Twins Spring Preview The Starting Rotation, What went wrong last year and whats fixed
by, 02-21-2014 at 04:39 AM (410 Views)
With Twins fest in the books and the first spring training games coming up at the end of the month itís time to take a look at the upcoming roster and see what we got. Last season was disappointing to say the least. Can we look forward to something better this season?
Letís begin by looking at the starting pitching.
No matter how you look at it the starting pitching last year was in a word, awful, and that may be putting it politely. The rotation had the highest ERA of any team in the majors at 5.26 nearly half a run higher than any other team. The A.L. average was 4.15. The Twins starts also pitched the fewest innings than any other A.L. team. Only four pitchers threw 100 innings or more and only two had an ERA under 5.
So what was the cause of all the trouble on the mound? We have all gotten used to the Twins being tops in the league for walks allowed. This is no longer the case but they still allowed for the 3rd fewest walks in the A.L. last season. However considering the amount of innings pitched it is better to look at BB/9 then total walks allowed. In this stat the Twins tied for 7th in the A.L. at 2.86 BB/9 respectable considering the league average was 3.06. The second thing you may want to try to blame is home runs allowed. Iím sure we all have nightmares about some of the blasts that we had to witness. The Twins starters allowed 110 bombs last season 4thlowest mark in the A.L. But again, like the walks itís better to use HR/9 allowed especially considering how few innings the starters pitched. In this the Twins had a 1.14 mark, 10th in the A.L. The league average was 1.09. The Twins were also helped quite a bit in that area having target field as their home park. So Homers allowed were a factor but just a small one. So what were the main culprits to the struggles on the mound?
I believe the main problem was strikeouts, or lack thereof. Last season the Twins were the only club to strikeout fewer than 1000 batters. But when you look deeper at the numbers things get worseÖmuch worse. The Twins starters struck out 477 batters last season, 189 fewer then the second lowest team on the list, the Astros. That was good for a rate of 4.93 K/9 with the league average being 7.20. Thatís not even the embarrassing part. Despite throwing 292 fewer inning the Twins pen struck out 31 MORE batters. In fact only one Twins starter had a K/9 rate of 6 or better, Cole Devries who pitched all of 7 innings.
So whatís the problem with not being able to strikeout batters? While you donít need to lead the league in it itís always a nice weapon to have in the arsenal. Without fear of swinging and missing hitters were able to sit back and wait for their pitch. I got some close up looks during the late season series with the Aís (Iím sure we all have fond memories of that.) and I noticed something. The Aís basic hitting philosophy is to be patient wait for your pitch and then hit it hard somewhere. Judging by the outcomes of the at bats this philosophy worked very well against Twins pitching. Observing up close from right on top of the dugouts the Aís batters just waited and fouled off close pitches and then drilled line drive after line drive when they got the pitch they wanted. Wanting to get as much info as possible I looked up what the numbers said seeing if they backed up what I saw.
Iím sure we can all remember the glory days when Santana would strikeout hitters with that filthy changeup either buried in the dirt or right at the thighs, or flaying helplessly as Lirianoís wicked sliders that started at the waist and was suddenly at their ankles back in 2006. Last season was not those days. When you look at most of the top pitchers in the league one thing they all share is the ability to swing at miss at pitches both in and out of the strike zone. Last season hitters chased pitches out of the strike zone against Twins starters 28.9% of the time, lowest in the A.L. However when hitters did swing at pitches out of the strike zone the made contact 75.9% of the time by far the most in the A.L. (keep in mind that outside the zone means just a little off the plate or high or low along with way outside the zone and contact doesnít always mean a hit but also includes fouling a pitch off) Meaning that Twins pitchers couldnít get anyone to chase but on the rare occasion they could get the batter to go after a close pitch they would probably foul it off and wait for the next offering. When throwing pitches in the strike zone things got even uglier. Batters made contact with pitches in the strike zone a whopping 92% of the time, by far the most in the A.L. Overall when facing Twins starting pitching batters swung and missed only 6.1% of the time, lowest in the A.L. When you look at the differences in the leadersí the percentages are small at first but you have to consider Twins starters threw nearly 15,000 pitches last season a 1 % difference overall could mean many more pitches contact was made on.
