Minnesota Making Strikeouts A Priority
Image courtesy of © Adam Hunger-USA TODAY SportsIn 2017, Minnesota’s best K/9 among starters was recorded by Jose Berrios (8.6). No other starting pitcher posted better than Adalberto Mejia’s 7.8 K/9 and a combined 38 starts from Hector Santiago, Phil Hughes and Bartolo Colon saw just 6.5, 6.4, and 5.3 K/9 marks respectively. In short, the Twins starting staff simply didn’t send batters back to the dugout on their own merits often enough. Unfortunately, 2017 wasn’t a simple outlier.
You have to go back to 2012 in order to find the last instance in which a Twins starter recorded a K/9 over 9.0 (Francisco Liriano 9.8). If you want to add a second starter to the requirements, the last time Minnesota had two starting pitchers with 9.0+ K/9 in the same season was 2006 (Liriano 10.7 & Johan Santana 9.4). It’s been a trail of misery both in the rotation and the pen when it comes to strikeout stuff, and all too often the Twins have been synonymous with pitching to contact. We may have finally reached a breakthrough however.
Last year, five teams in the big leagues had two starters with at least a 9.0 K/9 (Boston, Arizona, Washington, Cleveland, and the Yankees). While the goal for Minnesota should be to get one pitcher in that grouping of 20 averaging at least one strikeout per inning, they’re beginning to stack the deck. At the big league level, we’ve only begun to see what Jose Berrios is capable of, and he could be joined by some capable hurlers in short order.
For whatever it’s worth, Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, Kyle Gibson and whoever else may find themselves as holdovers in the rotation, aren’t going to profile as strikeout guys. On the farm however, Stephen Gonsalves and Fernando Romero could definitely be cut from that cloth. Both have now pitched at least at Double-A, and continue to set batters down with ease.
Romero, the harder thrower of the two, owned an 8.6 K/0 in 2017 at Double-A Chattanooga. Across 23 starts in his second year removed from Tommy John surgery, the 22 year-old recorded 120 strikeouts across 125.0 IP. After compiling 9.0 K/9 at Cedar Rapids and Fort Myers in 2016, the slight decline in his first test with the new level was to be expected. Command became a bit of an issue as evidenced by the 3.2 BB/9 in 2017, but youth is still on his side. He’ll need to establish himself at Triple-A prior to a big league call up, but upper 90’s velocity and impressive stuff is going to push him towards being a strikeout pitcher at the highest level.
As a 6’5” lefty, Gonsalves has the ability to get on hitters quickly. While his velocity is a bit lower, registering more mid-90s, the strikeout numbers have always been there. After a strong 2016 with a 10.0 K/9 across two levels, he followed up with a 9.7 K/9 at Double and Triple-A in 2017. For the Lookouts, his 9.9 K/9 was a bit of a dip over the 10.8 K/9 mark in 2016, but he reigned in the walks to a manageable 2.4 BB/9. On the surface, the Triple-A debut doesn’t look good, but in four starts, there was one six run clunker amidst three quality starts with a combined 21 strikeouts across 19.0 IP.
Obviously for both Gonsalves and Romero, the challenge will be continuing to maintain the current pace as they rise to their eventual destination at Target Field. After posting a career 9.6 K/9 across 98 minor league starts, Jose Berrios has an 8.3 K/9 mark thus far in the big leagues. He did jump a full strikeout (7.6 to 8.6 K/9) in his second year with the Twins, and there’s plenty of reason to believe we haven’t yet seen the best of him. The home-grown trio has a real possibility to be a nice monster for Minnesota in terms of starting rotation talent, and that they can miss bats only furthers that possibility.
The game has changed in recent years, and the Twins have been slow to adapt, but the ship seems headed for a better course with this group. If there’s an addition of Yu Darvish (10.0 K/9 in 2017), Shoehei Ohtani (10.3 career K/9), or Lance Lynn (8.5 K/9 2013-15 pre TJ), the group only adds another weapon. No matter what happens, it appears Paul Molitor and new pitching coach Garvin Alston will have some strikeout weapons at their disposal for the first time in quite a while.
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