Three weeks into this season, the Minnesota Twins are already a frustrating team. Fans are expecting to see the return of the Bomba Squad, but they’ve been treated to a 6-8 start instead. There is much to be frustrated about, especially when they’ve dropped six of their last seven games.
To be fair, the Twins have also encountered some bad luck in the opening weeks. Bench coach Mike Bell died in March, and Josh Donaldson and Byron Buxton have suffered from injuries. They have also run into issues with COVID-19 as Andrelton Simmons and Kyle Garlick tested positive in the past week.
But one of the avoidable woes has been Rocco Baldelli’s tendency to pull his starters early.
This dates back to last season when Jose Berríos was pulled after 75 pitches in the Twins’ Game 2 Wild Card loss to the Houston Astros. This year, he was taken out after 84 pitches across six no-hit innings against the Milwaukee Brewers in his first start.
It’s not just Berríos. Several other pitchers have felt gotten the early hook, and his philosophy about facing the order a third time isn’t working out on the field.
Modern baseball has adopted the theory that hitters have a greater advantage the more times they see a pitcher. The pitcher gets fatigued after facing the lineup twice, and hitters also benefit from watching video and adapting to the pitcher’s repertoire that day. As a result, hitters have chased starters earlier. According to a study by Ethan Moore of Prospects 365, pitchers allow 0.21 runs above expected going through the lineup the first time. That number increases to 5.44 runs above expected the second time through the lineup and 8.59 the third time through the order.
This is why Baldelli would rather turn to his bullpen than have his starters pitch in a high-leverage situation. His approach has merit considering the bullpen the Twins have assembled. Taylor Rogers, Hansel Robles, and Alexander Colomé were all previously used as closers. Tyler Duffey has been one of Minnesota’s top set-up men the past couple of seasons, and Cody Stashak (21.6) and Caleb Thielbar (11.6) have both posted K/9 ratios over 10.
The Twins bullpen has also put up strong peripheral numbers this season, ranking eighth with a 10.37 K/9 ratio and third in BB/9 (2.86) and strikeout-to-walk (3.63) ratios. They have the arms to get batters out; they just haven’t been doing their job when it comes to limiting damage. Minnesota’s bullpen ranks toward the top of the league in several hitting categories, which has turned several late-game leads into head-scratching defeats.
On top of this, Twins relievers haven’t cleaned up the mess that their starters have gotten them into. The bullpen is allowing 67% of inherited runners to score, which leads MLB by 17% over the next-worst team, the Cincinnati Reds. Part of this is due to the extra-inning rule, with three losses coming with a runner placed on second. But even in the first nine innings, the Twins have had trouble limiting damage when their bullpen comes into the game.
This is where the line between analytics and the eye test comes into play. The numbers say that pitchers generally struggle the third time through the lineup, but Twins starters have been great when they’re in the game. Minnesota ranks seventh in ERA (2.86), eighth in opponent batting average (.221), and ninth in WHIP (1.09) from their starting pitching. This could be a product of Baldelli protecting his starters late in games, but his actions haven’t been on the extreme end of the spectrum in that regard.
Twins starters have thrown 72.1 innings so far this season, which ranks tied for 16th with the Baltimore Orioles. While the Twins could offer to get more out of their starting pitching, it could lead to the same scenario from 2019, where the team’s rotation was less productive once the calendar turned to August.
While Baldelli’s logic is sound, there’s also a need to adapt. The bullpen hasn’t been getting the job done, and if a starter is buzzing through the lineup, there’s no harm to letting him throw an extra inning or two to help give the bullpen a breather. This helps ensure that the relievers aren’t burned out later in the season either.
Even if the starters begin to falter, Baldelli has the power to adjust and start leaning on his bullpen again. Teams have begun to do this in recent postseasons. If the bullpen rebounds, the Twins can use an aggressive strategy that favors the analytics.
We’re not asking Baldelli to start using pitchers the way the New York Mets used Johan Santana in his 134-pitch no-hitter. It’s a matter of keeping the hot hand on the mound when they’re cruising through a game. If Berríos is dominating as he did in his first start, there’s a good chance Derek Falvey and Thad Levine aren’t on the dugout phone asking why he’s being left in the game.
There’s a fine line to making these calls, and Baldelli is mostly making the right decisions. He just needs to be more adaptable to suit the team’s needs. Eventually, the bullpen needs to come around to keep the starters from having to go late into games.