Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Options for the Rotation

On Monday, I wrote about the Twins' search for pitching help, pointing out that an inability to miss bats was a huge weakness for the staff in 2011 -- one which Terry Ryan should seek to remedy.

It's not realistic to expect the Twins to add a dominant strikeout machine to the mix, because there really aren't any available in free agency and acquiring one through trade would prove too costly.

But that doesn't mean they need to settle for someone like Jeff Francis or Jon Garland, who would qualify as the exact opposite of a "strikeout machine." Between Carl Pavano, Nick Blackburn, Brian Duensing, Anthony Swarzak and Terry Doyle, the Twins have plenty of rotation candidates who can take the mound, throw the ball over the plate and let opposing hitters put it in play.

If they want to beef up their rotation rather than simply crowding it with more of the same, they'll need to identify at least one arm that breaks the pitch-to-contact mold. Here are a few available options that intrigue me:

Edwin Jackson

Jackson is a power arm in the sense that he throws hard, with a fastball that averages almost 95 mph and a slider in the upper 80s, but his results have never matched his high-velocity stuff. This past season, Jackson notched 148 strikeouts in 199 2/3 innings -- good for a 6.7 K/9 rate that matches his career mark and is roughly average.

With that being said, an average strikeout rate would stand out among Minnesota's crop of starters, and the 28-year-old has averaged 200 innings over the past four seasons. He's the cream of the remaining FA crop, but may elude the Twins' price range unless they're willing to push closer to $110 million.

Rich Harden

I mentioned Harden in Monday's post as a prime example of a high-risk, high-reward arm that could fit into a ~$100 million budget. He's got an electric arm, and this year with the A's was able to tally 91 strikeouts in 82 2/3 innings, but injuries have been a constant issue for the right-hander. He signed with Oakland last winter to a one-year deal worth $1.5 million plus incentives; there would be plenty of wisdom in offering a similar contract this year.

Harden is still only 30 years old, and if he can find a way to stay healthy he's got huge upside, especially in Target Field. If he'd be willing, a switch to the bullpen is an option that might aid his durability, and would solve the club's need for a hard-throwing right-hander in the late innings.

Javier Vazquez

While playing for the Marlins this past season, Vazquez made it sound like he was dead-set on retiring at the end of the year. By November, he appeared to have softened his stance, telling Ken Rosenthal that he was "50-50" on playing again in 2012.

Luring the 35-year-old righty back for another year might be a tall task, especially in Minnesota as Rosenthal noted that Vazquez had a strong preference to remain on the East Coast if he hung around. If the Twins could make it happen, though, there's tons of appeal in a guy who has averaged 8 K/9 over the course of this career and turned in a 3.69 ERA and 1.18 WHIP over 192 2/3 innings with Florida in 2011.

Hiroki Kuroda

It's not clear whether Kuroda intends to play in the majors next year or return to Japan. There's been little buzz surrounding the free agent right-hander, and the Diamondbacks reportedly had an offer to him on the table for over 10 days before moving on and signing Jason Kubel earlier this week.

Kuroda has been consistently effective over his four-year major league career, accumulating a 3.45 ERA and 1.19 WHIP. In 2011, he set career bests with a 3.07 ERA in 202 innings. He also averaged over seven strikeouts per nine frames for a second straight year. He'll turn 37 in February, but if he's willing to sign a one-year deal, Kuroda would be a good addition at almost any price.

Jon Niese

Unlike the four hurlers mentioned above, Niese is not a free agent. There have been rumblings that the Mets could make him available in a trade, though, and if that's the case, the Twins would be wise to make a push.

Niese is 25, and 2012 will be his first year of arbitration eligibility. Although his 4.39 career ERA appears rather mediocre on the surface, Niese is a left-hander who can command the strike zone, miss bats and induce ground balls. Given that the Twins are in a state of flux with their roster, I'm against the notion of trading valuable assets for short-term help, but Niese could be a long-term building block and would justify the cost as long as it's not exorbitant.


Anonymous said...

Tim Doyle is Terry's uncle. Too old.

Matt said...

