Twins Killings: Anatomy of an Epic Failure

May 18, 2011 at 9:25 pm (Twins)

I wish I had better news to report.  Unfortunately, the Twins are still unbelievably terrible, and there isn’t a whole lot of reason to expect that things will get better, at least not significantly so and not anytime soon.  The Twins stand at 13-27, the worst record in Major League Baseball, and are already 13.5 games behind the first place Indians.  Several key players remain injured with no return in sight.  This season is, for all intents and purposes, over for the Twins.

The thing is, it’s not like the Twins have been barely losing games or are just waiting for things to even out a bit.  This team has been absolutely horrible by any measure you choose.  Their run differential is nearly twice as bad as the next worst team in baseball, they have the fewest wins, they have the worst hitting based on wOBA, and the worst pitching based on FIP/xFIP.  I’m not sure if even Twins fans watching every game realize how calamitous this season has been.

The question now becomes:  How on earth did this happen?  How did a team that won 94 games and was legitimately one of the best teams in MLB last year get so bad this year?  Sure, there’s been some injuries and almost certainly some bad luck.  But it takes more than that to go from one of the best teams in baseball to literally the worst.

Now I’m not typically one to point fingers, but in this case it’s pretty easy to.  I point my right index finger directly at the Twins front office.

For years now, the Twins front office has been able to put together winning teams on a small payroll and are largely credited for their terrific scouting and minor league development.  However, in many aspects, this front office, even during the great Twins years of the last decade, has been in the stone age.  They continue to rarely emphasize statistical analysis, based on this interview in which the Twins’ assistant GM doesn’t even recognize some of the simplest, most widely available advanced statistics.  The fact that they don’t use statistical analysis is also fairly evident in some of the trades they’ve made and how they evaluate players (we’ll get to this later).

Simply put, for the Twins to not use any kind of statistical analysis in this day and age in baseball is preposterous.  And I don’t even necessarily mean that the Twins should go full Moneyball and start using only stats — they clearly have some good scouts and have been able to get by surprisingly well without them.  But to be completely ignorant of the things that nearly every other team in baseball use is just bad business.  By not only not using the statistics, but also not even knowing them, the Twins have put themselves at a massive disadvantage.

I believe that this lack of statistical analysis is part of why the Twins are so bad this year.  The Twins are pretty good at drafting players and developing them in the minors, but it’s becoming apparent that they don’t have a clue when it comes to evaluating their own major league players and other players around baseball.  The result is that the front office consistently seems to shoot themselves in the foot with trades and free agent deals.  As much as people want to say that the Twins are struggling this year due to injuries, luck, or whatever, the real reason can be found squarely from within.  The Twins front office essentially sabotaged themselves with a series of misguided moves in the last year or so, and they are the reason this team is what it is.

Horrible Move #1:  The Twins trade Wilson Ramos to the Nationals for Matt Capps; sign Matt Capps to 7.5 million dollar deal in the off-season.

The Twins were making a playoff push last year, and admittedly there were some question marks in the back end of their bullpen.  So it wasn’t a big surprise when the Twins decided to pursue Nationals closer Matt Capps.

What was surprising was the price.  To get Capps — who had been non-tendered by the Pirates (yes, the Pirates) just in the previous off-season — the Twins gave up top catching prospect Wilson Ramos.  Now I’m not a huge Wilson Ramos guy, due to his lack of on base skills, but this was still a tremendously shortsighted move.  Ramos, while behind Mauer, still was a nice piece for the Twins, and obviously there was no guarantee that Mauer would stay healthy or stay behind the plate at all, as Twins fans now know.  Ramos hits pretty well for a catcher and is good defensively behind the plate, and he’s solidifying himself as a quality starter in Washington.

Capps, meanwhile, hasn’t been bad.  But he isn’t anything special, and relief pitching is typically pretty easy to find, especially for an organization like the Twins that prides themselves on developing arms.  Catchers, on the other hand, are extremely difficult to find.  The fact that the Twins are now playing between Drew Butera, Steve Holm, and Rene Rivera at catcher is a direct result of this trade.  In essence, they gave up depth at one of the most important positions to acquire a player who isn’t particularly great at one of the least important positions.

The Twins, who don’t use statistical analysis, do seem to be very keen on one statistic:  saves.  Look past his saves totals and one sees that Matt Capps is a fairly ordinary relief pitcher — he has a career 3.39 ERA, 3.74 FIP, a decent strikeout rate and good control.  Not bad, but nothing to get excited about.  However, the Twins fell in love with Capps because he was a “proven closer.”  He had “experience.”  He knew how to get the job done.  The Twins would have been just fine last year with Jon Rauch or whoever closing, but they panicked and made this trade.  It was a bad trade that looks even worse now, but at least it was done with the idea of strengthening the team for a possible world series run.

Which brings me to the next botched move, which is then signing Capps to a 7.5 million dollar deal this season.  This was simply inexcusable.  I’m not sure if the internet even has space to list all the better things that this money could have been spent on.  It is very likely that the Twins could have signed 2-3 relievers as good as Matt Capps for that kind of money.  The only difference was the saves and all of the “intangibles.”  By now, most teams have caught on that these things are media and player created hokum.  The Twins have not.  And that is why they are failing.

Horrible Move #2:  The Twins trade J.J. Hardy to Baltimore for Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobson.

Remember what I just said about catchers being hard to find and relief pitching being easy to find?  The same thing goes for shortstops.  You can probably count on one, maybe two hands how many legitimately good starting shortstops there are in baseball.  The Twins especially should know how difficult it is to find one, given how they’ve cycled through them in recent years.

J.J. Hardy was one of those shortstops.  Yes, he wasn’t perfect — he has some chronic injury problems and is kind of slow.  But he was a perfectly fine starter with the Twins in 2010, putting up 2.4 WAR, and he has had great seasons in the past.  Hardy has proven himself, at least by UZR, to be an elite defensive player at the position, something that is also extremely hard to find, especially one who is capable of being a league average hitter like Hardy.

Of course, this goes back to the Twins and their dislike of those fancy things like “stats” (unless they were invented by some guy 30-200 years ago).  Stat geeks like myself were able to look at the metrics and see that Hardy was a stellar defender by basically any criteria — he had great range, a good arm, he made all the plays.  The Twins method of scouting decided to judge Hardy with their eyes, and they saw a slow player who never did anything flashy.  They decided not to spend the five million or so it would have cost to retain him and opted for a trade.

Okay.  That’s a horrible decision, but we’ll at least get a good package for him right?  Nope.  In return for a major league caliber starting shortstop, one of the rarest commodities in baseball, the Twins got two relief pitchers.  Not just relief pitchers, mind you, two relief pitchers with little to no major league experience and spotty minor league track records.  Neither Jim Hoey nor Brett Jacobson were ever considered great prospects for the Orioles.  Neither has ever proven to be good at pitching even to minor league hitters, much less against the best in the world.  Hoey has put up an ERA over 9 in Minnesota this year before being shuttled back to Rochester, while Jacobson has walked more hitters than he’s struck out in New Britain this year.  Yes, New Britain.  Seriously.

