Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Justin Morneau and the Twins Offense

Over the last two seasons Justin Morneau has been one of the best run roducers in the American League with 62 HR and 219 RBI. What makes this fact more impressive is that on the surface he has been producing all those runs on a team who does not possess one of the elite AL offenses. It would seem intuitive to conclude that Morneau has to be more efficient in the opportunities that he gets, since the more potent offenses are going to yield more opportunities for hitters in their lineups. While there may be some truth to that way of thinking, it's actually Morneau's ability to go deep that is keeping him on the RBI leaderboard this season, not his performance with runners on base.

A simple way to approximate the chances a hitter gets to drive in baserunners is baserunners per PA, which is shown in the table below for the top 5 AL hitters in Runners Driven In (RDI = RBI-HR).

M. Ordonez 72
A. Rodriguez 68
V. Guerrero 67
J. Morneau 61
V. Martinez 61

Morneau is in the middle of the pack here, so at first glance it doesn't seem he's suffering from a lack of opportunities. But one of the hallmarks of the Twins offense is its lack of power, so is it reasonable to expect a larger percentage of those runners to be on first base? It turns out that is not the case either. In fact, Morneau has had the most chances with a runner on third (the easiest RDI opportunity) and isn't getting less chances with RISP than any of the top 5. If you've noticed that the number of chances (the numbers in parentheses) don't add up to the number of baserunners in the previous table, I discounted plate appearances in which the hitter was intentionally walked because that doesn't represent an opportunity to drive in any runners. Back to the numbers with RISP, a caveat to that observation is that a larger percentage of those RISP chances come with two outs for Morneau. This is most likely the result of "productive" outs moving runners into scoring position (or "non-productive" outs keeping them there until Morneau comes to bat). What struck me is the fact that Morneau doesn't stand out in driving runners in from third base (more two out situations mean less RBI groundouts or sac flies) and he is merely average bringing runners in from second and first. In general the Twins offense has had difficulties scoring runners from first, as detailed previously here.

Player from 1st from 2nd from 3rd RISP % of PARISP
w/ 2 out
M. Ordonez 0.09 (171)
0.22 (119)
0.60 (50)
A. Rodriguez 0.13 (181)
0.15 (115)
0.50 (54)
V. Guerrero 0.12 (150)
0.22 (88)
0.51 (58)
J. Morneau 0.08 (151)
0.20 (98)
0.41 (70)
V. Martinez 0.07 (159)
0.22 (86)
0.65 (48)

While Morneau has performed well in his role, driving in plenty of runs, his place on the RBI leaderboard has come abgout differently than the other hitters. Morneau has been able to remain on this short list mostly due ot his ability to hit HR. Only A-Rod has more home runs in the AL and the highest percentage of RBI from HR. Looking at the runs per HR for these hitters, it could be used as an argument that not enough Twins are getting on base in front of Morneau. If you've been paying attention, you know that Morneau is second in the AL in solo HR (Morneau-16, Carlos Pena-17) not because of a lack of opportunities. He's been able to hit a lot of solo HR to make up for a performance with runners on which isn't quite in line with the other top AL hitters this season.

Player HR RBI% from HR R/HR
M. Ordonez 16
A. Rodriguez 35
V. Guerrero 14
J. Morneau 28
V. Martinez 17

With all of this considered, Morneau is having another monster year in which he is currently on pace for 43 HR and 137 RBI. Those numbers are impressive enough that the footnote that he's doing it all within a subpar offense needn't be applied. Especially since the surrounding offense is actually giving him a reasonable amount of opportunities to add to those numbers.

Monday, July 30, 2007

TWIT: The Distant Future

Weekly Roundup

Haven’t we been here before? Last week, the Twins suffered a miserably disappointing sweep, followed by a pretty solid series where they took two out of three from a better team. This week, well, the Twins suffered a miserably disappointing sweep at the hands of the Blue Jays, and followed it up by taking two out of three from a better Cleveland team. According to the BP playoff odds report, the Twins’ odds of getting into the post-season sweepstakes are down to just 7%, only seventh best in the American league, and well behind the other six contenders ahead of them.

