Startribune.com digital sports editor Howard Sinker used to cover the Twins and now shares season tickets with friends in Section 219 of Target Field. He blogs about baseball from the perspective of a long-time fan who loves the game, doesn’t always believe the hype and likes hearing what others think. Howard sometimes talks about sports with Cathy Wurzer on MPR's Morning Edition.
I was in the middle of writing this post when I found out the sad news about Harmon Killebrew. I stopped and pondered whether it was appropriate to keep on. Many people have noted how the graceful tone of Harmon's statement about ceasing cancer treatment has been uplifting to them. On a day when I have something encouraging to say, I figured I should keep on saying it.
As we near the one-quarter mark of the season, I think we can start drawing conclusions about some things. Here's one where my eyes and the metrics are in total agreement.
Denard Span has improved significantly in center field.
Last year, there were complaints aplenty about Span's play in center field -- that he wasn't nearly as good in the field as he'd been as a left fielder in 2009 and a right fielder in 2008.
The complaints were accurate based on the metric Ultimate Zone Rating, which takes into account range, errors and runs prevented. Here's a more detailed explanation.
Adjusted for 150 games, Span's UZR as a right fielder in 2008 was 15.8. As a left fielder in 2009, it was 17.6.
As a center fielder last season, it was 6.4, sixth best among center fielders.
This season, using UZR, he is the best.
UZR is a "plus/minus statistic." In this case, zero is considered average.
This year, Span's UZR is 8.5, which plays out to a UZR/150 of 37.7 if his level of defensive play continues. UZR is a cumulative statistic -- like home runs or errors -- as opposed to being in the average/slugging percentage/ERA universe.
Only one other regular center fielder this season has a UZR above 4 -- and that would be this guy, who some of you may remember.
As much grief as Span took for his defense last season, his UZR was above average. It suffered in the public eye, I think, because he has been compared to Carlos Gomez, who has fabulous range but didn't always know what to do with the ball after catching it, and Torii Hunter, whose UZR numbers during his Twins years don't add up to the hype. (You can decide whether that's the fault of the statistic or the fault of our perception.)
The Twins absolutely need Span to be very good in center field because he is surrounded in the outfield by defensive liabilities. Jason Kubel's career UZR/150 is minus-17.8, even though he's at 0.4 (barely above average) for this season. Michael Cuddyer's outfielder career UZR/150 is minus-7.4, including minus-12.9 in 2009, minus-20.4 in 2010 and minus-22.5 so far this season. Delmon Young's UZR/150 last season was minus-11.2 and his career figure is minus-11.3.
The Twins made a decision to go with lesser corner defense in return for the offense that Kubel, Cuddyer and Young were supposed to generate. So far, one has been worthy, one has flopped and one is just coming off the disabled list. The fact that Young and Cuddyer each have good arms does not hide the fact that they are below-average outfielders.
Back to Span: He is clearly getting a better jump on the ball than he did last season and has taken better charge of the outfield. There were times last season when he wasn't as assertive as a center fielder needs to be, whether it was calling off teammates or appearing to get tentative as he neared the ball. His arm isn't as strong as those of the other Twins outfielders, but his range much more than compensates for that. Also, Span's offensive numbers are rebounding somewhat from what they were in 2010.
If the Twins were doing well right now, I'm sure more attention would be paid to Span's defensive contributions. So it makes sense to point them out as a bright spot amid the season's travails.
Bert Blyleven has been voted into the Hall of Fame -- and that's as it should be.
Bert needed 14 tries to be voted in -- and I understand why. Sometimes the lens that we use to judge a person's accomplishments changes over time, and the subject being viewed through the lens can change too -- giving them a different appearance than they would have had years back. I can make a list of those people in entertainment, politics and sports without thinking too hard.
The 2011 Hall of Fame-sanctioned version of Bert Blyleven is the feisty competitor with an affable personality who -- by virtue of his position in the Twins broadcast booth -- is a link between the current Twins and an era gone by. Blyleven has become a cheerful press-box presence who is easily the most popular member of the team's broadcasting posse.
