Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Twins Collapse: in which I sort of defend Bill Smith, who is a terrible GM

By Bill

Over at Baseball Prospectus yesterday, my friend Jay Jaffe (maybe I should put "friend" in quotes, as in, Facebook "friends," but anyway, we have actually met, and I like him) put up a piece on how the Twins went from division contenders to one of the worst teams in baseball. It's a very good piece, and certainly does a good job of identifying most of the major issues, including this depressing gem:
[T]he Twins have gotten just a .150/.186/.224 line from Drew Butera, who has started 31 of the team's games; his .157 True Average is the majors' lowest among players with at least 100 plate appearances. Throw in Rene Rivera, Steve Holm, and the minimal production from a weakened Mauer, and Twins catchers have combined to hit .178/.229/.252—far inferior to Livan Hernandez's career mark (.221/.231/.297)—while stinking at a level roughly one win below replacement level.
Yikes. Anyway, Jay's premise is that in addition to a lot of bad luck, Bill Smith and the Twins basically made five mistakes that helped turn a team that was 34-24 a year ago this morning into the 23-38 one you see today:

  • They mishandled Joe Mauer and had no backup plan in place. As indicated in the quote above, it's bad enough that Mauer has been able to play just nine games so far this season (and with no success to speak of), but even worse that they're stuck with the worst hitter in the major leagues in Butera and a couple backups who aren't really any better.
  • They messed up the middle infield. They traded J.J. Hardy for nothing and let Orlando Hudson walk, trusting in Alexi Casilla and bringing in Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Nishioka was forced to play second rather than his more comfortable short, which led to a devastating injury that's kept him out since game seven and forced them to play replacement players like Matt Tolbert and Luke Hughes in his place.
  • They resigned Carl Pavano to a two-year deal and counted on him to anchor the rotation.
  • They have all sorts of other rotation problems.
  • They put together an offense with a serious lack of big bats.
I encourage you (as always) to RTFA, but there's a summary of the issues for you.

And I do think that Jay has identified most of the major issues with the team. Those five things and the bullpen (which he mentions toward the end) are pretty much the six things that have plagued the Twins most this year. (You could also argue that those six things pretty much encapsulate all that there is to baseball, but that's just how bad the Twins have been.)

But (and I can't believe I'm about to defend Billy Smith here) I don't think the front office is to blame for nearly as much of their struggles as Jay seems to think they are. A healthy portion, no doubt -- I think Smith, with a lot of urging from Gardenhire, took this team from a good one to a mediocre one -- but not as much as all this. Here's how I see the Twins' collapse breaking down, first the mostly-mistakes and then the mostly-luck factors, in order of importance within each category:

The Goof-Ups
1. The Middle Infield. J.J. Hardy is an underrated commodity, with or without the 25 homers a year -- an excellent defensive shortstop with a not-disastrous bat, even a fragile one, is highly valuable. To give him away for two replacement-level-or-worse relievers is crazy; as I wrote in December, to give him away when you don't have a viable replacement is almost criminal. And Alexi Casilla isn't a viable replacement. Hardy has predictably suffered an injury with the Orioles, but has been excellent when healthy, putting up 0.8 FanGraphs WAR (which would be over 1 if not for some apparently dreadful baserunning).

Orlando Hudson was tough to let go, especially after seeing him sign a very reasonable contract with the Padres (two years, $11.5 million, with a $6 million option for 2013), but Tsuyoshi Nishioka looked like a fine replacement, and I disagree with Jay that the Twins mishandled him. While it's true that Nishioka was primarily a shortstop, and won two gold gloves at the position, in Japan, he spent plenty of time at second as well, and even earned a gold glove for his work at that position in 2007. It was Nishioka's unfamiliarity with the way the game is played in the states that cost him -- in Japan, as I understand it, runners just don't slide straight into a player's legs in the same way that Nick Swisher (perfectly legally) did here in April. He could've fallen victim to that sort of slide at shortstop almost as easily as he did at second. So I don't think the injury can really be blamed on the team, and I think the Nishioka signing pretty well cancels out the Hudson non-signing.

What gets me is this: after years of overvaluing and overpaying Nick Punto, the Twins finally decided that enough was enough and let him walk this offseason, at which point he signed with the Cardinals...for $750,000. Punto isn't worth the $4 million the Twins paid him in 2010, but his worth is a lot closer to that than to what the Cardinals are paying him (which gets added to the $500,000 buyout of his contract the Twins had to pay anyway). Punto has missed about half the season so far to injury, but has hit .262/.355/.385 and saved the Cards 3.2 runs on defense (per FanGraphs), giving him 0.8 WAR. By contrast, all the Twins' middle infielders put together (Casilla, Nishioka, Luke Hughes, Trevor Plouffe, and Matt Tolbert--no, I'm not counting Cuddyer) have combined for a grand total of 0.0 WAR.

So a bit more than a third of the way through the season, even giving them a pass for the Hudson and Nishioka issues, the Twins are down close to 2 wins for refusing to spend (a) $5.85 million on Hardy and (b) $750,000 on Punto. These were obvious mistakes at the time, and have played out more or less as we should've expected. 