Once again, the road to a subpar week was paved by an inability to score runs during the workweek. Last week, the Twins managed a total of five runs in their three losses to the Tigers. This week, they scored- guess what- five runs in their three losses to the Jays. In some ways, this series was even more pathetic, as the Jays don’t sport one of the hottest starting rotations in the majors, and they fell victim to the indignity of being completely shut down by Dustin McGowan. The Twins pitching was not outstanding, either. Santana got lit up like a Christmas tree his first time out, giving up gopher ball after gopher ball. Carlos Silva struggled in giving up six runs over 5.1 innings, and the situation got worse when Dennys Reyes and Juan Rincon tried to relieve him, but combined to face six batters and let every one of them score without recording an out. Altogether, there were almost no positives in the Toronto series. Minnesota’s weaknesses showed up all at once, crowding out their relative strengths.

The Cleveland series was quite a bit better. It started slowly with a Boof Bonser shellacking, a game which contributed to Ramon Ortiz piling up 5.1 innings for the week- something that doesn’t happen when things are going well. As the weekend went on, though, the Twins starting hitting a little, catching some breaks, and pitching extremely well. Santana looked like vintage second-half Johan on Saturday, teasing at a no-hitter, but settling for 12 strikeouts and five baserunners through seven innings. Matt Garza looked even better on Sunday, where he went nose to nose with potential Cy Young favorite C.C. Sabathia. Sure, the Twins are out of the race, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still cheer, and a weekend series like this one is a good way to feel good about a team that needs an unrealistic hot streak to contend again this year.

Biggest Success

Justin Morneau had another strong week, blasting two homers, driving in seven runs, hitting .409, and somehow not drawing a single walk, even without much support behind him in the lineup (Hunter hit .143 for the week). Jason Tyner mashed his first major league homerun even though I remember drafting him way back in the first fantasy baseball draft of my life.

My pick for biggest success of the week is going to Matt Garza this week. He has been absolutely revelatory for the Twins in the last few starts after looking a little rough around the edges the first couple of starts after his recall. Is it possible that he resented staying in AAA so much that he was dogging it all year? The 3.62 ERA and 95 K’s in 92 IP hint otherwise, but he was much better last year, and insisted he was uncomfortable pitching the way the team wanted him to pitch in the minors. What is more likely is that his experience throwing his curveball more often in AAA is starting to catch on, giving him the lights out pitch that baffled Cleveland on Sunday. He did a great job getting ahead of hitters, and was able to throw a nasty breaking ball that torpedoed out of the strike zone to record 11 strikeouts in six innings. With Boof Bonser, Garza makes two Twins starters who get by on an excellent curve, but they use the pitch differently. Bonser throws his for a strike, but it sometimes flattens out and gets hit hard. Garza has yet to learn how to throw his yacker for a strike consistently, meaning it works as a strikeout pitch, but hitters can sit on the fastball early in the count. If I had to choose, I would take Garza’s setup- it has worked well enough for K-Rod’s slider over the years- and his command should improve as he continues throwing it. If his peak is what we’ve seen his last three or four starts, I’ll take that, too.

Biggest Disappointment

Did anyone else notice that Matt Lecroy is hitting .193/.277/.260 at AAA? That’s pretty disappointing to me. I’m just piling it on now; there’s not much reason to look for more disappointments after a week like this one. The real culprits were the major league hitters who couldn’t get over the Mendoza line for the week. Lew Ford (.111), Jeff Cirillo (.125), Jason Bartlett (.125), Torii Hunter (.143), Jason Kubel (.158), and Nick Punto (.200) all played at least three games and flat out didn’t hit. While the offense’s problem for most of the year has been an inability to hit anything other than singles, even a few singles would have been appreciated this week. With that sort of production, averaging 2.7 runs per game is ugly, but it is not wholly unexpected. If you want to blame someone for the Twins hovering around .500 with the collection of frontline talent that they have, blame Terry Ryan for settling on Jeff Cirillo, Nick Punto, Jason Tyner, and Rondell White as long term solutions in the lineup.

