The Ill Advised Stolen Base

I did not get the chance to watch much of the game this past Friday night.  I was supposed to pick my parents up from the airport around 3 pm, but a girl on their plane had a seizure, forcing an emergency landing in Newfoundland.  So I set out to pick my parents up shortly after the first pitch of the Twins contest with the Tribe.  After bringing my parents home, I listened to the game on the way back to my place and listened as Nick Punto was caught trying to steal third base to end the inning and kill a threat the Twins had mounted.

I acknowledge from the first that I did not and have not seen the play.  Obviously, it had to have been close, or Punto and manager Ron Gardenhire would not have argued so vociferously so as to be ejected from the game.  Dan Gladden put it perfectly in the top half of the ninth, however, when he exclaimed that Punto should not have been running in that situation (I believe the Twins batter, Michael Cuddyer, was ahead in the count).

There are very few cardinal sins of baseball, but one of the most important is that a player should never make the first or third out of an inning at third base or home.  Such outs are particularly damaging because they hurt a teams chance to rally.  The fact that Punto disobeyed this rule was infuriating enough—at the time the game was tied and his failed attempt could easily have cost the Twins the game—but the fact that he broke this rule while attempting to steal a base is, in my mind, unacceptable.

The Twins, in general, do not attempt many stolen bases.  They are seventh in the American League this year with fifty swiped bags.  The problem is that the Twins are not particularly efficient when they do try to steal either.  The Twins are successful in only 69.4% of their steal attempts, which is ninth in the league.  This is not a very good number.

The remainder of this blog entry is basically going to be me discussing why stolen bases are generally overrated and ill-advised.  If you have read this argument a dozen times, I will not fault you for clicking the “Back” button now.

I’ve read at a web page organized by people who are smarter than me that stolen bases only yield a statistical advantage if you can be 73% sure you are going to be successful in your attempt.  There is one obvious benefit to stealing a base, you can move a player ninety feet closer to home plate and, if you’re successful, you’ve increased your team’s chances of scoring a run that inning.  The problem with stolen bases is that a team only gets 27 outs a game, and throwing them away on the base paths just seems like a bad idea to me.

Whenever I discuss this topic with him, my roommate is quick to point out that there are some intangible effects of stolen bases, or at least of being considered a stolen base threat.  A runner on first base who is known to steal tons of bases and to do so efficiently can completely change a pitcher’s game.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons Paul Lo Duca is having such a good season (never mind that he always has a good first half and generally tanks in the dog days). Jose Reyes, who bats before Lo Duca, has been getting on base at a pretty good clip this year, and is leading the Majors in stolen bases.  When he gets on first, he changes a pitcher’s game in two ways.  First, a pitcher might throw over to first a number of times.  While those pick off attempts may not be as draining as real pitches, they will have some effect on the pitchers stamina.  Second, a pitcher with a good, slow breaking ball or changeup isn’t going to risk throwing such a slow pitch with good speed on first base.  Thus, Lo Duca knows he’ll see lots of fastballs if Reyes is on first.  However, these benefits are born not from actually stealing  bases, but rather from being a stolen base threat.  I recognize that one can’t be a stolen base threat without ever stealing bases and kindly remind you to shut up and let me finish my entry.  Nick Punto has not established himself as a stolen base threat.

Also troubling about Punto’s stolen base attempt is that, even had it been successful, it would have taken the bat out of Cuddyer’s hands.  Whoever was behind Punto on base was stealing as well.  Had the double-steal been successful, it would have left first base open.  Suddenly, Cuddyer, who was in a good hitters count, it likely to be walked, having the bat taken out of his hand.

Of course, my point is moot.  Jason Tyner, who I hope continues to do what he’s doing so we never see Lew Ford again, pulled through for the Twins and helped them clinch a win.  Go Twins!  Only 6-and-a-half games behind those South Siders.

The Unheralded Greatness of Justin Morneau

There’s been a lot to get excited about the past month-and-a-half if one is a Twins fan.  Even if the Twins fail to make it to the postseason, Twins fans have been blessed to see Joe Mauer become the superstar we all knew he could become.  We have seen Francisco Liriano emerge as one of the most dominant and un-hittable pitchers in all of baseball.  Joe Nathan has continued to be his lights out self, even if he hasn’t seen an abundance of save opportunities.  And Johan has been Johan, and even when his dominance become expected, it’s still awesome to watch.

I feel that one guy who has been lost in the hype surrounding all these other players has been Justin Morneau.  I understand that there was talk about him potentially being selected for the All Star game, at least locally.  I understand that the local media—and to a lesser extent, the national media—has given Morneau some ink, discussing his growth into a legitimate power threat.  I still feel, however, that the press Morneau has gotten has understated how great he’s really been, especially since the beginning of June.

