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  • Three Things the Twins Need to Do to Compete: Part One: Fix the Pen


    Thrylos

    At first read, the title of this series sounds very much like A Midsummer Night's Dream: Do I dare suggest that the team that went from 99 to 96 to 96 to 92 losses the past five seasons needs to do only three things to compete? The next number to that Arithmetic Progression up there is between 88 and 92 and that is not competing by any means. Let me explain my train of thought here, before the nice kind people in white come and take me to warmer climes:

    First: In order to make significant, measurable and effective change, you cannot focus on changing 20 things. Too many balls in the air, some will drop. Focusing of a few things that you can change and make an effort to do so, is much more effective. Second: I do believe that with the changes this off-season, the Twins removed a huge barrier to their success: Breaking ties with Gardernhire, Anderson, Ulger and Steinbrenner (even though they did not go far enough in my opinion, but this is another matter) is the equivalent of starting the seasons with, at least, plus five wins.

    So that next number in that loss progression looks more between 83 and 87. So those three things that need to be done, if done correctly and effectively, will be enough to give the Twins an extra five to seven wins, putting that total loss range to 76-82 and that is not a losing record. The top number of that range (86-76) is close to a wild-card number and, if the Twins get there, they likely will compete for the title in a weakened and more balanced Division.

    The first thing they need to do to get there is to fix their bullpen. And I hope that they know that this was a huge problem in 2014; as a matter of fact a bigger problem than the rotation. I touched it a bit here, suggesting that they spend some more money and get another late inning reliever. Even though this bird has flown already, there are similar possibilities, especially in a trade, outside the organization. But there are potentially intriguing possibilities inside the organization. Let's frame the problem first, and then let's look at what they have at hand, and explore potential solutions.

    The Problem:

    In 2014, the Twins' bullpen was bad; how bad? It ranked 29th in the majors in both xFIP (4.18) and SIERA (3.84). And those are numbers that are, a. fielding independent, so Gardy's Catchers at the Outfield are not factored in, and b. reflect the actual talent of pitchers and not external parameters, thus really measuring how good the staff is in a vaccum (as much as one can have.) So why was the Twins' pen was one better than the worst in the majors? Let's do some root cause analysis: Here are some other numbers for the pen, and their rank in the majors: K/9: 6.66 (30th), K%: 17.3 (30th), SwStr%: 9.2% (30th), GB%: 40.1 (27th), FBv: 91.5 (27th), Contact% 80.9 (1st). So, in other words, the Twins pen: Had the worst strikeout rate in the majors, the worst swing strike percentage in the majors, the third from the bottom ground ball rate in the majors, the third from the bottom fastball velocity in the majors and the most contact rate in the majors. However, it could had been worse: The Twins' pen ranked 15th in BABIP (so they were not particularly unlucky) and 23rd in HR/FB. So in simple terms, the 2014 Twins' pen:

    • Could not induce swings and misses or strikeouts
    • Put the ball in play more than any other pen
    • And the put the ball in play with the third worst velocity in the majors
    • When the ball was in play was the least on the ground than all but 3 other teams
    • Thankfully, they were lucky enough that their fly balls translated to home runs at a rate less than league average and batted balls (other than home runs) were hits at a league average rate.

    What they have at hand:

    To see what they have at hand, let's create an imaginary construct called the league average reliever. So here are the numbers (and I am focusing on the Twins' weaknesses here) of the league average reliever: xFIP: 3.67, SIERA: 3.34 (those 2 are pretty much equivalent, they correlate with 92% coefficient, so I will be focusing on SIERA only for simplicities' sake), K%: 22.2, Fastball velocity (FBv): 92.5, Swinging Strike% (SwStr%) : 10.5.

    Here are how the current Twins' bullpen candidates (and "locks") performed in those categories in 2014. If they are equal or better than the average major league pitcher, that number is in bold. For players mostly in the minors, I am including their K% in the minors (in parenthesis). The other numbers are not available.

