It was a Baseball Prospectus co-founder, Gary Huckabay, who coined the truism: There Is No Such Thing as a Pitching Prospect. Years and years after Huckabay first posited that, though, two of his fellow BP alumni proposed a modification that, while even more radical, rings truer every day we get older.

It was summer 2012, and Joe Sheehan and Rany Jazayerli were trying to make sense of Jonathan Sanchez. They, like so many of us, had been pleasantly surprised at Dayton Moore's light-fingered lifting of Sanchez out of the crowded Giants rotation the previous November. Despite an uneven, unimpressive 2011, Sanchez was coming off a three-year span over which he whiffed over 24 percent of the batters he faced and posted a 3.75 ERA in 458 innings pitched. He was, admittedly, leaving behind the roomy AT&T Park, but he was moving to the almost equally spacious Kauffman Stadium, and would have (if anything) a better outfield defense behind him there. He'd held opponents to a .268 BABIP for nearly 500 innings, so that, as much as his strikeout skill, appeared to be Real and Significant. Yes, he was prone to walks, but guys who can miss bats or get weak contact so consistently need not have perfect command in order to succeed.

Sanchez must have needed it more than we knew, though, because upon arriving in Kansas City and facing AL lineups for the first time, he totally imploded. In 12 starts for the Royals, Sanchez pitched 51 1/3 innings, allowed 65 hits (eight of them homers), walked 44, hit eight batters, and struck out 36. After six of those starts, he had a 6.75 ERA, and was shelved with an injured ohmygodsomethingwehope. Six weeks later, he came back and made the other six starts, posting an 8.68 ERA. The Royals pressed the eject button in mid-July, designating him for assignment, then dealing him to Colorado (Colorado!) for the Rockies’ albatross of the moment, Jeremy Guthrie.

Sheehan and Jazayerli looked at Sanchez and declared, tongues in cheeks but somewhat truthfully, really, "There is no such thing as a pitcher."

The idea is that there's just no predicting anything a pitcher might do next. Entropy isn't just an eventuality for pitchers; it's a moment-to-moment reality. You never know what small change (whether internal or external, mental or physical, environmental, even) will either wreck or resurrect a pitcher's career. This is a joke, mostly. It's hyperbole. Sometimes, though, it feels true.

Enter the 2015 Twins. These Twins, who have spent virtually every free-agent dollar they could spare over the last two years to fix a starting rotation that has been their Achilles heel throughout their four-year stretch of painful irrelevance (and if we're being honest, even during some of the good years that preceded this funk), stand two and a half games from a playoff spot after their ugly loss Thursday night, and one of the major reasons they’re not in playoff position is yet another second-half collapse by their starting pitchers.

The unit was never strong, per se. Minnesota’s projected rotation as of late March was something like:


2014 ERA

2014 cFIP

2014 DRA

Ervin Santana




Phil Hughes




Kyle Gibson




Ricky Nolasco




Tommy Milone




There was reason for cautious optimism, with the breakout 2014 Hughes had had and the promise of Gibson’s solid rookie DRA. Maybe Nolasco would stay healthy; maybe Santana would eat some innings and miss some bats, two basic things every team needs its starters to do, but which the Twins’ starters had frequently failed to do over the last few years.

Alas, Santana was suspended for PED use before the season began, and Nolasco quickly proved not to be healthy, forcing Trevor May (always in the plans, but penciled in uncertainly after his rocky rookie campaign) and Mike Pelfrey (who was nearly headed for the bullpen, and was none too happy about it) into the rotation. The good news: not many teams can boast sixth and seventh options as appealing as May and Pelfrey. In fact, for the first half of the season, the starters held their own—overachieved, even—thanks to the depth their front office had amassed. Pelfrey had a 2.28 ERA through 11 starts, eight of which the Twins won. (His peripheral numbers didn’t support that, but there it was.) May made 15 starts with a 4.37 ERA that actually undersold him; he pitched very well at times and fanned four times as many opponents as he walked. Gibson had a dreadful first month, then reeled off 14 starts of a 2.36 ERA through the All-Star break, during which time he not only whiffed three times as many as he walked, but also maintained an excellent ground-ball rate. Milone was squeezed out of the rotation for all of May, but in June and July, he posted a 3.38 ERA in 10 starts, walking fewer than five percent of opposing hitters.

