Friday, August 12, 2011

Twins rotation needs to get back on track

In June the Twins and their fans were on cloud nine. The team had rattled off a 17-9 record after falling on their face out of the starting gate. It was…happening. But then June begat a mediocre July which slowly transitioned into an awful August.
The bridge between all of this has been the starting rotation. When the team was rolling through the early part of summer, the rotation held the American League’s best ERA that month (3.00). In July, as the team went a good-not-great 16-13, the rotation’s ERA jumped up to 4.76. Now 2-7 in so far in August, the rotation has been shackled to a 5.50 ERA and have not yet recorded a win in those 9 games.
To their credit, since the All Star Break, the Twins rotation has done a marvelous job pitching to contact. The unfortunate follow up to that is that opposing teams have OUTSTANDING contact and have amassed a baseball-high .304 batting average off of them in that time. As the highest paid member of the rotation Carl Pavano has led the way since the break, allowing a .331 average against which is second in the American League to a thing called “Jason Vargas” of the Seattle Mariners. Not far behind Pavano is Brian Duensing (.317) and Nick Blackburn (.309) giving the rotation a three-to-one advantage over the offense (Joe Mauer) in averages over .300 in the past month.
If you want to get technical, in that same period of time the Twins are owners of a .330 batting average on balls in play. This would insinuate that there is some responsibility on the defense for being unable to convert many of the batted balls into outs. However, these are not your standard dribblers through the hole or bloops over the infield. According to Inside Edge scouting service Pavano (.274). Duensing (.250) and Blackburn (.241) all fall within the bottom 20 in well-hit average (charted well-hit balls per at bat). So, while the defense has been shaky at times we have also witnessed right-handers shooting lasers all over the field off of Duensing that no defensive configuration could have tracked.
Part of the reason opponents are able to spray bullets all over the field is that Twins pitchers are simply falling behind hitters far too frequently. Right now, the rotation’s 54.6% first-pitch strike rate is the lowest in baseball. This once was the Twins’ hallmark as in the previous two seasons they were the best in baseball at achieving strike one. This season they have been slinking steadily towards the bottom of the league in this category. More recently, both Francisco Liriano (46.7%, lowest in MLB) and the usually commanding Duensing (49.6%, 5th-lowest) have had troubles starting the count in their favor the past 30 days.
What does this mean? It means that Twins pitchers will have a higher tendency of putting a runner on or getting piss-pounded across the yard. After a first-pitch ball, major league hitters have posted a robust .818 OPS – very comparable to what Jim Thome is producing at this season. On the other hand, if a pitcher manages to get ahead in the count right away, hitters have been held to a .600 OPS – slightly higher than what Ben Revere is at now. Clearly, in order to be successful, it is best to put opponents at a disadvantage.
Bu these are just symptoms of an overall larger issue: THEY ARE JUST NOT THROWING ENOUGH STRIKES. Period.
Since the break they have thrown 1,020 balls in 2,699 pitches over the course of 158.2 innings of work. This is by far the highest amount of non-strikes and the second most pitches thrown by the starting rotation in baseball. Not surprising, Liriano has thrown 261 balls leading to a post-break high of 21 walks in 33.1 innings in six starts. Trailing him in the AL is Blackburn, a typically control-oriented pitcher, who has walked 17 hitters in 32 innings in his six starts. For the Twins it means more walks or more situations in which a pitcher has to groove one down the middle which leads to runs in bunches and early visits to the showers.
It would be unfair to put the entire onus on the starting rotation - after all, the offense has not been on fire when it comes to run support since the break. The 4.14 runs per nine innings is the lowest support in the AL with the exception of the Los Angeles Angels and the Mariners (who have not recorded a hit since 2008). So like the defense, they deserve to shoulder some of blame as well. That said it is the starting rotation sets the tone for the team and they need to get back to the basics by attacking the strike zone early and work ahead of hitters.