    Pitcher SIERA K% SwStr% Fbv

    LHP

    Glen Perkins 2.62 25.4 11.2 93.4

    Brian Duensing 4.29 14.4 8.6 91.1

    Logan Darnell 3.55 19.6 (18.1) 9.9 89.8

    Aaron Thompson 3.8 19.4 (22.5) 10.8 89.1

    Caleb Thielbar 4.06 17 6.2 89.1

    Tommy Milone 4.57 14.5 7.3 86.6

    Ryan O'Rourke NA (28.7)

    RHP

    Lester Oliveros 4.62 18.5 (35.4) 9.8 93.7

    Ryan Pressly 4.18 11.5 (24.6) 8.3 93.3

    Blaine Boyer 3.45 18.1 (23.5) 9.8 93

    Michael Tonkin 3.56 18.4 (24.2) 8.4 92.8

    Casey Fien 3.43 19.6 10.4 92.3

    Trevor May 4.2 20.7 (23.5) 9.4 91.9 (*)

    Stephen Pryor 6.94 12.5 (27.2) 5.7 91.7 (*)

    Tim Stauffer 3.09 24.5 10.9 91.1

    A.J. Achter 5.11 10.2 (24.6) 8.3 90.2

    J.R. Graham NA (15.7)

    Mark Hamburger NA (16)

    So, in other words, the Twins now have only 2 pitchers who were above the proverbial average pitcher in 2014: Glen Perkins and Tim Stauffer. In a seven men bullpen, this is not very encouraging. For the time being, let's pen in Perkins and Stauffer and look for 5 more names, at least one of whom has to be a lefty. I assume that starting pitching prospects like Alex Meyer, Taylor Rogers, Tyler Duffey & Jason Wheeler, will be in AAA if they do not make the rotation, so these 5 are out of this discussion.

    One wild-card is Mike Pelfrey. I believe that he has the stuff to make an excellent late-inning reliever, and make the jump that Glen Perkins and Joe Nathan did before him. However, Pelfrey has been a better starter than either Perkins or Nathan, so his ceiling as a late innings reliever is higher than both. Pelfrey has pitched in two games in relief (for the Mets in 2007) thus if that transition happens, it should happen as soon as possible, to be able to pitch on consecutive days when the season starts. Why do I think he can be a good late innings reliever? His fastball is explosive when healthy and is his primary weapon. As a starter, he has to mix his pitches. As a reliever, his 92.5 mph fastball, can easily gain 3-4 more miles an hour. His curve ball is a good complementary offering and he would have the luxury to drop his non-successful slider and cutter and just occasionally mix his less than stellar split finger change. This makes 3.

    As far as righties go, the Twins will likely take Casey Fien north (and hopefully not use him in high leverage situations, because he is below average in all of the above categories, and he is one of the major drivers of the low GB%, since his is only 32.1.) Fien would not be my choice. I would rather see what Trevor May can do as a reliever. Similar discussion as with Pelfrey: His 91.9 mph FB average will get to the mid-90s as a reliever, plus he had the second best K% of the group in the majors and a respectable SwStr% (mostly as a starter, and will get better as a reliever.) And the cherry on top is that he led the 2014 Twins' pen with 2.0 Ground Balls per Fly Ball and a 57.1% GB%. May projects as an above average reliever. This makes 4.

    Need a lefty, and from that group, I'd go with Brian Duensing, and not because he is the most veteran. Brian Duensing (like Glen Perkins) regressed a bit in 2014, mainly losing about 1 mph velocity on his fastball and losing effectiveness in his slider. That translated to a K% drop from 20.9% to 14.4% and a SwStr% drop from 10.5% to 8.6%. That said, he had the highest GB% of all the lefties in the Twins' pen (45.7%) and has by far the highest velocity of the lefties left in the list. As far as offerings go, I think that Duensing has too many pitches. Losing either the slider or the curve (both have been inconsistent) and focusing on one, plus regaining his 2013 form (which was at or above the average pitcher's) will do wonders for the Twins. I hope that the new pitching coach will help in these regards.

    This makes 5 which leaves a lot of candidates for 2 spots. I think that the Twins will need someone who can fulfill the Anthony Swarzak role, but all of the above have been starting pitchers and there is flexibility, which means that if, for example, Tommy Milone loses out for the fifth starter job, he does not have to be the long man in the Twins' pen. Having a long man by committee, might actually be an interesting approach. The most intriguing names above for me for the last two spots are Aaron Thomson, Stephen Pryor, J.R. Graham, Ryan Pressly and Blaine Boyer. Pryor used to throw fastballs in the high 90s (career average 96.4) but velocity slipped due to injuries last season. Very similar situation with the Rule 5 pick, J.R. Graham and their former Rule 5 pick Ryan Pressly. Blaine Boyer is the veteran in the group, with a good track record and might make the team. As far as another lefty, Thomson is ahead of Thielbar (who in addition to being below average in every respect, has a 31.8% GB%).

