August 3, 2009

Fixing a gas leak

After an absolutely horrid start to the season, the bullpen looked to be turning things around in May and June. But at such an inconvenient time, when the starting pitching started taking a nose-dive, the bullpen followed suit. Now the bullpen ranks 22nd in MLB with a 4.22 ERA and have given up the sixth most home runs. In 16 games since the All-Star Break, the team is 7-9 but the bullpen has accounted for four of those losses. In the 56 innings the bullpen has been needed since the All-Star break, they have a accumulated a 7.47 ERA with 41/29 K/BB ratio. Many of the runs have come in bulk, but the bullpen has still allowed runs in 10 of the 16 games.

While the bright stars of the gloomy group shine bright, the black holes of that same group seem to get more and more alarming. Joe Nathan and Matt Guerrier can only do so much, which means the rest of the group needs to step it up and do their jobs.

Between May and June, R.A. Dickey looked to be a great signing. In fact, he may have been our most reliable reliever having a combined 1.36 ERA in 33 innings of work. And in eight of his 17 appearances, he threw 2+ innings. Having someone who can throw multiple innings in each appearance will help a bullpen immensely. But as soon as interleague play wraped up Dickey - as Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven would say, "lost the feel of the knuckle ball" and - looked to have 'hit a wall.' He was getting clobbered in almost every appearance. In fact in 11 appearances since July 1st, he's posted a 7.59 ERA. In that time frame, only four of his 11 appearances have come without a run as he's seen his ERA skyrocket nearly two whole points. At one point, he looked to be a viable 7th inning if not 8th inning option for the Twins. Now, his days on the roster may be wearing thin.

The other biggest hole is Bobby Keppel. Keppel, when first called-up, got blown off by a lot of people. But the 27-year-old reliever quickly began quieting all doubters when he gave up just one run in his first 16 innings of work. And while he never had a strong grasp for the strike zone to begin with, Keppel lost it completely and since given up 11 runs in his last 6 1/3 innings to bring his ERA up to 4.84 on the season.

Like Keppel, Dickey also began walking more and more runners since July as well. The two have combined for 21 walks and 19 strikeouts in their last 36 1/3 innings. While they may eat up innings for us, not being able to rely on them in close games does make things a lot more strenuous on the rest of the bullpen. We can't have two mop-up guys when only two guys are reliable in the first place.

One problem both Dickey and Keppel have is that they don't fool hitters. Everyone knows Dickey has a knuckle ball that can be effective, but if he doesn't have a 'feel' for it, his secondary pitches are just about worthless to him. Keppel too doesn't fool hitters. He throws his fastball - which as it turns out is his most unsuccessful pitch - nearly 70% of the time. He can crank it up around 94 mph, but he doesn't have the velocity to warrant such putrid command problems. Keppel is a ground ball pitcher and we all know what happens to a ground ball pitcher if he can't locate his pitches.

My fix is not a permanent one, and it may not even work, but at this time anything needs to be considered before the team runs completely out of fuel. Juan Morillo should be called up right now to help aid our bullpen. I know, I know, he has his control problems as well. But if the Twins are going to continue to allow guys like Dickey and Keppel go up and attempt to blindly find the strike zone, at least let a guy who throws in the upper-90's have a chance too.

Morillo was claimed off of waivers by the Twins back in April after they decided they had enough of watching Philip Humber at the Major League level. At the time, the Twins gave him three chances to prove his worth and he failed miserably. He gave up five runs in just two innings of work while walking three. To his credit, he was facing the Red Sox and Rays, two of the best offense's in baseball. But three walks is not acceptable against any offense and Morillo was rightfully shipped off to the Minor Leagues to work on his control.

He's made progress on his command and has also shapened up his slider so that it is now considered a 'nasty' pitch. Obviously, he has pitching coach Bobby Cuellar to thank for that. Cuellar has played a huge roll in both of the careers of Francisco Liriano and Johan Santana. He helped Liriano sharpen his knee-buckling slider while helping Santana perfect his circle change. With a fastball around 100 mph and a nasty slider, Morillo has gotten hitters to swing and miss on an average of 12.3 times per nine innings, the best of his career.

Although he's struggled as of late, he should still be given a shot. Both Keppel and Dickey have become completely unreliable and unfortunately, they're not the only pitchers in the bullpen struggling.

Brian Duensing hasn't been very effective either, even though some of us are all still in the 'what if' phase of him being a starting pitcher. He threw a great game against the Chicago White Sox in his first-ever start last week, but it was just to fill in for Liriano who gave the Twins a medical scare. Jesse Crain has been off or on since his return to the bullpen, but he does give me little hope. And Jose Mijares has also struggled as of late giving up five runs in his last 6 2/3 innings.

These guys fortunately don't scare me nearly as much as Keppel or Dickey. And while Morillo is far from a perfect fix, he's still a good option in a time of crisis. I haven't even mentioned the fact that Rob Delaney has been lights-out over the last month in Rochester or that Armando Gabino has been the best Red Wings pitcher all season. Or even that Anthony Slama is still in New Britain for absolutely no reason. The Twins certainly have options to fix this bullpen and they need to act now before things get even more out of hand. With an off-day today, it's the perfect time to start moving in the right direction.

Both Delaney and Gabino are good options and should be considered. With just one reliever (not counting Nathan) averaging over 93 mph on their fastball, I would like to see the Twins add some gas to help fix their leak. And if the gas can sustain the leak long enough, hopefully they'll find another pitcher to help patch it up.