March 16, 2011

Twins Notes: Utilities, options, t-shirts, blends, OBPs, and sausages

• My assumption all offseason was that Matt Tolbert would get the utility infielder job backing up middle infield starters Alexi Casilla and Tsuyoshi Nishioka, as the only other player on the 40-man roster with significant shortstop experience is Trevor Plouffe. That may still prove to be the case, but Ron Gardenhire revealed that the backup infielder doesn't necessarily need to be a shortstop because he can shift Nishioka from second base to shortstop if needed.

That's something I wrote about after Gardenhire announced that Casilla would be the starting shortstop and it certainly makes a lot of sense, but it's surprising given his longtime love affair with Nick Punto in the utility man role. After all, Gardenhire is the same guy who carried three catchers on the roster for long stretches because he was afraid of losing the designated hitter for a few innings in a scenario that might occur once every 100 games.

So, why the sudden change of heart regarding the need to have a legitimate shortstop on the bench at all times? Nishioka's shortstop experience in Japan obviously plays a part, but this is also a very strong indication that Gardenhire doesn't view Tolbert as being in the same league as Punto defensively. And rightfully so. However, the biggest factor is no doubt prospect Luke Hughes hitting .361 with four homers, three doubles, and 13 RBIs in 13 spring training games.

Basing decisions of how someone fares in some small sample of at-bats during spring training is mostly silly, but Hughes' minor-league track record suggests he can be a useful bench player or platoon starter and the Twins could certainly use another capable right-handed bat. I'm not convinced Gardenhire would actually bench any of the lineup's lefty-hitting regulars for Hughes versus southpaws, but either way he brings more potential "utility" to the role than Tolbert.

Hughes actually got a little action at shortstop in Monday's game, which seemed to catch even Hughes off guard. He hasn't played there regularly since 2003, when he was an 18-year-old in rookie-ball, and hasn't played an inning there since 2006 at Single-A. Hughes doesn't even get strong reviews for his glove at second base and only an emergency would force him into action at shortstop in a regular season game, but Gardenhire is obviously giving him a thorough look.

• On a related note, LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Tolbert has one minor-league optioning remaining, which means the Twins can send him to the minors all year. Not having to risk losing a replacement-level player like Tolbert on waivers normally isn't a big factor, but if Casilla or Nishioka were to land on the disabled list the Twins wouldn't be put in a tough spot with Plouffe as the only shortstop reinforcement on the 40-man roster.

Among players potentially on the roster bubble Glen Perkins is the only one out of options, so the Twins would have to pass him through waivers unclaimed before sending him to Triple-A. Perkins has fallen out of favor in a big way and pitched horribly in both the minors and majors last year, but as a relatively young lefty with some track record of success there's a good shot some team would claim him. It sounds like he'll have a spot in the Opening Day bullpen.

My plea for someone to stick Gardenhire's "just fire it through the internet" quote on a t-shirt has already been answered, which I suppose shouldn't be surprising. After all, as Gardenhire will tell you the internet moves very fast. It's not a bad looking shirt, either:

As one of several portly Twins bloggers, I strongly suggest they add some sizes above XXL.

Kelsie Smith of the St. Paul Pioneer Press did a terrific job incorporating advanced defensive metrics into an article about Delmon Young, noting that the 30 pounds he lost last offseason didn't actually lead to major improvement in his fielding numbers and then using her access to get comments from Gardenhire and outfield coach Jerry White. For all the silliness trying to pit new-school versus old-school, I'm hoping to see more mainstream writers blend the two.

My favorite excerpt is this Gardenhire quote: "We thought he was running faster, but that just meant he was chasing the balls he missed faster." It'd be even funnier if it weren't so true. On the other hand White said Young "is actually a good outfielder" and "knows how to play guys." I find it almost impossible to believe White thinks Young "is actually a good outfielder," but the guy in charge of coaching outfield defense doesn't have much to gain by saying otherwise.

• While on Baseball-Reference.com recently researching Indians catcher Carlos Santana for an upcoming Hardball Talk article I stumbled across some interesting numbers. Here are the best career on-base percentages among all players with two-thirds of their games as a catcher and at least 2,500 plate appearances during the past 50 years:

Joe Mauer         .407
Mike Piazza       .377
Jorge Posada      .376
Victor Martinez   .369
Jason Kendall     .366

Not only is Joe Mauer the only catcher in the past 50 years with an on-base percentage above .380, at .407 he's 30 points ahead of the next-closest guy, who just happens to be arguably the best-hitting catcher in baseball history. Something to think about the next time someone says Mauer is overrated because he doesn't hit enough homers.

• For those interested in a glimpse at how the sausage gets made, a spring training attendee who goes by "TCAnelle" on Twitter snapped a photo of Star Tribune writer Patrick Reusse and pitching coach Rick Anderson chatting away from the fray at a picnic table Monday. Reusse's column the next day? All about the bullpen, with lots of quotes from Anderson.

• Who has the best facial hair in Twins history? An important question that the boys over at The Platoon Advantage are attempting to answer, NCAA tournament-style.

  • http://weareoffthemark.wordpress.com Bryz

    Regarding the outfield defense, I had a chance to talk to White at TwinsFest and he told me that he felt that Delmon Young should be playing DH currently and/or in the near future. Perhaps when he was talking to me (a “nobody”) he was more willing to share his opinions than when talking to an actual reporter.

  • http://victoryisinsight.com Alex

    LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the blog. Seriously, you are the best. I just have a tiny nitpicky issue. I always get a little uncomfortable when someone compares career efficiency stats for retired players (whose numbers include later years when they have declined) with current players (whose numbers have yet to inevitably decline).

