Why I Still Talk About Sports at Times Like This

It's been a hard fall for me to write in these spaces. Every evening I try to sit down to write, I find a dozen other things to do. There are papers to grade and recommendations to submit and people to actually be married to. So while I love to write, and even though I want to write, it slips through my fingers more often than I like.

This past week, I had the time, I had the energy, but every time I opened up this page, I stopped and stared. And as the feeds from North Minneapolis streamed into my phone, as people I love and trust engaged in louder and louder protests for more pressing matters than quality sports analysis, I couldn't find it in myself to write.

So as I sat in front of the screen, I could think of nothing to say that wasn't horribly, dreadfully irrelevant. And when I went in to work, to discuss issues of the day with young people who lived blocks from the fourth precinct, who spent all night raising their voices for justice, all I could think was how insignificant it would be to write down potential snarky nicknames for Byung-Ho Park or warmed over jokes about how I liked St. Vincent and the Grenadines better when it was Bill Murray and a light syrup.

What reason could I have for publishing my millions of minor notions about these silly little games, while a senior boy--a young man I've worked with for four years, an academic on track for college and a major in architecture, a person I would trust to rule justly and fairly as Grand Poobah of the Universe-- while this friend of mine confessed his intense fear that the last thing he would ever see would be the somebody's boots on the curb, and the last thing he would hear would be the cocking of a gun, as he lay on the street with his hands behind his back?

The truth is, I (and many people like me) have the privilege of turning off the news, of tuning out the rhetoric, of tending to our hobbies and interests, because we don't live near the fourth precinct or worry that our lives will end with a bang and a brief, perfunctory, utterly unsurprised comment on the local news.

It's particularly easy for those of us who love sports to see successful people of color in our community, to cheer for their successes, wish them the best and forget that people like them in our community are struggling. We can bleed purple with Adrian and Teddy and dream on the futures of Byron, Miguel and Byung-Ho.  We can debate the upside of Towns and Wiggins and marvel at the cross-cultural partnerships of Ibson and Alhassan and remind everybody that we loved Maya Moore and Simone Augustus before it was cool to do so. We can, and do, hold our local heroes close whatever their background, even though--as fans in the stands--we have always looked more like Killebrew and Mikan than Hunter and Garnett.

But what's dangerous is if we start to feel that, because we know the men (and women) who wear jerseys emblazoned with Minnesota, we don't need to know the men and women, the fathers and mothers, the sons and daughters who walk the same streets, work in the same buildings, and attend the same institutions that we do.

If we confine ourselves to watching the games from the comfort of our couches and our big screens, we miss the joy of watching together. If we insulate our passions to the podcasts on our headphones or isolate our opinions to small talk with family members and friends, we turn our very public institutions into extremely private pleasures. But, if we insist on sharing our loves, if we make a point of socializing around the colors and emblems and players that we adopt as "one of us," then these silly little games can unite us in a way that few other things can.

Right now, with the ways we consume sports changing rapidly, it's easy to isolate ourselves in our fandoms. And for those who attend games on a regular basis, it's even easier to forget that what you see on the field or the court or the ice isn't reflected in the stands (even adjusted for our metropolitan demographics).

As mere fans, there's little we can do. No championship trophy is going to unite us all or solve the systemic problems that have left so many so desperate for change. We can't have one good conversation at a sports bar, or over the water cooler and end injustice.

What we can do is be open. What we can do is to talk about what we love and learn what others think. What we can do is use sports as the icebreaker, as the gateway, as the conversation starter, to come together and build a better community.

We might have to go out of our way to find new opinions. We may need to visit a bar on Lake Street rather than in Northeast to watch a Champions' League match. We may need to share more than a nod with a neighbor or coworker who wears team gear after a big win. We can invite them to watch the game on Sunday (or Saturday, or whatever day). We can take an extra ticket that a friend flaked on and try to pass it on to someone different rather than just resell it. We can donate to the team funds that make attending a game easier for others. These things won't bring justice or peace, but they will bring us a little closer together.

I talk about sports, even at times like these, not because I want a distraction from work or the worries of the day. I talk about sports because it reminds me of how great it is to be part of something bigger than myself: bigger than my job, bigger than my worries. Sports reminds me of what it is to be part of a community of fans, and how much better we are together than we are alone.

I'm not sure when I'll have time to write again, or if it'll be about sports when I do, but I know I'll ask the boy from over North--the one who still wears a Mauer jersey through every snorting laugh from his friends--what he thinks of the bullpen for next year; I'll ask the girl from Lake Street who moons over Ronaldo if she's seen Christian Ramirez up close yet. And after we talk about that, we'll talk about the next thing, and the next, and the next, until we stop being two individuals talking and start being a pair of fans in community.


