The Worst Bullpen of All-Time

May 28, 2011

At the beginning of the season, I picked the Minnesota Twins to win the AL Central.

In my defense, I admitted a little bit of homer-ism with that pick. I knew the Twins would take a step back. Although they didn’t lose any key players from the team that ran away with the Central title last season, a series of minor free agent slip-ups lowered expectations coming into the season. Still, of ESPN’s experts, about one-fourth picked the Twins to win the division title. So it wasn’t that much of a stretch to pick the Twins to win the Central.

Then the season started.

The Twins have hit lows that few teams in any sport have hit. Baseball is unique among American sports in that teams can hit rock bottom…and then keep going, and going, and going. The NFL season is only sixteen games long, so a team can only sink so low.* The NBA and NHL seasons are longer, but over half of each league’s teams make the playoffs, so it’s hard to fall that far off the place. In MLB, only eight of 30 teams make the playoffs. At this point, it’s a given that the Twins won’t make the playoffs – they’d have to go 65-48 from here on out just to reach .500, something that they appear to be completely incapable of doing. But they still have to play all 113 of those games, 15 of which I unfortunately have tickets to. That’s way too much time to hit rock bottom and then keep digging.

* Ironically, the 2010 Vikings set the bar for sinking lower than any team in recent memory. But even that took an extremely unique combination of a team coming off an NFC Championship Game appearance, an epic collapse, a 40-year old quarterback’s penis, and the fans completely turning on them…and you can STILL make an argument that the Twins’ season has been worse. By the way, it’s only May.

Through April, Twins fans were still optimistic. Disappointing was the operative word when the Twins raced out to a 9-12 start by April 26. The team was ugly at times, but a 9-12 start is certainly nothing to panic about.

Disappointing then turned to frustrating. The Twins lost six in a row to fall to 9-18. Quotes about it being a long season are okay in April, but as soon as that calendar turns to May those same quotes are a red flag.

Then Francisco Liriano threw a no-hitter in what is shaping up to be the highlight of the season. Sure, it was sloppy (Liriano walked six), but it was a no-hitter nonetheless. Liriano struggled so much early in the season that rumors were that he would head to the bullpen with another lackluster start. He responded in dramatic fashion. And who knew? Maybe Liriano’s no-hitter would spark the team.

The Twins won the next day…and then lost nine in a row. After a three-game winning streak, they promptly lost four more games in a row, all of which they led or were tied in the eighth inning. Twice they led by three in the eighth inning. At this point frustration turned to something else. It is an overstatement to say that Twins fans are taking a perverse joy in watching this team, but I think morbid curiosity is the right term. We know going in that the Twins will lose, but they keep finding new ways to do it. Losing is a lot easier to take if your attitude isn’t “Will we win?” but rather “How will we lose?”

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Considering how terrible the entire team has been, perhaps it is unfair to single out the bullpen in this catastrophe. I’m going to do it anyway. While the Twins as a team have been merely really bad, the bullpen has been historically awful.

I thought the bullpen hit rock bottom in Monday’s 8-7 extra inning loss to the Mariners. Carl Pavano pitched seven decent innings and the Twins went into the eighth up 7-4. The bullpen promptly gave up three runs to send the game into extra innings. For the first time ever, I left a Twins game that was tied. Anthony Swarzak and his 7.71 ERA came out to pitch the top of the tenth. The Twins were due to send up Danny Valencia (.226 BA), Drew Butera (.115 BA), Denard Span (.291 BA), and Trevor Plouffe (.212 BA). It was already 10:40 PM, I had to work the next morning, and even if Swarzak could pitch a scoreless tenth (which probably wasn’t going to happen), the Twins had no chance to win the game in the bottom of the inning with that lineup.

Sure enough, Swarzak gave up a run in the top of the tenth and the Twins went 1-2-3 in the bottom of the inning. One of the worst feelings as a fan is knowing what negative result will happen and helplessly watching as that exact scenario plays out. That’s rock bottom.

Or so we thought.

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Taking a page from Bill Simmons’ book, I decided to write a retroactive running diary of the last three innings of last night’s Twins-Angels game:

Top of the seventh: Scott Baker enters the seventh with a 4-0 lead. Baker is famous for imploding in the late innings of the game and he’s already at 90+ pitches, but what else can the Twins do? The bullpen is completely incapable of holding this lead, so Baker goes back out for the seventh.

Baker allows two sharp singles to Torii Hunter and Alberto Callaspo. Russell Branyan then grounds out for the first out, but the runners move up to second and third. Then Baker makes a great play on a Mark Trumbo smash up the middle and throws home for the second out. Somewhat predictably given the Twins’ luck this season, Baker is shook up on the play but manages to get the third out on a liner to Alexi Casilla.

Bottom of the seventh: A Casilla double (seriously! And he even had a triple earlier!) and Morneau single give the Twins a 5-0 lead. With Morneau on first and two outs, Jim Thome draws a walk. Trevor Plouffe pinch runs for him. Let me repeat that: with a 5-0 lead, two outs in the seventh, and runs on first and second, Ron Gardenhire sends a pinch runner with one career stolen base in for his most dangerous batter in a misguided attempt to get a seventh run.* This will become important later. Delmon Young grounds out to first to end the inning, although Plouffe was so lightning fast that they couldn’t have forced him out at second.

