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  • Twins 2019 Minor League Starting Pitcher of the Year

    Matt Braun

    No award may be more fun to hand out than the starting pitcher of the year award. Up and down the minor league system there are arms full of life and promise who have just one goal in mind; make hitters miserable. That they did this year, as every affiliate ranked highly in their respective leagues for pitching strikeouts and high impact starters made their presence known on each squad. Here we will appreciate and celebrate those individual starters who had the best seasons in 2019.

    Image courtesy of Daniel Venn, Pensacola Blue Wahoos (graphics by Finn Pearson)

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    Previous Starting Pitcher of the Year Winners:

    2018 winner - Tyler Wells

    2017 winner - Stephen Gonsalves

    2016 winner - Stephen Gonsalves

    2015 winner - Jose Berrios

    2014 winner - Jose Berrios

    2013 winner - Taylor Rogers

    2012 winner - BJ Hermsen

    Previous 2019 Winners:

    2019 minor league relief pitcher of the year-Anthony Vizcaya

    2019 short-season pitcher of the year-Cody Laweryson

    2019 short-season hitter of the year-Matt Wallner

    The Twins’ minor league system has seen some large advancements recently in player development and the most impacted area has arguably been the starting pitching. New players have come in and seen their velocity gain a tick or two, recent draft picks have flourished quickly at each level, and great performances have come from unexpected areas. It has become almost astounding to look to each affiliate’s starting rotation and see how much talent there is in every single rotation.

    There were many great choices here and I know that I personally found this vote the most challenging one to make. Six Twins Daily Minor League writers voted for the various awards this year. For the starting pitcher of the year, we each voted for five players. The player who was voted as #1 received five points, #2 received four points and so on with the #5 vote receiving one point. Results were tabulated and can be found below.

    Others receiving votes:

    • Luis Rijo - 19 GS, 5-8, 2.86 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 107 IP, 89 H, 23 BB, 99 K
    • Jhoan Duran - 22 GS, 5-12, 3.76 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 115 IP, 97 H, 40 BB, 136 K
    • Devin Smeltzer - 19 GS, 4-5, 2.76 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 104 ⅓ IP, 87 H, 22 BB, 104 K
    • Josh Winder - 21 GS, 7-2, 2.65 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 125 ⅔ IP, 93 H, 30 BB, 118 K

    Starting Pitcher of the Year:

    Here are the top five vote-getters voted on by the Twins Daily minor league crew.

    T-#4 - Cole Sands, Cedar Rapids Kernels, Fort Myers Miracle, Pensacola Blue Wahoos: 18 GS, 7-3, 2.68 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 97 ⅓ IP, 81 H, 19 BB, 108 K

    Sands was taken by the Twins in thefifth round of the 2018 MLB draft out of Florida State University. He did not pitch in the Twins’ system that year which isn’t rare for college pitchers, so 2019 was his first year in professional baseball and what an impression he made. Splitting time between three levels of the minors, Sands dazzled with a 9.99 K/9, a 1.76 BB/9, and a 2.45 FIP. Injuries limited him to 97 1/3 innings pitched in 2019 but a strong season on the field made Sands one of the premier starters in the system and he may be up in the majors as soon as next year.

    T-#4 - Griffin Jax, Pensacola Blue Wahoos, Rochester Red Wings: 23 GS, 5-7, 2.90 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 127 ⅓ IP, 117 H, 27 BB, 94 K

    Jax was a graduate of the Air Force and was granted the ability to pitch in the Twins system full-time in 2018 under the military’s World Class Athlete Program which allows active-duty personnel to to train full-time for the Olympics. Jax backs up his cool story with some cool pitching as he threw the third most innings in the Twins’ system in 2019 and held the third lowest ERA among those in the system with at least 100 innings pitched. Jax ended the season at AA, had a taste of AAA, and will need to be added to the 40-man roster to protect him from the rule 5 draft, so he may factor into the Twins’ starting rotation in 2020.

