Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Minnesota Twins need pitching. If they’re going to contend next year, finding starters will be a top priority because none of their five spots are locked down for next season. But in the final months of a disappointing year, an unlikely candidate has risen from the ashes.
A late-season surge put Bailey Ober’s stock on the rise, but the Twins need to decide on his role for next season. If he’s part of the rotation, does he have good enough stuff to be a consistent starter? Or is he just a depth piece?
If his recent performance is an indicator, Ober deserves a shot to find out. In 17 starts this season, Ober has posted a 2-2 record with a 4.00 ERA. While those are decent numbers compared to the rest of this year’s rotation, the kicker is he’s gotten better throughout the year.
In five June starts, Ober struggled, posting a 5.23 ERA. After a modest improvement in July, he improved in August, going 1-1 with a 2.30 ERA.
Going deeper, Ober has been able to go from a pitcher trying to break into the big leagues to one who looks comfortable on a major-league mound. After allowing a .851 OPS in June, he improved to .711 in July and .694 in August. Ober also showed tremendous control, issuing only 1.01 walks per nine innings in August.
The key to Ober’s success has been his fastball. According to Baseball Savant, Ober’s fastball checks in at 92.3 mph, which places it in the 33rd percentile of major league pitchers this season. His fastball spin rate (2,173 rpm) ranks in the 31st percentile, but it’s still been able to miss bats.
Baseball Savant logs Ober’s fastball with a 24.7 percent whiff rate, second to his slider (26.4 percent). With a four-pitch arsenal that includes a changeup and a curveball, he has options to put away hitters with his changeup, recording the lowest put-away percentage of the group at 14.6 percent.
An above-average walk rate and an unpredictable approach were a foundation for success in the minor leagues, where Ober went a combined 18-3 with a 2.41 ERA over four seasons in the Twins system.
But there’s still reason for uncertainty with Ober. The right-hander hasn’t thrown over 100 innings in a season since his freshman year at College of Charleston, and the Twins have been careful to manage his load this season.
There’s also a feeling that the Twins have been here before after Randy Dobnak’s performance in September of 2019.
Dobnak was a rising force, going from Low-A ball to the Twins starting rotation in 2019. In his major league debut, Dobnak put up better numbers (2-1, 1.59 ERA) than Ober did in a smaller sample size (28.1 innings).
During his first full season in the rotation in 2020, Dobnak started fast but posted similar analytics to Ober. His fastball velocity (31st percentile) and spin rate (5th percentile) weren’t ideal, but he logged a 31.7 percent chase rate in the 84th percentile.
However, Dobnak didn’t show an ability to miss bats and failed to make the postseason roster after a hot start. The Twins signed Dobnak to a five-year extension anyway, and he’s gone 1-7 with a 7.64 ERA in 14 starts this season.
But there are reasons to believe that Ober could end up being the better player. While Dobnak’s numbers went down with more experience, Ober has improved and is only 695 pitches behind Dobnak’s career total after Monday’s start in Cleveland.
Statcast has a favorable comparison for Ober: Houston Astros right-hander José Urquidy. Another right-hander with low fastball velocity (36th percentile) and spin rate (41st percentile) but high chase rate (71st percentile), Urquidy struggled with a 5.87 ERA in his first five career starts in 2019 but turned it on that September with a 1.50 ERA in 18 innings.
Urquidy has become a solid back-of-the-rotation pitcher for the Astros over the past two seasons, going 7-4 with a 3.23 ERA in 111.1 innings.
The Twins need to build their rotation from the ground up, and their best-case scenario is to see homegrown talent emerge. Ober’s late-season performance doesn’t guarantee he will succeed, but it’s a cost-effective option the Twins can afford to try out.