Cliff Notes for the 2015 Twins: Chapter 4

The first days of school are right around the corner for many tykes in Twins Territory, so to help you with that summer reading you neglected, here's some more notes about that local best-seller: The Minnesota Twins

Chapter 4: Post-All-Star Break to End of August
Plot Summary:
While the doldrums in Chapter 3 appeared foreboding, the climactic triumph of Glen Perkins and Brian Dozier's march to the All-Star Game (and accompanying 6-1 stretch) offered a great deal of hope to Twins fans. As I wrote then 
"As Perkins and Dozier rise as protagonists, it will be interesting to see what obstacles and conflicts are thrown in their way to create dramatic tension for the rest of the season."
In many ways, those obstacles and conflicts are part of Chapter 4's great unraveling....

It's worth 5 cents!
On a Summer Vacation style trip to Oakland and Los Angeles, Glen Perkins' save streak came to an abrupt end.  Home series against the Yankees and Mariners didn't help matters and a swift sweep at the hands of the Blue Jays at the start of August left many people questioning whether or not the whole season was doomed.

It didn't help that the Twins' attempts to bolster their squad were...underwhelming, as very few kids clutch their "Kevin Jepsen" or "Neal Cotts" trading cards. Sure enough many people targeted the bullpen as a disappointment, and the starters didn't help matters by following the struggles in Toronto by spending a weekend in Cleveland where no starter got through 4 innings. 

Meanwhile, in the line-up, Dozier's daunting numbers have slipped, dropping forty points in On-Base Percentage, and one-hundred points in Slugging Percentage, right when (as the pitching shows) his bat would be quite valuable. An eleven run outburst against the Rangers helped them in the Wild Card, but by the time the Twins hit New York for another series agains the Yankees the rival Royals' division lead had stretched to 12 games. After (yet another) sweep in the Bronx, that lead was 14, and even the wild card seemed out of reach. Particularly when the two All-Stars were so far from the heroes they seemed to be just months before.

Or so it would have been, if another hero had not emerged over Chapter 4. Twins' fans hearts have begun to pitter-pat in a way they haven't since the days of "Baby Jesus", fittingly thanks to an Angel...or rather, an Ángel. Miguel Ángel Sanó. The burgeoning power and satisfying patience offset a strike-out happy debut, and once joined with his fellow rookie sensation Byron Buxton, Sano helped carry the Twins to a staggering 8-2 run to close out the month, with all the wins coming against fellow playoff contenders in Baltimore, Tampa Bay and Houston.
Do it again Miguel!
So despite the doom and gloom that pervades chapter four, again the authors' of the Twins season offer reasons to hope entering the next thrilling chapter.

Main Character Development:
We've mentioned the falls of both Perkins and Dozier and the plot summary referenced the rise of Sanó, but baseball seasons' don't just develop the obvious protagonists, they develop everyone.

Consider Eduardo Escobar: this was a player who seemed for all the world to be an tossed-in trading chip on an insignificant deal during the middle of a lost year. A player so insignificant, that our review of the trade focused more on a poem about the departing Francisco Liriano than any reflection on who was coming over. Three years later, while the man he was traded for has been solid on the mound, Escobar has become something of a cult figure in Twins Territory, occupying a space once reserved for Nick Punto or Gene Larkin. He has out-hit Pedro Florimon, out-fielded Danny Santana, and out-everythinged potential trade bait to become the starting short stop on a play-off contender. That's a heck of a return for three months of poor performing Francisco Liriano.

Pictured: The Bachelor in Paradise
equivalent of Terry Ryan holding
Ervin Santana.
If you want a less optimistic development consider Ervin Santana: At the end of Chapter 3, Santana twirled a fine game against the division leading Royals, with eight strikeouts in eight innings, leaving the K deprived Twins fans eager to #SmellBaseball (and in many cases, learn what hashtags really meant). He seemed to be a bright spot on the dispiriting West Coast road trip and then spent a six game stretch allowing an average of 5 runs per start and winning exactly zero of those games. High hopes were dashed, and the cheers turned to questions about whether we had been bamboozled by steroid inflated numbers, just like Joe was hoodwinked by Samantha's 200 texts on Bachelor in Paradise (don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about). Perhaps his 10 Strikeout performance will redeem him...or perhaps he's a pineapple.

