The Twins scored the fifth-most runs in baseball last year ... and their lineup appears to be better. Pitcher Scott Baker and MVP Joe Mauer won't start the season on the disabled list. Reliever Pat Neshek is back. Even with no real closer, the Twins seem poised for a repeat run as AL Central champs. We get a breakdown of the team from Jonah Keri, one of the foremost experts around.DW: Parker Hageman of TwinsCentric recently did a Q & A with Rob Antony, Twins assistant general manager. In it, Antony said the Twins finally hired someone to do statistical analysis ... are you surprised by the great success the Twins have had without employing someone in that capacity before this year?
JK: There are many ways to win games in baseball, being adept at scouting, drafting and player development is certainly one of them. The Twins do that better than maybe any other team in baseball (forget the little moves, how about Joe Mauer over Mark Prior, when many smart folks - myself included - thought Prior was the clear choice). Having said that, I'm a believer that the more weapons you have in your arsenal, the better. I tend to side with Rob Neyer's view that hiring "a guy" probably isn't going to do much to advance the use of analytics in making decisions; too many teams have gone this route and had the stats guy's opinions ignored up the chain. But it's a start, anyway.
DW: Of all the new-age statistics, single out one or two that the casual fan is foolish not to pay attention to...
JK: I'm a big fan of Fangraphs' Wins Above Replacement (WAR), because it does so much, so simply. It measures offense, defense, the player's position, all of that. And it expresses the number in wins. Forget batting average or any other stat - what's simpler and more fundamental to the game of baseball than how many wins a player contributes to his team (especially when measured against the kind of generic player you can pick up for free). For pitching, there are a ton of useful stats. Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP - also found at Fangraphs.com) because it isolates the elements pitchers can best control (K, BB, HR) and strips out the impact of bad luck. FIP also has the added bonus of running on a similar scale to ERA - 3.00 or lower is outstanding, 5.00 or higher is lousy.
Baseball Prospectus has a ton of great stats, especially if you want to get granular. I especially like the metrics used for relief pitchers (WXRL, etc.), which do an infinitely better job of measuring value than saves, holds or ERA ever could.
DW: Using your number-crunching methods, how do you see the A.L. Central playing out?
JK: No need for too much number crunching - the Twins are the clear class of the AL Central. The loss of Joe Nathan will hurt, though more from a depth perspective than the relatively easy job of a modern closer, to get three outs before giving up a run, or even two, three or more runs. The lineup is really impressive. Mauer, Morneau and Kubel are terrific, love Denard Span as a lead-off man, and the acquisitions of Orlando Hudson and Jim Thome are exactly the kind of bargain veteran shopping that the team never did in its old, miserly days, but now seem very willing to do when armed with a sweetheart stadium deal built with public money. The Tigers and White Sox don't look like better than .500 teams, and the Indians and Royals are probably at least a couple years away from contention.
DW: Bill Simmons of espn.com recently wrote: Baseball is an individual sport disguised as a team sport ... agree?
JK: Yup. That's what makes it so conducive to measurement by the numbers. There are certainly stats that attempt to measure basketball (Basketball Prospectus, Hoopdata.com, 82games.com, KenPom.com and other sites do this well) and football (love Football Outsiders) and do an admirable job of it. But the bottom line is that there are so many moving parts in a basketball game, and it's not easy to measure, say, the defensive value of a player who does just enough to make Kobe shoot an 18-footer from an uncomfortable spot, or a good help defender, or a player who's adept at tapping rebounds out to teammates. Same thing with football - you've got 11 on 11 every play, with a disproportionate amount of attention focused on whoever's holding the ball. The core of baseball is the match-up of pitcher vs. hitter. Easy to isolate, easy to understand, easy to measure statistically.
DW: The Twins will go with Jon Rauch as their closer after saying they would use a closer-by-committee approach ... which choice is better?
