Thursday, May 08, 2008

Where's He Going to Go From Here?

On June 1st, 2007 Kevin Slowey took the mound against the Oakland Athletics in front of ESPN's national coverage. In comparison to the current season in which the Twins are clinging to 1st in the AL Central with a record that is one game above .500, at that juncture in 2007 the Twins were 28-25 and were hoovering in third place six games out of first. The Twins had rattled off four straight wins to achieve their third place position thanks to a sweep of the White Sox. Cleveland would finish a sweep of the Tigers as the Twins opened their six-game swing on the West Coast against two formidable opponents, the A's and the Angels. This would be a pivotal road trip in the season if they wanted remain in contention with Detroit and Cleveland.

Just two days prior to Slowey's debut, the Twins finally sent Ramon Ortiz to the bullpen following his May 26th start against Toronto where he gave the Twins six innings but surrendered three home runs on his way to six runs. This was the final straw in the Ortiz saga, one that began with five straight quality starts in which the Twins won four of them. "Ramon overthrows, then he tries to nibble," Rick Anderson told the Star Tribune after Ramon had failed to complete five innings against Milwaukee, "He's not pitching with confidence and attacking the zone. I don't think he pitched inside today." In those first five starts, Ortiz went 35 innings and possessed a 2.57 era and held batters to a .217/.266/.364 batting line. Meanwhile his last three had been 11 disastrous innings resulting in an era of 12.27 and a batting line of .370/.410/.593.

Enough was enough. The Twins, repositioning Ortiz to the bullpen, recalled the right-hander who had blown through the ranks from Rochester. In 366 innings of minor league work Slowey has struck out 361 batters (25.5% strikeout rate) and walked just 52 (3.6%) resulting in a minuscule 0.84 whip. Just 20 times was Slowey hit deep, a home run rate of 1.4%. This swift ascension through the minors, from Elizabethton in 2005 to Rochester to start the 2007 season, coupled with his undeniable success would led anyone to believe that Slowey would merge seamlessly into Minnesota. After all, the Twins farm system has groomed dozens of less qualified pitchers that had success under Rick Anderson tutelage.

In six innings of work that June night Slowey gave up just one run on a solo-home run by Eric Chavez, scattered five hits while striking out three. He showed glimpses of what had earned him rave reviews from scouts during the spring, including getting out of a one-out bases-loaded jam in the first by getting Chavez to pop out and Bobby Crosby to ground out. The Twins scored two runs in the 10th to secure the win, but the win went to Neshek rather then Slowey. The Chavez home run, however, began a run of eight starts in which Slowey. In fact, in his first 42 innings pitched Slowey gave up 14 home runs. Opponents were slugging .611 off of him in that time. The Twins moved Slowey into the bullpen to have him attempt to learn more about his major league opponents who were taking advantage of Slowey's impecible control. By September 11th, Slowey was back in the rotation. In his last three starts to conclude the season, Slowey tossed 18.2 innings without giving up a home run and held opponents to just .208/.208/.319.

It was his first start of 2007 and his last three to close out the year - in addition to him minor league numbers - that the Twins had essentially wrote him in stone into the starting rotation as Johan Santana, Carlos Silva and Matt Garza made an exodus from Minnesota. During the spring, Slowey threw 10.7 innings that were below the standard that had been created for him. True, in that time he struck out 13 and walked just 5 but now Slowey was tagged for 17 hits, three of which were home runs (leading the staff). Of course, if we were judging by spring stats, Livan Hernandez would already have been cut rather than winning seven of his eight starts. An earlier season injury set Slowey back once again following 3.1 innings in the fourth game of the season.

Returning to the rotation this afternoon after a three-game minor league rehab tour, Slowey pitch fairly well. For four innings, Slowey kept the White Sox at bay. The fifth proved difficult as Slowey gave up career home run numbers 18 and 19 to Jermaine Dye and Juan Uribe. It is possible that we cannot gauge Slowey by the significantly high bar that he had set in the minors but rather as the pitcher that keeps his team in the game. Thursday afternoon, completing five innings and striking out four, Slowey left with a Game Score of 51. This means that he pitched well enough to keep his team in the game only his offense could not return the favor.


The minor league Slowey has yet to come to fruition in the big leagues in spite of bursting with promise and potential. With high-impact rookie pitching debuts such as Francisco Liriano, Twins fans might come to expect their prospects to be delivered major league ready when more often than not, it takes plenty of adaptation before settling into a career. Below are the numbers of two pitchers after their first 70 and 72 major league innings:

Player A 70 17 11 49 4.89 .288 .312 .542
Player B 72 14 18 34 6.00 .313 .352 .544

Player A is Kevin Slowey, stats are from prior until Thursday afternoon's start which do not include the two home runs. As you will notice, he has quite the inflated slugging average against thanks to seventeen home runs. Fortunately eleven have been solo home runs which has kept his era reasonable. Player B is another player Twins fans should be familiar with: Brad Radke. Of course it is the easiest comparison as Slowey has been labeled as the right-handed strike-thrower heir since he was drafted into the organization that groomed Radke into a pitcher with a .516 winning percentage (a muted winning percentage, thanks to some awful late 1990s teams) with his unwavering control. The major difference between the two is that Slowey compiled his first 70 major league innings as a 23 and 24-year-old, Radke was just 22-years-old in his first 72 innings. At age 24 Slowey is just starting to learn major league hitters as Radke, at 24, was a 20-game winner in his third professional season.

As the innings start to amass, Slowey will being to learn what pitches to which batters are more likely to land in the seats and make the necessary adjustments. But now he needs to do it more quickly. With Baker now on the DL, the Twins need Slowey to perform if they expect to retain possession of first. The Tigers and the Indians (not to mention the White Sox) all have the potential of striking back quickly as the Twins prepare for a four-game home series against the best team in the American League. From here on out in 2008, the Twins need Slowey to become the type of pitcher Radke was at age 24 in spite of far less experience.