>The Cost of “Playing the Percentages”

>By The Common Man

The Common Man tries not to write and complain too frequently about the Minnesota Twins in this space. After all, this is a general baseball site, and TCM’s not one of the more pessimistic Twins fans out there. That said, last night’s ninth inning demonstrated in sharp detail how a flawed roster and manager can conspire to snuff out a team’s chance to win a ballgame.

The Twins started Alexi Casilla at SS last night, and Drew Butera behind the plate, and batted them 8th and 9th respectively. This, by itself, is not so egregious. Casilla has been decent this year and JJ Hardy has struggled with injuries that have killed his effectiveness. Butera gave Mauer a needed night off behind the dish because the Twins are absolutely dead set against giving Jose Morales anything resembling an opportunity to reclaim the backup catcher job that he should rightfully have. After a disappointing 8th that saw Darrens Oliver and O’Day combine to shut down Mauer, Kubel and Cuddyer, the Twins entered the ninth with the gruesome twosome prepared to hit 3rd and 4th.
Neftali Feliz, brought in to close it out, looked vulnerable, giving up long fly ball outs to both Delmon Young and Danny Valencia, which brought up Casilla’s spot. Understandably, the Twins called on Jim Thome to pinch hit. Thome was quickly plunked by Feliz, who let a fastball get away from him. Here is where things get really dicey. Thome obviously can’t run for himself, nor can Butera (perhaps the worst hitter in the Majors today) be allowed to hit in the ninth with the tying run on 1st and two outs.

Because the Twins are carrying 12 pitchers, they only have four bench players. The best hitter, Thome, had just been burned, and only Jason Repko, Matt Tolbert, and JJ Hardy are left. Hardy is generally the best hitter of the bunch, but he’s glued to the bench presumably because his wrist is hurting (this, however, should not have precluded him from running the bases, but TCM digresses). So Ron Gardenhire is left with two players to fill two rolls. One must hit and one must run.

Repko has hit .246/.319/.477 in 73 plate appearances, and despite being a right-handed hitter, has been great (.282/.378/.590) vs. RHP. Tolbert, a switch hitter, has hit .213/.283/.319 in 54 appearances (and is .246/.306/.335 in his career). He’s hit well in 54 chances vs. RHP in 2010 (.265/.359/.412), but is historically better vs. LHP. Neftali Feliz has been more effective against lefties than against righties both in 2010 (.141/.240/.217 vs .234/.293/.374) and in his career (.147/.234/.253 vs .188/.260/.286). Given the two choices, it would seem that using Repko to hit in this situation is a no-brainer.
So, of course, Gardenhire pushed the “platoon advantage” button and sent up the lefty bat. Even though every number he should have had available suggested it was the wrong decision. Tolbert, predictably, was overmatched, striking out against Feliz on four pitches, all strikes (he weakly fouled off one) He took two, including the third strike, a nasty slider that broke in over the inside corner. He was helpless.
The Common Man isn’t one of the biggest Gardenhire detractors out there. But he’s far too beholden to playing the lefty-righty game. As Aaron Gleeman pointed out yesterday, some of his best managing has come when he’s been forced to eschew the matchup game because he didn’t have a viable lefty in the bullpen. Last night, he and the Twins failed on a number of levels and that cost them a legitimate chance at the game:


1) Carrying 12 pitchers. Look, everyone does it today. Some teams even carry 13 from time to time. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good strategy. Quite the opposite, actually. For the minimal matchup advantage you gain in the bullpen, you are shorted of another viable bat off the bench. The Twins have decent hitters Luke Hughes (3B, 1B, OF) and Jose Morales (C ) on their 40-man roster at AAA, but no room for them at the major league level.


2) The team’s slavish devotion to middle infielders who can’t hit. The big league club has Orlando Hudson and JJ Hardy, both of whom have some skills at the plate. Nick Punto is a bad hit, great field utility man who is back on the DL. The club also has on its 40-man roster the following: the aforementioned Matt Tolbert, Trevor Plouffe, and Estarlin De Los Santos, a 23 year old who has a career minor league OBP of .313 and is currently flopping horribly in AA. Plus, they had Brendan Harris until he was DFAed in May. There isn’t just redundancy there. There’s redundancy on top of redundancy. That’s six players for, ostensibly, three big league roster spots (2B, SS, UT). And because of this clustering, there is no room on the 40 man for guys like Brock Peterson or Dustin Martin (who, both 26, could get one shot to contribute before being consigned to AAA lifer status). And there’s no room to add any free talent that could have been available before the season or is available now.
3) The commitment to Drew Butera as a backup catcher. Last year, in 134 plate appearances, Jose Morales hit .311/.381/.361. He was actually used as the DH nine times down the stretch after Justin Morneau got hurt. He has a minor league line of .274/.362/.390 this year. And he’s thrown out an acceptable 29% of basestealers at AAA. If he was good enough to convince the Twins to replace Mike Redmond this offseason, he’s good enough to replace Butera (.204/.239/.320) now. And as a switch hitter, Morales would actually provide the Twins with a tactical advantage. Alas, because of the perception that Butera has somehow caused the success of Carl Pavano and other Twins pitchers, he’s glued to the roster for now. But he creates an extreme tactical disadvantage and a huge hole every time he is in the lineup.

4) Gardenhire’s blind belief in the platoon advantage. Hey, TCM understand the name of this blog might lead you to believe otherwise, but the platoon advantage can be blown way out of proportion. Lefties are not invariably more likely to get hits off of righties and vice versa. Rather than allowing knowledge to inform his decisions, Gardenhire pushes pre-determined buttons. It’s a trick he uses to make his job easier, so that he (and there are many other managers just like him) won’t actually have to think too hard during the game. There’s a button for Thome (that’s always the first button), then there’s a “match-up” button. And that’s really as far as the thinking goes. Last night, Gardenhire had an opportunity to give his team a marginally larger chance to win by sending Repko to bat, and failed.

In closing, The Common Man doesn’t think that Ron Gardenhire is a terrible manager. He’s good at keeping the clubhouse happy and minimizing conflict. He doesn’t criticize players in the media, and is very defensive of his guys. He’s moved away from the bunt this year, as he finally has a decent #2 hitter. And he seems to have no problems adjusting his approach to work with youngsters and veterans, which the Twins have an interesting mix of. There’s a lot of value in a manager like that, and in the long run having a manager who keeps good players happy (and not driving them out of town) is worth more wins than he’s likely to cost them with his tactical weakness. But God is that tactical weakness extremely frustrating sometimes.