Thursday, September 24, 2009

What the Playoffs Mean

This morning, Aaron Gleeman rebutted Jim Souhan’s contention that the Twins would be better off not making the playoffs, noting that “Getting into the playoffs thanks only to an awful division and being a thoroughly mediocre team with tons of flaws and late-season injuries to key players aren't things that necessarily keep teams from having success in the postseason because having success in the postseason is an unpredictable mix of skill and luck played out over the course of at most 19 games.” Technically, of course, Gleeman’s right. With enough luck, pluck, and gumption, even the 82 win St. Louis Cardinals managed to win the World Series in 2004. If the Twins get hot, they have a realistic chance of winning the tournament (especially if they play their best team in the field, which they are currently not doing by leaving Carlos Gomez and Brendan Harris on the bench). It is a smaller chance than the Yankees, Red Sox, or Cardinals have, but it’s still a possibility.

Gleeman doesn’t mention, and Souhan probably has never thought about, the most important reason why Twins fans should care about the team making the postseason…money. In Baseball Between the Numbers (2006), Nate Silver argues that “a team receives a long-term benefit to its regular season attendance as a result of reaching the postseason. In addition, making the playoffs brings the bonus of getting to play some number of additional home games in front of a packed house at higher-than-normal ticket prices.” Likewise, playoff appearances have additional benefits, including richer local media contracts, higher regular-season attendance the following year, more concessions sold, etc. In all, Silver calculated that a playoff appearance is worth approximately $25 million.

This extra $25 million or so will help a team to loosen otherwise tight budgetary restrictions, especially if that team plays in a smaller market. The Twins must maximize revenue streams and minimize expenses (as much as is practical) to afford the level of talent necessary for the team to compete again and again for a playoff spot. It is a cycle of success that can, at least in part, fund and sustain itself as long as a team continues to produce talent from the farm system, and does not significantly waste resources (ahem, Livan Hernandez, Luis Ayala, ahem). Teams can use their ability to get to the postseason in one year as a springboard to get to it the next.

The Twins have one glaring problem looming on the horizon, even as they get ready to enter a new stadium and reap the benefits associated with being able to charge higher prices: Joe Mauer’s impending free agency (after 2010) and the additional dollars the team is going to have to shell out as its cores get older and more expensive. It is essential, for the team to feel reasonably confident it can get to the playoffs and share in that cash bonanza at least every other season, particularly if it is going to shell out $20-25 million a year for Mauer’s services over the first part of the Twenty-Teens.

Fig. 1: Your new god.

The Common Man believes that the Twins will sign Mauer to a long-term extension regardless; however, for the team to maintain its core and to build upon that core, it will have to have that additional playoff money. Scott Baker, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, and Joe Nathan are all about to get more expensive (or continue to be expensive). Nick Punto is going to continue to eat money for doing little. And eventually, the team is going to have to think about whether to lock up Kevin Slowey, Denard Span, and Jason Kubel to longer-term deals. The Twins need to make the postseason again soon just to be able to subsequently make the postseason again. The possibility Gleeman discusses of a deep run into the tournament would be icing on an otherwise very lucrative cake.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Random Thursday: June 11, 1960, Chicago vs. Boston

When baseball’s elder statesmen square off, doesn’t it seem like something special always happens? Fortune smiles again on The Common Man, as his browser, with eyes closed, leapt from Scott Sullivan’s page to this June 11, 1960 contest between the Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox. The game was the first of two that day between the Soxes, and was certainly the more memorable.

The Sox lineup featured Hall of Famers Nellie Fox (in his final decent year; raise your hand if you knew he was basically done at age 32) and Luis Aparicio, and was bolstered by Hall of Very Good members Minnie Minoso and Roy Sievers. The Sox in 1960 were a good club, in the middle of a good run. For 17 straight seasons, the Sox finished above .500 (1951-1967), though they managed just one pennant (1959, when they lost in the World Series to the Dodgers). In 1960, they finished in the 8-team American League, with an 87-67 record. They couldn’t get close to the Yankees, however, who (as usual) finished 10 games better thanks to Mantle, Maris, and Big Bill Skowron.

Minoso, Jim Landis, Aparicio, and Fox receive their Gold Gloves from 1959.

The Red Sox were on the opposite end of the spectrum. In 1960, they would finish in 7th place, losing 89 games. Poor personnel decisions, including the team’s famous refusal to pursue and sign African-American talent, had caught up with Boston, and they were unable to compensate for an aging core and bad pitching staff. The Sox’s starter that day was Ike Delock, a former swingman pressed into the rotation who would finish the year with a 4.73 ERA (84 ERA+) in 23 starts. The lineup featured Hall of Very Good hitters Pete Runnels and Vic Wertz (whose greatest historical comp is Roy Sievers, actually).