Cliff Notes for the 2015 Twins: Chapter 4

The first days of school are right around the corner for many tykes in Twins Territory, so to help you with that summer reading you neglected, here's some more notes about that local best-seller: The Minnesota Twins

Chapter 4: Post-All-Star Break to End of August
Plot Summary:
While the doldrums in Chapter 3 appeared foreboding, the climactic triumph of Glen Perkins and Brian Dozier's march to the All-Star Game (and accompanying 6-1 stretch) offered a great deal of hope to Twins fans. As I wrote then 
"As Perkins and Dozier rise as protagonists, it will be interesting to see what obstacles and conflicts are thrown in their way to create dramatic tension for the rest of the season."
In many ways, those obstacles and conflicts are part of Chapter 4's great unraveling....

It's worth 5 cents!
On a Summer Vacation style trip to Oakland and Los Angeles, Glen Perkins' save streak came to an abrupt end.  Home series against the Yankees and Mariners didn't help matters and a swift sweep at the hands of the Blue Jays at the start of August left many people questioning whether or not the whole season was doomed.

It didn't help that the Twins' attempts to bolster their squad were...underwhelming, as very few kids clutch their "Kevin Jepsen" or "Neal Cotts" trading cards. Sure enough many people targeted the bullpen as a disappointment, and the starters didn't help matters by following the struggles in Toronto by spending a weekend in Cleveland where no starter got through 4 innings. 

Meanwhile, in the line-up, Dozier's daunting numbers have slipped, dropping forty points in On-Base Percentage, and one-hundred points in Slugging Percentage, right when (as the pitching shows) his bat would be quite valuable. An eleven run outburst against the Rangers helped them in the Wild Card, but by the time the Twins hit New York for another series agains the Yankees the rival Royals' division lead had stretched to 12 games. After (yet another) sweep in the Bronx, that lead was 14, and even the wild card seemed out of reach. Particularly when the two All-Stars were so far from the heroes they seemed to be just months before.

Or so it would have been, if another hero had not emerged over Chapter 4. Twins' fans hearts have begun to pitter-pat in a way they haven't since the days of "Baby Jesus", fittingly thanks to an Angel...or rather, an Ángel. Miguel Ángel Sanó. The burgeoning power and satisfying patience offset a strike-out happy debut, and once joined with his fellow rookie sensation Byron Buxton, Sano helped carry the Twins to a staggering 8-2 run to close out the month, with all the wins coming against fellow playoff contenders in Baltimore, Tampa Bay and Houston.
Do it again Miguel!
So despite the doom and gloom that pervades chapter four, again the authors' of the Twins season offer reasons to hope entering the next thrilling chapter.

Main Character Development:
We've mentioned the falls of both Perkins and Dozier and the plot summary referenced the rise of Sanó, but baseball seasons' don't just develop the obvious protagonists, they develop everyone.

Consider Eduardo Escobar: this was a player who seemed for all the world to be an tossed-in trading chip on an insignificant deal during the middle of a lost year. A player so insignificant, that our review of the trade focused more on a poem about the departing Francisco Liriano than any reflection on who was coming over. Three years later, while the man he was traded for has been solid on the mound, Escobar has become something of a cult figure in Twins Territory, occupying a space once reserved for Nick Punto or Gene Larkin. He has out-hit Pedro Florimon, out-fielded Danny Santana, and out-everythinged potential trade bait to become the starting short stop on a play-off contender. That's a heck of a return for three months of poor performing Francisco Liriano.

Pictured: The Bachelor in Paradise
equivalent of Terry Ryan holding
Ervin Santana.
If you want a less optimistic development consider Ervin Santana: At the end of Chapter 3, Santana twirled a fine game against the division leading Royals, with eight strikeouts in eight innings, leaving the K deprived Twins fans eager to #SmellBaseball (and in many cases, learn what hashtags really meant). He seemed to be a bright spot on the dispiriting West Coast road trip and then spent a six game stretch allowing an average of 5 runs per start and winning exactly zero of those games. High hopes were dashed, and the cheers turned to questions about whether we had been bamboozled by steroid inflated numbers, just like Joe was hoodwinked by Samantha's 200 texts on Bachelor in Paradise (don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about). Perhaps his 10 Strikeout performance will redeem him...or perhaps he's a pineapple.

Key Quote/Stat Explained
+tOPS in High Leverage At Bats

+tOPS is a way to tell if a player is performing better or worse than they normally do. 100 is average, so any thing above that is good for a hitter (and bad for a pitcher), anything below 100 is bad for a hitter (and, obviously, good for a pitcher).

Leverage is a means of measuring how any individual at bat can affect the outcome of the game. If a pitcher can get an out in a high leverage situation (like, say, the bases loaded with no outs and a one run lead) that's a little more important than a low leverage situation (like, say, facing the number nine-hitter with two out, nobody on, and a ten-run lead).

When the going gets tough...
Right at the end of Chapter 3 the Twins turned Trevor May into a relief pitcher, and while it hasn't been as narratively satisfying as some other characters' arcs, it is instructive in this situation. After all, May has pitched a lot this season, in all kinds of situations as both a starter and a reliever. In low leverage situations, he's performed like he usually does (tOPS = 104). In medium (or average) leverage situations he's performed like he usually does (tOPS = 108). In high leverage situations he has been significantly better (tOPS = 74).

