July 11, 2006

At The Break: Part 2 (The Pitchers)

Earlier this week, I used the All-Star break as an opportunity to examine the Twins' team outlook heading into the second half. Today I'd like to switch the focus to the team's pitching staff, which has miraculously rounded into shape after a horrendous first month and now ranks third in the AL with 4.6 runs allowed per game.

Rather than focus on win-loss records and ERAs, what follows is a look at the Twins' pitching staff using an assortment of non-traditional numbers. While these certainly aren't mainstream stats and may seem confusing at first glance, they're actually relatively easy to understand and provide a unique glimpse into performances. Here's a chart showing the acronyms used below and the corresponding meanings:

SO%     Percentage of plate appearances ending in a strikeout
BB% Percentage of plate appearances ending in a walk
STR% Percentage of pitches that are strikes
GB% Percentage of balls in play that are ground balls
FB% Percentage of balls in play that are fly balls
G/F Ratio of ground balls to fly balls
BABIP Batting average allowed on balls in play
LD% Percentage of balls in play that are line drives
IFF% Percentage of fly balls that remain in the infield

Pretty simple, right? If you're interested in learning more about the stats described above, click here or here. In the meantime, let's dive right in ...

                   SO%                        BB%                       STR%
Joe Nathan 37.4 Joe Nathan 2.2 Johan Santana 69.3
Fran Liriano 29.9 Carlos Silva 2.9 Scott Baker 68.5
Johan Santana 26.7 Scott Baker 3.7 Carlos Silva 68.1
Juan Rincon 21.9 Jesse Crain 4.5 Brad Radke 67.0
Jesse Crain 18.8 Johan Santana 4.7 Fran Liriano 66.7
Scott Baker 18.7 Brad Radke 4.7 Joe Nathan 66.6
Boof Bonser 17.6 Juan Rincon 6.2 Jesse Crain 64.7
LEAGUE AVERAGE 15.9 Willie Eyre 6.2 Juan Rincon 64.1
Kyle Lohse 15.6 Fran Liriano 6.7 Matt Guerrier 62.2
Matt Guerrier 12.9 Boof Bonser 7.8 Boof Bonser 62.0
Willie Eyre 9.7 Kyle Lohse 8.4 Kyle Lohse 61.1
Carlos Silva 8.7 Matt Guerrier 9.5 Willie Eyre 59.9

As usual, the Twins' staff is littered with guys who throw strikes. Of the dozen pitchers who logged at least 30 first-half innings, 10 walked fewer batters than the league average and 10 threw more strikes than the league average. The only pitcher who has been worse than average in both walk rate and strike rate is Kyle Lohse, which isn't surprising given how much he's clashed with management over the years.

In terms of strikeouts, Joe Nathan blows the rest of the staff away. Nathan struck out an incredible 37.4 percent of the batters he faced in the first half, which is 25 percent more than Francisco Liriano and 40 percent more than Johan Santana. It's hard to emphasize enough how amazing that is. Among all MLB starters, Liriano and Santana rank first and second in strikeout percentage, yet compared to Nathan they look like soft-tossers.

It's not surprising that nearly the entire staff throws more strikes than average, but one major change from past seasons is that just four pitchers had a worse-than-average strikeout rate. Once upon a time the Twins built their staff around low-strikeout pitchers with good command, like Brad Radke, Rick Reed, Joe Mays, and Kenny Rogers. They still focus on pitchers who throw strikes, but now those guys more often than not also rack up tons of strikeouts.

The Twins have ranked among the AL's top three in fewest walks allowed each year since 1996, leading the league in 1997, 1998, 2004, and 2005. However, over that same 10-year span they ranked among the league's top five in strikeouts just twice and were frequently near the bottom. This year the Twins' staff has once again issued the fewest walks in the league, but this time around they also rank second in strikeouts (and miss leading the league by three measly whiffs).

No pitcher exemplifies the Twins' staff more than Nathan, who in addition to the aforementioned ridiculous strikeout rate has walked just 2.2 percent of the hitters he's faced (intentional walks removed). Nathan's 52-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 36 innings is as dominant as it gets outside of video games and little league. Santana, Liriano, and Juan Rincon also boast huge strikeout rates with better-than-average control, while Radke and Carlos Silva are remnants of the "here it is, hit it" approach.

                   GB%                        FB%                        G/F
Fran Liriano 58.5 Scott Baker 50.9 Fran Liriano 2.76
Jesse Crain 55.3 Joe Nathan 43.0 Jesse Crain 2.43
Juan Rincon 52.9 Boof Bonser 42.3 Juan Rincon 1.83
Willie Eyre 48.6 Johan Santana 40.4 Willie Eyre 1.59
Matt Guerrier 47.7 Kyle Lohse 40.3 Matt Guerrier 1.47
Boof Bonser 44.1 Brad Radke 37.1 LEAGUE AVERAGE 1.30
LEAGUE AVERAGE 43.0 Carlos Silva 36.7 Brad Radke 1.12
Brad Radke 41.6 LEAGUE AVERAGE 33.0 Carlos Silva 1.10
Carlos Silva 40.4 Matt Guerrier 32.4 Boof Bonser 1.04
Johan Santana 39.8 Willie Eyre 30.6 Johan Santana 0.99
Kyle Lohse 37.7 Juan Rincon 28.9 Kyle Lohse 0.94
Joe Nathan 32.9 Jesse Crain 22.7 Joe Nathan 0.76
Scott Baker 27.9 Fran Liriano 21.2 Scott Baker 0.55

Santana and Liriano are similar in that they each strike out tons of hitters while limiting walks, but they're actually quite different in terms of style. Liriano is an extreme ground-ball pitcher, inducing 58.5 percent of the balls put in play against him to go on the ground, and sports a team-best 2.76 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio. Meanwhile, under 40 percent of Santana's balls in play are hit on the ground and his ground-to-fly ratio makes him a relatively extreme fly-ball pitcher.

