March 31, 2011

Twins Notes: The Smiles Are Returning To The Faces

Little darling, it's been a long, cold, lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right

Little darling, the smiles are returning to the faces
Little darling, it seems like years since they've been there
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right

Little darling, I see the ice is slowly melting
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been clear
There goes the sun
Here comes the sun
And I say, it's all right

- "Here Comes The Sun"

• Since the Twins open the season on the road against the Blue Jays tomorrow night I'm going to do a "live chat" here during the game. I realize Friday night isn't the ideal time for everyone to get on their computers and type things to each other while watching a baseball game, but if I'm willing to cancel my exciting plans with various supermodels hopefully at least some of you will stay in for some chat action. Carl Pavano versus Ricky Romero, chat doors open at 6:00.

• I wrote the season previews for all the AL Central teams over at Hardball Talk and concluded that the Twins, White Sox, and Tigers should basically be considered co-favorites in the range of 88-92 victories. RLYW's annual simulation of 100,000 seasons based on multiple projection systems thinks I'm a bit high on those win totals, but also has all three AL Central contenders within two games of each other. You can see my predictions for all the divisions here.

Joe Mauer's incredible popularity in Minnesota is no secret, but I was surprised to learn that he had the second-best selling jersey in all of baseball last season behind only Derek Jeter. Justin Morneau was also in the top 20 and as a team the Twins ranked No. 9 in merchandise sales. And according to Forbes magazine the Twins have the 12th-most valuable MLB franchise at $490 million, which is up 21 percent from last year. Pretty remarkable.

• There were several key statistical reasons for Denard Span's disappointing offense last year and the Twins have also talked about his struggling with some mechanical issues, but Parker Hageman at Over The Baggy combined stats and scouting for a truly unique analysis of Span's hitting that's a must-read and makes Patrick Reusse's recent Minneapolis Star Tribune column seem all the more silly for pitting stats versus scouting. As always, the best answer is "both."

• As part of my series ranking the Twins' top 40 prospects I called the farm system as a whole "solidly above average" but "not elite." Baseball America agrees, as their "organizational talent rankings" released last week have the Twins at No. 12. Kansas City ranks No. 1 with perhaps the best farm systems of the past several decades and the Indians are at No. 7, but the Tigers are No. 25 and the White Sox are No. 27.

Ron Gardenhire didn't pull any punches when asked why Jim Hoey was sent to Triple-A:

Hoey needs to slow the ball down. All he can do is throw hard, hard, harder. And on our level, hard, hard, harder normally gets hit, hit, hit.

Kind of an interesting quote considering the main criticism of the Twins' approach to pitching is that collecting strike-throwers with low-90s fastballs makes them too easy to hit when facing strong lineups. Acquired from the Orioles in the J.J. Hardy trade, Hoey has without question the fastest fastball in the entire organization now that Billy Bullock is regrettably gone.

Brendan Harris, whose $1.7 million contract the Twins dumped on the Orioles as part of the Hardy deal, has been assigned to Triple-A after failing to win a bench job in Baltimore.

• If the Twins ever change their minds about signing Francisco Liriano to a long-term contract extension, Chad Billingsley's new deal with the Dodgers may provide a template. Their service time is equal, but Billingsley avoided arbitration in his second year of eligibility for $6.3 million, whereas Liriano settled for $4.3 million. Los Angeles bought out his final arbitration year and first two free agent years for $32 million plus a $14 million option or $3 million buyout for 2015.

• I'm unsure if yesterday afternoon's game against the Braves at Turner Field in Atlanta counts as the spring training finale or a preseason exhibition, but it was nice to see Minnesota native, good guy, and friend of my family Andy Baldwin close out the win with a scoreless inning. He'll be assigned to Triple-A, where the combination of top prospects moving up the ladder and the Twins signing lots of minor-league veterans has Rochester looking strong after a terrible 2010.

• Most of the focus is obviously on the competition for spots on the Twins' roster, but this time of year also means making cuts in the minors and Seth Stohs notes that the Twins released a dozen players. No surprises or big names, but Michael McCardell twice cracked my annual list of the Twins' top 40 prospects, not so long ago some people thought Juan Portes had a shot to be a useful player, and once upon a time Justin Huber was a top prospect for the Royals.

