Thursday, September 30, 2010

Twins at Royals: Better Baseball Through Movies and Television

Monday -- embarrassing
Tuesday -- embarrassing
Wednesday -- hey! Twins win!

Record: Still not the best in the American League, even though neither the Yankees nor the Rays seem to want to own it either.

I get it that it's not easy to get amped up about a meaningless game against the Royals. In fact, a couple of folks compared these last two series to another Spring Training, where guys are more worried about working on stuff and avoiding injury than playing with intensity (see Jim Crikket's piece in the Knuckleballs Blog, and listen to Seth Stohs' interview of Jamie Ogden), which makes sense.

But, really? Did they have to be so gawd-awful? Did they have to so hard to watch? Did they have to look so lifeless? Ugh.

So, with the final series, in front of their adoring fans, coming up, I thought the boys could use some motivation -- (this seems to be becoming a recurring theme in this blog, doesn't it?). I called upon my less-than-vast knowledge of excellent scripts from wonderful movies and television shows to develop a hell of an inspirational speech.

[clearing throat]
You guys. You lollygag the ball around the infield. You lollygag your way down to first. You lollygag in and out of the dugout. You know what that makes you? Lollygaggers! A good friend of mine used to say, "This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains." Think about that for a while.

This is your time. Their time is done. It's over. I'm sick and tired of hearing about what a great [baseball] team the [Royals] have. Screw 'em. This is your time. Now go out there and take it.

You just got lesson number one: don't think; it can only hurt the ball club. Now, you kids are probably saying to yourself, "Now, I'm gonna go out, and I'm gonna get the world by the tail, and wrap it around and put it in my pocket!!" Well, I'm here to tell you that you're probably gonna find out, as you go out there, that you're not gonna amount to Jack Squat! You're gonna end up eating a steady diet of government cheese, and living in a van down by the river!
And then for when the playoffs start:
I'm not much for giving inspirational addresses, but I'd just like to point out that every newspaper in the country has picked us to finish last. The local press seems to think that we'd save everyone the time and trouble if we just went out and shot ourselves. Me, I'm for wasting sportswriters' time. So I figured we ought to hang around for a while and see if we can give 'em all a nice big shitburger to eat!

Gentlemen, the hopes and dreams of an entire town are riding on your shoulders. You may never matter again in your life as much as you do right now. This is national TV. So don't pick your noses or scratch your nuts.

Let's pray: Uh, Lord, hallowed be thy name. May our feet be swift; may our bats be mighty; may our balls be plentiful. Lord, I'd just like to thank you for that waitress in South Bend. You know who she is — she kept calling your name. And God, these are good [guys], and they work hard. Just help them see it all the way through. OK, that's it.

Butt-scratcher! Butt-scratcher! Get your butt-scratcher here!

{Internet points if you can name the movies/shows. Put your guesses in the comments.}

Monday, September 27, 2010

My Super-Secret Blogger Awards Ballot

Seth Stohs invited several Twins bloggers and other media-folks to participate in voting for team “awards” – nothing official; just for fun. He calls it the " Twins Bloggers/Writers/Media Types (SSTBWMT?) Awards". Check out the results here.

When he asked me to participate, I was thrilled. I wanted to take this as seriously as I think real sport writers should take real awards. So I did a bunch of research and made a spread sheet. I chose a mix of advanced and basic stats, weighted them based on the ones I thought were important, and ranked the players. Then, I took a moment to look at the ranking with my heart, and applied a bonus for an intuitive feeling of value, “brownie points” if you will (get it? brownies?), to account for those “intangibles.”

Choosing the right stats to use is probably the most important decision; there are a lot of them and some are useful, some are not. For example, win-loss records are nice for a quick glance of today's matchups and general idea of how a pitcher is doing, but, in my opinion, have no place in awards; there are too many variables and exceptions, and there are too many factors out of a pitcher’s control to be reliable.

I did not factor in defense to my MVP ballot. I believe that taking runs away is almost as valuable as scoring them, but I also believe that great defensive skills should be the norm and not the exception. If someone had wowed me consistently with stellar glovework, I may have added a few browine points, but, honestly, no one really did.

My MVP ballot does not include pitchers for a couple of reasons. First of all, I couldn't figure out a way to convert the super-secret formula for pitchers into the super-secret formula for MVP. More importantly, however, is that since the pitchers get their own award, I didn't think they should be included with the MVP. I know this kind of slaps in the face of the definition of "value" and thereby makes it more about the stats than it probably should, but, hey, it's my ballot.
In order to spare you from your eyes glazing over, I’ll put the details of my super-secret formulas at the bottom of this post, so you can skip it if you’re not interested.