Key Quote/Stat Explained
+tOPS in High Leverage At Bats

+tOPS is a way to tell if a player is performing better or worse than they normally do. 100 is average, so any thing above that is good for a hitter (and bad for a pitcher), anything below 100 is bad for a hitter (and, obviously, good for a pitcher).

Leverage is a means of measuring how any individual at bat can affect the outcome of the game. If a pitcher can get an out in a high leverage situation (like, say, the bases loaded with no outs and a one run lead) that's a little more important than a low leverage situation (like, say, facing the number nine-hitter with two out, nobody on, and a ten-run lead).

When the going gets tough...
Right at the end of Chapter 3 the Twins turned Trevor May into a relief pitcher, and while it hasn't been as narratively satisfying as some other characters' arcs, it is instructive in this situation. After all, May has pitched a lot this season, in all kinds of situations as both a starter and a reliever. In low leverage situations, he's performed like he usually does (tOPS = 104). In medium (or average) leverage situations he's performed like he usually does (tOPS = 108). In high leverage situations he has been significantly better (tOPS = 74).

Those numbers are all still about average by league standards, but it suggests that Trevor May can be quite good right when the Twins need him to be (no matter which role he's pitching in).

Literary Terms to Impress English Majors:

If the 2015 Twins are a mystery to you, as they are to most fans, then you're ready to find out exactly what this year has been a Red Herring and what isn't. 

The 2015 Twins plot points
Many hard core mystery fans know to expect red herrings, or misleading clues in the course of their story, say when a suspect is called "a bad, bad man" by a trustworthy source right when the detectives are looking for a "bad, bad man". Naive readers may assume, the "bad, bad man" is the villain, trained readers know that there's something else a foot.

So the best writers (or those who like messing with readers the most) enjoy piling red herring on top of red herring until you have a veritable smorgasbord of deceptive head fakes, winks, nods and suggestions leaving everyone totally bewildered. So, if you're trying to figure out your team's identity and you're perpetually bombarded by mediocrity, then brilliance, then ineptitude, you know you've got a Red Herring, you just don't know which one. The same goes for players: is Glen Perkins the shut down closer of your dreams, or an injured work horse? Is Brian Dozier an MVP candidate, or a great head of hair and a winning smile? Is Ervin Santana a disaster or a diamond? Is Neal Cotts another Bargain Bin retread, or just what the doctor ordered?

The climactic chapter of the Twins' season is yet to come, all will be revealed, and all the herrings will be eaten.


How to Win Every Byron Buxton Debate

For the last week a great many Twins fans have been fiercely debating the fate of top prospect Byron Buxton. As the most prominent local minor leaguer since Joe Mauer, Buxton has been tremendously appealing to fans from Apple Valley to Zumbrota, particularly as the Twins scramble to hold on to one of the AL Wild Cards.

Yet Twins Territory has been torn between demanding Buxton's arrival and ascendancy to greatness, and hedging in the name of cautious player development. 

It may seem that these two camps are irreconcilable, but I think they're just focused on two different questions, like each camp picked a different essay question on the Twins fan final exam.

So, as we get ready to start the school year in Minnesota, here's a quick refresher on how to answer all the questions about Byron Buxton.
It's all about him...
Who/What/When/Where/How is Byron Buxton?

Identification questions--these are the things you can Google and answers are clearly right and wrong: (ex. A's A baseball player; a human being; the present era; Rochester, New York; pretty good, thanks for asking?)

Could/Can Buxton play Centerfield in the majors?

Hypothetical Evaluation questions--should be simple, with yes/no/maybe all viable based on specific known evidence: (ex. A's Yes, he can, because has all his appendages; No, he can't, two weeks of below average play shows he stinks; Maybe he can, because the world is a complex and unknowable place)

Ideal help for every essay test you
have as a grown adult
Might the Twins be making a mistake, by not playing Buxton?

Speculative Evaluation question--like a hypothetical question there's the yes/no/maybe answer but your evidence can be what you predict will happen than what you know from the past. (Ex A's. Yes, they will never succeed without  Buxton; no, a season is more than one player; maybe, assuming the apocalypse doesn't happen first).

