May 1, 2013

What has gotten into Kevin Correia?

kevin correia twins

I spent much of the offseason criticizing the Twins for signing Kevin Correia to a two-year, $10 million contract, wondering why a 32-year-old with such an underwhelming track record was their target in the first place and why they felt the need to make him a two-year commitment at a time when similarly mediocre starters were signing one-year deals all over the place. And now a month into the season Correia has a 2.23 ERA while going at least seven innings in all five starts.

On this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode we talked at length about the extent to which everyone but the Twins have been wrong about Correia so far and I certainly wouldn't begrudge anyone for piling on further, but I also thought it would be worthwhile to delve a little deeper into exactly how he's out-performed expectations. First, let's take a look at which pitches he's thrown and how often he's thrown them, as classified by PitchFX:

             2013    2012    2011
Fastball      13%     25%     27%
Sinker        24%     24%     25%
Cutter        35%     28%     28%
Curveball     12%     12%     12%
Changeup      16%     12%      8%

Pitch classifications are always tricky and in Correia's case what PitchFX is calling a "changeup" is actually what he calls a split-fingered fastball. And he's throwing that pitch a whole lot more often this season while significantly reducing his four-seam fastball usage. That's a conscious change to his approach and at first glance it's changed his results too, but let's go beyond ERA to examine how his 2013 numbers compare to his 2010-2012 numbers:

            SO%     BB%    BABIP      GB%     LOB%      HR%     xFIP
2013       10.6     3.5     .271     46.7     82.9      4.8     4.17
2010-12    13.8     7.3     .293     48.5     68.7     13.0     4.26

Part of why I disliked the Correia signing so much was that he had one of MLB's lowest strikeout rates from 2010-2012 at 13.8 percent (or 5.4 per nine innings). This year Correia's strikeout rate has actually dipped even lower to 10.6 percent (or 3.7 per nine innings), which is a decrease of 23 percent when broken down per plate appearance. To put that in some context, last year only one MLB starter had a strikeout rate below 11 percent and Max Scherzer led MLB at 29.4 percent.

Correia's strikeout rate has gone from bad to worse, but he's dramatically improved his walk rate. Despite pitching to so much contact he never had particularly good control, walking 3.5 per nine innings from 2010-2012 and never walking fewer than 2.4 per nine innings in a season. This year he's walked 1.2 per nine innings, which is an improvement of 52 percent per plate appearance. For context, strike-throwing machine Brad Radke's career walk rate was 1.6 per nine innings.

My perception of Correia's first five starts was that he induced a ton of ground balls, but in reality his ground-ball rate of 46.7 percent is around league average and below his rate of 48.5 percent from 2010-2012. So if his already awful strikeout rate has declined 23 percent and he's inducing fewer ground balls, how is Correia thriving? Improving his walk rate from mediocre to spectacular shouldn't be overlooked and leaning on the splitter has helped him against left-handed hitters.

Beyond that, however, he's been pretty fortunate/lucky. Correia's batting average on balls in play is .271, which is 22 points below his 2010-2012 mark and 19 points below MLB average. Of the runners he's put on base 82.9 percent have been stranded, compared to his 2010-2012 mark of 68.7 percent and the MLB average of 72.9 percent. And last but definitely not least, Correia has allowed a homer on 4.8 percent of his fly balls, compared to 13.0 percent from 2010-2012.

Giving up just two homers in 36.1 innings goes a long way toward making up for any weaknesses in other areas and Correia has definitely gotten away with some close calls on a handful of deep, well-struck fly balls that were hauled in on the warning track. And close calls or not, 4.8 percent simply isn't a sustainable rate of homers per fly ball. MLB average is 10 percent and his career mark is 10.6 percent, so going forward his home run rate can roughly be expected to double.

Making half his starts at Target Field will certainly help suppress Correia's homers, but he's called pitcher-friendly ballparks home for most of his career--including Petco Park in San Diego, which is the pitcher-friendly ballpark--and still had a typical rate. And despite having Target Field on their side Twins pitchers as a whole had a home run rate of 10.4 percent from 2010-2012, so at some point the ballpark can only do so much.

