Ervin Santana tossed his third complete game shutout of the season Friday night. That's one more than the rest of the league combined despite it coming against a San Francisco Giants team with the lowest team OPS in baseball (.651). But the "Maddux" Santana pitched Friday night in San Francisco is so important given the recent stress on the Twins bullpen and the struggles it has experienced all year.
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The Twins bullpen allows the highest opponent batting average in baseball (.273), which has resulted in baseball's worst bullpen ERA of 5.20. So when Santana doesn't pitch a complete game shutout, there's a pretty good chance the bullpen will allow a little more than one run every two innings (1.155 to be more precise).
If you take the average start of all Twins starters besides Santana, you get a dismal 4.68 innings pitched per start. Santana has nearly raised that by an inning by himself (5.5). So if we can depend on a Twins starter to go four and two-thirds innings instead of Santana's three complete game shutouts, 16 more innings would have been pitched by Major League Baseball's worst bullpen. That would take the Twins from 12th in fewest bullpen innings pitched (197.2) to 20th, which would likely inflate the bullpen ERA, too.
Given that run every two innings the Twins bullpen allows, you're looking at nine more runs allowed. That's the difference between first place and not first place for a team with a -24 run differential (third worst in the American League).
It's not only what Santana has been able to do in his three complete game shutouts that's been important to the Twins. Even in games he's not right he's given a break to the bullpen. Despite allowing five runs to Colorado on May 18, Santana went seven innings. He went six innings against Boston despite allowing six runs. In fact, only one of Santana's starts has not been longer than the rest of the team's average start length of 4.68 innings (last week in Anaheim). Santana is tied with Clayton Kershaw with most innings pitched so far this season (90).
With Santana throwing just over 90 pitches in his third complete game shutout, he actually saved the Twins an inning for later, which is another half run the bullpen can't allow. So regardless of who Santana is facing, his ability to pound the strike zone and get out of innings with low pitch counts will continue to pay off for the Twins because of their bad bullpen.