The “Quality” Save

According to Wikipedia, a sportswriter in 1985 coined the term “quality start” and defined it as a pitcher’s completing six innings while surrendering three or fewer runs. Whether this is an “official” statistic – whatever that might mean – I have no idea. I have also been unable to learn whether such a quality start loses its quality if the pitcher in question gives up a fourth run after the sixth inning. Many commentators have criticized the standard as too lenient, pointing out that allowing a run every other inning isn’t so great, and a 4.50 ERA is only acceptable for a team’s fifth starter. But decades of computer analysis have shown that the pitchers with the most quality starts are invariably the best pitchers by every other measure, so the concept, meaningless or not, has lingered.
The save, by contrast, has been an official Major League statistic since 1969, although it has been refined in the years since. It can be earned in several ways, but the most common is by finishing a win while pitching the 9th inning with a lead of three runs or less. The creation and glorification of this statistic led to the emergence of a specific position on every roster: the “closer.” Modern analytics-driven managers have recently started to deviate, but for many years – certainly every year that Ron Gardenhire was managing the Twins – every time a team entered the 9th with a three-run lead or less, the manager brought in the closer. Conversely, if the lead exceeded three runs, another pitcher would be used – even if the lead had been three and the closer had been warming up. This mindless worship of the Save obscured the fact that this statistic was arbitrary and relatively meaningless. It also led to hugely inflated salaries for those relievers who had been anointed closers.
To take the obvious example: a reliever enters in the 9th with a 3-0 lead and gives up two runs before recording the final out. He should be rewarded for this? Apparently I am not the first to notice this, as Wikipedia informs that in 2000 Rolaids, which gives reliever awards, came up with the “tough save,” when the reliever enters the game with the tying run on base. Never having heard of this, however, I shall assume this idea went nowhere.
My idea is to introduce, instead, the “quality save,” to correspond to the quality start. My test would be simple: if the reliever faces the potential tying run without being responsible for any of the runners on base and finishes the game while maintaining a lead. (The aforementioned “tough” save specified having the tying run on base; but as baseball has evolved and the home run has become so prevalent, I consider the situation sufficiently perilous if the tying run is at the plate.) This not only eliminates the no-stress three-run, one inning save, it eliminates the save when the reliever starts the 9th with a two-run lead. He can allow a run and still record an official save; he just won’t get a quality save. If a reliever is asked to pitch only one inning and he can’t do it without allowing a run, it’s not a quality effort – period.
As with every iteration of a save rule – and there have been many, both official and unofficial – there is another situation that makes my simple rule not so simple, and it involves a reliever’s entering the 9th with runners already on base. If he has a four-run lead but the bases are loaded, he will be facing the potential tying run – thus making him eligible for my quality save. What if he allows all three runners to score but still preserves the victory? How does that count as “quality”? Still, his assignment is infinitely more challenging than that of the reliever who faces a clean slate. If the latter can give up two hits and a walk and still record a quality save, why shouldn’t the former be able to, as well?
The other problem with quantifying a closer’s saves and listing league leaders for the category is that the playing field is not level (see my earlier post on rbi’s). Obviously, a pitcher can only get a save if his team is winning; therefore, the teams that win the most will inevitably offer their closer many more save opportunities than the Miami Marlins, who are usually behind in the 9th inning. A better statistic than total saves is percentage of saves converted. Commentators do mention this – e.g., Blake Parker has converted 10 of 11 save opportunities for the Twins this year – but there is no listing by percentage. Maybe this could be an addendum; and maybe the same should be done for stolen bases.

The Shift

The trend toward analytics in baseball has led teams to employ infield shifts with a regularity new to the game, and I can’t say I approve. It is not so much the hits I see taken away from my favorite Twins, such as Max Kepler, as the hits I see a shift giving to the opposition. If I were a pitcher and I got Albert Pujols to hit a weak grounder to the spot where the second baseman normally stands, and it rolls into right field for a hit because there is no one there, I’d be frustrated and pissed at my coaches. I didn’t keep scientific count, but I felt the Twins were being hurt far more often than they were being helped by shifting their infielders in the games I watched. More annoying: when a hitter beat the shift by intentionally hitting the other way, the Twins kept the same shift on when that batter next hit, as if to say, it’s not the shift’s fault.
There was talk earlier in the season about a potential future rules change, requiring two infielders to be positioned on either side of second base. My hope is that the players will remove shifts from the game themselves, by hitting away from the shift or even – as Eddie Rosario did once (but why only him and only once?) – by bunting toward third base when no one’s there. The other way to beat the shift, which seems to be the Twins’ main strategy, is to hit over it, into the stands. That, of course, was the strategy long employed by Ted Williams.

