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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- Gray had 14 starts, going 71 innings with a 3.42 ERA and an .672 OPS against.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- Mahle had been picked up to the fill the fifth spot, but had gotten hurt.
- 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.
- Gray made two more starts and was shut down.
- Bundy kept making starts, but ran out of gas and was ineffective.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.