Those numbers are all still about average by league standards, but it suggests that Trevor May can be quite good right when the Twins need him to be (no matter which role he's pitching in).

Literary Terms to Impress English Majors:

If the 2015 Twins are a mystery to you, as they are to most fans, then you're ready to find out exactly what this year has been a Red Herring and what isn't. 

The 2015 Twins plot points
Many hard core mystery fans know to expect red herrings, or misleading clues in the course of their story, say when a suspect is called "a bad, bad man" by a trustworthy source right when the detectives are looking for a "bad, bad man". Naive readers may assume, the "bad, bad man" is the villain, trained readers know that there's something else a foot.

So the best writers (or those who like messing with readers the most) enjoy piling red herring on top of red herring until you have a veritable smorgasbord of deceptive head fakes, winks, nods and suggestions leaving everyone totally bewildered. So, if you're trying to figure out your team's identity and you're perpetually bombarded by mediocrity, then brilliance, then ineptitude, you know you've got a Red Herring, you just don't know which one. The same goes for players: is Glen Perkins the shut down closer of your dreams, or an injured work horse? Is Brian Dozier an MVP candidate, or a great head of hair and a winning smile? Is Ervin Santana a disaster or a diamond? Is Neal Cotts another Bargain Bin retread, or just what the doctor ordered?

The climactic chapter of the Twins' season is yet to come, all will be revealed, and all the herrings will be eaten.


How to Win Every Byron Buxton Debate

For the last week a great many Twins fans have been fiercely debating the fate of top prospect Byron Buxton. As the most prominent local minor leaguer since Joe Mauer, Buxton has been tremendously appealing to fans from Apple Valley to Zumbrota, particularly as the Twins scramble to hold on to one of the AL Wild Cards.

Yet Twins Territory has been torn between demanding Buxton's arrival and ascendancy to greatness, and hedging in the name of cautious player development. 

It may seem that these two camps are irreconcilable, but I think they're just focused on two different questions, like each camp picked a different essay question on the Twins fan final exam.

So, as we get ready to start the school year in Minnesota, here's a quick refresher on how to answer all the questions about Byron Buxton.
It's all about him...
Who/What/When/Where/How is Byron Buxton?

Identification questions--these are the things you can Google and answers are clearly right and wrong: (ex. A's A baseball player; a human being; the present era; Rochester, New York; pretty good, thanks for asking?)

Could/Can Buxton play Centerfield in the majors?

Hypothetical Evaluation questions--should be simple, with yes/no/maybe all viable based on specific known evidence: (ex. A's Yes, he can, because has all his appendages; No, he can't, two weeks of below average play shows he stinks; Maybe he can, because the world is a complex and unknowable place)

Ideal help for every essay test you
have as a grown adult
Might the Twins be making a mistake, by not playing Buxton?

Speculative Evaluation question--like a hypothetical question there's the yes/no/maybe answer but your evidence can be what you predict will happen than what you know from the past. (Ex A's. Yes, they will never succeed without  Buxton; no, a season is more than one player; maybe, assuming the apocalypse doesn't happen first).

4 Why isn't Byron Buxton playing/starting with the Twins?

Basic Analytical question--the answers are infinite, you only need some evidence to cite and arguments to support: (ex. A's The Twins aren't playing him because they are dum-dums who ignore minor league production; ...because they are evil geniuses who have a memo titled "Destroying Buxton"; ...because they are a cautious team who promote players slowly.)
Should Byron Buxton be starting in the Twins outfield?

Basic Argumentative question--Pretty direct, another one that can be answered with yes/no/maybe, but unlike the analytical question this depends more on your opinion rather than provable facts. (Ex. A's--yes, he is awesome; no, he has flaws that need more time at AAA; maybe, I'm too confused by Donald Trump's immigration plan to concentrate)
6  If the Twins call Buxton up, will/would he start/improve individually/help the team win?

Advanced Analytical question--you still need to analyze the Twins, their system and methods, but it's based on more limited conditions, so your evidence needs to be based on a specific situation and your answers are more likely to fit the yes/no/maybe camp. (Ex. A's yes, they respect performance and Buxton will perform well; no, they respect historical performance, so they may push him to a fourth or even fifth outfielder role; maybe, they don't normally push prospects, but Sano's success may have changed them)

Should the Twins call up Buxton, if they think he won't be starting/improving/helping?
Your other debate option
Advanced Argumentative question--Here's the core question, but too often the second half (which limits your evidence to a specific condition, even if you disagree) is ignored. You can answer yes/no/maybe again but you need to keep your argument clear. (Ex A's. Yes, every major league experience will help; no, the limited time will slow down his progress and hurt our relationship with Rochester; maybe, every player is different and you won't know until you try)

There you go. As the debates continue use these guides to answer questions, or tear the suggestions up and shout at the top of your lungs...that seems to work elsewhere.


Adventures in Baseball Cards: 2015

That New Pack Smell
Every year, I treat myself to one pack of baseball cards. I've always enjoyed recapturing the glee, the confusion and the memories of stale bubble gum.

