Archive for March, 2011

Carlos Gonzalez Was Good And Lucky

Carlos Gonzalez’s gigantic breakout was one of the great stories of the 2010 season. Few players in major league history have exploded onto the scene quite the way he did — leading the circuit in hits, total bases and batting average, and finishing third in NL MVP voting.

So impressive was CarGo’s effort that he might have won more fantasy leagues for his owners than perhaps any player other than Jose Bautista, and he also earned a seven-year, $80 million contract. Not bad for a player in his first full big league season.

But in a year of amazing numbers, one stat soared so high that it makes you wonder whether Gonzalez can do it again. Major league hitters batted .297 on balls hit in play last season; Gonzalez hit .384.

To understand what .384 means — and to find out whether this amazing performance is repeatable — we need to examine how baseball research has influenced the way we’ve come to evaluate pitchers and how hitters are subject to many of the same variables, although to a lesser extent.

Ten years ago, an inquisitive student and baseball fan named Voros McCracken wrote an article for Baseball Prospectus that set the analytical community on its head. The story, titled “Pitching and Defense: How Much Control Do Hurlers Have?” posited that pitchers had very little control over a pitch once the hitter made contact. Once a hitter put the ball into play, the pitcher was at the mercy of his defense, which would decide whether the batted ball would result in a hit or an out. Our understanding grew, to the point where we also could describe a batted ball as neither the result of pitching nor defense but rather pure luck (or random variance, or however you want to describe a seven-hopper squirting through while a scorching liner lands right in a fielder’s glove).

Today, we use one five-letter acronym as short-hand for the separation of pitching and hitting from defense and luck: BABIP (batting average on balls in play). McCracken’s theory has held up well during the past decade, with few pitchers managing to post BABIP results drastically different from league norms throughout a career. (League average is typically around .300 or a shade below.) But BABIP means something different on the hitters’ side. Hitters tend to show more BABIP variance throughout their careers, both above and below league norms, than pitchers do.

One of the most common ways for a hitter to post unusually high BABIP numbers is with great speed. Ichiro Suzuki sports a career .357 BABIP, making him perennially one of the league leaders. His hitting approach is unique, specifically tailored to his ability to hit ’em where they ain’t, and to beat the play when the ball doesn’t leave the infield.

According to FanGraphs, Ichiro’s career ground-ball rate is a sky-high 55.7 percent, compared to just a 24 percent fly-ball rate. Grounders turn into hits more often than fly balls for any player. In Ichiro’s case, he is fast enough to beat out a ton of infield hits and possesses a swing that has him bailing out of the box early, propelling him halfway to first base by the time the ball takes its second hop. Ichiro’s slashing approach also has netted a career 20.3 percent line-drive rate, a high-average figure that also makes hits more likely.

By both traditional and advanced measures, CarGo ranks among the fastest players in the game today. He stole 26 bases in 2010, an impressive-enough total. But take a look at his speed score, a metric devised by Bill James that combines a player’s stolen-base percentage, frequency of stolen-base attempts, percentage of triples and runs scored percentage. By that standard, CarGo ranked 11th in the majors, well ahead of Ichiro, and also above known speedsters (and prolific base stealers) like Juan Pierre and Rajai Davis.

The bigger factor boosting CarGo’s BABIP, though, is Coors Field. The accompanying table lists the BABIPs of the Rockies’ 10 most frequently used hitters. Eight of the 10 came in above .300, four of them above .325. The list of BABIP outperformers includes fast guys like CarGo and outfield running mate Dexter Fowler but also plodders like Melvin Mora, Brad Hawpe and Todd Helton.

Coors Field is a well-known hitters’ haven, and it even helps batting average on balls in play. The league’s BABIP was .297 in 2010, but most of the Rockies far exceeded that figure.

