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The Age Of Analytics Arrives In Minnesota

... Finally

For more than a decade, Minnesota Twins fans have been clamoring for a more analytical approach from the front office. Those cries have now been answered.

The pivot from legendary scout Terry Ryan to relatively unknown young executive Derek Falvey at the head of baseball operations represents just about the starkest move in that direction possible, and we're already seeing evidence of it.
During our Q&A session with him at the Winter Meltdown in January, Twins Director of Baseball Research Jack Goin opined that his organization ranked around the middle of the pack when it comes to optimizing analytics, though he candidly acknowledged they don't really hold a competitive advantage in that area at this time.

Now, the Twins are positioned to move briskly toward gaining one.

From Old School to New School

While his department has certainly made significant strides in recent years, I doubt that Goin would deny that Minnesota was playing catch up for a while. As forward-thinking front offices across the league began to adopt cutting-edge tracking methods and advanced statistics, a Twins franchise run by Ryan and his largely stagnant braintrust remained decidedly traditional in its philosophies.

The "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach lost any semblance of credibility in 2016 when a lengthy stretch of disappointment culminated with the worst season in Twins history. It was clear that things were broken. So, ownership made a move to fix them.

A track record of insularity and deference to reputation was thrown on its side with the decision to hire Falvey. Young, energetic and little-known on the national scene, he was a blinding contrast to Ryan, the heralded scout whose very presence commanded respect, and whose affable gruffness was a defining characteristic.

At a time where many fans understandably expected a minor change in course, and maybe even a simple switch to the next in command, Twins owner Jim Pohlad and president Dave St. Peter enacted a 180-degree turn. I give them a lot of credit for that. And everything I've seen thus far leads me to believe their choice was a savvy one.

Riding the Wave

Across the nation, analytics and technology are increasingly gaining influence – not just in baseball, but in the sports world at large. On Tuesday night, I had the privilege of co-hosting an event at The Pitch, an entrepreneurial hub in Northeast Minneapolis with a specific focus on innovative businesses operating in the field of sport.

We were celebrating the launch of The Ultimate Guide to SportsTech in Minnesota, which I helped compile with TECHdotMN. The digital doc serves as a window to some of the state's brightest up-and-comers in this rapidly growing space.

Back in January, I covered the MinneAnalytics SportCon event downtown, a first-of-its kind sports analytics conference bringing together experts and execs from various corners of the industry to discuss and dissect advancements within this evolving frontier.

One of the featured panelists of the day? None other than Falvey, who had attained his title as Chief Baseball Officer only a few months earlier.

A top Minnesota Twins executive speaking as an authority at a conference on analytics? Not so long ago, it would have seemed unthinkable, but it's a sign of the times at Target Field. And Falvey was very much at home on that stage.

The Puzzle Solver

Earlier this week, the New York Times published a profile on the new Twins CBO penned by Tyler Kepner. The piece discusses Falvey's career as a pitcher at Trinity College, wherein the right-hander relied upon his studious and strategic nature rather than superior talent to stay afloat.

That's been the ongoing story for Falvey, who never played professional baseball and joined Cleveland's front office shortly after graduating Trinity with an economics degree. "He likes working puzzles and solving problems," as Kepner put it, and he very quickly ascended ranks with the Indians while capturing the attention and admiration of baseball lifers like Terry Francona.

Despite his background, some might skeptically question what evidence exists of Falvey being a revolutionary figure in the scope of this franchise's story. He doesn't necessarily go around openly flaunting new-age stats and advanced metrics, after all. But there's no doubt he is well versed in such matters and, to be fair, constantly evangelizing those kinds of things right off the bat can be alienating in an organization with many lingering Ryan loyalists.

And that's also not really the point. The definition of analytics is "information resulting from the systematic analysis of data or statistics." And if you pay any attention to what Falvey says, you're bound to hear him talk about the value of data-driven decisions based on versatile sets of available info.

You could argue that we haven't necessarily seen those elements in action yet, as the realigned front office has taken a relatively hands-off approach with roster management in the early going. But if you look for them, signs of shifting philosophy are not difficult to find.

