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How Would You Shorten the A.L.'s Best Strikeout Bullpen for October?

Derek Wetmore

The Twins are the A.L.’s Best Strikeout Bullpen, and they're doing it with more than just the top-end arms. The impressive depth is a glimpse into their roster-building beliefs, and it also raises questions about how to best use their depth of talent once October rolls around.The Twins lead the American League in reliever strikeout rate, at 27.8%. Their bullpen arms rack up punchouts more often than the Indians (26.9%), A’s (25.6%) and White Sox (25.2%) – collectively, their stiffest competition in the quest for the obscure but no doubt Very Real title of the A.L.’s Best Strikeout Bullpen (on a rate basis). It’s a long title but trust me it’s coveted.


Ten different Twins pitchers have called themselves relievers and pitched more than 10 innings so far this season – six of those guys have struck out at least 30% of the hitters that they’ve been asked retire. Lower that threshold for innings and Cody Stashak jumps on the board, too.


This dawned on me while I was researching a column about the Twins ahead of the trade deadline this year. I was trying to make a point about Archie Bradley and his theoretical value to a Twins team that almost certainly would make the postseason – and just as certainly will have some questions to answer once it gets there. (Note: Andrew made the point here for Twins Daily.)


Bradley has a good but not great strikeout rate. He’s punched a ticket for 25% of the hitters that he's faced this year, and did it for 26.7% of them over the previous three seasons combined. I was trying to make the comparison to the Twins bullpen, and without over-fitting by using stats profiles, I do think it’s helpful to communicate more than the math: “Tyler Duffey has a 33.9% strikeout rate.” It’s a little easier to picture, for some, when you read or hear “Tyler Duffey this season is striking out hitters a little bit more often than Kenley Jansen and Ryan Pressly, for example.”


The topic came up in a recent interview with Dan Hayes for a podcast, in which the esteemed Athletic beat writer claimed that the Twins had 10 reliable relievers that they could go to, and I said As If, and he started listing them. Hayes has a point. If each reliever is going good, the Twins' pitching staff is deep.


Here’s the current strikeout rate by Twins relievers, for reference:


Trevor May, 38.4% (16.2 innings)

Cody Stashak, 34.4% (8 innings)

Tyler Duffey, 33.9% (16.2 innings)

Jorge Alcala, 30.7% (19 innings)

Caleb Thielbar, 30.4% (13.1 innings)

Taylor Rogers, 30.2% (14.1 innings)

Sergio Romo, 30.0% (15.1 innings)

Matt Wisler, 27.7% (12 innings)

Tyler Clippard, 27.1% (15.1 innings)


And that’s cool when you’re considering that the postseason seeding hangs in the balance in the very near future, because depth of pitching staff is a good way to string together wins and win series over a six month nine-week season. I always find it interesting, though, to compare with recent World Series winners, and what they basically tell us is you should count on six relievers.


Six relievers and some creative use of your starters, like the Nats did with Patrick Corbin last season in their improbable run to the World Series title. The year before, the Red Sox used seven bullpen arms, although in fairness they also deployed starters Chris Sale, David Price and Eduardo Rodruiguez in relief on special occasions.


The runner-up Dodgers that year used eight relievers; runner-up Houston last season used eight relievers, and also had Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander, so let’s consider that numbers as the upper bound for this exercise. Again, 10 relievers that you can trust is nice to have in the regular season and can lead to a luxury ‘pen situation for the manager and pitching coaches, but it’s also instructive to narrow our focus with an eye toward October.


This actually stitches together two conversations that could use some further exploration. I debated this week about the first four starters you’d use in a postseason series. Really, you might only get to pick three. And with six starters going to stake their claim to those spots for the Twins over the next three weeks, what do you do with the runners up?


Which starters would be best suited to pitch out of the bullpen? Kenta Maeda is the most convenient answer because of his experience but I think you’d want him starting Game 1 if you had to pick today.


And further down that decision tree, if you’re going to pitch somebody out of the bullpen from the group of Maeda, Michael Pineda, José Berríos, Randy Dobnak, Rich Hill and Jake Odorizzi, which relievers are you sacrificing for that move?


The Bullpen Trust Tree is ever evolving, and I’m fascinated to see what it looks like by the end of this calendar month.


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The guy who has impressed me of late is Alcala. For one thing, you can count on him for two innings (not sure I would say the same about most of our bullpen), and there are times where that is at least desirable and maybe necessary. He's also young and on the upswing, sort of like Dobnak was last year.

