Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Case For The Ace: Who Gets The Nod?

The snow has melted, the season has changed, and the Twins have embarked on Florida. Spring Training is now well underway, and the Twins are set to kick off their slate of games. As the team positions itself for the meaningful contests in April, it's the March matchups that will pave the way. On the mound to set the action off for the Twins will be Phil Hughes. The question is, what does that mean going forward?

Paul Molitor made the announcement that Hughes will be the starter for the Spring Training opener against the Boston Red Sox. While that would seemingly line up for Hughes to have the inside track to be the Twins Opening Day starter, should that end up being the case?

A season ago, Phil Hughes experienced more regression than any other Twins pitcher. After generating Cy Young votes in 2014, Hughes totaled a 4.40 ERA and 4.70 FIP in 2015. He still walked virtually no one (just 0.9 BB/9), but he also struck out significantly less batters (5.4 K/9 after an 8.0 K/9 in 2014). The Achilles Heel to his performance was no doubt the longball however.

In 2015, Hughes led the league in home runs surrendered (29) and in doing so, posted his worst career mark since giving up 35 as a Yankee in 2012. While no doubt the homers weren't a good addition to Hughes' performance, they also could have signified markedly worse numbers. Over 80% of the balls that left the yard against Hughes were of the solo variety, no doubt saving him from numbers that looked even worse.

So, where does that leave Hughes in the year ahead? As a pitcher who generally has alternated solid performance years, 2016 would already line up to be the next strong year. Looking at his numbers though, Hughes also has some reason for optimism.

A year ago, over 13% of the fly balls Hughes gave up left the yard, that mark doubled the 6.2% posted in 2014, and was also higher than his 10% career average. He allowed hitters to make hard contact over 31% of the time, a 4% increase from 2014, and also higher than his career average (29%). If he's going to turn the corner back towards looking like the pitcher Minnesota initially signed, the strikeouts will again take a tick upwards, and Hughes will have more batters off balance.

For the Twins, Hughes turning things around is no doubt a necessity. The competition for the staff ace shouldn't be a one man race in the season ahead however. Regardless of who starts on Opening Day, both Ervin Santana and Kyle Gibson seem to figure into the team's best pitcher in 2016 when the dust settles.

A season ago, Santana was slapped with an 80 game suspension as Spring Training drew to a close. Despite taking him a handful of starts to settle in, Santana was virtually unhittable down the stretch. From August 30 through the end of the season (7 starts) Santana owned a 1.62 ERA and allowed opposing hitters to slash just .209/.275/.294 against him. He struck out 47 in 50.0 IP and allowed just 14 free passes. In that time frame, he also surrendered just one home run, while have two double-digit strikeout performances.

Looking at what's to come for Santana, the Twins no doubt are looking for a repeat of that late-season performance. Despite signing out of the National League, Santana has been an AL pitcher for virtually his whole career. His best ERA was posted in the AL Central with the Royals during the 2013 season, and his strikeout numbers remained on par with his career averages. When all is said and done, Santana should no doubt be among the Twins best.

Then there's Kyle Gibson. Gibson probably presents the most intrigue of the Twins three cemented starters. After taking a step forward in 2015, it's the year ahead that he should be expected to impress even more so. Finishing with an ERA that ranked near the top of the AL (3.84), Gibson also posted career bests in starts (32), innings pitched (194.2), strikeouts (145), WHIP (1.289), H/9 (8.6), and K/9 (6.7). The former Twins first round pick saw the success he was always billed to be capable of.

Now rounding out the trio of the capable big league starters, Gibson can continue to settle into his own upward trajectory. More than either Hughes or Santana, Gibson benefited significantly from the addition of pitching coach Neil Allen. Allen, who's a changeup believer, had Gibson throwing the pitch a career high 19.6% of the time (up from 12.5% in 2014). The effectiveness of Gibson's changeup was no doubt helpful in generating more swings and misses (9.8% was a career high in 2015).

While there's probably not much stock to put into who becomes the Twins ace, or who toes the rubber on Opening Day, the fact is that Minnesota has three starters all capable of pushing the envelope. With Tyler Duffey, Tommy Milone, and Jose Berrios contributing behind them, each member of the core group is capable of being a stopper and getting the job done. For the first time in quite a while, Paul Molitor should have a staff capable of respectable numbers as compared to the rest of the league.