Friday, February 26, 2010

Second to None

The Twins made a number of quality additions over the course of the offseason that should enable them to improve on problem areas as they move forward into the 2010. JJ Hardy should make the Twins better at the shorstop position if he can rebound even moderately from a rough 2009 campaign. Jim Thome adds a veteran power threat that was amiss on the bench last season. Clay Condrey provides another solid righty option out of a bullpen that was at times so thin that it forced the team to rely on Bobby Keppel in key situations.

Given the flaws on last year's team, though, no offseason acquisition by Bill Smith looms larger than the most recent: the signing of Orlando Hudson.

Hudson overtakes the reigns at second base, a position from which the Twins received an abysmal .209/.302/.267 hitting line last season. Provided that he's healthy, Hudson -- a .282/.348/.431 career hitter -- will almost certainly improve significantly on that number this year. But teams can live with a poor hitter at second base, provided they bury him at the bottom of the order and place competent hitters around him on the field. Indeed, Hudson's most important function might be filling the second spot in the batting order, which was a major liability for this team a year ago.

In The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, noted sabermetrician Tom Tango teamed up with Mitchel Litchman and Andrew Dolphin to analyze strategic decision-making in baseball based on years of historical data. One chapter in the book addresses lineup construction, and perhaps the most striking conclusion drawn by the authors is that the No. 2 spot in the order is actually more important to run production than the No. 3 spot. To quote a paragraph from the book:
The run values of each event favor the #2 hitter over the #3 hitter by .02 to .03 runs. And this is across the board, except for the HR (which is even). Likewise, the run values of the #4 hitter's events are all higher than those of the #3 hitter. This means that the #3 hitter should be worse than the #2 and #4 hitters. For most teams, the gap in talent between the #3 and #2 slots is enormous and that talent is concenterated in the #3 slot. This is simply wrong.
Many people disagree with this blatant rejection of traditional baseball thought, and in truth the disparity in "run values" between the two lineup spots as outlined in the book is so small that even if you buy into the authors' reasoning, there's still no call to disparage managers who elect to bat their best hitter third. But what's clear from this study and others -- not to mention common sense, really -- is that having a strong hitter in the two-hole is highly important. The No. 2 hitter figures to receive the second-most plate appearances of any player on the team and also generally bats in front of the club's very best hitters.

Last year, the Twins' No. 2 hitters combined for a .262/.306/.394 line, which is pretty weak even without accounting for the fact that Joe Mauer made 142 plate appearances in that spot (posting a spectacular 1158 OPS). If you remove Mauer's at-bats, the Twins got an absolutely dreadful .232/.272/.326 line from the second spot in the order. It goes without saying that having that kind of production directly in front of the league's best hitter (as Mauer was typically batting third when he wasn't batting second, with the exception of April when he didn't play) is beyond unacceptable.

Hudson has seen his performance fluctuate some over the years, but he has been steady in the OBP department as of late. In each of the past four seasons, he has reached base at a clip of .354 or higher, putting him well above the league average. If he can produce at close to that rate while also providing his usual strong batting average and solid power output, Hudson will give the Twins a massive upgrade in front of Mauer.

Ron Gardenhire loves to write players who can bunt and execute the hit-and-runs into the second spot in his lineups. Certainly, Hudson is a guy who can do those things. But he's also a very competent hitter overall, and his presence could give Mauer a legitimate shot at posting his first 100-RBI campaign.

I slammed my head into my desk last year every time Orlando Cabrera, Alexi Casilla, Nick Punto or whoever else occupying the two-spot ended a rally by making the third out while Mauer stood in the on-deck circle. So, at the very least, Hudson's addition to the lineup should be beneficial for my forehead.

11 comments:

David said...

I slammed my head into my desk last year every time Orlando Cabrera, Alexi Casilla, Nick Punto or whoever else occupying the two-spot ended a rally by making the third out while Mauer stood in the on-deck circle. So, at the very least, Hudson's addition to the lineup should be beneficial for my forehead.

You and me both. Cabrera was an upgrade, to be sure, but even still - shortly after they traded him, it seemed like 3 of every 5 games the Twins lost, they had a chance to rally late, only to see Cabrera and his .300 OBP trot out there in front of Mauer and make a back-breaking third out w/ RISP, and then Mauer leads off the next inning (often against a better, or fresher, pitcher). I know this is anecdotal, and not the type of reasoning used by Litchman and Tango, but it's a concrete example of the abstract principle: you don't want a guy who makes a lot of outs taking more at bats than someone who doesn't make a lot of outs. (How's that for a tautology?)

I like that you pointed out the minor disparity in run values between 2 and 3, and I agree, batting Mauer third is no reason to slam Gardenhire, provided a competent hitter is in front of Mauer. With how phenomenal a hitter Mauer is, and with the pop that follows him, the most important thing Span and Hudson can do is avoid making an out. If they do that, we should see a lot of early leads and exciting rallies.

jimcrikket said...