Advanced metrics like Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) take into account what the norms are for rates like batting average on balls in play, left-on-base percentage, and home runs per fly ball in an effort to show what a pitcher's ERA would look like if luck/good fortunate weren't a factor. Correia had a 4.26 xFIP from 2010-2012, including 4.34 last season. Through five starts this season his xFIP is 4.17.

It's also worth noting that Correia has gotten off to strong starts in past years only to end up with mediocre overall numbers. In fact, if you take his first five starts in each of 2010, 2011, and 2012 he had a 3.59 ERA in 90 innings. From his sixth start on in those three seasons Correia had a 5.04 ERA in 380 innings. That's not meant to show anything about Correia specifically so much as it's meant to say five starts are only five starts and April is only April.

There's no doubt that Correia has looked very good so far and if his improved control is here to stay that would be a big factor in his potential improvement, but for the most part the underlying factors within his performance are much closer to his career-long mediocrity than the nice-looking 2.23 ERA would suggest. None of which means his good fortunate/luck is guaranteed to change for the worse, but given how Correia has pitched things evening out would be bad news.


This week's blog content is sponsored by "Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes" author John Rosengren's upcoming appearance at the Minneapolis Sabes JCC on May 5. Please support him for supporting AG.com.

February 4, 2013

Twins Notes: MLB Network, Capps, Correia, Saunders, and Waldrop

"Clubhouse Confidential" on MLB Network is a really good, sabermetrically inclined show hosted by Brian Kenny and Friday's episode focused on the Twins. They had me on as a guest and then immediately after my segment they interviewed Terry Ryan. You don't see a whole lot of shows that feature a blogger and a general manager, which is why "Clubhouse Confidential" and Kenny are so fun to watch. Here's the opening segment, which includes my appearance:

And here's the interview with Ryan that followed:

I asked them to use the picture of me drinking from Twitter as the headshot, but it was a no-go.

• Two years ago the Twins paid $7.15 million to avoid arbitration with Matt Capps and last year they paid $4.5 million to re-sign him while also forfeiting a draft pick, but after a season in which he was limited to 29 innings by arm problems Capps could manage only a minor-league deal with the Indians. Capps was overpaid and overrated by the Twins at every turn for three years, but as a low-cost middle relief candidate he's a very solid pickup for the Indians.

• Fun facts: Capps has the 10th-most saves in Twins history despite converting just 79 percent of his save chances. Among the 31 pitchers with at least 40 saves from 2010-2012 he was second-to-last in strikeout rate, home run rate, and opponents' batting average. In two-and-a-half years with the Twins he threw 122 total innings, for which they gave up $13 million, Wilson Ramos, and a first-round draft pick. It was a bad trade then and they kept making it even worse.

Kevin Correia has spent his entire career in the National League, posting a 4.54 ERA in 1,066 innings through age 31, which is among the many reasons why it was a bad idea for the Twins to give him a two-year, $10 million contract. Tyler Mason of FOXSportsNorth.com asked Correia about the league switch--which has long been considered unfavorable for pitchers--and got an interesting response:

I think in the National League your innings get cut short because you get pinch-hit for in certain situations. So I'm looking forward to seeing how many innings I can put up in the American League for the first time in my career.

Which sounds good until you think about it. There have no doubt been times when Correia was pulled from a game because his spot in the lineup was due up, but that's hardly an every-start occurrence and is more than balanced out by getting to face the opposing pitcher multiple times per game. Last season NL and AL pitchers averaged an identical 5.9 innings per start. For his career Correia has allowed a .400 OPS to opposing pitchers and a .790 OPS to everyone else.

• It sure sounds like the Twins have a one-year offer on the table to free agent left-hander Joe Saunders, but he'd rather return to the Orioles if he can't get a multi-year deal. On last week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode Twins president Dave St. Peter made it pretty clear that they still have plenty of payroll space for 2013 but don't want to commit any additional money for 2014 or 2015, so while I'm hardly a Saunders fan overpaying him for one season would make sense.

