TwinsCentric was formed by Twins super-bloggers Seth Stohs, Nick Nelson, Parker Hageman and John Bonnes. Together they publish at TwinsDaily.com and have authored books, e-books and magazines that provide independent and in-depth coverage of the Minnesota Twins from a fan's perspective. You can contact them at TwinsCentric@gmail.com.

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TwinsCentric: Paul Molitor and stealing bases

Posted by: Parker Hageman Updated: November 7, 2014 - 9:10 AM

Many words have been dedicated to Paul Molitor’s baseball genius since his official press conference.

Players have lined up to offer anecdotes that show how differently and intensely the Minnesota Twins’ new manager sees the game. He rolled balls down the baselines to see how a bunt will break. He pulls grass out and lets it dance in the wind to see which way the ball will carry for the outfielders. He tastes a handful of dirt so the infielders will know if there will be bad hops. In short, as a coach he has been a ball guy to the core.

Molitor’s main role in 2014 was as a baserunning coach. Sure, he aligned defenses and added an analytic flare to the process but his job was to improve the movement on the bases. Judging from raw numbers, the Twins made strides in this area. They went from first-to-third more often, they moved up bases on outs and they stole more bases.

Of all the personnel on the team from 2013 to 2014, Brian Dozier has credited Molitor as making significant improvements to his running game. In terms of stolen bases, Dozier not only increased his number of steals but also posted a higher success rate.

 

Based on that, I ran through video of stolen base attempts hoping to find unquestionable evidence of Molitor’s influence in Dozier’s game. Like suicidal leads or telepathic jumps the moment the pitcher twitches a muscle. Any video confirmation that Molitor’s tutelage helped the second baseman swindle seven more bags in 2014. Alas, there was nothing concrete that said since Molitor’s addition to the staff, Dozier started doing this differently and added more steals.

This is not to say that Molitor did not levy some improvement to Dozier’s running game -- it is simply more of an effect that cannot be picked up from the three dozen or so clips of Dozier stealing available at MLBAM. Once StatCast is made ready to the general population we may be able to decipher if he is getting better jumps but for now the available data reveals little differences in his run game. The results are not related to a reengineering of his mechanics but rather an increase in his level of preparedness.

"It's been night and day compared to every other year, as far as dissecting pitchers, knowing exactly what they do, their tendencies, stuff like that,” Dozier told FoxSportsNorth.com’s Tyler Mason in May of this year. “[Molitor] has a five, 10-minute conversation with me before every game and every single thing that he's got on film from the pitcher, tendencies, everything."

Last year, Dozier did increase the number of attempts to steal third which often came against infields that were shifting left-handed batters. After making a break for third three times in his first two seasons, Dozier bolted for the hot corner six times this year. Was that game plan created by Molitor -- or was Dozier just savvier in his third year when he perpetrated those thefts?

Beyond the pitchers, Molitor would also check out the environment. Each stadium’s infield cut would be slightly different at first base. Some have big swooping cuts like Target Field while others like Oakland’s O.co Colusieum would have small cutouts. In some case, even one foot past the cut would be borderline insanity while in the other two feet past the cut would still be a step-and-dive away from first. Before each game, Molitor would help establish where a runner’s lead should be.

“The cut on the grass at first base is different at every park,” Dozier told the Star Tribune’s Chip Scoggins after Molitor was introduced as the new manager. “He would get his lead and then visualize where that cut on the grass is right beneath his feet. So he would know the cut of the grass is at my right foot in a 14-foot lead. He would say, ‘OK, this is where my lead is tonight.’”

This advice may be able to provide a player like Dozier -- whose speed is not at the level of the Dodgers’ Dee Gordon or the Phillies’ Ben Revere -- an advantage that could provide a handful of successful stolen base attempts in a seasons.

Another element of his run game that is probably overlooked is his ability to execute a terrific slide. One thing that will stand out when reviewing Brian Dozier’s stolen base attempts of second base is that he rarely beats the throw to the base. Take this example of his successful swipe of second against the Indians in 2012. The throw beats him by a significant margin but because of his ability to stay to the outside with his body and keep his left hand in until the last second, Dozier gives shortstop Asdrubel Cabrera a minimal target.

Yes, it may seem minor but when you review the film you see that Dozier’s head-first sliding abilities likely landed him several bases in the process. Against the Padres this year, Dozier may have “stolen” a base away from the National League West team by using misdirection by sliding far right of the base and slipping his hand in under. This leaves shortstop Jedd Gyorko who has the ball well in advance of Dozier to chose between tagging his hand or his body. Gyorko splits the difference and aims for the shoulder, allowing Dozier to slide his hand underneath.

