Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Position Analysis: Starting Pitcher

I took part in an AL Central preview podcast last week in which Seth Stohs interviewed bloggers from each division team and got their thoughts on the division. When talking about the Twins, the part of the team that nearly everyone mentioned first was the starting rotation. Fans of other teams (and the other teams themselves, I'm sure) greatly respect the Twins' stable of starting pitchers, and with good reason. It's a young and talented group that is very solid one-through-five; in fact, their weakest link is a hard-throwing left-hander who was formerly a top prospect and who just posted a 4.41 ERA in his rookie season.

Regression and injuries are bound to occur, but entering the season, the rotation appears to be the Twins' strongest unit. The depth behind these five is fairly questionable, but if everyone can stay on the field and continue to improve, this group has the potential to carry the Twins into October. Let's take a look at each member of The Fab Five:

Scott Baker
2008 Stats: 172.1 IP, 11-4, 3.45 ERA, 141 K / 42 BB, 1.18 WHIP


At the beginning of the 2007 season, Baker was an afterthought in the minds of most Twins fans, as he was coming off a putrid 2006 campaign and had become lost in the shuffle behind guys like Johan Santana, Matt Garza, Boof Bonser, Carlos Silva, Kevin Slowey, Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson. Two years later, hes slated to be the team's Opening Day starter, and with good reason. Throughout the 2008 season, Baker was the Twins most steady and reliable starter. While he might not match his 3.45 ERA from a year ago, he should continue to be a rock at the top of the Twins' rotation.

Francisco Liriano
2008 Stats: 76 IP, 6-4, 3.91 ERA, 67 K / 32 BB, 1.40 WHIP

When he first joined the Twins' rotation in 2006, Liriano had a pretty spectacular stretch, going 9-1 with a 1.36 ERA and 0.83 WHIP over his first 10 starts. Last year, when he rejoined the Twins' rotation in August after spending three months in the minors, Liriano brought back fond memories, going 5-0 with a 1.57 ERA and 0.95 WHIP in his first eight starts. Of course, last year's Liriano wasn't quite as electric as the rookie version, and his overall season last year wasn't nearly as amazing due to the struggles in April and late September, but Liriano reminded us all that he's capable of dominating major-league hitters even after undergoing Tommy John surgery. A full season of performance anywhere close to the level he pitched at in August of last year, and Liriano is an ace type pitcher and a terrific complement to Baker atop the rotation. Frisco's surgically repaired elbow held up through 199 1/3 total innings last season; we'll be crossing our fingers and hoping it can survive a similar workload this year.

Kevin Slowey
2008 Stats: 160.1 IP, 12-11, 3.99 ERA, 123 K / 24 BB, 1.15 WHIP

Slowey might be the starter I'm most excited to watch this year. He had his hiccups in his first full season last year, but also tossed a few absolute gems (two shutouts and a 12-strikeout performance against Oakland come to mind). Slowey is not a fireballer and he lacks great secondary stuff, but he's one of the most poised and intelligent pitchers I've seen. He'll always give up a fair number of homers, but as long as he can continue to limit their damage by keeping runners off the bases (his WHIP would have ranked fourth in the AL last year had he not narrowly missed qualifying), he'll be successful.

Glen Perkins
2008 Stats: 151 IP, 12-4, 4.41 ERA, 74 K / 39 BB, 1.47 WHIP

Perkins will probably slot as the Twins No. 4 starter due to Ron Gardenhire's preference to alternate righties and lefties in the rotation (even though this doesn't really matter -- there will be two consecutive right-handers no matter what alignment he chooses), for all intents and purposes he enters the season as the team's fifth starter. He's probably the guy worth worrying about most; with his high hit rate, low ground ball rate and paltry strikeout rate, his 12 wins and 3.96 ERA entering September last year seemed like the stuff of smoke and mirrors. Sure enough, over the season's final month he posted a 7.45 ERA while allowing 33 hits and seven homers in 19 1/3 innings. I remain bullish on Perkins though, and while he's not destined to post outstanding numbers if he pitches the way he did last year, by continuing to make adjustments he can certainly hold up as a quality back-of-the-rotation starter. It'd be great if he could remember how to miss bats the way he did in the minors, where he struck out more than a batter per inning.

