The Twins Pitching Woes

Despite returning much of the same staff that finished 3rd in the American League in WAR last season, the Minnesota Twins currently own the worst pitching staff in all of baseball. The Twins’ approach to pitching has already been highly criticized this season, beginning with their insistence that Francisco Lirianopitch to contact.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, that approach may be the main cause of the Twins’ rotation struggles this season.

Although the Twins have entered 2011 with virtually the same pitching staff, their results have been drastically different. While it’s easy to blame some of their struggles on the decision to replace Kevin Slowey with Brian Duensing, Duensing has actually been the Twins most valuable pitcher this season. That probably won’t continue as the season progresses, but Duensing has carried his weight thus far.

The real issue plaguing the Twins may be their “pitch to contact” approach. Twins’ starters have apparently decided to buy into that mantra this season, posting the fewest strikeouts in all of baseball. The Twins’ starters don’t perform that much better in strikeout rate, ranking second to last behind the Kansas City Royals. Of all the Twins starters, only Scott Baker carries an above average strikeout rate this season.

The struggles of Francisco Liriano have been well documented this season. Even though he threw a no-hitter in his last start*, he did nothing to calm the fears about his plummeting strikeout rate. Liriano, who struck out a fantastic 9.44 batters per game last season has seen that number shrink to just 5.51 in 2011. He may have finally accepted the Twins’ pitching mantra, but it’s turned him into an inferior pitcher. Even with the no-hitter, Liriano has been worth -0.2 WAR this season, tied with Nick Blackburn for the worst among Twins’ starters.

Carl Pavano, Blackburn and Duensing are interesting cases when considering the “pitch to contact” approach. Since all three lack the upside of Baker and Liriano, and none have ever posted particularly strong strikeout rates, pitching to contact is their best chance at sustaining success in the big leagues. It should be noted that this approach works for these pitchers because they lack strikeout stuff and need to limit walks in order to maintain a decent performance. It’s a dangerous tightrope, but it’s worked for the Twins in the past. The main issue with employing three starting pitchers that rely on this approach is that it’s tough for them to produce a lot of value. For example, even though Carl Pavano finished sixth in the AL in innings pitched last season, he rated 20th in WAR among starting pitchers. There’s value in eating innings, but there’s far more value in just being good.

Unfortunately, the Twins haven’t shown many signs that they will get things turned around. Even though it looks as if Baker is experiencing a bounce-back season, Liriano is still a cause for concern despite the no-no. The “pitch to contact” approach may be the best option for the Pavano, Blackburn and Duensing trio, but that’s only because they can’t get hitters out any other way. Pitching to contact is a flawed approach. It can temporarily mask the warts of inferior pitchers, but it’s unlikely to work out in the long term. The main issue with “pitching to contact” is that the pitchers that it works for aren’t really all that talented. Teams are not going to contend for their division if the majority of their starters rely on this approach. The Twins are currently realizing the truth in that last statement.

*Even though some idiot wrote an article titled “What’s Wrong with Francisco Liriano” earlier that day.




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Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.


39 Responses to “The Twins Pitching Woes”

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  1. Julio Teheran says:

    I think Rob Neyer said it best:

    The Minnesota Twins have discovered the Secret Rules of Pitching:

    1. Don’t give up any hits.

    2. Walks can’t possibly hurt you.

    3. Strikeouts are for Communists.

    4. Rules 1-3 work best against the White Sox.

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  2. Ralphie says:

    My all-time favorite line about Pavano was when Joe Torre said in his book that his Yankee teammates called him the “American Idle”.

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  3. MikeS says:

    Also their defense is not as good as it was a few years ago which can really hurt a “pitch to contact” strategy.

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    • suicide squeeze says:

      Yeah, this is what I was thinking the whole article. Pitching to contact doesn’t really make sense if you can’t take advantage of the extra balls in play.

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  4. Wonderland says:

    Pavano resembles porn star John Holmes with that ridiculous mustache.

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  5. J says:

    Will Slowey replace Blackburn in the rotation? Likely not, I suppose, since they could have gone that route right out of Spring Training.

    What about Gibson – up in July?