    Should the Twins go out and target a "known quantity" like Jonathan Papelbon (2.86 SIERA, 24.3 K%, 12.1 SwStr%, 91.2 mph, 41.9 GB%) in a trade? I think that it would definitely help, but putting Pelfrey and May in the pen might work equally well. I think that the bones are there. Perkins and Duensing should rebound from regressive seasons, Stauffer was a good acquisition, if you break down the numbers, and they will find 2-3 more relievers. But they have to take the best 7 north, which means that they might have to make tough choices regarding below average extreme fly ball pitchers like Fien and Thielbar, even though there might be the belief that they should still be under scholarship.

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    Excellent read! I really didn't realize how weak the pen was. I think you did a great and objective job in this analysis. Hopefully TR saw the same thing and that was the reason he added a couple of these relievers. It certainly seems a fixable element. With the heat coming our pen could flip its ranking in the near future. Looking forward to parts 2&3.

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    I like this analysis, especially the idea of Pelfrey and May to the pen.  Its a little disappointing to have Molitor dismiss this idea already as I do not see the variety of pitches necessary for Pelfrey to be a successful starter.

     

    I like May in the pen because I hope to see Meyer get the 5th rotation spot and May has some upside that we need to start seeing.

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    The problem with bullpen analysis is that it relies on past performance and bullpens are so volatile that you can't rely on anything but the best relievers to repeat past glories. Of course, there's really no other way to analyze a bullpen so there's that.

     

    The bullpen is a mild concern of mine going into this year... But it's a mild concern of mine every year because the damned things are so unpredictable.

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    However, Pelfrey has been a better starter than either Perkins or Nathan, so his ceiling as a late innings reliever is higher than both.

    Is that really true?  I think starting and relieving in the modern game is different enough that you can't really make that claim based on starting stats/effectiveness.  If Slowey was a better starter than Wade Davis, is his ceiling as a late inning reliever higher?

     

    Reliever ceiling has to be pitcher-specific, based on a variety of factors.  Pelfrey might have the right profile, although given he is now 31 years old, has been pretty worthless as a starter for 4 seasons now, and he still hasn't been tried in relief (and won't be immediately this spring, according to Molitor), suggests that maybe he doesn't have a good relief profile.

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    The bullpen was a mildly frustrating part of this offseason.  While I know good relievers can sneak up on you (like Guerrier, various failed starters, etc.), we've pretty much locked in most of our pen with known mediocrities.

     

    Feels like we're going to have to wait for the recent draftees or for some starting prospects to get a chance to fail before we might have another plus bullpen, like we had in Gardy's glory days.

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    I think you're being a little too hard on Fien. In terms of SIERA, SwStr% and FBv he was only negligibly below average, and Fangraphs is projecting him to have 22.2 K% in 2015. Now, if he's your 8th-inning guy, that's not a good bullpen. But it certainly doesn't hurt to have an essentially league-average arm get a spot somewhere. It's the significantly below-average guys that we want to avoid. And I think May is more valuable as a starter.

     

    Do you have separate stats on LHPs? I wonder if their average FBv might be a bit lower.

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    Someone correct me with if I am wrong.   My memory last year was that the pen did its job quite well or at least adequately until the last month to 6 weeks.    In fact the Twins Pythagorean formula said they should have won 4 more games and they were matching that projection until the pen blew about 6 games late in a two week period.    At the time I was disgusted but wrote it off to overwork.    Few pens can handle their starters giving as few innings and quality starts as the Twins did last year and Gardy liked to switch pitchers a lot for the match ups.    More appearances can wear an arm down more than the actual innings might indicate...   The best fix for the pen might just be starters that pitch better and longer.    My biggest concern about the pen is Perkins.   He looked pretty shaky before being shut down.

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    Someone correct me with if I am wrong.   My memory last year was that the pen did its job quite well or at least adequately until the last month to 6 weeks. 

    Since the original poster used xFIP, here are Twins bullpen xFIP ranks by month, out of 15 AL teams:

     

    April: 9th

    May: 12th

    June: 15th

    July: 8th

    August: 14th

    September: 15th

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    I agree, I don't know how Burdi doesn't enter this discussion.  He will debut at some point this season given his "stuff."  It's just a matter of when.  I'd also like to see Jake Reed and JT. Chargois enter this discussion.  Heck even Alex Wimmers might be a possibility at some point.

     

    Point is the the Twins have a gluttony of gifted relievers knocking on the door and don't have to settle for Pelfrey or Stauffer as bullpen options.

