Thursday, September 30, 2010

Twins Struggles of Late Seemingly Meaningless

Minnesota sports fans are extremely loyal. We've sold out the Xcel Energy Center for every single Wild home game since hockey came back to our wonderful state. Target Field has seen more than 3 million people during this Twins season. Sure, it helps that it's a beautiful, brand-new stadium, and the Twins are damn good, but 3 million fans is 3 million fans. The Twins have, on average, sold out every game this year. Their attendance numbers have them pegged at 100.7%, which means they've filled the stadium beyond capacity some games. This is because of certain seats being available for some series and not for others, as well as certain seats that simply don't count against the attendance, like partially visually impairing seats. The Twins continue to have no problem finding people to sit in these seats, so their attendance percentage is fantastic. The Vikings are 1-2 but continue to sell out all their home games, which really is a lot more of an accomplishment than most people realize with the economy where it is and the NFL being so damn expensive even just for one game.

This loyalty is great. It's what makes being a Minnesota sports fan fun; unless you're going to a TWolves game, you know at a Minnesota sporting event there will be a good crowd. Even the lowly Gopher football team is drawing fans pretty consistently. It also leads to us Minnesotans having more knee-jerk reactions than most other fan bases. Yes, knee-jerk reactions based on small sample sizes happen in every city; but it seems to me both casual fans and many sports writers tend to panic about small slip ups. I don't blame anyone for this. We've been through probably the two most depressing Conference Championship football losses in NFL History, including last year's debacle in New Orleans. We've seen our Timberwolves, with the entire state behind them, take a Lakers team with four hall-of-famers to the brink of elimination before Sam Cassell and Troy Hudson both had major injuries that cost the Wolves a legitimate shot at going to their first ever NBA Finals, and eventually led to the departure of Kevin Garnett. The Twins have been very good over the last decade, almost always in playoff contention and winning 6 of 9 AL Central Division Championships. But they've struggled every year in the playoffs. That doesn't stop us Minnesotans from being optimistic about our Twins chances this year.

After clinching the American League Central and having a fairly good shot at finishing with the best record in baseball, you couldn't find a negative word about the Twins. Jim Thome graced the cover of SI as the great Joe Posnanski spelled out what a wonderful story it would be for Thome to get his first ring in a city that truly deserved one. Well, since clinching, the team has gone just 2-5, getting swept by Detroit and then basically playing poorly in 2 of 3 games against the Royals. Even with their struggles of late, though, the Twins remain just 1 game behind the Rays and half a game behind the Yankees for the best record in all of baseball with four games left to play. A solid final five game stretch could lock up home-field advantage, but even if the Twins continue to struggle, there's no reason to worry.

Joe Mauer has played in just one of the last seven games as the team continues to be cautious about his knee injury. Jim Thome has barely played due to back issues that continue to flair up. Yes, the starters have been bad this turn through the rotation, but ultimately it's one start out of more than thirty for these guys and after pitching so exceptionally well over the last month, they've earned the ability to pitch poorly in ultimately meaningless games at the end of the September.

In 1987 the Twins lost their final 5 games, with almost all of their everyday players in the lineup, and then cruised to the World Series. Last year, the Twins won their final six games, including one of the most entertaining games in my lifetime, game 163, only to go into New York and get swept in three games. Managers, fans and even some sports writers like to see the team playing well heading into the post-season, and when a team struggles late in the year these people often throw up their hands in frustration. In a sport like football, where each game is so seemingly important, knee-jerk reactions are overlooked and pretty widely excepted. However, that's not the case with baseball. This Twins team has let their play over the last six months speak to their talent level; no matter what happens over the next week, this team won at least 93 games, and could win as many as 97.

Getting this team healthy for the first round, and setting up the playoff rotation are far more important to the Twins than going into the playoffs on a good note. Of course they'd prefer to do all three simultaneously, but the Twins would clearly prefer the health of their starters over winning the last few games if they had to choose, and rightfully so. A week from yesterday the Twins will open up the American League Divisional Series at Target Field, with Francisco Liriano on the mound against either the Rays or Yankees. I expect that game to be the prime-time game, regardless of which AL East team the Twins draw.

Just know, Twins fans, that late-season momentum is vastly overrated, and any Twins fan who remembers the last several years should know that. Let the whole body of work speak to how good this team really is, regardless of how a two-week stretch after clinching the AL Central went. The team is enjoying playing less stressful games for as long as they can, and come playoff time, there's no doubt in my mind this team will be ready to fire on all cylinders. As loyal Minnesota sports fans, we need this Twins team to atone for the Vikings colossal failure eight months ago. Call me crazy, but I think they'll do it. I'm predicting a Twins World Series for the first time in 20 years. Now make it happen, fellas. We'll be cheering either way.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The AL MVP Race

On Monday, I discussed at length the ongoing debate regarding the AL Cy Young, and reasonably concluded that Felix Hernandez has been the best pitcher in the league and therefore should win the award. Today, I'll look at the AL MVP race and as you'll see, there are a lot of ways the votes could go. Away we go...

