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Short starts wasn't "The Plan"


IndianaTwin

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Quite a number of posts have railed about “The Plan” for Twins starters to make short starts and never face the Third Time Through the Order, but I did a fairly deep dive into looking at box scores and would offer a different analysis of their starter usage this season. Here’s an alternative take for consideration, arguing that The Plan was not the plan: 

  1. From Opening Day until about May 31, the Twins tried using starters in a “normal” pattern. If you look at starters across the board (except for Archer), there are a decent number of 6 inning starts and even some 7 inning starts from Gray, Ryan, Paddack, and Bundy. 
  2. Unfortunately, by May 31, every starter except Archer had already spent time on the IL or was sent to the minors for being ineffective. That meant a 13-game stretch where their starters were Smeltzer, Sands, Ober, Archer, Gonzalez, Bundy, Smeltzer, Sands, Archer, Bundy, Smeltzer, Gonzalez. Continuing that is a recipe for disaster. 
  3. On June 14 and 15, Ryan and Gray came off the IL to join Archer, Bundy and somebody else (more on that coming) in the rotation.
  4. At that point, I think the team felt like it had two choices. They could either keep using starters “normally” and risk them going back to the IL, replaced by Gonzalez, Sands, et. al, OR they could find a way to manage their workload. They chose the latter, shortening the outings of nearly all of their starters from that point forward.
  5. For a time it worked, at least in terms of staying healthy. From June 13 to Sept. 9, the quartet of Bundy-Archer-Ryan-Gray made all of their starts, with the exception of a short IL stint around the All-Star break for Archer, where he missed two outings. The fifth spot in the rotation was first filled by Smeltzer (6 times), Winder (3 times, once as a 27th man and twice in Archer’s spot) and Sanchez (2 times). Then they traded for Mahle, who made three starts in the fifth spot and got hurt. Then two more for Sanchez, one more for Mahle and one from Varland.
  6. I’d also suggest that it largely worked in terms of quality. Gray pitched as expected, but it was actually Bundy who was their most effective starter and who played a key role in keeping them in the race. 
    1. Bundy had 14 starts (including two in the 13-game stint referenced above), going 72.1 innings with a 3.36 ERA and a .629 OPS against. 
    2. Gray had 14 starts, going 71 innings with a 3.42 ERA and an .672 OPS against. 
    3. Archer was arguably the next most effective. He made 15 starts (again counting the two in the 13-game stint referenced above), totaling 66.1 innings with a .657 OPS against. His ERA was elevated at 4.61, driven up primarily by several games when he got shellacked, including giving up six runs in 3 innings in his first game off the short IL stint. In 10 of the 15 games, however, he kept the team in the game by giving up two or fewer runs, but always in 4-5 innings. 
    4. Though he threw the most innings (75 in 14 starts), Ryan was actually the least effective, giving up a .783 OPS on the way to a 4.80 ERA. In his defense on the latter, it’s skewed by a game in which he game up 10 runs.
    5. I didn’t total up the showings of the others, other than to anecdotally remember that it was a mix of performances, what one might expect of a No. 5.
  7. Though they had lost the lead, they were still just 1.5 games back when Cleveland came to town on Sept. 9. Then the wheels came off.
    1. Mahle had been picked up to the fill the fifth spot, but had gotten hurt.
    2. Though Archer had pitched a lot of decent games, he never stretched out to the degree they hoped and made just one more start before being shut down.
    3. Gray made two more starts and was shut down.
    4. Bundy kept making starts, but ran out of gas and was ineffective.
    5. The bullpen showed spurts of effectiveness (Duran, Jax, Fulmer and Lopez at times after their acquisitions, Pagan in low-leverage spots during July and August). But overall, the bullpen was unable to handle the workload required with the short outings. 

If you’ve made it this far, here’s my summary: 

  1.  Short starts wasn’t “The Plan,” but they were forced into it by early-season injuries and the inability of Archer to extend. Consider how the story with starters might have been different if either Paddack or Ober stayed healthy; Archer does stretch out to going 5 innings regularly and 6 occasionally rather than never getting past the 4-5 range; and Mahle stays healthy after the trade.
  2. Though they could have brought up some of the young guys to use as long reliever/piggy backs, I think they saw the writing on the wall that things were not sustainable. Instead, they placed an emphasis on the long view, allowing guys like Varland and Woods Richardson to continue their development. They DID have several instances where they used Sanchez as an innings-eater.
  3. Were there some games when Rocco could have read Twins Daily and kept a starter in an inning longer? Probably, but I think they were again playing the long game, believing that their only chance of staying in the race was making sure that guys could make their next start. And the one after that.
  4. As an additional data point to suggest that short starts wasn’t The Plan, it’s worth noting that in composite of the previous years of the Falvey/Levine era, the Twins were actually within 0.1 innings of the league average in start length. The one year in which they were 0.3 innings less than the league average was the year in which they used Openers on at least eight games. Eight starts of one inning instead of five knocks your season average down by 0.2 innings. Conversely, in the season when Berrios, Odo, Pineda and Gibson stayed healthy, they actually were 0.3 innings ABOVE average in starter length.
 
