Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Protecting the midsection

In the newly released Hardball Times Annual 2011, Baseball Info Solution’s John Dewan presented his yearly review of team defense based on his Plus/Minus system. Perhaps a little surprising, the speedy Oakland Athletics (+77) paced baseball in this area. This is noteworthy because the Green and Gold held the 24th-worst spot in the rankings just one short season ago.

For their part, Oakland, who had already boasted supreme outfield coverage (procuring a +43 tally in this area), went to work improving their infield for the 2010 season. Shortstop Orlando Cabrera was blight on the defensive landscape, turning in a season in which he was -30 runs below average. Similarly, they employed Adam Kennedy as their everyday third baseman who was -5 runs below average. Across the diamond, they used the drug-addled remnants of Jason Giambi for 58 games (who had wasted his entire defense in front of congress apparently).

Realizing this bunch of aging fielders was not going to do the pitching staff any favors, the A’s began to make maneuvers. At the trade deadline in 2009, Billy Beane moved their defensive-less shortstop to the Twins and implemented the rangier Cliff Pennington as the starter.  A week later, the A’s granted Giambi his outright release. This allowed for a defensive-minded first baseman in Daric Barton to take over. Last January, Oakland tapped their outfield surplus to acquire third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff from the San Diego Padres. The only constant around the infield diamond between the ’09 and ’10 unit would be second baseman Mark Ellis.

Pennington gave the A’s a supreme defender at short, finishing with a +10 rating, seventh-best in the game. Meanwhile Barton was a +27 first baseman, the best in baseball and 13 runs better than the next closest player in Ike Davis. Perhaps because of maturity and dedication to his defensive craft or a statistical anomaly, Kouzmanoff improved his Plus/Minus totals from +7 with the Padres in ’09 to +20 in ’10 with the A’s.   

The moves provided an immediate upgrade to the defense and assisted in elevating Oakland’s pitching staff to one of the best in the American League. After allowing 4.70 runs per game and posting a below-average .682 defensive efficiency ratio, the next year the A’s had the American League’s best defensive efficiency ratio (.709) and allowed the fewest runs per game (3.86). Indeed, a significant portion of this improvement was associated with shoring up the infield defense.

The only other team to have such a dramatic improvement in that timeframe was none other than the Minnesota Twins.

After finishing baseball with the 23rd-worst Plus/Minus ratings with a -31 total, the Twins managed to climb their way into respectability, concluding the 2010 season with a +37 rating.

Minnesota Twins
Middle Infield
Corner Infield
(via Hardball Times Annual 2011)

In the previous offseason, the Twins targeted their middle infield which had been the worst in all of baseball. Admittedly, the relocation from an artificial turf field to a natural one helps in slowing down some of the would-be hits at the Dome, the team also grabbed two of the best defenders at their position.

Like Oakland, the Twins realized that Orlando Cabrera was simply not an elite defender and quickly traded for Milwaukee’s J.J. Hardy at the conclusion of the 2009 season. As I wrote back in March, Hardy was destined to be a middle infield repairman for the Twins. While sidetracked by injuries that limited him to 858 defensive innings, Hardy was still +5 runs above average, good enough for tenth in baseball. Although members of the Twins organization indicate Hardy’s lack of foot speed played a critical role in his exodus from Minnesota, data suggests that Hardy’s range was outstanding the past three years, possibly due to his positioning and anticipation rather than his outright quickness.

Hardy’s middle infield mate, Orlando Hudson, was acquired in early February for a nominal one-year, $5 million dollar deal. Hudson’s long outstanding reputation as a defensive wiz, finishing in the top ten of Dewan’s Plus/Minus system five times in the past six seasons, lent itself well to the Twins way of baseball. To his end, Hudson provided the Twins with the best second baseman effort (+22) in the majors.

In all, the Hardy/Hudson combination helped the Twins move from a -59 team up-the-middle to a +36 team. This tandem made up for the defensive shortcomings exposed in the outfield when Jason Kubel was subjected to extended time wearing a glove. Now, with a similar outfield alignment projected in the 2011 season, the Twins have stripped down the infield combination that helped a pitching staff that transitioned from a fly ball one in ’09 (41% FB%) to a groundball one in ’10 (44.7% GB%).

Essentially, the Twins are making the gamble that the two birds in hand are not worth as much as the two birds in the bush.