4 Why isn't Byron Buxton playing/starting with the Twins?

Basic Analytical question--the answers are infinite, you only need some evidence to cite and arguments to support: (ex. A's The Twins aren't playing him because they are dum-dums who ignore minor league production; ...because they are evil geniuses who have a memo titled "Destroying Buxton"; ...because they are a cautious team who promote players slowly.)
Should Byron Buxton be starting in the Twins outfield?

Basic Argumentative question--Pretty direct, another one that can be answered with yes/no/maybe, but unlike the analytical question this depends more on your opinion rather than provable facts. (Ex. A's--yes, he is awesome; no, he has flaws that need more time at AAA; maybe, I'm too confused by Donald Trump's immigration plan to concentrate)
6  If the Twins call Buxton up, will/would he start/improve individually/help the team win?

Advanced Analytical question--you still need to analyze the Twins, their system and methods, but it's based on more limited conditions, so your evidence needs to be based on a specific situation and your answers are more likely to fit the yes/no/maybe camp. (Ex. A's yes, they respect performance and Buxton will perform well; no, they respect historical performance, so they may push him to a fourth or even fifth outfielder role; maybe, they don't normally push prospects, but Sano's success may have changed them)

Should the Twins call up Buxton, if they think he won't be starting/improving/helping?
Your other debate option
Advanced Argumentative question--Here's the core question, but too often the second half (which limits your evidence to a specific condition, even if you disagree) is ignored. You can answer yes/no/maybe again but you need to keep your argument clear. (Ex A's. Yes, every major league experience will help; no, the limited time will slow down his progress and hurt our relationship with Rochester; maybe, every player is different and you won't know until you try)

There you go. As the debates continue use these guides to answer questions, or tear the suggestions up and shout at the top of your lungs...that seems to work elsewhere.


Adventures in Baseball Cards: 2015

That New Pack Smell
Every year, I treat myself to one pack of baseball cards. I've always enjoyed recapturing the glee, the confusion and the memories of stale bubble gum.

This year, with the Twins careening below .500, it seems that plenty of fans would appreciate a diversion like this, but, as a curious soul, I wondered. Would the Twins be any better, if I replaced players on the team with those individuals in my particular deck of cards? Or, put another way, is the Twins Front Office any better at assembling talent than a random machine at the Topps factory?

The results, both of my nostalgia and my exercise in Random GMing are as follows.


Really? Parker?
I always trick myself into thinking the top card will be someone of magic and wonder, someone to trick you into saying: YES! BEST PACK EVER!!...This year's magic man...Jarrod Parker...a good pitcher coming back from elbow surgery...oh boy...this might be more trying than one of Mike Pelfry's starts.

Jose Lobaton (Catcher of the Washington Nationals) follows...Lobaton is fun to say, but I might prefer Loba-tron: Android Catcher of the Future.

It's funny because he's a Tiger.
Cody Ross of the Diamondbacks might be the most stereotypical Millenial suburban baseball boy name ever...but he was actually born in 1980 so he squeaks into the avant garde of Gen X suburban baseball names and the pack's determined outfield partner would be Rajai Davis, who is shown missing a catch...c'mon Topps, that's just mean!

Oh boy, it's the middle of the pack time, hitting the role players, fringe prospects and journeymen part of the deck: Wily Peralta from the Brewers, Robbie Grossman from the Astros, and Robinson Chirinos of the Texas Rangers. These are all guys I could sit next to on a flight to New Delhi and never know they were major league baseball players (assuming they would A: fly to New Delhi and B: Fly coach)

Ahh, memories of Mike Piazza
Oh! We've got a throwback card! (Also known as fan service for the aging buyers of baseball cards) It's Mike Piazza from his Mets days. Side note: I was a big Piazza buff during my teenage years when the Mets were easier to see on Montanan TV than the Twins. I look forward to his induction in the Hall of Fame, even though I never actually did see him play live.

Woah, it's time for some quality here at the end of the deck: Stephen Vogt (A's Catcher, and three pitchers who had strong seasons recently: Stephen Strasburg, Jhoulys Chacin, and Hisashi Iwakuma). Clearly my assumptions about the top of the pack being magical need to be re-evaluated. That might actually be the cleverer marketing ploy: save the best for last and convince the kids to go buy more...I'm on to you Topps, you and your diabolical machinations!!


