Despite Recent Turmoil, Twins Rotation has Provided Immense Boost in Strong Season

Mandatory Credit: Ben Ludeman-USA TODAY Sports

When Devin Smeltzer was summoned to make a spot start after Michael Pineda was placed on the injured list last Sunday, he became the first pitcher outside of the team’s established rotation to make more than two starts in 2019.

Kohl Stewart has made two starts and Lewis Thorpe has made one. Through 100 team games, 95 of them were started by one of Jose Berrios, Martin Perez, Kyle Gibson, Jake Odorizzi or Pineda.

Last Sunday was game 111. Make that 105 of 111, then.

That means that 94.59 percent of the team’s first 111 starters were made by one of that quintet. If that seems like a lot — it’s because it is. Only the Cincinnati Reds (95.45 percent) had a higher rate of starts made from their top-five pitchers in the rotation, and like the Twins, that’ll go down with Trevor Bauer being added into their top five.

By the way, it’ll probably come as no surprise that the Los Angeles Angels are by far the lowest, with their top-five guys making just 54.87 percent of the starts. The next worst team? The Toronto Blue Jays — nearly 20 percent ahead at 71.05 percent.

And it’s not just about making the starts for Twins pitchers. Amidst all the uproar — and deservedly so — about the sagging bullpen of late, it’s worth noting that the rotation has to get the game to the point where the bullpen can even have the chance to blow it. Through last Sunday, Twins starters with fifth in MLB in ERA at 3.77. They were fifth in MLB and second in the American League in innings pitched per game, and third in fewest pitches per inning as well.

All of those numbers — plus the team’s historic offense — pretty clearly spits out a team that’s 24 games over .500 even despite their struggles since the All-Star break.

But what makes a rotation go? Or more importantly, how do you keep pitchers healthy? It’s an age-old question that even the Twins don’t necessarily know the answer to — even despite the fact that they’ve proven to be pretty good at it over the long, or perhaps more accurately, medium-haul.

“Credit goes to our pitching coaches, medical staff, strength and conditioning staff as well as to our pitchers,” said general manager Thad Levine.

“Some of it is luck,” said Gibson.

Aug 8, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Twins manager Rocco Baldelli pulls starting pitcher Kyle Gibson (44) from the game in the fifth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

“I think you have to give Rocco, Wes and Hef a lot of credit for how they’ve managed our pitchers and certainly our bullpen as well,” said team trainer Tony Leo.

“We put a strong emphasis here on recovery and the weight room,” said pitching coach Wes Johnson.

“I think everybody (is) just doing their work, really,” said Odorizzi.

“It’s been a really good run that we’d like to continue as best we can,” said manager Rocco Baldelli.

Each of these seems to hint at a larger idea, so let’s see what else these key performers had to say about how this starting staff has been able to stay so durable.

Odorizzi was the first subject approached, and he immediately revealed an answer perhaps not easily seen on the surface — but very easy to digest.

“We have a group of guys here who understand what it takes to get through a full season, and that’s something only experience can bring,” Odorizzi said. “How you need to manage yourself as the season goes on, that sort of thing.”

True enough; this is the most experienced Twins rotation in quite some time. Pineda will almost certainly go over 800 career MLB innings when he makes his next start. Odorizzi’s closing in on 1,000 himself. Gibson is over 1,000 and Perez is a couple starts away from 900.

And Berrios, the baby of the group, has thrown nearly 550 MLB innings — and is prodigious for his workouts to keep himself in shape. “Jose is really, really good at recovery,” Johnson said.

Jul 20, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Twins relief pitcher Jose Berrios (17) acknowledges the crowd after leaving the game with the Oakland Athletics in the sixth inning at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

So part of being a veteran is simply knowing what your arm is capable of, but it’s also about feeling established enough to pipe up when maybe something isn’t quite right and the between-start routine needs to be altered a bit.

