2009: Are the Twins Still Doing the "Little Things"

I've been meaning to write this article for some time now, but the data has eluded me thus far. As I showed during the offseason, in 2008, the Twins were a full 27 runs better than any other team in the majors (42 runs above average) doing the "little things", including baserunning and directional hitting (moving the runner over and other "productive outs"). Last year, these "little things" were a key to our offense outperforming the rest of the league relative to other measures like wOBA or OPS. 

So how are the Twins doing in 2009? I've run the data as of July 28th, and the team by team spreadsheet is posted here. As many of you have probably noticed this year, we've taken a decent sized step backward, slipping to 14th in the majors at +3.00 runs due to these "little things". Considering that on 7/28 we were about 2/3 of the way through the season, I estimate that solely due to these aspects of baseball that do not appear in the box score, the Twins are about 25 runs worse than in 2008. Prorated over a full season, that's over 3 marginal wins, enough to put the Twins right at Detroit's heels.

Team 2008 "Little Things" Team 2009 "Little Things"

1. Minnesota Twins

+42.22 RAA

14. Minnesota Twins

+3.00 RAA

2. Los Angeles Angels

3. Philadelphia Phillies

+15.19

+11.71

1. Los Angeles Angels

2. Toronto Blue Jays

+26.94

+17.30

As you can see, Mike Scioscia has the Angels at the top again in 2009. How do we explain the Twins' drop? After the jump, I'll look a little deeper into the Twins numbers, comparing to last season.

Before I get to the "little things", how are the Twins hitting as a team, according to the "standard" metrics (i.e., hits, homeruns, strikeouts, etc.)? 
Season "Standard" RAA**
2008 +22.81
2009 +44.30

** Prorated over a full season

As of 7/28, the Twins have improved by over 20 runs due to "standard" batting. This makes sense, considering the success of Mauer, Kubel, Cuddyer, Morneau and Span. As a team, our wOBA (generally considered the best correlation to runs scored) improved from .328 last year to .333 in 2009. Over a full season of plate appearances, this difference in wOBA corresponds to about +25 runs, pretty much in line with my "standard" RAA calculations.

So if we've hit better by a factor of 25 runs, why has overall run production fallen from 5.21 runs per game in 2008 to 4.89 runs per game (as of 7/28) in 2009? Over a full season, this corresponds to a nearly 50 run drop this year. How do we explain a nearly 75 run swing based on the "standard" metrics? First, we have to consider the oft-cited drop in batting average with runners in scoring position (RISP). After a historically good season, the Twins' RISP has fallen over 30 points. We're getting the hits this year, but not at the times to score runs most efficiently.

Season Avg with RISP
2008 .305
2009 .272

RISP explains much, probably around half, of the 75 run gap this year. That still leaves nearly 40 runs unaccounted for. Based on my analysis, the remainder of this gap can be traced to the "little things". I won't go into a lengthy description of the process here, if you want more details, check out this article from March. As shown above, the Twins have gone from +42 RAA in 2008 down to +3 this year. How did this happen? To answer, we need to look at the two aspects of the "little things":

Baserunning

Stolen bases and caught stealing statistics are widely available in box scores and a variety of forums. It's more difficult to quantify the value of a baserunner going first to third on a base hit, scoring from first on a double, etc. I've written a more comprehensive article on 2008 baserunning here. I break baserunning down into three pieces: stealing bases, outs on the base paths (other than caught stealing), and "other", i.e., advancing first to third more or less often than average.

Season Overall RAA Steal Outs Other
2009 -0.99 (18th) -2.49 +0.17 +1.33
2008 +8.44 (7th) -4.34 -7.35 +20.13

Around 9.5 of the 39 run reduction in the "little things" can be traced to baserunning. As the table shows, the Twins have improved stealing bases and avoiding outs on the base paths. However, we have regressed by almost 20 runs on the base paths. If you think about it, this isn't too surprising considering Carlos Gomez and Alexi Casilla have played less, Cuddyer and Crede have played more.

Directional Hitting

The second component of the "little things" focuses on directional hitting, putting the ball in a place to allow runners to advance, hitting the ball to the right side, avoiding strikeouts, etc.In 2008, the Twins were by far the best in the majors. While the Twins are above average this year, they have dropped off significantly from last year, nearly a 30 run drop.

Season Runs (MLB rank)
2009 +4.00 (9th)
2008 +33.78 (1st)

Conclusions

As many of us have suspected this year, the Twins have cost themselves a number of runs by failing to repeat 2008's performance with RISP and doing the "little things" to score runs and win ballgames. The numbers verify what we've seen. I'm not going to pin this season's .500 record on this, the pitching staff shares plenty of blame, but a 40 run drop due to these "little things" means roughly 4 marginal wins...which would put us right on the Tigers' heels.

Next, I'll focus on the individuals. Last year, Joe Mauer was the best in baseball at the "little things" (scary given his standard batting numbers). How are he and the rest of the Twins doing this year?

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