In addition to the fact that they traded a good player for two bad ones, the Twins were left without anybody to fill the void left by Hardy.  Unless, that is, you count Alexi Casilla as a major league baseball player.  Personally, I don’t.  I don’t consider what Alexi Casilla does on the field to be baseball.  It certainly bears little resemblance to the sport I know and love.  Behind Casilla the Twins have Matt Tolbert, who sucks, and Trevor Plouffe, who has possible upside as a first round pick but most likely sucks.

This trade was laughable at the time it was made.  Now, with Casilla playing every day while hitting .190 and the Twins getting negative production out of the guys they got for Hardy, it is downright embarrassing.  There is no excuse for a team that won 94 games to make this move.

Horrible move #3: The Twins activate Michael Cuddyer’s $11.5 million club option for 2011 in November 2009.

So this was awhile ago, but this was a bad move that rarely gets recognized.  In 2009, Cuddyer had a good season, hitting .276/.342/.520.  The Twins decided to reward him by activating his club option for 2011.

Let that sink in for a moment.  The Twins committed 11.5 million dollars of their 2011 payroll for Michael Cuddyer in 2009.  This was a move that simply didn’t need to be made.  There was no reason for the Twins not to see what Cuddyer did in 2010 (hint: he was horrible) before activating the option.  It’s not like he has had a long history of success — he’s had two good seasons in about a 10 year major league career.  His current contract is now one of the many problems with this team.

In general, I’m sick of Michael Cuddyer getting a free pass from the Twins fans and media.  We get it:  he’s a good guy.  He’s willing to play different positions, do what it takes to win, speak to the media, etc.  That doesn’t excuse the fact that he’s been awful at baseball for most of his career and that he’s getting paid like one of the better players in the game.  Cuddyer doesn’t play defense anywhere on the field.  He can’t run.  And now he can’t hit.  Why is he a fan favorite again?  As much as I hate most of the Twins right now, I find Cuddyer and this inexplicable love for him especially loathsome.

Horrible Move #4:  The Twins don’t resign Nick Punto

Nick Punto was uniquely hated amongst Twins fans for his light-hitting, extremely scrappy style of baseball.  But he was a very valuable player to this team for many years.  He played multiple positions on defense at an elite level, and wasn’t the automatic out that many made him out to be — he had a career .248/.322/.324 line, nothing to write home about, but enough to make him a good player combined with his glove (and make him look downright Ruthian compared to current Twins middle infielders).

It would be one thing if Punto wanted a big free agent deal.  Except he didn’t.  He signed with the Cardinals for close to the league minimum, which is an absolute steal.  Players like Punto simply don’t grow on trees, and the Twins have seen that as Tolbert, Plouffe, and seemingly dozens of other wannabe utility infielders have struggled in his place.

Given the price he signed for, it’s hard to justify letting go of a player like Punto, a valuable bench player who could start in a pinch when someone got hurt.  Additionally, losing Punto has had a chain reaction from the club.  It pushes Casilla up to a starter, Tolbert up to a utility role, and then it gets even worse after that.  The Twins, once again, had nobody to fill Punto’s role and could have easily kept him.  I can’t help but think that this move is in large part due to the Twins’ ignorance of defensive metrics other than “errors”.

These are just four of the moves that this front-office has made that are almost criminal in their lack of basic baseball knowledge and common sense.  Add in other blunders like the decision to trade a good relief pitching prospect for Scott Diamond, giving away Jose Morales, the Matt Garza trade, etc and this front office is quickly building a reputation as one that opposing GMs look forward to talking to on the phone.

Personally, I think a year like this needs some kind of repercussions.  Bill Smith inherited a good roster from Terry Ryan but has done nothing to show that he’s even a competent general manager.  The only a way a team with this kind of payroll is this bad is if someone at the top screwed up.  That someone is Bill Smith.  The Twins need to get rid of him and bring in someone who isn’t afraid of statistics, who knows what is happening in baseball today, and has an IQ higher than a rabbit.  The Twins still have some talent, and can bounce back from this disastrous year if they do the right thing and send Smith back to a Wendy’s cash register where he belongs.


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A Tribute to Gus Johnson

May 5, 2011 at 10:27 pm (Uncategorized)

This afternoon the news broke that CBS had not reached a new deal with play-by-play man Gus Johnson.  Johnson had been calling college basketball for CBS for 16 years and had also been a commentator for other sports, including their NFL coverage.  I imagine most people will either meet this news with an indifferent shrug, not know who Gus Johnson is, or not even notice that he stopped calling games when they tune in to the college basketball tournament next year.  But, for me, this is a sad day for sports.

Because Gus Johnson had something that is sorely lacking in sports media today, especially among play-by-play men:  Enthusiasm.  His style was known for being spastic and frequently over-the-top, full of strange turns of phrase and often incomprehensible yelling or guttural noises.   It was also genuine:  When Gus was calling a game, you felt his love and enthusiasm for sports, and it invariably made every game more exciting.  Best of all, Gus did not discriminate.  He would call a high-stakes March Madness game the same way he would call a week ten NFL game between two teams that were out of playoff contention.

When watching sports today, it always seems like the commentators are almost afraid to act like they enjoy what they’re seeing, or that they think that sports aren’t something to be excited over.  The televised sports landscape is populated with empty suits like Jim Nantz and Joe Buck, who rarely elevate their voice beyond a regular talking volume and frequently throw in canned phrases and lazy cliches.

While Gus was spontaneous and excitable, the current breed of sports commentator is meticulous, precise, and boring — which is the exact opposite of what sports themselves are.  I love sports because of the unpredictability of it — every game is different, and on any given day pretty much anything can happen.  I felt that way whenever I was listening to Gus Johnson call a game.  Is this the day he has a heart attack live on the air?  Is he going to say HEART-BREAK CITY again when one of the teams loses on a buzzer beater?  You never knew what Gus was going to say, and that was what made him great.

The best Gus Johnson moments came during the NCAA college basketball tournament, where his frantic, enthusiastic style was perfectly suited for the nature of the tournament, which is full of underdogs, buzzer beaters, crazy finishes, and everything else that makes sports exciting.  Without Gus, the tournament isn’t going to be the same for me.  While I’m sure he’ll land on his feet and get a play-by-play job somewhere else, one of the greatest events in sports will be significantly less exciting.

Now, for some of the great moments in Gus Johnson history.

This was a case where Gus spoke without thinking, and he ended up getting in some hot water for racist remarks, despite the fact that he himself is black.  Personally, I like it because it shows how off-the-cuff and genuine Gus’s calls frequently were, as opposed to someone like Jim Nantz who clearly writes corny lines days in advance.

A game winning 87 yard hail mary with seconds on the clock is something that warrants enthusiasm.  Yet, many announcers today probably wouldn’t bat an eye and would keep up their calm, authoritative facade.  Not Gus Johnson.  He practically explodes, amazed at what he is seeing the way that any true sports fan would be.  Of note is that this was a week one game between two teams not expected to be competitive that season.

UCLA and Gonzaga was one of the most dramatic games ever in the NCAA basketball tournament.  UCLA erased a 17 point deficit to pick up the win.  The final seconds are a tour de force by Gus, who once again is able to sound like an excited, typical fan while doing the game justice on commentary.

