Minnesota Twins Bullpen: An Area of Concern?
As occupiers of the AL Central basement for three of the past four years, Twins fans have had ample opportunity to pick apart the shortcomings of their team. The biggest of these, undoubtedly has been its starting pitching. The struggles of 2011 onwards (remember Nick Blackburn?) gave rise to the most lamented idiom of Twins fans old and new; ‘the Twins pitch to contact’.
While spring training and a farm system that is consistently ranked in the top 3 by various experts offer some relief from the misery of watching a 92 loss team with a cumulative team ERA of 4.57, WHIP of 1.39, SO/9 of 6.5 etc. in 2014, the Twins rotation still looks underwhelming. Questions surround whether Phil Hughes can come close to another incredible campaign like he had in 2014 and whether Ricky Nolasco can improve on the steady diet of home runs and extra base hits he served up to opposing clubs. Twins fans are also left wondering if Trevor May can improve upon his poor debut and match his performance from his last two starts, (in which he walked just 3 batters, compared to 19 in his first 8); when we might see the likes of Alex Meyer and Jose Berrios as well as further down the line, Kohl Stewart.
One oft-forgotten aspect of the Twins pitching struggles has been their bullpen, which will need to improve on an awful second half in 2014 if the Twins are to see the beginning of their turnaround.
The last two AL Central titles won by the Twins in 2009 and 2010, the club was backed by a strong bullpen. In 2009 the Twins relievers were ranked 12th best in the majors and the following year they moved up to 10th, supported by a BB/9 of just 2.95 while stranding just under 76% of baserunners throughout the season.
In 2011 (99 losses) the Twins had the 29th ranked bullpen in the majors. In 2012 (96 losses) the Twins had the 20th ranked bullpen. 2013 (96 losses) the Twins had a relief corps saw a dramatic turnaround, jumping all the way to 4th. Finally, in 2014, the Twins saw a promising first half in which their bullpen was ranked 7th best heading into the All-Star break take a disappointing turn as they were 2nd worst in the second half of the season. What seems to be the trend among these ups and downs? Strikeouts.
In 2011, 2012 and 2014 the Twins bullpen averaged just 6.48 SO/9. In this span only one other team had a SO/9 in the 6s, the 2011 Angles (26th ranked bullpen that year if you were wondering). In 2013, the Twins bullpen recorded a SO/9 of 7.89, while continuing to do the things that Twins pitchers traditionally so well (not walking batters and inducing a lot of ground balls). While recording strikeouts is not the sole cause of the Twins relief struggles in recent seasons it does seem to be a telling factor. Consider this, in the last 2 seasons; approximately 70% of playoff making teams has had a top 15 bullpen. It’s not all that matters, but it certainly helps. The Twins bullpen certainly suffered from its poor rotation in 2014, pitching the 4th most innings in the majors (521.2), which was inherently tied to their meager 66 quality starts all season, good for 29th in the majors.
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The Twins appeared to do little to prop up their thin, inexperienced bullpen this offseason through free agency. They signed former Padre Tim Stauffer to a major league deal with a view to him competing for the role of 5th starter, an idea the Twins have already put the kibosh on.
Rather, the Twins brass certainly seems to have pursued this need in the draft, outside of number 5 overall pick Nick Gordon, they pretty much drafted an entire bullpen. The Twins next 7 picks were all pitchers, most of whom have high velocity arms that project more as bullpen help than starters. Several of these prospects have impressed so far, such as John Curtiss, Jake Reed, who has given up 1 ER in his first 31 innings pitched professionally and Nick Burdi, a triple digit arm who owns a whopping 16.8 SO/9 through two levels of the minor leagues.
Make no mistake; the Twins are drafting fast moving arms that will offer help in the near future to the big league club. Burdi may well make his debut in 2015. With an improved offense that finished 7th in the majors in 2014 and at some excellent starting pitching prospects don’t be surprised if the bullpen catches up and reclaims a top ten spot as soon as 2016. With that as well as the emergence of their more heralded prospects, the Twins may soon see their return to contention in a plateauing AL Central division.
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