Friday, November 04, 2011

Twins and Matt Maloney are a Good Match

I've used a fair amount of this space to criticize Minnesota Twins GM Bill Smith. In the interests of fairness, I must say that his early offseason waiver acquisition of left-handed pitcher Matt Maloney seems like a sensible one. I don't think it's the kind of move that's going to vault the Twins back into contention on its own, but I do think it's the sort of low-level signing that mid-market teams need to be on the lookout for. Maloney and the Twins seem specifically to be a good pairing.

When you think of the prototypical Minnesota Twins starting pitcher over the last 15 years, what comes to mind? For me, it's a bunch of guys with middling stuff who succeed by pounding the strike zone. Sure, there were the three exceptional Johan Santana years from 2004 to 2006, where he did everything he's supposed to. But in general, when I think of Twins pitching, it's more in the Brad Radke or Kevin Slowey mode.

The concept of Twins starting pitchers as strike throwers is not a figment of our imaginations. In 2011, Twins pitchers finished with the sixth fewest walks in the American League. However, in the ten years previous, they finished third in walks one time (2003), second three times (2001, 2002 and 2007), and first the other SIX times. From 2004 until 2010, they had the fewest walks in the American League every year except one. In 2010, they only walked 383 batters all season, 69 fewer than the Seattle Mariners, who finished second. That number shot up to 480 in 2011, an increase of .6 every nine innings. The demise of the pinpoint control that was so long the standard in Minnesota didn't get talked about much simply because it came in a season where so many other things went wrong. If Twins had done everything else they'd done well in 2010, maybe we'd have been hearing a bunch of "why have Twins pitchers stopped throwing so many strikes" stories. 

If throwing strikes is the the qualification, Maloney is hired. In 80 major league innings, he has walked only 17 batters. In 516 Triple-A innings going back to 2007, he has only 108 walks. He fits in perfectly with the Twins mantra of pounding the strike zone, making batters earn their way onto first base.

Now, maybe some Cincinnati Reds fan is reading this, shaking his head and saying "wait a second - there's a lot more to pitching than throwing strikes. I've seen Matt Maloney enough over the past three years, and he stinks!" 

Those are both good points. There is obviously a lot more to pitching than simply not walking people. Josh Tomlin had the lowest walk rate in the American League this year, and he was only able to translate that into a mediocre 4.25 ERA. Meanwhile, Gio Gonzalez was walking men at almost four times Tomlin's rate, and ended up with a 3.12 ERA. This is appropriate to Maloney who has a 5.40 ERA at the major league level, despite a BB/9 rate of under 2.0. Why is his ERA so high? Because he has allowed more home runs than walks - 18 in those 80 innings. Oof. 

So if Maloney gives up so many home runs, why would the Twins want him? There are two possible reasons. The first is that he Twins may believe that his high home run rate so far is a fluke, based in part on a disastrous 1.2 inning relief appearance against the Diamondbacks where he allowed three home runs. The second is that the Twins may be so desperate for pitching that they're willing to sign anyone who proves himself capable of throwing a baseball 60 feet, 6 inches. There is some truth, I think, to both of these suggestions.

Maloney's minor league home run rates are totally within the realm of acceptability. 48 home runs in those 516 Triple-A innings shows that he's been keeping the ball in the park at that level. There is some evidence that minor league hitters don't deal well with pitchers who change speeds and mix pitches well--which is why they're in the minor leagues. This tends to inflate the minor league numbers of some junkballers. So, perhaps Maloney is in the Lenny Dinardo category. Let's be fair, though - even Dinardo got 257 major league innings to prove he didn't have major league stuff. Often, those types of pitchers will see a jump in their walk rate once reaching the majors, which Maloney has not.

Maloney's short 2011 stint has some ugly numbers, based on some unsustainably unlucky rate states. A .408 BABIP? Home runs allowed on 22.6% of fly balls?? I don't think there are home runs on 22.6% of fly balls in the home run derby. Regression to the mean and a move from Great American Ballpark to the more pitcher-friendly Target Field will bring that down significantly. Two of the top three in HR/FB% among 100 pitchers were Edinson Volquez and Bronson Arroyo - the ball was flying out of that place last year. Maybe Maloney's stuff makes him more prone to a high percentage of fly balls leaving the yard, but 12%-15% is probably the peak.

Matt Maloney pitching for Louisville against the Syracuse Chiefs.
With a K/BB ratio that's remained over 3.0 in the majors, (even during his crummy 2011 stint), ball in play that should improve by accident and a more friendly ballpark, what should we look for from Maloney in a Twins uniform? He has a 3.57 Triple-A ERA, and a 4.57 major league xFIP, so far. I think that 4.50 ERA range is a good estimate. That's not going to win him the Cy Young Award, but it would make him an improvement over several of the guys the Twins went through in 2011. 

Quick recommendation to the Twins management (who I assume will never see this) - PLEASE resist the urge to make Maloney a short/one-out reliever. His lack of a fastball has led to a total lack of any platoon advantage. There's nothing in his profile that suggests he'd be more successful out of the bullpen. If he's not in the starting rotation, he should either be a traditional "long reliever," or hanging out as insurance in Triple-A Rochester, where he can enjoy a DiBella's Sub while waiting for the call. Matt, I recommend the Dagwood. 

While Maloney isn't going to be any kind of franchise savior, I think Bill Smith has made a good move for a useful pitcher who can provide some depth and innings at somewhere slightly above replacement level. After an ugly 2011, the Twins need that.

Photo credit: "Matt Maloney pitching in Syracuse, NY" by BubbaFan, uploaded from

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