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  • Twins Minor League Starting Pitcher of the Month - April 2023


    Matt Braun

    Our series of top Twins minor league performances in April continues today with a look at which starting pitchers began their seasons with a strong first month. 

    Image courtesy of William Parmeter

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    Cody Christie covered the hitting portion of our awards the other day, making it time to crown the best pitcher in the Twins system for April 2023. We start with the starting pitchers. Of course, in minor-league baseball, there are a lot of starters and potential starters. Sometimes teams strategically piggyback a couple of starters together, but one looks like a reliever in the stat line. We will take a look at the starters who began the 2023 season with a strong month. Coming Soon will be the top relievers in April. 

    But before we jump into our Top 5 Twins Minor League Starting Pitchers for April, here some honorable mentions:

    RHP Blayne Enlow, Wichita Wind Surge
    The last cut, Enlow was great in April, striking out 24 batters while pitching more than 20 innings in his most effective month since returning from Tommy John surgery last summer. 

    LHP Jaylen Nowlin, Cedar Rapids Kernels
    Nowlin walked a few too many batters, holding him back from greater honor, meaning a higher ranking on this list, but he also struck out 20 batters—something only six other pitchers in the system accomplished in April.

    RHP Kyle Jones, Fort Myers Mighty Mussels
    Inhaling more than 19 frames, Jones posted a 2.42 FIP thanks in large part to a miniscule walk rate (5.3%). Jones was a 7th-round pick in the 2022 draft. 

    5. RHP Bailey Ober - AAA St. Paul Saints, 17 2/3 IP, 30.1 K%, 2.55 ERA, 2.70 FIP
    Too good to be contained by the AAA confines that limit him, Bailey Ober turned in an excellent month of pitching for the Saints, earning a 2.55 ERA and a 2.70 FIP while striking out a hair over 30% of batters faced. He allowed just one homer. The walks were troublesome, though—an 8.2% rate is far higher than his typical, trustworthy command allows—and in a cutthroat environment like the Twins Daily Minor League Monthly Awards, these are the lines that must be drawn to determine dominance. Better news comes knocking for Ober, however: recent injuries in the starting rotation open up a chance for the tall righty to prove himself once more; he appears very likely to take over a starting spot as Kenta Maeda and Tyler Mahle deal with their ailments.

    4. RHP Louie Varland - AAA St. Paul Saints, 15 IP, 40.3 K%, 4.20 ERA, 1.77 FIP
    A similar figure as Ober, Louie Varland is simply too good for AAA. His peripherals—good lord, his peripherals—were overwhelmingly dominant in April as the Minnesota native one-upped Ober, striking out over 40% of the batters he faced in the month. That’s deGrom territory. He also walked just four hitters. So why not rank him higher? Needing to be a stickler over such minor sample sizes necessitates a certain meanness when looking at one’s body of work, and Varland lacked the innings the other starters provided (15).

    With ever-increasing velocity, Varland’s ascent appears never-ending; his movement from fun hometown story, to legitimate minor league performer, to potentially dominant major leaguer has been breathtaking, astounding. His final hurdle appears to be the all-important playing time—something he should run into very soon. For now, he’ll settle for 4th place on this prestigious list. 

    3. RHP Cory Lewis - Low-A Fort Myers Mighty Mussels, 19 IP, 34.2 K%, 3.32 ERA, 3.50 FIP
    And now we reach the unicorn. Minnesota’s 9th-round pick in the 2022 draft carries the usual pitching repertoire—a spinny fastball; a dazzling curve; ideal extension—on top of a true wild card: “an impressive knuckleball.” More than a freak side-show, Lewis’ game has translated well to the minor leagues, as the starter pitched 19 innings in April, punching out 34.2% of batters while carrying an ERA of 3.32. The peak of his bat-missing madness came on April 26th, when the 22-year-old elicited 19 swings and misses over just 4 2/3 frames. 

    The effectiveness has more to do with his fastball/curveball punch, potentially disappointing those hoping to see MLB’s first consistent knuckleballer since Steven Wright in 2019. Still, his success may not be a fluke, and continued production may result in night classes for Twins catchers unsure of handling the dancing, unpredictable nature of the 82-mph knuckleball. 

    2. RHP David Festa - AA Wichita Wind Surge, 19 IP, 35.5 K%, 3.79 ERA, 3.35 FIP
    Back to your regular, normal right-handed prospecting. David Festa popped up in 2022, elevating from a random 13th-round pick from Seton Hall—the college of Craig Biggio, Mo Vaughn, and Zack Granite—into a respectable potential rotation fixture. He “pops mid-90s heat and pairs it with a potential plus mid-80s slider with power 11-6 depth,” giving him a classic modern starter’s profile—with more apparent limbs than your prototypical hurler. 