Stephen Curry

As much as like the Golden State Warriors – their personality, their style of play, their dominance – and Stephen Curry in particular, I wasn’t heartbroken by their loss in the NBA finals to the Toronto Raptors. For starters, they had every excuse for losing: injuries to Kevin Durant and, especially, Klay Thompson, meant it wasn’t the real Warriors that lost. Second, they had every chance to win (Game Six, at least): their best player, Curry, had a makeable three-point shot in the final seconds that would have given Golden State the victory. He missed, so they have no one to blame but themselves. Third, the Raptors’ win spread the wealth, something I always like about sports. It was the first championship, ever, for a Canadian team, and the Raptors are not likely to win again next year. There appeared to be no hard feelings between the teams, just a good moment for Sport.

Twins at 50

Fifty games is less than a third of a baseball season, yet it seems a milestone that the record-keepers are noting; so it presents a good opportunity to assess, nay gloat, in the Twins’ remarkable start to 2019. They have the best record in the majors, albeit only a half-game ahead of the Yankees, and lead their division by an astounding 9 games, which speaks equally to the ineptitude of the AL Central. Their 101 home runs sets a record pace, by a lot, but the most amazing number, mathematically at least, is their 300 runs scored. That computes, exactly, to an even 6 runs a game!
The instinctive tendency is to say, they can’t keep this up. Yes, every team and every player goes through slumps over the course of a season, and the Twins have been unusually injury-free. But countering both these inevitabilities is the way the Twins’ success has been achieved, with contributions coming almost equally across-the-board. There has been no Aaron Judge or Miguel Cabrera powering the attack. Everyone in the lineup has hit his share of home runs, even Jason Castro. It is a safe bet that eight players will end up with more than 20 homers and none will reach 40.
Similarly, there is no one position player whose loss would be devastating. This is largely because the three bench players – Marwin Gonzalez, Willians Astudillo and Ehire Adrianza – can play multiple positions and have already done so with great effectiveness, including catcher.
What’s fun is seeing who powers the offense in each game. Sometimes it will be the franchise cornerstones, Polanco and Rosario. Next game it will be the free-agent newbies, Cron and Schoop. Then Max Kepler will get hot or Adrianza will surprise. Finally, there are the former saviors-to-be, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, who finally appear on track to contributing more hits than strikeouts. There is no let-up in this lineup, especially once Mitch Garver returns to replace Castro behind the plate.
The excitement about the home runs has partially obscured another, perhaps more important, strength of the team: its pitching, especially its starters. Odorizzi, Berrios, Perez and Gibson give the Twins a chance to win every game they start, and Pineda may yet reach the same level. The bullpen is considered the one Twins weak spot, but with one blowout game after another and the starters going 6 or 7 innings every time, they haven’t been fully tested. So far, Blake Parker has been a serviceable closer and Taylor Rogers an unhittable setup man. Magill, Morin and May have all shown power arms, while Ryne Harper has been devilishly effective. How much more do you need? If Tyler Duffey can finally capitalize on his array of quality pitches, manager Baldelli should recognize that he doesn’t need to carry 13 pitchers, as he’s done much of the year, giving him room to keep his valuable bench once DH Nelson Cruz comes off the IL.
I see only two clouds on the horizon. When a surprise team is labeled a “team of destiny,” it is usually because they come from behind and keep finding ways to win close games. So far, when the Twins fall behind after the 5th inning, they usually lose. I don’t think they’ve had a walk-off win all year. It would be nice to see some of those, to give them confidence even when they don’t open up a six-run lead. Second, they still can’t seem to beat the Yankees, and if they get to the postseason, you know that’s who they will have to play. The Astros are tough, but Odorizzi’s 1-0 win over Verlander gives me hope in that matchup. Against the Yankees, that hasn’t happened. Yet.