Kyle Waldrop signed a minor-league deal with the Pirates after the Twins dropped him from the 40-man roster in October. He's been in the organization since 2004, when the Twins drafted him 25th overall with the compensatory pick for losing LaTroy Hawkins as a free agent, but injuries forced Waldrop to switch to the bullpen and at age 27 his upside is limited. Waldrop induces tons of ground balls, but managed just 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings at Triple-A.

Jeff Sullivan of Fan Graphs wrote an interesting article about Ryan Doumit and the impact of catcher defense on perceived value.

• I usually post the new "Gleeman and The Geek" episode here on Mondays, but we're recording later than usual this week because John Bonnes goes out of town for Super Bowl weekend every year and I didn't want to subject the world to another "Gleeman Without The Geek" episode like last time. When we do record this week's episode I'd like to include a mailbag segment, so if you have any questions post them in the comments section or send them to me via Twitter.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Rotoworld's annual "Fantasy Baseball Draft Guide," which is available in both magazine and online versions. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

January 30, 2013

Kevin Correia, free agent pitchers, and “better than the numbers”

Last week I wrote about how the Twins giving Kevin Correia a two-year, $10 million deal looks even worse now than it did back in December because so many equal or better starters have since signed one-year deals. That list then added another name when Shaun Marcum took a one-year deal from the Mets worth $4 million plus incentives. Marcum is an injury risk, but from 2010-2012 he threw 520 innings with a 3.62 ERA compared to 470 innings with a 4.77 ERA for Correia.

Here's an updated list of free agent starters who signed one-year contracts:

Brett Myers         Indians       $7.0 million
Scott Feldman       Cubs          $6.0 million
Scott Baker         Cubs          $5.5 million
Shaun Marcum        Mets          $4.0 million
Mike Pelfrey        Twins         $4.0 million
Roberto Hernandez   Rays          $3.3 million
Bartolo Colon       Athletics     $3.0 million
Jason Marquis       Padres        $3.0 million
John Lannan         Phillies      $2.5 million
Jeff Karstens       Pirates       $2.5 million
Jair Jurrjens       Orioles       $1.5 million
Jeff Francis        Rockies       $1.5 million
Freddy Garcia       Padres        Minor League
Erik Bedard         Astros        Minor league

Correia has topped 175 innings just once in his career and of the 91 pitchers to throw at least 400 innings as starters since 2010 he ranks 88th in ERA, 76th in xFIP, 81st in strikeout rate, and 80th in strikeout-to-walk ratio. Clearly the Twins are aware of those numbers, so why did they target Correia and feel the need to give him a two-year contract in a market where similar pitchers were available for one-year commitments? Here's what Terry Ryan told Phil Mackey of 1500 ESPN:

Well, I always go back to the scouting evaluation, people that have seen him, and we saw him a lot with the Pirates, and certainly before that when he was with the Padres and the Giants. We like his makeup, he has stuff, we had evaluators tell us and me in particular that this guy is better than the numbers.

I have a lot of faith and trust in people that have seen him, and they were adamant that this guy can help us. ... I don't think we overpaid drastically in this situation. People that know him say that he's a good teammate and all that type of stuff, so you take all of that into consideration. We needed pitching badly, so we went and got him.

I've been very skeptical of the recent talk about the Twins increasing their involvement in and reliance on statistical analysis and that quote is a prime example of why. Correia is 32 years old with a decade-long track record of mediocre or worse pitching, but for the Twins that abundance of data took a backseat to "makeup" and being "a good teammate" and their scouts saying "this guy is better than the numbers."

All of which would be fine if Correia were, say, 24 years old with just a couple hundred innings under his belt. In that case relying on scouting would be hugely important and could potentially give the Twins a significant advantage if done well. But at age 32, with 10 seasons and 1,066 innings of experience, Correia is exactly as good as his numbers. And those numbers include a 4.60 ERA in 159 career starts spent exclusively in the NL and a plummeting strikeout rate.

It's also worth wondering why exactly the Twins are so confident in their scouting when it comes to free agent starting pitchers, because their recent track record isn't pretty. They trusted their scouts and overlooked poor numbers to sign Jason Marquis last year and Livan Hernandez, Ramon Ortiz, and Sidney Ponson before that. Numbers would have told them to stay away from all four pitchers, who combined to throw 302 innings with a 5.90 ERA for $13 million.