I would think that Jackson and Vasquez are out, due to cost and unwillingness to move here, respectively. Kuroda is doubtful as well, I bet he goes back to Japan or at the very least, a serious MLB contender, which the Twins are not.
Harden is interesting, as his injury history is varied; hamstring here, wrist there, etc. So we know he many not have chronic arm problems. On the cheap, he's well worth it, but we'll have to see what happens.
Niece is interesting. Is he the type of guy the Mets will ask for top prospects the Twins likely wouldn't part with in return? I don't know enough about him.

Dan said...

What do you think it would take to get Niese from the Mets?

TT said...

I don't know what the fascination is with strikeouts, they are the same as any other out. He has had ERA's over 5 the last two years and that isn't an accident. Harden may strike out a lot of batters, but he also gives up a lot of hits.

For statheads, that high K/9 is as much a function of NOT being able to get batters out on balls in play as it is an ability to strike batters out. He had a .317 BABIP last year. His BABIP was consistently under .260 until three years ago and they haven't been in that range since.

In short, he looks like he is toast and his ability to strike batters out isn't going to save him.

Anonymous said...

Assuming Sano, Hicks, Rosario, Benson, Gibson and Hendriks weren't tradable for Neise, I'd give up a guy like Arcia + a couple lower level prospect for him.

Young Man Duggan said...

Rich Harden has been a "high-risk/high-reward candidate for the last few years, and every year ends up falling directly under the high-risk category.

I've liked him in theory as a free agent target the last few seasons, but anymore I just don't think he can contribute long enough to justify the money (as minimal as it might be).

I'd rather we pay the money to an Edwin Jackson than pay very little money to a Rich Harden.

Nick N. said...

I don't know what the fascination is with strikeouts, they are the same as any other out.

Strikeouts demonstrate an ability to dominate hitters rather than relying on your defense and luck. Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano both have injury question marks and are the only starters on the staff capable of even posting above-average strikeout rates.

Please, point me to a club that has experienced success in recent years without a single strikeout threat in their rotation.

This isn't about a "fascination with strikeouts" anymore than asking the club to add a power bat is a "fascination with homers." Signings should address areas where your team is weak.

Harden may strike out a lot of batters, but he also gives up a lot of hits.

Not as many as contact pitchers like Pavano, Blackburn and Francis.

Anonymous said...

Hey Nick - the 2005 W.S. champion Chicago White Sox say "hello!"

Come to think of it, last years Cards had three starters with less than 6.0 K/9 and all five starters were below the NL K/9 avg of 7.3 K/9. And the 08 Phillies, while having a few strike out pitchers were also well below the NL avg. The 07 Rockies were even worse.

And, our own Twins have been reasonably successful with low K rates that throughout the decade, even with Santana led staffs.

Anonymous said...

Good takes on many of the players.

I'd like to see the Twins take a chance on Harden and use him out of the bullpen. I'm glad you brought him up.

I've been saying for years the Twins need more power arms, especially out of the bullpen. 95% of Twins pitchers fit the same mold(90-92FB, average off-speed pitches, always around the zone) It really hurts in big situations when you take out a 90-92mph strike thrower to switch to another 90-92mph strike thrower, hitters have very little adjustments to make.

Anonymous said...

In response to TTs comment, "I don't know what the fascination is with strikeouts, they are the same as any other out."

With a strikeout, runners don't advance if they are on base. A hitter can ground out or fly out and move runners. There are just times when you need an out and the runners to stay put.

Anonymous said...

Bill James did an excellent analysis a whole ago showing that virtually all of the great pitchers have been power - aka - strikeout pitchers. Yes there are exceptions but they're rare. It's one thing to be below league avg in K's but quite another to be dead last and expect to be competitive. I like Rich Harden best from this list to pitch out of the BP. So we still need another starter. Jackson is too expensive I think.

TT said...

Harden's opponents had a .488 SLG against him last year. To put that in perspective, of the 24 pitchers the Twin used last year, only Kevin Slowey, Jim Hoey, Jeff Manship, Dusty Hughes and Michael Cuddyer were worse than that.

The bottom line is that the ability to get outs is what divides good pitchers from bad pitchers. There are differences between strikeouts and other outs, but its not clear either is inherently better.

TT said...

"Bill James did an excellent analysis a whole ago showing that virtually all of the great pitchers have been power - aka - strikeout pitchers."