There’s also a compilation of great Gus Johnson moments here:

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Twins Killings: Francisco Liriano Gives Me Something to Write About

May 4, 2011 at 3:48 pm (Twins)

Francisco Liriano threw a no-hitter last night against the Chicago White Sox, which has since thrown me into something of a moral quandary.  The stat-nerd in me sees things that makes me not be remotely happy or excited about the no hitter, while the die-hard Twins fan in me wants to jump for joy and celebrate that one of our pitchers just achieved a memorable feat in baseball, against possibly our most hated rival no less.

Unfortunately, as in most cases, the stat-nerd has won out.  While I am happy for Francisco Liriano and the Twins for picking up a victory, I’m finding it hard to really be excited about this no-hitter, for a few different reasons.

The first is that I can’t quite bring myself to care about no-hitters anymore in general.  Giving up no hits is certainly a cool accomplishment, and one that the pitcher can remember and brag about for the rest of his life.  But, too often, no-hitters aren’t really indicative of any extra skill on the pitcher’s part.  The list of pitchers who have thrown no-hitters is a jumbled one, seemingly consisting of players drawn randomly out of a hat.  There have been some incredibly dominant no-hitters, but there have also been some that were mostly a product of luck, good defense, and poor hitting — none of which the pitcher has control over.

Liriano’s no-hitter certainly falls into the latter category.  Because, despite giving up no hits, Liriano was arguably not pitching all that well in the game.  He had trouble finding the strike zone, only throwing 11 first pitch strikes to the 30 batters he faced while walking six.  He wasn’t really missing bats, as evidenced by his mere two strikeouts.  He mostly got by by throwing it over the plate and having the White Sox hit the ball poorly or make bad contact.  This could be evident of some skill of Liriano’s, but generally a truly dominant pitching performance is one where the pitcher is getting a lot of strikeouts and controlling the strike-zone, neither of which Liriano did.

The storyline on ESPN after the game was how unlikely it is that Liriano, who entered the game with an ERA over 9, would throw a no hitter.  It raised the question of what Liriano had done differently to get the no hitter, and which Liriano would show up the rest of the season.  The truth is, the Liriano that threw the no-hitter is the same guy who has struggled so mightily all this season — he was just much luckier and facing a much poorer lineup.

The other issue I had with the no hitter was that Liriano, in my opinion, never should have had a chance to get it.  As mentioned, despite the lack of hits allowed, Liriano wasn’t pitching particularly effectively.  That’s why I think it was a terrible decision to send Liriano out for the 9th inning.

Liriano has a long history of arm problems that have hampered him for most of his career.  To send him out for the 9th and have him throw over 120 pitches in the game was reckless of Ron Gardenhire, and I can only hope that it doesn’t have any negative consequences for Liriano and the Twins in the future.

In addition to jeopardizing Liriano’s health, Gardenhire also jeopardized the Twins chances at winning the game.  With just a one run lead, it was a fairly critical mistake to send out Liriano and his 100 pitches over a fresh arm out of the bullpen.  The Twins are in last place right now.  They need to be focused on winning baseball games, not on getting sentimental achievements.  And sending out Liriano almost certainly lowered the Twins’ chances at winning  that  game.

Fortunately, things did work out for the Twins, and Francisco Liriano can one day tell his grandchildren that he fired a no-hitter.  While it is diminished slightly, it’s still a no-hitter, and that is a rare achievement and something to be proud of no matter what.  But make no mistake:  Francisco Liriano did not pitch a particularly great game against the White Sox.  He is still not close to where he was last year and Twins fans should still be highly concerned about his current effectiveness.  But at least it gave us something to think about for a day other than the Twins losing horribly.

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Twins Killings: My Eyes, They Burn

April 21, 2011 at 7:32 pm (Twins)

Last week I was pessimistic about the start of the season for the Twins, as pretty much everyone was, but I was confident that the team would at least turn things around and get out of the cellar pretty quickly.  I also thought that there was no way the team could continue to play at this bad of a level.

Boy, was I wrong.  If anything, this week was even worse for the Twinkies, and I can already sense that many Twins fans are ready to jump off the boat and take their chances with the ocean current.  In addition to the terror-inducing Joe Mauer injury, the Twins were also without Justin Morneau and Delmon Young for much of this week, leaving them with a gaping chasm in the middle of their lineup and even forcing them to play Luke Hughes at first base one game.

The Twins’ much-maligned bullpen also had some monumental struggles,with Joe Nathan and Capps both taking turns blowing saves in the series against the Rays.  Nathan’s struggles eventually led to a demotion from the closer role, which Capps will handle from now on.  The team also called up Eric Hacker and Jim Hoey from AAA and sent Alex Burnett and Jeff Manship back to Rochester in the hopes of giving the bullpen a shot in the arm.

The starting pitching wasn’t great either, although Twins Killings favorite Scott Baker did have an excellent start against Tampa that was unfortunately wasted by the bullpen.  Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano continued to struggle, as Pavano was rocked in an 11-0 loss to the Orioles and Liriano – while only giving up two runs – had only two strikeouts against five walks in 6.1 innings against the Orioles in a loss the night before.  Both Pavano and Liriano need to figure things out fast, or things could get even worse in Twinkieland.

The Twins will get to return home to Target Field this week.  Hopefully the weather holds up as they take on the first place Indians (what?) followed by another series against the Rays.

Since just talking about how horrible the Twins are depresses me, I thought I’d take a look at a couple Twins actually off to good starts this year:

Jason Kubel

Last year Jason Kubel got off to a horrific start for the Twins, hitting .217/.340/.318 through May 25th.  This year Kubel looks like he could be settled into his form from 2009, and has been by far the most productive bat for the Twins as he’s hit .323/.362/.492.  It comes with the typical small sample size caveats, and the fact that Kubel currently has a .373 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) that will likely drop to his career level of around .300.  However, it’s still a good sign in a year that hasn’t had many, and I would gladly take the 2007/2008 Kubel who hit around .270/.340/.460 over the Kubel we got last year.

One reason that Kubel could be in for a much improved year can be seen in his swinging stats.  In his career year in 2009, Kubel swung at 24.1% of pitches outside the zone, but last year it jumped up to 28.6%.  Swinging at pitches outside of the zone has obvious problems — namely that it creates a lot of swings and misses or poor contact that results in easy outs.  So far this year, Kubel has dropped the number down to 23.7%, which is more in line with his best seasons and obviously a significant improvement over last year.

While digging in these swinging stats, I found another interesting trend.  Kubel’s career year in 2009 was marked by career low contact rates across the board — he only made contact on 57.9% of swings outside the zone, 84.5% in the zone, and just 76.9% overall — all the lowest numbers in his career.  He also had a 10% swinging strike percentage, also the most in his career.  The Twins are often accused of forcing hitters to adapt to a “Twins style” of hitting, one that preaches contact and putting the ball in play.  Perhaps Kubel’s best year was because he decided to swing harder, leading to less contact but also harder hit balls and more home runs?  I honestly have no idea, but I’m just throwing it out there.

