Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Thing Fifteen: Solving the Twins' Outfield

To this point the blog has, if nothing else, justified its name, with this being the fifteenth new thing in fifteen days. And yet, aside from the occasional cheap shot at Alexi Casilla or Delmon Young, I've completely avoided talking about my own favorite team. The main reason for that is that my goal is to write one relatively succinct, digestible thing per day, and as I'm sure you've seen, I've struggled with that a few times already; if I start writing about the Twins, odds are I'm going to just prattle on forever. But I'm afraid that's a chance I'm going to have to take today. It's just time.

The general thinking is that five outfield/DH types -- Young, Denard Span, Carlos Gomez, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel -- are all good enough to be playing every day somewhere, but only four spots are open to them. So the question coming into the year was: who's the odd man out?

Well, so far, Gardy has done his best to answer that with: "well, nobody! Or everybody, depending on how you look at it!" Through the first 20 games, he's started the following combinations (left-center-right):

Young - Span - Cuddyer: seven times
Span - Gomez - Cuddyer: six times
Young - Gomez - Span: four times
Young - Gomez - Cuddyer: two times
Kubel - Span - Cuddyer: one time

All told, Span has started six in left, eight in center, and four in right; Gomez has started 12 games, all in center; Young has started 12 games in left and one at DH; and Cuddyer has started 15 in right and two at DH. Kubel has essentially been the full-time DH, starting against both righties and lefties, though two others have spelled him there in addition to Cuddyer and Young.

Let's take a look at who these guys are. Two career numbers for each player are given below; the first is wOBA, a system that's about as good as any for assigning one number to the offensive value of a player, and it works on essentially the same scale as OBP (.300 is bad, .340 fine, and .400 great); the second is UZR/150, which attempts to measure how many runs a player saves or costs his team per 150 games played against the average at his primary outfield position, relying on play-by-play data.

Michal Cuddyer (.339, -6.3): the elder statesman of this group (but still a week or so younger than me), Cuddyer had an excellent year with the bat in 2006 (.282/.362/.504, 24 HR, .370 wOBA), but slipped in 2007 and was hurt for most of 2008, and is off to a terribly slow start in 2009. He has a reputation among Twins fans as an excellent outfielder, but fans often confuse excellent arms with excellent outfielders; Cuddy has a cannon, but doesn't get around well at all. His defensive numbers through his first 15 starts this year are bizarrely good (26.4 UZR/150), but his real ability tops out at about a minus-five-run right fielder. He hits righties well enough to justify playing every day for most clubs, but his real talent is hitting lefties, against whom he's a career .280/.368/.439 hitter.

Carlos Gomez (.287, 18.7): Just 23 years old, Go-Go can be both a delight and absolute torture to watch. He swings from his heels (often falling to his knees off a particularly ambitious miss), never walks, is prone to mistakes on the bases, and, in 2008, would often bunt (often foul) with two strikes. But he might be the fastest player in baseball, and he absolutely is the best defensive centerfielder in baseball. As such, he needs only to get on base about 30% of the time, as he did in 2008, to be a useful everyday player. With his youth and talent (and he has a very nice swing on the rare occasion that he keeps it within reason), he still has the potential for much more than mere usefulness.

Jason Kubel (.338, -20.0): He's a better hitter than his career wOBA suggests; that's brought down by a poor first year back from surgery in 2006. He had a .345 wOBA last year and is tearing the cover off the ball in the early going this year, at .417. A typical lefty, Kubel has a career OPS 120 points higher against righties than against southpaws. With his reconstructed knee, he moves like he's about eighty. A team without Justin Morneau might try him at first base, but he has no business "running" around the outfield.

Denard Span (.364, 12.0*): a former first-round pick, Span had pretty much obtained "bust" status heading into 2008, and then suddenly exploded. With an excellent 2008 in both the minors and majors and a similar start to 2009, it seems safe to conclude that Span did suddenly become a player: great eye at the plate, good bat control, good instincts on the bases, some gap power. He can apparently hit left-handed pitching despite being a lefty himself. He's not quite the centerfielder Gomez is, but he can more than hold his own out there, and is an incredible asset in either corner.
* The 12 UZR150 is a reasonable guess; he hasn't played enough games at any one position to really trust the numbers. What's clear is that he's an excellent defensive player at any of the outfield positions.

Delmon Young (.321, -15.8): Bill James recently wrote that Young must be the worst percentage player in baseball, and at this point, frankly, you could almost take "percentage" out of that label. Young, like Gomez, is just 23, but unlike Gomez, he has shown few flashes of potential and no currently useful Major League skills. He's hit around .290 in both of his two full seasons, was once considered the #1 prospect in baseball, and had 93 RBI in 2007. That's enough to convince some people that he's a useful or promising player. Watch him every day, though, and you see something different. In the field, Delmon looks uninterested at best, clueless at worst; he frequently misses routine plays and routinely makes even minimal challenges into adventures (or doubles, or triples). He hasn't balanced that by showing any power, hitting a total of just 23 HR in 1220 AB in 2007-08, and he's drawn just 52 unintentional walks (against 232 strikeouts) in that same period. Even his minor league stats are largely underwhelming. I tend to believe that any player the scouts loved as much as they once loved Delmon must have something going for him, and maybe Delmon will show that something someday. But right now he's here, and here is very, very, very, very far from there.

