July 12, 2006

At The Break: Part 3 (WPA)

I've spent the All-Star break examining how the Twins look after (slightly more than) half the season, first discussing the team's outlook heading into the second half and then putting the pitching staff under a microscope. Today I'd like to take a look at the Twins' individual Win Probability Added totals at midseason.

This is the third WPA update I've posted here, with one coming after 18 games and the other coming after 56 games. I'm not going to go over the details surrounding WPA today, partly because it's sort of boring and partly because it's ground I've covered already. If you're interested in learning more about what the numbers below actually mean, click here or here.

The short version is that WPA is the combined contribution made to increasing or decreasing the chances of winning each game. Each 50 points of WPA is worth one win above or below .500. In other words, someone with 100 WPA has pushed the team from winning 81 games to winning 83 games, while someone with -100 WPA has dragged the team from 81 wins to 79 wins.

Here's how the Twins stack up through 86 games:

Joe Nathan            286.6          Luis Castillo          -4.4
Francisco Liriano 253.9 Mike Redmond -6.2
Justin Morneau 220.1 Nick Punto -10.7
Johan Santana 207.6 Willie Eyre -16.2
Joe Mauer 204.3 Boof Bonser -23.7
Juan Rincon 193.3 Lew Ford -34.5
Michael Cuddyer 130.8 Scott Baker -74.3
Shannon Stewart 68.0 Jesse Crain -76.3
Jason Kubel 43.2 Luis Rodriguez -78.0
Jason Bartlett 34.9 Torii Hunter -92.6
Matt Guerrier 32.7 Tony Batista -109.1
Terry Tiffee 12.0 Brad Radke -116.0
Dennys Reyes 11.3 Juan Castro -116.3
Ruben Sierra 0.8 Kyle Lohse -156.0
Pat Neshek 0.5 Carlos Silva -168.9
Rondell White -216.8

Joe Nathan led the team in WPA after 18 games (48.2) and after 56 games (165.5), so it's no surprise that he remains on top. As discussed in some detail yesterday, Nathan has been about as dominant as a pitcher can possibly be, and his WPA reflects the fact that he's pitched almost exclusively in crucial situations while being nearly perfect in those spots.

It's somewhat surprising to see Francisco Liriano in the second spot, if only because he began the year pitching in relatively low-leverage situations out of the bullpen. As a reliever Liriano had 16.2 WPA in 22.1 innings, but since moving into the starting rotation he's racked up an incredible 238.7 WPA in 66 innings.

Johan Santana ranks third among Twins pitchers with 207.6 WPA, which says more about how great Nathan and Liriano have been than anything else. With two starts to go until the All-Star break, Santana was leading Liriano by a fairly wide margin. Then Liriano tossed 17 scoreless innings while Santana struggled, and they flip-flopped spots behind Nathan.

Even with two shaky outings to finish the first half, Santana still ranks among the top 10 starters in all of baseball in terms of WPA. If you count the work he did in the bullpen, Liriano ranks fourth among MLB starters behind only Brandon Webb, Jason Schmidt, and Jeremy Bonderman, Similarly, Nathan ranks fifth among MLB relievers behind Jonathan Papelbon, B.J. Ryan, Bobby Jenks, and Trevor Hoffman.

Juan Rincon also deserves plenty of praise, because with 193.3 WPA he's had nearly as big an impact as Santana and is among the elite non-closer relievers in baseball. The foursome of Nathan, Liriano, Santana, and Rincon was without question baseball's best in the first half, and with a combined 941.4 WPA those four pitchers pushed the Twins nearly 19 wins above .500.

The only hitters who have kept pace with the pitching foursome are Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, who each cracked 200 WPA in the first half. Much like the situation with Santana and Liriano, Mauer was leading Morneau for nearly the entire first half before a bad stretch right before the break involving some rally-killing double plays set him back.

Morneau now leads the hitters at 220.1 WPA, with Mauer second at 204.3. Once defense is thrown into the equation Mauer takes a sizable advantage, but we'll get into that more in a moment. The seventh and final player with a triple-digit WPA is Michael Cuddyer, whose 130.8 WPA is nearly double that of the next-closest player (Shannon Stewart at 68.0 WPA).

In other words, the Twins were carried an incredible amount by seven guys: Nathan, Liriano, Morneau, Santana, Mauer, Rincon, and Cuddyer. That group accounted for 1,496 WPA, while the 24 other players who saw action for the Twins combined for -1,091 WPA. Confused? Think of it this way: The top seven players pushed the Twins 30 games above .500 and then the other 24 guys dragged the Twins 22 games back down. Add it all up and you get a team that is eight games above .500 at 47-39.

Of those -1,091 WPA the "other 24" so graciously provided, nearly half came from three hitters who are no longer with the team. Rondell White brings up the rear at -216.8 WPA, which is remarkable given that he did all that damage in "only" 191 plate appearances. By comparison, it took Morneau 335 plate appearances to total 220.1 WPA.

