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 Liriano “pitch 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.