There are currently four viable candidates for the AL MVP in my opinion; Josh Hamilton of the Rangers, Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers, Jose Bautista of the Blue Jays, and Robinson Cano of the Yankees. Joe Mauer and Evan Longoria have had very good years, and are on very good teams, but they haven't been on the same level as these four. Paul Konerko has been even better offensively than Mauer or Longoria, but the White Sox played so poorly down the stretch I don't think many people will vote Konerko most valuable.

Josh Hamilton seemed well on his way to finishing off his absolutely stunning comeback from a very serious drug problem by winning the AL MVP this year. Before getting hurt on September 4th here at Target Field, Hamilton was hitting an absolutely ridiculous .361/.414/.635, with 31 home runs and 97 RBI. That's a great season any way you slice it, but adding in the fact that Hamilton didn't play at all the last month of the season and you realize he was going to post some video game like numbers. It was an unfortunate injury, but it did manage to make the AL MVP race as close as I can remember it in recent memory. Yes, I think it's even closer than the Mauer/Morneau/Jeter year when Morneau won despite every statistic in the world pointing out that both Mauer and Jeter were more valuable, because of the position they played and how rare those kinds of offensive seasons are from that position.

Hamilton has spent about 20% of his time in Center Field this year, which makes his offensive line even more impressive, and his defense has rated well above average in both center field and left field. Hamilton has been a five-tool player all season. I believe if Hamilton had missed the first month, rather than the last month, but still finished with the same line he will (.361/.414/.635, 31 and 97) that his great offensive season would have won him the MVP Award by a landslide. Voters tend to value September games more than other games, and while they like to say that's because the games mean more in September, the truth is a win in April is equivalent to a win in September. They all count the same. The reason, I think, that great Septembers help MVP cases (See Tulowitzki, Troy this year) is because that is the month that is fresh in voters' minds as they cast their ballot. Hamilton's great May happened four months ago, a lot of voters probably don't remember it, but I promise you every voter knows the kind of September Tulo's having.

FanGraphs has pegged Hamilton's WAR at a ridiculous 8.0 this season*, which is amazing because the more games you play the more opportunities you have for your WAR to go up. Albert Pujols, for example, is pegged at 7.2 this year, but he's played in almost thirty more games than Hamilton. Hamilton likely would have finished near a 9.5 if he would have continued his torrid pace. That's ridiculously good, and the fact that he was almost a run better than Pujols when healthy isn't meant to suggest Pujols is bad; on the contrary, the fact that Hamilton was having such a better year than the best player in baseball makes his season that much more special.

*Mauer finished last season at 8.0 and was only a silly Miguel Cabrera vote from winning the award unanimously. Mauer missed the first month, not the last, but their seasons were unbelievably similar when it was all said and done. Hamilton doesn't seem likely to get the majority of the votes, or at least not as certain as it was last year at this time.*

Okay, so Josh Hamilton has had a fantastic year, how does he compare to the guys that have played all season? Miguel Cabrera is the established hitter, the well-known commodity, having another amazing season, but the Tigers have been so far back in the AL Central for so long that he's kind of gone under the radar. Cabrera, statistically, is as deserving as anyone. He's hitting .328/.420/.622, which puts him behind only Hamilton in OPS. He's added 38 home runs, a career high and league leading 126 RBI, and he's walked just about as much as he's struck out. Of course, as great as he's been, he's had very little exposure because of how few times Detroit played in prime-time as the summer dragged on.

This is a weird year for the AL MVP, and I think Cabrera is going to be the guy that is actually hurt by the randomness. MVP voters historically have felt that voting for a player on a team that doesn't make the playoffs is only acceptable if said player has a fantastic season. The voters got it wrong with Andre Dawson over 20 years ago, but they did get it right with A-Rod in Texas. So, that's why I keep bringing up the Tigers' struggles, because history would suggest that a player on a non-playoff team isn't going to win the award.

That said, Cabrera's numbers this year are the kind of numbers that would allow voters to overlook a team's poor performance in light of how wonderful the player, in this case Miguel Cabrera, has been. I still think Cabrera will get the lowest amount of votes among the four players mentioned. While Cabrera has had a better statistical year than Jose Bautista everywhere but the home runs, I feel the voters are going to be more likely to vote for Bautista because he seemingly came out of nowhere to hit 50+ bombs, and because, well, he hit 50+ bombs. With the Blue Jays also a non-playoff bound team, I think the voters that are willing to look past a team's win loss record will rally around Bautista, not Cabrera**, and despite having another monstrous season Miggy won't be a serious threat to win the award.

