Monday, November 17, 2014

The Case for Aaron Hicks

Before my last post, it had been since April 2013 since I had written anything about the Twins. I'm honestly in awe of you bloggers out there who have continued to write about this team despite four straight 90+ loss seasons. Not only does that take dedication, it takes a special kind of stamina to keep going despite the product on the field. My hats off to you. The last thing I wrote about was Aaron Hicks who, at the time, was at the beginning of his rookie season and who had a historically bad opening to his Major League career. I would love to say that he turned it around and is now a fixture in center field for the Twins, but we all know that's not true and, in fact, things haven't gotten much better at all. With that being said, I still think Hicks has a chance to be a decent center fielder for the Twins.

At 25, Hicks is still relatively young, and that may be the biggest thing going for him. For comparison, Carlos Gomez was 26 before he really started to put it together after being traded from the Twins to the Brewers. Torii Hunter was 23 when he played his first full season in the Big Leagues and was 25 before he really hit his stride with the Twins. Curtis Granderson was also 25 when he finally put it all together on the Major League level. Puckett was 24-years-old as a rookie with the Twins in 1984. I'm not saying that Hicks is comparable to Gomez, The Puck, Hunter or Granderson, and in fact, those comparisons are almost laughable. Rather I'm trying to make the point that 25-years-old is not too old and it's premature to say that Hicks' career is doomed. Seven years is a long time for someone to play professional baseball and not "make it" but there are other examples of players who were late bloomers.

The other thing that Hicks has that is fairly unique at the Major League level (if it can fully translate) is his ability to draw walks. Aside from his stint as a rookie in the Majors, Hicks has always had a decent eye at the plate and owns a career .377 OBP in the Minors. Even this past season, which saw Hicks play in 69 games with the Major League club, Hicks had a 36:56 K:BB ratio and an OPS of .341 (despite a .215 BA). If he could hold a batting average closer to .270-.290 and hit with a little more power (.350-.400 SLG), that would be enough offensive production to make him an every-day center-fielder.

One thing that has mysteriously disappeared from Hicks' repertoire over the past couple of seasons is his base-stealing abilities. He was never a prolific base-stealer in the Minors, but from Rookie ball up through Double-A, he had double-digit steals every season and topped out with 32 stolen bases (11 CS) in 2012. Since 2012, he has barely utilized that talent, stealing a total of 17 bases between his time in the Majors AND Minors. Some might look at the stats and see that as a good thing given that Hicks' success rate in stealing isn't great (68% between the Majors and Minors), but he's got speed and, with time, can probably be coached to pick his spots better and bring that number closer to 75%, which would be just fine. For a guy who has the potential to be on-base as much as Hicks, re-discovering his ability to steal bases would increase his value greatly.

So where has Hicks gone wrong? I listen to Gleeman and the Geek fairly regularly and many times on their show/podcast, they have talked about how its quite possible that Hicks' development was actually stunted by the Twins and their mis-handling of Hicks over the past couple of seasons. First there was the move straight from Double-A in 2012, to Twins starting center fielder coming out of Spring Training in 2013. After his disastrous first few months as a rookie, the Twins (Gardenhire) publicly questioned Hicks' effort. Last season, the Twins again publicly questioned Hicks' work ethic and on-field production before demoting him to Triple-A in June (after a DL stint). The whole situation, whether merited or not, reminds me of Kevin Slowey's situation with the Twins a few years ago. For some reason, Hicks seems to have rubbed Twins management the wrong way and they haven't responded very well.

This coming season will really tell the story of whether Hicks has a future with the Minnesota Twins or not. Buxton is still another season away from the Bigs (at least) and so for the time-being, Hicks has a spot in Center Field. In my mind, there are 3 things he needs to do to prove himself and get back on the right track:

1.) Bring his overall average and power up. Through 538 PAs in the Majors, Hicks is sporting a .201/.293/.313 triple-slash and that just isn't going to cut it. Those numbers have to closer to .270/.350/.400 to make him a decent center-fielder and probably need to be more like .275/.360/.420 to make him worth a look at a corner-outfield position. This is all much easier said than done, but at the end of the day, without better production at the plate, it won't matter what other things he does.

