Five Questions: Minnesota Twins

1. What’s the deal with the obsessive way you track Ron Gardenhire’s bullpen usage?

Honestly, I have no idea why I pay so much attention to the way Gardenhire manages his relievers. I suppose the simple answer is that it is one of the very few elements of game management that is completely within the manager’s control. After all, he always decides which reliever to put into each situation, so it is easy to monitor whether or not the best relievers are pitching in the spots with the highest leverage.

Sifting through the data from last season, one can see that Juan Rincon and Joe Nathan pitched the highest percentage of their innings in high leverage situations. Likewise, Rincon and Dennys Reyes made the highest percentage of their appearances in similar situations. The difference between the two simply demonstrates that in the moments with the highest leverage, Gardenhire would likely spot Reyes for a batter or two while Joe Nathan was allowed to pitch out of the jams. Plus, while Matt Guerrier has flourished in his role pitching long relief, just 11% of his innings came during high leverage situations

Recently, I decided to further study whether or not Gardenhire micromanages the bullpen more frequently in the playoffs. My quick-and-dirty way of conducting the research was to simply look at the percentage of relief appearances that concluded with the pitcher ending an inning rather than being removed mid-inning. The results definitely backed up my hypothesis that Gardenhire likes to get trigger-happy in October, as his postseason relievers finish an inning for him just 61.4% of the time, compared to 77.4% during the 2006 regular season and 83.0% of the time during the regular season. By running a hypothesis test using those two seasons, I calculated a z-score of 3.1225, meaning that there is a probability of greater than .999 that Gardenhire manages the bullpen differently in October than during the regular season.

Of course, this probably only interests me.

2. Why do the Twins always manage to sign a few crappy veteran players each winter and then give them a guaranteed job?

Last year, the Cuban Dictators (Tony Batista and Juan Castro) spent over 50 games spotting the White Sox and Tigers a big lead in the AL Central. This year, Ramon Ortiz was handed a guaranteed $3.1 million and a spot in the pitching rotation and Sidney Ponson, despite signing a non-guaranteed minor league deal, appears to be Ron Gardenhire’s leading choice for the final spot in the pitching rotation.

To be fair, recent quotes indicate that Ramon Ortiz was not on the Twins radar at the beginning of the winter—instead, the team underestimated the final cost of Gil Meche by four years and $52 million. Still, the escalating cost of free agent pitching should not be used as an excuse to justify guaranteeing $3 million to a pitcher who has not been a quality starter since 2002. Coincidentally, 2002 was also the year Ortiz mowed through the Twins for five innings in Game Two of the ALCS and turned the tide of the series. I wonder what role that moment, five years ago, played in the decision-making of the front office.

Anyway, one thing in the Twins favor this season is the abundance of quality starting pitching in the high minors. Matt Garza, Glen Perkins, Kevin Slowey, and J.D. Durbin (who is out of options) can all step into the rotation and perform decently if Ortiz or Ponson falters in 2007. In fact, unlike last season, the local media is already questioning management rather than blindly repeating the company line regarding the veterans the way they did last year. It is a small moral victory, but the baby steps should still be pointed out.

3. Could anybody on the Twins’ projected bench hit water if they fell out of a boat?

At this point, the most powerful left-handed hitter on the Twins bench is Jason Tyner. Seriously. Jeff Cirillo hit extremely well against left-handed pitching last season, but he has been hampered by a sore neck. Mike Redmond complements Joe Mauer extremely well, but his main offensive strength is punching the ball through the right-side with an inside-out swing which allows Gardenhire to hit-and-run and get himself involved. So, Tyner, Cirillo, and Redmond are locks to make the bench, but they combined to hit just three home runs in 2006—all by Cirillo.

