Twins in First

[fusion_text]I must acknowledge the Twins’ appearance, however fleeting, at the top of the AL East standings (5/28/15). This represents an extraordinary turnaround from their disastrous first week when I, and many others more informed than I, wrote them off for the season. It is also a surprise to the national prognosticators who uniformly picked the Twins to finish in the cellar for a third (or is it a fourth?) consecutive season.

How have they done it?, is the question, and despite watching many recent games on MLB.TV, I have no answer. They lack a power hitter, and no regular is batting over, or even close to, .300. Their defense is solid, if pedestrian. Their one historic All-Star, Joe Mauer, plays a power position, first base, but has one home run. Their relievers, with the exception of closer Glen Perkins, are pitchers I’d never heard of. Perkins, it is true, is 18 for 18 in save situations, but he’s been doing more like Eddie Guardado than Mariano Rivera.

The most obvious group that should be credited with the Twins’ resurgence is the starting rotation. Again, though, there is no dominant pitcher and no breakout star. In fact, the one pitcher who was supposed to anchor the rotation, Ervin Santana, will not join the team for another month because of his drug suspension. Hughes, Gibson, Nolasco, May and Pelfrey have all looked terrible at times, but seemingly on cue they have all begun to build comfortably winning records. Perhaps they realize that the first to falter will be replaced by Santana, if not an original member of the rotation, Tommy Milone, who is tearing up Triple-A.

The best explanation I can offer comes down to the intangible that may be the most important difference between winning and losing in sports, and that is confidence. Once the Twins started winning with their anonymous lineup, they began to believe they should be winning and the cycle kept repeating itself. Maybe this came from the positive spirit brought in by Torii Hunter. Maybe it’s due to new manager Paul Molitor. Maybe the critical mass of Latin players who relaxed each other. Who knows? The next question is, what will happen when the inevitable losing streak arrives? Will the confidence crumble and the wheels fall off, exposing the obvious talent deficiencies?

All I know for sure (and the same thing has been stated by the reporters and broadcasters covering the team) is that the Twins have become a fun team to watch and made me cautiously optimistic, but no more, about the summer of baseball to come.


Defensive Indifference

[fusion_text]When the Twins have a lead larger than one in the ninth and a baserunner reaches first, they routinely decline to hold him on, giving him a free run to second base but allowing the first baseman to play behind the runner in presumably a better defensive position. Rather than registeringing this a stolen base, baseball scores this a nullity,  calling it “defensive indifference.” There is one additional marginal benefit: it allows Twins closer Glen Perkins to focus all his attention on the batter.

I am waiting for the statheads to pronounce on the wisdom of this maneuver, but until I see the empirical evidence let me give my view: I hate it, and I shall now count the ways.

One: allowing the baserunner to move from first to second eliminates the force play at second. I have frequently seen the play – the ground ball up the middle, the ground ball in the shortstop hole – where an out was possible at second base but not at first. Rarer, in my experience, is the play where the first baseman could not get an out because he was holding the runner instead of playing behind him. Thus, defensively, the DI makes no sense.

Two: the pitcher’s ability to hold a runner on first atrophies. Perkins is the prime example. He so routinely allows the runner to take second that he has become terrible at holding on the runner when it is needed. You can look it up, but my sense is that he has one of the highest stolen-base percentages of any lefthanded pitcher. In his mind, all that is important is getting the batter out. Unfortunately, sometimes the batter gets a hit, and if a runner has stolen second that can mean a run and the lead.

Three: I don’t like to see “meaningless” runs. Sure, a 6-5 victory counts the same as 6-4, but it doesn’t feel the same. Someone has gotten an rbi and someone has scored a run they don’t deserve. The team gets credit for a “one-run win,” which some analysts down the line will use as a yardstick for clutch performance. And to the unwary distant observer, the game will look to have been closer than it actually was – just as an empty-net goal makes a hockey game appear more lopsided than it really was.

Four: Every athlete in professional sports should give full effort at all times. This is, admittedly, a moral view of sports that is subjective and personal. In club tennis we talk of giving a “courtesy game,” rather than winning 6-love, but no professional would expect, or probably want, such a courtesy. The extreme example was Brett Favre’s allowing Michael Strahan to tackle him at the end of a game so Strahan would set the sack record. Strahan’s record, as a result, is forever tainted. A run scored after DI is not as bad, but it’s in the same ballpark. Every run should be earned, is how I look at it.

