Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Post-Break Rotation Outlook

Over the past weekend, the Twins took three out of four from the Tigers in Detroit to head into the All-Star break on a high note. During the current four-day respite from meaningful games, we fans can reflect on the team's 53-42 record, and their position 1.5 games behind the first-place White Sox in the American League Central.

The Twins seem to be well-situated offensively. With the exception of Carlos Gomez, just about every regular is hitting pretty well right now. Ron Gardenhire will have a situation to deal with when Michael Cuddyer returns (what to do with Denard Span?), but for the most part, the offense seems set for the last couple months of the season.

Things are a little less clear with regards to the rotation. Let's break down each starter and what we can expect after the break.

Scott Baker has pitched like a true ace this season, having gone 6-2 with a 3.47 ERA and 68-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 83 innings spread across 14 starts. He missed a month early in the season due to an injury, which has limited his workload, but that may be beneficial down the stretch when his inning load for the season is quite low relative to his peers. Baker has limited hits (only 82 in 83 innings), shown outstanding control, and has displayed an impressive ability to miss bats with a solid strikeout rate overall and 7+ K in six different starts. He has been a bit homer-prone, having surrendered 13 dingers in his 83 innings of work, but that's hardly unusual for a fly ball pitcher like him. The key is limiting that damage by preventing hits and being stingy with walks. Baker has excelled in both those categories; that's why he's been the Twins' best pitcher thus far and figures to continue to do so the rest of the way.

Kevin Slowey had been pitching exceedingly well through his first 12 starts, with a 3.47 ERA and 1.03 WHIP, but he has struggled in his past two outings. He surrendered five runs over six innings of work against the Indians two starts ago, and his last time out he was shelled by the Tigers for six runs in just 3 1/3 innings of work. In both starts, Slowey was victimized by big innings. As a result, his ERA has shot up from 3.47 to 4.26, but I don't think there's any serious reason to worry. Finesse pitchers like Slowey are susceptible to rough outings from time to time (as I wrote on Friday), but I suspect he'll be able to bounce back from the ugly start just as he was able to bounce back from that 8 ER, 3 IP debacle in Chicago back in early June. That is, if he's healthy. He was scheduled to start the first game after the break on Friday, but has had his start pushed back due to a fingernail problem. This will be worth monitoring.

Nick Blackburn has been perhaps the team's biggest surprise this year. Sunday, he allowed only two earned runs over seven innings of work against a tough Tiger offense. He took the loss in the game, and while I'm sure that some (one specifically) will try to argue that he didn't "give his team a chance to win" because three runs came across on his watch and the Twins only scored twice, it was a Quality Start and a very impressive outing. He enters the break 7-5 with a 3.65 ERA and 64-to-20 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 19 starts. Now, just because Blackburn's success this season is somewhat unexpected doesn't mean we can't expect it to continue. He doesn't overwhelm hitters and doesn't strike many people out, but Blackburn pounds the strike zone and induces ground balls at a steady rate, which is a good recipe for lots of innings with a solid ERA. Sure enough, he's on pace to throw over 200 innings this year with an ERA that is better than the league average. This makes him a very valuable guy to have in the middle of the rotation.

Glen Perkins was not being counted on to be a member of this rotation prior to the season. He had never made a start at the major-league level and missed most of 2007 with a shoulder injury. Fortunately, he's stepped in as a starter for the Twins and has done a fine job anchoring the back end of the rotation. His 4.14 ERA and 43-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio are unexceptional, but plenty satisfactory for a No. 4 starter. He has surrendered 95 hits in 78 1/3 innings and his drop-off in K-rate is a bit alarming, but his aggressive pitching style has worked well. He might be due for some regression, but he's a good bet to remain relatively productive over the last couple months of the season and shouldn't have a terribly difficult time holding down his spot in the rotation.

The final spot is where things get interesting. Livan Hernandez leads the team in wins with nine, but nearly every other number is ugly. He holds a 5.44 ERA, a 1.62 WHIP and 45-to-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 120 2/3 innings. Opponents are hitting .342/.368/.506 against him, which is pretty unbelievable. Essentially, he's turning opposing lineups into a bunch of MVP candidates. Since starting the season 6-1 with a 3.90 ERA, Hernandez has gone 3-5 with a 6.86 ERA and a ghastly .373 BAA. Over his past 10 outings, he has worked three Quality Starts, and those have come against Washington, Arizona and Cleveland. When facing tough offenses like the Rangers, Yankees and Red Sox, Hernandez has been hit hard, and he's been hammered nearly every time he's made a start on the road. Hernandez's strategy of lobbing 84-mph fastballs over the plate is clearly not playing well for the most part, and there's no reason to think it will get any better as long as he continues to allow nearly two hits per inning.

