The Frankie Affair: Stats v. Scouts

Can’t we all just get along?

It was inevitable, I suppose.

It happens every so often.

For a while everyone coexists well enough, but sooner or later, the battle begins.

(Image: Stephen Webster, Picture: AP)

Which camp are you in? Do you judge a player based on what you see with your own eyes… or do you believe a player’s value is found by perusing his pages?

Make up your mind… you can’t serve two Masters (as much fun as that may sound to some of you… you know who you are).

Every season… at least once a season… an issue comes up that gets hackles up on one side or the other and that’s when the uneasy truce between baseball’s modern version of the Hatfields and McCoys gets interesting.

This week, the battle erupted around Francisco Liriano and all it took to light the fuse was for someone to point out that Twins’ lack of interest in a multi-year contract extension with “the Franchise” indicates he’s not currently a factor in their long term plans and might possibly… maybe… could be… sorta… made available on the trade market for the right price.

It’s curious that Liriano would be such a polarizing figure because it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t “like” Frankie. Sure, we may have grown a bit impatient with him as he worked his way back from Tommy John surgery. He just wasn’t his old self in 2009 and heading in to spring training last year, there were plenty of questions about what expectations should be. There was even speculation that he might be destined for the bullpen. Even then, however, we all WANTED to see Liriano have a strong season and reestablish himself as a front line starting pitcher. Which he certainly did… there’s nobody really debating that.

There’s also a pretty solid consensus that, while the Twins have six experienced starting pitchers at the moment, they aren’t exactly top heavy. Carl Pavano is being counted on to provide a lot of solid innings. Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn have each shown the ability to get outs at various points in their careers and still have the potential to be effective big leaguers. Brian Duensing certainly has shown promise during late season stints in the rotation the past two seasons. But none of those five pitchers is the kind of legitimate “ace” that conventional wisdom says a team must have to be considered a championship caliber ballclub.

No, the only pitcher on this staff that even resembles an ace is Liriano. That’s another thing that pretty much everyone agrees on.

So why didn’t the Twins front office negotiate a multiple year contract extension with Liriano and lock him up for a few years, like they’ve done in recent years with Baker and the less impressive Blackburn? General Manager Bill Smith has been remarkably frank about the organization’s lack of interest in committing big money to Liriano long term… at least at this point.

This is what has some fans up in arms. If you do nothing but look at the stat sheet, you see a young pitcher who strikes out a lot of hitters and who, despite having a very respectable numbers last season, arguably could have had an even better year if not for a bit of bad luck that resulted in a few more batted balls finding grass than the statisticians tell us should have been expected. In short, based on his 2010 stat pages, Francisco Liriano arguably is not a potential ace… he already is an ace.

Liriano: To trade or not to trade?

The Twins, however, aren’t so sure. This organization is not exactly known for using advanced statistical analysis to evaluate players. There are certainly people in the Twins organization that know how to use a computer (even Twins President Dave St. Peter is now Tweeting), but it’s quite possible there’s more time spent in the front office playing solitaire than looking up a pitcher’s WAR, ERA+, xFIP, or any other advanced metric. They may very well be the last front office in Major League Baseball to rely almost exclusively on human scouting… the old “eyeball test”… to make player personnel decisions.

Of course, the anti-stat clan of fans are quick to point out that these dinosaurs in the Twins front office have managed to put together teams that have won a Division Title or two… or six… recently. So why should they change the way they do business? If their eyes tell them that Frankie’s delivery is too violent to stay healthy over the long run or so quirky that it is too difficult to consistently be repeated, who are we to tell them they don’t know what they’re talking about? It’s a fair question.

Personally, I think the advanced statistics (at least those that I’ve bothered to learn something about) provide some interesting comparative data. I don’t believe, however, that numbers are infallible. The Twins employ scouts and coaches who have watched hundreds of pitchers throw hundreds of thousands of pitches. They’ve seen more than their share of career shortening injuries resulting from unusual and/or inconsistent pitching mechanics. In short, if the Twins have serious questions about the likelihood of Liriano remaining healthy through the length of a pricey 3-4 year contract extension, just maybe they know what they’re talking about.

