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Minnesota Twins: Time for a change

It was probably time for the Twins to make a managerial change, but people might be surprised how fundamentally sound the Twins were under Ron Gardenhire.

Hannah Foslien

The Twins fired Ron Gardenhire on Monday, no real surprise for a team that hasn't had a winning record since 2010 and no realistic hopes of contending any time soon. They have an aging Joe Mauer whose offensive talents don't really fit Target Field, a very good second baseman in Brian Dozier, and a pitcher in Phil Hughes who had a very special season, but little beyond that. Their best prospects are at the lower levels of the minors, so it's probably going to be some time before they return to respectability. It seemed like a very good time to make a change.

I've been measuring baseball mistakes using play-by-play data since 2009, and while it can be relatively easy to measure a team's mistakes, tracking an opponent's mistakes is more difficult -- for example, there aren't handy pages at Baseball-Reference or FanGraphs that show the number of errors opponents make, and this can be enlightening. Clicking on the link above shows the mistakes teams and their opponents made in 2014, and there's a link in that document to my initial post on the Mistake Index that I wrote some time back. I was trying to see whether there was a relationship between not just a team's mistakes, but how many more or less they made than their opponents and how that correlated with overall team success. With six years of data I'm not prepared to make grand pronouncements, but it appears better teams make fewer mistakes than their opponents. I created a Tableau data viz that shows this, and this table summarizes how the Twins performed with regard to the number of mistakes they made as opposed to their opponents:

Year Record Opp Twins Diff
2009 87-76 406 365 41
2010 94-68 353 301 52
2011 63-99 403 437 -34
2012 66-96 424 417 7
2013 66-96 412 340 72
2014 70-92 423 375 48

Mistakes were defined as follows:

Blown saves
Hit by pitch, balk, wild pitch, passed ball
Any of the above (and walks) which directly caused a run to score
Errors, unearned runs
Base running mistakes, bunting mistakes, pickoffs

I highly recommend checking the data viz since it shows the strong relationship between minimizing mistakes and team success for all teams. It certainly won't explain everything, but it stands to reason that if mistakes are minimized, or in other words, if extra bases aren't given away to opponents, teams might have more success. This Google Docs spreadsheet contains all the information that went into this analysis.

Is Ron Gardenhire the sole reason for the Twins' success at minimizing mistakes? Of course not -- it's a group effort from the lowest minor league levels to the major leagues to inculcate and develop an attitude of mistake prevention, but there is an element of teaching involved. For example, saying a manager can reduce blown saves is ridiculous, but he (and his pitching coach) can help develop the mind set that can reduce making mistakes that can allow blown saves to occur. He can minimize base running mistakes by coaching players to be aware of all the factors that go into advancing on the base paths and minimize errors through proper positioning and fielding techniques. None of this is novel, but the gulf between explanation and implementation is the one that often determines success and failure.

As of this writing, one of the candidates to replace Gardenhire is Ozzie Guillen. At first I was somewhat skeptical, since the knock on Guillen's managerial style had been that he played small ball (whatever that means, but that's another post) and was rash on the base paths. Check the data viz for the 2009-2011 White Sox and 2012 Marlins -- his teams made fewer mistakes than their opponents. It's probably a better fit than I initially thought.

Gardenhire might be a good hire for a young team that needs guidance and direction in reducing mistakes, one brimming with young talent poised to make a breakthrough in 2015. One doesn't immediately come to mind, so . . . wait a minute, that's the Cubs! Their young talent is free swinging, and an experienced manager with demonstrated player development skills and playoff experience would be a true asset. They could use some help defensively, but some of that will come with more experience.

There comes a time when every team needs to make a change in leadership, regardless of whether that change will necessarily lead to better results. I wrote as recently as last Monday that I don't believe in firing managers just for the sake of firing managers, but in this case I can understand the Twins' thinking. The interesting thing will be that as the Twins look for his replacement, they'll be looking for someone who can develop young talent and bring them to the next level -- someone who sounds a lot like Ron Gardenhire.

. . .

Data adapted from Baseball-Reference. Any mistakes in compiling and amalgamating the data are the author's.

Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.