Know Thyself: Who the Minnesota Twins Really Are

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Know Thyself: Who the Minnesota Twins Really Are
(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

In honor of the recent birthday of one of the greatest men ever to be in any way affiliated with sports, John Wooden, it seems appropriate to use his words to start off a piece about myth and reality.

Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.

That’s good advice, for anyone at anytime, but especially for the Minnesota Twins this offseason.

You see, the Twins have a reputation based largely on three things: being light hitting, pitching well and playing good defense, and the abhorrent “doing the little things right”.

At times, these things have been true.

The 2001 and 2002 teams were fairly outstanding defensively, ranking third and fourth in Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency respectively.

Perennial Cy Young candidate Johan Santana led a rotation of starters who could produce solid outings, but who were nowhere near as outstanding as their master.

Doing the little things has always been somewhat of a myth, usually encompassing things like baserunning, hitting with RISP, and, for some reason, bunting. The 2006 team, the side Ozzie Guillen named the Piranhas, was the king of the little things (never mind that was the year the Twins had three legitimate MVP candidates in Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau [the actual winner], and Johan Santana) and it pulled them into the playoffs.

Some of these aren’t far from reality, but others are no more true than the average middle school rumor.

Reputation: Light hitting

Character: Offensive Powerhouse

Sometimes you surprise yourself when researching pieces, and this is one of those times. Sure, I knew Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer had keyed an offense that was vastly improved from the days of Ron Coomer, offensive juggernaut. And I certainly knew that this year they were supported by Denard Span, Jason Kubel, and Michael Cuddyer.

What I didn’t know was that it all added up to 5.01 runs per game, good for fifth best in baseball. After years of struggling to get someone to hit 30 HR, the Twins had two this year (Cuddyer and Morneau) plus two more within shouting distance (Mauer had 28 and Kubel jacked 27).

As a team, the Twins ranked in the top five in batting average and on-base percentage, as well as in the top 10 for slugging percentage and OPS. They even ranked 10th in isolated power, ahead of such mashers as St. Louis and both Chicago clubs. Perhaps they aren’t as home run dependent as the White Sox clubs of early this decade (their Guillen Number is still below league average), but the days of needing to get five hits and a walk to key a big inning are long gone.

So, as much consternation as there was and still is over the fact that the Twins’ middle infield is...offensively suspect (to put it generously), the Twins seem to score runs just fine as is.

Can they improve? Easily.

Should they? Only after addressing other, more pressing issues.

Reputation: Good Pitching and Great Defense

Character: The pitching has been better, the defense has hardly been worse

In 2008, the Twins had just seven pitchers make a start for them all season. Given that five is really the minimum, that’s a staggeringly low number of starters, and a testament to how a healthy rotation can be critical to a team’s success.

Call 2009 a rather abrupt regression to the mean. 11 pitchers made at least one start due to injury (Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Francisco Liriano, Glen Perkins) or ineffectiveness (Perkins, Liriano, Anthony Swarzak, Armando Gabino, et c.) and it took months for the Twins to find a combination that was effective to even three places.

Since the departure of Johan Santana, the Twins have been looking for a true ace. Scott Baker has assumed the mantle, but isn’t the power arm that pitchers like Tim Lincecum, Justin Verlander, and emerging flamethrower Josh Johnson are. Baker still makes his fielders do plenty of work, striking out just a hair over seven hitters per nine innings.

Francisco Liriano clearly still has the talent to take over where Santana left off, but after a promising end to the 2008 season, he appears to have regressed. Some feel his arm isn’t fully back from his surgery, others feel it’s a mental or confidence issue.

Whatever it is, Liriano was wildly ineffective this season, save a few starts in which he seemed back to his dominant self. The Twins can’t plan on him being back to form any time soon, but that doesn’t mean they need to give up on him.

Even if Liriano takes two more years to figure himself out, he’ll be just 27 when he does, giving him plenty of time to make an impact, though it’s hard to imagine that he’d still be a Twin after two more years like 2009.

This is all to say that the Twins, from top to bottom, make their fielders work. They don’t strike out many and they walk even fewer, which means that most of their outs come from balls in play and most of their base runners come from the same. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Twins rank 23rd in K/9, but fifth in K/BB. The vast majority of opponents at bats end up with a ball in play.

In the past, this was a perfectly fine strategy. The 2001-2003 teams all turned better than 70% of balls in platy into outs (that is, they all had a defensive efficiency or DE of .7 or greater). Adjusting for park factor (PADE), those teams were among the best since the team moved to Minnesota, all ranking in the top 11 and all in the top six since the team moved to the Metrodome.

With a small exception in 2005, it has been a long slide downhill since then. The 2009 iteration of the Twins ranked 42nd out of 49 team seasons in PADE, turning just 69 percent of balls in play into outs. While that figure does place Twins at the midline for 2009 teams, it’s important to remember that the Twins are allowing a much greater rate of balls in play than most of the teams that ranked below them. 69 percent of 100 outs is an ok rate, but means that 21 of those hitters reached; 69 percent of 150 is the same rate, but every extra baserunner increases the likelihood of giving up a run or extending an inning that should have been closed down.

