual Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) convention off to a shaky start last week. After landing in Cleveland at seven o'clock Wednesday night I hopped on the light rail and stared cluelessly at the map on the wall, unsure which stop was my hotel. Luckily a middle-aged woman seated behind me noticed the helplessness and asked, "Are you going to the SABR convention?" before sharing a printout of the proper directions.

Moments later an attractive young woman seated across from me turned her body to us quickly, with her palms making the universal signal for "stop" and her mouth open. Clearly intrigued and with a thick southern accent, she squawked: "Did y'all say summin' 'bout a saber convention? That sounds real interestin'!" Informed that "SABR" is an acronym for a baseball organization, she offered a disappointed "oh" and just as quickly turned back away, visions of giant swords no doubt fleeing from her brain.

(Not what light-rail girl had in mind: Giacalone and Dimino.)

Apparently she wasn't alone in her disappointment. Like me, Columbus Dispatch columnist Rob Oller attended last week's SABR convention in Cleveland. Upon spotting him there with a "media" pass slung around his neck, interviewing a few elderly SABR members outside a room housing poster presentations, it seemed likely to me that the forthcoming article wasn't going to be a pretty one. Sure enough, here's part of what Oller wrote about his SABR experience:
Good thing baseball moves at the speed of a shuffle. Otherwise, the 80-year-olds in shorts and knee-high black socks who follow the game couldn't keep up. ... Is there some kind of law that says baseball stat geeks must have bone-white legs and carry their suitcase-sized spiral-bound notebooks the way a snooty maitre d' carries dinner menus? ... There also is something almost endearing about these people--"whack jobs" as one hotel employee whispered to me.

After mocking SABR members for being old, dressing funny, lacking pigment, carrying big notebooks, and being "whack jobs," Oller described how boring the presentations were and painted SABR38 as elderly people obsessing over minutiae. I'd love to say otherwise, but there's no question that SABR and its annual convention attract that element. If Oller went there looking for a "wow, these guys are losers" angle or focused on those elderly people he was chatting with, then the column wrote itself.

(What the newspaper columnist had in mind: Giacalone and Treder.)

No one is ever going to confuse SABR for a group of male models and the dork factor is certainly off the charts, but that's the nature of conventions. How many "cool" conventions with "exciting" presentations are there? Not many unless there's an actual saber convention somewhere, but for me at least Oller missed the point of this particular convention. My annual trek has little to do with presentations or even baseball. It serves mostly as an excuse to hang out with a bunch of friends who live in different cities.

My little SABR clique is no less dorky than the rest of the convention, although we trade in knee-high black socks for flip-flops and swap suitcase-sized notebooks for bottles of beer. The bone-white legs remain, sadly. SABR may not like to hear this, but for me the annual convention is merely a reason for various bloggers, Baseball Think Factory posters, and The Hardball Times writers to get together in one place for a few days.

(Studeman, Gleeman, Dimino, Keenoy, Webber, McCullough, Kumar, Dial, Jacobs, Rauseo)

We hang out, goof on each other, go to a game, drink a whole bunch of alcohol, play some poker, and basically just act like we would if everyone knew each other from high school instead of from the online baseball world. We may not have the rugged sex appeal of Oller and certainly none of us can claim to have an exciting job like sports columnist for a second-string newspaper in central Ohio, but if you like baseball and enjoy shooting the shit with some great guys (and a couple girls), it's tough to beat.

Among those who put up with me from Wednesday to Sunday: Will Young, Rob Neyer, Chris Dial, Dave Studeman, Matt Rauseo, Craig Calcaterra, Joe Dimino, Vinay Kumar, Jim Furtado, Mike Webber, Anthony Giacalone, Ben Jacobs, Stacy Jacobs, Darren "Repoz" Viola, Kyle Eliason, Steve Treder, Sam Hutcheson, Sean Forman, Chris Jaffe, Mike Emeigh, Jon Daly, Mike McCullough, Greg Spira, Ryan Armbrust, J.D. Schloss, Kelly "Bernal Diaz" Keenoy, F.X. Flinn, Neal Traven.

(Shit shooting, in progress.)

Our group grew so large in the hotel bar Thursday night that the fear was not being able to find a place capable of fitting all of us in for dinner. My suggestion was that we should pick two captains and draft teams for dinner, like we were picking sides for a kickball game in gym class. Amazingly the rest of the group thought that was a marvelous idea, if only for the chance to humiliate whoever was picked last, so I was pegged as a captain along with Webber.

Systematically ranking the most (and least) interesting people in the group was suddenly a far less amusing option when I was in charge of doing the picking, so we decided it was best to draft the teams in private and headed to the other end of the bar. Webber seemingly went for signability with his picks, while my selections focused more on conversational upside and drinking ability. Rauseo was one of my early picks, but held out for a larger signing bonus and eventually defected to Webber's team.

(Judge for yourself: The non-Gleeman dinner team.)

After leading my squad to a sports bar, we doubled up on drink orders with minutes to spare before the end of happy hour and watched the NBA draft while I made snide remarks about Kevin McHale that would've been even worse if I'd known then that he'd be dealing O.J. Mayo for Kevin Love a few hours later. After retiring back to the hotel bar we played poker until the wee hours, doing shots of tequila in glasses "borrowed" from the closed hotel bar while Dimino somehow lost $150 in a $20 buy-in game.

At around four o'clock in the morning--with the hotel bar long since closed and the lobby completely cleared out--Rauseo, Kumar, and I decided that we needed to continue drinking, so we headed up to Dimino's room to wake him and play some Indian poker. When the elevator door opened there was a security guard standing there and he angrily said: "I'm warning you, we've had some noise complaints and we've already booted two people from rooms."