**It's tough to judge, though, because Cabrera has that gaudy RBI total that so many old-school writers seem to love. I think Bautista's 52 and counting HR season will be considered more impressive, especially if he continues to catch Miggy in the RBI category, now that steroids are believed to be cleaned up. That will be an interesting thing to watch, though. Which way will the old-school guys go?**

That's not to say the voters would necessarily be wrong to vote for Bautista over Cabrera. Plenty has been written about the unbelievable surprise Bautista has been, but the short version is of course that Bautista had never hit as many as 20 home runs in a season before this year, and now as a 29-year-old, in the midst of a position change from third base to left field, has suddenly hit .262/.382/.622, good for the league's third best OPS and as mentioned above, the 52 home runs. His offensive numbers are sensational, and though his OPS is almost 50 points below Hamilton's, Bautista deserves credit for playing in every game this season. FanGraphs, though, pegs Bautista's WAR at 6.8, which is still fantastic, is still quite a bit below Hamilton's league leading 8.0, and the fact that it should in fact be even higher than that speaks to the level Hamilton was playing at before his injury.

That brings us, finally, to Robinson Cano. He's been great all season long, hitting .318/.378/.530, all the while playing above average defense at a very weak offensive position. We know the voters aren't biased against second baseman, as Chase Utley has fared well in previous MVP votes, although he's yet to win one. Cano's Yankees seem likely to finish with the wild card, because they have a much more difficult schedule than the Rays down the stretch, but I don't think the division finish between those two teams will effect votes for Cano. Cano's WAR currently sits at 6.4, and it's clear he hasn't had quite the offensive years the other players have. However, he's playing a much weaker offensive position and the next closest second baseman in terms of OPS in the American League is Howard*** Kendrick of the Angels, with a .720 OPS. Cano's is .904. Dan Uggla currently leads all NL second baseman at .874, so Cano has been hands down the league's best second baseman, and he's been the best player on the defending World Champs as they look to win back-to-back championships. That all sounds great, but to me, it doesn't take away from the better seasons the other players had. Cano had the fourth best season of these players, and I think it's silly to reward Cano for going to the playoffs while playing on the Yankees and punishing Cabrera for playing for Detroit.

***Howard Kendrick? When did he stop going by Howie? Why make a name change after you've been a top prospect for years? You're still Howie to me, man.***

If I had a vote, I'd be undecided as long as possible. While I am inclined to say that Jose Bautista would be my vote, because he's had such a monster power year and he's come out of nowhere, I think I'd vote for Hamilton. Even with the missed time he was the most valuable player in the entire league, with FanGraphs WAR giving him the edge. I don't expect the majority of voters to look at WAR, though, and I wouldn't be surprised at all to see Robinson Cano, who's actually the least deserving in my opinion, come away with his first MVP award. If the Yankees take both the AL Cy Young and MVP awards despite not deserving either, all I can say is they better not eliminate my beloved Twins or their will be hell to pay. Or something like that.

My Vote: Josh Hamilton

Predicted Winner: Robinson Cano

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Gophers AD Maturi Needs to Go, Brew Too

Tim Brewster was hired to be the head football coach of the Golden Gophers on January 16, 2007, just over two weeks after the team decided to fire Glen Mason for what was at the time considered another disappointing season. Mason had worn out his welcome in the Twin Cities. He improved the team from a cellar-dwelling Big Ten team into a second tier one, as the team would consistently win between 7 and 9 games. Unfortunately for Mason, every time the program seemed ready to take that giant step into the 'elite' category, the Gophers would collapse and fall back into the second tier. The best example of this is the Michigan game in 2003, when they blew a 28-7 lead heading into the fourth quarter to eventually lose 38-35. At that point the team was undefeated, 6-0, and seemed poised to finally contend for a conference title. It didn't happen, and Mason's next few years were harshly criticized because the team was going to the 'feel good' bowls, and the program seemed to be headed in the wrong direction.

After firing Mason, Gophers Athletic Director Joel Maturi narrowed the head coaching search down to three candidates: TCU head coach Gary Patterson, then USC offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and former Texas recruiter turned Denver Broncos TE coach Tim Brewster. Maturi originally made the right decision; he offered TCU's Patterson over $2MM a year, which would have been a sizable raise over what he was currently making. Patterson, likely realizing it was much easier to recruit at a school in Texas, turned down the offer and received a modest raise from TCU. That team is currently 5th in the country, so Patterson made the right decision and has built a national championship contender at TCU.