The final two spots are currently up in the air as Lew Ford will be missing the next four to six weeks due to arthroscopic knee surgery. Rule 5 selection and projected backup middle infielder Alejandro Machado has been suffering from a weak shoulder and has been unable to throw the entire spring. The Twins are now seriously considering bringing prospect Alexi Casilla north at the end of the spring to back up Jason Bartlett and Luis Castillo up the middle; and his biggest competition in camp is coming from Luis Rodriguez. Casilla, it would seem, has the advantage because the Twins brain trust insists that Rodriguez is unable to handle shortstop defensively and refuses to consider sliding Nick Punto to short in an emergency.

Another player with the potential for grabbing one of those final spots is Matthew LeCroy. I’m pretty certain that if he fell out of a boat while fishing for crawdads, he would make a pretty big cannonball.

4. Did any other team last season owe more of its success to fewer players than the Twins?

Last year, the Twins were led by five truly elite players: Johan Santana, Francisco Liriano, Joe Nathan, Joe Mauer, and Justin Morneau. Those players combined for 78 Win Shares Above Bench (WSAB). The only other teams whose top five players combined for at least 70 WSAB were the Red Sox (72), Yankees (72), and Mets (83). While the Mets ended up with the highest total from its top five, this value was driven by their top four of Beltran, Wright, Reyes, and Delgado, and they did not actually go five deep.

To measure this, let’s weight each contribution so the top players’ WSAB is worth its total multiplied by one, the second is worth its total multiplied by two, the third is worth three times as much, etc. After making this adjustment, the Mets total turns out to be 206. The Yankees jump up to 198, the Red Sox to 188, and the Twins now jump into the lead with 211.

So, yes, the Twins did owe more of its success to its stars last year than any other team. Well, how does that pertain to this season? Santana and Nathan have become consistently excellent, and while their may be some variance in their performance, they can be counted on to maintain their status as elite pitchers. Of course, the third elite pitcher, Liriano, will be missing the entire season after doctors finally discovered the need for Tommy John surgery in his elbow after numerous MRIs and setbacks.

As for the hitters, Mauer and Morneau both put together career years (or in Morneau’s case, a career four months) in 2006. It would be silly to not expect some regression from each player this year. There is an omnipresent injury risk for any catcher, so Mauer will always be playing with that concern. Plus, when a player is the first person in baseball history to lead both leagues in hitting from his position, it is not too likely that he would also become the second person to perform said feat in the subsequent season. Still, look for Mauer to continue to spray line drives all over the field and to boost his slugging percentage with a few more doubles and homers to offset some of the possible decline in his batting average.

Morneau is a harder case to predict. From the beginning of June through the end of the season, he hit nothing but scorching line drives. Even in the frustrating ALDS defeat against Oakland, Morneau managed to hit two home runs and had several more line drives hit directly at the properly positioned A’s (quick aside: the A’s must have better advanced scouts than any other team in the league as I am always amazed at how both how unorthodox their defensive positioning is compared to other teams, as well as how many line drives are hit directly at their players). Still, Morneau’s final season totals also include the two putrid months he assembled at the start of the year. Thus, his final stats in 2007 will probably be a similar to last season, but I would expect neither the highs, nor the lows of his 2006 performance.

5. Brad Radke was pretty good, wasn’t he?

Yup, too bad no one realized it. Through the 2006 season, Radke ranked in the top 20 among active pitchers in ERA+ (minimum 1500 innings), wins, losses, WHIP, innings pitched, complete games, shutouts, and strikeout-to-walk ratio. Oh, and he also was the active pitcher with the lowest career walks per nine innings by edging out Jon Lieber, Greg Maddux and David Wells. There were only two seasons in his entire career—his rookie season and an injury-plagued 2002—in which he had an ERA higher than the league average. Plus, he served as the model for young Twins farmhands when the organization stressed its “throw strikes, rely on your defense” philosophy. Finally, he also pitched through approximately 19 different arm injuries last season after taking less money to stay with the Twins when he was a free agent two seasons ago.

When Opening Day arrives, it will be a strange experience for Twins fans to no longer have a silent, scruffy, disinterested player wearing number 22 sitting amongst the other starting pitchers.

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