I'd certainly like to see the Twins do more than dip their toes in the statistical analysis pool while so many other teams are swimming laps, but out-scouting other teams remains hugely important. In fact, an argument could be made that the value of out-scouting teams has increased as the MLB-wide reliance on statistical analysis has increased. Teams that zig while other teams zag will always have an opportunity to benefit.

Of course, the "out-scouting" part is what makes that actually work. If instead a team is miles behind many other teams in statistical analysis and continues to target players based on scouting that hasn't done a particularly good job ... well, that's an awfully dangerous combination. And unfortunately when it comes to free agent starting pitchers that's exactly where the Twins find themselves and how they ended up overpaying a mediocre-at-best 32-year-old.

For a lot more about the Twins' rotation plans, plus a lengthy interview with Twins president Dave St. Peter, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.


This week's blog content is sponsored by Peter David Benson's book "All Babies Suck," which is available on Amazon.com as a free Kindle download. Please support him for supporting AG.com.

January 23, 2013

Twins Notes: Butera, Duensing, Correia, Blackburn, and farm rankings

• This year the Twins' only arbitration-eligible players were Brian Duensing and Drew Butera, both of whom were in their first season of eligibility and both of whom avoided a potential hearing by agreeing to one-year contracts. Duensing gets $1.3 million and Butera gets $700,000. Alexi Casilla would have been arbitration eligible for the third and final time, but the Twins dropped him in November rather than pay him around $1.75 million.

I devoted a whole post to Duensing two weeks ago, so I won't rehash everything, but the short version is that this could be a make-or-break year as he tries to establish himself as a valuable reliever after flopping as a starter. If he fares well in a full-time bullpen role he'd certainly be worth keeping around in 2014 for the $2 million or so he'd likely get via the arbitration process, but if Duensing struggles he could be a Casilla-like non-tender candidate next offseason.

Butera getting a raise from the $450,000 minimum salary to $700,000 is meaningless in terms of the Twins' payroll, but whether he warrants a place on the roster for a fourth consecutive season remains in question. There's a place for good-glove, bad-hit catchers on a lot of teams, but Butera is quite possibly the worst hitter in baseball and it's awfully tough to make up for that defensively. With that said, if he gets fewer than 150 plate appearances again it will barely matter.

• I've talked a lot about how it made little sense for the Twins to give Kevin Correia a two-year, $10 million deal because plenty of equal or better starting pitchers are almost always available for one-year contracts. Correia signed in early December and six weeks later some of those starters still haven't signed, suggesting the Twins were impatient in addition to simply overrating him. And here are 11 examples of free agent starters who accepted one-year deals:

Brett Myers         Indians       $7.0 million
Scott Feldman       Cubs          $6.0 million
Scott Baker         Cubs          $5.5 million
Mike Pelfrey        Twins         $4.0 million
Roberto Hernandez   Rays          $3.3 million
Bartolo Colon       Athletics     $3.0 million
Jason Marquis       Padres        $3.0 million
John Lannan         Phillies      $2.5 million
Jeff Karstens       Pirates       $2.5 million
Jeff Francis        Rockies       $1.5 million
Erik Bedard         Astros        Minor league

I'm not counting Dan Haren, whose one-year deal was in a higher price range. If you're being kind to Correia he might be better than 2-3 of those 11 starters, but if so it isn't by much. Yet all of them were had for one-year deals--including Mike Pelfrey by the Twins--and that list will grow with names from a group of still-unsigned starters that includes Shaun Marcum, Joe Saunders, Roy Oswalt, Jair Jurrjens, Kevin Millwood, Freddy Garcia, and Chris Young.

So why was a two-year, $10 million commitment to Correia needed when a dozen similar or better starters were available for inexpensive one-year deals? And that's anything but hindsight, as it was clear all along that this free agent class was deep in third, fourth, and fifth starters. Despite that somehow the Twins managed to target one of the weaker options in a well-stocked bargain bin and overpay him. It didn't make much sense then and it makes even less sense now.

