Sunday Notes: Winter Meetings Managers, Terry Ryan, Blyleven, more

The Minnesota Twins exceeded expectations in 2015, winning 83 games and remaining in contention for a Wild Card berth until the final weekend of the season. Many see it as an anomaly and are wont to predict regression. Others are more bullish, despite the team’s question marks and lack of star power.

Terry Ryan raised an eyebrow when I inquired as to the quality of his club heading into the coming campaign.

“It’s not only knowing where you are, but who you are,” Ryan told me. “And I think I know who we are. I also know where we came from.”

The longtime GM made a salient point. Four games over .500 is meaningful progress when you’re a small-market team coming off of four consecutive 90-plus loss seasons. Not that he’s satisfied. Prior to their 2011-2014 doldrums, the Twins captured six AL Central titles in a 10-year stretch. To Ryan, what’s anomalous is losing.

“We can be happy with what we did last year, but we shouldn’t be overjoyed, by any stretch,” said Ryan. “We have a long way to go. I would hope that last year was just us moving in the right direction.”

Which is, again, the question at hand. Along with voicing the word “hope,” Ryan indirectly admitted that the baseball gods smiled on the Twins this year. When I brought up the idea of some teams being better at outperforming their peripherals and winning close games, he demurred.

“That tends to be cyclical,” proffered Ryan. “No matter how much you want to predict, or what kind of statistics you use, sometimes you don’t win those games, and other times you do. Last year, it seemed like we found a way. Two years ago, we didn’t seem to get those wins.”

Then there are the building blocks. Ryan offered that “maybe 10 guys” played above his expectations, including members of the club’s kiddie corps. That’s more of a positive. Pointedly stating that he’s in the business of projecting, he expects the 22-to-26-year-old group to continue to get better. If they do, Ryan is right that the Twins can once again contend.

“It was a good year,” opined Ryan. “We got back on the right track. Now, if people don’t think we can do it again, we have to prove them wrong.”

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This past season, a manager told me that he rarely has to make “gut decisions,” as most scenarios are gone over prior to the game. I shared that with Andy Green, and asked how similarly he expects to operate in his first year as a big-league skipper.

“I have historically managed games in my head before they happened,” answered Green, who will be at the helm in San Diego. “But rarely do they transpire how you manage them in your head. I think there is always that point in time where you have to trust your instincts, but your instincts, a lot of times, have to do with the information you’ve taken into consideration prior to the game. It shapes your instincts.”

Green went on to say he’s as “analytically inclined as anybody in the game” and that he’s “probably inclined to evaluate each situation based on the numbers.” Even so, he believes there are “times where you throw the numbers out the door.”

My first impression of the Padres’ new manager was positive. He came across as cerebral and no-nonsense, and he definitely has a grasp on the manager-media dynamic. Elaborating on his willingness to succumb to the gut, the 38-year-old said, “That’s instincts and feel, and I guess in time you guys will question those instincts and feel.”

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I posed the gut-decision question to Chip Hale, and the Arizona Diamondbacks manager answered as follows:

“I truly believe once you get in that situation, and once that decision has to be made, you have to trust your gut. But you’re going to trust it because you have done all your homework. If you haven’t done any homework, then you’re just sort of guessing. If you do all the homework — look at all the numbers that are given to you, who is hot, who is not; all those things that you can look at on a piece of paper — then your gut will react well. If not, it’s just flipping a coin.”

———

A veteran manager once told me that it’s often easier to go up against other veteran managers, even the great ones, because he knows their tendencies. Rookie managers can be challenging, as they’re more unpredictable.

With that in mind, I flipped the script and asked Seattle Mariners first-year manager Scott Servais how important it will be to learn his counterparts’ tendencies.

“I think it’s important (to) kind of know how the other manager is wired,” said Servais. “You don’t know everything they’re going to do, (but) you have a feel. You have an advance scouting report, stuff like that.

“Fortunately for me, I’m very well versed in the American League West. I’ve spent a lot of time there the last 10 years. Know the clubs, know the personnel on the field. It can be important. I’m not going to downplay it, but I kind of look at it as, ‘I’m the guy they don’t know.’ That’s my advantage right now.”

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It’s always fun to speculate when a baseball executive suggests something is proprietary. That was the case when Rockies GM Jeff Bridich opted to not elaborate on his opinion that certain types of position players are better suited for Coors Field than others.

Going on the assumption that he was referring to hitters, and not defenders, I went fishing in Nashville. Using my best guess as bait, I asked Colorado manager Walt Weiss if contact rate is more important at Coors than it is at other ballparks.

“Yeah, it’s an offensive park,” responded Weiss. “If the ball is in play, you’ve got a chance. We talk a lot about, when you get to two strikes, what your approach is, and trying to save at bats and put balls in play. That’s important. If it’s in play, there’s a lot of grass out there and you get rewarded for it.”

Those were Weiss’s words on Monday. On Thursday, Bridich signed all-or-nothing slugger Mark Reynolds.

Go figure.

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Addressing his team’s use of analytics, Weiss brought up how the Rockies have gone from shifting less than anyone in baseball, to a shift-happy squad. I asked what prompted the philosophical about-face.

“We probably didn’t have as much data the year before,” responded Weiss. “There was talk about it with our analytics guys upstairs, about doing it more. I was very curious about it. So the off-season after 2014, one of the challenges I posed with our front office guys was, ‘Let’s talk about shifting and how can we utilize it to our advantage.’ And they dove in. You saw the results.”

———

Going back to contact rates, a manager I spoke to off the record told me he feels it’s more important at Coors Field than anywhere else. To him, the combination of light air and vast expanses provides extra incentive to put as many balls in play as possible.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards is hitter-friendly in a different way. A veritable launching pad with its smaller dimensions, it is home to a higher percentage of long balls relative to base hits. I asked Baltimore manager Buck Showalter for his thoughts on the subject.

