Back on July 9, the Twins were mired in the midst of losing spell. They had dropped 13 of their past 20 contests and fans were subjected to a pummeling at the claws of the then division-leading Tigers.
That day in Motown, Francisco Liriano had lasted just one full inning plus two additional outs in the second but relinquished seven earned runs, hitting two batters and walking another pair. The unofficial ace of the staff, Liriano had not recorded a win in any of his previous four starts (almost a month without a victory) and had compiled a nasty 6.75 ERA despite a very strong 30-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 26.2 innings. Liriano aside, in that particular stretch of baseball, the entire rotation appeared in disarray.
It was on that day, with the team three games down to the Tigers and carrying a seemingly fried pitching staff, which the team learned of Texas’s acquisition of Seattle’s Cliff Lee.
Just a few weeks prior, columnist Jim Souhan dropped an article that implored the Twins to execute the swap. His reasoning (like many of us) was that:
“[T]he starting pitching is just not good enough to propel the Twins to a playoff victory over a big-money team. The current rotation might not even be good enough to win the AL Central.”
Lee was the Ron Burgundy of the pitching world; he threw pitches so fine, he made Liriano look like a hobo. Conventionally, he was on top of the mountain. He was carrying an 8-3 record in 13 starts coupled with an otherworldly 14.83 K/BB ratio. For us statheads, Lee was also rocking a 3.21 xFIP that had us amped up at the computers in our mothers’ basements, tweeting away lustfully at the idea of having him during the postseason.
After the news came through to the visiting clubhouse in Detroit that the Rangers were the victors in the Lee sweepstakes, veteran pitcher Carl Pavano spoke diplomatically about the news:
"The reality of it is we have what we need here, and we have to do it. It doesn't change anything whether we do or don't get him. It doesn't change what each person in this locker room has to do, and that's go out and play good baseball. For myself personally, it's going out and winning ballgames."
The Twins’ wizened, feather-duster sporting member of the rotation was correct in assuming that the team had to move on with the hand that was dealt. But, too, in many ways, Souhan was correct: That current rotation was not going to cut it in the Central.
Nick Blackburn had completely unraveled and was unable to figure out how to keep opponents from smashing the ball all over the field. He would make just three more starts post-July 9th, allowing 15 runs in 11 innings with a gaudy .750 opponent slugging percentage that would require a trip back to Rochester to figure out how to stop throwing pitches as delicious as bacon. Once thought of to be a candidate to be exchanged for the vaunted Lee, Blackburn would be ousted from the rotation.
In what was typically Blackburn’s spot in the rotation, the Twins plugged in left-hander Brian Duensing. Paired mainly against left-handed opponents, Duensing had done a fabulous job out of the pen, working 43 innings and allowing just eight runs on his watch thanks to a low .214 opponent average. On July 23, a 96-degree night in Maryland and limited to a strict 70-pitch night due to the lack of endurance built up, Duensing held the offensively-challenged Baltimore Orioles to one run over five innings. A Joe Mauer two-run home run in the top of the sixth put the Twins up by one but the lead would disintegrate at the hands of the bullpen.
Since that abbreviated first start, Duensing would supply the Twins with 10 more starts (and an added relief appearance two days after a start to boot), holding opponents to a 2.54 ERA as well as a devilish 666 OPS. The Twins would go 8-3 in those 11 appearances while Duensing would go 7-1, his only personal loss being to Cliff Lee’s new team.
For his part, Lee was having a rough introduction to his new organization. In his first outing against the Orioles, the same lineup that Duensing would shut down a few days later, the lefty threw a complete game but allowed three home runs and six runs in the smaller, overheated bandbox than he was previously used to in Seattle. Including that game, Lee has made 13 starts, posting a rather un-Lee-like 4.10 ERA (despite a very similar 3.26 xFIP from his Seattle days) thanks to another 11 home runs allowed and the Rangers would be the proud owners of a 5-8 record in his starts.
To be sure, Lee has pitched remarkably well in the Lone Star State, as evidence by his very good expected fielding independent numbers. Simply put, the confines have changed. While only 4% of his fly balls managed to escape the park on him when in a Mariners uniform (once again, attributed to that offensive-depleting Safeco) he’s suffered a plexiglass effect once in the hotter Texas air as 9% of his fly balls escaped (closer to his career average).
Meanwhile, Duensing has been nothing short of extraordinary for the Twins. While often overlooked, Duensing delivers stuff dirtier than most observers realize which completely neutralizes left-handed opponents. Because of this fact, opponents have made significant adjustments to their lineups, removing some otherwise left-handed hitting threats, because of Duensing’s capabilities. In all, the southpaw has supplied Minnesota with 1.583 Wins Probability Added while his counterpart in Lee has procured 0.194 Wins Probability Added for his Rangers.
It’s hard to say what sort of production Lee would have if he were pitching in an environment at Target Field which is closer to that of Safeco. Frankly, to say that the Twins didn’t need Cliff Lee would be disingenuous as anyone would admit they would welcome an arm like Lee’s during the postseason. However, by not trading either Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey, Wilson Ramos or Ben Revere to obtain the lefty, the Twins were able to retain at least one starter for the playoffs (the trip to Rochester has done wonders for Blackburn) while adding depth to the bullpen by later trading Ramos for Matt Capps at the trade deadline. What’s more is that Duensing has been equally as good, if not better, than Lee at zero cost to the Twins organization.
In the end, the Rangers would have likely made it to the playoffs without the assistance of Cliff Lee, sitting comfortably with an eight –game lead over Oakland. And certainly Lee makes them a better once in the postseason. On the other hand, there is a distinct possibility that the Twins would not be champagne-drenched without the emergence of Brian Duensing. For that, the non-trade needs to be celebrated.