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    Finally, someone takes a sober look at our bullpen. I kept reading about how committed we were to Fien and others and I thought everyone had gone mad. Great article, it should be a wide open competition besides Perkins and Stauffer.

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    I agree, I don't know how Burdi doesn't enter this discussion.  He will debut at some point this season given his "stuff."  It's just a matter of when.  I'd also like to see Jake Reed and JT. Chargois enter this discussion.  Heck even Alex Wimmers might be a possibility at some point.

     

    Point is the the Twins have a gluttony of gifted relievers knocking on the door and don't have to settle for Pelfrey or Stauffer as bullpen options.

    im not a fan of either Stauffer or Pelfrey, but of all of the known quantities available to the bullpen, they are 2 of the 3 least worrisome.

     

    Stauffer was a decent reliever in a very pitcher friendly park, Pelfrey has had some success as a pitcher in the past. Neither one of them has much of a stake attached to them, so if they blow up in epic fashion, it's easy to pull the hook.

     

    My concern is that so much of the bullpen is tied to guys like Fien, Duensing, etc, who we've watched fail in epic fashion for 4 years straight. TR doesn't have 6 high upside relief pitchers knocking on the big league door, he has 2 maybe 3. What about 4-5-6 with injury? Much like the last couple years it's an optionless team, especially in the pitching department.

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    I agree, I don't know how Burdi doesn't enter this discussion.  He will debut at some point this season given his "stuff."  It's just a matter of when.

    I think there's a tacit assumption that the article is discussing Opening Day, and therefore who is on the 40-man roster right now. Adding Burdi now would mean dropping somebody - which wouldn't be the end of the world, but it's not going to happen like that so why factor it in.

     

    The wild card for me is that currently the 40-man has 22 pitchers and 18 position players. That suggests to me there is room for a trade of some type in late March. It could be a minor swap to get rid of perceived dead wood (*cough*Nolasco*cough*), or it could be big. A big trade could change every discussion here, so you can only go with what you know now, but it's still there in the background.

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    I'm curious why you didn't mention Burdi as a candidate.

     

    I am being realistic, based on what the Twins have been doing with him and that a. they did not add him to the 40 man roster (as discussed, but that is correctable) but, even more importantly, they did not invite him to the major league camp in Spring Training.

     

    Should they?  Heck yeah.   But I am trying to be realistic here.   How do I feel about Burdi?  I ranked him as the Twins' 10th prospect and wrote this (among other things) here in my prospect rankings:

     

    A high 90s nasty fastball that often reaches triple digits, complemented by a low 90s even nastier slider, and there is no wonder than many, including the author of this, were wondering why Burdi did not start his pro career in the majors, since he is the best RHRP in the Twins organization at any level, since he was drafted.  But this is not the way the Twins are thinking.  The 22 year old had nothing to prove in a league whose average age was 2 years + older.  He will likely have nothing to prove in Chattanooga and be called to the majors by mid-season to serve as the Twins' set up man or even the closer.  He is not on the 40 man roster and has not been invited to the MLB Spring Training camp as of yet.

     

    So you are really preaching to the choir about Burdi here :)

     

    But for some reason, Ryan will not do it and I did not want to go into what ifs, but trying to be realistic within the parameters they have set.

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    The wild card for me is that currently the 40-man has 22 pitchers and 18 position players. That suggests to me there is room for a trade of some type in late March. It could be a minor swap to get rid of perceived dead wood (*cough*Nolasco*cough*), or it could be big. A big trade could change every discussion here, so you can only go with what you know now, but it's still there in the background.

     

    Funny thing about this:  Ryan today (again) was talking about how "Meyer and Berrios are knocking on the door".  There are 3 pitchers (and Gibson) with multi-year contract ahead of them.  I don't see Gibson going away.  I don't see Hughes going away, I don't see Santana going away (yet.)  The math is so there...

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    Is that really true?  I think starting and relieving in the modern game is different enough that you can't really make that claim based on starting stats/effectiveness.  If Slowey was a better starter than Wade Davis, is his ceiling as a late inning reliever higher?

     

    Reliever ceiling has to be pitcher-specific, based on a variety of factors.  Pelfrey might have the right profile, although given he is now 31 years old, has been pretty worthless as a starter for 4 seasons now, and he still hasn't been tried in relief (and won't be immediately this spring, according to Molitor), suggests that maybe he doesn't have a good relief profile.

