June 21, 2004

Pinto Talks Twins (and other ramblings after an off-day)

The other day I was thinking that my team, the Minnesota Twins, whom I rant and rave about in this space five times a week, don't get all that much attention in the blogging world. Now, don't get me wrong, there are a fair number of Twins blogs, such as Twins Geek, Seth Speaks, Twins Chatter, Bat-Girl and Will Young.

We actually have a good and growing group of Twins blogs, and I'm probably even leaving a couple out. Instead, I'm talking about outside of the guys (and girls) who are as obsessed with the team as I am; I'm talking about other blogs.

How many Twins-related posts have you read on non-Twins blogs this season? Perhaps I am just frequenting the wrong blogs or something, but I haven't see a whole lot. I'm not necessarily complaining, as much as wondering why it is. The more stuff about the Twins there is for me to read, the better.

So just a couple days after I started pondering that question, one of the original baseball bloggers, the guy whose innocent suggestion that his readers might have fun trying to start a blog of their own turned into 23 months and counting of me blogging every weekday, had some relatively lengthy thoughts on the Twins yesterday. Here's what David Pinto, of Baseball Musings, had to say about the AL Central leaders:

I find the Twins to be a very interesting team. Without the fanfare of the A's, they built a very strong farm system and developed a good team on the cheap. Like the A's, they were willing to let older players go (Ortiz, Pierzynski) to make room for younger talent. They are another nail in the coffin of the meme that you can't win without spending a lot of money.

They're in first place again this year, and they've gotten there the hard way. They've been outscored by their opponents 326-322. They really should have a .500 record. They have done well in 1-run games, going 13-8. But the Chicago White Sox have been as unlucky as the Twins have been lucky. The pale hose should be at .585 and have a 5 1/2 game lead over the Twins. Yet, the White Sox are also doing well in 1-run games, going 13-7. What is true is that the Twins have not done well in games decided by five runs or more; they are 7-11.

One of my rules of thumb in evaluating teams is that great teams win big. The Twins aren't a great team. But they are doing a good job of winning when they are able. And two hopeful signs; one is the return of Joe Mauer, who should take some pressure off Lew Ford, who has been the offense this year. The Twins are 10-6 since Joe's come off the DL. Mauer hasn't been getting on base, but he has supplied power, as 7 of his 10 hits have been for extra bases. The other sign of hope is Johan Santana, who has put together three great outings in a row.

The Twins have achieved a record in excess of their play in this first half. The Twins underperformed offensively. With the return of Mauer, and with the return of the rest of the Twins to their 2003 performance (especially Mientkiewicz, Koskie and Jones), the Twins have a good chance of building on a lucky first half to take them to a division title.

That's a solid post, especially from someone who doesn't follow the team all that closely on a regular basis. David actually talks about a topic -- the Twins "lucky" record -- that a lot of Twins fans I know have had on their minds of late.

Here's the thing though ... It's not just this season. The Twins have been just as "lucky" going on four years now, which is, not coincidentally, the same length of time they've been a good team again. Take a look ...

YEAR     PYTH W     REAL W     +/-

2001 81 85 +4
2002 86 94 +8
2003 85 90 +5
2004 34 38 +4

If the Twins continue to beat their pythagorean record at this same pace for the remainder of this season, they will have been "lucky" by 10 games this year and a total of 27 games over the past four seasons.

Meanwhile, check out the same table for the White Sox ...

YEAR     PYTH W     REAL W     +/-

2001 81 83 +2
2002 86 81 -5
2003 88 86 -2
2004 38 35 -3

The Sox actually managed to "beat" their pythagorean record back in 2001, but they've now been "unlucky" for three years in a row. The interesting thing, aside from their unluckiness coinciding with the Twins' luckiness, is that the White Sox have a new manager this season and are still underperforming just like they did in the past.

If both the White Sox and Twins stay at the same paces for real wins and pythagorean wins for the remainder of this season, the Twins will be +23 over the past three years, while the White Sox will be -15. As I'm sure you've figured out by now, that's just huge -- a 38-game swing.

Meanwhile, the Twins beat the White Sox in real wins by 13.5 games in 2002 and 4.0 games last year, and if they keep the same winning percentages this season, the Twins will win the division by about 5.0 games. All of which adds up to a difference of "only" 22.5 games in the real standings over that same three-year period.

In trying to figure out how the Twins have out-performed their pythag. so far this year, David says, "One of my rules of thumb in evaluating teams is that great teams win big. The Twins aren't a great team. But they are doing a good job of winning when they are able."

I agree with that 100%. The Twins are not, by any stretch of the imagination, a great team. In fact, I've gone on record many teams saying that if they were not in the AL Central, they probably would yet to have made the playoffs since 1991.

I honestly believe that if the Twins had been in the AL's other two divisions, they would probably have been fighting for third and maybe even fourth-place for the past few years. That doesn't change the fact that they ARE in the AL Central, of course, or that they are currently on track to make the playoffs for the third year in a row.

Now that I've complimented David on his Twins thoughts, let me just point out one thing that I think he has wrong. It's very minor, but it's something worth noting. David says, "Like the A's, [the Twins] were willing to let older players go (Ortiz, Pierzynski) to make room for younger talent."