So The Topps Pack of 12 contains 0 Infielders, 3 catchers (not counting Piazza), 3 Outfielders and 5 pitchers (all starters). So how would that do at replacing Twins players?

In an unscientific study using baseball-reference's WAR so far this season (and a selection of Twins players who have logged most of the time in the line up, here's where the Twins players* (see note 1) stand.
Starters: Suzuki/Mauer/Dozier/Plouffe/Santana/Rosario/Hicks/Sano
Bench: Nunez/Escobar/Hermann/Robinson
Line up Total (6.9)
Starting Pitchers: Hughes/Gibson/Pelfry/Milone/Santana
Pitching Staff Total (11.2)
Twins Total: 18.1 WAR

After that I hunted down the year for those players in this pack to see how they compare. Obviously I couldn't I didn't just want to replace bad players with someone better (any team is better if they choose better players), rather I wanted to see how the Twins could be expected to do if they brought in all 12 of these guys to replace others at similar positions (i.e. Starters, Catchers, and outfielders)

So how would the Twins have done if they'd grabbed this pack of cards and plugged them into the rotation? Here's the results:
SP1-Phil Hughes (1.8) Stephen Strasburg (-0.3)
SP2-Kyle Gibson (2.4) Hisashi Iwakuma (0.6)--Only 10 starts
SP3-Mike Pelfrey (1.7) Jhoulys Chacin (0.0)--Injured all year, hopefully maybe this would be May
SP4-Tommy Milone (1.4) Willy Peralta (0.5)
SP5-Ervin Santana (0.0) Jarrod Parker (0.0)--Injured all year, so it's a wash
Regular Twins Staff: 7.3; Trading Card Staff: 0.8
Net Change (-6.5 WAR)

The key take away, other than that my initial reaction to pitchers is based much more on name recognition than performance this year, has to be that despite even the worst outings of late for Twins pitchers, over the season, it's WAY better to have the devil we know than the devil we don't
Maybe my initial pleasure with these pitchers was ill founded... 

If we acknowledge that Terry Ryan can build a rotation better than a completely random player generator, how about the line up?

Here are the lineup replacements# (see note 2):
C-Kurt Suzuki (-0.3) Stephen Vogt (2.5)
LF-Eddie Rosario (1.0) Robbie Grossman (-0.4) Most games are in Left
CF-Aaron Hicks (1.4) Rajai Davis (0.9) Most games in center.
Utility IF- Eduardo Nunez (0.4) Jose Lobaton (-0.1)
2nd C-Chris Hermann (0.0) Robinson Chorinos (1.6)
4th OF-Shane Robinson (0.2) Cody Ross (-0.9) He only played 9 games (so I kept him here)
Regular Twins Line up: 6.9; Trading Card Line up: 7.9
Net Change: (+1 WAR)

Clearly the outfield is hurt by that set of swaps, but shockingly (or unshockingly I suppose) any combination of these three random catchers would all outperform the Suzuki/Hermann Tandem with room left over for a third catcher and a couple of days of Vogt spelling Mauer at first base...heck Chorinos even has starts at 3rd on his resume. 

All told, if the Twins let a random pack of trading cards determine half their line up, they would be significantly worse than they are: 18.1 Team WAR to 12.6 Team WAR.

I won't use this as some asinine proof that the Twins are secret geniuses, but at the very least, I won't tweet out some claim that monkeys at typewriters could bang out a better roster than the front office.

...At least...until I open a better pack....

*Note 1: A case could be made that I should have used some different players who either played better (i.e. drop Santana and include Vargas instead) or worse (i.e. Drop Santana for Nolasco), but like my warning says, it's hearsay and conjecture, stick with me guys.

#Note 2: I suppose you could quibble and say that I should have removed Hunter for Davis and kept Hicks,  or dropped Santana instead of Nunez for the third catcher, but whatever way you do it, the gain of 1-3 Wins above Replacement isn't enough to offset for the dismal pitching changes. And besides that: HEARSAY! CONJECTURE! Smarter writers will have better reasons, I'm just a shmuck who opens trading cards and writes about it.