     

    Agreed.  Slowey was a better starter than Wade Davis (until Gardy n' Andy ruined him ;)  ) but he would make a horrible reliever.  My argument with Pelfrey having what you say the "right profile" as a reliever has to do with his stuff.  Like Nathan and Perkins he has a couple of good pitches and that will take you nowhere as a starter, so he has to supplement that with junk.  Very hittable junk, like Nathan and Perkins did as starters.  So, getting rid of that junk and relying to his strengths he could be a good reliever.  And his FB as a starter is a good 3-4 mph faster than Nathan's and Perkins' as starters.

    That was the train of thought here...

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    Excellent read! I really didn't realize how weak the pen was. I think you did a great and objective job in this analysis. Hopefully TR saw the same thing and that was the reason he added a couple of these relievers. It certainly seems a fixable element. With the heat coming our pen could flip its ranking in the near future. Looking forward to parts 2&3.

     

    Thanks.  Part 2 is already up here.

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    Do you have separate stats on LHPs? I wonder if their average FBv might be a bit lower.

     

    Got to dig for those, but my gut feeling says that this is the case.  Probably their average is slightly below Duensing's 2014 FBv.

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    A starter putting up a 4 ERA is no longer impressive. While using ERA to judge a reliever isn't good analysis, anything over a 3 ERA starts ringing bells in my head.

     

    It sends up red flags for me as well though it shouldn't; your middle section really is the main point.  Using ERA for relievers is just a not sound measurement.  Four bad outings in April could crush one's ERA he could never recover from.  Additionally, the guy who comes in with men on base gets off Scott free when he let's all the runners score before closing out the inning.

     

    Digging deeper is going to be needed to evaluate relievers.

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    I can't get my head around a lot of Sabermetrics stuff, but I can visualize "IS%" (percentage of inherited runners scored). The Twins relief staff in 2014 allowed 31% of inherited runners to score (league average 28%), which was 22nd in the entire MLB.

     

    And another one I can get my head around is SV% (Save %). The Twins saved 66% of their tries (league average 69%), good for 20th in MLB.

     

    I don't know what to make of this little input, but it's interesting (to me). I was hoping to show that Perkins was performing poorly, which he was, but his Save% was 83 (not great, but okay).

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    I can't get my head around a lot of Sabermetrics stuff, but I can visualize "IS%" (percentage of inherited runners scored). The Twins relief staff in 2014 allowed 31% of inherited runners to score (league average 28%), which was 22nd in the entire MLB.

     

    And another one I can get my head around is SV% (Save %). The Twins saved 66% of their tries (league average 69%), good for 20th in MLB.

     

    I don't know what to make of this little input, but it's interesting (to me). I was hoping to show that Perkins was performing poorly, which he was, but his Save% was 83 (not great, but okay).

     

    Perkins has a down year like Duensing did.  The problem is that if your best reliever is "not great but okay" and you go downhill from there, you are going to have the kind of bullpen the Twins had last season...

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    Me thinks Pelfrey will get traded somewhere this month for some international cap dollars (if the rumor about getting that SS is true).  That would free up some space.  I think they need to bring up some of the younger guys.  They had a number of guys do pretty well in the high minors. Time to give them a look, especially with guys like Burdi and Reed not far behind.

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      They had a number of guys do pretty well in the high minors. Time to give them a look, especially with guys like Burdi and Reed not far behind.

     

    That number is 3 (as far as relievers at AAA & AA go) : Achter, Pryor and Oliveros, if you are looking at under 3.50 ERA and under 1.200 WHIP (and maybe you can add Pressly, 2.98 ERA, 1.260 WHIP.)  All 4 are getting a look.  I'd add May to that category.   There is not that much in the high minors... The wealth of the Twins' good relievers are in A and high A.

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    Great post, guess I hadn't read into it that much as I had no idea the bullpen was in this bad of shape. Going to have to get creative in Sprint Training, really like the idea of Pelfrey in the bullpen where he can let it fly.

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    So, slightly off topic.  But one of your initial premises is:

     

    "Breaking ties with Gardernhire, Anderson, Ulger and Steinbrenner (even though they did not go far enough in my opinion, but this is another matter) is the equivalent of starting the seasons with, at least, plus five wins."

     

    While I agree that it was probably time for change, subjective criticism on Gardenhire has always been that he is an above average manager.  This has been upheld (to the degree possible anyway) objectively using some fairly well reasoned stats at places like http://darowski.com/hall-of-wwar/expectancy/ 

     

    There are many signs that point to better things for the Twins this year and into the future, but I don't think the rookie manager is going to be worth 5 more wins than Gardenhire was. 

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