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  • The Twins Bullpen Is Bad, But Not Unfixable

    Matt Braun

    The team has a solid foundation from which other additions can improve.

    Image courtesy of Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

    Twins Video


    If you’ve paid even a second of attention to Twins fans lately, the dominant discussion point revolves around the bullpen’s lack of quality; the team needs extra, quality arms, and they need them now. This feeling is well-founded; it seems like every close loss involves a reliever screwing up late, costing the team a chance to escape the quagmire of mediocrity that plagues the rest of the AL Central. But is the team’s bullpen that bad in comparison to other teams? 

    Relief pitchers are doomed to fail. The position naturally lends itself to magnified mistakes, and brutal momentum swings as a game’s final outs melt away at an accelerated pace. Each run allowed feels like the end of the world because, as far as a single baseball game is concerned, it is; the lack of remaining outs increases each outcome’s drama to a sometimes unbearable level. In that context, analyzing relievers requires us to remove emotion from the equation, instead choosing to coldly dissect the topic with numbers immune from hyperbole. Stats can’t complain.

    Overall, the picture isn’t pretty, but it’s not egregiously ugly; the relief core is 14th in MLB in ERA (3.74), 21st in FIP (4.10), 13th in xFIP (3.80), and 16th in WPA (0.19). No lipstick can spruce up this pig, but these numbers reflect a mediocre to below-average group, not one bordering on Greek Tragedy. 

    The problem does not seem as dire with contextualized stats; the team needs to improve their bullpen, but so could just about every team in MLB. The Twins are well equipped to absorb fresh talent.

    What’s lost in bullpen arguments is the strategic aspect of utilizing relievers; broadly stating that the relievers stink helps no one; instead, we should imagine the role a reliever is filling and ask whether they can adequately fill it. For the Twins, their main issue is that pitchers who should not pitch in important innings are doing so because of a failure of top-end depth; it isn’t fully Jharel Cotton’s fault if he blows a game in the 9th inning because he shouldn’t be pitching in that scenario.

    As it stands, the team has one fully reliable reliever (Jhoan Duran), another solid reliever (Griffin Jax), and varying degrees of coin flips. With Duran rarely pitching in back-to-back games, when the game is close late—a situation a good team like the Twins frequently enters—Rocco Baldelli has little choice but to play baseball Russian Roulette and pray that Caleb Thielbar’s fastball looks extra rise-y today, or that Joe Smith’s corkscrewing magic appears even more incredible. It’s always a rock and a hard place choice.

    If one or two more quality relievers make their way to the team before the trade deadline, the bullpen can fall into place. Whatever scrap-heap reliever they picked up the other day could pitch earlier in the game rather than Thornburg-ing it up in a role he’s ill-equipped for. Usually worthwhile relievers like Tyler Duffey can simmer in a low-intensity role as another capable arm gives him a break he desperately needs; unproven pitchers like Jovani Moran can freely gain confidence by netting outs in the 6th inning, not the 9th.

    The Twins bullpen isn’t made of bad pitchers, just miscast ones. Duran is obviously an elite arm, but no other reliever commands as much trust, so the chain collapses when he can’t pitch, or the team needs an extended effort to reach his inning. Cotton is a Road to Nowhere when used beyond the 7th inning, but he has attempted to fill that role because no one else works in that spot; they don’t exist. 

    If the team acquired a true, dominant arm to pair with Duran, the effect would reverberate around the entire bullpen; arms far higher on the totem pole of trust would fall back where they can succeed. David Robertson and/or Daniel Bard, a potentially revamped Tyler Duffey, and a healthy Joe Smith could establish order in the current chaos; the days of 8th inning man Tyler Thornburg would no longer exist. It’s hard to see, and sometimes it seems impossible, but there’s a good bullpen somewhere in the mess; it just needs some cleaning.



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    Relievers are 1 hanging curveball, flat slider, or fastball that catches too much of the plate away from being banished to Siberia by trade. Starters can overcome a bad inning fairly quickly, it can take a reliever 2 weeks to overcome that same bad inning.

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    9 hours ago, SanoMustGo said:

    Won't get fixed this season, and now the starting rotation needs fixing.  Hope the FO doesn't send any prospects for a rental.   I hope there is a large revamp of the staff next year.

