April 22, 2015

The art of platooning: Molitor vs. Gardenhire and Arcia vs. lefties

oswaldo arcia twins

Paul Molitor barely has his feet wet as Twins manager, but one noticeable change from Ron Gardenhire is the willingness to platoon. In his 13 seasons as manager Gardenhire essentially never platooned based on handedness, instead treating left-handed bats like Jacque Jones and Jason Kubel as everyday players despite their inability to handle left-handers and ignoring the potential value mediocre right-handed bats like Danny Valencia had as lefty mashers.

Molitor platooned more in his first couple weeks than Gardenhire did in some seasons, regularly benching Oswaldo Arcia and Jordan Schafer against lefties. That's a positive sign in the sense that platooning is a very straightforward, commonplace method of squeezing the most value out of non-stars and putting players in a position to succeed, but in this case the Twins constructed such a weak bench that their platoon options are pretty unappealing.

Not playing Schafer against lefties is a good idea, but Shane Robinson is such a weak overall hitter that his right-handedness barely makes a difference. Not playing Arcia against lefties is also a good idea, at least in the short term, but if the Twins still hold out any hope of him developing into an everyday player he'll need playing time versus lefties eventually and Eduardo Escobar, while better than Robinson, isn't exactly an ideal platoon-mate for a corner outfielder.

Mostly, though, it's just nice to see a manager willing to embrace a common, effective tactic after more than a decade of watching lefties flail away against left-handed pitching, potentially useful righties cast aside because they struggled in everyday roles, and batting orders remain unchanged regardless of the handedness of the opposing pitcher. And if the Twins' bench ever contains better options Molitor could do some interesting things with the lineup.

It'd be great to have nine everyday players and just trot them out in the same lineup spots no matter who was on the mound, but it's hard to find teams that wouldn't benefit from at least some platooning. Nearly every left-handed hitter in baseball history with a sizable track record has fared better against righties than lefties, often to an extreme degree. Because of that, with a lefty on the mound even good left-handed hitters are often worse than mediocre right-handed hitters.

For instance, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are MVP-winning left-handed bats and two of the best hitters in Twins history. However, looking strictly at production against left-handed pitching they both have a lower career OPS than mediocre right-handed hitters like J.J. Hardy, Delmon Young, and Trevor Plouffe. Having the platoon advantage makes a huge difference. Here are the career splits for the Twins' most-used left-handed hitters of the Gardenhire era:

CAREER OPS           vsR      vsL
Joe Mauer           .915     .749
Justin Morneau      .894     .705
Jason Kubel         .813     .676
Denard Span         .751     .726
Jacque Jones        .816     .628
Corey Koskie        .870     .707

On average those six left-handed hitters have an .843 OPS versus righties and a .699 OPS versus lefties for a collective decrease of 17 percent and everyone but Denard Span sees their OPS drop more than 125 points. Those decreases are larger than typical across MLB, but in general lefties tend to be 10-15 percent worse versus lefties. Of course, some lefty bats are good enough overall that they warrant keeping in the lineup against lefties even with the decreased production.

Put another way: Mauer's production against lefties drops 18 percent, but he's still decent with a .749 OPS. However, not many lefties are as good as Mauer overall and so most warrant benching at least semi-regularly. Gardenhire obviously didn't agree. Jones hit .230/.278/.350 off lefties, yet Gardenhire played him every day and kept him leading off. Kubel hit .233/.305/.375 off lefties, yet Gardenhire played him every day and kept him in the middle of the lineup. You get the idea.

It's possible that Arcia will improve versus lefties and/or become productive enough overall that he's worth playing every day and because he's still just 24 years old it's certainly worth investing some more time into finding out. More likely is that he's ultimately a platoon or quasi-platoon player, which is less a knock on Arcia specifically and more just the way things tend to go with good but not great left-handed hitters.

Considering his poor defense Arcia needs to put up big numbers to be worth having in the lineup at an offense-heavy position. So far he's hit .221/.262/.340 off lefties, which is 25 percent worse than his .249/.322/.489 line off righties. Even if Arcia gets better versus righties and turns that 25-percent drop versus lefties into, say, a 15-percent drop it shouldn't be all that hard for the Twins to find a random right-handed hitter capable of better against lefties.

Aaron Hicks, while hugely disappointing overall, has posted a .758 OPS off lefties in the majors and has always hit lefties much better than righties in the minors. Hicks may never develop into a quality regular, but he's already a quality platoon option. With a lefty on the mound he's a viable center fielder and/or better than Arcia offensively and defensively in left field. And that's the magic of platooning, which turns useless into useful by separating strengths from weaknesses.

