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Joe Smith, Velocity, and the Twins' Ultimate Gamble


Twins Daily Contributor

On March 19th, the Twins officially announced the signing of reliever Joe Smith to a one-year deal. It was the quintessential Derek Falvey acquisition. The team ignored declining velocity, instead choosing to bank on Smith’s historic consistency—a consistency that stems from his unique traits that fly in the face of the modern velocity obsession—to carry him for one more season. It may be only one move, but the signing, on top of a handful of other moves by the front office, signals a divergence away from the general baseball consensus and may define the team’s future.

In the fanfare and celebration of signing Carlos Correa, you'd be forgiven if you missed the Twins inking 38-year-old Joe Smith to a one-year pact. Smith, an MLB pitcher since the Bush administration, is precisely the style of reliever favored by Falvey and company. His average fastball hasn’t tickled 90 MPH in years, and much of his effectiveness is rooted in “funkiness,” a pitching trait in the Potter Stewart philosophy of “I know it when I see it.” In the case of Smith, his unique, low arm slot is his special calling card.

Smith now joins the likes of Matt Belisle, Fernando Rodney, Zach Duke, Sergio Romo, and Tyler Clippard as an “unusual Twins reliever” acquired during the Falvey regime. That is to say, these bullpeners are (or were) atypical in their archetype—age or poor fastball velocity lowered the industry opinion of them, whether fair or not. But the Twins, perhaps believing in a philosophical blind spot, decided to trust in their past effectiveness and were rewarded with mixed but generally positive results. Belisle caught fire in the second half of 2017 to help lead the team to their first playoff appearance in seven years, Rodney and Duke both performed just well enough to net prospects in 2018, Romo was crucial in cementing a shaky Twins bullpen in 2019, and Clippard was a quality reliever for the Twins during the truncated 2020 season.

Of course, the Twins haven’t solely focused on cast-offs from the island of misfit toys; they have signed or acquired more prototypical relievers like Addison Reed, Sam Dyson, and Alex Colomé on top of their usual assortment of unique funkmasters. Funny enough, it seems like they have had better fortune with odd relievers than with your more standard ones, but that isn’t quite the point of this article. 

Why ignore velocity?

The Twins, as pointed out by Tom Froemming, had a velocity problem in May 2021 and had not fixed that issue by October 2021. It is March 2022, and the symptoms still persist. None of the four assumed starters possess an average fastball velocity that tops 93 MPH—a fact entirely at odds with the front office’s implications that velocity would be a top priority when they took over command of decision-making in 2016. Both newly-acquired starters, Sonny Gray and Dylan Bundy, are more masters of breaking balls than fireballers. Taylor Rogers and Jorge Alcala are the only true flamethrowers established in the bullpen.

When diagnosing the malady, we must remember that there is nuance in team building; teams like the Twins count all their chips to the last penny as their room for error is smaller than other franchises. The team could quickly cash in and deal their top prospects for high-octane arms or sign the fastest-tossing relievers with little care for the long-term implications of those decisions. Still, such moves would not only likely hurt the franchise, but it would also open them up to being dunked on by randoms on Twitter years in the future, and that’s a risk no one wants to take.

Why ignore velocity?

Velocity is expensive, perhaps too much so. Corey Knebel (96.5 MPH) signed for $10 million, Joe Kelly (98.1 MPH) signed for $17 million over two years, and Kendall Graveman (96.5 MPH), signed for $24 million over three years. With no disrespect, none of those three players have been particularly consistent in their performance (or with health), but teams see their “stuff” and can’t help but imagine a perfect world where it all comes together for such a player.

Trading for velocity can also be expensive. The White Sox parted with two young, talented players in Nick Madrigal and Codi Heuer to acquire Craig Kimbrel, the Padres gave up their 9th best prospect, Mason Thompson, for half a season of Daniel Hudson, and the fact that the Twins received anyone for Hansel Robles showed that teams are willing to ignore performance in favor of the allure of stuff.

The same can be said for prospects. Arms that can sit in the high-90s are valued highly because the upside of that player is tantalizing. We’ve seen the natural sheen of “stuff” blind teams into ignoring risk because they see the next Roger Clemens in an arm that will likely flame out in high-A. The Twins have recognized this and seem to tap their higher-velo arms in deals; Huascar Ynoa, Luis Gil, Brusdar Graterol, and Chase Petty all own big fastballs, but now pitch for other organizations.

