Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Flyover: Minnesota Twins

When I started this series last month, my intent was to review each team's performance over the past 30 days, alphabetically. I got through Arizona, Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, the Cubs, and Cleveland before I realized that I was going to run out of time and that it'd be more timely to focus on the teams that are in contention for postseason play. That's what I've done next, hopscotching among the Tigers, Brewers, A's, Angels, Cardinals, Pirates, Dodgers, and Giants. Let's take a day off from good teams, though, and instead discuss one of the most interesting teams of the year: The Minnesota Twins.

How Are They Doing Lately? Terrible. The Twins are 8-19 over the last 30 days, the worst record in the American League, and tied with the Diamondbacks for the worst record in the league. That's a 114-loss pace over a full season.

So why write about them? Well, put it this way: After the Tommy John surgery epidemic, replay, and that Yankee shortstop retiring, what's the biggest story this year? The decline of offense. Teams are scoring an average of 4.08 runs per game this year. That's the lowest average since 1980. and a run per game down from the highs of 1999 (5.08) and 2000 (5.14). 

Take the American League. Since the All-Star Game, American League games are featuring 8.05 runs per game, scoring 4.06 runs and allowing 3.99. (The discrepancy is due to interleague games.) But if you exclude the Twins from the total, that figure drops to 7.91 runs per game, 4.03 scored and 3.88 allowed. Twins games have featured 10.02 runs! How's this: The last time the American League averaged less than eight runs per game, as it's done excluding the Twins since the All-Star break, it was 1972, and the league responded by instituting the designated hitter. The last time the league averaged 10.02 runs per game, as the Twins have since the All-Star break, the league batted .276 and Pedro Martinez was the only pitcher with an ERA below 3.70; this year the Tigers are the only team batting above .276 (by .001), the league ERA is 3.83, and there are 24 pitchers with ERAs below 3.70. The Twins have been a throwback to the Steroid Era!

Actually, the pitchers have been more throwbacks than the hitters of late. Over the past 30 days, the Twins are scoring 4.3 runs per game, fifth in the league, while giving up 6.1. No other team has allowed more than 4.7 runs per game.

What's Going Right? The Twins are batting .263 over the past 30 days, fourth in the league, with a fifth-best .399 slugging percentage and a sixth-best .316 on base percentage. Their .329 batting average on balls in play, compared to a league average of .297, indicates that they've probably been a little lucky, since wide deviations don't usually persist. They strike out a lot (23% of plate appearances, third in the league), but their walk rate, 6.8% of plate appearances, isn't much off from the league average of 7.2%. sixth;hey'be been good at getting on base (.284 batting average, .336 on base percentage, both second in the league) over the past 30 days. Their .421 slugging percentage is fifth, as they've hit only 20 homers, which is tenth in the NL. Their batting average on balls in play is .330 compared to a league average of .303, suggesting that their batting average and on base percentage have been a little lucky, but only 7.5% of their fly balls have gone over the fence compared to a league average of 9.6%, suggesting that their slugging percentage and home run totals have been a little unlucky. The Giants have been the toughest team in the NL to fan, striking out in only 17% of plate appearances compared to a league average of 21%. They've had problems with their bullpen, as I'll explain below, but the starters have been best in the league at getting hitters to swing at pitches outside the strike zone (33%), they've struck out the most batters (23% of batters), and walked the fourth fewest (6%).

What's Going Wrong? The Twins pitchers have been remarkably consistent over the past 30 days: 5.78 ERA overall, worst in the league; 5.78 starters' ERA, worst in the league; 5.77 relievers' ERA, worst in the league. You know the On The Field Of Play pitching mantra, It's good to throw strikes, but it's better to get strikes? As it turns out, the Twins have been pretty good at throwing strikes (51% of pitches in the strikes zone, third most in the league) and getting strikes (batters swinging at 32% of pitches outside the striek zone, fourth highest in the league). So why haven't they been successful? Because the pitches they've thrown, inside and outside the strike zone, have been hittable. Twins pitchers have the third-slowest fastball in the league (91.6 mph average), the third-slowest slider (83.0 mph average). They've allowed the highest batting average on balls in play (.334, league average is .293), the second highest percentage of fly balls going over the fence (11.7%, league average is 9.2%), and the most baserunners to score (35%, league average is 27%). Those three figures, widely different from the league averages, probably indicate some bad luck, but that's not all of it. You throw hittable pitches, you get hit.