    And his tools served him well in April; the righty covered 19 innings while striking out 35.5% of batters at AA, a level he had not yet touched, while in the Texas League, a division famous for hitting. The early returns favor a repeat of 2022 for Festa, and such a development could push him into rotation plans for the big-league club in 2024. 

    1. RHP Zebby Matthews - Low-A Fort Myers Mighty Mussels, 20 1/3 IP, 34.7 K%, 3.10 ERA, 2.39 FIP
    One of the most apparent, sweeping movements in the Twins system under Falvey and Levine has been the rapid improvements made by anonymous college pitchers suddenly breaking out after draft day. Zebby Matthews is no exception. While he’s actually the highest-drafted arm of the five we talked about today—a regal 8th-round selection—Matthews’ immediate impact was not well-predicted.

    But it has been glorious. Combining the efficiency of a command artist with the punch outs of a workhorse, Matthews walked just three batters, struck out 26 of them, and swallowed 20 1/3 innings over four promising starts. One was a clunker, but the other three flashed brilliance; he didn’t allow a run for 13 consecutive frames to begin the season. 

    What’s fascinating and different about Matthews’ success is his approach: a full serving of almost every pitch a pitcher can throw (except for that one, you know which), that has apparently befuddled Low-A hitters. When a batter must react to the four-seamer, sinker, slider, curveball, changeup, or cutter, it evidently leads to missed hacks, foolish takes, and the Twins Daily Minor League Starting Pitcher of the Month Award.

     

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    With an expected 2-3 starters needed to fill the needs of the Twins by the start of next year, the projected future starters available needs to find some new candidates. Hopefully some of the ones listed here will thicken the pipeline. Festa looks like someone who could rise the to 3A quickly depending on injuries at the major level.

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    nice to see several of the college pitchers drafted in 2022 doing well to start the season. That said, I would hope that college pitchers would be able to push people around in low-A. Zebby Matthews has been very good so far, but he's also 23 and taking care of business against a lot of guys who are younger and less experienced. (same goes for Lewis and Jones)

    I am curious to see if the twins are taking advantage of some marketplace inefficiencies, though in targeting college pitchers in later rounds (often from smaller or northern schools it seems). There may be guys out there who if given more intensive coaching, training, and a higher level of expertise and attention can develop into quality starters from these late round picks and players like Matthews, Lewis, and Jones (much like the way Festa has developed or Varland) could become interesting prospects and potential major leaguers without ever getting very high on anyone's prospect list.

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    Man I knew Varland was good but those peripheral numbers are downright dominant.  If that translates to MLB then what a find he was.

    Really hard to know what to expect from pitchers drafted past the first 3 rounds or so.  Still I didn't see Matthews being the best of those picked to start the season.  Hopefully he can moce up fairly soon since his pitch mix seems so effective he looks like he could be a fast mover.  There is always at least one surprise in a draft class and it looks like he might be one of them.

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    56 minutes ago, jmlease1 said:

    nice to see several of the college pitchers drafted in 2022 doing well to start the season. That said, I would hope that college pitchers would be able to push people around in low-A. Zebby Matthews has been very good so far, but he's also 23 and taking care of business against a lot of guys who are younger and less experienced. (same goes for Lewis and Jones)

    I am curious to see if the twins are taking advantage of some marketplace inefficiencies, though in targeting college pitchers in later rounds (often from smaller or northern schools it seems). There may be guys out there who if given more intensive coaching, training, and a higher level of expertise and attention can develop into quality starters from these late round picks and players like Matthews, Lewis, and Jones (much like the way Festa has developed or Varland) could become interesting prospects and potential major leaguers without ever getting very high on anyone's prospect list.

    The Fangraphs writeup for Festa had a good summary of what they've been doing in the draft which I'll quote: "In the draft, the Twins have targeted big-framed, projectable college pitching — like Festa and the recently-traded Cade Povich — from mid-tier schools that don’t tend to max out their pitchers."

    Ober, Winder, and Headrick all definitely fit that description. As does Festa and Matthews and Lewis from last year's draft, and a bunch of other guys over the past few years.  Every year, a couple of those types of guys take big steps forward and become legit prospects, and in Ober's case he has become a solid MLB contributor as well.

    It's a very good pipeline that still seems to be under the radar.  I don't know that it'll ever really develop an ace but churning out solid mid rotation guys and relievers every year that are cheap and controllable is still valuable to allow them to sign or trade for top of the rotation guys (well, so far only trading, not signing unless you count Lopez's extension).

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    I've been tracking statcast data for a few of the Low-A guys for every start that it is available.

