September 15, 2008

Twins Notes: Starters, Gloves, and Names

  • A reader named Steve S. recently e-mailed me this question:
    I have a theory about the Twins' starters that you may want to test out. Perhaps on average individually and collectively they have not gone deep enough into games, thus exhausting the bullpen over a full-season schedule. That seems plausible, given that few starters even make it through the seventh inning and the starters are young and not very durable. Bert Blyleven and Jack Morris both make this point on air, but do the statistics back it up?

    Heading into this season many fans and media members fretted about the Twins relying heavily upon young starting pitchers, which is why so many people were inexplicably willing to overlook the fact that Livan Hernandez is a horrible pitcher to focus on his being a "veteran." Then, once the young guys in the rotation proved to be the best guys in the rotation, the focus shifted to fretting about how deep Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, and Glen Perkins were going into games.

    If you ask the average fan to weigh in on the subject, my guess is that they'll talk about how the young starters leaving games early has taxed the relievers too much, leading to the team's ongoing bullpen struggles. And as the above e-mail points out, the Twins' television and radio announcers have been harping on that "fact" all season. Of course, like many things that the average fan takes as gospel and Bert Blyleven repeats on the air each night, it's just not true.

    YEAR     IP/GS      ERA                                AGE     IP/GS
    2002 5.68 4.38 Scott Baker 26 6.15
    2003 6.02 4.69 Kevin Slowey 24 6.10
    2004 6.10 4.08 Glen Perkins 25 6.06
    2005 6.33 3.93 Livan Hernandez 33 6.06
    2006 5.81 4.50 Nick Blackburn 26 6.02
    2007 5.97 4.33 Francisco Liriano 23 5.64
    2008 6.00 4.23 Boof Bonser 26 5.53

    During Ron Gardenhire's first six years as manager, the Twins' rotation averaged 5.96 innings per start with a 4.32 ERA. This year, the Twins' rotation has averaged 6.00 innings per start with a 4.23 ERA. In other words, for Blyleven's endless talk about pitch counts and the perception that young starters have led to the bullpen's collapse, the inexperienced rotation--with 85 percent of the starts coming from a 26-and-under pitcher--is going deeper into games (and pitching better) than usual under Gardenhire.

    Aside from the guy who got demoted to the bullpen in May and the guy coming off Tommy John surgery, every starter for the Twins has averaged either 6.0 or 6.1 innings per start this year. Francisco Liriano's overall per-start average is just 5.64 innings, but that includes his ill-advised April stint in the rotation. Since coming back up from Triple-A he's averaging 6.46 innings per start, which would lead the team at the age of 23. As always, talent trumps experience.

  • Plenty has been made of Denard Span's out-of-nowhere breakout offensively, and rightfully so. Even after going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts last night he's hit .300/.382/.441 in 80 games to give the Twins a fourth significantly above-average bat alongside Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Jason Kubel. He's converted me from doubter to believer by showing improved patience and power all year, but certainly there's still some reason to be at least a little skeptical given his .287/.355/.358 mark in the minors.

    However, one area of Span's game that warrants zero skepticism--and one area that has seemingly been overlooked due to his hitting--is his outstanding defense. Almost exclusively a center fielder prior to this season, Span has been absolutely amazing since taking over for Michael Cuddyer in right field. Last night Span tracked down the latest in a long line of balls that would have gone for extra bases with Cuddyer out there and his Revised Zone Rating now sits at an excellent .935.

    Among the 32 big leaguers who've logged at least 500 innings in right field, Span ranks fourth in RZR and third in "out of zone" plays per inning. Over the past five years Cuddyer has an .829 RZR in right field, so Span has gotten to 13 percent more balls than the man he replaced. Over the course of a full season that adds up to around 30 extra hits, which is a massive difference given that many of them would be doubles and triples. At the plate, 30 extra hits would equal 50 points of batting average.

    It won't be an issue for the rest of this season because Cuddyer's foot injury will likely keep him from playing the outfield, but his lack of range was a problem before Span showed up and has only been magnified during the past few months. Outfield defense takes on added importance because of the Twins' fly-ball heavy pitching staff and even considering that Cuddyer's rocket arm makes up for some of his lacking range it'll be awfully tough to hand him the right-field job again after watching Span.

  • Along with Span's outstanding defense in right field, Carlos Gomez has tracked down a tremendous number of balls in center field despite often taking indirect routes to get there. Among 31 players with at least 500 innings logged in center field, Gomez ranks fourth in RZR and first in "out of zone" plays per inning. At .945 his RZR is nine percent better than the mark Torii Hunter posted as the Twins' center fielder from 2004-2007, and as shown last night Gomez is capable of making plays with his arm too.

    An ugly .253/.291/.347 line at the plate makes Gomez arguably the worst-hitting regular in the league and his 130-to-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio is atrocious, which along with service-time considerations is why the Twins likely would have been better off giving him some additional minor-league seasoning. However, along with Span he's played a huge part in the young, fly-ball heavy rotation thriving and his glove looks capable of giving Gomez significant long-term value whether or not his bat ever develops.

  • Finally, the Twins' announced yesterday that the new ballpark will called "Target Field" after the team accepted a naming-rights offer that the Minneapolis Star Tribune speculates will be worth in excess of $100 million over 25 years. Target Field certainly isn't the greatest name for a ballpark, especially given the nearby presence of Target Center, but as far as corporate-sponsored names go it's not a bad one. Generally speaking my preference is for "park" rather than "field," but at least they avoided "stadium."

  • Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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