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Updated: January 31st, 2013 11:06pm
Mackey: Twins pitching staff won't be nearly as bad as people think

Mackey: Twins pitching staff won't be nearly as bad as people think

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

Contrary to what many fans had hoped, the Minnesota Twins won't be flipping a switch to fix what was one of the worst pitching staffs in team history last season. 

A full transformation of such a putrid pitching staff requires the presence of a true No. 1 starter -- something the Twins might have eventually in Alex Meyer, who has yet to pitch above Single-A, or Kyle Gibson, whose innings will be limited coming off Tommy John surgery.

Until Meyer and Gibson arrive -- and until other hard-throwing prospects like Trevor May are ready to contribute regularly -- the Twins must bridge the gap, ideally without getting pelted on a nightly basis like last season.

Because free agent strikeout pitchers Zack Greinke and Anibal Sanchez weren't realistic options this winter, the Twins wandered down a different path -- fielding a pitching staff of groundball-inducing worm-killers.

Not necessarily by design, one team executive said. It just sort of turned out that way based on who the Twins targeted in free agency. 

And it isn't a horrible short-term strategy.

Why do groundballs matter? Isn't that the same as pitching to contact? 

Well, sort of.

There's a big difference between pitching to any old contact and pitching to groundballs. To my knowledge, no groundball has ever made it over the fence for a home run. In fact, groundballs turned into base hits at just a .237 clip around the league last season -- with zero home runs, obviously. 

Strikeouts are a pitcher's most effective tool. But groundballs limit damage. 

Finding pitchers who miss bats is the best long-term strategy, and the Twins have begun stockpiling such arms in the minors. The Rays, Yankees, Rangers and Tigers own the American League's top four strikeout rates over the past two seasons, and it's no coincidence those four teams are also the American League's four best teams over that same stretch.

But it's also worth pointing out the Cardinals (48%), Braves (47%) and Giants (46%) own baseball's three best groundball rates over the past two seasons -- two World Series champions and a team that has averaged 92 wins.

The best pitching staffs rely heavily on both strikeouts and groundballs. 

The Twins have received very little of either lately.

The Twins have struck out fewer batters than any team since Johan Santana left in 2007. Over that same stretch the Twins rank 20th in groundballs induced.

A staff of worm killers 

• The MLB average groundball rate in 2012 was 45%.

• Of the 13 pitchers who are likely to pitch regularly for the Twins in 2013, 10 induced at least 45% groundballs last season.

• The only true fly ball pitcher of the bunch is Casey Fien (only 29% grounders in 2012).
Liam Hendriks (43%) and Anthony Swarzak (44%) were just barely below average last season.

Scott Diamond (54%) and Kevin Correia (51%) ranked among the league leaders in groundballs induced, as did relievers Tyler Robertson (56%) and Alex Burnett (54%).

• Everyone else induced more groundballs than average -- Glen Perkins (45%), Vance Worley (47%), Brian Duensing (48%), Jared Burton (48%) Kyle Gibson while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery in the minors (46%) and Mike Pelfrey, when he was last healthy (48%).

• Among MLB pitchers who hurled at least 120 innings, Trevor Cahill induced the most groundballs (61%) and Phil Hughes the fewest (32%).

Projecting ahead 

The following 2013 pitcher projections are based on recent track records. Ballpark and league changes were factored in as well.

Pitcher

Inn

K

BB

H

HR

BABIP

ERA

WHIP

GB rate

Scott Diamond

200

119

47

222

21

0.305

4.15

1.35

50%

Vance Worley

175

143

60

177

14

0.309

3.73

1.34

45%

Kevin Correia

165

88

51

175

22

0.284

4.87

1.37

49%

Mike Pelfrey

150

80

48

162

13

0.303

4.34

1.40

49%

Liam Hendriks

135

86

35

147

18

0.297

4.51

1.34

44%

Kyle Gibson

130

108

33

132

14

0.299

3.81

1.27

50%

Other pitchers

94

64

48

96

13

0.306

5.22

1.53

44%

Brian Duensing

66

45

17

68

4

0.310

3.89

1.28

48%

Alex Burnett

66

42

24

66

4

0.299

3.96

1.36

51%

Glen Perkins

65

74

18

58

5

0.306

2.93

1.18

48%

Jared Burton

61

55

18

51

5

0.261

3.64

1.14

48%

Casey Fien

52

44

15

50

7

0.285

4.18

1.27

33%

Anthony Swarzak

47

30

14

50

6

0.298

4.55

1.37

44%

Tyler Robertson

40

40

17

38

5

0.306

4.21

1.37

52%


If the Twins pitching staff performs exactly to the projections listed above (not possible, but the projections are very realistic), the results would show the following:

• Twins pitchers would finish with 6.3 strikeouts per nine innings, a rate that would have ranked last in MLB last season.

• Twins pitchers would also finish with a collective groundball rate of 47%, which would have ranked 4th in MLB last season.

• Assuming respectable defense (.299 batting average on balls in play), Twins pitchers would allow roughly 730 runs (4.5 per game), which would have ranked 22nd in MLB last season -- not great, but much improved from the 832 they allowed in 2012.

Needless to say, a groundball-heavy pitching staff relies on solid infield defense to be effective, which is why there is a lot of chatter internally about Pedro Florimon being the leader in the clubhouse to start at shortstop.

The Twins must continue to look for young, strikeout-oriented pitchers, as they have been, but until those guys are ready, the current strategy -- planned or not -- isn't the worst.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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