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Why are the Twins picked for fourth?

A recent discussion I had with another blogger in a Sickels Crystal Ball on Boof Bonser is a good indicator of the general feeling towards the Twins this year. The upshot is, there's no way Boof will have a good career unless he leaves Minnesota because the Twins are destined to be a fourth-place team for several years in an improving division.

I don't give the guy too much credence, but his attitude is closer to the mainstream than it might at first seem. Most publications pick the Twins fourth in the division, claiming that Cleveland, Chicago, and Detroit have vaulted past the Twins. ESPN has the team ranked 17th overall, as a diary on this site laments.

Twins players expressed puzzlement about this going into the year. This is roughly the same team that ran off the best record in baseball in the second half of the year. The starting pitching is different, but a deep analysis shows it can't be much worse than it was in the second half. If that is the reason people are picking the Twins fourth, I can understand it. But a lot of so called experts are picking the Twins fourth for other reasons; especially the offense, which hasn't changed at all since the second half of last year.

As near as I can tell, a primary reason folks are picking the Twins fourth is the improvement of the other three teams. According to some, Cleveland has improved greatly since last year. I have a hard time understanding how upgrading from Ronnie Belliard to Josh Barfield will suddenly make this team a juggernaut. But some think Barfield is the second coming of Robbie Alomar. Chicago's offense is roughly the same, except for using Derrin Erstad instead of Brian Anderson. Somehow that will help them manufacture runs, even though neither Podsednik nor Erstad will break .330 in OBP this year. While Erstad will improve the defense, I can't see that making the offense any better. Detroit has added Gary Sheffield, which will make the offense better. But that doesn't account for why the other two teams have somehow vaulted ahead of the Twins since last year.

I puzzled over this overnight last night. (I know, get a life.) And this is what I came up with. The Indians and the White Sox are great teams on paper. They both score tons of runs. They both have above-average starting pitching. The Twins, on the other hand, do not score tons of runs. And they have suspect starting pitching. Hence the Twins are fourth.

What these people are missing is that you don't play games on paper. Better yet, paper analysis is insufficient. And, the ways in which paper (or computer) analysis is insufficient are the ways in which the Twins are better than either the Indians or the White Sox: The Twins play good defense, they have a consistently good and well managed bullpen, and they run the bases well. They prevent runs that the computer analysis says they should not with their superior defense and bullpen; and they score runs that the computer analysis says they should not by aggressive and smart base running (the recent past notwithstanding).

I'm not saying that sabermetrics will always be insufficient in these ways. Just that these aspects of sabermetrics are behind the analysis of starting pitching and hitting. And the main problem is not with sabermetrics but with it's application. Bill James is the first one to tell us where the field has room for improvement. But people don't like messiness; they'd rather focus on what sabermetrics does well right now. In so doing, they inadvertently bias offense and starting pitching in the overall equation of team strength. Let me esplain. No too long. Let me sum up:

  1. Defense--We have had a running thread on this in the Ortiz story. So let me be brief. Defensive efficiency in its variations can be helpful if applied properly. But it does not take into account the key variable in assessing defense--the speed of balls put in play. Until it does, it's a dull tool. As long as that qualification is made, it can be usefully applied. But it is often ignored, and defensive metrics are often applied as though they have the same veracity as pitching and hitting metrics.
  2. Bullpen--The common theory among followers of Billy Beane is that you can take any decent two-pitch pitcher and make him into an effective reliever. And that is just not true. Bullpen arms are not interchangeable parts. If you mess with a bullpen too much to fill other holes on your club, you will lose a lot of games you should have won. Nowhere is that clearer than in Cleveland, where they have alternated good with bad years with largely the same personnel just because they messed with the bullpen too much. Bullpen stability is undervalued among amateur statheads, and that is why the Twins huge advantage in this area is consistently undervalued.
  3. Base running--Bill James has put a lot of focus into this area in the last few years and what he has produced counters the so-called conventional wisdom that aggressive base running is a net loss to teams. What he has shown is taking the extra base when it is available can greatly increase the chances of scoring. And that is what we have seen from teams under Gardy. I don't think the Twins run indiscriminately. And they certainly don't try to steal very often. They are just really efficient at taking the extra base. In fact, the key to their success is picking the right time to run on another team's arm, whether the catcher or an outfielder. They have "stolen" a lot of wins this way--between five and 10 per year since 2002, by my calculations. A good example is the second game this season. Another is a critical game against Detroit last year when Jeremy Bonderman was cruising along until the Twins basically ran wild on him in the eighth inning and he lost. When amateur statheads compare teams, they don't even factor in base running. Those that do tend to think like the Bill James of old--that it is a net loss for teams.
These are three ways in which the Twins are consistently undervalued by analysts, especially amateur statheads. I'm sure you can find other ways. And I have painted with a broad brush. So there are subtleties that space and time did not allow me to include. So have at it. Prove me wrong, or add to my analysis.