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.