Meanwhile, Francisco Liriano has been brilliant in Triple-A as of late. He has reportedly reverted to his three-quarters arm slot after some attempted mechanical adjustments, and the results have been extremely impressive: three straight scoreless outings, with more than a strikeout per inning and a minuscule 0.65 WHIP during that span. There is little question that Liriano would provide a vast improvement over Hernandez immediately, but for the time being the Twins seem committed to their veteran innings eater. We'll see how long that lasts if Liriano continues to dominate while Hernandez continues to get knocked around like a piñata. Of course, Liriano could find his way into the rotation as a replacement for Slowey if the fingernail issue is more serious than initially thought.

8 comments:

Dwade said...

Right now, Livan looks like he will make type-B free agency, so I wonder if the Twins could pawn him off to someone like Pittsburgh or KC or someone else who is out of the race and looking to reload the minors.

I hope Liriano doesn't come into the rotation at the expense of Slowey, but he does represent a pretty good fall back option if Slowey does need more time to heal.

TT said...

Scott Baker has pitched like a true ace this season

Baker is averaging less than 6 innings per start. He has never gone more than 7 innings. That isn't the mark of an ace. He needs to get more outs. The Twins are 9-5 with him starting.

Blackburn had a rough June when he went less than 5 innings in 3 of 5 starts. His July outings have been much better which is an encouraging sign. The Twins are 10-9 with him starting.

Slowey is the biggest question mark in the rotation right now. Its not clear whether his last two outings are aberrations or if the league is catching up to him. He started June badly and finished it spectacularly. So we can hope he will come out of the break and do the same thing in July. I wonder about his stamina and whether all the pitches he threw in that complete game came back to haunt him. The Twins are 8-6 with him starting.

Perkins is probably the most consistent of the young starters. He has given up more than 3 earned runs only twice. And the Twins won one of those games and still had a chance in the other. He's only failed to pitch into the 7th inning once in the last month when he was lifted for a pinch hitter. The Twins are 8-5 with him on the mound.

Except for one bad stretch, Hernandez has proved to be the dependable veteran innings eater he was expected to be. If you are playing simulation games, he's the last guy you want. But he fits perfectly into a rotation with four young starters who are still trying to prove themselves. Surprisingly, the Twins are 13-7 with him starting.

Liriano struggled to pitch into the sixth inning in two straight starts before his latest streak. As dominating as he has been the last three games he has pitched only 20 innings. It would appear that he still has some work to do on pitching deep into games. He's the only real option beyond Bonser if someone falters or gets hurt.

All of which leaves the rotation in pretty good shape, especially for a team that is scoring runs the way the Twins are.

The one worrisome note is that, for all their success, the starters are not really pitching all that deep into games. If they start to falter and pitch even fewer innings the pressure on the bullpen could be the Twins demise.

Nick N. said...

The one worrisome note is that, for all their success, the starters are not really pitching all that deep into games. If they start to falter and pitch even fewer innings the pressure on the bullpen could be the Twins demise.

I think this is something we expected from the beginning with the rotation being as inexperienced as it is.

It's not as bad as you might think though, relatively speaking. Overall, Twins starters have averaged about 5.9 innings per start. Last year, with Santana and Silva, they had close to the same average (about .08 higher).

To compare to some other AL Central squads, the Tigers have also averaged 5.9 innings from their starters this year, the Royals have averaged roughly 6 innings, and the Indians have averaged 6.1 innings. Meanwhile, the division-leading White Sox have averaged 6.2 innings from their starters, which has undoubtedly helped lead to their success as a team and more specifically the success of their bullpen.

Elsewhere, the Red Sox are getting 6 IP/G from their starters. So are the Rays. The Angels are getting 6.4.

So, while the Twins compare poorly to some other teams in this respect, it's not like they are averaging a full inning less per game from their starters than the teams they are competing against. Certainly it's not as bad as, say, the Orioles or Mariners, who are getting averaging 5.6 innings from their starters.

David said...

These are all young pitchers except for Livan. The big question is, can they continue to pitch as well as they have for a full 162-game schedule and into the post-season? I don't think any of them have pitched 200 innings before.
As for Livan, if we didn't have Liriano in the minors, I would be fine with him as our fifth starter. But we do have Liriano, and he's ready. It would be criminal to leave him in the minors any longer.

TT said...

"he big question is, can they continue to pitch as well as they have for a full 162-game schedule and into the post-season? "

the big question is "can they ALL continue to pitch as well" and how many games will the Twin lose before they decide the answer is no if one of them can't.

The advantage of having Liriano available, if he really is ready, is that they can pull the trigger pretty quick.

Anonymous said...

I saw slowey pitch in Milwaukee on June 13th and he hancuffed a good hitting Brewers club. He also went on to post a couple of solid starts after that. He's talented but young and learning. I like what I see.
jake

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