Saturday, January 8, 2011

An Alternative Look at the Twins Rotation

Last week when Josh released his Top Ten Worst Rotations - 2011 Edition, I asked the same question many of you are asking now.  Do the Twins really have the ninth worst rotation in baseball?  I certainly didn't think so, and I definitely did not agree with him describing their number 2-5 starters as a "dumpster fire".   The Common Man of the The Platoon Advantage was the first to comment on Josh's oversight, and I thought he was spot on.
"I cannot stress how off you are about the Twins' rotation. Liriano is a legit number one. He had one elbow surgery four seasons ago, has worked his way back, and has been healthy since then. Baker is a solid number 2, whose 4.49 ERA is largely because of the often horrific outfield defense behind him. Slowey gets hurt a little too often, and gives up a few too many homers, but is similarly hurt by the outfield defense. His peripherals are very strong. Duensing has shown a nice K/BB ratio while keeping 52% of the balls hit off him on the ground. And Blackburn. Well, Blackburn's just not very good. He's not a terrible #5, but if the Twins do end up signing Pavano that's a non-issue.
And I'm not sure how the Astros and maybe the Cubs and Tigers aren't ranked lower."
The first thing I want to point out is that the Astros, Cubs, and Tigers have all worse rotations than the Twins--much worse.  The Astros in particular.  Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers, J.A. Happ, Bud Norris, and Nelson Figueroa are nice pitchers, but I can't think of anyone that would be psyched to have all five in their rotation at the same time.  Rodriguez and Myers are both solid number threes; Happ and Norris are potential fours; and Figueroa is probably a fringy number five.  Any rotation without a legitimate ace or number two starter definitely belongs in the bottom ten.  The Twins, on the other hand, have an ace, two number threes, a number four, and a number five.  Let's take a closer look at each member of their rotation.

Francisco Liriano - 14-10, 3.62/2.66/3.06, 9.44 K/9, 3.47 K/BB, 53.6% GB, 6.0 fWAR

In 2010, Liriano showed that he was finally fully recovered from the Tommy John surgery he had four years prior.  His performance was so impressive that I named him as my third place finisher on my theoretical Cy Young ballot ahead of Jon Lester and C.C. Sabathia.  Some of you might think that I'm absolutely crazy for picking him third, but there were few pitchers as dominant last year in the American League as Liriano.  Need proof?  He finished first in xFIP, second in FIP, second in K/9, fifth in K/BB, and fourth in WAR.  While he was a little lucky on home runs (6.3% HR/FB rate vs. a league average of 10.5%), he was incredibly unlucky on balls put into play (.340 BABIP vs. .303 xBABIP).  As TCM pointed out, his poor BABIP was largely due to the Twins atrocious outfield defense.

Liriano has command of three pitches, which includes an average fastball, an above average to good change-up, and a plus-slider that induces a ton of whiffs.  Going into his age-27 season, it wouldn't be surprising to see him give an encore performance of his 2010 season.  Liriano is a true ace.

Scott Baker - 12-9, 4.49/3.96/4.02, 7.82 K/9, 3.82 K/BB, 35.6% GB, 2.5 fWAR

Scott Baker is an incredibly underappreciated pitcher that does a lot of things very well that go largely unnoticed.  He strikes batters out at a rate that's slightly above average; limits walks; and keeps the ball in the yard despite having a GB/FB ratio that's typically in the 0.7-0.8 range.  The biggest problem with Baker (and this will be the case with a few of the Twins pitchers) is that he's a fly ball pitcher on a team that has a terrible tandem of outfielders, particularly at the corners.  His .323 BABIP backs up that claim.  Looking a little deeper, I found that Baker's BABIP on fly balls was 58 points higher than expected (.198 vs. an expected .140).  This means he gave up 13 more hits than he was expected to give up.  Depending on the context of the situation in which those hits were given up, it's possible those hits accounted for an additional 6-10 runs allowed.  With a league average outfield defense, I have no doubt that the difference between Baker's ERA and FIP would be rather insignificant.

Baker has good command of four pitches:  a fastball, slider, change-up, and curve.  His fastball is effective and sits in the low 90s, while his slider induces the bulk of his whiffs.  His 11-5 curve ball is slightly above average, and has been a "plus" pitch by Fangraphs run value standards in the past.  His change-up is primarily a "show" pitch.

Baker is probably better suited to be a number three starter, but he's still an acceptable option at the two slot in the rotation. 

