After this weekend’s disaster, in which the Twins’ hand-selected post-break first three starting pitchers — Kyle Gibson, Phil Hughes and Kevin Correia — combined to throw 17.1 innings and allow 15 earned runs against the Rays, Twins starting pitchers have a combined 4.96 ERA this season.
That’s nearly a run worse than the AL average for starters (4.06) and more than a run worse than the MLB average (3.94). That 4.96 ERA for starters ranks 28th in all of baseball, with only the injury-ravaged Rangers and the thin-air-challenged Rockies faring worse.
Interestingly enough, though, Twins starters don’t fare nearly as poorly when it comes to giving up hard-hit balls. The Twins are 20th in MLB — not good, but much better than their ERA ranking — when it comes to the percentage of balls hit hard off their starting pitchers, per ESPN stats guru Mark Simon.
What does this suggest? Well, the margins are pretty small, so it might not mean anything. Twins starters give up hard-hit balls 16 percent of the time; the worst team, Texas, sits at 18.3 percent. So basically Texas pitchers give up two more hard hit balls every 100 at-bats, which isn’t a huge amount.
It could mean the Twins’ defense is suspect, since it could stand to reason that the hard-hit ball ranking should be roughly equal to the ERA ranking. That said, any benefit from a lower hard-hit ball rate is probably wiped out by the fact that Twins starters have just 349 strikeouts, fewest of any staff in the majors. With more balls put in play, Twins starters are bound to be “unlucky” — either with soft-hit balls landing for hits or just the sheer volume of hard-hit balls overwhelming them regardless of the overall percentage.
A team like Atlanta, for instance, has a similar hard-hit ball rate among its starters (15.7 percent), but the Braves have a very good starters’ ERA (3.38, sixth in the majors). Their starters have 525 strikeouts, No. 5 in the majors. The percentage is close to the same as the Twins, but with 176 more strikeouts from starters — almost all of which are guaranteed outs, except for the rare wild pitch/passed ball on a third strike — the volume of hard-hit balls and flares is much lower and logically many more overall outs are recorded.
Maybe Twins starters have been a little unlucky. It is possible to post an average-to-good ERA among starters without having a high strikeout rate (Toronto, KC and Pittsburgh all have starters’ ERAs more than a run better than Twins starters, even though all of them rank 22nd or worse in strikeouts).
More likely, though, their not-dreadful rank of 20th when it comes to hard-hit ball rate is wiped out, and then some, by the large number of balls put in play.