With the caveat that they all have done well this year and all are excellent component parts, I would probably drop Stashak and Wisler. Stashak is mostly injury concerns - if there are none, then I'd keep him and drop Clippard. With Wisler, I just don't trust a one pitch pony. Granted, you might say the same about Romo, but Romo has proven it in high leverage situations for a longer period of time. Clippard has done fine, but he is at the bottom of this strikeout list.

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I don't really like the idea of starters throwing out of the pen in the playoffs unless we are trying to save our pen for a game when we are winning.  Id like to see a rotation of:


Big Mike





Rich Hill would be odd man out for me, but is someone to pick up the slop innings in a blowout loss (which ain't happening this year!!).


After the 5th inning, I like May, Duffey, Romo, and Rogers in no particular order.  Rogers has had a tough go of it this year and it just seems like he doesn't have an 'out pitch' when I've watched him. His breaking ball is horrible when he's trying to throw it for a strike, what a hanger.  Personally, I'd like to see May get more chances to close and use that lefty for more situational stuff.

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I would not move any of the starters to pen, if they do not make starting list they can sit out the post-season.  Out of pen you want guys that can strike out guys, which is what we have now.  This is because if you ever come in with runners on the K is the best way to limit runs from scoring.  If they are the 5th or 6th starter it is unlikely they would be ahead of the 6th or even 8th pen arm.  If I had to choose, Hill would be the guy only because he has done pen work in the past and would be a change of pace for a short burst.  


Overall, the pen has been good, and even the unproven guys have stepped up to look good.  Yes, each have had a rough outing or two but that is going to happen, just hope not in the playoffs. 

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Odorizzi is out.


Hill would need an opener. Or just be glad if he opens and gives you 3-4.


May IS the guy you want if you want a strikeout. But he can also be very very bad. And one batter pitchers no longer exist, unless it is inning ending.


Who's not going to be here in 2021. Clippard?


It makes the Twins bullpen strong. Along with three solid starters in Pineda, Madea and Berrios. Dobnak is the dark horse. Wisler is valuable as he can pitch mroe than one inning, something that we are also seeing in Alcala.

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Rocco's bullpen usage has been erratic, to say the least.  This has been caused by a number of factors: short starts, bullpen games, injuries, Rogers ineffectiveness, and as the author notes, a number of new faces who have surprised.  No doubt, Rocco will have to sort thru this shortened season and select the 7 or 8 relievers who gives the team the best chance in the playoffs.  However, it's a bit premature to try guessing today who will be selected.  A critical 10 game stretch against the Indians, Sox and Cubs will pretty much tell the tale of who can be relied on in critical situations.


Typically, past year's success is of paramount importance, but we should not overlook 45 game stats this season, either.  If Rocco opted for veteran relievers, then no doubt Rogers, Romo, Clippard, Duffy, and May should all be locks - and they probably will be no matter what transpires over the next 10-15 games.  However, as Mike Link has pointed out, May has been very erratic, coughing up 4 HRs in 14 innings.  This could be ruinuous in a 3 or 5 game series.  I love a shutdown late-inning reliever as much as anyone and Ks/9 are a valid measuring point but it's not enough.  May's HR rate is alarming and I, for one, would put him under a microscope these next 10 games, as I would Rogers who has cost the Twins 5 losses in 45 games.  Not up to me to determine if he's over what ailed him.  Again, let's see how he performs over the next 10 days.


Based on past records plus this season, it looks like Romo, Duffy and (lastly) Clippard look like reliable late inning relievers.  Rogers and May will be somewhere in the pecking order but maybe not as high as some think.  To these five, I would say that Stashak, Alcala and Wisler look the most reliable, but again withholding final judgment over the remaining games.  I do hope that Rocco is not too rigid in his use of his bullpen in the last 15 games, as these should be games that determine who is most reliable going into the playoffs.


One last comment on the playoff roster.  The top 3 starters are pretty much set(barring injuries) - Maeda, Pineda and Berrios(maybe in that order).  Lets hope ODO reestablishes himself these last two weeks as a reliable #4.  As others have mentioned a combination of Hill and Dobnak as long relievers or, a bullpen game tandem(god forbid) makes the most sense.  Neither of those two can be counted to go thru a strong lineup more than once.  And a piece of advice to Rocco: if your starter looks strong don't pull him in the 5th or 6th; by this time in the season they should pitch into the seventh barring any blowups.  That would help the bullpen more than anything!