That left Lane Kiffin and Tim Brewster as the two candidates, and from the get-go Kiffin seemed to be nothing more than a negotiating ploy to get Brewster hired as cheap as possible. There were very few good, positive stories about Kiffin in the local media, and as time has gone on that's not difficult to understand. I don't think Kiffin is nearly as selfish as the media portrays him to be now, but I'm also admittedly biased because Kiffin is a fellow Jefferson Jaguar graduate, even if he is more than a decade older than me.

Brewster, on the other hand, was written about like he was the savior. The most common story that was told during the time was that Tim Brewster single-handedly brought Vince Young to Texas. As the story goes, Young apparently didn't even have Texas on his radar, until he met with Brewster and from that point forward Young fell in love with Texas and the rest is history. I have no idea if that story is true, but with how many times I've heard it, I think there's probably at least some truth behind it. Of course, recruiting a kid to Texas to play football SHOULD BE EASY, so the fact that Brewster got so much credit always was somewhat surprising to me.

Now, three years after the Brewster hire, Gopher football is at an all-time low. This is worse than the 1-11 team in Brewster's first season, mainly because there are no excuses. In Brewster's first year, the team was transitioning from a heavy run based offense to a spread offense, and the struggles were abundant. Brewster's offensive coordinator left after one year, though, and the offense again was switched from a spread attack to a more pro-style scheme. Despite having the same starting QB for the last three seasons, the Gophers have shown almost no progress, and have lost three consecutive non-conference home games. The only team in the country that's worse than the Gophers is Mid Tennessee State, since they lost to our Gophs, but even they have an excuse. Their star QB, who was about 77% of the teams total offense last season, is suspended indefinitely for stealing checks from his roommate to pay off a debt. Had he been eligible to play, there's no doubt in my mind this Gophers team would be 0-4.

Brewster will absolutely be fired after this season, or so I hope. Joel Maturi needs to go with him. Looking at Kiffin and Brewster because they were key recruiters to very good programs seems logical--after all, if these guys can recruit talent, the winning will come. Unfortunately, Maturi underestimated just how easy it is to convince a top recruit to spend three or four years on the campus of USC or Texas, and how difficult it is to even keep the rare in-state talent in Minnesota. (See Floyd, Michael and Henderson, Seantrel) Brewster is a positive guy who tries to spin even the lowest of lows into a positive. That's a great way to live life; but when it results in a Gophers team that will be very lucky to finish this season with two wins, it's quite obvious why everyone is calling for Brewster's job.

Maturi will almost certainly get a pass for the Brewster hire, for two main reasons. One, as mentioned above, Patterson was the top choice and turned it down, so Maturi will get credit for targeting a coach who appears to be in the 'elite' category. He didn't deliver though and for that reason he shouldn't get any credit for targeting Patterson. He also hired Tubby Smith to turn the basketball program around, and that's been a success for the most part. Tubby, in my opinion, is the basketball version of Glen Mason. He'll get the Gophers back to the tournament, as he's done twice now, but the chances of them becoming an elite team even in the big ten probably aren't all that great. After years of terrible Gophers basketball, though, fans are more than willing to accept a 22 or 23 win season with a 7-10 seed in the tournament. That line of thinking also has many Gophers fans missing Glen Mason. Mason did a good job, no doubt, but he wasn't the guy to take this program to the next level either.

The Gophers need to replace Maturi and let a more qualified, talented individual lead the search for a new head football coach. My preference is to target Charlie Weis, see if he'd be interested in coaching college again. I doubt he'd take the job, and his hiring probably wouldn't be immensely popular, but I think he's a very good recruiter who is among the best offensive minds in the game at any level. Considering the Gophers best player next year will almost for sure be QB turned WR turned QB Marqueis Gray, Weis could get the most out of him to help the team approach .500 before he can get his own players in. Weis is a long shot at best, but to me he seems like a better choice than the despicable Mike Leach, and definitely a better option than some up and coming recruiting coordinator. They tried that route, and it failed.

Joel Maturi, it's time to go. Take Brew with you, and that loud noise you hear on the way out is the collective cheers of every Gophers fan in the country.

