It's been a long, hard fall from grace for the Minnesota Twins over the last two seasons. After a stretch where the team finished above .500 in nine of ten seasons, the Twins have been the bottom feeders of the AL Central in the last two years. They've lost a combined total of 195 games, been outscored by 316 runs, and have managed to do all of that with the largest two payrolls in club history, closely tied to Joe Mauer's contract extension that was signed with the intention of keeping him as a Twin for life.
The Twins have rebuilt their rotation in 2013, acquiring Vance Worley from the Phillies, signing free agent Kevin Correia away from the Pirates, and most recently, inking former Met Mike Pelfrey to a one-year contract. The trio of Worley, Correia, and Pelfrey will join the Twins rotation along with two of Scott Diamond, Brian Duensing, Liam Hendriks, and Cole DeVries. Pelfrey probably won't be ready for Opening Day, but based on the $4 million he's guaranteed in 2013, you know the Twins count on him producing in the majors sooner rather than later. But Minnesota's starting rotation has a disturbing characteristic that has been something the organization has been preaching for years, just not to this level: no one can miss bats.
Consider this: out of all 128 major league pitchers with at least 100 innings thrown in 2012, the Twins have three of the top ten pitchers in highest contact rate allowed on strikes thrown. Correia was third in baseball at 87.7%, while Worley was eighth at 86.2%, and Diamond was tenth at 85.5%, It's also worth noting that in 2011 (excluding 2012 since he only threw 19 2/3 innings), Pelfrey's 87.5% contact rate was the sixth highest in baseball, a hair behind Correia and former Twin Nick Blackburn (who was third in the league at 88.7% a year ago). To put those numbers into perspective, the league average contact rate last season was 80.8%. That's jarring stuff.
As you'd expect, the Twins new rotation isn't exactly getting a lot of whiffs either. In comparison to a league average whiff rate of 8.6%, Worley was at 5.5% last year (fourth lowest mark among starters with at least 100 innings), Correia was at 5.8% (fifth lowest), and Diamond was at 6.7% (14th lowest). To drag Pelfrey's 2011 back into things, his 5.5% whiff rate a season ago was eighth lowest in the league, with Worley, Correia, and Blackburn joining him in the bottom tier of the league.
Now, just because Minnesota's rotation has all of these similar characteristics doesn't mean that they're going to get blown out of the water in 2013. Bartolo Colon had the highest contact rate and lowest whiff rate in the league in 2012, and he had a 3.43 ERA (largely due to a strikeout to walk ratio a hair under 4.00, something only Diamond came close to in 2012). Lucas Harrell of the Astros had a 3.76 ERA with an 85.3% contact rate and a 6.1% whiff rate (but his good year was largely because of a 57.2% groundball rate, the fifth best mark in the league). Jeremy Guthrie ranked in the bottom ten in both whiff rate and contact rate, and he got $25 million guaranteed (but that's because the Royals are…well, the Royals).
Essentially for the Twins, it comes down to this: they can't let Worley, Correia, Pelfrey, and Diamond continue to pitch like they did in 2012 without making any adjustments. This is a Twins team that struggled in 2012 despite an excellent defense, and for 2013, their three best defenders by both DRS and UZR are all with new teams (Denard Span, Ben Revere, Alexi Casilla). Minnesota will be bringing back terrible defenders in Trevor Plouffe and Josh Willingham, who add offense but contribute absolutely nothing defensively. If the Twins rotation keeps allowing a lot of balls to be put in play with a defense that is substantially worse than 2012, it could be a very long year in Minnesota.