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January 15, 2013

Overthinking It

Have the Twins Learned to Love the Strikeout?

by Ben Lindbergh

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We don't typically think of particular player types as being associated with certain teams. There are some exceptions that seem to persist over time: the Rockies go after groundballers, for instance, and the Yankees tend to target lefty-swinging sluggers. But those teams' player preferences are tied to their ballparks. If the Rockies played at a lower altitude or the Yankees found they could fit in another luxury box by making their outfield fences more symmetrical, they would adapt to their new surroundings and stop pursuing the same sort of player.

Other apparent preferences are illusions or short-term trends based on temporary team composition or the whims of one front-office regime. The A’s, for a while, liked fat guys, but then they discovered defense. The Royals, under Dayton Moore, have a thing for former Braves. The Tigers, under Dave Dombrowski and scouting director David Chadd, have a reputation for liking big pitchers who throw hard. But that’s almost an obvious affinity, sort of like saying a team favors hitters who hit the ball far. The Tigers might like pitchers who throw hard a little more than most teams, and they might be a bit more willing to overlook the shortcomings of pitchers who fit that profile. But what team doesn’t like big pitchers who throw hard?

There’s one: the Minnesota Twins

Almost a year ago, Sam Miller described the typical Twins pitcher in a piece at BP:

Generally speaking, we all know what a Minnesota Twins pitcher looks like. He’s got a strikeout rate a tick below six per nine innings. (Even the movie Twins has 5.9 stars on IMDB.) He survives this limitation either by walking nobody—no-body—or by keeping the ball on the ground, but either way he’s not looking to coax a strike three out of anybody, and he’s not all that concerned about allowing a home run as long as there is nobody on base. He’s a veteran, and if he’s not a veteran, he’s just a future veteran in early but advanced development. He might be a lefty, but you don’t really think of him as a lefty. He’s a No. 4 starter with aspirations of being a No. 2.5 starter. He’s draftable only in the geekiest fantasy leagues. He once threw a ball 91 mph, but it was at one of those county-fair game booths and nobody believes him, even though he has a certificate of achievement that the booth operator gave him. If everything breaks right, he’s Brad Radke. If a few things break right, he’s Rick Reed. If things just break, he’s Boof Bonser.

The season before Sam’s article—2011—the Twins had the AL’s lowest staff strikeout rate and second-lowest average fastball velocity. The season after Sam’s article—2012—they had the AL’s lowest staff strikeout rate and third-lowest average fastball velocity. In both seasons, they had the AL’s second-highest staff ERA despite playing in a pretty neutral park that if anything slightly favors pitchers. And in both seasons, they finished fifth in the AL Central. Given that higher velos generally lead to improved results, and that strikeouts are the perfect way to retire the opposing team without having to worry about potentially troublesome batted balls, avoiding power pitchers seems like almost as self-defeating a strategy as the Royals' never-ending impatience at the plate. 

A couple things to point out here. First, while Sam presented a long list of Twins pitchers who fall into the Radke family, it’s not as if Minnesota has never had pitchers with strikeout stuff. In 2006, when Johan Santana was winning his second Cy Young Award and Francisco Liriano was actually outpitching him (until he got hurt), the Twins actually led the AL in strikeout rate. And second, it’s not as if the Twins’ approach to pitching has always crippled them competitively. For a while, Minnesota was quite successful. In 2003, the team’s rotation for most of the season was Brad Radke, Kyle Lohse, Kenny Rogers, Rick Reed, and Joe Mays. (Santana left the bullpen to join the starting staff for good in mid-July.) Not one of those pitchers struck out six per nine, walked three per nine, or allowed less than a homer per nine. (Ditto Eric Milton, who made three starts.) Minnesota still won 90 games and the AL Central.

The Twins owed much of their early-aughts success to their homegrown position players, but their pitching was good enough to get by. For a low-payroll team like the Twins, it might have made sense to target the pitchers they did: if every other team was glued to their radar guns, good command-and-control guys might have been an inefficiency. If it was an inefficiency, then either other teams have caught on or the Twins have forgotten how to exploit it. If their strikeout- and velocity-averse pitching philosophy hasn’t directly contributed to their struggles over the past two seasons, it certainly hasn’t helped them avert disaster. So is there any evidence to suggest that the Twins have altered their approach this winter?