The New Way

Indications that Minnesota is taking a more modern approach to building a team and organization are, perhaps, somewhat sparse up to this point, but they are certainly noticeable.

The aggressive pursuit and signing of Jason Castro, a renowned pitching framing specialist, was an early signal. And while some of the other acquisitions may bear marks of the old regime, the reasoning and outcomes have been different.

While I was in Fort Myers, there was a belief among many covering camp that Ryan Vogelsong had an inside track for a rotation spot, especially after Trevor May went down. Such perceptions were, in my view, based on conditioning carried over from the previous era. Bringing the slow-tossing 39-year-old north based on little more than veteran influence would have been a trademark Ryan move, to be sure, but there's a different flavor now.

Sure enough, the Vogelsong drama ended early when he was released last week, winnowing the fifth starter competition down to pitchers whose presence in the rotation can actually yield tangible long-term benefits.

The signing and elevation of Craig Breslow might also look like a standard TR type maneuver, given his depth of MLB experience and previous ties to the Twins. At least, until you look deeper.

Recognizing that he was probably reaching the end of his career unless he figured out a way to gain an edge, Breslow reinvented himself, purchasing an expensive tracking device and using it to alter his delivery in order to maximize the spin on his pitches. He and his agent sold his revival by selling the data, and that struck a chord with Falvey.

"One of the things I think, as an industry, we can be a little bit better about is using evidence to help development," the CBO explained to Twins Daily earlier this month. "I think Craig was one who just went and did that on his own, which I commend him for."

The favorable impression went both ways. After the southpaw threw in front of scouts from numerous teams during the winter, he received nearly a dozen offers, some of which included more money than Minnesota's $1.25 million plus incentives. But by all accounts, it was Falvey's acute understanding and appreciation of what Breslow was trying to do that tilted the scales.

There are plenty of other subtle steps toward a more analytical approach in terms of the way Falvey, along with GM Thad Levine, have begun to piece things together. There has been an evident increase in hiring within Goin's research department, with job postings popping up a few times in the past few months. Jeff Pickler, added to the big-league coaching staff in December, has a background of implementing new data and software solutions. Paul Molitor named "the deciphering of information" as a distinct area Pickler can influence.

So What?

Now, of course, this is all fairly meaningless for the time being. Until we see real progress on the field, any supposed differences between the new leadership and the old are based only on rhetoric and platitudes. But as someone who has longed for the Twins to distance themselves from the outdated thinking and strictly observational analysis that embodied their outward mindset as an organization, I'm beyond refreshed by the things I have seen and heard from the individuals now running the show.

I'll leave you with this quote from Falvey. It is his response to the final question I asked him in a one-on-one session outside the Twins clubhouse when I was in camp two weeks ago.

"On the subject of analytics," I submitted, "is there anything that you see rising to the forefront that is maybe not being looked at too much right now?" It's a question that Terry Ryan – bless his heart – would have rolled his eyes at, and vaguely answered in some unsatisfying manner.

Here's Falvey's full answer, verbatim, with no foresight that it was coming.

"The evolution of StatCast is something that, of all 30 teams, I think there’s a few teams that have wrapped their hands around it a bit. I think there’s more teams that need to spend more time understanding it. But we have so much more information about how a player moves on the field, and where he’s positioned at the moment each pitch is thrown, how well he goes from first to third, efficiencies, things like that. And I think we’re going to have a better understanding of how to use that information to develop players’ individual skills. For instance an outfielder, routes to the ball and otherwise, we’re now going to have evidence and data that help us better understand how he moves around in the outfield, which will allow Jeff Pickler and our other minor league coaches along the way to better train at 2 o’clock in the afternoon to help put him in a better position at 7 o’clock. So that’s exciting. I’m excited about that particular tool impacting the game and each team is gonna be in a race to try to figure out who can do it best, that’s part of the deal. That’s the competition."

Indeed, that is the competition. And the Twins, in my humble opinion, are now far better equipped for it.

