Thursday, May 28, 2015

Welcome Aboard, Davonte Fitzgerald (and a look at an underrated reason the Twins are good)

Just a little Gophers and Twins update, since they rule.

-  The Gophers closed out the 2015 recruiting class, again, by picking up 6-7 forward Davonte Fitzgerald, a transfer from Texas A&M.  Fitzgerald, a sophomore, will sit out 2015-2016 and will have two years of eligibility remaining.  It seems a lot of people hate this signing.  Let's look at why so I can tell you why you're wrong.

1.  Taking a player from TAMU is taking a player from a crappy team/conference.  The SEC has been down lately, sure, and Texas A&M hasn't made the NCAA tournament since 2011.  Some of this argument makes some sense.  But recall, prior to missing the tournament in 2012 the Aggies had gotten invited six years in a row and their down years coincided with Mark Turgeon's jump to Maryland.  Billy Kennedy has the program rising with an NIT bid last season and a CIT bid the year before.  Now they're poised to take a pretty big jump with the #6 ranked recruiting class in the country coming in per ESPN and they're also returning their top 3 scorers from last year.  Texas A&M isn't a juggernaut or a blue blood, but I'd be hard pressed to claim Minnesota is a better program.

2.  He wasn't very good.  Mainly this is from people who see he averaged 3.5 points per game as as sophomore and are like omg this guy blows lol.  What they miss, of course, is he averaged 7.3 ppg in just 15 minutes per game as a freshman and basically played the second unit instant offense role - until he tore his ACL in February.  He came back last year and the season was pretty much a loss, which is why his average points per game was down by half.  After averaging 16 minutes per game as a freshman he only reached that mark six times all last season.  If you're the type who thinks that's probably because he suddenly sucked, well, you're probably an idiot.  By the time he gets to see the court for the Gophers he'll be over two years clear of that injury.  That's probably good, because he was good.

Coming out of high school Fitzgerald was a Top 200 player with offers from Clemson, Georgia, Florida State, and Temple along with TAMU.  His scouting reports described him as long and athletic, bouncy, slasher who can also hit the three, can play at both ends, and a national sleeper.  Post injury and transfer announcement the other teams after him with the Gophers included UCONN, Cal, and Arizona State.  I'm pretty sure he's still good, or at least has potential.

3.  The Gophers needed a big guy.  This is true, of course, but I need a blowjob from Kate Upton as well and I don't see that happening.  The cards didn't align for whatever reason on Pitino getting an immediately eligible big in here, but I don't see why Fitzgerald is a bad thing.  Pitino seems to be collecting athletic wings who can defend and play multiple positions and those kind of teams generally do quite well.  Yeah, I'd feel much better with any kind of established post dude and I have a feeling this is going to be kind of a lost year, but 2016-2017 with Reggie Lynch eligible could be a huge year.  Fitzgerald and Jordan Murphy could potentially play some PF, not to mention Gaston Diedhiou and Bakary Konate and, oh yeah, Charles Buggs is here too.  Treat 2015 as a building year.  Be excited for 2016.  That's also Pitino's first year with all his own players, so it better be a good one.

4.  He shoots to much.  A little nervous about this one.  Frehsman year he had a 32.7% shot percentage with a 43.8 eFG.  Sophomore year he had a 27.7% shot percentage with a 41.6 eFG.  Add in a basically non-existent assist rate and you're looking at a flat our chucker.  Either he needs to take it down a notch, or he everyone else needs to be good enough that he can play the Malik Smith-like gunner role where you put him in and if he's hot you let him roll and if he's not you sit him down.  Hoping he gets his bombing under control, but this seems like the one real legit beef here.

Plenty of question marks yeah, but I see a lot of good things here too.  Really depends on if he's recovered from his injury, and with over 2 years clear he should be.  I know he doesn't help for 2015 and the team could have used a big, but I'm pretty sure Pitino has a plan. Again, 2016.  That's our year.  That's it.  Circle it.  We goin' Sizzla.

-  And the Twins.  What can we say about the Twins?  Tied for first in the AL Central, 10 games over .500.  This rules, and is a full year ahead of schedule.  There are some obvious reasons why the Twins are overachieving - Brian Dozier is still awesome, Torii Hunter has shown zero dropoff at age 39, Trevor Plouffe is having a career year so far, Kyle Gibson may be becoming an ace, and Mike Pelfrey is pitching out of his mind.  Along with all these there's one piece of the game where the Twins have shown major improvement - they've become an average defensive outfield.

That may not sound like much, but it is.  Using Ultimate Zone Rating (and yes, no defensive metric is perfect but this one looks good, i.e. the Royals rank 1st of all outfields), the Twins ranked second to last in 2014, third to last in 2013, and third to last in 2012.  This year they rank 16th.

