For the first time in spring training of 2022, fans saw Josh Winder take the mound unless you've been following on milb.tv in recent years. The 6'5" right-handed pitcher calmly, quietly, struck out hitter after hitter. Like a lion stalking prey, he studied his opponents in the batter's box, and then with a quick snap of his wrist, he threw a nasty slider to get his opponent out. After each strikeout, he circles the mound in true predatory fashion getting ready for his next ambush.
When the Twins made the 28-man roster announcement, I was delighted and somewhat surprised. But it was no surprise and no shock for people in his life.
Josh Winder's baseball career has been pushing the boundaries over his entire life, which is probably why the coaching staff at VMI started recruiting him, and the Twins started scouting him, so early in their respective times. Winder started playing travel ball for the Prince George Swamp Things out of Prince George, Virginia, where his coaches saw early in his pre-teen years that he would be going places. His head coach at VMI, John Hadra saw him growing up playing on the fields of VMI, "Josh just had a natural talent. He had the ability to hone in on the strike zone".
Leslie Winder, Josh's mom, said "Well, of course, as his parents, we knew that college was a possibility, but at that time, we weren't thinking of him playing past that."
As he got older Leslie and Lee Winder started to see what the coaches saw. While playing travel ball, Winder would sometimes play up on the same team with older brother Gregory. Playing up a level provided Winder a chance to be challenged and grow in his discipline. His siblings always allowed him to be competitive.
Leslie tells me that the kids had a great relationship; they all got along, but when it came to games and Wiffle Ball in the front yard, she would have to go outside to quiet the yelling from the "players" for not taking their outs, trying to steal a base or bending the rules. She said, "When they played Wiffle ball, they were playing for the World Series every time they played."
The competitive nature in Wiffle ball stuck with Winder as he grew in baseball. His college coach Jon Hadra said that Josh is highly competitive, he wants to win, and he will do whatever is asked of him to help not only get his team a win but also improve. "Josh is competitive," Coach Hadra states in our interview, "but he is competitive internally. He takes things personally. If he has a bad inning or rough outing, he gets frustrated with himself, never the defense".
Coach Hadra said that Winder never got angry or upset externally; he would work harder. He is a good leader, the other guys looked to him for leadership, and he didn't even have to say anything; he would show leadership. Josh's strong leadership and presence make him an asset to the game of baseball and the team that he is on.
Winder's talent and ability to throw strikes make him an above-average rookie. He doesn't just throw the baseball; he takes the temperature of the man he is facing, taking a moment to decide what to do next. Winder has excellent control of the mound. He is not just a thrower; he is a pitcher. There are pitchers, throwers, and Winder's arm and delivery make him an outstanding pitcher and a menace on the mound.
Winder is so good, he began the year at the Minnesota Twins AA affiliate Wichita in 2019 and in 10 starts for the Wind Surge went 3-0 with a 1.98 ERA, 65 strikeouts and just 10 walks over 54.2 innings. Winder was promoted to Class AAA St. Paul in late June and has a 3.52 ERA and a 1-0 record in two starts. He began the season as the Twins #12 ranked prospect by MLB.com.
Even with missing a season in 2020 and the lockout in early 2022 he didn't miss a beat. "He continued to work out every day", says his mom, "He wasn't worried about it, or if he was, he certainly didn't show it. He came home and lived with his friends who continued to work with him. He worked out, threw and focused on being ready for whenever baseball would be back. He never got out of routine, or out of shape".
Winder knows the importance of being ready at a moment's notice, like a lot of other players who weren't sure if they would play again, he took the opportunity to work hard and improve, making him even more of a threat on the mound. It's no wonder he only played three seasons in the minors.
Winder makes hitters work. Some hitters can make a pitcher's pitch count rise, but Winder stays low in the count as he works through a game, making hitters chase, get tired, second guess their swings, and strike out before they even know what's going on. His junior high friends said he was so smooth when he pitched, he was stuck with the nickname “smooth” - because that’s what he is when he pitches.
Natural Born Leader
Josh doesn't say a lot, to himself, or anyone else really when he is on the mound. He is working and he has a job to do and that job requires focus. He learned that early on. When he was drafted in 2018, he left one semester of college behind him, but knowing how important that component was to his success, he came back later that fall to finish his degree.
Coach Hadra says, "Josh is a good leader, a strong leader. He doesn't say much, you know? He doesn't have words of wisdom, or 'try this', he shows guys what makes him successful and they follow suit," He went on to tell me that, "when Josh came back to finish his semester after being drafted, he came to the field frequently to help players. They would get so excited because he was spending time with them, talking to them about his experiences and what made him successful. Those guys, who are now getting ready to graduate are doing the same thing, he is left an imprint, that is affecting the program in a generational capacity".
This is exactly what the Twins need on the mound, someone who is a leader, who can set the tone for years to come. He may be a rookie, but as Josh's mom points out, "he's an old soul". He is routine, strict in his time management and is willing to listen to learn and to pass on whatever he is taught.
His family dynamic is another part of his leadership. No matter how busy the rookie pitcher and his family are, they always make time for each other. His mom talks about how often they text, or when he calls home after a game. They also have weekly zoom calls with family that include Grandpa, who sometimes struggles with technology, but is quick to pull up an article on Twins Daily (thanks, Grandpa!).