• has a mouth-watering collection of pictures showing all the new food choices available at Target Field. I'm planning to just stare at the pictures all season because I'm back on another diet, although as longtime readers unfortunately know by now that's highly unlikely to last until the All-Star break, let alone for 162 games. My (wildly unrealistic) goal is to lose more pounds than the Twins' win total. So far I'm really kicking their ass.

• I'd love to have overheard this conversation. I prefer to imagine they talked neck tattoos.

• Last but not least, thank you to everyone who stopped by here on a regular basis during the too-long offseason. My goal each winter is to find enough interesting stuff to write about that most of you keep showing up here, but I'm definitely ready to start talking about actual games again and look forward to my 10th season of blogging. Thanks for reading, thanks for following me on Twitter, and thanks for supporting my work at and Rotoworld.

March 30, 2011

Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #22 Zoilo Versalles

Zoilo Casanova Versalles | SS | 1961-1967 | Career Stats

Washington signed 18-year-old Zoilo Versalles out of Havana, Cuba in 1958 and rushed him to the big leagues nearly five months before his 20th birthday. Versalles debuted on August 1, 1959, starting at shortstop against the White Sox and going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and an error as the Senators' leadoff man. He saw limited action down the stretch in 1958, hitting .153 in 59 at-bats spread over 29 games, and then batted .133 in 45 at-bats the next season.

Versalles arrived in Minnesota along with the rest of the team when the Senators became the Twins in 1961 and immediately stepped in as the starting shortstop, notching two hits and two steals in a 6-0 win over the Yankees on Opening Day. Despite being a 21-year-old rookie with 104 career at-bats he started each of the first 15 games and went on to hit .280/.314/.390 in 129 games for a Twins team that finished near the bottom of the league with a 70-90 record.

At first glance a .704 OPS doesn't look like much, but as a whole MLB shortstops combined to hit just .257/.324/.358 in 1961, meaning Versalles' bat was above average for his position as a 21-year-old rookie. And much like his first full season Versalles' entire career can be better appreciated by placing his raw numbers in the context of both the era in which he played and the position he manned.

Rarely did Versalles post raw numbers that would turn heads today, but for a shortstop in the pitcher-friendly 1960s he was an excellent hitter. He never topped the .280 batting average from 1961 and hit above .260 just twice more, but made up for it by adding significant power. After going deep just seven times in 510 at-bats as a rookie, he homered 17 times in 1962 to kick off a four-year stretch with double-digit long balls.

In fact, from 1961 to 1965 he led all major-league shortstops with 73 homers. Contrary to the past two decades or so, shortstop back then was simply not played by guys capable of hitting the ball out of the park. All of which is what made the two-year run Versalles put together starting in 1964 so impressive. Playing in 320 of 324 games the man they called "Zorro" batted .266/.315/.447 with 39 homers, 22 triples, 78 doubles, 41 steals, 141 RBIs, and 220 runs.

During that two-year span Versalles ranked second among all MLB hitters in doubles and runs, eighth in extra-base hits, and 10th in steals and total bases. That kind of offensive production was largely unheard of from a shortstop at that time and the position as a whole hit a measly .248/.312/.348 between 1964 and 1965. To put that in more recent context, consider that four decades later MLB shortstops combined to hit .271/.324/.401 between 2004 and 2005.

If you adjust Versalles' raw 1964/1965 totals to fit the 2004/2005 environment he comes out batting .290 with a .515 slugging percentage, which is Hanley Ramirez and Troy Tulowitzki territory these days. The second of those two seasons was Versalles' finest and one of the most memorable years in Twins history. After finishing 79-83 in 1964 the Twins blitzed through the AL in 1965, posting a 102-60 record that still stands as the team's all-time best.

Versalles was the shortstop and leadoff man in 155 of the 162 games, hitting .273/.319/.462 with 19 homers and 27 steals while winning a Gold Glove and leading the AL in runs, doubles, extra-base hits, and total bases. He was particularly outstanding in the second half, batting .303/.349/.500 after the All-Star break, including .353 in August and .337 in September as the Twins put away the White Sox and Orioles to take the AL pennant.

And while most of the Twins' hitters flailed away at Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers in a World Series loss Versalles put the finishing touches on his great season by batting .283/.333/.500 with three extra-base hits, three runs, and four RBIs in seven games. Versalles blew away the competition in the AL MVP voting by receiving 19 of 20 first-place votes, with the lone dissenter casting a ballot for teammate Tony Oliva, who finished a distant second.