Player 2010 BABIP
Carlos Gonzalez .384
Ryan Spilborghs .341
Dexter Fowler .328
Troy Tulowitzki .327
Melvin Mora .324
Brad Hawpe .314
Ian Stewart .308
Todd Helton .307
Clint Barmes .263
Seth Smith .256

No major league park boosts hits more than Coors, whether you’re using 2010 figures or more reliable three-year park factors. According to stat-tracking site StatCorner.com, Coors does tend to help right-handed hitters a little more than it does lefties. Still, the spacious Coors outfield, the lack of ample foul territory (as seen in parks like Oakland Coliseum) and some managers’ desire to play deep and prevent extra-base hits have conspired to boost hits across the board, be they singles, doubles or triples on balls in play, not to mention the homer spike we’ve come to know through the days of the Blake Street Bombers to more recent balls-in-humidor tactics.

Even accounting for Gonzalez’s speed, his own healthy line-drive rates (20.8 percent in 2010, 20.7 percent career) and high ground-ball-to-fly-ball rate for a power hitter (42.5 percent GB vs. 36.6 percent FB last year), and Coors Field’s significant impact, Gonzalez’s BABIP was abnormally high last year. Only Austin Jackson’s and Josh Hamilton’s numbers were higher, and only four batting-title-qualified hitters in the past three years have topped Gonzalez’s .384 BABIP from last season. Other numbers warrant concern, such as Gonzalez’s strikeout-to-walk ratio (nearly 4-to-1 in 2010) and his poor walk rate (just 32 unintentional walks in 628 plate appearances last year).

But Gonzalez is still a 25-year-old outfielder with immense physical talents, playing in the friendliest hitters’ park in the game with a skill set that suggests he’ll continue hitting — and BABIPing — his way to big numbers. Don’t expect the moon this season. Do expect another round of impressive results. Even his true level of a talent is a .350 BABIP, he’s still an All-Star.


Brandon Belt Should Stay In The Minors

With Opening Day less than a week away, the San Francisco Giants still have a few things to decide before finalizing their roster: Who will close while Brian Wilson recovers from an oblique strain? Does Aaron Rowand deserve another chance to try and earn his inflated salary? And, most importantly, what should they do with top prospect Brandon Belt?

The left-handed slugging first baseman — and sometimes outfielder — demolished minor league pitching last year, climbing from Class A all the way to Triple-A and hitting at every stop along the way. He capped his season with a monstrous showing in the Arizona Fall League and has continued to impress with his advanced hitting skills during spring training. Despite having only one professional season of experience, it appears that Belt has little left to learn in the minors.

However, the decision on whether or not he should break camp with the big league team is more complicated than simply determining whether he’s good enough to handle major league pitching right now. The question the Giants need to answer is whether Belt’s potential production in the first two months of the season might outweigh the escalating costs they would face down the line. Based on some projections and historical comparisons, we can help them with the calculations.

Let’s start with Belt’s estimated production. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projects his season line at .266/.357/.440, suggesting he’d immediately become the Giants’ fourth-best hitter if inserted into the lineup on Opening Day. Even with his defensive limitations (or Aubrey Huff’s, depending on who they moved to get his bat in the lineup), he’s likely a better player than Pat Burrell is right now. And, with Cody Ross set to begin the season on the disabled list, the Giants have the opportunity to give Belt regular playing time out of the gate.

However, the marginal improvement from adding Belt (or Huff) to the outfield rotation on Day 1 may not be as large as you might think. If we just focus on April and May — Belt will almost certainly be up in early June regardless of what they decide to do next week — the Giants have about 600 at-bats to distribute between first base, left field and right field. Below are the projected performances with and without Belt:

Huff, Burrell, Ross, Nate Schierholtz, Mark DeRosa: .265/.335/.445
Huff, Belt, Ross, Burrell, DeRosa: .265/.343/.446

Shifting some playing time from Schierholtz and Burrell to Belt represents an upgrade, but not a significant one — the difference in those two lines is only worth about five runs. A five-run improvement equates to an expectation of about half a win difference in terms of projected finish. Of course, given that the Giants could very well be in a dogfight for the National League West crown, the prospect of potentially adding even just one win to their final record is quite valuable.

Based upon research by Nate Silver in Baseball Between The Numbers, the revenue generated by a win for a team in playoff contention was close to $2.5 million in 2006 — economic inflation since then likely pushes the total to more than $3 million now. If having Belt on the roster in April and May added half of a win to their expected total, that performance could be worth between $1 million and $2 million in revenue that the Giants wouldn’t otherwise get if he spent the first two months in Triple-A.