During his second stint with the Twins, when I was covering the team, Bert was among the last guys you would have imagined behind a microphone at the end of his career. He was a talk-if-we-win, leave-me-alone-if-we-don't clubhouse presence, which stood in contrast to most of his teammates during the mid-1980s. (Frank Viola once tried not to talk after a tough loss and couldn't hold out for more than about 20 minutes.) Some players are like that, and they have that right. But Bert's behavior did not garner him love among some of the baseball writers who would later serve as judge and jury when it came time for Hall of Fame voting.
That Bert wasn't perceived in the same way as, say, Kirby Puckett, shouldn't have mattered at all. (I put that in bold lest anyone think I'm justifying a vote against Bert because he wouldn't talk to writers after a loss. The phrase "Blyleven had nothing to say" probably said more than anything Bert would have said, anyway.)
But there were unfortunate moments that did stand in the way of his Hall of Fame case: The flipping off of booing fans at Met Stadium before he was traded for the Twins to Texas in 1976... His decision to walk out on the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1980 because of his feud with the manager... The night in Boston in 1981 when he got so upset with the home plate umpire's unwillingness to call his curve for strikes that he admitted to throwing fastball after fastball down the middle and gave up seven straight hits before being taken out.
Two of the four trades in his career -- from the Twins to Texas and from Pittsburgh to Cleveland -- came after behavior that drew attention to Bert in a negative light. And, again, that should not have meant as much as the calculation that -- if Blyleven had Jack Morris' run support -- Bert's record would have been 331-206 instead of 287-250. And removing statistics from the discussion, Bert makes the Hall of Fame many years ago if he'd played for one or two teams in his career instead of five. Or if he'd played in New York or Boston.
During the first few years of his Hall of Fame eligibility, the unfortunate incidents gave ammunition to voters that went beyond "I didn't like him and he didn't like me." Keep in mind that among the "election requirements" for Hall of Fame voting is this stipulation: "Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played."
In addition, Bert also suffered because the numbers during the second half of his career didn't match up to the numbers in the first half. Bert's ERA+ for the first half of his career (1970-80) was one point worse than the great Bob Gibson's; his second-half ERA+ (1981-92) was the same as Charlie Leibrandt's and Jarrod Washburn's. And while he had incredible seasons in 1984 and 1989, you're just as likely to remember the league-record 50 home runs he gave up in 1986 (or the 46 he yielded in '87).
In 1984, he was 19-7, 2.87 for a lousy Cleveland team. In '89, he was 17-5, 2.73 for the Angels. I'll spare you the secondary statistics, but they were in line with a pitcher having a great year. The '84 season was one of two times when Blyleven finished third in Cy Young voting, and it was notable that he finished behind two closers -- Guillermo Hernandez of Detroit and Dan Quisenberry of Kansas City. In '85, when he was 17-16, 3.17 (with 24 complete games) for bad Cleveland and Twins teams, he finished third behind 20-game winners Bret Saberhagen and Ron Guidry.
For those who have come of baseball age in an era of statistical abundance, you need to understand that the secondary stats many of us have come to value were still years from being invented, and further away from mass distribution.
Still, I don't think the '84 Cy Young results would have been kinder to Bert. The left-handed Hernandez had such a dominant season that he won both the AL Cy Young and Most Valuable Player award. In fact, the hottest argument that season was about whether a reliever should be considered for the MVP award -- and it was especially loud in the Twin Cities because the player who finished second behind Hernandez was Kent Hrbek.
But the outcome of the 1985 Cy Young voting would have been interesting if contested under 2010 "statistical conditions" that helped Seattle's Felix Hernandez win the Cy Young over bigger-winners CC Sabathia and David Price despite a 13-12 record.
In 1973, by the way, Bert's numbers with the Twins compared favorably to the pitchers who finished 1-2-3 even though he barely made a dent in the balloting, with only one third-place vote. Rich Lederer of The Baseball Analysts calls 1973 Blyleven's "forgotten season." He had a 20-17 record, while throwing nine shutouts and 325 innings for a .500 team. He had a career high of 25 complete games, too. His WHIP was 1.11, his ERA+ was 158, his K:BB ratio was 3.85:1, his WARP was 9.2 (Have I lost you?) You can again draw some comparisons to this season's AL Cy Young voting.
