Can the Twins Trust Taylor Rogers?
Taylor Rogers, 2018-2019:
- 4th in fWAR among MLB relievers (4.0)
- 6th in WPA among MLB relievers (6.15)
- 5th in FIP among MLB relievers (2.59)
- 4th in K/BB among MLB relievers (6.11)
That's among ALL major-league relievers, y'all. The names accompanying him on these lists are the best of the best: Kirby Yates, Aroldis Chapman, Josh Hader, Felipe Vazquez, etc. So, I think it's important to keep that piece of context in mind as we proceed.
It's been a struggle for Rogers in 2020. A disastrous eighth inning on Monday was just the latest in a string of rocky outings for the once-elite closer. With so many slip-ups in high-leverage spots, he now ranks 173rd out of 179 qualified relievers in Win Probability Added this year (-1.15).
But even after crumbling against the White Sox in Chicago, the underlying numbers give almost every indication of a pitcher who's been performing well and experiencing rotten luck. Rogers has the seventh-highest BABIP (.412) among MLB relief pitchers. His K/BB ratio was second-best in the game before he issued a pair of walks on Monday, and is still quite strong at 20-to-3. His 4.86 ERA is accompanied by a 2.90 FIP.
So what's contributing to this drop-off? Well, a look into the Statcast data reveals some noteworthy insights.
Here are his three-year trends across a variety of metrics:
What catches my eye is the progressive decline in whiff rate (64th percentile to 51st to 35th) and Barrel % (79th percentile to 37th to 15th), which seem to correlate with the perception that hitters have been increasingly keyed in on his pitches dating back to midway through last season.
And then there is his flattening curve spin, which has gravitated from top-shelf (89th percentile in 2018) to more ordinary (66th percentile in 2020). Here's a spot where the data matches the eye-test; Rogers has thrown a lot of breaking balls that hang in the zone and get crushed – his 0-2 pitch to Tim Anderson on Monday being a fine example. What's happened to Rogers' formerly phenomenal out pitch?
Here we come across another odd finding in the Statcast data: it says Rogers ditched his slider this year and is only throwing the curve as his breaking pitch. Last year, 35.4% of the lefty's pitches were classified as sliders, and 14.7% as curveballs. This year, they've both melded into a single pitch being thrown 45.3% of the time.
Is this meaningful? I don't know. Statcast isn't perfect at assigning pitch types and Rogers has always thrown hybrid-type breaking balls that dance between designations. But the addition of a slider to his repertoire in 2018 was a big story. Matthew Trueblood wrote about it here earlier this year:
"By now, the story of Rogers’s transformation from fringy lefty specialist to formidable relief ace is familiar to nearly all Twins fans. During the first third of the 2018 season, Rogers tinkered with a new offering, a slider, which he then incorporated as an extra look for hitters hoping to lock in on his sinker and curveball. Since he became comfortable using that slider, he’s been one of the best relievers in baseball."
I can't claim to classify Rogers' pitches by eye any better than Statcast does, but what I've seen sure seems to jibe with the data: Hitters are once again locking in on his sinker and curveball. If he's still throwing two different versions of a breaking ball, it doesn't look that way to me, the computer, or – evidently – opposing hitters. Possibly it's a change in the pitch's shape, or maybe a matter of release point. Either way, it's ceased to be a particularly effective weapon: opponents are holding their own against the curve with a .310 wOBA, and teeing off on the sinker at .409.
Having said all this, it's worth circling back to that point made at the outset: Rogers is a stud relief pitcher. His poor results over less than a 17-inning sample do not outweigh a lengthy track record of excellence, especially when they bear so many signs of being flukey and unsustainable.
But right now, he simply isn't getting the job done. While it's valid to discuss where he should sit in the bullpen hierarchy (and I'm curious to hear thoughts in the comments), there's no question that the Twins will be relying to Rogers as a late-inning crux in the playoffs. Whatever issues are plaguing him, time is running out to get them solved.
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