Warne: Twins getting surprisingly good production from bullpen so far
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MINNEAPOLIS -- If one was to give credit to the pitching being the strong suit to the Minnesota Twins' 9-8 start, perhaps even more dedicated praise should be lobbed in the direction of the bullpen.
Even with a rocky nightcap to the twinbill split with the Marlins on Tuesday night, the Twins bullpen currently registers sixth in the big leagues with a 2.52 ERA, just a percentage point behind the Baltimore Orioles.
By comparison, the rotation has compiled a collective 5.24 mark, 26th across the MLB.
The bullpen as a whole also has tremendous marks in walks (eighth-fewest), batting average against (seventh-lowest), OPS against (fifth-lowest), and WHIP (sixth-lowest). Last year's group was no better than middle-of-the-pack in any of those stats, and had the worst strikeout rate of any bullpen.
So what's the key to this year's early success? According to those across the organization, it's multi-faceted.
One benefit has been the paucity of games to play, which in return gives extra days off for the entire bullpen. As a result, the Twins have played the second-fewest games as a team -- the Royals will catch up to the pack provided they get Wednesday's game in -- and have seen its relievers throw the 11th-fewest innings.
Skipper Ron Gardenhire definitely lends credence to the off days keeping his relievers fresh.
"It's definitely a rest thing," Gardenhire said. "They've gotten plenty of rest because of how the schedule has been. All the rainouts, and snowouts, and all those things. They're definitely rested, that's for sure. Sometimes too rested. ...
"I think that, coming out of spring training, we were still thinking, 'How are we going to work this through? Let's see who throws the ball best.' As we got going, we started feeling more comfortable with slotting guys in different places, and we feel pretty good about it. They've all been throwing the ball decent, and getting some big outs for us. And we haven't had to kill them yet -- overwork them. We've only had a couple of ballgames where the bullpen really had to stretch out. That helps also, so we can kind of keep them in their roles."
It also certainly helps that, due in large part to starters like Kevin Correia going deeper into games, nearly 40% of the relief innings have been thrown by set-up men Jared Burton and Casey Fien, as well as closer Glen Perkins. Those three relievers have combined to throw 23.2 innings of 2.66 ERA ball, while fanning a cool 10.6 per nine innings pitched.
To frame that up a bit, Joe Nathan whiffed 10.9 batters per nine innings with the Twins.
For the time-being, even some of the guys towards the back of the pen have performed quite well. Anthony Swarzak has taken to the long role with aplomb, with Josh Roenicke, Brian Duensing, and Pedro Hernandez all pitching to sub-4.00 ERAs -- even if the peripherals need a little work.
And while being able to get the higher-leverage guys their preferred innings has meant guys like Ryan Pressly don't get a lot of work -- he hadn't worked in 11 days prior to the nightcap of Tuesday's doubleheader -- even he has gained from simply watching how guys like Perkins, Burton, and Brian Duensing go about their business.
"I was moved to the pen halfway through last year, so having these guys in the pen to watch is great," Pressly said. "I'm able to sit there and pick through what they do, and try to throw it into my routine. That's what I've done since I've been here, watching Perkins, Burton, and Duensing warm up. Roenicke too. Everybody is pretty much like a mentor to me. I'm the youngest one in the pen, so I'm just trying to watch everybody."
According to at least one veteran, the best part about this season has been that the pitchers have all known their roles, and have been able to pitch well within them as the bullpen has been less taxed than in the past two seasons.
Duensing, who as a veteran lefty specialist has actually thrown the fewest innings of any active pen member with 4.2, credits the starting staff and some manager-induced stability for the improvement of this group.
"We're not getting overworked like we have maybe the last couple years," Duensing noted. "At the same time, when Gardy puts us into chances where we can succeed, that's the main thing. If you have a chance to succeed, your confidence is a bit higher and things snowball in a positive way. So far, so good. ...
"I think everyone has been used in the same general situation. I feel everyone knows their role as a reliever, and kind of knows when to expect to get into the game. I think that helps to prepare yourself both mentally and physically."
All told, it's probably a good thing this bullpen is performing, because it could get crowded pretty quickly. Tim Wood is currently on a rehab stint, and will have to have his fate decided within a 30-day window from the beginning of that assignment. Both Rafael Perez and Rich Harden -- two veterans with solid track records in their own respect -- are progressing well and seem to be likely to ascend upon Minneapolis at some point this spring or summer.
One thing is clear: With a good part of the pen pitching for their jobs, everyone's best effort has been on display so far this season.