Less Than Half Attention – Weekend Links

June 26, 2014

I have to admit I have been keeping only one eye (if that) on the Twins over the last couple of weeks. Most of my sports-watching attention has been focused on Brazil, where the U.S. Men’s National Team has advanced the the knockout round for the second straight Cup Finals.

Back in December, when the World Cup draw took place, I didn’t see much of a chance of Team U.S.A. advancing past the group stage. The draw included two of the top four teams in the world (according to FIFA rankings – Germany and Portugal), and the national team’s personal nemesis Ghana. It seemed as though things had to fall perfectly for the team to advance. While some things did go well for Team U.S.A. (Germany’s dismantling of Portugal, Portugal defeating Ghana), Klinsmann’s side largely made its own luck on the field.

The squad will be back at it on Tuesday, against a Belgium team that is no better than the teams they have already seen in the group stage. Who knows, if some things go right, this team may have a run in the knockout stage. As it stands, this has been a successful tournament for the USMNT.

The rest of the World Cup has been something to watch, particularly the first two rounds of the group stage. It has been largely wide open with lots of goals. Luis Suarez notwithstanding, there has been less dirty play, less flopping, and more of what makes the game so enjoyable. In addition to the United States, two other CONCACAF have advanced, including surprising Costa Rica who won a group that included England, Italy, and Uruguay and Mexico who drew the hosts.

Baseball players follow the World Cup too.

Aside from last weekend’s sweep of the White Sox, there hasn’t been a lot of good going on with the Twins lately. Now Aaron Hicks, who is a switch-hitter again, has been demoted to Double-A.

One good thing: Brian Dozier.

Additionally, the Futures Game during All Star Week will feature three top Twins prospects.

I caught the last inning of Lincecum’s no-hitter. Even better, though, was listening to the entirety of the replay of Clayton Kershaw’s no-no called by Vin Scully. Here’s hoping it’s not Scully’s last no hitter.

 

 

 


Joe Mauer

June 5, 2014

Much of the buzz surrounding the Twins this week has been a new face on an old debate.

Joe Mauer is the best player I have had the opportunity to see play regularly for the Twins (I say that having seen all of Puckett’s career as well – I don’t go any farther back than that however). He has also been one of the more polarizing sports figures in this town.

Anyone who follow the Twins has heard the arguments on both sides of the issue. It seems to be one of those issues where the line has been drawn and the sides are chosen. Both sides talk past each other, and like some of the more important polarizing issues of our times, folks aren’t changing their opinions.

Aaron Gleeman has been having some fun and putting a new twist on the all too familiar debate by posting the following at his blog and on twitter:

THROUGH AGE 31           JETER     MAUER
Batting Average          .314      .321
On-Base Percentage       .386      .403
Slugging Percentage      .461      .463
OPS                      .847      .866
Wins Above Replacement   48.4      44.7

This comparison is particularly timely this year because, as we all know, 2014 is Jeter’s victory lap (complete with over-the-top scouting reports courtesy of FSN).

It certainly doesn’t seem to fit the narrative of the anti-Mauer crowd.

Truthfully, speaking as someone who doesn’t buy that particular narrative, one of the reasons this Jeter comparison is so welcome this year is that something is truly different about this old debate: Joe Mauer is not having a very good season.

Mauer is currently batting .279/.349/.348/.697. His OPS+ is 97 – meaning that a terrible year for him is just slightly below average for other major league first basemen* – but still well below his career OPS+ of 134. In addition, strikeouts are up. Mauer currently is striking out every 4.5 at bats, easily the worst season of his career in that department (he averages a K for every 7.5 at bats over the course of his career), but that number has been trending downward since 2010. Additionally, there have been a few high profile poor at bats for Mauer.

EDIT: *Beau points out in the comments that OPS+ is not adjusted for position, so he’s slightly below average for a major league batter, well below average for a first baseman.