I always was a proponent of batting Mauer 2nd, not because I felt he SHOULDN'T bat 3rd, but because it made no sense to put any of the existing very poor options there and watch them not only make 3rd outs, but ground in to DPs after Span led off by getting on base. Hopefully, Hudson's presence puts an end to all of the frustration many of us felt with regard to Gardy's stubborn approach to line up construction

Jacob said...

Gardy is a good manager but he made a mistake last year not just going Mauer 2, Kubel, Morneau, Cuddy. I know common theory is to have this prototypical #2 hole guy so they'd stick Cabrera, Punto, Harris or whatever crappy hitter that "fit the mold" in there. But when you have no #2 just move a good hitter there and play station to station. Seriously those guys they used #2 were terrible at bunting, moving guys, getting on, and everything. Cabrera seemed so good because he had some really clutch hits but overall he was meh.

Hudson batting 2nd I'm fine with because he is a good hitter. But I still don't think it is a slam dunk that he is best for that position. Span/Mauer/Kubel/Morneau still intrigues me especially against a dominant right handed starter and then just have Hudson bat late. Maybe if he struggles we'll see that type of power lineup.

Don't get me wrong, Span/Hud/Mauer/Morneau makes the most sense so let's go with it. I just don't think it is totally not up for debate given the fact that Mauer could be a great 1, 2, or 3 hitter.

Dave said...

A lot of the standard wisdom surounding the #2 hitter is based on outdated strategy. The proto typical #2 hitter saw a lot of pitches and put the ball in play. This is based on the old school small ball strategies for leadoff singles.

Lets be honest, sabrmetrics has statistically disproven the sac bunt to second as a run generating play. You are much more likely to plate the guy from first with a good #2 hitter than plate the guy from second with 1 out.

Old school mentalities on baserunning have also gone by the wayside. Thirty years ago a runner on first and a 2-1 count was always a good hit and run or steal situation. You needed a patient hitter to get the count to 2-1 or 3-1. Now days running on the first or second pitch or on a pitchers count isn't as frowned on. A 2-1 count is viewed differently as well, with fastball counts being used to generate line drives and not merely make contact.

Stealing is also a more fluid opperation with general "green lights" given to the runner as opposed to old school where almost every steal was signaled from the manager (not counting stealing superstars).

Modern statistics also show how a #2 hitter batting with 1 out and nobody on should operate. Old school strategy calls for a walk/single being the desired outcome, with the runner getting to 2nd via steal or getting batted to 3rd via a hit from the #3 guy. Bascally another lead off guy. Now days we realize the importance of slugging percentage in generating runs as well as RBI's. With 1 out a double is gold when compared to a single.

USAFChief said...

"Now days we realize the importance of slugging percentage in generating runs as well as RBI's. With 1 out a double is gold when compared to a single."

It's comforting to know that sabermetrics has provided us with insights such as above. I'm shocked--shocked I tell you--to learn those crotchety ol' managers from yesteryear weren't able to deduce such truths.

'A double is better than a single.' Who knew?

Dave said...

hehe, well, its not that simple. Really, its comparing a batter who will hit at a lower average with a higher chance of a double compared to a hitter that will hit at a higher average but be much more likely to hit for a single or walk. And that isn't to say that the guy with the higher slugging % won't hit a single, its just more likely he will end up at second than the other player.

Traditional wisdom says that getting a guy on base has intrinsic value in itself, so get that guy on base any way you can. Modern statistical analysis shows that getting to second holds more value, so you can afford to make some outs in an effort to get more bases. There is a trend line that shows how likely each player is to generate a run based on his batting stats, and this trend line favors slugging % more than old school guys want to admit.

There are also stats that show what stealing percentage you need to make in order to make stealing generate more runs than not. I believe moneyball had it somewhere in the 70% range. Its the same line of thinking; how many baserunners can you sacrifice to get someone into scoring position?

Carson2 said...

These thoughts are all very interesting on lineups. There are certainly many schools of thought on this subject. Here is my projected lineup for opening day.

1. Span CF L
2. Hunsond 2B S
3. Mauer C L
4. Morneau 1B L
5. Kubel DH L
6. Cuddyer RF R
7. Young LF R
8. Hardy SS R
9. 3B by committee

Span is the clear favorite for lead off, and there is little doubt Hudson will bat second. I beleive having two speedy baserunners ahead of Mauer only increases his opportunities for RBI. Hudson is more likely to score from first than Mauer is. This lineup also gives the opportunity for 6 straight left handed batters against a RHP if Punto is in the nine spot. This is also a park that favors left handed batters.

This lineup also offers speed at the bottom, which the Twins love in order to start rallies.

The only drawback is late inning pitching subs. Mauer batting .345, Morneau batting .277, and Kubel batting .243 against LHP last season does not look all that bad though.

thrillho said...

USAChief - I like how you took one line from this entry and use it poke fun at sabermetrics.
It's tiring at BYTO but here? C'mon man, you're not even making a point.

Not serious said...

Some guys have all the luck. USAF Chief makes a tongue in cheek comment that provokes a grin. Then thrillho while criticizing the comment gives him a promotion to USA Chief. I guess thrillho isn't too pleased with having a White Sox fan in the oval office.

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