July 21, 2015

What should the Twins do at the trade deadline?

Eduardo Escobar and Kurt Suzuki Twins

For the past four seasons the only questions surrounding the Twins at the trade deadline were about whether they should trade away veteran players and whether any of the veteran players they might trade away would even interest contending teams, but this season is very different. Not only have they emerged as surprise contenders by starting 50-42, the Twins have done so despite three obvious weaknesses that could potentially be addressed with midseason pickups.

Starting catcher Kurt Suzuki has been terrible on both sides of the ball. He's hit .227/.283/.303 for a .586 OPS that ranks 26th out of the 28 regular catchers. He's thrown out 19 percent of steal attempts compared to the MLB rate of 31 percent and fares poorly in pitch-framing metrics every year. Suzuki's good first half last season convinced the Twins to give him a two-year, $12 million extension, but that decision looked highly questionable then and looks awful now.

He hit .237/.294/.357 from 2010-2013 and he's hit .235/.285/.326 since the extension. At age 31 with heavy workloads throughout his nine-year career there's little reason to expect Suzuki to turn things around. He's been among MLB's worst regulars and his backups--first Chris Herrmann and now Eric Fryer--are not starting-caliber players, leaving the Twins with an ugly situation behind the plate. Their catchers rank 25th in OPS and have been below average defensively.

Catcher is the spot where the Twins could make the biggest upgrade, but unfortunately it's also the spot where even an average all-around player typically carries a huge price tag at the trade deadline. To further complicate things Suzuki is under contract for $6 million next season, which isn't much in the grand scheme of MLB money but may be enough to make the Twins think twice about giving up prospects for a second catcher making considerable money.

Opening Day shortstop Danny Santana has been even worse than Suzuki, hitting .221/.241/.306 with a ghastly 63/4 K/BB ratio and committing 15 errors in 60 games. His current .547 OPS would be the third-worst in Twins history among hitters with at least 400 plate appearances. His overall value varies depending on which defensive metrics you rely on, but Baseball-Reference.com has Santana as MLB's worst all-around player with -1.7 Wins Above Replacement.

The bad news is that, much like for catchers, acquiring even an average all-around shortstop at the trade deadline is costly and difficult. The good news is that the Twins already have an average all-around shortstop in Eduardo Escobar. Based on both the eyes and the numbers Escobar is a solid defensive shortstop. He's not a good hitter, which is why manager Paul Molitor choosing to start Escobar in left field 27 times is confusing, but his bat is perfectly decent at shortstop.

Escobar has hit .260/.299/.384 in 279 games for the Twins, including .254/.284/.400 in 66 games this year. MLB shortstops as a whole are hitting .256/.303/.369 this year. His numbers are never going to look very pretty and his strike-zone control is barely better than Santana's, but Escobar is an average-hitting shortstop with average-or-better defensive skills if the Twins would simply let him play the position he held for nearly all of last season.

Relievers haven't been as big of a weakness for the pitching staff as catchers and shortstops have been for the lineup, but if you remove All-Star closer Glen Perkins from the equation the rest of the Twins' bullpen is revealed to be an unreliable, low-strikeout mess. Casey Fien and Blaine Boyer have been the primary setup men while combining for 35 strikeouts in 70 innings. Perkins has 37 strikeouts in 38 innings and that's not even a particularly great rate for a reliever.

Aaron Thompson was the primary lefty setup man until his early magic wore off and he was sent to Triple-A, so Brian Duensing was elevated to the role despite 47 strikeouts in 78 innings since last season. Relying on Fien, Duensing, and Boyer to get late-inning outs is no way to stay in the playoff picture and the other arms currently in the Twins' bullpen are Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham, demoted starter Trevor May, and freshly called up southpaw specialist Ryan O'Rourke.