This has given the boo birds a chance to voice their feelings at Target Field, and has added some ammo to the old charges that Mauer is soft, or unclutch, or whatever the word of the week is*.

*The size of his contract is usually an easy target as well, though it is difficult to say that Joe Mauer money is hamstringing the club when there is at least $20 million of budget space that went unspent in the offseason.

Parker Hageman has as good of an explanation as any for why it has been a down season. I know that defenses have been shifting when Mauer comes to the plate for years, but perhaps the scouting report has been refined to a science now. There is also an element of bad luck at play, not only in the fact that some of Mauer’s worst plate appearances have come in high profile moments. Mauer’s line drive percentage is 29% this season. That is the highest line drive rate of his career. Whether its because of the shift or just bad luck, a lot of those hard hit balls are finding gloves.

I will add this, the last time Mauer was in an extended slump we found out that there was a lingering injury – at that time it was a knee. He has had back problems this year.

There is some talk that Mauer is done at age 31. That could be the case, and he wouldn’t be the first player to decline in his early 30’s. But his line drive percentage seems to indicate that he is still striking the ball well, so it doesn’t seem likely.

Joe Mauer will probably come around and hit closer to Joe Mauer numbers for at least a few more years. Even if he doesn’t, he’s still the best player I have seen play on a regular basis. An easier prediction to make: there will always be a large percentage of Twins fans who don’t see it that way, and who will continue to claim that Mauer is the problem.

Despite all of this, I do think Howard Sinker has a point. It’s a tired debate – I don’t see many people changing sides. It takes attention away from the success of a more-exciting-then-expected ball club, and it takes attention away from more pressing problems with this organization, such as starting pitching, a lack of planning for center field……

 

 


2014: Walk This Way

April 27, 2014

I have had more consistent fun watching the first month of the 2014 Twins’ season than I have since the last five months of 2006. They did it again on Saturday with a four-run bottom of the fifth inning that included 1 hit, 5 walks, 1 stolen base, 1 wild pitch, and 1 sacrifice bunt/throwing error. Then, Josmil Pinto hit a home run to left field that is probably still in the air to seal the 5-2 win.

What is it about this team?

1. Walks – through Saturday’s games the team has drawn 121 walks, or 5.26 per game (Beau at WGOM points out that this is a record pace). Accordingly, the Twins lead the AL with a .353 OBP – the league average is .326.

This is not the team I grew up watching. The recent history of the Twins seems to have a long line of hackers – from Kirby Puckett to Torii Hunter. Guys who questioned the toughness of a player who works the count and draws lot of walks. There has been a drastic change in this team’s approach to hitting over the last year. If it sticks, Tom Brunansky should win a pile of coaching awards for his work with the hitters. Over the last few decades, the most successful teams in baseball work the count and draw walks. Now the Twins are the league’s best at that over the first month of the season.

2. Emerging players I can get behind – Case in point: Chris Colabello turned down a guaranteed $1 million contract to play in Korea for the 2014 season. At the time, he had no guarantees that he would make the roster. He stayed to follow his MLB dream.

“I don’t think it was that hard [of a decision],” he said to Phil Rogers of MLB.com “My heart never went that way. I’ve followed my heart my whole life. I use my head too, but I follow my heart. … It has never steered me wrong.”

It gets better, because he seems to get it. Asked about setting the franchise record for RBI’s in April:

“RBIs are a product of opportunity, and I’m thankful to this coaching staff for believing in me enough to put me in the middle of this order, and to the guys in front of me for getting on base. My job is to knock them in, and it just so happens this month there’s quite a few of them.”

Additionally, the aforementioned Pinto, who draws walks and hits long home runs from the right side of the plate, yet continues to be under appreciated by his own team.

3. Crazy innings – like Saturday’s 5th or the 8-walk bottom of the 8th against the Blue Jays. This will keep happening.

4. Pitching…oops.

Well, I guess you can’t have everything.