So what should he be doing with these guys? I see a few things that should be just blindingly obvious:
  • Span should be starting somewhere every day. Not only is he the best overall player of these five, which he clearly is because of his defense; he might even be the best pure offensive player among them. Whatever else you do, if Span is healthy, pencil him in in the leadoff spot and one of the outfield positions. He's already sat out two of the first 20 games, and that's two too many.
  • Young should not be starting anywhere on a contending team. Look, I get the argument. He's a promising player, or people consider him as such, and needs to be playing every day. But if this team intends to compete in the Central -- and this year, every team in the Central figures to compete in the Central -- Delmon has no place on't. Let him start every day in Triple-A (where, it should be noted, he's never exactly proved himself), coach him heavily on defense and pitch recognition, and hope you don't have to call him up before he's ready because of an injury.
  • If you've got a flyball pitcher in the game, Gomez has to be in the game too. The thing about the Twins' five outfielders is that only two of them are good defensive outfielders. So if you've got a guy on the mound who gives up a lot of fly balls (and that's most of the Twins' rotation), your best chance to win is to have both Gomez and Span in the outfield, even if you take a hit on offense.
  • Kubel shouldn't DH versus lefties. Even in 2008, his best offensive year, Kubel had just a .704 OPS against left-handed pitching, worse than the overall OPS of Nick Punto and about equal to Casilla's. Unless Gardy has some reason to believe Kubel has completely come around in that area -- and I really don't think he does -- that's just not a designated hitter.
So here's what I'd do (assuming demoting Delmon isn't an option):

Against RHP: Span LF, Gomez CF, Cuddyer RF, Kubel DH
Against LHP: Span LF, Gomez CF, Young RF, Cuddyer DH

So yeah, first, I'd play Gomez every day, flyball pitcher or no. I really think his defense is just that good, and, like a lot of people do with Young, I want to see him play every day to see if his bat will come around. Moreover, Span blanketing left allows Gomez to shade toward right, minimizing the damage done by playing Cuddyer and/or Young, who can pretty much just guard the line.

Second, I'm never putting Young in left, where his numbers have been uniformly terrible (I've watched him miss a relatively easy foul fly against the Rays as I've been writing this). For some reason, his numbers from about a season's worth of playing right field with the Rays are above average (6.0 UZR/150 in 163 career G). That might just be a blip (and probably is), but it might also be that he had to depend less on his range and more on his strong arm in RF than he does in LF. There seems to be less foul territory in right field in the Dome, and the fence is closer. At least by putting him there you'd be giving him a chance of being a useful player, rather than just watching him flail helplessly around in left every day (as I have to currently).

Third, a Kubel/Cuddyer DH platoon is actually an above-average DH, whereas the current Kubel/Kubel setup is a serious weakness against lefties, especially in a lineup where your two best hitters are lefties.

Is this really worth spending all this time thinking over? ...Well, yes, by somebody (probably not by me, but what can you do?). A Span/Gomez LF-CF would save about 40 runs on defense over the course of a season compared to a Young/Span one, which makes about four wins. And you give a little bit of that back on offense, but honestly, until Delmon actually shows something, it's not all that much (and then Gomez takes a little back again on the basepaths). Four extra wins in the 2009 American League Central could very well mean the playoffs. To Gardy's credit, he knows what his best defensive outfield is, frequently subbing Gomez in for Young and shifting Span to left in the late innings of close games. Now someone needs to explain to him the kind of difference having that for nine innings could make.

All that said, if Joe Mauer doesn't come back on May 1 and knock the ball all over the park for 130 games, it's not going to matter. But they might as well put their best lineup out there until we know for sure...

1 comment:

  1. Good analysis. Frankly, I'm getting tired of Young very quickly, and don't see what he's adding to the team at this point other than his lukewarm body. Better to bring in someone who can adequately fill a role (a decent and versatile 4th OFer, for instance) while Young works on his issues in Rochester. Meanwhile, I'd argue that our best combination (in the near future) against LHP would put Mauer at DH (to rest his back and knees), and Redmond or Morales behind the dish. Also, I'm going to pursue this further tonight (since I can't really do it at work (damn you, The Man!)), but I have a hard time believing Michael Cuddyer is good enough to start for most teams in the league. But I have some research to do on that. To the headquarters of BaseballReference.com! (i.e. my couch)