Cereal and Statistics

I tend to spend my mornings with four things: a bowl of cereal, a cup of tea at hand, my MLB At Bat app and a folded over copy of The Economist magazine.

As I gorge on both carbs and information, I'm happy to know that the Twins have room to grow and that seemingly every night someone out does themselves (even if someone else does worse). But I'm also happy to balance the Twins in one corner of my mind and world events (like Greek debt defaults and Indian corruption trials) are squarely in another.

So it's a little startling when those two worlds actually do collide.

At the start of this month The Economist published an article entitled "Every step they take" about the ease with which advanced statistics have permeated the sports world, in particular the plethora of statistics that the MLB Network can show on an average broadcast. From pitch speed and curvature to fielder reactions, speed and routes.

None of what they covered will be terribly groundbreaking to the most hardcore of Twins fans. The folks who analyze the team and read amateur blogs know about such statistics already, there's little that I (or a bunch of International foreign affairs nerds) can add to it.

Not the cover of this article,
but appropriate.
But what I can say is that when the world of statistical analysis collides with the world of my breakfast table, we've crossed a threshold. This isn't references to Moneyball or "advanced statistics" that make oblique allusions to the wider world of baseball knowledge. This is detail. This is substance. This is specific and detailed analysis smack dab in the middle of mainstream media.

The Twins may be using more advanced metrics under Paul Molitor, they may not. Terry Ryan may have turned a corner in his evaluation systems, he may not. But when statistical analysis is offered openly to students in Sri Lanka and professors in Peru and bureaucrats in Burundi and shopkeepers in Slovakia, then you are past the "wait and see" stage. You're past the "consider all aspects" phase. Statistical analysis isn't advanced knowledge, it's mainstream, and if evaluations and judgement aren't made on those metrics...well...

Put it this way,  I'd like the front office of my favorite baseball team to be as well informed about recent advances in baseball statistics as people half-way around the world who've never seen a game, but who love to read.

I hope they are, I hope Ryan and Molitor talk about such topics, I hope I'm underestimating them. And if not...they can always come over to my house for breakfast.


Adopt-a-Prospect: A Long Road

J.T. ChargoisWhen last we checked in on JT Chargois he was starting a long and vital season on his road to recovery and professional debut. Working back from injury is never easy, as Chargois found out to his detriment on his second outing.

After 23 pitches against the Tampa Yankees on April 13th, Chargois had retired one batter, acquired a 27.00 ERA, and faced his first major set back in his comeback.

Conveniently though, a comeback doesn't begin and end with a single appearance, nor does a season, nor does someone's status as a prospect.

That's one of the problems with tracking prospects as carefully and chronicling their ups and downs. The peaks feel monumental and the valleys feel canyon-esque. We get so excited by a strong week that we demand a call up, and so disappointed by a poor showing that we may fear the worst.

But it's a long road to the majors, and an even longer road back from injury. That's what we see in JT Chargois.

Since his lousy April 13th, Chargois has made 9 appearances, each for a single inning, and bit by bit he's dropped his ERA, dropped his WHIP, and boosted his strike outs. He hasn't allowed an earned run, he's yielded 8 base runners and notched 10 strike outs, he's become a valuable cog in the Fort Myers bullpen, and begun to establish a bit of reliable form.

There's more to come, obviously. More success and more challenges. There will be other outings as abysmal as the one in Tampa, and many more innocuous ones besides. But above all else, there will be more. And as he returns form injury that's enough to be getting on with.


Cliff Notes to the 2015 Twins: Chapter 1 "April"

In an effort to get back in the swing of writing about the Twins consistently, I'm going back to an old well: Cliff-Notes. After all, I end up checking the cliff notes of everything book I teach for plagiarism, I figure this is just getting ahead of the curve. (For the start on cliff-notes I made before September crushed my baseball loving soul click here)

With that, let's start looking at Volume 2 of the Twins' Cliff Notes

Chapter 1: "April"
Plot Summary:
With the traditional exposition of some vague optimism and pledges to change, the Twins opened the season with a crushingly grim display of flaccid and ineffective play culminating in a cascade of boos during the home opener.