 

 

 

 


Billy Hamilton, Replay and the Transfer Rule

April 17, 2014

I am trying out a subscription to MLB.tv this month. Due to blackout restrictions, I can’t watch the Twins, but I am able to see every other game involving every other team. Since MLB seems to hate my money (seriously, every team except the one I want to see…), I probably won’t renew. It has been fun though. Some observations from the first few weeks of the 2014 season:

The Reds have become the must-watch team for me because of Billy Hamilton. I was trying to explain to my 7-year-old son why we keep watching the Reds. It came down to this: he changes the game. As David Roth puts it, he is an “injection of happy” in a game that has perhaps become a little too serious about itself.

He is also a perfect fit for the .gif age.

Billy-Hamilton-Reds-tag-up-score-shallow-040914

My favorite: Hamilton scoring on a popup just beyond the infield.

Unfortunately, he is not getting on base enough this season to show off his unique skill set. In reality, he probably isn’t getting on base enough to secure a major league roster spot for long. Here’s to hoping that the happy injection sticks around for a while.

I still hate the challenge system for instant replay, and really hate the visual of a manager “arguing” with an umpire while facing his own dugout. That said, having replay in place for a couple of weeks has made me rethink my overall stance on the use of replay in baseball.

The system in place has exposed the number of questionable calls that are made over the course of a game. If it takes some form of instant replay to get those calls right, then I am grudgingly for it.

There is no reason, however, that the inefficiencies and downright stupidities of the current system can’t be fixed. The first step is to get rid of the challenge system. It takes people watching at home roughly five seconds to determine whether a given play needs another look – why can’t a fifth umpire “review” every play and communicate to the field umpire on plays that need another look?

Major League Baseball, somewhat quietly, tinkered with the transfer rule during the offseason. It is not a secret anymore. There have been several games impacted by the new rule. Essentially, a catch is not a catch until the ball is transferred cleanly to the fielder’s throwing hand. A safe call could be made, under the current interpretation, if the fielder catches the ball, runs the length of the field with the ball in his glove, then drops it in the course of exchanging the ball to his other hand. This strikes me as one of those rule clarifications that was not well thought out. Hopefully a change will be made before the end of the season, or perhaps a manager will force the league’s hand

 

 


Opening Day

March 31, 2014

“If baseball is a narrative, an epic of exile and return, a vast, communal poem about separation, loss, and the hope for reunion—if baseball is a Romance Epic—it is finally told by the audience. It is the Romance Epic of homecoming America sings to itself. Where does America sing this poem, say this story? Wherever baseball gathers.” – A. Bartlett Giamatti from “Baseball as Narrative”

Baseball again gathers today* with the 145th version of professional baseball’s Opening Day. The day of eternal optimism. Next year is here, and there is at least some hope for fans of all 30 major league teams (including the Twins).

*Well, there was a game last night, and a couple of games in Australia last week, but lets not let the facts get in the way of a good celebration.

It’s a funny holiday that baseball fans celebrate. It is the first of 162 games; a game that has as much impact on the standings as the second game; or about as much meaning a mid-June get-away day game against a last place team. Save the possibility of an injury, no team will be any more out of the pennant race after today’s results than they were before.

Still, it marks the return of the daily ritual of summer. Once again there will be triples, stolen base attempts, and box scores. But, like Giamatti writes in the above mentioned essay, there is always something new. This year the new includes expanded instant replay, the possibility of Byron Buxton’s major league debut (plus a long-shot chance of seeing Sano), and Paul Molitor using advanced defensive statistics to position Twins fielders.

As usual, people like me will discuss meaningless facts and statistics, such as the Twins’ five-game losing streak on opening day. Last year’s opening day starter, Vance Worley, cleared waivers, was outrighted, and ultimately traded to Pittsburgh for cash. This year’s opening day starter, Ricky Nolasco, represents the most money the Twins have ever spent to bring in a free agent.

