During spring training, I observed a trend. It seemed that, all too frequently, a Twins starting pitcher would get knocked around in an outing, and then remark after the game that he felt good about his performance. Executed his pitches and just didn't get results. I asked a beat reporter in Ft. Myers, and he mentioned that he'd noticed the same pattern.
Of course, there's nothing groundbreaking or especially noteworthy about this. Pitchers are generally not concerned with their numbers in March, and often work on strengthening their weakest offerings.
Still, to see shellackings played off with the shrug of a shoulder struck a chord in light of the rotation's performance in 2012, and my fears that the unit grew only more contact-heavy in the offseason.
One particular incident stands out in my memory. The Twins were playing against the Rays in Port Charlotte in mid-March. Vance Worley was facing Luke Scott, and with an 0-2 count he delivered a sinking fastball in on the hands. Scott turned on it and drilled it over the fence for a home run. After the game, Worley expressed little regret over the pitch, telling reporters, "It did what it was supposed to do" and tipping his cap to Scott.
I don't know if I've ever before heard a major-league hurler say that an 0-2 pitch "did what it was supposed to do" if the hitter made any type of contact with it. In that count, the pitcher is in complete control, able to fling anything that might fool his outflanked opponent. Worley's signature pitch did what it was supposed to do, and an unspectacular hitter deposited it in the stands? Not encouraging.
Worley expressed the same type of sentiment after his meltdown against the Mets on Friday night. "They're hitting it where my guys aren't at," he told reporters. "I feel I'm not giving up real hard hits. It's just a matter of where they're hitting it."
Here's the thing about these quotes: they're not wrong. Even when Worley is in his element, he relies on batted balls ending up in gloves. On certain nights the opposing lineup is going to string hits and beat him, even when he's executing his plan. That doesn't make him a bad pitcher, but it's the nature of a guy who throws his stuff around the zone and doesn't expect to miss many bats. Some have voiced frustration over what they see as a lack of accountability in Worley's remarks, but I just see an intelligent guy who knows what he is and realizes that he'll always be at the mercy of his fielders and plain old luck.
Worley was a fitting Opening Day starter and tone-setter for this rotation. Each of the members behind him follows essentially the same blueprint, so it wouldn't be surprising to hear any of them respond similarly to a dud performance.
It's not impossible to excel with this approach, and in fact when it's clicking the outings tend to be longer and more efficient. Nick Blackburn v. 2009 and Carlos Silva v. 2007 are prime examples of this. They logged 200 innings and healthily outweighed their bad starts with solid ones. But these examples also attest to the downside of a pitcher who lives and dies by contact; should he lose the slightest bit of movement on his sinker, or should an injury alter his mechanics a tad, hitters begin feasting. Suddenly those pitches look like beach balls.
It's a fine line, and one the Twins are walking far too much in their starting corps this year. The rotation consists entirely of pure pitch-to-contact guys, and as a result starters have totaled only 27 strikeouts through 13 games.
Defensively, they've proven ill-equipped to handle so many attempts, with bungled plays already piling up. But even with stellar glove support, a starting staff cannot expect to succeed while striking out only 9 percent of opposing hitters, as the Twins have up to this point. I think that number may slightly understate the strikeout proficiency of the current group but not by a whole lot. I just don't see how a rotation with this makeup can possibly expect to stay afloat.
The good news is that the unit's makeup is likely to change as we move forward, and there are some interesting arms on the horizon with a chance to break the contact-heavy trend. Kyle Gibson should be up from Triple-A before long and while not a strikeout machine he'll likely miss more bats than any current Twins starter. Newly acquired fireballer Alex Meyer is off to a strong start in Double-A and has a chance to join the big-league club later this season, as does fellow New Britain Rock Cat Trevor May, who led the Eastern League in strikeouts last year.
Add in veteran wild cards Rich Harden and Rafael Perez – who both have histories of dominance and should at least get a chance to start when they're fully healthy – and you've got a solid mix of potential options to enter the fold and add an element that is completely amiss in the Twins' rotation right now: intimidation.