Nick Blackburn
2008 Stats: 193.3 IP, 11-11, 4.05 ERA, 96 K / 39 BB, 1.36 WHIP

It was a surprise to most that Blackburn made the Twins' rotation out of spring training last year. It was probably a surprise to all that he stayed there for the whole season, posting solid numbers and leading the team in innings. Aside from his excellent walk rate, nothing on Blackburn's stat sheet jumps out at you. He had a .500 record and a middling strikeout rate. He gave up a fairly high number of hits and gave up some homers. His ERA was exactly league average. Yet, getting that kind of production over 200 innings from the back end of your rotation -- particularly from a guy who had zero experience in a big-league rotation -- has plenty of value, which is why Blackburn received a few Rookie of the Year votes. Blackburn must now prove that his successful '08 season was not a fluke, but with his ability to attack the strike zone and induce ground balls at a solid rate, he's hardly a major concern.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm sure it's just me (as usual) but here goes: Blackburn posts a .500 record and an era over 4 and it's "a surprise to all that he stayed there for the whole season" and "nothing on Blackburn's stat sheet jumps out at you."

I just want to point out to all of you who spooned Brad Radke while he was either the Twins' "ace" or second starter that Nick Blackburn IS Radke so far.

Look at the stats. Mr. Nelson here used the term "league average" to describe Blackburn's ERA. That term, league average, should be used to describe Radke's career. Everything about him (aside from innings pitched) was average: ERA, record, strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Another area where Blackburn parallel's Radke is the innings pitched. So far Blackburn looks durable enough to "just give the Twins innings," which is what Radke made a career out of.

The only difference between Radke and Blackburn is at least this time around Gardy got it right and is stick Blackburn at the end of the rotation where he belongs. Too bad the same couldn't be said about Radke.

. . . and just to pre-empt some of you meatheads who are going to cite Brad's singular 20-win season -- just keep in mind, Carlos Silva had a good season too once. Now where is he?

Nick N. said...

Well there are a couple things to note before we go and claim that Radke and Blackburn are one in the same.

First, Radke did a lot of his pitching in the late 90s, when league-wide offense was much stronger. He posted an ERA+ of 111 or better for six straight seasons from 1996 through 2001. He was also at 136 in 2004 and 110 in 2005. An ERA+ of 100 is exactly average (and exactly what Blackburn posted last year). So, compared to the rest of the league, Radke was solidly above average for much of his career.

Second, before having his career compared to Radke, Blackburn is going to have to do this over a span of 12 seasons. Radke was an above-average pitcher over 230 innings at the age of 23 and finished third in the Cy Young voting at the age of 24, then proceeded to post an above-average ERA in 10 of his 12 seasons while averaging 220 innings per year. So far all Blackburn has done is put together an average rookie season at the age of 26.

I don't mean to downplay Blackburn, but you're really underrating Radke. I'd agree that Radke is out of place as an ace on a contending team, but he was a quality pitcher who consistently delivered a lot of good innings.

If anything, Silva's "one good season" should serve as a precautionary tale toward Blackburn rather than a comparison to Radke. Blackburn is much more similar to Silva as a pitcher than he is to Radke.

lookatthosetwins said...

I'm with you that Slowey is the guy to watch this year. Eventually people will have to quit worrying about his stuff and his lack of an "out pitch" and realize that he has consistently struck people out and walked essentially noone at every level he's played at.

I know you shouldn't read too much into spring training stats, but when you see Slowey has 15 ks and 1 walk in 14.1 innings, its hard not to be excited.

At the other end of the spectrum, Perkins continues to not strike people out. 7 ks, 5 walks, in 20 innings. Those are scary numbers, especially when this was a concern coming in. I'm still holding out hope for improvement, but I'm more concerned about him than anyone on the everyday players and starting staff. He's still young, and was coming off an injury last year, but its pretty obvious he won't be able to get away with not striking people out again this year.

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