Nick Blackburn

I’ve been somewhat outspoken in my hatred of Nick Blackburn and was shocked when the Twins simply handed him a spot in the rotation over Kevin Slowey and Scott Baker.  However, so far this year Blackburn has proven the Twins right and been possibly their best pitcher.

Last year, Blackburn had a dismal season because of a few factors.  While he was never one to strike guys out, his k/9 dropped all the way to 3.80 last year, which was accompanied by an increase in his walk rate to 2.24/9.  Blackburn was already a pitcher who had little room for error due to his lackluster stuff, so those two changes were really all it took to turn a dependable pitcher into one who deserved to be in AAA.

In his first four starts this year, Blackburn has thrown more like he did in 2008 and 2009 than 2010.  His strikeout rate has jumped back up, all the way to 5.11/9 which would actually represent a career high.  His walk rate has also dropped back to 1.82/9, which is almost exactly what it was in his two good seasons with the Twins.  The result is a 4.01 ERA, 4.63 FIP, and 3.79 xFIP, which all represent pretty good numbers for Blackburn.  While he’s obviously never going to be an amazing pitcher, it looks like he could once again be a solid innings eater and that the Twins might actually get their money’s worth out of that contract they gave him.

Anyways, that’s all for this week.  Go Twins, etc.

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Deep Thoughts: What Exactly is a “Fantasy Sports Expert”?

April 18, 2011 at 8:05 pm (Uncategorized)

I spend a lot of my time on my blog/Facebook/brain railroading various aspects of the sports media, because I believe not only in journalistic accountability but also the entertainment value of laughing at the horrible articles that get published in major newspapers or on widely read websites.  However, there’s one small segment of the sports media that I’ve mostly ignored until now:  The field of fantasy sports analysis.

With the boom in fantasy sports recently, it was only a matter of time before people began writing about it and giving their advice on who you should play, sit, draft, sell, buy, etc., rotoworld, and dozens of other sites get a large chunk of their traffic from fantasy players seeking to gain that extra edge on their friends or loved ones.  Fantasy sports are an industry, and now in a sense writing about fantasy sports is also an industry.

Of course, I have a problem with fantasy sports writing, or at least a large amount of it.  Part of the fun of fantasy sports is the fact that anyone can play them.  You don’t need to be strong, fast, large, or even particularly intelligent.  You can be old or young, male or female.  I’m pretty sure a well trained cat could manage a fantasy football team.

Which brings me to the titular question:  If anyone can play fantasy sports, and really anyone with the right amount of luck and moderate knowledge of the game can win at fantasy sports, is there such a thing as a “fantasy sports expert”?  ESPN markets their writers as fantasy sports experts, but what do they really know that anyone else doesn’t know?

Take, for example, Matthew Berry, who is the head ESPN fantasy writer.  Now I’m sure Matthew Berry knows a decent amount of sports, but what exactly makes him someone who is an authority figure on fantasy sports?  Has he won every single league he’s been in for five years or something?  Of course, we the readers are never able to see the actual fantasy credentials of the writers.  If I’m going to a website or even paying for a fantasy sports service, I would at least like to know that they’re people who win consistently and seem to have a leg up on the rest of the competition.

The other problem with this field of fantasy sports writing is that most of the writers bring little new insight to the table.  Which isn’t surprising — all of the information that would be relevant for fantasy players is readily available on the internet.  Anyone can simply look up statistics and projections for certain players or read injury reports.  Most of what it takes to win fantasy sports is a lot of time and a lot of luck.  Neither of those things are able to be taught to you by a “fantasy sports expert.”

Fantasy sports writing also tends to be unbelievably lazy, even for the fairly lax standards that have been set by sports columns.  The worst aspects of this manifest themselves in most of Berry’s columns, including a frequent one called “bold predictions” where Berry essentially craps out absurd projections or discusses players he’s high on this year.  For example, this year he predicted that Dan Uggla and Tyler Colvin would hit 40 home runs and that Anibal Sanchez and Ted Lilly would get 200 strikeouts.

In addition to being the sort of drivel that literally any baseball fan on earth could write, the predictions outline the lack of accountability towards the fantasy sports experts.  Since luck is an accepted part of the game and he says he’s going out on a limb, people don’t seem to pay attention to the fact that most of these predictions are utter crap.  Shouldn’t a so-called fantasy sports expert be able to hit the nail on the head at least more than about 10% of the time like Berry does?

(I would also like to add that, for a former comedy writer, Matthew Berry is cripplingly unfunny.  It’s hard to believe that he was able to land jobs on the last season of Married With Children and Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles.)

I’m sure some sites do give some decent fantasy advice, or at least are able to use it as an excuse to do some actual baseball or football analysis.  However, too much of the time fantasy sports simply becomes an umbrella for lazy filler articles and half-hearted advice like “sell low on x” that anyone could have figured out after browsing a baseball website for thirty seconds.  It’s another example of how ESPN and other big sports sites are often able to get away with spotty analysis and poor articles because “it’s just a game.”

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Twins Killings: So Far, So Bad

April 14, 2011 at 10:13 pm (Twins)

The beginning of baseball season is always a time of optimism for fans.  For the first handful of games in the marathon season, every team has a chance, every off-season move has potentially paid off, and every player could have a career year.  Of course, that sense of optimism is usually dashed pretty quickly — in the case of Twins fans, it only took about three or four days.

The Twins, touted once again by most as the  favorite in the tight AL Central, have likely been the worst team in baseball over the first couple weeks of the season.  They haven’t hit, as the team’s batting average/on base percentage/slugging percentage currently sits at .236/.283/.306 — for reference, ousted, light-hitting middle infielder Nick Punto’s career batting line is .247/.321/.322.  When your whole team is hitting worse than Nick Punto, it’s obviously difficult to score runs, and sure enough the Twins are last in MLB in that category.  The Twins have also failed so far at run prevention, ranking 22nd team ERA.  The result is a -21 run differential that ranks tied for second worst in MLB and a 4-7 record that puts them in last place in the AL Central.

Now obviously we’re only talking about 11 games, which is essentially nothing in the grand scheme of a baseball season.  It would be silly to base any conclusions off of this limited sample size, or to start going Chicken Little over the Twins hopes for this season.  However, we can’t just ignore these 11 games either.  What has been seen cannot be unseen, and what has been seen has not been good.

The most problematic aspect of the season for me is that all of my initial concerns about the team are what has been causing them to be so bad in the early going.  I complained endlessly to anyone who would listen about the sad state of our defense, and it has not been pretty in the early going, with Alexi Casilla losing a game for the Twins with an ugly throwing error and the poor range of most of the defenders costing them a game yesterday when many lightly hit balls became hits against Francisco Liriano.  The current Twins defensive alignment is very possibly the worst in baseball, and that has a very negative effect on the pitching staff.