Decades later it became popular to use his MVP win as a way to identify and attack perceived flaws within sabermetrics, the thinking seemingly being that because his raw numbers weren't particularly impressive in 1965 most "stat-heads" probably think Versalles receiving the award was some sort of travesty brought about by the unenlightened. For instance, friend of and Twins blogger Seth Stohs once opined:

Zoilo Versalles won the 1965 American League MVP award. He had a really great season. Believe me, if it happened now, SABRmetricians would probably take issue with that decision.

Taking it several steps further Jim Thielman, the author of a book about the 1965 Twins called Cool of the Evening, wrote:

Statistically, 1965 was a mixed bag for Versalles, and in recent years those who scrutinize numbers have suggested he did not deserve to win the 1965 Most Valuable Player award. ... Researching an era or epoch to see how it was, reading what people of the era did and said at the time, rather than cast a revisionist layer over it all, is actually an approach to studying history that was introduced around 1800. Applying this research to baseball is preferable to creating designer metrics with a computer in an attempt to ascertain how it was.

It is not difficult to find those who have done that in regard to Versalles, and printed their conclusions in books and on various Web sites, stating Versalles was undeserving. Facts suggest otherwise. A thorough review of Versalles' season--what he actually did during games, what managers and other players said at the time, not years later, shows that becoming an MVP is more than just piling numbers high.

If you're a Twins fan harboring resentment toward stats-based analysis it's tempting to set up that argument. "Versalles was great in 1965, but those dorks with their calculators don't think so!" Unfortunately, that's inaccurate and ultimately nothing more than attacking a strawman. The premise that those who "scrutinize numbers" don't view Versalles' season as special is flawed because of a failure to realize that any stat-head worth a damn looks past raw stats.

Versalles' stats aren't eye-popping at first glance, but one of the main goals of sabermetrics is placing stats like that in proper context. Depending on the circumstances, that means looking beyond oft-quoted numbers like batting averages and RBIs, adjusting for era and offensive environment, and making additional positional adjustments. In all cases it means doing things that Versalles' supporters would surely agree with, which makes the entire "argument" silly.

Plus, in an ironic twist the so-called "designer metrics [created] with a computer" that Thielman rails against so strongly actually show Versalles' MVP-winning 1965 season in an extremely favorable light. For instance, here is the American League leaderboard in 1965 for a prominent numbers-driven metric called Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), which compares a hitter's production to others at the same position:

Jim Fregosi           45.1
Carl Yastrzemski      44.1
Tony Oliva            42.3
Leon Wagner           38.9

VORP represents only offensive contributions, yet Versalles still comes out on top of the heap by a relatively wide margin despite the presence of sluggers like Olivo and Carl Yastrzemski. Considering that Versalles was also a Gold Glove-winning shortstop in 1965 it's not difficult to understand why he also does exceptionally well in a metric such as Wins Above Replacement (WAR) that incorporates both offensive and defensive contributions:

Don Buford            7.2
Jim Fregosi           6.3
Brooks Robinson       6.1
Tony Oliva            5.9

Thielman uses all kinds of strong language to protest the unattributed idea that Versalles was an undeserving MVP, saying "facts suggest otherwise" while taking unnamed masses to task for their apparent decision to "cast a revisionist layer over it all." In reality, the same "designer metrics" he scoffs at are in agreement with the "facts" he's chosen to trust, with both "sides" showing that "becoming an MVP is more than just piling numbers high."

Those nasty stat-heads with their calculators and spreadsheets aren't so bad after all and in fact sometimes those designer metrics their computers spit out can actually serve to illuminate a subject, like showing that a .273/.319/.462 hitter can be perfectly worthy of an MVP award. Deserving or not Versalles followed his MVP season with two ugly years, hitting .249/.307/.346 in 1966 and .200/.249/.282 in 1967 as back problems plagued him.

No amount of contextual adjustments make those hitting lines pretty and in November of 1967 the Twins sent Versalles and Mudcat Grant to the Dodgers for Johnny Roseboro, Bob Miller, and Ron Perranoski. Grant still had some strong years left in his arm, but Versalles was done as an effective player. He batted .196 in 122 games as the Dodgers' starting shortstop in 1968 and was left unprotected in the expansion draft that winter, going to the upstart Padres.

