Of all the statistics accumulated through the first seven games of the Twins season thus far, perhaps the easiest one to draw conclusions from is the one that appeared at the bottom of Monday’s boxscore: 35,837.
That was the paid attendance for Target Field’s Opening Day, more than 3,000 tickets short of a sellout and a startlingly low number for the Twins’ first home game, especially in light of the sunny skies, relatively warm temperatures and a division champion opponent. In the past 30 seasons, only the 1995-96 stretch in the immediate wake of a devastating work stoppage caused fewer Minnesotans to visit the ballpark on the season’s first day.
That’s a stark example of the damage that 291 losses over three seasons inflicts on the interest level of a fanbase, apathy that the Twins hoped they had reversed last winter through some targeted spending. Their $84 million spending spree bought them three pitchers that the front office believed would repair their league-worst starting rotation and automatically make the Twins a more competitive club.
Now here’s a number that matters a lot less, for the moment: 6.32.
That’s the ERA of the starting staff through seven games, and like the 5.26 Twins starters posted in 162 games last season, it is the worst in all of baseball. And while statistics accumulated with more than 95 percent of the season remaining are basically worthless as indicators of how the season might play out, the subpar pitching might have some relationship to that attendance number.
In other words, had the high-priced pitching made a big first-week splash — had the fixes the Twins so publicly applied to their biggest problem appeared immediately effective — there might be more buzz about their 2014 season.
“People want instant turnarounds, no doubt,” assistant General Manager Rob Antony said last week. “It doesn’t play out that way very often. But we’re confident that the changes we made will pay off over the course of an entire season.”
So far, it’s the newcomers who have had the most difficult adjustment. Ricky Nolasco, who signed a contract guaranteeing him $49 million, has an ERA of 9.00 in two starts, while fellow righthander Phil Hughes, who takes the mound Wednesday in his first Target Field start since signing a $24 million contract, gave up four runs, and two homers, in a five-inning debut last week against the White Sox in Chicago. Mike Pelfrey, who returned to the Twins for a second season after agreeing to an $11 million deal as a free agent, pitched five strong innings in Cleveland, only to have a three-run meltdown in the sixth inning that cut short his start.
Fifth starter Kyle Gibson owns the only victory from the rotation, but even his start didn’t meet the criteria of a “quality start,” since he threw so many pitches that he lasted only five innings Saturday in Cleveland. The lone quality start thus far belongs to Kevin Correia, who gave up two earned runs in six innings Wednesday in Chicago, then gave up six more in a subpar start in the home opener Monday, an 8-3 loss to Oakland.
“One time through the rotation, it’s just good for everybody to get their feet wet,” Antony said. “I don’t think it matters whether you’re a veteran or rookie, everybody [in] that first start is a little bit nervous.”
What makes managers nervous is a starting pitcher who needs four or five innings of help from the bullpen, rather than the ideal two or three. “We need guys to go six or seven innings, or we’re going to wear our our bullpen,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “We’ve brought in some guys who can do that.”
Not during the first week, however. Twins starters have averaged 5.3 innings per start, basically identical to the 5.4 they managed last year. That’s probably not the reason the bullpen has started slowly, too — the relief-role ERA is 6.66 through 25⅔ innings, more than three runs worse than in 2013 — but it could cause problems if it continues.
Correia is certain it won’t. “We’re not going out there and getting beat up, I don’t think,” he said. “We’re a few pitches away, here and there, from getting deep into games. It’s so early, we’re not even through the rotation twice, so it’s impossible to predict what will happen.”
Antony believes he knows what will happen: Twins pitching will get better as the season goes on.
“They’ve all had their moments. We’re still very confident in our rotation,” he said. “It’s much improved, and I think it’ll play out that way.”