This is going to be a theme of much of my offseason work--improving the infield and pitching staff are important, but the Twins simply need to a) allow fewer balls in play or b) converting more of them into outs. The former requires the consent of the hitter, the latter does not, which ought to make it the Twins' focus.

Reputation: The Twins do all the little things right.

Character: No team does all the little things right and the Twins are no exception.

Too often small-market teams get lauded for "competing on their own terms" or "doing all the little things well" as though only teams with a payroll under $50,000,000 were allowed to attempt a suicide squeeze and only teams with payrolls over $100,000,000 were allowed to hit home runs. As noted above, the Twins nearly became the 13th team ever to have four players hit at least 30 HR, so if they were playing out of their payroll, someone should notify them.

In 2008, the Twins were incredible hitting with runners in scoring position (hereafter: RISP), producing a team line of .305/.380/.446. The Yankees, by contrast, hit .261/.346/.402 with RISP, which is on the low side of average, but fairly indicative of how most teams performed. This efficiency helped the Twins greatly as their run production hinged on taking advantage of these opportunities. This year's team did not hit as well. They drew more walks and kept slugging, but .278/.363/.435 is a reasonable drop off.

The worst perps were Joe Crede (.198/.269/.385) and Mike Redmond (.171/.256/.171), but sustaining such a high team rate was unlikely.

In the end, such a regression didn't really hurt the Twins; they scored 12 fewer runs, but that's well within the realm of year-to-year variance, especially considering they were without Mauer for a month and Morneau for the same. Had both been healthy, as they were in 2008, it's a good bet the Twins would have actually outscored last year's team.

All it really does is undercut this notion that the Twins scrap runs together better than the Yankees or Mets, simply because they're a comparatively less expensive franchise.

The second part of the little things is base running. After the Twins' well-publicized foibles in the ALDS, one might be given over to the idea that the Twins didn't run the bases well this season. I know the playoffs are supposed to be a showcase of what the team is capable of, but three games is, for better or for worse, still too small a sample to make anything resembling serious conclusions about.

The reality of the situation is that the Twins ran the bases really well this year, seventh best in the majors in 2009 and seventh best in their history. They did very well at advancing on balls in the air, going first to third or second to home on hits, and were second best in the majors at advancing on wild pitches/balks/passed balls. What kept them down were the more traditional base running skills: stealing bases and moving runners over on the ground.

The Twins lost six runs on stolen base attempts, far from the worst mark in their history, but for a team that boasts the speed of Denard Span, Carlos Gomez, Nick Punto, Alexi Casilla, and a few others that should be able to steal a base or two, that's a large indictment. Gomez alone should be driving up that total, but his 14 steals were good for only third best on the team and his net of seven is down right bad. Rickey Henderson needs a job, why not bring him in to school these youngsters?

Moving runners often comes down to situational hitting, something (inappropriately) synonymous with the Twins. They didn't move the runners nearly as well as they usually do, fourth worst in team history in fact, 20 places worse than last year. They were third worst in the majors in that category this year.

Still, base running is the totality of all of these things, and the Twins did well at it. Much like the 2007 Detroit Tigers extended PFP after making so many errors in the World Series, the Twins ought to show a little contrition and have everyone run the bags a few times for the cameras, but in terms of substantive work, they really only need to work on teaching their faster runners how to utilize their speed and how to ground out to first with a runner on second and fewer than two outs.

The final component of "the little things" tends to be bunting and sacrificing. Anyone with good knowledge of the expected runs matrix will tell you this is backwards thinking. In no case does giving up a hitter for a base yield an increase in expected runs.

That said, there are very specific situations where forcing one run across is more important than trying to maximize potential runs scored, but these situations are not nearly as common as people seem to think they are.

Irrespective, the Twins did it often and didn't do it well. They attempted 80 sacrifices, tied for the most in the AL, but their success rate of 64 percent was fourth worst among all teams and third worst among teams who had their manager for an entire season.

Perhaps the most memorable failure was Nick Punto's inability to get one down during a suicide squeeze attempt in the ninth inning of game one of the doubleheader against the Tigers. While it sundered that scoring chance, it ended up not costing the Twins, as they went on to win in extra innings. However, it isn't hard to concoct a situation in which that bunt double play proved to be a deciding factor in a close loss.

The Twins finished with a Pythagorean over/under of .4, which pretty much indicates that their record (87-76) accurately portrays how the team played.Was it good enough to win the division? Only after a one-game playoff. Would that have won any other division? Nope, nor the Wild Card in either league. While the team was hot in September and October, it's fairly clear that the Twins just weren't playing the same brand of baseball as the other seven playoff teams, none of which won fewer than 90 games.

Without question, this will be an interesting off-season for the Twins. Clearly, the pieces are in place for a very good team in the next few seasons, especially if Joe Mauer can be locked up long term. Once that money is committed, the Twins will have a much better idea of how much they can spend on new players (arbitration awards being the other major outflow).

If the Twins are going to improve themselves and make a real run at a world series, they'll need to fix the problems that they actually have, not the ones people seem to think they have.

Adding a bat like Adam Dunn or Jack Cust might have made sense a few years ago, but would be a rather large waste of money now. A power arm at the front of the rotation and a high-OBP middle infielder who can flash a little glove would go a long way towards a deep playoff run in 2010 and beyond.

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