Now, since most advanced stats live on the other side of the neighborhood from me – when I see them, I wave and say “hi,” but I don’t know them terribly well – I had to invite them over and get to know them. I may or may not have chosen the best ones, and all stats are subject to interpretation and controversy, but I think I did all right. At any rate, I had fun and I learned a lot.

Here is my ballot as I gave it to Seth. Be sure to check out his blog to see how all the ballots added up and who “won” this distinguished, if not actual, honor:

Twins MVP (10 points for 1st place vote, 8 points for 2nd place vote, 6 points for 3rd, 5 for 4th, 4 for 5th, etc.)
1.) Mauer
2.) Young
3.) Morneau
4.) Cuddyer
5.) Thome
6.) Kubel
7.) Span
8.) Hudson

Twins Top Pitcher (5 points for 1st, 4 for 2nd, etc.)
1.) Liriano
2.) Pavano
3.) Duensing
4.) Crain
5.) Baker

Twins Top Rookie (5 points for 1st, 3 points for 2nd, 1 point for 3rd) -- Do I really have to pick 3? Can't I just pick Danny three times? ;-)
1.) Valencia
2.) Butera
3.) Manship

My Super-Secret Formula for MVP
I concocted a “run-responsible” factor (a combo of RBI and runs, minus HR so they don’t get counted twice). I then used a weighted formula of OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) and that runs-responsible thing. I then factored in plate appearances. I also gave demerits for GIDP (grounding into double plays), because I hate them so much. Cuddy got brownie points for his versatility, which pushed him over Thome by a hair. The fact that Morneau scored so high is a real testament to how valuable he really was -- and could've been. I really, really, really wanted Valencia to make the cut, but he just didn’t have the plate appearances and runs-responsible number to get there; there just weren’t enough brownie points for him.

My Super-Secret Formula for Pitchers:
I used a weighted formula of FIP (fielding independent pitching), WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched), and WAR (wins above replacement) to figure out who was good at pitching. Additionally, I consider being able to pitch a lot of innings valuable to the team, so I factored in innings pitched. I also applied brownie points, which gave the edge to Crain over Baker. Slowey and Blackburn were next on the list, but their high FIPs kept them off the ballot.

My Super-Secret Formula for Rookies
Ok, I gotta admit, I have no formula here. I mean, really, Valencia should get some League ROY love – not enough to win, but a few votes. Butera gets second, because he’s been in there all season, valiantly being Carl Pavano’s personal catcher. Manship gets the third spot because he’s the only eligible rookie left who I thought helped somewhat.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Twins at Tigers: Rule of Firsts

Friday -- Twins lost
Saturday -- Twins lost
Sunday -- Twins lost

Record: Well, it ain't the best in baseball anymore. I mean, I know the division race is done and all, but, sheesh, winning is way more fun than losing.

*sigh* Ok. I'm sorry. I'm a little snippy. [cleansing breath]

I understand that getting the guys healthy for the playoffs might be a smidge more important that securing home-field advantage, so I get that many of the regular position players are sitting and resting and healing. Good. I hope all the kinks are worked out this next week.

However, the starting pitchers for those three games were our playoff game one-two-three starters. So, yeah, I kind of expected a little bit better pitching than that. In fact, I expected better pitching from all the pitchers. So I think it's time to remind them of the basics of pitching. Better nip this thing in the bud right now.

A few years ago, I bought my son a new glove. A little pamphlet on the basics of baseball, aimed at youth players, was attached to it. And the section about pitching left an impression on me. So, here goes...

Ahem? Are you reading this, Twins pitchers?

The Rule of Firsts

Good pitching is as simple as the rule of firsts. The first pitch to each batter should be a strike; the first batter of each inning should be an out; the first inning of your appearance should be scoreless. If you can do that, you'll usually have a successful outing.

See? It's just that simple -- not difficult at all.

Now if I could only remember the section on defense...

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Indians at Twins: Well, Isn't This Fun?

Monday -- Indians 3 - Twins 9
Tuesday -- Indians 4 - Twins 6
Wednesday -- Indians 1 - Twins 5

Record: 92-60, your 2010 American League Central Division Champions! 