2.) Make it so the Twins cannot question his work ethic. In my experience, if someone's work ethic is being questioned, chances are they deserve that kind of criticism. Whether someone works hard or not is usually fairly obvious and when it comes to baseball, I imagine it's slap-you-in-the-face obvious. If I'm Hicks, I understand the situation - that this may be my last legitimate shot to be an MLB-regular - and I respond by being the first one in and the last one out. I put in the work and make it obvious that I'm committed to getting better. Even if the results don't follow, you will impress management and they won't have the grounds to question your effort publicly. I obviously don't know Hicks personally and maybe he already has an excellent work ethic, but sometimes you have to make an effort to make it obvious. You've got a new manager now and so, in a sense, you have a clean(ish) slate. Take advantage.

3.) Forget the past. I have no idea how Hicks feels about how the Twins have handled his development but I wouldn't be surprised if he felt a little slighted. Start fresh this year. Take advantage of having Paul Molitor around day-in and day-out. Channel the Hicks from the Minor Leagues who use to draw walks at a 13-14% clip. Be aggressive on the base paths. Embrace the fact that he is a ground-ball and line-drive hitter (74.5% of his batted balls last year were were either GBs or LDs) who is never going to hit for a lot of power. His potential lies in his ability to get on-base.

It's highly possible that Hicks will never become the center-fielder that the Twins once thought he could be. So far, Hicks' off-season isn't going to well from a baseball standpoint. He was released from his Venezuelan League team just a few days ago after hitting a 2-for-21 slump. I heard the rumors last week that the Twins might be interested in bringing Torii Hunter back. I would be really curious to see how having Hunter around might help Hicks. I doubt it will happen but it's an interested "what if". One thing is clear, if Hicks doesn't find a way to produce more at the plate then he likely won't stick around with the Twins much longer.

Friday, November 14, 2014

A Small Market Response

Disclaimer: I am more of a football guy.  Now, having said that, I am a passionate Twins fan who lives in the heart of Hawk Harrelson Country™ and that fact has only increased my love for the Twins.  While the past four years have been tough I take solace in the White Sox sucking too…
I don’t have MLB Extra Innings, I went to precisely two MLB games last year (both Cubs games), I would rather attend the local Low “A” game than commute to The Northside, and I struggle to recite the past five World Series champions (only half kidding).  However, I religiously check my “Batter’s Box” app every night and every morning during baseball season to check the Twins box score and highlights.  I believe I know a fair amount about the Twins, not as much as Adam, but I feel I can hold my own.  It is because of this knowledge I am apprehensive about the Twins going forward.   So, here it goes… my response to Adam’s Royals and Twins small-market formula.
Yes, it is well documented; the Twins have a consensus top five farm system.  They play in a terrible division.  They are in a honeymoon period with a new manager.  The stars are aligning.  My problem, nothing has changed in the one spot that matters the most, the front office.  The fact that Bill Smith still has a job (albeit a made up one) is surprising and associating Terry Ryan with success, at this point, is kind of laughable.  The Twins seem to be successful in spite of management not because of it.  Looking back at the ESPN Transaction page you can see what the Twins have done.  For the sake of time and word count I only went back to 2010.  Since 2010, the Twins do not have a lot of “winners”.  Glen Perkins, Phil Hughes, initial signing of Josh Willingham, Kurt Suzuki all seem like winners with Hughes being a steal.  But a quick rundown of the losers is pretty amazing.  Jason Bartlett, Jason Kubel, Ricky Nolasco, Carl Pavano resigning, Matt Capps trade AND resigning, Mike Pelfrey, Kevin Correia, Letting Hardy go, letting Vance Worley go, and the granddaddy of them all… Tsuyoshi Nishioka.  I am sure I am missing some on both sides and I realize some are minor signings but the fact that the front office even tried to fleece the fans is annoying and par for the course.  The jury is still out on the Denard Span and Ben Revere trades but by trading both the Twins left a void in centerfield that Aaron Hicks hasn’t been able to fill.  That blunder has helped propagate one of the worst defensive outfields in the league.  An outfield which plays its home games in the pitcher friendly Target Field.  I think this furthers the point; they seemed to have lucked into Byron Buxton fitting a huge need, not planned for it. 
To their credit, the Twins have seemed to pivot towards “toolsy”, high upside, position players and power arms in the draft and that has helped position them for a possible run at the division in a few years.  However, associating the drafting profile and the 40-man roster management with a blueprint or anything similar to other organizations… I just don’t see it. 
And lastly, for a team that moved into a tax payer funded new stadium six years ago and then almost immediately imploded, it is annoying to see Terry Ryan publicly state he is comfortable with where the payroll stands.  There has to be a middle ground between going after Jon Lester or signing Kevin Correia (like Phil Hughes contracts).  Heck, the 2015 opening day roster doesn’t even have that many “holes” they need to fill.  They are set at 1b, 2b, SS (Santana), DH, C, RF with placeholders at 3b and CF.  The Twins have the money for a few, targeted, middle to upper tier free agent signings and the fans have been more than patient.  Based on MLB Trade Rumors 2015 payroll estimate, they are projected to be 35% below their high water mark and 13% below 2014’s opening day number.  No one goes into business to lose money, I am not asking for that, but the Pohlad’s certainly didn’t have enough to buy the Twins by being bad at business.  That is why I have a hard time believing there is no margin at the bottom line to expand the payroll.  It seems to me the model, if you have been terrible for a long stretch is be patient, develop talent, and selectively sign free agents (a la the Cubs).  This all is based on the assumption you are correctly identifying talent which is an entirely different post.