Molitor has shown the mindset required to improve a lineup via platooning, but the Twins need to actually give him the pieces to make those moves worthwhile and a four-man bench of Robinson, Escobar, Chris Herrmann, and Eduardo Nunez doesn't qualify. Still, after 13 years of learning to view hitters strictly through Gardenhire's binary "everyday player or not" lenses it's refreshing to consider how open-minded managing might take better advantage of useful but flawed options.

This week's blog content is sponsored by Uber, which is offering a free ride to first-time users who sign up with the promo code "UberGleeman."

January 28, 2015

Twins Notes: Parmelee, Swarzak, Pelfrey, Boyd, Gladden, and Santana

Chris Parmelee Twins

Dave St. Peter and Jacque Jones were great guests at the second annual "Winter Meltdown" event Saturday night, but unfortunately due to technical issues their interviews were not properly recorded for "Gleeman and The Geek" purposes. We'll do our best to recap all the details on the next episode, but for better or worse the only people to hear the pair of half-hour interviews will be those who attended the event.

• Let go by the Twins after a combined 20 years in the organization, Chris Parmelee signed a minor-league deal with the Orioles and Anthony Swarzak signed a minor-league deal with the Indians. Parmelee, who was the Twins' first-round pick in 2006, hit .249/.317/.390 in 273 games. Swarzak, who was the Twins' second-round pick in 2004, posted a 4.48 ERA in 440 innings. They were both essentially replacement-level players in Minnesota.

• On a related note, Parker Hageman of Twins Daily looked at the Twins' bad run of drafts from 2006-2011 and how it helped lead to their current struggles.

• General manager Terry Ryan continues to ride the Mike Pelfrey train, telling reporters asking about a potential move to the bullpen for the rehabbing right-hander that he's "more interested to see what he can do as a starter." Pelfrey is 5-16 with a 5.56 ERA in 34 starts for the Twins and has a 4.55 ERA in 183 career starts. He's owed $5.5 million for 2015 because Ryan misguidedly signed him to a two-year contract extension in December of 2013.

Hudson Boyd, who was the Twins' supplemental first-round pick out of a Florida high school in 2011, has been suspended 50 games after a second positive test for a "drug of abuse." Boyd was billed as a big, hard-throwing starter prospect with lots of upside, but he's yet to advance beyond low Single-A and has a 4.27 ERA with just 153 strikeouts in 219 innings as a pro.

Johan Santana's latest comeback attempt has been derailed by more shoulder problems, but let's not lose sight of how amazing he was before his body broke down. Careers, compared:

                      IP     ERA+     WAR     WIN%
Sandy Koufax       2,324     131     53.2     .655
Johan Santana      2,026     136     50.7     .641

Sandy Koufax was a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1972.

Zero players received enough votes to be inducted into the Twins' team Hall of Fame this year and the player getting the most votes was Dan Gladden, who hit .268/.318/.382 in five seasons for the Twins and is now their radio analyst. In terms of on-field performance, Gladden is not one of the top 50 players in Twins history.

David Schoenfield of ESPN.com tried to figure out "who had the worst defensive season ever?" and his answer is going to rile up a lot of Twins fans.

• With a month and some change before Opening Day, my best guess at the 25-man roster the Twins will start the season with includes a few potential moving parts.

• For anyone who felt that FanGraphs' projections for the Twins were too pessimistic: Baseball Prospectus projects the Twins to have MLB's worst record.

This week's blog content is sponsored by Uber, which is offering a free ride to first-time users who sign up with the promo code "UberGleeman."

January 15, 2015

Twins Daily’s second annual “Winter Meltdown” event

Winter Meltdown 2015 logo

Twins Daily's second annual "Winter Meltdown" event is January 24 from 5:00-8:00 p.m. on the Saturday night coinciding with Twins Fest. It'll be at Mason's Barre, one block from Target Field, and guests include Twins president Dave St. Peter, former Twins outfielder Jacque Jones, and former Twins catcher Tim Laudner. Plus me, John Bonnes, Parker Hageman, Seth Stohs, Nick Nelson, and various other Twins bloggers and local media members.

For just $30 you get exclusive access to the private event, including Q&A sessions with St. Peter, Jones, and Laudner, along with two free beers courtesy of 612 Brew, a custom-made, limited edition "Winter Meltdown" pint glass featuring the logo shown above, admittance into a raffle for Opening Day tickets, and all-night drink specials. Last year's event was incredibly fun and sold out beforehand, so you'll want to get tickets now and secure a spot. Click here to sign up.

Who: Gleeman, Bonnes, Hageman, Stohs, Nelson, St. Peter, Jones, Laudner, lots of Twins fans

What: Twins Daily's second annual "Winter Meltdown" event

Where: Mason's Barre at 528 Hennepin Avenue, one block from Target Field downtown

When: Saturday, January 24 from 5:00-8:00 p.m.

