So, How Good Is This Team? The Pitching


We are now 43 games into the regular season, so it’s a good time to check in and see how the team is doing. In my previous post, I examined the offense. Now it’s time to evaluate the pitching staff.

MLB: Twins vs Tigers APR 27

As a whole, the Twins have pitched pretty well so far this year. Sure, the starters have had a few rough outings (especially on the last road trip), but their 4.07 xFIP is the second-best in the American League, behind only Tampa Bay’s 4.04 (The Yankees and Red Sox? 4.25 and 4.37, respectively. So yeah, the Twins have actually pitched better than New York and Boston so far). And while it seems the starting rotation has issued a lot of walks this year, their 3.08 K/BB ratio is the best in the American League, and it should be noted that walk rates in general are up a bit this year (the league-average BB/9 rate is 3.55). There isn’t anything in their peripherals to suggest that the starters are pitching above their heads, either. Their 4.23 team ERA is close enough to their xFIP, their 9.6 HR/FB rate is right around league average, they’re striking out hitters at a good 6.51 K/9 clip, and their 2.12 BB/9 rate is the best in the AL. So, barring any injuries, this looks like a really good starting rotation, one that could even win a few postseason games. I’ll look at each starter individually and evaluate the bullpen’s performance, after the jump.

Here’s each starter’s performance to date, in a handy-dandy table form:

IP ERA xFIP K/BB HR/FB fWAR
Francisco Liriano 52.2 3.25 3.36 3.06 4.3 1.7
Carl Pavano 50.1 4.11 3.72 5.14 9.1 1.0
Nick Blackburn 54.0 4.50 5.12 1.15 11.8 0.0
Kevin Slowey 49.2 4.53 4.66 2.92 9.6 0.5
Scott Baker 55.1 4.88 3.70 3.92 10.6 1.0

First of all, holy crap has Francisco Liriano improved. Last year, F-Bomb was battling Glen Perkins for the “Worst Starter in the Rotation” crown. He suffered from a lack of control, as well as arm injuries, and finished the season with a 5.80 ERA, 4.57 xFIP, and 1.88 K/BB ratio. Really, the only thing Liriano did consistently was issue walks, with a 4.28 BB/9 ratio, and give up home runs, with a 12.5 homerun/flyball rate. This year has been a completely different story. Liriano’s control has been very good, with a 2.91BB/9 ratio, and his strikeout rate has improved to 8.89 K/9 (from 8.03 last year). He’s also been getting a lot more groundballs (his GB/FB rate has improved from 0.94 to 1.52), which has decreased his HR/FB rate rate significantly. Liriano also seems to have gained his arm strength back. The average velocity on his fastball is up to 93.6, and he has better command of the pitch as well. He’s also done a better job mixing in his pitches, throwing his slider more (31.9% compared to just 26.7% last year) and his fastball a little less (51.4%, down from 56.3% last year).

Pavano has proved to be one of the Twins’ best mid-season acquisitions yet. Yes, he finished with a 5.10 ERA last year, but his peripherals showed he was pitching much better than that, suffering from a poor defense behind him in Cleveland (his ERA with Minnesota was 4.64). His 3.72 xFIP and 3.77 K/BB ratio were very good, and, at 3.7 wins above replacement (according to Fangraphs), Pavano was the best starter in the rotation. Pavano is off to a great start once again, though his ERA is a bit inflated after he got roughed up in Toronto. He’s been particularly stingy about issuing walks, with a league-leading 1.25 BB/9 rate, though as Fetch noted in an earlier post, that isn’t always such a good thing. His tendency to throw a mediocre fastball down the heart of the plate sometimes has disastrous results, like in Toronto and against Prince Fielder and Corey Hart. However, given the premium placed on even decent starting pitching, Pavano’s $7 million deal looks to be a bargain so far (say it with me now: provided the 34 year-old can remain healthy).

