Going back a decade or more, the concept of Closer-by-Committee was met with disdain by many inside baseball circles. Meanwhile, the concept behind it was certainly sound. Use your best bullpen arms in the best positions for them to succeed. In other words, if your opponent has Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon and Justin Upton coming up to start the eighth inning, you might want to use your closer in that situation, especially if you’ve got a closer that dominates right-handed hitters. Get through that situation, and bring in the most logical next reliever for that ninth-inning save.
It has also always been tradition that the better bullpens have a ninth inning guy, an eighth inning guy and maybe even a seventh inning guy. That is their role in a game that the team is winning. The role is based on the inning, not necessarily on the matchups coming during that inning.
Through admittedly just eight games this season, it appears that Rocco Baldelli, Wes Johnson and the Twins have decided not to give pitcher roles by innings but instead by situation. Here is a quick breakdown of which innings the relievers have been used in so far.
Taylor Rogers: 9th/Save (3)
Sergio Romo: 7th (1), 8th (1), 9th/Save (1),
Trevor May: 5th (1),7th (1), 8th (1),
Tyler Duffey: 6th (1), 7th (2),
Tyler Clippard: 6th (3), 8th (1),
Cody Stashak: 8th and 9th (1), 7th (1), 8th (1)
Zack Littell: 5th (1), 6th and 7th (1),
Devin Smeltzer: 6th and 7th (1),
Matt Wisler: 8th (1), 8th and 9th (1)
Lewis Thorpe: 6th, 7th and 8th (1), 8th and 9th (1)
Kenta Maeda became the first Twins starting pitcher to throw a pitch in the six innings. In games that the Twins have won, we have seen Clippard, Duffey, May, Romo, Stashak and Rogers.
As interesting, pitchers have been used in a variety of roles. Trevor May has pitched in the fifth inning and in the eighth inning. On Sunday, Tyler Clippard will be used as an Opener after being used in either the sixth or eighth innings previously. Tyler Duffey has pitched in the sixth and seventh innings.
Duffey said on Saturday afternoon that Baldelli has been up front with the relievers about their roles. “Rocco did a good job. Before we got started, he kind of made the rounds and talked to guys. He said, ‘Hey, situations are gonna call for guys to pitch. Just be ready.’”
Earlier in the week, Sergio Romo hesitated when asked about reliever roles, but said, “We all have an ability to get hitters out in a unique way, in a different way from each other. The situations that Rocco’s been putting us in is a compliment to that, to each one of our strengths. Each one of us has been put in situations where I feel Rocco - maybe beyond 100% - knows we’re going to succeed. I think you’ll see more of that.”
And succeed they have. Duffey (3 IP), Rogers (3 IP), Romo (3 IP), Stashak (4 IP), Thorpe (4 ⅔ IP) and Wisler (2 ⅓ IP) have combined to throw 20 innings with a combined 0.00 ERA. Clippard (4 IP) and May (3 IP) have each given up just one earned run. Zack Littell threw two scoreless innings in his most recent outing after giving up four runs in his first inning. Devin Smeltzer gave up five earned run in two innings in his lone outing. Combined, the bullpen has pitched 32 innings and has a 3.09 ERA. If you remove Littell’s and Smeltzer’s first outings, the bullpen has thrown 29 innings and has a 0.62 ERA. In short, outside of one game, this bullpen has been remarkable!
We knew coming into the season that the bullpen was expected to be a strength of for the Twins. Many national sports media sites ranked the Twins bullpen among the Top 5 in MLB.
There is talent. There are veterans like Romo and Clippard who have performed over their dozen-plus big league seasons. Taylor Rogers emerged the last two seasons as one of the best left-handed relievers in the game, if not one of the best relievers period. Trevor May and Tyler Duffey each have electric stuff and seemingly put it together in 2019s second half. Both are much more confident early this season. Zack Littell and Cody Stashak were rookies last year who were a big boost to the late-season improvements of the Twins bullpen. Stashak has been terrific early this year.
Stashak said, “It (bullpen’s confidence) is pretty high. I’m sure the word’s gone around that we’ve got a solid ‘pen.”
Littell struggled in his first outing, then threw two scoreless innings on Thursday night. He has now been put on the Injured List with a hamstring injury.
Baldelli said of Littell, “Zack came out of his last outing with just a little bit of a hamstring tightness. You could call it an injury. You could call it just a minor incident. Really, what it comes down to, is you probably don't want to have to put a guy on the IL for something like this, but it probably would have been a couple of days before he would have seen game action again. So, does he need the full 10 days to feel better and be able to get out there on the mound? I don't know. Probably not. But to have a spot in the bullpen where you're not going to pitch a guy for a handful of days right now is also not a place where we really want to be. ”
That gives Jorge Alcala, whose stuff the team has been raving about throughout summer camp, an opportunity.
Before Saturday’s game, Baldelli noted, “We had some videos of him throwing at home, and he looked really, really impressive. The velocity was good and was up from what we saw in the big leagues last year. We know he has a big arm and some added depth to the breaking ball was apparent. More than anything, I think his confidence in what he's doing when he steps on the mound against hitters, against big league hitters, even against his own teammates in some of these outings and Summer Camp sessions.”
So now maybe Alcala assumes the role and gets the situations that Littell had pitched.
With the innings not being the determining factor for when a pitcher comes in, how does a pitcher know, or anticipate, when he might be called upon?
In Saturday’s pre-game Zoom Meetings, I asked Duffey if he just needs to start getting ready earlier or if it causes him to pay attention to things like the opponent’s batting order and such.
He said, “Obviously we’re not locked in for nine innings, but you kind of look at the lineup and say, ‘OK, there are some righties, or I’ve done well against that lefty in the past, or maybe we need to turn this switch-hitter around,’ something like that. Those are thoughts that go through your mind.”
Duffey added, “You can’t really expect anything, and I think that’s good. It keeps everyone on their toes and mentally ready. I can’t say it enough, this is a really, really good group of guys. A lot of talent, a lot of different looks, especially out of our bullpen. I think that’s why we’re gonna have a lot of success.”
Sergio Romo agrees, and is looking forward to seeing how it plays out. “It’s going to be fun to see the combinations that Rocco puts together with us. Again, it’s more of a compliment to us when he has so many different ways to use us and is so willing to do it confidently. It’s fun to be a part of again.”
While the starters will, hopefully, continue to eat more innings as the season moves on, Baldelli and Johnson have to feel really good about their bullpen, knowing whoever they put into a game is fully capable of shutting the door. And having one of the top closers in the game certainly doesn’t hurt either.