In a recent post on FanGraphs, Chris Cwik examined The Twins Pitching Woes. Really, it only seemed to focus on the Twins’ organizational emphasis on pitching-to-contact, specifically as that related to Francisco Liriano. I’m trying not to be overly sensitive about posts like this (especially after reading these two posts on hyper-partisanship over at the ineffable Run of Play), since I very much wish avoid sounding like I have a persecution complex when it comes to the Twins. So, instead of hammering on some points that I feel are erroneous, I’ll be trying to articulate what really has been going wrong with the Twins staff.
Alright, fine, I’ll briefly critique a couple of points from the post: 1) “The main issue with ‘pitching to contact’ is that the pitchers that it works for aren’t really all that talented.” I don’t know why this would be the case, and suspect that what Cwik really meant to articulate was that the “pitch to contact” approach is less effective for talented pitchers than a standard approach (i.e., trying to strike people out), rather than it being less effective for them than for less talented pitchers. It doesn’t seem to make sense to me that batted balls would be hit better off of pitchers with better stuff. 2) His assertion that “teams are not going to contend for their division if the majority of their starters rely on [the pitch-to-contact] approach” is also fairly easily debunked, since the Twins have been emphasizing this strategy for years, and have seemed to do alright for themselves.
I understand why one writes this – the alternative message of “the Twins are being dumb because they’re emphasizing pitch to contact, which clearly doesn’t work. Except for 3 of the 5 guys in their rotation; for them it’s the only chance they have to be successful. And Baker seems to be doing fine. Other than those guys, though” doesn’t really have the same panache.
Back to the topic at hand: let’s see how the Twins staff has done this year and if we can identify areas where they’ve been struggling. Or maybe even locate some signs for optimism. As a warning, after the jump there’s going to be a table with a lot of numbers in it. I’ll try to explain them, but didn’t want to alarm anyone. Take a few deep breaths, brace yourselves, and follow me…
All these numbers were grabbed from FanGraphs on 5/10 (before the first game of the Detroit series). I tried to order them to reflect current sabermetric thought, so the 6 numbers in the middle section are the important components that a pitcher is thought to have control over, while the 4 on the right-hand side are more subject to random fluctuation, while still having a big impact on effectiveness (I’ve included rough league averages for those, so one can see how far they are from those numbers). On the left I put batters faced (BF) and ERA – BF to give a sense of sample size, ERA because it’s likely the pitching measure that people are most familiar with.
Let’s start with what’s gone right: basically, Scott Baker and Brian Duensing (although their last appearances aren’t supporting that point). Baker’s “skill” numbers are almost identical to what he put up last year, but a decrease in his BABIP and a massive strand rate (opponents are hitting .256/.323/.444 with bases empty, but only .077/.138/.077 with runners in scoring position) make his ERA look a lot better. Don’t be fooled – he’s doing pretty much the same thing as last year, except that his luck has been quite a bit better.
Duensing is a bit more complicated, as his K rate has increased some despite him losing some velocity on his fastball (Duensing pitched a lot out of the bullpen last year, so the transition to full-time starting could be the main cause for his velocity dip). On the downside, his groundball rate has also decreased and he also looks to be a bit lucky on the flyballs he allows not finding the seats. Whereas the other four pitchers in the rotation all have fairly extensive track records, this is Duensing’s first season starting in the rotation, making him a bit more unknown at this point. I’ll be interested to see how these numbers hold up throughout the season. I was skeptical about his performance last year, but if he keeps pitching like this he should make for a solid arm in the rotation.
Now, to the bad part. Nick Blackburn, never renowned for his overpowering stuff, has seen his velocity drop almost 2 mph since last year. His K/9 is actually slightly up (no doubt helped by striking out the side against Boston in his most recent start), but so are his walks. Even with that uptick in strikeouts, he still only gets 4.4/9, so I find the walks more concerning; the only things keeping Blackburn in the rotation are his control/command and an above-average ability to induce grounders, and so if one of this skills goes, he’s going to give up some runs. He has had some bad luck in terms of home runs, and I wouldn’t expect him to continue giving up a homer on 15% of flyballs.
Drops in velocity are going to be a recurring theme. Carl Pavano has also lost 1 mph from his fastball this season, and that is showing up in the strikeout rate, which is down to a truly remarkable 3.6 K/9. He’s also not getting as many grounders, down to 46% from 51% last year. One of the reasons I included the “batters faced” number in the table is because we’re getting far enough into the season that some statistics have started to stabilize. For pitchers, strikeout rate and groundball percentage both start to actually tell you something around 150 batters faced, which all of the Twins starters have. In Pavano’s case, it doesn’t mean he’ll continue to post the same numbers, but it does mean that those stats are not only the subject of random noise. I realize that we sound like a broken record here, but seriously Carl, get the moustache back. I don’t know why we’re still having this conversation.
Finally, the Francisco Kid. Velocity down? Check (almost 2 mph from last season). Strikeout rate down? Check (From 9.4 to 5.5). Walk rate up? Also check (From 2.7 to 6.6. Incidentally, if he were really “pitching to contact”, one would expect him to not be walking 2 batters every 3 innings). It’s fairly frightening to think how bad his ERA might still look if he didn’t have that .237 BABIP, which is almost certainly going to regress back towards .300. At this point, I don’t have anything substantive to add the subject of Liriano – something clearly seems to be wrong, but I don’t know if it’s mechanics, conditioning, an injury, whatever (although, Francisco, a moustache couldn’t hurt). It’s really remarkable how different he is even from last season, and at this point I just hope that he can turn it around.
So, there’s the rotation. In my mind, Liriano is the biggest issue, and Pavano and Blackburn’s starts are both concerning as well. The bullpen also plays a role in this, but there’s been so much turnover that I wasn’t able to make a pretty a table. Also, relievers are still nowhere near that 150 BF mark, so their numbers have a ton of variance in them – we will take a look later, but I’m guessing it will be a lot harder to see if anything is going on.
Finally, here’s a key for all the column headings in the table, and links to explanations.
FIP – Fielding independent pitching
xFIP – adjusted fielding independent pitching
K/9 – strikeouts/9 innings
BB/9 – walks/9 innings
GB% – percentage of ground balls, out of all batted balls
Fbvelo – average fastball velocity
HR/9 – home runs/9 innings
BABIP – batting average on balls in play
LOB% – left-on-base percentage
HR/FB – home runs per flyball