Twins

Don't Rush To Judgment On Jorge Alcala

Photo Credit: David Berding (USA TODAY Sports)

After years of running out one of baseball’s worst pitching units, the Minnesota Twins have surprisingly built one of the league’s best bullpens. They put out a 4.17 bullpen ERA which was tenth-best in 2019, and a sixth-best 3.62 bullpen ERA in 2020.

After seeing a once-dominant bullpen fall from grace last year, the Twins are looking to get the unit back to form next season. While they could address that in the free-agent market, the better answer seems to be building a solid nucleus of solid pitchers from within. One of those pitchers who lurked in the background in 2019 and 2020 feels like he is becoming increasingly ready to take that next leap with every inning.

Jorge Alcala is that dynamic young arm.

The right-hander entered into the Twins organization in the trade that sent Ryan Pressly to the Houston Astros. Since joining Minnesota’s farm system, he has been a highly-regarded prospect with his flamethrowing fastballs and a swing-and-miss slider. Losing Pressly, a reliable reliever, stung, but the promise of Alcala gave fans plenty of excitement once he transitioned to the bullpen.

That faith wasn’t just fan hype, either. The Twins brass was confident enough in Alcala’s abilities that they were more than comfortable trading the team’s most talked about pitching prospect, Brusdar Graterol. They dealt him once in a canceled trade to the Boston Red Sox before ultimately flipping him to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Graterol was also a flamethrowing prospect, but he didn’t offer as much movement on his pitches as Alcala.

Alcala made his big league debut in 2019 but only pitched in two games. In 2020, he earned a more prominent role in the Twins bullpen during the shortened 60-game season. Rocco Baldelli placed him in high-leverage spots for one of the better bullpens in the league. He recorded a 2.63 ERA in 24 innings with a 10.13 K/9 clip while recording a 0.3 fWAR and ranking in the 95th percentile in fastball velocity, according to Baseball Savant.

But he took a step back last season. The young right-hander finished last season with a 3.92 ERA and 0.3 fWAR in 59.2 innings pitched while recording a 1.51 HR/9 clip that increased by nearly half a home run from the previous year. His 37.3 percent hard-hit percentage jumped almost five percent from last season.

So after some mixed results in his first couple of big-league seasons, what does Alcala’s future look like in Minnesota? Will he be considered one of the Twins’ go-to options in high-leverage situations? The answer looks like a “yes,” but that doesn’t mean he’s going to be placed into high-leverage situations right away in 2022.

Overall, it was a disappointing season for Alcala. But his 2021 campaign wasn’t a disaster, even though he didn’t produce as he did in 2020. Using Baseball Savant to observe his peripheral stats, his numbers still look promising in some critical areas, including average exit velocity and chase rate.

During Alcala’s first full 162-game length season, he continued to throw the ball hard, and his exit velocity didn’t change from 2020. It’s just that when hitters were able to make contact, they hit it hard, which led to the increase in home runs. On top of that, Alcala lowered his BABIP from .321 in 2020 to .245 in 2021 and posted a career-low 0.97 WHIP in 2021. There is still plenty to be hopeful about for Alcala’s future in the back of the Twins bullpen.

The Twins will give Alcala every chance to earn a high-leverage role next year. Alcala is only 26 years old, so there’s no rush to get max value for the young arm because he still has plenty of team control as he won’t hit free agency until after the 2025 season.

Alcala has put up respectable numbers given he has just over 85 career innings pitched. He’s produced in high-leverage situations and is entering his prime. Tyler Duffey and Taylor Rogers are two examples of late-bloomers who have become reliable relievers in the back of Minnesota’s bullpen.

Duffey debuted in 2015. Like Alcala, he was first thought of as a starter but developed into a reliever. After moving to the bullpen full-time in 2017, he posted a 4.48 ERA and 0.6 fWAR in 71 innings. He took a step back in 2018, with a 7.2 ERA and minus-0.3 fWAR in just 25 innings, and spent most of that year in Triple-A. But everything clicked in 2019, and he established himself as a reliever Baldelli could rely on to put out fires. He finished his age-28 season with a 2.50 ERA with a 1.2 WAR in 57.2 innings pitched.

Similarly, Rogers made his big-league debut in 2016 and slowly worked his way to become one of the most effective southpaw relievers in baseball. Rogers posted 0.7 (2016) and 0.4 (2017) fWAR clip in his first two seasons while going up and down from Triple-A. However, in 2018 he broke out as a high-leverage reliever. Rogers earned a 2.63 ERA and a 1.8 fWAR clip in 68.1 innings during his age-27 season. Since then, he has continued that high production level, except in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, where he had a 4.05 ERA. That may have been a sample size issue, though. He only pitched in 20 innings and didn’t get stretched out over an entire 162-game season.

Duffey and Rodgers show us that it takes time to gain confidence and experience to win consistently against major league hitters. Even the best relievers in baseball suffer early-career slumps. It’s a common element of player development.

Alcala is Minnesota’s most talented and exciting option in the bullpen. Not only because of his exceptional arm talent but also because he has shown the ability to be a lights-out reliever in the pandemic-shortened 60-game season. The team and fans eagerly await him to reach that high-caliber level again. Next season could be a breakout year where Alcala firmly puts himself in the same conversations as players like Rogers and Duffey.

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