Monday, September 27, 2010

King Felix vs. CC

Over the last few weeks, there's been a growing debate among all baseball fans: Who should win the American League Cy Young award, Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners or CC Sabathia of the New York Yankees? Regardless of where you stand on this ultimately meaningless issue is beside the point; the fact that Felix is even getting consideration by some people that hold votes is proof that people are starting to look more at advanced statistics to come to even better conclusions.*

*If you are one of the people who can't stand the new baseball stats, I'm sorry, but pull your head out of wherever it is. Saying your 'old-school' and a 'traditionalist' is just the less embarrassing way of saying 'I have no idea how that stat is calculated.' Look, stats aren't everything. I've said that thousands of times. But they are undoubtedly the best way for fans to compare players in many different aspects. If you don't like the newer stats (xFip, ERA+, WAR, etc.) it's clear you don't understand them. I say this only because anyone who reasonably understands how these things are calculated will realize there is no argument against them. If you want to be a real, Minnesota Twins fan in this technological generation, I suggest if nothing else you at least take my word that the newer stats are far, far more indicative of how well one's season went then the old-school Win, Loss and ERA numbers.*

The debate has been written about by more talented, more qualified and certainly much smarter people than myself. I've yet to read a good article that explains why CC Sabathia or even David Price deserve the Cy Young over King Felix. In my opinion, the only argument that sort of holds water is that Hernandez is pitching for a terrible Mariners team, and much like position players very, very rarely winning the MVP on a losing team, that logic I suppose could be spread to the Cy Young Award. Personally, I think both the MVP and Cy Young's should go to the best position player and pitcher in the league that year. I don't care that it's called 'most valuable.' Most fans understand winning the MVP usually means you had the best season, or at least it should.

Sabathia has been fantastic this season, there's no arguing that. His xFip** is 3.82, he's gone 20-7 thus far, and WAR (Wins Above Replacement, basically how much better CC has been than an easy to find AAA level player) has him pegged at 4.6 wins. That's a very good year. For comparison's sake, Ubaldo Jimenez has posted a 3.76 xFip, gone 19-7, and WAR has him worth 5.7 wins. Basically they've had very comparable seasons, but Jimenez has gotten a ton more hype because of his dominant start. Jimenez, while still a Cy Young candidate in the NL, isn't expected to win the award. The front-runners in the NL would appear to be Roy Halladay and Adam Wainwright, in my opinion. Halladay has posted a 2.95 xFip, has gone 20-10, and WAR has him pegged at 6.4 wins. Adam Wainwright is 20-11, with an xFip of 3.15, and WAR has him pegged at 6.2 wins. If I was voting on the NL Cy Young, it would be Halladay by a wide margin, though, because he has so many complete games. Anyways, the NL Cy Young debate isn't as fun, because all three pitchers are having comparable seasons across the board. I think Halladay's been a little better than Ubaldo and Wainwright, but they've all had strikingly similar years so it's not a fun debate. King Felix, on the other hand, doesn't have the gaudy win total because of a historically bad Seattle offense, but here are his numbers for 2010: He has a 3.26 xFip, is just 12-12, and WAR has him pegged at 6.1 wins. His ERA is a ridiculous 2.31, but as xFip points out that's aided quite a bit by one of the league's best defenses. Now, even with a 12-12 record, WAR has Hernandez's performance this season worth more than Sabathia's. I tend to agree, but since I know not everyone likes the newer stats as much as me, there's other reasons I think Felix Hernandez should be the AL Cy Young.

**If you don't know what xFip is, it's basically a pitcher's ERA but it's adjusted to assume every pitcher had the same defense behind him. It's a lot of advanced calculations, but ultimately it allows us to compare how someone like Jarrod Washburn could be so fantastic for half a season in Seattle and then struggle in Detroit. xFip suggested Washburn was in for a tumble, although he was obviously much worse that second half than anyone expected.**

King Felix has been among the unluckiest pitchers in baseball history this year, at least as far as run support is concerned. He's gotten just 3.76 runs from his offense per start, which is the worst in baseball. To put into perspective just how bad that number is, here's the league leader among qualified starting pitchers in least run support over the last handful of years:

4.75 ('09 Johan Santana)
4.47 ('08 Matt Cain)
4.55 ('07 Matt Cain)
4.15 ('06 Mark Hendrickson)
4.64 ('05 Roger Clemens)
4.41 ('04 Livan Hernandez)

Hernandez is going to break the 4 run mark for the first time since 2003, and Pat Hentgen got 3.98 runs of support when he led the league that year. While some of you are thinking "He should be able to win more than 12 games with 3 runs a game" keep in mind that it's an average, not a set-in-stone per game number. Here are the runs the Mariners have scored this year in his 12 losses:

4/26: 1 run
5/1: 3 runs
5/7: 0 runs
5/23: 1 run
6/8: 1 run
7/16: 2 runs
7/26: 1 run
7/31: 0 runs
8/5: 0 runs
8/15: 1 run
9/11: 4 runs
9/23: 0 runs

No joke, in Hernandez's 12 losses, the Mariners have scored a combined 14 runs, including four games in which the offense didn't even score at all. It's not Hernandez's fault that the Mariners offense is so anemic--and it's among the worst offenses in recent memory--but I worry that many older, long-time voters will ignore the numbers that clearly show King Felix has been the best starter in the AL this year because he doesn't have that gaudy win-loss total that they seem to fall in love with every year.