This shouldn't be blamed exclusively on the pitchers, though. The Twins fielders have converted 67% of balls in play into outs this year, the lowest percentage in the league, and the team does poorly in advanced defensive measures. 

Who's Hot? The Twins have managed to compile those awful pitching numbers despite having Phil Hughes, who'll get a few Cy Young Award votes. Over the past 30 days, he has a 3.44 ERA to go with 33 strikeouts and just one walk over 36.2 innings. His strikeout to walk ratio is 11.3, which is the highest in baseball history, topping Brett Saberhagen's 11.0 in 1994 and Cliff Lee's 10.3 in 2010. (h/t: D.J. Short at Hardball Talk) He's making me look smart when I wrote in December
Hughes isn't an elite pitcher. But he's probably better than what he was last year, and the move out of the Bronx should help him keep more balls in the park. By the end of the year, I wouldn't be surprised if his numbers were better than league average.
Actually, that isn't all that smart, because he's been a lot better than league average, 21st in ERA, eighth in WHIP, and a 15-10 record for a team that's won 61% of the games that he's started (99-63 pace) but only 38% of games started by others (61-101 pace). 

The Twins also acquired Ricky Nolasco over the winter, and while he's been OK over the past 30 days (3.93 ERA), he's been a disappointment, going 5-12 with a 4.29 ERA, making me look not-so-smart when I wrote back in November
I'd expect an average or slightly better-than-average ERA and 200 or so innings, but nothing spectacular.
The league ERA 3.83 and Nolasco's pitched 153 innings.

No hitter has been really outstanding, though rookie centerfielder Danny Santana has hit .290 and is seven-for-eight as a basestealer over the past 30 days.

Who's Not? Rather than name names, let's just say that Twins starters not named Hughes or Nolasco have an 8.00 ERA over the past 30 days, giving up more homers in their 77.2 innings pitched (16) than the Indians (15), Padres (15), Rangers (13), Royals (12), Braves (11), and Diamondbacks (11) have hit. No reliever has been particularly good, and closer Glen Perkins had more blown saves (three) than saves (two) and more than twice as many home runs allowed (five) than strikeouts (two) to go with a 12.27 ERA before revealing a season-ending nerve injury. 

Rookie DH Kennys Vargas leads the team with five homers and 15 RBI over the past 30 days, but otherwise has looked kind of lost at the plate, striking out in 29% of his plate appearances (the league average is less than 21%) and failing to draw a single walk. Rookie right fielder Oswaldo Arcia is batting .228 with an even higher strikeout rate than Vargas's, 32%. 
What's the Outlook? You'll note that every hitter I mentioned is a rookie. The Twins also have two of the most highly-rated prospects in the game, consensus No. 1 Byron Buxton, an outfielder, and third baseman Miguel Sano. Sano is 21 and Buxton's 20, and they both missed all (Sano) or almost all (Buxton) of the 2014 season with injuries, so they won't be headed up to Minnesota until sometime next year at the earliest. But there are bats on the way.

The pitching this year has been terrible, of course, but there are plenty of young arms in the farm as well. I could see the Twins being an exciting team at the plate in coming years, but my jury's still out on the pitching staff. The Twins have had a pitch-to-contact focus in recent years, while the rest of the league's gone for strikeouts. The idea is that the Twins's approach holds down pitch counts, preserving pitchers' arms, and lets the players in the field turn batted balls into outs. Well, it hasn't worked. The fielders aren't that great, and the Twins will finish the season with by far the lowest strikeout rate in the league (16.5% of plate appearances, league average is 20.1%). They were last, by far, in 2013, 2012, and 2011 as well. They weren't in 2010, which is also the last time they played in the postseason. I've heard Twins fans called for manager Ron Gardenhire's head, as this will be the team's third last place finish in the past four years, but it seems to me that someone in player development--specifically, pitcher development--is more to blame. The Twins aren't drafting, or aren't developing, or both, the type of pitchers who are successful in contemporary baseball. The Twins have used 23 pitchers this year, and the only ones with above-average strikeout rates are Hughes, Perkins, and 27-year-old rookie Aaron Thompson, who's pitched only 6.1 innings. Until the Twins embrace Ks for their hurlers, it's hard to see them competing, even in the generally weak American League Central. But their efforts to single-handedly keep run production across the league alive, I suppose, is admirable.

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