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IMO the likelihood of injury was baked into the roster from the very way the roster was constructed.  We had guys like Ober who spent time in 2021 on the injured list.  We acquired more guys who had varying degrees of susceptibility to injury in 2021.  Insert the Surprised Pikachu meme: we had injuries in 2022.  I'm not claiming mine is a sophisticated form of Analytics for player health, but sometimes simplicity is a virtue. 

Injuries are a part of the game and will happen to every staff.  But I want to see a conscious bias when the 2023 roster is constructed, toward reducing the injury risk. 

If inordinate injury then occurs anyway, I'll either begin to offer more sympathy than I do now, or else I'll call for yet another head trainer. 😄

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13 hours ago, ashbury said:

IMO the likelihood of injury was baked into the roster from the very way the roster was constructed.  We had guys like Ober who spent time in 2021 on the injured list.  We acquired more guys who had varying degrees of susceptibility to injury in 2021.  Insert the Surprised Pikachu meme: we had injuries in 2022.  I'm not claiming mine is a sophisticated form of Analytics for player health, but sometimes simplicity is a virtue. 

Injuries are a part of the game and will happen to every staff.  But I want to see a conscious bias when the 2023 roster is constructed, toward reducing the injury risk. 

If inordinate injury then occurs anyway, I'll either begin to offer more sympathy than I do now, or else I'll call for yet another head trainer. 😄

I agree that you have to plan for injury, and I'm always surprised at those on TD who list five guys for the rotation and assume that will be enough.

But by May 29, the Twins had seven starters (Gray, Ober, Bundy, Paddack, Ryan, Dobnak, Winder) who'd spent time on the IL (Winder in the minors). I'm not sure how you can plan for that level of injury in the rotation. In addition, Balazovic was also on the minor league IL until May 1 and then was getting hammered when he did come back, so he wasn't the option they hoped he'd be.

And I didn't speak to this, but also having four relievers (Alcala, Romero, Coulombe and Stashak) on the IL by late May certainly affected the bullpen's ability to bail them out when starters got injured. They only managed to get 36 innings all season out of four guys they were counting on for significantly more innings than that. And that doesn't consider the meltdown of a guy who was planned to help anchor the bullpen after three straight seasons of excellent relief -- Duffey. 

To me that's inordinate, so I'll offer sympathy. And we do have a new head trainer now. 😀

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This is great work, and not just because I agree with your underlying premise. 

If I'm Falvine I spent all my time since last spring digging into injury risk factors and trying to figure out how to keep the guys I have on the field and how to identify the individuals or types of players that are likely to have trouble.  This was ridiculous, but it'll happen again if we have the same guys do the same things.  For every freak HBP injury there were a bunch of recurring things that felt kind of avoidable: hamstrings, core, weak shoulders, etc.  It's not related to us either, as many teams lost a lot of time to injury this year. NYY were a hot mess for a bunch of the summer, to name just one.  Some of this might have just been poor prep due to the lockout, but that's not what you hang your hat on after a year like 2022.

And in a way you can tell they were thinking this way since they did fire and hire the trainer about as quickly as possible once the year ended.  It'll be interesting to see what they do for new acquisitions.  Correa has a history of injury and Bogaerts has been a rock, for example. (And they both have Boras as rep so it'll be easy to work with both of them. Ha!)

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16 hours ago, ashbury said:

IMO the likelihood of injury was baked into the roster from the very way the roster was constructed.  We had guys like Ober who spent time in 2021 on the injured list.  We acquired more guys who had varying degrees of susceptibility to injury in 2021.  Insert the Surprised Pikachu meme: we had injuries in 2022.  I'm not claiming mine is a sophisticated form of Analytics for player health, but sometimes simplicity is a virtue. 

Injuries are a part of the game and will happen to every staff.  But I want to see a conscious bias when the 2023 roster is constructed, toward reducing the injury risk. 

If inordinate injury then occurs anyway, I'll either begin to offer more sympathy than I do now, or else I'll call for yet another head trainer. 😄

Yeah, if shorts starts weren't "the plan," they were at the very least an obvious aftereffect of roster construction and organizational philosophy. Honestly, if the FO wasn't planning on short starts it's probably more of an indictment than simply failing to build a bullpen and develop young arms capable of easing the innings burden. 

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18 hours ago, ashbury said:

We had guys like Ober who spent time in 2021 on the injured list. 

We acquired more guys who had varying degrees of susceptibility to injury in 2021. 

 

IIRC, Ober didn’t hit the IL until the tail end of 2021, then only so someone else got a shot to start a late September game. The Twins limited his innings, mostly because due to injury and COVID, he hadn’t thrown many innings in the preceding years. 
 

I do agree that future acquisitions should prioritize pitchers who project as durable. 

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2 hours ago, stringer bell said:

IIRC, Ober didn’t hit the IL until the tail end of 2021, then only so someone else got a shot to start a late September game. The Twins limited his innings, mostly because due to injury and COVID, he hadn’t thrown many innings in the preceding years. 
 

I do agree that future acquisitions should prioritize pitchers who project as durable. 