Before play began on June 1, Morneau was hitting .244 with an OBP of .307 and slugging .465.  Those are pretty bad number, especially for a first baseman who is supposed to be the power source for your lineup.  It looked like we were going to endure another year of an under-achieving Morneau.  I swear that if I saw him wave at another slider down and away, I was going to need to shoot something.

I have no idea what happened in early June, but since June 1, Morneau has dramatically increased his production.  Morneau’s hit .379 in that time, with a .410 OPB and a ridiculous .750 slugging average.

I tend to follow the belief that OPS (On base + Slugging) is the best well-known statistic at measuring the offensive value of a player.  Even with his horrible start to the year, Morneau is tenth in the league in OPS with .946 (Mauer is seventh with .974).  In the last month, Morneau’s OPS is 1.184, which is good for fifth in the league.

Those are really good numbers.  Those are the sort of numbers that get a player MVP votes—maybe not first place votes, but votes nonetheless.  Travis Hafner aside, Morneau might have the most legitimate gripe for not being chosen for the All Star game.  If he can keep up what he has been doing for the past month, the Twins chances of making a run at a playoff spot aren’t as ridiculously small as they might otherwise seem.

All this makes me wish that the Twins could put Morneau into the cleanup spot, which is where he really belongs.  I know that it would be foolish to put the left-handed hitting Mauer and Morneau back-to-back in the lineup, lest opposing managers bring in dominating lefty relievers to face them.  On the other hand, both Mauer and Morneau are hitting lefties well enough this year that the proposition of betting them one after the other in the lineup is less crazy that it was a year ago.

The Twins have bigger problems then having to bat Cuddyer in the cleanup slot right now, however.  With Shannon Stewart and Torii Hunter both placed on the DL following last night’s game, we could see a lot of Cuddyer-Punto-Tyner and Cuddyer-Punto-Kubel outfields over the next few weeks.  The fact that you have either of those sets of three guys in the outfield isn’t really that big a deal.  Though many Twins fans might not be familiar with Tyner, he was actually a serviceable major league outfielder for a few years with the Devil Rays before he became part of the Twins organization. 

The real problem is that moving Punto to center field will force Gardenhire to start either Terry Tiffee or Luis Rodriguez at third.  I’m a Terry Tiffee guy myself, and while I understand that he’s not the sort of player that you want to be playing everyday for your team, the fact that he has at least some power makes me feel that he’s a better option as temporary third baseman than Rodriguez.  Also, starting Tiffee would allow the Twins to keep Rodriguez on the bench, where his versatility—Luis can play all four infield positions—would be of the greatest benefit to the team.  Regardless, having to start either Tiffee or Rodriguez everyday is not an enviable position.

I’ll admit I know very little about Josh Rabe.  His Triple-A numbers are neither awe-inspiring nor horrifying.  He was hitting .297 in Rochester before the call-up but also walked 34 times, which is pretty nice.  He doesn’t have much power to speak of, but had stolen six bases this year for the Red Wings.

My real worry with Rabe is that he’s almost 28 years old and has never before played in the major leagues.  I understand that the Twins outfield has been crowded the last several years, but players who don’t make it to the majors in any form until they’re 27 generally don’t turn into superstars or really even tolerable major leaguers.  I hope Rabe proves me wrong and fills the gaps the Twins currently have well for the next few weeks, but I’m not getting my hopes up.

Why Joe Mauer Can’t Hit .400: And Why No One Else Will Ever Do it Again Either

As I watch this, Joe Mauer is being intentionally walked for the second time tonight (Friday, July 14).  He’s currently .373 and I don’t think that will change tonight.  .373 is impressive batting average for any player in any given month.  .373 is an even more impressive average for any player after half a season.  .373 for a catcher who plays above average defense?  Well, that’s pretty much ridiculous.  A quick sojourn to baseball-reference.com (which is one of only two historical baseball statistic sites–along with retrosheet.org–that you will ever need) taught me (as well as reminding me that Rogers Hornsby, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were really, really amazing) that no everyday catcher has hit .373 for a season since 1895 when some guy named Jack Clements hit .394 for the Philadelphia Phillies.  However, as my roommate will tell you, nothing that happened before 1900 counts anyway.  I mean, was it really baseball if there was only one league?  What the heck?

Regardless, it’s been a really long time since any major league catcher hit better than .373.  If Mauer maintained current batting average for the remainder of the season, it would be **** impressive.

However, I’ve listened to some silly people who, apparently, aren’t content with their sideburn-clad hero hitting .373.  These people like to talk about a mystical .400 average.  While I’ve not heard many sources I would deem credible really discuss this as a legitimate possibility–even two weeks ago when Joe was hitting .391–I thought I’d do a little statistical investigating.

