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Kyle Gibson and the First Pitch Blues

Kyle Gibson struggled in 2016. This is hardly news for Twins fans after a 103 loss season. In the midst of the #DealDozier sweepstakes the Twins have several other areas that will have to improve if they are going to compete with a division which is weakened from 2016, but with an emerging super power in Cleveland. The primary reason the Twins must trade Dozier lies in his value reaching its peak; this fact, combined with the difficulty mid-market teams face in producing enough front-line pitching talent to win a division (never mind the World Series) also bring us back to Gibson. If the Twins are to take a step forward in 2017, Minnesota’s 2009 first rounder will have to rebound to help anchor a rotation made up largely of unreliable pieces outside of Ervin Santana.

In 2015 Gibson appeared to be developing into the number three starter the Twins had hoped for when drafting him as a first round value play in 2009. In 194 plus innings he posted his best ERA 3.84, WHIP 1.28, SO/9 6.7 while posting a 3.96 FIP, all very tidy numbers. By contrast in 2016 his numbers jumped to a career worst ERA 5.07, WHIP 1.56, and FIP 4.70. What’s interesting in Gibson’s case, is some of the numbers which underlie his 2016 struggles.

Anecdotally, Gibson seemed to struggle early in the count in 2016, with hitters being very aggressive at attacking his first pitch. Below is a heat map of Gibson’s pitch percentage on 0-0 counts against lefties with his two seam fastball (the pitch he most typically starts off a hitter with). As you might expect from a ground ball hitter, the majority of Gibson’s pitches were located down and away versus left handed hitters.

final-lhp

Here’s a similar look for right handed hitters in 2016. As you can see, Gibson typically locates down and in or down and away to right handed hitters.

rhp

The biggest issue Gibson faced in 2016 was that opposing hitters picked up on this tendency and drilled his two seam fastball. On the first pitch of an AB, opposing hitters crushed Gibson to the tune of a .467 average while slugging .907 off him. Gibson also gave up 17 XBHs including 8 HR on the first pitch of an AB. In 2015, hitters slugged a much more respectable .538 in first pitch situations, giving up 10 less XBHs. Below is a similar heat map for Gibson’s two seam fastball location in 0-0 counts in 2015, his best season as a Twin, where he spread the ball around the strike zone significantly more.

old-rhp

One of the few clues we have been given about the proclivities of Derek Falvey and Thad Lavine came through their signing of Jason Castro, an offensive struggler known for his pitch framing. This is perhaps indicative of a desire of the front office to put a greater emphasis on more detailed statistics and analytics than Terry Ryan. Castro is undeniably a defensive upgrade over Kurt Suzuki, who struggled in various defensive metrics throughout his tenure with the Twins. One attraction of Castro in addition to his pitch framing is his experience and quality in leading a staff and as a signal caller. Gibson struggled significantly with Suzuki in 2016 to the tune of a 6.15 ERA with opposing hitters managing a .359 BaBIP, compared to a 3.72 ERA and .293 BaBIP when caught by Juan Centeno or John Ryan Murphy. This trend is also true of 2015 (Gibson’s best season as a Twin) in which he performed significantly worse when Suzuki was behind the plate compared with Chris Hermann or Eric Fryer.

Whatever the exact reason behind Gibson and Suzuki’s lack of chemistry one would think Castro will be a shot in the arm to a pitcher the Twins desperately need to take a significant step forward in 2017.

Ryan Firing the Result of Twins’ Lack of Identity

The Twins fired Terry Ryan Monday in a move which surprised the Twin Cities sports media in its timing if not its necessity. The hapless Twins sit at 33-58 going into Tuesday’s play, the worst record in the American League. An organization famed for its loyalty, loyalty to a fault, finally made a move separating the Twins from a direction which has seen them in a slow decline from playoff regulars to AL punchline.

Remarkably, in a sporting landscape where the pressure to win is insurmountable, particularly in larger markets, the Twins commitment to loyalty has led to a stagnancy which has mired the organization in mediocrity. This is the same loyalty that kept Ron Gardenhire in a job long after the Twins needed a new direction. This is the same loyalty that led the Twins to build a farm system around ‘pitch to contact’ and a reticence to embrace analytics in ways that have led other mid-market franchises to great success (see 2015 Royals). Make no mistake, the Twins are behind the times and the buck should not stop with just Terry Ryan.

