• Changing Luck

    Back in February, I framed the Twins' rotation as a series of five coin flips. Looking back, it's funny how the worst case scenario seems to have struck in every single situation:

    Carl Pavano Heads, he remembers how to miss a few extra bats and returns to the form he showed while winning 17 games two years ago. Tails, his performance continues to descend as he ages into his late 30s.
    Francisco Liriano Heads, he regains his fastball command and helps power the top of a solid rotation. Tails, the problems that haunted him in 2011 remain present, leading to continued inconsistency and frustration before the non-competitive Twins trade him for peanuts at the deadline.
    Scott Baker Heads, Baker finally shrugs off the arm troubles that have plagued him intermittently throughout the past two seasons to pile up 200 frames for the first time since 2009. Tails, his elbow keeps on barking and limits him once again, perhaps leading to surgery.
    Nick Blackburn Heads, Blackburn overcomes his flaws and serves as an average, yet valuable, anchor in the No. 4 spot. Tails, the hits keep on coming and he struggles to another shortened and substandard campaign.
    Jason Marquis Heads, Marquis proves to be a serviceable piece at the end of the rotation, perhaps until a better option emerges in the minors. Tails, he follows the path of former bargain bin veterans like Ramon Ortiz, Sidney Ponson and Livan Hernandez, dropping before the season's halfway through.
    The Twins seem to have flipped tails five times in a row. Ouch. Granted, there were a number of warning signs attached to each of these guys, which is why I dubbed them "dangerous gambles," but it would have taken an unruly pessimist to predict that things would go so horribly awry for the rotation.

    Fans are rightfully frustrated with the lackluster outings delivered by Twins starters on an almost nightly basis, and much of the heat is being directed toward the front office. I think this is a little unfair.

    Blackburn and Liriano were both on fire in spring training, so their quick descents into the regular season have been surprising. Baker's elbow couldn't have been handled much differently. Marquis has at least been serviceable when healthy for the majority of his career this is likely the worst he's ever pitched. And Liam Hendriks looked like a solid enough fallback, given his domination of the minor leagues.

    Nothing has worked, for any of those guys. Front to back, the starting corps has been a catastrophe. Baker had a cascade of bad news regarding his elbow, resulting in the likely end to his Twins career. Liriano has been demoted to the bullpen, Hendriks to the minors. Blackburn has been placed on the disabled list for reasons that may have as much to do with performance as health. Marquis may be on the verge of getting cut.

    The only member of the rotation that has performed about as you'd expect is Pavano, and he's done so while throwing 85 MPH with a sore shoulder.

    Altogether, the Twins' starters have been getting battered around like a bunch of marginal minor-leaguers. Ironically, the only guys who have been able to break the spell of ineptitude are a couple of marginal minor-leaguers.

    Scott Diamond and P.J. Walters are not noteworthy prospects. They were pretty far back in line to receive major-league starts back when camp broke, but things have spiraled so quickly it took them only until mid-May to get a shot. And to their credit, both have taken advantage in a way that nobody in front of them on the depth chart has been able to.

    Diamond blanked opponents for seven innings in two consecutive outings after being called up last week. Walters tossed six innings of one-run ball on Saturday and took a tough loss, then beat the Tigers in their own park with 6 1/3 strong innings on Thursday. Together, the two have combined for four quality starts in four turns; the rest of the Twins' starters have produced seven quality starts in 34 tries.

    I've never seen anything quite like it. An entire stable of veteran starters with track records of major-league success pitching abysmally, and then two guys from the bottom of the depth chart coming up and setting the example.

    To what can we attribute this strange turn of events? Opponents haven't had the chance to fully scout Diamond and Walters that might be part of it. But mostly I think it's just the law of averages. The Twins have had so many bad breaks, so many awful performances, so many inexplicable miscues, that eventually a few things had to start going their way.

    I believe what we've seen in the Twins' respectable 5-5 run over the past 10 games is a team's luck finally FINALLY starting to swing. Rather than getting dud outings from guys with high expectations, they're getting great outings from guys with no expectations. Rather than folding in tough spots, the relievers are coming through (Glen Perkins in the eighth Thursday serving as a prime example). Rather than continuing to struggle in his return from injury, Justin Morneau is swatting the ball. Rather than being placed on the DL at the last second, Ryan Doumit is being pulled off it at the last second.

    And rather than losing night after night, the Twins are starting to win a few. Let's hope it keeps up.

    This article was originally published in blog: Changing Luck started by Nick Nelson
    Comments 9 Comments
    1. Thrylos's Avatar
      Thrylos -
      Luck sounds about right :

      Hendricks .397 BABIP
      Liriano .356 BABIP
      Blackburn .336 BABIP
      Marquis .336 BABIP
      Walters .316 BABIP (before today's game)
      Pavano .304 BABIP
      Diamond .225 BABIP
    1. frightwig's Avatar
      frightwig -
      I don't think that a high BABIP is necessarily bad luck for the pitcher or a reflection of bad defense. Sometimes, it just means that hitters are tattooing the ball.

