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  • How the Cheating Astros and the Slugging Twins Each Helped Marwin González


    Matthew Trueblood

    With the Astros, stolen signs helped González fake improved plate discipline. He wasn't purely a creation of Houston's systematic cheating, however, and the Twins taught him some new tricks of their own in 2019.

    Image courtesy of © Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

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    Marwin González probably profited from the Houston Astros’ systematic sign-stealing efforts in 2017 and 2018, in ways we can clearly identify using advanced data. After he signed with the Twins last winter, however, González also profited from Minnesota’s hitting philosophy and instruction. Thus, while you shouldn’t expect him to repeat or approximate his gaudy 2017 numbers in 2020, there are reasons to believe he can be a similarly valuable (though different) super-utility slugger.

    Early in his career, González battled persistent problems recognizing and laying off non-fastballs outside the strike zone. He did good work against heaters, but was too easily exploited by pitchers who could command secondary stuff. In 2017, however, his chase rate on junk outside the zone dropped sharply, and González’s production surged accordingly.

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    In hindsight, thanks to the information that has come to light since, it seems safe to assume González was getting help from Houston’s banging scheme. Since that year, and particularly after leaving Houston for Minnesota, he’s been unable to replicate that improved plate discipline. His walk rate in the two seasons prior to 2017 was just north of 4 percent. His walk rates in 2017 and 2018 were just south of 10 percent. In 2019, he walked just 6.7 percent of the time.

    However, it’s not fully clear that González solely shored up his plate discipline in those seasons as a result of sign stealing. He was at an age and in a situation that encouraged a maturing, increasingly selective approach, and might have simply made that conscious decision. Then, in coming to the Twins, he both faced pressure to live up to a multi-year deal and was immersed in a team whose baseline hitting mentality is more aggressive. He might have swung more often in 2019, not because he forgot how to be patient or lost his secret edge, but because he simply felt more pressure and was trying to tailor his approach to that of his new club.

    In any case, González also got something valuable in return for his increased aggressiveness: more pop. Despite leaving Minute Maid Park and coming to Target Field, which is a tough park on his power tendencies, González nearly matched his extra-base hit rate from 2018, and his underlying batted-ball data support that. In fact, those numbers suggest that he could have seen even better results.

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    That forward leap, in both average exit velocity and hard-hit rate, is very significant. A player in his 30s adding three miles per hour to that average exit velocity figure within a single season is nearly unprecedented. By tapping into his aggressiveness again, González found a lot more hard contact. He saw particular improvement in his ability to drive the outside pitch, as a left-handed batter, and in staying on top of pitches up in the zone, as a right-handed one.

    Twins fans shouldn’t expect González to rebound to the kind of numbers he put up in 2017. That was probably a career year, sweetened by his team’s systematic sign-stealing. Still, there were drawbacks to hitting the way the Astros trained González to hit, including drawbacks to the banging scheme itself. The Twins have helped González realize his potential for avoiding the weakest and least valuable forms of contact, and for thumping the ball more consistently, even when an opposing pitcher executes well. On balance, he’s still a good player, likely to produce better in 2020 than he did in 2019, and having signs relayed to him did not turn him from some fringe big-leaguer into the fine utility player he is now.

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    Gonzalez is a very good acquisition he came in a pinch when Sano was injured & did very well thru out the year even though he had a late start!  This year he`ll be more settled. 

     Balance is the key I believe. Sano seems like he`s more patient at the plate but I believe he could shorten his swing when he has 1 or 2 strikes. He`s so strong he could still hit it out. Kepler seems to have found his groove. Rosario could be more patient & Astudillo most definitely

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    In 2017 Marwin Gonzalez had 20 walks and 69 SO at home, but 29 walks and 38 SO on the road. He was a better hitter on the road, for what it's worth.

    He was a better hitter on the road but also had a much higher slugging % with more HRs at home. That's an easy assumption that he knew what pitches were coming for sure. Unless they were using some other way to signal pitches on the road though, he may have also just had himself a career year (with some cheating baked in).

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    One thing I don’t understand is the players being granted “immunity” over this deal. Are they “immune” from MLB punitive action only? Or, if the Twins, for example, were to cut loose Marwin for his involvement, is that a MLBPA issue (wrongful termination, or something similar)?

