Should We Blame Baldelli For the Bullpen Struggles?

Photo Credit: Jeff Curry (USA TODAY Sports)

Minnesota Twins manager Rocco Baldelli did a pretty solid job in 2019. With the Twins running away with the American League Central, Baldelli was treated to a big lead on a nightly basis and didn’t have to deal with many high-leverage situations. His management involved plenty of analytics-based decisions, but they were seldom made in a tight game.

Now that they are off to an 11-17 start this year, Baldelli’s decisions have become more highly scrutinized. The Twins have a 3-6 record in one-run games and an 0-6 mark in extra innings this season. While these struggles also have to do with the lineup not producing as it did two years ago, Baldelli has made questionable decisions late in games.

The bullpen saga began during the opening series of the season against the Milwaukee Brewers. The Twins trotted Alex Colomé out in the ninth inning, and the right-hander proceeded to cough up a two-run lead to send the Twins to an Opening Day loss.

Over the next several weeks, Colomé continued to struggle, but Baldelli trusted the former Chicago White Sox closer’s numbers from last season. Colomé had a 3.1% barrel rate in 2020, which was in the 95th percentile of MLB relievers. His expected slugging percentage (.295) and WOBA (.216) also ranked among MLB’s elite, giving Baldelli confidence that he would turn things around.

However, that didn’t happen. Opposing hitters have logged an 18.2% barrel rate (third percentile), 94.8 mph exit velocity (first percentile). But Baldelli trusted the numbers to keep putting him in high-leverage situations.

The breaking point came in Oakland, where Baldelli turned to Colomé in the ninth inning of a 10-9 game. With the Twins holding on to the lead, he gave up the tying run before Byron Buxton hit a two-run home run to put Minnesota back out in front. Instead of going to someone else, Baldelli sent Colomé back on the mound and let him throw nearly 50 pitches before the Athletics won on a walk-off error.

A week later, Colomé was sent into the 10th inning in a 3-3 game against the Cleveland Indians. On his first pitch, Jordan Luplow smashed a two-run homer to give the Tribe a 5-3 victory.

After that game, Baldelli said he wouldn’t use Colomé in high-leverage situations in the immediate future. That evening, he came into a 6-5 game against the bottom of Cleveland’s lineup. He created his own high-leverage situation, loading the bases and walking in a run before being pulled.

While Colomé has been relegated to low-leverage situations, Baldelli’s questionable decisions have continued.

In Tuesday night’s loss to the Texas Rangers, he opted to put Brandon Waddell into the game over Jorge Alcala. The move made sense with left-handers Nate Lowe and Joey Gallo due up. Alcala had allowed a 1.400 OPS to lefties in 15 plate appearances this season.

But in Monday’s game, Waddel allowed three runs and only recorded one out against the same Texas lineup. Although Baldelli may not have had many options, he could have rolled the dice considering that small sample size may have victimized Alcala. Instead, Adolis Garcia smacked a two-run home run to put the Rangers ahead, and Minnesota lost 6-3.

In each of these games, the Twins could have turned to a different arm. Had they done so, they may be hovering around .500. Instead, the Twins are six games under the break-even mark and are five games behind the first-place Kansas City Royals.

While Baldelli’s decisions have played a role in the bullpen’s struggles, so has the inability of the front office to provide him with options. For example, the Twins opted to sign Colomé instead of retaining Trevor May, who signed a 2-year, $15.5 million contract with the New York Mets. While Colomé ranks in the bottom percentiles of many Statcast categories, May sits at the top of the list and currently has a 1.93 ERA.

The Twins aren’t the first team to have analytics backfire or the first team to make a bad free-agent signing. But the key for Baldelli is to adapt to what he has in the bullpen and use a human element to improve their performance.

It takes us back to one of the first comments Baldelli made about using analytics during a game.

The good news is it’s early in the season and there’s plenty of time for Baldelli to find the pulse of his team. But if he doesn’t do it soon, the Twins could be in a hole too big to climb out of.

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