(The view from my seat in the poker game.)

He followed us to Rauseo's room, where we grabbed a bottle of vodka, and followed us to Dimino's room, where we drank said vodka while betting way too much on a stupid game. A half-hour later there was a knock on the door, at which point we scattered like cockroaches expecting the security guard. Instead it was an elderly man wearing a robe--perhaps one of the 80-year-old SABR members Oller was talking about--and he said: "Don't you guys ever go to sleep?" Not really, no.

Friday night was SABR's group outing to the Indians-Reds game, so a group of about 10 or so headed to a sports bar/bowling alley for dinner beforehand. When we left Dimino decided to eat some leftover calamari while walking to the ballpark, but quickly realized that he didn't actually want to eat any more. He tried in vain to pass it off to someone and then spotted an attractive young woman wearing a Reds hat. As she walked past he said, "Hey, you're wearing a 'C' hat, do you want some calamari?"

Without breaking stride she sarcastically replied, "Yeah, you're hilarious." Dimino was clearly hurt by someone taking his generosity as something less than sincere, but as you'll soon read that didn't keep him from saying things to random women on the street for very long. After an hour-long rain delay and a few innings spent in some pretty bad seats, I spent the rest of the game walking around the ballpark (and drinking) with Keenoy, Dimino, and Kumar.

(Dial, McCullough, Gleeman, Rauseo, Disembodied Hand Holding Knife, Dimino.)

In the pro shop we spotted a Luis Rivas game-worn Indians jersey, which while spectacular carried a $75 price tag that was a bit too high for an inside joke. On our way out of the ballpark we passed a cute young woman holding up police tape, which apparently qualifies as crowd control in Cleveland. Dimino asked her why they didn't find a pole to do her job and we then spent the next block talking about her, deciding that her nickname was "the human pole" and dreaming up various scenarios about her life.

Of course, a few minutes later we had to walk past her again once we realized that we were traveling in the wrong direction, and the second time around Dimino told her that he'd come to realize just how vital she was to the entire operation. She appreciated that, it seemed, so I suggested that perhaps she deserved a better life than holding up police tape outside Indians games and noted that "I could take you away from all of this" while wondering if she knew of a magical place called "Minnetonka."

(What The Human Pole smartly passed up.)

She didn't, but flashed the kind of smile that people give to parents whose children make a scene at a restaurant or movie theater. We then spent the next mile or so giggling like schoolgirls while debating how effective "The Human Pole" would be as a superhero. Keep in mind that I'm nearly 26 years old, which made me the youngest person in our little group of idiocy and suggests that perhaps hers isn't the life that needs to be gotten away from. Still, if you're reading this THP, the offer stands.

Another poker game started up back at the hotel lobby and we were joined by a complete stranger and non-SABR member who was hanging around because his girlfriend's sister was getting married there the next day. He repeatedly described how disinterested he was in the wedding, so he joined us in a night of record-setting drinking, blew $40 in the game, and then apparently played Rauseo heads up for relatively big stakes beginning shortly after I went to bed at around five o'clock in the morning.

(Young drunk, me talking, Kumar contemplating.)

My eyes opened after noon Saturday, which gave me enough time to grab some lunch with Dial and his delightful six-year-old daughter "Red" (more on her in a moment) before catching a panel discussion featuring Indians general manager Mark Shapiro and St. Paul Saints owner Mike Veeck. After that I saw presentations by Dave Smith ("How Valuable is Strike One?"), Pete Palmer and Richard Cramer ("Measuring the Effect of 'Fog' on Clutch Hitting"), and Jeff Angus ("Does 'Game Score' Still Work?").

Once Angus' presentation finished up I stumbled into the hallway, where I got a chance to talk about clutch hitting and the presentation process with Cramer (one of the legends of sabermetrics) and Dial (one of my all-time favorite people). Longtime readers of this blog (or THT) may remember Dial starring in my SABR convention recaps for 2004 and 2005. In fact, back in 2004 my take on him was that "there is no one I've met in 21 years on this earth who I would rather go drinking with."

(Dial holding court while McCullough eyes approximately 58 beers.)

I've gone drinking with lots of people since then, but that remains every bit as true. After an unfortunate two-year absence from the SABR convention Dial picked up right where he left off as the life of the party, going through Mets t-shirts like Cher making costume changes at a concert and doing everything he possibly could to keep the drinks flowing. As an added bonus he brought along his wife and daughter, who were equally as charming and fun. I'll let Jaffe explain via his numbered convention recap at THT:
10. Even little children find Aaron Gleeman irredeemably stupid

Now for the cutest and most enjoyable moment of the entire weekend. Chris Dial brought his six-year-old daughter up to Cleveland for the fun. On Friday, Gleeman asked Dial if he was going to the library (for the author's forum at which Neyer spoke). "The library--what's that?" Dial asked in his trademark North Carolina accent.

With that opening, Gleeman did his "Airplane" on Dial, explaining the basic functions of a library, before joking to the urchin, "Wow, can you believe your dad doesn't know what a library is?" Dial's daughter--a very intelligent, well-behaved, and quiet girl--did not give Gleeman the answer he expected.

As her eyes rolled back, her facial expression clearly indicated that the stupidest person in this or any other lifetime had just uttered the single most asinine thing he had or would ever say. The little angel cried out, "No--he KNOWS what a library is, he just wants to know what's going on there!" She was so assertive, you wanted to turn to Aaron and say: "Yea, Gleeman--ya mope--didn't you know that?"