However, when we look at the long-term cost differences related to the amount of service time Belt accrues this year, $1 million to $2 million quickly begins to look like pocket change. If he were to spend at least 172 days on the active roster this season, he’d be on target for free agency after the 2016 season. If the Giants hold him down for just three weeks, they’ll push his ability to hit the open market back by a full year, gaining the rights to his services for the 2017 season that they otherwise would not have. The additional value of having Belt under contract for an additional year — in what should be the prime of his career — is worth far more than $1 million or $2 million in potential revenue in 2011.

The bigger question is whether the Giants should choose to leave Belt in Triple-A until early June in order to prevent him from reaching “Super Two” status. While most players do not become eligible for salary arbitration until after they have accrued three years of service time, the top 16 percent of players with two-plus years of service are granted arbitration a year early and end up going through it four times rather than the usual three.

To see the impact this can have on a player’s salary, here are two relatively comparable players, one whom was awarded Super Two status and one who was not.

Hunter Pence (Super Two)
2007 — $380,000
2008 — $396,000
2009 — $439,000
2010 — $3.5 million
2011 — $6.9 million
Total: $11.6 million

Yunel Escobar (not Super Two)
2007 — $380,000
2008 — $402,500
2009 — $425,000
2010 — $435,000
2011 — $2.9 million
Total: $4.5 million

By achieving arbitration a year earlier and using escalating raises to increase his salaries as he goes through the process, Pence has already earned an addition $7 million in salary, and will likely continue to outpace Escobar significantly going forward. By the time they reach free agency after the 2013 season, the difference in career earnings could be as high as $15 million.

The Giants know these numbers and they are well aware of the fact there are significant cost savings to be gained from leaving Belt in the minor leagues for two months. (Remember, they faced a similar dilemma with Buster Posey last year, and chose to keep him in the minors to begin the year.) Given the fact they have viable alternatives at first base and in the outfield, it is tough to argue that the benefits of having Belt on the roster for April and May justify the long-term costs associated with granting him Super Two status, much less allowing him to reach free agency a year earlier.

When it comes to promoting young players who aren’t demonstrably better than what you already have on the roster, patience really is a virtue.


Rays Right To Let Pen Go

By any objective measure, the Tampa Bay Rays bullpen was terrific in 2010.

Rays relievers posted the lowest team ERA in the American League last season (3.33). Using FanGraphs’ fielding independent pitching (FIP), a stat that runs along a similar scale to ERA but strips out the impact of balls hit in play, the Rays ranked second at 3.76. The Rays’ three best relievers and seventh-, eighth- and ninth-inning men, Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, and Rafael Soriano, were all among the AL’s top 10 relievers by Baseball Prospectus’ expected wins added stat. No way the Rays win 96 games and their second AL East title in three years if not for the bullpen’s knockout performance.

So when Tampa Bay’s top relievers all became free agents at the end of the year, the Rays took stock of their roster … and let them all go. And here’s the crazy part: They did the right thing.

The most basic reason for dropping six relievers in a single offseason is that relief pitchers are the single most unpredictable commodity in baseball. Only four relievers in all of baseball have posted an FIP of 3.50 or lower in each of the past four seasons: Jonathan Broxton, Huston Street, the now-retired Billy Wagner and, of course, Mariano Rivera. Try a more modest query and you’ll still find a very small group of consistently excellent pitchers — just 15 have posted sub-3.50 FIPs in each of the past three seasons (minimum 10 IP per season). Trusting a non-Rivera reliever to be great (or even good) every year is an unrealistic proposition.

Like all players, the time frame that counts the most in evaluating a relief pitcher’s future value is his most recent season. In the Rays’ case, they had to match other teams’ offers on a passel of pitchers coming off career or near-career years. The table below shows the monster seasons put up by Balfour, Benoit and Soriano, plus a slightly-better-than-usual season for left-handed specialist Randy Choate. Even if the Rays re-signed every one of last year’s relievers, there’s no way they could have expected that group to duplicate their 2010 performances.