It hasn’t lasted. Obviously. Nolasco never found a groove, was probably never fully healthy, and only made a handful of poor starts before being shut down for the year to have surgery on his ankle. Pelfrey has a 5.51 ERA since mid-June. Gibson has seen his command ratio sag and has a 5.18 ERA since the break. May’s inability to match his ERA to his strong peripherals led the Twins to push him into a setup role when Santana came off the suspended list, which has worked out fine for May—he’s boosted his strikeout rate because his stuff plays way up in relief, allowing him to hit 98 miles per hour with his fastball—but less well for the team in general. Santana struggled through a dead-arm period in August (no one called it that, but that’s what it was: Santana stopped missing bats for nearly a month, as one might expect of a pitcher essentially working through a personal Spring Training), and has a 4.55 overall ERA in 14 starts.

That covers Santana, Nolasco, Pelfrey, Gibson, and May, but there are three other significant members of the Twins’ starting staff who really highlight the concept of TINSTAAP—and one guy who’s important to this story, though ultimately, not to the team.

Phil Hughes

Hughes was the very antithesis of Jonathan Sanchez last season. Ideally, one would have liked him to allow fewer hard-hit balls, or fewer flies, and maybe to miss a few more bats, but Hughes made it virtually impossible to complain by breaking the record for strikeout-to-walk ratio. He had flashed talent like that in the past, while with the Yankees, and it was easy to get carried away by the notion that putting Yankee Stadium in his rearview mirror has allowed Hughes to put his home-run vulnerability behind him, too. It was so easy to fall in love with those peripheral numbers and all that potential, in fact, that the Twins (who just signed him to a three-year deal as a free agent prior to 2014) extended him over the winter, for three extra years.

He still bears few resemblances to Sanchez, but Hughes looks unnervingly like the old, broken-down version of Dan Haren this year. He’s striking out only 14.3 percent of opponents, a number untenable even for most ground-ball specialists. Before being shelved in mid-August with a back problem, Hughes made 23 starts, and gave up at least one home run in 19 of them. He minimizes damages by minimizing walks, but he’s simply been unhelpful this season. There was no good way to predict that, though there certainly were chances to regress his home-run rate back toward his career norms to a degree too few of us did. Maybe he’s now healthy for the first time all year, and will return to some measure of dominance, but Hughes’s failure to follow a textbook breakout with even an average season is as disheartening as it is surprising.

Tommy Milone

I mentioned above that Milone had a very good stretch in June and July. It’s true, and it was very encouraging, after he appeared to be unable to survive outside of Oakland after being dealt in early 2014. He developed a solid four-pitch arsenal—a four-seamer, a cutter, a changeup, and a curveball—and for a while, he was able to get out right-handed batters better than ever before. He still had soft stuff for an undersized starter, but he looked to be developing into a perfectly viable back-end option.

An elbow strain took Milone out of action for the first few weeks of August, though, and when he came back… well, he didn’t. His whole body returned to the mound, but he only managed to bring three of his four pitches with him. After his first start off the DL, he mentioned that he had no feel for his cutter, and so, he hadn’t thrown it. The Twins hadn’t taken it away to protect his arm, and he asserted that it wasn’t in any way the cause of or an aggravator of his injury; he just scrapped it for lack of feel. He even mentioned that catcher Kurt Suzuki stopped calling the pitch, without the two of them talking about it.

Nearly a month later, though, the pitch remains scrapped, and without it, Milone is simply a weapon short of being able to get out good hitters. On Thursday night, he lasted just 11 batters as the Angels battered him. Milone allowed four hits and three walks, and ultimately, five runs scored. He couldn’t fool opponents with his changeup, because they didn’t have to worry about the cutter buzzing in and breaking their bats when they extended their hands to attack the fading change.

No one seems sure why feel for the pitch that (as it turns out) allowed Milone to thrive for an extended period has simply deserted him in the wake of a fairly minor injury. That’s the devilish thing about pitching. You never know.

Tyler Duffey

“You never know” pretty well sums up the curious case of Duffey, too. Don’t worry, this is the happy version of the same story. (Only, it may not have a happy ending.) Duffey was barely on the radar of even Twins prospect pundits entering this season. He’s a fifth-round draftee from 2012, a year in which the Twins tried an experiment: they would draft live-armed college closers, and make them into starters. That experiment drew a fair bit of malign for a while, but it’s been quieted this year, because Duffey basically redeems the entire endeavor. He had a 2.54 ERA in 22 minor-league starts this season, so when the Twins needed to plug a hole left in their rotation by the injury to Milone, they called upon Duffey. In seven starts with the parent club, Duffey has had just one clunker, and that was his MLB debut, in Toronto (Toronto!). He’s posted solid numbers and, more importantly, perhaps, passed the eye test in every way. He’s a legitimate starting pitcher in the Majors, and he probably could have been even a few weeks earlier this year.