As they say on the series of tubes, she pwned me. Saturday night I joined a big group for a Forman-led sushi dinner and then giddily participated in what will hopefully become a SABR convention tradition when we played wiffle ball in a public square across from the hotel. With a fairly big audience heckling us from a nearby bus stop and innocent bystanders unknowingly halting the game every few minutes by walking through the makeshift concrete ballpark, we played deep into the night.

(Eliason pitching while the youth of Cleveland looks on.)

There were a half-dozen kids playing with us as their parents looked on, no doubt wondering about the weird "adults" running around at 10:00 p.m. One particularly attractive mom ordered her boys to leave several times before relenting, letting them play for a while and then getting everyone together for a group picture. She asked for someone's business card, so she could send us all the photo, but before I could bust out my peacock-led attempt at wooing her someone else wrote down an e-mail address.

After the local kids (and hot mom) left we picked teams and played an actual game, with the Minnesota contingent (plus Dimino and Treder) winning easily behind Eliason, who pitched four solid innings and smacked a homer while wearing a seersucker suit. Seriously. I collected a pair of "well-placed hits" ala Delmon Young--thankfully Kumar and Webber were around to make my swing look good--and scored four of the team's seven runs despite running like Matthew LeCroy carrying a piano on his back.

(That blur you see? Me legging out an infield single.)

My favorite moment from the game came when Dimino tweaked his ankle running out an infield single. As he crouched down holding his ankle, I lumbered out to replace him on the bases and said: "Joe, this is now the worst moment of your life, because you're getting pinch-run for by me." Dimino shook off the embarrassment and re-entered the game once Eliason and his suit ran out of gas, picking up an Eddie Guardado-like save that included an outstanding defensive play. He's a real gamer.

After the sweat-soaked wiffle ball combatants hobbled back to the hotel, we tried to round up someone capable of playing the expensive lobby piano, only to find that not one of the many dorks in attendance was forced to take piano lessons as a kid. Not having a chance to sing was probably for the best and we put the piano to good use anyway, leaning against it and stacking drinks atop it while huddling together to watch the end of the Angels' no-hit loss to the Dodgers on Armbrust's laptop.

(The hotel bar waiter waiving goodbye to his greatest clients ever.)

And just like that, my favorite four days of the year were over. My fifth consecutive SABR convention was every bit as fun as the first four and I'm already looking forward to SABR39 in Washington, D.C. next summer. I may even buy some knee-high black socks for the occasion.

(Me waiving goodbye to my dignity. I think she dug the beard.)


Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

June 25, 2008

Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #18 Rick Aguilera

Note: The following entry originally ran on August 15, 2007. I'm currently in Cleveland at the annual Society for American Baseball Research convention and the Twins inducted Rick Aguilera into their Hall of Fame over the weekend, so it seemed like a good time for a re-run. I was in attendance for the induction ceremony Saturday night at the Metrodome and was sporting my best attempt at duplicating Aguilera's trademark beard, but sadly he apparently shaved for the event.

RICHARD WARREN AGUILERA | RP/SP | 1989-1999 | CAREER STATS

G GS IP W L ERA ERA+ WARP WS
490 30 694.0 40 47 3.50 130 43.9 101

Originally taken as a third baseman out of high school by the Cardinals in the 37th round of the 1980 draft, Rick Aguilera opted instead for college and became a pitcher. After three years at Brigham Young University, the California native was selected by the Mets in the third round of the 1983 draft and agreed to sign. Aguilera moved quickly through the minors, reporting to low Single-A after signing and finding himself at Triple-A to begin his third pro season.

Working strictly as a starter, Aguilera had a 3.47 ERA and 256-to-73 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 259.1 combined innings between Single-A and Double-A. After posting a 2.51 ERA in 11 starts at Triple-A to begin the 1985 season, the Mets called him up in June. He debuted on June 12 against the Phillies, tossing two scoreless innings in relief of Ron Darling and Jesse Orosco to pick up the win in an extra-inning game. Not yet 24 years old, Aguilera was in the majors for good.

After debuting as a reliever, Aguilera moved into the Mets' rotation and went 9-7 with a 3.35 ERA in 19 starts. While a very solid rookie season, Aguilera was completely overshadowed by 20-year-old rotation-mate and 1984 Rookie of the Year Dwight Gooden, who went 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA to win the NL Cy Young and pitching triple crown. Also on that 1985 Mets team was a 27-year-old utility infielder named Ron Gardenhire, who batted .179 in what would be his final big-league season.

Aguilera began the 1986 season alongside Gooden, Darling, Sid Fernandez, and Bob Ojeda in the Mets' impressive young rotation. However, after three poor outings he was moved to the bullpen, where he tossed 19.2 innings with a 3.20 ERA to reclaim his rotation spot. Aguilera finished the season 10-7 with a 3.88 ERA in 141.2 innings for a 108-win team that will go down as one of the best in baseball history, spending the Mets' World Series run working out of the bullpen.

Game 6 of the 1986 World Series is one of the most famous games of all time and will forever be linked to Bill Buckner, Mookie Wilson, Calvin Schiraldi, Bob Stanley, and Ray Knight. Despite that, you can usually stump someone by asking who the winning pitcher was. The answer? Aguilera. With the game tied at 3-3 in the ninth inning, Aguilera relieved Orosco and set the Red Sox down in order. When the Mets failed to score in their half of the inning, Aguilera stayed in for the 10th.

Dave Henderson led off the inning by homering off Aguilera and after Wade Boggs doubled with two outs, Marty Barrett singled him in to put the Red Sox up 5-3. We all know what happened in the bottom of the inning, but it's amazing to think that Aguilera was nearly the goat of the game and then became the winning pitcher, yet almost no one remembers him even being involved. In fact, in a 1,400-word story about the game that ran in the Boston Globe the next morning, Aguilera is mentioned just once.