Faced with trying times, the Twins responded with muted resolve. They continued down the pre-ordained path, changing players only when forced by injuries rather than performance. New leader Paul Molitor remained enigmatic, occasionally catering to long standing pleas from fans (eg. for platooning, against myopic use of closers), but frequently maintaining longstanding habits (eg. valuing experience over upside, offering limited knowledge of advanced statistics).

The players themselves were similarly nonplussed. The biggest news seemed to be that heroic Joe Mauer had grown a beard. Phil Hughes pitched well but failed to win enough games to earn the undying affection of the faithful. Returning favorites such as Torii Hunter, Glen Perkins and Brian Dozier were solid but not sensational. Promising prospects such as Danny Santana and Kennys Vargas regressed. New team members like Blaine Boyer and Shane Robinson did not win any fans or burn any bridges.

At the very end of the month a silver lining emerged, the Twins beat their rival White Sox handily. They beat the White Sox best pitcher (Chris Sale) emphatically. And in the eyes of fans throughout Twins Territory a small glimmer shone as if to say, "well, at least there was that"

Main Character Development:
With so much affirming of the way things have been (from Terry Ryan to Joe Mauer to Phil Hughes) and too little to develop a complete assessment on new people (Molitor, Boyer, Robinson), the greatest development came from an unlikely source.

Trevor Plouffe as a rookie (L), and in
two years (R)
Trevor Plouffe was not terribly impressive, but he was, also, not terrible. His consistent growth into a consistent presence has been satisfying, not sensational, but satisfying. His defense is competent, his pitch selection is solid and his willingness to meet league wide standards is gratifying. For a man whose errant throws and questionable swing choices led many to beat their heads against their coffee tables at home and their seat mates at the stadium, this is impressive growth. 

He has, in effect, completed the same transformation as Neville Longbottom does in the first four Harry Potter books: from punchline to consistent presence. This is the first significant step on the road to heroism, whether it happens with us or with another team is a matter for Chapter 4 (July/the Trading Deadline)

Key Quote/Stat Explained:
SO/BB v.s. W-L. Phil Hughes' Strike out to Walk Ratio in April was 13, that's two K's better than his record setting 2014. Yet over that time his record was an underwhelming 0-4. While these bloggers are often preaching to the choir, it doesn't take much to acknowledge that Hughes pitched far better than his record would suggest and that, popular though they are among lay-fans, a pitchers' record has very little to do with their over all performance.

Literary Term to Impress English Majors:
If you've ever willingly hung around self-important pseudo intellectuals you've heard people talk about how cliche certain things can be. Basically criticizing anything so overused and overdone that it loses all meaning: like how inspiring teams begin from humble beginnings or how self-important pseudo-intellectuals always call things "cliche".

The Twins opening a season with a run of terrible play was certainly cliche for a team with four straight 90 loss seasons, the baseball equivalent of starting a novel with the line: "it was a dark and stormy night". But a cliche can have power if, instead of following the familiar pattern (team grows, learns and overcomes the odds to win), it inverts things (refusing to change, continuing to struggle, willingly accepting mediocre play to gain the ultimate rewards of change--either in personnel or in management). So, yes, the Twins played cliche ball in April, which means they've got us exactly where they want us.


Adopt-A-Prospect: Meet JT Chargois

Three years ago, we Peanuts adopted a prospect. A delightful prospect we thought could grow into an intimidating reliever...or at least his beard could. A guy we cared for, and supported through thick and (more frequently) thin, until finally, we waved good bye as he ran joyfully through a field upstate, where all the released prospects go when they're released.

We spent a year in mourning, but we're ready to re-open our hearts, to another prospect. And to that end, we've adopted another in the long line of promising potential relievers. Who may make it themselves, or may be cobbled together by Terry Ryan in some sort of Genetically Modified "SUPER RELIEVER". But enough context, let's meet our guy!