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42 Comments

Exciting times. I wonder how they're coming along as far as electricity, indoor plumbing, and horseless carriages.
    • Mike Sixel, savvyspy, Riverbrian and 2 others like this
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Deduno Abides
Mar 28 2017 09:26 PM
Use of analytics is not the only thing that needs to be improved. Also needed is improving the willingness to look at things differently, admit when mistakes have been made, and grow from that experience. The last several years seemed like an extended Groundhog Day, with repeated bad results followed by a "I'd do the same thing again" mentality. Bill James used to hate being associated with statistics, because he thought his key insight was to try to look at things from different angles. Use or misuse of analytics is a symptom, but was not the core problem of the previous regime. Time will tell if Falvey and Levine can change the culture to one of mental flexibility and improvement.
    • birdwatcher, Mike Sixel, Loosey and 7 others like this

With all the new shiny analytics that they have now to sign the best talent out there, it seems strange that they signed a catcher and that's it.

 

It's almost like they were world champions instead of finishing off the worst year in Twins history.

    • Mike Sixel, Vanimal46 and d-mac like this
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theBOMisthebomb
Mar 28 2017 09:58 PM
The proof will be in the pudding. It has been difficult to be patient with Falvey- Levine as they have looked nearly the same as the Terry Ryan regime. We need to give the new guys at least 2-3 years before we start making judgments.
    • Mike Sixel and Blackjack like this

Oh man, Vogelsong. The panicked fretting on TD was amazing. I almost miss it.

    • tarheeltwinsfan and WLFINN like this
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HitInAPinch
Mar 29 2017 02:33 AM

I think if people look at some of the latest SP lineups, I think you'd see some integration of analytics in them and less of the "traditional" lineups. 

 

Step away from the cliff.Baby steps.

I know what we have seen so far feels very underwhelming. I think we need to keep in mind that most of the underlying front office staff is the same…feeding the same info to the top. It will take time to retrain the people in place, replace them with people who have a different mindset, and build out the front office with a more forward thinking staff. We have seen steps and will see more. Not time to break the glass yet.
    • Riverbrian and tarheeltwinsfan like this
Words are nice, actions are better. I will believe it when I see it (aka a roster that actually can win 75 games)
    • Mike Sixel, savvyspy, mikelink45 and 4 others like this

Nick.  Thank you for the article.  It is always nice to wake up to article that represents hope and optimism.  What will be interesting to see is how the new front office addresses some of the Twins problems going forward.  From my perspective the factors that they can have an impact on is defense and the draft.

 

The Twins were second in ML in runs scored last year.  Run prevention is an issue.  They are limited by what can be done with pitching.  But defense is an area that can be improved.  At least on the margins. The data below is DRS from fangraphs.  

 

http://www.fangraphs...yers=0&sort=9,a

 

Robbie Grossman accounts for a good chunk of of the negative DRS with -19.  It will be very interesting to see how they manage his playing time in LF.  I have the left side of infield accounted for -28 DRS.  The interesting game decisions here is will the Twins more aggressive in making defensive substitutions in close games.  They have vested most of there options here in Ehire Adrianza, who unfortunately is hurt at the moment, but I am expecting him to make the team. The other component of the defensive metrics is how Danny Santana is managed.  

 

Drafting (has discussed elsewhere on TD) and player development has been a one of the main culprits in the Twins current run of failure with few of their 1st round and supplementary picks having a significant impact since 2000.  It will will be interesting to watch how the Twins manage this year's draft.  

    • Oldgoat_MN, hybridbear and tarheeltwinsfan like this
I hope you are right Nick. If we judge them on actions it is basically no different than the past.
    • DaveW and d-mac like this

Guess we'll see if all this analytics stuff works because the Twins didn't do anything else this offseason ...

    • Mike Sixel, DaveW, nytwinsfan and 2 others like this

Guess we'll see if all this analytics stuff works because the Twins didn't do anything else this offseason ...


Yeah when the 2nd "best" thing they did was not let a 39 year old Volgesong "win" a rotation spot out of ST.....you know that the Off season was an objective failure.
    • d-mac and Dave The Dastardly like this

Any changes to player development is going to take a little time. I expected more changes in the organization right away, but we should have anticipated that if these guys are really good and have the team's long term well-being in mind that they would work to fully grasp what the Twins have before they start changing everything.

I don't want to wait. I've been watching this sh*t for 6 years.

