October 23, 2006

Join Me (Hardball Dynasty)

Years ago, when I was just another sports-loving simpleton who had yet to discover the true beauty of baseball, basketball was my favorite sport. I bring this up today because yesterday afternoon I learned that the NBA season begins next week. Not only did that fact completely sneak up on me, when in the past I'd have been counting down the days, I found myself barely caring. I guess somewhere between becoming a full-fledged baseball lover and a part-time football writer, basketball fell off my radar.

Normally around this time I open up a fantasy basketball league and invite the readers of this blog to grab teams, but last year I found myself checking in on things less and less often as the season went on, to the point of not even knowing how my team finished (horribly, I'm sure). Rather than pull together a last-minute league that I'll probably end up ignoring by January, I'm going cold turkey and skipping fantasy basketball for the first time since I can remember.

But fear not, I have another option for those of you hoping to beat me in a fantasy-style league of some sort while the too-long baseball offseason drags on. Over the past year or so I've become addicted to WhatIfSports.com's "dynasty games," first with college basketball and recently with "Hardball Dynasty." It's by far the most in-depth baseball game I've ever played, complete with nearly every possible detail involved in running a major-league organization.

You grab a franchise, which includes a major-league team and five minor-league affiliates, and begin with randomly generated rosters filled with players who have varying skill ratings, salaries, and service time. Your task after that is to build the organization through trading, drafting, signing, and developing players. For those of us who grew up dreaming of becoming big-league general managers, it's the next-best thing.

There's a draft, free agency, international signings, trades, minor-league options, six-year free agents, salary arbitration, waivers, injuries, scouting, long-term contracts, and almost literally every aspect of running a baseball team that you could possibly think up, right down to setting your lineups for each game. I realize this probably sounds like some sort of a salespitch for WhatIfSports.com, but that's not how I intended it.

I have nothing to gain by promoting WhatIfSports.com. They aren't paying to advertise here and they aren't giving me a free team. The only reason I'm bringing this up is that I simply think it's an excellent product and have had a ton of fun playing the game for the past few months. The only problem I've run into is that some of the people in the league I'm in try to push iffy trades through the league office, don't negotiate deals in good faith, and just aren't the sort of people you'd want to be in a league with.

The other day I found myself thinking that the only thing keeping Hardball Dynasty from being perfect is the lack of good leaguemates. And then I had a mini-epiphany, realizing that every day a few thousand people stop by this blog and at least a fraction of them are the sort of baseball-crazy freaks who would love Hardball Dynasty as much as I do. So, rather than start up another fantasy basketball league, I'm creating a new "world" in Hardball Dynasty.

I'm taking the first of 32 spots and I'm fairly certain fellow Hardball Dynasty addict Will Young will grab one, which means there are 30 openings to be claimed. The cost is minimal ($15, to be exact) and I'm giving the product the type of endorsement I usually save for Jessica Alba and Elisha Cuthbert, so I'm hopeful that we can fill the remaining spots with smart, friendly owners who will actively participate and generally just have a good time. I'm taking reservations beginning right now.

Once I have commitments for close to 30 franchises, I'll create the world and e-mail out the necessary passwords and other information. In the meantime, take a few minutes to check out Hardball Dynasty for yourself to see if it's the type of thing you'd be into. If you're the sort of person who spends free time on things like keeper leagues, pondering which minor-league free agents the Twins should sign, and reading this blog, then I can almost guarantee it is.

If you're interested, drop me an e-mail to claim your spot. (If you're not interested, then I apologize for today's boring entry and urge you to come back tomorrow for something more palatable. Oh, and feel free to talk about non-Hardball Dynasty stuff in the comments section.)