    The return of Archer and Ober should help the rotation. The bullpen would be better with Smeltzer and Winder pitching there instead of in the rotation (or AAA).

    The biggest problem (which was apparent before the season) is they are relying on too many mediocre vets and rookies. Rookies are going to struggle even if they're talented. Mediocre vets will struggle especially if they are injured. "Cheap, but deep" seems to be how they approach assembling a pitching staff.

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    Interesting article.  It seems filled with as many holes as your criticism of fans take on relievers.  This attitude that everyone is looking for pitching help so we can't do anything is what gets this team in trouble.  If the DO is incapable of righting the ship they shouldn't be here.  If Baldelli continually misuses his pitching staff he shouldn't be here.  The Twins have amongst the worst performing bullpen in all of baseball from the 7th inning on.  They have given up a league leading 52 homeruns.  No misleading analytic stat can change that.  A few of these couldn't make another major league staff.  I believe the bullpen losses are piling up.  Instead of trying to hang on to first place 

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    One of the challenges here is that most of the time, the Twins SP rarely pitch more than 5 innings. With one inning relief appearances and a 13 man pitching staff (8 RP), that means RP on average would be on 81 games per season pace. Very few RP can be effective over a long period throwing at this pace. This doesn’t happen because of injuries and rotating relief staff with AAA. Also, some RP will throw occasionally more than 1 inning. The new collective bargaining arrangement limits the number of times optioned per year to 5, which limits the shuffling of RP seen in past years. 

    The current roster construction of 13 pitchers (5 SP and 8 RP) has not adjusted to 5 inning starts and therefore bullpen management will always be a challenge and there will always be a tendency to overuse RP. 

    To have sustainable bullpen usage, which is probably around 50 -60 appearance per year, SP will need to average 6+ innings. This is likely not going to happen as the trend is towards fewer innings pitched per GS. As the bullpen usage is unsustainable given 5 innings per start, creative solutions are going to be needed.  This is not just a Twins issue, there is a roster deficiency of RP considering how modern baseball is played. 

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    This is why the Twins need a frontline STUD SP (Castillo or Montas) and at least ONE solid, capable BP arm that can close or at least share closing with Duran.  They have the minor league and major league capital and depth to swing a couple trades.  They are a runner gasping towards the All Star break finish line right now and desperately need reinforcements soon.  Let's see if the F.O. is capable.

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    What has been lost in these discussions and which I believe has contributed the most to the bullpen failures is the demise of the starting pitcher. I don't know when this actually started for real, but starters now don't seem to be able (or want) to pitch more than 3 or 4 innings. So many are being removed before they even qualify for a 'win'. Complete games are totally gone. When you have to start using your pen, every night, in the 4th inning or 5th...sure your pen will be gassed.

    I'd love it if the starters returned to the landscape again...like they did for over the past century.

    that would surely help.

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    12 hours ago, mnfireman said:

    Relievers are 1 hanging curveball, flat slider, or fastball that catches too much of the plate away from being banished to Siberia by trade. Starters can overcome a bad inning fairly quickly, it can take a reliever 2 weeks to overcome that same bad inning.

    True.  OTOH many denizens of the 'pen are there because management has decided, "we're going to cut down your workload from your starter days, just go out there one inning at a time and bear down on every pitch."  So I have a little less patience with a reliever who regularly catches too much of the heart of the plate.  (That hanger Josh Hader served up to Miranda the other day is an example of what the top relievers do really, really infrequently.)  Ditto for relievers who walk a lot of batters, in the name of avoiding those fat pitches.

    The tasks are less similar than might at first be assumed.  And the difference between success and failure may hinge less on the ability to execute, and on the frequency of doing so.  As you say, one bad pitch can take a while to counteract in the stats sheet, but those need to be infrequent in the first place, for the pitchers you hope to be difference-makers.

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    I disagree with much of the premise of this article. 

    There really aren't low leverage guys in a bullpen. Everyone is going to pitch in close games. That's the nature of baseball, a low scoring game, and the long term trend of fewer and fewer innings provided by starters. 

    The problem isn't which inning a weak reliever gives up runs. The problem is too many weak relievers. 

    Adding a good arm surely helps, but it won't mean Cotton won't have a chance to pitch in a 1 run game. 

    And regularly giving up too many baserunners hurts in the 6th as well as the 8th.

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