Why: Because if we're going to root for a losing team we might as well have fun doing it.

How: Buy tickets before it sells out by clicking here

For more information about this year's event and a recap of the fun had at last year's event, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

September 25, 2013

Twins Notes: Mauer shut down, rotation spending, and no platooning

joe mauer catching mask

Joe Mauer continues to have post-concussion symptoms more than a month after suffering a brain injury, so Monday the Twins shut him down for the final week of the season. Mauer hasn't played since taking a foul ball off the mask on August 19 and experienced setbacks when he tried to ramp up workouts during the past few weeks, with Phil Miller of the Minneapolis Star Tribune writing that he "still feels sensitivity to light and noises, and has trouble outside confined spaces."

Shutting him down is absolutely the correct decision and by the time spring training rolls around Mauer will be six months removed from the concussion, but sadly as the Twins and so many other teams have learned in recent years there are no guarantees with brain injuries. And now, much like with Justin Morneau and Denard Span, the only thing the Twins can really do is wait and hold their breath hoping that time and rest do the trick.

In making Monday's announcement both Mauer and general manager Terry Ryan stressed that they expect him to remain at catcher next season, but whereas that seemed like a questionable stance at the time of the concussion last month it now seems borderline crazy to me. I've spent a decade writing about how much of Mauer's value comes from catching and have always argued against a position switch, but the question has changed and the old answers cease to apply.

There's no way to stop a catcher from taking foul balls off the mask on a regular basis, along with all the other physical dangers that come with the position, and if he were to suffer another brain injury it might be too late to avoid major long-term consequences on and off the field. As a first baseman Mauer's odds of remaining an elite player into his mid-30s are much lower, but he'd still provide plenty of value there and Josmil Pinto is a potential replacement with upside.

(Note: I went into a lot more depth analyzing the Mauer position switch decision last month.)

• There seems to be considerable disagreement within the organization about how much focus to put on acquiring pitching via free agency. Nick Nelson of Twins Daily wrote a breakdown of the situation, with the short version being that Ron Gardenhire is basically begging for rotation help and owner Jim Pohlad says he's willing to spend big for reinforcements, all while Ryan downplays free agency much like he did last winter before settling for Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey.

Every team would love to build a rotation full of young, cheap pitchers and for many years the Twins did that well enough to avoid having to swim into the deep end of the free agency pool. And generally speaking free agent pitching is typically overpriced and requires making risky long-term commitments to players on the wrong side of 30. However, their current lack of MLB-ready arms with more than back-of-the-rotation upside makes Ryan's usual approach a tough one to pull off.

Despite his rookie struggles Kyle Gibson still has a chance to develop into more than a fourth or fifth starter and Alex Meyer remains a potential top-of-the-rotation starter if he can stay healthy, but neither can be counted on to make a huge 2014 impact and even if they do surrounding them with the likes of Correia, Scott Diamond, Vance Worley, and Samuel Deduno is going to leave the rotation well short of decent.

Last season Twins starters had the second-worst ERA in baseball at 5.40 and this season Twins starters have the worst ERA in baseball at 5.26. Based on those numbers and the in-house options who can realistically be rotation members in 2014 there's little chance of building even an average rotation without bringing in outside help. Ryan would surely prefer trades to free agency, but my fear is that his real plan involves a third straight season with a terrible rotation on the cheap.

• One of my frequent complaints about Gardenhire is his unwillingness to platoon hitters, which he's basically never done. Most prominently Jacque Jones and Jason Kubel played no matter the pitcher, but versus lefties Jones hit .231/.286/.355 and Kubel hit .239/.313/.365. For a more recent example on the other side of the plate, Trevor Plouffe plays no matter the pitcher despite hitting .223/.280/.381 off righties. And there are no shortage of maddening day-to-day examples.

Many of the best managers in baseball history regularly employed platoons and current examples in Gardenhire's own league include former Manager of the Year winners Joe Maddon of the Rays, Bob Melvin of the A's, and Buck Showalter of the Orioles. It's hardly a new-school approach and it's hardly a complicated thing to make sense of, yet Gardenhire has never budged and said the following when asked about it by Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

I don't recall ever having a platoon. I'm not against it. I'll tell you that. I wouldn't have a problem having a platoon if it fits. If it makes sense numbers-wise and it works, then you go with it.