The guess is that the team is leveraging industry opinions on fastball velocity to acquire major-league talent they otherwise could not have if the pitcher were your average 93-95 MPH Joe. Or, to simplify, they think other teams over-value fastballs and are trying to find value in overlooked arms. Consider the Smith signing; $2.5 million for Joe Smith’s consistency is a bargain if you choose to look at his performance absent velocity implications. The Gray trade looks exquisite as well. Acquiring a great starting pitcher for a pitcher four or so years away from debuting is a masterclass in fleecing. 

Has it worked? The results are iffy. Twins pitching was undeniably elite in 2019 and 2020 when their team average fastball velocity sat in the bottom five of the league but fell off entirely in 2021. We shall see how 2022 plays out, but the prospects so far do not look good. Shoot, 43-year-old Johan Santana might be an upgrade to the starting rotation.

That isn’t to say the team is completely ignoring velocity. Jordan Balazovic is capable of sitting 94-95, Jhoan Duran hits 100 daily, Josh Winder can sit in the mid-90s, and Matt Canterino can do the same. The team is still focusing on velocity, but more on developing said heat, not paying for it upfront. If a pitching prospect can throw hard, great, but their velocity isn’t as prioritized as other aspects of their game. If another team overvalues a prospect’s velocity? Ship him off and receive a more bountiful return than expected. Again, it is unclear if the plan has been successful or not, but the Twins unquestionably believe in their process.


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Good article.  I know the baseball world has fell in love with high velo, and at time ignore good output despite the velo.  Of course high velo can be effective, but it mainly just makes up for poor performance in other areas.  Although I could never hit high velo, I believe changing of speeds and location is always more important that just speed.  I have seen hitters turn 100 plus MPH around.  For MLB hitters when you know it is coming and it has little to no movement hitters can do it.  

However, when a guy loses his velo and still is productive, I believe they will pitch for many years because they know how to pitch.  They know how to work the hitter, hitting corners, mixing speeds and locations, keeping the hitter off balance.  I have seen good hitters hit good pitches because they expected it.  

If I was running a team, you can start with velo for a pitcher, but if a mid to late 30's guy has been around with low velo and keeps being productive I do not care.  I do not care if a guy pumps 100 or 85 MPH if both get an out, they both get an out.  Now, I feel it is much more of a risk if a guy was throwing mid 90's then is only throwing 90 and has no track record of success with the decreased velo.  To me that is where you need to be worried, because he has not shown he can get by with reduced velo.  Smith has clearly shown he can do it. 

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Interesting take, Matt.  I guess I am convinced that signing Smith is less reflective of an overall philosophy with respect to velocity than it is of an overall philosophy to sign cheap relievers.  I think the old guy/low velocity signings you mentioned had one thing in common:  they were cheap additions.  I think the philosophy of the FO is to let the market play out and sign the best of the rest at reduced rates.  Given the on again, off again nature of relievers, I am not sure that is a bad philosophy, but you aren't likely to get any shut down relievers that way who would help you win a pennant.

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Huascar Ynoa, Luis Gil, Brusdar Graterol, and Chase Petty -  They look pretty good to me.  I would be happy to have all four on our staff right now.  

I am not against the "junk ball" pitcher as a change of pace in the BP and I hope Smith does well.  Like Bundy and Archer, we just have to wait and see. 

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I totally agree with this take. Going against the grain and buying the qualities that don't excite the big spenders is a good strategy for mid-market teams, we long as the quality is there. And this year the Twins have taken it a step further. I wonder if they drafted Petty specifically knowing that teams would overpay for his velocity in a trade, as likely happened. And in his case, they cashed him in before possible shortcomings as a pitcher were revealed.

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1 hour ago, mikelink45 said:

Huascar Ynoa, Luis Gil, Brusdar Graterol, and Chase Petty -  They look pretty good to me.  I would be happy to have all four on our staff right now.  

I am not against the "junk ball" pitcher as a change of pace in the BP and I hope Smith does well.  Like Bundy and Archer, we just have to wait and see. 

Twins got Jaime Garcia and catcher, Anthony Recker for Ynoa...bad deal I say; Twins got Jake Cave for Luis Gil...not as bad a deal, but I give the edge to the Yankees; Twins got Maeda for Grateral...edge to the Twins, Maeda has a team friendly contract, but his lost season keeps this from being an over the top Twins edge in this trade; Gray for Petty, only time will tell, but I really like having Sonny Gray for the next 2 years, however Petty is a special pitcher. I understand the wisdom of this Petty/Gray trade, but I had just watched Petty pitch in practice at ST and he was very, very impressive, control- wise, extreme pitch velocity and an amazing slider. Se la vie.. 