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I hate to say this - it will cause a lot of angst among my fellow commentors - I would drop Trevor May - his performance has been too erratic.  Then it would be Clippard based on recent outings.  So there is the answer cut off the top and the bottom!

I find it hard to argue with you about May. He is prone to occasionally fall apart and he gets hit HARD when he gets hit. The outs he gets come by strikeout, but opponents are slashing .275/.315/.493 with 2.7 HR/9 against him this year. 

I like May a lot, but that's not dominance and among this group he isn't standing out the right way.  


Clippard though? All he does is get outs.

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While I do like the high K/9 stats, relievers are about more than strikeouts.


Yes there are times when a big strike-out is needed, but things like save%, hold%, Inherited Runners Scored, walk%, etc. need to be taken into consideration when decisions are being made about who should be in the 'pen.


That is why the 2 at the bottom of the K% list should continue get strong consideration as viable options.

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Do we know if rosters are dropping to 26 for the playoffs this year? If not, keep them all. Maybe drop one to keep Hill on the roster, because that dude is as good as any in MLB one time thru the lineup.


We know, based on studies published by Fangraphs, BP, etc, that relievers carry an ERA about one run higher on day two of back-to-back usage vs 1+ day off. That means we should basically never use a reliever two games in a row since we have so much depth. I trust Matt Wisler on rest to perform better than Tyler Duffey on day two of a back-to-back...in any situation.


So bring them all and use them all. There is no reason to bring depth for position players except in the case of injury. Cave will be essentially relegated to pinch running duties. Gonzales and Adrianza may only be late inning defensive replacements for Arraez and Sano. You only need two catchers. 13 position players and 15 pitchers seems good to me for a 28 man roster.


Now if the roster is 26, then we have to talk cuts.

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Just my opinion obviously. But at this point I would have a rotation of Berrios, Pineda, Maeda with Dobnak being #4 swingman. Obviously he wouldn't be needed that often especially since the first series is only 3 games. But that gives you 4 on the staff.


Then I'd try to prepare for best case scenario is that your starters give you 6 minimum; then you need 3 guys to get you to the end of the game.


Now I think the Twins bullpen has been good this year, but they aren't great pitchers in my mind, I think they do a great job, but when they get seen by the same team too many times that they start to get figured out, just like that game in Detroit where May and Duffy blew up. They hadn't pitched back to back games, but the tiger hitters saw them on Friday and now seen them again. So hopefully with the bullpen depth the Twins can limit how many times these guys get seen. Maybe have like 6 main relievers for innings 7 through 9. May, Duffy, Alcala, Rogers, Romo, Clipboard. Then maybe keep Hill because he has a lot of playoff experience, he can start and he can relieve he has in the past done it all, and over the last 4 - 5 years or so has had a very nice K%. That gives you 11, now the decision centers around keeping 2 more guys for those ooops just in case games. Maybe the Twins are up by 15 or down by 15 regardless the Twins don't need to burn another pitcher.


So now you have to pick between Stashak, Theilbar, Wisler, and Odorizzi. If you take Wisler and Odorizzi that gives you 13 pitchers?
















That gives you 13 pitchers.

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I think for the playoffs you go with guys that have playoff experience. As far as starters go Maeda and Pineda and then whoever is hot between Berrios and Dobnak. Berrios is getting a lot of slack for someone who hasn’t pitched great.

I hear you, but Berrios has more playoff experience than Pineda and I think Berrios was removed far too soon from Game 1 last October. Pass on Dobnak and don’t forget about Hill and Odo.
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Here's where I'd put the bullpen as to where I'm trusting people, leverage-wise:


Firemen: Duffey, Clippard

Long men (able to go an inning or more): Stashak, Alcala, Thielbar

"Closers": May, Rogers, Romo, Wisler


Hard to believe, but of this group, I'd actually say I trust May the least to get through an inning without being dinged for a run. Duffey's your fireman in the playoffs, you send him in when any inning is in danger. I'd trust any three of Rogers, Romo or Wisler (LOVE his slider) to close out a game with how they're pitching right now, and Alcala, Stashak and Thielbar are all guys I'd bring in as bridges to the late inning guys. Definitely a very interesting pen and I'm intrigued to see what it looks like next season.

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