The table also shows the dollars and years commanded by this buy-high crew. Lefty specialists who can’t get a right-handed batter out to save their lives practically grow on trees, yet Choate secured a guaranteed two-year contract. Benoit earned a $16.5 million deal, less than two years removed from major shoulder surgery. Soriano’s three-year, $35 million contract to serve as Rivera’s apprentice was so stupefying that Yankees GM Brian Cashman immediately pointed the finger at other front office members for offering the deal, coming as close to overtly blasting his own team’s spending as any GM has over any move in recent history.

RAYS BULLPEN PERFORMANCE IN 2010
Player 2010 ERA Career ERA 2010 FIP Career FIP New Contract
Rafael Soriano 1.73 2.73 2.81 3.23 3 yrs/$35M
Joaquin Benoit 1.34 4.47 2.43 4.30 3 yrs/$16.5M
Grant Balfour 2.28 3.31 2.68 3.47 2 yrs/$8.1M
Randy Choate 4.23 4.39 3.50 3.80 2 yrs/$2.5M

By jettisoning the big three and Choate, the Rays also collected multiple compensatory draft picks. Tampa Bay pocketed the 31st and 42nd overall picks in the 2011 draft for losing Soriano. Benoit brought back the No. 52 pick, Choate No. 56. Baseball’s arcane free-agent compensation system can even pay off when teams lose players of dubious repute. Chad Qualls posted an unfathomable 7.32 ERA last season, partly due to bad luck on balls in play, but also due to injuries and an overall decline in effectiveness. Yet the Rays still scored the No. 60 pick in the draft for watching Qualls sign elsewhere.

All told, Tampa Bay holds 12 of the first 89 picks in the 2011 draft, a bounty never before seen in major league baseball. Those picks will require plenty of cash to pay for them all, cash saved by not, say, throwing $35 million at Rafael Soriano. Draft picks are wildly unpredictable, with even first-rounders often failing to pan out. But the long-term upside for top picks is also much higher than whatever you’d get from a typical 30-something relief pitcher. For a team that lives and dies with its homegrown talent as it competes against much wealthier rivals like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, the draft is a much smarter venue for aggressive spending.

Building a brand-new bullpen filled with unproven commodities still carries major risk, of course. The Yankees and Red Sox now sport loaded bullpens to go with their loaded lineups, adding the likes of Soriano and Bobby Jenks to their stables. One can’t help but wonder how long the Rays can keep knocking off the beasts of the East with a much smaller payroll, especially with the team’s already modest 2010 payroll of $73 million dropping by a full $30 million for 2011.

But, as I wrote about the Rays in my book on their unlikely worst-to-first journey, they have started to make a habit of pulling off such financial miracles. (See ESPN.com’s excerpt of the book here). Finding players with hidden value has been one of the keys to their rise; finding relief pitchers with hidden value has been a linchpin of that success.

This year’s projected bullpen is no exception. Remember the 15 pitchers with FIP marks of 3.50 or lower in each of the past three seasons? Adam Russell, a 6-foot-8 behemoth with big strikeout rates and ground ball tendencies, is one of those 15 (more than 54 combined major league innings, granted, but he showed those skills in the minors too).

Hard-throwing, homegrown lefty Jake McGee could emerge as a high-leverage relief ace for years to come. Joel Peralta signed for just $925,000 after striking out a batter an inning, posting a 2.02 ERA and a 3.02 FIP last year with the Washington Nationals. Yankees fans might cringe just from hearing the name Kyle Farnsworth, but the hulking righty has blossomed into an excellent reliever, picking up a cut fastball, slicing his walk rate and posting FIPs of 3.10 and 3.06 the past two seasons.

If those names don’t excite you, remember that the Rays have built great bullpens from spare parts before. They grabbed Balfour off the scrap heap from the Milwaukee Brewers, designated him for assignment, brought him back to the big leagues, then watched him turn into a dominant force on the Rays’ 2008 pennant-winning team. Balfour’s running mate that year, J.P. Howell, was acquired in a trade for Joey Gathright, a player with little on his résumé other than jumping over cars on YouTube.