But what made the game stand out was the battle between two legends near the end of their respective careers. 40-year old Early Wynn started for Chicago, sitting on 273 career victories, a year removed from going 22-10 and winning the ML Cy Young Award (the Cy Young award was only given to one pitcher a year through 1966). Though pitching well, Gus had lost four straight in which his team had scored just seven runs behind him. For the Red Sox, Ted Williams started and played in LF. Williams, had missed most of April and May, totaling just 27 plate appearances. But in June, Williams was on fire. In 96 PAs, The Splinter would hit 11 homeruns, bat .329/.458/.803), and drive in 24 runs. He had hit a solo homerun the day before and was just starting to round into playing shape.

Wynn allowed a leadoff homerun to Don Buddin, but settled down to retire the next 8 and keeping the Sox off the board through five. On the strength of a Gene Freese homer and a Nellie Fox double in the 2nd, the Sox scored two. Wynn himself had gone 2-2 with two singles, one of which moved Jim Landis into scoring position for Fox’s double, and the other of which drove in Freese in the 4th. At the end of the 5th, Chicago led the Red Sox 3-1. Williams had underwhelmed in two at bats, fouling out once to third base and once to catcher. In the bottom of the 5th, Wynn allowed a leadoff single to Pete Runnels to bring up The Kid. Williams hit a long fly to right field that cleared the fence for his 5th homer of the year, and 497th of his career.

Wynn got out of the 6th without allowing another run, and in the top of the 7th Delock ran into more trouble for Boston. Chicago loaded the bases on two singles and an error, bringing up Sievers, who struck out. But when Delock hit Sherm Lollar, he forced in Nellie Fox, giving the White Sox a 4-3 lead.

Wynn was removed from the game with one-out in the 7th after giving up a single to Bobby Thomson. He was relieved by Gerry Staley, the Sox’s relief ace, who escaped with no damage. Delock got into trouble in the top of the 9In the bottom of the 8th, however, Williams led off. The Kid worked out a walk and was replaced by a pinch runner. Vic Wertz hit a big opposite field home run that gave the Red Sox the 5-4 lead, which they would hold on to. Staley was hung with the loss, and Mike Fornieles, Boston’s relief ace, ended up with the win after pitching the last two frames.

Williams would have an excellent season (.316/.451/.645, 29 homers) despite getting just 390 PAs, and would, of course, retire at the end of the season after hitting a home run (#521) in his final at bat. Wynn would make the All Star team that year, and go 13-12 with a 3.49 ERA, and lead the league in shutouts. He hung on for three more years after that. Gus pitched well in the first half of 1961 before injuries forced him to the shelf for the rest of the year. He struggled in 1962, and finished with an even 300 wins as a pitcher-coach for the ’63 Indians.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Random Thursday: Scott Sullivan

The Common Man will recap his final visit to the Metrodome tomorrow (though the visit took place last weekend), in a final, teary farewell to a truly horrible stadium that is full of wonderful memories. But today is Thursday, which means randomness. Fortune smiled on us today, for it landed on quintessential right-handed reliever Scott Sullivan.

Sullivan, for those of you with short memories, pitched from 1995-2004, almost entirely with the Cincinnati Reds. From 1997-2001, he was one of the most reliable relievers in the National League, consistently posting ERAs in the low 3.00s (except for a hiccup in ’98) with good strikeout rates, average control, and a good ability to keep the ball on the ground (thanks, in large part, to his sidearm delivery). He also was terrifically durable during those years, topping 70 games pitched or 100 innings in all of them, except ’97, when he pitched 97.1 innings. Sullivan began running out of gas in 2002. His K/9 was still excellent (in fact, it ticked up slightly), but his HR/9 doubled and his H/9 jumped as well. Sullivan bounced back in 2003 in a split season between Cincinnati and the White Sox, but began experiencing back troubles that prompted him to raise his arm angle. Sullivan lost a great deal of his effectiveness with the Royals in 2004, and didn’t pitch after that (but he did spend a lot of time on the 60-day DL). While Rotoworld doesn’t have additional information, Sullivan never made it back from his injuries, and hasn’t pitched since 2005.

But this post isn’t about Sullivan, per se. Rather, it’s about one almost-great season. Sullivan was a part of three terrible Reds teams at the end of his career (otherwise known as the Bob Boone years), but was a mainstay of some pretty impressive squads during his stay. In fact, Sullivan was an important cog on the single best team of the post-wild card era to not make the postseason, the 1999 Reds. The Reds won 96 games that year, more than any other team to not make the playoffs since the San Francisco Giants won 103 and finished out of the money in the pre-wild card wilderness of 1993.

