Friday, January 25, 2008

Comfortably Average

Last season, the Twins ranked 12th among 14 American League teams in runs scored. It's not difficult to see why -- they received sub par offensive contributions from almost every position. Don't take my word for it, take a look. Here are the 2007 American League averages for OPS at each position, followed by what the Twins got from those positions:

AL catchers: .713
Twins catchers: .750

AL first basemen: .790
Twins first basemen: .812

AL second basemen: .755
Twins second basemen: .640

AL third basemen: .761
Twins third basemen: .631

AL shortstops: .713
Twins shortstops: .656

AL left fielders: .760
Twins left fielders: .677

AL center fielders: .754
Twins center fielders: .836


AL right fielders: .824
Twins right fielders: .764

AL designated hitters: .802
Twins designated hitters: .737


So there you have it. The Twins were well above-average at center field (thanks to Torii Hunter, who is now gone) and marginally above-average at catcher and first base. Outside of those positions, the Twins got substantially below-average offensive production from each position on the field.

Needless to say, getting league-average production at most positions would be a major improvement. And while it doesn't seem like a particularly lofty goal, it's what the middle-market Twins will be shooting for this year. Can they accomplish it? Since positional averages tend to be fairly stable from year to year, we can use last year's numbers as benchmarks going forward. Let's break it down on a position-by-position basis.

CATCHER
This is a particularly weak offensive position -- AL catchers hit only .253/.318/.395 collectively last year. So even though Joe Mauer regressed and struggled with injuries for much of the season and Mike Redmond didn't set the world on fire, the Twins still finished with an OPS 37 points higher than the league mean. It's perfectly reasonable to see Mauer rebounding with a healthy year and putting up numbers somewhere between his 2006 and 2007 campaigns, in which case the Twins should be well above-average at this position.

FIRST BASE
I'm not sure what to think about Justin Morneau at this point. He had a solid debut in 2004, he was horrible in 2005, splendid in 2006, and fairly mediocre overall in 2007 (thanks to a great first half that was marred by an awful second half). I don't know what happened in the final months last year, and I'd like to believe he'll look more like the 2006 version in 2008, but to be safe I'll predict that he'll finish with numbers similar to his final line last year, making him average offensively.

SECOND BASE
The likely starter here is Brendan Harris. Last year, with the Devil Rays, Harris hit .286/.343/.434, which was right in line with the AL average for second basemen (.284/.339/.416). I think it's fairly reasonable to expect him to repeat that performance and provide average production at second base in the upcoming season, which would be a huge upgrade for a team that was 115 points below the league average in OPS at the position last year.

THIRD BASE
This is an interesting one. If Mike Lamb is used as a full-time player here and he receives 500+ at-bats, it's likely that he will post an OPS around his career mark of .761 (which is, coincidentally, identical to the AL league average for third basemen last year). However, if the Twins shield him against left-handed pitchers to some degree, much like the Astros have for the past several seasons, Lamb has a great chance of putting up an OPS in the area of .825, which would be well above-average. This depends on Twins identifying a righty-hitting third baseman who could put up a solid OPS in limited duty against southpaws (Matt Macri might fit the bill). In that case, this team could potentially be very solid relative to the rest of the league offensively. Defense, of course, is another story.

SHORTSTOP
Here's the first position we come across where the Twins are almost guaranteed to be well below-average. Adam Everett has a career .656 OPS and there's little reason to believe he'll be any better than that this year.

LEFT FIELD
This is a tough one to predict. The average AL left fielder hit .275/.335/.426 last year, while Delmon Young hit .288/.316/.408 to fall below that mark. Of course, he was only 22. Many optimists are predicting a huge jump for Young here in his second full season, and he certainly has the tools to do it. However, I think some of the people anticipating Hunter-like numbers are setting themselves up for disappointment. Young played in every single game last year and managed only 13 home runs and a .724 OPS. To add 15 home runs to that total and .120 points or so to his OPS would be a staggering leap. ZiPS, a predictive tool used at Baseball Think Factory, forecasts only a slight improvement for Young next year and sees him hitting .292/.323/.424. That seems pretty conservative and I think he'll do better than, but even that would be league-average so I'd say the Twins are a lock to be average at the very least in left field.

