By: Sam Ekstrom
Today’s column focuses on Minnesota’s starting pitching staff; by far the weakest cog on the last place 2012 Twins. As a staff, the Twins were 28th of 30 teams in ERA (4.77), 29th in quality starts (62), 29th in opponent’s batting average (.274), and dead last in strikeouts (943), nearly 500 fewer than league-leading Milwaukee.
Twelve different players started games for the Twins this year, but only eight will be graded in this article. Francisco Liriano (trade) and Jason Marquis (DFA) did not finish the season with the Twins, while Brian Duensing (11 starts) and Anthony Swarzak (five starts) will be judged in the next edition that grades the team’s bullpen.
SCOTT DIAMOND---173.0 IP, 12-9, 3.54 ERA, 1.24 WHIP - GRADE: B+
Doubled the next closest teammate in wins. Did the same in quality starts (16). Led the staff in innings-pitched, WAR, and ERA. The only starter penciled in for next season, Diamond got called up in May and immediately lifted the Twins with seven shutout innings against Los Angeles. He made a lasting impression by starting 5-1 and dealing six of seven quality starts. His K/BB ratio, just a tic below 3:1, was third to Carl Pavano and Cole De Vries.
Diamond pitched the Twins’ way: good control, diverse pitch selection, and a tendency to coax ground balls. He showed durability in a season where he threw the most innings of his five-year career, but also declined in effectiveness as his reps mounted. Diamond’s ERA rose each individual month and he only won two starts of his last ten.
The hope is that the Canada native can fit in as a solid second or third starter down the road. However, depending on how GM Terry Ryan attacks free-agency, Diamond may be asked to anchor the Twins’ rotation as an ace, a role that may exceed his capabilities.
NICK BLACKBURN---98.2 IP, 4-9, 7.39 ERA, 1.71 WHIP - GRADE: F
A gigantic letdown season for the Twins’ sinker-baller-whose-sinker-does-not-sink. According to an Aaron Gleeman blog post from August, Blackburn has statistically been baseball’s worst pitcher in the last three seasons. His ERA (5.56), opponent’s batting splits (.313/.359/.507), home runs per nine innings (1.5), and K/BB ratio (1.55:1) are all league lows since the start of 2010.
In 2012, Blackburn could easily have gone winless. All four of his wins came in a curious six-game stretch where he delivered six non-quality starts, yet Minnesota won all six. After his five-inning win against Cincinnati on June 22nd, Blackburn did not notch another victory. He was outrighted to Triple-A Rochester after allowing 11 hits in back-to-back starts mid-August. It came as no surprise that he cleared waivers.
The Twins are now between a rock and a hard place with Blackburn. They are on the hook for $10.3 million over the next two seasons for the right-hander who they extended in 2010. Minnesota will have to decide whether it’s worse to eat his contract or risk attempting to justify it by putting him on the mound every fifth day. Baseball Player Salaries is accurate in their categorization of Blackburn based on his production and contract: “Nick Blackburn is a bum.”
COLE DE VRIES---87.2 IP, 5-5, 4.11 ERA, 1.21 WHIP - GRADE: B-
The local Eden Prairie product was a pleasant surprise in his rookie season before getting sidelined with a cracked rib. His 1.21 WHIP was lowest on the staff and his K/BB of 3.2:1 was second on the club. Like Diamond, he locates well and pitches a high quantity of strikes to get into the late innings. His best stretches came from late June to late July (four of six starts allowing zero or one runs) and August 26th to September 8th (3-0, 2 ER, 10 K, 1 BB).
De Vries’ biggest red flag may be his propensity to allow fly balls. In 16 starts the 27-year old never coaxed more ground balls than fly balls---a flaw that can lead to high hit and home run totals. However, he consistently gave his team a chance to win and many of his stats were inflated by a couple outlier blow-up games. The default Cole De Vries seems to be one who could find himself in the starting five next spring.