The Twins have long been accused by their fans of espousing a little too Minnesotan of an attitude to a GM who has brought limited success in recent seasons, particularly in his second spell at the helm. While the Twins enjoyed a consistent playoff berth in the early 2000s, their recent direction has been uninspiring, 2015 breaking a run of 4 straight 90+ loss seasons

Remarkably, it seems as if some may reflect on Ryan’s second spell with the Twins as a success, as David St. Peter mentioned his success in rebuilding the farm system since 2011. This is a baffling statement, given the primary means of restocking a farm system is losing a whole bunch of games and having consistently great draft position. Do the Twins have one of the strongest farm systems in baseball? Significantly improved from 2011? Sure, they better.

Rob Anthony has been tabbed with the interim GM title. The Twins would be wise to ensure this tag does not become permanent. The Twins need a clean break from their ‘within organization’ hiring practices. ‘The organization’ has not worked in quite some time. Alarmingly, Dave St. Peter will take on a significant role in the hiring process as Mackay of ESPN 1500 noted after a round table with the media.

It would be wise for St. Peter to stick with his presidential duties and allow baseball minds to take the lead in hiring a GM who will be critical in establishing the Twins direction for the next decade. The Twins recent woes have been indicative of one simple and undeniable fact, the franchise lacks  an identity. They have over-invested in sub-par free agent pitching (Nolasco, Hughes extension, Santana to an extent) whilst simultaneously stocking their farm system. Every mid-market baseball fan knows that free agency isn’t where its team earns its stripes. Look at the outstanding example provided by Rick Spielman down the street. The Twins have the chance for a clean break and a reshaping, rather than reshuffling of the organization after the dismissal of Ryan. The assertion of Pohlad that the new GM is beholden to Paul Molitor for the 2017 season is worrying. Not because Molitor isn’t well suited for the job, it sets a dangerous Jerry Jones-esque meddlesome precedent muddying the waters between organizational and personnel affairs. If the Twins want to start fresh, that begins with empowering their next, out of organization GM.

Relief Pitchers Key Royals Postseason Success – Twins to Follow Suit?

By JDCam 11.09.14

With the off-season only a few days old the Minnesota Twins did something they haven’t done in over 13 years, naming Hall of Famer Paul Molitor as their new manager. Being a first time manager, no-one is quite sure exactly what Molitor will bring to the table. It will no doubt be fascinating as the Twins are renowned not only for their loyalty but their desire to ‘keep it in the family’.

The Twins organization has been criticized in recent years for failing to embrace some of the modern tendencies of ‘successful’ organizations such as sabermetrics and defensive shifts. Their recent struggles can certainly be traced back to woeful starting pitching stemming from an inability to sign big name free agent pitching and more importantly, spending their average mid first round draft picks from their more successful mid-2000s years on positional players.

The Twins have certainly changed their philosophy recently, bringing in a dearth of potentially high impact power arms both via trade and the draft. Names like Alex Meijer, JJ Berrios and Kohl Stewart will be gracing the beautiful confines of Target Field in the next few years (Trevor May made a disappointing but slowly improving debut at the end of the 2014 season).

Looking at the Twins 2014 draft however may be an indicator of an area in which their thinking maybe more progressive and forward thinking than other clubs. With their first selection they drafted Nick Gordon (son of Flash) a talented multi-tool SS out of high school. With their subsequent picks, the Twins only went out and drafted an entire bullpen. The Twins spent their next 7 picks on high velocity arms including Nick Burdi in round 2, the former Louisville closer who can hit 103 on the radar, Michael Cederoth out of San Diego State, who also throws in the high 90s and Jake Reed in the 5th round out of Oregon.