If nothing else. those seasons should have poked holes in the argument that Blyleven wasn't worthy because he never won the Cy Young. (By the way, Cy Young's career ERA+ was 138.)
Passage of time, attitude adjustment, perception and contemporary statistics have all served Blyleven well. Bert acknowledged the latter several times on Wednesday when he talked about why he was finally elected. The totality of his work -- not just his longevity -- finally reached the point where four out of every five Hall of Fame voters made the right choice.
It was a few years too long in coming. But Bert will find out that the outcome will be remembered much more than the battles that were fought for it to be achieved.
If you want certainty, baseball is not a good place for you.
Baseball players are more like mutual funds (and sometimes like penny stocks) than certificates of deposit. A flawed portfolio can leave you vulnerable.
For all of the money it spent last season, the Twins front office decided that it owned a flawed portfolio. Orlando Hudson outlived his usefulness at second base, J.J. Hardy wasn't the answer at shortstop and the bullpen could be replenished with better values than the departed cast.
The decision-makers may make wrong choices. But if the idea is to get past the first round of the playoffs, you need to do more than tap Hardy on the head and say, "We expect more from you than your slightly-above-average performance of 2010, young man. And don't get hurt again, OK?"
The Twins are opting for speed and hope. That's the Plan A of giving the middle infield spots to Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Alexi Casilla. Nobody expects Nishioka to be Ichiro-the-sequel, but the Twins are hoping for more than teams got from Kaz Matsui. Casilla was a bust when handed second base in 2009 and the Twins are hoping he's learned from that experience and will be stronger, at shortstop presumably, in 2011. I don't think it will turn out to be a defensive downgrade, either.
Look back a decade: Torii Hunter spent a couple of seasons making people wonder about his skills before becoming a star. Look back a generation: Frank Viola spent two seasons with a five-plus ERA before blossoming. Tell me why Casilla is utterly hopeless?
If the Twins think more team speed is one key to improvement, then I'm OK with the uncertainty that will come along with adding some. If I'm remembering right, the Twins have outperformed most teams over the past 10 years or so, which is why the "idiots-in-the-front-office" foolishness wears a little thin. There have been some mammoth fails and puzzlers along the way, but the overall record works for me.
If something doesn't work out, there will be infielders available. I'm more concerned about how the Twins are positioning themselves to make a run at a top-of-the-rotation starter sometime during the 2011 season. That's been a missing piece in October since Johan Santana left.
Speaking of starting pitchers, good luck to the Brewers and Royals with this Zack Greinke thing. I don't have much to offer, except that Carl Pavano no longer seems relevant to Milwaukee, which is good news for the Twins.
The Royals are perpetually rebuilding and they have received a promising young outfielder, their 132nd shortstop in the last six years, a minor-league pitcher and a player to be named later. Fourth place in the AL Central is within their grasp.
Rather than set off on my own about the complicated Greinke, the best thing is to leave you with this wonderful blog post from Joe Posnanski. It's very long.
Sometimes 3,500 words are worth more than a picture.
But if you really need a picture, here's one from the Twins:
There have been hard questions in the past about the personnel moves made by the Twins and there will be the appropriate tough questions in the future about surrounding Joe Mauer with the talent necessary to realize the dreams of the organization and its fans.
If the performance of the Twins and the Mauer Posse is any indications, I think there's reason to have faith.
That Mauer knows he probably took less to stay in Minnesota (probably only because of the potential for injury) is pretty irrelevant to the tale because the numbers involved are so huge as to be important only to someone who needs his ego stroked by having the biggest or fastest or hottest whatever. That's the difference between Mauer and A-Rod or LeBron or Tiger.
That Mauer's people and the Twins realized the deal on the table was great for both parties and got it done sooner rather than later is the difference between Mauer and the drama-queen Brett Favre.
That Bill Smith, Dave St. Peter and the others in the front office have quietly and dramatically turned around the reputation of the front office in the last nine months, instead of writing yammering letters to fans promising better in the future is the difference (one of 'em) between the Twins and the Timberwolves. (Looking around Target Center after FSN's broadcast of Mauerpalooza, it looked like there were more people at the press conference than at the Wolves-Raptors game.)
