Is This Front Office Truly Enlightened About Pitching?
Image courtesy of Kim Klement, USA Today (Jake Odorizzi)While Ivy League educations are now becoming the norm at 1 Twins Way, it didn't take a Harvard grad to see that Minnesota needed to seriously upgrade its rotation for 2018.
Opinions differ on the seriousness of their attempts, but the Twins did take a shot at top names like Yu Darvish and Chris Archer this offseason. When they deemed the threshold for acquiring these potential aces too high for their liking, Falvey and GM Thad Levine lowered their gaze substantially and pivoted to a pair of extremely low-risk – and seemingly low-upside – options.
On Friday, they signed free agent Anibal Sanchez to a non-guaranteed deal that will max out at $5 million if he sticks and earns incentives. A day later, they traded shortstop prospect Jermaine Palacios to the Tampa Bay Rays for right-hander Jake Odorizzi.
These certainly aren't the kinds of authoritative, high-impact additions fans hoped to see. In terms of money, commitment length, and player capital, the Twins gave up very little to bring the two aboard. It appears Falvey is going all-in on his revamped department's ability to maximize these assets and extract hidden value.
Between the two cases, there is a common thread worth keeping an eye on.
Suite of Arms
Ever since he arrived in 2016, Falvey has been systematically and continually building out the organization's baseball operations. His inspired outside hires have included Director of Baseball Operations Daniel Adler and Director of Minor League Operations Jeremy Zoll, both renowned for their intelligence and analytical chops.
Falvey is a strong believer in collaboration, astutely understanding that successful execs surround themselves with the right people and listen to them. To this end, he has put a clear focus on pitching specializations. Last summer, the Twins brought in former big-league hurler Jeremy Hefner as a data-driven video scout. In December, they lured Josh Kalk – considered a pitching analytics expert – away from the Rays as a senior analyst.
That latter name is interesting with regard to Minnesota's newest player acquisition.
Kalk is of course very familiar with Odorizzi, who threw almost 700 innings in Tampa after being picked up in the 2012 James Shields trade. The right-hander was highly effective in 2015 and 2016, posting a 3.53 ERA and 3.98 FIP. With those kinds of numbers, he'd be a slam-dunk add for Minnesota – especially at the cost of Palacios, a good-not-great prospect who was buried on the org depth chart.
Of course, Odorizzi wasn't that same pitcher in 2017, producing career-worsts in ERA (4.14 ERA) and FIP (5.43). But it stands to reason that Kalk and others see something fixable.
Leveraging the very same PitchF/X data that Kalk is said to have excelled with using in Tampa Bay, Travis Sawchik of FanGraphs argued over the weekend that Odorizzi may be one adjustment away from turning the corner. The piece is worth reading, as Sawchik lays out pitch usage, location, release points and more to establish a fairly convincing case for Odorizzi's issues being correctable.
The Anibal Challenge
Turning around a pitcher like Odorizzi – a former first-rounder and top prospect who's still only 27 and has a recent track record of MLB success – isn't a monumental undertaking. Far more ambitious was the assignment Minnesota's brain trust took on a day earlier, with the signing of Sanchez.
When news came down on Friday afternoon that the Twins had reached agreement with the embattled right-hander, it hit like a ton of bricks, for numerous reasons. Pent-up frustration of a long and unfulfilling winter, punctuated by the recent Darvish letdown, surely factored.
But there's also this: Sanchez has been one of the worst starting pitchers in the league over the past few years. Twins fans have watched from up-close while his $80 million contract with the Tigers deteriorated into a liability they paid $5 million to cut loose after last season.
In 2017 Sanchez faced the Twins far more than any other team, and posted an 8.69 ERA against them. In 2016 he went 0-4 with a 10.13 ERA in four starts against Falvey's Indians.
This front office has has seen Sanchez at his worst, extensively, and they still wanted him. In an odd way, that kind of inspires confidence.
While it's easy to draw parallels, this isn't in the same vein as ill-fated past investments like Kevin Correia or Jason Marquis. It could easily end up the same way, but the Sanchez signing wasn't simply an attempt to procure veteran innings, regardless of their quality. It's said to be an "analytically driven" move.
And, at a glance, there is some validity to it. Last September, Tigers reporter Evan Woodbery wrote that while Sanchez's time in Detroit was assuredly coming to a close, "There will be a team (or perhaps several) enticed by his peripherals, which remain incredibly, absurdly, inexplicably strong for a pitcher with a 7-ish ERA."
Sure enough, it would seem the Twins weren't alone in having interest. Although Sanchez's contract is non-guaranteed, it is a major-league deal, meaning that he will occupy a 40-man roster spot in camp and is entitled to more compensation if he gets cut than your typical non-roster invite (e.g. last year's nonconventional pet project, Craig Breslow).
The fact that an MLB contract was required to get this done suggests Minnesota was not bidding against itself. Despite the ugly numbers, Sanchez has some legitimately appealing qualities. His 3.59 K/BB ratio in 2017 would've outranked every Twins starter. He induced a spectacular 15% swinging strike rate over his final four starts and averaged a strikeout per inning in the second half.
Just like Odorizzi, the 34-year-old hurler's biggest weakness last year was the long ball.
Although his fastball has gradually lost its oomph, becoming entirely too hittable in the process, Sanchez's splitter-changeup remains a powerful weapon. He also has that much in common with Odorizzi, who himself leans on a vaunted split-fingered change, having learned the grip from former Rays teammate (and current free agent) Alex Cobb.
It's worth noting that Fernando Rodney, another newly minted member of the Twins pitching staff, features a "magic changeup" of his own. The changeup was said to be a key focus that Neil Allen brought over from Tampa's system when he came on as pitching coach, and while he has moved on, that emphasis evidently has not.
The Big Gamble
In acquiring Odorizzi and Sanchez, the Twins are minimizing their material risk. They've only given up an expendable prospect and about $11 million, tops. They're not tied to either pitcher beyond 2018 (though Odorizzi will be arbitration-eligible again in 2019).
But in another sense, they're taking a huge risk, by betting so strongly on their own ability to help these pitchers cut down on long balls and reach another level of production. Misguided overconfidence would be hugely detrimental, because this pitching staff needed a much bigger jolt than the 2017 versions of Odorizzi or Sanchez would provide. Much bigger.
The Breslow experiment, while carrying far lower stakes, went down as a whiff on Falvine's first analytically driven attempt to uncover a diamond in the rough. Will these ventures, overseen by a collection of brilliant minds in the front office and guided by a new pitching coach in Garvin Alston, turn out more favorably?
For a team that's already making a number of precarious gambles in the rotation, with players like Kyle Gibson and Adalberto Mejia figuring to land spots, rounding out the mix with Odorizzi and Sanchez is a harrowing choice, even if the mindset behind it is sound and reasonable.
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