This year, with the Twins careening below .500, it seems that plenty of fans would appreciate a diversion like this, but, as a curious soul, I wondered. Would the Twins be any better, if I replaced players on the team with those individuals in my particular deck of cards? Or, put another way, is the Twins Front Office any better at assembling talent than a random machine at the Topps factory?

The results, both of my nostalgia and my exercise in Random GMing are as follows.


Really? Parker?
I always trick myself into thinking the top card will be someone of magic and wonder, someone to trick you into saying: YES! BEST PACK EVER!!...This year's magic man...Jarrod Parker...a good pitcher coming back from elbow surgery...oh boy...this might be more trying than one of Mike Pelfry's starts.

Jose Lobaton (Catcher of the Washington Nationals) follows...Lobaton is fun to say, but I might prefer Loba-tron: Android Catcher of the Future.

It's funny because he's a Tiger.
Cody Ross of the Diamondbacks might be the most stereotypical Millenial suburban baseball boy name ever...but he was actually born in 1980 so he squeaks into the avant garde of Gen X suburban baseball names and the pack's determined outfield partner would be Rajai Davis, who is shown missing a catch...c'mon Topps, that's just mean!

Oh boy, it's the middle of the pack time, hitting the role players, fringe prospects and journeymen part of the deck: Wily Peralta from the Brewers, Robbie Grossman from the Astros, and Robinson Chirinos of the Texas Rangers. These are all guys I could sit next to on a flight to New Delhi and never know they were major league baseball players (assuming they would A: fly to New Delhi and B: Fly coach)

Ahh, memories of Mike Piazza
Oh! We've got a throwback card! (Also known as fan service for the aging buyers of baseball cards) It's Mike Piazza from his Mets days. Side note: I was a big Piazza buff during my teenage years when the Mets were easier to see on Montanan TV than the Twins. I look forward to his induction in the Hall of Fame, even though I never actually did see him play live.

Woah, it's time for some quality here at the end of the deck: Stephen Vogt (A's Catcher, and three pitchers who had strong seasons recently: Stephen Strasburg, Jhoulys Chacin, and Hisashi Iwakuma). Clearly my assumptions about the top of the pack being magical need to be re-evaluated. That might actually be the cleverer marketing ploy: save the best for last and convince the kids to go buy more...I'm on to you Topps, you and your diabolical machinations!!


So The Topps Pack of 12 contains 0 Infielders, 3 catchers (not counting Piazza), 3 Outfielders and 5 pitchers (all starters). So how would that do at replacing Twins players?

In an unscientific study using baseball-reference's WAR so far this season (and a selection of Twins players who have logged most of the time in the line up, here's where the Twins players* (see note 1) stand.
Starters: Suzuki/Mauer/Dozier/Plouffe/Santana/Rosario/Hicks/Sano
Bench: Nunez/Escobar/Hermann/Robinson
Line up Total (6.9)
Starting Pitchers: Hughes/Gibson/Pelfry/Milone/Santana
Pitching Staff Total (11.2)
Twins Total: 18.1 WAR

After that I hunted down the year for those players in this pack to see how they compare. Obviously I couldn't I didn't just want to replace bad players with someone better (any team is better if they choose better players), rather I wanted to see how the Twins could be expected to do if they brought in all 12 of these guys to replace others at similar positions (i.e. Starters, Catchers, and outfielders)

So how would the Twins have done if they'd grabbed this pack of cards and plugged them into the rotation? Here's the results:
SP1-Phil Hughes (1.8) Stephen Strasburg (-0.3)
SP2-Kyle Gibson (2.4) Hisashi Iwakuma (0.6)--Only 10 starts
SP3-Mike Pelfrey (1.7) Jhoulys Chacin (0.0)--Injured all year, hopefully maybe this would be May
SP4-Tommy Milone (1.4) Willy Peralta (0.5)
SP5-Ervin Santana (0.0) Jarrod Parker (0.0)--Injured all year, so it's a wash
Regular Twins Staff: 7.3; Trading Card Staff: 0.8
Net Change (-6.5 WAR)

The key take away, other than that my initial reaction to pitchers is based much more on name recognition than performance this year, has to be that despite even the worst outings of late for Twins pitchers, over the season, it's WAY better to have the devil we know than the devil we don't
Maybe my initial pleasure with these pitchers was ill founded... 

If we acknowledge that Terry Ryan can build a rotation better than a completely random player generator, how about the line up?

Here are the lineup replacements# (see note 2):
C-Kurt Suzuki (-0.3) Stephen Vogt (2.5)
LF-Eddie Rosario (1.0) Robbie Grossman (-0.4) Most games are in Left
CF-Aaron Hicks (1.4) Rajai Davis (0.9) Most games in center.
Utility IF- Eduardo Nunez (0.4) Jose Lobaton (-0.1)
2nd C-Chris Hermann (0.0) Robinson Chorinos (1.6)
4th OF-Shane Robinson (0.2) Cody Ross (-0.9) He only played 9 games (so I kept him here)
Regular Twins Line up: 6.9; Trading Card Line up: 7.9
Net Change: (+1 WAR)

Clearly the outfield is hurt by that set of swaps, but shockingly (or unshockingly I suppose) any combination of these three random catchers would all outperform the Suzuki/Hermann Tandem with room left over for a third catcher and a couple of days of Vogt spelling Mauer at first base...heck Chorinos even has starts at 3rd on his resume. 

