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Defending the Twins Pitching Philosophy

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With the Twins coming off one of their worst pitching seasons in over a decade, many fans and analysts are blaming the Twins’ “pitch to contact” philosophy. Critics cite career lows in strikeout rates for pitchers like Francisco Liriano and Matt Capps in 2011 as proof that there needs to be a new approach on the mound.

However, if we look back at the Twins’ recent history, we see that the “pitch to contact” strategy has actually played a large part in their success, particularly by producing quality pitching at a low price.

From 2001 to 2010, the Twins had the ninth lowest ERA in the MLB. Their pitching staff finished 19th in K/9, but first in BB/9 by a wide margin. While high-velocity, strikeout pitchers are in high demand -- and are therefore at a premium cost -- lower-velocity, command pitchers aren’t as sought after and are cheaper. It is these type of pitchers that the Twins have gotten over the past decade.

Over that span of 10 years, the Twins averaged $25.3 million in pitching payroll each year. The average payroll of the other nine teams in the top 10 of ERA over that same period of time was $38.1 million. Only the Oakland A’s paid less for their pitching. On average, the Twins spent almost $13 million less than other teams that had a similar ERA.


Team ERA Avg Yearly Payroll
Atlanta Braves 3.89 $45,675,172
LA Dodgers 3.90 $45,690,133
Oakland A's 3.92 $18,193,173
St. Louis Cardinals 4.01 $39,221,293
SF Giants 4.03 $31,494,869
LA Angels 4.09 $39,345,550
Chicago Cubs 4.09 $43,747,343
New York Mets 4.10 $49,308,743
Minnesota Twins 4.16 $25,268,000
Houston Astros 4.16 $29,939,475


The Twins' ERA was helped by a 2.98 ERA from Johan Santana and a good bullpen over those years (see Patience with Bullpen is a Must), but the rest of the rotation had solid numbers and was filled with quintessential "pitch to contact" arms.

Pitchers like Brad Radke, Joe Mays, Kyle Lohse, Nick Blackburn, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Carlos Silva, and Carl Pavano were not exactly Cy Young candidates, but they were good for an ERA between 4.00 and 4.50, which was worth two to four wins above replacement level each year. Outside of Baker, none of these pitchers are known for missing many bats, but they all have a career BB/9 below 3.00 with most of them falling under 2.50 BB/9 (MLB average from '01 to '10 was 3.33 BB/9).

The "pitch to contact" philosophy has been controversial among Twins fans and analysts in recent years, but pitching to contact clearly leads to fewer walks. And, as we learned from watching Moneyball, the more you walk, the more you can score.

The Twins pitching staff, by reducing its walks -- thanks to its pitching philosophy -- has been able to limit runs at a lower price than most of the league.


**Some edits have been made, so there may be some comments that no longer make sense**
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Updated 03-06-2012 at 02:56 PM by dave_dw

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  1. coddlenomore's Avatar
    Good points! I did not realize how solid our numbers were over that time. My only problem with this philosophy is that it may work well over 162 game season, it is a terrible approach to a short playoff series when you clearly need something resembling an ace. I know, it didnt work with Johan, but I believe that was the exception (damn you Frank Thomas!) and not the norm.
  2. Thrylos's Avatar
    Lohse came from the Cubs in the Aguilera trade. Interestingly enough he was later traded from the Reds to the Phillies for current Twin Matt Maloney.

    The pitching to contact philosophy works with the following assumptions:
    - contact generated ground balls and not gopher balls or line drives
    - your infield defense is way above average to turn those ground balls into outs
    - pitchers who have the gift to miss bats (like Liriano and Santana) should be left alone and not turned into pitch to contact pitchers
  3. Alex's Avatar
    Interesting perspective and a nice comparison in terms of the value the Twins may have been getting as compared to other teams and what we may have to consider with regard to the Twins in the future.

