December 31, 2012

“Gleeman and The Geek” #74: Pitching Preferences, Payroll, and Hicks

This week's episode of "Gleeman and The Geek" welcomes Nick Nelson of Twins Daily as guest co-host for a vacationing John Bonnes and topics included re-setting expectations for 2013, the offseason's best free agent pitcher contracts, why pitching will be even more expensive next winter, what to make of the Twins' current low payroll, how to handle Aaron Hicks' timetable, making peace with being hungover, and my mom renting out her basement to other bloggers.

Gleeman and The Geek: Episode 74

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

This week's blog content is sponsored by Paul "Fantasy Camper" Bennett, who'll be blogging and tweeting about his annual experience at Twins fantasy camp in Fort Myers the week of January 6. Please support him for supporting AG.com.

December 28, 2012

Offseason outlook: Joe Mauer

Joe Mauer's uncertain health status caused the Twins to look for insurance behind the plate last offseason and they found a perfect fit in Ryan Doumit. Doumit was available cheaply as a free agent because, like Mauer, he was coming off an injury wrecked season, but by essentially using both players as part-time catchers and part-time designated hitters the Twins found a pairing that worked well for everyone involved.

Mauer made 72 starts at catcher and 42 at DH, plus 30 at first base. Doumit made 56 starts at catcher and 48 at DH, plus 22 in the outfield. And they both stayed healthy to set career-highs in games. Mauer got off to a slow start, but hit .337 in his final 110 games and took advantage of the reduced catching workload to hit .356 in September. Not bad for a guy who was regularly booed by a not insignificant portion of the home crowd at Target Field during the first half.

While those people were harping on last season's injury Mauer led the Twins in games and plate appearances. While those people were blaming the Twins' ineptitude on his $23 million salary Mauer's performance was worth $22.5 million according to Fan Graphs. While those people were focusing on his lack of power and supposed lack of clutch, Mauer nearly won his fourth batting title, led the league in on-base percentage, and hit .352 in "high-leverage" situations.

He'll forever be under-appreciated by people who still think homers and RBIs are the best way to judge a hitter, but Mauer's incredible ability to get on base enabled Josh Willingham (and Justin Morneau before him) to rack up huge RBI totals hitting behind him. And when Mauer came to the plate with runners on base he hit .346, including .372 with runners in scoring position, .397 with two outs and runners in scoring position, and .500 with the bases loaded.

Win Probability Added measures the actual in-game impact of hits and awards more value for, say, a game-tying solo homer in the ninth inning than a grand slam in a blowout. Mauer ranked seventh among AL hitters in Win Probability Added and Mike Trout was the only guy ahead of him who also played an up-the-middle position defensively. Mauer's singles, doubles, and walks made a huge impact based on actual game situations.

Mauer's lack of power certainly plays a part in his modest RBI totals, but he drove in 18.1 percent of the runners on base for his plate appearances. Not only did that rank eighth-highest in the entire league, it topped Willingham's mark of 16.3 percent. Mauer converted a higher percentage of his RBI chances than Willingham, but Willingham had 45 more runners on base in 26 fewer plate appearances because Mauer was on constantly in front of him.

Outs are an offense's most precious commodity and having runners on base drives scoring more than anything else, and Mauer is spectacular at avoiding outs and getting on base. If someone is unwilling or unable to recognize the value in those skills despite endless amounts of supporting research ... well, then that's on them at this point. It's time to stop placating the "yeah, but he doesn't hit homers!" subset and start appreciating Mauer for what he does so well.

Mauer has always walked a ton, but this season he walked more than ever before to rank fifth among AL hitters in walk rate. That's pretty remarkable considering Mauer saw the eighth-most fastballs in the league and hit just 10 homers, and speaks to his great eye and amazing patience. He swung at a lower percentage of pitches than anyone in the league and when he did swing only nine hitters made more contact. And only two hitters saw more pitches per plate appearance.

He also walked more than he struck out for the sixth time in seven seasons and was one of only two hitters in the league with more walks than strikeouts. And yet despite striking out less often than all but 20 hitters in the league Mauer's strikeout rate of 13.7 percent was a career-high and solidly above his lifetime mark of 10.7 percent. That could represent a change in approach due to aging or an attempt to add power, or it could just be a one-season fluctuation.

For the first time in his career Mauer pulled more than the half the balls he put in play, which would seemingly lend credence to the change in approach theory, although his line-drive rate, ground-ball rate, batting average on balls in play, and isolated power were all right around his norms. And his overall .319/.416/.446 line was very close to his .323/.403/.471 career mark even though offense was down across baseball. His adjusted OPS+ was seventh in the league.