So why is being able to miss bats so important? Any pitcher will tell you that once they let go of the ball they donít have much control of what happens next. An Error could happen, funny hop, ball lands in no manís land, or just a broken bat lucky hit. To measure this there is a stat called BABIP (batting average on balls in play.) It takes a hitters batting average minus the three things a pitcher has the most control over; walks, strikeouts, and home runs. The league average last season was .298. Most teams starting pitching staffs fell between a .287 and .308 with 2 outliers. One was theOakland Aís whoís starting staff had a .272 BABIP but this is mostly because of the massive amount of foul territory creating many more pop outs then the average ball park. The other is our very own Minnesota Twins with a .324 BABIP. How is it so high? Even with allowing more balls in play you would think it would still be near the average percentage for hits. The problem there is the overall ďstuffĒ of the pitching staff.
Talk to any pitcher and the vast majority will tell you they work off the fastball. Last season in the American league the average fastball velocity was 91.2. The Twins average fastball velocity was 89.9. That may notsound like much of a difference but it was 3rd worst in the American league. Velocity isnít everything but harder throwers do have the ability to get away with mistakes more often and are more likely to get chases out of the zone. Of course no pitcher can rely on just their fastball especially in the starting rotation. The problem is many pitchers have to key their secondary pitches off the fastball. The pitch that got the Twins starters in the second most amount of trouble last season was the changeup. Out of the 11 pitchers that started games for the Twins last season 10 had a change in their arsenal, half of those had an average difference in velocity of less the 7 mph. Generally you want your change to be at least an 8 mph difference. Looking at the pitch/fx data for breaking balls and other pitches Twins pitchers across the board posted negative value on every pitch among the rotation.
Of course to get a better understanding of what went wrong and how it can be fixed we need to look at the pitchers individually and what the new guys bring and if there is anything left out there. So lets take a look at what we have.
Last offseason the signing of Correia was widely criticized. Coming off high ERAs in the national league it was thought he would post an ERA of around 5 last season. He actually turned out to be a pleasant surprise. His ERA actually went down from the previous season to a respectable 4.18 for the A.L. His strikeout rate actually went up a little and his walk rate went down a little. His peripherals look good as well posting a 4.24 expected fielding independent pitching (basically the expected pitchers ERA based on results a pitcher can control such as walks, strikeouts, hit batters, and home runs. And adjusts the HRs to league average allowed rate.) His home run rate was pretty high compared to league average and his own career average, especially considering his home ballpark. He is by no means a staff ace but a repeat performance would be welcome. Even on a contending team he would fit in as a 4thor 5th starter. The downside is Correia will enter the season at 33 years old and turn 34 in august. He is at the age were decline should be expected. Also highly troubling is against his fastball hitter destroyed it hitting a whopping .413, but there was also a .417 BABIP on the fastball. An oddity in his pitch data his he threw sliders more than any other pitches. Some of that may be pitch/fx having trouble determining the difference between his slider and cutter because there isnít much movement. It might be something to watch this season to see if he is losing some confidence in the fastball. Also his ground ball rate was itís lowest since 2008. As far as trade value there may be a few teams who might be in the market of a back end innings eater down the stretch to stabilize the rotation. However teams will not give up very much for that type of starter.
Overall I would expect a bit of a decline from Correia this season but he should still eat innings and be an effective back of the rotation guy. Unfortunately at the moment we are expecting him to be our 2 or 3 starter.
His minor league career has been somewhat of a rollercoaster. Last season pitched well at double A and just fair at triple A. A lefty with a low 90ís fastball scouts say his lack of a plus secondary pitch probably means he is destined for the bullpen. At 25 years old heís old for a prospect. There are also many other pitchers ahead of him on the depth chart. With a good showing at Rochester he may get a shot this season but in reality he is an emergency starter or probably a lefty out of the pen.
