Saturday, July 21, 2007

Pleasingly Average Offense with RISP

A recent article in the Hardball Times plotted each of the American League teams with respect to their number of at bats with runners in scoring position (RISP) and their batting average in those situations. Inspection of the plot reveals a couple of things that are obvious and unsurprising:

- Detroit and New York (two of the best team offenses in the AL) are outdistancing the rest of the league in opportunities with RISP.
- Oakland and Chicago (two of the worst team offenses in the AL) are suffering from a lack of opportunities and a failure to capitalize in those occasions.

There are also some surprises to be found. The most surprising thing that caught my attention was that the Twins seemed to be outperforming some potent offenses. They had more ABRISP than Cleveland, Boston, and Texas, while having a better BARISP than New York, Cleveland, and Boston.

Now, as any Twins blogger can tell you, the Twins offense has not been something to be described as potent this season. Rather, they have been maddeningly inconsistent and, at times, depressingly incompetent. Can these two thoughts be reconciled? Can the Twins be performing well with RISP, with plenty of chances, and still be the sometimes putrid product that fans have come to dread?

On Saturday against the Angels, Justin Morneau led off the bottom of the second inning with a double. The Twins hitters would get four plate appearances with RISP as they went single, groundout, strikeout, and popout without scoring a run. They generated lots of plate appearances, even got a hit, but didn’t actually produce any offense. This kind of inning is the reason that the Twins can be where they are on the aforementioned plot without having a similar offense to the other teams in the same area.

Here is a look at top 5 teams in the American League in plate appearances with RISP have performed:

NY Yankees1132 .274 .772 45.3 14.7
Detroit Tigers1077 .321 .895 37.1 11.2
Cleveland Indians1064 .261 .770 35.5 13.6
Boston Red Sox1063 .270 .807 40.9 12.4
Minnesota Twins1056 .281 .788 42.2 13.9

Once again, the Twins don’t really stick out here, their OPS is right in the middle, they don’t hit HRs as often as the other teams but the extra base hit frequency isn’t terribly out of line. So, the problem doesn’t look like it is with production with RISP. The story of stranded Justin Morneau that I related at the beginning of this article doesn’t seem to be indicative of the Twins production in general (although it certainly feels like it has happens often).

Moving forward, the top 5 teams in the AL in runs scored and the Twins are shown below, as well as the percentage of their runs that came in plate appearances with RISP. This is not a perfect number, because it will also include batters driving themselves in with homeruns and runners scoring from first, but we’ll tackle that after we take a look at this.

Detroit Tigers 78.5%
Cleveland Indians 74.5%
New York Yankees 77.0%
Boston Red Sox 77.5%
Texas Rangers 75.5%
Minnesota Twins 82.0%

First of all, these are essentially the same teams as before although the Rangers have scored more runs than the Twins (who rank eighth in the AL in R/G). Looking at the percentages we begin to get an idea of where the Twins offense is failing. On average the top 5 offenses in the league are scoring 76.6% of their runs in PARISP. The Twins have a significantly higher percentage than that (82.0%) which indicates that if the Twins don’t have their runners in scoring position they are much less likely to drive in a run than these other teams.

In order to try to approximate the trouble that Minnesota has scoring runners from first, I subtracted all homeruns and any runners that scored from first on homeruns. I did not find a time-efficient way to account for runners scoring from first in 1st and 2nd, 1st and 3rd, and bases loaded situations, so this remains a rough approximation, but it backs up my previous point. The Twins remain the highest percentage on the list, and in fact, have further separated themselves (in the wrong direction) from the average of the other 5 teams (67.9%).

Detroit Tigers 70.6%
Cleveland Indians 64.1%
New York Yankees 69.5%
Boston Red Sox 69.2%
Texas Rangers 66.2%
Minnesota Twins 73.7%

Before we finish, here’s one last point about the Twins not being able to score runners from first at the same rate as the elite offenses of the AL. In situations where there was only a runner on first, the Twins are, unsurprisingly, the least likely to score that runner. Of course there are lots of other situations that aren’t accounted for here, but it’s another point toward the conclusion that the Twins lack of power is all that is holding them back from being among the best offenses in the American League.