Perkins has converted 28-of-29 save chances with a 1.41 ERA to rank third among AL relievers in Win Probability Added at 2.48. Every other reliever in the Twins' bullpen has combined for a 4.30 ERA (which would rank 28th) and a Win Probability Added of 0.86 (which would rank 19th). Even with Perkins' strikeouts included the bullpen has by far the lowest strikeout rate in baseball at 6.1 per nine innings when no other team is below 7.3.

Better relief pitching is needed, period. There are some in-house options with upside like Michael Tonkin, who's again dominating at Triple-A and has held his own in brief stints with the Twins. Of course, there's also room for the Twins to give an extended chance to a minor leaguer like Tonkin and add a veteran to the late-inning mix. And the good news is that acquiring capable relievers at the trade deadline is common practice and doesn't have to be overly expensive.

Teams often overpay when focusing on a specific reliever, especially a big-name closer, which is what the Twins did in sending top catching prospect Wilson Ramos to the Nationals for so-called proven closer Matt Capps in mid-2010. However, when teams are flexible and patient enough to let the market sort itself out there are usually decent setup men to be had for mid-level prospects, which is what the Twins did in getting Jon Rauch and Brian Fuentes inexpensively.

Perkins is a very good closer under team control through 2018, so there's zero need for the Twins to go nuts pursuing a big-ticket arm like Aroldis Chapman, Jonathan Papelbon, or Francisco Rodriguez. Instead they merely need someone to provide an upgrade over Fien, Duensing, and Boyer, which isn't a high bar and gives them plenty of options. Making the bullpen better should be a priority, but avoiding overpaying for two months of a veteran reliever is also important.

Catcher, shortstop, and bullpen are three obvious weaknesses. They can improve shortstop at no cost by handing the job back to Escobar. They should be able to improve the bullpen at minimal cost by shopping around for a decent setup man who can throw 20 solid innings down the stretch. To improve catcher would come with a bigger cost, because there are no in-house options, good catchers carry high price tags, and Suzuki is already on the books for $6 million in 2016.

For a lot more about the Twins' trade deadline plans, including some potential big-name targets, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

July 16, 2015

Reviewing the Twins’ first half: Pitchers

Glen Perkins Twins

Twins pitching was abysmal from 2011-2014, ranking second-worst in ERA and worst in strikeouts among 30 teams. This year they're 15th in ERA, putting them on pace to allow 145 fewer runs per 162 games. However, they're still dead last in strikeouts and have improved to just 26th in xFIP. Vastly improved defense has played a big part, but luck has been a factor too. Before the second half gets underway here's a pitcher-by-pitcher look at the individual performances ...

Phil Hughes: .287/.303/.495 in 486 plate appearances

Last season Phil Hughes logged a career-high 210 innings and posted the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the history of baseball. This year the durability and excellent control remain, but Hughes' strikeout rate has plummeted and his home run rate has skyrocketed. On a per-plate appearance basis his strikeouts are down 36 percent and he's served up a league-high 22 homers in 18 starts after allowing a total of 16 homers in 32 starts last season.

Hughes' fastball velocity is down 1.5 miles per hour and hitters have teed off on it, adjusting to his strike-throwing machine approach and/or simply taking advantage of a lesser version of the pitch. Whatever the case, he's gone from No. 1 starter to innings-eating mid-rotation starter, which was the fear when the Twins reacted to Hughes' career-year by handing him a three-year, $42 million extension with two seasons remaining on his original deal.

Kyle Gibson: .241/.305/.371 in 468 plate appearances

Nothing has really changed within Kyle Gibson's secondary numbers compared to last year, but his ERA has improved from 4.47 to 2.85 and he's avoided the blowups that plagued him every few turns in the rotation. His strikeout rate (16 percent vs. 14 percent), walk rate (8 percent in both years), and ground-ball rate (54 percent in both years) are all remarkably similar to last season and he's already given up almost as many homers (11) in 18 starts as he did (12) in 32 starts.

The big change is opponents hitting .165 with runners in scoring position compared to .277 last year, which explains avoiding big innings. At some point those numbers are going to normalize and when they do Gibson looks more like a 3.85 ERA starter than a 2.85 ERA starter, but nothing says his luck has to run out immediately and a 3.85 ERA starter is still plenty valuable. He's been the best starter on a team that handed out $170 million to three free agent starters since 2014.

