July 12, 2010

Anatomy of a collapse (Part 1: Pitching)

When the Twins woke up in Seattle on June 1 they were 31-20 and riding a five-game winning streak that gave them a season-high 4.5-game lead over the Tigers (and 8.5-game lead over the White Sox) in the AL Central. They were clicking on nearly every cylinder, with the pitching staff allowing the second-fewest runs in the league and the lineup scoring more runs than any team outside of the powerful AL East.

Through two months they had the second-best record in baseball, were on pace for 98 wins, and looked capable of running away with the division. Instead they've fallen apart. After losing two of three from the Tigers over the weekend the Twins are now 15-22 since the calendar flipped to June, turning a 4.5-game lead into a 3.5-game deficit in under six weeks and limping into the All-Star break in third place at a disappointing 46-42.

Here's a look at their run scoring and run prevention during the good times and bad times:

                      RS/G     RA/G
Through May 31        4.92     3.82
Since June 1          4.24     4.85

Through the end of May the Twins scored 4.92 runs per game, but since then they've managed just 4.24 runs per game for an offensive decline of 14 percent. And the decline of the pitching staff has been even steeper. Through the end of May the Twins allowed 3.82 runs per game, but since then they've coughed up 4.85 runs per game for a pitching (and defense) drop of 27 percent. Let's dig a little deeper and look at the individual pitching performances since June 1:

ROTATION                IP      ERA      FIP
Carl Pavano           60.1     3.13     4.29
Scott Baker           42.2     5.48     4.56
Francisco Liriano     41.2     4.75     1.90
Kevin Slowey          40.2     5.31     4.58
Nick Blackburn        36.0    10.00     7.48
TOTAL                221.1     5.41     4.53

While going 15-22 the Twins' rotation had a cumulative 5.41 ERA, with only Carl Pavano under 4.50 and Nick Blackburn checking in at 10.00. However, their cumulative Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) was a much more reasonable 4.53, with Pavano, Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey all right around 4.50 and Francisco Liriano at an excellent 1.90 thanks to his great 51-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio with zero homers allowed in 41.2 innings.

In other words the rotation as a whole didn't pitch quite as horribly as their 5.41 ERA suggests and in particular Liriano's secondary numbers were outstanding. That their ERA was a full run worse than their FIP shows that perhaps the starters had poor defense played behind them, received poor bullpen support, or maybe just had some bad luck (since we are talking about a very limited sample size here). That's the good news.

The bad news is that Blackburn had a 7.48 FIP in addition to his ghastly 10.00 ERA. It's rare for a pitcher's FIP to get that high, because the stat is designed to take bad luck, bad defense, and bad bullpen support out of the equation and ... well, few pitchers are still that bad once you strip their performance of those factors. For instance, no pitcher with more than 50 innings in a season has cracked a 7.00 FIP since 2006.

Blackburn's overall FIP this season is "only" 5.89, but he's compiled a 7.48 FIP since June 1 by striking out just 17 of 180 batters while walking 14 and allowing 11 homers. His strikeout rate has always been terrible, but he made up for it with great control and limited home runs. Now his strikeout rate is non-existent, with 91 percent of batters putting the ball in play since June 1, and he issued twice as many walks as before while serving up a homer every three innings.

BULLPEN                 IP      ERA      FIP
Brian Duensing        18.2     1.45     4.06
Alex Burnett          16.1     4.96     5.89
Matt Guerrier         16.0     5.07     4.70
Ron Mahay             14.1     2.51     4.60
Jon Rauch             13.0     1.39     2.97
Jesse Crain           12.1     1.46     2.96
Jose Mijares           8.1     2.16     4.40
Jeff Manship           5.1     3.38     6.01
TOTAL                104.1     2.85     4.38

Not surprisingly, while the rotation's ERA was much worse than their FIP the bullpen's ERA was much better than their FIP. During the 15-22 stretch the bullpen actually had a pretty looking 2.85 ERA, but inheriting runners from the starters and allowing them to score isn't reflected in the relievers' ERAs and their FIP was merely mediocre at 4.38, with only Jon Rauch and Jesse Crain below 4.00. Despite that Rauch and Crain were used for just 25 innings in 37 games.

