Tagged: American League

Twins Make Simple Things Look Simple

Amid the recent kerfuffle over Hanley Ramirez’s lack of hustle, much was made about a general lack of respect for the game among young players and their unwillingness to commit to the fundamentals and all the little things that win games.  However, there is one organization where this attitude seems to have been completely eradicated.

It’s no secret that the Minnesota Twins have been among baseball’s most consistent teams over the last decade.  They have yet to return to the World Series since their glory days of the early 90s, and yet they’ve persevered and excelled on a yearly basis.  It doesn’t hurt to have two of the best left-handed hitters–both MVPs–back-to-back in the middle of the lineup, but their success and consistency goes far beyond the imposing presence of the new-age M&M boys. 

They’ve won despite the Commissioner’s attempts to contract them, a terrible ballpark (until this year), a “small market” home, and miserly ownership that has just recently started to loosen the purse strings.  They let go of a Cy Young, and lost a potential future Cy Young for essentially two years and kept on winning. 

Last year they won 16 of their last 20 games to force a one-game playoff with Detroit, which they won in 12 innings.  This year, they lost their All-Star closer before the season, the savingest (if winningest is a word, so is savingest) closer of the decade and yet they’ve not missed a beat and currently lead the AL Central by 1.5 games.

How has this organization fostered such a winning tradition and battled through so many obstacles?  I submit that their organizational attention to detail and focus on fundamentals puts them at an advantage every time they take the field.  Of course, talent trumps all and that’s where Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau come in, but the success of the team is rooted in its ability to avoid mistakes and capitalize on those of its opponents in all three phases of the game; pitching, hitting, and defense.

Let’s start with pitching.  The Twins once again are getting good results and winning more than they lose with a staff of improving youngsters and a suddenly rejuvenated Francisco Liriano.  The Twins preach one principle to their pitchers from draft day all they way to the clubhouse at Target Field and that’s throw strikes, period.  Velocity and “stuff” are tertiary to the ability to pitch ahead and avoid walks, the free bases that turn solo homers into 3-run jobs and a single run into a crooked number.

As they have for seemingly since the game began, the Twins lead all of baseball with the fewest walks allowed (106), 15 ahead of the second place staff.  The Twins refuse to allow free passes (they’re also tied for 4th with only 10 hit batters), and force teams to beat them by swinging the bat.  Not only does this keep runners off base, but the focus on strike-throwing allows Twins pitchers to be more efficient and work deeper into games.  The Twins lead MLB in fewest pitches per inning at just 15.29. 

Of course, all those strikes come at the expense of big strikeout numbers as they rank 24th with 301.  However, their control is so overwhelming that they still manage to lead MLB in K/BB at 2.87.  The Cubs are second at 2.50 despite having struckout 76 more hitters.  Also, the Twins still rank 5th in MLB with a 1.28 WHIP, so even though they’re pounding the zone relentlessly, they aren’t allowing hitters to tee off on them.  They’re throwing quality strikes and letting their defense do its job.  Any big innings put together against this staff must be earned, as they’re handing out just over two walks per game (2.26 BB/9IP, best in MLB).  However, a staff that forces so much contact and racks up so few strikeouts must rely on its defense more than others.  For the Twins, though, fundamentals and discipline extend to the entire team.

Modern day statisticians, er sabrematricians, have found many ways to quantify defense, and they’ve devised some profoundly useful numbers that put real meaning into defensive ability.  However, for the purposes of this discussion I’m not looking for UZR or anything beyond the oldest and simplest of defensive stats.  The Twins just simply never makes errors, ever.  Their one miscue in yesterday’s game brings their season error total as a team to 10.  That’s the same number that Nationals’ infielder Ian Desmond has committed by himself!  They’ve played 46 games, which means they boot a ball about once every other series.  The second best team in MLB has 19 errors!  The Twins pick up the ball at a .995 fielding percentage clip. 

They are not likely to lead Baseball Tonight’s Web Gem awards balloting, but that’s not their style anyway.  They demand focus and expect every simple play to be made.  There are numerous players throughout baseball that thrive on making the spectacular play and yet will drop a routine grounder from time to time.  The Twins tell their pitchers to let the ball be hit and they tell their fielders to make routine plays look routine.  They have a history of exciting players like Kirby Puckett and Torii Hunter, but they’re much more concerned with converting routine plays into outs. 

This goes hand in hand with their pitching philosophy; make the opposition earn every base.  They don’t allow free bases on errors, and they don’t let runners move up extra bases with stupid mistakes.  Compare the Twins “free base” totals with the MLB average and you’ll see how their fundamental superiority adds up over time.  League average totals for walks, hit batters, and errors are 166, 15, and 30, respectively.  Let’s just say each is worth one base for simplicity.  That’s 211 free bases.  The Twins numbers are 106, 10, and 10, a total of 126, 85 fewer free bases, the equivalent of just over 21 free trips around the diamond.  This is a simplistic comparison, but it clearly shows the edge that a focus on fundamentals has given the Twins.  In business, we call these things core strengths.  The Twins core strength is that they absolutely give nothing away and dare you to take it from them.

