September 26, 2012

What happened to the Twins’ pitching?

Rick Anderson took over for Dick Such as the Twins' pitching coach when Ron Gardenhire replaced Tom Kelly as manager in 2002 and since then the staff has issued the fewest walks in baseball, leading the league in walk rate six times. However, one common misconception about Twins pitching under Anderson is that their fantastic control has always come attached to terrible strikeout rates.

In reality Anderson's early pitching staffs were often able to combine excellent control with solid strikeout rates, and in fact Twins pitchers led the league in strikeouts as recently as 2006. That was Johan Santana's second-to-last season in Minnesota and his third straight year leading the league in strikeouts, and the Twins also got a ton of missed bats from Francisco Liriano before the 22-year-old rookie blew out his elbow.

They were joined in the 2006 rotation by Brad Radke and Scott Baker, who produced above-average strikeout rates, and the late-inning bullpen trio of Joe Nathan, Jesse Crain, and Juan Rincon combined for 220 strikeouts in 219 innings. Overall the pitching staff had a league-high 1,164 strikeouts and a league-low 356 walks in 1,439 innings, and not surprisingly they also had the AL's second-best ERA.

That season marked the fifth time in five years under Anderson that Twins pitchers had an above-average strikeout total and the next year they extended that streak to six consecutive seasons by ranking fourth in the league. Suddenly that all changed in 2008 as the staff's strikeout total plummeted to 10th in the league without Santana or Radke around, and Twins pitchers haven't had an above-average strikeout rate since.

They ranked 10th among the league's 14 teams in 2008, 2009, and 2010 before finishing dead last among all 30 major-league teams last season, producing just 940 strikeouts when every other team had at least 1,000. As bad as that was their strikeout rate has amazingly fallen even further this year, going from 6.0 to 5.9 per nine innings as they once again rank dead last among all 30 major-league teams. And it's not even close.

Twins pitchers have 890 strikeouts in 154 games, which is 14 percent fewer than any other team and 23 percent below the MLB average. Once upon a time Anderson-led staffs threw strikes and missed bats, boasting several starters and relievers with good raw stuff and strong whiff rates. And now? Well, they still throw strikes with a better-than-average walk rate ... and the AL's fewest strikeouts, second-most homers allowed, and second-highest ERA.

Santana was MLB's best, most dominant starting pitcher for Anderson's first six seasons as pitching coach, posting a 2.92 ERA with the most strikeouts and highest strikeout rate in all of baseball. During that same time Nathan racked up a remarkable 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings to go with a 1.94 ERA and five other Twins relievers who saw regular action had at least 7.5 strikeouts per nine innings.

When you have the best starting pitcher in baseball racking up league-leading strikeout totals, one of the best closers in baseball piling up whiffs at an even higher rate, and multiple setup men capable of missing bats then surrounding them with low-strikeout control artists is a sound strategy. But when you no longer have those elite, high-strikeout pitchers to anchor the staff the same strategy fails.

Santana going from unknown Rule 5 pick to MLB's best pitcher is one of the more remarkable journeys in modern history and Nathan emerging as MLB's best non-Mariano Rivera reliever is similarly astounding, so counting on Anderson and the Twins to duplicate those feats would be silly. Beyond that, considering the Twins' longtime aversion to acquiring hard-throwing pitchers it's unclear how much blame to assign Anderson as opposed to the front office.

With that said, it's very clear that something needs to change. They've failed to develop a front-line starter since Santana left five years ago and there are few power arms in the farm system aside from some 2012 draftees. Talk of succeeding by pitching to contact--or throwing strikes and playing defense--is a nice story with some truth behind it, but that approach doesn't work so well without elite bat-missers like Santana and Nathan leading the way.

In the absence of that front-line talent the Twins have essentially built entire staffs out of the guys who're supposed to be the surrounding pieces. In the five seasons since Santana's departure 37 different Twins pitchers have thrown more than 25 innings and three of them--Nathan, Liriano, and newcomer Casey Fien--have topped 8.0 strikeouts per nine innings. Of those 37 pitchers 27 had a strikeout rate below 7.0 and eight had a strikeout rate below 5.0.

How much stems from Anderson's well-established preferred pitching mold and teaching methods versus the front office simply not targeting hard-throwing, high-strikeout arms is up for debate, but whatever the case it needs to change and they need to adapt. In addition to having the fewest strikeouts and highest ERA in the AL since the beginning of last season Twins pitchers also have the league's lowest average fastball velocity at 90.9 miles per hour.