In the past Rauch's durability was a major asset, as he averaged 80 innings per season from 2006-2009 while appearing in half of his team's games. However, now he's a "closer" instead of a "setup man" and so Ron Gardenhire has subjected him to the same extremely rigid usage patterns he employed with Joe Nathan, which is why four different relievers have more innings than Rauch since June 1 and he's on pace for just 62 innings in 59 appearances on the year.

Rauch has shown the ability to log tons of innings, but now that the Twins have entrusted him with the most important role in the bullpen he's on pace for 25 percent less work because the manager will only use him up 1-3 runs in the final inning. That means fewer innings for Rauch, who has a 2.38 ERA and 3.32 FIP, but also more innings for the lesser relievers and more work for Matt Guerrier, who Gardenhire is perfectly willing to wear out because he's not a "closer."

In the past few weeks Guerrier pitched three times in four days and then, after a short break, worked five times in seven days. Not surprisingly he began to struggle, taking the loss in three straight appearances. Rauch is capable of being a workhorse and Guerrier has worn down like this in the past, but since Gardenhire lets the "save" statistic dictate how he runs the bullpen Guerrier has pitched in 42 percent more games than Rauch since June 1.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

When a team goes from 31-20 to 46-42 fans start calling for all sorts of moves to be made and the pitching staff is certainly the most obvious place to point fingers, but realistically what can and should the Twins do? Some of the most plausible "solutions" involve guys like Slowey and Baker simply pitching better, but here are three other ideas that don't involve dumping half the roster or trading half the farm system ...

1. Blackburn needs a break from the rotation.

The misguided decision to hand Blackburn a four-year, $14 million contract this offseason when he was already under team control through 2013 complicates the situation, but whether he's injured or just finally tasting the downside of "pitching to contact" he's been bad enough for long enough that making a change is reasonable. I'm far from confident in Brian Duensing as a starter, but moving him into the rotation and shifting Blackburn to long relief makes sense.

2. If there aren't many save chances to be had, use Rauch more in non-save situations.

Gardenhire's rigid deployment of Rauch was fine when there was a steady flow of late leads to close out, but using the team's best, most durable reliever for 13 innings in 37 games simply because the "save" chances dried up is silly and a lesson in backwards managing. Gardenhire has unfortunately let Rauch's new role drastically alter the way he uses him, but that doesn't mean Rauch has forgotten how to pitch without a lead of 1-3 runs in the ninth inning.

3. Bring up Anthony Slama from Triple-A.

I've been banging the Slama drum for a while now and at this point I'm not sure what else the guy can do to get a shot in Minnesota. His numbers in the minors have been ridiculously good at every stop and he now has a 1.80 ERA, .152 opponents' batting average, and 79 strikeouts in 65 innings at Triple-A. His control is shaky and his raw stuff isn't overpowering, but so what? He's dominated at every level and is already 26 years old. Why not at least give him a chance?

  • sports pr guy

    How does the Sox run compare to the ’09 Twins? I think they’re 25-5. Wow! Shud be a good series out of the gate.

  • Chris

    I read some comments from GArdy that he has given up on Blackburn yet because apparently Blackburn hasn’t given up on himself yet. Let’s hope he at least ponders that possibility of a change during the all-star break.

  • SoCalTwinsfan

    If Slama comes up, who should go down? Also, who should get dumped off the 40-man?

  • Chris

    Mahay! Gardy already has two decent left-handed options, why does he need a lousy LOGY?

  • Adam S.

    Blackburn should get a few more starts. Well in AAA that is, then get Slama-Jama up here and put Duensing in the rotation. DUHHHH

  • Ted

    Or maybe the Twins should make themselves sellers of sorts at the deadline. Move some ML bullpen talent and make room for younger guys.

  • Scott

    2b. Relieve Gardy of bullpen/pitching staff responsibility.

  • http://ineptullger.blogspot.com Erik

    Just throwing this out there – but the Twins, at the season’s current point, have the 4th best team UZR among all teams in MLB.

  • http://ineptullger.blogspot.com Erik

    Breaking it down a bit more – using another defensive metric, Total Zone, the Twins are at -3 at the season’s current point.

    Guess where they are the weakest…in the outfield. Cuddyer, Span, Young, and Kubel all have astounding negative total zone outputs…and with this pitching staff being almost exclusively fly ball pitchers, that doesn’t result in much positive.

