Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Levale Speigner Report

Here are the lines over their last four starts of two starting pitchers who recently faced the Twins.

Starter 1: 14.1 IP, 23 R, 30 H, 8 SO, 7 BB, 14.44 ERA, .423 BAA, 1.045 OPS
Starter 2: 26.1 IP, 5 R, 17 H, 15 SO, 9 BB, 1.71 ERA, .177 BAA, .533 OPS

Now, here are the lines for those same two starters in their starts against the Twins.

Starter 1: 6 IP, 1 R, 2 H, BB, 3 SO
Starter 2: 7 IP, 6 R, 7 H, BB, 2 SO

Starter 1 is Levale Speigner, a rule 5 draft pick who had four extremely rocky starts before shutting down the Twins on Saturday. Starter 2 is John Lackey, who has been one of the better starting pitchers in the American League over the last two seasons (ERA+ 2005 - 122, 2006 - 123). Lackey has pitched very well thus far, but the Twins were able to get to him and avoid a sweep in Los Angeles last Wednesday. Anecdotally, this has seemed to be a pattern for the Twins this season. Whenever they face a struggling pitcher (probably young, especially left-handed) they seem to have enormous struggles putting up any kind of offense. I know it's easy to remember getting only 2 hits off of a pitcher like Speigner, but if Minnesota had knocked out 7 or 8 hits in five innings and put some runs on the board, the game would have been quickly forgotten. Do the Twins actually struggle more against below average pitchers? Or is this a case of selective memory making a problem seem worse than it actually is?

To investigate that question, I looked at the opposing starting pitchers in the 63 games the Twins have played so far this year (through Wed.). For each pitcher I sampled the five starts before their outing against the Twins to get as good of an idea as possible of how they were doing around the time of their outing. Early in the season obviously there wouldn't be five starts beforehand, so I used any starts before the Twins outing, then complemented with starts directly after the outing versus the Twins to get to five total starts. I calculated FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) as well as the more conventional ERA statistic for the 5 starts. Then I calculated runs per nine innings and WHIP for the start against the Twins. (Note: Virgil Vazquez (Det.) only has one start on the season, and it came against the Twins. I have placed him in the highest FIP/ERA category when it came time to place him) The American League average for these four stats are FIP and ERA - 4.40, R/G - 4.71, WHIP - 1.39.

First, I split things up by pitchers who were above or below league average in their 5 surrounding starts.

Surrounding FIP Avg. FIP R/9 v. Twins WHIP v. Twins
below 4.403.784.361.26
above 4.405.274.991.44
Surrounding ERA Avg. ERAR/9 v. TwinsWHIP v. Twins
below 4.40 3.114.441.33
above 4.40 6.364.961.40

That table seems to indicate that the Twins are pretty much following the expected trend, they're hitting the "worse" pitchers harder by both measures than the pitchers who had enjoyed more recent success. However, it is true that with both FIP and ERA, the runs produced by the Twins were above the levels previously observed in the more successful pitchers and below the levels of the less successful hurlers. Not quite the pronounced effect as my frustration would lead me to believe, but it's a start.

Breaking it down further:

Surrounding FIP StartsAvg. FIP R/9 v. Twins WHIP v. Twins
below 3.80123.184.291.38
3.80 - 4.4016
4.40 - 5.1015
5.10 - 6.0013
above 6.00

Again we see that the Twins outperform against the tougher pitchers while not hitting the struggling pitchers as hard as one might predict. Overall, FIP seems to be a better indicator of future success against the Twins than ERA (shown in the table below):

Surrounding ERA StartsAvg. ERAR/9 v. TwinsWHIP v. Twins
below 3.0014
3.00 - 4.40 163.76
4.40 - 5.25104.843.44
5.25 - 6.50
above 6.50

The first thing that jumps out is that the Twins are killing pitchers with an ERA under 3.00, so that backs up one part of the hypothesis. Although, taking these numbers with those of the previous table, it may be that the pitchers with the low ERA who have benefited from fielding help (and thus have a higher FIP) may be regressing to the mean a bit and inflating the numbers in the first row of this table. Also, the pitchers with the highest ERA outperformed their previous track record against the Twins, so there may be something to the perception after all. Note that the WHIP for the 6.50+ ERA category is lower than that of the below 3.00 ERA. However, the average pitchers (ERA from 3.00-5.25) seem to give the Twins the most trouble.