Burdi

Nick Burdi could soon be impacting the Twins, despite only being drafted in 2014

The early returns on these bullpen pieces have been very promising. Burdi, who could see Target Field as early as 2015 struggled with control issues early before being promoted to High A Fort Myers. In his first 20 innings of professional ball he struck out an absurd 16.8/9 innings and had yet to give up a run at High A when the season drew to a close. Cederoth struggled more out of the gate with Rookie ball Elizabethton before finishing the season strong (although the Twins have been trying to stretch him out as a starter). Reed, another hard throwing right hander had perhaps the most impressive debut, giving up just 1ER in his first 31 innings pitched while striking out 39 and walking just 3 through two different levels in the minors.

If this year’s refreshingly competitive playoffs taught us anything it was the value of an outstanding bullpen. Kansas City hardly had a dominating starting rotation but had the best bullpen in the regular season (5.9 WAR). Their late innings trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland proved impossible to stop. Herrera finished the season with a 2.8 WAR, Davis with a WAR of 3.7 (for an 8th inning guy!) and Holland with a WAR of 2.5. That’s a combined WAR of 9 for their late inning, high octane arms.

Wade Davis had a remarkable 2014 and keyed the best bullpen in the majors

Wade Davis had a remarkable 2014 and keyed the best bullpen in the majors

Twins fans need to accept the fact that the Pohlad family, despite their fortune, is never going to allow the Twins to have  payroll much over $100 million. Because of this the Twins will never be able to afford, or attract top tier rotation arms via free agency. Assuming some of their excellent starting prospects can develop into solid major league starters Terry Ryan and the front office might just be pursuing a novel blueprint for success, drafting an elite bullpen. Look out for the Twins relievers in 2015 and beyond, it might just be their ticket back to competitiveness.

Year of the Pitcher 2.0 – Where is all the Offence?

By Conway West 11.03.14

Baseball had a year that rivaled 1968 for the “year of the pitcher” moniker: the highest K rate of all time and the lowest runs scored since 1981. That, in addition to the specialized relievers becoming more specialized and defensive shifts becoming commonplace, means that baseball might be in a drought of offense, which seemed unimaginable just 10 years ago.

This article will focus on starting pitchers and which outperformed projection expectations of them coming into the year, as well as those who underperformed. I have avoided the conversation regarding relievers for two reasons: one, the overrated/underrated thing is so apparent with relievers (wow, Wade Davis was really good this year! And Jim Johnson was terrible!). Two, relievers are so fickle, and have such situational roles, that their success is so much harder to predict. It is almost assumed that there is no good in projecting the success of the bullpen arms; just have as many relievers that throw really hard as you possibly can. I used steamer for the projections, and FIP for the basis, which I will explain why FIP is great in a later article.

Most Surprising Starting Pitcher

Garrett Richards, Angels (Projected FIP: 4.37, Actual: 2.60)

Richards began the year as a previously ineffective extra arm for an Angel’s team that had a lot of pitchers that fit that bill. With injuries in the rotation to start the year, Richards started the season in the 4th spot of the Angels’ rotation, slotted between the potent combination of Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs (both struggled mightily). He proved effective the first start of the season, and then pitched 7 shut out innings against the Mariners his second start, and then pitched like an ace the rest of the way on a team that desperately needed it. He was consistently the most effective pitcher the Angels had all year, in any role.

G.Richards

Angels pitcher Garrett Richards took the AL by storm in 2014 before going down to an ironically NON elbow/arm related injury

Richards rise to ace-dom comes from that fastball velocity, amongst other things, which was 6th in the bigs out of players with significant playing time, and first out of starters. Dude throws hard, and has always thrown hard, but this year he continued on 2013 success of finding the strike zone more often. When you throw 96+, and can locate with 3 pitches, you can normally be successful at the major league level. Richards is on the young side (this was his age 26 season) and looks like he has learned how to pitch; he looks poised to continue his growth as an ace. Even before his season-ending injury, advanced scouts were wary of Garrett’s success because of a growing trend in MLB.

One of the emerging storylines of early in the 2014 baseball year was Tommy John surgery. While pitchers left and right were being put on the shelf with elbow injuries, the consensus (with a lot of scientific data to back it up) was that hard throwers (especially young ones) equate to elbow injuries. The dark humor behind this statement, obviously, is that Richards suffered one of the most gruesome injuries of 2014 that wasn’t an elbow. That injury could be crippling to the best pitcher in Southern California not named Clayton.