What can I say that hasn't already been said? Not only is this team fun to watch, but they're also playing very good baseball right now. Obviously, it helps that the White Sox fell into a nasty swoon, but I believe that even if the Sox had played normally, the Twins would still have taken the Division -- they're that good. It is nice to give a few of the everyday-guys a day off now and then so they're fresh for the playoffs. They still have work to do; they want home-field advantage for the first round -- they have to have a better record than the Rangers to do that -- if not for both the ALDS and ALCS -- they have to have a better record than everybody for that. They also don't want to lose momentum. Fresh and sharp should be the goal now. I'm not worried; I think they'll be ok.

I'm still pretty giddy, and tired, from last night, so here are some random thoughts, in no particular order:
  • I watched the end of the A's-White Sox game after the Twins game. If you're not familiar with White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson, suffice it to say I'm not a fan. Anyway, right when I tuned in, he was doing his best to convince his listeners that the Twins are very good and they deserved the playoffs, blah blah blah. He sounded pretty despondent, but at least he was trying. Anyway, as he was talking about the Twins' season, he went on to talk about the man who was instrumental to the great record: Jon Rauch. Um, really? He even threw out the "the straw that stirred the drink" cliche. What, is he forbidden to talk about Jim Thome? I mean, nothing against Rauch, but I don't really think he did that much heavy lifting for the whole season. Whatever.
  • During the celebration, Denard Span was joking about Danny Valencia's swagger. It was hilarious; Danny was enjoying the attention. Denard even said that everyone should "hide your daughters" from Danny. But he never said anything about hiding Danny from us cougars. Rawr.
  • Speaking of the celebration, I liked how it was fun, yet not too wild. I think that if they're going to have an over-the-top-bachelor-party-type party, they should save it for a bigger championship. Also, you should go check out my buddy Betsy's pictures on her blog. She was one of the lucky fans who stayed at Target Field to celebrate with the boys.
  • On Wednesday, most of the back-up guys got to play. There was a lot of joking on Twitter about the degree of hungoverness the boys would be. I'm sure they weren't really in that bad of shape. That's what Red Bull is for. But I bet their eyes were still stinging from the champagne. However, they all did a nice job, so it's all good.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A's at Twins: Need a Vacation From a Vacation?

Friday -- A's 3 - Twins 1
Saturday -- A's 2 - Twins 4
Sunday -- A's 6 - Twins 2

Record: 89-60, 10 games ahead

You know how it is. You had this trip planned for a year or so, and as it get closer, it seem more exciting. You plan great things, but you're not sure you'll be able to do everything you want. But then, when you finally go, not only do you do the all things you intended to do, but you also do a bunch cool things you didn't even envision. It was a perfect, eventful trip that made you so happy, but it really wore you out.

Then, on that first day back to work, you're so exhausted that you just can't concentrate on your job. You try hard, and you accomplish a little bit, but you can't help it that everything you do is half-assed. So then you beg your coworker to help you out because the deadline is coming up. He doesn't really have any reason to help you because he doesn't really like the idea of making you look good, but he doesn't mind because the project you asked him to do isn't particularly hard and it kind of makes that other coworker, the guy that no one likes, look bad (apparently it's pretty competitive where you work). However, since it's not his project, he loses focus toward the end, which pisses you off a little, but he does finish and you're grateful for the effort. So you squeak through the day no worse for wear, but, man, you really need to do better tomorrow.

When tomorrow comes, you're finally rested up, and ready to grind out more projects. Now you're bright, focused, productive, and intense. Right? Right?

Yeah Twins, I'm talking about you.

Monday, September 13, 2010

How Do You Trust?

In that moment; when a batter steps into the box, the umpire is ready, and the pitcher comes set; fans have already assessed the situation and determined a level of trust that their guy will produce the desired outcome. This confidence is the presumption in the ability of the player in this situation, in this game, at this moment to do something to help the team win. In fact, many of these trust assessments are made prior to the game, or even prior to the season, to theoretical situations in rhetorical games. Every fan who pays attention expects an outcome and then anticipates the result.

During this moment of anticipatory trust assessment, fans rely on a composite of two factors: what's on paper, and what's in the gut.

What's on paper is stats. There are lots of stats on which fans rely. They include everything from basic batting average and ERA to advanced WAR and OWn%. All fans use stats, probably more than they realize. Every time a player is introduced, either in the ballpark or over the broadcast, his basic stats are introduced with him. This is how I know that Joe Mauer is a good hitter and Francisco Liriano is pitching well this season. And for fans who want to understand more, compare players, and get predictive, there's a stat for that. There are thousands of stats for that. Stats document the history of the game. And for folks who are responsible for voting for achievement awards, the advanced stats are useful for making appropriate comparisons.