• With the Twins' pursuit of rotation help proving to be less fruitful than fans were led to believe early in the offseason Nick Blackburn re-entering their plans as a fifth starter seemingly wasn't out of the question. He's under contract for $5.5 million and despite being a horrible pitcher for most of the past three years it's not hard to imagine a decent spring from Blackburn leading to Ron Gardenhire wanting to give him another chance instead of, say, Liam Hendriks.

Now it's a moot point, because Blackburn underwent wrist surgery that will keep him in a cast for six weeks. Blackburn previously had surgery in October to remove a bone chip from his elbow, so his odds of a comeback are slimmer than ever. Still, by not simply releasing Blackburn like many teams do in dropping highly paid players from the 40-man roster the Twins left the door open for his return and, if healthy, no one should be surprised if he finds his way back to Minnesota.

John Bonnes, Parker Hageman, Nick Nelson, and Seth Stohs from Twins Daily are hosting a get-together Saturday night at Hubert's across from the Metrodome. It starts at 6:00, which is when TwinsFest ends for the day, and I'm told there will be several rounds of free beer and prize giveaways. I'll be there, probably hanging out until they kick me out, and would love to see some AG.com readers and "Gleeman and The Geek" listeners there too.

• Last offseason the Twins non-tendered Jose Mijares rather than pay him around $750,000, which struck me as an odd decision at the time. Mijares, who had a 3.16 ERA for the Twins, went on to throw 56 innings with a 2.56 ERA for the Royals and Giants while being paid more than he would have via arbitration anyway. And now the Giants avoided arbitration with Mijares by signing him to a one-year, $1.8 million deal for 2013. He'll be under team control again in 2014.

Jim Callis of Baseball America was asked to rank the 10 best farm systems and put the Twins seventh, noting that they have "the best collection of bats in the minors, led by Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano."

• On a related note, my annual series ranking and profiling the Twins' top 40 prospects will start tomorrow. I'll be counting down from 40 to 1, five prospects at a time, and then I'll have a system overview post putting the whole group in some context.

• How little interest was there in Delmon Young? As a 27-year-old free agent he signed for just $50,000 more than Butera got in his first year of arbitration. Young in Philadelphia is an amusing match for several reasons, not the least of which is that Bonnes' wife is a Phillies fan.

Francisco Liriano's two-year, $12.75 million deal with the Pirates was in jeopardy because of an offseason injury to his non-throwing arm, but the two sides have worked out a new deal.

• For a lot more about Butera and Duensing, plus the merits of pursuing Saunders and the secret world of haircut prostitution, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

This week's blog content is sponsored by Fresh Brewed Trivia at Granite City in Rosedale Center on Tuesday nights, where you can drink $3 tap beers and win prizes. Please support them for supporting AG.com.

December 18, 2012

Twins sign Mike Pelfrey to one-year, $4 million contract

For the past year the Twins have talked repeatedly about getting away from their longtime focus on low-strikeout, low-walk pitchers and add more power arms to the organization. And they put their money where their mouth was by drafting hard-throwing college relievers in June and acquiring high-upside prospects Alex Meyer and Trevor May in trades for Denard Span and Ben Revere, but when it comes to free agency it's the same old story.

Last week the Twins signed Kevin Correia to a two-year, $10 million deal following a three-year stretch in which he struck out 5.4 batters per nine innings to rank 81st among the 91 starters to throw 400-plus innings. And now they've followed that up by giving a one-year, $4 million deal to Mike Pelfrey, whose 5.0 strikeouts per nine innings as a starter during that time made him one of the 10 guys with a lower rate than Correia. Here's the whole list:

2010-2012           K/9
NICK BLACKBURN      4.1
CARL PAVANO         4.5
Mark Buehrle        4.9
MIKE PELFREY        5.0
Joe Saunders        5.1
Rick Porcello       5.1
Roberto Hernandez   5.1
Kyle Kendrick       5.2
Bronson Arroyo      5.2
Jeremy Guthrie      5.3
KEVIN CORREIA       5.4

So of the 11 starting pitchers with MLB's lowest strikeout rates since 2010 the Twins now employ three of them (Correia, Pelfrey, Nick Blackburn) and a fourth (Carl Pavano) is a free agent after spending three-and-a-half seasons in Minnesota. And the Twins' likely Opening Day starter, Scott Diamond, would rank third on that list with a career rate of 4.6 strikeouts per nine innings if he had enough innings to qualify.