“I think that’s definitely part of it,” Gibson said. “I’ve been there as a young guy, where you throw 35-40 pitch bullpens trying to really ‘work on something,’ but you’re just wearing yourself down. So I think that’s part of it, and I think that’s more important as you get older.”

In a similar vein, Odorizzi says it’s about listening to your body — or as a pitcher, perhaps the most important part.

“The biggest thing is to listen to what your arm is telling you,” Odorizzi said. “Some days maybe play catch later, push a bullpen back or maybe do something different because I think the part that gets overlooked as a starter is the recovery time you have in between. You have to optimize it. That includes maybe taking a week off from working out, maybe doing some extra treatment in the training room. Whatever it may be. It’s all stuff that’s going to add up to being more successful for you moving forward if you feel that much healthier and that’s what it boils down to — how well you feel on the fifth day.

“It’s an uphill battle from when you start. It’s back to the bottom, and you have to get back to that feeling by the day you’re supposed to pitch.”

Recovery is a huge part of pitching, and perhaps one fans might not think about all that much. They see a pitcher go every fifth day, but certainly aren’t watching them run in the outfield, throw bullpens or get treatment. Each of those is a key tenet to what happens on that fifth day, and shouldn’t be overlooked.

But how does one monitor recovery? Isn’t that kind of difficult? After all, forward progress is easy to see with better results on the mound — including going deeper into games, striking out more batters, and that sort of thing — but recovery can be much tougher to gauge, right?

Johnson says it isn’t necessarily difficult — but it is time-consuming. The team has individualized plans for each starting pitcher so they can attempt to get out in front of any possible issues which may crop up.

“We spend a lot of time on assessment,” Johnson said. “We’re real fortunate to have Simi in our stadium, which is obviously a biomechanical system.” According to Simi’s website, it is a high-speed camera-based system using state of the art industrial imaging processing technology. The company was founded in 1992 by Andreas Russ, and Simi markets itself as “high-end image-based Motion Capture and Analysis Systems for movement and behavior analysis.”

“So we’re constantly getting biomechanical data and feedback from our guys, on our guys,” Johnson continued. “And then we’re constantly assessing these guys. Just like today, we’re in game 100-whatever it is, and we’re still assessing our guys every month. As we continue to look at those assessments — and our strength guy Ian (Kadish) works with Tony, our trainer — and they go back and forth. Then we say, ‘Hey, this guy is starting to do this, that or the other thing.’ Then we start attacking and try to stay ahead of it. I don’t know that it’s hard, but it’s time-consuming. It is individualized for each guy.”

Not surprisingly, Leo is very involved in the process.

“I think it’s very complicated,” Leo said about the nature of injury prevention as it pertains to pitchers. “I don’t think it’s an answer that any of us have. I think it’s going to be an ongoing thing. Whether it’s the conferences we go to in the offseason, some of the journal articles we have that are put out from people all over certainly this country and the rest of the world. The ones that have deep scientific studies and everything else like that from biomechanics, physiology, the anatomy, rehab, training and everything else. There’s a bunch of them out there. It is a push and something MLB puts a lot of time into with the research and supporting that with all the teams’ doctors. There’s always ongoing studies to learn more, but the predictive nature of injuries is right now really still just a good guess.

Jul 31, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Twins center fielder Byron Buxton (25) leaves the game against the Chicago White Sox with assistant trainer Tony Leo in competition at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

“But we know if we make the body move well, it’s going to perform well. It’s kind of the simplest way to look at it. It’s a very simple way to look at it. But how you make a body move well is very complex. But the better the body moves, the better you’re able to control yourself, your joints and have that full range of motion under control, the better health and performance you’ll have. Really I think that’s the easiest way of looking at tackling this. Helping you move well and feel well, and hopefully we’ll have a better outcome on the field.”

A big portion of keeping guys upright is, oddly enough, doing the opposite — getting rest.