If you want to break it down, the Twins outfield defense, not taking into account pitching, hitting, infield fielding, or anything else has cost the team 0.9 runs against average this year.  That's nothing.  In 2014, outfield defense cost the team 36 runs, in 2013 it was 35 runs, and in 2012 it was 21.  The nerds say 9 runs is equal to one win, so basically the team has gone from costing itself 4 wins due to outfield defense alone to being on pace to cost themselves to about a third of a win (though this number is bound to get worse once Oswaldo Arcia gets back).  It's hard to reconcile what that really means, but the difference in a 4.0 WAR to a 0.35 WAR is the difference between Miguel Cabrera's hitting ability and Kurt Suzuki's hitting ability in 2014.  It's a pretty big deal!

Last year Arcia and Jason Kubel were absolute butchers and Josh Willingham wasn't much better.  Nobody was very good at all, with only Sam Fuld grading out well.  Basically that defense was where fly balls went to live.  This season Arcia has still been bad, Eduardo Escobar shaky out there (no surprise either), and for all Jordan Schafer's speed he's been the worst fielder on the team, but there's lots of good news.  Eddie Rosario has been pretty much average, but Aaron Hicks has made a big leap forward from last season, and Shane Robinson has been elite (top 10 in MLB, no joke).

Look man, there are a billion reasons to not buy into the Twins.  Those articles are all over the internet and you can't go to a sports website without tripping over one.  And I'm not saying I'm 100% on board yet either, but I'm getting close.  Lots of fluky things about this team that could go away in a hurry, but outfield defense isn't one of them.  As Deep Blue Something once said, "Well at least that's, the one thing we've got."

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Thursday Thoughts

I haven't done a completely pointless post like this in quite some time.  Guess maybe I will now.

-  So Jonathan Nwankwo, one of the Gopher hoops signees for next season, was let out of his letter of intent.  Here's my post from when he originally committed so I won't rehash all that, but this sucks.  There are all kinds of rumors to why, but they all agree on it being an academic thing.  If it's an NCAA issue as some suggest, well, what are you going to do?  If it's a U of M thing, man that sucks.  I get that being a high level academic institution is important, that's kind of the Big 10's thing, but I don't really care because it doesn't affect me.  I'd rather have them just go ahead and admit anybody who can play basketball at a high level and work it out from there.  I like that the U is a big time smarty pants research school, but can't we just make an exception for sports?

-  The Wolves won the lottery!  They get to pick first, and the cynic would say of course they won this year when there are 3-4 legitimate options for first overall pick, but as much as I love DeAngelo Russell, and I do, I think the clear 1-2 are Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor.  For me, it's clear that Towns needs to be the pick.

Okafor is a ready made post scorer with more polish on that end than Towns, but Towns can do so much more and, in my eyes, has a lot more potential.  Towns is nearly as good in the post, hitting 72% of his attempts at the rim while Okafor hit 75%, but Towns can step out and do some other things offensively.  Seventy percent of Okafor's shots came at the rim, while Towns was just 54%, and Okafor didn't even attempt a single shot farther out than 17 feet this year, while Towns actually attempted eight three pointers and plenty of mid-range stuff.  Here are their shot charts from

Almost all at the rim

More balanced.

That doesn't mean that Okafor can't develop a perimeter game, but it does mean Towns is closer and the disparity in free throw percentage (Okafor 51%, Towns 82%) suggests the same.  Additionally, Towns averaged nearly double the blocked shots per game despite playing nine fewer minutes and on a per possession basis Towns blocked 11.7% of shots when he was on the floor (16th in the country) and Okafor just 4.5% (still good for 245th).  Rebounding, Okafor edges Towns by about 1.5 per game, but again, per possession Towns' percentages are absolutely elite, while Okafor's are merely very good.

Okafor showed his game all season, while Towns merely began to tap his potential.  It also remains to be seen if Okafor can up his defensive game while I don't think there's any question how good Towns can be, and Okafor struggled against seven footers last season while Towns held his own pretty much against anybody.  The choice is clear, it needs to be Towns, or it's a huge mistake.

-  I suppose I have to talk Twins seeing as how they're suddenly on a 93 win pace, but I'm kind of trying to ignore it because it's just beyond fragile right now.  Everything from run differential to pythagorean winning percentage to cluster luck says this isn't a 93-win team.  Pythagorean winning percentage says this is probably more like an 80 win team, and digging even deeper into the nerd stats says they might even be worse than that.   And this so far with Mike Pelfrey pitching out his ass and Kyle Gibson greatly outperforming his peripherals (though Gibson could do it all year, but don't expect Pelfrey not to crash).