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  6. woodman says:

    Preaching pitching to contact with defenders like Casilla, Cuddyer, Delmon Young and Kubel is kind of sadistic in a way. I’m not sure I trust Span’s and especially Young’s good fielding numbers in 2011, considering the extremely small sample.

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    • Luke in MN says:

      Span is a truly good defensive center fielder, if not a great one. Delmon’s numbers are a fluke.

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  7. mike wants wins says:

    My predictions:

    1. They continue to not hit, and Liriano turns it around, but they trade him because they can’t afford him with Mauer’s ridiculous contract and their insistance on paying closer a ton of money. I was going to type something mean about what Smith gets in return, but I’m trying something new for a couple of weeks starting right now (ok, after this one last shot) and am trying really hard not to rip anyone on the internet.

    2. They replace Liriano with Slowey, who pitches like everyone but the Twins seem to think he can, a slightly above average starter.

    3. Pavano retires and he’s replaced with Gibson (ok, this is more a fantasy than a prediction). Gibson also pithces like an above average starter.

    4. The Twins now have Baker (who produces like a number 2 type), Slowey and Gibson (number 3 types), Duensing (number 4 type who produces like a number 3), and Blackburn, who is a number 5 starter.

    5. Decent enough rotation. Top third of MLB by the end of the year.

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    • Bryz says:

      I think a major error by Twins fans is the assumption that Kyle Gibson will be a good pitcher right out of the gates this year. There’s no guarantee that he’s going to be wowing us immediately.

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  8. Greg says:

    I think if a pitcher really buys into “pitch to contact,” we should at least expect his walk rate to fall as he challenges more guys. But Liriano’s walk rate has more than doubled over last year’s! It’s impossible to say what philosophy Liriano might be pitching with this year as he clearly has no idea where the ball is going.

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    • Ian says:

      Yeah, but that gets in the way of the thesis, so is ignored.

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      • Chris Cwik says:

        It’s tough to go in-depth on each pitcher in an article like this, but I did write an in-depth post on Liriano last week.

        Long story short, he’s not right and I’m pretty concerned.

        I wouldn’t deliberately avoid a topic if it didn’t mesh with my article.

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      • LionoftheSenate says:

        Agreed……pitch to contact means fewer walks. Fail….

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  9. Doody says:

    So the “Twins approach” is really only hurting Liriano since you absolve them for Pavano and Blackburn while Baker and Duensing are pitching well?

    The “pitch to contact” stuff started after Liriano’s command was terrible throughout the spring. This drivel is making the effect the cause.

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    • Chris Cwik says:

      What I’m trying to say is that this approach only works with bad pitchers. The Twins can’t contend with Pavano, Blackburn and Duensing in their rotation because they lack upside.

      It’s just a flawed approach. If it only works for guys that are questionable starters, you probably don’t want to employ three of those guys in your rotation if you expect to compete.

      If they want Liriano to adhere to his approach, they are going to turn him into an inferior pitcher. Though with Liriano, I feel like his struggles have been a result of something different (perhaps an injury).

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      • Greg says:

        So you think Liriano isn’t physically capable of putting the ball where he wants it (I agree with you there). But you still want to take his results as some indication of a change in strategy?

        That goes for the organization, too. I doubt they would have said a thing about pitching to contact if he’d been performing like he did last year. Right now they’re just searching for a way to help him do that. If he did show up one day looking like Francisco Liriano, 2010 Edition, you wouldn’t hear another word about pitching to contact.

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      • Chris Cwik says:

        @Greg
        Not entirely. I, like you, just find it interesting that the Twins would ask him to alter his approach.

        If he has adopted that approach, it clearly hasn’t helped him.

        If he hasn’t, then it just confirms that something else is wrong here.

        Either way, the Twins want him to pitch away from his strengths. That doesn’t make sense to me.

        I guess what I mean to say is that his terrible results this season are still somewhat unexplainable, but if the Twins have gotten him to buy into this whole “pitch to contact” thing, it’s not going to work out well.

        So, a change in results could be due to this new approach (which I guess is plausible but not likely) or it could be due to other factors (like injury…which I find more likely). Either way, it was a stupid thing for the Twins to ask.

        I think we generally agree here. Am I making sense?