At the opposite end of the pitching spectrum are the Nationals, who this season lead the NL in both ERA and average fastball velocity while totaling a remarkable 42 percent more strikeouts than the Twins. Not surprisingly the Nationals have MLB's best record despite an offense that has scored 692 runs compared to 676 runs for the Twins. And when asked why he built a staff of hard-throwing strikeout pitchers, general manager Mike Rizzo replied:

We used to have sinker, pitch-to-contact guys. That's who you get when you're not elite.

Injuries to highly paid veterans like Baker, Carl Pavano, and Matt Capps took a big toll on this year's staff and injuries to prospects like Kyle Gibson and Alex Wimmers sapped the Twins of reinforcements, but none of those guys are hard-throwing, high-strikeout arms anyway. In fact, the last pitcher they've developed who fits that description is Matt Garza ... and the Twins traded him away for Delmon Young in 2007 at age 23 and after 24 career starts.

At this point even Crash Davis himself would advise the Twins to go looking for a few fascists.

  • http://weareoffthemark.wordpress.com Bryz

    This isn’t a bad thing, but your pop culture reference in your last sentence makes it seem like you hung out with Parker Hageman recently.

  • http://jszym2write@yahoo.com jfs

    really good article, aaron. i would take a chance on liriano for 2013. if he gets ahead in the count early, he’s amazing. and based on his sub-par performance so far with the white sox, he might be had cheaply.

  • http://mmmrhubarb.wordpress.com Rhubarb_Runner

    No more Nic_ Blac_burn, so some solid addition by subtraction, at least

  • BR

    Find some good fastball, high strikeout guys with unlucky flyball/HR rates and see what happens in flyball-friendly TF.

  • Jeff K

    I’m confused about pitchers who have topped 8.0 K/9. Hasn’t Perkins been above 9 the last two seasons?

  • http://www.pants.com RandBall’s Stu

    Great work, Aaron, but to address Bryz’s comment, no one hangs out with Parker Hageman. He’s very, very lonely.

  • Kurt Erickson

    Aaron, I have a truely and genuine honest question for you. After knowing what we know now that high velocity and high k rate pitchers produce low team ERA’s, why do the Twins insist this is the correct route? Are they oblivious to the Nationals, Yankees, Dodgers etc. model? Using pitch to contact low k guys in todays game is like a small business using dial-up internet for 50 employees. I truly believe with conviction that this Twins organization will be bad until they change their pitch to contact philosophy which will require a complete overhaul of execs and coaches. It will be a happy day when it happens!

  • Kurt Erickson

    “this route” meaning their pitch to contact philosophy.

  • SL__72

    Longest Free Slama post yet!

  • Pedro Munoz

    Its all comes down to Nick Blackburn. A few years ago we had too many starting pitchers, and Slowey got moved to the bullpen even though he had outpitched Blackburn – who had the big contract. Slowey disintegrated, and Blackburn, of course, sucked. Its not Blackburn’s fault that the Twins gave him a stupid contract and used that contract as a basis to make misguided rotation decisions, but he is at the center of everything that went bad.

    I think Liriano could be had cheaply because he isn’t a very good pitcher. I thought Don Cooper was going to fix him in Chicago, and that hasn’t happened, at least not yet. It doesn’t do any good to have a pitcher who is sometimes brilliant if he is also sometimes awful. You have to measure the overall package, and in Lirano’s case, its not very good.

  • http://shittynewyorkercartooncaptions.tumblr.com haplito

    Aaron,

    Please believe me when I say this: I’m not trying to be a wise-ass, but… From where does the assumption that strike-out pitchers are good pitchers come from? It seems to dominate sabrmetric thinking, yet I’ve never seen anybody (clearly) lay out that high strike-out rates = good pitcher. Do they correlate with WAR?

    For that matter, I’d like to see someone lay out how OPS correlates with WAR.

    Because you write so clearly, I feel like you could really help people understand this stuff.

  • mike wants wins

    I’m trying to figure out how to say this w/o being negative, but I think it all starts with Ryan. He’s all about “not spending too much money”, among other faults. He was in charge when they didn’t draft or trade for guys that should be in their prime pitching years right now. Until the front office changes, or they drastically change who they are, this is what Twins’ fans can expect.