Mike Pelfrey: .293/.357/.398 in 424 plate appearances

Unhappy about being moved to the bullpen during spring training, Mike Pelfrey got his wish and remained in the rotation following Ervin Santana's suspension. He fared absurdly well early on despite no changes to his poor strikeout and walk rates, constantly getting himself into jams and then wriggling out of trouble. Eventually that caught up to Pelfrey, who finished the first half by allowing 27 runs in his final 32 innings to take his ERA from 2.28 to 4.00 in six starts.

There's been lots of talk about pitching coach Neil Allen convincing Pelfrey to rely on off-speed pitches more, but that storyline loses a little steam when you consider his 4.41 xFIP is no different than his 4.42 xFIP for the Mets from 2008-2012 and his 4.5 strikeouts per nine innings are worse than his 5.0 mark during that span. Pelfrey has taken a somewhat different approach to pitching, but the results ended up in the same mediocre place once the early good fortunate vanished.

Trevor May: .286/.323/.428 in 364 plate appearances

Called up one week into the season to replace the injured Ricky Nolasco in the rotation, Trevor May led Twins starters in fastball velocity, strikeout rate, and xFIP. So naturally he was the starter moved to the bullpen when Santana returned from suspension. May took the demotion in stride, finishing the first half with four scoreless relief innings, but given his performance, raw stuff, and long-term upside the 25-year-old right-hander deserves to be in the rotation.

May was a mess in his first few starts as a rookie, but in his last 25 games dating back to August he's thrown 121 innings with 113 strikeouts and 27 walks. He still has plenty to work on, but May has seemingly solved his control problems in the minors without sacrificing velocity or strikeouts and only needs more patience from the Twins to establish himself as a solid mid-rotation starter three years after they acquired him from the Phillies for Ben Revere.

Tommy Milone: .243/.304/.382 in 276 plate appearances

When the Twins acquired Tommy Milone from the A's in exchange for Sam Fuld last July he was an established mid-rotation starter with a 3.83 ERA in nearly 500 career innings. They never saw that pitcher, as Milone allowed 21 runs in 22 innings before being shut down with a benign tumor in his neck that required surgery. He came into this season with a clean bill of health and secured a spot in the rotation, but was demoted to Triple-A in late April.

Milone toyed with Triple-A hitters, going 4-0 with a 0.70 ERA and 47/3 K/BB ratio in five starts before the Twins brought him back to replace the injured Nolasco. He predictably hasn't been able to continue racking up strikeouts since returning, but Milone posted a 1.84 ERA and 33/12 K/BB ratio in 44 innings during his final seven starts. He'll come back down to earth at some point, but Milone has been out-performing his modest raw stuff for five seasons now. He's a solid pitcher.

J.R. Graham: .265/.324/.445 in 171 plate appearances

J.R. Graham has been an ideal Rule 5 pick, showing long-term upside with a mid-90s fastball and proving useful in the short term when spotted in low-leverage situations. Sixteen pitchers have 10 or more innings for the Twins this year and Graham is the only one with an average fastball above 95 mph. Home runs have been an issue and Graham's command comes and goes, but remove one disastrous May 14 outing from his season totals and he has a 1.85 ERA in 39 innings.

Blaine Boyer: .262/.315/.416 in 164 plate appearances

Who leads the AL in relief appearances? Blaine Boyer, obviously. He came into this season as a 33-year-old journeyman with a 4.63 career ERA and his current secondary numbers are actually worse than his career marks, including just 18 strikeouts in 39 innings. And yet Boyer has a 2.75 ERA while spending much of the season as the Twins' primary setup man, refusing to implode. It hasn't been all smoke and mirrors, but it's been a lot of smoke and mirrors.