Last month the Rays signed Juan Cruz, nabbing a fly-ball pitcher with big strikeout rates coming off a shoulder injury, for the price of a minor league contract. The deal looked like a classic Rays move. Benoit was once a struggling starter with Texas before finding success in the Rangers’ bullpen. He had major shoulder surgery in January 2009 and missed that entire season. But where others saw defects, the Rays saw opportunity, in the form of strong career strikeout rates and fly-ball tendencies that could work out much better in Tampa Bay, given the team’s strong outfield defense and Tropicana Field’s far friendlier park effects for pitchers. The Rays signed Benoit to a minor league deal in February of last year, ultimately paying him a grand total of $750,000 … to pitch like vintage Dennis Eckersley.

The lesson here: Don’t overpay to bring back last year’s success stories. Instead, dig deep to find the new one, for millions less. It’s a smart move for any team trying to build a bullpen.


Optimizing Boston’s Line-Up

The Boston Red Sox had a banner offseason, bringing in both Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford to bolster their offense and their chances in the American League East. Now that they’ve added two more weapons to their lineup, Terry Francona has to figure out how to piece it all together — given the numerous options the Red Sox have accumulated, that’s easier said than done.

The projected starting nine for the Red Sox leans very heavily to the left-hand side. Gonzalez and Crawford have displaced Adrian Beltre and Mike Cameron from last year’s starting lineup, giving the team two additional bats from the left side. Along with Jacoby Ellsbury, J.D. Drew and David Ortiz, the Red Sox will have five regulars who bat from the left side, and all of them are used to hitting near the top of the order. Balancing the order so that the lefties aren’t all bunched together will be a challenge for Francona.

Complicating the process is the fact Crawford feels he “sucked at it” when asked to hit first, and while he’s said that he will hit wherever Francona asks him to, he’s admitted to being more comfortable in another spot in the order. Crawford’s skills scream leadoff hitter, but that might not be a viable option if the Sox determine that his production could suffer in a spot he doesn’t like to hit.

Putting the Red Sox lineup together isn’t easy, but with the help of the research done by Tom Tango and Mitchel Lichtman in “The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball”, we can make some suggestions on how the batting order should be arranged, based on their 2011 ZIPS projections:

1 — J.D. Drew — .260/.362/.473 projected line

There are two main things you want in a leadoff hitter: a high on-base percentage and relatively low power. Drew has more power than a classic leadoff hitter, but he does get on base — his career OBP is .387 — and he doesn’t hit so many home runs that his power would be wasted by launching too many solo shots. While he’s not a big base-stealing threat, the rest of the Sox lineup is so good that they shouldn’t be trying to steal too many bases at the top of the order anyway. They are better off with their speed guys hitting lower in the order.

2 — Kevin Youkilis — .280/.382/.505 projected line

While OBP is king for the first spot in a lineup, you want your second hitter to be a bit more balanced, as he can create a lot of value by driving that runner in with an extra-base hit. In order to avoid allowing a lefty specialist to get multiple outs against LH bats earlier in the game, it’s best to put a right-handed bat behind Drew. Youkilis gets the edge over Dustin Pedroia here, which also puts two high on-base guys at the top of the order.

3 — David Ortiz — .260/.363/.509 projected line

While the No. 3 spot is traditionally considered the spot for the team’s best hitter, the No. 4 hitter actually comes to the plate with runners on base more often, and the No. 3 hitter leads the team in at-bats with two outs and no one on. On a team with fewer quality hitters, Ortiz would hit clean-up, but surrounded by this much talent, Ortiz should slide in to this less important role. Having only one right-handed batter between him and Drew isn’t ideal, but it’s a byproduct of the Sox’s LH-heavy lineup.

4 — Adrian Gonzalez — .316/.407/.569 projected line

The cleanup hitter should be your best hitter with power and that’s exactly why the Red Sox acquired Gonzalez. While every other position in the batting order has a reasonable alternative, this is where Gonzalez belongs. Set this one in stone, even though it gives the Red Sox three left-handed bats in the first four lineup spots.