While the Twins were winning a World Series of their own in 1987, Aguilera remained in the Mets' rotation and went 11-3 with a 3.60 ERA, but was limited to just 17 starts because of an elbow injury that eventually required surgery. He missed most of the 1988 season and then came back as a long reliever in 1989 after David Cone took his spot in the rotation, but was unhappy in a low-leverage bullpen role and asked to be traded. Before that could happen, Aguilera thrived as a reliever.

He threw 69 innings with a 2.34 ERA and 80-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio through July and the success, combined with a more important late-inning role, caused Aguilera to tell The Sporting News: "The most amazing thing is that I'm actually learning to like being a reliever." Despite the slight change of heart, with the Mets clinging to contention and the Twins already out of it on the eve of the trading deadline, the teams completed a blockbuster trade.

Reigning AL Cy Young winner Frank Viola went from Minnesota to New York for a five-player package of Aguilera, Kevin Tapani, David West, Tim Drummond, and Jack Savage. West was considered a premier prospect at the time, but it turned out to be Tapani and especially Aguilera who made it one of the best swaps in Twins history. Aguilera got his wish by moving into the rotation following the trade, starting 11 games with a 3.21 ERA as Jeff Reardon finished up his third straight 30-save season.

However, plans changed when Reardon left via free agency in December, signing a then-massive three-year contract with the Red Sox worth $6.8 million. Armed with a low-90s fastball, a hard-breaking slider, and a forkball that dropped off the table, Aguilera was the obvious choice to replace Reardon. "He's the most experienced we've got, the most capable strikeout pitcher," pitching coach Dick Such told the Associated Press in March of 1990. "He fits the bill."

When it became clear during spring training that Aguilera would be taking over as closer, he told the Associated Press that he "was a little disappointed at first" because "I was really excited about being able to start," but added that "I'll do it for the team." Things got off to a rough start when Aguilera blew his third save chance, serving up a walk-off three-run homer to Dante Bichette on April 14, 1990, but he recovered to convert 32-of-38 save chances while posting a 2.76 ERA in 65.1 innings.

Aguilera made the first of three straight All-Star teams in 1991, tying Reardon's team record with 42 saves while posting a 2.35 ERA and 61-to-30 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 69 innings as the Twins made their second World Series run in five seasons. A career .201 hitter with three homers in 139 at-bats, Aguilera became the first pitcher since Don Drysdale in 1965 to pinch-hit in the World Series when he came off the bench with two outs in the 12th inning of Game 3, flying out with the bases loaded.

Moments later, Aguilera took the loss by giving up a walk-off single to Mark Lemke, but that was the lone postseason run he allowed while saving five of the team's eight playoff victories. He followed up the marvelous 1991 season by ranking second in the league with 41 saves in 1992, and then saved 57 of the team's 124 wins between 1993 and 1994. When baseball returned after the strike in mid-1995, Aguilera was an impending free agent and the highest paid pitcher on baseball's worst team.

He posted a 2.52 ERA and 29-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 25 innings through early July, saving a dozen games despite the team's 19-44 start. On July 6, with Aguilera on the verge of becoming a 10-and-5 player who could veto any trades, the Twins sent him to the Red Sox for Frankie Rodriguez, a 22-year-old right-hander who Baseball America ranked as the No. 36 prospect in baseball. Rodriguez was a bust, going 25-32 with a 5.20 ERA in 509.1 innings spread over four seasons in Minnesota.

Meanwhile, Aguilera picked up his first Red Sox save the next day, pitching a scoreless ninth inning against the Twins, at the Metrodome. He ended up converting 20-of-21 saves to help the Red Sox win the AL East, but saw his only playoff action in Game 1 of the ALDS, serving up a game-tying homer to Albert Belle in the 11th inning as a 100-win Indians team blitzed through the Red Sox on their way to the World Series.

Aguilera hit the open market that winter, but decided to return to Minnesota on a multi-year deal with an annual salary that was less than he made the previous season. Unsatisfied with a shaky rotation that was led by a pair of 23-year-olds in Rodriguez and Brad Radke, manager Tom Kelly made Aguilera a starter again. Kelly had every reason to worry about the rotation, as Twins starters combined for a 5.48 ERA, but changing a 34-year-old Aguilera's role turned out to be a mistake.

An arm injury allegedly suffered while lifting a suitcase limited Aguilera to one start in the team's first 60 games, and he went just 8-6 with a 5.42 ERA before a hamstring injury ended his season in early September. Aguilera moved back to the bullpen in 1997 and saved 64 games for a pair of sub-.500 teams over the next two seasons, but blew 18 saves and saw his ERA rise to 4.04 after compiling a 2.86 ERA during his first six seasons as Twins closer.

Now 37 years old, Aguilera began the 1999 season pitching as well as ever, going 3-1 with a 1.27 ERA and 13-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 21.1 innings. However, the Twins were once again the league's worst team and Aguilera was handed just eight save chances through 40 games. With the Twins sitting at 13-27 on May 21, Aguilera was traded to the Cubs along with Scott Downs for minor-league pitchers Kyle Lohse and Jason Ryan.

He was gone for good this time, saving 37 games with a 4.31 ERA in two seasons with the Cubs to finish his 16-year career. Ryan appeared in a total of 24 games for the Twins, going 1-5 with a 5.94 ERA in 66.2 innings, but Lohse developed into a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter who went 51-57 with a 4.88 ERA before eventually wearing out his welcome midway through the 2006 season. Unlikely as it seemed at the time of each trade, the haul for Aguilera was better the second time around.