EVERY pitcher in the Hall of Fame has a better than league average (.300) career BABIP. The K/9 average for HOF pitchers is 4.85.

There is never much analysis done by Bill James that was excellent. It's appeal was that it was simple and entertaining. And, as even he has admitted, often wrong.

Mike said...

"There are differences between strikeouts and other outs, but its not clear either is inherently better."

I think it is pretty clear that a strikeout is inherently better. Sure, an out is an out, but I think that's too narrow of an analysis. As other posters have alluded to, barring an unlikely error by the catcher, a strikeout keeps a runner from advancing. A fly out to Ben Revere (or even an outfielder with a good arm) often results in players moving up a base/scoring.

And if the hitter puts it in play and you rely on your defense, sometimes your defense doesn't come up with it. Maybe it barely gets through the hole, maybe your defense stumbles, or maybe the defense makes an error. Even with a low BABIP, those things will happen.

And because runners can frequently advance on outs that were put in play, I think that makes it even more important to have a bullpen arm that's more capable of striking someone out since relief pitchers often come in with people on base.

I'm not saying that K rates are the end-all, be-all. But a strikeout is more valuable and it would be a good idea to have a pitcher or two that doesn't fit the same mold as every other Twins' pitcher.

Matt said...

I know there's no way to quantify this assertation with statistics and many of you may think I'm a moron for suggesting it, but...
I feel like strikeout oriented pitchers, when not giving up hits and dominating hitters, kind of set the tone for their club from the mound. Hitters lose confidence after striking out more than once, thus, relievers can benefit.
If you're going to bring a reliever in to the game with runners on, damn right you need a guy who can strike out hitters. Harden could be a really good bullpen guy for this reason, too.
Like I said, no way to prove this is a fact or that my IQ is over 50 for stating this, it's just what I've seen from watching ball all my life.

Ed Bast said...

Quite honestly, on a team that's guaranteed to have a crappy bullpen, and that isn't a serious contender by any stretch of the mind, the stat I'm looking for more than K/9 is IP. Give me a guy who's going to give you 200 innings/yr anyday. Yes, Rich Harden has a nice K/9, but at 100 IP/year, that's another 100 innings you're going to need to get out of crappy relievers. And we know how that's going to go.

Innings pitched is a vastly underrated stat. A guy's numbers or "peripherals" might look good to the naked eye, but if he's doing it over 150 innings/year, that's an awful lot of innings you are trusting to the bullpen. To accurately measure a starter I think you have to add in all the innings he didn't pitch due to injury (ahem, Scotty Bakes!), not being able to pitch deep into ball games (hello, Frankie!), etc.

So when you're talking about Rich Harden (who has dedicated his career to showing people he cannot withstand a full MLB season) as a #5 starter, you're really talking about "half a season of Rich Harden and half a season of Anthony Swarzak/Jeff Manship/Alex Burnett", which I dearsay would actually make the rotation worse, not better.

Interestingly, Edwin Jackson gives you both Ks and 200 IP/yr.

Nick N. said...

Hey Nick - the 2005 W.S. champion Chicago White Sox say "hello!"

That team ranked 11th in the majors in strikeouts.

It's true that they lacked big-time strikeout guys in the rotation, but they also had four starters throw 200-plus innings. I don't think anyone can reasonably expect that from the Twins.

Continuity and heavy workloads are definitely important traits for a rotation, but those can be tough to count on, especially in the Twins' current situation.

And, our own Twins have been reasonably successful with low K rates that throughout the decade, even with Santana led staffs.

There's a difference between being below-average and being, by an enormous margin, the worst in the league. In my view, a team can succeed under one of those scenarios and not the other.

TT said...

Mike -

A double play is better than a strikeout. And an out on the first pitch is a lot more efficient than a strikeout.

The rest of the arguments about balls in play is silly. You are comparing a final result(K) to a non-result(BIP). Would you rather have a hitter take a strike, foul it off, swing and miss or pop out? I think most people would choose the pop out.

Mike said...

The arguments about balls in play is not silly. Your assumption that the ball in play will turn into an out is silly. Sure, if a ball in play actually turns into an out without the runners advancing, then yes, it is the same as a K. But that entirely ignores that, frequently, a ball in play does not turn into an out. And that even when it does, players frequently advance.

Even on a double play, I've seen plenty of runners advance or score.

