Player Profiles 2020: Minnesota Twins Bullpen

Jai Correa looks at the Minnesota Twins bullpen for the 2020 season.

The Minnesota Twins won 101 games this year, their highest win total since 1965. Even though most will attribute their success to a league-leading 307 home runs, the bullpen should not be overlooked. According to Fangraphs, the Twins had the third-highest WAR for bullpens in 2019 at 7.3, just behind the Tampa Bay Rays (7.6) and the New York Yankees (7.5). The breakout of Taylor Rogers, with help from ascending relievers Trevor May and Tyler Duffey, helped the Twins achieve the lowest FIP of all bullpens this past season at 3.92, with the fourth-lowest SIERA at 3.86—and nothing should change in 2020.

 

Twins Projected Bullpen

 

Closer Taylor Rogers

 

Taylor Rogers became one of the elite relievers in the game this past season, recording 30 saves with a 2.61 ERA and 2.63 SIERA/2.85 FIP en route to a 2.1 fWAR—fifth-highest among qualified relievers. In past seasons, Rogers had a sinker and curveball combination. The most recent season, however, he’s broken out the slider more often, throwing the frisbee 34.6% of the time. The slider has a .215 xwOBA, which ranks 34th best among pitchers throwing it at least 250 times, and was the main reason why Rogers broke the lefty specialist mold of seasons past, as right-handers had a .229 xwOBA against the pitch.

Furthermore, Rogers added velocity to his sinker, jumping from 93.5 mph in 2018 to 94.8 mph in 2019, which helped decrease the pitch’s xwOBA to .277 (.324 in 2018) and increase its ground ball rate to 61.6% (50.6% in 2018).

While Rogers did improve dramatically, he did struggle when pitching on one day of rest or fewer—1.023 OPS against on no days rest and a .803 OPS on one day rest. While I expect him to repeat his achievement of 30 saves in 2020, given how often the Twins will be in winning situations this year, Rogers will have to improve when pitching on short rest to maximize the save opportunities presented to him.

 

Setup Sergio Romo

 

The man who struck out Miguel Cabrera to win the 2014 World Series has bounced around in recent years and finally found himself in the Twin Cities. Romo’s calling card is his slider, which produced a .229 xwOBA, and he threw it 60% of the time in 2019. While his fastballs aren’t very good—.432 xwOBA on the sinker and .370 xwOBA on his four-seamer—Romo only conceded an 84.6 mph average exit velocity and a 5.3% Barrel/BBE.

The slider is key for Romo’s success—if he doesn’t have it working, he’ll stink. While his performances have been inconsistent in seasons past, which has resulted in struggles, Romo returned to form this past season. Still, despite being in line for a significant number of holds since he’s a late-inning reliever on an elite club, I’m not sure it’s worth stomaching the risk of Romo flopping.

 

Setup Trevor May

 

Trevor May was moved to the bullpen in 2017 and two years later he became an integral part of the Twins’ success. The success was derived from a high-90s heater with an above-average spin. With that combination, May rode it, using the four-seamer 60% of the time, and ended up with a whopping 17.3 pVAL on the pitch—it was 0.9 in 2018. The dramatic increase can be attributed to how it was used, as May threw his four-seamer in the upper third of the zone a career-high 23.3% of the time, yielding a .266 xwOBA. Considering some of the league leaders in this department (like teammate Jake Odorizzi) get up to roughly 30% of the time, you should expect an increase and possibly even better results.

May had 17 holds and two saves out of four opportunities. I expect there are possibly more save opportunities coming if Taylor Rogers continues to struggle in back to back outings.

 

Middle Tyler Duffey

 

Like May, Tyler Duffey was also a failed starter who finally had his best season in relief after switching to the bullpen two years prior, ending with a 2.50 ERA and 1.01 WHIP over 57.2 IP in 2019. While Duffey largely relies upon a four-seamer and slider/curve mix, the heater is what makes Duffey great. Duffey’s pVAL on the four-seamer was 9.7, up from -2.2 in 2018, and achieved a 14.9% SwStr, higher than the 9.9% SwStr the year prior. Duffey followed the lead from May and Odorizzi, throwing far more of his four-seamers at the top of the zone—21.6% from 16.8%.