Aguilera became the Twins' all-time leader in saves when he notched No. 109 in September of 1992 and with a total of 254 he remains a couple years away from potentially giving up the top spot to current closer Joe Nathan. He blew at least a half-dozen saves in each of his seven full seasons as Twins closer and converted 81.4 percent of his save chances in Minnesota, which is mediocre by today's standards. By comparison, Nathan has converted 91.8 percent of his save chances with the Twins.

However, it's important to note that Kelly used Aguilera much differently than Gardenhire has used Nathan. Nathan has inherited a grand total of 35 runners in five seasons with the Twins, which works out to one inherited runner for every nine innings. Aguilera faced 38 inherited runners in his first season as Twins closer, and then saw 37 and 40 more in the next two years. In all, Aguilera inherited 207 runners during his time in Minnesota, which works out to one every 2.5 relief innings.

In other words, the vast majority of Nathan's saves have come when he began an inning with a clean slate, whereas Aguilera's saves often came when he entered a game with runners on base. That goes a long way towards explaining his seemingly mediocre save percentage, and Aguilera also deserves credit for stranding over three-fourths of the runners he inherited. For a guy who never wanted to be a reliever, Aguilera's 318 career saves ranked eighth in baseball history at the time of his retirement.

TOP 25 ALL-TIME MINNESOTA TWINS RANKS:

Saves 254 1st
Games 490 2nd
ERA 3.50 12th
Strikeouts 586 13th
Wins 40 22nd
Innings 694 23rd

June 24, 2008

WPA in the Gardenhire Era

Win Probability Added (WPA) measures how much impact specific plays had on the outcome of each game and assigns that value to the individual players responsible. For example, when evaluated by WPA within the context of each game hitting a grand slam in the fifth inning when the score is 10-2 has less value than drawing a walk in the eighth inning when the score is 5-5. Similarly, striking out to lead off a game is seen as less damaging than striking out down a run in the bottom of the ninth inning.

There are much better and longer explanations of WPA than that one, of course. If you're interested in learning more, Dave Studeman's WPA primer at The Hardball Times is a good place to start, and both Fan Graphs and Baseball-Reference.com offer tons of information on the subject. It's far from a perfect stat and isn't meant to predict how valuable a player will be or even definitely prove how valuable each player has been, but WPA is an interesting tool to use in looking back at what has already taken place.

In the past my looks at WPA have focused on current seasons, using the stat to break down monthly totals, examine player contributions within a particular stretch of games, or delve into how a specific game was won or lost. However, thanks to Fan Graphs recently releasing historical WPA numbers we can now use the data for bigger questions. For instance, how does WPA distribute the credit for the team's 574-473 (.548) record since Ron Gardenhire took over as manager in 2002?

Before tackling that, it's important to note than WPA doesn't measure defensive contributions, so strong defenders don't receive full credit for their value. Beyond that, WPA doesn't place offensive contributions in the context of position, so an .850 OPS from a catcher or shortstop is treated the same as an .850 OPS from a designated hitter or left fielder. Nothing can be done about measuring defense via WPA, but it's relatively easy to put the numbers in better context by using positional adjustments.

With the help of Fan Graphs creator David Appelman, I've taken the Twins' raw WPA totals from 2002 through the present and adjusted them based on the MLB average at each position. Most adjustments are minimal, but starters are given a boost relative to relievers and hitters who play up-the-middle positions are given a boost relative to hitters who man corner spots. The end result is an adjusted WPA that shows how much a player has contributed either below or above average for his position.

In six-plus seasons under Gardenhire, the Twins have used a total of 70 hitters and 60 pitchers. Many of those players failed to accumulate 100 plate appearances, so listing everyone would probably be a waste of space (even on the internet). Instead, let's break everyone down into three groups: 1,000-plus plate appearances, 400-999 plate appearances, and 100-399 plate appearances. First up, here are all the guys who either batted at least 1,000 times or faced at least 1,000 hitters under Gardenhire:

ADJUSTED WPA ABOVE AVERAGE: 1,000+ PLATE APPEARANCES

HITTERS adjWPA PITCHERS adjWPA
Joe Mauer 9.88 Johan Santana 21.97
Shannon Stewart 2.76 Joe Nathan 18.23
Corey Koskie 2.66 J.C. Romero 5.12
Jacque Jones 2.53 Brad Radke 4.02
Justin Morneau 1.97 Carlos Silva 3.25
A.J. Pierzynski 1.38 Juan Rincon 2.29
Torii Hunter 1.22 Scott Baker 2.28
Lew Ford 1.15 Kyle Lohse 1.60
Jason Bartlett -0.13 Matt Guerrier 1.17
Doug Mientkiewicz -0.74 Rick Reed 0.72
Michael Cuddyer -0.82 Boof Bonser -1.45
Luis Castillo -0.87 Joe Mays -4.83
Matthew LeCroy -1.16
Jason Kubel -1.46
Cristian Guzman -2.10
Luis Rivas -3.91
Nick Punto -6.96

Johan Santana and Joe Nathan blow away the rest of the competition, which perhaps shouldn't be much of a surprise. Santana emerged as an elite pitcher midway through Gardenhire's first season as manager, winning two Cy Young awards and two ERA titles while going 90-41 (.687) with a 2.92 ERA and 1,289 strikeouts over 1,179 innings. WPA pegs him as 21.97 wins better than an average pitcher from 2002-2007.

