Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Monthly Strength of Schedule

The month of May was a tale of two different teams for the Twins. They began the month by losing their first 5 series to Tampa Bay, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland. But this was followed by winning their final 4 series of the month against Milwaukee, Toronto, Texas, and Chicago. Of the teams that the Twins played in May, only the Devil Rays and Rangers entered the month with records under .500, so the fact that the Twins managed to rebound after a difficult start could be interpreted as a positive sign. But was it the Twins turning it around, or did they hit a stretch of teams cooling off after good starts? I wanted to see how the Twins opponents so far this season stacked up against the other teams in the division and the American League. So I tried to look at the relative strengths of schedule for those teams. The strength of schedule (SOS) for a team each month was calculated using the opponent's records for that month in games not against the team in question. (Thus, Seattle had an overall 10-10 record in April, but a 10-7 record was used for the calculation of Minnesota's SOS due to the Twins sweep of Seattle). These records were then weighted by the number of games played against that opponent (so KC's record counted more for MN in April, due to the 5 games played against the Royals). I also looked at whether the actual strength of schedule for May corresponded to what on would have predicted looking at the records at the end of April. Expected SOS for a month was calculated using the records of the upcoming opponents through the first of the month in question. Again the records were weighted by the number of games against each opponent.

First up is the AL Central:
AL CentralApril RecordApril SOSExpected May SOSActual May SOSDifferenceMay RecordExpected June SOS
Chicago White Sox12-11.526.473.473012-14.439
Cleveland Indians14-8.504.511.526-1519-11.468
Detroit Tigers14-11.477.511.547-3616-12.496
Kansas City Royals8-18.528.508.543-3511-17.504
Minnesota Twins14-11.451.544.5024213-14.530

At the end of April, the Twins had faced the easiest schedule of the division and had managed to more or less keep pace with the frontrunners. But at this point the data set wasn’t very large, so it’s difficult to draw too many meaningful conclusions. Moving on into May, we start to get an appreciable amount of data. At the beginning of May the Twins looked to have the hardest road ahead, and though they finished the month with a record below .500 it wasn’t because of the level of their competition. In fact, only the White Sox had an easier schedule for the month. The Twins were the only team in the division whose opponents regressed in May. This is mostly due to the Twins series against the Brewers (16-9 in April, 14-15 in May), and the Blue Jays (13-12 in April, 12-16 in May). The Indians and Tigers just kept on rolling even though they both had challenging schedules for the month. That seems to bode well for those teams, if they can continue to win even against opponents who are playing well; chances are they will be around the top of the division at the end of the season. Unfortunately, the news isn’t as good for the Twins and White Sox, who both struggled to stay around .500 despite having easier schedules. Going forward, once again it looks like the Twins are going to be facing the opponents who have had the most success thus far in 2007. It looks like it will be tough to make up ground on the Indians especially this month, but as May showed, there is always the chance that the teams who got off to a hot start in the first two months (and drove up Minnesota’s expected strength of schedule) could cool off and become easy wins for the Twins.

For completeness, here’s the remainder of the American League:
AL EastApril RecordApril SOSExpected May SOSActual May SOSDifferenceMay RecordExpected June SOS
Baltimore Orioles12-14.498.499.515-1615-13.528
Boston Red Sox16-8.469.517.519-220-8.504
New York Yankees9-14.530.523.514913-15.532
Tampa Bay Devil Rays11-14.492.497.4692811-15.505
Toronto Blue Jays13-12.491.494.515-2112-16.506

AL WestApril RecordApril SOSExpected May SOSActual May SOSDifferenceMay RecordExpected June SOS
Los Angeles Angels15-11.515.482.511-2918-11.456
Oakland Athletics12-13.479.457.461-414-13.528
Seattle Mariners10-10.488.480.532-5216-14.479
Texas Rangers10-15.527.499.479209-20.502

After the lowest SOS in the league in April, the Twins had the highest expected SOS in May in the league and were beneficiaries of the largest difference betwixt expected and actual SOS. As we look ahead to June, the Twins are the only AL Central team whose expected SOS is in the top half of the American League (they are second only to the Yankees). This month, if it follows these predictions will tell us a lot about where the Twins will settle in the divisional race, if they can remain within striking distance while playing quality opponents, a little optimism could be warranted. If not, at least this Slowey kid looks pretty good.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

TWIT: A Little Bit of This, A Little Bit of That

Weekly Roundup

The Twins started the week by sweeping the rival Chicago White Sox behind bats that were alive enough to pique the interest of Ozzy Osborne’s personal chef. That fourth straight series win made it looked like the Twins were poised for a strong start on the West Coast against the depleted Athletics, but those bats that carried them through the divisional series were nowhere to be found against starters as vanilla as Joe Blanton and Chad Gaudin.

