Noted baseball manager and All-Star Game tumbler Tommy Lasorda once said: “The saddest day of the year is the day the baseball season ends”. While personally I might amend that statement to “the day after the Super Bowl” (at least I have football to get me through to early February), I can in part share Lasorda’s sentiment.
Unfortunately, this was “one of those years” for the home ball-club where by the end of September, the final game seemed merciful rather than sad. I hate when seasons end like that. I want to be devastated at the end (unless popping bottles), as that is how I know I wanted the ride to continue.
With the calendar now firmly into November and all its autumnal goodness, I’d like to take a moment and give my thoughts on the 2018 Twins, the postseason, and how analytics are kind of going “the other way” for me at the moment:
The Twins somehow managed to both extremely disappoint and somewhat surprise me (sardonically) over the recent 162. On one hand, a team that made the Wild Card Playoff game in 2017 (albeit in a weak American League) was never anything more than ultra-fringe contenders for a berth in ‘18. The last two months of the season were a total wash. Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, and Ervin Santana were basically non-contributors (whether on the field or off of it). Jorge Polanco’s suspension reduced him to a second-half player only. Eddie Rosario looked pretty “Super” indeed...until he got hurt and all the air left that balloon, and Max Kepler looked to be primed for a career season after April and then just “was around” for the rest of the way. The only two pitchers that could be counted on for consistent quality performances were Jose Berrios & Kyle Gibson, as the rest of the staff (thought to be bolstered by new additions Lance Lynn & Jake Odorizzi) severely underachieved and the bullpen fell into ruin due to the combo of ineffectiveness and overuse (dole out the blame how you will on this issue).
Considering all the failures listed in the above paragraph, one can imagine the season looking like the “total system failure” that was 2016. This was not exactly the case. Instead of the wheels falling off in, you know, the FIRST WEEK OF THE SEASON, we hung with Cleveland for a couple of months, began a deep slide in mid-July, and then finished the last few weeks on kind of a winning tear (albeit against the dregs of the AL Central). All of this added up to the odd-shaped 77-85 record, meaning we were technically only six games worse than 2017.
I think the bottom line of the 2018 season for the Twins might have been this: Now-former manager Paul Molitor managed every game, to a certain extent, as if it were Game 7 of the World Series. While seeming like an admirable trait, that strategy works a heck of a lot better when talented players are on the field and have a chance to contribute at least something each and every night. Without that talent spread, however, you end up burning through your few legitimately talented players (via injury/fatigue) in pursuit of a few extra meaningless wins. I’m not suggesting a full-on tank job would have been a better result for the ‘18, but I would have rather seen moves made for the long-term instead of Molly grinding it out each and every day/night.
Moving on to the MLB postseason, I have to congratulate the Boston Red Sox on another round of playoff dominance. (I know, I know, the above clip is from 2004, but Joe Buck’s “Red Sox fans have longed to hear it” is one of my favorite calls ever. Still gives me goosebumps.) When they make the postseason, they don’t mess around, taking home the big trophy in ‘04, ‘07, ‘13, and now ‘18. Since 1969, only 12 teams with that year’s best record went on to win the World Series, which amounts to about one in every four teams over that span. To be honest, I thought the number would be even less. This is now the third time a BoSox team has accomplished the feat, and this playoff bracket was easily the most difficult for them. They first knocked off the 100-win rival Yankees, losing just one game. Then, they smothered the 103-win defending champion Astros, again only dropping a single tilt. Finally, they beat down the 92-win supposed “Super Dodgers” (now with Manny Machado!) in five as well. Before the playoffs started, I told my brother “when Boston has had home field throughout the playoffs, Fenway has reigned supreme” and that’s exactly what happened.
I know that to many, the Red Sox are “the new Yankees” in terms of their ability to retain talent long-term and build super-teams, but likely because of that magical ‘04 season it’s still tough for me to really root hard against them. I came into the World Series nominally pulling for the Dodgers so my LA-dwelling brother could have something to celebrate, but with the Blue Men seemingly out-maneuvering themselves and Machado acting the fool, I couldn’t help but be won over but Boston again when all was said and done.
To wrap things up, the topic of analytics in baseball is one that has been on my mind a lot the last few weeks. I was introduced to the concept by “Moneyball” (like most others) and became fascinated with the new ways in which people were thinking about my all-time favorite sport. I’m terrible at math, so the underpinnings of the new-age stats go completely over my head, but shaking up the old adages or that “medieval approach” Jonah Hill discusses was enough to re-invigorate my love of baseball statistics.
Moneyball is now a teenager in terms of how long it has been adapted into the game of baseball. Some teams dove in right away, others had to dip a toe in for quite some time, but now all teams rely on analytics departments to a certain extent. What’s becoming a little worrisome to me is that we are getting so good at “crunching the numbers” that all games/teams/outcomes will start looking the same. If every GM and manager is basing their organizational and in-game philosophy strictly on something like, say, win probability, at what point do we just simulate the games? I know I’m taking things way too far with that last statement, but it’s something I’ve thought a lot about recently. Baseball has, for example, basically expelled the stolen base because the numbers tell us it is a high-risk, low-reward play. The same basic argument can be had with hitting for contact vs. launch angle or velocity. Is baseball a better overall sport with no stolen bases and a bunch of walks, strikeouts, and home runs? There are a lot of ways to answer that question. I just wonder if perhaps it is time for the pendulum to swing back a little bit in terms of analytics.
One of my favorite baseball quotes of all-time goes as such: “People ask me what I do in the winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” (Rogers Hornsby).
Fortunately, I believe us die-hard Twins fans will have something to stare out the window at this offseason, what with a new manager (Rocco “Best Named Manager of All-Time” Baldelli) and coaching-staff-to-be at the helm and seemingly flush with cash to invest back into the on-field product. It will surely be interesting to see how it all plays out!