On Thursday during a conference call after the announcement of his two-year extension, Ron Gardenhire told reporters that he had a hankering to turn his conversion van of a lineup into a fast-moving sports car.
“I like to run and this year we didn’t have a lot of speed to do things on the bases. That’s one thing I want to do next year… It's something that we always really like to do, put pressure on the other team and force mistakes. We got to be a base-to-base type team. We didn't have enough speed to do a lot of things.”
This is not the first time this topic was broached by the Twins brass. Earlier in the offseason, general manager Bill Smith sounded like the organization was in consensus on the issue:
"We talked about it with our manager, we talked about it with some of our top evaluators. We probably did not run as well this year as we did in the past, but we'll continue to work on that."
The pleas for speed have started to sound less like request and more like cries for fresh air from Chilean miners or dry land from passengers on a cruise liner adrift at sea.
Yes, the 2010 Twins attempted larceny far less than they did in previous years under Gardenhire’s watch but this was a different running team in other areas too.
Data found at BillJamesOnline.net confirms that the Twins were one of the league’s worst running teams when they finished the year -7 bases below average. This metric accounts for not only for stolen bases but also bases advanced (like first-to-third, second-to-home, etc), outs made on the bases and double plays. While zero is considered average in this system, to give context, the Tampa Bay Rays paced baseball in this area by adding +196 bases above the average to their offense. Meanwhile, only 11 other teams posted marks worse than the Twins, with the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants (-51) as the lone playoff team to have a lower total than Minnesota.
These results differ wildly for Gardy’s party from the previous two seasons.
In 2008, BillJamesOnline.net says the Twins finished with a net gain of +67 bases (7th best in baseball). This total was clearly supported by a very speed-orient outfield of Carlos Gomez, Denard Span and Delmon Young who combined to go 65-for-88 (73%) in their stolen base opportunities and scampered around the bases well. Likewise, the 2009 squad managed to put up solid baserunning numbers again, ending the year with a +63 net gain (10th best) in this category.
However, after putting up two consecutive seasons as one of the league’s better baserunning units, the Twins found themselves as one of the weaker running teams. Clearly some of this loss was due to trading away Gomez, fewer at-bats for Nick Punto and the addition of the plodding Jim Thome.
Last offseason, power was emphasized but with the manner in which Target Field suppresses it, the manager and front office are understandably concerned about returning to the their speed roots.
With Orlando Hudson likely vacating second base, the Twins have the opportunity to increase speed at a position that had been recently filled by good runners. In 2009, the Twins employed both Alexi Casilla (64 games) and Nick Punto (58 games) at second base and - while they did not come close to Hudson’s 2010 offensive output - the duo demonstrated they were much more inclined to grabbing an extra base. For all of his faults with a bat, Punto was +27 net gain on the bases and Casilla added another +7 as the pair went a combined to go 27-for-30 (90%) in their stolen base opportunities. Hudson, meanwhile, finished the 2010 season second on the team with 10 steals (77%) contributing +4 bases above average but showed a reluctance or inability to take an additional base.
Most analysts speculate that the Twins will move forward with Casilla as the starting second baseman in 2011, regaining some of the speed that Hudson did not provide. However, the team has also expressed interest in other candidates, including bidding on the 26-year-old Tsuyoshi Nishioka from the Chiba Lotte Marines. Either of these two options would appear to give the lineup an upgrade in footspeed.
What’s more, is that Smith’s and Gardenhire’s remarks not-so-subtly hints at potentially non-tendering J.J. Hardy. Hardy didn’t move much on the bases but it is not as if he was historically bad either. For his efforts, Hardy provided the Twins with a +4 net gain on the bases, which was a sound improvement over his seasons while with Milwaukee. While Trevor Plouffe is often cited as a potential replacement, he isn’t necessarily a burner on the bases nor does he inspire much confidence to commit theft. In his minor league career, Plouffe has taken 43 bases in 74 attempts (58%). Although it is possible to make adjustments at this position, going with Casilla or Nishioka (who plays shortstop in Japan) rather than Plouffe, the team would be better served offensively and defensively by retaining Hardy even at his hefty salary.
With the exceptions of Hudson, Thome and possibly Hardy, the Twins figure to remain the same as 2010. The rest of the infield is static with Danny Valencia at third and Justin Morneau at first. Valencia was slightly below average in his baserunning (-6) as was Morneau (-4), but that should be expected from their power-centric positions. Unless the Twins do something radical through the trade market, the outfield is also set with Span, Young and Michael Cuddyer (as well as the occasional Jason Kubel or Ben Revere).
While only one position may be upgraded, there could be room to improve the current group through coaching and improved techniques and re-education – especially in the outfield.
While Span was the team’s best baserunner in 2010, accumulating a +19 net gain on the bases while going 26-for-30 (87%) in his attempts, he was picked off nine times (2nd highest in AL behind Elvis Andrus). Avoiding those preventable outs by reading the pitchers better would give Span, and the Twins, an edge on the bases.
Similarly, Young’s adventures on the basepaths wound up extremely average as he finished with a 0 net gain but was a huge improvement over his -13 bases below average from a year ago (this was mainly a product of hitting into fewer double-plays). At the same time, Young’s ability to steal bases has been greatly curtailed (for better or for worse). In his first two seasons at the major league level, Delmon nabbed 14 bases in 15 tries but has since gone 7-for-16 since 2009. Like Span, Young could probably stand some tutorials on how to read the pitcher better and rekindle his ability to swipe second.
Interestingly enough, Cuddyer, while not a threat to steal bases, has shown above-average baserunning skills and is able to take an extra base when required. By the James system, Cuddyer is a +6 baserunner in 2010 and intuitively moved up 26 additional bases on passed balls, fly balls and wild pitches – the sixth most in baseball last year. Bar none, the team’s biggest detriment on the bases was Jason Kubel. Kubel was baseball’s worst baserunner according to BillJamesOnline.net’s numbers. The lefty managed a -37 net gain and recorded an out on the bases 11 times – tied for second-most in the AL. Because the Twins exercised his option, Kubel figures to be in the lineup as a designated hitter and the occasional outfielder in 2011. Perhaps with more red lights at third, Kubel will have better baserunning numbers at the conclusion of next season.
In terms of team-building, the Twins have little wiggle room in the current lineup to jam in additional speed. In the infield, they may acquire one, maybe two additions to improve the quickness of the lineup. The outfield is current at capacity but may need refresher courses to improve their baserunning. For instance, they could find a class for Span such as Checking If My Cleats Are Tied Prior To Taking My Lead or perhaps having Kubel listen to Meat Loaf’s latest autobiographical book-on-tape Stopping At Third: You Don’t Have To Go All The Way Tonight.
With that in mind, if he wants to return to the base-to-base days of ’08-‘09, it appears that Ron Gardenhire may be relegated to extracting the best from what he has to work with. If he can do that with the existing crop of talent, he truly is deserving of the Manager of the Year award.