At the major-league level, it looks like the Twins haven’t learned their lesson. Here are the team’s three highest-profile pitching acquisitions, with their strikeout rates from 2012:

Kevin Correia: 4.7
Mike Pelfrey: 5.9
Vance Worley: 7.2

Pelfrey throws harder than the typical Twin, but none of these pitchers misses many bats; as I wrote in my Transaction Analysis of Correia’s perplexing signing, “they don’t make pitchers more Minnesotan.” What’s more, the rates above were recorded in the National League, and the league switch might lead to even more contact. The Twins did sign former strikeout stud Rich Harden to a minor-league deal, but Harden is coming off such a serious injury that it’s hard to say how many bats he’ll miss. And to balance things out at the other end of the strikeout scale, they also signed Scott Elarton, whom you probably didn’t know was still pitching. Elarton hasn’t made an appearance in the majors since a cameo for Cleveland in 2008, but from 2006-7, in just over 150 innings, he struck out 3.7 batters per nine. Last year, he fanned 5.8 per nine in the International League.

Between Correia, Pelfrey, Worley, and returning low-strikeout starters Scott Diamond, Brian Duensing, and Liam Hendriks, there’s almost certainly more extremely contact-prone pitching in store for Minnesota this season. After that, though, it’s starting to look like there’s some reason for Twins fans to have hope.

Here’s a list of the Twins’ top pitching signees in each amateur draft from 2000-10, with pick number or round picked included after the year. In parentheses is a phrase from each pitcher’s profile in the following season’s Baseball America Prospect Handbook. You’ll know some of these names.

2010 (21): RHP Alex Wimmers (“His lively fastball sits at 88-92 mph”; “Could be an innings-eating No. 3 starter”)
2009 (22): RHP Kyle Gibson (“He pitches at 91-92 mph”)
2008 (27): RHP Carlos Gutierrez (“His low-90s sinker has drawn comparisons to Derek Lowe’s”)
2007 (sixth round): RHP Mike McCardell (“His velocity jumped into the low 90s”)
2006 (third round): LHP Tyler Robertson (“His stuff is already solid average, with a 90-91 mph fastball”)
2005 (25): RHP Matt Garza (“a 90-94 mph fastball that touches 96”; “The Twins hope he’ll be more willing to pitch to contact as he gains experience”)
2004 (22): LHP Glen Perkins (“He pitches at 88-90 mph and touches 92, but he’s all about command and control”)
2003 (second round): RHP Scott Baker (“He throws 88-93 with sink”)
2002 (second round): RHP Jesse Crain (“His fastball has registered as high as 97 mph and typically sits around 92-94”)
2001 (second round): RHP Scott Tyler (“He pitched at 90-91 in instructional league”)
2000 (2): RHP Adam Johnson (“As a starter, his fastball regularly sits in the 90-92 range”)

Notice anything? The list doesn’t include such prototypical Twins draftees as Nick Blackburn, Brian Duensing, Brian Bass, Kevin Slowey and Jeff Manship, but even so there’s an awful lot of “low-90s,” with just two exceptions to the typical Twins mold. The first is Crain, a college closer who went to the bullpen immediately after signing and has never made a professional start (save for two one-inning rehab “starts” at Triple-A last season). The other is Matt Garza. (True to form, the Twins wanted Garza to stop striking out so many batters, just as they did with Liriano in 2011.) Perhaps not surprisingly, those hard throwers turned out to be two of the best pitchers on the list. By focusing on pitchers without strikeout stuff, the Twins limited the potential payoff of their drafts. Wimmers was the team’s top pick in 2010 at 21st overall, and the best-case scenario for him was a mid-rotation innings eater (a future that now looks far-fetched).

Here’s one reason why the typical Twins pitcher might be an endangered species, soon to be replaced by a better breed of Twins pitcher that could take the team out of the cellar: the Twins have started to draft differently. Take a look at the Twins’ top two picks from 2011, this time with phrases from Kevin Goldstein’s 2012 Twins Top 11:

RHP Hudson Boyd (55) (“a big-bodied power arm who needs refinement”)
RHP Madison Boer (87) (“plus fastball”)

And here are their top five pitcher picks from 2012, with emailed blurbs by BP prospect maven Mark Anderson:

RHP Jose Berrios (32): (“Good command profile for his age, also has shown 96-97 in bursts”)
RHP Luke Bard (42): (“FB 93-95, lacks feel for breaking ball or command”)
LHP Mason Melotakis (63): (“FB 94-96, streaks of excellent strike throwing”)
RHP J.T. Chargois (72): (“FB 93-95, up to 98 on occasion, lacks feel or command”)
RHP Zachary Jones (130): (“FB up to 98, huge arm strength, no command, no feel”)