Another concern I had was the depth the Twins had in the middle infield — I wasn’t sold on Alexi Casilla, had trepidations about Tsuyoshi Nishioka, and don’t think Matt Tolbert is an MLB caliber player.  I mourned the loss of Nick Punto, who, for all his flaws, was a stellar defender capable of filling in at any of the positions and not necessarily being a black hole of suck, and JJ Hardy, who despite some injury problems (he’s hurt again this year already) was a very good shortstop.  Sure enough, just days into the season, Nishioka suffered a broken leg, which as once again thrust the Twins middle infield into what can only be described as a sad state of affairs.  Luke Hughes has gotten the call from AAA, and while I think he has potential to be a decent piece, I’m skeptical that he’s even a replacement level player right now.  Michael Cuddyer has also been seeing time at second base, which, while possibly the correct play, is also absolutely terrifying.

Certainly many players that have contributed to this awful start will turn things around.  Joe Mauer isn’t going to hit .235.  Justin Morneau won’t hit .220.  Drew Butera won’t hit .125 (actually, on second thought, maybe he will).  The Twins will play better than this as a team, and I can’t imagine they’ll be in last place for too much longer.  But, at the same time, this start to the season has raised a lot of concerns for me about this team’s prospects when it comes to making the playoffs and succeeding once they get there.  Because the defense is going to continue to be one of the worst in the league, the middle infield will likely continue to suck, and there is still a lot of question marks in the bullpen and the rotation.  These aren’t new problems, and they’re ones that the front office either failed to address or exacerbated in the offseason.

There is some good news for the Twins.  In addition to being a small sample of games, they also have likely faced one of the toughest schedules in baseball.  Their first three series were all against good teams, with the always strong Yankees, the underrated Blue Jays, and the A’s, a team I really like this year.  A couple fairly lopsided losses to the Blue Jays have possibly made the team look weaker than they really are, and playing three one run games with the Yankees was encouraging.  We’ll obviously get a clearer picture of this team in the coming weeks, but  the early results are troubling.  Hopefully the Twinkies can get back on track starting tonight against the also disappointing Rays and the mediocre Orioles.

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A Guide to Crappy Baseball Statistics (And Why They’re Crappy)

April 6, 2011 at 12:55 am (Uncategorized)

As I’m sure most know by now, I’m an avid devotee of sabermetrics and statistical analysis in baseball.  Unfortunately, us stat-heads aren’t looked upon too kindly in the baseball community.  We’re seen as the sort of godless heathens of baseball, who turned our backs on what is pure and sacred about the game in favor of crunching numbers in our parent’s basement or some other dimly lit location.  Seemingly every week, or even more often, a column sprouts up from an old “traditional” sportswriter complaining about these kids and their new-fangled numbers and stats mumbo jumbo, usually with the columnist stating how he can judge a player with his eyes and doesn’t need some fancy stats to know that Delmon Young is a good baseball player.  Patrick Reusse’s article in the Star Tribune last week is a textbook example of this.

The problem sabermetrics often faces is the perception that it’s a contest to try to come up with the most obscure, random stat that supports a certain argument, or to needlessly filter data until reaching a conclusion (like looking at a player’s stats when facing a left handed pitcher in the 8th inning or something like that).

The problem with most of these arguments is that they reek with hypocrisy, because most of the old time baseball writers aren’t really opposed to statistics — just the new ones that sabermetrics preaches over the traditional stats.  They also focus on the occasionally obscure statistics used by sabermetrics and miss the bigger picture, which is that a lot of the concepts used in statistical analysis are simply a matter of common sense and logic.

The following are the traditional statistics that I am opposed to for various reasons, and hopefully a clear explanation for why sabermetrics has rejected them.  My hope is that this will make sabermetrics slightly less intimidating for anyone who is possibly interested in them or just wants to learn more about a fun segment of the baseball community.

Crappy Stat:  Batting Average

Why it’s crappy: So, to be fair, batting average is hardly the crappiest stat that will appear on this list.  I still use it often since it’s a fairly simple shorthand that people understand.  However, other stats measure what batting average hopes to measure in a more complete way.

The main issue with batting average is pretty simple:  It doesn’t correlate well with runs scored, which is obviously the key to winning baseball games.  Take the Kansas City Royals.  Last year they hit .274, which ranked second in MLB.  However, they finished in the bottom 10 in runs scored.  The reason batting average doesn’t correlate as well as other stats is that it paints a very incomplete picture of a hitter.  It excludes walks/hit by pitches, which are largely a skill, and it treats all hits equally.  Juan Pierre hitting .300 with nearly all singles is obviously not the same as Adam Dunn hitting .300 with a lot of home runs.

Stat you should use instead: On Base Percentage

From a young age, even before I became a full-blown stat-nerd, I reached the conclusion when playing little league that my goal at the plate wasn’t necessarily to get a hit — it was to get on base.  (This eventually led to my strategy of trying to draw a walk every time up since I never hit more than singles anyways and young pitchers had no control.  It was surprisingly successful.)  An early sabermetric concept was the idea that outs are like currency — you only get 27 of them in a game, and three in an inning.  In between those, you need to find a way to score runs.  So the true goal of a hitter isn’t necessarily to get a hit — it’s to not make an out.  OBP obviously measures that goal more completely than batting average. (This is also why sabermetrics tends to shun strategies like the sacrifice bunt in most situations.)

It also correlates better with runs scored.  The top five run scoring teams in 2010 were all among the leaders in OBP, and the trend almost always holds true.  Just look at this graph from

As you can see, there’s an extremely strong correlation with OBP and runs scored.  Considering that OBP is pretty much as easy to calculate as batting average and much more informative, it only makes sense to use it instead.  While hitting stats can get far more complicated and esoteric, they are always based off the basic principle of outs as currency and heavily use OBP.

Crappy stat:  Runs Batted In.

Why it’s crappy: Well… where to begin?  The RBI is an incredibly flawed stat that has nonetheless become one of the most frequently used (and I guess “popular”) stats in the game.  Arguably no stat has been more controversial between sabermetricians and traditional stats than the RBI.

The notion of dismissing RBIs is one that goes against a lot of conventional wisdom about baseball, partially because when watching a single game, RBIs seem like the most important thing in the world.  Obviously you need to score runs, and almost all the time someone has to drive them in.  A game where nobody on your team can get a “clutch hit” is unbelievably frustrating, and it’s easy to see why people then conclude that getting those big hits is a skill and certain players choke while others come through.

The main problem with RBIs is that getting them is usually out of the hitter’s control.  If one player hits a home run every time up but never has a guy on base, he won’t get as many RBIs as a guy who hits a single every time up but always has the bases loaded.  But he is still a better hitter.  Getting an RBI is pretty much just a matter of circumstance.  Certain players get branded with the “run producer” tag for getting high RBI totals, but the truth is that hitters have no control over whether they have guys on base or not.

This obviously leads to a question:  What if a certain player is better at hitting with guys on base, and consistently drives in runners on base at a much higher rate than anyone else?  Well, that player would be more valuable.  The problem is, no such player exists.  The flaws seen with RBIs tie into a larger sabermetric idea, which is that clutch hitting doesn’t really exist, at least not at the major league level.  While most players get a slight bump hitting with runners on base because the pitcher is throwing from the stretch, there is no evidence that certain players are more apt at hitting with guys in scoring position than others.  The same idea generally applies to playoff hitting, if the sample size is large enough.