I hold out hope that Paul Molitor will continue his more stat friendly ways and for a front office that decides to find a middle ground between bring the Dodgers and well... the Twins. I might even settle for a healthy Sano and Buxton. Here's to 2015.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Emulating Success: The Royals, Twins and the Small-Market Formula

I'll start off with a house-keeping item...I'd like to officially welcome Bryan Chapman as a writer to this blog. Bryan grew up in Kansas City and has been a Royals fan throughout his life. He'll be writing about mostly Royals and Cubs-related things (he’s a Cubs season-ticket holder) as well as other general baseball topics as we try to get this blog rolling again. We might have a 3rd writer coming on soon (another Twins fan) but Bryan and I are still in the process of applying peer-pressure so we'll let you know what happens.

Since this blog is now a Twins/Royals blog, I thought I would start by comparing the two teams and seeing if my beloved Twins might share some things in common with the Royals. Major League Baseball is very much a league of copycats and I think, in many ways, the Twins are following a very similar path to success that the Royals have just completed. The Royals and Dayton Moore, it can be argued, were simply following a formula for small-market MLB success that was pioneered by the Marlins and Rays (and the Twins, to an extent).

In 1993 the Florida Marlins were created as part of an expansion move by Major League Baseball. Their first 4 seasons were all losing seasons and then suddenly, in 1997, the Marlins broke through and won it all. After winning the 1997 World Series, they immediately dismantled the team, lost 108 games in 1998 and started building again. All told, they had 5 straight losing seasons before winning it all again in 2003. They never spent a lot of money and created a model based on building from within and then adding key free agent pieces when the homegrown talent started to appear at the Major League level. The Tampa Bay Rays have a very similar story - they were an expansion franchise in 1998, and lost 90+ games for 10 straight seasons before breaking through and making it to the World Series in 2007 (which they lost). The Marlins and the Rays were the modern blueprint of building via the Draft and then making small free agency splashes when the time was right.

The Royals are a much more storied franchise than either the Marlins or the Rays - they were an expansion team in 1969 and had a stretch from the mid-70s to the mid-80s where they were perennial contenders. From 1975 to 1985, they finished either 1st or 2nd in their division in 10 out of 11 seasons. The rest of the story has been repeated ad nauseam over the past 6 weeks as the Royals finally broke a 29-year stretch of non-playoff baseball, went on a somewhat miraculous run through the playoffs, and made it all the way to the World Series. The story, however, starts with a change at the GM position in 2006 - when the Royals brought Dayton Moore in to help turn the franchise around.