5 — Dustin Pedroia — .300/.370/.471 projected line

The ability to clear the bases is the most important skill for the No. 5 hitter and Pedroia fits the bill nicely, especially at home. Given the run of lefties at the top of the order, a right-handed bat is a necessity here. You could also flip Youkilis and Pedroia here if you wanted a bit more power in the No. 5 spot, but given that the No. 2 hitter gets an extra at-bat every third game as compared to the No. 5 hitter, it’s more important to have the superior hitter higher in the order.

6 — Carl Crawford — .312/.359/.491 projected line

While Crawford fits the mold of a prototypical leadoff hitter, he’s actually perfectly suited to hitting sixth in this lineup. With lesser hitters coming up behind him, his ability to steal bases and get himself in scoring position will be more valuable, and there’s a lower cost of getting thrown out when you don’t have the big bats due up. Hitting lower in the order will allow Crawford to be more aggressive on the bases and maximize the utility of his speed. He also has enough power to drive in Gonzalez and Pedroia and extend rallies.

7 — Marco Scutaro — .272/.341/.381 projected line

While many of the ideas in “The Book” went against conventional wisdom, they also confirmed that you want your base-stealer batting in front of someone who hits a lot of singles and doesn’t strike out very much. With Crawford one spot ahead of him, Scutaro’s high contact rate can lead to a lot of RBI singles after Crawford steals his way into scoring position.

8 — Jacoby Ellsbury — .284/.336/.397 projected line

Ellsbury loses the battle for the No. 7 spot mostly due to his handedness. He’s a similar hitter to Scutaro, but putting the right-handed bat between Crawford and Ellsbury will keep teams from being able to leverage their left-handed relievers as easily. Also, Ellsbury should be more willing to run when getting on base from the No. 8 spot because he will be followed by a poor hitter rather than by the top of the order.

9 — Jarrod Saltalamacchia — .230/.308/.382 projected line

With few exceptions, you want your worst hitter at the bottom of the order simply because he’ll get the fewest number of plate appearances. Salty is pretty clearly the worst hitter of the bunch and that will also be true of Jason Varitek on days that he catches. It’s OK to have a base-clogger hitting ninth when the top-of-the-order guys can all hit the ball over the wall.

It’s not a conventional batting order of speed at the top and power in the middle, but grouping the Red Sox lineup this way gives them the best chance to score the most runs. And, if Crawford doesn’t like being asked to hit sixth, well, at least it’s not the leadoff spot.


Defense Could Doom Twins

The Minnesota Twins have taken plenty of flak for the mass exodus from their bullpen and their many unproven, younger relievers. But the Twins have a much bigger problem on their hands for 2011, one that could threaten their two-year reign as AL Central champs: a severely diminished defense.

The Twins finished sixth in team ultimate zone rating last season. Developed by Mitchel Lichtman and tracked by FanGraphs, UZR is a stat that measures the number of runs a player saves compared to the average player at his position. It’s more reliable on a three-year basis, though, and at times subject to small-sample-size flukes, such as Jason Repko’s team-leading performance in just 58 games played.

Random fluctuations aside, the Twins’ biggest defensive downgrade this season comes at shortstop, where Alexi Casilla takes over for J.J. Hardy. Per UZR, we see that Hardy ranked among the Twins’ best defenders last season. He earned a UZR of 8.1 in 2010, saving just more than eight runs last year as compared to an average defensive shortstop. And this wasn’t a one-year fluke. For his career, Hardy has a UZR of 11.0 per 150 games played. Using the sabermetric convention of 10 runs saved equaling one win gained in the standings, that means Hardy is worth one full win more than an average shortstop each year with his glove alone.

Meanwhile, Casilla is a big unknown as a major league shortstop, having played just 41 games at the position in four-plus years as a mostly part-time player in Minnesota. Without a meaningful sample of games, it’s tough to make an accurate prediction of Casilla’s expected defensive value at short. The scouting reports haven’t been glowing, though, and finding a near-elite defensive shortstop like Hardy is tough to do. And it’s not as if Casilla will be much of an offensive contributor, as his career line is just .249/.306/.395 in more than 1,000 plate appearances.