Use instead:  Slugging percentage

RBIs are essentially trying to test a player’s ability to drive in runs — i.e. hit for power.  To measure power hitting, there isn’t really a better stat than slugging percentage, which simply divides a player’s total bases by at bats.  It completely ignores any situational factors, and thus gives you a much better picture of what the hitter is really doing at the plate, which is all that really matters.

Many will also combine on base percentage and slugging percentage into OPS.  However, on base percentage should be weighed more than slugging percentage.  If you’re feeling adventurous, the stat wOBA accounts for this and can be found at along with basically any other stat you want.

Crappy stat:  Errors

Why it’s crappy: Errors have sort of become the default fielding stat, because nobody wants to come up with something better.  Errors are a decent measure of some sort of fielding competence, given that you’re only given one for truly egregious fielding errors.  However, it’s an extremely limited measure of actual defense.  Derek Jeter is notoriously criticized by the stats community for his poor fielding, but you wouldn’t know it by his errors totals, which tend to stay rather low.  However, errors don’t take into account all the possible outs that were turned into singles by Jeter’s limited range.  Errors are also at the discretion of the official scorer, which makes it more subjective than baseball stats should be.

Use instead:  UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating).  The stats community is still trying to find a solution for the fielding conundrum, as the stats usually need a very large sample size to be effective and are thus prone to wild fluctuations even in samples as large as 2-3 seasons.  So far, UZR is the best we have.  Advanced fielding stats separate the field into zones and then simply measure how often a player makes a play in his given zone — this way it measures range in addition to making routine plays like errors does.  On Fangraphs, it’s usually measured in the form of runs gained or lost by the team for that player’s defense, so someone with a 10.0 UZR saved his team 10 runs in that season (which is very good).

Contrast that with Jeter, who cost his team 4.7 runs last year (despite winning a gold glove) and currently is at -113.4 runs all time.

Crappy stat:  Pitcher wins

Why it’s crappy: Pitcher wins is already starting to fade even in the mainstream media, as evidenced by Felix Hernandez winning the Cy Young last year despite only having 13 wins.  This stat is similar to RBIs, in that it measures something that would seem essential (winning games) but is actually extremely flawed when it comes to looking at an individual player outside the context of a single game.

Obviously a pitcher’s goal is to help his team win.  The key term here is “help” — pitchers don’t win games by themselves.  Baseball is a team sport, and applying a team statistic like wins to a single player is obviously a huge mistake.  Last year’s Cy Young voting was a perfect example:  Felix Hernandez was clearly the best pitcher in baseball who was only not a 20+ game winner because he was supported by one of the worst offenses in baseball history.  Using wins for a pitcher is silly, because so much of what happens in a game is out of the pitcher’s control.  Just look at how many pitchers pick up a win despite giving up something like six runs in five innings and it doesn’t take a ton of thought to see that wins is a poor statistic for pitchers.

Use instead: ERA or FIP. Basically, instead of looking at wins, simply look at how many runs the pitcher actually gave up for a clearer picture.  For people who don’t want to get super into baseball nerdery, ERA is simple enough and usually does a half-decent job at measuring a pitcher’s actual value without taking in too many outside factors.

However, even ERA is a very flawed statistic, which is why I personally recommend FIP (fielding independent pitching), which can also be found at  One of the more groundbreaking realizations made by sabermetrics people is that pitchers don’t actually control whether a ball is a hit once it goes off the bat.  This ties into the idea of UZR — in general, the mainstream media and most fans underrate the impact a defense has on a pitcher.

FIP’s formula is complex, but the basic idea is that pitchers only control the following things:  strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed.  Thus those are called the three true outcomes.  By isolating the effect a defense has, FIP makes it just about the pitcher, and a look at the leaderboard in FIP will almost always show you the guys you would expect to be the best pitchers in baseball.  It can also be helpful to look at what types of hits a pitcher allows between ground balls, fly balls, or line drives.  Line drives are the worst to allow since they’re nearly always hits, fly balls are the second worst since they often become extra base hits or home runs, and ground balls are typically the best, since although they give up more hits than fly balls, they’re almost always singles and often are double plays.

Roy Halladay is often considered the best pitcher in baseball, and these stats back up that conventional wisdom, as he posts extremely good strikeout/walk ratios and often has one of the highest ground ball percentages in the league.

Crappy stat:  Saves

Why it’s crappy: I saved the worst stat for last.  No stat in baseball fills me with as much nerdy rage as the saves statistic, which has been plaguing baseball and, to a lesser extent, humanity for years now.

The number one thing that bothers me about saves is that it’s a completely made up statistic that really has nothing to do with the actual game.  Think about it:  A guy literally just decided that a save would be preserving a lead in the ninth inning when up by three runs or less or with the tying run on deck.  Not to mention that saving a three run lead in the ninth isn’t particularly difficult — to blow it, you’d need to give up three runs in one inning, which is a 27.00 ERA.  I’m pretty sure every reliever in baseball posts a better number than that, except possibly for Glen Perkins.

The dislike of saves also ties into the previous discussion about “clutchness.”  The closer role and saves are attached to this aura that the ninth inning is special and a completely different game.  But it isn’t.  A pitcher in the ninth is pretty much pitching how he always would, and he’s trying to get guys out, not notch a random, made up statistic.

In addition to that, saves have the problem that RBIs and wins have, in that it’s a completely situational statistic.  Racking up a large number of saves is largely a function of getting the opportunities, and really tells you nothing about how good a pitcher actually is.  Sure, getting 50 saves in 52 opportunities is impressive, and probably a sign that you’re doing something right.  But would another pitcher also be able to do that, if given the opportunities?  Usually the answer is yes.  Obviously most closers are great, valuable pitchers, but it isn’t because of how many saves they have.

The worst part of saves is that they have now impacted how managers manage the game.  Closers are saved until the 9th, even if there’s a huge situation in the 7th or 8th innings.  They’re brought in with three run leads that usually a worse pitcher could close out and left on the bench if the team is down by a run and desperately needs to keep the opponent off the scoreboard.  Arguably no stat has had a worse impact on the game than the save, and it can be extremely frustrating to watch managers fumble with simple decision making because of it.

Use instead:  FIP. For relievers, ERA is often a very flawed statistic, since one bad outing can wreck a closer’s ERA for a couple months.  So once again I recommend FIP, or simply looking at strikeout to walk ratio and the percentage of ground balls a pitcher is getting.  Once again, the goal is to remove the subjective data and simply measure what happened on the field.

So, hopefully this was informative or interesting in some way, and made sabermetrics a bit less daunting to anyone thinking about taking an interest in them.  A lot of this is simply a matter of using logic, which is something desperately lacking in sports most of the time.

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The Scott Baker Post

March 19, 2011 at 11:15 pm (Twins)

I’ll start this entry with a game:  I post the stats that two pitchers put up last season, and you try to guess the names of the players.  Sounds really fun, right?  No?  Well, too bad, because I feel like writing something and can’t think of a better intro.

Pitcher A: 204.2 innings, 6.60 K/9, 2.77 BB/9, 1.23 HR/9, 35.8 GB%.

Pitcher B: 170.1 innings, 7.82 K/9, 2.27 BB/9, 1.22 HR/9, 35.6 GB%.

