Analytics are not new to baseball. In the 1960s, Earl Weaver platooned players based on statistical profiles, and valued on-base percentage and power over batting average.
The concept of analytics became popularized because of Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane, who filled in around players everyone valued with affordable players who were undervalued. Beane was celebrated by the book “Moneyball,” written by brilliant author Michael Lewis, who turned an intelligent approach into a religion.
Today, analytics are more of a requirement than an advantage.
Even with the signing by the Chicago Cubs of pitcher Yu Darvish, baseball is shunning its best free agents this winter. The Twins promised to pursue him, but their actions indicated that they accept the new view that free agents are depreciated assets.
That’s fine, but here’s my question for the Twins bosses: How can you get ahead of the pack by hiding in the middle of the pack?
When the Twins fired Terry Ryan, they followed the indelible law of sports hiring: They went after Ryan’s theoretical opposite.
Ryan was a former scout who had spent years of his life behind backstops. Because he valued young talent and his job, he avoided spending copious amounts of his owner’s money in free agency.
The Twins hired Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, two young, analytical executives.
In their first 15 months running the Twins, they have hired more analysts, spent more of the Pohlads’ money adding staff, and, strangely, acted in their two winters much as Ryan did.
For all of the staff-building, Falvine have done little to remake the roster that Ryan built. That’s not necessarily bad. But it is strange.
During their first winter, Falvine added one significant everyday player — catcher Jason Castro. Castro appeared to help Twins pitching with his defensive skills, but Twins pitching was almost bound to improve over a disastrous performance in 2015.
Other than Castro, Falvine added a few bullpen arms, which is what every team does every winter.
We are now deep into Falvey and Levine’s second winter in charge, and it is probably good for them that they can turn to so many new analysts to explain why they have done so little.
They have theoretically improved what was a previously young bullpen, signing Fernando Rodney, Addison Reed and Zach Duke.
They have not yet improved a suspect rotation, even now that Ervin Santana will miss the beginning of the season because of a finger injury.
Here’s where I have to admit that I usually agree that spending big money on free agents is dangerous. You’re paying a veteran pitcher based on what he did at a younger age, in another ballpark, sometimes in a more pitcher-friendly league, and he could walk off the mound on the first day of spring clutching his elbow.
But the circumstances are right for the Twins to take that kind of chance.
They have just begun to win back their fan base. They are one of baseball’s most exciting teams. They might be one good starter away from making the playoffs again.
Their young players proved last year that they are ready to win. The bullpen should be a strength, even if all the free-agent relievers do is ease the pressure on the team’s quality young arms.
If the Twins don’t sign a quality starter, they could look a lot like the 2015 team. That spring, Santana missed 80 games because of a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. The team played well but missed the playoffs by three games, and having Santana the entire season would have made the difference in that gap.
Or they could look like the 2016 team, which collapsed after an early-season injury, to closer Glen Perkins, helped lead to a terrible April from which they never recovered.
The new wave of young, analytical general managers might well have come to the same, logical, conclusion: Pitchers such as Jake Arrieta become drastically overpriced in free agency.
Never before have 30 (or 29) front offices all legally arrived at the same conclusion at the same time.
So are the Twins being analytical, cautious, wise or conspiratorial?