All told, if the Twins let a random pack of trading cards determine half their line up, they would be significantly worse than they are: 18.1 Team WAR to 12.6 Team WAR.

I won't use this as some asinine proof that the Twins are secret geniuses, but at the very least, I won't tweet out some claim that monkeys at typewriters could bang out a better roster than the front office.

...At least...until I open a better pack....

*Note 1: A case could be made that I should have used some different players who either played better (i.e. drop Santana and include Vargas instead) or worse (i.e. Drop Santana for Nolasco), but like my warning says, it's hearsay and conjecture, stick with me guys.

#Note 2: I suppose you could quibble and say that I should have removed Hunter for Davis and kept Hicks,  or dropped Santana instead of Nunez for the third catcher, but whatever way you do it, the gain of 1-3 Wins above Replacement isn't enough to offset for the dismal pitching changes. And besides that: HEARSAY! CONJECTURE! Smarter writers will have better reasons, I'm just a shmuck who opens trading cards and writes about it.


Cliff Lee Twins Legend: An Alternate Trade Deadline History

For the first time in 5 years the Twins are buyers at the deadline, and with the Mariners in town and the Twitter fanbase on fire, I thought it would be fun to to look back at the last big Twins trade that never happened and imagine what it would be like if the Twins had acquired Cliff Lee from the Mariners 5 years ago.

Note: this is a work of fiction, not a genuine attempt at analyzing impacts...I'm not that smart, I'm just a weird guy who likes Alternate History 

When the Rangers refuse to part with Justin Smoak, the Twins acquire Cliff Lee for Wilson Ramos, Aaron Hicks, Kyle Gibson and Anthony Slama. Minnesota fans rejoice so much that no one notices that Justin Morneau remains sidelined after a collision in Toronto

Without any more trade chips, the Twins go without a proven closer, despite tempting overtures about emerging Nats closer Matt Capps, trusting John Rauch to save the day, or failing that...Cliff Lee on his off days

The Twins clinch the AL Central with 12 games to spare, allowing manager Ron Gardenhire to set up his rotation for a matchup with either the Yankees or Rays in the first round. "Cliffy has done real good up here...so he might just be our game 1 starter" says Gardy. "Doi!!!" say Twins fans.

The Twins finally break their Yankee he'd after Cliff Lee wins Game 5 at Target Field with a 1 run shutout. Says Lee, "it was a bit rough (with the bullpen nearly blowing Liriano's game 2 lead) but we got there in the end, good thing Glen (Perkins) came in in the 8th, you know...he could make a good set up man."

Backed by the home run power of  Jim Thome, Delmon Young and Danny Valencia, the Twins need only 5 games to beat the Rangers in Arlington and advance to the World Series against the Giants. Asked if he's worried about Cliff Lee's workload, manager Rob Gardenhire replies, "work what now?"

Twins lose the World Series to the Giants in 5 games, but remain upbeat. "Obviously we would rather have the trophy, but we'll back and loaded next year, that's for sure" pledges Lee.
Still stings, doesn't it Twins fans?
Cliff Lee jilts Minnesota to re-sign with the Philadelphia Phillies. "I never wanted to leave in the first place," says Lee, "obviously it was nice to help Minnesota, but Philadelphia is where my heart lies." Undeterred, General Manager Bill Smith seeks to lock down the squad that brought Minnesota their first AL Pennant in nearly 20 years giving extensions to JJ Hardy (through 2014), Delmon Young (through 2015), and Francisco Liriano (through 2014) and re-signs Jim Thome. 

Spring training for the AL champs starts with high hopes as Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan return as do new Twins Carl Pavano (who had a fine second half with the Texas Rangers) and intriguing Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka who Bill Smith hopes could push Alexi Casilla at second base ("he might even be able to spell JJ at short stop" gushes Smith who is eager to offset the loss of fan favorite Nick Punto )

Shame we lost Hardy on this take out slide
Disaster strikes as Nick Swisher slides into second base breaking JJ Hardy's fibula. Manager Ron Gardenhire quickly installs Tsuyoshi Nishioka as the new starting shortstop. A quick RBI triple and lunging grab to his left causes the fan base to erupt with joy as the Twins take a series in Yankee stadium. One fan goes so far as to get a "Nishioka Forever" tattoo.

The Twins have the highlight of their year when Jim Thome hits his 500th Home Run. It's Thome's last before he returns to Cleveland for one final playoff run with his first team. Meanwhile the double play combination of Hardy and Nishioka (or Thunder and Lightning as fans have taken to calling them) offer a ray of hope to compensate for the regression of Danny Valencia and Delmon Young (despite peripheral stats that suggest Nishioka isn't quite as good as his rookie year attests). The team finishes with a 69-93 record, which will give them the fourth pick in the 2012 draft, their highest in a decade.