As you probably guessed from the title, one of these (pitcher B) is Scott Baker.  Pitcher A is now Cubs pitcher Matt Garza, who the Twins traded a few years ago.  They look pretty similar, don’t they?

The point of this isn’t to say that Scott Baker is better than Matt Garza — Garza offers more durability, has pitched in the brutal AL East, and tends to give up less line drives than Baker.  It’s merely to observe the vast differences in how Twins fans perceive these players compared to their undeniable similarities on the mound.

Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading various articles and blogs and occasionally talking to people, it’s that Twins fans hate Scott Baker.  I mean really, really hate him.  He’s grown a reputation for giving up too many home runs (earning him the nickname “Scott Baker, the home run maker”), dancing around the strike zone too much, and fading late in games and giving up big innings.

These same fans tend to love Matt Garza, or at least hold him in a high regard and greatly regret the Twins decision to trade him a few years ago.  Granted, the trade was pretty bad, but Garza is a pretty similar pitcher to Baker.  Both get a decent amount of strikeouts, are somewhat prone to fly balls and homers, and have pretty good control.  Thanks to some good playoff performances, Garza has earned a reputation as a big game pitcher who offers toughness on the mound.

The perception of these two players is something I find interesting, and it goes deeper than people might think.  I think (and I’m going to tread lightly here) that a lot of the perceptions of these players are based on how they look on the mound.  Scott Baker still looks like a baby-faced 12 year old, and he tends to look nervous at times as he paces between pitches (I’ve also heard references to his “puffy cheeks” that come during big innings).  Garza, on the other hand, just looks like a pitcher, with his Italian good looks and cool goatee, or whatever that thing is.  People see Baker and think of a scared little kid whose dad is forcing him to pitch in little league; they see Garza and think of the prototypical pitcher who has the “bulldog mentality”, a presence on the mound that allows him to fight through tough situations.

The other difference formed by most fans between Garza and Baker comes in their surface statistics.  Garza had a 3.91 ERA last year, while Baker had a 4.49, which is one of the stats most people look at when determining a pitcher’s value.  However, these two players, to me, illustrate a situation where ERA is flawed.  In Tampa Bay, Garza benefited from playing in one front of one of the best defenses in baseball — Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria are probably the two best defensive players at their position in baseball, and the team rarely ran out below average defenders.  Meanwhile, Baker played in front of a Twins outfield that was extremely mediocre, which hurts him as a fly ball pitcher.  Using FIP, which attempts to neutralize outside factors like luck and defense and look solely at the pitcher’s performance, Baker had a 3.96 last year compared to Garza’s 4.42.

(Note:  FIP is also a flawed statistic, and likely underrates Garza who has shown an ability to deflate line drive rates.  But it’s better than ERA, and even after adjusting for that it’s likely that Baker was better last year.)

One of the beautiful things to me about baseball statistics is that they completely ignore other perceptions we form about players.  It isn’t about who looks the flashiest, who plays the scrappiest, who slides head-first into first base or who wears their socks a certain way.  It’s all about what happens on the field, and then valuing the players based on their actual contributions to the team.  I see Baker as a player who is consistently undervalued by fans and management (he’s having to fight for a rotation spot this spring while Nick Blackburn and Brian Duensing have locked up spots) because of subjective characteristics.  Garza is overvalued for the same reasons, as evidenced by how the brilliant Rays front office was able to rob the Cubs of half their farm system when they traded him this off-season.

Basically, I like Scott Baker.  Is he a great pitcher?  No.  But he is a good one, who Twins fans and management consistently undervalue for reasons not based on his performance.  Not every pitcher on a team can be a Cy Young winner.  Baker is signed to a good contract, and he should be a key piece to the Twins this season instead of an afterthought who has to fight for a starting rotation spot.

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I Don’t Care About Steroids

March 7, 2011 at 9:04 pm (Uncategorized)

Baseball is a game that holds individual statistics in a much higher regard than any other sport.  While nobody can remember how many yards Brett Favre has thrown for, how many goals or assists Wayne Gretzky had, or how many points Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored, most big sports fans can remember specific baseball records or milestones – 3000 hits, 500 home runs, Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs, Hank Aaron’s 755.

Given the high esteem these records are held in, it’s easy to see why baseball purists didn’t take it too well when many of these records were broken by a new group of big sluggers who later admitted to or were implicated as steroid users.  Players like Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds broke sacred home run records and were later outed as being on steroids.  The years where steroid use was allegedly the most rampant (roughly 1989-2005 or so) have since been decried by sportswriters and fans, who view the game as having been tainted.

With respect to the purists, writers, and fans, I disagree.  In fact, I honestly could not care less about players using steroids.  Here is why.

The first reason is that we don’t even know if steroids improve baseball performance.  This one will surely inspire some snickering among some people, who will simply point at the massive numbers players like Bonds, McGwire, and others put up as evidence that steroids clearly do have an impact.  However, baseball is a much more complicated sport than that, and pointing only at two or three outliers as evidence of a larger trend is a mistake that way too many in the sports media have made.

Admittedly, the numbers would seem to indicate that steroids affected baseball in a significant way.  Of the seasons with the highest home runs per game, the top 18 are all from 1987-present.  However, home runs are just one way of measuring the impact of steroids.  Going by runs per game, there are several seasons  in the modern era that had more runs per game than any in the steroid era, including 1925, 1950, and almost every year in the extremely high scoring 1930s.

The point I’m making is this:  Baseball is a complex game, and numerous factors can lead to an increase or decrease in runs.  To look at the high home run totals and runs totals of the steroid era and simply point the finger at one possible cause is ignorant and silly.  They obviously weren’t on steroids in the 1920s or 1930s, or in 1960 or 1961 where more home runs were hit than any year before.  While the media, many ex-players, purists, and fans have been branding a whole generation of players as steroid using monsters who juiced up in the dugout then crushed the ball 480 feet over the fence, they’ve been missing the possible bigger picture.

Many events occurred around the steroid era that could cause an increase in run scoring and home runs, besides the lazy explanation of steroids.  The 90s saw a glut of new stadiums being built, most of which favored hitters over pitchers, including notorious hitters paradise Coors Field in Denver.  The expansion to 30 teams possibly diluted the pitching talent throughout baseball, leading to a better environment for hitters.  Maybe the baseball bats, thanks to technology, were able to hit balls further than they could previously.  Maybe umpires around baseball shrunk their strike zones, leading to more pitches thrown over the middle of the plate.  Maybe the increased statistical analysis in baseball saw the value in fielding teams of home run hitters over scrappy singles hitters.  Maybe this era simply had an influx of amazingly talented hitters and not so many amazingly talented pitchers.

The point is, we don’t know.  There is, in my mind, zero evidence that shows steroids significantly improve baseball performance, if they even do at all.  For every McGwire or Bonds who apparently juiced their way to the top, there’s likely hundreds of guys who used and never saw an improvement in their performance.  If we’re going to brand an entire era of players as cheaters, I would like to see some concrete evidence.

Now, on to the part of the steroids controversy that really really gets on my nerves:  The ex-players, sportswriters, and fans who make moral judgments on the players who used steroids and claim that they violated the code of the game.