As we’ve already established, Mauer is hitting .373.  The Twins have played 88 games in which Mauer has gotten 292 at bats.  His 109 hits are impressive for a catcher and lead to the high average.  Very simple math tells me that Mauer will get about 246 at bats in the twins remaining 74 games.  If that estimate is correct, then Joe needs to get 107 hits in order to hit .400 on the season.  In other words, he would need to hit .435 over the remainder of the season in order to finish the season at .400.  That’s pretty much impossible to do.  Joe would need to get only two fewer hits than he already has in 46 fewer at bats.  I just don’t see it happening, especially if he can’t bust this mini-slump he’s in right now.

So I don’t think that Joe Mauer can hit .400 this year.  I would say the odds are worse than 1:1000.  But you know what?  That’s okay.  If Mauer hits above .350 that would still be considered one of the best hitting seasons for a catcher in history, and that should be enough.

Not only do I not believe that Joe Mauer won’t hit .400 this season–or any season–but I don’t think anyone will ever hit .400 again unless the rules or strategies of the game change dramatically.  There are reasons that no one has hit .400 since Ted Williams last did it in 1941.  The game of baseball was very different then, and I think it’s changed in such a way that has disadvantaged stand-out players, both hitters and pitchers.

Something happened to baseball in 1947 that changed the game forever.  Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers did the unthinkable and signed an African American second baseman for his team, making the major leagues accessable to huge portions of the population who had previously been denied access.  A plethora of talented black players came into baseball and brought the overall talent level way up.  When this occured the players who previously looked like dieties instantly became mortal and began regressing to the mean.

It’s a sad state of affairs that the number of black players in the league has been dwindling since the 1970s.  It’s true that Joe really only faces one black starter, C.C. Sabathia.  But the infusion of black players into the leagues also made the league accessable to dark-skinned latinos, and there are plenty out there who are dominating–or at least above-average–pitchers.  There are two on Joe’s team.

People say that expansion has diluted the talent level of baseball.  There is probably some truth to this, as the worst players in the league now are likely less talented than the worst players in the league in the 1960s.  But I’ve seen little that’s convinced me that this has resulted in the overall talent in the major leagues dropping.  Without expansion, some truly great players who didn’t look so great before getting the chance to shine, like Mike Piazza (who might only be the best hitting catcher of all time), would never have made it to the big leagues.  I think that you could argue that expansion, but creating more opportunity for players, has actually driven the talent in the league up.  I think this is evidenced by the fact that we no longer see players like Rogers Hornsby who lead the league in batting by 70 points anymore.  Truly great talent just isn’t as overwhelming to the rest of the league any more.

And that’s why nobody–Joe Mauer included–will ever hit .400 again.

Francisco Flops, Ford Falls

For Christmas 2002, I asked my parents for an A.J. Pierzynski jersey.  My dad can’t ever do anything halfway, so he shelled out $200 for an authentic jersey rather than a knock-off.  It was great; I did—and still do—love that jersey.  The problem is that I only had it for a year before A.J. was shipped off to the Bay Area.  I continued to proudly wear the jersey to Twins games for the following two season, but I just have not been able to wear it to games this year.  While I was happy for A.J. that he got his ring, doing so cemented the fact that he is now ‘one of them" (as opposed to the guy who would watch Twins games from the Giants clubhouse), and I cannot wear a jersey bearing a name of someone who plays half his games on the South Side of Chicago.

Where am I going with this?  Well, thanks to $100 in gift certificates to the Twins Pro Shops thanks to my ridiculous spending on my Twins credit card, I recently decided that I was in the market for a new jersey.  I wanted to get the jersey of a player who will be here for a while, so I don’t go through what I experienced with my A.J jersey all over again.  That ruled out Shannon Stewart, Torii Hunter, Kyle Lohse and Brad Radke.  I wanted to get a jersey of a player I actually liked.  That ruled out Lew Ford and Luis Rodriguez.  I didn’t want the jersey of a middle reliever, which ruled out Juan Rincon, Jesse Crain, Willie Eyre, Pat Neshek, and Dennys Reyes.  Finally, I didn’t want to get the jersey of a player that would most likely, in the future, be remembered for what he did with another team.  That ruled out Luis Castillo.  This left me with only a few choices, and the one that was most exciting to me was Francisco Liriano.

It wasn’t really a hard choice.  While I appreciate what Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are doing as much as anyone else does, the two collectively have less charisma than oatmeal.  They just don’t get me excited the way Frankie does.  So I plunked down my gift certificates and another $100 to order a #47 jersey.  The jersey had to be ordered, as the supply of Liriano jerseys hasn’t even begun to approach the demand.  I got the call yesterday that the Jersey was in and stopped at the Roseville pro shop on my way home from work, threw it on, and walked out the door and off to the Metrodome, excited to be one of relatively few people heading to the game wearing the jersey of that night’s starter.

Then the game started.