Things weren't so pretty defensively, as Mauer struggled to throw out runners all season and finished with an abysmal caught-stealing rate of 14 percent. That's below the MLB average of 25 percent and miles from Mauer's career rate of 33 percent. Doumit and the normally impossible-to-run-on Drew Butera were also below average, so the pitching staff shares a big part of the blame, but Mauer threw out at least 26 percent in each of his first eight seasons.

Of course, the difference between 14 percent and 25 percent amounted to a grand total of seven extra steals under Mauer's watch. He also had lower passed ball and wild pitch rates than Doumit and Butera, so while Mauer's defense certainly wasn't good and definitely cost the Twins runs it only made a small dent in his overall contributions. Mauer ranked ninth among AL hitters in Wins Above Replacement, which factors in offense, defense, and positions played.

Mauer needs only to duplicate his 2012 performance to be worth his annual salary to the Twins and while that's no sure thing as he approaches age 30 he's produced at least $20 million in value in five of the past seven seasons. By re-signing Doumit the Twins can put together a similar catcher/DH split in 2013, although if his defense bounces back and he avoids the disabled list it wouldn't be surprising to see Mauer's workload behind the plate expand.

Other "offseason outlook" write-ups: Justin Morneau, Josh Willingham, Trevor Plouffe, Ryan Doumit

This week's blog content is sponsored by Paul Bennett, an Independent Certified Financial Planner Practitioner. Discover what he can do for you at PaulMBennett.com. And please support him for supporting AG.com.

December 26, 2012

Twins sign Rich Harden to minor-league contract

Rich Harden was once among the best young pitchers in baseball, debuting with the A's as a 21-year-old and throwing 360 innings with a 3.60 ERA and .232 opponents' batting average through age 23. He missed lots of bats with a mid-90s fastball, hard slider, and devastating splitter, and many people viewed Harden as having the most upside on Oakland staffs that included Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, and Dan Haren.

And then the injuries hit. Harden was sidelined by everything from back spasms and hip strains to oblique pulls and finger blisters, but his first big injury was a sprained elbow ligament and most of his career has been spent trying to pitch with major shoulder problems. He threw 190 innings as a 22-year-old in 2004, but hasn't reached 150 innings in a season since and failed to throw 100 innings in five of the past seven seasons.

That includes 2012, when Harden missed the entire season following January shoulder surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff. Last month Harden announced plans to make a comeback and Friday he agreed to a minor-league contract with the Twins, getting an invitation to spring training but not a 40-man roster spot. At age 31 he's an intriguing flier to take and the complete lack of risk makes it a worthwhile pickup for the Twins, but expectations should be held in check.

For many years Harden was somehow able to maintain overpowering raw stuff and strong results despite the never-ending injuries, but that has long since ceased being true. He's basically lost one mile per hour on his fastball every two years, going from 94 mph in 2004/2005 to 91 mph in 2010/2011, and his slider lost similar velocity. And left with diminished raw stuff, Harden posted a 5.36 ERA with 93 walks and 35 homers allowed in 175 innings between 2010 and 2011.

Last winter Harden indicated that he'd been pitching through significant shoulder pain for years in an effort to skip surgery, but finally decided he couldn't continue to sacrifice his velocity just to avoid going under the knife. Because of that there's some hope his raw stuff will return, at least somewhat, and it's worth noting that even while struggling overall in 2010 and 2011 he did manage 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings while starting 33 games in the AL.

In fact, during that two-year stretch in which opponents hit .261 with a .476 slugging percentage off Harden he ranked 15th in strikeout rate and 22nd in swings missed among the 159 starters with at least 150 innings. He was done in by horrible control and way too many homers, but if given another mile or two per hour to work with it's not inconceivable to think Harden could cut down on some of the mistakes while keeping the missed bats and be effective again.

Of course, that would involve successfully coming back from major shoulder surgery and then remaining healthy, the former of which is far from a sure thing and the latter of which has been a career-long struggle. I've often wondered why teams have never tried to keep Harden healthy by shifting him to the bullpen, where he could air it out for 15-20 pitches without worrying about in-game fatigue, and it sounds like the Twins are open-minded to a potential relief role.

Last winter the Twins took a similar flier on another oft-injured righty, Joel Zumaya, who blew out his elbow in his first spring training game. Harden's injury history isn't quite as debilitatingly gruesome, but all the same caveats apply. There's a strong chance Harden will never pitch for the Twins, but there's also some chance he'll be a useful mid-rotation starter or setup man--even temporarily--and that's certainly worth a no-risk look.

For a lot more about the Harden signing, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

This week's blog content is sponsored by Paul Bennett, an Independent Certified Financial Planner Practitioner. Discover what he can do for you at PaulMBennett.com. And please support him for supporting AG.com.

