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  • 2021 Report Cards: Starting Pitchers


    Nash Walker

    The six-month semester is over, and it’s time for Twins report cards. How did members of the starting rotation grade out?

    Image courtesy of © Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

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    Considerations: 

    • Expectations
    • Projections
    • Results
    • Injury 
    • Leverage/Value

    *MINIMUM 50 INNINGS TO QUALIFY*

     

    KENTA MAEDA
    2021: 21 starts, 106 1/3 IP, 4.66 ERA (91 ERA+), 25% K, 7% BB

    After a career year in 2020, expectations were through the roof for Kenta Maeda in 2021. He was now the clear No. 1 on the staff, with PECOTA projecting him to be the third most valuable pitcher (by WARP) in the American League, behind only Shane Bieber and Gerrit Cole. PECOTA cast him as a top-six starter in all of baseball, ahead of aces Max Scherzer, Walker Buehler, and Corbin Burnes. 

    It was apparent from Opening Day that wasn’t going to happen. Maeda’s command was faulty for much of the first half, contributing to a 5.56 ERA in his first 12 starts. His fastball velocity was down an entire tick from 2020, a key warning sign for his eventual elbow surgery. 

    Before he was pulled for good at Yankee Stadium, Maeda was on an eight-start stretch where he posted a 2.98 ERA, 3.08 FIP, and a 4:1 strikeout-to-walk rate, in line with 2020. He was replicating the dominance, but it wouldn’t last long. Maeda underwent Tommy John surgery on September 1st, knocking him out until next June at the absolute earliest. 

    It was an injury-riddled, forgettable season for Maeda, although he did pitch well for much of his second half. 

    GRADE: C-

    JOSÉ BERRÍOS
    2021 (with Twins): 20 starts, 121 2/3 IP, 3.48 ERA (122 ERA+), 25.7% K, 6.5% BB

    For the first time since his breakout in 2017, Berríos entered the season as the Twins’ second-best starter. He dazzled the Milwaukee Brewers in the second game of the year, pitching six perfect innings and further flashing his immense talent. Would this be his Cy Young tour?

    It wasn’t, but Berríos was still very good for the Twins. He replicated his numbers to this point of his career, which paints him as one of the best 20 or 30 starters in baseball. Berríos carried the Twins’ rotation through injuries and ineffectiveness, leading the team in innings despite being traded in July

    José’s 2021 season, along with his career as a Twin, will be remembered in a very positive way. He’s the Twins’ best homegrown pitcher since Johan Santana, and he regularly gave them a chance to win. 

    GRADE: B+

    MICHAEL PINEDA
    2021: 21 starts, 109 1/3 IP, 3.62 ERA (117 ERA+), 19.2% K, 4.6% BB

    We won’t know the full effects of the 2020 Covid season for quite some time, but it impacted Pineda. Because of his suspension, he pitched only 26 2/3 game innings from September of 2019 to April of 2021. 

    On the one hand, Pineda barely surpassed 100 innings and required numerous IL stints throughout the year. His fastball velocity was down, and his strikeout rate was the lowest of his career. 

    But here’s the beauty with him: it often doesn’t matter. He gets outs. Pineda was solidly above league-average with depleted stuff and ranked 20th in ERA+ (117) among 64 American League pitchers who threw at least 100 innings. 

    Pineda was also outstanding in September, posting a 1.85 ERA in five Twins wins. The righty could return for another run if both sides see fit. 

    GRADE: B

    MATT SHOEMAKER
    2021: 11 starts, 60 1/3 IP, 8.06 ERA (53 ERA+), 14.1% K, 9.5% BB

    It may be hard to believe, but Shoemaker’s $2 million deal with the Twins initially looked savvy. He had a track record of injuries but also of success. Shoemaker entered the year with a career 103 ERA+, placing him above league average in over 600 innings. 

    It was a reasonable plan: get as many quality innings as possible from Shoemaker and replace him with Randy Dobnak if need be. Great in theory, awful in practice. Shoemaker exploded after a strong debut in Detroit, allowing 53 runs over his next 54 1/3 innings.

    Shoemaker allowed opponents to hit .297/.367/.537 with 15 homers in just over 60 innings. His opponent’s OPS of .903 matches Kirby Puckett’s All-Star campaign in 1986, when he won the Silver Slugger award and finished sixth for MVP. Woof. 

    GRADE: F-

    J.A. HAPP
    2021: 19 starts, 98 1/3 IP, 6.77 ERA (63 ERA+), 17.3% K, 7% BB

    The J.A. Happ signing is an excellent example of ceiling and floor. The Twins inked Happ with an expectation of 150 innings of decent ball. Happ owned a 3.74 ERA in over 900 innings since 2015, so the veteran seemed like a sure thing. 

    “Happer" was off and running with a sterling 1.91 ERA and .509 opponent’s OPS over his first five starts. With Alexander Colomé struggling, Matt Shoemaker matching him, and Andrelton Simmons middling, did the Twins make the right call on Happ?