Suddenly, the Twins aren’t settling for polished pitchers who throw strikes and might get a few grounders on their good days. They’re going for guys who sit in the mid-90s, can touch the high-90s, and might not have much command. They’ve imported pitchers like that before, but it’s been some time since they did so in such large numbers over such a short span, which makes this look like a dramatic shift from the Twins of the decade before. As Anderson says,

The 2011 draft was the first where they started to attack pitchers with a little more of a velo profile. It wasn’t quite the velo that they went after in 2012, but guys like Boyd, Boer, [Matthew] Summers, [Corey] Williams, etc., all showed more velo than previous drafts like 2010 when they were still attacking guys like Alex Wimmers.

And it’s not just the draft—it’s the trade market, too. A couple months after the 2011 draft that saw Minnesota start to target velo, the Twins traded Delmon Young to the Tigers. The return was lefty Cole Nelson, whom Anderson says can hit 95 mph, and righty Lester Oliveros, whom Anderson has up to 96.

If that was the opening salvo, this winter has been the barrage. In November, the Twins traded Denard Span to the Nationals for righty Alex Meyer, Washington’s first-round pick in 2011. Here are a few phrases from Anderson’s Meyer write-up for that trade’s Transaction Analysis: “an absolutely massive guy”; “fastball that sits in the 94-95 mph range”; “can run his fastball up to 98 mph”; “high-ceiling talent”. Doesn’t sound a lot like Brian Duensing. Sam Miller and I talked about that trade on a podcast episode we titled “Why the Twins’ New Prospect Isn’t Their Type.” Maybe we should have thought of another name. Meyer might not have been the Twins’ type two years ago, but he is now.

One more move, in case you’re not convinced: a week later, the Twins sent Ben Revere to the Phillies for Trevor May. Let’s play the phrase game again, pulling from our TA entry on that trade: “has a serious physical presence;” “has reached 96 mph on occasion”; “command and control are both well below-average”. Another big, hard thrower. Another pitcher who has trouble throwing strikes. Another anti-Twin. Meyer, at least, has a history of good control. May, who walks batters at a Liriano-like rate, is even more of a departure for the Twins.

Desperate for arms that can eat innings without breaking the bank, the Twins are still signing the same old stereotypically Twins pitcher to get the big club through this transition year. After that, though, it might be some time before we see another staff as strikeout averse as the ones the team has put together lately. That’s not to say that we’ve seen the last soft-tossing Twin, but it looks like the team is worrying less about pitching to contact and—like the rest of the league—learning to love, or at least accept, the strikeout.

While members of Minnesota’s organization are understandably reluctant to broadcast any shift in philosophy that may have taken place—both because it would be giving away their game plan and because it might be tantamount to admitting a mistake—people at BP who’ve talked to Twins sources are confident that their minor-league pitching acquisitions of the last year and a half reflect a conscious change born of a concern that the previous approach was preventing the team from creating value both internally and via trade. It’s the player development equivalent of “garbage in, garbage out”: it’s difficult to develop anything but back-of-the-rotation starters in the big leagues if all you’re feeding into the system is pitchers with back-end-starter stuff.

The Twins are the kings of continuity. From owner Jim Pohlad on down—to GM Terry Ryan, Director of Scouting Deron Johnson, Pro Scouting Coordinator Vern Followell, manager Ron Gardenhire, and former manager Tom Kelly, who's now a Special Assistant—there’s been little turnover in the Twins organization over the past two-plus decades. That lack of fresh blood makes the team’s recent moves more noteworthy, since it's especially tough to change course without new personnel. According to a 2009 article in the Chicago Tribune, former GM Bill Smith’s self-imposed prime directive when he took over for Ryan in 2007 was, “Don’t change the way the team is operated.” Since that article appeared, that adherence to old ways has put Ryan reluctantly back in power, but it hasn’t helped the Twins.

There’s always some danger in reading into and extrapolating from recent events, and it’s possible that the Twins’ 2012 draft and subsequent trades will look like more of a blip than a trend a few years from now. But it’s not too soon to start speculating that we’re seeing something different from the traditional Twins.

*Update* Just came across a piece from the website of a Twin Cities ESPN radio affiliate published just after the 2012 draft that suggests that the Twins were intentionally targeting harder-throwing pitchers (though the quotes from Terry Ryan in the article present pursuing power pitchers as something the team has always tried to do).

Thanks to Mark Anderson and Ryan Lind for research assistance.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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