Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Twins are over .500. The hell?

Though being one game over .500 isn't exactly blowing up the league, the Twins had extremely low expectations with a Vegas over/under of 70.5 wins, so being on pace to win something like 84 games represents a substantially better season than expected.  One can't help but wonder how they got here, and if we can expect it to last and maybe see some semi-meaningful baseball in September again for the first time in what feels like forever.

The offense has been about what was expected:  Team overall OPS is .675, last year it was .713.  They're walking a little less and hitting with a little less power so far, but overall nothing out of the ordinary and they've averaged 4.56 runs per game this year compared to 4.41 last year so the offense is fine.  It'd be nice for Kurt Suzuki and Kennys Vargas to start hitting, but the offense is fine.  The defense has been atrocious as expected, so the improvement must have come from the pitching.

Sure enough, team ERA in 2015 is 4.07, down a half a run from 4.58 last year.  Even better, starters' ERA is 4.38, which is 10th worst in the majors but a major upgrade from last year's 5.06 and 2013's 5.26, both dead last in the majors.  Twins' relievers sport an ERA of 3.58, in line with 2014's 3.73 and 2013's 3.50, so any improvement has come from the starting pitching.  Might as well look at all these guys and see who might actually be, like, good.

PHIL HUGHES:  Hughes had a nearly impossible task trying to replicate both a career year and a historic walk/strikeout ratio, but he hasn't come close so far putting up numbers more in line with his Yankee days than last season.  He's still controlling walks well and his strikeouts, though down a bit, are at a nice number, but he's getting killed by home runs, allowing 1.91 HRs per 9 innings after allowing just 0.69 last year.  The good news is that he's allowing a home run on 15.1% of all his fly balls, which is likely an outlier since it would have been the second worst in the majors among starters with at least 150 innings pitched last season, and I'm pretty sure a Phil Hughes making about his half his starts at Target Field isn't going to end up at that number.  He got really lucky about home runs last year (6.2% HR/FB), but his true ability probably lies somewhere in the middle.  He probably won't be as good as last year, but he'll be better than he's been thus far.

KYLE GIBSON:  Gibson's ERA is down almost a full run from last season, but there are some serious red flags here.  His BABIP this year is just .267, below his career average and the league average, and his runners LOB% is 75.8%, which would be a top 30 mark most seasons - both significant indicators of luck.  Alarmingly his K/9 has dropped to 2.79 (from 5.37 last year) which is dead last in the majors, and his walks have jumped by 1 per nine innings at the same time to 3.86, 14th worst in the league.  He's also allowing a career worst 24% line drive rate and 83.6% contact rate.  Seeing as he's shown nothing at all to support his ERA improvement from last season you're looking at a serious regression candidate unless he starts missing some bats.

MIKE PELFREY:  The guy who nobody wanted in the rotation except for him and his family, and Pelfrey's put up a 2.63 ERA in five starts, but don't let that fool you - he's still terrible.  BABIP is .259, LOB % is 83.3%, and HR/9 is just 0.66 - there's no way this keeps up.  Those numbers last season would have ranked 18th, 1st, and 18th - does Pelfrey seem like a Top 20 pitcher to you?  I will say this - his 56% ground ball rate is a very good thing and his hard hit ball percentage is just 18.1%, second in the league and probably fluky but not as definitely fluky as his other peripherals  I'm not buying yet, but he's throwing a ton more split fingers and sliders and isn't relying as much on the fastball, and somehow he's managed to put more than 2 mph on his fast ball compared to last year.  I don't believe in Pelfrey, but I expected this paragraph to be much worse.  He may actually end up a decent number 4-5 starter.

TREVOR MAY:  Probably the most important of these guys given his youth and potential, May's 4.15 ERA is decent but the good news is he's probably even better than that.  His BABIP is high and his LOB % is low.  He's putting up a respectable 6.9 K/9 and has reigned in his massive control problems from last year to average just 1.73 walks per nine.  His HR numbers are a bit fluky and he should regress there a bit, but as long as he can control his walks he should be solid.  We may have something here.  Get it?  Control his walks?  May have something?  That's high comedy right there.

TOMMY MILONE:  You generally don't expect much from fifth pitchers, but Milone has been more like a seventh or eighth guy so far.  Among Twins' pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched he ranks last in walk rate, homer rate, FIP, and xFIP, and his ERA is second worst at 4.76.  Perhaps the worst part is that Milone's BABIP is a minuscule .243 and his LOB is over 80%, so he's actually been putting up these horrid stats while getting lucky.  Yuck.  His control is completely out of hand with 4.37 BB/9, nearly double his career average and he's just giving up a monstrous amount of home runs.  Assuming he hasn't lost it he should be better than this but he's never going to be special.  A guy with a 87 mph fastball has to be pretty sharp with control and pitch mix, so it certainly is possible he's lost it.   Might even work better for the Twins if he has, so they can finally get Alex Meyer up here.

So, kind of a mixed bag.  Some guys should be better than they've been, some worse.  Probably the kind of thing you'd expect on a team that's right around .500.  And hey, maybe they'll stay there.  That'd be cool.

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