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.

December 11, 2012

Twins sign Kevin Correia to two-year, $10 million contract

Last month in breaking down all of this offseason's available free agent pitching options I grouped Kevin Correia in the back-of-the-rotation starter category, writing that his "once-decent strikeout rate plummeted to 4.6 per nine innings [since 2011] for the lowest rate in baseball among right-handed starters" and "he doesn't miss bats, doesn't induce a ton of ground balls, and doesn't have great control."

Last night the Twins signed Correia to a two-year, $10 million contract.

Correia is a reasonable enough fifth starter and for 2013 at least the Twins basically just need a few guys to soak up some mediocre innings, but a two-year commitment at $5 million per season seems awfully silly. Correia is 32 years old and has spent his entire career in the National League, posting a 4.60 ERA in 169 starts. That includes a 4.82 ERA in 80 starts over the past three years, during which time the average NL starter had a 4.01 ERA.

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. Twice this year he was demoted to the bullpen by the Pirates, whose rotation ranked 11th among NL teams in ERA. And he isn't even durable. Correia has topped 175 innings once in his career, back in 2009, and in the three seasons since then he threw 145, 154, and 171 innings.

Free agent pitching is always expensive and this offseason is certainly no exception, but that's no excuse to pay a premium for a 32-year-old fifth starter coming off back-to-back seasons with a strikeout rate below 5.0 per nine innings. Better pitchers than Correia have already signed one-year deals, with more to come as the winter moves along, and if the Twins were handing out bloated two-year deals some semblance of upside should've been a prerequisite.

Ultimately it probably won't matter much for 2013, because the Twins likely weren't going to contend anyway, but it might matter in 2014 when Correia is still around making $5 million. And most of all it suggests that the Twins haven't learned as much from their mistakes as hoped and haven't kicked their addiction to low-velocity, low-strikeout, low-upside pitchers. Correia is a prototypical Twins pitcher and that ceased being a compliment years ago.

This week's content is sponsored by DiamondCentric's new "Game Six" shirt, commemorating one of the most exciting moments in Minnesota sports history.

November 21, 2012

Free agent pitching options: Back-of-the-rotation starters

Twins starting pitchers combined for a 5.00 ERA during the past two seasons to rank dead last in the league and they head into the offseason with only Scott Diamond locked into a rotation spot. Terry Ryan has said he'd prefer to address the rotation via trades, which is no surprise for a team that's basically never pursued free agent pitching beyond bargain-bin shopping, but if they do decide to dive into the free agent pitching pool the water is reasonably deep.

In an effort to figure out the Twins' options I've separated the free agent pitching class into three categories: Top-of-the-rotation starters, middle-of-the-rotation starters, and back-of-the-rotation starters. Below are the back-of-the-rotation starters, which I view as a No. 4 or No. 5 starter on a contending team and a group the Twins hopefully won't be looking to overspend on in the name of simply adding veterans regardless of upside.

Joe Saunders - LHP - 175 innings - 4.07 ERA - 4.25 xFIP - 112/39 K/BB

Kansas City saved the Twins from Jeremy Guthrie, but Saunders is a similar mix of durable mediocrity and lots of pitching to contact. Toss in the fact that he avoided getting knocked around in a pair of playoff starts and he's a name to watch as a potential overspend. Saunders would be a perfectly decent one-year pickup, but among the 113 starters with 500-plus innings since 2008 he's 104th in strikeout rate and 100th in xFIP, one spot ahead of Nick Blackburn.

Scott Feldman - RHP - 124 innings - 5.09 ERA - 3.87 xFIP - 96/32 K/BB

Run support and luck allowed Feldman to win 17 games in 2009 despite a 4.08 ERA, but in three seasons since then he's been ineffective and injured with a 5.15 ERA in 297 innings. His secondary numbers this year were actually pretty good, but for a 6-foot-6 guy with above-average velocity he's never generated many strikeouts. And while he's done half his pitching in Texas' hitter-friendly ballpark Feldman's numbers on the road haven't been any better.

Roberto Hernandez - RHP - 14 innings - 7.53 ERA - 5.39 xFIP - 2/3 K/BB

Formerly known as "Fausto Carmona" before getting busted for a false identity last winter, Hernandez missed the first four months and was then shut down after three starts with an ankle injury. Once upon a time Hernandez was a very promising young pitcher, but it turns out he was never actually all that young and since 2008 his ERA is 5.06. His ability to induce ground balls is intriguing, but Hernandez doesn't miss many bats and has always had awful control.