* Joe Christensen of the Star Tribune reports that Thome’s shoulder may have been bothering him. I’m a bit dubious given Gardenhire’s awful pinch running decisions throughout the season. I also have to assume that an ailing Thome with one good arm is still better than Plouffe, should the Twins need more runs later in the game (hint: they did).

Top of the eighth: Scott Baker’s night is over for the Twins. The following stats from Elias Sports Bureau are called foreshadowing:

The last starting pitcher that pitched at least seven scoreless innings, left with a five or more run lead, and still lost was the Yankees’ Hideki Irabu against the Rangers on May 14, 1998. The Twins themselves had not lost a game when leading by five or more runs in the eighth inning since a July 30, 1971 loss to the Yankees – a streak of 755 games.

And one more stat:

Even with those previous stats, approximately 0% of all Minnesotans thought the Twins had the game locked up [citation needed].

Alex Burnett came out of the bullpen for the Twins. Burnett was one of the main reasons that the Twins felt comfortable giving up Jon Rauch and Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain and Brian Fuentes in the offseason. The 23-year old was converted to the bullpen in the minors in 2009 after three average seasons as a starter. He was solid with High-A Fort Myers and Double-A New Britain in 2009 – 78 strikeouts, 26 walks, and only 16 earned runs in 77 innings.

Not content to let Burnett develop further, the Twins rushed him up to the majors in 2010. He performed admirably for two months…and then fell apart in the summer before he was sent back down to Triple-A Rochester. Including a late September call-up, he gave up 18 runs in his last 16.1 innings.

Still, the Twins saw enough in those early months to entrust him with a bullpen role this season. It has been nothing short of a disaster. His previously solid control is gone: he has seven strikeouts and ten walks in 12.2 innings this season. Coming into the game, he had allowed 24 baserunners and his ERA is now over 7.

Like the Twins, Burnett found new ways to suck this game. Peter Bourjos hit a routine grounder to first that Justin Morneau briefly bobbled. He recovered in time to get the ball to Burnett at first, but Bourjos beat the throw. Morneau was charged with an error and this seemed reasonable. At least until they showed the replay. The throw would have made it in plenty of time, but Burnett inexplicably lingered on the mound for a second before moseying over to first. The official scorer changed the ruling to a hit. Burnett then walked Macier Izturis and his night was over.

In comes lefty Dusty Hughes. This was an extremely questionable decision, mostly because Hughes sucks, but also because the next batter, Erick Aybar, is a switch hitter. Granted, Aybar has been markedly better against righties this season, but over his career his numbers as a lefty and a righty are nearly the same.

In an offseason filled with inexplicable moves, the Twins’ waiver pickup of Dusty Hughes might have been the most inexplicable. There are few universal truths in baseball, but one of them is this: If the Kansas City Royals outright waive a player making only $400,000, DO NOT sign him.

With no context, Hughes’ numbers weren’t terrible last season: 34 strikeouts, 24 walks, and a 3.83 ERA in 57 innings. Then you remember that he was a left-handed specialist and most of the batters he faced were lefties. Estimates vary, but anywhere from 400 to 600 other lefties could put up those same numbers in the majors. Of course, statistics of any kind have never been the Twins’ strong suit and they fell into the trap of egregiously small sample sizes: Hughes had posted a 2.03 ERA in ten appearances against them last season.

The season started and it quickly became clear that Hughes was not a major league pitcher. He was actually worse than his already poor track record indicated. He gave up three runs on Opening Day and never looked back. He was sent down to the minors on May 1 after giving up 24 baserunners and 12 runs in just 10.2 innings of work. Luckily for us, he was called back up three weeks later because of an injury to Jose Mijares.

Hughes’ first pitch really had to be seen to be believed. Because of MLB’s nonsensical Youtube ban, the best I can provide is this Pitch F/X chart. It was a belt-high fastball, right down the middle, that clocked in at 89.5 miles per hour. Now I’m not saying I could have hit that pitch well, but I’m convinced I could have made decent contact. I don’t get pitches that perfect in the batting cage. Anyway, Erick Aybar is a better hitter than me and he crushed the ball 401 feet to left center. This was Aybar’s ninth career home run as a righty in 1,361 plate appearances.

5-3 game. Still no outs in the eighth.

The next play reads as “Bobby Abreu singled to center,” but that’s probably not fair to Hughes. Gardenhire – who put in a pinch runner for his most dangerous batter up by five in the seventh – did not find it necessary to put in a defensive replacement for Michael Cuddyer at second base. This despite the fact that Cuddyer has started 58 career games at second base in eleven MLB seasons and that Matt Tolbert is on the bench specifically because he plays decent defense at every infield position. Cuddyer did the Ole’ move on Abreu’s grounder and Hughes was charged with the single. Because Cuddyer didn’t make contact with the ball, he wasn’t charged with an error; we’ll call that Exhibit A on how stupid the error stat is.

