Not-So-Special Ks: On the Twins’ Nonexistent Relationship With the Strikeout

If you’re a Twins fan, and The Common Man most definitely is a Twins fan, then before the season started you probably thought to yourself, “If Mauer, Morneau, and Span are all healthy, this team will probably be pretty ok.”  After all, the Twins finished with 99 losses thanks in large part to getting just 3.2 rWAR from the combined three.  A full and productive season from the trio would presumably earn at least an extra six, and perhaps as many as twelve wins.

And there’s no doubt that the three are delivering in 2012.  Despite what the misguided boos of Twins fans might have you believe, Mauer has been vintage Mauer, hitting .325/.419/.438, including .400/.455/.650 with runners in scoring position (ruining the narratives of Twins fans who want to blame him for not driving every single runner in).  Span has shaken off the effects of last year’s concussion and hit .337/.387/.430.  And while Morneau’s .236/.321/.472 is off from what Twins fans would have hoped from him, his four homers are encouraging given how debilitated he has seemed over the last year and a half.   And all of that doesn’t even account for Josh Willingham, .353/.457/.706, who has been amazing.

No, the problem for the 2012 Twins is not with the hitters, but with the pitchers. 

Through 21 games, Twins pitchers rank 14th in runs allowed and ERA.  They’re 13th in both homers and hits allowed.  The Twins have one starter with an ERA below 5.00 (Carl Pavano, 4.91) and four starters with ERAs over 6.00 (Marquis, 6.23, Hendriks, 6.89, Blackburn 7.53, and Liriano, 11.02).

The problem, as it usually does for the Twins, stems back to the kinds of pitchers the Twins have targeted.  The Twins have fetishized control to an absurd degree, believing that lollipops over the plate are inherently better than aspirins off of it, and have regularly confused “not striking players out” for “not walking batters.”  This philosophy is traditionally traced back to Brad Radke, an absurd control artist who made an unexpectedly good career out of not walking guys.  But Radke was merely the king of them all (his career 1.63 BB/9 is the lowest mark for any pitcher since 1947 with more than 2000 IP), and the type is actually much older.  Kevin Tapani was a command righty who never struck out more than 6.0 batters per nine as a Twin.  Scott Erickson didn’t have the same control, but used his power sinker to survive with a 4.9 K/9 from 1990-1994.  Their ranks were joined by Bob Tewksbury in 1997, Mike Morgan in 1998, Joe Mays in 2000, Rick Reed in 2001, Kenny Rogers in 2003, Carlos Silva in 2004, Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins in 2008, Carl Pavano and Brian Duensing in 2009, Anthony Swarzak in 2010, Liam Hendriks in 2011, and Jason Marquis in 2012.  All of them were expected to contribute league average starts or better despite the fact that all of them featured below average or worse strikeout rates.  Plus, the Twins reportedly tried to turn former ace Francisco Liriano against type at the start of last year, by urging him to “pitch to contact.”

Strikeouts are fascist, according to Bull Durham, but they’re also crucial to a team’s success, as it reduces the burden on a team’s defense.  The Twins, in 2012, have been brilliant at limiting walks (they’re 2nd in the AL with just 53 free passes, 21 of which have been allowed by the bullpen-bound Liriano and ticking time bomb Jeff Gray).  But they’ve been equally horrid at setting batters down, with just 105 Ks in 182 innings.  That’s roughly 4/5 the total of the next worst team in the league.  To put that in some perspective, the Twins have struck out batters 23 times fewer than any other team in the league.  That’s almost eight full innings worth of strikeouts…worse than the next to last team in the game.  The Twins are 21 games into the 2012 season, and are almost a full game’s worth of strikeouts behind their closest competitor.

What that works out to is that the Twins have allowed 74.9% of the batters who hit against them put balls in play.  That’s the second highest percentage in all of baseball, a razor’s edge behind Oakland’s 75.0% (league average is 69.2%).  What’s even more disturbing, however, is that when home runs are added to the equation, something the Twins excel in giving up, the Twins have allowed 79.0% of batters to put the ball in play or homer off of them.  That’s far and away the worst mark in baseball (league average is 71.7%).   So while the team’s BABiP is a not terrible .299 (21st in MLB, league average .289), the real problem is how many extra opportunities batters are getting to find holes in what is actually a mediocre defense.

The Twins are not going to win anything this year.  The Common Man is now absolutely sure of that.  But the club continues to trot big control guys out on the mound day after day, and expect different results.  That’s the definition of insanity at best, downright incompetence at the worst.  Terry Ryan made noise last offseason about wanting to add power arms, but lamented how much those arms cost.  But what’s become clear is that those strikeouts are worth their weight in the money the Twins have allocated instead to Matt Capps, Jason Marquis, Nick Blackburn, and Carl Pavano, and the team needs to pour resources into moving away from an organizational philosophy that has become myopic and is sinking a season that should be filled with joy over the return to form of the club’s best hitters.