On the Horizon

The Twins have just completed the first three of 20 games in 20 days, a long stretch like they had leading up to the All-Star break that taxes the pitching and requires more than simple push-button managing. I have said repeatedly that this area is one where I fully trust Ron Gardenhire to handle the team correctly; his bullpen management optimizes individual talent without overburdening one or two pitchers. The only concern I have over this stretch is that he will be pressed toward trying to win the division, even though the goal is probably unrealistic, and may continue to use Pat Neshek and Matt Guerrier on back to back days when the risk is unnecessary. It is not a huge concern, but it is something to watch over the next two weeks.

The schedule itself brings the Twins an eight game home stand against the Royals and the Indians. With the way the Twins played against Cleveland this weekend, there’s real hope that next week’s column will have a more upbeat tone than this one. The Royals have played fairly well since the All-Star break, most recently sweeping Texas, but they’re still the Royals, and after Gil Meche on Monday, they the exceedingly mortal Jorge De La Rosa, Brian Bannister, and Odalis Perez to the mound. I’m going to pretend that De La Rosa didn’t already dominate the Twins once this year, and I’m also going to pretend that Kansas City’s trade deadline sell-off will distract the team enough to cripple their focus and confidence.

In the Cleveland series, the most interesting match-up will be in the first game, where Sabathia will get a rematch with Matt Garza, this time on Garza’s (literal) turf.

The Big Picture

Once Tuesday passes and the trade rumors dissipate, it will be time to stop worrying about the big picture for a while and to start enjoying the game of baseball itself. It’s late summer, the team is healthy, and they’re playing every day for the next two and a half weeks. My advice is to sit back and enjoy the majesty of ball and bat.

I’m sorry, I don’t usually engage in that sort of silly baseball mysticism, but I feel like I need to construct a fallback for a team without great hopes of a playoff run. Truthfully, there are lots of reasons to continue enjoying the Twins this year. Santana may be starting a run of excellent starts, Garza and Baker have looked very solid recently, and Justin Morneau could make a run at 40 homeruns. Plus, if you’re into gambling, you can bet on which infielder will catch Rondell White’s popup each time he bats.

In the meantime, the trade deadline still packs some punch. I recently wrote about why I think the Twins should not trade Torii Hunter, since there is just not enough time to work out the right deal. I also know that the team has more or less taken Luis Castillo off of the market, but I would at least shop him around to see if there’s any team that will give up more value that is closer to the major leagues (perhaps an outfielder?) than the two draft picks he will bring back by leaving as a free agent. With the current market for pitching, Juan Rincon and Carlos Silva should also be on the block, just to see if they can set themselves up better for next year by dealing them for prospects who are close to the majors. Plus, it’s possible that the team would be better off with Cameron Cali and Kevin Slowey playing at this point anyway. So even though the Twins are in a holding pattern of non-contention, there are plenty of intriguing story lines to follow, and lots of baseball left to enjoy.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Torii Hunter Dilemma

The common thread running through the Twins solid decade has been Torii Hunter more than anyone else. Terry Ryan and Ron Gardenhire have obviously been instrumental in putting together a competitive team despite a roster with a high rate of turnover. Until this year, Brad Radke was the elder statesman, playing through pain and leading by example on the pitching staff. Nonetheless, Hunter’s charisma, ability, and outspoken nature made him the most visible Twin for most of his contract. Even today, with a two time Cy Young winner (Santana), an all-American batting champ (Mauer), one of the best closers in baseball (Nathan), and the reigning AL MVP (Morneau), Hunter remains arguably the most widely recognizable player on the team. As such, it is no surprise that Hunter’s impending free agency looms like a giant fork in the road above the front office as the 2007 pennant race slides out of their grasp. It is difficult to make a judgment on what to do with Hunter in terms of statistics, chemistry, and public relations. In this space, I will examine a few of the advantages and drawbacks of different courses of action.