Which, that’s the sad part of this. Because before they gave Duffey a chance, the Twins had to wade through dozens and dozens of starts by Hughes, Pelfrey, Nolasco, and Santana, to whom they are paying a combined $40.2 million for very little good pitching. Now, the Twins have mislaid the money they’ve spent to address their positional roster this year, too: they have Kurt Suzuki at catcher because they proactively extended him last August. They have Torii Hunter because they wanted him enough to shell out eight figures for him. But the opportunity cost—the fact that they’ve invested some 30 percent of their available budget in free-agent starting pitchers, not just this year, but into the future—remains substantial. The Twins are a thin and poorly balanced team, and a huge reason for that is their decision to invest heavily in pitchers instead of giving Duffey and his ilk earlier, longer, cheaper looks.

Jose Berrios

Unlike all of the pitchers discussed above, Berrios hasn’t thrown a pitch for the Minnesota Twins this year. He won’t, either. He was sent home at the end of the minor-league season, having reached (or approximated closely enough for Terry Ryan’s tastes) his innings limit for the season.

Before that happened, though, Berrios made 12 starts for the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings. On the TINSTAAPP principle, that’s mild malpractice, but it’s hard to fault the Twins for sending him to Triple A to at least establish that he was too good to be there.

How many starts do you suppose it took Berrios to establish that? His first Triple-A Game Score was 38. His second was 40. His third was 71. His fourth was 68. His fifth was 63. Somewhere in there, he proved himself ready for the Majors. It’s not just about those numbers, obviously; it’s about who Berrios is. He’s a very mature (physically and mentally) 21-year-old with great stuff and a very strong (if slightly shorter than the ideal) frame. He’s considered a future star, and if that’s true, it shouldn’t have taken the Twins much to decide that Berrios would give them a better chance to win than these broken, regression-bitten, weary versions of Pelfrey, Gibson, and Milone. He even would have been a better alternative to Santana by the middle of August, and under the circumstances, it would have been relatively easy to replace Santana with Berrios.

It’s probably correct that Berrios now be shut down for the year. The Twins would be stretching someone back out right now to fill a new hole in their rotation, if they had called up Berrios and stuck him into their rotation last month. They’d probably have won more games along the way, though.

Humans are too often guilty of seeing a problem with many possible solutions of similar probabilistic promise and declaring it a muddle. It’s not a muddle. If there’s no such thing as a pitcher, that shouldn’t lead a team to throw its hands up, or to take an un-nuanced approach to building a pitching staff. It shouldn’t lead a team to allow critical pitching decisions to be made based on soft factors or contract status. It should, instead, lead teams to strive diligently to optimize their pitching decisions at all times, with special emphasis given to keeping pitching moves cost-efficient. If the margins are always thin, the gaps in talent or projectability always likely to be outrun by swings in variance, it actually becomes more important than ever to put the numbers on one’s side. The Twins didn’t do it this season. They didn’t make sure they put the best available arm on the mound as often as possible, and they didn’t systematically build a pitching staff the cost of which correlated well with its value. They’ve caught some bad breaks and had a few things unexpectedly go missing, but if they miss the playoffs because of the shortcomings of their rotation, it’s not going to be the universe’s fault. It’s going to be the Twins’.

Thank you for reading

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It appears Alex Meyer doesn't fit into the future for the Twins, is there any chance he makes the rotation next year?
On Meyer, I think there is a small chance that he makes it as a starter next season, but I wouldn't count on it being a good chance. I think the Twins are still holding out hope that he can be a start by the way they were still using him in multiple innings when they took him out of the AAA rotation.

I am guessing that he starts next season as a starter at AAA again, and if he succeeds they will bring him up as soon as possible. If he fails as a starter in the first half, I think they give up on him as a starter and go full throttle with him as a late innings reliever.

If I was a betting man, I would guess he fails as a starter, and comes up as a reliever near or after the break.
Thanks--interesting article throughout, but the last three paragraphs are really telling (and a little reminiscent of some of what Jeff Quinton's been writing about decision making). I love seeing this kind of thinking here.
This article seems to be a more egregious example of driving a car by looking in the rear view mirror. The Twins had an enormous hole in their farm system for starting pitchers. They had a fan base and a new ballpark that deserved something better than Liam Hendricks and Samuel Deduno. Table stakes for a #3/4 starting pitcher is 4 years, $50 million. If the answer is more youth, you wouldn't have your hypothetical case of still being in it in September.