    #3-Bailey Ober, GCL Twins, Fort Myers Miracle, Pensacola Blue Wahoos: 13 GS, 8-0, 0.69 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, 78 ⅔ IP, 55 H, 9 BB, 100 K

    Ober unfortunately was not able to throw as many innings as the other names on this list, but his numbers were absolutely eye-popping in 2019. Out of every minor league pitcher who had at least 70 innings pitched in 2019, Ober had the lowest ERA with his 0.69 mark (second place was 1.10). Ober’s K-BB% of 30.7% would be the second highest mark among qualified MLB starting pitchers with Gerrit Cole being the only starter with a better percentage. Really, this is all just me saying that Ober had a fantastic year and when healthy he is one of the best pitchers in the entire system. He discussed his 2019 season, his pitches and more in a Twins Daily interview earlier this week.

    #2-Jordan Balazovic, Cedar Rapids Kernels, Fort Myers Miracle: 18 GS, 8-5, 2.69 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 93 ⅔ IP, 67 H, 25 BB, 129 K

    As a cold-weather pitcher before the draft, Balazovic was a prime candidate for developing quickly when placed into a professional system...and that he did. Balazovic had a good 2018 and then followed it up with an absolutely phenomenal 2019 that saw his prospect stock rise to the top of the Twins’ system. Balazovic’s K% of 33.9% in 2019 would be the fifth highest among qualified MLB starters this year and his batting average allowed of .191 would the third lowest among qualified MLB starters. His 2019 was mostly spent at Fort Myers but he was promoted late in the season and was able to make a single playoff start for the Pensacola Blue Wahoos in which seven of the 14 outs he made were by strikeout.

    #1-Randy Dobnak, Fort Myers Miracle, Pensacola Blue Wahoos, Rochester Red Wings 21 GS, 12-4, 2.07 ERA, .98 WHIP, 135 IP, 104 H, 28 BB, 109 K

    Dobnak is the only starter in the top five to pitch for the Twins in 2019 and he very well may be the only one to pitch at four different levels in 2019 if you consider MLB as its own “level”. Nevertheless, Dobnak was an absolute horse in 2019 as he was first among all Twins’ minor league pitchers in innings pitched and his 2.07 ERA was the lowest among starters in the Twins’ system with more than 80 innings pitched.

    Dobnak was undrafted out of college and went to pitch in independent ball to start in 2017. Not long after the start of his career for the Utica Unicorns, Dobnak was picked up by the Twins on a minor league deal and he pitched for Elizabethton and Cedar Rapids that year.

    Beyond baseball, Dobnak was an Uber driver as recently as spring training in 2019 and he apparently was excellent as he had a rating of 4.99 stars out of 5. Man, these advanced stats are getting pretty weird even for me. Luckily for Dobnak, the major league paycheck is just a touch higher than the minor league one so he can retire from his Uber career.

    Dobnak’s professional career so far has been nothing short of incredible but he is much more than just a story. Dobnak’s wonderful 2019 season earned him a promotion to the majors where has allowed just two earned runs so far over his 11 major league innings. With some question marks in the Twins’ starting rotation at the moment, Dobnak will certainly get a few opportunities to prove that he belongs in the majors and that one’s draft position (or lack thereof) does not necessarily dictate how successful they will be in baseball. Dobnak has had a great 2019 in the minors and hopefully he will continue to have a great 2019 in the majors.

    The Ballots:

    Seth Stohs: 1) Randy Dobnak 2) Bailey Ober 3) Jordan Balazovic 4) Josh Winder 5) Luis Rijo

    Tom Froemming: 1) Jordan Balazovic 2) Randy Dobnak 3) Cole Sands 4) Bailey Ober 5) Luis Rijo

    Cody Christie: 1) Randy Dobnak 2) Griffin Jax 3) Devin Smeltzer 4) Jhoan Duran 5) Josh Winder

    Matt Braun: 1) Bailey Ober 2) Jordan Balazovic 3) Cole Sands 4) Jhoan Duran 5) Luis Rijo

    Ted Schwerzler: 1) Randy Dobnak 2) Bailey Ober 3) Griffin Jax 4) Jordan Balazovic 5) Devin Smeltzer

    Steve Lein: 1) Jordan Balazovic 2) Randy Dobnak 3) Josh Winder 4) Bailey Ober 5) Cole Sands

    Feel free to discuss our ballots! Who was completely wrong? Who needs a shout out because they were overlooked? What would your ballot look like?

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    Still trying to recall who Dobnak reminds me of from back when?


    Shouldn't Jax and Sands be tied for #4?


    Very interesting group.  Although Balaovic is becomming known as a stud prospect, most of this group isn't the traditional first round uber prospect with Dobnak coming out of nowhere.  Will be interesting to see how many actually make future Twins rotations.  My guess is at least two.