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This is interesting and I am kind of starting to buy it.  I think it's definitely true that they pay a lot of attention to secondary characteristics, probably more than the average team.

Another way of looking at the Ynoa, Gil, and Petty trades is that they are much more willing to part with high variance pitching prospects early in their development.  Probably in part they are making larger injury discounts on these valuations compared to other teams.  This would also correlate with velocity and would also be a factor in their valuations of free agents and their valuation of a near MLB ready guy like Graterol, though it would probably be most pronounced for young arms.

I still think for free agent pitchers the main factor is probably just the obvious philosophy that many have pointed out in that they don't give out large contracts and especially don't give out long contracts.

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Very good article. I think the Twins are taking into account far more than just velocity and trying to take a "whole picture" approach to their pitchers. Ryan is a fastball specialist, but not for his velo. Gray relies on his fastball a lot (nearly 60% of his pitches thrown last year were fastballs), but not because of his velo. The smart front offices are looking for elite pitches, not simply velo. Velo can help make a pitch better, but even Ober throwing in the low 90s is deceiving in terms of velo because of his extension and how close he releases the ball. The biggest surprise in all their pitcher moves was actually not bringing Wisler back last year. I'm quite excited to see what the prospects turn into. That's the real test of their philosophy. Being able to develop guys on a consistent basis by maximizing their current repertoire while adding some velo through technology and mechanical tweaks. We'll finally see if they've created a pipeline and their refusal to pay big for pitching will pay off this year.

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3 hours ago, chpettit19 said:

Very good article. I think the Twins are taking into account far more than just velocity and trying to take a "whole picture" approach to their pitchers. Ryan is a fastball specialist, but not for his velo. Gray relies on his fastball a lot (nearly 60% of his pitches thrown last year were fastballs), but not because of his velo. The smart front offices are looking for elite pitches, not simply velo. Velo can help make a pitch better, but even Ober throwing in the low 90s is deceiving in terms of velo because of his extension and how close he releases the ball. The biggest surprise in all their pitcher moves was actually not bringing Wisler back last year. I'm quite excited to see what the prospects turn into. That's the real test of their philosophy. Being able to develop guys on a consistent basis by maximizing their current repertoire while adding some velo through technology and mechanical tweaks. We'll finally see if they've created a pipeline and their refusal to pay big for pitching will pay off this year.

I think this is a really good point. We've seen a few guys come through that had some serious gas...that was also straight as an arrow and MLB hitters can lock in on it in a way that minor leaguers can't. Just because they can throw high 90's doesn't necessarily make them terribly effective. Tyler Duffey has gotten battered around here quite a bit over the last year and there's been a lot of focus on his loss of velocity...but he was still a more effective pitcher than the high heat that Graterol gave LA.

I do agree with the statement that the big velocity give a pitcher more room for error, but having an unusual pitch/approach or two pitches that pair really well with each other is also an advantage. I'd love to know if there's enough data to show if there's any correlation to a sidearmers effectiveness in relation to the number of other sidearm guys there are in the league, for example.

Of course, if Duffey gets his velocity back up to the mid 90's and spends the season paired with Alcala & Duran each gunning it down...are we really that worried about bullpen velocity?

Pitching is about wrecking a hitter's timing. velocity is a useful tool in that arsenal, but not the only one. And I really hate committing big salaries to relievers, when time and time again you see these guys dominate one season and then be just another guy the next. Kimbrel was worth the $16M he made last season...was he worth the $26M he was contracted for over the previous two? (nope)

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This is a really good article. I do have to complain about the tweet that got me to read this article ("Is velocity overrated?") because no, I don't believe it is overrated. However, it is highly valued and it does seem like Falvey/Levine would rather take advantage of other organizations' desire for it and save their money for lesser but also cheaper pitchers. Besides, pitchers (especially bullpens) are highly volatile, so committing only to flamethrowers may not be the best strategy anyway. 

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The Twins, including the current front office, other than Duran, don't trade for velocity. (Mid 90's is not really velocity anymore..... high 90's and above is, and even Rogers doesn't really fit the bill there, either, and who knows how long his rested injured finger lasts......), and they don't sign velocity, either. If they draft it, they trade it. (Petty, Graterol, Gil, Ynoa for example as stated in article). I look for Duran to be traded when he proves he is healthy, if this tact continues. 