But the Twins don’t stop there.  They take the same principles of discipline and focus up to the plate with them as well.  While their pitchers abhor walks, their hitters couldn’t be happier, or better, at earning them.  They’ve strolled to first 204 times, 2nd in MLB, while striking out only 268 times, 28th most in MLB (or 3rd best).  Their differential between walks taken and walks allowed is 98, more than two extra free passes every single night.  That advantage over the course of 162 games cannot be overstated.  And just as they don’t give free outs to teams defensively, they similarly loathe to surrender them on the basepaths. 

While their stolen base numbers (25 steals, 4 CS) are nothing exciting, that success rate is tops in MLB (86.2%).  So while they certainly aren’t the Running Rays, putting pressure on opposing batteries and causing mayhem, what they are is intelligent and opportunistic baserunners who will swipe bags when they see them available, but otherwise will allow their patient and potent teammates to move them along.  With the 3rd best batting average and 2nd best OBP in MLB, they have little reason to force the issue and run themselves out of innings.  

With their fundamental edge in all three categories, the Twins routinely put themselves in position to win games and force their opponents to make plays to beat them.  They rarely give away games and their ability to execute at each position and their willingness to rely on every single member of the roster is what has been the foundation for their tremendous success and consistency. 

All teams have peaks and valleys and both hot and cold streaks thr
oughout a season, but Minnesota’s consistent dominance of the fundamental areas of the game make it easier for them to pull out tough victories and allow them a competitive advantage every single night of the season.  This keeps them from the extended losing streaks that can kill a team’s season.  Rarely do they take themselves out of a game with mental mistakes, impatient at-bats, or lack of command on the mound.  It’s that day in day out focus that keeps them on a steady path to success.

Big Shakeup in AL Central

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With the news that Twins closer Joe Nathan has a
“significant tear” in the ulnar collateral ligament of his throwing
arm the AL central race has
suddenly been changed dramatically.  It’s not a certainty yet that Nathan
will get surgery, an operation that would likely put him out for the entire
season, but it appears that the Twins are suddenly without their biggest
pitching weapon and the entire division may be turned on its head.

At first glance it seems ludicrous to claim that a pitcher who appeared in only
70 games and pitched less than 70 innings could affect an entire division with
his absence (especially coming from a self-proclaimed closer hater), but Nathan
is one of only a handful of superstar closers in Major League Baseball and his
presence means more than his impressive number of saves and strikeouts. 

In a division without a dominant team and without a lot of overpowering
pitchers, he was perhaps the division’s most important arm.  That’s most
important, not best.  Zack Greinke won the AL Cy Young last year, but his
team still finished last and may likely see the same result whether he
duplicates his 2009 success or not.  The loss of Nathan, on the other hand,
not only dramatically alters Minnesota’s
end-of-game strategy, but it kills their swagger and belief that no matter
what, if they led after 8 innings, they were going to win.  The entire
dynamic of the team will be affected knowing that they don’t have their
shutdown ace to slam the door in the late innings.  

The Twins are hoping Francisco Liriano can reclaim the magic in his left arm,
but he’s still a work in progress as is the rest of their young staff, which
seems to take a step backward with every gain they make.  Even the success
of Nathan’s bullpen mates, Jon Rauch (7-3, 3.60, 17 holds) and Matt Guerrier
(5-1, 2.36, 33 holds) can partially be attributed to the knowledge that they
only had to get three outs and pass things off to Nathan in the 9th.  Now
they’ll be shuffled into unfamiliar roles, and nothing seems to cause more
chaos in a bullpen than shuffling roles.  It’s part of the stupidity of
modern bullpen use, but it’s true nonetheless. 

With Nathan at the back end of the Twins bullpen, Ron Gardenhire could manage a
game much differently than he will with an average or unproven closer or
closing committee.  The Twins were able to shorten games and could rely on
Nathan game after game.  Since he came to Minnesota
and became a full-time closer in 2004, Nathan has converted 246 of 271 save
chances, just over a 90% clip.  Compare that to the gold standard of
closing dominance, Mariano Rivera who’s converted 243 of 261 (93%) over the
same span and you see how important Nathan is to a team who needs every single
win.  Remember, two years running the Twins have had to play one-game
playoffs to decide the division.  This is a team who’s playoff hopes could
live and die with a single blown save.

As for the other teams in the division, they’ve now got an added incentive to
get into the Twins ‘pen, knowing it’s down a man.  No longer will opposing
hitters be hoping they scratch something out against one of the game’s
best.  Instead they’ll go to the plate in a close game late knowing that they’re
facing an inexperienced arm who hasn’t faced the game-ending pressure nearly as
often as Joe Nathan. 

With Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and a few key offseason additions the Twins
will still be a top team in the AL Central, but the loss of Nathan will be felt
later in games.  In a division as close as this one figures to be, every
game could come down to the bullpen and the Twins just lost their ultimate
trump card.  I think hitters in camp for the Tigers, Sox, and even the
Indians and Royals might step in the cage today with a little more bounce in
their step knowing they just might not have to hear “Stand Up and
Shout” blaring from the Target Field sound system until 2011.