  • http://thebatshatters.blogspot.com/2010/06/treading-water.html Adam

    Hey Gleeman, what do you think the chances are that the Twins go after someone like Ted Lilly, Fausto Carmona, or some other cheap yet reliable option to shore up their rotation?

  • Matt

    What is the status of Pat Neshek as well? I think he could help out tremendously if he’s healthy. He’s been a high leverage, late innings guy before and if healthy I’m sure he can handle the role again.

  • yefrem

    the twins formula of pitching to contact in order to induce ground balls is failing. as a ballclub, their p/pa leads the league, but at what cost? they are 5th in home runs allowed. the twins are 21st in go/ao at 1.30 (ironically, their batters are 2nd worst at 1.69). twins also like to throw strikes – in fact they are tops in the league in p/pa, however that hardly seems to have allowed their starters to pitch very deep into ballgames. it may be time to take an organizational review at how the twins are breeding their pitching prospects and expand a little bit from the simplistic “throw strikes, pitch to contact” mantra.

  • yefrem

    *5th worst in home runs allowed

  • Time for org shitft

    Goooo yefrem sing the praises for me! Been saying it for years, the shit always hits the fan with these pitch to contact guys. Look at the top 10 pitchers in the league, they will all have one thing in common… their fastball reaches 94+ and they K up people. Pitching to contact while trying very hard not to walk anyone and throwing 90 mph such as 4/5 our rotation is recipe for disaster and we are all seeing that right now and it will continue to happen. Is is really that complicating to see? You take a guy like Blackburn or Slowey and as a hitter you say to yourself ok he’s not going to walk me because if he just doesn’t believe in it, he thinks it’s the end of the world, he’d rather give up a double or homerun than walk. So he’s always going to be around the plate, so I can look fastball half the time if not more, then when I’m looking fastball I can expect it to be meaty because, well, they throw only 90 mph…. it’s just common sense, power pitching wins, we see it in the postseason year after year after year with guys like Sabathia, Hamels when he won it, even dating back to Randy Johnson, Schilling, etc etc the list goes on. My rant is done, I’m getting very tired of this notion, hopefully Kyle Gibson can change the Twins.

  • BR

    Say what we will about Go Go, having him in CF and Span in a corner spot made for an excellent defensive OF, which really helped this staff. It should surprise no one that the flyball-throwing rotation is struggling more with this OF collection.

    That said, Baker and Slowey need to step up. They’re control is a bit off. Baker, for example, is walking fewer and striking out a bit more than last year; in fact his K/BB is at 5.0, which is elite. But he’s leaving too many mistakes in the middle of the plate that are getting hammered. His LD% and HR% are up. Eliminate just 3-4 bad pitches a start and we’ll see improvement.

  • jimbo92107

    What makes anybody think Nick Blackburn will get more guys out as a reliever? I say send Blackie down to AAA, cut Mahay, move Rauch back to set up, then bring up Slama and Waldrop. To replace Blackburn, first try Duensing. If that doesn’t work, replace him with Manship and move Duensing back to reliever.

    The next move is to shift Slowey to the pen. His accuracy will get him through a few guys, even without the movement he used to have. Plus, a little more rest might help Slowey get his movement back. He needs to develop a better slow curve.

    To replace Slowey…Hurry up, Kyle Gibson!

  • Time for org shitft

    BR is 5.0 K/BB rate may be elite, but his K/9 is not elite. I feel K/9 is more important. Ask yourself this question, would you rather have a pitcher like Gallardo, Jimenez, or Kershaw who walk a decent amount of guys so K/BB isn’t the best but their K/9 is elite? I’d take all 3 of those guys over Baker obviously.

  • jimbo92107

    Agree with BR on the outfield situation. Twins need better coverage and a better arm in CF. Denard Span seemed more effective in the corner OF positions, where his speed snagged a lot of foul balls and his mediocre arm didn’t allow so many runners to advance.

    Problem is, the corner outfielders are two of the best RBI men on the team. Could Delmon Young play Center? He’s certainly fast enough, and with Span in LF, far fewer pulled balls would fall in front of the outfielder. Meanwhile, Delmon’s got a much stronger arm than Span, which might reduce the number of guys stretching singles to doubles in that direction. The only question for me is, would he continue to let catchable fly balls fall in front of him for hits? Span is great at coming in for sinking liners. Delmon (so far) isn’t.