Honorable Mentions: Jose Quintana, Jeremy Guthrie, Dallas Keuchel

Most Deceptively Underachieving Starting Pitcher:

Shelby Miller, Cardinals (Projected FIP: 3.82, Actual: 4.54)

The category of “most underachieving” can be really fun, particularly with pitchers, when looking subjectively at the matter. For instance, the year after RA Dickey won the Cy Young as a feel-good story (when he was possibly out-pitched by the afore-mentioned Clayton), he was traded to the Blue Jays in a deal the Mets must have been licking their chops over: they knew the market was grossly overrating their Cy Young winner. He then pitched pretty much like numbers should suggest: average. This seems to happen with pitching to a high degree: since they perform less than hitters, their success is examined more thoroughly, then blown out of proportion either way afterwards. Starting pitchers are the quarterbacks (analytically) of baseball.

With that being said, I have tried to be objective with this list, showing numbers and explaining them with possible explanations. Shelby Miller for me wasn’t as exciting as several of the candidates for this award, but he is still deserving of the honor. Led by a bottom-15 walk rate, K rate, and home run rate, Miller was tagged all season. He also had tremendous luck with a .256 BABIP, which was third lowest in the majors. St Louis had a good team defense, but nothing so spectacular to explain that number. Miller’s ground ball rate wasn’t that special, either. He just was lucky to not be worse than he already was this year.

Shelby Miller was below par last year but it could have been worse

Shelby Miller was below par last year but it could have been worse

If you ever watched Shelby pitch, there is subjective reasoning to back that up: he seemed to walk everyone the first inning, until he threw a flat fastball in the zone that got roped and caught by someone to turn a double play. His season felt always on the verge of disaster. There is hope – he is still very young, and shot through the minors striking people out all the way.

Others on this list popped out as more exciting: Danny Salazar was a dark-house ace candidate, who was ruined by terrible team defense and wildness early in the year. Alfredo Simon was a fantasy name heard often all year: just interesting enough to always pop up on the waiver wire, but ended with terrible peripherals. AJ Burnett was awesome last year, and was equally bad this year, which could have led to interesting discussions on age and pitching. And we haven’t even mentioned Chris Young, the worst pitcher by FIP this season. If you were to ask Mariners’ fans in August about Chris Young, some would have called him the MVP of the team. How’s that for overrated?

Honorable Mentions: Danny Salazar, AJ Burnett, Alfredo Simon

Jordan Zimmermann – The Most Underrated Pitcher in Baseball

by JDCam October 25th 2014

When the baseball season is over. When a refreshing and truly excellent post-season comes to a close, awards season will begin. At this point it is a mere formality that Clayton Kershaw wins his second successive Cy Young award (and most likely an MVP) and deservedly so. Someone who will start to garner more attention from Cy Young voters this year is Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, perhaps the most grossly underrated starting pitcher in all of baseball.

The most impressive thing about Zimmermann is how he just gets better and better. Let’s start with the basics. In 2014, Zimmermann put up career bests (since he has become a full time starter) in win % (.737), WHIP (1.072), HR/9 (0.6), BB/9 (1.3) and SO/9 (8.2). This is elite production and at 28, Zimmermann is yet to enter his pitching prime.

Let’s get into some more stats on Zimmermann. He was 10th in all of baseball with a 5.2 WAR in 2014. He has the majors 7th best FIP at 2.68 and 13th in xFIP at 3.10. Zimmerman did all this with an above average BABIP of .302. How aren’t we raving about this guy? I don’t understand. Zimmerann seems to suffer from being undervalued by others, most evidently by his own manager, the consistently buffoonish Matt Williams.