Still, Phil Hughes should get better and Trevor May will hopefully get better, plus reinforcements should show up at some point in Alex Meyer and Ervin Santana, not to mention a couple extra bullpen arms who could show up.  The offense has been great - 6th in runs scored in the majors - and though it will probably regress a bit it should be fine, and with just as many candidates who should get better as who will likely fall off a bit that's looking good.  Oh man I'm getting optimistic.  This is horrible.

Here is one guarantee:  Santana is eligible to return sometime in July.  The trade deadline is July 31st.  I promise you if the Twins are anywhere near contention we will hear "Well we're getting Santana back, that's just like making a trade" or something similar.  And then I will drive my car off the nearest bridge.

-  A few other baseball things of note:  Bryce Harper becoming a young monster (1.203 OPS at age 22), Miguel Cabrera's Day/Night splits (1.427 OPS in the day, .645 at night), Eric Hosmer being good now and maybe even Mike Moustakas too, Joc Pederson's three true outcomes (54% of his plate appearances have ended in a walk, strikeout, or home run), Kris Bryant, Dee Gordon's insane luck (.444 BABIP), the Astros quest to break the strikeout record (batting) while still being good, Chase Utley's disappearance (.513 OPS), Giancarlo Stanton crushing the ball, Danny Santana's attempt to never walk, Michael Brantley trying to finish with twice as many walks as strikeouts, Melky Cabrera's complete loss of power (3 XBH this year) and Billy Hamliton looking to have more stolen bases than hits.

Also, every Aroldis Chapman appearance, James Shields striking out everyone in sight, Chris Tillman's sudden inability to throw a strike, everything about the Trevor Bauer experience, Michael Pineda being (and staying healthy), Cole Hamels trade watch, Jason Marquis still being in the league and still having a rotation spot, Shelby Miller becoming a star, Matt Harvey appointment TV, and what the hell happened to Stephen Strasburg?

-  I thought there'd be more, but apparently I'm out of practice and my stamina isn't what it used to be. So, bye.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Welcome aboard, Jordan Murphy!

Over the weekend the Gophers added the seventh and final member of this year's class (though Reggie Lynch won't be eligible until the 2016-2017 season) in Jordan Murphy, a 6-7 forward from Texas who had originally signed with VCU.  Shaka Smart left, Murphy decommitted, Texas had no openings, Pitino swept in and wowed Murphy's parents, and wa la, the Gopher picked up Rivals #113 ranked player.  He joins Kevin Dorsey (#108) and Dupree McBrayer (#135) in giving the Gophers three Rivals Top 150 players which is like whoa.

Murphy is a terrific pick-up, especially this late in the year when you're more likely to pick up a waste of a 4-year scholarship than someone who can come in and play heavy minutes right away.  Murphy can, and most likely will, play heavy minutes at PF backing up Joey King, considering the unsettled state of the Gopher bigs.  Beyond King, where you know exactly what you're going to get, everyone else is a complete question mark.  Murphy, as a freshman, obviously isn't a known quantity at this point either, but nowhere in any of the scouting reports on this kid will you find the word project or unpolished, an adjective that applies to every other member of the Gopher frontcourt.

On the contrary, Murphy is described as a smooth and polished scorer.  He can score inside and out, and according to ESPN's scouts he's the kind of player who can grab a rebound on the defensive side of the ball and then take off down court and take it coast to coast on his own.  Righteous.  ESPN also says he can guard both wings and "smaller power forwards" which is hopefully no longer true and he can guard all power forwards because the Gophers are awfully crowded on the wing.  He's listed at 6-7 and 220 lbs. so more than likely ESPN is correct which does put a minor damper on things, but he could be the best recruit in the class so let's celebrate that and worry about defensive assignments later.

I absolutely love this class.  Two point guards who can both play on or off the ball, three wings who can all play either two or three spots, and a rangy big man who should be a solid rim protector right off the bat, if nothing else.  Add in Michael Hurt, already signed for 2016, and Lynch and Pitino is on his way to constructing the kind of team I love - an athletic group who are basically interchangeable with multiple ball handlers and most of the players able to guard several positions.  I love it.  Let's get this season started already.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Twins are over .500. The hell?

Though being one game over .500 isn't exactly blowing up the league, the Twins had extremely low expectations with a Vegas over/under of 70.5 wins, so being on pace to win something like 84 games represents a substantially better season than expected.  One can't help but wonder how they got here, and if we can expect it to last and maybe see some semi-meaningful baseball in September again for the first time in what feels like forever.