“When guys are more rested, we’re able to work better, they heal quicker,” Leo said. “Just kind of, if you will, all the kinds of micro damage and trauma that gets done when they’re out there pitching. The stiffness, soreness, the general things that occur from physical activity — things they have the ability to better recover from.

“A lot of the things we do, it depends, everybody is kind of different with what they feel works best for them. It’s not like everybody has to do this certain plan. We try to find a way to adapt and have things available to players so they can use things like different types of modalities, from our hydrotherapy, hot and cold tubs, a dry heat sauna, steam room, lots of manual therapy and soft tissue work to restore proper function and movement and soft tissue quality.”

The counterpoint to the idea that older pitchers know their bodies better, however, is that older bodies are — statistically speaking — more likely to break down, as well.

“What we find is typically, as all of us age, we find out that now we can’t do what we once did as a youngster,” Leo said. “We have guys who come up from the minors who are still young and youthful; they feel better all the time because they’re young and their bodies work better because of the age and how that stuff works. So the advantage when you have some of the guys in the rotation who have quite a few starts under their belt and been up here, they have obviously developed better routines already. They’re aware of what they need to do.

“But as players age, it goes from ‘it’s a game’ to ‘this is my career and it’s my profession, and I’m invested in making sure that it’s as long as possible and that I have success.’ That requires me to listen to my body, being able to express that to my staff — Ian, Andrea (Hayden) and everybody — what they’re feeling so we can help guide them and point them in the right direction so they can take advantage of whether it’s our knowledge and how we can help them, or some of the modalities we have or otherwise. When you get to those players that are older, they’re able to express that much better and more confidently. It just makes it much easier because of the awareness they have.

“With youngsters, or rookie guys, it’s really having to teach them a little bit. They may not have been exposed to it. It’s not because we don’t have that in the minor leagues or anything else like that, but it’s just different and the volume of people we have to take care of them is just a better ratio that we can impact them in a meaningful way.”

Not surprisingly, Leo says, this doesn’t boil down to just one easy answer. In addition to recovery and rest, there’s also strength and conditioning and even a dietary aspect to keeping pitchers healthy. “It just kind of all starts blending together,” Leo said.

The big thing that the Simi device can pick up is when players make changes based on workload. Does a player change his mechanics when he’s tired. Does his arm slot differ? Those sorts of things.

“It’s workload. It’s not fatigue,” Johnson said. “It’s just like anything else; when muscles start to get used, yes they do get stronger, but they also posture can change. Those are the things we’re constantly looking at.”

Jun 30, 2019; Chicago, IL, USA; Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Lewis Thorpe (43) talks with pitching coach Wes Johnson (47) in the dugout after pitching against the Chicago White Sox during the first inning in his MLB debut at Guaranteed Rate Field. Mandatory Credit: Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

Gibson thinks part of the equation is that Baldelli hasn’t asked as much from his starters as well. When a starter gets lifted after 80-85 pitches, it’s not uncommon to see grumbling from fans on social media, and even the pitcher — with competitive juices flowing — might not be entirely pleased to come out of the game then, either.

But it has a cumulative effect, and guys notice that.

“At times it can be frustrating when you only go 80-90 pitches, but I think they’ve done a good job of making sure they watch that and not overwork us,” Gibson said.

Sometimes it’s situational, as well.

“When you have the offense we have, we haven’t had to be overworked as well,” Gibson added with a laugh. “There are probably a lot of factors that go into it.”

This shows up in the number of times these starters have been asked to throw more than 100 pitches. While Trevor Bauer and Lance Lynn lead MLB with 23 games of 100-plus pitches, Berrios has only done so 10 times. Odorizzi checks in at eight, Perez at seven, Gibson at six and Pineda, who is coming off Tommy John surgery, at just one.

So that’s just 32 times in now 120 games (26.7 percent) that Twins pitchers have been asked to go over 100 pitches. It’s not by accident, either.

The “times through the order” penalty is a simple concept to grasp, and it’s easy to look up and apply. The same is true of the number of pitches a pitcher has thrown in a game.