Tomorrow will be just another game, and the 2014 season will be with us for another seven months, but today is the Opener.

Twins Opening Day History

Date – Result – Starting Pitcher

4/11/1961 W @ NYY 6-0 Pedro Ramos
4/10/1962 L @ KCA 2-4 Jack Kralick
4/9/1963 L vs CLE 4-5 Mudcat Grant
4/14/1964 W @ CLE 7-6 Camilo Pascual
4/12/1965 W vs NYY 5-4 (11 innings) Jim Kaat
4/12/1966 W vs KCA 2-1 Mudcat Grant (2)
4/11/1967 L @ BAL 3-6 Jim Kaat (2)
4/10/1968 W @ WAS 2-0 Dean Chance
4/8/1969 L @ KCR 3-4 (12 innings) Tom Hall
4/7/1970 W @ CHW 12-0 Jim Perry
4/6/1971 L vs MIL 2-7 Jim Perry (2)
4/15/1972 L @ OAK 3-4 (11 innings) Bert Blyleven
4/6/1973 W @ OAK 8-3 Bert Blyleven
4/5/1974 W @ KCR 6-4 (11 innings) Bert Blyleven
4/8/1975 W @ TEX 11-4 Bert Blyleven (2)
4/9/1976 L @ TEX 1-2 (11 innings) Bert Blyleven (3)
4/9/1977 L @ OAK 4-7 Dave Goltz
4/5/1978 L @ SEA 2-3 Dave Goltz (2)
4/6/1979 W @ OAK 5-3 Dave Goltz (3)
4/10/1980 W @ OAK 9-7 (12 innings) Jerry Koosman
4/9/1981 L vs OAK 1-5 Jerry Koosman (2)
4/6/1982 L vs SEA 7-11 Pete Redfern
4/5/1983 L vs DET 3-11 Brad Havens
4/3/1984 L vs DET 1-8 Albert Williams
4/9/1985 W @ CAL 6-2 Frank Viola
4/8/1986 W @ OAK 3-2 Frank Viola (2)
4/7/1987 W vs OAK 5-4 (10 innings) Bert Blyleven (4)
4/5/1988 L @ NYY 0-8 Frank Viola (3)
4/4/1989 L vs NYY 2-4 Frank Viola (4)
4/9/1990 L @ OAK 3-8 Allan Anderson
4/9/1991 L @ OAK 2-7 Jack Morris
4/6/1992 W @ MIL 4-2 Scott Erickson
4/6/1993 W vs CHW 10-5 Kevin Tapani
4/5/1994 L vs CAL 2-8 Kevin Tapani (2)
4/26/1995 L @ BOS 0-9 Scott Erickson (2)
4/1/1996 W vs DET 8-6 Brad Radke
4/1/1997 W vs DET 7-5 Brad Radke (2)
4/1/1998 L @ TOR 2-3 Bob Tewksbury
4/6/1999 W vs TOR 6-1 Brad Radke (3)
4/3/2000 L vs TB 0-7 Brad Radke (4)
4/3/2001 W @ DET 3-2 Brad Radke (5)
4/1/2002 W @ KC 8-6 Brad Radke (6)
3/31/2003 W @ DET 3-1 Brad Radke (7)
4/5/2004 W vs CLE 7-4 (11 innings) Brad Radke (8)
4/4/2005 L @ SEA 1-5 Brad Radke (9)
4/4/2006 L @ TOR 3-6 Johan Santana
4/2/2007 W vs BAL 7-4 Johan Santana (2)
3/31/2008 W vs LAA 3-2 Livan Hernandez
4/6/2009 L vs SEA 1-6 Francisco Liriano
4/5/2010 L @ LAA 3-6 Scott Baker
4/1/2011 L @ TOR 3-13 Carl Pavano
4/6/2012 L @ BAL 2-4 Carl Pavano (2)
4/1/2013 L @ DET 2-4 Vance Worley

Overall Record on Opening Day: 25-28