The offense has been about what was expected:  Team overall OPS is .675, last year it was .713.  They're walking a little less and hitting with a little less power so far, but overall nothing out of the ordinary and they've averaged 4.56 runs per game this year compared to 4.41 last year so the offense is fine.  It'd be nice for Kurt Suzuki and Kennys Vargas to start hitting, but the offense is fine.  The defense has been atrocious as expected, so the improvement must have come from the pitching.

Sure enough, team ERA in 2015 is 4.07, down a half a run from 4.58 last year.  Even better, starters' ERA is 4.38, which is 10th worst in the majors but a major upgrade from last year's 5.06 and 2013's 5.26, both dead last in the majors.  Twins' relievers sport an ERA of 3.58, in line with 2014's 3.73 and 2013's 3.50, so any improvement has come from the starting pitching.  Might as well look at all these guys and see who might actually be, like, good.

PHIL HUGHES:  Hughes had a nearly impossible task trying to replicate both a career year and a historic walk/strikeout ratio, but he hasn't come close so far putting up numbers more in line with his Yankee days than last season.  He's still controlling walks well and his strikeouts, though down a bit, are at a nice number, but he's getting killed by home runs, allowing 1.91 HRs per 9 innings after allowing just 0.69 last year.  The good news is that he's allowing a home run on 15.1% of all his fly balls, which is likely an outlier since it would have been the second worst in the majors among starters with at least 150 innings pitched last season, and I'm pretty sure a Phil Hughes making about his half his starts at Target Field isn't going to end up at that number.  He got really lucky about home runs last year (6.2% HR/FB), but his true ability probably lies somewhere in the middle.  He probably won't be as good as last year, but he'll be better than he's been thus far.

KYLE GIBSON:  Gibson's ERA is down almost a full run from last season, but there are some serious red flags here.  His BABIP this year is just .267, below his career average and the league average, and his runners LOB% is 75.8%, which would be a top 30 mark most seasons - both significant indicators of luck.  Alarmingly his K/9 has dropped to 2.79 (from 5.37 last year) which is dead last in the majors, and his walks have jumped by 1 per nine innings at the same time to 3.86, 14th worst in the league.  He's also allowing a career worst 24% line drive rate and 83.6% contact rate.  Seeing as he's shown nothing at all to support his ERA improvement from last season you're looking at a serious regression candidate unless he starts missing some bats.

MIKE PELFREY:  The guy who nobody wanted in the rotation except for him and his family, and Pelfrey's put up a 2.63 ERA in five starts, but don't let that fool you - he's still terrible.  BABIP is .259, LOB % is 83.3%, and HR/9 is just 0.66 - there's no way this keeps up.  Those numbers last season would have ranked 18th, 1st, and 18th - does Pelfrey seem like a Top 20 pitcher to you?  I will say this - his 56% ground ball rate is a very good thing and his hard hit ball percentage is just 18.1%, second in the league and probably fluky but not as definitely fluky as his other peripherals  I'm not buying yet, but he's throwing a ton more split fingers and sliders and isn't relying as much on the fastball, and somehow he's managed to put more than 2 mph on his fast ball compared to last year.  I don't believe in Pelfrey, but I expected this paragraph to be much worse.  He may actually end up a decent number 4-5 starter.

TREVOR MAY:  Probably the most important of these guys given his youth and potential, May's 4.15 ERA is decent but the good news is he's probably even better than that.  His BABIP is high and his LOB % is low.  He's putting up a respectable 6.9 K/9 and has reigned in his massive control problems from last year to average just 1.73 walks per nine.  His HR numbers are a bit fluky and he should regress there a bit, but as long as he can control his walks he should be solid.  We may have something here.  Get it?  Control his walks?  May have something?  That's high comedy right there.

TOMMY MILONE:  You generally don't expect much from fifth pitchers, but Milone has been more like a seventh or eighth guy so far.  Among Twins' pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched he ranks last in walk rate, homer rate, FIP, and xFIP, and his ERA is second worst at 4.76.  Perhaps the worst part is that Milone's BABIP is a minuscule .243 and his LOB is over 80%, so he's actually been putting up these horrid stats while getting lucky.  Yuck.  His control is completely out of hand with 4.37 BB/9, nearly double his career average and he's just giving up a monstrous amount of home runs.  Assuming he hasn't lost it he should be better than this but he's never going to be special.  A guy with a 87 mph fastball has to be pretty sharp with control and pitch mix, so it certainly is possible he's lost it.   Might even work better for the Twins if he has, so they can finally get Alex Meyer up here.

So, kind of a mixed bag.  Some guys should be better than they've been, some worse.  Probably the kind of thing you'd expect on a team that's right around .500.  And hey, maybe they'll stay there.  That'd be cool.