What's in the gut is an innate combination of observation, intuition, and emotion. And, like stats, they come in a wide variety of tones and flavors. While these responses can sometimes be wrong, that is, disproved by the stats, they are still quite important to the experience. These are what make us like or dislike a guy or a team no matter what. More importantly, they are what separates "fans" from "spreadsheets." This gut reaction is to blame for me trusting Matt Guerrier more than Jesse Crain -- even though Crain's numbers are better. However, this intuition is also why I'm a fan of Jim Thome's -- I don't need to know his numbers to know that whenever I want him to hit a big homer, he usually will. Some fans even throw some superstition in to the equation just for fun. Teams rely on fans to have an emotional attachment because that is what compels them to spend their time and money.

Both factors need to be present in order to know and care about the team, players, and situation. A person with no knowledge of stats won't  know what's going on; a person without emotion won't care. How a fan blends these two components depends on the fan, but every fan knows how much to take from each aspect to calculate a suitable level of trust. But no single blend is better than any other. If a fan is more interested in one part than the other, that's fine. It's a very personal relationship.

So, back to the moment...the batter, the umpire, the pitcher. This is where the trust matters most, but ultimately, matters not at all. Fans can be armed will all the data available or all the intuition possible--or both--go on to measure their confidence, but, in that moment, every one of them is reduced to waiting and hoping for the best.

And that's what makes baseball great.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Twins at Indians: The Awakening

Friday -- Twins 0 - Indians 2
Saturday -- Twins 1 - Indians 0 (12)
Sunday -- Twins 6 - Indians 2

Record -- 85-58, 6 games ahead

Despite excellent, if not downright sexy, pitching by the Twins staff this series, it seems as if the Twins batters were so busy worrying about the White Sox, the weather, what they're going to eat, allergies, spiders, or something that they forgot they were actually supposed to be hitting on Friday and Saturday. Until, that is, Jim Thome woke every one up sometime around midnight Sunday morning with a majestic blast into the night. Fortunately, the awakening lasted through the daytime hours to preserve the series and the six game lead.

Now, let's hope no one gets too drowsy or distracted during the off-day in Chicago, because if our boys can't get amped up to play this series, I don't know when they can.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Book Review: The Bullpen Gospels

Dirk Hayhurst. The Bullpen Gospels: Major League Dreams of a Minor League Veteran. New York, NY: Kensington Publishing Corp., 2010, 340 pp., $14.95 (cover price). ISBN 978-0-8065-3143-3

There's no sense burying the lead, so I'll get right to the point: I loved this book; I think you'll love it too.

I always enjoy a good locker-room story. This book has plenty of them, and they're quite creatively told. Hayhurst does a nice job of relating all these hilarious hijinks without selling out or disrespecting his teammates. It has a lot of good fun.

In addition to all the craziness, Hayhurst lets readers inside his dark corners. He stirringly reveals his uncertainties and inner struggles. His battles with his personal demons are profoundly moving and inspirational. Maybe not cancer-survivor inspirational, but certainly self-doubt-survivor inspirational, which, actually, is easier to relate to.

Just so you're aware: like I said, there are plenty of great locker-room stories, and with locker-room stories, you get locker-room language. If you're sensitive to that kind of thing, well, proceed with care.

I can't recommend this book enough. It has the added benefit of having nice short chapters, so, if you're busy, it's still an easy book to read. But, it's so much fun, and it's so well written, you won't want to put it down. Grade: A+

Royals at Twins: Shhhhh

Monday — Royals 4 - Twins 5
Tuesday — Royals 3 - Twins 10
Wednesday — Royals 3 - Twins 4

Record: 83-57; 5.5 games ahead

Ok, so all this winning, along with the smattering of losing by the White Sox, has me pretty excited. Actually, I'm downright confident — which has me scared.

You see, I have this feeling that the baseball gods must be enjoying some kind of vacation or taking a long nap or something, because how else would this be happening? I mean, not only do the Twins have a slight lead in the division, but they also are barking at the heels of the Rays and the Yankees. This never happens. Ever.

Usually in September, the Twins are scratching and clawing and praying for help just to make it to the end of the month with a respectable position. And, for the last two years, all that scratching and clawing and praying for help rewarded them with the need to play a "163." Sigh.

Clearly, I don't quite know what to do with myself. I'm happy, but I'm afraid to show it. If I hoot and holler too much, those fickle baseball gods may wake up, figure out that something's askew, and slap a nasty losing streak on my ass. For kicks and giggles. And spite. Spite doesn't feel good.

So, for now anyway, I'll be golf-clapping for the good things. And I hope the baseball gods are comfortable.