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An elegy for the Twins Pitcher

Minnesota had an archetype for its starters for 25 years. Those days are gone.

Oakland Athletics v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The hot pitching story in Minnesota is Jose Berrios, and with good reason. With apologies to Ervin Santana, Berrios is the best pitcher on the Twins’ staff. We have too much Santana history for anyone to trust what he’s doing. Thirty-four-year-old pitchers don’t just suddenly turn into the best pitcher in baseball. Not normally anyway.

Berrios however, has a 27 percent strikeout rate paired to a 5.1 percent walk rate. With a .69 GB/FB ratio in a vast park combined with an excellent defensive outfield, the rookie is showing everything he needs for sustainable success, and he has the talent behind him, for people to get really excited for the present and future. Berrios has been stunning thus far, is more than a decade younger than Santana, and projects to be the better pitcher the rest of the year, and well into the future. If luck is with him and the franchise, he is the future of the Twins rotation.

But this story isn’t all about Jose Berrios. It is about another pitcher on that staff, another first round draft pick who was supposed to be the face of pitching in Minnesota for this decade: Kyle Gibson. Or more accurately, what Kyle Gibson represents. In his fifth season, the 29 year old is ostensibly in his prime, and is having his worst season yet. His FIP has never been higher, at 6.32, he’s walking a career high 11 percent of batters and striking 13.2 percent, the lowest rate since his rookie year. It’s looking like the end is nigh for Gibson as a major league starter, and that means the end of an era. Gibson may be the final murmur of the archetype of the Twins Pitcher.

When I say a Twins Pitcher, this doesn’t mean Johan Santana, though he was perhaps the perfect version of what the Twins sought. I speak of Nick Blackburn. Of Kevin Slowey and Boof Bonser and Kyle Lohse in the mid-2000s. Or Kevin Tapiani and Scott Anderson from the late 80s. Even an old Jack Morris fit this mold when he helped deliver World Series in 1991. These are all just random names, ostensibly. But there is a common thread, and it’s quite simple. They didn’t strike many guys out, and they didn’t walk too many guys. They ate a lot of innings and let the defense work.

For twenty-five years, since the dawn of the Andy McPhail Era, the Twins filled their rotations with these types of pitchers, no matter what else had changed in baseball. When they won the World Series in 1987, they had two starters who struck out more than 20 percent of batters, and the team’s 16 percent K-rate was above baseball’s 15 percent. In 1990, a year before their second title, the league average team strikeout rate was 14.9 percent. The Twins were at 14.2 percent. A year later during their title run it was essentially the same at 14.4 percent. This slip into sub-par strikeouts was not a blip. Baseball changed. The Twins didn’t keep pace.

Twins strikeout rate vs. MLB strikeout rate

Year MLB K% Twins K% MLB Rank
Year MLB K% Twins K% MLB Rank
1990 14.9 14.2 15th
1995 16.2 13.8 25th
2000 16.5 16.5 15th
2005 16.9 15.8 16th
2010 18.5 17.2 22nd
2015 20.3 17.6 30th

They did creep back towards respectability at the turn of the millennium. In 2000 that was driven by a group of excellent relievers like Bob Wells (21.4 percent K rate), Eddie Guardado (19.9) and Travis Miller (19.6), but there was no standout, and certainly no starter of note. If anything they merely had more than the usual number of league average strikeout artists. Their 2005 rate was buoyed by the presence of Santana and Francisco Liriano, but the rest of that team only had two men (Joe Nathan at 34.1 percent and JC Ramero at 18.2 percent) even above 15 percent. Liriano struck out 35.5 percent of hitters, Santana 26.2 percent. Juan Rincon that year was a reliever with a decent starter’s K rate, and he threw 77 innings that year. And this was the peak of the Ryan Regime.

Santana, as said before, may be the perfect Twins Pitcher. Yes, he did rack up strikeouts, but his highest rates by far were when he was a young reliever. By the time he became a full-time starter, he had one year where he struck out more than 30 percent of hitters, and that was 2004. After that he never crested 26.8 percent. That rated third in baseball at the time. Today, that would place him 10th, behind Madison Bumgarner and (surprise!) Francisco Liriano. No, he made his living by tamping down on solid contact by locating fastballs on his armside of the strikezone and pairing that with a changeup that made grown men cry. He never had a BABIP as a Twins starter over .271, that was the summation of his method. Look at how he threw fastballs from 2007-10, which includes one year as a Twin:

We can’t look any further back because Pitch F/X didn’t exist then. But along with the fastball, here’s where he located changeups to lefties and righties:

Santana had a simplified attack. That’s what he came up through the minors doing, the same as all his teammates and Twins Pitchers before him. He was just a freak of nature with one of the best changeups in baseball history. More recently, here’s how Kyle Gibson has used his fastball against lefties and righties:

That is the quintessential Twins pitcher in a nutshell. Pound the outside corner, induce weak grounders and fly balls. It’s a path to contact, not strikeouts. The Twins had one other starter paired with Santana who could pile up strikeouts in Liriano, but he was always hurt after a year or two of excellence.