Team R R/PA
Detroit Tigers 35 19.0
Cleveland Indians 44
New York Yankees 41
Boston Red Sox 37 19.5
Texas Rangers 37 16.5
Minnesota Twins 32 21.0

The offense is getting people into scoring position and hitting at a reasonable clip when they get there. However, they haven’t been able to complement that RISP success with a few extra base hits that score runners that are not in scoring position. I’m nowhere near the first to say this, and I’m sure I won’t be the last, but it would very much help the Twins to pick up a powerful bat, either at the trade deadline or in the offseason. In fact, an upgrade in this area is one the few differences betwixt the Twins and the best offenses in the AL.

Monday, July 16, 2007

TWIT: Hooray

Weekly Roundup

Four games, four quality starts, four close wins. That recipe yields success under just about any circumstances, and when the offense shows some limited signs of life at the same time, you end up with a sweep of a quality opponent. Even though the Twins outscored the A’s by a total of eight runs over four games, they pulled their home record from a disappointing 22-20 to a more reasonable 26-20, simultaneously reasserting their position as a borderline contender. The formula was relatively unchanged for each of the four wins: the starting pitchers gave up a total of three runs in the first five innings of all of the games, giving the offense a chance to get ahead. In fact, the only real damage done to any of the four starters came against Boof Bonser and Carlos Silva in the seventh innings of their respective starts. The offense managed only one homeruns for the shortened week, but an astounding five triples for the week helped to offset the lack of power. It is unreasonable to believe that the Twins can continue winning games without hitting homeruns, and the pitching rotation has spent a whole season demonstrating why they will not put up 100% quality starts. Nonetheless, this week’s games were extremely helpful in the standings and in the psyche of the organization. It gives Terry Ryan a reason to aggressively pursue a missing piece- hopefully a real DH/LF to go with Kubel not named Rondell- and it keeps the pressure on the teams at the top of the division, who have shown a propensity to crack over the last two seasons.

Before moving on, I wanted to comment on Garrett Jones, who has really impressed me in his limited action so far. I’m not trying to draw big conclusions from his 2-7 start with a double and a walk- I’m more concerned with his approach at the plate. His minor league statistical profile made it look like he might have difficulty adjusting to good major league pitching that could actually make him swing and miss with some consistency. He got by in the minors by swinging often and hitting the ball hard, keeping up a so-so batting average with plenty of power, but not many walks. Many hitters have followed the same path, then seen their contact rate dip so low in the majors that the power alone cannot sustain such a miserable OBP. So far, Jones has shown a willingness to work the count and wait for a good pitch. On Sunday, he churned out a walk in a 7 pitch plate appearance, fouling off a 3-2 pitch on the outside corner before reaching base on the next pitch at the letters. It also seems as though he is relatively comfortable with fastballs and breaking balls, as he has made contact on both. While mistake hitters can have value, I’d take an all-around hitter who could develop any day. I’m not expecting Jones to be a superstar, or even a starter, but if he can catch enough fly balls to keep his spot as the team’s best lefty pinch hitter.

Biggest Success

Mike Cuddyer absolutely ripped his way out of a mediocre last month by going 7-13 in the Oakland series, showing lots of benefit from his extra rest. With three extra base hits and two walks, Cuddyer managed to put together an absolutely phenomenal line of .538/.563/.846. Continued mashing by Cuddyer takes some of the stress off of the bottom of the order, as run production counts at the margins no matter who starts it.

