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Minnesota Twins Pitchers Need to Stay Grounded

Twins Pitchers Need to Keep the Ball on the Ground to Maximize Chances for Success

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | The Minnesota Twins are a surprise to many pundits in the early part of the 2013 season after they managed to go 12-12 in their first 24 games through May 1.

A big part of that is the Twins' team ERA went from next to last in the American League in 2012 to tied for fifth in the AL in 2013.

As I wrote last week, a lot of this has to do with the Twins drastically improving their walk rate, so they again are leading the AL in fewest walks allowed. Unfortunately, they also lead the AL in fewest strikeouts.

Combined with a low home-run rate, this means the Twins, by far, have the most balls in play on defense, which puts a lot of pressure on the fielders. This has worked pretty well so far, but there are some red flags for the rest of the season.

There are three main metrics used to measure defense: Ultimate Zone Rating (used by Fangraphs.com), Total Zone Fielding Runs Above Average, and Baseball Info Solutions Defensive Runs Saved Above Average (both used by Baseball-Reference.com). These three metrics have differing views about the Twins' defense thus far, but none are very favorable.

UZR has the Twins ranked dead last in the AL, mostly due to poor rankings for outfielders Josh Willingham, Chris Parmelee and Aaron Hicks. Willingham is an aging outfielder that was formerly a catcher, and Parmelee's main position is first base but that is being played by former Most Valuable Player Justin Morneau, so he's being forced to play in the outfield.

The surprise is Hicks, who had an excellent defensive reputation in the minor leagues and was considered by many at least comparable if not an improvement to Denard Span, whom was traded to the Washington Nationals prior to the season for a top pitching prospect. However, Hicks has had a few plays where he has misjudged the ball and couldn't recover to make the catch, but he still has shown great speed and a strong, accurate arm.

Total Zone has the Twins ranked overall as average or slightly below on defense. BIS has the Twins ranked 12th in a 15-team league. The two metrics combined have the Twins' three main outfielders ranked as about average or a little below.

Minnesota Twins' Infield Defense Much Better Than Outfield Defense

The good news is that all three stats agree that the Twins' middle infield has been pretty good. The experiment to move Brian Dozier from shortstop to second base appears to be a success, as all three metrics agree that Dozier has been well above average. UZR and BIS have shortstop Pedro Florimon ranked as average or slightly better, while Total Zone has Florimon well above average.

The corner infielders have not been as good, with third baseman Trevor Plouffe ranked as below average and Morneau being ranked anywhere from slightly below average to above average.

Still, it's pretty clear that the infield defense has been superior to the outfield, which explains why the Twins' pitchers have been only slightly better than average at getting ground balls but get nearly 10 percent more of their outs on ground balls than the AL average. In other words, the Twins are converting more of their ground balls that they get into outs.

If the Twins' pitchers are going to put more balls in play than anyone, they need to go to the strength of the defense and keep the ball on the ground. This is usually a good idea for any team because ground balls can't be turned into home runs.

Fortunately, the Twins' starters, who by far have the worst strikeout rate in the AL, do a very good job of keeping the ball on the ground. Scott Diamond is a ground-ball machine. So far, he gets 1.11 ground balls to every fly ball and the AL average is .77. Diamond actually could improve as he was at 1.17 last year.

Vance Worley (.93), Mike Pelfrey (.92) and Kevin Correia (.88) also have been better than average. Correia also could show improvement in this area. Although his career rate is .81, his rate the last two years has been .96, which is also when his strikeout rate went down, so it may be as he stopped being able to strike out people, he started relying more on his sinker.

Current fifth starter Pedro Hernandez is at .61 in limited innings, but he was at 1.13 in his minor-league career. If he does struggle, he'll probably be replaced by pitching prospect Kyle Gibson, who has an astounding career rate of 2.22 in the minors to go along with a K rate better than any of the Twins' current starters.

Darin McGilvra has been a professional sports writer since 1997 and has been a Twins follower since Kirby Puckett's breakout season of 1986. He has been published in The Californian, a newspaper covering Riverside County, and multiple websites, including LendingLeaves.com and MyCashTime.com.

Follow Darin on Twitter at @SoCalTwinsfan.

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