Dayton Moore cut his teeth as a scout for the Atlanta Braves and eventually worked his way up to Director of Player Personnel Development before leaving the Braves for the GM post with the Royals. Since 2006, Moore has become been quite a controversial figure among Royals fans and is seen as a middle-of-the-road GM around the rest of baseball. He doesn't command the respect of a Billy Beane or Theo Epstein as many of his moves over the past several years have been questioned, but he's also put together a fairly young and very exciting team that could be a contender for several years. He's done it using the blueprint that the Marlins and Rays forged in the late-90s and early 2000s. The primary difference between him and his predecessor in Kansas City, Allard Baird, has been in their approach to player development. I wasn't a rabid baseball fan in the early-2000s when Baird was around, but in looking at the moves he made, it appears he viewed young talent as trading pieces to land bigger groups of young-ish talent, most notably trading away budding stars like Damon and Beltran in multi-team, multi-player deals.

Moore inherited a team that had some decent pieces in the farm system including Alex Gordon and Billy Butler and they had a mentally-shaky Zack Greinke who was just getting started in the Majors. Moore immediately set about stocking the shelves of the farm system and within 3 years he had a farm system full of players that are now on the Major League roster: Greg Holland (2007), Danny Duffy (2007), Mike Moustakas (2007), Eric Hosmer (2008), Yordano Ventura (International Signing 2008), Salvador Perez (International signing 2006), Jarrod Dyson (2006) and Wil Myers (2009). In 2009, he traded away Greinke and received Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Jeremy Jeffress, and Jake Odorizzi. As some of that talent started to reach the Majors, Moore started to add free agents here and there without losing many of the pieces that the Royals had developed. He traded away Myers and Odorizzi to land James "Big Game" Shields and Wade Davis (both integral cogs of the 2014 team) and also added Norichika Aoki, Jeremy Guthrie and Omar Infante. He followed the recipe perfectly – building from within and then adding the missing pieces via trades and free-agency when the window started to open.

So where do the Twins fit into all of this and, if they are indeed following the same formula, where are they in the process?

I mentioned in my opening that the Twins were one of those teams that, along with the Marlins and Rays, helped to blaze a path to winning baseball for small-market teams. All of us remember 2002-2010 and how great it was to see the Twins become a year-in, year-out contender. That success, however, was built on a pile of losing seasons which allowed the Twins to gather some blue-chip prospects like Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Johan Santana, Torii Hunter, and Michael Cuddyer. The Twins brass ended up being more lucky than skilled as all of those aforementioned players arrived in the Majors at about the same time, setting the stage for several years of winning baseball in Minnesota.

Since 2010, this team has been one of the worst in baseball – there are no two ways about it. The losing, however, hasn’t been without its benefits as the Twins have been able to build a fairly powerhouse farm system that features some of the best prospects in baseball. Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano are at the top of the class, but the Twins have a bevy of talent in the middle rungs of the organization depth chart that could be sniffing the Majors within 1-3 years. The Twins had five of Baseball America’s Midseason Top 50 Prospects and have the top ranked farm system in the Majors according to Baseball Prospectus. The Twins are essentially in the same position the Royals were about 5 years ago…a stable full of talent that they are waiting for.

It seems obvious that the Twins are at least attempting to follow the template for success that has been utilized by other similar small market teams. In fact, it could be argued that if you, as a small-market team owner, are not willing to spend a lot of money on payroll, your only real chance to compete is using the model that was pioneered by the Marlins and Rays. The Twins have taken advantage of their losing ways by filling their Minor League talent pipeline. Over the last few seasons, they have also cut their payroll down quite a bit, from $113MM in 2011 to $85.5MM in 2014 (and even less in 2015), which should give them some room to dabble in free-agency once some of these prospects start to burst onto the scene. It remains to be seen whether the Twins will actually open up the pocket book when the time comes, but that’s another blog post altogether.

The question for the Twins, and that the Royals had even as recently as earlier this year is, “will this all pan out?” Sano missed most of this past season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Buxton hasn’t been able to stay healthy at all and had recent surgery that ended his Arizona Fall League season. Some of the talent that we have started to see with the Major League club, most notably Trevor May, has struggled mightily. Other unexpected call-ups have been quite impressive (Danny Santana, Kennys Vargas). There are some young arms in the system that seem to hold a lot of promise but that are still in Single-A and Double-A (Jose Berrios and Kohl Stewart). There are some Triple-A arms that have lost some of the luster as time has passed (the aforementioned May and his former battery-mate Alex Meyer). In summary, there are a lot of question marks and no quick answers. This team, at a minimum, is still at least two years away from being competitive and probably at least 3-4 years away from being a playoff contender. That seems like a long time but when this is the model you’re following, patience (and some luck) is necessary.

