With the possible exception of the popularity of “Call Me Maybe”, nothing has spun more out of control in 2012 than the Minnesota Twins starting pitching.
Categorically the Twins rotation has produced some of the least desirable stats in the American League. For starters, their misshapen 5.50 ERA tops the charts. Performances like Nick Blackburn (7.39 ERA in 19 starts), Brian Duensing (6.92 in 11 starts) and Liam Hendriks (6.13 ERA in 15 starts) shows where that number can be quickly inflated. Adding insult to injury, their expected Fielding Independent Pitching (4.60 xFIP) is the highest in all of baseball and offers no reprieve that would suggest perhaps, just maybe, the local staff was unfairly fastened to that ugly ERA.
Not surprising either is the fact that the rotation is currently averaging just 5.4 innings per starts - the lowest average in the American League. If you happened to have attended a Jason Marquis start and stopped for popcorn on your way to the seat, chances are with him getting the hook before the fifth inning (4.9), you would have missed your opportunity to see him pitch. Same scenario could be applied for a Duensing start as well (4.7).
It is probably easy to deduce judging from the bloated ERA and the early showers that the rotation’s Quality Start percentage would also be adversely affected. And you would be punctilious in assuming that. In just 38% of their contests (60 of 152 games), the Twins have managed to get through six innings with allowing three runs or less.
The biggest culprit, which has resulted in the sideways statistics listed above, is the battle of the first inning – a batter in which the Twins are losing in spectacular fashion.
In the first inning, the Twins starters have issued 69 walks and allowed 32 home runs. Like politics and family dinners or crack and Charlie Sheen, putting runners on base and then surrendering moon shots is a volatile combination. Only Baltimore and Kansas City encroach on that home run mark (30 each), as we all know, the O’s are playing this season protected by a bubble of pixie dust and unicorn farts from Pythagoras and his nerdy theories. It is a year in which no matter how many runs they allow, the Orioles still wind up winning more games than they lose. The Twins and Royals, meanwhile, play in the real world where giving up runs in bunches has legitimate consequences.
Right now, the Twins lead the American League in runs allowed in the first inning with 124. That’s a remarkable deficit to put one’s team into. Compare that to what may be a less talent Oakland A’s team on paper. With their brood of starters all under the age of 30, the A’s have allowed just 56 runs in the first inning. With a 68-runs allowed differential between the A’s and the Twins, if you subscribe to the notion that 10 runs equals one win, then Oakland is, in theory, 7-wins better than Minnesota in the first inning alone.
Obviously, the original plan was not to head into the year with Scott Diamond, Cole De Vries, Sam Deduno or Brian Duensing taking up a large portion of the starts. Then again, the original plan was not all that solid, either.
The Twins rolled the dice heading into 2012 and plowed forward with a starting rotation that was held together by a wing and a prayer. Scott Baker had always struggled with injuries. Nick Blackburn had not only been battling injuries but had been highly ineffective overall. Carl Pavano was showing signs of aging, with a strikeout rate and velocity that dropped in 2011. Francisco Liriano had a clunker of a 2011 and was nothing more than a coin-flip with a high upside if everything landed correctly. So much had to break in the team’s favor in order for this group to succeed, instead it all fell apart early on.
As Terry Ryan spoke to in his conference call last night with season ticket holders, the highest priority will be to acquire starting pitching – whether it be through trades, free agency or exploring the international market. There is plenty of room for improvement and if the Twins are looking to raise their win total in 2013, giving their lineup a fighting chance in the battle of the first inning is a good place to start.