In reality, the players who used steroids were doing exactly what baseball players have always done:  Use whatever means necessary to gain an edge over their opponent.  In other words, cheat.  From the very beginning, baseball has been a game that was willing to look the other way when it came to acts of cheating, from spiking opponents in a slide to spitballs to amphetamines and everything in between.  In a sense, baseball got what it had coming to it from the beginning.  It was only a matter of time before the cheating reached a stage where people think it had gone too far.

So why draw the line at steroids?  Why do all these ex-players, who helped to create or continue baseball’s culture of cheating, feel that they’re in a position to make moral judgments against players who basically did exactly what they did?  Hank Aaron has not been shy about criticizing the steroid era, but he himself likely used greenies, amphetamines which allowed increased stamina and were widespread during his time.  Players who used steroids were making the same ethical decision that all the other baseball players did:  They were going to possibly bend the rules to try to gain an advantage over their peers.

Meanwhile, sportswriters have basically made the decision to not allow steroid users into the baseball Hall of Fame, as seen in the voting totals players like Mark McGwire have gotten.  In fact, even being vaguely associated with the steroid era is apparently grounds for not getting in, based on Jeff Bagwell’s totals (Bagwell has never been implicated or accused of being a steroid user).  Barry Bonds, possibly the greatest player in the history of the game, was essentially blackballed from baseball because the media held a petty grudge against him.

In essence, the people who did steroids aren’t really to blame.  Almost any past baseball player would have done the exact same thing in their shoes, based on how cheating has been ignored, or even embraced, in baseball’s past.  They were victims of a culture that baseball itself created, and it’s hypocritical and unfair to judge them based on it.

So, in conclusion, I’m sick of hearing self righteous players and writers ranting on about how the steroid era made the game into a circus, or how the players who did steroids were dirty cheaters who should be banned from baseball.  While baseball has made the right decision to remove steroids from the game, mostly because of the health side effects they have, steroids did not make the game a circus.  It was just baseball, the same as it always has been.

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The Twins Have a Really Crappy Offseason

February 15, 2011 at 10:01 pm (Uncategorized)

After a long run of being a merely good team, the Twins last year became a great one.  They won 94 games and finished 5th in MLB in run differential while coasting to the American League Central title.  The main difference between the Twins from last year and the Twins from the year before was the middle infield.  As a decade-long Twins fan who only remembers middle infields comprising Alexi Casilla, Nick Punto, Christian Guzman, or Luis Rivas, it was a strange sight to see the team field two solid players up the middle in JJ Hardy, who they acquired via trade, and Orlando Hudson, who they signed as a free agent.  Both players were able to solidify the Twins defense up the middle while contributing above-average bats for their position.  The other factors in the Twins success were the renaissance seasons of Jim Thome, who destroyed the ball in part-time duty, and Francisco Liriano, who returned to his ace form with a full season of dominant pitching.

All this begs the obvious question about the Twins offseason:  Why is the front office so eager to unload all these players that made the team good last year?

Hudson was signed to a one year deal, and the team made little secret that they had no interest in resigning him.  Based on what I’ve read from Aaron Gleeman and other Twins sources, it sounds like Hudson didn’t mesh in the locker room and there were questions about his age and durability.  While I didn’t like it, this was a move I was fairly resigned to and didn’t have a massive problem with.

However, the Twins front office pretty much lost any confidence I had in them when they dealt JJ Hardy to the Orioles for an underwhelming package of minor league relief pitchers.  I’ve articulated my dislike of this trade in angry tones, often with foam coming out of my mouth, to anyone who has inquired about it, but I thought I would get it in writing.  The Twins clearly had an irrational dislike for Hardy, who despite missing some games was able to provide 2.4 WAR on the season , which ranked 6th in the American League among shortstops.

It is often said that winning baseball teams are built up the middle:  Catcher, second base, shortstop, and center field are the toughest positions to find good players at, which makes it vital to find those guys (obviously the Twins are set at catcher and possibly center field).  As a clearly above average, and potentially good-great shortstop, Hardy was a rare and valuable asset who the Twins threw away for relief pitching, the easiest position in baseball to find (just look at the long list of no-names who the Twins have squeezed good bullpen seasons out of if you don’t believe me).  It was the kind of trade that makes one question everything the front office is doing and makes them look completely incompetent.

The reasoning behind the Hardy trade was that the team wanted to “add speed”, but for what reason?  The main value speed has is that it helps you on the field, but Hardy has rated out as a great defensive shortstop by any metric for years due to his reflexes and arm.  If the Twins wanted to add speed, the obvious place to do it was in the outfield, where the plodding trio of Jason Kubel, Delmon Young, and Michael Cuddyer regularly miss fly balls that should be caught.  Combined with Denard Span, who is likely a left fielder masquerading as a center fielder, the Twins have consistently fielded one of the worst outfield defenses in the league, and that weakness manifests itself when fly ball pitchers like Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey take the mound.

Unfortunately the Twins don’t seem to know much about defensive metrics, being one of the only teams in the league that still relies on scouting rather than statistical analysis.  Their lack of commitment to defense was shown again when they chose to keep Jason Kubel over utility man Nick Punto.  Punto gets a horrible rap among Twins fans, who hate seeing him flail at the plate,  but he is undeniably one of the best defensive players in the game at multiple positions, and the Twins are going to miss him.  To make matters worse, he later signed with the Cardinals for a mere 750k, likely one of the biggest steals any team got this off-season.  Meanwhile, Kubel brings a redundant skill set to the Twins as yet another left handed bat  and yet another poor defensive outfielder who is better served DHing.

With these moves, the Twins went from a fairly strong middle infield to one full of question marks.  Alexi Casilla will take over at shortstop, and for the most part he has proven to be a mediocre player that continues to get chance after chance.  Manning second base will be Japanese import Tsuyoshi Nishioka, and neither I nor anyone else has any clue what he will do in America.  Additionally, without Punto, the depth behind those two is brutal, with the thoroughly mediocre Matt  Tolbert being the likely guy behind them.  Combined with the outfield defense, the Twins are going to consistently have problems in the field this year.

The other issue with the Twins is one that recently came to light, with rumors of the team shopping Francisco Liriano.  This would likely be the capping move that makes me convert into a Rays fan, because not only is Liriano a lights-out ace when healthy, he also has limited value on the trade market.  He is only on a one year deal right now and has a fairly lengthy injury history.  There is absolutely no chance the Twins get anything remotely close to equal value for him, especially if he has another healthy season for a team that expects to contend.  Now perhaps the Twins know something that other teams don’t, but it seems like it would be a mistake to trade a guy with Cy Young potential at such a discounted rate, even if he has a lot of baggage.

This has all come off as extremely negative, so let me clarify:  The Twins are still a good team and likely favorites in the AL Central.  However, the gap has narrowed considerably as the White Sox and Tigers both had good offseasons, and this is a clearly weaker team than the one the Twins fielded last year.  I’m disappointed that the front office felt the need to make so many changes to a team that was clearly one of the best in the league last year.  With the Rays, Red Sox, and Yankees all being dominant teams in the AL East and the rest of the division getting stronger, it’s hard to be too optimistic about the Twins chances at the World Series.

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