October 19, 2006


  • If YouTube can sell for $1.65 billion and the New York Post speculates that CraigsList and Gawker Media are worth $650 million between them, AaronGleeman.com has to be worth at least a few million bucks, right? Right?!
  • Speaking of YouTube, nothing brings up painful memories for Vikings fans like a clip of Dennis Green freaking out in front of the media after his team blows a winnable game.
  • It's amazing that with all the talk about Fox controversially firing Steve Lyons last week, the most startling detail has been largely overlooked: According to the Los Angeles Times, Lyons was making $500,000 per year to do a horrible job broadcasting baseball games. What a country!
  • My nominee for Most Accurate Headline of 2006: "Jenna Fischer Isn't Just Cute, She's Funny Too." In case you thought I'd given up stalking Fischer, allow me to point out that I chatted via e-mail with her brother-in-law last night. Seriously. If you listen very closely, you can almost hear the restraining order being typed up.
  • The few television series I watch regularly are almost exclusively on cable, so I was excited to check out Showtime's new show, Dexter. Starring Six Feet Under's Michael C. Hall and having an overall HBO feel, the show comes close to being great, but falls short. A series with a serial-killing police forensics worker as the lead character has all sorts of potential and the first three episodes were occasionally riveting, but they were ultimately done in by sub par acting and clumsy dialogue.

    Perhaps the best way to describe Dexter is to say that it has many of the same qualities that great HBO shows have, from the intriguing, provocative plot to the quality lead character, but ends up letting a little too much of the Showtime influence sneak in. It's 95 percent of a must-watch, HBO-like series, but the missing five percent makes all the difference. Grade: C-plus.

  • Rather than waste all kinds of time and effort feverishly searching for my first house, maybe I should just buy Batgirl's place. Let's be honest, what are the chances of two houses in the same market being "totally infused with sass"?
  • I'm not sure if this is ironic or just sort of amusing, but I'll share it anyway. Remember in last week's Link-O-Rama, when I linked to a Minnesota Daily article about Sid Hartman treating a student reporter poorly? Along with the link, I made a throw-away comment saying it was hard for me to "pick sides" for that battle, because Hartman isn't exactly the most endearing man in the world and the Daily snubbed me about a dozen times while I was in school.

    It turns out that my linking to the article resulted in this blog sending more traffic to the Daily's website than any other referrer last week (you can see for yourself by viewing the Daily's unintentionally public site statistics). Basically, I'm not good enough to have written for the Daily, but am able to supply them with a huge percentage of their traffic whenever I feel like it. And no, I don't really have a point in all this (other than to confirm that I remain incredibly bitter about the whole thing).

  • Speaking of my days at the University of Minnesota, a former journalism school classmate of mine with a famous last name has reportedly "taken a position with Fox Sports Net North." Nepotism, baby!
  • It's been quite a month for friend of AG.com and Deadspin creator Will Leitch. First he survived the mistake of letting me write the Twins playoff preview for his hugely popular site, then he penned an op-ed piece in the New York Times, and last night his beloved Cardinals defeated the Mets to improbably advance to the World Series. As if that's not enough, in a few weeks Leitch can tell people he's got an article in The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2007. Next you'll tell me he's been banned by ESPN.
  • I realize only a diehard baseball fan would even bring this up, but how is it that a Pro Bowl football player (and a second, lesser player) can get suspended for violating the NFL's steroid policy and barely grab headlines for one day? Barry Bonds picked the wrong sport, apparently.
  • I've seen a lot of absurd things come about because of this blog over the past five years--remember when they stuck my ugly mug in the pages of Sports Illustrated?--but few can top someone presenting a slideshow about me at the Minnesota Educational Media Organization Conference.
  • If you've ever wanted to read an extraordinarily awful article written by a well-known mainstream sports columnist, here's your chance.
  • I can't vouch for this product other than to say that the man behind it was one of my best friends for about a decade, but those of you living in Madison should check it out.
  • Not only did NBCSports.com feature my recap of the Cardinals' heart-breaking Monday night loss to the Bears on its front page Tuesday, the site launched its NBA coverage this week. NBCSports.com's "gradual rollout" is now nearly complete, with the NBA, NFL, NHL, NASCAR, and college football being covered. The only thing left to roll out is baseball and ... well, I should have some interesting news to share on that front relatively soon.