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      • adohaj says:

        I disagree. The twins pitching struggles have nothing to do with pitching to contact.

        Liriano:
        His z-contact% has gone down while his o-Contact% has increased he is throwing around the same number of strikes .4% higher than last year actually. Hitters just are chasing pitches 20% less giving him less K’s and more BB

        Duensing:
        z-contact% has decreased by 6 o-contact% risen by 3. Getting more swinging strikes.

        Baker:
        z-contact% is the same as his norms O-contact% has risen by 9 (75.5%!) he is throwing pitches in the zone about 3% less than his norms. Hitters are chasing out of the zone and making poor contact.

        Blackburn:
        Contact rates about the same. He is throwing about 2% less in zone than normal hitters are swinging at around the same number of pitches.

        Pavano:
        Players are chasing less pitches out of the zone than previous years about 5%. His contact rates are about the same. He is throwing less pitches in the zone than previous years.

        From what I see it looks more like Liriano and Pavano aren’t fooling anyone with their junk pitches out of the zone. If the staff Liriano in particular was pitching more to contact shouldn’t we expect more balls in the zone and higher contact rates? Duensing is showing improvement again but again “he will regress”.

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  10. fitz says:

    In order to be successful by pitching to contact, you have to have an effective 2-seamer. Look at the Pitch FX data (specifically FT%) for the Twins pitchers and you will see that the successful guys thus far (Baker and Duensing) have been throwing a higher percentage of 2-seamers. Pavano’s FT% is down from last year (and so is his velocity). Blackburn’s FT% is down as well, but since he is throwing the highest % of FT of the group and based on his career stats, we can conclude that he is just not very good. I personally think Slowey should take his spot in the rotation since he has a more effective 2-seamer, which plays right into what the Twins want from their starters. As for Liriano, 47.7% of his pitches last season were 2-seamers. This season? 14.5%.

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    • Adam says:

      No matter how he pitches, I doubt Blackburn will get replaced by Slowey. Blackburn is one of Gardy’s guys and if you’re one of Gardy’s guys you get ample opportunities. This is why I think Liriano will ultimately get traded during the season no matter if he turns things around.

      Gardy has to much pulled in front office affairs.

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    • Bryz says:

      Baker may be throwing more 2-seamers, but his GB% is staying right around where it’s been his whole career.

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  11. reillocity says:

    The real issue with the Twins is the bats, specifically their .612 OPS (73 OPS+). Between the Twins and the Padres, I’m seeing a faint possibility that there could be a club with a sub-.600 OPS in 2011. As long as the Twins continue to hit like the Padres (or as long as the Rene Tosonis, Jason Repkos, Luke Hugheses, and Matt Tolberts of the world continue to get ABs), I’m not sure it matters how they pitch.

    And please don’t disrespect the moundsmen of my Houston Astros by suggesting that any other major league team has the worst pitching staff in baseball. WAR might say otherwise, but the Astros’ hurlers pretty much own the basement when it comes to traditional metrics.

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  12. JK says:

    How can you write an article about the Twins pitching woes and not talk about the almost 50% increase in walks? You can get away with a low strikeout rate if you limit walks and get groundballs. The Twins have been the best or 2nd best team at limiting walks going back to 2003 and now they’re middle of the pack. If you’re going to “pitch to contact” you can’t give up so many free passes.

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    • Chris Cwik says:

      The only reason I didn’t mention this is because their starters (outside of Liriano) haven’t seen a huge change in walk rate. Duening and Baker remain about the same, and Pavano’s has risen to 2.36 (which is still really good).

      Blackburn has seen his walk rate jump by more than 1 walk per game, and that is troubling.

      Liriano is a mess right now.

      I definitely agree with your argument though, but their starters aren’t struggling all that much (again, outside of Liriano).

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  13. zerg says:

    The Twins can’t contend with Blackburn, Pavano or Duensing…except for last year, and the year before last year, when all 3 logged significant innings for the team.

    “Pitch to contact” is being held up for ridicule, but the real issue is increased walks, poor defense (infield defense especially), and of course the horrible offense caused in part by injuries and ineffectiveness from lingering injuries (Morneau).