This is JT Chargois

JT Chargois (pronounced SHA-gwa) was born in Sulphur, Louisiana, where he was a Golden Tornado just like former major leaguers "Jocko" Thomas, Pat Rapp and former Twin Casey Daigle.

JT was recruited by and joined the Rice Owls when he left High School in 2009, though apparently he didn't need much convincing to join Rice since his dad praised both their athletics and their academics. Still, he left the Owls after his impressive Junior year when the Twins drafted him (as well as fellow Owl Tyler Duffey) in the second round of the 2015 draft. Many were excited about him as a nearly developed prospect, while my traditional 5 word analysis was: "Spikey" Curveball helps: in ROLLERBALL!!

(An explanatory note: Major League Baseball's capsule on Chargois during the 2012 Draft described his curveball as "Spikey". Not knowing exactly what that meant or looked like, I did what any responsible blogger would do and ignored the opportunity for research in order to make a lame joke about a 1970s James Caan Sci-Fi Sports Flick.)

After a strong debut at Elizabethton (where he finished 8 games, had a 4.4 K/BB ratio and a sub 1 WHIP), Chargois came to spring training 2013 ready to rise quickly. But elbow soreness sent him to extended spring training, then rehab, and finally in the fall of 2013 Tommy John surgery. Having missed the entire 2014 season, Chargois has done well in instructional league and this year's spring training and has started the year with the Ft. Myers Miracle (where he already has one save to his credit). While he's a year older than most High A players, he's also in a good position to rise quickly.

That all makes this a critical year for JT. If everything goes great, he'll move fast and may even be a potential September call-up (assuming Twins relievers implode...a crazy notion I know). If it goes well, it would be reasonable to see him hit AAA and force the Twins into a tricky decision (as Seth already outlined), either putting him on the 40 man roster or risk losing him through the Rule 5 draft. If it goes poorly, the risk of not putting him on the 40-man Roster will plummet, and JT will be facing an even more pressing season coming up. At least so far it looks very good (as this video with the mix of his fastball and curve shows)

So why should you care about JT Chargois? Besides his tremendous upside, he seems like another excellent candidate for our "SUPER RELIEVER" project. His Curveball may be the kind of devastating secondary pitch a reliever needs. And also, if I can make it happen he promises an excellent nickname "SPIKE" Chargois anyone?

We'll keep up the bi-monthly updates in the forum, and will continue to work out a monthly major update


On Words and Numbers

Anyone who seeks out more writing about the Minnesota Twins, clearly cares about the team. They have opinions aplenty about the best direction the franchise could take. They think about it, they weigh pros and cons, and they argue with passion when they feel like they are right.

In that regard, there's very little that separates blog readers from the Twins front office. But in the last few weeks a font of frustration has welled up, particularly as regards recent roster decisions. I am no kind of astute baseball analyst (I mean, a large number of my posts turn in to abstract satires of North Korea...), but I think I know why this is.

It all comes back to a key division between baseball fans: the fans of words, and the fans of numbers.

Fans of words like the story telling aspect of the game: the heartwarming narrative of a player coming into his own or coming back from injury; the mythical prowess of a 100 mile per hour pitcher or a Ruthian Home Run machine; the emotional love of the game.

Fans of numbers like the statistical and factual aspect of the game: the value a player brings to the field, their role in creating runs and wins, their failure to avoid defeats, the logical appreciation of the game and its players.

While I normally think about the separation between fans within the stands, the same split occurs when we try to evaluate players, and can be expanded to apply to when anyone evaluates someone else.

Think of it like this: if you work in a job where you get performance reviews (and I'm struggling to think of a job where you wouldn't), your boss might highlight your productivity by saying something like this:
"Wow Johnson, your coworkers and supervisor have been telling me all the great things you're doing this year. They rave about your contributions to the Snarflebargle Project and from what I've seen of you during meetings, I think you're ready for a step up."
Or they could highlight it by saying something like this:
"Wow Johnson, you've been incredibly productive this year. You've been averaging 50 hours of work a week, and the Snarflebargle Project has contributed to a 32% increase in our Doohicky sales alone! I think you're ready for a step up the ladder." 
But in reality, they probably have a mix of both the words that colleagues use to describe you and the statistics that they can measure. (As a school teacher I admittedly have no earthly clue what business meetings sound like, but I do know that I'd rather be judged by both comments from other teachers and student performance on standardized tests rather than just one. I suppose I'm hoping that other people have similarly rational evaluations.)

