Has the Twins' pitching improved? (Or why ERA and WHIP tell only part of the story)

The general consensus among Twins' fans, media and organizational personnel has been that the past 2 months the pitching (both the rotation and the bullpen) have been inconsistent and recently improved greatly. Let's see how numbers support this empirical observation.

Here is the Twins' starters and reliever's ERA month by month:

Here is the Twins' starters and reliever's WHIP month by month:

This looks a bit surprising. Yes the starters were pretty bad in April and May, but it looks, using traditional measurements, that the pen had turned the corner in May before becoming really good in June. Sub 3.50 ERA and WHIP around 1.250 is pretty good? Isn't it? That surely conflicts with the empirical observation that the pen was not that great in May. Who is to believe? Your eyes or the numbers? That bullpen surely surrendered leads in May.

As I explained last November there are just not many good measurements to describe and evaluate the state of pitching, and this is why I created the "Pitching Efficiency" measurement (PE= (K/9*K/BB)/WHIP).

Here is the Twins' starters and reliever's PE month by month:

I would argue that looking at PE, supports the empirical opinion that:

  • The Bullpen was pretty bad both in April and May

  • The pen was worse overall than the rotation

  • They both have turned the corner in July

  • The 2008 MLB average PE for starters was 9.19 and for relievers 10.89. So the rotation has been pretty average as a unit but the pen below average. The July numbers are phenomenal: 21.45 for the rotation and 28.57 for the bullpen. To give some points of reference, in 2008 Roy Oswalt had a PE of 21.19 and Brad Lidge a PE of 25.61. Not bad.

    The next plot would try to kill two birds with one stone: Why are the pen ERA and WHIP in April so misleading and is July sustainable? ERA is not a great measure of pitching ability, but one would think that WHIP will be able to describe what is going one pretty well. Apparently not so and here is the reason:

    Here is the Twins' starters and reliever's BABIP month by month:

    BABIP is batting average on balls in play (excludes home runs, HBP, K and BB). It should normalize at about .290 to .300. In April the Twins pitchers had a higher than normal BABIP (reflected in the higher that expected WHIP) and in May a lower than normal BABIP (reflected in the lower than expected WHIP).

    The good news is that both the rotation and pen BABIP have been stable at close to normal levels so I expect the success to continue. One might argue that Swarzak was a big part of this change in June. However, looking at individual PEs Swarzak's year to day is 7.94 and Perkins' (excluding last nights game) 8.22, thus, I suspect that it will not matter that much.

    Whose numbers are inflated and whose are deflated based on PE? Here are the individual PEs (ranked high to low) for the Twins pitchers:


    Baker: 34.47
    Slowey: 30.80
    Liriano: 9.32
    Perkins: 8.23
    Swarzak: 7.94
    Blackburn: 4.61


    Nathan: 54.79
    Guerrier: 26.57
    Henn: 14.46
    Ayala: 13.41
    Dickey: 7.84
    Mijares: 7.81
    Breslow: 4.50
    Crain: 3.70

    Surprised? Baker is close to breaking through (and his last 2-3 starts indicate that) and Blackburn is living on the edge by giving too many hits, walking more batters than usual and striking out fewer than usual. Also, Mijares, mainly because his occasional lack of command that results to a high numbers of walks (the same problem that Breslow and Crain had, but in lesser degree than those two), might be walking on thin ice. On the other hand, Guerrier has been exceptional, Henn surprising and Ayala has been pitching better than his "traditional numbers" indicate.


    Meet and greet: Derek McCallum, Tobias Streich and Trayvon Johnson

    The Twins have signed 3 of their draft picks: their 4th round pick, Derek McCallum, their 5th round pick, Tobias Streich and their 20th round pick, Trayvon Johnson. As I promised, I will be doing profiles of the drafted players as soon as the sign, so this is the first in the series.

    Derek McCallum was selected with the Twins' 4th round pick out of the University of Minnesota. This is the second time the Twins' drafted McCallum, as he was drafted as a short stop with their 50th round pick out of Hill-Murray High School(Shoreview, MN) in the 2006 draft. He was a hockey and baseball star in High School, named All-State and All-Conference in 2005 and 2006 for baseball and lettering 4 years in hockey. He is listed at 6'0" and 190 lbs, bats left handed and throws right handed. This season, his junior season, Derek hit .409/.484/.741 with 18 HR and 86 RBI, had 30 BB and 34 K and 6 SB; in 271 plate appearances. His 86 RBI were a school record. Previously known as a contact hitter finishing his sophomore year hitting .340/.379/.444 with 2 HR (161 PA) and his freshman year hitting .291/.352/.398 with 3 HR (233 PA). This season, in addition to increasing his already good ability for contact and eye, he developed considerable power. Here is a scouting video of Derek McCallum. He played shortstop in high school and his first 2 years of college and second base last season, and I suspect that he will man both of those positions in the pros, as it is usually the case in the Twins' system for lower minor league players. La Velle Neal III and Joel Rippel reported that he will probably be assigned to the Elizabethton Twins (Appalachian league; high rookie) that open their season later this month.