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  14. neckrolls says:

    Here are the Twins’ rotations since they traded Johan Santana:

    2008: Livan Hernandez, Blackburn, Baker, Slowey, Glen Perkins, with Liriano replacing Hernandez in August
    2009: Liriano, Baker, Slowey, Perkins, Blackburn, with Pavano and Duensing replacing Perkins and Slowey in August
    2010: Liriano, Baker, Pavano, Blackburn, Slowey, with Duensing replacing Blackburn in late July.

    3 seasons, 3 rotations loaded with pitch-to-contact types, 3 162-game schedules completed with the Twins in 1st place. Your assertion that “teams are not going to contend for their division if the majority of their starters rely on this approach” is obviously false.

    Pitching to contact can work just dandy as long as the following are true:

    1. You don’t walk anybody
    2. You keep the ball in the yard
    3. Your defense is good.

    Through 33 games, the Twins aren’t succeeding in any of those respects up to their past standards. Their lack of run prevention this year is a failure of execution, not philosophy.

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  15. Mike H says:

    I’ve been impatiently waiting for the Twins bad pitching to finally catch up to them. It seems like the defense finally got bad enough to make it unavoidable.

    I’m not convinced Liriano is “pitching to contact” because his walks are still way up. Instead, I think he may just be hurt and his stuff is down as a result. Is his velocity down? I think I read that somewhere.

    Also, reports of the Twins suddenly trying to trade him at the beginning on spring training ONLY make sense if they thought he was hurt or something.

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  16. CircleChange11 says:

    Maybe it’s just me, but isn’t the most likely scenario that the Twins rotation is just simply not as good as FG thinks/thought it is/was?

    I’m not saying that in a confrontational manner or anything. I just have never viewed the Twins as having a good rotation.

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  17. joeymitch says:

    Couldn’t have said it better myself Neckrolls: past results seem to indicate that this article is a bit off base in saying ‘pitching to contact is flawed’.

    I think the thing that is missing in this article is the lack of defense behind these pitchers who pitch to contact. I haven’t looked at any metrics, but as a Twins fan, I know the defense that has been behind these pitchers this year when compared to last year is vastly different. Second base has been a black hole – anyone who has played there has been relatively horrible this year. Short has been quite an experiment as well with Casillaa (I think his names should be spelled with AA because that’s where he belongs) has been disastrous. Watch a few games and it’s easy to realize he makes easy plays an adventure. The team is also missing a perennial gold glove catcher…

    The outfield remains a poor bet for fielding, but I believe that the infield may have more to do with the poor results thus far than does a ‘pitch to contact’ approach…

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  18. Bryz says:

    It’s not just the rotation that’s been struggling, the bullpen hasn’t been great either. 4.50 ERA/4.59 FIP/4.90 xFIP, 25th in MLB in BB/9 (4.40) and 29th in K/9 (6.03). The entire pitching staff has been rather poor this year.

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  19. Francisco Liriano says:

    Yeah, it sure looks like I’ve resigned myself to “pitching to contact”. The first step in pitching to contact is getting behind the hitter, which I’m doing at a 56.2% clip, compared to the MLB average of 41.1%. This is a drastic change from last year when I threw way too many first pitch strikes, 61.7%. The next step in my “pitch to contact plan” is to never give in to a hitter once I get behind. As anyone who watched my no hitter can attest, when I get behind in the count, I’m looking to get a guy to chase my pitch and hope to get a swing and miss or some weak contact, which everyone knows leads to less hits or not hits, .237BABIP. Yup, I, Francisco Liriano have finally adhered to the Twins philosophy of “pitching to contact” and all I had to do was abandon getting ahead of hitters on a regular basis and walk batters at a 6.61 BB/9 rate

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    • Bryz says:

      Yes I understand you’re doing this tongue-in-cheek, but when Gardy says that the coaching staff wants Liriano to pitch to contact and Liriano struggles this year, a lot of Twins fans are going to believe that it’s the new philosophy that’s screwing him up.

      It’s not fully correct, but it’s an easy thing to blame.

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  20. Visnovsky says:

    Pavano’s velocity is down considerably from 2nd half of 2009 and lower than most of 2010. I think that is his biggest problem right now.

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  21. monkey business says:

    This article is surprisingly current a year later.

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