Twins Rotation Depth Could be Tested Early
Image courtesy of © Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY SportsJ.A. Happ has finally made it to Spring Training with the Minnesota Twins. After being delayed by 2 weeks due to testing positive for COVID-19. With Happ now in camp, it appears the team is ready to take a cautious approach to be sure not to rush him into Opening Day. Such an approach will certainly begin to test the Twins depth of starting pitchers early.
Dan Hayes has written about pitching coach Wes Johnson's confidence in Happ’s ability to be ready for the start of the season because of his experience. There is no doubt that Happ knows how to prepare for a season and was able to work out on his own at home while he awaited the OK to step out of quarantine.
On the other hand, we know that workouts at home are nothing like workouts at the team facilities. Not to mention workouts in front of the eyes of your new pitching coach. While Happ’s experience is a positive, that experience comes with the need to ready a 38-year-old body for a full season of baseball. Any of us who have felt our bodies age know that sometimes our muscles and joints should do one thing, but all of sudden one day they do the unimaginable.
It seems the Twins leadership is already thinking through the reality that it may take Happ a bit longer than what remains of Spring Training to be at full strength for the 2021 regular season. To help Happ properly increase his workload into the regular season, some form of a 6-man rotation being used is at least on the table as an option.
With Randy Dobnak as the 6th starter it would be very possible to run a traditional 6-man rotation with 6-days and 6 different starters. That would help add more rest and space out innings for all the Twins starters in the initial return to a full season. A season that has many wondering how pitcher’s arms will respond after 2020’s 60-game season.
Piggybacking Dobnak with Happ may end up being a more effective option. It may ultimately give more rest to the bullpen as well. There is even an analytic advantage potentially to this set up as Happ is one of many pitchers who experiences a significant drop off in performance after his second time through the lineup. In 2019, Happ went from a OPS against of .781 the first two times through the order to .841 the third.
Now the team has not seemed willing to use the piggybacking approach normally with other pitchers that had some similar time through the order tendencies such as Jake Odorizzi and Rich Hill. The last time they did use this method was in a similar sort of “health” related situation when Michael Pineda was making his way back from injury in 2019 and was paired with Martin Perez.
Devin Smeltzer and Lewis Thorpe would both be able to handle a piggyback role. The only issue with the two of them is they are also left-handers. Usually in this approach you want to give a different look as the second pitcher enters the game making Dobnak much or likely, but it would seem foolish to fully overlook Smeltzer and Thorpe. Especially if Thorpe reaches any of the potential that we hope for.
While Dobnak from a starting experience and handedness perspective is the most obvious piggyback option, there is still some reason for concern for the right-hander. The last we saw of Dobnak wasn’t great and if he is going to run into trouble it is early in his starts. Over his career he carries a .716 OPS the first time through the order compared to .549 the second. There is of course a chance that knowing this is his role it will change his approach and outcome.
The positive is that (barring injury) a 6-man rotation will be a temporary reality. We will potentially get an answer to the question of whether or not the Twins did add enough (or the right) starting pitching depth this offseason.
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