Timid Baserunning

While Gardy’s conservative managing style seems to pay off, year after year, I admit I get frustrated at his unwillingness to let his faster players try to steal second more often. Lots of good things can happen on stolen base attempts: the pitcher can be slow to the plate, the pitch can be hard to handle, the catcher can drop the ball and, most often, the throw to second can be offline. Even the best catchers throw out only 33% of potential base stealers, and that statistic includes the easier play at third base.
In the Twins’ first loss to the Yankees this year, they were down, 4-3, in the 8th inning when Nishi got an infield single with one out. To score him from first with the tying run, the Twins would have needed two more singles against All-Star closer Rafael Soriano. The TV announcers expected him to run, but he didn’t, until the count was 3-2, at which point Mauer flied to left, and he stayed put during Morneau’s at bat.
Then in the next inning, against uber-closer Mariano Rivera, Jason Kubel hit a two-out single and Jason Repko was brought in to pinch-run. Now tell me, what were the odds, historically, of the next two batters, #s 8 and 9 in the order, getting hits off Rivera? Undoubtedly less than the odds that Repko would be safe at second on a steal, and perhaps even get to third on a bad throw, from which it would take only one hit to tie the game.
In a way, this is similar to the 4th-and-1 situation from your own 40-yard line in football. Analysis has shown clearly that the odds favor going for a first down instead of punting, but the conservative call is traditional and safe. No one will fault the coach for making that call. Similarly, no one will fault Gardy for not sending the runner with two outs in the ninth; whereas if Repko goes and is thrown out, the manager will be questioned. But it is still the smarter play.

Twins Preview

I approach the 2011 season, opening tonight, with some trepidations, primarily because so many pundits (but not all) are picking the Twins to win their division and even beat the Yankees in the playoffs’ first round. This generous appraisal is based mainly on the fact that the Twins won the division last year (relatively easy – i.e., no playoff game required) and none of their players had particularly stellar seasons. There’s no one on the 25-man roster of whom it would be unrealistic to expect better things in 2011.
The problem is that in the past, when the Twins have been successful, it has generally been a surprise. They are good at sneaking past more star-laden teams, like the White Sox and Tigers, being overlooked and lagging behind until a late-season spurt gives them the division. When they are supposed to be good, they disappoint.
My other qualm is that, spending spring training in California, I have not seen a minute of actual player action. This, however, shouldn’t matter much, as countless years of experience have taught me that results in spring training don’t matter much. Further, as Jim Souhan points out in today’s Strib, the Twins’ recents victories have depended as much on mid-season additions or adjustments – viz., the Shannon Stewart for Bobby Kielty trade in 2005 – as on the opening-day starting lineup.
With those caveats in place, let me say why I expect nothing less than a banner year for the Minnesota Twins.
1. Starting pitching. The Twins have six solid starters, none dominant but each capable of the occasional gem and all able to keep their team “in the game.” I’ll bet the Twins rank very low on the list of teams involved in 10-8 games, and that’s because their pitchers rarely blow up. In fact, the one pitcher who can be unhittable, Francisco Liriano, is also in that regard the most problematic. We pretty much know what we will get from Baker, Blackburn, Pavano and Slowey. Duensing has looked promising in a limited role; if he blooms, the rotation could be very good. Best of all is the depth: if someone goes off track or gets hurt, as always happens, Slowey can slip right in, and Perkins and minor-leaguer Kyle Waldrop are right behind.
2. The Nishi effect. Keeping the same cast can make a team stale. Adding a high-energy newcomer can make everyone a little better, as the adjustment necessary creates a little edge. Tsuyoshi Nishioka sounds like a perfect Twin: excellent defense, good speed, handles the bat well – in short, everything Ron Gardenhire has been looking for in a #2 hitter the last several years. In some odd way, I also think his being Japanese will help cement the social fabric of the multi-ethnic Twins, divided fairly evenly among whites, blacks, Hispanics and Canadians.
3. Target Park. You have to think that the Twins will thrive even more in their home park, having gotten last year’s period of adjustment out of the way.
4. Delmon Young. Of all the Twins who could have a breakout year – Cuddyer, Kubel and Valencia foremost among them – Young is the one who seems most poised to deliver on the promise the Twins saw when they traded Matt Garza. I would still much rather see Young at DH than in left field, but that won’t happen so long as Jim Thome is around.
5. Last year’s underachievers. I’ve alluded to this before, but every Twin has had a better season in the majors than he did last year, and they are all still 30 or under. Morneau was hurt, Mauer’s power and average dropped, Span struggled, Punto was Punto and none of the bench players shone. It’s unreasonable to think everyone’s numbers will improve, but if only half do, and then if the Twins get production from a currently unidentified source, as well, the offense should be potent.
There are, to be fair, clouds on the horizon, too. To keep the net positive, I will list but four.
1. Alexi Casilla. Shortstop is the key to the defensive arch, the captain who has to take charge of the infield. With a rookie and an almost-rookie on each side of him, Casilla’s role has to be huge. In each of the last two seasons, he has been given every opportunity to win a starting job, and he has failed each time, mostly from inconsistency. With no one behind him who can both field and hit over .200, a faltering Casilla would seriously weaken the Twins.
2. Morneau and Mauer. They say he is back from his concussion, but Morneau was handled gingerly in spring training and his hitting was dismal. Morneau is a streak hitter, with a fine line between power and strikeout. If he doesn’t regain confidence quickly, he could become a black hole in the middle of the lineup. (Personally, I would relieve some pressue by batting Young cleanup and dropping Morneau to fifth, which would also set up a left-right-left lineup through the order.) Mauer is hardly fragile, but he plays with a bad knee at a physically demanding position and the Twins no longer have Mike Redmond, or even Jose Morales, behind him
3. Joe Nathan. For the same reason, loyalty, that Gardy will bat Morneau in the fourth spot, he has anointed Nathan his closer, even though he missed all of last year and the Twins acquired Matt Capps to replace him. Nathan made me nervous when he was healthy, and I expect less this year. Nor was Capps a sure thing. On the loyalty point (or, said another way, Gardenhire is loath to mix things up), I worry that Gardy will stick with Jim Thome when age finally catches up to him.
4. Middle relief. This is low on my list, even though others regularly bemoan the loss of Guerrier, Crain, Rauch, Fuentes, Neshek, et al. Seriously, how comfortable did anyone feel with Crain on the mound? How many disappointing home runs did the over-relied-on Guerrier surrender? How long were we holding our breath with Rauch as the closer? I’m not saying the new guys can’t be worse; it’s just that there’s no reason to believe that a middle bullpen of Slowey, Perkins, Mijares and Capps can’t be as good.
Finally, one neutral factor to consider:
The surprise star. Every baseball season produces a game-changing talent that no one thought much about this time of year, along the lines of Josh Hamilton, Joey Votto, Jose Bautista, or Buster Posey. Should such a star emerge for the Tigers or White Sox, the Twins’ chances would correspondingly diminish. But then again, should such a one come to pass in Minneapolis – say, from among Danny Valencia, Dusty Hughes, Kyle Waldrop, or Luke Hughes – the Twins could be unstoppable.