  • AL, first time through the order: .245/.310/.429
  • Second time: .268/.328/.470
  • Third time: .268/.329/.470
  • Fourth time or more: .247/.286/.429

Now it would stand to reason that the fourth time would seem the most likely to be the worst, but there’s some survivor bias involved. Pitchers afforded the chance to face a lineup a fourth time are usually pitching extremely well.

It is, however, interesting that the third time penalty isn’t really any different than the second time, though this year is an anomaly in that regard. In 2018, the jump was 30 points from the first time to the second time and 36 points from the second to the third.

Perhaps the makeup of the baseball has played a part in it? We won’t go down that road right now, though.

That survivor bias also exists in pitches thrown, but it’s clear every 25 pitches add a level of difficulty for pitchers on the whole.

  • Pitches 0-25: .251/.325/.429
  • Pitches 26-50: .256/.322/.448
  • Pitches 51-75: .261/.321/.455
  • Pitches 76-100: .267/.329/.465

What seems interesting here is that only really the slugging percentage is affected. Perhaps pitchers tiring and losing their ability and muscle function to repeat mechanics leads to pitches flattening out, and thus results in more extra-base hits.

It’s just one man’s theory.

“We’re all conditioned and able to go 110-115 pitches,” Gibson said. “When your body doesn’t do that, it can feel like a breath of fresh air.”

Ultimately though, from the standpoint of the pitcher, it’s a little bit of luck and a lot a bit of staying true to their routine.

“I don’t know the numbers on when guys get hurt, but it’s probably more likely as you get older,” Gibson said. “But as you really take care of yourself and get to know that type of routine Jake is talking about, you can understand, ‘Hey, I only need 15 pitches this week; I’m going to work specifically on this versus throwing all my pitches.’

“I think I threw a couple of curveballs yesterday in my bullpen and that was about it. It wasn’t something I was trying to work on. I think that’s definitely part of it. But some of it, when you’re trying to explain why injuries happen or why they don’t, I think sometimes it’s good old being fortunate and being lucky too.”

“There’s no secret formula to why everybody has been consistently healthy or anything along those lines,” Odorizzi said. “Everyone has done a good job of getting their treatment, maybe backing off here and there, knowing the right times to push, to take the foot off the gas, that sort of thing. I think it’s guys just knowing themselves, to be quite honest. That’s only done by experience and being smart.

Jun 26, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi (12) is relieved in the sixth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

“It’s a boring line, but as a starter you know when you’re going to throw. You know what you need to do. If you need to do something different, you alter it. It’s not like you have to do the same thing every single time or you won’t be successful.

“I think the communication with Wes is important; not from the sake of him telling you what to do, but you just need to tell him how you’re feeling, and that you might take a bullpen easier today. Instead of your normal pitches, maybe you cut it down by 10 and work on fastball location. Or maybe scoot the catcher up in front of the plate and work on getting the ball down more. Just little things like that which can decrease the effort level, but you’re still getting your work in.”

Ultimately, if the pitchers are happy, the boss is happy — and impressed with guys being able to stay on the field.

“Yeah we’ve talked about that a little bit too,” Baldelli said. “It’s been a really good run that we’d like to continue as best we can. The players themselves and how they take care of their bodies and how they have gone out there and performed, they’ve been very impressive and they deserve a lot of credit for that but certainly our training staff, medical staff, pitching guys, Wes and Hef, deserve a ton of credit for that too because that is not a normal thing.

“Most teams do not get to experience that over a 100-game span. Simply just relieving the general stress of filling those spots when you have to is a big thing for the entire organization from top to bottom. When you start having to figure out who is going to pitch on a day-to-day basis, it becomes very challenging and I think we’ve all seen that on different years on different teams. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do, there’s no way to help it.

“It’s just the way it plays out but the way it has gone for us so far, it’s been very encouraging and I hope we can carry on.

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