  • October 18, 2006

    Small-Ball Stats

    While poking around the stats section of Fan Graphs doing the research for Monday's season-ending Win Probability Added update, I stumbled across some interesting numbers on the Twins' small-ball tendencies. Much is always made of the Twins "doing the little things" (regardless of it's validity) and that was played up even more than usual this year because of the "piranhas" nickname Ozzie Guillen gave to the light-hitting portion of the lineup.

    With that in mind, I decided to look a little further into how often and how well the Twins slapped, ran, and bunted their way onto the bases in 2006.

    Luis Castillo 40
    Nick Punto 13
    Justin Morneau 11
    Torii Hunter 11
    Michael Cuddyer 9
    Joe Mauer 8
    Rondell White 8
    Jason Tyner 7
    Jason Bartlett 7
    Shannon Stewart 7
    Lew Ford 4
    Jason Kubel 3
    Tony Batista 3

    It's not surprising to see Luis Castillo with a ton of infield hits, because no player in baseball puts the ball on the ground more often. Castillo hit a ground ball on an MLB-leading 61.5 percent of his balls in play this season, which is amazing when you consider no other hitter was at 60 percent and a total of just seven other guys cracked 55 percent. Take a huge percentage of ground balls, add in a primarily left-handed batter with good speed, and you get 23 percent of Castillo's hits never leaving the infield.

    While Castillo's 40 infield hits led the Twins by a wide margin, Ichiro Suzuki actually came up with 41 infield hits to narrowly lead all of baseball. Like Castillo, Ichiro is a speedy left-handed hitter (although he doesn't play on turf). It's certainly not shocking to see guys like Castillo and Ichiro racking up infield hits, but it is surprising to see Justin Morneau with 11 of his own. Some players with fewer infield hits than Morneau: Carlos Beltran, Scott Podsednik, Grady Sizemore, Brian Roberts.

    Equally surprising is that Jason Kubel and Tony Batista somehow managed three infield hits apiece. Kubel because he could barely hobble down the first-base line for much of the season after his knee problems flared up and Batista because he runs like a ballerina carrying a piano on her back. Looking instead at infield hits as a percentage of ground balls (which adjusts for playing time and hitting style), Castillo (12.7), Shannon Stewart (9.5), Nick Punto (7.3), and Jason Tyner (7.1) led the team.

    BUNT HITS                      BH PERCENTAGE
    Jason Tyner 10 Jason Tyner 76.9
    Nick Punto 7 Joe Mauer 75.0
    Joe Mauer 6 Jason Bartlett 40.0
    Luis Castillo 4 Nick Punto 26.9
    Jason Bartlett 2 Luis Castillo 17.4

    Tyner led the team with 10 bunt hits despite playing 62 games, which is impressive on several levels. Projected out to a full-season's worth of playing time, Tyner would have led all of baseball with 25 bunt hits. Tyner successfully bunted for a hit on 77 percent of his attempts, which is remarkable given that 15 percent of his hits came via the bunt. To put that in some context, Corey Patterson, Willy Taveras, and Juan Pierre led baseball with 21 bunt hits, but were successful 51, 43, and 43 percent of the time.

    Joe Mauer also did well bunting this year, dropping down six bunt hits while successfully converting three-fourths of his attempts. While Tyner did his bunting against drawn-in defenses that expected him to do so, Mauer laid his bunts down by picking spots when opposing third basemen were playing very deep, catching defenses off guard. Mauer didn't do it often, with bunts accounting for just three percent of his total hits, but it was another effective aspect of his wide-ranging offensive attack.

    At the other end of the spectrum is Castillo, who often bunted and rarely got a hit. Despite faking a bunt to begin seemingly every plate appearance, Castillo managed just four bunt hits all year. His bunt-hit percentage shows how inefficient he was at something he builds his game around. In fact, among all MLB non-pitchers with at least four bunt hits, only Cory Sullivan (13.5) had a lower success rate than Castillo's 17.4 percent. If Castillo bunted in 2006, it was either a botched hit attempt or a sacrifice.