For a brief moment though, these two pitchers were great and led the Twins to the playoffs. He and Santana didn’t do what others on the Twins did, and stuck out like a sore thumb. So did their success as a team, after a decade-plus of mediocrity, yet no lessons were learned and the Twins just kept doing the same thing. The injuries and ineffectiveness saw them move on from Liriano, and money and his own greatness drew Santana from them. There was nothing of note to replace them with for nearly ten years.

By the time of the second abstraction from McPhail, with the anonymous Bill Smith running the show, the Twins were in a tailspin pitching-wise. For a long time, they’d gotten away with employing these sub-optimal hurlers because they also possessed some of the best defenders in the game. The mid-2000’s saw two guys that were central to the success of the pitchers in Joe Mauer and Torii Hunter. Life gets very easy for a pitcher when you’re throwing to the best catcher in the game and have a center fielder that can catch almost anything. That held true in the 90s as well, with those World Series teams employing Kirby Puckett in center, Chuck Knoblauch and Greg Gagne up the middle and the solid Brian Harper behind the plate. This culminated in a dazzling 10 inning shutout to win Game Seven of the World Series, in typical Twins Pitcher fashion. Jack Morris struck out eight and walked two with a 14/14 GB/FB ratio enroute to the victory. Defense ruled the day. But defense can’t always pick up the pieces, not when hitters get used to mid-90’s on a regular basis. Pitchers need to be more than a ball delivery service.

The defense Minnesota’s youngsters are capable of bringing to the field is why this isn’t a eulogy for the ‘Twins Pitcher’. Some things will never die because other factors won’t let them. These pitchers will live on in some way because the past regime’s players still litter the farm and the big club.

With Byron Buxton in center, a major piece is there for history to repeat itself, at least with a glove. But the bloodline of this specific eye for talent has died out. We’re at an end of an era. Derek Falvey, the new head honcho, took his learnings from the progressive front office of the Cleveland Indians. Theirs is a similarly unbroken bloodline, from John Hart to Mark Shapiro to Chris Antonetti, each teaching the next. But where each of these men seem to have added a bit of their own to the lessons of their forbears, the Twins were calcified into a way of doing things. New blood means new paths to success. Falvey’s first move was to get a good framing catcher in Jason Castro, which had cost the Twins strikes, runs and games in previous years following Mauer’s move to first base.

The previous regime plainly didn’t notice that, deciding to go with Kurt Suzuki (negative 36.1 Framing Runs Above Average as a Twin) as their regular catcher. Perhaps the Castro signing could have saved Ryan or Smith sooner, and kept this style of play alive, but no matter. The future is at hand in Minnesota, and the past must be plowed under.

The 2017 Twins have an exciting young strikeout artist in Berrios and a farm system with high end, bat-missing arms in Tyler Jay and Fernando Romero, and even Kohl Stewart can get it up there even if he hasn’t found his out pitch yet. They still employ Ervin Santana (19.1 percent K rate) and Phil Hughes (14.1 percent), but you can’t overhaul 25 years of work in half a year. Change doesn’t come overnight in baseball, and obviously Berrios and these other young pitchers were brought in by a previous regime. Falvey doesn’t even have a draft under his belt yet. But it will be something to watch come June when he does get his chance, whether he will pursue higher upside guys rather than the polished four-year college guys that got picked in the past. He experienced the failures of that second track with the Indians in the mid-2000’s. The Indians ended up with a host of Mitch Talbots and Jeremy Sowers’s, resulting in some of the more hideous eras of baseball one has ever seen. Hopefully he understands that There’s No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect.

Who’s to say what this means for Kyle Gibson and his ilk. He’s fallen into a hole of walking everyone while not striking anyone out, so even that one piece that made Twins Pitchers valuable has escaped him. Hitters don’t even need to put the ball in play against him. Perhaps his teammate Hughes is an example of how this type of pitcher can stick around. Josh Tomlin just threw a one-run complete game this past weekend, albeit against the worst offense in baseball. Back ends of rotations will never be filled out with superstars. An innings eater is required, and will be paid. If you can’t get the K, at least don’t allow the walk.

That’s where this archetype will find its home. But gone are the times where that could be the entirety of your staff. Men continue to exist and thrive in baseball who could discount this. But those men, Kyle Hendricks chief among them, are a weird type of mutant. Keeping the ball out of play is the key task for a modern pitcher. The Twins are becoming a modern franchise. They’ll catch up. The era of the Twins Pitcher brought every type of joy and grief. Whether good or bad, the Twins brain trust had a goal, and executed it without flinching. This path to winning should be remembered fondly, from Jack Morris to Johan Santana and a long string of anonymous hurlers in between. But it should stay where it is - in the past.

Merritt Rohlfing writes for Beyond the Box Score and Let’s Go Tribe quite regularly, and hosts the brilliant podcast Mostly Baseball. He can be followed on twitter @merrittrohlfing. His cat is still quite small. Ask for pictures.