Ricky Nolasco: .324/.369/.441 in 149 plate appearances

For the second straight season Ricky Nolasco has been injured and ineffective. This time he made just seven starts, going on the disabled list with an elbow injury in April and an ankle injury in June. After a month of unsuccessful rehab Nolasco underwent ankle surgery that seems likely to end his season, so he'll have a 5.40 ERA in 192 innings halfway through a four-year, $49 million contract. What a disaster.

Glen Perkins: .188/.217/.246 in 143 plate appearances

Already one of the three best closers in Twins history, Glen Perkins set a new team record by converting 28-of-28 save chances in the first half. He also had a 1.21 ERA and 36/5 K/BB ratio in 37 innings while holding opponents to a .188 batting average. Perkins has merged plus raw stuff, impeccable command, and an analytical approach to get extraordinary results in the ninth inning at a time when the rest of the bullpen has often been shaky.

Aaron Thompson: .264/.319/.364 in 137 plate appearances

Aaron Thompson's deal with the devil lasted about six weeks, during which time the 28-year-old journeyman moved up the bullpen hierarchy to earn manager Paul Molitor's trust in a setup role. And then he turned back into a pumpkin, initially being relegated to left-handed specialist duties and then being demoted to Triple-A. Ryan O'Rourke replaced him in the bullpen, but Thompson remains on the 40-man roster and could return in a middle relief role.

Ryan Pressly: .257/.331/.314 in 119 plate appearances

Ryan Pressly was a Rule 5 pick in 2013 and, much like Graham currently, was useful in the short term while showing some long-term upside with a mid-90s fastball. Two years later he has a 3.46 ERA in 133 total innings for the Twins, making up for poor strikeout and walk rates by allowing just eight homers in 556 plate appearances. Unfortunately now Pressly is sidelined by a strained lat muscle.

Casey Fien: .250/.270/.429 in 116 plate appearances

After a three-season run as a quality setup man Casey Fien just hasn't been the same this year while struggling with some arm problems. He put together a couple of good stretches, but even during that success there were obvious red flags. Fien's velocity has been normal for the most part, but compared to 2012-2014 he's lost nearly half of his strikeouts and generated one-third fewer swinging strikes. That's a particularly bad combination for a fly-ball pitcher.

For a lot more talk about the Twins' first half, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode featuring our MVP ballots and player-by-player breakdowns.

June 3, 2015

Alex Meyer and the familiar path of starter prospects moving to the bullpen

Alex Meyer Twins

Alex Meyer was considered a potential top-of-the-rotation starter when the Twins acquired him from the Nationals in exchange for center fielder Denard Span in November of 2012. At the time he was a 22-year-old former first-round pick coming off a strong season at Single-A and rated as a consensus top-100 prospect. Meyer made his Twins debut at Double-A in 2013 and pitched well, but was limited to 13 starts by arm problems.

Meyer moved up to Triple-A last season and again pitched well, leading the International League in strikeouts, but shoulder problems caused him to miss a few starts and kept him from getting a September call-up to the Twins. This spring he was in the mix for an Opening Day rotation spot, but only technically, as the Twins clearly viewed Trevor May as the lone viable option among the prospects in camp and sent Meyer back to Triple-A well before final cuts.

His second go-around at Triple-A has been a mess. Meyer walked six batters in his first start of the season and walked five batters while failing to make it out of the fourth inning in his second start. He had a great third start, striking out 11 in six shutout innings, but then followed that up by allowing 25 runs in 25 innings in his next five starts. And those may prove to be his final five starts, because the Twins have shifted Meyer to Rochester's bullpen.

As a 6-foot-9 right-hander with a mid-90s fastball and shaky control Meyer being moved to the bullpen shouldn't shock anyone and in fact when the Twins traded for him there were already some prospect analysts who doubted he'd remain a starter long term. What makes the move so disappointing now is that Meyer overpowered Double-A and Triple-A hitters as a starter in 2013 and 2014, racking up 237 strikeouts in 200 innings, and was on the verge of the majors.