    Oh, no, no, no. Unfortunately, the declining strikeout rates and fastball velocity were indeed an omen. The towering lefty got crushed by the White Sox in his next start and never looked back. From that point on, Happ allowed 92 runs in 124 innings. The Twins needed him, and he responded by allowing 28 homers, or over two per nine innings.

    Happ was slightly better than Shoemaker but did his damage over a larger sample. He was traded for RHP John Gant at the deadline. 

    GRADE: F-

    BAILEY OBER
    2021: 20 starts, 92 1/3 IP, 4.19 ERA (102 ERA+), 25.3% K, 5% BB

    Let’s get back on track with a promising rookie. Any reasonable expectation for Ober’s 2021 likely involved a late-September call-up, despite awe-inspiring numbers in the minors and increased velocity. Ober blew that out of the water. He had a 5.84 ERA after six starts, but his response was everything.

    Ober emerged as the Twins’ best starter with a 3.59 ERA and .282 opponent’s On-Base Percentage over his final 14 starts. Ober shut down prolific offenses along the way. He held the Red Sox scoreless at Fenway, stymied the White Sox at Target Field, and finished his campaign with five-plus great innings against a desperate and outstanding Blue Jays lineup. 

    For someone who very few even mentioned among the Twins’ best handful of pitching prospects, he did pretty well. Most impressively, Ober still posted a better-than-average ERA despite allowing more homers (20) than walks (19). There’s room for growth

    GRADE: A

    RANDY DOBNAK
    2021: 6 starts, 14 games, 50 2/3 IP, 7.64 ERA (56 ERA+), 11.8% K, 5.3% BB

    "Dobber" signed an extension after shining for much of his first two seasons as a Twin. He posted a 3.12 ERA and 3.56 FIP in a combined 75 innings. In 2020, Dobnak’s sinker had more horizontal movement than any sinker in baseball (min. 300 pitches). You’d have to double the 3.4 inches of break on second-placed Adrian Houser’s sinker (3.4) to even get near Dobnak (7.8). 

    Due to his finger injury or strange usage patterns early in the season, Dobnak never got on track in 2021. He was largely poor out of the bullpen and equally struggled as a starter. He got crushed with a declining groundball and strikeout rate.

    Hope for Dobnak remains. His sinker movement was still in elite territory but was down significantly from 2020. If he can get healthy and shore up his command, a bounce back in 2022 is definitely in the cards.

    GRADE: F

    GRIFFIN JAX
    2021: 14 starts, 82 IP, 6.37 ERA (67 ERA+), 18.1% K, 8.1% BB

    Jax, like Ober, carried little expectations going into the season. He’d posted solid minor league numbers but remained under the radar due to less-than-stellar velocity or strikeout rates. 

    Called up in early June, Jax entered his first four games as a reliever before making his first start on July 3rd in Kansas City. He became a fixture in the rotation, starting 14 games and working through massive home run issues (23 allowed in 82 IP).

    It’s hard to post a 6.37 ERA and *increase* your stock, but Jax had drastic splits. He held opponents to a .175 average and .597 OPS the first time through the order. This shows that Jax’s stuff can play, just maybe not as a starter. 

    With a slider averaging nearly 3,000 RPMs of spin and a fastball that can reach 95, a future bullpen role looks promising. Spot him up against mostly righties with an exclusive fastball-slider combo and enjoy the results. 

    GRADE: D+

    2021 MINNESOTA TWINS GRADES
    Starting Pitchers
    Infielders - Coming Soon!
    Relief Pitchers - Coming Soon! 
    Outfielders - Coming Soon! 

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    I would give Happ a better grade then F.  He was a solid 4th or 5th starter before imploding his last 3 starts.  Be for this starts he was close to a 4.5 era and an even record.  That is more of a C-.  But yeah it was either boom bust year for our starters.  Either they were solid or really bad.  

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    Due to his finger injury or strange usage patterns early in the season, Dobnak never got on track in 2021.

    He barely pitched post injury, nearly all his awful performance came prior to either IL stint. He also was used the exact same way in '19 when there were threads wondering aloud whether he could be an All Star. We need to let of the misuse and injured narrative when it comes grading how Dobnak performed in 2021.

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    Nash, being an ex teacher, I concur that your grades are spot on. I agree that Dobnak gets an F. But I don't him fault him, I fault the way that he was used and instructed how to pitched. Shoemaker complained that he was instructed to pitch contrary to his strength. I'm 100% behind this pitching staff but if they are forcing their pitchers to pitch contrary to their strength, it's wrong. If they didn't like the way he pitched, they shouldn't have signed him if he's not willing to adapt. Dobnak is a ground pitcher, which fit great with this greatly upgraded infield. Their attempt to transform Dobnak into their SO pitcher (with his new slider) on the fly, totally backfired and rightfully so. You can't force a pitcher to stress the use of a newly discovered contrary pitch and run with it during the season. It needs to be sparsely used in specific instances when he has a feel for it and developed in the off season. So the devastating results and shortened season are to be expected. 

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