The Twins at midseason: anatomy of a collapse (Part 1: pitching)

Nick Blackburn's strikeout rate is non-existent, with 91 percent of batters putting the ball in play since June 1.
REUTERS/Eric Miller
It’s been a particularly bad stretch for Nick Blackburn, whose strikeout rate has become nearly non-existent.

First of two articles

When the Twins woke up in Seattle on June 1, they were 31-20 and riding a five-game winning streak that gave them a season-high 4.5-game lead over the Tigers (and 8.5-game lead over the White Sox) in the AL Central. They were clicking on nearly every cylinder, with the pitching staff allowing the second-fewest runs in the league and the lineup scoring more runs than any team outside of the powerful AL East.

Through two months, they had the second-best record in baseball, were on pace for 98 wins, and looked capable of running away with the division. Instead, they’ve fallen apart.

After losing two of three from the Tigers over the weekend, the Twins are now 15-22 since the calendar flipped to June, turning a 4.5-game lead into a 3.5-game deficit in under six weeks and limping into the All-Star break in third place at a disappointing 46-42.

Here’s a look at their run scoring and run prevention during the good times and bad times:

Through May 31 4.92 3.82
Since June 1 4.24 4.85

Through the end of May, the Twins scored 4.92 runs per game, but since then, they’ve managed just 4.24 runs per game for an offensive decline of 14 percent. And the decline of the pitching staff has been even steeper. Through the end of May, the Twins allowed 3.82 runs per game, but since then, they’ve coughed up 4.85 runs per game for a pitching (and defense) drop of 27 percent. Let’s dig a little deeper and look at the individual pitching performances since June 1:

Carl Pavano 60.1 3.13 4.29
Scott Baker 42.2 5.48 4.56
Francisco Liriano 41.2 4.75 1.90
Kevin Slowey 40.2 5.31 4.58
Nick Blackburn 36.0 10.00 7.48
TOTAL 221.1 5.41 4.53

While going 15-22, the Twins’ rotation had a cumulative 5.41 ERA, with only Carl Pavano under 4.50 and Nick Blackburn checking in at 10.00. However, their cumulative Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) was a much more reasonable 4.53, with Pavano, Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey all right around 4.50 and Francisco Liriano at an excellent 1.90 thanks to his great 51-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio with zero homers allowed in 41.2 innings.

In other words the rotation as a whole didn’t pitch quite as horribly as their 5.41 ERA suggests, and in particular, Liriano’s secondary numbers were outstanding. That their ERA was a full run worse than their FIP shows that perhaps the starters had poor defense played behind them, received poor bullpen support, or maybe just had some bad luck (since we are talking about a very limited sample size here). That’s the good news.

The bad news is that Blackburn had a 7.48 FIP in addition to his ghastly 10.00 ERA. It’s rare for a pitcher’s FIP to get that high, because the stat is designed to take bad luck, bad defense and bad bullpen support out of the equation and … well, few pitchers are still that bad once you strip their performance of those factors. For instance, no pitcher with more than 50 innings in a season has cracked a 7.00 FIP since 2006.

Blackburn’s overall FIP this season is “only” 5.89, but he’s compiled a 7.48 FIP since June 1 by striking out just 17 of 180 batters while walking 14 and allowing 11 homers. His strikeout rate has always been terrible, but he made up for it with great control and limited home runs. Now his strikeout rate is non-existent, with 91 percent of batters putting the ball in play since June 1, and he issued twice as many walks as before while serving up a homer every three innings.

Brian Duensing 18.2 1.45 4.06
Alex Burnett 16.1 4.96 5.89
Matt Guerrier 16.0 5.07 4.70
Ron Mahay 14.1 2.51 4.60
Jon Rauch 13.0 1.39 2.97
Jesse Crain 12.1 1.46 2.96
Jose Mijares 8.1 2.16 4.40
Jeff Manship 5.1 3.38 6.01
TOTAL 104.1 2.85 4.38

Not surprisingly, while the rotation’s ERA was much worse than its FIP, the bullpen’s ERA was much better than its FIP. During the 15-22 stretch, the bullpen actually had a pretty looking 2.85 ERA, but inheriting runners from the starters and allowing them to score isn’t reflected in the relievers’ ERAs and their FIP was merely mediocre at 4.38, with only Jon Rauch and Jesse Crain below 4.00. Despite that, Rauch and Crain were used for just 25 innings in 37 games.

In the past, Rauch’s durability was a major asset, as he averaged 80 innings per season from 2006-2009 while appearing in half of his team’s games. However, now he’s a “closer” instead of a “setup man” and so Ron Gardenhire has subjected him to the same extremely rigid usage patterns he employed with Joe Nathan, which is why four different relievers have more innings than Rauch since June 1 and he’s on pace for just 62 innings in 59 appearances on the year.

Rauch has shown the ability to log tons of innings, but now that the Twins have entrusted him with the most important role in the bullpen, he’s on pace for 25 percent less work because the manager will only use him up 1 to 3 runs in the final inning. That means fewer innings for Rauch, who has a 2.38 ERA and 3.32 FIP, but also more innings for the lesser relievers and more work for Matt Guerrier, who Gardenhire is perfectly willing to wear out because he’s not a “closer.”