JK: The term "closer-by-committee" has so much baggage around it, I wish they'd change it to "closer-by-unicorn" or some other term that wouldn't inspire derision from sneering, old-school sportswriters. That aside, there are pluses and minuses to both approaches. My ideal bullpen would put my best reliever in the highest-leverage spots in a game. Often those are not save situations, but rather a bases-loaded jam in a tie game in the 6th or 7th inning. The challenge of that approach is that requires all pitchers to be ready to go at any time, as opposed to now where everyone can have a set routine, not only for the closer but also the designated 7th and 8th inning guys. In the case of the Twins, there's really no good reason to experiment all that much, simply because there isn't one guy who's so much better than the rest as things stand. So if it's hard to even identify who your best reliever is, might as well make it easy and set up a traditional 7th-8th-9th progression.
I will say that if and when Pat Neshek returns to full health, he's a terrific pitcher who's death on right-handed hitters. Once he's 100%, I'd bring him in again any elite RH hitter (or group of elite RH hitters) in a close game, regardless of the inning.
DW: Putting Scott Baker aside, among Kevin Slowey, Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano, and Nick Blackburn, who will have the best year?
JK: Liriano has the highest variability of any of the Twins' starters of course. His monster 2006 season and his obscene spring training rate point to a pitcher who could be a top-10 Cy Young candidate; the rest of his career suggests a wildly talented but very erratic pitcher, one with a history of injuries to boot. You almost get the sense that Liriano is either going to be the staff ace, or that he won't top 120 innings.
If you want a safer pick, I'm a huge Kevin Slowey fan. He has terrific command and was simply the victim of bad luck and injury last year. But you look at his strikeout-to-walk rate from 2008 and you drool over what he can be if given 200 innings. He'll give up some long balls, but they could be Curt Schilling/Javier Vazquez-type home runs, where they're all solo shots because you're never walking anybody. The best thing to like about the Twins' staff is its youth: There's a strong possibility that we haven't yet seen the best seasons out of Liriano, Slowey and Baker. Not many teams can say that about our three best starters.
DW: Buster Olney recently said that the Twins have the best lineup in baseball ... agree? If not, where do they rank?
JK: Not quite the best as long as they keep playing Delmon Young in left and Atrocity du Jour at third base; J.J. Hardy's a question mark at short too, though I expect a nice bounceback season. I'd put the Yankees first, the Rays and Phillies bunched up at second (especially if you adjust for the DH/P hitting effect in the Phillies' case), probably Red Sox fourth and Twins fifth.
DW: Is Ron Gardenhire making a mistake choosing Nick Punto over Brendan Harris as his starting 3B?
JK: The Twins' ugly options at third base aren't Ron Gardenhire's fault - the front office wasn't able to acquire Adrian Beltre or another player who would have been an upgrade, so this is what the manager has left. Danny Valencia could work out if he gets a shot, but anyone who walks eight times in 269 Triple-A at-bats makes me nervous - even though the rest of his minor league track record was better.
DW: You can have the Yankees or the field to win the A.L. pennant ... which side do you fall on?
JK: Anyone who takes the Yankees instead of the field is mathematically illiterate and someone I'd love to have in my fantasy league. The Yankees might be the best team in the league, but there are several strong teams in the American League this year, anything can happen in a short playoff series, and the Yankees face the toughest division rivals anywhere in the Red Sox and Rays just to make the playoffs. Not that I'd back the Twins over the Yankees per se, but as a Twins fan I'd feel pretty good looking at the competition I'm facing to get to the postseason, compared to the road those three AL East beasts have to take.
DW: As great as Target Field is, the Twins enjoyed incredible success in the Metrodome, especially recently, how much do you believe that they will miss the Dome?
JK: Well, the last couple years the Twins have played much better at home than on the road, but if you go back a bit further, there are plenty of seasons where their home-field advantage isn't any bigger than the average advantage for a home team. I'm not discounting the possibility that the Twins benefited from the baggies and the roof and the noise and all the things that made the Metrodome unique, but I do think it's a little overblown.
Having said that, since Target Field doesn't appear to have any really kooky design quirks that might give the Twins an advantage, it's up to the Twins to convince the fans who built a stadium for them to come to the ballpark and be loud. There's something of a cascading effect to home-field advantage: If you play well, more fans show up. With more fans comes more noise, and the possibility for a greater home-field advantage.
Jonah Keri is a writer for BloombergSports.com and numerous other publications. He's also writing a book about the Tampa Bay Rays and their journey from worst to first in the American League (ESPN Books/Ballantine, Spring 2011). Follow him on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jonahkeri.