    Last but not least, no look at small ball could possibly be complete without examining the running the Twins did once they were on base. As a team, they ranked sixth in the league with 101 stolen bases and ranked fourth in the league with 42 times caught stealing, which means they generally did a good job picking spots to run. Within that team-wide success, however, was some pretty bad running from several guys.

    As a general rule, you need to be successful at least 70 percent of the time for a stolen-base attempt to be at all worthwhile. The break-even point can change some depending on the specific situation--the number is often closer to three-fourths, but can sometimes drop closer to two-thirds in the late innings of a tight game--but for the most part each time you're thrown out wipes away around 2.3 steals. Using the 70 percent success rate as a baseline, here's what the Twins posted in "net steals" this year:

                        SB     CS    NET
    Lew Ford 9 1 +7
    Michael Cuddyer 6 0 +6
    Nick Punto 17 5 +5
    Jason Kubel 2 0 +2
    Joe Mauer 8 3 +1
    Shannon Stewart 3 1 +1
    Luis Castillo 25 11 0
    Jason Tyner 4 2 -1
    Rondell White 1 1 -1
    Juan Castro 1 1 -1
    Torii Hunter 12 6 -2
    Jason Bartlett 10 5 -2
    Tony Batista 0 1 -2
    Josh Rabe 0 1 -2
    Terry Tiffee 0 1 -2
    Justin Morneau 3 3 -4

    TEAM TOTAL 101 42 +4

    For all the running the Twins did, everyone but Lew Ford, Michael Cuddyer, Punto, and Mauer probably would have been better off staying put. Castillo led the team with 25 steals, but added nothing in terms of scoring additional runs because he was thrown out 11 times. Similarly, Torii Hunter, Jason Bartlett, and Tyner likely cost the team runs by being thrown out on one-third of their attempts. The entire team had four "net steals" on 143 attempts and the Twins were actually one of the AL's better running teams.

    UPDATE: The Twins went 31-for-37 (84 percent) stealing bases in "close and late" situations, when the break-even point is at its lowest. That's excellent and likely helped them win a number of tight games. On the other hand, that means the Twins were 70-for-106 (66 percent) in "regular" situations, which is an awful success rate when the break-even point is high and likely took a number of runs off the board early in games.

    Overall, the Twins hurt themselves quite a bit when stealing just for the sake of stealing, but did very well when taking the extra base was crucial late in a tight game. Interestingly, Castillo was an amazing 10-for-11 in "close and late" spots, but a putrid 15-for-25 (60 percent) at all other times. Mauer (5-for-5), Bartlett (2-for-2), Tyner (2-for-2), and Cuddyer (2-for-2) were perfect close and late, while Hunter was caught on two of his three attempts.

    October 17, 2006

    LEN3's Terry Ryan Interview

    The Official Twins Beat Writer of AG.com, La Velle E. Neal III, has a somewhat revealing interview with Terry Ryan in today's Minneapolis Star Tribune. It's worth reading the entire thing, because Ryan was his usual honest and relatively forthcoming self, but there were a few specific highlights that are worth discussing further.

    When asked about next season's payroll, Ryan indicated that it will likely rise because of the increased attendance this year. He said that this year's $63 million payroll "is probably going to go up a tad" and added that the team is "in decent shape" heading into the offseason. I suspect the Twins will have less money to work with in free agency than most fans seem to think, but an extra couple million would go a long way.

    In response to a question about how the Twins can "get to the next level" after a disappointing and brief postseason, Ryan indicated that big changes aren't on the way. He stressed the team's "bright future" while opining that the fact the Twins "didn't hit well with runners in scoring position" during the playoffs isn't reason to "blow up the whole roster." I'm in complete agreement with Ryan there, because basing big decisions on what happened over the span of three games is beyond silly.

