Friday, September 25, 2009

Starting with strikes big for Twins

This was not how the Twins rotation was supposed to look come September.
Back in April, the prevailing assumption among Twins fans was that a combination of Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano and Kevin Slowey would be headlining any sort of playoff push, acting as the key ingredients to the must-win series.  The year certainly has not played out as scripted.  Flash forward to the season’s final full month where one is post-operative (Slowey), one is battling to regain his rotation spot (Liriano) only because it became abundantly clear that a kid who started the year in AA was over his head and the other is Scott Baker, who has been as advertised.  Replacing Liriano and Slowey is Carl Pavano, who was left-for-dead in Cleveland (wasn’t he the one that - almost - no one in the Twin Cities wanted?), and the other, Brian Duensing, has made just eight starts in double-decker stadiums.
Yes, the threesome has gone 6-3 with a 2.92 ERA in 13 September starts but this is a month that is hard to gauge true performance.  A large swath of teams have checked out of the Hotel Pennant Race and provide innings for guys that were taking buses through Appalachia at the beginning of the summer.  The Cleveland Indians are one such club.  Since the beginning of the month, the last place Tribe has rotated in members of both the CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee trades.  Pitcher Carlos Carrasco, a member of the Phillies until this past trade deadline, had his fourth start which exemplifies this.  After making most of his previous two years of starts in Lehigh Valley and Reading, the wayward Indians allowed the 22-year-old to get some on-the-job training against the Detroit Tigers.  Predictably, after three decent innings, the Tigers eventually got to the youngster, denting him for four runs in five innings and walked away with a one-run victory and a full three game lead over the Twins.
Thanks to the division-heavy schedule, games against playoff-ready teams like New York, Los Angeles and Boston seemingly transacted eons ago, leaving the soft underbellies of Chicago, KC and Cleveland remaining.   The only challenge left is the tough, chewy meat of the Tigers sandwiched between two Wonder Bread weekends against the Royals.  To tame the Tigers, the Twins will unleash that trio of Duensing  (9/29), Pavano (9/30) and Baker (10/1) in Detroit for the final three games of the four-game series.   Again:  Perkins Nouveau, Sneery McSneerson and Big Spot Scott.
What Twins fans can cling to is the fact that these three have thrown strikes - especially that all-important FIRST STRIKE.  Yes, Bert Blyleven yammers on about the significance of that first-pitch strike during broadcasts but what does that actually do?  

Month of September

First  Pitch Strike %







League Average



For those that are unfamiliar, the difference between starting 0-1 and 1-0 is night-and-day.  Nah, that’s not even a good comparison.  It really should be two incomparable items, like night-and-pants.  For instance, when American League hitters fall behind in the count 0-1, they tend to hit .640 OPS.  That turns hitters essentially in Tigers’ offensively inept Gerald Laird (.637 OPS).  That is a manageable prospective.  Meanwhile, when the pitch flints outside the strike zone, hitters average a .863 OPS after the count starts with a ball.  This gives hitters the opportunity to hit like Jim Thome did for the Sox (.864 OPS). 

Baker, Pavano and Duensing have excelled in this arena, jumping on hitters and holding them to a .270 batting average this month thanks to their strike zone aggression.  Conversely, part of the reason Jeff Manship scuffled so much in his four September starts was his inability to get ahead of hitters (a 43.2 first-strike percent) and wound up posting a .950 OPS.  His most recent outing was brutal in that context.  This has left the door open for the return of Francisco Liriano, who since his August start in Texas, has struck out six in 5 2/3 innings.  Fear not, as Liriano, in his limited duties, is right behind Baker and Pavano in first pitch strikes in September (his 68 percent this month is far better than his year average of 55 percent).  If the lefty can maintain this control, he gives the Twins a fourth strong starter to enter the final week with.