Does that mean I think it’s just fine for the Twins to continue to virtually ignore advanced metrics while virtually every other MLB team commits considerable resources to analyzing those statistics and relies more and more on those numbers in making their personnel decisions? In a word… no. In fact, hell no!

Here’s how I look at it… If I ran the Twins and I learned that many of my competitors had come to the conclusion that redheaded players were likely to outperform players with brown and blond hair, I would think they were out of their minds. But you can bet I would make sure I knew the hair color of every player in MLB and every minor leaguer, as well. Why? Because at some point I’m going to be talking to the other GMs about trades and I want to know everything I can about what the competition considers important, even if I don’t share their opinions.

To put this in to more practical context, let’s say that the Twins really do decide they’re going to listen to offers on Francisco Liriano because the Twins’ scouts doubt his mechanics will ever allow him to reach and maintain true “ace” status. Maybe they think last season is likely to be as good as he ever gets. But if you’ve had someone in the organization seriously study the guy’s advanced statistics, then you at least are in a position to know how other GMs will value the player (AND how they value the players in their own organization). That knowledge allows you to negotiate the best possible deal.

And who knows? Maybe once you have your own people doing the statistical analysis, you may just discover there’s some value in using those numbers to supplement the work of your scouting department.

I don’t mind so much that the Twins continue to rely primarily on the opinions of their scouts, coaches and other “baseball people” to decide whether to trade a player. However, I DO mind if they don’t bother to do basic statistical research that would allow them to make the best deals possible. That’s just bad business.

Anyway… at least the Liriano issue has given all of us something to chew on during the final few days before pitchers and catchers report to Ft. Myers. It beats the heck out of arguing about trees, like we were last week! – JC

6 Replies to “The Frankie Affair: Stats v. Scouts”

  1. Pingback: Liriano Thoughts «

  2. there were numbers being thrown out, saying that Liriano want a 3yr/$39mil extension. Even with the windfall from Target Field, I dont think the Twins can invest that kind of money into a guy who does not have a track record of staying healthy.
    The Twins have another year of arb. control over Liriano so throw his name out there and see what you can get. If nothing looks good, you still have him under control. The Twins have a bunch of leverage here

  3. Distracts me from thinking about the fact that they haven’t managed to settle with Delmon. That’s just what the Twins need to start the season…. an arbitration hearing for Young, Liriano being dissed in the media (and apparently by someone in the f.o.). Blech. I can’t wait until they actually get out on that grass in Florida.

  4. Great piece, loved reading it and I enjoyed the level-headed opinion. I agree with your main premise that the Twins front-office needs to at least have a good understanding of advanced statistical metrics if only for the benefit of making good business moves. In the wake the Christensen/Sinker pieces, I wrote a piece railing against the organization for their ignorance when it comes to advanced metrics and though I didn’t put it as gracefully as you, I think we were trying to say the same thing. Scouts and “baseball people” are still extremely valuable, but I feel you need to use every tool available out there to see the entire picture, and that means having a few guys in the organization who analyze things from a high-level statistical standpoint.

    Anyway, here’s to P&Cs reporting and Spring Training starting. I think we’re all a little cantankerous from a long winter…

  5. It would be just fine with me if Liriano went someplace far away in return for someone else. Preferably long relievers and a real Ace. Not one that craps out after 4 innings.

    It’s scary if the Twins’ business practices are too similar to my own when I’ve been drinking (“I REALLY like this guy, so I don’t care who you’re offering for him or what the stats say, I’m keeping him in the roster and you all can f*** yourselves). While it’s important to take what the scouts say into consideration, I would ALSO hire a bunch of recent college grad statisticians/interns and put them to work analyzing not only our own guys, but the other teams, how their GMs prefer to do business, and what they’re offering, etc (interns are cheap, you can get a lot of work out of them). He’s only worth what someone else will pay for him, so get it done before he’s worthless (AKA hurts himself again. Let another team get screwed over).

    One of my west coast friends and I were talking about Liriano the other day, and he was like wow, your ace is Liriano? Your pitching staff must be pretty shitty then. Touche/ouch.