Deduno will probably be given every chance to crack the starting rotation this spring. Last season although limited by injuries he had a nice 3.83 ERA. He also cut his walk rate way down. The main question is will he be healthy? If he is healthy he does a good job keeping hitters off balance with the moving fastball. Iím all for letting him pitch as long as he can keep the batter fooled. However he doesnít strike anyone out he still walks too many batters and while he doesnít throw it often his changeup got killed to the tune of a .406 batting average against. Pitchers in his mold generally have a short effective life i.e. Carlos Silva and Brian Duensing.
Diamond comes to spring hoping he can recapture his 2012 form. Last year was just bad for Scott. The problem is it wasnít unexpected. In 2012 among qualifying starters Diamond had the lowest strikeout rate in the majors. In 2013 that caught up to Diamond. His Strikeout rate dropped even lower while his walk rate went up. His average fastball velocity dropped nearly a mile per hour. In 2012 Diamond could get both lefties and righties out, and he could get righties out at a better clip then lefties. In 2013 Diamond couldnít get either out with lefties hitting him harder than righties. His ground ball rate dropped significantly causing his fly ball rate to jump along with his home run rate. Besides the loss of fastball velocity his curveball which was a weapon for him in 2012 became a liability. He also stopped throwing his 2 seam fastball with helped him out a little in 2012.
Diamond will be one of the top guys competing for the 5thspot in the rotation. He will probably be given every chance to prove he can regain his 2012 form. However his peripherals suggest it was a one-time thing. If he can get lefties out he can be a left handed specialist maybe, maybe an emergency starter.
Gibson struggled in his arrival last season among the massive amount of hype following him. Despite being hit hard scouts still like his stuff with a 92-94 mph fastball and a sharp tilting slider. In his first year coming off Tommy John surgery I'm willing to give him a pass on last season. There is still the ability there to become a solid #2 starter. He should compete for the final starting spot, but will probably start the year in Rochester. I expect to see Gibson in the rotation sometime in May or June. Keep an eye on him this spring. He posted good strikeout rates in the minors so see how many swings and misses he gets in spring games.
Once one of the top prospects in the game Hughes stock plummeted in New York over the last few seasons. The Twins signed him hoping heís young enough that getting him out of Yankee stadium will spark a turn around. Hughes sits around 91-94 with a spike curveball and changeup. In the last two seasons he has added a slider throwing that more and the curve less. The hope is that getting Hughes out of the hitter friendly Yankee stadium will help. His home road splits are significant. (.311 vs .254 and 17 HRs vs 7 HRs)Add in that Target field is a pitcher friendly park Hughes should adjust well. Heís all but guaranteed a spot in the rotation. If he doesnít live up in the zone so much and pitch to what he is capable of he should be a reliable middle of the rotation option.
Scouting reports on May indicate three very good pitches. Last season at AAA he posted an excellent 9.44 K/9. For some reason though he still posted a high ERA of 4.51. Part of it is because of high walk rates. Optimism though because the walk rate is down from the previous season. A concern is while his K rate is good itís down from what it was at the lower minors. May had a good showing in the Arizona Fall league and should have a shot to crack the rotation this spring. He has the talent and the stuff the question is can he put it all together? He will probably start the season at Rochester but expect him up sometime at mid-season.
To quote ESPNs Keith Law ďall you Twins fans who like to complain that the team never has any power arms in its system can shut your traps.Ē There is a long line of power arms coming up in the system and Alex Meyer is leading it. To once again quote Keith Law he says in a scouting report ďWhen Meyer is on, he looks like a top-of-the-rotation guy, sitting in the upper 90s with sink and a slider sharp enough to sever someone's femoral artery on its way to the plate.Ē Meyer had a good season last year at double A posting a 3.21 ERA and striking out 84 batters in 70 innings pitched while allowing just 3 HR. His season was cut short due to shoulder problems but they are not believed to be serious. Standing at 6í9 with a hard sinking fastball reminds some fans of Randy Johnson. The downside is pitchers that tall have trouble repeating their delivery leading to control issues. Meyer does have an issue with control at times. Also tall pitchers are more prone to injury. In fact only two pitchers 6í8 and above have made a significant impact in baseball history; Randy Johnson and J.R. Richard. However scouts say so far so good with Meyer. He still needs to work on his delivery and work on developing the change more. He will be fun to watch this spring but is destined to start the year in the Minors. He should be in Minneapolis in July if not in the Majors then in the futures game. Look for a mid to late season call up.