There is no need for me to remind anyone who watched that game that Liriano stunk, but allow me to reiterate: Liriano stunk.  His line from last nights game:

5 IP, 5 H, 4 ER, 3 BB, 6 SO, <b>3 HR</b>.

While that line certainly doesn’t impress, it really understates how poor Liriano’s performance was.  Liriano threw 97 pitches—an atrocious total for that few innings—40 of which were balls.  While he walked 3 batters, he got into 3-ball counts with even more.  It was a truly stinky performance.

I understand that I shouldn’t be ragging on the guy, and I don’t think I am.  He’s been fantastic since his move to the rotation and everyone’s going to be less than stellar on occasion.  Even Johan’s looked mortal his last two starts.  There’s a very good chance Liriano was riddled with exhaustion after his whirlwind All Star Tuesday that started at 3 am and likely didn’t end until nearly 24 hours later.  These things happen.  Even Hulk Hogan lost sometimes.

The problem is that, facing a 12 game deficit in the AL Central and a 9.5 game deficit in the AL Wildcard race, the Twins can’t afford to have Liriano be anything less than dominant each time he steps to the mound.  Last night’s game wouldn’t have even been close had it not been for two innings of lights-out relief from Kyle Lohse.  Santana and Liriano need to be sure things until the end of September for the Twins to have a prayer of making it to the postseason.  If those two can’t carry the team on their backs, the Twins already slim margin for error will evaporate.

On a completely unrelated topic, Lew Ford had me seeing red last night by grounding into a 5-4-3 double play with nobody out and Shannon Stewart on first in the fifth inning.  Lew Ford hasn’t been good for much this year.  Or last year for that matter.  He can’t ever seem to hit the ball in the air and he cancels out his excellent athleticism with his incredible ability to take his mind out of the game.

One of the most frustrating parts of watching the Twins over the past month has been Ron Gardenhire’s insistence on platooning Ford and Jason Kubel in left field.  With Cuddyer grabbing a firm hold on the job in right and Hunter a permanent fixture in center, left field has become crowded with Ford, Kubel, and Shannon Stewart.  It’s pretty evident to anyone with eyes that Shannon Stewart should not be relied upon to play defense everyday.  Not only is he capable of little more than a hobble right now, but he’s never had great range defensively or even a mediocre arm.  He belongs in the DH spot whether he likes it or not.  This leaves Kubel and Ford.

For some reason, Twins Manager Ron Gardenhire has decided that Lew Ford deserves almost equal playing time as Kubel.  Apparently, he doesn’t buy into this “fourth outfielder” thing that many teams have in a guy who only plays when one of the three regulars needs a day off.  The fact of the matter is this: Lew Ford might be a decent fourth outfielder.  However, his talents do not warrant playing him everyday in the outfield or even half that often.

I know what many of you are saying right now, "But 2name, Kubel was hurt last night."  You are correct, but I’m not talking about just last night.  This has been a regular trend lately.  Gardenhire just seems to be afraid to let Kubel face left-handed pitching, so on the days the Twins are facing a southpaw, he marches out the right-handed batting Ford.

Now, usually a platoon is a great thing.  It usually manifests itself in a left-handed hitter who struggles against lefties facing only right-handed starting pitchers and keeps those same guys in the lineup to mash righties.  The Twins would have been well advised to do more platooning when Jacque Jones was here.  But here’s the catch: platoons only work when the right-handed hitting half of the platoon hits lefties better than his left-handed hitting counterpart.  Right now, Lew Ford couldn’t hit a left-handed pitcher in my softball league.

The statistics bear this out.  Lew Ford has been abysmal against lefties (.221/.277/.377 in 77 AB)*.  Kubel, while getting only 27 AB against lefties, is a significantly better .296/.345/.519.  He’s actually hitting lefties better than righties.

So why is Gardenhire sticking to his platoon?  I can’t answer that question.  It’s asinine.  Not only is Kubel out-hitting Ford against lefties, but even if you accept that that fact is an aberration, it still behooves the Twins to start him against good left-handed pitching.  Kubel is supposed to be an important part of the Twins’ future and he’s going to need to be able to hit those same lefties Gardy’s currently afraid to bat him against.  In order to develop Kubel’s bat against lefty pitchers, he should be allowed to face them now when the Twins chances of making the postseason are marginal at best.

This all leads me to my point.  After grounding into that double play last night, Ford was taken out of the game because he strained his oblique.  He was put on the 15-day DL immediately following the game.  This is a bad thing for Lew Ford.  This is a good thing for the Twins, Twins fans, and Jason Kubel.  Here’s to hoping Jason Tyner makes Lew expendable.

*It’s not like Ford’s beating the **** out of right-handed pitching either.  Against righties he’s hitting .241/.320/.286.  How one can put up a slugging percentage that much lower than their OBP is beyond me.