I found this article interesting, today.

https://www.mlbtraderumors.com/2022/03/reds-top-prospect-hunter-greene-opening-day-rotation.html

Hunter Greene, who we passed on to get Lewis, even with TJ surgery, will beat Lewis to The Show. We always need pitching, but never even draft the upper tier of prospects when we have the position to do so. 

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8 hours ago, tarheeltwinsfan said:

Twins got Jaime Garcia and catcher, Anthony Recker for Ynoa...bad deal I say; Twins got Jake Cave for Luis Gil...not as bad a deal, but I give the edge to the Yankees; Twins got Maeda for Grateral...edge to the Twins, Maeda has a team friendly contract, but his lost season keeps this from being an over the top Twins edge in this trade; Gray for Petty, only time will tell, but I really like having Sonny Gray for the next 2 years, however Petty is a special pitcher. I understand the wisdom of this Petty/Gray trade, but I had just watched Petty pitch in practice at ST and he was very, very impressive, control- wise, extreme pitch velocity and an amazing slider. Se la vie.. 

2 months of Maeda was very good. The next full year, he was not good and missed most of the year as well. Year 3, this year, he will not play, unless barely at the end of the year and have no arm strength to be a workhorse. Next year he will be "rehabbing" in a post surgery year. End of contract. 

Graterol will probably end up being the closer for the Dodgers this year. We will see what happens. 

I see 2 good months in a 4 year contract. I don't know how we get an edge for 2 months.

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I have a hard time buying that the bullpen will be OK with the main additions being Joe Smith and Jharel Cotton... but like many other positions, its progression will be tied to the prospects. Can Moran stick? Will Cano debut and use velocity to his advantage? Maybe Duran comes up as a reliever and helps out the pen with a lack of speed?

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4 hours ago, h2oface said:

2 months of Maeda was very good. The next full year, he was not good and missed most of the year as well. Year 3, this year, he will not play, unless barely at the end of the year and have no arm strength to be a workhorse. Next year he will be "rehabbing" in a post surgery year. End of contract. 

Graterol will probably end up being the closer for the Dodgers this year. We will see what happens. 

I see 2 good months in a 4 year contract. I don't know how we get an edge for 2 months.

TJ takes out only one year, not two. 

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1 hour ago, Prince William said:

TJ takes out only one year, not two. 

Right, Rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery usually takes about a year, and basically starts the day after surgery. In some cases, up to 2 years are needed for athletes to return to their previous level of ability (hence the "rehabbing" in quotes). In Maeda's case, he will be 12 months September 1, and I read his hoped estimated return is 9/15/2022. He hopes to get some time on the mound this year, but that is really iffy, and would only happen if absolutely no setbacks, which are common. I don't expect Maeda to be close to his 2020 career best performance (in all of 11 regular season games/66.2 innings, and 1 playoff start) all of 2023, if ever. Maybe you do. I expect something, in the first year back, returning to their previous level of ability before the injury, like the mediocre 2021 that he did pitch - 4.66 ERA in 21 starts (Granted, part of that was during the onset of his injury - unclear how much or how long). It usually takes that year to get it back, and 2020 could very well be the best he will ever see, as he will be 35 April 11, 2023, and just past 18 months since surgery. It will be 2 years from surgery on September 1, 2023, with one month left on his contract. 

And unless the Twins sign a new 1 year contract, they are trading the players that they already have with 1 1/2 years to 3 months left on their contract (Pressly, Berrios, Escobar, etc.......) whenever they possibly can. No holding on until free agency, like the Braves with Freddy, or the Dodgers with Seeger, etc.

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3 minutes ago, h2oface said:

Right, Rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery usually takes about a year. In some cases, up to 2 years are needed for athletes to return to their previous level of ability. In Maeda's case, he will be 12 months September 1, and I read his estimated return is 9/15/2022. He hopes to get some time on the mound this year, but that is really iffy. I don't expect Maeda to be close to his 2020 career best performance all of 2023. Maybe you do. I expect something, in the first year back, like the mediocre 2021 that he did pitch - 4.66 ERA in 21 starts. It usually takes that year to get it back, and 2020 could very well be the best he will ever see, and he will be 35 April 11, 2023, and just past 18 months since surgery.

Career best should never be expected to be repeated but should not be viewed as an impossible happening. Watch closely this year as a few of the free agents do not meet their recent statistics. Observational hypothesis but not necessarily researched is that you see a drop off with pitchers then the arm goes under the knife. Maybe Maeda is a stoic individual and tried to pitch through it, hence the longer time of downslide. Recovery could be as 9 months, could be longer. that is the beauty of medicine, it isn't as predictable as fixing a car from the 50'5

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