One thing that will be interesting to watch with the Royals going forward is seeing how they handle the free agency of their own players. Many of their core players (Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain, Holland) are still under team control for a few years, but James Shields and Billy Butler are free agents this off-season and Alex Gordon will be a free-agent next season. Will the Royals try and re-sign either Butler or Shields? Will they pony-up to keep some of these other core players on the team, or will they try and trade them away to see what they can get to keep their farm system stocked? It’s the ultimate dilemma in the small-market success formula. Spend to try and keep the winning window open awhile longer, or trade away valuable pieces for more young talent and another chance to catch lightening in a bottle…

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Small Ball for All? Not So Fast, My Friend.

During the last week of October, the national conversation included phrases such as “Gas House Gang” and “small ball.”  This was in reference to the Kansas City Royals’ improbable run to a Game 7 of the World Series, and the means by which they did so.  The strengths of the Royals this year was its bullpen, its defense, aggressiveness on the base paths and the fact that they are tough to strike out. (Not necessarily in that order.) But do the last two actually matter?  Well, of course the matter on some level.  But do teams that successfully steal significantly more bases than the rest win more games?  Do teams that make contact at the plate stand a better chance to make the playoffs in the Wild-Card era? 

Over at Bill James Online, Dave Fleming has an interesting piece on the relative importance of “contact,” i.e., low strikeout totals and “steals” to the Kansas City Royals season.  It should be noted that Fleming’s piece was written the night the Royals advanced to the ALCS, so Fleming does not take into account the performance of the Royals in their sweep of the Orioles, or the World Series.  Fleming concludes that while the Royals as a team are in fact a rarity with a low strikeout/high stolen base combination, in and of itself, such statistics are not good indicators of regular season success. 

Fleming notes that the Royals struck out at lowest rate in the Majors this year, 985 times, while the MLB average was 1246.  The Cubs led the league with 1477 strikeouts.  It turns out the Royals led the league “contact” in 2012 and 2013 as well, with league leading strike out totals of 1032 and 1048, respectively.  In short, the 2014 Royals increased their contact rate in 2014.  Pretty impressive.  But does it matter?  The Royals won 89 games during the regular season, and the Cubs won 73 games.  So yes, clearly contact-prone teams are more likely to win, right?

Wrong. According to Fleming, (and his statistics bear this out) during the Wild-Card era, teams with the lowest strikeout totals in season have a winning percentage barely above .500, and that is only due to the amazing Cleveland Indians teams of 1995 and 1996.   In short, the evidence suggests that a team with a low strikeout rate does not stand to win more games as a result. 

Ok, well, what about the Royals speed?  “That’s what speed do,” right? Win games?  Well, the Royals stole 153 bases this year, while the MLB average was 92.  But historically, as Fleming points out, the Royals are not exceptional in this regard.  During the Wild-Card era, the Royals are basically middle of the pack when it comes to number of stolen bases vs. the MLB average.   For example, the 2007 Mets stole 200 bases in a year where the MLB average was 97 steals per team.  Remember the 2007 Mets?  Me neither.

But here’s where Fleming’s analysis gets interesting (from a Royals fan perspective).  Fleming notes that the 2014 Royals are historic, in that no team in the Wild-Card era “has managed to avoid strikeouts and steal bases to the degree that the 2014 Royals have.”  And, the top eight teams with the highest relative difference (compared to the MLB average) on strikeouts and stolen basis averaged 91 wins a season, with the 2014 Royals leading the way. 

In sum, I take from Fleming’s piece that being a high-contact/high stolen base team is not a winning strategy in and of itself.  On average, teams which have excelled in these categories over the last 20 year play a little better than .500 ball, but some lose 90 games.  That said, Fleming’s piece suggests that after a certain point, however, it can matter.  If a team’s combined relative difference in these categories is exceptional, then perhaps it is reasonable to expect something north of 85 wins. 

Based on the above, I’ll paraphrase the great James Carville: It’s (likely) the bullpen, stupid.