New Twins second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka comes with a better defensive reputation than Casilla’s. But he, too, replaces a player coming off a strong defensive season for the Twins’ 2010 division-winning squad. Orlando Hudson saved nearly 10 runs more than an average second baseman last year for Minnesota in just 126 games — down from 2008 and 2009 levels but consistent with longer-term trends and thus likely a pretty accurate reading of his true defensive value to the club. The loss of slick-fielding (though terrible-hitting) utility infielder Nick Punto compounds the issue.

If the Twins’ defense was stellar everywhere else, you might not worry that much about their middle-infield uncertainty. But Minnesota’s corner-outfield defense ranks among the very worst in baseball. Delmon Young, Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer cost the team about three wins in their combined time in left and right fields last season, compared to the average player at those positions. That’s consistent with those players’ career track records, which show butcherish tendencies in the field.

Cuddyer was a far worse defender (and a far inferior hitter) than Justin Morneau when he took over at first base for the concussed slugger this past summer. Morneau has started seeing game action in spring training as he tries to make it back after missing half of last season due to complications stemming from the concussion. If he comes back fully healthy in April, or even May, the Twins could bank a two-way upgrade, with one of Young, Kubel or Cuddyer relegated to DH or the bench when Morneau plays. But Morneau’s health remains a major question mark for the Twins with less than three weeks until Opening Day.

We’re still learning about the connection between pitching and defense and exactly how much catching the ball means to a team’s run prevention. Although stats such as UZR and defensive runs saved above average do a pretty good job of quantifying defensive impact, one factor which can get lost in the calculus is something we can call “cascading.”

Here’s an example of how cascading can play out: bases loaded, one out, pitcher induces a grounder up the middle. A good shortstop fields the ball, tosses to second for one, on to first, inning-ending double play, crisis averted. A lesser shortstop lets the ball go through. But it’s not just the two runs that score that hurt the team on the field; it’s also the added strain it places on the pitching staff. The pitcher on the mound still needs two more outs to escape this high-stress situation. If he can’t get out of the jam, the manager will have to make a call to the bullpen earlier than he’d like. Now you’re getting your lesser middle relievers into the game instead of your better late-inning guys, meaning you’re liable to give up more runs. You’re also forcing the bullpen to generally work harder, raising the risk that your relievers could wear down as the season goes on, if your defense continues to struggle. The end result can be more runs allowed, more fatigue for your pitchers and even a greater risk of injuries.

In the Twins’ case, more grounders could shoot through holes with Hardy and Hudson gone, and line drives and deep flies could land in the gaps, given the team’s weak corner-outfield defense. This is important because Twins have a pitch-to-contact staff that finished 10th in the AL in strikeouts in 2010. Minnesota’s pitchers need a good defense to thrive. So whether you’re a ground-ball-oriented pitcher like Francisco Liriano, Carl Pavano, Nick Blackburn or Brian Duensing, or an extreme fly-ball pitcher like Scott Baker or Kevin Slowey, you’re vulnerable to the team’s defensive problems.

Losing four established relief pitchers from last year’s squad could dent the Twins’ chances, although the return of Joe Nathan and a full season of Matt Capps should help. The White Sox should be better than they were last season, although they still have question marks at multiple positions. But if Minnesota fails to three-peat in 2011, that leaky defense could be the biggest reason.


The Value Of Good Hitting Pitchers

The Milwaukee Brewers made two big acquisitions this winter, adding starting pitchers Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum to their rotation in a bid to contend for the National League Central crown. Most analysis is focused on how well they’re going to pitch, but another key question is this: Can they hit? These two should provide a significant upgrade on the mound, and having two quality arms behind Yovani Gallardo in the rotation may give the Brewers the lift they need to get over the hump. However, the chances of the Brewers’ success hinges not just on how the new guys pitch, but how well they can adjust to life in the National League, where pitchers also have to bat.

Last season, the Brewers held a huge advantage over the rest of the league in offense produced by their pitchers. Led by Gallardo and his four home runs, the Brewers’ pitching staff hit .207/.249/.280, or just a little bit worse than the worst-hitting regular position player in baseball last year, Cesar Izturis. Being less productive offensively than Izturis is rarely a compliment, but when compared to the futility of other pitchers, Milwaukee’s performance looks positively Ruthian.