If Hernandez does manage to win the Cy Young, it will be a major sign that even the people who were most against a statistical revolution in baseball just a decade ago (the long-time baseball writers) are starting to come around and realizing the benefits of advanced statistics. In today's day and age, it's foolish to not make the right decision when there are so many facts to help back up a decision. King Felix should be the AL Cy Young winner, no doubt, but don't count on the voters to get it right.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Your 2010 AL Central Champs

Last night was a microcosm of both the Twins and White Sox second halves. Trailing 4-2 in the 8th, the Twins scored four runs in the bottom half of the inning against Indians reliever Justin Masterson, followed by a 1-2-3 Matt Capps save that cut the Twins magic number to one. During that twenty minute span in which the Twins came back to defeat Cleveland, Chicago gave up four runs in two innings to Oakland to fall behind 5-1 on their way to a 7-2 loss that officially clinched the American League Central Division in favor of our Twins. Down the stretch the Twins simply blew past the White Sox. On July 22, the Twins were 3.5 games behind the then first place White Sox, and now two months later they've clinched the American League Central with a mind-boggling 12-game lead over those same White Sox.

A lot of people deserve a lot of credit for the success of this team. Joe Mauer, despite playing most of the year with several ailments, including a fairly serious shoulder injury, has been his usual fantastic self posting a .331/.407/.473 line, which is first among catchers who qualify for the batting title. Delmon Young's improvement, while not quite as impressive as some people seem to believe, has still been a good sign and there's no doubt Young has been an above average overall left fielder for the first time in his career. Jim Thome has been Babe Ruth-like in just under 300 at bats, and his game-winning, walk-off home run against Matt Thornton will undoubtedly go down as the most important hit of the year, as that game seemed to send both teams in entirely different directions.

Bill Smith deserves an awful lot of credit for keeping Pavano on a one-year deal, getting Hudson and Thome signed to well below market one-year deals, and having the foresight to go out and acquire Matt Capps with how poorly Rauch has pitched since mid-July. Wilson Ramos was a hefty price to pay, but Capps has been good since coming over and he gives the team a reliable closer, and they have one of the deepest bullpens in baseball now. Ron Gardenhire is still apt to make questionable strategic decisions, but he's done a fantastic job with this team and winning six division titles in nine years is a fantastic accomplishment regardless if you're pro-Gardy or anti-Gardy. The Twins ownership group also deserves a ton of credit, for finally getting a new stadium built and then showing their gratitude to the tax payers that helped them get it by spending over $100MM on payroll to put together a team that has a very good chance of finishing this season with the best record in all of baseball.

This team has been a lot of fun to watch for most of the year, and with how well they've been playing lately there's a lot of World Series hype not only in Minnesota but around the country for our beloved Minnesota Twins. At a time when Gopher football is at probably an all-time low, the Timberwolves are coming off their worst season in over a decade, and the Vikings haven't won a game in almost eight months, it's wonderful to have this Twins team garnering so much hype. I have no idea what will happen in the post-season; it's such a small sample size that literally catching one or two breaks can be the difference between a first round sweep and a World Series Championship.

The Twins are in much better shape this season to make a run, though, than they have been in years past. If the Twins so choose they could realistically have Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano pitch in four of the five games in the first round, if it gets that far. Both have been great all year, and if they continue to pitch well it seems unlikely that the series would in fact actually go to five games. I have no idea who I'd rather have the Twins face in round 1 between the Rays or Yankees, but with the news today that Josh Hamilton isn't expected to be healthy in time for the playoffs, it would appear the Twins are going to need to beat both David and Goliath to get to the World Series, so for that reason I'm not going to spend too much time analyzing who gives the Twins a better match-up.

For now, let's just enjoy the Twins sixth division title in nine years, and hopefully over the next month or so this team will fill the Twin Cities with something magical. As someone who loves the Twins more than any other sports team and wasn't yet 3-years-old the last time this team won a World Series, watching this team take home a Championship would be simply wonderful. Congratulations to the entire Twins organization, and I couldn't be more excited for Wednesday October 6, when I'll be watching the Twins open up the playoffs at the beautiful Target Field.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Pushing the Panic Button

That Vikings loss yesterday was tough to watch. Despite Adrian Peterson's superhero-like efforts to carry the team to victory, he came up a yard short on a crucial fourth and goal, and Brett Favre did all he could to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Percy Harvin's dropped pass that became an interception in the first half almost certainly would have been a touchdown, but Favre made terrible decisions all game. Officially, he was responsible for four turnovers, three of which were his fault. He also threw another INT that was called back because of off-setting penalties. He's played terribly through two weeks.

