A contrarian opinion about the Twins' Starting Pitching

It is hard to look back at a 99-loss season and try to figure out what did not work, but it is necessary to just do that and try to pinpoint possible weaknesses that need to be solved. With a 99-loss season, pretty much nothing worked well, but prioritizing changes requires the identification of parts of the team that can be fixed relatively easily or by fixing them, it will make the biggest impact.

A lot of people in Twins territory, including fans and the press, and the Twins' management, as was referenced in the season ticket holder press conference a few weeks ago, see starting pitching as one of the weaknesses of the 2011 team, which needs to be fixed this off-season.

I examined that hypothesis, by looking at the performance of the Twins' starters in 2011 based on their on-field numbers. And the numbers disagree with that generalized belief.

3 years ago I devised a compound statistic measurement that indicates pitching effectiveness. Here I explain the idea behind the pitching effectiveness (or PE) measurement, and why I prefer it as an indicator of pitching performance independent of fielding or other external factors than other compound statistic measurements like FIP, xFIP and DICE. PE is (K/9*K/BB)/WHIP. A couple years ago, I devised another measurement expected PE or xPE, which is PE*(BABIP/.290), to further neutralize for "luck", reflecting what a pitcher's PE would be if his BABIP was .290 (League normal.)

Here is a list of the Twins' starters ranked by xPE for their 2011 performance. For pitchers who both started and relieved in 2011, only their numbers as starters are taken into consideration for the calculations. Also, the Twins' team average starter numbers are indicated as are the league average numbers. For comparison purposes, the numbers of AL starting pitchers who are considered as "Aces" and had the best starting pitching performances in 2011 are also included:

I included the following color coding: MLB average is green, above average darker green, below average yellow and well below average red.

A few observations (and I am sure that this is surprising to many out there) :

  • The Twins' starter as a group, had better performance that the league average

  • One pitcher's performance (Kevin Slowey) was bettered only by Verlander, while another one's (Baker's) trailed only Verlander and Sabathia and was better than Felix Hernandez, Weaver, CJ Wilson and Lester

  • Liam Hendricks, who will probably be in AAA in the start of 2012 season, had 4 very promising starts

  • Brian Duensing and Anthony Swardak were right there with the league average

  • Pavano's and Liriano's performance was below par. Liriano was injured the whole season (and exhibited a 2mph velocity drop. His 2010 numbers (20.38 PE, 23.68 xPE) are promising for a comeback, especially if his shoulder heals and velocity increases. Pavano is a decent end of the rotation innings eater, but at this point should not be considered anything more than a 5th pitcher in this staff (and his is compensated more than that; so there is a decision that needs to be made.)

  • Blackburn and Diamond do not belong in a major league rotation.

Ok. I know that this sounds pretty crazy and counter intuitive. It is contrary to what most Twins' fans, the press and the organizational brass believes. But the numbers do not lie; however the dismal results do not lie either? How do we reconcile these opposing facts? In other words, what happened if the Twins' starters pitched well?

Here are a few things that happened:

  • The Twins' as a team had a ridiculous high BABIP (opponents' Batting Average in Balls In Play). 0.318 as a team. As a matter of fact, other than Liriano, every starter had an elevated BABIP, and Slowey's, Duensing's, Blackburn's, and Hendicks' approached ridiculous levels

  • The Twins' defence, especially infield defense was one of the MLB worse. Here are the UZR/150 for each position as a total and for individual players at that position:

    • 1B: 11.4 (Mauer 27.8 UZR150/141 inn, Morneau 11.3/479, Hughes 11.0/274, Parmelee 8.1/173, Cuddyer 6.4/352)

    • 2B: -6.0 (Tolbert 5.1/244, Hughes 4.9/301, Casilla 2.2/470, Dinkelman -2.9/89, Cuddyer -20.8/140, Nishioka -39.7/49, Plouffe -41.8/127)

    • 3B: -7.1 (Valencia -6.2/1280, Hughes -9/104, Tolbert -42.3/37)

    • SS: -13.6 (Tolbert -3.2/210, Casilla -4.4/306, Nishioka -14.2/508, Plouffe -25/396)

    • LF: 2.5 (Plouffe 35.8/19, Repko 13.3/128, Benson 9.1/88, Young 5.4/642, Revere -3.1/112, Tosoni -3.8/321, Kubel -4.2/70, Dinkelman -18.2/40)

    • CF: 14.2 (Span 17.6/585, Revere 15.1/776, Benson 9.5/17, Repko -61.6/43)

    • RF: -1.8 (Revere 63.6/37, Repko 21.7/157, Dinkelman 6.3/22, Cuddyer 0.1/639, Benson -5.9/59, Mauer -8.3/9, Kubel -8.3/413, Plouffe -51.4/72, Tosoni -55.1/11)

    This deserves a whole post by itself, but I am just presenting the numbers at this point

  • The best pitchers did not pitch the most, because of injuries and because of bad choices by the manager and the coaches.

  • The bullpen was atrocious (and that's another story by itself), allowing a lot of inherited runs to score (inflating starters' ERAs) and losing leads

So how the Twins' starting pitching should look at 2012? What changes can be made and give better results?

  • Get everyone healthy. First and foremost. With a healthy, and presumed back to at least his 2010 form, Liriano, this team has 3 true strong pitchers.

  • Give the ball to your best pitchers. There is no way any other team would have alienated their best starter as this team has alienated Slowey. It is silly to have your best starter in the pen and give the ball to Blackburn (who does not belong in a major league rotation) because you gave him an ill-advised contract extension

  • Realize the fact that Pavano is a back of the rotation pitcher and do not treat him like an Ace. Either have him at number 4 or 5 or trade him to relief the team from that contract

  • Fix the defense. This is a no-brainer (and will get it's own post one of these days.) Also find some ways to score runs. This is another no-brainer and will get it's own post

  • The writing on the wall is that Hendricks will be heading to Rochester and Duensing to the bullpen. Hendricks can use some AAA time and I think that with Cole DeVries, who has been transitioning to a starter in AFL and has been pretty effective in 4 starts there, will form a good reserve corps at the AAA level. Duensing, despite what a lot of people think, has been a reliable league average starter. He can be a stellar reliever and could really help fix the bullpen.

  • Deal with Blackburn and Diamond. Blackburn (much like Perkins) has not been an effective starter in his Twins' tenure (ill-advised contract extension or not.) Putting him in the pen and hoping for same results as with Perkins is the best course of action. Diamond is not ready and needs to be in AAA and should not be the first option, if a starter is needed

So with these changes we are looking for a 2012 Twins' rotation of Slowey, Baker, Liriano, Swarzak and Pavano (or Duensing/Hendricks, if Pavano is traded.) I believe (and the numbers suggest) that this group can be successful in 2012 with better health, better management, better fielding and better defense. Despite what most people feel, the Twins' starting rotation was one of the (few) team's strengths in 2011.

What do you think?

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