Wednesday, July 24, 2019

What If the Bullpen Isn't the Biggest Problem?

Every Twins fan knows how great the first couple of months of this season were. Through June 15th, the Twins were 47-22 and built an 11.5 game lead in the division. Since then have played to a mediocre record of 14-17 record and have seen the division lead shrink to 3 games. In much the opposite way, the Giants started 34-46 through June 27th and have gone 18-4 since then. They play in the same division as the Dodgers so they are still a distant 2nd, 14.5 games out, but only 2 games out of the final wildcard spot.

So how does a front-office figure out what they've got, this close to the Trade Deadline?

I was doing some digging today, looking at various stats and this is what I've got. Is this what Falvey and Levine will look at? I have no idea, I wish I could be a fly on the wall in some of their meetings.

Stuff We All Know
The Twins offense is 3rd in baseball in runs scored per game at 5.69 R/G, they trail only the Yankees and Red Sox. When the Twins score 5 or more runs in a game, they have gone 49-7 this season. Twins pitching, overall, is 12th in baseball, giving up 4.58 R/G. The bullpen has been worse than the starting pitchers, but in a word, Twins pitching has been mostly mediocre. Addressing the bullpen has been the anthem of Twins fans for a long time now. But what if that's not the biggest problem?

The Less Obvious
The stuff I find interesting is base-running stats and fielding stats. The Twins are 27th in a stat called ErrR (error runs) and in the bottom third of MLB for total team errors. On FanGraphs, the ErrR stat measures "the number of runs, above or below average, a fielder (in this case, team) is, determined by the number of errors they make as compared to an average fielder, given the same distribution of balls in play." In other words, the Twins have been one of the worst teams in baseball in terms of the cost of errors. Does that mean they are a bad fielding team? Not necessarily, and some stellar outfield defense certainly helps tilt the scales in their favor. What it does suggest is that the Twins are sloppy at times, particularly in the infield.

On the basepaths, the story is similar. Again, using FanGraphs, we see that the Twins are 26th in baseball in a stat named BrR. In their own words:
Base Running (BsR) is FanGraphs’ all encompassing base running statistic that turns stolen bases, caught stealings, and other base running plays (taking extra bases, being thrown out on the bases, etc) into runs above and below average. It is the combination of Weighted Stolen Base Runs (wSB), Weighted Grounded Into Double Play Runs (wGDP), and Ultimate Base Running (UBR) which are all available on the leaderboards and player pages.
As a number, BsR is meant to be looked at similar to how WAR is looked at. The Twins are -6.4 BsR, meaning they have been over 6 runs worse than the league-average base-running team...another way of saying it is that they have been TERRIBLE on the bases, relative to the rest of the league.

Let's look at one more area - clutch hitting. It's easy to lose sight of how Twins' hitters have performed in high-leverage situations when they are hitting 3-5 bombs a night. Going back to the FanGraphs' well one more time, we see that the Twins are 29th in baseball in clutch hitting situations (-5.26) and they are in the bottom 1/3rd of MLB in walk rate (8.0%). Last night is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. The bottom of the second inning starts with: Rosario double, Sano K, Gonzalez BB, Arraez single (scores Rosario), Adrianza BB. So, bases loaded, 1-out and up comes Jason Castro. He strikes out on three straight pitches (two of them swinging strikes, on pitches out of the zone) and then Kepler grounds out on the first pitch he sees...and this off of a guy who had already walked two guys in the inning! I'm not sure the coaching staff can do a whole lot about plate discipline, but having a little patience in high-leverage situations sure would be nice to see. The Twins are 10th in baseball for batting average with runners-in-scoring-position (RISP) but there is definitive room for improvement.

Drill the Fundamentals?
New Twins manager Rocco Baldelli enjoyed a first-half which saw the Twins a) hit homeruns at a historic pace and b) feast on pretty easy competition. Now that the tables have turned, and the Twins have faced some tougher competition, the results haven't been so great. The bullpen's woes notwithstanding, I think another concern for this team, which is relatively young, is that they are not that sound fundamentally, either in the field or on the bases, and it's costing them runs and, ultimately, wins. That, coupled with some free-swinging in high-leverage situations and some of the shine comes off.

