September 30, 2004

Careful What You Wish For

Well, I said last week that the Twins might be better off playing the Yankees in the first round, instead of going up against the Red Sox, and it looks like that's exactly who they'll get.

With three games left on their schedule, the Twins are sitting at 90-69, tied with both Anaheim and Oakland for the second-best record among American League division leaders. The Angels and A's finish the year with a three-game series against each other that starts tonight, which means one of them is going to end the season with at least 92 wins.

Because the tiebreaker for homefield advantage is head-to-head record and the Twins lost their season series to both Oakland and Anaheim, they'd have to sweep the Indians at the Metrodome this weekend to get homefield in the first round. And, frankly, I just don't see that happening.

But hey, I said I thought the Twins were better off playing the Yankees and that's what they're going to get. It wouldn't be bad news, except for the fact that New York just took three straight from the Twins at Yankee Stadium, including both games of a doubleheader on Wednesday and last night's game on a Bernie Williams ninth-inning homer.

Obviously losing three straight to a team you're going to be facing in the playoffs in a week isn't a great thing, but it's worth noting that the Twins didn't exactly play postseason baseball during the series. Both Johan Santana and Brad Radke were pulled from their starts after five innings and they both actually had the lead when they left. In the other game the Twins lost, Kyle Lohse started and gave up five runs, but it's unlikely he'll see any first-round action in the playoffs anyway.

Plus, even in losing all three games, the Twins did relatively well against all three of New York's starters, getting at least seven hits against each of Mike Mussina, Jon Lieber and Javier Vazquez, and scoring a total of 11 runs in 18.1 innings against them.

In the end, the Twins' playoff chances are going to come down to two very simple things. First and foremost is Santana and Radke continuing their brilliant seasons for one more month and shutting down opposing offenses. Along with that is Minnesota's lineup being able to scratch and claw their way to at least 3-4 runs per game.

I saw nothing in the three losses to New York that convinced me they are any less capable of doing those two things than I thought they were this time last week. Santana pitched well, Radke pitched well, and the offense scored either three or four runs in each game.

Oh, and since I know I'll forget to mention this if I don't do it right now, I have a little Santana-related rant ...

Of late, as Santana has been putting together one of the best seasons by a pitcher in recent memory, one of the things I keep hearing from people is that maybe the Twins were right in keeping him in the bullpen for so long. The thinking being, of course, that Santana has turned out so great, so whatever they did must have been the right decision.

This is the type of thinking I don't believe in. If I'm playing poker and decide to go all-in for all my chips with a 7-2 offsuit (perhaps the worst starting hand in poker), and the flop comes 7-7-7, does that make my all-in play a smart one? If you answer yes to that, then I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree (and I'll have to look for you at the tables).

For you guys who aren't into poker (what's wrong with you?), I'll try a baseball analogy. Let's say the Cardinals had called Albert Pujols up at 21 years old and said, "He's young, so we'll make him a pinch-hitter and give him a start or two a week to work him in slowly." So for the next few years he gets 200 at-bats per season and does extremely well.

Finally, the Cardinals make him an everyday player and Pujols hits .330 with 40 homers and 130 RBIs. Do you say, "Wow, it was smart that the Cardinals kept him in a limited role for so long, look how well he ended up doing" or do you say, "Wow, the Cardinals just wasted some great years from one of the best hitters in baseball"?

In his column yesterday, Will Carroll suggested that the Twins were following the thinking of an old sabermetric favorite, Earl Weaver, who often stuck his young pitchers in the bullpen to see what they could do before he gave them a spot in the rotation. I happen to think that's a fine plan with young pitchers, but the problem is that the Twins had already done that with Santana for several years by the time I began complaining about their usage of him. Santana was a reliever in both 2000 and 2001, his age-21 and age-22 seasons, and the Twins once again kept him the bullpen for long stretches in both 2002 and 2003.

I'd probably have to ask Earl himself, but I don't think his plan about gradually working pitchers into starting roles was supposed to last for four years. Plus, when the Twins did give Santana an opportunity to start during that time, he clearly showed he was capable, going 18-6 with a 2.97 ERA in 31 starts in 2002 and 2003. In fact, those numbers as a starter look an awful lot like what he did this season (20-6 with a 2.61 ERA).

In Weaver's very first year as manager, 1968, a 25-year-old Dave McNally went 22-10 with a 1.95 ERA in 35 starts for Weaver's Orioles. McNally had been a starting pitcher since his age-20 season. In Weaver's second year as Baltimore's manager, he had a 23-year-old Jim Palmer in the rotation and Palmer went 16-4 with a 2.34 ERA in 23 starts. During Palmer's entire 19-year career, he was used primarily as a reliever in just one season, his rookie year, when he was 19.

In 1976, Dennis Martinez was called up to Weaver's team and, for the better part of his first two seasons in the majors, at ages 21 and 22, Weaver used him out of the bullpen (he appeared in 46 games, making 15 starts). In Martinez's third year, however, he became as a full-time starter, going 16-11 with a 3.52 ERA in 38 starts, at the age of 23.

A couple years later, Weaver got his hands on a 22-year-old Scott McGregor, used him mostly as a reliever for parts of two seasons, and then stuck him into the rotation full-time. As a 24-year-old in 1978, his second full season, McGregor went 15-13 with a 3.32 ERA in 32 starts.

The point being that my issue was never with gradually working Santana into the rotation, my issue was with the fact that it took them five years and until he was 25 years old to actually give him a full-time spot there, when it was clear that he was ready to start and capable of being a very good starter.

By the way, if you haven't read Weaver's book, Weaver on Strategy, you're missing out on an outstanding, timeless classic. Enjoy the great baseball this weekend and I'll see you Monday.

UPDATE: I just heard the Twins are giving out Joe Mauer bobbleheads on Saturday, so I'd like to offer up a free plug/mention/link on this blog and my everlasting gratitude to anyone who would be willing to get one and send it to me (free of charge, of course). Let me know.

Today at The Hardball Times:

- A Weekend to Remember (by Aaron Gleeman)

- Fantasy Keepers: Catchers (by Ben Jacobs)

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

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