    Ryan's reaction to being asked about the need for "depth in your starting rotation" was very interesting, because he immediately brought up Francisco Liriano despite Liriano not actually being mentioned in the question. Ryan seemed to indicate that he hopes to have Liriano in next year's rotation, saying the Twins "need to monitor what's going on" with him and adding that "he'll be a key ingredient to a starting rotation." On the other hand, "a starting rotation" may not mean 2007.

    When asked whether there's "a concern that surgery will be needed" for Liriano, Ryan said: "There's a long way between making that decision and seeing whether or not he can go through the therapy and the process of rehabilitation." All of which seems to imply that the Twins are doing everything they can to avoid surgery and are still hoping rest will "fix" Liriano. As I've said all along, given the nature of his injury and how poorly his attempted comeback went this season, I'm not optimistic.

    Despite that, Ryan said the team has no thoughts of moving Liriano to the bullpen, saying "there's no worries that he can pitch the innings." Similarly, he said Jason Kubel's ongoing knee problems have not changed the organization's opinion that he's the team's left fielder of the future. Ryan called Kubel "an everyday outfielder" and added that "with a hard-working winter ... and making sure he's in shape and is prepared, he ought to come in looking to win a job" in spring training.

    A lot of fans seem to have written off Kubel based on what was a pretty awful season, but it's important to remember that this was his first year back from a career-threatening knee injury. Not to mention that it was his rookie season, which makes struggles expected to begin with. He showed plenty of promise when his knees weren't rendering him completely useless and I'm glad to see that the Twins still plan on Kubel being a big part of the future.

    Finally, Ryan hinted that Nick Punto will enter next season as the starting third baseman, although he stopped short of saying it's a certainty. Ryan acknowledged that "he's not a prototypical third baseman," but said Punto "showed he was a good fit this year." I'm hopeful that the Twins feel comfortable going with Punto at third base if needed, but are open to upgrading the position. From reading into Ryan's response a bit, it seems possible that he views the situation the same way.

    There were several key questions that went unanswered, like what Ryan plans to do with Carlos Silva and Rondell White, but the stuff he did respond to gives some insight into how the team is planning to approach an important offseason. For now, I'll stand by my earlier prediction that the biggest moves of the winter will be a reasonably significant trade involving Juan Rincon or Jesse Crain, a veteran free-agent signing to fill in the starting rotation, and one veteran bench bat to split designated-hitter duties.

    October 16, 2006

    More Team MVP Stuff

    Yesterday in this space I reviewed the Twins' season-ending Win Probability Added (WPA) totals and used the numbers to come up with my team MVP rankings based on a few quick-and-dirty adjustments for playing time, defense, and position (because WPA doesn't properly account for those things). Today I'd like to continue the team MVP discussion by offering up a pair of alternatives to WPA that incorporate playing time, defense, and position into the equation without the need for tinkering.

    In years past, before WPA became readily available, I've relied heavily upon Win Shares Above Bench (WSAB) and Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) in MVP discussions. The two metrics--one from Hardball Times and one from Baseball Prospectus--involve positional and playing-time adjustments while incorporating both offensive and defensive value. That gives WSAB and WARP a collective leg up on the relatively one-dimensional WPA.

    However, WPA's primary advantage--and what makes it unique and worthwhile despite not being all-encompassing--is that it's able to place a player's contributions to his team in a much more detailed in-game context. In other words, metrics like WSAB and WARP look at production on a season-long level, whereas WPA examines what each individual plate appearance meant to a team's chances of winning or losing a specific game. Or, said another way, with WPA not all homers are created equal.