Keep Hunter for the year, try to re-sign him

Keeping Hunter makes for a good public relations move in two different respects. First, it helps signal that the team seeks to remain competitive throughout 2007, which certainly packs more fans into the stadium than an implicit concession. Additionally, a good faith effort at retaining Hunter would probably reflect well on an owner whose major problem is frugality, at least in the court of public opinion. Even though Carl Pohlad has always found the money to re-up his top level free agents- including Puckett, Knoblauch, Radke, Hunter, Santana, and Mauer- he will undoubtedly face some degree of public backlash for letting Hunter walk.

But that does not answer the real question. Would the Twins be wise to retain Hunter? Even though his physical prime has come and gone, I believe that Hunter is exactly the type of player who will age well. His elite athleticism will help him keep some value afield, and he can survive at the plate without too many walks or an extremely high batting average. His worst offensive season as a full time regular came in 2003 when he managed to hit only .250, but still produced an OPS+ of 97 due to his good power. Combined with strong defense at a premium position, Hunter forecasts to be a solid player even as he ages. Using PECOTA projections, Baseball Prospectus pegs Hunter for a solid big league regular through at least 2010, maintaining a weighted mean EQA above .270 through 2011. If he can keep his defense above average, that sort of player definitely has some value, nearly $10 million per year, according to PECOTA. With the Twins’ dearth of minor league position players, one could make a case that the opportunity cost of losing Hunter is so great next year, and would carry over so much into 2010 (the ETA of the new ballpark), that he is worth the extra money he would require to retain him. Without power or on-base skills, Denard Span has fizzled, and Ben Revere looks like Span-lite. Hunter may mean more to the Twins than to any other team.

Keep Hunter for the year, let him walk

Of course, the first two possibilities are largely indistinguishable, especially if Hunter’s market price goes through the roof. Just how much will Hunter make in the open market? That’s an excellent question, and will likely have a lot to do with what the Twins resolve to do. On one hand, Ichiro’s new $90 mil+ extension makes Hunter look completely unsignable. But the Mariners made the Ichiro deal to keep the Japanese market, an advantage Hunter does not bring, and because his unique skill set seems to position him well for the aging process. If nothing else, Hunter’s contract is unlikely to be as long as Ichiro’s, even if a bidding war mushrooms his salary about $15 mil per year.

Another issue to consider is the recent collapse of Johnny Damon, another elite CF who had a career year at age 31 before becoming a free agent. Inevitably, detractors will invoke Damon’s fate when trying to depress Hunter’s salary, pointing out that his all-out defensive style wore him down to the point that too many singles turned into outs and Damon turned into a pumpkin. One important difference between the two is that Hunter has been more consistent for most of his career. He has slugged between .450 and .550 every year since age 25, a skill Damon was not able to fall back upon. Also, Hunter’s aforementioned 97 OPS+ season in 2003 was the only time he dipped below 100. Damon’s reliance on his batting average instead of power made him more subject to fluctuations, giving him some seasons better than what Hunter has ever done with the bat, but also four seasons below 100 OPS+, one as low as 85. In other words, considering both offense and defense, Damon had had distinctly average seasons before becoming a free agent. Hunter has never done that. Damon needs to hit at least .280 to be above average, while Hunter’s power has allowed him to have four seasons below .280 with an OPS+ above 100. With Damon’s higher peak, Hunter may not have more perceived value, but he is likely to remain a better player longer than Damon, unless one of his homerun saving grabs rips his shoulder out of socket.