  • al

    Joe mauer has hit .206 since May 18th. That is not good.

  • BR

    Time for org: Yes, I’d rather have a guy with elite k/9 and a >3.0 K/BB. Always nice to have a pitcher who can just whiff guys and not rely on a shaky D to get outs! But a 7.5 k/9 is still good. Baker’s problems are consistency/lack of focus and bad OF D, imo. Drop the LD% a bit and get his HR/9 down to 1 and he’d be really good again.

    Jimbo: I’d be very afraid of Delmon in CF. His jumps are awful, his decisionmaking questionable. I’m pretty sure he’d be the worst CF in baseball. The real problem is that the Twins are below average at each OF position. One guy you can cover up for. It’s tough to hide 3 guys out there!

  • Pedro Munoz

    I should know better by now, but I was actually schocked to hear that Blackburn was going to stay in the rotation. It is pretty clear that Blackburn is one of Gardy’s guys, which means that he won’t be held accountable for his poor performance. At some point though, isn’t it just too much?

    Aaron can be skeptical about Duensing’s prospects (ok, don’t sign him to a $14 million deal just yet) but the guy has more than earned a shot in the rotation, especially where the rotation is flailing so badly. Duensing has a career E.R.A. of 3.00 and his FIP of 4.02 is better than anyone except Liriano. He was a starter in the minors, and has pitched better as a starter than as a reliever with the Twins, going 5-2, 2.73 last year.

    Is this decision being driven by Gardy, and his stubborn loyalty to mediocre players? Or is this the front office trying to justify a terrible contract?

  • Ted

    That the Twins have terrible OF defense is not new: This theme was sounded early in the season. I guess winning is an elixir for all ills. Didn’t AG write something in March or April about how this OF was going to make it tough for our more flyball oriented pitchers (I am looking at you, Scott Baker)?

    Delmon in CF? Dear lord. Not only are his reads mediocre, but his ability to put the ball in the glove is among the worst I can think of among active OFers. Long runs are nice, but when they end with the ball bouncing off his glove, well, yeah.

  • yefrem

    kubel and delmon are among the least athletic guys to go through the twins outfield, but at least delmon has a cannon for an arm. i could live with an outfield of delmon-span-cuddy, if the twins traded kubel for an athletic 3rd baseman and/or a stopper in the bullpen.

  • Scott

    Heres what I think. Hear me out before ya’ll go crazy on me. It looks more and more that this season is going to be an uphill battle, not resulting in the playoffs. This is what I would do.

    1. Try to find a way to include Cuddy in a trade package for good starting pitcher. (Oswalt, maybe Dan Haren?) Then bring up Dustin Martin from AAA and put him in CF or RF.

    2. Bring up Slama, get rid of Mahay, put him as closer etc., etc. its been discussed before.

    3. Blackie out, in with Duensing.

    4. Tell Gardy that the starting infield does not include Punto. Also tell him, that if things dont turn around, he gone.

    5. Be creative with lineup. Mix things up.

    6. On second thought, have Bill Smith tell Gardy that he gone if all the above doesnt happen.

  • ?

    “Joe mauer has hit .206 since May 18th. That is not good.”

    Mauer is beyond criticism…

    “3. Blackie out, in with Duensing…

    6. On second thought, have Bill Smith tell Gardy that he gone if all the above doesnt happen.”

    That would be hard, since Smith signed Blackburn to be a starter…lets fire Gardy for not correcting his mistakes…makes sense.

  • Ben

    Mauer is 44 for 176 since May 18 (.250).

  • Neil

    If the Twins are fourth in UZR, UZR doesn’t mean much. Seriously, look at this lineup. With Cuddyer at 3B you have good defense at three positions — granted, they’re the positions you want defense: C, 2B, SS. And I think Morneau is fine at first, even if he’s not the elite defender Bremer and Blyleven make him out to be. The point is, this isn’t a strong team overall defensively. It just isn’t.

    Mauer’s decline is stunning, and suggests, I guess, that he’s playing hurt. But several others have done little to nothing offensively for two months, namely Cuddyer, Span (from .390 to .350 OBP) and Hardy (Twins rubes really thought he’d hit 25 HRs — ha!).

    While Gleeman has a point about Rauch’s usage, the fact is if the Twins weren’t getting so many short starts, Guerrier in particular wouldn’t be so overworked in the ‘pen. That’s where Blackburn (and sometimes Slowey) are killing them.