In the past few weeks, Guerrier pitched three times in four days and then, after a short break, worked five times in seven days. Not surprisingly, he began to struggle, taking the loss in three straight appearances. Rauch is capable of being a workhorse and Guerrier has worn down like this in the past, but since Gardenhire lets the “save” statistic dictate how he runs the bullpen, Guerrier has pitched in 42 percent more games than Rauch since June 1.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

When a team goes from 31-20 to 46-42, fans start calling for all sorts of moves to be made and the pitching staff is certainly the most obvious place to point fingers, but realistically what can and should the Twins do? Some of the most plausible “solutions” involve guys like Slowey and Baker simply pitching better, but here are three other ideas that don’t involve dumping half the roster or trading half the farm system …

1. Blackburn needs a break from the rotation.

The misguided decision to hand Blackburn a four-year, $14 million contract this offseason when he was already under team control through 2013 complicates the situation, but whether he’s injured or just finally tasting the downside of “pitching to contact,” he’s been bad enough for long enough that making a change is reasonable. I’m far from confident in Brian Duensing as a starter, but moving him into the rotation and shifting Blackburn to long relief makes sense.

2. If there aren’t many save chances to be had, use Rauch more in non-save situations.

Gardenhire’s rigid deployment of Rauch was fine when there was a steady flow of late leads to close out, but using the team’s best, most durable reliever for 13 innings in 37 games simply because the “save” chances dried up is silly and a lesson in backwards managing. Gardenhire has unfortunately let Rauch’s new role drastically alter the way he uses him, but that doesn’t mean Rauch has forgotten how to pitch without a lead of 1 to 3 runs in the ninth inning.

3. Bring up Anthony Slama from Triple-A.

I’ve been banging the Slama drum for a while now, and at this point I’m not sure what else the guy can do to get a shot in Minnesota. His numbers in the minors have been ridiculously good at every stop and he now has a 1.80 ERA, .152 opponents’ batting average and 79 strikeouts in 65 innings at Triple-A. His control is shaky and his raw stuff isn’t overpowering, but so what? He’s dominated at every level and is already 26 years old. Why not at least give him a chance?

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Kevin Reichard on 07/12/2010 - 12:47 pm.

    Alas, here’s why you should actually spend some time at the ballpark: you’d know that Gardy has already rejected the idea of moving Duensing to the rotation because his arm isn’t stretched out. Hell, even Frank Quilici knew that when it brought up on the Sunday post-game report. Quilici 1, Gleeman 0.

    As for Slama: not exactly stellar in the Futures Game.

  2. Submitted by Wayne Miller on 07/12/2010 - 02:15 pm.

    The thing that has been driving me crazy since this meltdown began is that there’s only one person who ever shows any emotion, and that’s Gardy. It’s crazy that the manager is the only guy who gets emotional. Unfortunately, all the players have taken on this very Joe Mauerish stoic, calm, unemotional demeanor. The epitomy of very cool professionals. Even Hudson has fallen into that trap as compared to the emotional and fun loving side he showed earlier! In the long run, it will work for Joe. It always has. But the rest of the guys have got to be who they are. Quit being Joe Mauer wannabes and play your game. For most guys that means with emotion and a freaking kick tail attitude, not as robots calmly returning to the dugout after way too many strike threes in big situations. Right Cuddy?

  3. Submitted by myles spicer on 07/12/2010 - 03:24 pm.

    Sadly, when teams lose, there is lots of “piling on”. So, let me add my complaints too.

    Gleeman was down on the idea of a “rent a pitcher” the other day; unfortunately that is exactly what we will have to do if we even want to compete in the Central. Except for Pavano (and Lariano who might have just had one bad outing), the other three starters are scary. We have shown we cannot beat elite teams with this staff (even when we were on top of the division). The three starters mentioned above are at the bottom of the ERA on our staff. If we lose this year, I doubt we will see full houses next year — the stadium can only attract for so long. For many reasons, the future is now for this team — not in the future through our minor league prospects.

    Re Gardy, he is dealing with lots of injuries, but he has also been “out managed” several times. He is reluctant to bunt when our better hitters are up to bat, to move runners into scoring position. This has worked some times, but it is also a reason we hit into so many double plays.

    Given all this, we have the nucleus of a decent competitive team — but without plugging the holes, there will be disappointment at the end of the season I fear.

  4. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 07/12/2010 - 03:49 pm.

    I would think Baker’s tendinitis would clinch the decision to remove him from the rotation. The relievers mostly started in the minors, and they can’t do worse, especially on the road. Either a Red Wing or a relief pitcher should be getting his chance to start.

  5. Submitted by Dave Eldred on 07/12/2010 - 04:05 pm.

    Kevin, it would be a short conversation if we only talked about the things Gardy is going to do, as opposed to what he should do. The “should do but won’t” list could take days to get through.

    While I will credit Gardy with generally keeping an even keel in the clubhouse through a long season, this year in particular has exposed him as a strategic neophyte.

  6. Submitted by Kevin Reichard on 07/12/2010 - 05:01 pm.

    Dave — I don’t see how anyone who knows anything about baseball could argue that a short reliever who’s not gone more than 1.1 innings since June 24 should be thrust into the starting rotation at the end of July. It just doesn’t happen. Similarly, there’s pretty good evidence that Anthony Slama is not a major-league pitcher; his numbers are misleading because he’s in a VERY pitcher-friendly park (Frontier Field is huge, and the ball does not carry well), and he pretty much failed on a big stage against real batters in a real ballpark in the Futures Game.

    Gleeman is obsessed with Slama. Numbers, in this case, are meaningless.

  7. Submitted by Kevin Reichard on 07/12/2010 - 05:05 pm.

    Plus, David, Slama is a reliever, mostly the one-inning type. Does the bullpen need another one-inning dude? The issue is starting pitching, not relief pitching.

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