Twins Update

Two losses in a row, and I’m already resigned to the mediocrity of recent years. Berrios gave up 12 hits and didn’t look like the ace I don’t consider him to be. (I’m more impressed with Odorizzi.) The Twins got two two-run homers, but that was it. You wonder if they’ve become over-reliant on home runs and incapable of building rallies. They were 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position. Worse, they failed to move any runner over from second. What has happened to the bunt. Aside from Rosario’s shift-beating bunt against the Tigers, I can’t think of a Twin bunting all year. So much can happen.
Another annoying trend: the Angel hitters beat the Twins shift four times, and it didn’t stop a single hit. In fact, Mike Trout got two hits driving ground balls through the shift. If I were a pitcher and saw Albert Pujols drive in a run by hitting a weak ground ball to the second baseman’s vacated position I would not be happy.
We’ll see if the Twins make adjustments and execute a little better the rest of this important series. On the other hand, Cleveland lost to the White Sox; so the Twins’ losses aren’t hurting them in the standings.

Twins Today

An update after the Twins disappointingly split a four-game series with the lowly Detroit Tigers:
Both losses, by identical 5-3 scores, were the result of Trevor Hildenberger‘s giving up two runs in the inning he pitched. Instead of the lock-down reliever he was in the season’s first month – the dependable bridge to Taylor Rogers and Blake Parker – he has become the bullpen’s biggest liability, with an ERA over 6.00. It hurts me personally to see a player I’m so invested in fail so consistently, but I don’t know how manager Baldelli will be able to trust him again. Conversely, relievers Magill, Morin and Duffey were solid. Poor Tyler Duffey, who has been up and down to the minors like a yo-yo, struck out all three batters he faced in the 9th and was promptly returned to Rochester. He’s had success before but never been able to sustain it. The announcers, however, were surprised to see his fastball timed at 96, so maybe there is still a future for him. Especially if Hildenberger can’t recover.
Byron Buxton continues to surprise me by continuing to hit occasionally. He is still easy to strike out with low, outside sliders, but he is getting enough pitches over the plate and when he does he hits them hard, leading the league in doubles. If he goes 1 for 4, he will be a major upgrade over his past performance.
No one, however, hits the ball as consistently hard as C.J. Cron. He can’t hit a high fastball and will never hit for average, but is a genuine threat every at bat. Jonathan Schoop also has power for a number eight hitter, giving the Twins power up and down the lineup. He and Cron will both have plenty of 0-for-4 days in between breakout games when they power a win.
Marwin Gonzalez has emerged from the black hole I placed him in for the first month. I still consider him the Twin I least want to see at bat with the bases loaded and two outs, but he has risen above the Mendoza line and shown his value as a potential utility player.
Whether he will be relegated to that role depends upon the return of Miguel Sano to third base. So far, the results of his rehabilitation games in the minor leagues are discouraging: he has struck out three times for every hit, and nothing kills an attack like having a cleanup hitter striking out half the time. I trust that the Twins management sees this and is wise enough to leave him off the roster until he proves that his presence would be an upgrade over Gonzalez at third.
The Twins are clicking, but far from on all cylinders. Rosario and Kepler have experienced sustained slumps, while Adrianza and Cave have yet to show that they merit permanent roster spots.
This is the beauty of baseball, though. Every player can be analyzed every day; the season is long and everyone slumps. Nelson Cruz seemed to be the most consistent hitter on the Twins, until all of a sudden he became the weak link. You figure that the best team in the league will lose 62 games or more; so you can’t expect perfection every day.

Twins Win

The Twins’ first win at Yankee Stadium in three years is worth remarking, as is their overall record one-fifth through the season, the best in the Major Leagues. Every Minnesota fan has a deep reservoir of pessimism, but there are plenty of hopeful signs for the remainder of the 2019 season.
First is the fact that no one is playing over potential. Yes, Eddie Rosario’s league lead in home runs will not last, but neither should his .222 batting average. Marwin Gonzalez, whom I had all but given up on, is starting to look like a solid contributor and will raise his average above .200. The other free agents – Nelson Cruz, C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop – have all been solid additions, but nothing terribly unexpected. Mitch Garver is rounding into the franchise catcher of the future, and Jorge Polanco has been the hitting machine I always thought he was. The offense has been awesome, but there is still room for improvement. Byron Buxton still refuses to learn how to bunt, a weapon that would make him less of a potential black hole at the bottom of the lineup. And Max Kepler could cut down on the long stretches between his hot streaks.
The pitching has been the bigger surprise, although I’ve been higher on Jake Odorizzi and Kyle Gibson than many other observers. Conversely, I wasn’t convinced that Jose Berrios was the ace others deemed him. Martin Perez was new to me, and if his most recent efforts are at all indicative he will give the Twins four quality starters. I’ll wait until today’s game with New York, if it’s played, to judge Michael Pineda; but again, he has potential to round out a top-flight rotation.
Everyone says the Twins’ bullpen is the weak link, but Taylor Rogers has been lights-out for a year now, and Blake Parker, Trevor Hildenberger, Trevor May and Ryan Harper have all had bright moments, giving the Twins about as good a bullpen as anyone else. Yes, they could use two more good arms, but that may not be necessary if the offense keeps building four-run leads. Matt Morin looked good in his debut, but we’ll need more time to know for sure. I’m not hopeful about prospects in the minor leagues, and Fernando Romero has not impressed, but the expectation is that a free agent or two will be added mid-summer if the team remains in contention.
The one worry is injuries. Every team suffers them, and so far the Twins have suffered less than their competitors. Only Willians Astudillo has been a significant loss to the IL. If one of the starters, or Rogers or Cruz, gets hurt it will test the suspect depth. But in the meantime, let’s enjoy.