Traded to the Indians a month later, Versalles batted .226 in 72 games as a utility man before being let go and ended the season with a stint in Washington. He spent 1970 in the Mexican League before signing with the Braves in 1971, batting .191 in his final season. Versalles went from a 25-year-old MVP to losing a fight against the Mendoza Line within two years and never recovered, which perhaps fuels some of the perception that he wasn't a deserving MVP.

His career was among the worst ever for an MVP winner and both his on- and off-field declines were sudden and sad, but none of that takes away from the quality of a brief peak that ended in 1965 with one of the greatest years in Twins history, for one of the greatest teams in Twins history. Along with Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, Joe Mauer, and Justin Morneau he's one of five Twins to win an MVP and Versalles joins Carew and Mauer in also pacing the AL in WAR.

Triples                56     4th
Hits                 1146    10th
Runs                  564    11th
Total Bases          1604    11th
Plate Appearances    4500    12th
Steals                 84    12th
Extra-Base Hits       330    12th
Games                1065    13th
Doubles               188    14th
Times On Base        1333    15th
RBIs                  401    18th
Runs Created          481    18th
Homers                 86    19th

March 29, 2011

Twins trade Billy Bullock to keep Rule 5 pick Scott Diamond

Some trades seem like good moves, some trades seem like bad moves, and some trades seem like bad moves and don't make much sense. Yesterday's trade with the Braves to retain Rule 5 pick Scott Diamond unfortunately qualifies as the latter, as the Twins swapped a high-upside, hard-throwing reliever prospect in Billy Bullock for a low-90s throwing left-hander who wasn't even protected from the Rule 5 draft and projects as no more than a mid-rotation starter.

In the wake of the deal there are reports about the Twins wanting Diamond so much that they nearly traded up in the Rule 5 draft to make sure they got him and reports about how they've since grown to like him even more this spring. And that's fine. I like Diamond too and when the Twins plucked him from the Braves in the Rule 5 draft four months ago I wrote about him being a nice low-cost pickup for the total investment of just $50,000 and a spot on the MLB roster.

However, the Twins apparently didn't love Diamond enough to give him one the seven spots in their bullpen as a long reliever or mop-up man and because of that were forced to either offer him back to the Braves or work out a separate deal to keep him in the minors outside of the Rule 5 system. They chose to work something out with Atlanta, which is perfectly reasonable in theory, except "something" inexplicably turned out to be a far better prospect than Diamond.

Bullock was the Twins' second-round pick in 2009 and the 6-foot-6, 230-pounder signed for a $533,000 bonus, posting a 3.18 ERA with 150 strikeouts in 108 innings through two seasons while advancing all the way to Double-A as a 22-year-old. He has control problems, but that comes with the mid-90s fastball that made the former University of Florida closer perhaps the hardest-thrower in a farm system perpetually loaded with potential mid-rotation starters.

All offseason the Twins talked of wanting to acquire more big, hard-throwing strikeout pitchers with overpowering raw stuff, yet they traded arguably the best example of that in their entire organization for a mid-rotation starter they already controlled and could have kept for nothing by simply giving him a low-leverage job in a bullpen housing seven relievers. I'm dumbfounded by the move purely on a talent level, but even more so because of the Rule 5 aspect.

Atlanta didn't even deem Diamond worthy of a 40-man roster spot to protect him from the Rule 5 draft in December and he lasted all the way to the Twins with the 27th selection, later going unclaimed on waivers this week, yet the Braves somehow just turned him into a power arm two years removed from being a second rounder. And all because the Twins weren't willing to trust Diamond with a long relief job that would've allowed them to keep him for nothing.

I'm admittedly a bigger Bullock fan than most, viewing him as a potential future closer and the epitome of the type of high-upside arm the Twins should be trying to add while ranking him as the team's No. 10 prospect (whereas Diamond placed No. 36). But clearly I'm not alone, as the Twins liked Bullock enough to spend a second-round pick and $533,000 on him 20 months ago and Baseball America ranked him as the No. 15 prospect in the system, with Diamond at No. 29.

You'll be hard-pressed to find anyone who values Diamond higher than Bullock. Except for the Twins, apparently. Yet if they love Diamond that much the Twins could have just stuck him in a low-leverage bullpen role like they did with Johan Santana in 2000. And if they don't love him enough to let Diamond fill one of the seven bullpen jobs at age 24 so they could retain him for nothing, then why trade a high-upside, consensus top-20 prospect for him? I just don't get it.

