Sunday, August 15, 2010

Ron Gardenhire the Head Scratcher

I like Ron Gardenhire. I think he is, for the most part, very good at managing players egos. I think he's funny, and I think he knows things about baseball I will never be lucky enough to learn. He's undoubtedly fantastic with the media. I don't think he's the best manager in baseball, but he's certainly above-average when compared to the other MLB managers.

Unfortunately, I don't think very highly of baseball managers. Being above-average with the current group of managers in the league is something I believe would be fairly easy to do. That might sound arrogant, but it's not. I'm not saying I'm so much smarter that I could do a better job, because obviously I wouldn't have the players' respect the same way Gardy does. However, as far as game situations and decision-making goes, I think there are plenty of baseball fans that would make far better choices.

I love stats. I understand they don't tell the whole picture, but since I don't have the time nor money to fly around the country and scout every player and every team, stats are the best possible way to reach conclusions about players. I think scouting is important, for sure, but if a player has been in the league for even a decent amount of time (700 at bats or so) stats will allow someone to make an educated guess as to what will happen in the future. Sure, every year there are players who exceed their expectations. However, as I constantly find myself trying to explain to stubborn fans, those players are the exception, not the rule.

I mention stats because baseball is a game of numbers. Being a manager would not be terribly different than playing in a poker game. The only difference is you know the odds for sure, rather than an educated guess. Confused? In baseball, you know the situation. For example, if there's a runner on second base with no outs, the average MLB team will score 1.03 runs per inning. However, if there's a runner on third with one out, the average MLB team will score just .93 runs per inning. So, based on the odds, a manager should never call for a sacrifice bunt to move a runner from second to third. Of course, never is a bad word, because there is at least one acceptable time where a player should bunt a runner from second to third. That situation? If the pitcher's hitting. He's much more likely to strike out or hit a ball weakly, likely stranding the runner on second with 1 out. In that case you'd be guessing the odds, much like in poker, but in almost every other situation there are statistics to back up specific decisions. If a manager always played the odds, there would be no second-guessing. Well, that's not true, because some people will always second guess a bad result no matter how correct the decision was.

Managers like to 'play hunches.' That bothers me. The best comparison to MLB managers is that guy at your blackjack table that is making some questionable decisions, claiming his gut says to do it. There's nothing more frustrating than an inconsistent blackjack player. Example: The dealer is showing a face card. You have a 15 in first position, while the guy next to you has a 16. Since the dealer is showing a face, the right decision is to hit. You hit, getting a two. You stay with a 17. The guy next to you foolishly stays, because he doesn't want to bust. The dealer flips over a 6, so he has 16 as well. The first card is a 3. Dealer has 19, you and the guy next to you lose. The first card out on the next hand is a 7, meaning the dealer would have busted while you both would have won. Play the odds, and over time you will be rewarded. And, in both blackjack and baseball, you will fail a lot more than you will succeed. That's why managers feel the need to play hunches, because rather than be successful 40% of the time, they want to try to be right every time. That's how we are as a species... we always want to be successful. Playing hunches leads to even less success though, because you are oftentimes choosing the outcome that will fail even more.

Now, the point of this post wasn't to rip on MLB managers, although it's always fun. It's also not about Gardy pulling Kevin Slowey with a no-hitter after seven innings.* No, it's about Ron Gardenhire comparing Brian Duensing, during interviews after his 3-hitter, to Johan Santana.

*Even though I disagree wholeheartedly with Gardy's decision, it was nice to see him worried about Slowey's future. I disagree with it because I don't think the difference between 106 pitches and what would have been at most 130 pitches is very big, even with a sore arm. If he could throw 106, he would have been fine to throw 130 if he needed to.

No, that wasn't a typo, Ron Gardenhire compared Brian Duensing to Johan Santana. His exact quote came after a reporter compared Duensing and Santana; "Johan, that's probably a good guy to look at," Gardenhire said, making the comparison. Yes, I realize it's a one sentence response to a question, and I realize Gardenhire answers tens of thousands of questions from the media each year, so he is undoubtedly going to say something that he may not entirely mean.

It's not really a big deal, besides the fact that it's so obviously wrong. Gardy made the comparison because Santana also went from reliever to starter. Or maybe because they're both left handed. Probably a combination of both. That's where the comparisons can end. Santana had been deserving of a spot in the rotation for quite some time back then--he was clearly the team's best starter, but Gardenhire stubbornly refused to give him a chance despite fantastic stuff and much improved control, citing 'experience' most of the time.

Nobody has been clamoring for Duensing's arrival into the rotation. The vocal fans more so wanted ANYONE to replace Nick Blackburn, who's been terrible since June. Duensing got the chance mostly by default, and he has pitched well since given the opportunity. I love that he's doing well, but it's unlikely to stick long-term. Santana had the potential to emerge as a legitimate number one starter because he had plus plus stuff. As I said above, I love stats because they allow me to learn things about pitchers without actually having to watch them live. I can look at a pitcher's stats and tell almost immediately just how good his stuff is. It's simple. K/9.

As a 23-year-old, Santana pitched in 27 games, starting 14, and had a ridiculous 11.4 K/9. As a 24-year-old, Santana pitched in 45 games, starting 18, and his K/9 remained a very impressive 9.6. Finally, as a 25-year-old, Gardy inserted Johan into the rotation for good. He went 20-6 with a 2.61 ERA, won the Cy Young Award, and posted an amazing 10.5 K/9 in 228 innings. However, even more amazing that year, Santana posted a ridiculous 6.2 hits per 9 innings. That's ridiculously good. Since being handed a spot in the rotation permanently, Santana has never had a walk rate over 3 per 9 innings. Over his 11-year career, Santana has a career K/9 of 8.9. Very, very good for a starting pitcher, and that shows just how good his stuff really is.

Now, a look at Duensing. Last year, as a 26-year-old rookie, Duensing pitched in 24 games and started 9. He struck out just 5.7 batters per 9 innings, and walked 3.3 per 9. He allowed 9 H/9, a hit an inning. This year, Duensing has been a little better, but not nearly as good as his 2.00 ERA would suggest. He's striking out just 5.0 batters per 9 now, but he's managed to cut his walk rate almost in half, while allowing 2 less hits per 9 innings. Now, with a worse strikeout rate, the less hits per 9 is pretty clearly a fluke. His stuff hasn't gotten better, because if it had his K/9 would be up, not down. It's encouraging to see Duensing's walk rate drop significantly this year, and he seems to be a potential back of the rotation starter for six or seven years. That's very valuable for a team, and Duensing is a solid piece for the future even as a 27-year-old. He just isn't Johan Santana, and considering how often Gardenhire watched Santana simply amaze us all, I would have thought he'd be the first person to stop any Duensing/Santana comparisons, because they are ridiculous. Johan Santana is arguably the greatest pitcher in Twins history. Duensing isn't even the best pitcher in the rotation.