Searching For Relief
Image courtesy of © Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports(Incidentally, if you’re looking for a scenario in which the Twins blow this Wild Card lead – and Minnesotans are trained to do so - the easiest is that Trevor Hildenberger’s heavy usage results in him reverting to merely mortal. He’s never made more than 41 appearances in a season. Last year it was 38. This year he’s at 53 and climbing and also in uncharted territory for innings pitched, too. Sleep tight.)
So I’m looking at the bullpen’s performances lately and looking for some hope.
Let’s classify what I found.
LEFTIES LIMITED TO MIX AND MATCH
Molitor has signaled for lefthander Taylor Rogers a lot; his nine appearances in September now leads the bullpen. It would be nice if that was because he was returning to form. After all, he was outstanding early, leading to a lot of (over?)usage; his 65 appearances leads the team. Whatever the reason, he was no longer a reliable option from mid-July through August 23rd, posting a 7.43 ERA, while his walk rate spiked upward.
But Molitor is now using him mostly in the role in which Rogers entered the season; he’s facing left-handers and not much else. He hasn’t pitched a full inning in almost two weeks. Similarly, Buddy Boshers is going through a small streak of effectiveness, and Molitor is utilizing him in the same way. He’s the third most used reliever this month, but has only thrown four innings.
The truth is that other than Rogers’ remarkable start, neither has shown the ability to get right-handed hitting out in the minors or majors. They’re both useful, but neither seems likely to grow into a bullpen cornerstone.
WAITING TO STEP UP
A trio of right-handers in the bullpen, on the other hand, seem to have some upside, but seem to be stuck a couple steps short of excellence.
Ryan Pressly was supposed to be a bullpen favorite by now. Hell, he was supposed to be so in April. In spring training there were reports of increased velocity for the 28-year-old, and that’s been true; per FanGraphs.com, his 96.2 mph velocity is the highest in his career. But his first few months were dismal, primarily because he just kept giving up home runs.
His second half has been a lot better. His home run rate is halved, and he has a 2.48 ERA (and a .931 WHIP) since the all-star break. But over his five previous outings, he walked five guys (in 6.1 innings) and gave up 3 hits (and a run) in an inning last night. He still looks like he’s the best positioned to be the pitcher the Twins need in the playoffs, but he’s got to start having success in higher leverage situations. One more positive note: he also has “only” been used 52 times, which is 27 less than the Twins relied on him last year.
A high level glance at a stat sheet suggests that Alan Busenitz is the obvious choice to take the next step. From a results standpoint, his ERA (1.65) and WHIP (.988) jump out. So does his 95.9 mph fastball.
But great relievers need to be able to strike out batter. His 6.6 K/9 ratio is low for a reliever, and watching him it seem obvious that his second pitch, a curveball, isn’t doing enough to set up his fastball for clean swings and misses. Until he develops a better strikeout pitch combination, he looks like a true middle reliever, dependable in spurts but not overly reliable.
That has also been the role this year for Tyler Duffey. The 26-year-old seems to have bounced back from his troubles last year, which were, oddly enough, mostly caused by right-handed batters. This year as a fulltime reliever, his fastball velocity is up a tick and so is his strikeout rate. His 4.61 ERA is worse than it should be given his other numbers. He’s been a perfectly acceptable reliever, especially given it is his first year in that role. But if he’s going to become dependable it’s going to be the way Brandon Kintzler and Belisle have become dependable, by pitching smart and professionally to leverage the maximum from his ability. That’s certainly not likely over the next two weeks.
BLAST FROM THE PAST
I’ll throw one more name in there, not because he’s a realistic candidate, but because he was perceived to be a candidate over the last two years, and has the velocity (94.2 mph average fastball) and strikeout rate (9.3 for his career) to be in this conversation. Did you know that Michael Tonkin is back on the roster? He is, and he’s been in three games, albeit blowouts, and they’ve gone relatively well, in that he hasn’t given up a home run yet.
That’s Tonkin’s biggest problem. It was his problem last year, and it was the problem the year before, and he took that art from to a whole new level this April and May, giving up four home runs in his 11 innings, a truly impressive feat.
Then he went to Rochester and gave up only one dinger in the 31 games (and 41.2 IP) in which he appeared. That might give some hope, except he did the same thing in AAA in 2015 (2 HR in 41 IP). And also in 2014 (2 HR in 45 IP). I guess I can’t blame Molitor for keeping Tonkin at arm’s length until he shows a little better track record in the majors, but I also have to wonder if Tonkin just doesn’t need a change of scenery.
As one walks through the options, you can understand why Molitor seems to have so little trust in that group, a fact he demonstrated by having nearly all of them pitch less than an inning in a close game versus the Yankees last night. Whether some of them should have developed further over the year is an open question. How the new management team answers it will likely be a big story this offseason – but that is hopefully more than two weeks away. And should be, if this team can just find some relief.