But a long term organization build that results in a competitive baseball year after year is a wiser approach.

Good luck guys.

    • Carole Keller, Mike Sixel, Blackjack and 1 other like this

 

Nick.  Thank you for the article.  It is always nice to wake up to article that represents hope and optimism.  What will be interesting to see is how the new front office addresses some of the Twins problems going forward.  From my perspective the factors that they can have an impact on is defense and the draft.

 

The Twins were second in ML in runs scored last year.  Run prevention is an issue.  They are limited by what can be done with pitching.  But defense is an area that can be improved.  At least on the margins. The data below is DRS from fangraphs.  

 

http://www.fangraphs...yers=0&sort=9,a

 

Robbie Grossman accounts for a good chunk of of the negative DRS with -19.  It will be very interesting to see how they manage his playing time in LF.  I have the left side of infield accounted for -28 DRS.  The interesting game decisions here is will the Twins more aggressive in making defensive substitutions in close games.  They have vested most of there options here in Ehire Adrianza, who unfortunately is hurt at the moment, but I am expecting him to make the team. The other component of the defensive metrics is how Danny Santana is managed.  

 

Drafting (has discussed elsewhere on TD) and player development has been a one of the main culprits in the Twins current run of failure with few of their 1st round and supplementary picks having a significant impact since 2000.  It will will be interesting to watch how the Twins manage this year's draft.  

Those are some really depressing numbers for defense.  I can see Buxton pulling them up, hopefully Castro, but we have a long way to go here. 

When you do not change the roster significantly it will be the coaching and player maturity that will be the difference.  The analytics will be how Molitor and his coaches change their use of their players.  Grossman can only be DH and PH if we value defense at all.  

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tarheeltwinsfan
Mar 29 2017 07:05 AM
Nick, Excellent article. Great explanation of some of the changes which are here and the fact that what we have seen from Falvey so far, is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more changes coming in Twins-Land. These are exciting times to be a Twins' fan. I liked Falvey's quote about the race to try to figure out who can do it best. "That's the competition." Go Twins!
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ashburyjohn
Mar 29 2017 07:20 AM

The Twins were second in ML in runs scored last year. 

:confused:

 

In 2016 the Twins were 16th of 30 major league teams in runs scored at 722. Boston led with 878.

 

Did you mean something else?

 

    • Eris and d-mac like this

Show me the money. Or in the Twins case, show me the wins.

 

Its going to take time, five years is not too long of a time frame. I hope by then that they have their system in place and that the Twins are consistently a competitive team.That's all I ask.By a competitive team I mean a .500 team that has a good chance to win every series, which will lead to competing and winning the division on a consistent basis.

    • Mike Sixel likes this
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Brock Beauchamp
Mar 29 2017 08:43 AM

 

Robbie Grossman accounts for a good chunk of of the negative DRS with -19.  It will be very interesting to see how they manage his playing time in LF.  I have the left side of infield accounted for -28 DRS.  The interesting game decisions here is will the Twins more aggressive in making defensive substitutions in close games.  They have vested most of there options here in Ehire Adrianza, who unfortunately is hurt at the moment, but I am expecting him to make the team. The other component of the defensive metrics is how Danny Santana is managed.

I find Grossman really interesting. He was a competent outfielder with the Astros. What happened last year that led to a disastrous -19 DRS? Yes, Houston is a much smaller park but that can't be everything... In 1320 LF innings with Houston, Grossman posted a +3 DRS. His RF stats were more limited - 280 innings - but he posted a +6 DRS over there so LF wasn't an aberration.

 

Of course, we're dealing with relatively small sample sizes here, as his LF time in Houston is just shy of 150 full games. Still, that's not a tiny sample size. That's a reasonable baseline from which to start.

 

As for the left side of the infield, a -28 DRS is certainly possible but Sano has been acceptable out there, posting a -3 DRS in 450 innings. That's a small enough sample size to almost be discarded entirely but it gives hope he's not entirely hopeless at third. If Sano plays a full season at that clip, it's around a -9 DRS for a full season.