2. The catching situation. I normally hesitate to assign blame to teams regarding the handling of players' injuries and such -- I'm not a doctor, and we don't know what the teams knew or didn't know and when, so I normally give them the benefit of the doubt. Here, though, you've got a guy who was obviously not right, right out of the gate, and who made it only nine games before missing approximately the next 50 to date, so I think we're safe in agreeing with Jay that the Twins really should have had a better handle on the medical situation of their $184 million investment. 

But the even bigger problem is the failure to have any kind of viable replacement on hand. It's going to hurt whenever you lose a player of Mauer's caliber for any period of time, but having a competent major-league replacement rather than Butera is the difference between losing maybe a win in Mauer's absence and losing three.

Trading Wilson Ramos for Matt Capps is one of the more puzzling trades in recent memory, and has worked out terribly. But, if you've got Joe Mauer and a prospect who profiles as a starting catcher, it makes sense to trade the latter. So the quarrel is with the return for Ramos, not the decision to trade him in the first place. On the other hand, the Twins traded another competent catcher, Jose Morales, away in December, for Paul Bargas (who, his recent brain cancer diagnosis entirely aside, was a 22 year old reliever and non-prospect). Morales was a passable major league backup catcher, and was the Twins' for nothing; they traded him away because of the front office's and/or Ron Gardenhire's irrational affection for Butera, who -- again -- is the worst player in baseball. Morales has been pretty dreadful for the Rockies, but still considerably better than Butera.

If not Morales, as Jay has pointed out, there are a whole bunch of other freely available, competent backup catchers who were available this offseason. Heading into the season with nothing at all between the injury-prone Mauer and the barely-double-A-quality Butera was inexcusable. 

3. The bullpen. When the season started, many fans and analysts (including SweetSpot's own Nick) were very concerned about the team's bullpen. I was not. Yeah, they'd lost Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier and Jon Rauch, but it was insanity to sign Crain and Guerrier to the kinds of three-year contracts those guys got, and Rauch is generally pretty expendable, especially once you've gone and decided to acquire Capps. You look at the Rays and other teams who have put together excellent bullpens for basically no money, and you wonder why anybody ever worries about the bullpen. Good bullpen arms are a dime a dozen. It's the last thing you should worry about.

The only thing is, the Twins didn't make any effort to go acquire any of those arms, and they even went and dumped Pat Neshek, leaving them to depend on Capps, Joe Nathan (coming off of Tommy John surgery), Jose Mijares (who's about as undependable as decent relievers come), and a bunch of minor league guys who have never been successful in the majors and haven't given you much reason to believe they would be. Guys who can pitch well for an inning or two at a time are really, really easy to find, but that doesn't actually relieve you of the responsibility to go and, you know, find them. But they didn't, so the Twins entered yesterday with an MLB-worst 5.06 bullpen ERA.

The Unlucky Stuff
1. The offense. I can't buy Jay's premise that the lack of big bats is somehow the front office's fault. At 4.82 runs per game in 2010, the Twins were fifth in the AL, but closer to third than sixth, a well-above-average offense. They were without Justin Morneau for half the year, but more playing time for Jim Thome more or less made up for that. Mauer, Thome/Morneau, and Delmon Young provided the big bats, and Jason Kubel, Danny Valencia and Michael Cuddyer contributed, too. This year, all of those players have been injured, ineffective, or (in most cases) some of both. 

It would be silly to count on Morneau to do what he did in the first half of 2010, or to count on Thome to do what he did in the second half of 2010, but you had to think that between the two of them they'd be pretty good, and that maybe Delmon would be at least as good as 2010 or even a little better. They've been horrible, but aside from the Mauer issue discussed earlier, I don't think there was much they could have done. You could expect Valencia to do worse, but you'd also expect Denard Span to do better (and he has). Even if they did know there would be a problem with the offense, I don't think there were any real upgrade possibilities, given their payroll constraints after the expansion of '10, that would've made things much better.

2. Carl Pavano. Pavano was really good in 2010, and had been about as good, albeit much more unlucky, in 2009, and very durable both years. Jay's argument seems to be that they should have been hesitant to bring him back given his pre-2009 history, and I don't want to accuse anyone of Yankees-fandom-based bias here, but that just doesn't really work. His problems in 2011 haven't been anything like the problems that plagued him with the Yankees; he just can't miss bats anymore. There were some warning signs last year, but none that suggested he'd simply fall off the table. And it's not as though a bit over $8 million each for two years is a huge investment; under the circumstances, I think it was totally reasonable. It just hasn't worked, at all, the same way almost literally everything else they've done hasn't.