Jeff Francis - LHP - 113 innings - 5.58 ERA - 4.07 xFIP - 76/22 K/BB

Francis broke into the big leagues throwing in the high-80s and the No. 9 overall pick in the 2002 draft had plenty of early success, but shoulder problems have left him working in the mid-80s and the results haven't been pretty. He's adapted by becoming an extreme strike-thrower, trailing only Cliff Lee for the best walk rate among left-handed starters since 2010, but there's very little upside attached to Francis at this point.

Jason Marquis - RHP - 128 innings - 5.22 ERA - 4.03 xFIP - 91/42 K/BB

Marquis signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Twins last offseason and was as bad as a pitcher can be, posting an 8.47 ERA with more walks than strikeouts. They released him after seven starts and Marquis quickly landed in San Diego, where he was the guy the Twins thought they were signing with a 4.05 ERA and 79/28 K/BB ratio in 94 innings before breaking his hand. I wasn't very enthused by the Marquis acquisition back then and suffice it to say a sequel is unlikely.

Kevin Millwood - RHP - 161 innings - 4.25 ERA - 4.42 xFIP - 107/56 K/BB

Millwood is exactly the type of veteran, low-upside free agent pitcher the Twins have pursued in offseasons past. He looked finished after a terrible 2010, but has thrown 215 innings with a 4.18 ERA since then and at age 37 his strikeout rate remained reasonably close to his career norms. If he were one of the Twins' primary additions it would be a disastrous offseason, but as a cheap one-year stop gap at the back of the rotation Millwood wouldn't be the worst idea.

Kevin Correia - RHP - 171 innings - 4.21 ERA - 4.34 xFIP - 89/46 K/BB

Correia was an All-Star in 2011, which is pretty funny considering he finished that season with a 4.79 ERA and has a 4.54 career mark. That includes a 4.49 ERA for the Pirates during the past two seasons and Correia's once-decent strikeout rate plummeted to 4.6 per nine innings over that span for the lowest rate in baseball among right-handed starters. He doesn't miss bats, doesn't induce a ton of ground balls, and doesn't have great control.

Freddy Garcia - RHP - 107 innings - 5.20 ERA - 4.06 xFIP - 89/35 K/BB

After an excellent start to his career Garcia looked finished at age 31, but he's stuck around into his mid-30s by re-inventing himself as a slop-thrower. His fastball has averaged just 87 miles per hour during the past three seasons, yet over that span Garcia has a 4.42 ERA in 411 innings and his 7.5 strikeouts per nine innings this year was his highest rate since 2007. Much like Millwood he has zero upside, but as cheap stop-gap options go he'd fit as a fifth starter.

Chris Young - RHP - 115 innings - 4.15 ERA - 5.36 xFIP - 80/36 K/BB

Young has basically never been healthy, topping 175 innings once in nine years, but after missing most of 2009-2011 he came back to make 20 decent starts for the Mets. His average fastball clocked in at 85 miles per hour, which doesn't fit his 6-foot-10 frame, but even at his peak Young worked in the high-80s. Despite all the injuries Young has a 3.79 career ERA and more upside than Millwood or Garcia, but that isn't really saying much and a fragile fifth starter isn't ideal.

Carl Pavano - RHP - 63 innings - 6.00 ERA - 4.48 xFIP - 33/8 K/BB

Pavano tried to pitch through a shoulder injury with disastrous results, spent the final four months on the disabled list, and took some veiled shots at the Twins' medical staff on his way out the door. That doesn't necessarily rule out a return to Minnesota, but Pavano's velocity and strikeout rates were worrisome even before the arm problems derailed him and at age 36 he looks like a potential stop gap fifth starter at best.

Carlos Zambrano - RHP - 132 innings - 4.49 ERA - 4.84 xFIP - 95/75 K/BB

It's hard to imagine Zambrano being worth the trouble at this point. He's still just 31 years old, but heavy workloads from early in his career mean it's an old 31 and Zambrano's velocity and strikeout rate are free falling. He issued a career-high 5.1 walks per nine innings and while that wildness may have helped him remain relatively tough to hit Zambrano had a 7.62 ERA with more walks (38) than strikeouts (27) in his final nine starts before a demotion to the bullpen.

Derek Lowe - RHP - 143 innings - 5.11 ERA - 4.59 xFIP - 55/51 K/BB

Lowe has always been a pitch-to-contact, ground-ball guy, but his strikeout rate reached comically low levels at age 39. He was traded by the Braves, released by the Indians, and relegated to bullpen duties by the Yankees, so he's clearly running on fumes. However, he did still manage the second-highest ground-ball rate in all of baseball at 59 percent and that alone makes Lowe a potentially useful fifth starter if he's not totally washed up.

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