"I don't recall ever having a platoon" and "I'm not against it" are statements that don't fit together coming from a manager in his 12th season on the job. Gardenhire may not be against it in theory, but his actions over nearly 2,000 games have certainly shown that he's very much against it in practice despite having plenty of opportunities to improve the lineup via platooning. And for his part, Ryan told Berardino that he's fine with the manager's lack of platooning:

I don't think he likes to platoon players at all. I don't either. Put guys out there that are everyday players, then you don't have to platoon. You're always looking for players that can play 162 games, right? That's what I'm looking for. I don't go out looking for platoon players.

Obviously every team would love to find nine everyday players and trot them out there 162 times, but that's an impossible goal and instead leads to so-called "everyday players" like Jones, Kubel, and Plouffe flailing away against same-sided pitchers they have no business facing. Over the past three seasons the Twins have scored the fewest runs in the league, making "I don't go out looking for platoon players" sound awfully tone deaf coming from the GM. It's nothing new, though.

• Mauer hasn't played since August 19, but according to Win Above Replacement and Fan Graphs' valuation system he's still been worth more than his salary this season.

• This year the Twins have been out-scored by 158 runs, which is the second-worst run differential in baseball. The worst run differential in Twins history belongs to the 1995 team at -186.

• Since taking over for Matt Capps as Twins closer Glen Perkins has converted 90 percent of his save chances (52-for-58) with a 2.31 ERA.

LaTroy Hawkins left the Twins for a two-year, $8 million deal with the Cubs as a 31-year-old free agent and a decade later he's still rolling along.

Francisco Liriano is lined up to start the Wild Card playoff game for the Pirates.

• For a lot more about Mauer's future and the Twins' roster options for next season check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

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December 20, 2011

Jason Kubel leaves Twins for two-year, $15 million deal with Diamondbacks

Jason Kubel's expected departure became official yesterday, as he agreed to a two-year, $15 million deal with the Diamondbacks. Kubel has been a solid player and should thrive moving to the NL and Arizona's hitter-friendly ballpark, but he's also a 30-year-old should-be designated hitter with a modest .259/.327/.430 line during the past two seasons and the Diamondbacks already had a younger, cheaper, and arguably better all-around left fielder in Gerardo Parra.

Kubel had a standout 2009 season, hitting .300/.369/.539 with 28 homers at age 27, but was otherwise a pretty ordinary corner outfielder/designated hitter. He hit .271/.335/.459 overall in 753 games for the Twins, who refused to platoon Kubel and gave him more than 25 percent of his career plate appearances versus left-handed pitching despite a measly .239/.313/.365 line against southpaws.

Kubel's production (.271/.335/.459) is nearly identical to Jacque Jones, who hit .279/.327/.455 in 976 games for the Twins and also should have been platooned, with the difference being that Jones was an outstanding defensive corner outfielder who would've played center field if not for Torii Hunter's presence. Kubel was far from a butcher in the outfield and had a strong arm, but lacked the range to be anything but below average.

Of course, that wasn't always the case. Kubel was a very promising prospect, hitting .352 with 22 homers, 42 doubles, and nearly as many walks (53) as strikeouts (59) in 127 games split between Double-A and Triple-A as a 22-year-old in 2004. He even stole 16 bases, played some center field, and ranked 17th on Baseball America's annual list of MLB's top prospects. And then a brutal outfield collision while playing in the Arizona Fall League wrecked his left knee.

Kubel tore three ligaments, missed the entire 2005 season, and came back as a shell of his old self in 2006, hitting .241/.279/.386 in 73 games for the Twins while displaying below average speed. To his credit Kubel transitioned successfully from toolsy prospect with a blown out knee to lumbering designated hitter, batting .273/.339/.466 from 2007-2011, but much of his upside vanished that day in Arizona and sadly the Twins never got to see his full capabilities.

We'll never know what he would've done with a healthy knee and uninterrupted development, but the player Kubel became following the injury was much closer to average than a star. He certainly had plenty of value, but poor defensive corner outfielders who hit .275 with 20 home runs and an .775 OPS shouldn't be terribly difficult or expensive to find for teams willing to use a platoon or at least go year-to-year with the role.

And the Twins have basically done just that by replacing Kubel with Ryan Doumit, who'll make $3 million in 2012 and has a Kubel-like .271/.334/.442 career line with similar struggles versus lefties. Kubel perhaps has more upside than Doumit, but he also has less defensive versatility and would've required a multi-year commitment for more than twice as much money per year. Plus, by swapping Kubel for Doumit the Twins gain a supplemental first-round draft pick.

Much like with Michael Cuddyer it would've been nice to see Kubel start and finish his career in Minnesota, but also like Cuddyer the Twins were able to replace him with a similar, arguably superior player for a fraction of the price while adding value in a draft pick. Smart decisions are often tough decisions and while a segment of the fan base is no doubt upset about Cuddyer and Kubel leaving the Twins made the right move in both cases.

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