March 28, 2011

Twins set 25-man roster, name Nathan closer, send Hughes to Triple-A

Things could change before April 1, but yesterday the Twins set the 25-man roster by sending Luke Hughes and Jim Hoey to Triple-A. That means Matt Tolbert beat Hughes for the utility man job and Jeff Manship beat Hoey for the final bullpen spot, with Rule 5 pick Scott Diamond still in roster limbo. Rule 5 picks must be offered back to their original teams if not kept in the majors all year, but the Twins are trying to avoid that by working out a trade with the Braves.

In the meantime, here's what the Opening Day roster looks like barring a last-minute change:

LINEUP:                            ROTATION:
C  Joe Mauer                       SP Carl Pavano
1B Justin Morneau                  SP Francisco Liriano
2B Tsuyoshi Nishioka               SP Nick Blackburn
SS Alexi Casilla                   SP Scott Baker
3B Danny Valencia                  SP Brian Duensing
LF Delmon Young
CF Denard Span                     BULLPEN:
RF Michael Cuddyer                 CL Joe Nathan
DH Jason Kubel                     SU Matt Capps
                                   SU Jose Mijares
BENCH:                             RH Kevin Slowey
C  Drew Butera                     RH Jeff Manship
IF Matt Tolbert                    LH Glen Perkins
OF Jason Repko                     LH Dusty Hughes
DH Jim Thome

Hughes homered six times and slugged .569 in 65 at-bats this spring, but he also hit .246 with a .265 on-base percentage and 17-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. And despite Ron Gardenhire saying last week that the ability to play shortstop would not be the deciding factor in the utility man competition, general manager Bill Smith cited Tolbert's ability to play shortstop as one of the reasons he got the job over Hughes, saying: "We need a shortstop."

With a 12-man pitching staff Tolbert or Hughes was the only decision to make on the position player side once Trevor Plouffe played his way out of the mix, but multiple bullpen spots were up for grabs. In theory at least. Joe Nathan, Matt Capps, Jose Mijares, and the sixth starter (Kevin Slowey) were always locks, and very early on it seemed pretty clear that Glen Perkins and Dusty Hughes would make the team as the second and third left-handers.

That essentially left a single middle relief opening for a right-hander, with Manship, Hoey, Kyle Waldrop, and Carlos Gutierrez in the mix. However, neither Waldrop nor Gutierrez are on the 40-man roster and the coaching staff's familiarity with Manship gave him the upper hand over Hoey. There was certainly competition going on, but aside from carrying Hughes as a third lefty and dumping Pat Neshek this is the 25-man roster I'd have predicted entering spring training.

Nathan reclamining his old closer role was equally predictable as long as he avoided any major setbacks returning from Tommy John elbow surgery and sure enough Gardenhire made that all but official yesterday during an interview on 1500-ESPN, saying:

I would imagine we'll start out probably something like that. We like what he's doing. I think the big thing is to see how he does early in the season and go from there. We're going to use them both right away. I just don't think Nathan is ready to go three-four days in a row.

At no point did Nathan report any physical problems and he allowed zero runs in six of eight appearances, but an ugly outing last week caused him to end the spring with a bloated 11.05 ERA overall and his velocity is still lagging behind where it was pre-surgery. Ultimately though, unless the Twins were going to start Nathan off in a low-leverage role or on the disabled list there isn't a huge difference between pitching the eighth inning and pitching the ninth inning.

In most tight games the closer and primary setup man are both going to make an appearance anyway and both roles almost always involve starting an inning fresh and being asked to get three outs, so if the Twins believe Nathan is ready for a late-inning role they might as well just give him ninth-inning duties. Whether he's actually ready for a late-inning role is up for debate, of course, and plenty of people who watched him in Fort Myers were skeptical.

I'm curious to see how Dusty Hughes fares after the Twins used a 40-man roster spot to claim him off waivers in January and quickly made it pretty obvious that he'd crack the Opening Day bullpen. His being let go by the Royals doesn't necessarily mean anything, since they've made plenty of awful decisions with the major-league roster recently, but there's really nothing in his multi-year track record to suggest Hughes is much more than a replacement-level reliever.

