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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Twins' Hurlers: Average Innings Per Start (Spoiler Alert -- You Won't Be Impressed)

I was listening to the Colin Cowherd radio show on ESPN the other day, and retired pitcher Curt Schilling was on as a guest analyst. Schilling is always a blowhard, but is also equally honest, and even self-deprecating and humorous. I was living in Massachusetts in 2004 when the Red Sox "broke the curse," and even though I'm not really a Sox fan, I do appreciate what he did for Boston sports fans that year. Best (or worst) of all, Schilling always has an opinion. This particular broadcast was just a few days after Joe Girardi removed AJ Burnett in the second inning of a Twins-Yankees game, and Burnett had some, shall we say, parting words for Girardi. One of the topics of the broadcast, therefore, was getting taken out of a game as a starting pitcher. Schilling was pretty entertaining on this subject. He said that it always upset him to be taken out of a game, no matter if he was pitching well or not. He approached each start as if it was his obligation to throw a full 9 innings. Therefore, if he failed to complete a game, on some level, he was letting his teammates down and was failing in the task that he was hired to do. The bullpen, he said, was there not to pitch 3 innings every night, but to clean up for starters' failures. Interesting. Now, of course, it's great to say that you intend to pitch 9 innings each start, but we all know that's simply not possible. On the subject of Burnett, Schilling said that, in his opinion, Burnett has a top arm in the game, but is unlikely to ever reach his potential because Burnett views baseball as simply a way to earn a paycheck, and is unwilling to put in the work to become a star.

Listening to Schilling got me thinking about the Twins' starting pitchers. It feels like they seldom go deep into games. And by deep I guess I mean 7 full innings or more. What, maybe once a week this year our starting pitcher has gone 7 full innings? I can remember stretches where all 5 starters consecutively failed to pitch 5 innings, thus leaving our already depleted bullpen to throw essential a half game of baseball several nights in a row.

Now, onto the statistics. How do the Twins' starters fare in terms of average innings pitched per start? We'll begin with Francisco Liriano. In 2011, he has averaged 5.7 innings per start; in 2010 that figure was 6.2. Brian Duensing averaged 5.8 innings per start this season; in 2010 he averaged 6.6 (caveat being that he only started 13 games in 2010). Nick Blackburn has averaged 5.7 innings per start in 2011, and achieved a 6.1 figure in 2011. Carl Pavano leads the Twins with 6.7 innings per start in 2011, and 6.9 in 2010. Finally, Scott Baker averaged 6.3 in 2011, and 5.9 in 2010. The MLB average is 5.9 innings per start.

For their careers, here is the breakdown: Liriano: 5.8; Duensing: 5.9; Blackburn: 6.0; Pavano 6.2; Slowey: 5.7; Baker: 6.0. As you can see, with a MLB average of 5.9 innings pitched per start, those pitchers that were Twins' draft picks, or projects (basically everyone but Pavano), are all hovering right around the MLB average.

As a basis for comparison, what about Schilling, the man who hated to get taken out of games, and, on the air, made it seem as if he was always pitching 9 innings when he was in his prime? Well, I hate to say it, but the numbers almost back him up. His career figure for innings pitched per start is 7.1. Pretty impressive. How about this: For the 1998 season when he pitched for the Phillies, Schilling averaged 7.7 innings per start. That's right, on an average night, Schilling took his team to within 1 out of the 8th inning. How's that for leadership?

As another basis for comparison, how about portly, but effective, CC Sabathia. As of today, his average innings pitched per start is 6.7 But keep this in mind: In his rookie season with the Indians, that figure was only 5.5, but thus far in 2011, he is averaging 7.3 innings per start. He has gotten better, and more effective, with time (and I guess it doesn't hurt to play for one of the best teams in baseball that always boasts a powerhouse offense).

What do I make of these numbers? First and foremost, the Twins' starters are middling as a group. This is about what I expected. As a group, their ERAs are relatively high, they have not demonstrated consistent and continued periods of success this year (apart from Scott Baker), and, as a result, they have not been making it far into games. Second, I think this also supports the notion that some of the younger pitchers are still operating under some sort of a pitch count. Once they hit 5 and 2/3 or 6 innings, they often have thrown close to 100 pitches, and regardless of how they are pitching, they get Gardy's hook. Certainly this is no hard and fast rule, but I'm sure we can all come up with examples from this season wherein Gardy removed a pitcher, right around 100 or so pitches, for no clear reason, when that starter was facing no particular, imminent danger. Finally, I'm looking for a silver lining in all of this, so maybe these numbers give me a little hope. In his first year as a big-leaguer, CC Sabathia was no different, in terms of innings pitched, from some of our younger guys. Thereafter, he became much more effective and long-lasting. Of course, CC is a rare talent, but I guess anything is possible.

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