Since Dozier’s been implementing this slide since his rookie season (and possibly in the minor leagues as well), it is hard to attribute it directly to Molitor. It is possible that he helped refine that while Dozier was in the minors but it is not something created since Molitor was added to the coaching staff.

Comparing Dozier’s slide tactics to those of the game’s top base-stealers in Gordon (below) and the Astros’ Jose Altuve, you find that those fleet-of-foot individuals prefer the feet-first slide into second. Their speed in conjunction with getting good jumps allows them to beat many throws to the base and the feet-first slide gives them the ability to pop up and scamper to third if there happens to be an errant throw:

To see how much Dozier’s slide can help his numbers, consider the case of Chicago’s Adam Eaton. In 2014, Eaton swiped 15 bases in 24 attempts, a lower success rate than Dozier. Eaton, by most accounts, is faster than Dozier. According to Fangraphs.com’s Fan Scouting Reports, Eaton has scored a 79 speed score over his career. Dozier, meanwhile, is at 60 with his speed score. Eaton has good instincts and a good first step. But, unlike Dozier’s ballet around the base, Eaton is a bulldozer of a slider. While using the head-first slide, Eaton goes in direct and hard at the bag. On several occasions this has helped dislodge the ball but on others it has aided the opposing team by sliding directly into the tag:

What this boils down to is Dozier doing the little things to provide himself with an opportunity to gain 90 feet on the bases. It is knowing the pitcher, understanding the surroundings and executing a ghostrider slide. How much of this is Molitor’s influence? That’s hard to say. Dozier spoke of how much Molitor prepared him and the team which has to have some factor. Clearly he has had some when it comes to improving the running game, but how much and in what capacity is not known.

TwinsCentric: Can St. Paul save Twins?

Posted by: Nick Nelson Updated: November 5, 2014 - 9:36 AM

My top concern as a Twins fan is winning baseball games, and I know I'm not alone in that sentiment. But I'm also a sucker for a compelling storyline, and the hiring of Paul Molitor as the club's new manager has the makings of a pretty great one.

In an excellent column for the Star Tribune this past weekend laying out Molitor's many managerial merits, Jim Souhan included this tidbit, which I rather enjoyed:

"The Twins’ only concern about Molitor throughout their relationship with him has been his occasional reticence to choose a defined career path. That is no longer a concern. Two people who know Molitor well said this week that he is driven to become a great manager, and to resurrect a franchise he loves."

I've been a Twins fan and a Twin Cities resident for most my life, so I can't help but get a little revved up by that dynamic. Molitor was born here. He grew up as a fan. He picked up his 3,000th hit in a Twins uniform and retired here. And he's spent nearly his entire post-playing career serving this organization in some capacity.

His ties to the franchise and the area are strong and deep. Molitor was born in St. Paul, and coincidentally, that might become his nickname locally if he can succeed in turning around this historically bad losing spell and shaping the Twins back into contenders.

Fortunately, things are set up very favorably for the new skipper. Regardless of who was going to be in charge, the Twins are positioned to make significant strides in the coming years, with their vaunted prospect core reaching or rapidly approaching the majors.

Helping those young players develop and realize their potential is the primary task in front of the new regime, and Molitor is as well equipped as anyone for that responsibility. He has familiarity with all the upcoming prospects, not to mention those who've already arrived, through his years as a roving minor-league instructor.

By now you've probably heard Molitor referred to as a baseball "genius" or "savant," with various individuals remarking on his unique and useful insights into the game. He has also been lauded by many players for his teaching skills, and for his ability to connect with Spanish-speaking kids in the minors. These are critical strengths considering the nature of the job he's taking on.

There are plenty of things for fans to like about Molitor. But a part of me does wonder if the new manager might prove to be a little too vanilla for the tastes of some.

We all know about the rancor that has surrounded Joe Mauer during the team's recent lean years. Some complain that the highly compensated star doesn't assume enough of a vocal leadership role. His calm demeanor can be viewed as overly passive, riling up invested onlookers.

The parallels between Minnesota's new manager and its longest-tenured player are numerous. They were born in the same town and went to the same high school. They fit the same playing mold -- disciplined hitters with picturesque swings and moderate power, delivering value largely through batting average and on-base percentage. (Both also were forced to switch to less demanding positions in their 30s due to injuries.)

And, from a personality standpoint, although Molitor hasn't had a major public presence in many years, he does seem to offer traits similar to Mauer. Both are studious and cerebral in their approaches to the game. Both are fairly soft-spoken.