Damon entered the free agent market with Carlos Beltran, giving teams options and decreasing the likelihood of an all out bidding war. Hunter enters the market alongside the slumping Andruw Jones, and the slightly less desirable lot of Eric Byrnes, Kenny Lofton, and Mike Cameron. Without much talk of a longer deal, Damon signed for four years and $52 million. Adjusting for inflation and the current market, I suspect Hunter will get something in the neighborhood of five years and $75 million. A team truly desperate for a right handed power hitter who can play a strong centerfield may try to increase the yearly value at the expense of the length, perhaps offer $64 million over 4 years. Either way, I think Hunter will come up short of earning that money by about $10-15 million worth of market value, not a hideous sum, but one that the Twins cannot afford given the necessity to extend whoever they can out of the group of Santana, Morneau, Cuddyer, and Nathan.

Letting Hunter walk, of course, comes with the side benefit of two draft picks so long as the team offers him arbitration. If he signs with a team in the top half of the league in wins, it will be a first rounder. Otherwise, it will be a second rounder, and a sandwich pick between rounds one and two will be part of the deal either way. In that light, Hunter signing with a bad team like the Rangers would cost the Twins about 15 spots in the draft order versus losing him to the Yankees or Red Sox. With the Twins recent history of drafting position players, those picks may be frustrating failures, but they have value nonetheless, and have to be taken into account when deciding his fate.

Try to trade Hunter now

Going into this weekend’s Cleveland series, the Twins picked a terrible time to slump their way out of playoff contention. If they remained within five games of the playoffs, it would be worthwhile for Terry Ryan to pursue offensive upgrades at third base and DH. If they were clearly out of the race two weeks ago- as they are now- they could have put Hunter on the trading block, along with Luis Castillo, Carlos Silva, and Juan Rincon. Without giving other teams time to bid against each other, there is not enough of a market on Hunter to get a proper return, nor is their enough time to work out the details of a deal on a player who may require a window of time to negotiate an extension before the trade could be made.

One possible suitor could have been Damon’s Yankees, who need a right handed bat and could use Hunter’s outfield defense to go with the eroding range on their corners. While Hunter would not be enough to nab elite pitching prospects like Phil Hughes or Joba Chamberlain, but paired with a bullpen arm like Rincon, he could probably return one of the secondary pitching prospects like Alan Horne along with an outfield prospect like Jose Tabata or Brent Gardner. Neither would fill the centerfield void, which is why I have also advocated for the Twins to pursue other trades for centerfield prospects all year. A player like Michael Bourn would help the Twins a little this year by filling in LF while Kubel plays more at DH, and would be able to slide into CF next year, solving a big quagmire on the cheap. An offer of Carlos Silva and a minor league reliever might be enough to get that done.

In any case, I do not believe that trading Hunter would net the Twins more value than the two draft picks they would get for losing him as a free agent. If Ryan had built up a market for Hunter the way Jon Daniels has done with Mark Teixeira, the scales might have tipped slightly. As the timing has worked out, Ryan was too close to contention to start offering Hunter at the appropriate time, so he cannot be faulted for his course of action. Thus, letting Hunter walk has more value to the Twins than trying to trade him in a rushed package.


If Hunter is going to cost $15 million per year, the Twins quite simply cannot afford to keep him. I do not mean that the Twins could never dedicate that much money to one player, but with extensions for so many players on the docket, Hunter’s value does not fit into the equation. Keeping Santana for $18-20 million per year with some money deferred would make lots of sense for the team. Giving Morneau $12-15 million per year might not even break the bank if they are willing to let Nathan walk at the end of 2008, leaving Pat Neshek at the back of the bullpen. As the oldest member of that group, Hunter has the greatest potential for regression, and is the least likely to help the team in 2010. Even though it will once again make Carl Pohlad look like a malevolent cheapskate, it is time to thank Hunter for the good times he’s had, and to let the face of the franchise walk away.