Nick Blackburn, well, I’ve given up on trying to predict what Blackbeard will do. He got off to a terrible start, but he seems to have gained the movement back on his fastball and appears to be settling in nicely. After going 1-1 with a 6.85 ERA in his first four starts, he’s gone 4-0 with a 2.67 ERA in his last four. His K/BB ratio has improved from 0.88 to 1.60, mostly because his walk rate has dropped from 3.04 BB/9 to 1.48. So, Blackburn should start turning in his typical workman-like 7-inning, 2-strikeout, 1-walk, 8-hit, 3-run performances again.

Speaking of workhorses, look who is leading the team in innings pitched. You know, for all of the crap Scott Baker takes about not pitching deep into ballgames, he’s averaged 171.8 innings a year since 2007. Which, you know, is pretty close to the league-average. I don’t know why people rag on Timothy Scott so much, except maybe they expect him to be better than he is. Maybe it’s the organization’s fault for making him the Opening Day starter two years in a row (which they did because, well, they didn’t really have anybody else) and people therefore expect him to pitch like an ace. That isn’t fair, Baker just isn’t that good of a pitcher and he never will be. But most teams would love to have someone that solid and dependable in the rotation, especially for 4 years and $15.25 million.

Of course, not everyone in the rotation is having a good season: Kevin Slowey is not right. His walk rate is way up, to 2.36 BB/9 from his career pinpoint 1.53. His strikeout rate is down a bit too, to 6.89 K/9 from 7.36, though it’s still pretty average. Slowey expressed concern about his surgically repaired wrist before spring training:

I don’t know that I’m going to ever feel the same like I did before. But that’s OK. You know, I’ve got two screws in my wrist. So I shouldn’t expect to feel like I felt before. … I hope that things go well. I expect to go out and compete. If things don’t go the way I want them to, it won’t be because of any lack of preparation or lack of effort.

It’s possible the surgery, which involved inserting a couple of screws into his wrist, is affecting his control. Whether Slowey will ever fully recover remains to be seen.

As for the bullpen, they’ve actually pitched pretty well, too (save for the occasional Crainwreck meltdown, of course). I’m not going to go through all of the relievers individually, but as a group the ‘pen has a 3.34 ERA, 4.29 xFIP, and 2.34 K/BB ratio. Jon Rauch has served as a perfectly competent fill-in for Joe Nathan, though he pitches to contact more than I would like (his xFIP is 4.05, compared to Twitchy’s tidy 3.11). His strikeout rate is quite a bit lower than Twitchy’s too: 6.88 K/9 compared to 9.43. Still, he doesn’t walk many batters (0nly 1.89 per nine innings) and he does have 2.65 ERA, so it’s hard to complain much about his performance. Matt Guerrier has been his typical reliable self, with a 1.80 ERA, 4.37 xFIP, and 2.17 K/BB ration (though I’m not sure if I’d expect that ERA to hold up, considering his HR/FB rate is much lower than normal, even though his GB/FB rate and other peripherals are all around his career averages). Jesse Crain has been his typical inconsistent self, but I’ve already covered Crain in more depth here. Perhaps the biggest surprise in the bullpen has been Alex Burnett. After being called up to replace the injured Clay Condrey, then sent down in favor of Ron Mahay, then recalled again to replace the injured Jose Mijares, Burnett has been a solid reliever. Of course, reliever stats over such a tiny sample size of 22 innings should always be taken with a grain of salt, but Burnett has a 2.86 ERA, 4.05 xFIP, though his 1.73 K/BB ratio could certainly be better (This is likely due to his sky-high 4.50 BB/9 rate, which may or may not regress to the mean over a larger sample size. Burnett didn’t exactly possess pinpoint control in the minors).

So, there you have it. This team has a good offense, a very good pitching staff, and a solid bullpen. It is probably the most complete team the Twins have fielded in the past ten years, though whether it is good enough to win a postseason series, or even make the postseason for that matter, obviously remains to be seen. Hey, even PECOTA thinks this team will win at least 90 games, so barring any major injuries or other disasters, it should definitely be a fun squad to watch.

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Tags: Carl Pavano Francisco Liriano Jesse Crain Jon Rauch Kevin Slowey Matt Guerrier Minnesota Twins Nick Blackburn Scott Baker