When after two seasons of awful pitching a team stresses the need to end their stockpiling of low-strikeout pitchers and then signs veteran starters with two of the very worst strikeout rates in baseball it's tough not to get discouraged and question what exactly is going on, but at least in Pelfrey's case it's only a one-year commitment. Of course, there's good reason for that: Pelfrey is coming back from Tommy John surgery and may not be ready for Opening Day.

Before blowing out his elbow Pelfrey was very durable for the Mets, starting at least 30 games and throwing at least 180 innings in four straight seasons. However, during that time he let opponents hit .281 and his 4.27 ERA was much worse than it looks because Pelfrey called the NL and pitcher-friendly ballparks home. He has a 5.30 career ERA on the road and putting his overall numbers in context shows a below-average starter with bad strikeout and walk rates.

In fact, among the 91 starters with 400-plus innings since 2010 his strikeout-to-walk ratio ranked 89th, ahead of only Blackburn and Barry Zito. So how was he able to eat so many innings? Pelfrey did a nice job keeping the ball in the ballpark, posting the 14th-lowest home run rate among those 91 starters. He was not, however, an extreme ground-ball pitcher, inducing 47 percent grounders to rank 41st, and the league and parks suppressed homers.

Pelfrey looks like a strikeout pitcher at 6-foot-7 and 250 pounds with a 93-mph fastball, but he's basically a one-pitch pitcher lacking in decent off-speed stuff. And so despite being huge with good velocity he's never managed even 6.0 strikeouts per nine innings in a season or held opponents to a batting average below .275, and since 2010 hitters have made contact on 87 percent of their swings off Pelfrey to rank second-highest in MLB behind only Blackburn.

At his best Pelfrey was a decent fourth starter whose main asset was durability, but now he's attempting to come back from a season lost due to elbow surgery and might not be ready until May even if he can avoid setbacks. Giving him a one-year deal worth $4 million in guaranteed money and another $1.5 million in potential incentives certainly beats giving Correia a two-year deal worth $10 million guaranteed, but that isn't saying much.

If the Twins wanted a pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery why not re-sign Scott Baker? He agreed to a one-year contract with the Cubs after balking at the Twins' insistence on a 2014 team option being included in any deal, yet they don't get a 2014 option with Pelfrey anyway and the difference in price is minimal. Baker got $5.5 million guaranteed and $1.5 million in incentives. Pelfrey got $4 million guaranteed and $1.5 million in incentives.

Pelfrey has been more durable than Baker, but that's not certain to remain true after matching elbow surgeries and Baker has simply been the more effective pitcher. Compare their respective pre-surgery numbers from 2008-2011. Baker, in the AL, threw 677 innings with a 3.92 ERA, 7.6 strikeouts per nine innings, and 3.5 strikeouts per walk. Pelfrey, in the NL, threw 783 innings with a 4.27 ERA, 5.0 strikeouts per nine innings, and 1.7 strikeouts per walk.

Correia seemed like a bad signing to me mostly because he's just not a good pitcher, but beyond that if the Twins were handing out a multi-year contract why not at least target someone with some semblance of upside? Along those same lines, if they're taking a risk on a pitcher coming back from a major injury why not at least take that risk on someone who might be more than a decent fourth or fifth starter if everything goes well?

There's nothing wrong with a one-year, $4 million flier on Pelfrey and it's certainly a much better idea than giving $10 million over two years to Correia, but together the pair of moves for extreme low-strikeout starters doesn't inspire much confidence for a competitive 2013 and leaves plenty of room to question whether all the Twins' talk about changing their approach to pitching means as much as fans have hoped.

This week's blog content is sponsored by Paul Bennett, an Independent Certified Financial Planner Practitioner. Discover what he can do for you at PaulMBennett.com. And please support him for supporting AG.com.

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