"Would you rather have a hitter take a strike, foul it off, swing and miss or pop out? I think most people would choose the pop out."

Sure, but again, you assume the out is being made. 30% of the time, a ball put in play is a hit. And that doesn't account for errors or runners tagging up on the pop out.

TT said...

"Sure, but again, you assume the out is being made"

Just as you do when you start the comparison with a strikeout. The only real comparison is between a strikeout and an out on a ball in play. And then all the silly stuff about what else might have happened other than an out is eliminated.

"Even on a double play, I've seen plenty of runners advance or score."

And I have seen plenty of strikeouts without anyone on base. What's your point?

TT said...

"30% of the time, a ball put in play is a hit."

That depends on the pitcher. With Harden a few years ago it would have been 25% of the time. Recently it has been over 30%.

Patrick said...

TT Says "The K/9 average for HOF pitchers is 4.85."

I am not usually this blunt, but that argument is garbage. While it is technically true it is completely meaningless and has no relation to the post that Nick made.

Yes the average pitcher in the hall of fame has a K/9 rate of 4.85. However, more pitchers in the hall of fame started their careers before 1926 than after. Strikeouts weren't part of the game then like they are today. If you look at the K/9 rate of hall of fame pitchers over time a trend emerges.

Below is a list of the K/9 of all HoF pitchers who started their careers after the certain years.
1920 = 5.87
1950 = 6.63
1970 = 6.85

Clearly strikeouts are a more important part of the modern game.

The other significant issue with comparing the modern game to Hall of Fame pitchers is that there is not a single pitcher in the Hall of Fame that started his career after 1980. That leaves out 30 years of baseball history. You can’t just ignore 30 years of stats and say, "Well, the strikeout just isn't very important".

Crash Davis said...

"Strikeouts are boring. Besides that, they're fascist. Groundballs are more democratic

TT said...

Patrick -

Here is the claim the HOF data addressed:

"I am not usually this blunt, but that argument is garbage."

And to be equally blunt, you need to try reading the arugment BEFORE you write your response because you apparently failed see that it was posted in direct response to this claim from Anonymous:

"Bill James did an excellent analysis a whole ago showing that virtually all of the great pitchers have been power - aka - strikeout pitchers."

There were no eras specified for that claim and it clearly isn't true. Which is all the number I posted was intended to show.

As for the rest, its likely there are more strikeouts during the last 60 years than the previous 60. Does that make strikeouts more important?

TT said...

BTW, before you answer that question, consider this. Does the fact that there are more strike outs make strike outs more important in evaluating hitters?

I think you can make a pretty good case that at least part of what has changed is not the approach of pitchers, but approach of hitters. They are much more willing to strike out than they were. In the dead ball era, a hitter would choke up and put the ball in play if they got behind in the count. Now hitters continue to try to drive the ball. The result is more strikeouts.

Patrick said...

@TT: I did read your argument and I did understand it. Your argument is also still flawed. My response was perhaps not as clear as it could have been. My main point was that you can’t just say “The average pitcher in the HoF has a K/9 of 4.85” and then call it a day. You have to compare pitchers (or any other player) for that matter against the players of their eras.

So when you say, "There were no eras specified for that claim and it clearly isn't true. Which is all the number I posted was intended to show." Your analysis is flawed because you are not comparing players against their contemporaries. Basically you can’t compare K/9 rates from the 1890’s to K/9 rates from the 1980’s.

The claim that most great pitchers are “power pitchers”, argued by anonymous and Bill James, does hold up. Here is a chart of all pitchers in the Hall of Fame that started their careers after 1940. You will see in the chart that almost every single one of them had a higher than average K/9 rate when compared to their contemporaries. In fact more than half of the pitchers in the Hall of Fame over that same period had a significantly higher K/9 rate than the pitcher of their time. So, having a high k/9 does seem to correlate to success (at least where success is getting into the Hall of Fame).

Ed Bast said...

So, Nick, does Jason Marquis give you the strikeouts you wanted?

Wouldn't bother me as much as it would most - he's the exact same as every starter the Twins have except his arm hasn't been programmed to shut down at 101 pitches/160 innings per year. So he's another Carl Pavano. With a crappy, crappy bullpen, let's try to minimize their use.