Hope Springs Eternal

One game does not a season make, any more than spring training should be used to judge a team’s prospects. That said, the Twins’Opening Day 2-0 win over Cleveland gave me a lot to be hopeful about for the 2019 season. Six things in particular.

1. Jose Berrios pitched like the ace the Twins claim he is. The second half of last year’s season, plus some of his spring training efforts worried me that he would only be good, not great, but going head-to-head with Corey Kluber and tossing almost eight innings of two-hit ball was exciting. If he can become a true ace, it will only raise the level of the other starters around him.

2. Byron Buxton’s ringing double. Buxton led the team in hitting in spring training, but we’ve seen that before, only to have him flame out when the real games began. Not only did he break up Kluber’s no-hitter with the Twins’ hardest hit of the day, he seemed able to lay off the outside breaking balls he has routinely flailed at in the past. The Strib said if Buxton hits .240 he will be a real asset; I’m hoping more for .260.

3. The free agents all contributed. Outside of Buxton’s double, the only Twins hits were by their big-ticket free agent acquisitions, Nelson Cruz, C.J. Cron and Marwin Gonzalez, but they all came in the 7th inning, producing the day’s only runs. (Jonathan Schoop, the fourth free-agent starter, was HBP in the same inning, although nothing came of it.) Two of the hits were of the broken-bat variety, but still… Last year’s disappointing season was at least partially attributable to the failings of that year’s free agents: Logan Morrison, Lance Lynn, Addison Reed and others.

4. Taylor Rogers. The Twins’ bullpen is an unknown, unproven quantity, but Rogers was impeccable the last half of 2018, and he was stellar closing out the Indians: 4-up, 4-down, 3 Ks. Whether he becomes the Twins’ closer – or whether they even anoint a closer – if he can stay solid it will give everyone more confidence.

5. Rocco Baldelli. All he did, I suppose, was pull Berrios for Rogers at exactly the right time, but it gives everyone on the Twins a fresh start to have a new, young manager in place.

6. The core four. Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco, Eddie Rosario and Jason Castro are the four holdovers from last year who form the base to which the free agents have been added. They did next-to-nothing against Kluber, but there is every expectation they will break out in games to come. Rosario and Kepler, especially, just received long-term contracts and are batting lead-off and clean-up in Baldelli’s order. They are at the age where they can no longer be rated on their potential; this is the year they need to produce.

7. Cleveland just did not look particularly intimidating. The Twins won’t compete with the Yankees or Red Sox or Astros, but all they need do is beat out the Indians and they’re in the playoffs, where anything can happen.

Of course, Opening Day gave us no hint of the Twins’ bench strength or the remainder of their pitching staff; so from here on it’s speculation. Tyler Austin and Jake Cave are legitimate long-ball threats; while Ehire Adrianza and Mitch Garber are both reliable. Willans Astudillo is simply exciting. Unfortunately, one or two will be optioned or released if and when Miguel Sano earns back a starting job and Baldelli needs a 12th pitcher. Simply put: if Sano can come back and play to his potential, the Twins should win their division.

I am mildly confident about the starting rotation of Jake Odorizzi, Kyle Gibson and Michael Pineda. I’ve never seen Martin Perez, but reports from spring training were encouraging, and if he falters there are prospects in the minors who could blossom. One fun part of every baseball season is the success of some rookie you never heard of or counted on. If the Twins are lucky, they won’t need one this year.