That's really what we argue about when we talk about who is ready and who isn't ready for the major leagues. We're used to the Twins scouting department (a more word savvy crew) running the show, basing judgements off of what they see in the minors and what the manager sees during Spring Training. Meanwhile, many of the fans (including those who seek out articles to read on-line) are hungry for a more number-friendly crew. But for as much as we talk about the Twins' statistical analyses (or lack thereof) as a catchall for the team's failings, we have to remember that there are benefits and drawbacks to both ways of evaluating people.

Word lovers may be able to accurately describe a person's character, demeanor, attitude and potential, but they risk falling so in love with a concept of performance that actual performance means nothing. (After all, if word lovers like me ran teams, somebody would be feeling a nine man team of Air Buds)

Number lovers may have a more accurate measurement of a player's performance on the field, comparisons with others their own age, and insights into areas for growth, but they risk turning an individual strength or weakness into a career defining fact. (After all, if statistical measurements of skills were 100% infallible, Moneyball favorite Jeremy Brown would have been an All-Star, and Ryan Leaf would have proven more mature, intelligent and effective than Dan Marino).

The best case scenario is as old as Aristotle: moderation in all things and extremity in none. Evaluations should mix words and numbers, and while there's certainly anecdotal evidence to suggest the Twins could use more numbers, that doesn't mean that words are totally irrelevant to evaluating a player.

There is far more that unites we Twins fans and the team management than divides us. Fans and management want a good team. We may have different ways of approaching that goal, but just as we accept both written and statistical performance reviews in our own jobs, just as we enjoy a beer with fans who talk about VORP as much as those who talk about "intangibles", we are better when we use both together.


Terry Ryan's Secret Plan

Many of you may be looking at the Twins roster for opening day and wondering: "where the hell are the prospects?"

Sure, we've been told again and again that we're about to get a huge influx of talent. And sure, we've been told that the children are our future. But the young players coming north: Danny Santana, Kennys Vargas, Oswaldo Arcia, Kyle Gibson...we've seen them all before...and the people we haven't seen: Blaine Boyer? Kurt Suzuki? Tim Stauffer? Are not the world changing prospects we've been asked to bank on.

So, you may be a little frustrated. I'm a little frustrated. Until I realized that this is all part of Terry Ryan's Secret Plan.

We at Peanuts from Heaven have found a secret ad written, directed and produced by Terry Ryan. What follows is a transcript of that ad.


[Ext. Day, Terry Ryan, wearing a completely respectable suit is walking toward the camera from Right Field]

SANE TERRY. Hi. I'm Sane Terry, from Sane Terry's House of Fiscally Viable Veterans here with totally reasonable deals on all your veteran baseball player needs.

[Cut to. Int. Twins Clubhouse, Sane Terry walks past empty lockers]
SANE TERRY. For years, the Minnesota Twins have been giving the aging and seemingly ineffective baseball players of America a chance to hit rock bottom. Once they do that, they are ripe for the picking...your picking.

[Cut to. Close Up, Terry Ryan turned to face new camera]
SANE TERRY. Are you a team with six valid starting pitchers? Why not trade for one of our many rotation candidates as insurance in case of injury, theft, or spontaneous combustion?

[Cut to. Opposite angle Terry Ryan turned to face new camera]
SANE TERRY. Are you a team who wishes their young players could learn from a cautionary example? Why not trade for one of our jaded-former-prospects whose shattered dreams has left them a shell of their former selves.

[Cut to. Original Angle Terry Ryan turned to face new camera]
SANE TERRY. You can get all your valuable veterans for low, low prices. Just ask these satisfied customers.

