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Updated: May 3rd, 2012 7:09pm
Numbers game: Why Twins pitchers are getting beat at their own game

Numbers game: Why Twins pitchers are getting beat at their own game

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

Disclaimer: Numbers Game is a place where we dive a little deeper into stats, trends, sabermetrics, and basically make peoples' heads explode.

The Minnesota Twins have the worst starting pitching staff in baseball right now, and it's not particularly close.

Twins starters own a 7.06 ERA, and the entire staff is striking out a league-low 5.07 batters per nine innings.

Now, there's a perception among many fans that successful pitching staffs must possess flame-throwing strikeout artists like Justin Verlander, David Price and Stephen Strasburg. The closest thing the Twins have to a flame-throwing strikeout artist right now is Francisco Liriano, and his ERA sits just south of 10.00.

But it's not always easy to find strikeout artists, or to keep strikeout artists healthy.

Missing injured workhorse Adam Wainwright last season, the St. Louis Cardinals showed there are other ways to build successful pitching staffs.

This ties back in with the Twins shortly, so stick with me.

A Cardinals offense led by Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman and David Freese stole the spotlight down the stretch in 2011 en route to a World Series title, and for good reason. The Cardinals posted a National League-leading .332 weighted on-base average (wOBA) last season. In September alone -- while in the midst of overcoming a 10-game deficit in the NL Wild Card race -- the Cardinals batted .294/.354/.452.

St. Louis' offense was one of the most potent in the league, and Albert Pujols' three-homer game against the Rangers in Game 3 along with the late-inning offensive comeback in Game 6 will stand as the Polaroid moments of the 2011 World Series.

But the architecture of the Cardinals pitching staff should not be overlooked.

Chris Carpenter -- a legitimate top-echelon starter, but a guy who doesn't rely entirely on strikeouts -- was really the only household name in this bunch. Edwin Jackson was acquired from the Chicago White Sox in a three-way trade on July 27. Jaime Garcia, 24, is one of the best sinkerballers in the league. Jake Westbrook and Kyle Lohse have career ERAs well above 4.00 and strike out only 5.0 and 5.6 batters per nine innings, respectively. Kyle McLellan made 17 starts, then 25 relief appearances once Jackson arrived.

St. Louis starters collectively ranked only 23rd in the majors in strikeouts per nine (6.10) last season -- and mid-pack in September (7.27).

Only Jackson's average fastball clocked in at more than 92 miles per hour (94.9 mph). Garcia, Westbrook and Lohse worked mostly in the 89-90-mph range.

Cardinals starters also allowed a fair share of contact (82%, which ranked mid-pack) -- although that number was aided by an improved rate in September (79%) thanks to the addition of Jackson.

So seeing as how the Cardinals pitching staff lacked strikeout artists, didn't rely on overpowering velocity and pitched to a fair share of contact most of the season, why were they able to post a collective ERA of 3.81 (3.76 xFIP)?

Because they rarely walked anyone, and they did one thing better than any starting staff in baseball:

The Cardinals induced copious amounts of groundballs.

And never has a groundball landed on the other side of the fence for a home run.

Just a shade under 50% of batted balls struck by opposing hitters against Cardinals starters were groundballs. By comparison, Diamondbacks starters induced the fewest amount of grounders (40%). Jackson was the only Cardinals starter below league average in the groundball department last season (43.8%, and 34% in September).

Killing worms and limiting walks are two attributes Twins pitchers strive for. Organizationally the Twins preach pitching to contact -- or, at the very least, they preach "don't be afraid of contact."

It's a concept the Cardinals succeeded with last year. But St. Louis is (obviously) doing it better than the Twins, who ranked mid-pack in groundballs induced last year (44% overall, 45% by starters). In fact, the Twins haven't ranked higher than seventh in groundballs induced since MLB started tracking the data in 2002.

So what allowed Cardinals pitchers to get so many hitters to roll over on pitches last yaer?

Hint: To be an elite groundball-inducing staff, pitchers must possess more than just the ability to locate down in the zone. Inducing groundballs actually has more to do with pitch movement than location.

Using specific parameters from MLB's Pitch F/X fastball data, I've taken every major league pitcher who threw at least 20 innings last season and divided their pitch repertoires (their "stuff") into three categories -- categories that classify pitchers based on their potential to sustain high groundball rates over time. 

1.) Safe For Worms
2.) Worms Should Look Both Ways
3.) Not Safe For Worms

Including both starters and relievers, the Cardinals had seven pitchers on their staff last year with Not Safe For Worms stuff: Carpenter, Garcia, Westbrook, Mitchell Boggs, Lance Lynn, Marc Rzepczynski and Eduardo Sanchez.

Jason Motte would be in this category if he tweaked his pitch selection -- but there's no need for him to do that with the high number of strikeouts he induces.

The Twins had zero Not Safe For Worms pitchers in 2011.

In fact, Joe Nathan, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Phil Dumatrait and Jim Hoey were about as Safe For Worms as pitchers can get -- rarely able to consistently induce groundballs because of the type of stuff each of them throw, regardless of location.

Jason Marquis was Not Safe For Worms, but he didn't sign until the offseason. The stuff of Francisco Liriano, Carl Pavano and Glen Perkins all came close but fell into the Worms Should Look Both Ways category.

Nick Blackburn's stuff in 2012 is Not Safe For Worms so far, but his stuff in 2011 wasn't -- likely due to the forearm discomfort he experienced.

Do the Twins have any minor league pitchers who consistently throw worm-killing stuff? Minor league ballparks don't provide public Pitch F/X data, so it's tough to say. Kyle Waldrop does, but he's still rehabbing a strained elbow. Kyle Gibson might, but he's still at least three months away from throwing in a game.

In any event, if the Twins can't find strikeout pitchers it's clear they at least need to make their organization less safe for worms.

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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