What also makes the move so disappointing is that Meyer represented the Twins' best chance to develop a young, top-of-the-rotation starter with powerful, bat-missing raw stuff in a depressingly long time. It was supposed to be a lineup built around Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano with a rotation built around Meyer. It's still possible that Meyer will wind up starting again, but for now his upside should be recalibrated from top-of-the-rotation starter to late-inning reliever.

And there's no shame in that. Part of the problem with pinning a team's hopes and dreams to the successful development of prospects is that half of them don't pan out at all and the half that do pan out often do so in different roles. Slick-fielding shortstop and center field prospects often turn into third basemen and left fielders. Power-hitting catcher prospects often turn into first basemen. And hard-throwing starting pitcher prospects often turn into relievers.

Across baseball the majority of the relievers in nearly any bullpen began their professional careers as starters and many of them have spent more of their careers as starters than as relievers. With any young pitcher the preference would be for them to thrive as a starter, but some combination of performance, durability, and temperament mean that many of those pitchers are more valuable succeeding in a 70-inning role rather than struggling or getting injured in a 200-inning role.

The greatest relief pitcher of all time, Mariano Rivera, spent five seasons starting in the minors and made his MLB debut starting for the Yankees as a 25-year-old. Rivera started 10 games with a 5.94 ERA, got moved to the bullpen, and turned out just fine. And if any team should know how well starters becoming relievers can go it's the Twins. There are six relievers in Twins history with 100 or more saves and all six of them--including their current All-Star closer--were starters.

Glen Perkins was a first-round draft pick after starring as a college starter at the University of Minnesota. He was exclusively a starter in the minors, twice cracking Baseball America's top-100 prospects list. Perkins got his feet wet in the majors as a reliever, but joined the rotation full time at age 25 and started 43 games between 2008 and 2009. He went 18-12 as a starter, but it came with an ugly 5.02 ERA and some injuries, leading to a permanent move to the bullpen in 2011.

Joe Nathan was a shortstop at Stony Brook University and became a pitcher in the minors before debuting with the Giants as a starter at age 24. He made 29 starts between 1999 and 2000 with a 4.60 ERA and more walks than strikeouts. Then he blew out his elbow, undergoing Tommy John surgery. Nathan returned in 2003 as a reliever, got traded to the Twins in 2004, and went on to save 377 games and make six All-Star teams while earning nearly $100 million.

Rick Aguilera was a starter at BYU, worked strictly as a starter in the minors, and spent his first three years in the majors starting for the Mets with a 31-17 record and a 3.59 ERA through age 25. Elbow problems in 1988 and a trade to Minnesota in 1989 led to him being moved to the bullpen and Aguilera had two successful stints as the Twins' closer separated by a trade to the Red Sox and a one-year experiment as a starter. He had MLB's second-most saves from 1990-2000.

Eddie Guardado made 73 appearances in the minors while coming up through the Twins' farm system and 72 of them were starts. He debuted at age 22 as a starter, but went 3-15 with a 6.95 ERA in 25 starts and was moved to the bullpen at age 24. In his first full season as a reliever he led the league in appearances with 83, earning the "Everyday Eddie" nickname, but it took him five years to progress from lefty specialist to setup man to closer at age 30.

Jeff Reardon was drafted out of high school by the Mets as a starter and spent his first two pro years starting, with decent results. He was shifted to the bullpen in his third pro season and after 30 relief appearances at Triple-A the Mets called him up at age 23. Reardon never started a game in the majors, making all 880 of his appearances out of the bullpen and saving 367 games to rank second in MLB history behind only Lee Smith at the time of his retirement.

Ron Davis was drafted by the Cubs as a starter and spent his first two-and-a-half pro seasons starting. He was traded to the Yankees while at Double-A and never started again, debuting later that season. He spent three years as a Yankees setup man, making the All-Star team at age 25, at which point the Twins traded Roy Smalley for Davis and made him their closer with painful results. Davis saved 108 games for the Twins, but it came with a 4.51 ERA and 19-40 record.