The problem is, 2012 is shaping up to be a "stopgap year", in which the team is neither rebuilding (by blocking their top prospects with mid-thirties washups) nor seriously competing (by refusing yet again to improve the pitching staff, by signing a 38-year old journeyman and handing him the starting SS job, by refusing to spend money on top-tier free agents, contrary to what the Pohlads promised taxpayers who funded their cash cow of a stadium, etc.)

What is this organization's long-term plan to win a World Series? By this offseason (reducing payroll for no reason other than to pad Pohlad wallets, plugging in cheap, washed-up players to positions of need) you'd think it was 1999 all over again.

Fans, you do realize the Twins will do this year-to-year scrapheap-hunting payroll-trimming "March Toward Mediocrity" ad infinitum until we stop showing up and tell the organization 80 wins a year isn't good enough, right?

Target Field is going to go down as the biggest scam in Minnesota sports history. It's really a Ponzi scheme: the Pohlads lie to their customers to get them to pay for a new stadium and then pocket the profits. How is this not a Ponzi scheme?

Anonymous said...

Patrick- at some point, you just have to admit defeat with TT. Not defeat as in, "you're wrong," but defeat as in TT's contrarian nature is just going to continue to exist.

Of course a strikeout and any other out are both equal, but to get there, you've already reached the conclusion that the out is recorded. If you can't get the strikeout, you are relying on your defense to make the play. BABIP shows us that that 30% of the time, the defense doesn't make the play. If the D is quite good, or the pitcher is really forcing the hitter to not make good contact, the defense doesn't make the play 22% of the time. And never mind errors or runners advancing.

And why compare HOF pitchers to their contemporaries when you could not so that it appears HOF pitchers didn't strike out hitters more than the normal pitchers from their eras?

I stopped trying to discuss things with TT the first time I saw him argue and argue and argue that Capps was the reason why the Twins made the playoffs in 2010. Which was good because it meant I wasn't fazed by his arguments that getting rid of Hardy was positive for the Twins.

Patrick said...

@TT: Getting into your second question of, “are strikeouts more important for the modern game?” Perhaps “important” isn’t the right word. They are certainly more common in the modern game. What is important, though, is how modern advances in statistics have changed how people think about and analyze baseball.

As you point out hitters are generally more willing to strike out but the pitcher still has to get the job done. Since strikeouts are one result that pitchers have a significant and consistent effect over (K/9 rates are key to the theory of DIPS or “defense independent pitching statistics) they are a good place to look to evaluate a pitcher. On the surface it looks like Harden had a bad year last year. He had a terrible ERA and only pitched 86 innings. However, if you look deeper he had some very positive numbers. His K/9 rate (9.91) was quite good. His BB/9 rate was ok (3.38).

Last year Harden struggled with two main issues. The first was a terrible Athletics defense. The second was that he gave up too many homeruns. First the A’s defense: As you noted above he had a BABIP of .315. This is significantly out of line with the rest of his career. It is 40 points higher than the year before. It is also significantly higher than the league average. This makes sense because the Athletics had one of the worst defenses in baseball last year. They were 25th in the league in UZR and 28th in the league in ErrR (runs caused by errors). There is good reason to believe that Hardens BABIP should drop significantly in 2012 as the defense he pitches for shouldn’t be as bad and spikes in BABIP almost always regress.

The second issue Harden faced was giving up too many homeruns. The good news for Twins pitchers (and bad news for our hitters) is that Target Fields seems to have a significant effect suppressing home runs. Basically, assuming he is healthy and assuming that the Twins have improved their own defense, there is good reason to believe that Harden could return to success as a pitcher for the Twins in Target field.

Mike said...

Come on, Ed. Do we really need more posts from you whining about the Pohlads? It appears pretty unanimous that everyone is tired of it.

2009 payroll- $65 million
2011 payroll- $112 million

That's a huge increase. The Twins aren't NYY. There are limits to how much they can spend. Even if the payroll drops to $100 million this upcoming year (and it appears it will be more like $105+), that's still an increase of 54% from three years ago.