The cynic could see this as a problem. Ammunition for frustrated fans to unleash on the newly appointed manager if things don't take an rapid turn for the better. It's a sad thought, but we've seen it before.

Then again, one might also suggest that this pairing opens the door for a legendary tale of hometown redemption. If the Twins are to turn things around in short order, a resurgence from Mauer could be equally important to the impacts made by prospects entering the fold. And Molitor will be at the head of it all, imparting wisdom and rejuvenating a franchise to which he has dedicated a third of his life.

Two generational baseball talents from Minnesota's capitol city. One, a 58-year-old Hall of Famer managing for the first time; the other, a 31-year-old former MVP (and perhaps future Hall of Famer) looking to prove that he can still be the centerpiece of a contending team. One must lead on the field -- through his performance if not his comportment -- and the other must learn to lead from the dugout.

It'd be a hell of a story.

Gleeman and the Geek, Ep 169: Paul Molitor

Posted by: John Bonnes Updated: November 2, 2014 - 9:40 PM

Aaron and John start the podcast at New Bohemia talking about the the weird way that the news broke that Paul Molitor will be the next Twins manager and what it might mean, then run into a guy with a World Series ring, then find out he used to play with Molitor, then talk to the guy, then talk more about Molitor, and then argue about LaTroy Hawkins and Matt Capps for twenty minutes. So, basically, pretty much just like every other episode. You can listen by downloading us from iTunesStitcher or find it at GleemanAndTheGeek.com. Or just click the Play button below.

http://traffic.libsyn.com/gleemangeek/Ep_169_Paul_Molitor.mp3

Also over a Twins Daily, you'll find the offseason kicking into high gear:

- Nick Nelson lists candidates for the Twins new pitching coach

- The community reacted to the news that Molitor would be named manager. 

- SD Buhr interviewed two of the Twins prospects at the Arizona Fall League.

Gleeman and the Geek, Ep 168: Dreaming of Joe Maddon

Posted by: John Bonnes Updated: October 26, 2014 - 8:31 PM

Aaron and John talk about the Twins' three managerial finalists, the possibility of Joe Maddon entering the mix late, giving Aaron's money to listeners at Harrys.com, declining Jared Burton's option, Paul Molitor's path to replacing Ron Gardenhire, moving to a deluxe apartment in the sky, selling Kris Johnson to Japan, knowing your kids, Rick Anderson's future, the value of a great GM, and how NOT to parent at Liquor Lyle's. You can listen by downloading us from iTunesStitcher or find it atGleemanAndTheGeek.com. Or just click the Play button below.

Also at Twins Daily, you'll find more about whether Joe Maddon could join the Twins, a breakdow of the whole organization at the hot corner and a discussion of the case AGAINST all the managerial candidates.

But there's more. You can get an in depth breakdown of the Vikings win yesterday at Vikings Journal. And  if you're getting geeked up about the Wild's hot start, how about cheering a little at the games? Finally, if you're tired of this online, thing, you can also join us tonight (Monday) at Poor Richard's where we'll buy you a beer. 

http://traffic.libsyn.com/gleemangeek/Episode_168_Dreaming_of_Joe_Maddon.mp3

TwinsCentric: Twins won't tip their pitches when it comes to research

Posted by: Parker Hageman Updated: October 23, 2014 - 11:20 PM

The Minnesota Twins’ Manager of Baseball Research, Jack Goin, does not like to tip his pitches.

Most statistically-inclined minds would like to hear that the team is working on finding the next market inefficiency to exploit or running regression models on supercomputers in efforts to find an in-game strategy that would help gain a win or two. Others might just assume they are just sorting the RBI leaderboard at Fangraphs.com. Either way, Goin isn’t going to tell me what they are working on.

“I’m not overly concerned that people see us as middle-of-the-pack, below-the-pack or any of that stuff. Obviously, I’m working on where I want to get to as a department but I’m not concerned what the outside perception is, so to speak.”

By most outside estimates, the Twins likely fall in the middle of the pack. Unlike the Houston Astros who went all-in on analytics from the top down in their ballclub, the Twins seemingly view that as one piece of the equation, one ingredient in the recipe. And, unlike the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Astros, who receive splashy tell-all write-ups from Grantland and Bloomberg touting their organization’s analytical deployment, Goin likes to keep his activities and goals close to the vest.

This past August Grantland’s Ben Lindbergh revealed that the Pirates send 26-year-old Mike Fitzgerald on road trips with the team to provide information when the team is away from PNC Park. Lindbergh notes that Fitzgerald, whose title is Qualitative Analyst, is what most people would consider a friggin genius. A math graduate from MIT, Fitzgerald tags along with the Pirates to provide “direct, in-season information” to the coaching staff.