Nathan didn't join the Twins until Gardenhire's third year as manager, but has gone 19-8 with a 1.90 ERA and 388 strikeouts over 313 innings while converting 179-of-195 save chances for an amazing 91.8 percent success rate. WPA shows Nathan as 18.23 wins better than an average reliever, meaning that the Santana-Nathan combo was worth 40.2 games above .500 while the Twins as a whole were 101 games above .500.

Joe Mauer leads the hitters with 9.88 wins above average and his ranking significantly ahead of Justin Morneau shows the impact that positional adjustments have. Mauer (6.00) and Morneau (6.04) sport nearly identical raw WPA totals. However, given Mauer's playing time the average catcher produced -3.88 WPA, whereas given Morneau's playing time the average first baseman produced 4.07 WPA. Both players have been great, but compared to other catchers Mauer has been absolutely amazing.

Another spot where positional adjustments made a big impact is Torii Hunter. Many Twins fans would probably name Hunter as the team MVP during Gardenhire's time as manager, but his raw WPA was actually -0.18. That's not as bad as it looks, because zero WPA is equivalent to average and "average" equals a .500 record. In other words, according to WPA his offensive contribution was almost exactly average under Gardenhire. Still, Hunter being merely average is surprising.

He batted .274/.330/.480 with Gardenhire as manager, compared to the MLB average of .270/.335/.430. That puts him about five percent above average, but WPA docks him for grounding into a high number of double plays and having a poor stolen-base percentage while showing that he often failed to come through in crucial, game-changing spots. However, once you add in my positional adjustment, Hunter climbs to 1.22 wins better than the average center fielder even without his defensive value thrown in.

Joe Mays is the only pitcher with 1,000-plus plate appearances to post a truly horrendous WPA under Gardenhire, which makes sense given that his long-term contract kept him safe when most pitchers who performed as poorly as he did would have been dumped from the pitching staff. Nick Punto and Luis Rivas rate as the worst position players and combine for 10.87 wins below average, which makes sense given that Gardenhire loves middle infielders who can't hit.

ADJUSTED WPA ABOVE AVERAGE: 400-999 PLATE APPEARANCES

HITTERS adjWPA PITCHERS adjWPA
Bobby Kielty 2.04 LaTroy Hawkins 5.55
Mike Redmond 1.22 Pat Neshek 3.44
David Ortiz 0.24 Eddie Guardado 3.32
Jason Tyner -0.87 Francisco Liriano 2.28
Denny Hocking -1.44 Tony Fiore 1.48
Juan Castro -1.87 Jesse Crain 1.42
Luis Rodriguez -2.40 Dennys Reyes 1.04
Rondell White -2.46 Eric Milton 0.62
Dustan Mohr -2.54 Nick Blackburn 0.59
Kevin Slowey 0.46
Matt Garza -0.12
Ramon Ortiz -0.49
Livan Hernandez -0.97
Kenny Rogers -1.17
Terry Mulholland -2.04

Whereas the 1,000-plus plate appearances group was the place to find longtime lineup regulars and key starting pitchers, the 400-999 plate appearances group is home to lots of part-time players and relievers. LaTroy Hawkins, Pat Neshek, and Eddie Guardado were each fantastic out of the bullpen under Gardenhire--much like J.C. Romero in the previous grouping--while Bobby Kielty was so good in limited action that he had me freaking out when the Twins dealt him for Shannon Stewart.

Mike Redmond has been extremely productive considering his relatively minor role backing up Mauer, making for an amazing catching duo. David Ortiz was human in his lone season under Gardenhire, ranking 0.24 wins above an average designated hitter before racking up 26.2 WPA (and counting) over the next six seasons in Boston. Livan Hernandez has already posted the eighth-worst adjusted WPA among all Gardenhire pitchers, although Sidney Ponson's brief stint last season was still worse.

ADJUSTED WPA ABOVE AVERAGE: 100-399 PLATE APPEARANCES

HITTERS adjWPA PITCHERS adjWPA
Jose Offerman 1.10 Mike Jackson 1.27
Brian Buscher 0.05 Glen Perkins 0.39
Craig Monroe -0.14 Grant Balfour 0.27
Michael Restovich -0.14 Bob Wells 0.15
Brian Buchanan -0.26 Brian Bass 0.01
Chris Gomez -0.31 Joe Roa -0.03
Brendan Harris -0.53 Willie Eyre -0.19
Jeff Cirillo -0.71 Carmen Cali -0.34
Mike Lamb -0.75 Carlos Pulido -0.51
Tom Prince -0.80 Jack Cressend -0.51
Jay Canizaro -0.83 Matt Kinney -0.94
Michael Ryan -1.04 Sidney Ponson -1.02
Tony Batista -1.10 Seth Greisinger -1.03
Carlos Gomez -1.18 Aaron Fultz -1.22
Delmon Young -1.55
Henry Blanco -1.72
Terry Tiffee -1.74
Alexi Casilla -2.16

This group is where you'll find some young current Twins mixed in with one-season castoffs, mop-up men, pre-Redmond backup catchers, and failed prospects. Jose Offerman and Mike Jackson lead the way as the only significantly positive contributors in the 100-399 plate appearances bunch, as a 35-year-old Offerman batted .256/.363/.395 while coming up with several keys hit off the bench in 2004 and a 37-year-old Jackson posted a 3.27 ERA over 55 innings of relief in 2002.

At the other end of the spectrum, Alexi Casilla, Delmon Young, and Carlos Gomez have posted horrible WPA totals early in their Twins career, although Casilla has actually been slightly above average for a second baseman this year after being a complete mess last season. Oh, and the much-maligned Tony Batista managed to be 1.1 wins worse than an average third baseman despite playing just 50 games, and that's without factoring in his awful defense.