To me, the player who was even more impressive than Cuddyer was Luis Castillo, someone who I have lambasted repeatedly for his inability to hit for any power. Even Bert Blyleven got in on the act this week, pointing out that Castillo had only 11 extra base hits out of 94 total hits on the year after his first triple of the week. But Castillo didn’t stop there, he hit a double and another triple before the series ended, meaning he matched 30% of his XBH count for the season in one weekend. The 11 total bases matched Cuddyer for the team lead, and he also scored and drove in three runs, walked three times, and kept up his stellar ability to avoid strikeouts altogether. Hard as I have been on Luis Castillo in the past, this sort of hitting erases all of that criticism and helps the team win ballgames.

Biggest Disappointment

I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth, as a perfect week is a perfect week. There were a couple of minor blips on the radar during the week, but nothing worthy of being a “biggest disappointment.” I was impressed by the fact that Jones, Tyner, Cirillo, and Redmond combined to go 10-22, each adding one extra base hit. Their contributions more than made up for a bad weekend from Jason Kubel, who was hitless in 10 plate appearances.

Reyes also looked a little shaky, not giving up any earned runs, but allowing two inherited runners to score on Saturday after throwing Mark Kotsay a dead hanger on the only pitch he threw that day. He also walked three for the week while only retiring five. Depending on the needs of the rotation, Perkins may be a better situational option than Reyes down the stretch, at least once he makes it all the way back to full health.

Lastly, Rincon continued making the case for Guerrier and Neshek in high leverage situations, coming in to close out Johan Santana’s Friday gem with a five run lead, then promptly giving up three earned runs, hitting a batter, an serving up a homer before Joe Nathan had to come in to put out the fire. I keep saying, bust out he MRI for this guy before he does any more damage to the team or himself.

On the Horizon

As I said last week, the Twins are in the midst of their toughest home stand of the year, and maybe the most important one. After a day off Monday, they host the Tigers and the Angels for three games apiece, both teams leading their divisions and both teams playing quite well at the moment, especially in the starting rotations.

The Tigers will send Robertson, Miller, and Bonderman in the three games, giving the Twins a chance to prove themselves against lefty pitching. Bonderman has given them trouble lately, but then again, at 10-1, he’s giving the whole league trouble. In his last start against the Twins, he went eight shutout innings, striking out seven, so Scott Baker will have his work cut out for him in what Twins fans must hope will become a pitchers’ duel. If it is any consolation, Bonderman is actually 3-6 with a 5.42 ERA for his career against the Twins, but a lot of the damage came when he was too young for the majors and the Tigers were too bad for the majors.

If rotations hold, the Angels will send Lackey, Weaver, and Colon for the weekend. Lackey has been solid all year, keeping his name among the league leaders in wins, but his ERA has been a shade below his peripherals from the outset, so some regression is likely. Whether that will manifest itself in this one game is another matter beyond my powers of prognostication. Weaver has been good since returning from a short DL sting, and Colon keeps winning games, even though he keeps giving up runs. Part of the credit for the starters’ good records comes from the excellent bullpen, where Shields, K-Rod, Speier and others have made a habit of slamming the door. The Twins will have to scratch out runs early and pitch well to win the series. If they do, it could be an extremely entertaining brand of baseball.

The Big Picture

A four game sweep means that the Twins are playing pretty well. Unfortunately for them, most of the other AL contenders who matter to Minnesota are also playing well. Boston has slumped a bit of late, and Oakland is obviously sliding, but Seattle continues to win games, New York is looking better and better, and the AL Central leaders have yet to show any signs of backing down. For the Twins to make the playoffs, they have to catch either Cleveland or Detroit, who alternately hold 5-7 game leads on the Twins, but the also have to pass Seattle (currently 2.5 games up), and hold off New York. The Yankees, in particular, could make quite a run as their pitching staff rounds into form with a fully ready Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, Chien-Ming Wang, and Phil Hughes. The offense is not what many thought it was, but with Jeter and A-Rod performing as they have, they will score plenty of runs to support that pitching staff. Look out for them over the next couple of months, and keep an eye on their box scores while you wait for Cleveland or Detroit to slip, as the Yankees might be there to swoop in for the Wild Card berth.