Duffey had 16 holds and no saves in 2019, but I expect bigger things in 2020. Given Romo’s propensity for struggles, Duffey might be in line for more holds, depending on who ends up being the “fireman” of the bullpen between May and Duffey.

 

Middle Tyler Clippard

 

Tyler Clippard has used his changeup to keep himself around and now uses different arm slots to sustain his success. That changeup had a 7.9 pVAL, the highest since 2015, and the wily veteran rode this to an 85.0 mph average exit velocity (top 2% in the league) and a .131 xwOBAcon (top 8%).

Clippard’s path to fantasy relevance is to bypass Duffey, May, and Romo into getting more holds and possibly some saves. That possibility takes a lot of ifs, and therefore Clippard should be deemed fantasy irrelevant this season.

 

Middle Zack Littell

 

Zack Littell had a 2.68 ERA in 2019, but the 3.62 FIP and 4.06 SIERA speak to likely regression—the .277 xwOBA on the slider and his four-seamer’s .356 xwOBA certainly don’t help. Despite the grim outlook, Littell’s past season did result in improvements on his slider pVAL, from -3.5 to 6.9, and his four-seamer’s pVAL, from -2.3 to 0.9.

Littell had one hold with no saves and you should expect something very similar in 2020.

 

Watch List

Devin Smeltzer, Cody Stashak, Matt Wisler, Caleb Thielbar

 

Devin Smeltzer spent last season as a swingman between the rotation and bullpen, accumulating a 3.86 ERA. He should start the season in the rotation because of Michael Pineda‘s suspension and recently signed Rich Hill‘s elbow injury. Though once they return, I’d expect Smeltzer to return to the ‘pen. Despite a high spin rate on the four-seamer, Smeltzer’s fastball was crushed to the tune of a .378 xwOBA. Regardless of Smeltzer’s uneasy profile, I’d still expect him to get a shot given the lack of left-handed options in the Twins’ bullpen.

Cody Stashak had a great run in 2019, throwing 25 innings with a 3.85 SIERA, 24% strikeout rate and walking a measly 1% of batters faced. Stashak’s success largely came from a devastating slider that registered a staggering 49.4% whiff rate and 29.5% put away percentage. However, there could be major regression heading Stashak’s way as a microscopic 26% ground ball rate with a 1.08 HR/9 speaks to a much larger number in 2020—Depth Charts has him at 1.78 HR/9. For Stashak’s sake, he’ll need to find a pitch that registers more ground balls.

Matt Wisler spent time with both the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners this past season and has now joined the Minnesota Twins. What’s fascinating about Wisler is how his slider usage has ballooned over the past couple of seasons. When he first came up in 2015, Wisler threw the breaker 23.5% of the time. In 2019? 70.5%. That’s not a typo, and I am as shocked as you likely are. The reason for this is that his other pitches—four-seamer and sinker—are truly terrible with a .467 xwOBA and .383 xwOBA, respectively. This approach yielded a 5.61 ERA, so it wasn’t entirely successful, but possibly some rebound in his four-seamer could make him more appealing.

Finally, we reach Caleb Thielbar. Thielbar is a name Twins fans may remember, as he pitched for the team from 2013-15. Despite having a 1.76 ERA in ’13, Thielbar got considerably worse and was eventually waived in 2015. This past season, Thielbar spent most of his time in Triple-A in the Detroit Tigers system, where he achieved a 3.30 ERA and 3.11 FIP backed by a 24.4% K-BB%. Thielbar never produced gaudy strikeout totals in his previous stint with the Twins, so last season’s totals were quite unexpected. Now 32 years old and on a minor-league contract, Thielbar could end up with a role in Minnesota’s bullpen because of a lack of southpaws.

Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

Jai Correa

Jai Correa is an alumnus of UMass Amherst. He is incredibly passionate about the Red Sox, Indian cricket and economics.

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