CENTER FIELD
This is a obviously a big question mark. If Johan Santana is traded, it remains likely that the 2008 starting center fielder will be a player received in that trade. As long as Santana is still in Minnesota, the favorite to take the job at this point is probably Jason Pridie. Most agree that Pridie is capable of putting up solid numbers, but it's tough to predict him being an above-average hitter as a 24-year-old rookie with only 245 at-bats above Double-A. I'd say the Twins project to be below average in center field at this point, but not by a whole lot. Obviously, this situation is subject to change.

RIGHT FIELD
Michael Cuddyer had a tough year last year, in large part because he was derailed late in the season by a thumb injury. Still, I felt Cuddyer was playing over his head in 2006 and he's realistically probably closer to his career .796 OPS than the .866 OPS he posted in that magical season. Nevertheless, there's no reason to believe Cuddyer won't be at least average in 2008 as long as he can remain healthy.

DESIGNATED HITTER
It's astonishing how little production the Twins have gotten over the past several seasons from a position in which the player's sole duty is to hit. That figures to change this year, with a (hopefully) healthy and adjusted Jason Kubel likely taking over full-time. As a DH last year, Kubel hit .302/.385/.500. If he can even approach that type of production in the upcoming season, the Twins should be very strong at the DH spot, and well above-average.


CONCLUSIONS
So we have a couple of positions where the Twins project to be below average, but for the most part it appears that this team should be at least on-par with the rest of the league at every position from an offensive standpoint. That doesn't even take into account the very real possibility that a guy like Mauer or Young busts out with a huge season. Of course, as we've been conditioned to learn around these parts, you can't take anything for granted and there's always a very real possibility of guys having down years. Factoring that into the equation, along with injuries, I'd say it's likely that the Twins have about an average offense overall in 2008 -- perhaps better depending on how the center field situation sorts out. This isn't a lineup that's going to light the world on fire like the Tigers or the Yankees, but with great pitching it should be enough to compete.

Of course, this begs the question as to whether or not the Twins will actually have great pitching. And that is a topic for another day.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think your projection for Harris to be 'around league average' at second base is pretty optimistic. Rather than look at his season stats, it might be more informative to look at his 2nd half stats: .256/.316/.397 Harris' minor league numbers tell us he can hit but they are nothing special. With that caveat, I think it's a pretty good analysis of what we can expect in 2008 offensively.

David Wintheiser said...

I think a better split to examine rather than first half/second half is home/road -- and it shows that Harris was better on the road than at home, where his home park was a solid pitcher's park (2007 park factor of 93 for hitters according to baseballreference.com).

Granted, the Metrodome has also been a pitcher's park of late (2007 park factor of 92 for hitters according to baseballreference.com), but barring some kind of injury I wouldn't expect Harris to be significantly worse than his 2007 numbers.

Nick N. said...

Granted, the Metrodome has also been a pitcher's park of late (2007 park factor of 92 for hitters according to baseballreference.com), but barring some kind of injury I wouldn't expect Harris to be significantly worse than his 2007 numbers.

That's my thinking. It's also worth noting that 2007 was Harris' first real season at the major-league level, so you'd hope that he could build on that. The fact that he has bounced between six different organizations already in his young career does give some cause for alarm, though.

TT said...

Aren't most teams below average at most positions? That may sound strange, but the average production at a position is usually driven up by a few very highly productive players. Major league talent is not a bell curve, its more a pyramid with more at bats the further down the scale you go. There really aren't very many players like Punto dragging the average down from the other end.

So when you look at the Twins they have three positions that pulled the average up and six that pulled it down. They obviously had a below average offense last year, but I am not sure that is the reason. The real problem is that Mauer and Morneau didn't pull the average up by very much.

neckrolls said...

Like you said, average offense will do the trick, as long as the pitching remains above average. Most of the young guys vying for rotation spots have the potential to be solid starters, but the staff sure looks a lot better with Santana leading the way.

The Tigers look scary on paper, but their staff won't necessarily be that great, and Cleveland, though good, got every break in the world last season, just like the 2005 White Sox. I think it's way too early to concede the division to either of those teams. The Twins should at least make an effort to keep Santana - reopen the negotiations!

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