It's easy to blame many of the Twins woes on the bullpen, and the bullpen certainly deserves criticism. But, at the same time, Baldelli only has what he has when it comes to bullpen arms. If he leans heavily on some of his more reliable guys, he's going to have to get them some rest and hope for the best with the other guys for a game or two. What he does have more control over, is the level of discipline that his team has, both in the field and on the bases. That might be one place to look to in terms of trying to turn things around.

**As my friend Tim pointed out - one has to wonder if the team culture that Baldelli has helped create isn't one of the big reasons for the Twins turnaround this season and that's a fair point. The team reminds me of many of the teams that Joe Maddon had in Tampa and now with Chicago - very loose and free, with a lot of young guys who seem to get along. Who knows how "cracking down on the small things" might change the atmosphere, that is something only Rocco Baldelli knows. What I know is what the stats are saying and they are suggesting that increased plate, fielding and base-running discipline would probably help this team out a lot.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Necessary Struggle

What a fun Twins season so far, huh? I was looking at the standings after their 17-inning marathon win against the Red Sox the other day and it was beautifully symmetrical - 48 wins, 24 losses, 2nd best run-differential in Major League Baseball... It feels like it has been so long since we had a Twins team that we could really get behind. I'm excited about the youth the Twins have throughout most of their lineup and about the energy that Rocco Baldelli has brought to this team. Based on the players I follow on Instagram, it seems like they all genuinely like each other too, which is great to see.

With all that being said - the Red Sox and Kansas City series' have revealed some weaknesses on this team, and a recent spat of injuries will likely lead to a slump for this team over the next couple of weeks...but I think that is actually a good thing. Especially for a young team like the Twins. Jumping out to a huge lead in the division so early was making it look like this was going to be a fun summer, but also one in which the team might have been tempted to pull back a little and not put everything in to every game - which I think would ultimately be detrimental to a probable playoff run.

Reasons for Hope and Reasons for Pessimism
I'm a stats guy - always have been since the glory days of this blog. When I look for reasons to be optimistic or pessimistic, I don't look at individual performances in games, but rather, I turn to the stats. We are at a point in this baseball season where there is enough information to start to read trends. Let's look at the pitching first.

Twins starting pitching has been pretty good so far this year. The Twins rank 3rd in MLB in starter's ERA (3.58), 2nd in MLB in starters WAR (8.8), and 7th in MLB baseball in starters FIP (3.91). This isn't likely to be news to anyone - Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi have been consistently excellent, Martin Perez started off hot but has faltered a bit lately, Kyle Gibson has been his normal streaky self, and Michael Pineda has been steadily improving after a slow start. The starting pitching, combined with a spectacular offense, is a big reason the Twins are one of the best teams in baseball through the first half of the season. I would love to see the Twins add a solid mid-rotation starter and move a guy like Pineda (or maybe even Perez) to the bullpen, but if they don't make a move there, I think they will be fine. A playoff rotation of Berrios, Odorizzi and Gibson would be pretty good.

Equally unsurprising to anyone watching the Twins will the fact that the bullpen has been, once again, mediocre. Twins relievers are 19th in MLB in ERA (4.58), 12th in MLB in FIP (4.26) and 9th in MLB in WAR (2.0). The numbers suggest that Twins relievers have actually pitched a little bit better than the result have indicated, but still, no matter how you slice the data, they haven't been great. Close leads have never felt very safe with this team and the closer position has been a merry-go-round for most of the season. This is going to be an obvious area of focus for the Twins over the next 6 weeks before the trade deadline and it will be interesting to see what they do. I was really hoping they would have sprung for Kimbrel, but alas.