December 22, 2012

“Gleeman and The Geek” #73: Pelfrey, Harden, and Christmas with Doogie

This week's episode of "Gleeman and The Geek" is Geek-less, with John Bonnes halfway across the world and Darren Wolfson of KSTP and 1500-ESPN as guest co-host, and topics included the Twins signing Mike Pelfrey and Rich Harden, whether they're done shopping for rotation help, alternatives to Kevin Correia, why Scott Baker didn't re-sign, revisiting Billy Bullock for Scott Diamond, betting on the Opening Day starter, and growing up with Doogie.

Gleeman and The Geek: Episode 73

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

This week's blog content is sponsored by Paul Bennett, an Independent Certified Financial Planner Practitioner. Discover what he can do for you at PaulMBennett.com. And please support him for supporting AG.com.

December 21, 2012

Link-O-Rama

• I'll have a lot more on this next week in this space and on the podcast, but the Twins signed Rich Harden to a minor-league contract.

David Brown of Yahoo Sports created internet gold by ranking MLB's sexiest general managers and Terry Ryan fares better than you might expect.

Mark Willis designed soccer-style jerseys for the AL East teams and I'm really wishing he'd do the same for the AL Central so I could buy a Twins "kit."

Jeff Dubay returned to local radio this week as a guest co-host on 1500-ESPN and also did a very honest, compelling interview about his long road back with Steve Marsh of MSPMag.com.

Samantha Micelli was one of my original crushes, so it's hard to believe Alyssa Milano turned 40 years old this week.

• Last week I mentioned the new NBC Sports/Yahoo Sports partnership and my longtime boss gave an interview laying out some of the details and plans.

• As part of his 1500-ESPN radio show with Patrick Reusse changing time slots Phil Mackey will no longer be covering the Twins as a reporter, joining Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Ben Goessling of the St. Paul Pioneer Press in leaving the beat.

• This is, without question, the craziest story of the week.

Wade Boggs has 3,010 hits and zero rhythm.

• This week's "Gleeman and the Geek" episode features lots of Kevin Correia talk and me breaking up with John Bonnes. Finally.

Kevin Garnett and Kevin McHale shared an amazingly emotional moment at the end of a Celtics-Rockets game:

And here's the story of what was said.

• For all their talk about wanting more strikeout pitchers the Twins keep signing pitchers who don't get any strikeouts.

Brian McTaggart of MLB.com wrote a nice profile of Kevin Goldstein, who recently went from Baseball Prospectus writer to Astros pro scouting coordinator.

• Chubby is always funnier than ripped, but Chris Pratt's transformation was pretty amazing.

• It turns out the only thing keeping me from becoming one of Hollywood's most successful leading men is that I'm way too tall.

• As a big "30 Rock" fan this makes me sad.

• There's a reason why Peter Gammons is a Hall of Famer.

Chris Hardwick has turned his "Nerdist" podcast into a television show, so it's only a matter of time before we do the same with "Gleeman and The Geek."

• Where does Trevor Plouffe fit into the Twins' short- and long-term plans?

Rob Trump of The Classical put together an amusing history of the now-defunct blog "Fire Joe Morgan" and the hilarious, surprisingly famous people behind it.

• My feelings about fans calling their favorite teams "we" and "us" can be more or less summed up by this brilliant video:

Twins fans generally seem less guilty of that than Vikings fans, for whatever that's worth.

• My family apparently knows me pretty well, because I got this as a Hanukkah present.

Bill Baer of ESPN.com wrote a good article about Joe Mauer from a non-Minnesota point of view, although as always I'd advise against venturing into the comments section.

• Former No. 1 overall pick Matt Bush will be in prison until 2016.

• "Sleepwalk With Me" is now on Netflix instant and really enjoyable, especially if you're into stand-up comedy.

• On a related note, adding foreign movies to my Netflix queue is my version of a drunk dial.

• Speaking of which, I really enjoyed the Norwegian movie "Headhunters" on Netflix instant and apparently an American version is in the works.

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

- "Ricky Rubio neck tattoo"
- "Yuengling Minneapolis"
- "Kevin Slowey engaged"
- "Influential podcast"
- "Jeff Kent family pictures"
- "Why did Plouffe cut his hair?"
- "Value of Brian Harper autograph"
- "How much does Rene Rivera make?"
- "I weigh 350 and I'm lazy"
- "Best elbow surgeon in Minnesota"
- "Vance Worley girlfriend"

• Finally, this week's AG.com-approved music video is Mystikal's new song "Hit Me":

This week's blog content is sponsored by Paul Bennett, an Independent Certified Financial Planner Practitioner. Discover what he can do for you at PaulMBennett.com. And please support him for supporting AG.com.

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