The Opening Day left side of the infield combined for -225.4 WPA before Terry Ryan admitted his mistakes, and WPA doesn't even account for the horrible defense from Tony Batista and Juan Castro. Together, the threesome of White, Batista, and Castro combined for -442.2 WPA, pushing the Twins nine games below .500 purely with their offense despite not playing regularly after early June.

Along with the departed trio, Carlos Silva (-168.9), Kyle Lohse (-156.0), and Brad Radke (-116.0) give the Twins six players with triple-digit negative WPA totals. Lohse has the distinction of being sub par in both the bullpen (-19.5) and the rotation (-136.5), while Silva was actually effective as a reliever (30.4) in between horrendous stints as a starter (-192.0). Radke has just been plain bad, but his WPA has been slowly moving in the right direction since some very rough early outings.

While the triple-digit guys on both sides of the ledger have had the most impact, the players in the middle of the pack are probably the most interesting situations. For instance, I'm sure it would shock most Twins fans to know that Torii Hunter ranks seventh-worst on the team with -92.6 WPA. His actual value is much higher than that due to defense, but there's little doubt that Hunter has been a major disappointment.

The debate about whether the Twins should bring Hunter back next season (and in future years) has been raging on since the middle of last season. His WPA is one of many pieces of evidence that support my oft-stated opinion that devoting 10-15 percent of the team's payroll to Hunter is a mistake. Whatever you think of WPA in terms of player evaluation--and there's room for disagreement--it seems unlikely that someone so far in the red deserves $10 or $12 million from a small-payroll team.

Luis Castillo has also been disappointing, although his -4.4 WPA means he's essentially had an average impact offensively. However, when you toss in sub par defense at second base, Castillo hasn't been the player the Twins thought they were getting this winter. Interestingly, Castillo ranked second to Nathan with 44.1 WPA after 18 games, but then dropped all the way to -30.3 WPA after 56 games. That means he's resumed being a positive contributor offensively since early June.

As their ugly WPA totals suggest, a big key to the Twins' season was getting rid of Batista and Castro. However, replacing them both with positive contributors was also extremely important. Jason Bartlett has been fantastic since coming up from Triple-A, playing good defense at shortstop and putting up 34.9 WPA offensively in just 90 plate appearances. Nick Punto's overall WPA is -10.7, but he's been in the black since replacing Batista at third base and has also been a huge defensive upgrade.

Jason Kubel's 43.2 WPA in 143 plate appearances makes it all the more maddening that Ron Gardenhire refuses to simply write his name in the lineup every day and leave him alone. Lew Ford continues to steal Kubel's at-bats despite -34.5 WPA in 208 plate appearances, which is even worse than it looks when you consider that he posted 44.1 WPA in a single game back in April (when he drew the game-tying walk against Francisco Rodriguez).

Luis Rodriguez has been Gardenhire's pinch-hitter of choice in a ton of key spots throughout the year, but he's mostly come up empty and as a result has contributed -78.0 WPA in just 71 trips to the plate. Compare that to Willie Eyre's relatively harmless -16.2 WPA in 30 innings of work, which is due in large part to the fact that Eyre's poor pitching has come in extremely low-leverage situations.

In fact, no Twins pitcher has been used in less important situations than Eyre. According to a stat called Leverage Index that tracks how and when players are used, here's the bullpen hierarchy (the higher the number, the more important the situation):

Joe Nathan            1.54
Juan Rincon 1.28
Jesse Crain 1.03
Carlos Silva 0.84
Matt Guerrier 0.56
Francisco Liriano 0.54
Dennys Reyes 0.53
Kyle Lohse 0.42
Willie Eyre 0.31

Makes sense, right? Nathan and Rincon take the high-pressure situations, with Crain also getting into some relatively tight spots despite poor pitching. At the other end of the spectrum, Eyre and Lohse have basically been mop-up men. The "middle" situations have gone to Matt Guerrier (when healthy), Dennys Reyes (when in the majors), and Liriano (when in the bullpen).

Finally, here's what my WPA-based team MVP ballot looks like after factoring in some rough estimates for things like positional adjustments offensively, defensive value, and considerations for playing time (for comparison, I've also included my ballots from the first two WPA update):

1. Joe Mauer Joe Mauer Joe Mauer
2. Fran Liriano Johan Santana Luis Castillo
3. Joe Nathan Joe Nathan Joe Nathan
4. Johan Santana Fran Liriano Justin Morneau
5. Justin Morneau Juan Rincon Mike Redmond
6. Juan Rincon Shannon Stewart Juan Rincon
7. Michael Cuddyer Matt Guerrier Shannon Stewart
8. Jason Bartlett Mike Redmond Lew Ford
9. Jason Kubel Justin Morneau Fran Liriano
10. Shannon Stewart Torii Hunter Johan Santana

There's plenty of room for quibbling, especially once you get past the first handful of spots, but I think that paints a pretty good picture of the Twins' season thus far. And with that, let the second half begin.

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