The pitching was excellent throughout the week, giving up an average of 3.2 runs per game, with the high of 6 coming in Wednesday’s win over the ChiSox. Perhaps the most encouraging part of the rotation’s success was the fact that they carried the team to a 4-2 week without any great contributions from Johan Santana, whose two starts each featured four runs surrendered and some legitimate scuffling in the early going. As Twins fans, we know better than to worry about Johan, but we’re also wise enough to know that a fourth or fifth starter is not necessarily rotation-worthy just because he received the Ryan-Gardenhire stamp of approval. With Silva putting up 15+ innings between his last two starts and a sub-2.00 ERA, the Twins seem to have a more-than-capable back of the rotation. Kevin Slowey did what Kevin Slowey does on Friday night, and it played about as well as we could have hoped against a major league lineup. Even with noticeable first game jitters early on, Slowey pounded the strike zone, living up to that mythical 2:1 strike to ball ratio and walking only two in his major league debut. Sure, some teams will do more to punish his steady diet of sinking fastballs than the take-happy A’s, but he’s likely to miss more bats against those free-swingers, as well. It is hard to say much based on one major league start, but taking his minor league numbers into consideration makes him a prime candidate to be a mid-rotation stalwart with a low ceiling and a high floor for years to come. Baker, similarly, is somewhere between the star level of his season debut and the dredges of his last couple of outings; he should be a fine and average starter for most of the year if the team remains patient with him.

The glaring problem over the last week was the inability to score runs against a depleted Oakland pitching staff, going down quickly and easily to pitchers like Santiago Casilla and Alan Embree. It has never been more apparent that Joe Mauer’s bat is essential to the team in ways that easily outweigh considerations of where he plays in the field. The lack of production out of DH and 3B make it much easier to envision a future where he moves off of full-time catching duty to an arrangement where he catches a couple of times a week, but gets enough starts elsewhere to keep himself in games and the team in contention. Scoring five runs in a weekend series is not enough reason to push the panic button on Mauer’s positional destiny. Factor in his size at the position, the absence of a single similar player who has maintained success, the certain knowledge that catchers wear down quickly, the problems he has had to this point, the fact that his bat can play smoothly at any position on the field, and the continued lack of offensive fortitude without him in the lineup, and the calculation becomes altogether more clear.

Biggest Success

I hate to sound like a broken record, but the Twins’ offensive output has been a one act play recently, and that act is named Justin Morneau. In a week where Sid Hartman made the unfathomable leap to comparing Morneau to Kirby Puckett, the AL MVP continued making those on the coasts feel less guilty about him taking that award from Derek Jeter last year. Morneau hit only two more homeruns for the week, nearly getting a second on a double off the tippy-top of the baggy against the Sox, but the rest of the stat line filled out nicely. Eight RBIs and a .682 slugging average look good, and the fact that he maintained that sort of power with only one strikeout through his 25 plate appearances should answer any lingering questions about his approach or his demeanor at the plate. The guy has matured from a tentative, one-dimensional hitter who waited on pitches he could hit for homeruns, to a multi-dimensional batter who can go to all fields, beat an infield shift, and remain patient enough that pitchers cannot easily get around him. His only offensive deficiency at this point is his speed, and I doubt more experience will do much to help him in that category.

Biggest Disappointment

Personally, I am a little disappointed that DePaula didn’t get a chance to pitch in a blowout, just to see what would happen. And if you pretend to disagree, then ask yourself if you’ve ever driven past a horrific car accident without so much as peaking into the wreckage for a quick thrill. Ultimately, DePaula cannot be blamed for the fact that he is no good. Players such as Castillo, Hunter, and Cuddyer, on the other hand, can take the blame for letting a winnable game and series get out of hand on Sunday by letting innumerable run scoring opportunities slip through their fingers. The team left a total of 24 runners on base, managing only 2 runs despite totaling 6 singes, 2 XBH’s, and 7 bases on balls. Hunter was the worst offender, failing to plate any of the five runners on base for his at bats, including a characteristic first-pitch popup with the bases loaded in the top of the third.

On the Horizon

The recent soft spot in the schedule gives out just a bit as the road trip takes the Twins into Orange County to face the Angels, a team that has been very similar to the Twins for several years, with the key difference being the ring that they bear from the 2002 season when Adam Kennedy sent the Twins home empty-handed. Kennedy has turned to Kendrick, and a handful of other young players have come through the system to become starters, but the M.O. of the team has not changed recently: pitch well and let Vlad do the rest. Another interesting parallel between the Twins and the Angels is their similarity in run differential this season. The Angels have scored only 10 more runs than the Twins while preventing 4 more for a nearly identical overall run differential. Instead of the 1 or 2 game advantage one might expect from that difference, the Angels enjoy 6.5 games in the standings, mostly due to their own overachieving ways.

After the Angels, the Twins come back to the Dome to start their typically healthy inter-league diet. This year should be no different, as the series starts with the disastrous Washington Nationals whose best news is that Jesus Colome is actually a useful 7th inning reliever. The pitching matchups for the series include… oh, who cares, nobody knows any of Washington’s pitchers anyway.

The Big Picture

Even if 5-1 seemed within reach, a 4-2 week is a step in the right direction for a team that was struggling through some early doldrums while two divisional opponents got red hot. Detroit and Cleveland have cooled each other down to some extent, letting the Twins get as close as 2.5 games to second place at one point. They finish the week 3.5 back, but with a chance to continue making up ground. It looks increasingly difficult to get past both Detroit and Cleveland, but luckily, only one of them needs to fall. The main obstacles to winning the Wild Card will probably be Oakland (once they get healthy and start living up to their run differential), New York (once they bounce back, unless that bounce is of the dead cat variety), and Detroit, making the divisional games with Leyland’s squad vitally important. The Twins won’t see them again until the last weekend in June. Until then, it’s NL slaying time.