With a lot of money tied up in other extensions the Twins face a difficult decision between keeping beloved reliever Joe Nathan, former top prospect Jason Kubel, or right fielder Michael Cuddyer who had paced the offense while Morneau and Mauer worked to make a come back. Citing the need for a "proven closer" the Twins resign Nathan (for 3 years), and Kubel (for 2 years). "This year was an anomaly," says Smith who was given a full vote of confidence by ownership, "I don't expect us to have a year like that again, and I'm sure the players don't either."

It wasn't his finest hour, 
Hours after a drunken Delmon Young's anti-semitic tirade in New York and subsequent suspension ("We won't tolerate that" says Jim Pohlad), call-up Ben Revere stuns the crowd with a great leaping catch in left field. Fans who hope a return to the Bronx will remind a struggling Nishioka of his strong April are disappointed when he airmails two throws into the Yankees dugout. Rochester infielder Brian Dozier packs his bags.

With the #4 Pick in the MLB Draft the Twins select
Mike Zunino thereby solving all catching problems
The Twins end their connection with ALCS hero Danny Valencia by trading him through waivers to the Red Sox. "It's part of the game," explained Manager Ron Gardenhire, "Danny gave us a lot over two years ago, I'm sure he'll give his best in Boston." Some fans, frustrated with the inconsistency of Francisco Liriano, had hoped that the former ace in the making and the big third baseman could bring in significant pitching prospects are left wanting. But many have now turned their attention to the Twins top draft choice: Florida Catcher Mike Zunino ("hey, look at what happened the last time they took a catcher in the top 5...maybe this one won't even get bilateral leg weakness!")

The Twins finish their season of struggle sliding to 67-95

Citing their "complete confidence" in Ben Revere the Twins trade Denard Span to the Nationals for Vance Worley and Trevor May. Revere's diving catches and ear-to-ear smile become the face of the Twins.

The Twins shockingly trade their second outfielder in a week, when the Tigers offer the Twins a random relief prospect to take Delmon Young off our hands, who they think is just the veteran bat they need to finally win the World Series. "THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU" shout Twins fans. A small group of fans chant the same words at Tsyuoshi Nishioka's Air Japan flight back home at the completion of his contract.

GM Bill Smith gushes about the team's newly revamped pitching staff: "We know that Perkins, Burton and Nathan can do what we need at the end of the game, but we needed pitchers who could get the leads there. I think we have a very deep rotation, Scott [Diamond] took a big step forward, we know what Francisco [Liriano] is capable of, and now with veteran arms like Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfry we have what we need to compete."

Still hurts to see a Twins legend
in rival colors.
For the first time in over a decade the Twins are never close to contention, due in large part to complete implosions in the starting rotation. The team decides to sell off many of their veteran assets at the trade deadline: Morneau and Liriano head to the Pirates, JJ Hardy goes to the Diamondbacks, Jason Kubel goes to the Cleveland Indians on a short rental. "I guess we're really rebuilding," writes one Twins Daily blogger, "good thing Mauer's locked in at Catcher."

Joe Mauer sustains a concussion during a make up game against the New York Mets that spells the end of his catching career, and top prospect Mike Zunino struggles a bit when called up to split time with Drew Butera as his replacement. The only shocking silver linings in another disappointing season (66 - 96) are the sudden burst of power from second baseman Brian Dozier, says team closer Joe Nathan, "he's the real deal."

Bill Smith steps down as General Manager admitting, "yeah...I can't believe I lasted this long either," the Twins take the unusual step of inviting back former GM Terry Ryan to replace him. "It's time to turn the page and build from within," says Ryan before looking at a farm system that boasts Miguel Sano, Mike Zunino, Second Baseman Eddie Rosario, and not much else. "Well, crap..." says Ryan afterwards.

The Twins welcome new starting pitchers, Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes at a press conference. On the emerging slew of podcasts, one Twins follower says: "Obviously we'd like to have our own pitchers come up through the minors, but besides [Trevor] May at Double A, our best options are the kid we got for not resigning Cuddyer [Berrios], and Kohl Stewart. So they're all a ways away."

With uncertainty around the aging familiar stars and the unknown new signings, The Twins turn to young talent to highlight their ad campaign, "Bringing Smiles back to Twins Territory". The ads mostly consist of Ben Revere and Brian Dozier smiling brightly at the camera saying, "please come back...please...? You're a very attractive person...I'd like to see you at the ballpark...Please?"

While some stat heads argue that Twins Closer Joe Nathan had been outperformed by set up man Glen Perkins, Nathan is the one player chosen to represent the Twins at their home town all star game. Though he loads the bases, he does deliver a final strike out to lone Rangers representative Kurt Suzuki. "God, he'd be better than Butera and Zunino" carps one Twins fan.