“Fitzgerald, meanwhile, makes most road trips: If the Pirates are playing, he’s almost always at the park,” Lindbergh writes. “I surveyed several analysts from other front offices, and none of them knew — or would admit to knowing — of another employee with Fitzgerald’s statistical expertise who travels close to full-time with a team.”

As a footnote to his statement, Lindbergh mentions that one of the reasons he may have been unable to find another team to admit they have the same practice is because, like the Twins, most research departments are mum on their methods. Baseball analysts, Lindbergh notes, are the secretive sort.

Goin, however, admitted that the Twins have a similar practice in place, sending one of the members of the analytics department on about sixty percent of the road trips. Like the Pirates, the Twins would be able to feed data to the coaching staff on request. Having someone from the research department traveling with the team allows him to provide insight on pitching matchups, how to pitch opposing players and, what has become increasingly more common, defensive shifts.

In 2013, the Twins fielders shifted -- aligning three infielders on one side of second base -- just 66 times (27th). This year, that number dramatically increased to over 500 times (16th).

“Joe Vavra kind of chipped away at that in 2013, starting to get some shifts involved and then Gardy was starting to go along with it then and we took it to another level for us this year,” explains Goin. “A lot of that was Molitor, he did a lot of video work.”

“I’m not sure how much Gardy liked the shift but as it started to pay off he liked it a little bit more", said general manager Terry Ryan. “We never shifted too much the last couple of years, but neither did anybody for that matter. It was always the David Ortizes, the guys you normally expect. Now all of a sudden you see shifts on three players in every lineup.”

While Goin and his team would provide data, in addition to the video work supplied by the team’s director of Major League video, Sean Harlin, the coaching staff would be responsible for deciding the game plan.

“Paul and Gardy would have a meeting, talk about who they were going to shift and how they were going to shift,” Goin said. “Then after that meeting they would have an infielders or defenders meeting with Gardy and Molitor and whoever else and then they’d talk about it: Here are the charts, how should we shift him? Step-pull, straight-away, two-steps pull or whatever it is.”

It is hard to say if the emphasis on shifting was beneficial to the team’s record in 2014. According to the shift data, the Twins finished in the middle of the pack for hits saved. At the same time, the infield’s overall defensive efficiency took a step back in 2014. In 2013, the Twins’ opponents had a batting average on grounders in play of .235. This year that increased to .258. It is possible that it is, in part, due to that the pitching staff being hit hard or that the team did not position their players in the right spot enough. Consider this, on ground balls in the middle of the diamond, opponents hit .500, the highest in all of baseball.

What Goin and his team provides to the coaching staff evolved based on preferences.

“Sometimes it starts out with a question from him and then you create some type of report from what that initial conversation was,” Goin said. “‘Oh, that’s great but can we add this or move this?’ And you add a piece that you didn’t think of at the initial conversation. They get a standard package and then different coaches get a few one-off packages that they like on their own. Brunansky and Gardy got a couple and Molitor got a couple. Rick Anderson got hitters, Bruno got pitchers and some of the other coaches got reports too. Gardy got everything.”

The Twins’ baseball research department, which started out as a one-man show several years ago, has expanded as the acceptance has increased. In addition to adding coordinator Andrew Ettel, they recently posted for a developer of baseball systems to “develop, deliver, and maintain data driven solutions for analytics and architecture of player information and evaluation systems.” This is more or less a position that has become commonplace within front offices to help create database systems for both readily available statistics like Pitch F/X and proprietary projections.

Perhaps most important for the new hire might be working with MLBAM’s new field-tracking system that was installed in a handful of ballparks, including Target Field, this past year. Unlike the Pitch F/X system which was released to the public and allowed hobbyists like Josh Kalk to tinker with the data that ultimately led to his hiring by the Tampa Bay Rays, the new system will be provided to only the teams. One of the reasons this will not be made available for the general public is because each game’s data will be terabytes. MLB will purportedly release the data to all teams prior to the 2015 season, at which point, it will be a race to see which organization can leverage the information to their advantage.

There is also the perception that the Twins decision-makers are not interested in or resistant to this kind of information. Both Ryan and Goin say that is not true, but that there is some education required.

“I got that in here and I look at it,” said Ryan, gesturing to his computer when asked about his familiarity with Pitch F/X, “but for me to decipher it I have to go to him.”