     

    If I’m the Twins I’m strongly considering letting Marwin go. It’ll likely be talked about relentlessly when he’s at the plate by opposing TV/radio crews. If the Twins succeed in the playoffs and he plays a role it’ll be a topic. Just from a business sense, I want to distance myself from this issue as much as possible. You also get the bonus national PR goodwill from being the first team to take a hard-line on a cheating player. I can see the Twitter reaction now, it’ll certainly trend (“The Twins are now my favorite team,” etc). The sad reality is that Marwin just isn’t good enough to bend over backwards PR-wise to keep him around (we’re not talking George Springer, here).

     

    Of course, nobody will want to hear this, but it’s also possible that the team that just shattered the MLB home run record is cheating in a similar manner. Can’t really send Marwin out into the world to add your name to list with the Astros and some others.

     

    What a time to be alive.

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    One thing I don’t understand is the players being granted “immunity” over this deal. Are they “immune” from MLB punitive action only? Or, if the Twins, for example, were to cut loose Marwin for his involvement, is that a MLBPA issue (wrongful termination, or something similar)?

    Basically, any action against the players, that would make the player ineligible or reduce his salary, whether by MLB or individual teams, would never hold up. The burden of proof would be too high to make the punishment stick -- the MLBPA could defeat it easily.

     

    That said, the Twins could release him like any other player, but they'd owe him his full salary.

     

     

    If I’m the Twins I’m strongly considering letting Marwin go. It’ll likely be talked about relentlessly when he’s at the plate by opposing TV/radio crews. If the Twins succeed in the playoffs and he plays a role it’ll be a topic. Just from a business sense, I want to distance myself from this issue as much as possible. You also get the bonus national PR goodwill from being the first team to take a hard-line on a cheating player. I can see the Twitter reaction now, it’ll certainly trend (“The Twins are now my favorite team,” etc). The sad reality is that Marwin just isn’t good enough to bend over backwards PR-wise to keep him around (we’re not talking George Springer, here).

    I don't think so. There's barely been a mention of Marwin in the local media since the scandal broke. He's not even projected to start for the Twins, or be much more than an average player when he does play. Seems like there won't be any particular spotlight on him that would even require PR mitigation.

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    Of course, nobody will want to hear this, but it’s also possible that the team that just shattered the MLB home run record is cheating in a similar manner. Can’t really send Marwin out into the world to add your name to list with the Astros and some others.
     

    Not impossible, but way less likely. The Astros were right there with the Twins chasing home runs records last year. But unlike the Twins, Yankees, and Dodgers the Astros were unnaturally good at avoiding a strikeout rate that goes along with that level of power. The Twins were good at avoiding strikeouts too, but that was largely based on an aggressive team-wide strategy of minimizing plate appearances with 2-strike counts. They were 20th in BB%. 

    The Astros led the league with the highest BB% AND the lowest K% on offense while hitting 288 HR in 2019. That's....odd.

    If they Twins were stealing signs, they were definitely worse at it than the Astros. 

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    One thing I don’t understand is the players being granted “immunity” over this deal. Are they “immune” from MLB punitive action only? Or, if the Twins, for example, were to cut loose Marwin for his involvement, is that a MLBPA issue (wrongful termination, or something similar)?

     

    If I’m the Twins I’m strongly considering letting Marwin go. It’ll likely be talked about relentlessly when he’s at the plate by opposing TV/radio crews. If the Twins succeed in the playoffs and he plays a role it’ll be a topic. Just from a business sense, I want to distance myself from this issue as much as possible. You also get the bonus national PR goodwill from being the first team to take a hard-line on a cheating player. I can see the Twitter reaction now, it’ll certainly trend (“The Twins are now my favorite team,” etc). The sad reality is that Marwin just isn’t good enough to bend over backwards PR-wise to keep him around (we’re not talking George Springer, here).

     

    Of course, nobody will want to hear this, but it’s also possible that the team that just shattered the MLB home run record is cheating in a similar manner. Can’t really send Marwin out into the world to add your name to list with the Astros and some others.

     

    What a time to be alive.

    Of course if they are taking a hard line on "cheaters", they'd have to release Cruz and Pineda as well.

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