Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Twins History Proves Stats are Important

When the Twins traded JJ Hardy to Baltimore for minor league relievers Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobsen, I was vehemently against the trade. Getting rid of Hardy after he posted an average offensive season and spectacular defensive season at shortstop seemed foolish; the team hadn't had an above average shortstop since the early 2000's when Cristian Guzman represented the Twins in the all-star game.

In the team's defense, Hardy was coming off yet another injury-riddled season, and the team's payroll was pretty much at it's limit, so they felt they needed to cut costs any way possible. However, spending $7.5MM on Matt Capps* while trading away Hardy's $6MM salary, both on one year contracts, wasn't the option I would have preferred.

*Aaron Gleeman pointed out that since the Twins acquired Matt Capps for Wilson Ramos, Capps is 24-31 in save opportunities (78%) while Jon Rauch was 21-25 (84%) before the trade, and is 7-9 (78%) for Toronto this year. The team gave up a top catching prospect who is now 23-years-old, his OPS is 30 points above average, and he's thrown out a ridiculous 50% of base stealers this season to lead baseball. For all the talk of Rene Rivera and Drew Butera "shutting down the opposing running games" it's a shame that the team had just that guy, and he could actually hit like a major leaguer too. Now we'll get to watch him along with Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and others over the next decade leading what could be a Nationals dynasty. What a shame.

I've gone over the reasons why I was so upset when the team traded Hardy, but since I don't expect any of you to go digging through old posts or to even read older posts, here's the spark notes version:

Hardy's OPS in 2010 was .714, the average OPS for shortstops last year was .693. Hardy was clearly above average offensively... and he was the American League's best defensive shortstop according to UZR/150. That information alone should have been enough for the team to realize that a 1-year, $6MM contract for an above average player was well worth it, especially if the team was going to increase the payroll to nearly $115MM.

Unfortunately for the Twins, there were more factors to consider. Hardy tried to play through a wrist injury for two weeks during 2010, and he hit .139/.184/.167 during that stretch. Had he simply gone on the DL rather than try to play, his final slash line would have been .285/.335/.421, which is a much more impressive .756 OPS. When paired with outstanding defense, Hardy at least had the potential to be one of the league's top shortstops in 2011.

Hardy was hurt during the first week of the season and immediately went on the DL, and I'm sure Bill Smith and company felt grateful at that point that they hadn't spent the $6MM on him. But it's been two and a half months since the season began, and Hardy's play has been fantastic. He's hitting .287/.363/.473, has 6 home runs in 129 at bats (he had 6 last year in 340 at bats), and while his defense hasn't been as good as it was last year, he still ranks above average with a 5.6 UZR/150. There's a good chance that number will grow as Hardy's sample size increases as well. His .836 OPS ranks third among MLB shortstops. For comparisons sake, the Twins have gotten a .233/.302/.352 line out of their shortstops this season, good for a .653 OPS.

I don't bring up my Hardy take because I want to brag that I was right (to this point) about not trading him, but I bring it up to point out that if a college student can come to the conclusion FROM HIS BEDROOM that JJ Hardy is an above average player with the potential to be truly elite, why the hell can't the Twins brass see it?

And Hardy isn't the only example. I said Valencia was unlikely to ever be more than an average third baseman, but his great second half last year seemed to convince the Twins that he was the future at third base. Even an average third baseman would be an upgrade over what the team had since Corey Koskie left, but my point was simply if the team can find a better player they need to because Valencia is not a future all-star. He's hitting .218/.282/.329 this year, after hitting .311/.351/.448 last season. He was fairly lucky last year, posting a .345 batting average on balls in play (BAbip) while this season he's been fairly unlucky, posting a BAbip of .240. His actual stat line will likely end up in the .270/.330/.410 area, which is nothing to get too excited about coming from a third baseman. The league average OPS for 3B last year was .742, so Valencia's production is likely going to be almost exactly average.

Of course, I'm not the only person with these opinions. Most Twins bloggers didn't want the team to trade Hardy, coming to the same conclusions I did, and most also felt like Valencia was fine but certainly not a future cornerstone or anything like that. We all came to these conclusions by simply looking at stats. Well, at least I did, and I'm assuming that's what the others did as well.

However, the Twins continue to shy away from advanced statistics, preferring scouting 100% of the time over stats. While I do believe scouting is important, I think it's important to scout amateurs. Obviously it's impossible to translate a high school kids stats to the major league level, so it's very important to have scouts to project what these kids may become. That was my biggest issue with Billy Beane's "moneyball" approach; not the fact that they were using stats so heavily, but that they were trying to judge college players based on their on-base percentage against far worse pitchers than any major leaguer. But I also believe you don't need scouts to judge major league players. The great thing about baseball is that there are so many games over the course of a season that regardless of the hot streaks or cold streaks a player has, chances are his 2011 season is going to be similar to his 2010 season. Looking at JJ Hardy's past, factoring in the wrist injury, and the spectacular defense, I was able to come to the conclusion that trading JJ Hardy for two minor league relievers was a mistake because of statistics. Even if one is trying to scout a player to see if he's declined, chances are the stats are going to show it as well. Derek Jeter's numbers have fallen over the last two years, and while a scout may notice his hands are slower or his mechanics are off or something along those lines, stats show Jeter's hitting less line drives and a ridiculously large amount of ground balls. That's a great sign his hands have slowed down... and I haven't seen him play in person since 2007.

Unfortunately, the Twins decided to rebuild a bullpen and middle infield this off-season, but they pretty much did as bad as possible. Alexi Casilla has played better over the last month and a half, which is encouraging, but even with his improved play he's still just hitting .263/.325/.343 in 175 at bats. Nishioka's signing wasn't terrible, and he could still be a solid player in the future, but he didn't even know how to correctly turn a double play at second base because it's simply not taught in Japan. Players don't slide to take out the infielder, so Nishioka never had to learn how to avoid contact. So of course he broke his leg trying to turn a double play.

Picking up Dusty Hughes off the waiver wire made no sense, as he was never even above average, and he's been lit up all season and the Twins just removed him from the 40-man roster today. Trading for Hoey, a 28-year-old with good but not great AAA stats and huge control issues, also made no sense. There were simply better options available in-house, and now that we're two months into the season the Twins brass has finally realized that Hoey and Hughes are not major league caliber relievers. It's a shame Anthony Slama hasn't gotten an extended look, considering just how bad the bullpen's been and how good he's been in AAA for the last two years.

Regardless, the Twins need to start using stats if they want to avoid simple mistakes that hurt the team for the first few months of the season before the team finally wises up and gets rid of the dead weight. It'd just be nice if the team could look at a players track record rather than his scouting report, because they end up dumping the crap after two months of continued failure even though the players almost always had a track record of sucking for multiple years. (Tony Batista, Rondell White, Livan Hernandez, Ramon Ortiz, as well as all the previously mentioned names)

Luckily, the American League Central is absolutely brutal, so even with the Twins using the first two months of the season as somewhat of an extended spring training, they still have an outside chance to win the division. I think they will, but it's still frustrating to see people who are far smarter and far more qualified to make roster decisions than me continue to make mistake after mistake because they refuse to accept that the advanced baseball statistics are a necessity in today's game. Here's to hoping the team figures that out before it's too late.


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