 

Polanco is the real wildcard here, IMO. HIs -8 DRS at short last season was abysmal, getting there in just 405 innings. My thinking is that Polanco won't be allowed to reach a -20 or lower DRS (which is where that tracks over a full season) and will be replaced by Escobar if things go that far off the rails.

 

Which brings up another question about the left side of the infield... Escobar.  DRS has the guy all over the place. It'd be easy to ignore his 2016 due to injury and "general awfulness" but DRS hated him in 2014, too. But in 2015, DRS thought he was an okay player. All were in limited but not unreasonably small innings, between 500-800 per season.

 

Lots of questions about the left side of the infield but -28 seems a bit high to me. I think the defensive terribleness probably caps out around -25 DRS, as Polanco won't hang around at short if he's that bad and even if Escobar fails, I suspect the Twins will go glove-first at short relatively quickly, which will counter some of the awful play that preceded the move.

 

Of course, it's hard to get a read on Sano, which will cause a lot of fluctuation. Is he a -5 DRS guy or a -15 DRS guy? We can assume Polanco will struggle but I'm unsure how badly Sano will struggle. He has an outside chance of being competent out there, particularly after losing weight and getting back into a rhythm at third.

    • bizaff likes this

Let's see what changes....Not holding my breath on Molitor changing, but we'll see. As for the players on the roster, I don't know if I could be more underwhelmed on the "changes" they've made. 

    • TheLeviathan, d-mac and Dave The Dastardly like this

DanSan is heading north.  It's baffling, and depressing.  I will give our FO the benefit of the doubt here, and like to think they deferred to Molly on that one.  For whatever reason.

    • Mike Sixel and Vanimal46 like this

 

DanSan is heading north.  It's baffling, and depressing.  I will give our FO the benefit of the doubt here, and like to think they deferred to Molly on that one.  For whatever reason.

 

Well, the stats are ambivalent on if he's the 3rd or 5th worst player in all of MLB the last two years.....you just can't trust them with that kind of variance. 

    • hybridbear, rghrbek and d-mac like this

We need a BYTO filter name for D Santana. Every time I read his name my blood pressure rises a few points. 

    • Mike Sixel, TheLeviathan and d-mac like this

 

:confused:

 

In 2016 the Twins were 16th of 30 major league teams in runs scored at 722. Boston led with 878.

 

Did you mean something else?

 

You are correct.  I have made mistake.  I was working on fangraphs this morning (2015 and 2016 data) and I have no idea how I made that mistake. I am no longer able to edit the my post from this morning.  If one of the moderators would like to remove the sentence about the Twins being second in runs scored that would OK with me.

Personally I am ok with the offseason.  It wasn't splashy and didn't produce much of a tangible increase in talent but, outside of pitching, where are long-term needs that are currently known on the offensive side of the ball?  

 

The outfield is young, fast and potentially elite defensively with Buxton, Rosario and Kepler.

 

Sano is the 3rd baseman.

 

Dozier is implanted at 2nd until he is moved at which point Polanco will move there.  

 

First base is currently being held down by Mauer and $23M a year contract as well as Park and Vargas as future pieces.

 

Shortstop is an area that could have been addressed but the team chose to keep Polanco in the majors and have a possibly above average bat for a shortstop, with less than desired defense. But signed up Ehire Adrianza as a defensive addition there and Escobar as the utility infielder.

 

They signed Castro at catcher as well as Gimenez with Garver waiting with Murphy.

 

They attempted to improve the pitching through a trade, but didn't get what they wanted and passed, which I think was the right move as of now.  

 

If they feel the team is not going to compete this season (which I doubt they are) why go out and spend a bunch of money on relief arms and starters this year? That is wasting money and a contract year, when they can do that next year if they think it will help them get over the hump.

 

I'm fine with this for now:

 

Santana - Could be traded for younger version of himself

Gibson - Maybe this is finally the year

Santiago - meh, if he is good he could be flipped as well

Hughes - meh

Duffy/Mejia/Berrios -

 

No team has 5 #1 starters.  The Twins have a #2 starter, a #3 and 3 other guys who could be anywhere from future #1 to AAAA type.  I like they are rolling with this for now and will adjust on the fly as they see fit.

 


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