Dennis Brackin wrote a great piece for the Star Tribune last week on the subject of pitching to contact, which is a philosophy that the Twins have notoriously espoused. Brackin's article sought to clarify some misconceptions about the phrase. Most notably, that coaches are actively encouraging pitchers not to strike anyone out.
A severe strikeout deficiency is currently the greatest downfall for Minnesota's pitching staff, but it's not the coaching approach that is at issue. It's the personnel.
For whatever reason, the Twins have strayed away more and more from stocking the roster with strikeout pitchers in recent years. Maybe because it's cheaper, or maybe because the organization lacks the scouting chops to find quality power arms. In any case, the amount of contact that Twins pitchers are now allowing makes it nearly impossible to succeed.
The chart below, which I put together as part of the Twins scorecard content for next week's series against the Indians (only $1 at the stadium!) paints a picture of how Twins pitching staffs have evolved over the years from a K-rate perspective, and how their results have been impacted:
||ERA (AL Rank)
||K/9 (AL Rank)
|2002||4.12 (6th)||6.6 (5th)|
|2003||4.41 (7th)||6.1 (9th)|
|2004||4.03 (1st)||6.8 (3rd)|
|2005||3.71 (5th)||5.9 (10th)|
|2006||3.95 (2nd)||7.3 (1st)|
|2007||4.15 (5th)||6.9 (4th)|
|2008||4.17 (7th)||6.1 (12th)|
|2009||4.50 (11th)||6.5 (10th)|
|2010||3.95 (5th)||6.5 (10th)|
|2011||4.58 (13th)||6.0 (14th)|
|2012||5.69 (14th)||5.3 (14th)|
As you can see, the Twins weren't always a contact-heavy staff. In fact, back in 2006 they led the league in whiffs per nine innings, and ranked second in ERA. Back then, Johan Santana was leading the rotation and Joe Nathan the bullpen.
Now, Carl Pavano is the No. 1 starter and Matt Capps the closer. Those two set the tone for a staff that pitches to contact at an outrageously extreme rate. Since the start of last year, Pavano has struck out a lower percentage of hitters (10.9%) than any starting pitcher in baseball other than Jamie Moyer, who is 49, and Brad Penny, who was just released by a Japanese team. Meanwhile, Capps has struck out a lower percentage (12.4%) than any reliever other than Aaron Laffey and Erasmo Ramirez, both of whom are presently in Triple-A.
The major leagues as a whole are averaging 7.3 K/9 this year. Excluding Scott Diamond, who's pitched once, the Twins currently have two pitchers on their entire staff with a K-rate above that mark: Glen Perkins and Jared Burton. As a team, Minnesota is averaging 5.3 strikeouts per nine innings; if that were to hold, it would be the lowest figure for an MLB club since the 2003 Tigers averaged 4.8. That team also lost 119 games. (Incidentally, the Twins are currently on pace to lose 117).
As a general philosophy, telling hurlers to pitch to contact -- as in, trust your stuff and don't be afraid to throw in the zone early in the count -- isn't so bad. It's been Rick Anderson's calling card for many years. But at this point, the Twins have completely abandoned the punch-out. There are basically no starting pitchers in the entire organization who excel at missing bats.
That needs to change. When you allow as much contact as this team currently is, you're going to struggle to limit hits and runs regardless of how good your defense is.