    Tobias Streich (pronounced: strike) was selected with the Twins' 5th round pick. Even he was surprised to be selected that high. Previously he was selected in the 29th round of the 2007 draft by the Oakland Athletics out of Johnsonburg (PA) High, but declined to sign and entered West Virginia University, where currently is a sophomore where he was a Big East Academic All-Star and member of the Athletic Director’s Academic Honor Roll. Out of high school he was listed at number 32 in the 2007 Baseball America top 300 high school prospects. Tobias is a catcher, listed at 6'0" and 215 lbs and bats and throws right handed. He is a great defensive catcher, who threw out close to 30% of the would be base stealers each of his 2 years in College. He is also very durable. He started 54 out of 56 games him freshman year and 53 out of his 55 in his just-finished sophomore year. His numbers with the bat are not spectacular, but are solid. In his sophomore season he hit .322/.371/.488 with 6 HR and 57 RBI in 221 PA, improving from his .259/.320/.408, 4 HR, 39 RBI (225 PA) freshman season. I suspect that the Elizabethton Twins are a likely destination, however, since the Twins have several young unassigned catchers, including the Dominican 19 year old phenom Josmil Pinto, he could start with the low Rookie Gulf Coast Twins.

    Trayvon Johnson the Twins' 20th round pick is somewhat of an enigma. He was selected as a Catcher by the Philadelphia Philies with their 46th round pick of the 2006 draft out of Community Harvest Charter School in Los Angeles, CA, but did not sign. Trayvon did not play high school ball (Community Harvest does not have a baseball team), but played in the MLB Urban Youth Academy in Compton, CA. The following academic year he entered Los Angeles City College. After his freshman season in LACC (in which the team won only 2 of 40 games), his aunt died and he stopped attending College and playing organized baseball, but still was working out at the MLB Urban Youth Academy in Compton. According to La Velle Neal III, Deron Johnson (unrelated to Trayvon) the Twins' director of scouting, said that it was there where the Twins area scout saw Trayvon play and recommended his draft. According to Deron Johnson, he "has a well above average arm and is a strong kid. He can really throw". He is listed at 6'1" and 215 lbs. He hits and throws right handed. I could not find any stats for Trayvon. It is very likely that Trayvon Johnson will play with the low Rookie Gulf Coast Twins or even remain in the Ft. Myers' complex in the Instructional League.

    Congratulations and welcome to the three newest members of the Minnesota Twins' family.


    The Ballad of Jesse Crain: Is he injured?

    Jesse Crain has probably been the most disappointing pitcher in the Twins' bullpen. After an excellent performance in Spring Training, both with the Twins and Team Canada, armed with a new hard breaking curve ball, the expectations were extremely high for Jesse. However, he has been very inconsistent, to say the least, and his newest feat was to lose last aftenoon's game in Wrigley Field on the bottom of the night.

    Is there anything obviously wrong with Jesse Crain, which might result in his lack-luster performance?

    Ron Gardenhire, after yesterday's game said that "Crain got too many pitches up in the strike zone"

    Let's examine that statement, because it might be as good a clue as everything about Jesse Crain. The following images are created using pitchF/X data at Brooksbaseball.net.

    Here is how Jesse attacked the strike zone yesterday:

    Let's compare that to how Joe Nathan attacked the strike zone the previous day:

    So it seems that Gardenhire was correct up to a point, but not entirely accurate. If we compare Nathan's attack with Crain's, we see that the accurately described difference is that Crain left too many balls in (not up) the strike zone. So it seems that if Crain wants to be successful he should pitch outside the zone appropriately.

    Let's look at an earlier successful outing by Jesse and the way he was attacking the strike zone. This image is from the 4/14 game this season against Toronto where he pitched 2 innings of ho hit ball, did not walk anyone and struck out 2 batters:

    Much better. Several balls close but out of the strike zone, balls up and down the strike zone. This indicates more movement and life in his stuff.

    So, what's the difference? To make long things sort, it is his release point, which at a critical time for him this year, moved. Let's look at Jesse's release point evolution from last last season to now.

    This is from the last game of the 2008 season against Kansas City. Jesse pitched an inning, gave up one single and struck out two. (There is a line drawn at the 0 horizontal mark for reference in all these figures) :

    as you see his arm comes dead center at the zero width release point.

    Fast forward to his successful April 14 game against Toronto:

    not much difference. In this game, Jesse got the win by pitching 2 hitless innings, striking out 2 batters. He threw 28 pitches in total.

    The next game he was used, was two days later on April 16th, to finish a blow out the Twins lost to Toronto 2-9. He threw 11 pitches and had an 1-2-3 inning with one strikeout. Here is his release point from that game:

    As you can see something happened between the 28 pitch effort 2 days previously and this game. His release point moves significantly to the left (from the batter's perspective.)

    His next game was the first real disappointing game this season for Jesse and the one that ultimately drove him to the 15-day DL. It happened the next day (April 17th) against Anaheim. In this game Crain threw 30 pitches, getting only one out, had three walks, two hits and was credited with 4 earned runs. Here is his release point:

    As you can see it is getting worse by the game. After the game, Crain was placed in the 15-day DL with a sore shoulder. Just by looking at the release point changes (and it is harder to throw overhead with shoulder issues) I would argue that the injury occurred sometime before (or during) the second Toronto game.

    Crain came of the DL and his next game was a May 5th game at Detroit. Here is his release point from that game:

    Not good.

    Fast-forwarding to yesterday's game; here is his release point:

    Wow. Huge difference between this game and the pre-DL Crain this season. He favors his shoulder even more than when he was placed in the DL earlier this season. I wonder whether his shoulder has issues, based on those release point differences. Remember, this is his surgically repaired shoulder. I hope that Jesse is ok, but it would be worth while for the Twins to have a look at his shoulder. I would not be surprised if he lands in the DL some time soon...