July 2, 2007

Halfway Home (Part 1: The Pitching Staff)

With last night's loss to the Yankees, the Twins have now completed half of their schedule. At 42-39 they have the third-best record in the division and the sixth-best record in the league, which puts them 7.5 games behind in the AL Central and 5.5 games back in the Wild Card standings. At this point last season the Twins were riding an 11-game winning streak that made them 46-35, but they were nine games back in the division and just a half-game back in the Wild Card race.

The pitching staff has allowed 359 runs, for an average of 4.43 runs per game that ranks fourth in the league behind the A's, Red Sox, and Angels. At this point last season the pitching staff had allowed 369 runs, for an average of 4.56 runs per game. That would seem to indicate that this year's pitching staff is slightly better, but because of the league-wide drop in scoring this season the opposite is actually true. Whatever the case, the Twins' pitching has been very good.

As usual the Twins' relief pitching has been their major strength, although the bullpen is far more top heavy than in past years because Juan Rincon has struggled, Dennys Reyes spent a month on the disabled list, and Jesse Crain underwent season-ending surgery. Despite all of that, Twins relievers rank second in the league with a 3.40 ERA. The group is led by Joe Nathan, who continues to be one of baseball's premiere closers with a 2.29 ERA and 40-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 35.1 innings.

Nathan had some rough patches early in the season when an inordinate number of bloopers and choppers were finding holes, but since blowing a save against the Devil Rays on May 2 he has a 1.64 ERA, 25-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and .205 opponent's batting average in 22 innings. Pat Neshek has seamlessly taken over for Rincon as Nathan's primary setup man by posting a 1.37 ERA, 47-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and .124 opponent's batting average in 39.1 innings.

Matt Guerrier has thrived while moving into the secondary setup role previously occupied by Neshek and Crain, posting a 1.82 ERA with a workload that puts him on pace for 98 innings. Nathan, Neshek, and Guerrier have combined for a 1.82 ERA in 123.2 innings, while the rest of the bullpen has a 5.21 ERA in 114 innings. However, looking at the bullpen in terms of their Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) numbers shows a slightly different story than the raw ERA totals:

Joe Nathan 2.89
Pat Neshek 3.25
Matt Guerrier 4.12
Juan Rincon 4.28
Dennys Reyes 4.38
Jesse Crain 4.69
Glen Perkins 5.22

Rather than looking strictly at runs allowed--which can be misleading when relievers often enter and exit games with runners on base--xFIP shows a more complete picture based on things like strikeouts, walks, and ground ball-to-fly ball ratio. Nathan and Neshek stand out from the rest of the pack in xFIP, but Guerrier's performance looks far less impressive. Among AL relievers with at least 25 innings, Nathan ranks third in xFIP behind only Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz. Neshek ranks eighth.

Unfortunately, the rotation hasn't been nearly as strong as the bullpen despite Johan Santana turning in half of another Cy Young-caliber season (and perhaps the best first half of his career). Santana ranks second in the league with a dozen Quality Starts and third in the league with a 2.76 ERA, but the rest of the rotation has a 5.03 ERA and has managed just 25 Quality Starts in 64 outings. Part of those ugly numbers are due to Sidney Ponson and Ramon Ortiz, who went 5-9 with a 6.22 ERA in 17 starts.

Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey certainly haven't been great as their replacements, but their combined 5-3 record and 5.04 ERA in 14 starts is still a major improvement. Carlos Silva has surprisingly been the team's second-best starter, cutting way down on his homers allowed while posting a 4.15 ERA in 99.2 innings spread over 16 starts. However, much like with the bullpen, looking at xFIP rather than raw ERA totals tells a slightly different story:

Johan Santana 3.60
Scott Baker 3.93
Boof Bonser 4.35
Carlos Silva 4.70
Sidney Ponson 4.94
Ramon Ortiz 5.11
Kevin Slowey 5.39

Silva's 4.70 xFIP isn't hugely out of line with his 4.15 ERA, but it shows that he's likely been somewhat lucky in terms of keeping the ball in the ballpark. Silva has improved his ground ball-to-fly ball ratio, which goes a long way toward cutting down homers, but allowing a long ball on just 6.4 percent of his fly balls will be a difficult rate to sustain in the second half. Regardless of that, there's no doubt that he's pitched well while far exceeding my expectations.

Baker ranking second on the above list is sure to surprise people just as much as Silva ranking fourth, but the large gap between his actual performance and the public's perception of his performance was discussed in this space yesterday. Santana's 3.60 xFIP ranks fourth among AL starters, behind Erik Bedard, C.C. Sabathia, and Dan Haren. As a whole, the rotation ranks seventh in the league with a 4.47 ERA and 10th in the league with 37 Quality Starts.

Add it all up and what you get is a championship-caliber pitching staff that's led by an elite starter, an elite closer, and an elite setup man. There's room for improvement in the second half, because dead weight has been cut (Ponson) or moved to a less prominent role (Ortiz), but the development of Baker, Slowey, and Matt Garza will be key. If the Twins can trot out Santana and four starters with xFIPs in the 4.00s they can continue to carry what has been a mediocre offense (more on that tomorrow).

Getting Rincon back on track to further strengthen the bullpen would be huge, but his consistently declining numbers suggest that might be wishful thinking. In fact, depending on what the Twins do with him following Friday's start, I wouldn't be shocked to see Garza emerge as Ron Gardenhire's preferred late-inning option alongside Nathan, Neshek, and Guerrier. Short of that, Reyes staying healthy and pitching like he has since returning from the DL would provide a significant boost.

Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

No Comments

No comments yet.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.