And if the above six closers with 100-plus saves in Minnesota aren't enough, the list of prominent Twins relievers who began their careers as starters also includes Matt Guerrier, Juan Rincon, J.C. Romero, Mike Trombley, Al Worthington, LaTroy Hawkins, and Brian Duensing. In fact, of the 14 pitchers in Twins history to make at least 250 appearances as relievers all but one of them started before they relieved, with Jesse Crain being the lone exception.

Whether they're making the right call at the right time with Meyer is uncertain, as is whether he'll thrive in that 70-inning role. As a 25-year-old with a history of arm issues and career-long control problems Meyer is no sure thing to stay healthy and thrive regardless of the role, but the Twins have been skeptical of his ability to develop into a valuable starter for a while now and there isn't much imagination required to envision him shutting down hitters out of the bullpen.

Check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode for talk about May's new approach, Oswaldo Arcia's role once he's healthy, and what happened to the Twins' pitching depth.

May 27, 2015

Wait, the Twins are winning? How did that happen?

Glen Perkins and Paul Molitor Twins

Coming off four straight 90-loss seasons the Twins were projected to finish in last place by nearly everyone, myself included, but instead they have the third-best record in the American League at 27-18. Since a brutal opening week of the season in which they went 1-6 and were outscored by 33 runs the Twins are 26-12 with a run differential of plus-52 and they've won 22 of their last 31 games. They're winning and they're winning a lot. But how? Here are three big reasons:

Scoring In Bunches

There's nothing impressive about the Twins' overall hitting numbers. They've batted .257 with 35 homers and 112 walks in 45 games, ranking 20th among MLB teams in both on-base percentage (.311) and slugging percentage (.388). They also haven't done much running under new manager Paul Molitor, stealing just 18 bases while being thrown out 11 times. And yet they've scored the eighth-most runs in baseball, including an AL-best 5.1 runs per game since their 1-6 start.

As a team the Twins have hit .257 with a .699 OPS overall, but with runners in scoring position they've hit .294 with an .806 OPS. When the bases are empty they've hit .240 with a .654 OPS, but with runners on base they've hit .282 with a .760 OPS. Whether you want to chalk up those huge differences to clutch performances, pure luck, or something in between it's easy to see why the Twins' lineup has scored a lot more runs than the overall numbers would suggest.

They've also done an exceptional job of clustering their hits together, exploding for big, multi-run innings to knock out the opposing starting pitcher or put a game out of reach. That's partly tied to the aforementioned significant uptick in production with runners on base and especially runners in scoring position, but it goes beyond that to an offense that has focused an unusually high portion of its damage within one inning per game.

Or, put another way: If a team averages nine hits per game they'll score a whole lot more runs if five or six of them are clustered together in the same inning than they would with a more even distribution of 1-2 per inning. Again, whether you want to chalk up the clustering of hits to clutch performances, pure luck, or something in between anyone who's watched the Twins this season can tell you their ability to explode for a big inning has been remarkable to see.

This year the Twins have scored four or more runs in an inning 15 times in 45 games, which is a pace of 54 times per 162 games. On average from 2011-2014 the Twins scored four or more runs in an inning 29 times per 162 games. So they've upped their OPS by 100 points with runners in scoring position, they've maximized a modest amount of overall damage by clustering it together, and they've exploded for a huge inning to put a game out of reach 2-3 times per week.

And that's how a lineup that ranks 20th in OPS can rank eighth in runs scored.

Late-Inning Relief

This season, like last season, the Twins' bullpen ranks dead last among all MLB teams in both strikeout rate and xFIP. Their rank in ERA is essentially unchanged from 23rd to 21st. However, within that all-too-familiar sub par performance from Twins relievers is some very good work in the late innings of close games. They've been bad overall, but in high-leverage situations where giving up a run could change the outcome of a game they've actually been quite good.