    For all the (justifiable) criticisms of Bill Smith, getting Pavano, Rauch and Cabrera did make a difference in ’09. Perhaps he’ll do something helpful this year. But really, Morneau’s going to have to get healthy and the core guys are just gonna have to pick it up, starting Thursday.

    But I am thinking that this team just isn’t as good as we thought it was…

  • Ted k

    Generally walking someone is more detrimental than striking out some is beneficial. A walk is an automatic baserunner and a strikeout is just the best way to get an out, a ball in play is going to be turned into an out 65% of the time. And those who complain about the twins pitchers pitching to contact too much, baker is striking out 7.8 per 9, which is more than cliff lee and roy halladay, and only slightly lower than ubaldo jimenez. Right now baker, slowey and liriano are just on the wrong side of batted ball outcomes. They all have very high babips and baker has a high hr/fb. I think liriano has been pitching fine and im not concerned about baker.

  • fenring

    If Mauer isn’t well enough to play in the last Detroit game and is all beat up, why is he playing in the all star game?

  • ?

    “If Mauer isn’t well enough to play in the last Detroit game and is all beat up, why is he playing in the all star game?”

    because this time, it counts!

  • Greg

    What *is* the deal with Neshek anyway? Are there serious recovery problems, or did he tweet himself into the doghouse?

  • jimbo92107

    If it’s true that Mauer’s hip is bothering him (same injury as late last year?), then he simply must hang up his catcher’s mitt. The Twins signed Mauer for a ton of money for his bat, not his defense. Mauer to 3B; call up Wilson Ramos. Mauer can spell Ramos every fourth game, and then Valencia or Punto can play third.

    Aren’t we all glad now that we didn’t trade away Ramos?

  • http://ineptullger.blogspot.com Erik

    Who says that switching to 3b, a position Mauer has never played before, would go so smoothly and without issues?

  • Brian

    “Hardy (Twins rubes really thought he’d hit 25 HRs — ha!).”

    Neil,

    It wasn’t only “Twins rubes” expecting big things from JJ. ZIPS was projecting Hardy for 17HR in 520 plate appearances this year. So it wasn’t unreasonable to think he’d hit 20+ in a full, injury-free year.

    The guy has only had 150 AB this year, I’m still willing to give him a chance.

  • Ted k

    Hardys been valuable to the twins. Hes been an elite defender for the twins. It would be nice if the offense picked up, but like joe crede last year, a large portion of his value is going to be on defense.

  • http://www.espn.com Jason

    I am ro

  • http://bertbelongs.blogspot.com/ CM

    Aaron outlines three excellent–and most importantly, realistically feasible–ideas to get this team’s pitching back on track.

    The only things I disagree with are Duensing’s fitness for the starting rotation and moving Blackburn to long relief. Duensing was a starter for his entire college and minor league careers, and performed very well in the role last year in a high-pressure situation. It’s hard to imagine him doing WORSE than Blackburn.

    Speaking of which, Gardenhire might as well save Blackburn the trouble and roll out a pitching machine as a long-reliever before giving Nick the ball. Blackburn needs to learn how to mix his pitches up and change speeds again, and I’m afraid the only way he’ll be able to do it is at AAA (if possible); I don’t think he’ll have enough opportunity for this if he were limited to long-relief.

  • ?

    Rauch usage is beating a dead horse, its never going to happen that way, doesnt happen that may for most ML clubs, its not happening in Twinkie Town.

  • John P.

    “kubel and delmon are among the least athletic guys to go through the twins outfield, but at least delmon has a cannon for an arm.” (Comment by yefrem)

    I’m not so sure about your preference for Delmon over Kubel as an OF. Kubel can throw it hard too. The ball tends to stay in Kubel’s glove better, he takes fewer ridiculous routes, and it seems like fewer balls drop within his diving/juming range. All that makes up for some raw speed. Delmon has speed, Kubel has skills. It just never seems like I’m left saying “Kubel should have had that” like I do with Delmon even though he’s better than last year. Of course Delmon is the superior bat lately. Neither one is headed for the HOF based on fielding.

  • Time for org shift

    lol I love how today the front page sports has an article about power pitching evolving and the game going to that. Hopefully the Twins took note…