Birds of Australia

I didn’t go to Australia to go birding – tennis, beach resort, Sydney sights and hiking were on the agenda – but I did take my binox and had some good moments. On Lord Howe Island I counted 24 of the species pictured in that island’s field guide, missing only four. Most were found feeding in the extensive grass fields in the island’s midlands, so it was just a matter of checking them off. A boat ride to Ball’s Pyramid added a few seabirds to the list, although I doubt I could’ve identified any on my own.
In the Blue Mountains I cancelled my bird guide, partly for logistical reasons but partly because after a morning hike with a naturalist I was discouraged about finding many birds in the rain-forest habitat. Instead, the next morning I went out on my own before breakfast, and in the park across from our hotel saw my first Laughing Kookaburra sitting calmly on a tree branch. Crimson Rosellas were conspicuous by their call as well as their bright red plumage, and I saw a pair of King-Parrots, which I’d briefly seen with our guide the day before. Walking down the road I saw a Crested Pigeon, a very obvious identification, sitting atop a TV antenna. Then, darting in and out of a dense bush, I spotted a Satin Bowerbird, a male along with an equally identifiable female. These weren’t a lot of birds, but being able to make the identification on my own made them memorable and thrilling. As we neared the end of our morning hike, we stopped at a lookout over one of the many falls at Katoomba. I spotted a White-throated Treecreeper working its way along a branch; then a Rose Robin with a striking pink breast and white forehead patch perched nearby.
There were, of course, the common birds that we saw in the cities: White Ibis, Silver Gull, Australian Magpie, Common Myna. It all goes to prove that I don’t need a lot of birds to keep me happy. I just like to know what it is I’m seeing.

Sands Beach Birds

As often as I go to Sands Beach at UCSB for Western Snowy Plover docent duty, I still get surprises. This Thanksgiving Matt Hall joined me for my 11-1 shift and we had a memorable outing. For one thing, the wind was fierce, making a 73-degree day bone-chillingly cold. Nothing could be seen floating, but flocks of shorebirds, including the Snowies, took off and swerved in unison over the heavy waves. A Killdeer greeted our arrival on the beach, and four Marbled Godwits were poking in the sand near the docent station. I can’t remember seeing so many Snowy Plovers nestling in the sand: the blackboard said that 225 had been counted recently. Of course, Black-bellied Plovers were massively abundant, but there were fewer Semipalmated Plovers than I expected. There was a Western Grebe, quite dead, sprawled on the sand; four Turkey Vultures took turns approaching their Thanksgiving meal.
While watching the Snowies, we saw one, then two, stockier, browner birds picking at the wrack: Dunlins. One smaller sandpiper with light legs wandered by, probably a Least Sandpiper. Vees of Brown Pelicans soared in the wind, and a lone Whimbrel joined other birds at the water’s edge. The day’s highlight was a majestic Peregrine Falcon that landed on a log in the protected area of the Slough and sat there as we approached the edge of the fenced-off area. Its black hood set off the bright yellow above the upper beak and on the powerful talons. It showed off its darting flight before re-alighting on the log, then eventually took off inland, scattering songbirds in front of it.
We headed down to Coal Oil Point where the exposed rocks held a mass of birds, mostly Western Gulls, but also a bunch of Willets and more Black-bellied Plovers. One red-billed Heermann’s Gull settled in, and four Royal Terns grandly faced into the wind, in front of eight diminutive, by comparison, Forster’s Terns. As we headed back, we saw a single, larger gull standing at water’s edge: a Glaucous-winged Gull, a treat.
As we drove out, something on the dirt road attracted both a Black Phoebe and a Say’s Phoebe, along with White-crowned Sparrows and a California Towhee. And Devereux Slough, which had been bone dry a week ago, had water from Wednesday night’s rain and ducks had descended – from where? – mostly Mallards but also American Wigeon, Coot, six Redheads and a single female Ring-necked Duck. One Domestic Mallard, slightly larger and white-fronted, stood out among the others. Double-crested Cormorants and Black-necked Stilts, regular Slough denizens, rounded out the company.
Back home on Lilac Drive I was happy to find Townsend’s and Orange-crowned Warblers mixing in with the Yellow-Rumps and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. Everyone seems to be pointing to the Christmas Bird Counts starting in three weeks.