The recent injuries to guys like Byron Buxton and Marwin Gonzalez are the most concerning thing to me. Buxton's offensive resurgence notwithstanding, his absence in the outfield is what the Twins will miss the most. The Twins, to-date this season, are the 2nd best fielding team in baseball, only slightly behind the Diamondbacks. You could make a very easy argument that this defense has been one of the biggest reasons for the improvement we've seen in the rotation. An outfield of Rosario, Buxton, and Kepler on a day-in, day-out basis, with the occasional fill-in from Marwin Gonzalez (who is also an above average corner-outfielder) is a huge reason that the Twins starting rotation is one of the best in baseball. I'm hoping that Buxton recovers well from his wrist-injury, an injury that always threatens to sap a batter's power upon return.

Adversity Will Help This Team in Long Run
Twins' hitters are the 13th youngest team in Majors (28.0) with the league average being 28.2 - if you take Nelson Cruz out of the mix, who is 38, you're looking at a line-up that is among the youngest in the league. Pitching-wise, the Twins are also about league-average for age. So, relatively-speaking, this is a fairly young team and there are not many players on the roster who have any significant playoff experience. In this author's humble opinion, simply running away with the division would not be the best thing for this team - a little bit of adversity here in the middle of what has been an excellent season so far, will help this team learn how to pick itself up. It will test, and hopefully strengthen, some of the camaraderie that developed as well.

I also think that some adversity will help Baldelli as well - he has had the luxury, up until now, of managing a squad that has far out-performed expectations. In fact, up to this point, this team has yet to lose more than two games in a row. His first real test as a manager will be if this team goes on a longer losing streak.

The upcoming schedule will be a bit of a test - 4 games on the road at Kansas City starting tonight, followed by 3 at home against Tampa Bay and then a 6-game road trip against the White Sox and Oakland A's. Tampa Bay has been mostly good all season and the A's have been playing pretty well as of late. The White Sox have been hovering around .500 for awhile and have played some decent ball this month.

The Jury is Out for Falvey and Levine
Thad Levine and Derek Falvey have me and many others believing in this team - which levers will they pull to address the bullpen situation and perhaps, the addition of another starting pitcher to the mix as we head towards the trade deadline on July 31st? The salary space is there, this team has been drawing well over the past month, and the farm system is fairly stocked. There is no excuse for not making some impactful moves for a team that seems to be almost a lock to make the playoffs. Most of the moves they made in the off-season have worked out as well as they could - let hope they have a few more rabbits in their hat.

Odds 'n Ends
- Since his 0-for-21 skid, Max Kepler is hitting (13 Games): .391/.509/.935, 13 Rs, 7 HRs, 14RBIs, 9:11 K:BB ratio, in short, an absolute monster. He practically single-handedly won the game for the Twins the other night after coming in as a pinch-hitter.
- Willians Astudillo hit .526/.525/.763 in Triple-A (9 games) after being sent down by the Twins. He came back up last night and went 3-for-4 with a HR. The Twins have to find some way to keep him mad all of the time.
- Over his last 5 games, Miguel Sano has been putrid, hitting .105/.261/.263 with 12 SO and 4 BB. In the 17-inning game against the Red Sox, he was 0-for-7 with 5Ks which was good for a -0.433 WPA. That -0.433 WPA was easily one of the top 5 worst single-game performances in baseball this season.
- Since the start of June (3 starts), Jose Berrios has been ridiculous. 20.2 IP, 1.31 ERA, 22:3 K:BB ratio, opponents hitting .184/.215/.329 off of him. He has lowered his season ERA from 3.27 at the beginning of the month 2.86 currently. Unfortunately for him, the Twins have only won 1 of his 3 June starts (thanks bullpen!).
- On the opposite end, Martin Perez has been pretty bad in his 3 June starts. 16.1 IP, 5.51 ERA, 15:6 K:BB ratio, opponents hitting .269/.329/.328 off him. Overall, his last 5 starts have all been mediocre-to-bad, without a quality start in that timespan. Let's hope he can rediscover whatever magic he had going earlier in the year.
- Love me some FanGraphs and just today the had a blog article about how Minnesota's own Jake Odorizzi has the best fastball in MLB so far this season. Check it out.