This is a series of evaluations that will be done this offseason on every player that closed the season on the 40-man roster for the Minnesota Twins throughout the winter until each player has been evaluated. The plan is to start with Mr. Belisle and move all the way through the pitchers, then to the catchers, infielders, outfielders and finally those listed as designated hitters on the club’s official roster. That means we’ll wrap it up with Kennys Vargas sometime before the season starts.

  • Name: Matt Belisle
  • 2017 Role: Middle relief to start the season, closer to end season.
  • Expected 2018 Role: If re-signed, would likely reprise role in middle relief. This doesn’t seem terribly likely to happen, though.
  • MLB Stats: 4.03 ERA, 4.07 FIP in 60.1 innings, 8.1 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, plus-0.6 fWAR
  • MiLB Stats: N/A
  • Contract Status: Free agent.

2017 Lowdown:

It didn’t start well for Belisle in a Twins uniform. That might be the understatement of the year, as the grizzled veteran righty looked like he was just going to be another reclamation project failure, sort of like Tim Stauffer before him.

To be fair, it wasn’t hard to see what made Twins fans turn on him. It wasn’t just a slow start for Belisle. He carried an ERA above 8.00 into mid-June. His ERA at the All-Star break was 5.82. To suggest that Belisle wouldn’t only be pitching meaningful innings at some point in the season at the break — let alone closing out games effectively — would have gotten someone laughed out of the room, yet that was the case.

The line in the sand statistically for Belisle was San Francisco. It was June 11. Belisle turned a 5-4 lead into an 8-5 deficit when the dust settled, and that four-run appearance where he recorded just two outs pushed his ERA to 8.59. The DFA whispers became chants, yet Derek Falvey and Thad Levine stayed the course with the veteran righty.

To their credit, Belisle’s track record of success was not terribly short. Over the past seven seasons coming into 2017, Belisle had posted a 3.47 ERA (3.08 FIP) with a solid WHIP (1.26) and respectable secondary rates (7.4 K/9, 2.0 BB/9). That alone gives Belisle some equity, but when a player is in their age-37 season, it’s fair to wonder if Father Time — who remains undefeated — might be tightening his grip on a player.

But the Twins and Belisle soldiered on together, and the reward reaped was significant. Over his final 36 appearances — not quite half of the 69 he made all season — he was absolutely ridiculous:

  • 1.41 ERA
  • 36-8 K/BB ratio in 38.1 innings
  • .187/.238/.306 line against
  • 11 percent swinging-strike rate

For some added context, that’s about a league-average swinging-strike rate, and here’s what his numbers looked like before that fateful day by the bay:

  • 8.59 ERA
  • 18-14 K/BB ratio in 22 innings
  • .267/.373/.465 line against
  • 9 percent swinging-strike rate

Typically, these are the sorts of changes that can be sussed out by an injury or some sort of significant change. Straight from the source, however — that wasn’t the case.

Belisle, in no uncertain terms, told Zone Coverage, “That’s baseball,” when asked in August. In other words, Belisle is aware that relief pitching is rather fickle — which makes sense, he’s been doing it forever — and that one bad appearance, week or month can alter a season in a way that isn’t true of any other position.

But because we’re a curious sort, let’s take a peek at Brooks Baseball to see if there are any appreciable changes.

Velocity-wise, Belisle’s stuff actually sagged as the season went on. He averaged 91.7 mph up until the San Francisco game and just 90.5 mph after. Everything across the board — sinker, change, slider and curve — are all between one or two ticks down. From a usage standpoint, Belisle didn’t change much, either. He threw a few more four-seam fastballs at the expense of a changeup and sinker, but not enough to make an appreciable difference.

As far as swinging-strike rate is concerned…..well, there isn’t much to write home about there, either. His fastball missed a few more bats in the latter stretch — 8.0 percent up to 11.5 percent — but that still isn’t enough to make this substantive of a difference.

As far as release point, it looks like Belisle tinkered a bit with here he released his breaking balls. In the first part of the season, the average release point of Belisle’s slider was minus-2.61 feet. While that’s hard to explain without getting into the nitty-gritty, the stats include an average amount of break of 0.46 inches on Belisle’s slider before San Fran.

Again, without further context, that won’t make any sense.

For the latter part of his season, Belisle’s release point for the slider was — on average — minus-2.67 feet. That’s a subtle difference to be sure, but that pushed his average slider movement to 1.38 inches — or almost an inch more than before. Given that we know the sweet spot on the barrel is a pretty small space, a shift of nearly an inch seems to be….fairly substantive? A similar slight tweak was made for Belisle’s curve, and when considering that breaking/offspeed stuff is usually a what a pitcher uses for swing-and-miss….I don’t know. I’m still new to this kind of analysis, but it seems like someone saw Belisle’s mechanics needed some work, and they fixed them.

Was it Falvey, who carries the label of a pitching guru? Was it Neil Allen, who has since been fired? Was it Eddie Guardado, the bullpen coach? I’m not sure we’ll ever find out.

Grade: B+. Overall it was a respectable season from a middle reliever. On a cheap, one-year deal again, it would not be a mistake to bring Belisle back. Of course, that carries the caveat — like most one-year deals — that the team can cut and run if things go sideways.

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Brandon Warne covers the Twins for Cold Omaha, and has had his work featured in numerous places across the United States. Locally, Warne's work has appeared at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press, 1500 ESPN and Go96.3 for writing and audio, and he's also had written work appear on Baseball Prospectus, Fangraphs and cited in the Los Angeles Times. Warne lives in the outer Twin Cities suburbs with his wife, Amanda. Listen to his Cold Omaha podcast Midwest Swing. Follow Brandon on Twitter @Brandon_Warne.