The Twins near the end of their 4th straight 90 loss season despite an all-time record Strike out to walk ratio for new starter Phil Hughes. In their final home game the team stages a moving tribute to Joe Nathan, who, after giving up the closer spot in September to Glen Perkins, gets one last 9th inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks. After the game Nathan says "wait...why didn't I get the Mariano Rivera farewell tour?...screw it! I'm coming back next year!"

Torii Hunter joins the Twins for one final season despite the offer to complete a new soul patrol in Seattle with Aaron Hicks and top prospect Byron Buxton. 

New signee Ervin Santana is suspended for 80 games for testing positive for a performance enhancing drug. Rookie Trevor May is added to the rotation behind Mike Pelfry. "Would have been nice to see a little competition for that spot," says Terry Ryan, "but we like the guys we have."

The Newest Twin...
At the trade deadline the surprisingly contending Twins seem in desperate need of a shortstop (as no one has compared to Hardy and Nishioka), catcher (to replace Butera as the struggling Zunino goes back to AAA) and in the bullpen. Terry Ryan delivers only Tampa Bay Reliever Kevin Jepsen to complement Glen Perkins setting up for Joe Nathan, at the cost of starter prospect Chih Wei Hui. Fans demand a more meaningful move, like the one that got them Cliff Lee 5 years ago.


Adopt a Prospect 3.4: Why I Like JT Chargois More than A-Rod

More interesting that Target Field
It has not been an easy last two weeks for our Adopted Prospect: Mr. Jon Tiberius Chargois (okay it's Jon Thomas...but give me some nerd slack). He had his worst outing of the year giving up 6 earned runs on three walks and three hits, and the breezy dominance that made Chargois a Florida State League All-Star seems like a distant memory compared to his current form.

And yet, this weekend, as the Twins got snake bitten (again) by the Yankees and their complicated, record-book busting (again) DH Alex Rodriguez, I found myself eagerly turning away from the superlative performances of A-Rod at Target Field, to the minor league box scores for word of Chargois.

It may seem like a silly comparison: Alex Rodriguez, love him or hate him, will go down in the annals of baseball history; JT Chargois will be in this odd little corner of cyber space...but probably, not much else. And while the part of me that loves athletic excellence is inclined to see the very best players do their very best work, a much larger part of me wants to cheer for Chargois much MUCH more than A-Rod.

The reasons I care more about a AA reliever than the fourth most prestigious home run hitter in baseball doesn't depend on the history of a rivalry, or the fact that one is paid by Minnesota billionaires and the other is paid by New York billionaires. It comes back to the fact that Sports is the rare entertainment that demands honesty.

Other entertainments live on the other side of truth. Movies and books are fictional. Music and even visual arts (painting and sculpture) are as much about what people (and record companies) know will sell, rather than purely what people have lived or feel.

But sports demands honesty. Do your best, play fair, and may the best team win. Do that, and we'll root, root, root for the rest of our lives.

Therein lies the problem. A-Rod is fundamentally dishonest: he didn't trust his best to be good enough, he didn't play fairly with those who stayed clean, and he tried to rig the game so his team would be better than the best.

No question, A-Rod is entertaining, powerful and impressive (even more so on PEDs). But that was a fiction. He insisted he was legitimate twice, once while using and once after getting caught in two more moments of dishonesty. If he was a pro-wrestler, or doing some crazy in-depth performance art it could be strangely intriguing, but instead it's just fake, false and infuriating to watch.

That's why I like a middling AA prospect and can't stand one of the best power-hitters in over a century of baseball. Because JT Chargois is not perfect and makes no pretenses about it. His scuffles at AA are part of the game, an honest failure, just as his run of scoreless innings from April to June was an honest success.

I don't like Alex Rodriguez. I don't wish him ill. I don't hope he suffers. I just wish he were more like JT Chargois.


Cliff Notes for the 2015 Twins: Chapter 3

Again, I've been derelict in my duty--though I was out of the country and away from reliable internets for a while there. Still were back with another nerdy English-Class style recap of the last month (plus) in Twins Territory

Chapter 3: June to the All-Star Break
Plot Summary:
So great was the joy among fans after a shockingly strong June, that the Twins could, to many eyes, have appeared better than they actually were. So it was only slightly surprising that the team stumbled badly in June.

The slide began by dropping two out of three to the Brewers (who had not been terribly impressive) at Target Field. Then the rival Royals ended the Twins' time atop the Central with a sweep (culminating in Torii Hunter's freak out) and the doldrums continued as they dropped two out of three to the Rangers, but in an effort either to stop the slide or to hold on to their quavering place in the attention of local fans the Twins called up the first of their dynamic prospects: Byron Buxton.

Buxton's arrival accompanied the only Twins win in Texas, and despite two losses in St. Louis, his thrilling play and daring speed were on fine display as the team returned to the Twin Cities in excellent form evening the score against the Cardinals, several close games against the Cubs and a crushing of the White Sox. Sadly, a slide against the White Sox also crushed a bone in Buxton's thumb, and he was removed from the lineup as suddenly as he appeared.

