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The Legend of Bagging Vance

When preliminary announcements suggested the Twins had acquired two pitchers for Ben Revere, you’d have to understand my immediate worry. I figured the big piece of the trade might be Tyler Cloyd — he of the 87 mph fastball — and maybe the Twins would nab Kyle Kendrick for good measure.

I was wrong.

And while Vance Worley hasn’t been exactly the innings-eater whom the Twins seem to covet — see Pelfrey, M. and Correia, K. — he’s been a 4.6 win pitcher in 277.2 career innings pitched. At a pre-arbitration cost, that would seem to be a pretty nice asset to score, as the Twins own Worley’s rights through the 2017 season.

Essentially, Worley becomes the best pitcher in the Twins rotation by virtue of ineffect; only Scott Diamond figures to be a holdover in a rotation that is largely being rebuilt. And while Diamond had a very pleasant 2012, his ceiling is considerably more stunted than Worley’s, even despite the potential for the Vanimal to decline due to switching leagues.

Let’s dive into this specifically. Worley’s predominant pitch, like nearly everyone else, is the heater. Now, I made light of Cloyd’s velocity, but Worley doesn’t throw much harder. In fact, Worley’s fastball velocity has declined in each season of his career (91.5->90.2->89.8). My notion is that what specifically endeared Worley to the Twins was his groundball rate, as his GB/FB rate spiked at 1.5 (prior best was 1.2), which led to a 46.0% groundball rate. This, mixed with a career 7.7 whiff rate and an extreme disdain for the longball (0.8 per 9) has allowed Worley to pitch well within his peripherals (3.50/3.57/3.83 pitching-slash).

The home run rate is particularly appealing because of Citizens Bank Park. CBP has traditionally been a pretty good home run park — especially lefties in 2012 — so to see Worley keep his HR rate so low is very encouraging. Of course, there’s a point of no added return in all numbers. The past 20 years, the best HR rate for any starting pitcher with 1000-plus innings was Kevin Brown at 0.56. The next few include Brandon Webb — extreme groundball tendencies — at 0.63 and Greg Maddux — certainly in the handful of best pitchers in that time frame — at 0.65. So even though Worley is moving to a much more accommodating park, as Target Field is much more friendly to righty power, it’s unlikely he can actually improve much more. (Note: Worley’s a bit tougher on lefties anyway.)

One other thing to consider is how far his K rates will slide. Since Worley has been almost exclusively a starter in his career, I think we can find some merit in his numbers versus No. 9 hitters, especially since as a starter, he’d be far less likely to see a pinch hitter in that nine spot than as a reliever. Against No. 9 hitters, Worley has 38 strikeouts, 5 walks, and a .485 OPS against in 120 plate appearances (16 sacrifice bunts). So of the hitter who willingly went to the plate to swing away — I’m assuming 104 here — Worley fanned 36.5%. Now I’ll readily admit I don’t know how to normalize these numbers, but I’ll try. The average No. 9 hitter in the AL fanned 21.3 percent of the time, as I again subtracted sacrifice bunt attempts. If we apply that percentage to the No. 9 hitters whom Worley faced in his career, he loses about 16 strikeouts off his career numbers, resulting in a new K/9 rate of 7.2 rather than 7.7.

Now again, I can readily admit the amount of noise in those numbers. For instance, lineup construction can obviously vary league to league based on structuring it around the pitcher’s spot. But still, I think it’s hard to argue that, even before we consider Worley’s skill-set, he’s likely to lose a fair amount of strikeouts even with full-season interleague play coming into the picture.

Here’s the other potential rub with Worley: He doesn’t get many swinging strikes. Of course, few pitchers with fastballs in the 80s will get many of those. In 2012 in the big leagues, the average SwStr% was 9.1%. Worley checked in below this mark on each of his offerings in 2012, meaning he received plenty of called strikes — and ostensibly called third strikes — to stake him to his above-average whiff rate.

If we search the leaderboards again the past few seasons to see what kind of company Worley has kept in the SwStr%, we find Vance 559th out of a total of 568 pitchers who had thrown 250 or more innings since the stat has been kept. In other words, behind Carlos Silva, and just ahead of Scott Erickson. Yikes.

Worley didn’t figure into ZSanders’ top 101 starting pitchers, obviously due to lack of innings pitched. If for some reason Worley could go 180-200 innings this season — and this is a far cry from even *likely* — there would seem to be an outside shot he could crack next year’s list. But even if you snag Worley late with the notion of some unseen potential or durability, would you rather have a high-ceiling guy who throws fewer innings, or an innings-eater who will probably tend to fit in closer to league average? I know the Twins’ answer, but what’s yours?