Monday, April 24, 2006

Pitching Woes

However you want to look at it, the Twins have gotten off to a pretty rough start this year. While things look slightly less grim thanks to a five-game winning streak to open the home schedule, the Twins started the season by losing five of their first six games and have now lost six of their last seven. This is largely attributable to a difficult early schedule, but the fact remains that the Twins are an atrocious 1-8 on the road and 0-6 vs. AL Central opponents. Surprisingly, the biggest problem for the Twins this year has been pitching.

The Twins were projected to have one of the strongest pitching staffs in the league this season, as they returned their top four starters and most of the relievers from one of baseball's best bullpens. Inexplicably, the pitching has been downright awful to this point, with no real signs of improvement. The Twins have held their opponent to less than 5 runs only five times in 18 games so far. Their staff ERA of 6.10 ranks worst in the majors outside of Kansas City and Tampa Bay. That's not good company. They rank last in the MLB in strikeouts.

The rotation has consistently dug the team into early holes. To expect an offense that was possibly the worst in the league last year to consistently hit their way back into these games is unfair. The fact that they have won even seven games so far is really quite fortunate.

Johan Santana has not been terrible. Despite his 0-3 record, he's shown improvement and pieced together a pretty good start against the White Sox on Friday night. (Is it just me or does he always step it up when he's facing an elite pitcher?) He hasn't allowed more than 4 runs in a start, and while he has struggled with his control and hasn't looked particularly dominant, he hasn't really put the team into any insurmountable deficits in when he's pitched. He seems to be coming around. I'm not particularly worried about him

I cannot say the same for Brad Radke or Carlos Silva. Both have looked absolutely horrible so far. Radke's first inning troubles have been worse than ever, and he's posted a 7.50 ERA while allowing a league-leading 8 home runs in 24 innings. Opponents are hitting an astronomical .453 off of Radke with a 1.334 OPS. Silva has not fared much better. Yesterday he might as well have been tossing batting practice to the White Sox, as he was crushed for four home runs, putting his season total up to 7 (watch out Brad!). Silva has a despicable 8.33 ERA in four starts and opponents are hitting .447 against him. His nearly even groundball-to-flyball ratio is particularly alarming, and he's induced only one double-play so far this year.

Kyle Lohse has gotten lit up worse than anyone so far, with an 11.57 ERA through three starts. Lohse has as many walks (6) as strikeouts, and while he had one solid start against Oakland, he has yielded 8 earned runs in both of his other starts. Lohse's performance this year has been particularly disappointing considering that he seemed to have made some large gains last season and was coming off a phenomenal spring.

The lone bright spot in the rotation thus far has been the young Scott Baker, who has posted a solid 3.31 ERA to this point and had by far the season's most impressive start when he held the formidable Yankees lineup to 1 run on 3 hits over 7 innings on April 14.

Outside of Baker, the rotation has been just plain bad. Unfortunately, the bullpen hasn't been a whole lot better. Jesse Crain has been horrific, posting an 8.68 ERA in 9.1 innings while yielding 16 hits and 3 home runs. Matt Guerrier has gotten crushed, with opponents hitting .515 against him over 8.2 innings. These were two guys who the team was ready to rely on heavily coming into the year. Juan Rincon has pitched fairly well outside of a terrible outing in Chicago Friday night where he allowed 4 earned runs without recording an out. Rookie Willie Eyre has pitched pretty well, allowing just 2 runs in 7.2 innings, but he has allowed 10 hits and has only 2 strikeouts. Francisco Liriano has been the only guy who's gotten it done regularly in middle relief, allowing just 1 run in 10.1 innings while yielding just 9 hits and striking out 15. Liriano has made it clear that he is deserving of a spot in the rotation, though Ron Gardenhire makes it sound like he has no intention of moving him there any time soon.

Meanwhile, Joe Nathan, arguably the team's best pitcher and certainly its most reliable reliever, has been limited to only 5 innings thanks to Gardy's hesitation to use him anywhere outside of a save situation (of which the Twins have had only two this year). Nathan has been lights-out, but unfortunately he has rarely been able to pitch in key situations.

So what are we to make of all this pitching ineptitude? Will it get better? I'm confident that Santana will start to settle into a groove soon and I think once Silva starts getting his stuff to sink more he should improve quite a bit also. I'm not nearly as optimistic about Lohse and Radke. They pretty much have to get better than they've been so far, but opposing hitters seem to have them both figured out pretty well and neither has been able to make any adjustments to this point.

It should be interesting to see if the Twins' pitchers can get back on track against the light-hitting Royals in their upcoming series in Kansas City, and then maybe carry some momentum into Detroit for the weekend. One thing is clear: If the pitching does not improve dramatically soon, the season is going to be lost. The Twins simply cannot afford to fall much further behind in this division.

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