Now, this is true in some cases, like, as David points out, A.J. Pierzynski being sent to the Giants to clear room for Joe Mauer. However, his other example of David Ortiz is not a good one. Ortiz was arbitration-eligible following the 2002 season, at which point he was 26 years old. The Twins let him go, in part because they didn't want to pay him what he likely would have gotten in arbitration, but they certainly didn't replace him with a young player.

The two spots Ortiz manned while with the Twins were first base and designated hitter. The Twins' first baseman since he left has been Doug Mientkiewicz, who is just over a year older than Ortiz. The Twins haven't had an everyday DH since Ortiz left, but the guy who has played there the most, Matthew LeCroy, is exactly one month younger than Ortiz.

In reality (or at least my reality), the Twins have been completely unwilling to replace Ortiz at DH with a younger player. That player is, of course, Justin Morneau, who is now hitting .311/.381/.622 with 17 homers and 18 doubles in 55 games at Triple-A Rochester.

And then the other part of David's comment that I don't agree with completely is his statement that, "[The Twins] are another nail in the coffin of the meme that you can't win without spending a lot of money."

As I just said, one of the main reasons for Minnesota's playoff appearances is the division they are in. They simply have had to be better than the White Sox. The A's (who David mentions), meanwhile, have had to compete against the Angels and Mariners, who have been, at various points, as good and far better than Chicago.

If you stick the Twins in the AL West, the A's would beat them in the standings every year, and I think the Twins would have had a very tough time even finishing in second-place in any season, this current one included.

That's not to say the Twins aren't doing a very nice job on a limited budget, because they certainly are. Still, I don't think they are the perfect blueprint to follow. They play in baseball's worst division, against several other low budget teams. And, prior to starting to turn things around in 2001, they went eight straight seasons (1993-2000) without a record above .500.

The A's, meanwhile, play in a tougher division and yet will make the playoffs for the fifth year in a row this season and will have a winning record for the sixth season in a row. The Twins, if they can hold off the White Sox, will make the postseason for the third straight year and finish above .500 for the fourth straight year.

So what exactly am I saying? Basically, I think I'm saying the Twins and their management have done a nice job in the past few years, but they've also been lucky to play against weak competition. I'd say they aren't quite another "nail in the coffin of the meme that you can't win without spending a lot of money," but rather another nail in the coffin of the meme that you can't win IN THE AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL without spending a lot of money.

Because in the end, the Twins' ability to make the playoffs and to put those nails in that coffin, is only affected by their ability to finish with a better record than four teams: Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Kansas City.

There's no Boston or New York there, no Oakland or Anaheim, not even a Seattle (before they went in the tank). That's Chicago, a good-but-flawed team, and three other small-payroll clubs.

Here are the payrolls USA Today credits the teams I've been talking about with having in 2004 ...

Minnesota Twins          $53.6 million

Chicago White Sox $65.2 million
Kansas City Royals $47.6 million
Detroit Tigers $46.8 million
Cleveland Indians $34.3 million

Being a "small market" team with a small payroll only matters if the teams you're competing against for a playoff spot are in bigger markets or have bigger payrolls. I think really the only nail the Twins are driving into anything is that they can beat the Chicago White Sox and three teams with even smaller payrolls than they have, and even that is still in question this season.

Meanwhile, look at what Oakland is fighting this year ...

Oakland A's              $59.8 million

Anaheim Angels $100.5 million
Seattle Mariners $81.5 million
Texas Rangers $55.1 million

Now, that is a team putting some nails in some coffins.

And it was the same story last year ...

Minnesota Twins          $55.5 million

Chicago White Sox $51.0 million
Detroit Tigers $49.2 million
Cleveland Indians $48.6 million
Kansas City Royals $40.5 million

Who knew? The Twins were the Yankees of the AL Central last year!

And here's what Oakland overcame to win the AL West last season ...

Oakland A's              $50.3 million

Texas Rangers $103.5 million
Seattle Mariners $87.0 million
Anaheim Angels $79.0 million

I hate to say it, but this is why people like me praise Billy Beane so much. If you want to know why Beane is a favorite of statheads and you're willing to look at it in a reasonable manner, without reverting back to "they lose in the playoffs every year" when the discussion gets interesting, it's fairly easy to see.

The A's will make the playoffs for the fifth season in a row in 2004 (you heard it here first, I guess). In those five years, take a look at the average payrolls of the AL West teams:

Oakland A's              $43.2 million

Texas Rangers $84.7 million
Seattle Mariners $76.5 million
Anaheim Angels $68.0 million

In making what I believe will be five straight playoff appearances, the A's have been out-spent by an average of $24.8 million, $33.3 million and $41.5 million by the three other teams in their division, respectively.

I love that the Twins are winning, I think they have done a nice job and I really believe they have the players in place to continue to compete for playoff spots for the rest of this decade. But what the A's have done and are doing is on a completely different level.

You know, there's something special going on in Oakland. Someone really should write a book about it.

New article at The Hardball Times: Tale of Two Halves

Today's picks:

Pittsburgh (Benson) +190 over Houston (Oswalt)

Arizona (Sparks) +150 over San Diego (Eaton)

Minnesota (Lohse) +215 over Boston (Schilling)

New York (Mussina) -160 over Baltimore (Riley)

Total to date: -$2,470

W/L record: 106-141 (1-0 yesterday for +100.)

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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