Friday, May 11, 2007

The Silva Lining

Yesterday's 3-0 loss at the hands of the White Sox dropped the Twins' record to .500 and marked their third consecutive series loss. It was another frustrating juncture in a season that has been marred by injuries, incompetent offense and inconsistent pitching. However, lost in yesterday's disaster of a game and in all of the maladies that have overcome the Twins as a team so far this year has been the standout play of one pitcher who has far exceeded expectations. That pitcher is the man who took the hard-luck loss in yesterday's contest: Carlos Silva.

Like many fans, I wasn't a big fan of the Twins' decision to pick up Silva's 2007 option following his disastrous '06 campaign. He was arguably the worst starting pitcher in the American League last year, and the way he was hammered in Spring Training did little to encourage fans that he was on his way back to 2005 form. Yet, much to my bewilderment, Silva has been the Twins' most consistent starting pitcher through the first six weeks of the season. Boof Bonser got off to a slow start and has struggled with his control, Ramon Ortiz has apparently begun to revert to his more recognizable form, Sidney Ponson has been fairly awful, and even the great Johan Santana has seen some ups and downs. But through it all, Silva has given the team a chance to win every time he's gone out. In seven starts, he has yet to allow more than three runs in a game, and yesterday he picked up his fourth Quality Start by going six innings and allowing three runs.

Silva's overall numbers on the season aren't overly impressive, but they do give some encouraging signs. Even though he didn't record a strikeout yesterday, he is averaging 4.3 K/9 IP, which is not necessarily great but is definitely a step up from the rates he's posted in his three previous seasons with the Twins (3.37 in '04, 3.39 in '05, 3.49 in '06). Opponents are batting .285 against Silva, which again isn't outstanding but is much closer to the number he posted in his great 2005 season (.290) than in his miserable 2006 season (.324).

The largest and most interesting change in Silva's game so far this year is that he is no longer relying on ground balls to get outs. Yesterday Silva put together a solid start despite getting more outs in the air (9) than on the ground (8), and that's not exactly out of the ordinary for him this year. His ground ball-to-fly ball ratio on the season now stands almost even at 62-to-54 (good for a 1.20 ratio). That's even lower than his ratio from last season (1.29) and down considerably from the rates he posted in 2004 (1.58) and 2005 (1.55). It also worth noting that while Silva was once heavily reliant on forcing opponents to ground into double plays -- he did it 28 times in '04 and 34 times in '05 -- yet that no longer seems to be a significant part of his game. Last season he induced just 16 ground ball double plays, and so far this year he's induced just four.

So while he's not allowing hits at an insane rate, Silva's peripherals look a whole lot more like the deplorable 2006 version than the successful 2005 version. And yet, the results have been very good. What is he doing differently? From my perspective, it seems that Silva is working outside of the strike zone more. It seems he has come to terms with the fact that his sinker just isn't as effective as it was in 2005. Last year, Silva didn't adjust for this issue and he continued pumping the ball into the strike zone constantly, which was basically just batting practice for opposing lineups. This year, he's worked on improving his change-up and he's pitching outside of the zone more. As a result, he's racking up much higher pitch counts and his 2.14 BB/9 rate -- while not bad -- is considerably higher than any he's posted in his previous three seasons with the Twins. At the same time, he's causing opposing hitters to miss more often and he's not giving up home runs at a ridiculous rate. Because of these factors, I think that Silva's success may be sustainable even though some of his peripherals would suggest that it's not.

Sometimes, when your team is playing as poorly as the Twins are right now, you have to look for some positives so as not to get too depressed. I think the way Silva has been pitching so far this year has to be seen as a major positive. And while the Twins didn't even resemble a major-league offense in getting shut out on 98 pitches by Jose Contreras yesterday, Silva went out and pitched a pretty good ballgame for the seventh time this season. Unfortunately, for the second time in those seven outings, his impressive work against the White Sox will go into the books as a loss because his offense could not provide a single run in support.