They limited his innings but he was shelved due to a hip injury (which likely is related to the groin issues he had all of this season) not workload. 

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Great and interesting analysis.  One comment.  Despite the early season numbers, I can't believe they were planning to let most of the starters go more than five innings as the season progressed for two reasons. First, in the spring pitchers are normally ahead of batters, so the third time through the order is a little "safer" than it is in the heat of summer.  Second, I think they clearly were planning to limit innings for the young guys like Ober, Winder, and even Ryan as he tends to throw a lot of pitches, and they knew Archer needed to progress slowly,  and probably had concerns about Paddack's innings as well given his history.  But, this doesn't detract from your fine analysis.  Nice work.

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2 hours ago, RJA said:

First, in the spring pitchers are normally ahead of batters, so the third time through the order is a little "safer" than it is in the heat of summer. 

Spring games aren't about winning, so I can't imagine any tactical decisions are made about who the pitchers face and how many times.  It's all about "getting the work in."

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I am not talking about spring training games, I am referring to games played in the first month of the season which is what the author was describing.

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12 hours ago, RJA said:

Great and interesting analysis.  One comment.  Despite the early season numbers, I can't believe they were planning to let most of the starters go more than five innings as the season progressed for two reasons. First, in the spring pitchers are normally ahead of batters, so the third time through the order is a little "safer" than it is in the heat of summer.  Second, I think they clearly were planning to limit innings for the young guys like Ober, Winder, and even Ryan as he tends to throw a lot of pitches, and they knew Archer needed to progress slowly,  and probably had concerns about Paddack's innings as well given his history.  But, this doesn't detract from your fine analysis.  Nice work.

But actually, remember that there was a shortened spring training, so most pitchers had gotten fewer than normal starts during spring training. Additionally, they were carrying two more relievers than usual because of the expanded rosters. Even with those, they were throwing “normal” lengths as starters. 

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Because of the condition of rotation, prior to the season, this piggy-back idea was thrown out there by the FO and it was a great idea. Unfortunately it never became the "plan" and they tried fit square peg into a round hole & was doomed from the start because they tried to treat our rotation as a strong one. If they had actually made some form of piggy-backing as their plan the outcome would have been very different with much fewer injuries & much more effective innings.

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Um, I quit counting at game 27, at which there were a total of 6 games where a Twins starter completed 6 innings.  and not one where they completed 7. Maybe all of them came between May 11th and 31st. LOL

 

AND a number of those 5 inning or even 5+, or even 6 full inning starts pitchers were pulled with 60,70,80 pitches.  I guess we must just be looking at different box scores?

 

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On 11/18/2022 at 11:42 PM, Doc Munson said:

Um, I quit counting at game 27, at which there were a total of 6 games where a Twins starter completed 6 innings.  and not one where they completed 7. Maybe all of them came between May 11th and 31st. LOL

 

AND a number of those 5 inning or even 5+, or even 6 full inning starts pitchers were pulled with 60,70,80 pitches.  I guess we must just be looking at different box scores?

 

Ryan went 7.0 on 4/27, but yes, the 7-inning starts of Gray (5/24) and Smeltzer (5/26) came in the latter part of that first window. I also saw at least two other games where the starter pitched into the 7th, but didn't complete it.  

So, out of the first 50 games, Bundy went a full 6 twice and into the 6th twice more in his eight starts. Ryan went 7 once. 6 thrice and into the 6th once in his eight starts. Smeltzer went 7 and 6 once each and into the 6th in his four starts. Gray went 7 once and 6 twice in his seven starts. Ober went 6 in one of his three starts before getting hurt. Paddack went into the 6th twice in his four starts before the one in which he got hurt, though he didn't finish the inning either time. 

The exception was Archer, for whom the plan was not to go long, at least in the early part of the season. And as they've said in the offseason, the intent was to gradually stretch Archer out as the season went along, but he wasn't able to do so.

But of the 41 non-Archer games, the starter finished 7 three times, finished 6 nine times, and went into the 6th six times. I didn't count the number of starts that went exactly 5, and there were a few where the guy was pulled earlier because of injury or getting shelled.

Among other things, that means they finished at least 6 innings on 12 of the 41 non-Archer games and attempted to do so another 6 times. To me, that's enough to suggest that they wanted guys to go through six or even seven. And I didn't check this, but it sure seems like that's a higher percentage of longer starts than we saw later in the year, which is part of my point -- that they made a mid-season adjustment. 

Additionally, remember that the beginning of the year was also when they were using a 10-man bullpen, so they had additional bullets to use at the first sign of trouble. And for better or worse, they hadn't lost trust in guys like Duffey, Smith and Pagan yet, so they thought they were going to a strong bullpen when they pulled the starter. Alas, not so much.

I didn't look at pitch counts, but I'd suggest that having a 10-man bullpen available was also a factor in not extending guys beyond the counts you reference.

 

But thanks for your response and pushing back a bit. I didn't name this above, but I think we'll have a better feel for whether "short starts" is "The Plan" when we see how they shape the staff this offseason and then play into the new year. As I look at their prior years' history, when they were generally around the league average, it feels as much like a one-year aberration as it does an ongoing trend.

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