In a prior post I called Jose Berrios the ace of the Minnesota Twins pitching staff. Not because I think six starts proves anything, and not because I don't believe in Ervin Santana. I do. Santana gets by on pitching prowess like Greg Maddux. But Berrios can flat out miss bats, regardless of who's swinging them, and that's what makes an ace. We'll get a good indication of Berrios's development on Thursday at noon against a hot Mariners lineup that roughed up Ervin Santana, Wednesday.
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Berrios is in a position to lift his team with a strong start. It's kind of a big spot, especially with the disarray that is the Twins pitching staff. The only thing we can honestly expect from the three other starters in the Twins rotation is that they will leave plenty of innings for baseball's worst bullpen. Even if Hector Santiago comes back and is serviceable, there's still at least three innings left in every game he starts! At least! The same goes for Kyle Gibson and Adalberto Mejia (or anyone else). And while the Twins bullpen is terrible, all bullpens are less terrible the fewer innings they pitch.
Berrios pitched into at least the seventh inning in each of his first three starts this season. He hasn't done so since. While he allowed just four runs against the game's best Houston Astros (and that is an accomplishment), it took 105 pitches to get through five innings. He only went five and a third innings against San Francisco, the worst offense in baseball. And while he struck out eight, I think Paul Molitor would have preferred he pitch seven innings.
I know, I'm starting to sound like Terry Ryan. But Berrios must find that happy place between missing bats and kissing bats. "Strikeouts are boring. Besides, they're fascist. Throw some groundballs." Sure, it's from a movie, but it's 100 percent correct. When you have the game's best defense, you can kiss bats rather than miss them and get easy outs, especially if you work ahead in counts.
Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs raves that the Twins finally have a strikeout starter for the first time in nine years, but being a member of a team requires sacrifice. When the bulk of your bullpen arms can't miss bats nor prevent runs, the starter must do everything he can to extend his starts.
Santana has not been great his last six starts. He's allowed 18 earned runs during that span. But you know what he has done over those six starts? He's pitched 41 innings -- three more than Berrios over the same number of starts. If that trend continues, Santana will have pitched an entire game's worth of innings more than Berrios over 18 starts.
You know what else Santana does that Berrios must? He doesn't leave runners on base for the bullpen to clean up. In 14 starts, the Twins bullpen hasn't inherited one runner in a game Santana has started this season. That's huge for a bullpen that allows 29 percent of inherited runners to score.
Over Berrios's six starts, he's left three of them with runners on base, and the bullpen's inherited four runners total. That trend can't continue. The solution is to get outs with fewer pitches earlier in games to leave something in the tank for later.
When your pitches naturally move as much as Berrios's do, it's understandable that some days you just can't find the strike zone. That's when a hard fastball comes in handy. In the past, Berrios would appear visibly frustrated when he couldn't command his pitches, but this season he's acting more like Santana -- cool, calm, collected. He's getting out of jams by believing in his fastball and locating it for quality strikes. He's just not doing it late in games because it's hard to trust anything you throw when your "arm feels like Jell-O."
So while Santana struggled Wednesday, there's still plenty to be learned from his outing if you're Berrios. First, when you don't have command of your pitches early, trust your fastball. Santana got strikeouts of Nelson Cruz and Danny Valencia to get out of the first inning on Wednesday by elevating his fastball and enticing swings. Next, don't let an early mistake control your approach. There's a lot of game left and your team needs every inning you can give them. Finally, never leave a game with men on base. Santana didn't have a single 1-2-3 inning on Wednesday, but the closest he got was in his final inning. If Berrios can take these few pages from the Smell Baseball book of pitching, he will have earned the title of ace.
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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.