Carl Pavano - 17-11, 3.75/4.02/4.01, 4.76 K/9, 3.16 K/BB, 51.2% GB, 3.2 fWAR

I should start by saying that when Josh wrote his article, it was December 31st.  Pavano had not yet come to terms on a two year deal.  (He still hasn't officially signed, but he's close enough for the purpose of this exercise.)  After four gruesome, injury filled seasons in New York, Pavano has spent the last two seasons reinventing himself.  Pavano has a spectacular control (finished second in BB/9 rate in each of the last two seasons), induces a ton of ground balls, and keeps the ball in the yard.  His 4.76 K/9 rate (a 28% decline from his 2009 rate) is a bit alarming, but it shouldn't be a problem as long as he keeps his ground ball rate above 50%, and his BB/9 rate in the 1.50-1.75 range.

He has command of three pitches, including an average fastball, solid slider, and a plus-change up (by Fangraphs run value standards).  Despite the fact Pavano will be entering his age-35 season in 2011, I don't see any reason to expect to see too much performance related regression.  Pavano is still a solid number three starter.

Kevin Slowey - 13-6, 4.45/3.98/4.48, 6.71 K/9, 4.00 K/BB, 28.3% GB, 2.2 fWAR

Kevin Slowey is a slightly less talented version of Scott Baker.  He's an extreme fly ball pitcher with outstanding control and a strikeout rate that sits right around league average.  Slowey's biggest problem is that he can't seem to avoid the injury bug.  Over the last three-plus seasons, he's missed around 25 starts due to assorted wrist and elbow ailments.  To date, he hasn't pitched enough innings (162 innings) to qualify him for the ERA title--not that he would've won the crown anyway.  While this may end up being just a rash of unfortunate injuries, I'm starting to wonder if his injury pattern is symptomatic of something larger.  It's possible he's a brittle pitcher.  Still, he's only 26, so he has plenty of time to right the ship on the injury front.

Other than injuries, the one thing keeping Slowey from being something other than a mid-to-back end starting pitcher is his fly ball rate.  For his career, he's produced a 48.1% fly ball rate and a 0.66 GB/FB ratio.  Maybe it's just me, but those numbers are pretty alarming.  While his career HR/FB rate (10%) is right around expectations, his fly ball rate implies that he'll allow 30-35 home runs per season, assuming he pitches approximately 200 innings.  Combining a high home run rate with a below average contact rate could be a recipe for disaster, particularly if Slowey sees a regression in his ability to limit walks.  At this point though, it's not a problem.

Slowey has command of four pitches, but he lives and dies off of his fastball that sits 87-91 MPH.  He throws his slider and curve ball a fair amount, but both are average pitches.  His change-up is mostly a "show" pitch, but that's a good thing because it's largely ineffective.  If he could develop his change-up, it could become a solid weapon for him; thus allowing him to induce more ground balls.

Slowey is a prototypical number four starter that should provide 2.5 wins above the replacement level assuming he can stay healthy.  

Brian Duensing - 10-3, 2.62/3.85/4.10, 5.37 K/9, 2.23 K/BB, 52.9% GB, 1.7 fWAR

At first glance, it might be tempting to call Duensing the Twins version of Joe Saunders, but that's not exactly fair.  Duensing is much better.  Despite the fact Duensing's ERA greatly outperformed his FIP and xFIP; his BABIP (.276) was well below the expected .300 average; and his strand rate was above 80%, his 2010 performance isn't entirely a mirage.  Will his performance regress to the mean?  Absolutely.  No one should expect an encore performance in 2011.  Still, there's plenty to like about his performance--especially out of the five spot in the rotation.

Like every other member of the Twins starting rotation, Duensing does a few things incredibly well.  In particular, he induces ground balls at a rate above 50% and limits walks.  While he doesn't induce a lot of swinging strikes, his contact rate is still within the acceptable range.  His HR/FB ratio has fallen below the expected range of 9-11% in each of his first two seasons, so he may see some regression in this category next season.  Then again, he may not.  He may end up like one of those pitchers who consistently outperforms the league in this category like Mark Buehrle and Jarrod Washburn.  The fact that he pitches half of his games at Target Field, the most difficult park in which to hit a home run last season, certainly helps him in that capacity. 

Duensing has command of four pitches: a fastball, curve, slider, and change-up.  He throws his fastball about 60% of the time.  It's league average in terms of it's effectiveness and sits 89-93 MPH.  His slider has proven to be very effective, and has been worth 20.1 runs in the 214 innings he's pitched in the majors so far.  His change-up is somewhat of a mixed bag, and his curve is nothing more than a "show" pitch.

All-in-all, he's a solid number five starter that has the potential to be a solid number four if he can figure out a way to cut his walk rate by 30-40%. 

While I respect Josh's opinion, I greatly disagree with his assessment of the Twins rotation.  While I haven't done a full analysis of the league, I figure they probably rank within the top dozen teams of the league.  There is a lot more talent in the rotation than his "dumpster fire" comment would lead you to believe.

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