“To me, it’s about contact-to-damage ratio,” said Showalter. “Chris Davis has great contact-to-damage ratio, and that’s why you sometimes live with the strikeouts. If you have a guy who hits three or four home runs a year, it’s more important for him to put it in play, especially if he can run. There are different dynamics.”

Houston Astros manger AJ Hinch agreed with Showalter on hard contact, saying “Velocity off the bat is probably more important in terms of the smaller ballparks.”

Speaking in more general terms, Hinch went on say, “Contact is your friend. We learned that in the playoffs, playing the Royals.”

Houston had the second-lowest contact rate in baseball last year. Baltimore was third lowest. The Chicago Cubs swung and missed more than anybody.

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Brad Ausmus admits that the pitch framing skills of his catchers are “a little bit of a concern.” They should be. Per Stat Corner, James McCann ranked dead last among MLB backstops in his rookie season. Recently acquired Jarrod Saltalamacchia held that dubious distinction in 2014, and he once again occupied a low rung in 2015.

The Motown manager knows the position well — he squatted behind a big league dish for 18 seasons — and he anticipates improved framing from the 25-year-old McCann.

“McCann has already begun drills to try to rectify that,” said Ausmus. “It’s something he’s aware of. We’re aware of what parts of the strike zone he struggles the most with. He’s a voracious worker, so I’m not concerned about it.”

Ausmus went on to say he expects the youngster to grade out higher in the coming season. As for the 30-year-old Saltalamacchia, no opinions were forthcoming — at least not when it comes to framing.

“I’ll have to watch him before I can make any determination on that,” said Ausmus. “(But) this is a guy who was a starting catcher for a World Series championship team, so he must do some things well.”

———

This past summer, I wrote about how Javier Lopez was within range of Trever Miller’s record of 76 appearances in a single season without recording a decision. It wasn’t to be. Lopez was credited with a win on August 28 and finished the year 1-0 in 77 games.

Earlier this week, I learned of Ed Olwine.

With apologies to Mr. Olwine, his name barely rang a bell when it was brought up by Lopez’s agent, Barry Meister, whom I spoke to in the lobby of the Opryland hotel.

In 80 appearances over three seasons with the Atlanta Braves (1986-1988), Olwine logged only one decision. Were it not for a sacrifice fly allowed by the pitcher who replaced him in a game against the Pirates, Olwine have would finished his career 0-0.

Who has the record for most career appearances without a decision? It’s Erik Plantenberg, who appeared in 61 games for the Mariners and Phillies from 1993-1997.

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One of the great things about the Winter Meetings is meeting new people. I was introduced to Meister by Tigers beat writer, and all-around good guy, Jason Beck. That same morning, I met someone who shall go unnamed.

A job fair takes place at the Meetings each year, attracting a plethora of applicants in search of (mostly) entry-level positions at the minor-league level. I had the pleasure of chatting with some of them, including a personable, soon-to-be graduate of a small university, who happens to be a sidearming righty on the baseball team. After shaking his hand and wishing him luck, I clandestinely looked up his stats on my iPhone. This past season, he made seven relief appearances and had a 19.89 ERA.

Kudos to the kid for recognizing that his front office possibilities are more promising than his on-the-field chances at the professional level.

——

Bert Blyleven had one of best curveballs in history. Had his career started earlier, it might have been even better. The Hall of Fame hurler debuted in 1970, two years after the mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10 inches.

“I wish I could have pitched on the mound that Koufax did,” Blyleven told me. “By that I mean the higher mound, before they lowered it after the 1968 season.

Does five inches make for a notable difference?

“Oh yeah,” said Blyleven. “Not only the break, but also the angle toward where you end up. Not to take anything away from Sandy and those guys, but Sandy was on a mound that was 15-20 inches high, and the steepness of the drop created that great curveball.

“I’ve talked to Camilo Pascual — he had a great curveball — about it. He said that when they lowered the mound, it affected his curveball. Having never pitched off that higher mound, I don’t know how I’d have done, but I’ve always wondered.”

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Brett Cecil had the highest swing-and-miss rate (57.5%) on curveballs this past season. Keone Kela was second, at 51.5%.

Chris Davis had the highest swing-and-miss rate on curveballs (45.7%) for all hitters. Ryan Howard (44.65) was second.

Per Bill Chuck of Gammons Daily, Dallas Keuchel and Jeff Samardzija led MLB with 257 at bats for batters the third time through the lineup. Batters hit .268 against Samardzija and .210 against Keuchel.

Harmon Killebrew had 559 home runs, the most in Minnesota Twins franchise history. Kent Hrbek and Bob Allison, who are number two and three on the list, combined to hit 549.

Per Ace of MLB Stats, the most pitches Mariano Rivera threw in a major league game was 129. That’s more than highest one-game pitch totals for Felix Hernandez (128), David Price (127), Zack Greinke (125) and Madison Bumgarner (124).

We hoped you liked reading Sunday Notes: Winter Meetings Managers, Terry Ryan, Blyleven, more by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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JohnOlerud
Member
JohnOlerud

That Mariano Rivera stat is absolutely incredible.

JohnOlerud
Member
JohnOlerud

I reflexively thought it came as a reliever. Nay, it came as a starter in 1995. Lame.

ElJimador
Guest
ElJimador

Not only that but it was the only start that Rivera ever went deeper than 6 innings. Overall his ERA in 10 starts as a rookie was 5.94 thanks in large part to being the poster boy for the 3rd time through the order penalty (hitters OPS’ed 1.227 against him in their 3rd PA of the game). So I’m not really sure what that stat is supposed to tell us.