Both styles can obviously lead to greatness, but all things being equal, forcing batters to pound the ball into the ground is the preferred way to do things because grounders never turn into homers. The Twins' staff as a whole isn't nearly as fly-ball heavy as it was in the past when fellow fly-ballers like Radke, Reed, and Eric Milton joined Santana in the rotation, but it still skews more towards air than ground in large part because of Silva's concerning transformation.

Once a ground-ball pitcher who relied on good infield defense and timely double plays saving him from big innings, Silva has become a fly-ball pitcher this season. His strikeout rate remains among the worst in the league, however, which means he's on very thin ice. Quite simply, if Silva doesn't either begin missing significantly more bats or get his sinker back working, his long-term problems will extend far beyond pitching poorly this year.

On the other hand, Jesse Crain has gone the opposite way, turning himself into an extreme ground-ball pitcher this year after inducing primarily fly balls in the past. What makes Crain's transition particularly encouraging is that he's struck out 19 percent of the batters he's faced this year, more than doubling his career rate of nine percent. Grounders and strikeouts are the best possible combination, so despite some Silva-like overall struggles this season, Crain is on a much better long-term path.

                 BABIP                        LD%                       IFF%
Fran Liriano .283 Boof Bonser 13.5 Joe Nathan 23.5
Johan Santana .287 Juan Rincon 18.2 Johan Santana 15.9
Boof Bonser .296 Matt Guerrier 19.8 Brad Radke 11.3
Juan Rincon .305 Johan Santana 19.9 Jesse Crain 10.0
Joe Nathan .308 Fran Liriano 20.3 LEAGUE AVERAGE 9.5
Matt Guerrier .339 Willie Eyre 20.7 Fran Liriano 8.9
Carlos Silva .342 Scott Baker 21.2 Willie Eyre 8.8
Brad Radke .343 Brad Radke 21.3 Matt Guerrier 8.3
Willie Eyre .350 Jesse Crain 22.0 Kyle Lohse 6.5
Scott Baker .366 Kyle Lohse 22.0 Boof Bonser 6.4
Kyle Lohse .372 Carlos Silva 22.9 Carlos Silva 6.2
Jesse Crain .376 Joe Nathan 24.1 Juan Rincon 2.9

Liriano's .283 batting average on balls in play leads the team, which makes sense given that he's an extreme ground-ball pitcher whose innings have come mostly since the Twins revamped their infield defense by replacing Juan Castro and Tony Batista with Jason Bartlett and Nick Punto. Santana's .287 BABIP ranks second on the team, in large part because he allows a relatively low number of line drives and induces a ton of easy-to-catch infield fly balls.

As a team, the Twins have just four pitchers with better-than-average batting averages on balls in play. That's due in part to some shaky early-season defense that had trouble turning balls in play into outs, but it's also because the pitchers' high number of line drives allowed have made it overly difficult on the defenders. In simple terms, line drives are tough to convert into outs and infield flies are incredibly easy to catch, with ground balls and regular fly balls somewhere in between.

Nathan is an interesting example of the line drive-infield fly relationship in action. He has a team-worst line-drive rate of 24.1 percent, which would typically lead to all sorts of trouble. The only other Twins serving up more than 22 percent line drives are Crain, Lohse, and Silva, and they each have a BABIP over .340 and sport ERAs of 5.03, 7.48, and 7.00 respectively. How does Nathan avoid a similar fate? The easy answer is that he's simply better than they are, but there's a more complicated version.

While Nathan has given up tons of line drives, he's made up for it by inducing a startlingly high number of infield flies. His infield-fly rate of 23.5 percent is 150 percent higher than the league average and nearly 50 percent higher than the next-closest guy on the staff, Santana. That means when Nathan allows a fly ball to be put in play--relatively rare to begin with given all the strikeouts--one-fourth of the time the defense had to do almost zero work to convert it into an out.

The bad news is that 23.5 percent is not a sustainable rate of infield flies over the long haul, but the good news is that Nathan's track record suggests his line-drive rate will come down significantly as well. Whatever the case, an overlooked aspect of both Nathan's and Santana's success is their consistent ability to induce easy-to-catch infield pop ups at a better-than-average rate.

One final thing worth noting is that Scott Baker went 2-5 with an ugly 6.06 ERA in nine starts before heading back to Triple-A, but given his component numbers he pitched quite a bit better than that. Only Santana threw more strikes than Baker's 68.5 percent, his strikeout rate was safely above the league average, and his walk rate of 3.7 percent ranked third on the team behind only Nathan and Silva.

Baker is perhaps the most extreme fly-ball pitcher on the staff, which leaves him vulnerable to some rough stretches, but his line-drive rate wasn't out of control and he induced a fair number of infield flies. If the Twins give Baker another chance in the rotation now that he's back from posting a 2.92 ERA in seven starts at Rochester, expect his pitching to "improve" significantly.

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