Now, almost every Vikings fan is already writing them off, because that's a natural reaction after watching this team play the last two weeks. Of course, the Dolphins are now 2-0 and the Saints are favored tonight against the 49ers, so it's not like they've lost to the Rams or the Lions.*

*Also, just a random rant, but people complaining about the Vikings not kicking the field goal in the first quarter are incorrect. Kicking that field goal would have changed the momentum and the remainder of the game. Yes, it's possible the Vikings end up blowing out the Dolphins, or the score remains the same, but not kicking a field goal in the first quarter changes the whole game. When you have an offense that is supposed to be very good, and probably the top running back in football, going for it is the right play. It didn't work out, and yes, they ended up losing by four points, but if they manage to get the first down and they score a touchdown, the game may have been decided right then and there. I have no problem with Childress being aggressive in that situation, and I hope he doesn't get conservative over the next three months because that's going to hurt the team more than it will help them.*

The Vikings will win next week. Detroit is improving, no doubt, but with Matt Stafford hurt, Shaun Hill is, well, bad. Favre will have a good statistical game next week, and hopefully that'll give the team enough confidence heading into the bye week to come out rolling in week 5, on Monday Night Football against the New York Loudmouths.

It's clear the team needs to trade for Vincent Jackson. Favre still makes a lot of terrible decisions, last season though Sidney Rice was able to cover up a lot of those poor decisions with spectacular catches in traffic. Berrian is nothing more than a speedster, and Percy is simply too small to make acrobatic catches consistently. I am convinced Jackson will be a Viking by Wednesday, which is the deadline for him to be traded, although he's suspended through week four so the Vikings wouldn't be able to use him against Detroit. They shouldn't need him against the Lions, so Jackson will have basically three weeks to get familiar with the offense. He can't practice with the team until his suspension is over, but he'd pick up the offense just fine in my opinion. A second round pick should be enough to get him, maybe a little more, but it's worth it.

I'm not ready to write off the Vikings yet. The Bears and Packers do hold a 2 game lead over our beloved losers, but the Bears got lucky against Detroit and then beat a very overrated Dallas team. Cutler has looked great, but he looked fantastic through four weeks last season so I'm not ready to say he's turned the corner yet. The Packers are a much more talented team than the Bears, and they likely will win 11 or 12 games, at least. The win at Philly was impressive, but they did almost blow it when Vick replaced Kolb. Beating Buffalo means nothing, even if they did it easily, because the Bills will be the worst team in football this year.

As fans we love to overreact and make judgments as soon as possible, but it's a long season. The last time the Vikings started 0-2 was 2008, and they ended up making the playoffs that year. I fully expect them to blow out Detroit next week, and head into the bye at 1-2. While that's certainly not what any of us fans wanted to see, at this point that's a best case scenario. I hope Favre can play better, and if he can eliminate the silly mistakes he'll be back to playing the way he did last year. That's a major if though, and after Packers' fans saw Favre make poor decisions for years, they have to be smiling right now. But before we anoint anyone Super Bowl champs, let's remember the Vikings are still the defending NFC North Champs, and I'm not ready to concede the division this early in the season.

Skol Vikes.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

NFL Picks, Week 2

Last Week: 5-9-1
Overall: 5-9-1

Cardinals +6.5 over Falcons
Vikings -5.5 over Dolphins
Packers -13 over Bills
Bengals +3 over Ravens
Titans -5.5 over Steelers
Eagles -6.5 over Lions
Bears +7 over Cowboys
Bucs +3 over Panthers
Chiefs +3 over Browns
Raiders -3.5 over Rams
Seahawks +3.5 over Broncos
Texans -3 over Redskins
Chargers -7 over Jaguars
Pats -3 over Jets
Colts -5 over Giants
Saints -6 over 49ers

Sunday, September 12, 2010

NFL Picks, Week 1

No analysis this week, but here's my picks just to get them up somewhere before the games start.

I would have had the Vikes to cover +5.5, obviously, and despite the loss they still managed to cover.

Giants -6.5 over Panthers
Bills +3 over Dolphins
Steelers +1.5 over Falcons
Bears -6.5 over Lions
Patriots -5 over Bengals
Bucs -3 over Browns
Broncos +3 over Jaguars
Texans +2 over Colts
Raiders +6.5 over Titans
Eagles +3 over Packers
Seahawks +3 over 49ers
Rams +3.5 over Arizona
Dallas -3 over Washington
Jets -2 over Ravens
Chargers -5 over Chiefs

Monday, September 6, 2010

Orlando Hudson

I was pretty clear this past off-season that I wanted the Twins to sign Orlando Hudson to upgrade their porous second base play last season. Despite getting benched for the last six weeks by Joe Torre in favor of career backup Ronnie Belliard, Hudson finished with a .283/.357/.417 line last season. The league average for a 2B was .274/.340/.410, so Hudson was slightly above average offensively. I was adamant that the Twins acquire Hudson, though, because of his outstanding on base percentage over his career, and felt he would fit in perfectly in the #2 slot in the lineup.