Beyond that, Hughes doesn't even seem particularly well-suited for the left-handed specialist role that he'll likely fill as long as Mijares is the main southpaw setup man. Through his first 70 career innings Hughes has a poor 20-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio versus lefties and they've hit .261 off him, albeit with minimal power. Perkins is an even worse fit for the lefty specialist role, as he's actually been better against righties (.801 OPS) than against lefties (.840 OPS).

Assuming that he can rediscover something resembling his old effectiveness a healthy Nathan combined with Capps from the right side and Mijares from the left side is potentially a strong late-inning trio and I'm relatively optimistic about Slowey as a bullpen asset, but Hughes and Perkins trying to shut down big left-handed bats in the middle innings scares me and so far at least Manship looks more like the next Brian Bass than the next Matt Guerrier.

Nathan's setback-free spring training and Slowey's switch have me slightly less worried about the bullpen now than six weeks ago, but Nathan remains a big question mark and there could be enough middle relief ugliness to cause some early changes. Hoey, Waldrop, Gutierrez, Alex Burnett, and Anthony Slama give the Twins plenty of right-handed reinforcements at Triple-A and lefty Chuck James could emerge as an interesting alternative to Perkins or Hughes.

March 25, 2011

Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #23 Cesar Tovar

Cesar Leonardo Tovar | CF/LF/RF/2B/3B/SS | 1965-1972 | Career Stats

Cesar Tovar signed with the Reds out of Caracas, Venezuela as an 18-year-old in the winter of 1959 and batted .304, .338, and .328 in his first three pro seasons. He moved up to Triple-A in 1963 and hit .297 with 115 runs while showing good speed and excellent gap power, but was blocked in Cincinnati by the likes of Pete Rose and Vada Pinson. He remained at Triple-A in 1964 and slumped, hitting .275 with a .379 slugging percentage.

In December of 1964, with a young nucleus of hitters already in place from a 92-win season, Cincinnati shipped Tovar to Minnesota in exchange for 23-year-old left-hander Gerry Arrigo. It was a controversial deal at the time, because parting with young southpaws has never been viewed in a positive light and Arrigo was coming off a rookie season that saw him go 7-4 with a 3.84 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 105 innings split between the rotation and bullpen.

With incumbent second baseman Bernie Allen struggling to bounce back after knee problems ended his 1964 season, Tovar was given a long look in spring training and headed north with the team, making the Opening Day roster as a reserve. Tovar saw just 13 at-bats in a month with the Twins and was sent back down to Triple-A in mid-May, where he batted .328 with a .523 slugging percentage in 102 games before returning to the big leagues in September.

Tovar didn't see any postseason action as the Twins won the AL pennant with a 102-60 record before falling to the Dodgers in the World Series. In fact, hours after Sandy Koufax struck out Bob Allison to end the 1965 season the New York Times reported that Twins president Calvin Griffith was "not satisfied with their top second base candidates" and "would be active in the trading market ... seeking a second baseman."

Talking to the Los Angeles Times early that spring manager Sam Mele called second base "my only infield problem" and an article in the Chicago Tribune two weeks later suggested that the position was a three-way battle for Allen, Frank Quilici, and Jerry Kindall. Meanwhile, Tovar was seeing some work at second base, but also played the other infield spots and center field, where he was viewed as a potential platoon partner for the lefty-hitting Jimmie Hall.

Sure enough, Allen began the 1966 season as the starting second baseman and Tovar didn't find his way into the lineup anywhere for three weeks, finally starting both games of a Sunday doubleheader in center field on May 1. Allen's poor play and health issues eventually opened the door for Tovar to see significant action at second base and he ended up starting 73 games there despite not getting his first chance at the position until late June.

In addition to starting 73 times at second base, Tovar also saw 27 starts at shortstop and 16 starts in center field, combining to hit a modest .260/.325/.335 with 16 steals in 527 trips to the plate. When the Twins traded Hall to the Angels that winter Tovar was needed more as a center fielder in 1967, starting 60 times there, but also started 56 times at third base and 31 times at second base while seeing occasional action at shortstop and in the outfield corners.

While most fans have come to think of a "utility man" as someone like Denny Hocking or Nick Punto who's a capable backup at multiple spots, Tovar was more like an everyday player who just didn't know where he was going to play on a given day. Tovar batted just .267/.325/.365 in 1967, but ranked among the AL's top five in at-bats (649), runs (98), hits (173), doubles (32), and triples (7) while grabbing headlines for his finish in the MVP voting.

