Thursday, March 10, 2011

Is Alexi Casilla the second coming of Luis Rivas?

Spend enough time on the Twins blogosphere and you’ll find that, ever since the departure of Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy announced that the Twins were likely pegging Alexi Casilla for a middle-infield spot, a number of fans have brought up comparisons to another Twin of seasons past: Luis Rivas. This is certainly not meant to invoke the “glory days,” although the Twins teams featuring Rivas as a middle infield mainstay had plenty of success. No, this sort of comparison hints at what certain fans think the Twins should expect from Casilla, which, in a few words, ain’t much. Besides the obvious (both are Latin infielders, both first broke into the majors at a fairly young age, both were at some point widely regarded as the “second baseman of the future” before falling short of expectations), is there actually any truth to this comparison? At this point in his career, Casilla has amassed just over 1000 plate appearance, roughly half of Rivas’ career total, probably enough to make a comparison at least somewhat valid.

Career stats:

Luis Rivas 648 2290 541 286 34 201 0.257 0.303 0.377 0.301 0.2 -3.3
Alexi Casilla 312 1073 239 125 8 96 0.249 0.306 0.327 0.291 0.1 -7.9

Rivas joined the Twins organization out of Venezuela at the age of 16, spending one year each at Rookie, A, High-A and AA before making the jump tfrom AAA to the majors at the end of the 2000 season, posting a .311/.323/.414 line in 64 plate appearances, presumptively enough to earn him a chance at the starting job in 2001. Rivas played in 153 games in 2001 at a .266/.319/.362 clip, albeit with 31 steals. That was good enough for a .304 wOBA, which ranked him third-to-last in the majors, ahead of such luminaries as Adam Kennedy and Jerry Hairston. Due to injury, Rivas managed only about half the number of plate appearances in 2002, and despite having 23 of his 81 hits go for doubles, his wOBA stayed exactly the same at .304. His improved fielding, however, meant that he was worth 0.5 WAR, as opposed to the -0.6 WAR he accumulated in 2001.

Despite decreasing his strikeout rate in 2003 for the third straight year and playing in 135 games, Rivas’ production stayed remarkably similar, with a .303 wOBA and the exact same number of runs created. This again put him near the bottom of the 2B rankings offensively, and his defense didn’t fare much better with a -13.2 UZR/150. In 2004, however, Rivas put together his most valuable season as a Twin, hitting 10 homers and slugging .432 (perhaps the result of a different approach at the plate, as his BB rate sunk to a career low of 3.6% and his fly-ball rate spiked to a high of 39%), good for 1.1 WAR. By 2005, Rivas appeared to be once again heading the wrong direction, and was sent to Rochester mid-season before signing a minor-league deal with the Devil Rays in 2006. He’s been a minor-league journeyman ever since, playing his last games in the majors with the Pirates in 2008.

After joining the Twins organization in 2004, Casilla climbed up the ladder a little quicker than Rivas, and appeared to have a better mix of speed and offensive talent. By the time he reached High A and AA in 2006, Casilla put together an impressive .318/.385/.398 line and burned up the basepaths for 50 steals. He started the season in Rochester in 2007, and although his line was less impressive (.269/.345/.344) the Twins had apparently seen enough to call him up during the summer of 2007 after Luis Castillo was traded. He didn’t exactly make a good first impression, however, managing a measly .244 wOBA in 204 plate appearances. He didn’t make the opening day roster in 2008, but was called up again when Nick Punto was injured. Casilla started to look more like the prospect that many thought he could be, hitting .281/.333/.374 with 7 HR and 50 RBI, providing 1.2 WAR and a much a much-needed offensive spark during the Twins’ drive to catch and almost pass the White Sox. His .298 BABIP didn’t necessarily suggest that regression was in the cards, but the power numbers certainly appeared to be a little over his head. Regardless, many of us thought perhaps the future had arrived at 2B, providing stability at a position that had been in flux since Rivas’ departure.

It wasn’t to be, however. Casilla limped out of the gate in 2009, hitting .167 before earning another demotion to AAA. He would be called back up, but finished the season with a .202/.280/.259 line and no HR, a .260 wOBA that ranked him exactly last out of 2B with at least 250 plate appearances. Sure, a .238 BABIP didn’t help matters, but it was certainly a massive letdown after the promise he showed in 2008. He did, however, provide the defining moment of the 2009 season when he drove in Carlos Gomez (quite the pair of unlikely heroes) for the walk-off victory against the Tigers in an epic game 163. 2010 again saw him rebound as a late-season callup, providing 1.1 WAR in only 170 plate appearances (more than many 2B with a full season’s worth of at-bats) and posting a career-best wOBA of .327. In the field, he seemed less prone to the mental mistakes that had plagued him earlier on (how many outs are there again?), making only one error and posting a 4.4 UZR/150 in an admittedly very small sample size.

So how do Rivas and Casilla stack up against each other? Neither has very good on-base skills; Rivas’ career walk rate was only 5.5%, and Casilla’s is only 7.2%, and both have OBPs that are a shade over .300. Neither has seemed especially adept at translating their speed into results on the basepaths or defensive range either; Rivas swiped 31 bags in 2001 but was caught 11 times, and Casilla has only 35 for his career, and both have negative career UZR/150. Rivas showed slightly more power than Casilla with a .377 career SLG and .120 career ISO (Isolated Power, essentially the difference between batting average and slugging percentage), whereas Casilla has only managed a .077 career ISO, placing him near the bottom of the list among 2B from 2008-2010 with at least 750 PA. Pointing out differences in power between these two, though, is probably like asking whether Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan is crazier.

So what’s the point of this? Did I really just spend all that time comparing two players whose closest comparables on are players you’ve most likely never heard of in your life? Well, a) I thought it was interesting to take an actual statistical look at a comparison that a lot of fans have been making on the surface, and b) Casilla is a huge variable on this team heading into the 2011 season, which will likely be his make-or-break year. Although Rivas and Casilla have many similarities, the interesting difference that I see between the two is that Rivas was pretty consistently mediocre, both in the minors and in the majors, where as Casilla has swung fairly drastically between stretches of excellence and stretches of utter futility throughout his career. That’s not necessarily a good thing for Casilla, but I think it shows what he’s capable of when his head is in the right place. Here’s hoping that we get something closer to the 2008 and 2010 version than the 2009 version - it’s probably his last chance.


  1. Haha, I actually had a feeling something like this was coming.

    I remember reading in 2005, reports asking Doug Mientkiewicz about how he'd work with the language barrier with his new Mets teammate Kaz Matsui, and Doug's response being something along the lines of, "Well, in Minnesota I worked with Luis Rivas, so I don't think I will have a problem." He also said something about Rivas day dreaming and singing songs out on the field. I just have to laugh about it!

  2. A big difference is that Rivas played second base. Also the Twins gave up on him and he was gone by the time he was Casilla's age.

    I think using "career" stats for a player like Casilla who has only a little over 1000 plate appearances over four seasons is silly. It tells you very little. Casilla hit better last year than Rivas ever did. He certainly has something to prove, but you could just as easily compare him to Michael Cuddyer who was still struggling to find a spot at Casilla's age.