In game 2 of the Nationals series against the pennant winning San Francisco Giants, a mere 6 days after throwing a no hitter against the surprisingly competitive Florida Marlins, Williams took Zimmerman out of the game in remarkable circumstances. Against the Marlins Zimmeran threw 104 pitches (79 for strikes), struck out 10, and walked one in a game that was near perfection. Against the Giants Zimmermann was incredible again. He has pitched 8.2 innings of shut out ball before walking  promising Giants 2B joe Panik. Bizareely, with the game on the line and his unappreciated ace working on 17 2/3 shut out innings, Williams took Zimmermann out of the game in favor of injury prone closer Drew Storen. After a Buster Posey single and a Pablo Sandoval double, the game was tied. San Francisco went on to win in 18 innings and take an unassailable 2-0 lead in the best of 5 series.

Williams made one of the worst managerial decisions in recent playoff history by pulling Zimmermann in game 2 against the Giants in the NLDS

Williams made one of the worst managerial decisions in recent playoff history by pulling Zimmermann in game 2 against the Giants in the NLDS

For me, Williams decision is a puzzle I still have not managed to solve. Consider the situation. Your bona fide ace (yes over Strasburg) throws a no hitter. The next game (a crucial playoff start) he throws 8 2/3 innings of 3 hit ball. He has dominated the Giants lineup comfortably. He walks a man in the 9th, with two men down and he is taken out. SHOCKING! Just a shocking managerial decision! What does Zimmermann have to do to stay in the game? How could you possibly pull Zimmermann, in the midst of one of the most impressive streaks of his career for Storen (an injury prone, streakily dominant closer). I cannot wrap my head around the level of stupidity. The Nationals had a legitimate opportunity to win this year with a great rotation in which Gio Gonzalez was a number 4. Jordan Zimmerann is, without question the best pitcher in this potentially dominant group. Next year, his salary of $16.5 million will be richly deserved. He will undoubtedly be of the best available starters in a deep free agent starter class that boasts David Price and Mat Latos. I’m sure the Nationals will try to re-up Zimmerman in the off-season or during 2015. If I was him, I’d be testing the market to find a club that truly appreciated my value.

Jim Schwartz and the Lions – Where is the Class in Sports?

by JDCam 10.16.14

This might qualify as somewhat of a rant. I was prepared to let it go until the Baylor Bears scored 21 unanswered points to top TCU on Saturday in a defenseless see-saw battle that was worthy of the top ten matchup it was hyped to be. At the end of their last gasp win Baylor fans rushed the field. WHY? I DON’T GET IT?! Clearly Baylor was down big in this game and the odds were stacked against them. However this was a 5 vs 9 matchup. Baylor was a favorite here. To me, while rushing the field is fun and it was certainly a remarkable comeback it screams of a lack of belongingness of your college team. Heads up Bear fans, you were supposed to win that top ten matchup at home. No matter the circumstances, rushing the field seemed a little much.

Was Baylor rushing the field in a game in which they were favored too much?

Was Baylor rushing the field in a game in which they were favored too much?

The previous Sunday October 5th the Buffalo Bills committed a way more egregiously pathetic and Bush league maneuver after outlasting Alex Henry, the kicker of the Detroit Lions, who was thoroughly determined to lose the game.  Henry managed to miss 3 field goals (indoors mind you) before Dan Carpenter split the sticks with a 58-yarder with 4 seconds left on the clock for a 17-14 win.

After the clock expired Buffalo players carried former Lions head coach Jim Schwartz from the field. This certainly got Golden Tate’s blood boiling, as the Lions wideout confessed after the game later. ‘I thought it was so disrespectful. So disrespectful. I didn’t like it at all. If I knew I wasn’t going to get fined, I would have snatched him right down off their shoulders and threw him on the ground, personally. But obviously I couldn’t do that’. (Obviously Golden, obviously. The outstanding quote of the week award goes to you for this gem).

Bizarrely, I’m inclined to agree with Tate here. Apparently, Bills defensive coordinator Schwartz had told Bills players how much beating his former team in their own building would mean to him, all but hinting at the level of adulation he wanted at the end of the game. How classless. I couldn’t believe it when I saw it. Schwartz was paraded around like a conquering Roman hero. What do you have smile about Jim? You are coaching on a vanilla Bills team that sits at 3-3. You were fired from your last job with the Lions after a season of underachievement with significant talent and a litany of poor judgment calls.