Efforts to repeat the magic on a return trip to Milwaukee by calling up another touted prospect in Alex Meyer were unsuccessful. The National League again thwarted the Twins' momentum as the Brewers and Reds squeezed the home town 9 to a paltry 4-8 record against the bottom 3 teams in the NL Central. Meyer was duly demoted and again things looked grim.

The Twins went to the prospect well a third time and called up Miguel Sano for their visit to Kansas City. As a pure hitter, Sano trumped even the heralded Buxton, and his 11 game hit-streak coincided with the Twins sudden offensive rejuvenation as they finished the first half of the season on a 8-3 run, good enough to put them in 2nd place in the division and 2nd place in the entire American League.

Main Character Development:
The true climax of this chapter was the All-Star Game and the two Twins players who went, recognized as being among the best of the best (the 90th percentile of players in the major leagues). First and foremost, the acknowledged top closer in the league: Glen Perkins. Perkins broader acclaim was all the more note worthy for where he had come from: failed starter, unhappy demoted pitcher, after thought set-up reliever, and, as of now, owner of the best Save streak in Twins history (28 in a row). Most impressively, in this chapter of the season he faced 45 batters and allowed only 6 of them to reach base (a .133 OBP against).

Perkins was joined in Cincinatti by second baseman Brian Dozier who was initially left off of the roster. That snub may have been the best thing for him. It begat a voting campaign (No Bull, Vote Dozier); it got his name mentioned consistently in the national press and on cable tv, and it aligned perfectly with an outburst of timely hitting including two walk-off home runs and another in the All-Star Game itself that captured a great many eyeballs across the country and began a genuine grumbling campaign that he might be the league MVP (assuming he both kept it up and found some way of getting Mike Trout to fall into a temporal vortex). What was once a cute photoshop on this blog is now a common talking point (so much so that at a wedding I attended last weekend, both the bride and my grandmother could be found discussing him).

As Perkins and Dozier rise as protagonists, it will be interesting to see what obstacles and conflicts are thrown in their way to create dramatic tension for the rest of the season.

Key Quote/Stat Explained:
Pythagorean Winning Percentage: .528

As any fan can tell you, occasionally the better team loses. Unlucky bounces, dumb umpire calls, a slight stumble on a soggy infield, all of it can turn the game when you least expect it. So there's the Pythagorean Winning percentage, in which the square of the hypotenuse of a right tri...wait, no...that's Pythagorus' Triangle Theorem...when he was brought forward to the present by Doctors Bill S. Prescott and Theodore Logan to watch baseball and party on dude, he (and Bill James) developed an equation to measure how many games a team should win based on both their runs scored and their runs allowed.

To wit:
                      (Runs Scored)^1.83
(Runs Scored)^1.83 + (Runs Allowed)^1.83
via baseball Reference

Basically dividing the (approximate) square of a team's runs scored, by the (approximate) square of their runs scored PLUS the (approximate) square of their runs allowed should yield an average result.

So while many Twins fans are dancing joyously at the fact that the Twins have the second best record in the American League, our Pythagorean Winning Percentage can show whether we are really lucky, a little lucky, or even unlucky to be where we are.

The Twins Pythagorean Winning Percentage is .528 (or 52.8%); their real world winning percentage is .551 (or 55.1%), so they've only been about 2.3% luckier than their run total would suggest. So they are actually a solid team with the chance to get better (unlike the White Sox who are below 500 and still 8% luckier than they ought to be).

The one down side is the Twins have a lower Pythagorean Winning Percentage than 8 other teams, including three currently outside of the playoff hunt: the Orioles (7% unlucky), the Blue Jays (8% unlucky) and the Athletics (9.8% unlucky). If those teams see their records normalize a bit, and the Twins drop even a percent in their luck, people dreaming of the playoffs can put a pin in it.

Literary Term to Impress English Majors:
Writers throughout history have relied on a simple belief: everything's better in threes. Hence "The Rule of Three". Things are funnier, easier to remember, generally more meaningful if you combine things in threes: three volume novels; three act plays; three little pigs; three bears; I came, I saw, I conquered; stop, drop, and roll; a priest, a minister, and a rabbi

It doesn't just take three things to fit the rule of three, they should be thematically connected and structured in such a way as to make meaning. So take the Twins June/July call ups: Buxton/Meyer/Sano.
From L-R: Meyer, Berrios, Sano, Buxton
(Good news, Jose: you don't have to worry about this rule)

  1. Buxton comes first, and excites the fan base, we need him and he looks pretty good but it's over early due to the thumb injury. 
  2. Meyer comes second, the fan base is a little less excited, but there's enough mention of his pedigree, status and dominance as a reliever in AAA to make him enticing, and it's over very quickly when he gets hammered by big league bats. 
  3. Sano comes last, and while he's long been one of the two big names in the Twins' system, the structure is set up to make at least a few fans regard another call-up skeptically. So his offensive outburst with power and patience seems like a pleasant surprise, even though he has always looked capable of this.
Obviously, I don't think the Twins intended Buxton and Meyer to have such unpleasant endings to their Major League debuts, but if there was some sort of magical script-writing in all of this, it would be a pretty great use of the Rule of Three.