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    Yeah, ultimately this was an easy choice for  me... Dobnak threw a ton of innings, performed well, kept moving up and quickly adjusting... In my voting, IP is a category I consider. And this doesn't count his innings with the Twins, which have also been really good. 


    Also, Roger makes a good point. These guys aren't necessarily the high-draft pick types. But, that's the same thing with Cleveland's pitchers. None of them are high draft picks. Kluber (4th round) wasn't a big prospect. Bieber (4th), Plesac (12th), Plutko (11th),  Civale (3rd) and Clevinger (4th) weren't high picks and all college guys. If Falvey can work the wonders with the Twins that he did with Cleveland, it'd obviously be fantastic!

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    Really looking forward to seeing what Balazovic, Ober, and Dobnak do next year! A healthy Ober pitching 120+ innings next season would have him on track for the Twins rotation in late 2021. Is it possible we could see Balazovic next season with the Twins? Is he one of the Top 8-10 Starting Pitchers going into next season? Could be fun seeing these young guys form a healthy SP core to pair with the existing core on the other side of the ball. My projected Top 10 SP (sans FA signings):


    1. Berrios

    2. Perez

    3. Graterol

    4. Smeltzer

    5. Dobnak

    6. Thorpe

    7. Balazovic

    8. Ober

    9. Stewart

    10. Jax


    An argument could be made (and I wouldn't fight you) if you bumped Perez down to 5 or 6...I put him there because of innings pitched at the MLB level compared to everyone else below him...and also because he did start the year off pretty strongly.

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    8-0, 0.69 ERA, 0.814 WHIP, 11.4 K/9 and 11.1 K/BB are video game numbers.  Not sure how the guy who put those numbers up, Bailey Ober, does not win this award.  Nobody else came close.


    For me, it came down to innings pitched, right or wrong. No question, Ober was the most dominant, and you're right, it wasn't close. But he threw so many less innings. And, when I considered that Ober threw nine rehab innings in the GCL which put him below 70 innings for the year.  Doesn't lessen how much he dominated in 2019. 

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    I never got around to putting together an actual ranking. but I did sort of put together a 'short list' from which my rankings would have come. Interestingly, the only one of the 9 pitchers that got votes from the TD writers that was not on my list was a CR Kernels pitcher I watched all season, Luis Rijo.


    Rijo had a very good season, but I was probably unfairly influenced by having seen a few of his less consistent starts in person.


    Balazovic, Ober and Dobnak would, I think, have to be 1-3 on my list, in some order. The thing, for me, that would probably push Dobnak to the top is that I don't recall him ever missing a start for injury/rest.


    Twins didn't have a bunch of money or reputational investment in Dobnak, so he has never been treated with the kind of kid gloves that top picks/prospects often (and rightfully, perhaps) get. He may have had pitch/inning limits, too, but if anyone was going to be pushed beyond those limits, it was Randy.


    It almost felt, at times, like the FO was willing to push him faster/harder because they assumed he would eventually falter and, if so, he was disposable. Maybe they didn't care so much about putting some extra wear on his arm, weren't as cautious about risking damage to his confidence by overmatching him by moving him up a level prematurely.


    But, surprise, he never faltered. He excelled at each level. 


    Some of the other guys are probably more likely to become consistent top of the rotation starting pitchers and they had very good seasons. But Dobnak would have been my choice for this award, as well.

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    What I also find interesting/exciting is I would have bet real money that at LEAST 1 of the 4 honorable mentions would have been in the top 5! Great season for SP!


    And this is with Gonsalves (mostly) missing the season, Wells missing the season, Wells just coming back, Graterol missing time, etc.


    I would think...which Seth has echoed...that with more IP Ober would have been the top dog here.

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    Mentioned in another thread that when you look at what Ober has accomplished, you can't help but be stunned and optimistic as hell. But the injury factor can't be discounted. I have to think there is SOMETHING about his height and/or build that has contributed. Maybe its bad luck. But I sure am hoping this FO, and new training staff and methods, and all the analytics they have at their disposal, will indicate he needs weight training, Pilates, yoga, SOMETHING, to find the right balance he needs to just be healthy and pitch every 5 days.


    It sure seems there is something pretty special here if they can keep him on the mound. Because when he is...WOW!

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