In comes Jim Hoey. If the waiver pickup of Hughes was the most inexplicable move of the offseason, the acquisition of Hoey might have been the dumbest. The Twins traded J.J. Hardy and Brendan Harris to the Orioles for Hoey and minor league pitcher Brett Jacobsen. Granted, it was nice to be rid of Harris, but the Twins are sorely missing Hardy at shortstop. Twins’ shortstops sport a .603 OPS (25th in the majors); Hardy’s OPS for the Orioles this season is .710.

Hoey throws the ball really hard. And really wildly. I assume that the Twins brass thought that pitching coach Rick Anderson would teach Hoey control. They were wrong. Hoey couldn’t crack the roster out of Spring Training and was sent down to Rochester.

He was called back up on April 18. In his first appearance, he recorded four key outs to preserve a victory over the Orioles. First impressions stick. Largely because of those four outs, Hoey was thrust into a high leverage, eighth inning role that he was ill-equipped to handle. Amazingly, nine appearances after he was the team’s setup man, he was back in the minors.

Like Hughes, injuries forced the Twins to call him back up; this was his first appearance back. Quite the microcosm of the Twins season: a bad trade for a pitcher; the pitcher can’t make the team out of Spring Training; three weeks later, he is called up; one appearance later, he is thrust into a high leverage role; three appearances after that, he loses the role; six appearances after that, he is back in the minors; and two weeks after that, he’s back with the Twins, pitching in the eighth inning as the Twins cling to a lead. Needless to say, fans were not optimistic.

Hunter crushes a double off the wall. Callaspo hits a grounder to second that Cuddyer again can’t field. 5-4, still no outs. Branyan hits a deep fly ball to left and Delmon Young overthrows the cutoff man, allowing Callaspo to reach second. 5-5, but at least we have an out. Mercifully, Hoey induces two ground balls and the Twins escape the inning tied 5-5. Considering that Hoey and his 10.61 ERA came out with a runner on first and no outs, that was probably a best case scenario.

Bottom of the eighth: Danny Valencia walks to start off the inning. Not a bad start. Drew Butera sacrifices to move Valencia to second. Although I’m not normally a big fan of the sacrifice, Butera can’t actually hit the ball, so sacrificing Valencia to second is by far the best result we could hope for.*

* Butera’s batting average is .120 and his on-base percentage is .156 this season. Although I know I couldn’t get on base 15 out of every 100 at-bats, I’d like to think I could draw some walks simply by not swinging. If Mario Mendoza gave us the line at which major leagues need to hit at to stay in the majors, perhaps Drew Butera can give us the line in which fatass fans think they can actually do better than a major leaguer.

The thing about the Twins this season is that they haven’t just been bad, they’ve also been unlucky. The next two plays were unlucky at its finest. Denard Span crushed a line drive to deep center that hung in the air juuuuuust long enough for the speedy Bourjos to track down. Then Casilla hit a shallow popup to right. The popup initially looked harmless, but then we saw that Bourjos and Hunter were each hustling to get there. The crowd got louder as the potential Texas Leaguer dropped. Both went for it and – I’m not making this up – each touched the ball two times before Bourjos finally grapped it out of midair. Fantastic.

Top of the ninth: Hoey trots back out. Had I been in attendance, I might have walked out. If you have read all 2,640 of my words up until now, you know that what follows is completely predictable. Bourjos hits a triple and Izturis follows with a single. 6-5 Angels. Hoey’s night is over and it’s Phil Dumatrait’s turn.

Dumatrait is an interesting story. A 29-year old reliever originally drafted in 2000, he has spent time in the minors with five organizations. He made 42 major league appearances over his career, posting a 6.87 ERA. In short, he’s not a major league pitcher. Yet as I’ve pointed out, the Twins take a pretty short view of things. Never mind that he is a pretty crappy pitcher – he posted a 1.72 ERA in 15 Triple-A appearances this season.* With all that said, Dumatrait recorded three quick outs and the Twins escaped the inning down one.

* Also never mind his 12 to 11 strikeout to walk ratio and his ridiculously low and unsustainable .209 BABIP this season.

Bottom of the ninth: At this point, the Twins were going to lose. No doubt in my mind. But the middle of the order was up, so I had to keep watching.

Kubel quickly flies out and Morneau quickly strikes out. With two outs, Cuddyer hits a sharp single (no wonder they left him in to play second!).

In steps Luke Hughes. Remember two innings ago when Hughes pinch ran for Thome up by five? Yeah…it would have been awesome to have Thome up. In all my years of being a baseball fan, I’ve never seen anything as exciting as Thome coming up in the ninth inning tied or down by one run. It’s an experience. It sure would have been nice to have that experience last night.

To Hughes’ credit, he beat out an infield single to bring Young up with runners on first and second. Strictly by the numbers, it is certainly better to have Young up with runners on first and second and two outs than have Thome up with a runner on first and two outs. But it sure didn’t feel that way. And though Young had an exciting at-bat (running the count full after falling behind 0-2), the harmless fly out to right seemed inevitable.

As Hunter caught the final out, the Twins hit rock bottom. For now.

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