At the basic level, the Twins research department’s role appears to be the storefront of a butcher shop. Ryan does not need to know how the sausage is made, but he has trust in Goin and his staff that he is not receiving tainted meat.

“There are things that I need to be educated about that kind of catch my eye, and I've got to make sure I know what the norm is, for sure, and I go to Jack,” Ryan said of the role the research team.
 

****

It’s a piece.

That’s the common phrase that the pair offered as a response to a lot of inquiries about the use of stats and analytics when it came to decisions in the front office. In the end, the team admits that it is not a guiding light for the direction of the organization. For the stats community and analytics proponents, that may be an unsatisfying answer. For others, that might strike a good balance.


 

***For more from Terry Ryan and the Twins be sure to pre-order the Twins Daily Offseason Handbook or download the FREE SAMPLE***

TwinsCentric: Powering up the bullpen

Posted by: Nick Nelson Updated: October 21, 2014 - 10:35 PM

There are only so many worthwhile takeaways to be gleaned from an examination of the Kansas City Royals' incredible postseason run up to this point. It's just been one of those miraculous stretches of baseball where everything has kept on clicking. (At least until Game 1 of the World Series.)

It is possible that the impact of Kansas City's speed, fundamentals, and maybe even defense, can be overstated.

The impact of a lights-out bullpen, however, cannot.

During the regular season, the Royals went 64-9 when ahead after the sixth inning, and 65-4 when ahead after the seventh. This relief corps that reliably protected leads during the summer has stepped it up here in October.

When Kansas City leads after five, or gains a lead at any point thereafter, the win has been automatic.

This was an overlooked calling card in the Twins' wonder years. During Minnesota's division championship seasons of 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2010, they ranked 4th, 5th, 5th, 1st, 4th and 4th among AL teams in bullpen ERA.

This year, they ranked 10th.

So when you look at areas that need to improve, this is a pretty blatant one. A truly great bullpen can be a key difference-maker; many of those division-winning clubs lacked elite lineups or rotations but won games because they consistently could finish the job.

Fortunately, the current Twins already have that all-important piece: a shutdown closer. Like Eddie Guardado and Joe Nathan before him, Glen Perkins is an All-Star, ranking among the game's best at slamming the door.

Concerns over Perkins' sore forearm and shaky September were quelled after an MRI revealed no UCL damage.

But what of the arms leading up to Perkins? Where are those dominant arms that bridge the gap, like Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera have done for the Royals?

Casey Fien was far less dominant this year than in 2013, as his strikeouts declined and more hits fell in. Jared Burton struggled too often, and seems unlikely to have his option activated. When minor-leaguers like Michael Tonkin, A.J. Achter and Lester Oliveros got their chances, they delivered mixed results.

If the Twins want to be proactive in addressing the bullpen, they might want to seek alternatives to their present options. That could mean looking to free agency, where some intriguing names are covered in the Offseason Handbook.

But it also might mean getting creative and trying out some different things. One such idea is shifting Mike Pelfrey into a relief role, where I believe he could transform from a liability to an asset.

And here's another idea I'm starting to like: Alex Meyer in the bullpen to start the season.

He already has a full year at Triple-A under his belt and he'll turn 25 in January. He needs to be in the majors. But the Twins seem to have lingering doubts about his ability to pitch deep into games, and that's warranted. He completed six innings just once in his last seven starts at Rochester.

There might not be room for him in the rotation from the outset, if the Twins sign a pitcher or want to give Tommy Milone a look.

So why not let Meyer start out in a relief role, where he can gain confidence pitching in short stints while blowing big-league hitters away with his elite stuff?

The Twins brought Francisco Liriano along in this manner in 2006. He dominated pitching a couple innings at a time as a potent weapon out of the bullpen during the first six weeks, and was already rolling by the time he hit the rotation in mid-May.

Since Meyer only pitched 130 innings last year and ended on an injury scare, the Twins will want to manage his workload. Serving as a reliever those first few weeks or months will allow him to pitch deeper into the season without vastly exceeding his inning total from 2014.

Ideally, he'll pitch well in this role, refine his control, and be ready to stretch out and step in as a starter when help is inevitably needed. Or else the Twins could let him work as a reliever the entire season. The Cardinals did so with Adam Wainwright his rookie year, and he turned out alright.

Whichever route they choose to go, Minnesota must find a way to harness Meyer's overpowering arm. It makes little sense to send him back to the minors.

~~~

Interested in discovering more ideas for improving the club for 2015? The Twins Daily Offseason Handbook is now available for pre-order, and for a limited time you can lock up your copy for just $3.99. If you're a Twins fan, give it a try. I promise you'll enjoy.

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