LIAM HENDRIKS---85.1 IP, 1-8, 5.59 ERA, 1.55 WHIP - GRADE: D
Well, it took him 18 starts, but Hendriks finally found the win column as a major league pitcher. The Australian excelled at the minor-league level in 2012, but could never put it together with the Twins. His career MLB marks of 1-10 with a 5.71 ERA are totally inconsistent with his minor-league 21-9, 2.85 ERA the last two seasons. Unfortunately, Hendriks would seem to be past the point of using MLB’s learning curve as an excuse. He allows around 1.2 hits per inning (pretty high) and has a low K/9 (5.5). Similar to De Vries, Hendriks allowed a high percentage of fly balls in 2012, but had a lower pop-up rate (1.4 per start to De Vries’ 1.9). That indicates a lot of gappers and/or home runs (1.1 HR per start).
Like just about every other Minnesota prospect, Hendriks will be in the mix for next year’s starting staff. Unfortunately, his first 20 career starts have taught us to take every promising performance with a grain of salt.
SAMUEL DEDUNO---79.0 IP, 6-5, 4.44 ERA, 1.54 WHIP - GRADE: C
This Dominican rookie was the most intriguing arm in the Twins’ pitching arsenal this season. His sky-high pitch counts, toilsome pace, and gaudy walk totals seem to go against everything the Twins preach in pitching. Nonetheless, Deduno finished the year over .500 with the second highest number of quality starts on the staff (8), the second best K/9 (6.49), and the best H/9 (0.87). He also coerced as many or more ground balls than fly balls in all but two of his 15 starts.
Deduno’s unpredictable moving fastball fooled hitters repeatedly, especially in his early starts. The Twins won six of his first seven starts (four of them quality) even though Deduno walked 30 and only struck out 28 in those games. Things leveled out as Deduno lost five of his final seven decisions, including a six-walk performance at Seattle. He averaged 3.5 walks per start for the season and nearly went under 1:1 on his K/BB ratio (1.08).
Deduno is an enigma. He has a lot of raw potential, but the fact that he hasn’t refined it at age 29 is a concern. His abundant walk stats are not indicative of a pitching style that’s going to be effective for a whole season, but, as mentioned, nobody is out of contention for next year’s rotation.
P.J. WALTERS---61.2 IP, 2-5, 5.69 ERA, 1.51 WHIP - GRADE: C-
A good start, but, more importantly, a good finish, makes Walters a viable candidate for 2013. After he gave up three or fewer runs in his first four starts, including a complete game win at Chicago, Twins fans pegged Walters the staff savior along with Diamond. He didn’t blow anybody away with a high 80s fastball, but a deep pitch selection seemed to give him success as a finesse pitcher.
Things immediately went downhill for Walters when the calendar turned to June; three bad starts later he was on the DL with shoulder inflammation. After a three-month hiatus, the right-hander returned and closed the season with three adequate starts, opening the door for a spot on the 2013 squad. Despite pitching in chunks of four seasons for three MLB teams, it’s hard to get a great read on P.J. Walters.
CARL PAVANO---63.0 IP, 2-5, 6.00 ERA, 1.40 WHIP - GRADE: D
Making $8.5 million in the second year of a two-year deal, things didn’t work out well for Carl in his contract season, giving the Twins some sympathy for the Yankees who dealt with the oft-injured Pavano for four frustrating years. The workhorse right-hander suffered a bruised humerus bone that caused him to struggle much of the early season before landing on the disabled list for the remainder of 2012 after one June start. Minnesota will always be thankful for Pavano’s three and a half seasons of leadership. Hopefully the free-agent finds another staff to mentor next season.
ESMERLING VASQUEZ---31.2 IP, 0-2, 5.68 ERA, l.61 WHIP - GRADE: D-
Hopefully the six starts Vasquez made are a mirage instead of a trend. Too many walks and too many high pitch-counts (17.4 pitches per inning; higher than Samuel Deduno’s 16.9). However, he gets some grace. This season was Vasquez’s first go as a starter in four seasons as a big-leaguer.
The final edition of player grades will examine a plucky and surprisingly solid Minnesota bullpen.