Ultimately it would be a refreshing change of pace if folks in the position of men like Schwartz (leaders in the highest level of competition in a given sport) would act like they expected to win. Not only did Schwartz fail to do so, he acted as if he had single handedly won a game in which it was primarily the incompetence of the Detroit special teams that lead to the victory (Henry was cut the following Monday), not to mention the lack of sportsmanship in blatantly disrespecting a team you beat in their own building. Stay classy Jim Schwartz, I’m sure the Lions won’t forget THAT game in a hurry.

Thursday Night Football – From Bad to Worse

By JDCam Monday October 6th 2014

Thursday Night Football is an atrocious product. It’s becoming an unwatchable product. It’s a product that the NFL should give serious consideration to removing for the safety of its players, the entertainment of its fans and the credibility of itself as an organization.

TNF made its debut on November 23rd 2006 in a matchup between the Chiefs and Broncos. Initially the 8 game package was designed to slake the thirst of an increasingly NFL obsessed general public. In subsequent years TNF moved to a full season slate. The first game finished 19-10 in favor of the Chiefs. In recent years there has been a transition to an increasing number of divisional numbers in attempt to increase the viewership of TNF (as well as the significance of its games) understandably the lowest of all NFL game programming.

In the 2014 season the TNF score line disparities have been alarming;

Seahawks by 20 over Packers

Ravens by 20 over Steelers

Falcons by 42 over Bucs

Giants by 31 over Redskins

Packers by 32 over Vikings

That’s an average discrepancy of 29 points per game, hardly compelling football. Comparatively to the rest of the NFL matchups through week 5 in which the average score separation was;

Week 1 – 10.13 points

Week 2 – 12.33 points

Week 3 – 11.73 points

Week 4 – 16.5 points

Week 5 – 12.38 points

Obviously, it’s not entirely fair to compare a one game sample to score discrepancies over a full Sunday slate. Thus far in the 2014 season however, there hasn’t been a truly competitive TNF game. Compare these score lines to week 3 for example, where on Sunday there were 6 games decided by 10 points or less.

TNF Meme

A more appropriate logo for TNF?

An additional and perhaps more significant consideration for the NFL is giving its players enough time to fully recover between games. Starting on short rest is preventing some of its players from participating and exacerbating the pressure on others to play through ‘minor’ injuries that can resurface over the course of a long season. If the NFL wants an outstanding product then surely having its best players on the field is a priority. Minnesota Viking rookie QB Teddy Bridgewater, suffering from a sprained ankle was unable to suit up for the Vikings whipping at the hands of the Green Bay Packers but claimed that he would have been able to suit up if it was a Sunday game. Would the Vikings have won if Bridgewater had been able to start? Almost certainly not. Would it have been more competitive with Bridgewater instead of Christian Ponder? Almost certainly.

Teddy B SIdeline

Vikings talented rookie Teddy Bridgewater was unable to suit up against the Packers. Would he have been able to play if the game were on Sunday?

There has also been a litany of new research into head injuries within the NFL. Outside the Lines recently reported that shockingly only 1 in 27 head injuries are reported in the FCS. Chris Nowinski, co- founder of the Sports Legacy Institute, reported that ‘the most important finding is that college football players are playing through the vast majority of potential concussions’

Given the vast amount of money at stake for the NFL and its teams every Sunday one would have to assume that if a similar study was conducted in the NFL we might see similarly alarming results. The NFL does have a key responsibility to its players here, not to sacrifice their long term well-being for the sake of their ratings or their profit margin. PBS recently published an article citing the alarming findings of a group of researchers at UCLA who discovered brain damage in ex-NFL players after their careers concluded. Surely in this culture of increasing awareness surrounding traumatic brain injuries, Thursday Night Football sets its players up for unnecessary further injury risk in an already risky sport?

Sadly the NFL doesn’t yet live out this responsibility. It has two bottom lines, dollars and eyeballs (on television sets). As long as Thursday Night Football ratings continue to be among the highest nationally it won’t be going anywhere. Sadly for both its fans and players, it is a disservice and discredit to one group and potentially an endangerment to the other.