The ’99 Reds were cobbled together by Jim Bowden and Jack McKeon, who had a lot of talent come together at exactly the right time. 1B Sean Casey, then 24, enjoyed his best season (.332/.399/.539, 132 OPS+), Pokey Reese played stellar defense at 2B, and for the first time, hit enough to make him a productive player (.285/.330/.417). 3B Aaron Boone had a solid season in his first real opportunity to play regularly. Mike Cameron (acquired for Paul Konerko, who was redundant with Casey around) rebounded from a horrible season with the White Sox to hit a Cameron-ian .256/.357/.469 and play Gold Glove-ish defense in CF. Dmitri Young (.300/.352/.504) played well in a utility role, as did Jeffrey Hammonds (.279/.347/.523, starting down the road to what would become the Milwaukee Brewers’ long nightmare). Catcher Eddie Taubensee shined in his last full season (.311/.354/.521), and 35-year old, future Burt Blyleven-esque Hall of Fame-case Barry Larkin had his last good, uninterrupted season (.293/.390/.420, which was still off for him). And LF Greg Vaughn, acquired for Reggie Sanders and change, provided impressive power (.245/.347/.535, 45 HR 118 RBI) (though the deal actually didn’t end up working well for the Reds, as Sanders hit .285/.376/527, didn’t get injured in ’99, and was included in a deal for Bret Boone and Ryan Klesko that offseason, while Vaughn signed with Tampa during the offseason).

Pete Harnisch shined in the rotation (16-10, 3.68) in his last productive season, and 31 year old minor league veteran Steve Parris had 21 good starts (11-4, 3.50), but the rest of the rotation was really underwhelming and inconsistent. Juan Guzman (6-3, 3.03) only started 12 games after being acquired from the Orioles. Denny Naegle was moderately effective (9-4, 4.27), but only started 19. Ron Villone (9-7, 4.23) and Brett Tomko (5-7, 4.92) both got more than 20 starts, but weren’t anything special. No starter threw more than 200 innings (Steve Avery had just 96 IP in 19 starts, and Jason Bere had 43.1 in 10).

While the rotation was in flux, the bullpen shined. McKeon leveraged his bullpen extremely well, using Sullivan (79 G, 113.2 IP, 5-4, 3.01, 3 Sv), Danny Graves (75 G, 111 IP, 8-7. 3.08, 27 Sv), Scott Williamson (62 G, 93.1 IP, 12-7, 2.41, 19 Sv), and Dennys Reyes (65 G, 61.2 IP, 2-2, 3.79) with effectiveness. It was an extremely stable bullpen as well. In addition to those four, Gabe White pitched 50 games and 61 innings, and Stan Belinda got into 29 and 42.2, but no one else pitched more than 2 games of relief (except Villone and Tomko). Indeed, while The Nasty Boys bullpen of 1990 gets all the attention (a 2.93 cumulative ERA, 450 K in 472.2 innings), one wonders whether the ’99 Reds pen was actually more effective (3.36 cumulative ERA, 463 K in 530.1 innings in an extremely high-scoring environment). If we adjust the Reds’ pen performance in 1999 to the 1990 environment (in which 18 percent fewer runs were allowed by NL teams), their ERA drops to 2.85, and they have a significant advantage in innings pitched.

The Reds went into the final weekend of the season tied with the Astros for the NL Central lead, and with a two game lead over the Mets for the Wild Card. That weekend, they lost two of three to the Brewers, while the Mets won out and the ‘Stros took two of three from the Dodgers. This left the Reds and Mets tied for the Wild Card, and a one-game playoff was scheduled for the next day. Cincinnati ran into an absolute buzzsaw that day in Al Leiter, who tossed a two-hit shutout to eliminate the Redlegs. The Mets would advance to the NLCS, where they lost to the Braves.

That offseason, the Reds made their infamous trade for Ken Griffey and picked up Dante Bichette to play RF. Injuries to Larkin and Boone, and poor performance from Benito Santiago behind the plate dropped their offensive production by 40 runs, and their excellent bullpen masked an absolutely abysmal starting rotation that was often hurt. Injuries to Naegle and Harnisch forced the Reds to use Elmer Dessens and Williamson in the rotation, which forced them to use Manny Aybar, Mark Wohlers, and a cast of misfits. They gave up 45 more runs than in ’99, and finished with 85 wins and 10 games back of the Cardinals. By 2001, they were in full collapse and lost 96 games.

Because of their relatively small market and short peak, and because they ultimately failed to make the playoffs, no one really remembers the ’99 Reds today. And that’s a shame. Jack McKeon put players in positions where they would succeed and did not ask more of them than they could deliver. Jim Bowden, for all his failings, had a talented group that gelled at just the right moment, and could have been (for the want of a little starting pitching) a force in the NL Central for years to come. If they had managed to win one more game in 1999, who knows how that club's offseason, and its next decade, might have unfolded.