[Cut to Neal Huntington smiling in front of PNC Park in Pittsburgh]
HUNTINGTON. Our team used to be a joke, but once we just started picking Terry's discarded pitchers off the scrap heap, we had all the support we could ever need!

[Cut to Buck Showalter at the dugout railing of Camden Yards]
SHOWALTER. If someone has "former-Twin" on their resume, you can bet that they'll be a below-average starter, but an irrationally great resource for your post season run! Thanks to Sane Terry, I might not be fired right before my team wins the World Series!

[Cut to Sane Terry reclining in his office at Target Field, the camera takes in a view of the field]
SANE TERRY. We know you can get brand new ballplayers from many sources. But Crazy Billy's Coliseum of Deals always seems to have ulterior motives, and the next Miami Marlins Fire Sale isn't scheduled until November 2016, so why not come on down to Sane Terry's House of Fiscally Viable Veterans and see what we have on offer?

[Cut to, reverse Angle, the camera takes in a view of the hallway]
SANE TERRY. You don't have to give up the farm, just a young kid with upside, or downside, or cash...we like cash. And we like to give these veteran ball players a new lease on life. That's why we'll always have them on the roster, and always have them available, because that's what made us successful all these years.

ANONYMOUS INTERN [While walking by Terry's door]. Huh? What do you mean? We haven't been successful. And the older players rarely if ever help us. And when we trade them we almost never get anything of value.

SANE TERRY. Well, you know what they say, "the definition of sanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result."

ANONYMOUS INTERN. Actually I think that's the definition of insanity.

SANE TERRY. Ha. Ha. If that were true, I would be Crazy Terry...and I am clearly Sane Terry. It says so on this ad.

ANONYMOUS INTERN. What ad? And who are you talking to?

SANE TERRY. Sane Terry's House of Fiscally Viable Veterans. Call now and get Mike Pelfry right before he finalizes his deal with the devil for one more good season.



My First Game

It's strange to say for someone who has written this blog for nearly seven years, but I've never written in depth about my first Twins game. But I have a good reason for that.

I don't really remember it.

I've tried to. I've imagined Kirby Puckett legging out a triple. I wishfully think that it was the Orioles so I can say that I saw Cal Ripken in the midst of his streak.

But I just don't remember it. Not the day. Not the year. Not the opponent. Not the outcome.

But I remember my grandfather, the man who took me there.

I remember coming to Minneapolis from Montana, over a single long day's drive. And knowing it we had made it, when I could see the lights on the porch and hear the game on the radio.

I remember sitting on a porch swing on summer mornings looking over the box scores with him as he sipped his coffee in an old robe and I peppered him with question after question.

I remember holding his hand and walking down the Metrodome's concrete steps to our seats.

I remember him point to the turf, and the bases, to see if I was following along, and joining in the "Noooo Smoking at the Metrodome".

I remember him bringing me a swirled sundae in a Twins helmet cup and smiling kindly as the sundae ended up half in my mouth and half on my shirt.

I remember his kind questions, "did you like it?", "who was your favorite player?", "what was your favorite moment?"

I remember him happily lobbing underhand whiffle balls to my brothers and me, when we asked to play in the front yard that night and many other nights there after.

In the years that followed we didn't always go to Twins games, we out grew whiffle ball, and I actually became an adroit helmet sundae eater. But he still asked his questions while he sat in his barcalounger and I sat on the sofa beside him.

He still poured over box scores with the morning paper, and watched, and listened and read whenever he could. He had opinions about who was doing well, and how the old players compared and he shared them with me regularly.

We talked about Paul Molitor getting hired and remembered seeing him in downtown Minneapolis when I was a boy. We talked about Tony O missing the hall of fame again and how he used to watch the batting practice bombs. We talked about how he was convinced that my college friend should become my wife the moment he found out she was a singer with season tickets.

He passed away yesterday morning, after beating back cancer for longer than the doctors had thought he could. I knew he was tough, I knew he was proud, but when he passed I could only think about how kind he was and how happy he must have been with family around him, singing and sharing their love.

Just like he shared the game, and a sundae, and his hand with me.

Whatever day it was.