For the majority of his career, Alexi Casilla’s defense has been questioned by both on-field and off-field representatives. In 2008, despite a fantastic .400 on-base percentage in the Grapefruit League, Casilla was sent back to Rochester because Ron Gardenhire was displeased by his “lack of attention to details” saying:
“He just seems to get really sloppy at second base, because of the short throw and (because) he doesn’t have to use his arm. He’s just got to really get a few things straightened out ... And that’s learning to get outs when you’re supposed to get outs, and get away from all the flashy stuff and get back to the basics of baseball, catching the ball and getting somebody out and using your feet and making good throws. He gets too flashy, thinks that he can do a lot of different things. We’re going to get him away from that.”
A year later, after claiming the starting second base spot in 2008, Casilla received a demotion in 2009 as he continued to display lapses on the field. After several fielding gaffes, the then-Twins second baseman failed to run out a pop fly – trotting to first with the bat in his hand.
He’s quick, with decent hands and a fairly strong arm yet his lackadaisical reputation precedes him. At the same time, there are plenty of indications that he could be a defensive upgrade over the very good incumbent Hardy.

In his small-sample size at short, Casilla managed to save +2 runs while turning 15 double plays in 17 opportunities (88% success rate). That double play rate is a good indication of great footwork, awareness and release. While Hardy has a very good arm, he only converted 55 double-plays in 101 opportunities (54.5%). Although Casilla’s pace isn’t likely going to stay up in the 80 percentile as his playing time increases if he stays at the 60-to-65%-range however he will remain in the top of the league as one of the best twin-killers at short. In the end, if he can keep his over-rambunctiousness under control while maintaining the focus that Twins management requires, he has the potential to perhaps be a superior groundball-stopper than Hardy (particularly if Hardy’s maladies continue in Baltimore and keep him off the field).

The other replacement, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, is even more of a mystery in terms of what he is capable of providing. A recipient of a Gold Glove in Japan, critics like to state that former Japanese convert Kaz Matsui also won several Gold Gloves at short before moving to the Mets where he was below average as a defender at short. This revelation got Matsui shifted to second where he was better suited.

Matsui, who recently signed back in Japan, had some advice for his inbound countryman. Matsui told Nishioka through the media that:
“(1) The effect natural grass has on defense at second base is small. Don’t have negative preconceptions. (2) Be careful about getting spiked during double plays (3) Gather data on batters with speed.
Obviously, some of this advice can be interpreted as the issues that Matsui had when making his conversion to Major League Baseball. The first issue involving the natural grass versus artificial surfaces that are favored in Japan’s stadiums is of moderate concern. For one, the hops produced on the artificial surface winds up being much more “true” than that of real grass. You don’t wind up with divot holes in the base paths that kick worm-burners up like they do on a dirt surface. Likewise, balls that normal seem to accelerate on the fake green stuff is slowed by the longer grass. However, by Matsui’s experience, the grass factor had only a small effect on his game.

The second piece of advice is aimed at the fact that American players will go hard into second base to break a play up. This is not a tradition shared on the other side of the Pacific. To speculate, Matsui was probably surprised by how little amount of time he had to turn a double play and would likely rush his throws (he made 13 throwing errors in his first season). In the same vein, Matsui also demonstrated issues feeding a double play to his middle infield partner. His 29 double plays started were the fewest among qualified shortstops. Again, while it is pure speculation, it might be different approach in feeding a second baseman if there were less of a probability of him going ass-over-tea-kettle. For instance, a shortstop might not need to hasten a throw to the bag to give his partner additional time to pivot the relay before being barreled into by the runner.

The final word of advice from Matsui, “gather data on baserunners”, is fairly straight-forward. Unlike those that develop within the minor league system, Matsui had little experience educating himself on players in the majors. He was thrusted into a starting role without the proper knowledge of his opposition and, unlike someone like Cal Ripken who goes to great lengths preparing for each opponent Matsui was likely manning a demanding position cold-turkey (particularly when you factor in a language barrier). Either way, Matsui’s message to Nishioka is clear: Spend time learning the competition.  

Needless to say, dismantling one of the better middle infield defensive units in baseball can be frustrating and a painstaking process to watch. After all, the team had moved from the worst to the third best in just one winter. For some, it may be even more difficult to readily accept the unknown as well since Hardy and Hudson represented two of the more tangible commodities while embracing Casilla and Nishioka as improvements requires eschewing advanced defensive data.

Naturally, Casilla and Nishioka will be behind the curve when it comes to knowledge of the competition which Hardy and Hudson benefitted from. At the same time the new duo has better tools – particularly speed – which could provide a big advantage (at least the Twins are betting on that it does). A year from now, we will know if Casilla hit well enough or remain focused to lock down the position for an entire season. We will know if Nishioka heeded Matsui’s recommendation and become a key component in the Twins lineup.

Then again, it is entirely possible that the middle infield will regress back to pre-2010 numbers. Only time will tell.