    A couple of thoughts, though:

    -It would even better to see numbers here, and especially important to see what other clubs were getting for the money with similar pitchers.
    -In terms of WAR, remember that zero is a replacement player and not "average." There's actually also a vast difference in the value of 1 point of WAR (and thus 2 and 4 are very different). A WAR 2 is really the minimum WAR you want/expect from a regular player in the MLB (everyday position player or regular part of the rotation). A 4 is considered a good player. As an example, I think we'd all agree that Pavano had one of his worse years as a Twin, and with an ERA of 4.3 but he still posted a WAR of 2.0.
    -Finally, I think that Thrylos lays out some additional things needed when you have pitch to contact pitchers, but I'd add that pitch-to-contact pitchers can do well over the course of the regular season (especially in the AL Central), but when it comes to playing against heavy hitting playoff teams, you need pitchers who can miss bats.
  4. peterb18's Avatar
    This article really bothers me in that it gives credence to the Twins bargain basement philosophy. Do you really like to always pick up the leftovers. I'm sick of it------As a Twin fan I always feel like we are going to a garage sale--compared to the contending teams.
  5. whydidnt's Avatar
    I think the whole idea of throwing strikes is certainly a good one. I'm not as big a fan of "pitch to contact" though. These two don't have to go hand in hand. You should be trying to throw strikes the batter can't hit. We can certainly see that the Twins philosophy has been somewhat successful. But, I also fear that it has become too much of a good thing. Seeing that the philosophy has had some success has only made the Twins over due the whole thing, causing far too much regression in pitchers underlying skills over the last couple of years. Pavano is an excellent example. While not a strike-out pitcher Pavano struck out 6.6/9 IP in 2009 the year the Twins acquired him. Yet by the end of last season he had regressed to a league worst 4.1/9 Ks. One could argue that all outs are valuable, but it's a proven fact that a strikeout is the most effective type of out. By essentially ignoring the value of strikeouts the Twins staff has slowly degraded into one of the most questionable in the league. This is a system wide issue as we are now seeing power pitchers brought into the system that seem to be imploding. It would seem to me the pressure the Twins put on these players to throw strikes, rather than to pitch, is probably contributing to this. I wonder how a young Randy Johnson or Nolan Ryan would have fared if they had come up with the current Twins, both had extreme control problems in their youth, but were allowed to pitch through it because of their skills. I have my doubts that the Twins organization would have let them blossom the way they did. We know walks are evil, but sometimes the value you get from the additional strikeouts is worth it. The Twins should not be applying a "one size fits all" approach to their pitchers. Like most things we see in this world that have some success though, we often see a philosophy that if a little is good than a lot is great, and that is what the Twins have been doing the last couple of years, to the overall detriment of their pitchers.
  6. PopRiveter's Avatar
    I think a lot of fans misunderstand the theory behind "pitch to contact." When you listen to a full explanation, it is really just preaching balance. When you need a strikeout, pitch to strike'm out. When bases are empty, try to induce weak contact early in the counts. It's all a matter of pitching situationally. If the Twin's approach is so unbalanced that it could potentially harm Nolan Ryan's career, how did Santana manage his strikeout rate? Strikeouts are very valuable, but they are not the only valuable outs and in certain situations, they are not the most valuable outs. For example, a double play ball trumps a strikeout. A quick out has more value when a pitcher can't go deep. The term "pitch to contact" really came to light when Liriano was wearing out early due to very high pitch counts. A few one or two pitch ground outs and pop outs would have more value in that circumstance than the seven and eight pitch strike outs that they would replace. However, put a runner in scoring position and the situation calls for a strikeout. Now, you spare no bullets.
  7. jlovren's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by coddlenomore
    Good points! I did not realize how solid our numbers were over that time. My only problem with this philosophy is that it may work well over 162 game season, it is a terrible approach to a short playoff series when you clearly need something resembling an ace. I know, it didnt work with Johan, but I believe that was the exception (damn you Frank Thomas!) and not the norm.

    Agreed. Pitching to contact is a good philosophy for ground ball pitchers and 4th or 5th starters. The top of the rotation has to be able to make batters miss. During the playoffs every batter is going to be patient and do all the things he should be doing so you need guys who can strikeout the side. Look at the teams that advance in the playoffs and find one that pitches to contact.
  8. dave_dw's Avatar
    I spruced up my post quite a bit and added in some stuff, so I'm sorry if some of your comments don't make sense anymore. Love the discussion, though.
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