      I think any pitcher good enough to wear a big league uniform is capable of putting together two good outings, and certainly even the worst team in the league, in any year, is capable of going 5-5 in a 10-game sample.

      It would be nice if two unheralded pitchers go on to have a good season and lead the team back towards respectability. But... what are the chances?
    1. jeffk's Avatar
      jeffk -
      Luck sounds about right :
      I've become confused at the idea that BABIP is always supposed to converge around one number, from either the pitching side or the hitting side. If you're the type of pitcher who doesn't have huge strike out numbers and whose goal is to induce weak contact, then your goal is to *maintain* a low BABIP. Surely there are many successful - not dominant but decent - pitchers who make careers out of getting guys to hit weak ground balls. The idea that any pitcher with a below-average BABIP - and any hitter with an above-average one - is lucky does not seem patently obvious. Are there studies that form the basis for this bit of sabermetric lore?
    1. CDog's Avatar
      CDog -
      Quote Originally Posted by jeffk View Post
      I've become confused at the idea that BABIP is always supposed to converge around one number, from either the pitching side or the hitting side. If you're the type of pitcher who doesn't have huge strike out numbers and whose goal is to induce weak contact, then your goal is to *maintain* a low BABIP. Surely there are many successful - not dominant but decent - pitchers who make careers out of getting guys to hit weak ground balls. The idea that any pitcher with a below-average BABIP - and any hitter with an above-average one - is lucky does not seem patently obvious. Are there studies that form the basis for this bit of sabermetric lore?
      You're mostly right. Generally there is an average and most players tend to stick close to it, more for hitters. But in reality, there's probably a slightly different "true" number for each person. It's just that it doesn't tend to differ much. For instance, Mauer has consistently (always) had a BABIP higher than average. He hits a ton of line drives compared to average, those are harder to field, etc...basically just what you said. So yeah, when a particular player over and over again goes above (or below) the average, then one can surmise that there's something different about them that makes them different. But overall, people tend to cluster close to that overall average in the long run.
    1. USAFChief's Avatar
      USAFChief -
      They were pretty unlucky i agree...but I might call it coming up tails more like four times in a row rather than five, and one of those tails wasn't exactly bad luck.

      I think they came up heads a couple seasons in a row on Pavano, and thought they could go on flipping heads indefinately. I'm not sure that's bad luck.

      And Marquis...I think that might more accurately be described as betting on heads while flipping a two-tailed coin.
    1. snepp's Avatar
      snepp -
      Quote Originally Posted by jeffk View Post
      I've become confused at the idea that BABIP is always supposed to converge around one number, from either the pitching side or the hitting side. If you're the type of pitcher who doesn't have huge strike out numbers and whose goal is to induce weak contact, then your goal is to *maintain* a low BABIP. Surely there are many successful - not dominant but decent - pitchers who make careers out of getting guys to hit weak ground balls. The idea that any pitcher with a below-average BABIP - and any hitter with an above-average one - is lucky does not seem patently obvious. Are there studies that form the basis for this bit of sabermetric lore?
      Not every player above or below the average is lucky or unlucky. Every player, given enough time, will establish their own BABIP baseline. Pitchers tend to settle closer to the league average because they face all different types of hitters. Batters will have a wider range based upon their individual skill sets (groundball/flyball, fast/slow, hard/weak contact, etc).

      A guy like Ichiro posts BABIP's in the .350 neighborhood, while a guy like Joe Crede was typically .250-ish. Relievers typically post lower BABIP's than starters.
    1. YourHouseIsMyHouse's Avatar
      YourHouseIsMyHouse -
      I really don't like using BABIP for pitchers. I think it's a useful tool for hitters, but there are much more useful sabermetrics that account for luck like xfip in terms of pitchers.
    1. mlhouse's Avatar
      mlhouse -
      The problem with your concept is that you pretended it was a 50-50 coin flip, when the odds were always stacked to the tails side. If you pretend that all of these factors were a coin flip, then it is disappointing that almost all of them have come up tails. But, if you had more realistic odds then you should not be surprised that Pavono continued to decline, Liriano is struggling even more with consistency, Scott Baker continues to have arm problems, and Jason Marquis isn't that good.

      And, I think that this was also the outlook of the Twins management. It was all a coin flip, and now we have the real results. We should have been looking at this season as a rebuilding year from day 1. Instead, we played the middle road, hoping beyond hope that all of those coin flips would come our way. I am not saying it was catastrophic, but it just delays the overall rebuilding process.
    1. jay's Avatar
      jay -
      Quote Originally Posted by jeffk View Post
      Are there studies that form the basis for this bit of sabermetric lore?
      Jeff, check this out... http://www.fangraphs.com/fantasy/ind...p-spreadsheet/. It can be used to calculate what one would expect a player's BABIP to be based on their batted ball profile (% line drives, % fly balls, etc). BABIP - xBABIP would give you a better indication of a player's "luck" than just a surface level assessment based on their current BABIP.
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