Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Out Of Proportion, But In Focus: The Twins Bullpen

Waiting months for Opening Day to come, only to have it pass as the nine innings unfold, should help remind us as baseball fans to keep things in perspective. I wrote recently about the importance of Opening Day, and the relative lack thereof. It's a celebration of what is to come, but as a baseball fan, we are locked in for the long haul over the next seven months. There were a couple of key things that can be drawn from what the Twins underwent to open their season however.

Over the course of the offseason, the bullpen has been the largest point of contention. After being the worst in the big leagues a season ago by multiple different metrics, it was going to need to be vastly improved for this club to stave off regression. Paul Molitor and Terry Ryan seemed to bank on internal options for the 2016 season, and with a deep farm system, it's hard to blame them. That said, there was still three main points that detractors focused in on.

First, the closer. Glen Perkins has been an All Star in two consecutive seasons, but has broken down as the season turns over to its second half. I touched on what Perkins should be this year, and I believe the concern for him is overblown. Let's move past that part.

The second arm causing some pause is also a part of the back three relievers that were considered locks this spring. Kevin Jepsen's acquisition last season will go down as one of Terry Ryan's best trades. Behind only the brilliance that was finagling Tommy Milone away from the Athletics, Jepsen resembled a move the Twins needed. He went on to have a career year for Minnesota, and filled in the closer role in Perkins' absence.

It's that career year though that makes 2016 somewhat uncertain. With the Twins, Jepsen posted his best ever ERA (1.61), while striking out eight per nine innings, and owning a sub 3.00 FIP for just the third time in his nine year career. Having never totaled a sub 2.00 ERA previously, it was pretty apparent that the performance was going to be difficult to repeat.

Things started out on the wrong foot in 2016 for Jepsen as he took the Twins first loss, and his shaky performance was to blame. Generating two quick outs, the former Rays reliever then walked a batter and gave up two consecutive singles to allow the walk of run. What;s worth noting, is this narrative could play out similar to one Twins fans have seen before.

Upon joining the Twins a season ago, Kevin Jepsen was tagged for two earned runs in his first game while recording just one out. He took the loss as the Twins fell 4-1 to the Seattle Mariners. From there however, he gave up runs in just two of his final 28 outings. Posting a 0.98 ERA across 27.2 IP, opposing batters slashed just .178/.217/.218 off of him.

By all statistical measures, his immediate blip for the Twins was followed by dominance. A sever candidate for regression this season, Jepsen will need to do his best impression of his former self. The Opening Day blunder could definitely be a precursor to future dominance, but for a guy that is looking to be a cornerstone of the Twins relief corps, he'll be battling against himself the rest of the way.

Now, both of the former two pitchers are more cautionary tales than legitimate concerns. Unfortunately, the third pitcher doesn't have that luxury. Enter Casey Fien.

Arbitration eligible with Minnesota this offseason, the Twins awarded Fien a $2.275 million contract. While the money is negligible, the move immediately draw ire from myself as his roster spot became all but guaranteed. The problem with that, is Fien is far from the best internal option for Neil Allen and Molitor to run out in a relief situation, and taking a spot from a more capable arm seemed counter productive for a team trying to revamp its pen.

Despite owning a 3.55 ERA and being mediocre at best in 2015, you'll hear that Fien was better down the stretch. There's some truth to that. In Fien's first 31 games in 2015, he owned a 4.60 ERA while allowing a .270/.285/.437 slash line to hitters. In the final 31 games of his season, Fien turned in a 2.53 ERA while limiting hitters to a much better .229/.256/.314 line. What the numbers don't show is that Fien's production still came largely as smoke and mirrors. Minnesota owned the worst bullpen strikeout percentage in the big leagues a season ago (6.85 K/9), and in those final 31 games Fien (who was "good") posted a 6.75 K/9.

Therein lies the problem that is Casey Fien. Over the past three years, Fien's strikeouts per nine innings have declined each season. Topping out at 10.6 in 2013, they dipped to 7.2 in 2014, and were a horrible 5.8 a season ago. It's worth noting that Fien doesn't walk anyone (1.7 BB/9 career), but his troublesome strikeout rate is at the root of the Twins relief issues.

In 2015, Fien generated swinging strikes just 8.7% of the time, his lowest mark since 2010. Opposing hitters were able to make contact with his pitches over 83% of the time, also the worst mark since 2010. On top of allowing the ball to be put in play, Fien wasn't just generating soft contact. In fact, his pitches were hit with medium or hard contact 83.2% of the time, again a career worst since the 2012 season.

What it breaks down to is Casey Fien being the exact type of pitcher the Twins should have avoided putting in their pen. He's a reliever that strikes no one out, gives up way too many hard hit balls, and does nothing to push a bad bullpen forward. In rewarding him with an arbitration deal, Fien was the choice over the likes of J.R. Graham, Taylor Rogers. Logan Darnell, Nick Burdi, Brandon Kintzler or maybe some other external option.

Of course one game is far too early to start cherry picking as to what the rest of the season holds. That being said, Fien allowing four hits and surrendering two runs while recording just two outs very well could be a precursor of things to come.

The Twins bullpen should be much better than billed. Ryan Pressly is a weapon, Trevor May could be elite, and Fernando Abad appears to be a nice pickup. All of those things can remain true though, while Fien remains a dumpster fire, and we're going to eventually find out what's down that rabbit hole.

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