    Maybe we should cut off some percentage of a player’s career. For example, if a player is 8 years into his career, then we compare his efficiency stats with the first 8 years of all retired player’s numbers?

    I’m a huge nerd, and I apologise. You are the man.

  • sandbun

    I kinda wish they would’ve put more of the quote on the shirt, at the very least “You don’t even have to write it.” would be nice, even if it was just on the back of the shirt. Not that that will keep me from getting one.

  • Jason Kendall

    Wouldya look at that? I used to be good!!! I used to be good!!!

  • rghrbek

    Aaron,

    Your thoughts on bunting in the first inning? Gardy does this lots and it drives me nuts. If you read the strib today, Nishi is doing it…in spring training games (hopefully just to practice his bunting), but from what La Velle said, it’s clearly for other reasons.

    I know TK hated doing this, and Gardy loves to give up the out to play for the 1 run inning early. He did it in the first Playoff game last year. I think it’s silly, unless your facing Pedro circa 1999…

  • SoCalTwinsfan

    Alex,

    Piazza’s on-base average in his first eight seasons was .391. Only twice in his career did he have an OBA better than Mauer’s current .407 and only three times in his career was it .400 or better.

  • BR

    People complain about Mauer the same way Sox fans used to complain about Wade Boggs. Like Joe, Boggs had one solid HR year (20+) but was otherwise content to work the count, draw his walks, and spank singles and doubles the other way.

    People can complain about what he’s not doing, but when you’re getting on base at better than 40%, you’re simply not going to change your approach. Besides, there’s no denying that Mauer, like Boggs, is a great hitter. He’s just never going to be Ryan Howard. And frankly, that’s a good thing.

  • mike wants WINS

    rghrbek – it is never a good idea to give up an out early in the game. Not making an out is how you score runs. There may be times late in a game (tied, behind by one) where sacrificing makes sense. But it never makes sense early in a game. There are lots of things you can debate about stats and “modern” understanding of the game, that is NOT one of them.

  • Large Canine

    Mike, If I have a guy on first, 1 out and a hitter at the plate who leads the league in GIDP and a GB pitcher on the hill, I may want to bunt early in a game. That would be it.

  • Dan

    Recently it was reported that Mauer said he wasn’t able to use his back leg much last year when hitting (I don’t remember where I read that, could have been here, LEN3, or someone else). Is it possible that contributed to his decline in homers? The quote wasn’t commented on; it was just thrown out there.

    Regardless of whether he hits 10 home runs or 30, he’s still the best catcher. Getting more offensive years like 2009 would just add to the awesomeness.

  • toby

    L. Canine, that player would have to otherwise be extremely subpar with the bat, the defense would have to be playing back and he’d have to be a pretty good bunter to even make it a real consideration. You only consider it because of the “better than just a sacrifice” probabilities of a hit or error. Even then it comes down to game theory and how often to bunt so as to the keep the defense honest (if you believe the other manager is even the sort to track these things and react in the future). When Gardenhire hits a weak, speedy hitter in the two hole (which should have the best hitter in the lineup), he ironically made it a “less bad” decision to bunt in the first inning. Two bad decisions, dovetailing to make the second look better…

  • Large Canine

    Toby and Mike,

    I see your points and agree for the most part. Kubel just came up in the 3rd inning with the bases loaded and 1 out. double play and no runs scored. If he would have bunted we most likely would have scored at least one. Yes, I know Kubes hits a lot of long balls and there was potential for a double or HR or even a sac fly. But there are many times where I just want at least one run to break the 1-1 tie. Plus, DP’s are deflating and rally killers. I agree with you guys in about 99% of the situations. But, sac bunts do have value. Teams that never sac bunt have a difficult time executing them when crunch time comes. (MHO of course)

  • mike wants WINS

    LC: it’s about odds. Sac bunts reduce your liklihood of scoring more than 1 run. You should only be “trying to score one run” late in a game, never early in a game. Sure, sometimes you hit into a DP, but the math is very clear, sacrifices (or giving up an out) are bad math, bad strategy. Doing the right thing doesn’t always work, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do the right thing (just like sometimes the wrong choice works, but that doesn’t mean you should do the wrong thing again just because it worked last time).

  • large canine

    Mike, I totally understand odds. More to competition then odds though. How do you think Manship felt today when Kubes hit into an inning ending play with the bases loaded? I’m guessing not so good. I never felt good when it happened to me back in the day. We ended up scoring one run that inning instead of two. If Kubes would have squeezed in the runner from third (and I’m not saying he necessarily should have) we would have had 2 on with 2 outs and one more run. And guess what? we lost by one. I like the Boise States of the world with their statue of liberties and their on side kicks. If I coached baseball I would probably be a risk taker. Probably teach Thome to hit a few down the 3b line to keep the other team honest. If it was strictly an odds game Gardy would not bat Kubes against LH pitching and Cuddy against RH.

  • toby

    And if Kubel would have foul bunted twice he would have had to his with two strikes. And if Kubel had bunted poorly it would have been an out and maybe even a doubled play.

    If Kubel had roped a doubled and cleared the bases, that WOULDN’T make it the right decision. It’s the right decision because of the probabilities at the time considering who is up and how the defense is playing, and unless the player up is just a shitty, shitty hitter and the defense is still making a bunt hit a possibility, you don’t do it unless it’s very late and very close.

    It kind of IS a “strictly… odds game,” and Gardenhire probably shouldn’t bat Kubel against LHP. Cuddyer, like most RH bats, doesn’t have an extreme platoon split.