The Twins Pitch to Contact Like No One Ever

In a game Sunday against the White Sox, Kevin Correia made a valiant attempt at something no Twins starter had yet accomplished in 2013: a start with eight strikeouts. Correia would last seven innings, and he recorded his seventh strikeout to lead off the bottom of the fifth, when he fanned Tyler Flowers. The Twins’ TV broadcast started talking about Correia’s season and career strikeout highs. Correia would work through 10 more plate appearances before yielding to Jared Burton. None of the 10 wound up a strikeout. Correia remained stuck at seven; Twins starters remained stuck at zero.

Except for Minnesota, every team has at least one starter with at least eight strikeouts in a game. In fact, every other team has at least four starts with eight Ks. The Tigers have 31. The Rangers have 27. The Red Sox have 25. Chad Gaudin has three. Nick Tepesch has two. Charles Leesman has one. The Twins, of course, have zero. But the Twins do have five starts with seven strikeouts. The Twins have long had a reputation for putting together pitch-to-contact starting rotations, so in that way what they’ve done in 2013 is hardly surprising. But this year, the Twins have kicked it up a notch. Or down a notch. However you want to put it, the Twins no longer are at the same notch as before.

The Twins’ rotation has a group strikeout rate of 12.2%. Or, on average, they’ve racked up about one strikeout per eight batters or so. This is, not shockingly, the lowest rotation strikeout rate in baseball. There’s a problem with trying to compare this to historical performances, though. Strikeout rates keep changing; strikeout rates keep rising. A strikeout rate of 12.2% would’ve led baseball in 1948. Twins starters have about the same strikeout rate as Robin Roberts, Warren Spahn and later-career Walter Johnson. A straight-up historical comparison isn’t going to work. Not, at least, if we want to get anywhere.

Ten pitchers have started for the Twins this season. The highest strikeout rate is 13.5%, shared by Samuel Deduno and Mike Pelfrey. That puts them right between Joe Saunders and Kyle Kendrick. Eight Twins starters have thrown at least 30 innings. Overall, 188 starters have thrown at least 30 innings. All eight of those Twins starters rank in the bottom 29 individual strikeout rates. Not a one of them is above the 16th percentile.

There’s another way of putting this in perspective: Twins starters have that 12.2% strikeout rate. The next-lowest is 15.6%, which belongs to the Rockies. So it’s not like the Twins are in last but are nipping at another team’s heels. The Twins are so deep in last you’d almost think this would be something they’re proud of. You’d almost think it has to be deliberate, that the Twins have zigged where all the other teams zagged. But then, the Twins are middle of the pack in walks. They’re in dead last in adjusted ERA. The neat thing about strikeouts is they’re outs. And Twins starters haven’t gotten enough outs.

Comparing team numbers against league-average numbers gives us a way to fairly compare teams from any and all eras. You’re probably familiar with ERA-, which is basically ERA divided by league ERA. We can similarly construct an easy K%-, or “strikeout rate minus” or something, to deal with how much raw strikeout rate has changed. This can be accomplished using numbers right here on FanGraphs, and we have team and league strikeout-rate data going back to 1916. Given how this year’s Twins rotation compares to the league average, I had to know the historical rank.

I pulled every team rotation season from 1916 on, and then calculated a ratio of the rotation’s strikeout rate against the average strikeout rate. American League teams used AL rotation K% as the denominator; National League teams did not. The 2013 Twins rotation has a strikeout rate of 12.2%, against an AL average of 18.6%, yielding a ratio of 0.66. Where does this rank among the lowest-ever ratios?

Rotation K% / Average Rotation K%; 10 lowest, 1916-2013

Season Team K% lgK% Ratio
2013 Twins 12.2% 18.6% 0.656
1972 Yankees 9.8% 14.8% 0.662
1931 Reds 5.5% 8.2% 0.671
1930 Reds 5.4% 7.9% 0.684
1981 Cardinals 8.8% 12.8% 0.688
1932 Red Sox 5.8% 8.4% 0.690
1996 Rockies 11.5% 16.5% 0.697
1935 Braves 6.0% 8.6% 0.698
1936 Browns 5.8% 8.3% 0.699
1942 Braves 6.3% 9.0% 0.700

And there that is. If you think of this as simply adjusted strikeout rate, then so far this season, this year’s Twins starters have posted the lowest adjusted strikeout rate ever. Their rotation strikeout rate is less than two-thirds the league average, and though they’re close enough to other teams to climb out of last before the end of September, the general significance doesn’t change — and it’s not like any of these Twins starters have demonstrated much in the way of strikeout ability. Deduno flirted with a few strikeouts in 2012 but the Twins seem to have beat that notion right out of him. Correia flirted with a few strikeouts on Sunday, but then he stopped, lest he apparently lose his job for disobedience. Francisco Liriano has more strikeouts than Deduno and Scott Diamond combined.

In 2010, the Twins rotation had a strikeout rate that was pretty much exactly league average. In 2011 it dropped to 86% of the average. Then 77%, now 66%. This is, arguably, the worst strikeout staff ever. Which makes it the staff of the stereotypical Twins’ wildest dreams.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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10 years ago

Albers was the perfect call-up, then. 17.1 innings, 4 strikeouts.