If you exclude the Brewers, the average line put up by an NL pitcher was just .137/.170/.167. Milwaukee trounced that, and its Weighted On Base Average of .239 was 83 points higher than the .156 wOBA of its competitors. With each team’s pitchers accounting for about 350 trips to the plate, the differences can really begin to add up. Greinke and Marcum are coming over from the American League, so we don’t know how they handle the stick. If they hit like typical pitchers, as opposed other Brewers pitchers, then Milwaukee stands to lose a decent amount of production on offense.

Below are the best and worst offensive performances from pitchers among NL teams in 2010. wRAA is Weighted Runs Above Average (or in this case, below average, since each team is in the negative compared to a league average hitting position player). Believe it or not, having a staff of good hitting pitchers can make an enormous difference.

The Good
1. Milwaukee Brewers: .239 wOBA, -23.9 wRAA
Gallardo was the second-best hitting pitcher in baseball last year (behind only Dan Haren), and his .363 wOBA was the same as Jay Bruce’s. Chris Narveson also brought some offense to the table, hitting .327 and posting a .365 on base percentage. He didn’t hit for any power, but he got on base enough to be a valuable offensive performer. Randy Wolf and Manny Parra didn’t embarrass themselves either, giving the Brewers some legitimate offense from the No. 9 spot in the lineup nearly each day they came to the park.

2. Arizona Diamondbacks: .207 wOBA, -33.7 wRAA
As mentioned, Haren was the star here, putting up a .364/.375/.527 line that was on par with what Luke Scott did for the Orioles as a DH. The D-backs lost some punch when they dealt Haren to Anaheim, and although Ian Kennedy and Barry Enright were respectable at the plate, Arizona got some awful performances from Rodrigo Lopez and Joe Saunders.

3. New York Mets: .191 wOBA, -36.6 wRAA
While the Mets didn’t get much offense from big bat acquisition Jason Bay, a couple of newcomers to the rotation managed to provide some offense from the bottom of the order. R.A. Dickey’s breakout wasn’t limited to his knuckleball, as he hit .255 and struck out only eight times. Perhaps more impressively, Jon Niese drew eight walks in 66 trips to the plate, getting halfway to A.J. Pierzynski’s season total despite the catcher having 400 at-bats.

The Bad
1. Los Angeles Dodgers: .113 wOBA, -60.6 wRAA
Talk about a total team “effort” … Vicente Padilla and Chad Billingsley were the best of the worst, but the entire staff failed to hit. Clayton Kershaw and Hiroki Kuroda combined for just five hits — all singles — between them, while Jon Ely and Ted Lilly weren’t much better. Overall, the pitching staff managed just 24 hits, with only two of those going for doubles, and no home runs all season. It’s no wonder the Dodgers led the league in sacrifice bunts from their pitchers.

2. San Francisco Giants: .127 wOBA, -58.2 wRAA
While the Giants’ pitchers helped lead the team to a World Series title, they didn’t help their own cause very often in the regular season. Madison Bumgarner was the only member of the rotation to beat the league average line for a pitcher, and as a group, Giants pitchers drew fewer walks than Niese did by himself.

3. Philadelphia – .136 wOBA, -56.5 wRAA
The Marlins and Pirates posted worse overall lines from their pitchers, but wRAA accounts for the fact that the Phillies’ stadium is a pretty good place to hit — unless, of course, you pitch for the Phillies. We shouldn’t be surprised that AL escapees Roy Halladay and Joe Blanton aren’t much with the bat, but Roy Oswalt is a lifelong NL pitcher and he was just as useless at the plate.

Given that a team can add one win to its expected total for every 10 runs, the gap between the Brewers and Dodgers was worth nearly four wins in the standings last year. With two AL pitchers joining the group in Milwaukee, don’t expect a repeat performance. If Marcum and Greinke struggle as many pitchers do when switching leagues, they could give back a significant amount of their value at the plate. The Giants showed that you can win despite bad hitting pitchers, so this doesn’t necessarily spell impending doom for Milwaukee, but it is something they will have to account for this year. For all the gains the Brewers will make in terms of run prevention, they’re going to give some of that up on the other side of the ball.