However, I've been wrong now in two consecutive off-seasons as to what Orlando Hudson would sign for. During the 2008 off-season, Hudson was coming off a .305/.367/.450 season in which he also won a gold glove, and the going rate for good, middle infielders seemed to be around $10MM per year. I didn't think a 3 year, $30MM contract was out of the question at all, and deemed him too expensive for the Twins to seriously target. He also was a Type A free agent, so the Twins would have had to give up their first round draft pick to sign him, which they undoubtedly decided wasn't worth it. However, Hudson ended up signing for just 1 year with the Dodgers, getting a little over $3MM guaranteed with up to $3MM in incentives.

Joe Torre benching Hudson during the '09 season undoubtedly hurt Hudson's stock this past off-season, but that allowed his price to come down enough for the Twins to lock him up. Signing another 1-year deal, Hudson is making $5MM this season. Fan Graphs has Hudson pegged at 3.5 WAR, which means they think Hudson has been worth 3.5 wins by himself this season. That's a good number, and that's why Fan Graphs says his production is worth close to $14MM. Considering the Twins are 3.5 games up at the moment, I think the entire organization would agree that Hudson's actually been worth quite a bit more than that because the Twins need those extra 3.5 wins much more than a team like the Orioles or Pirates do.

Now, the Twins can't offer Hudson arbitration if he qualifies as a Type-A free agent, and at the moment he would qualify as a type-A. That should improve Hudson's chances at finding a multi-year offer, since teams won't need to give up draft picks to sign him, but he wasn't offered arbitration last year and still had to settle for a one year deal.

Ultimately I think the Twins will try to bring Hudson back on a 2-year deal between $10-12MM. A team like the Nationals or Indians may be willing to offer a longer deal or more money, but at this point a return to Minnesota seems the most likely. The Twins don't have a replacement anywhere close to major-league ready, and Hudson won't have the chance to win over the next few years in the places that may offer a little more money.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Delmon Young... Again

Almost four months ago, I took a look at Delmon Young's first month, and while he had struggled some at that point, I wrote:

"There is plenty of reason to be optimistic about the rest of Young's season, though. After hitting .338 each of the last three seasons on balls in play (my beloved BABIP), he's down to .254 this year. That's an awful lot of bad luck, as I've explained with J.J. Hardy as well, and over the course of the season it should gradually climb back closer to the .338 mark."

Young's BABIP has gradually climbed back to .320, and his numbers this season have been good. After a ridiculous July in which he hit .434/.455/.736, Young came crashing back to earth in August. Now, everyone seemed to praise Delmon during the spring for coming into camp in much better shape, losing nearly thirty pounds of baby fat. As the season wore on, rumors began to circulate that Young didn't actually 'work' off the baby fat, but rather he had a terrible virus and was sick for nearly a month in the off-season and lost most of the weight then. I'm not in any position to know which was actually the case, but one thing is certain; Young has put most of that weight back on.

In August, Young hit just .218/.239/.318, and you could see the baby fat clearly coming back. In fairness to Young, you could see the baby fat coming back during most of July when he was killing the ball, so I don't think his weight has much to do with his offense. What it may effect, however, is how fatigued he is. He's played a lot this year, and it's possible that with the weight coming back his body is getting tired much quicker. Of course, the more likely explanation is that Young hit so ridiculously well in July that the law of averages meant he was going to come crashing back to earth at some point, and it just happened to be the very next month.

For the year, Young is hitting .307/.337/.495, good for an OPS of .831. He's added 16 home runs and he's been a key run contributor, knocking in 92 as we head to September. Despite the praise Delmon has gotten, though, his OPS currently ranks 27th in the league among outfielders. Considering there are thirty-two teams and three outfielders per team, being 27th still makes Young a good player and above-average for sure. Unfortunately, he's not really anywhere close to an MVP candidate, which some fans and media types have foolishly anointed him.

Young has been very good at points this year and he's been a better than average offensive outfielder, and I hope he can find the swing he had in July over the next month to help the team down the stretch. I like Young, despite often criticizing him here, and as a Twins fan I would be more than happy to have Young become a perennial MVP candidate. Just know that at this point that's extremely, extremely unlikely, despite what the casual fan may believe. We all want Young to succeed, I'm just more realistic and the stats back up that he's a good, not great player, and his terrible August is just another reminder that every time Young seems to turn a corner, he always takes a step back. Here's to hoping he tears it up over the next month, and into the post-season.


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