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.

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