Glen Perkins is responsible for a lot of that. His excellence in the closer role is nothing new--he's already one of the three or four best relievers in Twins history--but he's been nearly flawless this season by converting 17 of 17 save chances with a 1.25 ERA and 21/2 K/BB ratio in 22 innings. Perkins ranks third among all relievers in Win Probability Added, which accounts for the situations in which performances occur within games and how that impacts the team's odds of winning.

His primary setup men have also thrived in high-leverage spots, which is shocking considering his primary setup men are journeyman minor-league signings Blaine Boyer and Aaron Thompson. Boyer is 32 years old and came into this season with a 4.63 ERA in the majors and a 5.31 ERA at Triple-A. He was terrible during the opening week, giving up runs in each of his first four games. And since then he's allowed a grand total of one run in 20 innings.

Thompson didn't even make the Opening Day roster, but quickly leapfrogged Brian Duensing and Caleb Thielbar in the hierarchy of lefty setup men. At age 28 he came into this season with 15 innings in the majors and 980 innings in the minors. And now he leads the American League with 23 appearances, 14 of which have come in "close and late" situations, and he's been nearly unhittable in those spots while holding lefties to a .094 batting average overall.

Thompson and Boyer both crack the top 10 in Win Probability Added among all American League non-closers and no trio of relievers in the league has a higher cumulative WPA total than Perkins, Thompson, and Boyer. They've combined for a WPA of 3.23 and the rest of the Twins' bullpen has a negative WPA, because in "close and late" situations the bullpen has held opponents to a .211 batting average and .536 OPS compared to a .314 batting average and .907 OPS in other spots.

And that's how a bullpen that ranks 21st in ERA can rank third in Win Probability Added.

Non-Disastrous Starting Pitching

Make no mistake, the rotation hasn't been good and Twins starters again rank dead last among all MLB teams in strikeouts. However, even being "not good" is actually a step up from the disastrous 2011-2014 rotation that ranked dead last in strikeout rate, ERA, xFIP, Wins Above Replacement, and opponents' batting average. For four years the Twins' rotation was a dumpster fire on which each new starter would pour more gasoline and now it's merely a standard bag of trash.

Depth has played a big part. Instead of constantly dipping down into the minors for a parade of replacement-level (or worse) starters the Twins actually have more decent rotation options than actual rotation spots, which is why Tommy Milone is currently dominating Triple-A hitters and the team is a month away from facing a tough decision when the biggest free agent signing in franchise history, Ervin Santana, returns from an 80-game suspension.

Twins starters rank 25th in xFIP thanks largely to the lack of strikeouts, but because they've been better at wriggling out of jams and limiting damage within troublesome innings the rotation sits right in the middle of the MLB pack in ERA at 15th. Whether you choose to put your faith in ERA or xFIP, going from dead last by a wide margin to somewhere within the realm of respectability has a huge impact on a number of fronts.

Compared to 2011-2014 the rotation is remaining in the game nearly 10 percent longer per start and surrendering 20 percent fewer runs per inning. Not as many games are already out of reach within the first few innings due to the starter blowing up and exiting early, which in turn leads to a less-taxing workload for the bullpen's middle relief underbelly and more of an opportunity for the Twins' lineup to explode for big, game-breaking innings of its own.

And that's how a rotation that ranks 25th in xFIP can still be a massive improvement.

To hear two podcast hosts try to figure out how to feel optimistic about their favorite team again, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

May 14, 2015

Appreciating the greatness of Glen Perkins

Glen Perkins Twins

Glen Perkins struggling in September before being shut down with forearm and elbow injuries last season was the rotten cherry on top of a rancid Twins sundae, turning one of the team's few bright spots into a question mark at the end of a fourth straight 90-loss season. Perkins had been his usual brilliant self through late August, converting 32 of 36 saves with a 2.44 ERA and 64/9 K/BB ratio in 55 innings. And then things fell apart.

In eight appearances from August 26 to September 16 he allowed 10 runs and struck out just two of the 32 batters he faced. And in the surest sign of something being very wrong, he served up five home runs in 6.1 innings after giving up a grand total of five home runs in his previous 102.1 innings dating back to 2013. Perkins was finally shut down for the final two weeks of the season after allowing runs in four consecutive games.

