There was a time when I spent many hours watching do-it-yourself design shows on HGTV. We were in the pre-pre-planning, pre-planning, planning, and doing stages of our home renovation. I can’t remember the show titles anymore but my favorite ones featured the couples who got halfway through their renovations, ran out of ideas, energy and money, and then called in the TV experts to clean up their mess. I also liked the shows that taught how to make any room look like it was designed by an expert on a shoestring budget.
As I combed through last week’s boxscores on Sunday night, looking for the unsung heroes, my days as an HGTV addict came rushing back. That’s sounds weird, so let me explain.
Between 2002 and 2010, the Minnesota Twins finished first in the American League Central Division six times. They won 94 games in 2010 and were expected to compete for the division title in 2011. But things went horribly awry. The Twins lost 99 games last season, the worst mark for the franchise since 1982, when the team finished 60-102. The starting rotation sported a 4.64 ERA, fifth highest in the majors. Twins relievers combined for a 4.51 ERA, the highest in the league.
Something had to be done.
The first move was firing Twins GM Bill Smith after four years and bringing back former GM Terry Ryan. But with the Twins’ payroll already topping $100 million, money for fixing the Twins’ pitching — especially the bullpen — was scarce. Like turn-over-the-couch-cushions-looking-for-loose-change scarce. But Terry Ryan was an old pro. So just like the design experts on HGTV, he went about re-constructing the Twins bullpen for pennies a day.
Out went Chuck James, Jim Hoey, Phil Dumatrait, and Kyle Waldrop. (Who? Exactly. That’s the point). In came Jeff Gray and Jared Burton. (Who? Exactly. That’s the point). Alex Burnett and Glen Perkins got a new coat of paint and some throw pillows.
Last week was like a designers’ showcase for Ryan’s efforts.
The Twins played seven games between Sunday, June 17 and Sunday, June 24. They won four out of seven. Nothing to write home about for contending teams, but a 4-3 week for the Twins is better than most weeks this season.
In all four wins, each Twins reliever recorded a positive Win Probably Added (WPA), save for Jeff Gray in one outing. In three of the games, the Twins bullpen kept them in the game long enough to eke out a victory.
On Sunday, June 17, the Twins trailed the Milwaukee Brewers 4-to-1 after six innings. Zack Greinke was on the mound for the Brewers, so things didn’t look good for the Twins. Alex Burnett replaced Twins starter Nick Blackburn in the top of the seventh and retired the heart of the Brewers lineup — Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart — in order.
The Twins rallied for three runs off Greinke in the bottom of the seventh, knotting the score at four. Jared Burton pitched a scoreless eighth. Glen Perkins pitched a scoreless ninth and tenth. Brian Duensling got through the eleventh unscathed. Jeff Gray pitched the next three innings, allowing two walks, one hit and no runs. Anthony Swarzak held the line in the fifteenth inning, and the Twins won it in the bottom of the inning. Eleven innings pitched, six hits, three walks and no runs for the Twins ‘pen.
Three days later, the Twins were in Pittsburgh. Francisco Liriano started for the Twins and pitched six-and-two thirds, giving up only one run. But with runners on first and second and two outs, Jared Burton came on to face Jose Tabata, who grounded out. The Twins took a 2-to-1 lead in the top of the eighth off a home run by Josh Willingham. Burton pitched the eighth, too, and gave up only a single to Andrew McCutchen, but nothing else, and left the game with the 2-1 lead intact. Glen Perkins closed it out in the ninth.
Two days later, the Twins were in Cincinnati to face the National League Central-leading Reds. Nick Blackburn was back on the bump to start for the Twins, but only last five innings, giving up four runs. Minnesota took a 5-to-4 lead off the Reds’ bullpen in the sixth. Jeff Gray — who’d worked three scoreless against the Brewers on the June 17 — gave up two singles and a walk and recorded only one out before Alex Burnett was called in to put out the fire. Burnett did just that, striking out Devin Mesoraco and getting Todd Frazier to fly out to center field. Burnett pitched a 1-2-3 seventh. Jared Burton pitched a 1-2-3 eighth and Glen Perkins closed it out in the ninth, striking out the last two batters with runners on first and third.
The Twins claimed Gray off waivers from the Seattle Mariners in the offseason and pay him the league minimum. Burnett’s in his third season in the Twins’ bullpen and also makes the league minimum. His walk rate is at the lowest of his career and he’s holding batters to a .214 average. Jared Burton spent several years in the Reds organization, but hasn’t pitched consistently in the majors since 2009. His 5.80 K/BB is the best in the bullpen. He makes $750,000 this season. Perkins is the richest of the bunch. The Twins are paying him $1.5 million this year. He’s striking out more than thirty percent of batters and sports an ERA and FIP below 3.00.
The Twins are 29-42 and in last place in the American League Central. They’ve still got work to do to get back to being the contending team they were in the 2000s. But the low cost re-design of the bullpen is already a winner. That makes Jeff Gray, Jared Burton, Alex Burnett and Glen Perkins our Impact Index Players of the Week.