That Twins fans have been demanding of their team -- usually in a reasonable way -- has contributed to the current environment, I believe. If you go back to the Calvin Griffith era, the loss of the team's best players (Carew, Bostock, Hisle, Blyleven) was met more with resigned indifference than distress. People started going to pro soccer games, of all things. That's what Twins president Dave St. Peter was talking about when he told Dick'n'Bert, "This isn't your father's Minnesota Twins."
Yes, the Santana and Hunter situations were different (both from Mauer and each other), but the Twins knew you wouldn't let them go 0-for-3. After two strikeouts -- even if there was little chance of success in those first two situations -- the Twins adjusted and smacked one out of the park. Monday night's press conference was the triumphant home run trot and curtain call.
For lack of a more eloquent way to say it, the Mauer deal is what it is. It won't set a new standard for catchers because Mauer is a singular talent. It doesn't signal anything for "small-market franchises" like Pittsburgh and Kansas City because those teams have turned losing records into an art form (and the Twins were never really a "small-market team" as much as they had an unfortunate lease in a football stadium).
The Mauer deal, accompanied by the other moves, means the Twins are serious about moving into a new era with an increased sense of purpose. If you care about them, you are among those who have contributed to that.
This isn't the place to argue whether Joe Mauer squeezed every penny possible out of the Twins, gave them a hometown discount over the $1 gazillion he could have gotten from one of the Eastern Bloc powers or whatever. I'm just not interested in that debate.
From what his buddy Justin Morneau said last season, we concluded that Mauer wanted to know what the Twins were going to do to get from being division winners to first-breath World Series contenders. The answers were Orlando Hudson, J.J. Hardy, Jim Thome and contracts for several young players that keep them in Minnesota for quite a while by modest (for baseball) standards.
Many of us had the expectation for the Twins to upgrade their payroll in concert with their move to their new cash machine at Target Field, where you'll be able to buy a stuffed burger for $12 and hefty pizza slices for $5. That's happened, with a 2010 payroll that stands at $96 million and another bump coming for 2011, with the Mauer deal and a few others playing smaller roles.
The alarms that are being sounded right now -- there always has to be an alarm, right? -- is about the danger of having one player eat up 20 to 25 percent of the team's payroll.
This is where things will get interesting. But the early indications are that the Twins are already doing some planning for that future. If the promising outfielder Ben Revere is ready for the majors in 2011 or 2012, he will likely be the replacement for Michael Cuddyer, whose contract runs through the end of '11. That'll be a $10 million savings..Aaron Hicks in 2012 or '13 would keep the Twins from spending bigger money on Delmon Young, who will...
...a) never live up to his potential.
...b) bust out and make fine trade bait.
Danny Valencia looks like the low-priced future at third base and, unfortunately, I'd still bet against the Twins picking up Joe Nathan's $12.5 million option for 2012. (I'm a Nathan fan and I'll be pulling like heck for him to make a comeback, but I'm not going to be the one who leads the brigade of optimism on that one.)
That's a start. Yes, the payroll will creep upward in the years to come after this season's dramatic bump, but it's nothing that ownership can't afford. You have to wonder if this generation of Pohlads, and their interested children, could be getting a little bit of Steinbrenner in 'em. The price of ultimate victory may be uncomfortably high from a dollars-and-cents perspective, but digging deeper into deep pockets could bring a reward that trumps the discomfort.
After all, if players can give 110 percent, the owners can too.
Whatever the case, I think the Twins made this move with an eye on being much more than Joe Mauer and 24 mostly-interchangeable parts.
I'm juiced for the season.
One more thing: You can get Twins-Cardinals exhibition tickets on the Twins website, but there's a trick to doing it. Here's the deal:
If you go to the Twins schedule and click on the "T" for those games, you'll be told they're sold out.
But if you click on a game for which tickets remain and then click on the word "schedule" -- top middle of the page -- you'll be taken to a different calendar. Click on the "T" in that calendar, and there are tickets remaining for both games. As of Sunday night, for example, you could get two tickets in Section 119, Row 24 for the second exhibition.
I'm guessing this is simply a glitch that may well be fixed. But, for now, you can consider it a Section 219 Exhibition Special. Seriously, credit for this find goes to commenter "Buffalo" on Rick Prescott's BallparkMagic blog, which has great photos from the weekend.
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