My clincher on the inappropriateness of defensive indifference is this: baseball is a game of statistics, ad nauseum, ad infinitum. I have yet, however, to see a statistic relating in any way to DI (e.g., which team has given up the most). No one thinks of it as part of baseball, and it shouldn’t be.[/fusion_text][fusion_text]Click edit button to change this text.[/fusion_text]

Twins Report

[fusion_text]It’s still early in the season, so perhaps it is not surprising that this year’s Twins are still searching for an identity. No pitcher has emerged as a stopper; no hitter has stepped up as clutch. They have won many more games than I feared they would after their disastrous opening series against the Tigers, but without any pattern. Each win has had a different hero.

The biggest hole so far seems to be the lack of a power hitter. Kennys Vargas showed strength and potential as a late call-up last year but has been too cold to even play everyday. Oswaldo Arcia has been similarly erratic, and neither of them is an asset defensively. Worse, the big hope for the future, Miguel Sano, missed last year with injury and is doing nothing in the minors this year. Every team needs a cleanup hitter, which the Twins just don’t have.

The offense, therefore, depends on Suzuki here, Santana there and the occasional pop from Plouffe. Mauer will hit .300, but many of those will be harmless singles and when he goes for power he just reaches the warning track. A lot of the other averages are closer to .200 than .300, which should correct itself; but I suspect that .250 will be enough to keep you in the Twins lineup this year. All this is enough to win some games but, depending on pitching, won’t get you above .500.

Aah, the pitching. Phil Hughes, the putative stopper, has yet to win, but has pitched okay. Kyle Gibson continues to be tough at home, worthless on the road. Then there are Ricky Nolasco and Mike Pelfrey, previous busts who may or may not regain form from a couple years ago. Since I started writing this report, the fifth starter, Tommy Milone, has been sent to the minors and replaced by Trevor May. In other words, the starting rotation is still in flux, and the relief corps even more so. Their only All-Star in the past is closer Glen Perkins, and while he is racking up saves, he isn’t blowing hitters away like he has. The rest of the bunch is pretty anonymous.

So, we will see. We can’t count on anything yet – not the pitching, nor the hitting, nor the defense and certainly not the baserunning. Yet after sweeping a home series against the White Sox, the Twins are looking better, surprisingly, than two of their four division foes. They are competitive. Whether they will be anything more is an open question. The Byron Buxton watch continues.[/fusion_text]

Instant Replay Redux

[fusion_text]On consecutive nights, Jordan Schafer of the Twins 1) hit a soft liner to center that the outfielder dove for and appeared to catch, but when the play was challenged it was obvious that the ball had squirted out of the glove and rolled on the ground before being picked up again; and 2) made a diving catch to save a run that was ruled a trap until the replay showed that the ball never touched the ground. The same week, two runners that were called safe at first were shown, when challenged, to have reached the bag just after the ball. There was no manager running out of the dugout, kicking dirt, no complaints by either side, no discussions among umpires. How did baseball get along, one wondered, without replay challenges?

One reservation: when a White Sox base stealer was called out at second he hopped up, immediately asking his manager to challenge the call. It appeared to the Twins announcers (and me) that the call was incorrect, but after a review of the replay, the umpires confirmed their call. There simply wasn’t a camera angle that clearly showed when the tag was made. And thus, the Sox lost their challenge for the game.

Of all the sports that have adopted an instant replay challenge system, tennis is the cleanest. The camera technology always shows whether the ball is in or out, down to a millimeter. Plus, the replay is visible to spectators, so it becomes part of the entertainment.

Football probably has the longest history with replays – and the most problems. The principal one is that there are 22 big bodies around the ball, and sometimes there is no clear view of the play. Second, there is no clear line dividing when a player has control of the ball; thus, the question, did his knee touch the ground before the ball came loose is often debatable. The lack of clarity is evident when the TV announcers predict the review result and are wrong, which occurs regularly. The other problem in football is that the replay challenge, even when there is a clear result, can’t always undo the damage of a bad call. If the referee thinks the runner is down before he fumbles and, consequently, blows his whistle, and the fumble is recovered by the opposing team and run in for an apparent touchdown, the ball will be brought back to the spot of the fumble and the touchdown nullified, even if the replay shows the whistle should not have been blown.

In all, it is rather impressive how far and how fast instant replay challenges have infiltrated sports that have been around for years. The big question: how long until baseball allows the radar to call balls and strikes?[/fusion_text]