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  1. Nothing Is Happening This Spring, And That's A Good Sign

    Spring stats can also be incredibly misleading. Seth discussed Luke Hughes yesterday, for instance, and his knack for impressive March performances that won him a spot on the Twins’ bench in 2011 and 2012. Seth implies that the regular playing time Hughes received those springs helped him, and that the inconsistent playing time he got as a Twin disrupted his rhythm and prevented him from being a success.

    With all due respect, I think that’s ridiculous because it ignores who Hughes was facing and the context in which he was facing them. As Seth himself points out, even the greatest pitchers of our generation use spring training to work out the kinks, and couldn’t give a damn if some replacement-level Aussie takes them deep on the fourth slider in a row. Moreover, Hughes was also getting plenty of plate appearances against the Double- and Triple-A pitchers in the same boat he was. When Hughes got to the majors, he performed exactly like you’d expect a hacktastic middle infielder would.

    Oh, spring training is important; don’t get me wrong. Guys need the time to get back in shape after the offseason. As Seth points out, guys who have not been healthy need an opportunity to show that they’re recovered. But it’s essentially a tune-up. A four week long Leap Day. Nothing anybody does really matters, unless they get hurt. And none of the decisions a good club makes in March is going to have a significant impact on their regular season.

    I’m not complaining, however. After all, bad organizations are the ones that are swayed by unexpectedly strong spring performances. Take Luke Hughes, for instance. Or three years ago, when the Twins talked themselves into Aaron Hicks as the Opening Day center fielder at least in part because of his spring training, in particular his three-homer game. The club lost 96 games. That same year, the Orioles got excited by Jake Fox’s 10 spring training home runs and brought him north for Opening Day. They lost 93 games, Fox was DFA’d in June, and hasn’t ever appeared in the majors again.

    So, sure. Try to read the tea leaves. Marvel at Byung-ho Park’s three homers. Ponder whether Fernando Abad’s four innings are more meaningful than Taylor Rogers’ four innings or Ryan O’Rourke’s four innings. Worry about Ricky Nolasco’s 7.36 ERA or Byron Buxton’s .200 batting average. I can’t do it. None of it means anything to me. And it shouldn’t to the Twins either. Good teams have a plan and stick to it, and the lack of drama in Fort Myers is the best lack of news I’ve had in a long time. It's a sign that, maybe, the Twins are a healthier organization than I've given them credit for.

    • Mar 16 2016 04:44 AM
    • by MikeBates
  2. All About That Base

    It may appear boring to both the participants and onlookers alike, but drilling in spring training is likely favored over some of the original methods for ensuring pitchers take responsibility for covering first base.

    In the late 1880s, the first baseman began to position themselves away from the base and closer to where they are today. This new positioning caused issues due to the fact that first basemen were now playing back to cover more ground and were beat when racing to the bag. This then became the pitchers’ responsibility to get to the base. Instinctively, pitchers shied away from the added cardio and stayed at the mound. According to the book A Game Of Inches, at that time the Cardinals’ owner and first baseman Charles Comiskey admitted he would field the ball from his position and, if his pitcher failed to man the base, Comiskey would throw the ball to the unattended base regardless. “[T]he crowd saw who was to blame, and pretty soon pitchers got into the habit of running over rapidly rather than be roasted,” Comiskey said.

    Even after several years it still had not sunk in with pitchers to beeline it to first base if the ball was hit to their left. In 1905, following a Washington Post article that described the acts of the the team’s pitchers not covering the base the previous season as acts of “stupidity or indifference”, the Washington Senators became one of the earliest recorded team to implement fielding practice for pitchers in spring training so they would be confident the first baseman could “play a deep field and feel certain that the pitcher will go over and take his throws.”

    In many ways, the residuals of the old Senators practices carried over when the franchise moved to Minnesota. When Jack Morris arrived at the newly minted Lee County Sports Complex in the spring of 1991, the veteran pitcher encountered Twins manager Tom Kelly’s brand of tirelessly drilling on the fundamentals. According to Season of Dreams, after camp ended Morris told reporters that he covered first base more times in his first spring with the Twins in Florida than he had in 14 years with the Detroit Tigers.

    A hundred years later the tradition continues in Fort Myers with the new generation of pitchers pantomiming their delivery to the plate and trotting off towards first. You would think that over the course of a century modern pitchers would have realized that first basemen are no longer tethered to the base. In fact, some believe that the time spent on drilling this is a waste. As Angels pitcher CJ Wilson told MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez, “I'd rather spend the time going over strategies and pitching techniques than do PFP,” Wilson said in 2011. “It's just boring."(1)

    Boring or not, the Twins value pounding the fundamentals into their players -- even if it is based on a practice that originated 100 years ago. It can pay dividends; take Twins’ pitcher Kyle Gibson for instance. In 2015, Gibson led all major league pitchers with 30 putouts.

    In many ways the pitcher putouts at first are much like RBI totals -- they are all about opportunity. A right-handed ground ball pitcher is likely going to induce more opportunities than a fly ball pitcher or a left-handed pitcher. Likewise, a pitcher needs a first baseman who will not finish the job himself. Two reasons that Gibson’s totals led baseball was: 1) he had one of the highest number of grounders in a first baseman’s zone and 2) his first baseman was unfamiliar with the position.

    That being said, Gibson’s reaction time on those plays is impressive. Beating a path from the mound to the bag presents challenges. First is taking the right route, the second is finding the base and the third is receiving the throw. And sometimes that does not go as smoothly as rehearsed:

    Posted Image

    Though second baseman Brian Dozier rightfully receives credit for making a fine play, Gibson’s ability adjust to the throw should be acknowledged.

    It may seem mundane but the repetition may help avoid disastrous situations like the one Tim Hudson experienced in Atlanta where improper footwork and terrible timing led to ankle surgery for the veteran pitcher:

    Posted Image
    Sorry if you were eating lunch.

    It is hard to say what exactly makes a pitcher “good” at covering first base. Is it the muscle memory established in camp? Is it natural athleticism? Or is it handedness that provides the right-handed pitchers who fall off towards first base the advantage?

    The answer is all of the above but with emphasis on the latter. Yes, the seed is planted in Florida or Arizona which helps trigger the pitcher’s reaction at the crack of the bat. Beyond that, being born right-handed provides the benefits of both facing more left-handed batters who are more likely to hit the ball to first base as well as having a step or two edge over their southpaw’d counterparts.

    In another hundred years we will all be dead and gone but the PFP is bound to live on.

    • According to ESPN/TruMedia data, the average left-handed starting pitcher saw 28 ground ball plays in the first baseman’s zone. Maybe Wilson is on to something. In the grand scheme it does seem silly to concentrate so much time towards an act that occurs less than one time per start. Why not invest more of the left-handed staff’s time in other areas?

    • Feb 26 2015 07:07 AM
    • by Parker Hageman