The largest free agent contract in Twins history. Opinions on Nolasco have varied widely but while some say that it was an overpay the truth is it was probably the going rate for a mid-rotation starter. Nolasco had his best season since 2008 last season posting a 3.70 ERA with 165 Ks in 199 innings pitched. His peripherals suggest he was even better posting a 3.34 FIPand 3.58 xFIP. Nolasco throws a low 90s sinking fastball a curve, split change, and a slider as a put away pitch. Hopefully Nolasco can find what he did between the time he was traded to the Dodgers and mid-September. Coming to the A.L. there is some regression expected but he is durable and should give the Twins 190+ innings at mid-rotation value. Heís a lock to make the rotation and probably the opening day starter.
Pelfry is coming off a disappointing season. The Twins must feel he can perform better one more year removed from surgery but even before that in the national league he was a lack luster pitcher. Pelfry does throw fairly hard hitting 94 at times. However there is a lack of secondary pitches. I was at a few of Pelfreyís starts last season up close on top of the dugouts. Even from there it wasnít hard to spot when the curveball was coming. Hitters would lay off it and wait for the straight fastball. Hitters swung less often at pitches outside the zone and contact made on pitches in the strike zone made a huge jump of 10% more often. Signing Pelfry to a two year deal looks like a mistake especially with young arms on the rise. With the money he commands he will get a chance to prove he can bounce back. With Meyers and May down in the minors though if Pelfrey canít perform how safe is his spot?
Worley went out and proved last seasonÖthat indeed his 2011 season was an apparition. If there are any positives for Worley itís that in Philly he posted K rates way above what he did last year. Also there is almost no way he can suffer from a .401 BABIP and 15.5% HR/FB rate again. However Worley has only thrown 150 innings or more once in his career and that was back in 2009 in the minors. With that in mind and the fact heís an upper 80ís fastball guy without much secondary stuff heís probably a depth guy stashed at triple A in case the Twins need an emergency starter.
After spring is over and the team heads north I predict the starting rotation will look like this.
Ricky Nolasco, Keven Correia, Mike Pelfrey, Phil Hughes, Sam Deduno
Of course there are a few free agents left out there letís take a quick look at those.
I can understand why he is still available. Despite the good year last season in 2012 he was absolutely lit up. However while what he did last year may not be the norm I wouldnít expect him to regress to 2012 levels either. I canít see the Twins signing him though. First of all if there was hesitation of giving up our 2nd round draft pick for Garza hard to believe they would do it for Santana. Secondly we already have Nolasco and Hughes signed for the next 3-4 seasons, rumor is Santana wants 3-4 seasons. With the prospects we have in the pipeline itís hard to have another aging pitcher block them.
Rumors are swirling that there is a possible reunion in the works. If it happens though probably wonít be until May or June. From a publicity perspective it would make perfect sense to sign Johan to a 1 year deal let him take the mound one last time as a Twin and pack the ballpark. From a baseball perspective itís hard to see it making a lot of sense. As of right now you have no idea what he will give you and you have those young arms waiting in the minors. Things would have to go really wrong for us to actually need Santana.
There are a few other options but none really worth explaining. They are aged and not much left. The injury bug would have to hit hard.
Overall the Twins rotation is a work in progress but the additions of Nolasco and Hughes should make it more watchable. If Meyer and May come up and contribute and Gibson starts to look like what we hoped he would be the rotation at some point could go Nolasco, Gibson, Hughes, Meyer, May. It might not be the Tigers but it would be interesting and it would actually be a major league rotation. Unlike the 6th and 7th starters we threw out there last season.
Look for my post on the bullpen in the next few days. I promise it wonít be as long as this one.