    Matthews has averaged 94 MPH on his fastball, which is quite solid. And he actually has 6 distinct pitches classified: 4-seam, sinker, cutter, slider, curveball, and changeup (the same mix as Sonny Gray).  I wonder if they'll streamline the breaking balls at some point, but he has over 30% whiffs on all of them.  

    Lewis has only averaged 90.5 on his fastball, but he has broke out a couple dozen knuckleballs, and the results have been as good as you might expect.  Whiffs on 2/3rds of all swings against them. 

    Someone--I think Keith Law--recently answered a question about why no one is developing knuckleballers anymore and said it really came down more to catching them being so hard.  Doug Mirabelli had a job basically exclusively to catch Tim Wakefield for a while there.  It'll be interesting to see how often Lewis keeps throwing the knuckleball and who is catching for him as he moves up.  Both Cossetti and Olivar have caught for him this year, but I'll be curious if Cossetti and Lewis end up moving through the minors more or less together and it becomes a skillset for Cossetti to develop.

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    42 minutes ago, 2wins87 said:

    The Fangraphs writeup for Festa had a good summary of what they've been doing in the draft which I'll quote: "In the draft, the Twins have targeted big-framed, projectable college pitching — like Festa and the recently-traded Cade Povich — from mid-tier schools that don’t tend to max out their pitchers."

    Ober, Winder, and Headrick all definitely fit that description. As does Festa and Matthews and Lewis from last year's draft, and a bunch of other guys over the past few years.  Every year, a couple of those types of guys take big steps forward and become legit prospects, and in Ober's case he has become a solid MLB contributor as well.

    It's a very good pipeline that still seems to be under the radar.  I don't know that it'll ever really develop an ace but churning out solid mid rotation guys and relievers every year that are cheap and controllable is still valuable to allow them to sign or trade for top of the rotation guys (well, so far only trading, not signing unless you count Lopez's extension).

    I'll add that they also want the pitchers they take to have control. It's the same formula Cleveland uses. College pitchers with control that they believe they can get more velo/"stuff" out of. Cleveland has dove a little more into the international waters, and taken some bigger risks (HS arms), but the general philosophy is the same.

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    Get as many good hitters as you can,  and try to hit on a couple pitchers lower in the draft.   Trade excess hitters for pitching.  So far the formula has worked and we should have more pitching prospects coming to help support the big leagues here this year and in future years.   I am becoming more and more confident the managements approach is working.  However we just need Correa to start hitting again.  

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    8 hours ago, jmlease1 said:

    nice to see several of the college pitchers drafted in 2022 doing well to start the season. That said, I would hope that college pitchers would be able to push people around in low-A. Zebby Matthews has been very good so far, but he's also 23 and taking care of business against a lot of guys who are younger and less experienced. (same goes for Lewis and Jones)

    I am curious to see if the twins are taking advantage of some marketplace inefficiencies, though in targeting college pitchers in later rounds (often from smaller or northern schools it seems). There may be guys out there who if given more intensive coaching, training, and a higher level of expertise and attention can develop into quality starters from these late round picks and players like Matthews, Lewis, and Jones (much like the way Festa has developed or Varland) could become interesting prospects and potential major leaguers without ever getting very high on anyone's prospect list.

    Maybe a college pitcher taken in the first couple of rounds shouldn't start at Low-A, but I'm not sure it's fair to expect that of guys taken later in the draft. They were taken later in the draft for a reason. Like high school guys, they need to develop. The Twins have had tremendous success with later-round college guys in these drafts... by being smart, letting them develop and work on things. Matthews will get to High-A when he's ready and there's a spot to start. When you consider the successes such as Ober, Varland, Festa, Winder, Sands, Nowlin, etc., I think it's fair to be excited about guys like Matthews and Jones and Lewis and others. 

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    Pitching is the key to success. Pitchers have more to do with the outcome of the game than any other position. Catchers can help pitchers more than any other position. Good defense also helps pitching.  It is important that the Twins get the 5th draft pick correct this year. I wish there were a really dominant pitcher in this year's draft in addition to Skenes, who will be drafted before the 5th pick, I'm afraid.  

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    2 hours ago, tarheeltwinsfan said:

    Pitching is the key to success. Pitchers have more to do with the outcome of the game than any other position. Catchers can help pitchers more than any other position. Good defense also helps pitching.  It is important that the Twins get the 5th draft pick correct this year. I wish there were a really dominant pitcher in this year's draft in addition to Skenes, who will be drafted before the 5th pick, I'm afraid.  

    If management's plan is working, then it's not so bad to miss out on Skenes or whoever future superstar goes in the top four picks. Twins can afford to simply go with the best player available, then keep looking for big, lanky college pitchers with good control and less wear on the arm. If the Twins land one Louie Varland per draft, they'll be in the running forever. 

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