3. The rest of the rotation. Nothing is black and white. The Twins' handling of Kevin Slowey, it seems to me, has been terrible, though I'm not nearly close enough to know the whole story. But either way, handing a job to Nick Blackburn over Slowey was silly. Otherwise, though, the general implosion of the Twins' rotation looks like sort of a natural disaster to me. Liriano looked poised to have a dominant year, and he showed up out of shape and ineffective. Duensing has been pretty much the same pitcher he had been for the prior year and a half (4.13 FIP in 2009, 3.85 in '10, 3.76 this year), but is on the opposite side of the luck coin so far in 2011, finally posting an ERA above rather than hugely below that FIP. (Still worth noting, I suppose, that by FIP, he's been their best pitcher. That's a little sad.)

Anyway, the Twins entered 2011 with what looked like an ace (Liriano) and five pretty good #2-to-#4 pitchers. Now all they've got is a rotation that's really just pretty poor all around (though not nearly as bad as the bullpen). I suppose there's a chance that that's the front office's fault, but I don't think we can conclude that. It's hard to say at this point that substituting Slowey for Blackburn would've done much, and I don't think there's really anything else they could've done differently. 

So, the Twins had a team I figured should win about 90 to 92 games. (PECOTA figured them for 82, but PECOTA always picks the AL Central teams to win around that many.) No doubt the mishandling of the catchers and middle infield, and the utter non-handling of the bullpen, took that very good team and made it a mediocre one. But then pretty much everything else that could possibly go wrong -- including the stuff with the lineup and the entire starting rotation -- has gone wrong, and I don't think you can blame them for that. Bill Smith has turned this good team into an average one, and the ol' luck dragon has dragged it the rest of the way down.


T said...

I'm glad I'm not the only person who saw the catching problem being the trade of BOTH Ramos/Morales vs. just Ramos.

Capps sucking is just distracting people from that. But what I don't understand is how Butera jumped over Morales to get to the backup catcher role.

The only reason he got the job going into 2010 was because they wanted Ramos starting everyday and Morales was hurt. This was obvious when Ramos got the call once Mauer went on the DL.

I was fine w/ Ramos being dealt because I figured Morales would take over Butera's spot once he was healthy. Then suddenly they traded him.

Now I'm just sad. But I get the feeling we'll see a different backup C in 2012.

Adam Krueger said...

This is an excellent summary. I couldn't agree more wrt the catching situation and while I'm not on-board with your thoughts about the bullpen, I agree that more could have been to shore up that obvious weakness before the season even started.

If Bill Smith learns two things from all of this, I hope those two things are:
a) never trade one of your top prospects for a "closer" or, really, any reliever for that matter and
b)when you've got a middle infield that works (i.e. Hudson & Hardy) do everything you can to keep it together because you've got something valuable

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Excellent post. I was among the many who screamed when the Twins traded Hardy and let Hudson walk. That was a serious oof.

Yeah, the catching is bad. But if Mauer had been healthy all year, nobody would notice. The injury left the Twins exposed with their inexpensive zipper down.

You didn't mention Liriano, or I didn't read the last third of the piece carefully. I have no basis for this belief, but it seems that the Twins have seriously messed with this young man's mind.

Good stuff, sir.

Bill said...

Thanks. I did briefly mention Liriano, but not the messing with his mind so much. I don't know how much it's his fault and how much it's the team's, but yeah, it was silly to talk about trading him and everything over the winter, and ridiculous to try to get him to "pitch to contact." That could probably go on the "fault" side, but I just don't feel like we know enough about what's really going on with him.

Jay Jaffe said...

Thanks for the response, Bill. A couple of points:

1. I think you've conflated my two points about Pavano, perhaps owing to my own lack of clarity. Basically, my feeling is that even if one takes his sudden durability (!) at face value, his low 2010 strikeout rate suggested there wasn't much place to go besides down.

2. With regards to the big bats, my point is that given the higher risks created by Morneau and Thome (and Mauer, while we're piling on here, given the timing of his surgery) the Twins had extra incentive to find some insurance in the form of another bat, somebody who could have been brought into the fold via a cheap major league or even minor league deal. Russell Branyan, Marcus Thames and Scott Hairston come to mind, though I'm not terribly attached to specific names - not great players, just an extra thumper who might complement the existing stock in the event of an injury stack. I don't think Brian Dinkelman quite cuts it in that role.

Bill said...

Thanks for commenting, Jay. I can see your point about Pavano (and you're right, I didn't quite get that at first), but I still don't think that a two-year, $16.5 million deal was a bad idea. Even if you expected him to step back a little bit further (as you should've), it shouldn't have been hard for him to earn about $8 million a year. And in my opinion, it's still too early to say he won't.

Adding a bench bat would've been a good idea, but even under the current circumstances, that's maybe an extra win. By and large, I think, they were justified in going with the guys they had. I'm also a bit skeptical that they could get even the kinds of guys you mention, knowing that at least two of Morneau, Kubel, Thome, Cuddyer and Young would have to go down at the same time for that guy to be of any use at all (especially Branyan, since they've got lefties coming out of their ears), and the player can probably get more dependable playing time elsewhere. Of course, that scenario has happened several times over and that player would be playing every day right now, but I don't know that they would've wanted to count on that ahead of time. It's a solid point, but I don't think their failure to sign that one role player is a major cause of the collapse.