    WPA, WSAB, and WARP each have their positives and negatives, which is why I think using all three together is perhaps the best option. So, along with my WPA-based team MVP ballot from yesterday, here are how WSAB and WARP rank the most-valuable Twins in 2006:

            WPA                      WSAB                     WARP
    1. Johan Santana Joe Mauer Johan Santana
    2. Joe Mauer Johan Santana Joe Mauer
    3. Justin Morneau Justin Morneau Joe Nathan
    4. Joe Nathan Joe Nathan Justin Morneau
    5. Fran Liriano Fran Liriano Fran Liriano
    6. Michael Cuddyer Michael Cuddyer Torii Hunter
    7. Juan Rincon Torii Hunter Michael Cuddyer
    8. Jason Bartlett Jason Bartlett Brad Radke
    9. Dennys Reyes Luis Castillo Dennys Reyes
    10. Mike Redmond Brad Radke Jesse Crain
    11. Pat Neshek Juan Rincon Boof Bonser
    12. Boof Bonser Pat Neshek Luis Castillo
    13. Torii Hunter Boof Bonser Jason Bartlett
    14. Brad Radke Mike Redmond Pat Neshek
    15. Luis Castillo Jesse Crain Nick Punto

    The top of all three rankings hammers home a point I made yesterday, which is that few teams were as top-heavy as the Twins. While there's some shuffling at the top between the three metrics, they all agree that the team's five best players were (in some order): Johan Santana, Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Joe Nathan, and Francisco Liriano. Several otherwise productive players (Michael Cuddyer, Torii Hunter, most of the bullpen) take a clear backseat because the team was so superstar-driven.

    In terms of comparing the three metrics, the most noticeable thing is that Hunter ranks much higher in the two rankings that don't take into account his poor numbers in crucial situations. WSAB and WARP view each of Hunter's hits as being equal, whereas WPA sees his relative failure to deliver in key spots. Similarly, Juan Rincon ranks much lower in WSAB and WARP, because unlike WPA, they don't fully adjust for his pitching in high-leverage situations (the same is somewhat true for Dennys Reyes).

    Here's what the team MVP ranking looks like when the three metrics are blended together to form one consensus ballot:

     1. Johan Santana
    2. Joe Mauer
    3. Justin Morneau
    4. Joe Nathan
    5. Fran Liriano
    6. Michael Cuddyer
    7. Torii Hunter
    8. Jason Bartlett
    9. Brad Radke
    10. Juan Rincon
    11. Dennys Reyes
    12. Boof Bonser
    13. Luis Castillo
    14. Pat Neshek
    15. Mike Redmond

    When the metrics are combined, Santana and Mauer are basically a toss-up for top spot, with Morneau and Nathan one step behind them. The gap between Liriano in fifth and Cuddyer in sixth is much larger than any other one-spot drop, which goes back to how top-heavy the Twins were. I'd quibble some with the above ballot in a few places, but in general it looks pretty good. Santana gets my vote for team MVP, but I think there are reasonable arguments to be made for either Mauer or Morneau winning the award.

    Since you're probably curious, here's what the same blending of metrics produces for a least-valuable player ranking:

     1. Rondell White
    2. Kyle Lohse
    3. Jason Kubel
    4. Tony Batista
    5. Lew Ford
    6. Scott Baker
    7. Juan Castro
    8. Carlos Silva
    9. Willie Eyre
    10. Luis Rodriguez

    It seems odd for Rondell White to be the least-valuable player given that he was one of the Twins' best hitters down the stretch while hitting .321/.354/.538 after the All-Star break. However, even a hot second half couldn't erase White's abysmal first half, which saw him bat .182/.209/.215 while arguably being baseball's worst player. White's bad start was almost surely due to shoulder problems and his second half was great, but the overall line of .246/.276/.365 from a player with little defensive value is still awful.

    Beyond that, there aren't many surprises. Kyle Lohse had a team-worst 7.07 ERA in 64 innings before being shipped to Cincinnati, Jason Kubel surrounded a hot stretch with enough overall uselessness to produce a White-like .241/.279/.386 line, and Tony Batista was every bit as awful as I expected when the Twins made the misguided decision to hand him a job. Lew Ford, Luis Rodriguez, and Willie Eyre were on the roster all year, but had their damage kept to a relative minimum by limited usage.

    Feel free to cast your own ballot in the comments section.

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