August 14, 2008
Prospectus Hit and Run
Earlier this week, I discussed the impact of the Marlins' in-house rotation upgrade on the team's shot at the postseason. I had initially planned to parallel their story with that of the Twins, but instead I heeded my own pitch count limit and decided to give each team a full-column treatment.
The similarities between the Marlins and Twins are striking. Both are low-revenue teams who, after disappointing 2007 seasons, decided to hunker down under the guise of rebuilding efforts, curbing costs until new taxpayer-funded ballparks are ready. As such, they shed their expensive marquee players over the winter, either via trade (Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis, Johan Santana) or free agency (Torii Hunter and Carlos Silva, though "marquee" is a stretch to describe the latter), thus paring already-low payrolls even closer to the bone. Their Opening Day payrolls according to USA Today's Salaries Database, with all dollars in millions:
Team 2007 Rank 2008 Rank Marlins $30.5 29 $21.8 30 Twins $71.4 18 $56.9 25
In the wake of such cost-cutting, neither team's PECOTA forecast offered much reason for optimism in 2008, with the crystal ball seeing the Twins as a 73-win team and the Marlins behind them with 72. Against long odds, both teams have vaulted into contention in division races thrown wide open by the failures of top contenders (Indians and Tigers, Mets and Braves), and they've succeeded beyond the portents of their run differentials, thanks in part to strong bullpens and overachieving offenses. Their mechanisms of achieving the latter diverge pretty radically, however; where the Marlins have a ton of power, the Twins rank second to last in the AL in home runs, and 10th in slugging percentage. Yet they're still fifth in the league in scoring with 4.97 runs per game (all stats through Tuesday) thanks to a .313/.387/.461 performance with runners in scoring position, topping the league in both average and OBP. The team has exceeded their run component projection by a major league-best 41 runs, and on top of a respectable run differential (+38), they're a staggering 7.2 wins above their third-order projection, the third-best mark in the majors.
Which brings us to the rotations. Both teams have recently recalled valuable pitchers working their way back from major injuries, blending them with a cast of youngsters, primarily home-grown ones at that. Where the Marlins added the rehabbing Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez and promoted rookie Chris Volstad, the Twins promoted Francisco Liriano, who's still working his way back from the November 2006 Tommy John surgery that provided a bitter end to a dazzling rookie campaign. Like those two Fish, there's even a good deal of controversy surrounding Liriano's plight, about which I'll speak at more length momentarily.
In the grand scheme, the Twins' pitching performance has been below average, albeit to a lesser extent than the Marlins. They're ninth in the league in runs allowed per game (4.66), with a rotation that's ninth in SNLVAR. Defense is a major problem; behind a staff that's just 11th in the league in strikeout rate, the Twins rank 12th in Defensive Efficiency at .683 and dead last in the AL in Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, at 3.3 percent below average (you'll get PADE in a future column, I promise).
Before we pick apart their 2008 rotation, let's back up a bit. The Twins began the year having lost from their 2007 rotation their ace, Santana, plus Silva and Matt Garza, who was traded to Tampa Bay for Delmon Young. That's a total of 505 innings off the books. Furthermore, only two pitchers who threw more than 88 innings for the 2007 club, Boof Bonser and Scott Baker, returned to the 2008 staff. Desperately in need of ballast, the team signed Livan Hernandez to a one-year, $5 million deal in February. Eating innings is what the corpulent Cuban does, an average of 227 a year for the past decade.
On the whole, the rotation has performed in the realm of league average, putting up a 4.49 ERA and averaging 5.9 innings per start, all good for a .507 Support Neutral Winning Percentage, the frequency with which a pitcher's team can be expected to win given average offensive and bullpen support. The staff's general inability to miss bats has been countered by the stinginess with which they issue walks. They've allowed the fewest in the league, and the rotation's walk rate (2.04 BB/9) is half a walk better than the next-closest team, the Indians. The quartet that's shaken out since the increasingly disappointing Bonser was sent to the bullpen at the end of May—Baker, Kevin Slowey, and rookies Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins—are home-grown products straight off the assembly line of the organization that in past years produced Brad Radke and Kyle Lohse. These are all finesse pitchers who did not or do not blow the ball by hitters, but who instead survive and occasionally thrive thanks to their pinpoint control. Baker's the only one of the four striking out more than 6.3 per nine, Perkins is the only one passing more than 1.9 hitters per nine, and all of them rank among the league's top 35 in SNLVAR. They're an ideal building block for a cost-conscious team, and as the Yankees can tell you, they can stop a contender in their tracks.
The fifth slot in the rotation is the unit's wild card. Opening Day starter Hernandez was a success on at least one level, eating 139
As for Liriano, he didn't pitch at all in 2007, and his arrival in spring training was delayed by visa problems. Though he had reportedly gone as high as 97 mph with his fastball at the team's Dominican academy this winter, that velocity was nowhere to be found in Florida. He began the year in the minors, making one start for Triple-A Rochester before being recalled. He was pounded for an 11.32 ERA in three starts for the Twins, starts which revealed major command problems (7/13 K/BB) as well as confidence issues, and by month's end was sent back to Rochester.
He languished there, throwing 18 starts and 114 innings, an excessively long stay by any stretch of the imagination. His overall Triple-A numbers were more than respectable for a pitcher rehabbing from Tommy John surgery (3.28 ERA, 8.6 K/9, 3.6 K/BB, 0.7 HR/9), and over his last six starts they were downright dominant (1.10 ERA, 11.2 K/9, 51/6 K/BB, and 0.2 HR/9). The team's efforts to rehabilitate their 24-year-old would-be ace appear to have been conflated with the desire to discipline him for a lack of candor in discussing the condition of his arm. Manager Ron Gardenhire admittedly harbored some resentment over a problem that's spanned from Liriano's pre-injury days when he pitched through pain, to this spring, when he was concerned enough about his elbow to shy from throwing his slider at maximum effort. Add in the fact that his extended stay in the minors will prevent him from achieving Super Two status, thus staving off arbitration with the notoriously tight-fisted team for a year and triggering a grievance on the pitcher's behalf, and you've got a situation that raises some eyebrows. At the very least, the Twins have wasted some of their potential ace's 2008 bullets.
If the Twins wind up missing the AL Central crown by a game or two, we'll look back and call them penny-wise but pound-foolish in the Liriano affair. As it is, they recalled him on August 1, and his six shutout innings helped the team climb into first place for the first time since mid-May. His second outing wasn't as strong, but the offense piled up seven runs against the Royals' Zack Greinke and friends, and another win pushed the team into first place again. Putting Liriano in the rotation is a difference maker.
Dropping Hernandez and Bonser from the rotation for Liriano and friends changes its shape considerably:
GS IP ERA SNLVAR SNWP Total 119 706.0 4.49 12.2 .507 Gone 35 206.0 5.64 0.6 .423 Staying 84 500.0 4.01 11.5 .543
Mind you, that's without any accounting for the gap between Liriano's performance thus far and what he's capable of doing if healthy. Even so, the SNWP of the current starting five would be good enough for third in the league. The White Sox rotation has pitched to an overall SNWP of .515, and it's a stretch to think that the loss of Jose Contreras (.520) in favor of D.J. Carrasco, who hasn't started since 2005 and has just 21 major league innings since then, improves them.
The bottom line is that the Twins just may have the draw in the AL Central shootout, particularly if Liriano can simply match the performance of his rotation mates. That would make for a pretty great ending to a rather bittersweet season, and a very strong start to the next phase of Twins baseball.