All offseason Perkins and the Twins insisted he was healthy, but a strained oblique muscle early in spring training further complicated his comeback and left doubts heading into Opening Day. Those doubts have now vanished, to say the least. Perkins has been nearly flawless, converting all 11 of his save chances with a 1.17 ERA and 14/0 K/BB ratio in 15.1 innings while holding opponents to a .193 batting average and zero home runs.

His fastball velocity is back to where it was before the late-season arm issues, he's inducing the least "hard contact" and second-most "soft contact" of his career, and his swinging strike rate is right in line with his career norms as a reliever despite throwing a career-high 60 percent of his pitches in the strike zone. Perkins combines good raw stuff and command with intelligence and an interest in analytics, and the result is pretty close to a perfect pitcher.

He pounds the strike zone and rarely walks anyone, yet still manages to miss plenty of bats and give up very few home runs while being nearly as effective against righties as lefties. Perkins will go through rough patches at some point this season, because that's just how baseball works, but aside from a brutal two-week stretch in which he was clearly playing through an injury he's been an elite reliever since moving to the bullpen full time in 2011.

During that span he has a 2.65 ERA and .227 opponents' batting average in 275 appearances, striking out 300 and walking 68 in 272 innings. He's also been difficult to run on, allowing seven steals compared to seven caught stealings, which is a nice bonus skill to have in the ninth inning. Oh, and Perkins has converted 88 percent of his save chances since replacing Matt Capps as the Twins' closer in mid-2012. By comparison, Mariano Rivera had a career save rate of 89 percent.

Expected Fielding Independent Pitching is a metric that attempts to remove defense and luck from the mix to judge pitchers based strictly on what they can control and since 2011 the only relievers with 250 or more innings and an xFIP under 3.00 are Perkins, Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, David Robertson, Greg Holland, and Mark Melancon. In five seasons as a full-time reliever his xFIP has never been higher than 3.13.

As for his rank among the best relievers in Twins history, it's important to note Perkins is pitching as well as ever at age 32 and is under team control through 2018. With that disclaimer, he already ranks fourth in Win Probability Added behind Joe Nathan, Eddie Guardado, and Rick Aguilera, and by the end of this year he'll likely trail only Nathan and Aguilera in saves. Here are the Twins' strikeout, walk, and strikeout-to-walk ratio leaders among relievers with at least 200 innings:

                 SO/9                      BB/9                      K/BB
Joe Nathan       10.9     Carl Willis       2.0     GLEN PERKINS      4.3
Tom Hall         10.1     Jeff Reardon      2.2     Joe Nathan        4.2
GLEN PERKINS      9.4     GLEN PERKINS      2.2     Jeff Reardon      3.3
Eddie Guardado    8.6     Bob Wells         2.3     Rick Aguilera     3.2
Juan Rincon       8.5     Rick Aguilera     2.4     Carl Willis       2.8

Perkins ranks third in strikeout rate behind Nathan and Tom Hall, third in walk rate behind Carl Willis and Jeff Reardon, and is the only Twins reliever to crack the top five of both categories. All of which adds up to Perkins boasting the best strikeout-to-walk ratio by a reliever in Twins history at 4.3 whiffs per walk, edging out Nathan, Reardon, and Aguilera. And last but not least Nathan is the only Twins reliever to allow fewer baserunners per nine innings than Perkins.

Perkins was a first-round pick at the University of Minnesota, a top prospect in the Twins' farm system, and a decent starter in the Twins' rotation, but moving to the bullpen enabled him to add 3-4 miles per hour to his fastball and he's complemented that added velocity with an increasingly smart approach to pitching to become an absolute stud. By the time he hangs up his cleats, zips his fly, and shaves his neck beard he'll be one of the 2-3 best relievers in Twins history.

Glen Perkins, Proven Closer.

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