Tovar finished a surprising seventh in the balloting, ahead of stars like Tony Oliva and Frank Robinson, but more importantly received the lone first-place vote to elude Triple Crown winner Carl Yastrzemski. After initially remaining anonymous despite media scrutiny, Max Nichols of the Minneapolis Star was revealed as the guilty party. Not only wasn't Tovar even in the same ballpark as Yastrzemski in 1967, in hindsight it ended up being one of his worst seasons.

With offense insanely low in 1968 before the mound was lowered the next year, Tovar batted .272/.326/.372 while ranking among the AL's top five in hits, runs, steals, and doubles. He also made his mark as the second player in MLB history to play an inning at all nine positions in one game. Tovar was the starting pitcher in a 2-1 win over the A's on September 22, striking out Reggie Jackson and moving around the diamond for this boxscore line/scoring nightmare:

Tovar p, c, 1b, 2b, ss, 3b, lf, cf, rf

He was even better in 1969, hitting .288 with 45 steals--including back-to-back steals of home with Rod Carew on May 18--and then hit .300/.356/.442 with 120 runs in 1970. Even those career-best numbers seem unspectacular by today's standards, but like other raw stats from the 1960s and 1970s context is key. Not only did he lead the league in doubles while ranking among the top 10 in runs, hits, and total bases, Tovar did so in a horrible hitting environment.

In other words, not all .300/.356/.442 lines are created equal. Tovar played for the Twins from 1965 to 1972 and during that time the AL as a whole batted .255/.327/.382. Had he instead played for the Twins from, say, 1995 to 2002, the AL as a whole would have hit .271/.341/.432 for a difference in overall production of about 10 percent. If you adjust his 1965-1972 numbers to the 1995-2002 offensive levels, here's what you get instead:

YEAR      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     OPS+
1966     .280     .342     .373     .715      85
1967     .291     .343     .423     .766      98
1968     .308     .353     .452     .805     106
1969     .309     .347     .469     .816     108
1970     .330     .375     .510     .885     117
1971     .331     .365     .419     .784     104
1972     .289     .346     .401     .747      94
TOTAL    .310     .357     .442     .799     102

Suddenly that 1970 campaign is a monster season and Tovar is a perennial .300 hitter whose career numbers with the Twins jump all the way from .281/.337/.377 to .310/.357/.442, which is certainly much more easily recognized as impressive. His era-adjusted numbers also show a textbook aging curve in that he started slowly at age 25, peaked from 27 to 29, and gradually declined into his early 30s.

Interestingly, as Tovar improved offensively he also stopped moving around the diamond so much defensively. Tovar was primarily an outfielder by 1970, starting 125 games in center field and another 21 in left field compared to a total of just 10 starts as an infielder. He saw 145 of his 150 starts in the outfield in 1971 and was exclusively an outfielder in 1972, his final season in Minnesota.

After hitting poorly as the primary right fielder on a 77-win team, the Twins traded Tovar to the Phillies for Joe Lis, Ken Sanders, and Ken Reynolds in November of 1972. Just as Arrigo never amounted to much after going to Cincinnati in exchange for Tovar back in 1964, none of those three provided much value to the Twins. Tovar hit .268/.335/.357 in Philadelphia, splitting time at third base with a struggling 23-year-old rookie named Mike Schmidt.

He had a brief resurgence after joining the Rangers in 1974, starting 136 of 162 games and hitting .292/.357/.377 as the primary leadoff man for Billy Martin, who'd managed the Twins in 1969 when Tovar hit hit .288/.342/.415 with 45 steals as a 28-year-old. He remained a regular for Texas in 1975, but declined to .258/.306/.316 before being let go in August, finishing the season in Oakland. He played for the A's and Yankees in 1976, hitting .167 in his final season.

Steals                186     3rd
Triples                45     7th
Hits                 1164     9th
Runs                  646     9th
Plate Appearances    4595    10th
Times On Base        1531    11th
Games                1090    12th
Doubles               193    12th
Runs Created          549    13th
Total Bases          1561    15th
Extra-Base Hits       276    19th
Batting Average      .281    21st
Walks                 299    22nd
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