Overall, it seems that the data backs up the idea that the Twins struggle more than they should against pitchers who haven't been having success. On the converse side, they don't seem to be struggling with the most successful pitchers. It's certainly an odd quirk, and I don't know if it would hold up over a larger sample size, but it's certainly interesting to see some numbers to back up my perception.

I'll try to keep the database up to date and check in periodically with updates throughout the year. So you've got that to look forward to.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

TWIT: Harsh Realization

Weekly Roundup

Let’s face it, right now the Twins do not look anything like a playoff team. That’s not to say that they cannot reverse course and make a run in the second half like they did last year, but as the roster presently stands, the postseason does not seem like an attainable goal. On offense, there are four solid run producers, two at premium, up the middle positions (Mauer and Hunter), and two on the corners (Morneau and Cuddyer). These guys form a solid core for the middle of the order, albeit one that has not been intact for most of the season. For the team to succeed, the rest of the offense would have to be exceptionally strong defensively or very good at getting on base. Right now, the lame piranhas act imposed on Castillo, Punto, Tyner, and Bartlett supercedes their actual deficient abilities. Instead, that group has a less-than-stellar .338 OBP between the four of them, mostly due to the fact that Castillo is hitting an insane number of singles (59 in only 47 games). Take him and his slap-happy attitude out of the equation, and three lineup spots have a combined .323 OBP, which is not going to do the trick for three guys who have combined for 2 homeruns.

The offensive futility was on full display in a pathetic series loss to the hapless Washington Nationals pitching staff this weekend. Jason Kubel’s support for Hunter and Morneau helped total 5 runs, which was not nearly enough to compensate for Chief Silva’s terrible evening (seven ground balls and only one fly out! Seven earned to go with it, unfortunately). The next night, a quality start resulted in Johan Santana’s sixth loss of the young season, because Levale Speigner shut the offense down cold, dropping his ERA from 9.10 to 7.79 in the process. For what it’s worth, Castillo, Punto, Tyner and Bartlett went a combined 4-25 in these two games. Losing a series to a last place team is bad. Losing that series on the heels of a disappointing road trip in which the team was lucky to even win a game in Anaheim is even worse. We are now 60 games into the season, and Terry Ryan has to start noticing that something isn’t working.

Biggest Success

I have been hard on Jason Kubel for much of the year, largely because I have so badly wanted to see him succeed. Unlike the aforementioned piranhas, Kubel does not need to rely on ad campaigns to make his reputation. Before his gruesome knee injury, Kubel was one of the top corner outfield prospects in baseball, even flashing his exceptional bat control in a major league cameo at the end of the year. Since his return at the start of the 2006 season, he has struggled with inconsistency and persistent health issues- asking whether he would ever become the player he was once destined to be became a fair question. His talent is obviously still there, but the issue becomes whether his body will let him realize it.

For that reason, I will take success for Kubel in small doses. A .300/.300/.600 line might be aberrant, and it might be one of the worst possible/least sustainable routes to a .900 OPS, but production is production. Kubel contributed six hits, knocking in four and striking out only once in the last week. Even better, he hit two homeruns, showing the power that needs to develop for him to be a reliable offensive force. Although he has not produced much this year, there is hope for Kubel to be at least an average major leaguer, something that this offense needs, and something that Tyner cannot become.

