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TwinsCentric: Improving the rotation through free agency

Posted by: Parker Hageman Updated: September 6, 2013 - 11:22 AM

On Thursday, Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs.com tweeted out a very depressing but all too telling statistic about the Minnesota Twins’ rotation: The bullpen staff has 17 more strikeouts than the starting rotation.

Sure, it is bleak but it is not as historically awful as it sounds: The current 12.3% strikeout rate by the Twins’ staff ranks 203rd among MLB starting rotations dating back to 1961. The issue, however, is that the Twins are trending in the wrong direction. Since 2008 the game has seen a proliferation of K’s like no other era. In fact, since 2008, the strikeout rate in MLB has been set and broken each season. Meanwhile, this season’s 18.7% league-wide strikeout rate has been the best ever.

As bats have become more porous or the strike zone has expanded or the ball has become easier to spin, the Twins have failed to collect any pitchers who can capitalize on this growing whiff movement. At the player development level, the organization is slowly bringing along hurlers who have strikeout capabilities but the cavalry is still several years away.
 
While developing pitchers is ultimately the best method for long-term success, it is clear in order to improve soon the Twins will have to acquire an arm either by trade or the free agent market.
 
As one Twins front office member described to me, the organization has had interest in plenty of free agent starting pitchers but have been eschewed by the player and their agent for competitive reasons. For example, while his season wound up plenty disappointing, the veteran Dan Haren’s interest was to play for a presumed contender in the Washington Nationals. So after what will be a third 90-loss season, the Twins may experience yet another shortage of being able to lure a pitcher with a similar track record as a Dan Haren.
 
Of course, money can change minds and the Twins may be at the point of needing to overpay for talent – at least to appease the dwindling ticket-buying consumers. Here are four strikeout pitchers who should be on the team’s radar:
 
Tim Lincecum:
 
A two-time Cy Young winner as recent as 2009, the now 29-year-old Lincecum has fallen from the elite status as his velocity dipped and his walk rate swelled. Hitters were able to tee up on both his fastball and change-up in 2012 which dramatically increased his home run rate. What’s interesting about the home run distribution as of late is that the vast majority are pulled. Prior to the velocity decrease in 2012, the ones he allowed were to the middle of the park – hitters were not able to yank his offerings. Now, they have turned on the fastball/change as the velo discrepancies shrank significantly.
 
Why would the Twins want him? For starters, he still misses bats at a very high rate. As it stands right now, the Twins’ bullpen has more strikeouts than the starting rotation. Strikeouts are fascist but this rotation is desperate for a little of that action. Of all the soon-to-be free agent starters, Lincecum’s 23.8% strikeout rate over the last three years leads the group. That would be a pretty sexy addition.
 
The downside is he walks a ton too and that has been baggage the organization has shied away from. What’s more, Target Field is much more home run friendly than Lincecum’s former home at AT&T Park in San Francisco so in addition to seeing lineups with DHs upon switching from the NL to the AL, he could also be stepping into an environment which will inflate his home run rate.
 
Ervin Santana:
 
The word is Santana actually likes pitching in Kansas City, which means he may opt to stick around America’s bread basket. That puts the Twins at a disadvantage considering the Royals are actually competitive and the Twins are still in a rebuild. That said, it is possible that the Royals decide not to bring him back and, considering his volatility in recent years, he may be a less desired product than some of the other free agents on the market.
 
Whatever he did, he started to throw more strikes and pepper the zone regularly while in a Royals uniform. This translated into fewer walks. He kept the ball down better which resulted in fewer home runs as well, which was a huge change from the previous season. Last year he allowed 39 home runs but has reduced that to 22 so far this year. One interesting note: After allowing 16 home runs up the middle, he has allowed just 7 that direction this year. (Caveat: It is possible that the 39 home runs allowed in 2012 were simply fluky when you consider how many left the park in the furthest reaches of the field.)
 
Over the past three years, Santana’s held the second-lowest batting average on balls in play (.240) among free agents. This usually means hitters have a tough time squaring up on a pitcher – which is true for Santana – however he allowed 39 home runs a year ago meaning that a vast majority of balls that would have counted towards that BABIP left the field in a painful way.
 
Phil Hughes:
 
Baseball America’s fourth overall prospect in 2007 as a major leaguer, Phil Hughes’ career has been inconsistent in New York.
 
Part of that may have to do with facing the beasts of the AL East while another half of that is performing in Yankee Stadium with the favorable hitting conditions. How badly has Yankee Stadium victimized him? Since 2000, Hughes’ home run-to-fly ball ratio of 13.1% has been the 14th highest in baseball among those with 300 innings. Meanwhile, away from Yankee Stadium, Hughes has had a 7% home run-to-fly ball ratio, the second-lowest among starting pitchers (only Clayton Kershaw is better). Clearly, moving him away from the Bronx and say moving into a home run suppressing venue like Target Field would be in his best interest.
 
In terms of strikeouts, he will not put up gaudy totals. In fact, his rates are surprisingly average in that department. His slider is his only swing-and-miss pitch and that carries just a 12.6% swinging strike rate (below average for a slider).
 
Johan Santana:
 
Yes, the former Twin has had a rash of dehabilitating injuries in New York and the most recent one offer no guarantee that he will be ready to shoulder an entire season but, when healthy, he’s been a dominating force. He has expressed interest in pitching again in 2013 and will need just a one-year, make good Mike Pelfrey-type of deal. How sweet would it be to see Santana out on the Target Field mound again?  (Answer: Very.)
 
Beyond just nostalgic purposes, there is a possibility that Santana may actually pitch well too. In 2012, his last healthy season, Santana whiffed 22.3% of batters faced. The velocity certainly isn’t what it used to be, as he now has a DeLorean fastball (88 miles per hour) but that cotton ball of a change-up has still made batters look foolish as hell. The flipside is that both age (34) and numerous surgeries could mean that Santana never recovers and winds up a Rich Harden or Joel Zumaya for the Twins.  It would definitely be a low risk but high reward move.  
 
Plus I want to rock the “Santana” shirsey one last time. 

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