  • http://weareoffthemark.wordpress.com Bryz

    @ haplito: I can help you with your strikeouts = better pitchers question. http://weareoffthemark.wordpress.com/2011/12/23/an-attempt-at-understanding-pitch-to-contact/

    While the correlations are small, I did find some correlations with the following stats paired with strikeouts.

    ERA vs. K/9: -.36 (More strikeouts = smaller ERA)
    K/9 vs. IP: .36 (High K/9 = More innings pitched)
    Pitches/Start vs. K/9: .51 (More strikeouts = more pitches per start)
    IP/Start vs. K/9: .24 (More strikeouts = more innings pitched per start)
    Pitches/IP vs. K/9: .24 (More strikeouts = more pitches per inning pitched)

    Again, the correlations are pretty small, but strikeout pitchers have a slightly better chance at success than non-strikeout pitchers.

    A small-sample size version is to compare the best pitchers in ERA versus the worst in ERA. You’ll see more pitch-to-contact guys in the 5s for ERA, while more strikeout pitchers appear in the low 3s and high 2s.

  • mazeville

    I agree with this column, but apparently so do the Twins, which you only briefly referred to with the line, “and some 2012 draftees.” Those “2012 draftees” include somewhat risky picks in the form of hard-throwing relievers whom they think could be converted into starters. Those “2012 draftees” include Jose Berrios, whose K/9 rate was a ridiculous 14.1 this year (low level, I know, but he’s 18).

    I’m no fan of the team’s pitching performance, and its reliance on pitch-to-contact guys in recent years has been maddening. But you’ve completely blown off that 2012 draft, which was notable for the team’s heavy emphasis on hard throwers — something I haven’t seen from the Twins in a long time. You’re about six months too late on this one.

  • Dave

    Regarding strikeouts and correllation with success, just as important as correllation with current success is predictability of future success. I haven’t heard this explicitly stated, but I’ve always implied from reading the sabermetric literate bloggers that high strikeout pitchers are more likely to have future success than low strikeout pitchers.

    It would be interesting to see a correllation of K/9 to next year’s ERA. Although, I would expect current year’s ERA to correllate much more with the following year’s ERA than this year’s K/9 with the following year’s ERA. An even better study would be to group single season’s into ERA buckets, say 2.5-2.75, 2.75-3, 3-3.25, etc. Then, further subdivide each ERA bucket into low, medium, and high K/9 groups. Then see if and how much the following year’s ERA was lower for the higher K/9 group within each ERA bucket.

    I’m not going to take the time to do the study outlined above, but I’d be really interested in the results if anyone ever did!

  • mike wants wins

    But mazeville, not one of those guys will be up in less than 3 years, and let’s temper our excitement on JO. Even a straight fastball thrown at that speed will dominate short season players. Let’s see how he does in A ball before we get too excited one way or the other. And, nearly all of those hard throwers were relief pitchers, let’s see if they can pitch long into a game. They passed on plenty of starting pitchers.

  • mazeville

    I’m a little tardy on this response, but my point, Mike, isn’t so much enthusiasm for the young crop of pitchers — I fully understand that it’ll take a while for them to reach the majors (though, I content that JO’s debut is as exciting a development in the Twins’ system as there’s been in a while …).

    My point, instead, is to note that Aaron should have given that more acknowledgement than just a few words in passing. Given his point — that the Twins need to change their pitching philosophy and find more pitchers who miss bats — is right on target, to the point that the TWINS CHANGED THEIR DRAFTING PHILOSOPHY ALREADY. He’s LATE. That’s my point.

  • bill

    I think it was Dave St. Peter on Barreiro’s show a couple years ago who was asked “all things being equal, do you draft the high upside pitcher or the position player?” Without hesitation, St. Peter answered “position player.” The logic is obvious, esp. considering escalating injury rates with pitchers. Problem is, by the time a strikeout pitcher reaches free agency, he will have already pitched his best seasons. His fastball velocity will quickly decline, his joints will become more frail, etc. Plenty of guys can be effective well into their 30s, but all things being equal, the TWins need to place a higher emphasis on drafting pitchers and pony up the cash to lock up free agent position players, whose skill sets don’t decline as rapidly (namely, power – speed guys are like pitchers whose primes are early).