Family is a huge component to his success and something that is important to Winder off and on the field, and with the Twins going through constant transitions, leadership is something that would benefit everyone. It's been awhile since the pitching staff can say there has been one leader in the bullpen, and Winder may fit that role well.
A leader never asks someone to do what they can't, even if they don't want to, adversity makes players (and people) who they are and one thing that Winder is not afraid of is adversity.
Able to make it through transition
When Coach Hadra first saw Winder at a young age, he came across him throwing bullpen, but he quickly noticed that as Winder grew, he was a starter. That is not always an option in the big leagues and his bullpen lessons aided him as he made his debut as a Twins pitcher.
Coach Hadra told me that Josh has always been a starter, but when it comes to the team, Winder will do anything he can to get his team a win.
He came in as a long reliever before his May 1 start with the Twins, which he had never had to do before. During his first three games as a long reliever, Winder got a chance to see how different that was for him to "be ready" to play at any time. The mentality to switch from working from a starting position to being ready to take over as a long reliever is very difficult for a pitcher. If they are used to a routine by starting, that can affect the pitcher’s game. That did not stop the predatory mentality from the mound from the rookie pitcher. Ready isn’t a thing in the majors, if Skip tells you you’re playing, you go.
His relief appearances leave room for growth compared to his starting appearances, Winder showed not only the Twins but also the Dodgers who he is and why they should be ready when he's on the mound with his MLB debut.
Winder came in to relieve Chris Archer in the fifth inning, and the line-up that he was coming into was no joke. Winder started his debut by striking out Will Smith, walking Cody Bellinger and Chris Taylor. When Gavin Lux came up to hit, Cody Bellinger ran on Winder to steal second.
"Okay, I will never do that again," Leslie Winder said as she talked about his first inning as a Twin, "He is used to watching from the dugout, not the bullpen. He watches the hitters and analyzes them. This was different for him and he knew as soon as Bellinger stole second, that letting his eye off of him was a big mistake. But, it was a learning mistake and Josh, he catches on quickly.".
That is how he has approached his baseball career, taking each play and player and learning from it—continuing to analyze his prey and knowing how next time: how to be more aware, more stealthy, more elusive in his pitching, and ready for his next attack.
His relief games with Houston and the Athletics was the most we have seen the pitcher struggle this season, but even then he controlled his emotions and his arm. He documented his first losses of the season, but still managed to strike out players and maintain a low ERA. While he doesn't shine as a reliever, there is only one way to get better and that's putting him in every chance they get.
The more he sees, the better he will get. Compared to other starters in the rotation, he is just as reliable to control games, especially with the defense behind him. Being a long reliever is not where Winder will be successful for the Twins, he certainly makes it work in a pinch, but where he will be the biggest asset is in the starting lineup.
Winder is hungry; his drive for perfection and success is evident when he gets on the mound. While he prefers to start a game, Winder does recognize that being put into the games to be a long reliever gives him a different vantage point. This different vantage point got him ready for his first official start on May 1, which was anything but short of amazing.
When he was younger and even now, Winder has a great command of the mound. During college he had health issues his junior year, giving him a struggle off and on, but his numbers and his attitude would never let you know.
On April 13, 2018, Winder had a season high 11 strikes to get the win versus Western Carolina. He also, finished his career at VMI with the top K/9 mark in school history, second in BB/9, tied for third in wins, second in strikeouts, and fourth in both games started and innings pitched.
In his first start against Tampa Bay, Winder pitched six innings, had seven strikes, and only allowed two hits and one walk. A smiling Winder was excited to not only share his experience.
By the time the second start came around, he was able to use his five-day routine to prepare for the game and he counted his second win (in a week) as a rookie pitcher. During his post-game interview after his second start, after going six scoreless innings, a journalist inquired if he was ready or surprised to start that day. Winder replied, "I knew I would be starting, and I had to fly to meet the team, so I was in bed by 10:30 pm the night before to get lots of rest".
When Winder is getting ready for a start, he has a five-day routine to get him ready, and he does not use his phone on game days at all. He also calls his dad after every game. His ability to be called into any situation shows he is a solid component of the team and dangerous to anyone in the batter's box.
Ready to Set Records
So far this season, Winder has started three times winning two and losing one. He relies heavily on his four-seam fastball and slider, which are as fast as they are nasty. His fastball sits at about 94mph and if he really wants to make a hitter work, he will use a curveball to throw them off dropping the speed down to roughly 80 mph and make them chase. Winder is the fourth pitcher since 1913, with zero errors and over seven strikeouts in his first two starts.
In 2021 he was a part of the Futures American League Team as part of All-Star Week. The Futures game is for the top prospects across MLB.
The defense that Winder gets to work with is one of the best in the league, even if news outlets won't say it, he is not afraid to. Players like Carlos Correa, Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco, and Luis Arraez round out his support if a ball gets hit into play. There is no doubt that there are great tools around the already outstanding pitcher. He also has strong chemistry with both Gary Sanchez and Ryan Jeffers.
The season is still early. There is no doubt that as Winder continues on this journey, there will be losses, errors, and rough starts, but no more than what the starting rotation has been through. Winder may give Joe Ryan a run for becoming the Twins rookie pitcher of the year.