June 23, 2008

1.5 Back

When the Twins arrived in Chicago on June 6 to begin a pivotal four-game series with the White Sox, they were 2.5 games back in the AL Central. A sweep followed, during which the White Sox out-scored the Twins 40-15 and plated double-digit runs in three games. With the pitching staff demolished, the Twins traveled to Cleveland the next day and received a great start from Scott Baker, only to have C.C. Sabathia render the lineup helpless in a complete-game shutout.

Suddenly the Twins were three games below .500 and 6.5 games behind a White Sox team that had won seven out of eight, and any thoughts of contending this season appeared to be slipping away. Instead, the Twins responded by putting together their most impressive stretch of the season, splitting the next two games against the Indians, winning two out of three from the Brewers in Milwaukee, and sweeping both the last-place Nationals and first-place Diamondbacks at the Metrodome.

While the Twins were going 9-2 the White Sox went 4-7, and just like that the Twins are now only 1.5 games back in the division with 86 games left to play. Both the offense and defense thrived during that stretch, with the lineup scoring 6.5 runs per game (compared to 4.5 runs per game previously) and the pitching staff allowing 3.5 runs per game (compared to 5.1 runs per game previously). In particular, the rotation bounced back in a huge way following the disastrous series in Chicago:

                      DATE     OPP      IP     ER
Nick Blackburn 6/11 CLE 6.0 2
Livan Hernandez 6/12 CLE 3.0 7
Kevin Slowey 6/13 MIL 8.0 2
Glen Perkins 6/14 MIL 6.0 3
Scott Baker 6/15 MIL 6.0 3
Livan Hernandez 6/17 WAS 7.0 1
Kevin Slowey 6/18 WAS 6.0 1
Glen Perkins 6/19 WAS 8.0 3
Scott Baker 6/20 ARI 6.0 1
Nick Blackburn 6/21 ARI 7.0 1
Livan Hernandez 6/22 ARI 7.0 1

Livan Hernandez's clunker against the Indians on June 12 was the lone outing that didn't qualify as a Quality Start during that 11-game stretch, which along with six-plus runs per game from the lineup is a pretty dependable recipe for success. Hernandez, Baker Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, and Glen Perkins each turned in a pair of Quality Starts, combining for a 3.08 ERA over 70 innings. Faced with a lighter workload, the bullpen also got on track after struggling following the loss of Pat Neshek.

There were seemingly multiple runners on base each time Justin Morneau stepped to the plate and he went 16-for-45 (.356) with 15 RBIs over 11 games. Win Probability Added pegs Morneau's hitting as the biggest driving force behind the team going 9-2, which isn't surprising given that he was repeatedly given a chance to bat in crucial, game-changing spots and more often than not came through. Here's how WPA distributes the credit for the Twins' past 11 games:

                      WPA                              WPA
Justin Morneau 1.14 Glen Perkins -0.03
Brian Buscher 0.54 Mike Redmond -0.06
Jesse Crain 0.53 Boof Bonser -0.09
Kevin Slowey 0.52 Mike Lamb -0.14
Nick Blackburn 0.36 Craig Monroe -0.16
Joe Mauer 0.30 Dennys Reyes -0.18
Matt Guerrier 0.28 Alexi Casilla -0.25
Michael Cuddyer 0.27 Carlos Gomez -0.52
Jason Kubel 0.20
Brian Bass 0.20
Brendan Harris 0.18
Delmon Young 0.08
Livan Hernandez 0.05
Matt Macri 0.05
Craig Breslow 0.04
Scott Baker 0.02
Joe Nathan 0.01

What's remarkable is that the Twins got positive contributions from 17 of 25 players and even a few of the negative contributions were minimal. In particular, Hernandez, Delmon Young, and Brendan Harris combined for 0.31 WPA, which doesn't seem like much until you consider their -3.45 WPA through 65 games. While nowhere near as noticeable as Morneau driving in 15 runs in 11 games, getting slightly above average production from three players who previously dragged the team down is huge.

Calling up Brian Buscher from Triple-A and installing him as the starting third baseman also had a big impact. Despite not taking over from Mike Lamb until Game 4 of the 11-game stretch, his 0.54 WPA ranked second to only Morneau. Joe Mauer ranked third among the team's hitters with 0.30 WPA and his batting .351 while getting on base at a .468 clip was a big part of how Morneau was able to come up with so many runners to potentially knock in.

After totaling -0.68 WPA through 65 games, Jesse Crain tossed 5.1 scoreless, one-hit innings while racking up 0.53 WPA and taking on much of the late-inning setup work that was left by Neshek's injury. Toss in two good starts apiece from Slowey and Blackburn, the usual solid work from Matt Guerrier, continued power from Jason Kubel, and some much needed production from Michael Cuddyer, and you can see how the Twins quickly jumped back into the AL Central race.

Carlos Gomez and to a lesser extent Alexi Casilla accounted for the only hugely negative impacts over the past 11 games, which is interesting given the credit they've been given for jump-starting the lineup. Gomez hit .224/.250/.245 with a 13-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio, while Casilla batted .244/.298/.268. That the Twins still scored 6.5 runs per game despite such poor production atop the lineup is important, because Gomez has been streaky all year and Casilla was playing way above his head initially.

With a trip to San Diego to face the last-place Padres next on the schedule and a homestand against the Brewers, Tigers, and Indians following that, the Twins have a great opportunity to climb past the suddenly struggling White Sox. Of course, as the White Sox and Twins have both shown over the past few weeks, the beauty of baseball is that for all the talk about the importance of "momentum" it often proves to be as meaningful as sprinting midway through a marathon.


Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

June 19, 2008

Link-O-Rama

  • After 18 months with the throne vacant, the prestigious Official Fantasy Girl of AG.com title was put up for grabs via reader vote earlier this week. A total of 1,617 ballots were cast between six candidates, with Keeley Hazell narrowly edging Marisa Miller for the crown. Hazell received 25 percent of the votes, compared to 23 percent for Miller, and follows in the footsteps of Heidi Klum, Jessica Alba, and Elisha Cuthbert as the fourth Official Fantasy Girl in AG.com history.

    Hazell has been the favorite to claim the title for quite a while now and likely should have been handed the crown months ago, but her tendency to be photographed sans clothing oddly hurt her candidacy because many of the people who read this blog do so from work and another fraction of the audience is under the age of 18. In the end her qualifications were simply too impressive to ignore, as both the people who read this blog and the creepy loser who runs it agreed that she's the correct choice.

    After Hazell and Miller, Jenna Fischer made a strong showing by finishing third with 18 percent of the vote, followed by Kate Beckinsale at 15 percent, Mila Kunis at 12 percent, and Cuthbert at 8 percent. Cuthbert had an especially poor showing given that she's the only one of the six candidates to have held the title previously, showing that AG.com readers are either against the notion of a repeat winner or too disappointed with her post-Girl Next Door career to still take her seriously as a contender.

    As you can see, the new title-holder looks quite fetching in the OFGoAG.com crown and was graciously willing to put on some clothes to attend the star-studded OFGoAG.com banquet that was held in my mind earlier this week. Congratulations to Keeley and thanks to everyone who voted (and to everyone else who put up with this nonsense competition).

  • Clearly distraught after finishing fourth in the voting, Beckinsale is beginning to doubt herself.
  • On the other hand, Miller appears to have taken the second-place finish in stride and will clearly do her best to remain ready in case something were to happen to the title-holder. Plus, she's now decided to take over college basketball.
  • Had Kunis' secret talent been discovered prior to the voting, things may have gone much differently (unfortunately YouTube removed the video, so that screen shot will have to due.)
  • As a Timberwolves fan who always felt that Kevin Garnett was never fully appreciated in Minnesota, seeing him win a championship in Boston was pretty damn exciting. Garnett has long been criticized for not taking over games offensively, but there's far more to greatness than scoring points and it was fitting that moments after winning the championship he embraced the player who perhaps epitomizes that more than any other in NBA history, Bill Russell.

    Garnett's arrival helped turn the Celtics into the NBA's best defensive team and produced the biggest one-season turnaround in NBA history, all while he quietly led the team in scoring during the playoffs. Sure, he went a little crazy after winning the title, but showing emotion, flirting with old friend Michelle Tafoya, and then dressing up like a 13-year-old boy at his Bar Mitzvah party the next night alongside Ray Allen on Late Show With David Letterman is all part of what makes Garnett so special.


    Garnett averaged 20 points while shooting 50 percent from the field and 81 percent from the line in 26 playoff games, but as usual it was his 10.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.1 blocks that went overlooked by people who equate "points" with "value." Guys like Dan Barreiro and Patrick Reusse may never see it, but hopefully most of the basketball-watching world has a better grasp of Garnett's greatness now, even if it hasn't changed from his time in Minnesota. Congrats, Kevin.
  • Along with front-office staffer Paul DePodesta blogging, the Padres are considering opening up the Petco Park press box to bloggers. During a recent interview with longtime blogger Geoff Young, Padres chief executive officer Sandy Alderson said: "We've been toying around with allowing people like yourself into the press box. I know there's a lot of controversy about that among mainstream media and so forth, but our attitude is, the more access the better." Buzz Bissinger was unavailable for comment.
  • Next time someone like Bissinger slags blogs while touting the superior standards of newspapers, point him to this news.
  • On a related note, as The Big Lead examined and followed up on, save for a select few big names even the country's top-earning sportswriters make less than the MLB, NFL, or NBA minimum.
  • The always entertaining "Batting Stance Guy" finally got around to covering the Twins:


    My favorite is the three stages of Kent Hrbek, but the whole video is pretty amusing.
  • When he's not making his living betting on basketball games, Haralabos Voulgaris is a part-time poker player who co-hosts an outstanding podcast over at Poker Road. In the wake of the NBA's recent officiating scandal, he did a fascinating two-part interview with ESPN blogger Henry Abbott about Tim Donaghy, sports betting, and basketball analysis.
  • As always on Friday mornings, you can listen to me on KFAN radio at around eight o'clock talking Twins on "The Power Trip Morning Show" with Mike Morris, Cory Cove, and Chris Hawkey. Click here to listen online and feel free to call in with a question.
  • This week's NBCSports.com "Fantasy Fix" show features me chatting Yankees with Tiffany Simons:


    Even if you're not very interested in my take on Mike Mussina and Jorge Posada, the video is worth watching if only to see how my spectacular beard compares to Jason Giambi's amazing mustache. Speaking of Tiffany, Will Carroll is apparently a big fan.
  • As a relatively popular blogger and humongous fan of Adam Carolla who gets asked to promote all sorts of worthless things here, my feelings are hurt by not being targeted to give away something that I'd actually be thrilled to support. Definitely not "good times."
  • Esquire is jumping on the bandwagon now, but Carolla fans know that he's been advocating the use of "nozzle" rather than "bag" for years now.
  • A pair of blogs to check out: Style and Sports and Twins Territory.
  • Finally, in honor of the new Official Fantasy Girl this week's AG.com-approved music video is John Legend singing a live version of "Number One":


  • Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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