Biggest Disappointment

Jason Miller had a 216.00 ERA for the week, forcing the less mathematically inclined fans to brush up on their place value skills. That all came in one bad outing in a lost cause, though, so the morning-after box score eyesore is as far as the offense extends. Clearly, the offense was more of a problem, and I will continue the piranha scapegoating theme in this section of the article. Giving the four fish a best-ball style benefit of the doubt, you can come up with a leading batting average of .269 (Castillo), a leading OBP of .313 (Tyner), and a leading SLG of .333 (Bartlett and Tyner). That sort of Nison Bartillo hybrid works out to a .646 OPS and 3 extra base hits all week. If 40% of a teams plate appearances go to players who are slightly better at the plate than pitchers, you don’t call that a bad week, you call it the 2007 St. Louis Cardinals. (Ba-dam ching!)

On the Horizon

Even though I am not in the mood to looking forward, it will likely get better from here. Losing five or six at home to the Braves and Brewers next week would be brutal, but the Twins will have lots of good 1991 karma going for the first series and already played extremely well against the Crew earlier in the season. Moreover, the Monday off day could not have come at a better time, with the entire team seemingly going through doldrums. Look for Joe Mauer to continue easing his way back into the lineup- he will not be an instant panacea for all that ails the offense, but he will be a positive contributor and the chaining effect of giving him or Redmond some DH at bats could force Tyner to the bench with his wet noodle. Against los Bravos, the Twins will miss John Smoltz, and will send Santana against the resurgent Tim Hudson on Thursday. Hudson has cooled quite a bit lately, with a 4.83 ERA in his last 10 starts, and at least 5 earned runs in four of his last five outings. His struggles meeting up with the Twins offense is a sort of impotent force versus incapable object dual where everything may collapse onto itself. Hopefully, the presence of Santana will be enough to make the difference. Altogether, even though the Braves are having a “good” season, and the Twins are struggling, Atlanta is only 3 games better than the Twins in a weaker division and league, so it should be an interesting match-up.

Last time we saw the Brewers, they were the toast of the town, riding high atop the miserable NL Central. Now, the Cardinals and Cubs are starting to show up in the “objects closer than they appear” mirror, and Milwaukee has won all of one series since last meeting up with the Twins. Their steady rotation has been a little shakier, and the Twins will definitely face weak link David Bush, so things are setting themselves up about as well as anyone could hope for the week. Personally, I am just excited that I get to see the Twins on my TBS basic cable for three games instead of’s incessant buffering.

The Big Picture

Now that I have all of that whining out of my system, I can give a more objective analysis of the team’s overall fortunes. I am very close to ending the “it’s only _____” mantra for the year, but it really is only June, and there is too much baseball to be played to be placing nails in the coffins of teams within single digits of the division leaders. Cleveland is a very tough team, and Detroit is showing some resilience. It is going to take genuine improvements to catch those frontrunners, and it may be possible using components on the current roster. First of all, Slowey and Baker need to settle into a rhythm of being league-average starters. Nobody expects either one of them to go Francisco Liriano on the league, but they are throwing too much BP right now. An occasional wasted pitch or a pitcher’s pitch on a 3-2 count may be appropriate. More importantly, the offense needs to get something out of the bottom of the order. With all of those outs in the bottom third, it is as if the Twins are playing 6 innings of baseball against the other team’s nine. Seriously, does anyone see the phrase, “due up: Tyner, Punto, Bartlett,” and think anything other than, “good time for a bathroom break?” For what it is worth, the Twins wanted Tyner as a 5th outfielder, and he would be fine in that role. Punto is not a good third baseman, but there are not so many of those in the league as some might think, and the ones who were available were no great shakes. And Bartlett could be better than he is playing right now. The difference between a playable offense and a failing one really comes down to either Punto or Bartlett getting on base consistently (say a .360 OBP), and Kubel hitting enough to force Tyner to the bench. With those two developments and some health, I’m not so sure the Twins cannot start looking like a postseason possibility once again.