Saturday, January 5, 2013

Benchmarks for 2013: Starting rotation

Scott Diamond struggled in his
2011 call-up but emerged in 2012
as the Twins best starter. Now
to see if he can sustain that success.
The Twins went into spring training 2012 figuring that they had a solid, veteran starting rotation: Carl Pavano, Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano, Nick Blackburn, Jason Marquis. Each of those five had potential issues, but still ... they each had years of major league starting experience. The Twins had $30 million invested in those five, and got nothing out of it.

It was never reasonable to expect that all five would come through. It was equally unreasonable to expect all five to fail miserably, but fail they did. The Twins wound up cycling 12 pitchers through the rotation (not counting Baker, who didn't make it out of spring training), each of whom made at least five starts and only one of whom performed well enough to be assured a 2013 slot.

None of the spring training five remain on the 40-man roster; only Blackburn remains in the organization. Of the pitchers on the 40-man roster, the only man to throw 200 innings in a major league season is Mike Pelfrey, and he's coming off Tommy John surgery.

The goal: Establish a bona fide major league rotation.

The first two pieces are Scott Diamond and Vance Worley. Diamond was the one success story in the 2012 rotation tryouts; the lefty came up in May, threw strikes, got ground balls, and compiled a 3.54 ERA in 173 innings. He also had a low strikeout rate, which is not a good sign. Worley, acquired from Philadelphia in the Ben Revere deal, has had two decent partial seasons in the Phillies rotation; last year ended early for elbow surgery. (Diamond also had his elbow scoped this offseason).

Mission: Keep them healthy and sustain their success. Diamond's not likely to get significantly better than he was in 2012, but if he can continue to be this extreme a ground ball pitcher he won't have to be. Worley's durability has yet to be established. They won't be aces, but they can be the third and fourth starters in a championship-caliber rotation.

Kyle Gibson had
ups and downs
in 2012 as he
returned late in the
season from his
Tommy John
Beyond finding if those two can be 200-inning rotation anchors, the most important job is propect Kyle Gibson, in the process of rehabbing his reconstructed elbow. The one real benefit of signing low-ceiling veterans Kevin Correia and Pelfrey is that it eases the necessity to push Gibson into the rotation; there is also the corresponding risk that they'll unnecessarily block the higher-ceiling Gibson.

The rest of the significant action in the rotation rebuilding project figures to come in the farm system -- trade acquisitions Alex Meyer and Trevor May, 2012 draftee J.O. Berrios, whoever the Twins take with the No. 4  pick in June's draft. Diamond and Worley aren't going to head the rotation of a championship club; that will take more powerful arms, and Meyer, May and Berrios have that kind of talent.

The veterans who figure to be in the back of the 2013 rotation at least to start the year (Correia, Pelfrey, Blackburn, Rich Harden) and the survivors of the 2012 rotation shuffle (Cole De Vries, Sam Deduno, Liam Hendriks and others) aren't particularly good bets to emerge as usable pieces moving forward. If one does, that's a bonus.

The end game

The ultimate goal, of course, is to see least one of the Meyer-Berrios-May trio graduate into front-of-the-rotation Cy Young contenders and to establish Gibson, Diamond and Worley as 30-plus start, 200 inning men. That's not a realistic set of expectations for 2013. For this year, success should be defined as establishing Diamond and Worley, as getting Gibson's major league career going successfully; as keeping the prospects on track — which is out of Ron Gardenhire's hands —  and maybe find a useful back of the rotation guy in the stack of discards and rehab projects.


  1. One of the more over emphasized pitching stats, especially for starters, is strikeout rate. You need to look at it in conjunction with other stats, but by itself, it should not be considered the negative most bloggers seem to think it is.

    For one thing the difference between a high rate, say 7/9 inn. as opposed to low, around 5/9 inn. isn't as much as it seems. If you look at it in reverse, you get 20 outs per 9 innings some other way than a strikeout as opposed to to 22 per 9 innings. The difference doesn't seem so great when looked at that way.

    The other thing is that higher strikeout pitchers often aren't as efficient. They run into pitch limit problems earlier in games than many of the pitchers with lower strikeout rates. So if you get an extra inning per start from a lower strikeout pitcher, well that adds up during the season and saves a bullpen.

    Diamond may not pitch as well going into the future as he did as rookie. But, I don't consider his strikeout rate to be a red flag. For one thing an improved breaking ball or change up often increases strikeouts. He is young enough for that to happen. Also if he keeps his walk rates down, that often offsets having low strikeout rates. I believe he has a real chance to become a better pitcher, perhaps even someone who could be considered a top of rotation pitcher.

  2. I wonder what member of the Twins' front office is hiding behind "Jim H" because the team's brass continues to refuse to accept the overall importance of strikeout rate. Their obstinate "pitch to contact" mantra is failed, and the sooner they embrace modern thinking the sooner the team will escape the cellar. Not likely anytime soon, it appears.

  3. Strikeout rate has to be the reason that Edwin Jackson and even Liriano got the kind of contracts they did this offseason. Time will tell whether those contracts were justified, but overall effectiveness wasn't the reason. Pitchers equally effective and durable did not get contracts equal to those pitchers. It is (in my opinion) misleading to look at one factor such strikeouts and ignore the other components that contribute to effective pitching.

    It would be nice to have the complete package, like Verlander now or Santana a few years ago. But, those type of pitchers are rare and often even those type of pitchers are only the complete package for a few years. I remember in 2010 how impressive Liriano was in many of his starts. But overall he was less effective than Pavano over the whole season. Strikeout rates can be a bit misleading if you are unwilling to look at everything that contributes to effective pitching.