The Twins aren't going to sell out every game this upcoming year and it isn't logical to think they will, which makes it slightly different from the past two years. TF will be in it's third year and won't guarantee a sellout. The team is coming off 99 losses and many fans are upset with the team and less likely to buy tickets, at least as frequently. They'll still sell a lot of tickets and at a higher price than the metrodome, but they're also spending a lot more than they were in their last years in the dome. Less money comes in, less money can be spent.

If economics played no role in baseball, sure, the team could print out a bunch of monopoly money and bring in all the top talent FAs out there.

And Target Field isn't a ponzi scheme because it isn't a ponzi scheme. I don't think you understand what a Ponzi scheme is. And it isn't a scam, either. The dome sucked and the Pohlads said they needed a better stadium so they could spend more money on top talent. They got a new stadium and then they spent more money on top talent. A lot more money.

RMB said...

Patrick, you make way too much sense for TT. He refuses to accept that advanced metrics tell a more accurate story than standard statistics and what we see with our eyes.

a twins fan that cares about winning said...

"2009 payroll- $65 million
2011 payroll- $112 million

that is the single most simplistically meaningless and intentionally misleading thing i've ever read on this site. i wont even get into it other than to say you DO NOT understand the economics of baseball, single-game tickets being an INSIGNIFICENT part of a teams revenue, for one.

i'm sick of reading ed's diatribes but i'm more sick or reading names like jimmy carol and jason marquis being added to this team. and i'm sick of fans just accepting it and moving on. this isnt NYY, for sure, at least the fans and the organization out there CARE ABOUT WINNING.

Ed Bast said...

You know what, Mike? You're right. I'm sick of the negativity too. I'm sure Nick is sick of it. I can't find much positive to say about my beloved organization. This is an outlet for my frustration. It's selfish, I know. Twins fans obviously don't want to hear it.

I love the Twins more than any other sports team. On of my fondest sporting memories is watching the '91 series as a young lad. There's nothing like a deep playoff run for a sports fan, especially in MN where that doesn't happen every year. And I really thought Target Field would allow my favorite club to do that - make another run.

Unfortunately, it's become clear that the organization just doesn't have the desire or ability to build a serious competitor here. My ranting and raving isn't going to change the organization into the Rays, an organization with real payroll constraints and real competitive constraints yet somehow manages to be both competitive in the short team while setting themselves up for long-term success.

So this is my official retirement from these forums. There's nothing else to say. Thanks to Nick and others for allowing me to vent through the years; apologies for my at-times aggressive and pessimistic nature. However, in spite of it all, I leave here as I came - a Twins fan through and through.

Signing off,

Ed Bast

TT said...

"K/9 rates are key to the theory of DIPS or “defense independent pitching statistics)"

You mean the ludicrous claim that pitchers have "zero control" over their BABIP. Of FIP, the "fielding independent pitching" statistic that uses Innings Pitched as its denominator, since apparently fielders have no control over whether an out is made either. You can call these "advanced" statistics, but they are really just calculations made possible by the misuse of modern spreadsheets.

"His K/9 rate (9.91) was quite good. "

K/9 measures the proportion of outs by strikeout. Harden's k/9 is good, in part, because he gave up a bunch of hits on balls in play instead of getting people out. So a higher proportion of his outs were by strikeout.

"The claim that most great pitchers"

The claim was not "most" it was "virtually all". If someone has said most, I wouldn't have disagreed at all. On the other hand, ALL great pitchers had a career BABIP that is above average.

"This is significantly out of line with the rest of his career."

Statistics for washed up players often are.

"It is also significantly higher than the league average. This makes sense because the Athletics had one of the worst defenses in baseball last year. "

The BABIP for the Oakland pitchers last year was .292, better than league average. Someone apparently knew how to get batters out on balls in play despite that defense.

TT said...

"TT's contrarian nature is just going to continue to exist."

It always amusing to be labeled "contrarian" by people who insist their spreadsheets have made them better baseball analysts than the lifelong baseball people hired to manage teams.

"If you can't get the strikeout, you are relying on your defense to make the play. BABIP shows us that that 30% of the time, the defense doesn't make the play."

What BABIP shows us is that there is wide range of success, from 1/4 to 1/3, depending on who is pitching. The same way there is wide range of success depending on who is hitting.

The data also tells us that 75% or more of the time even the best strikeout pitchers won't get a strikeout. What happens during that 75% is at least as important as one or two more strikeouts.