The Minnesota Twins are rolling down the fast lane, and stellar pitching is propelling this bus. Not only does the starting staff have a top-tier unit thus far, but their bullpen has been mostly fantastic, especially lately. While fans were anticipating the relievers to be the loose wheel on this season, they were relatively quiet on the free-agent market, and they traded their closer just hours before Opening Day – instead, they have been pleasantly surprised.
The club boasts multiple relievers that have adequately kept the club atop the AL Central. From veterans Joe Smith, Emilio Pagán, and Tyler Duffey to minor-league deal signee Danny Coulombe, Minnesota’s ‘pen has helped the Twins switch gears at the right time. But the performances that have kept the team in the passing lane have come from a surprising pair, former starters who converted to a relief role to pitch in the Major Leagues. Rookie sensation Jhoan Duran and sophomore hurler Griffin Jax have exceeded expectations in the first five weeks, and they look like they have gas in the tank to keep it going.
Acquired in the Eduardo Escobar swap with the Arizona Diamondbacks at the 2018 trade deadline, Duran has been one of the premier arms in the Twins’ system for the last four years. While he showed a ton of promise as a starter in the early going, the club decided to move him to a permanent relief role coming into camp this year. Sure, he had the motor to be a frontline starter, but the Twins didn’t think his fuel pump had the longevity needed to finish the race.
That shift seems to be paying off, as Duran has become one of the most electric relievers in MLB. Any appearance of his in a game is almost sure to result in a submission from Pitching Ninja on Twitter.
The rookie has a good-not-great 3.68 ERA but has the second-best strikeout rate in the American League among qualified relievers. In fact, his 14.7 K/9 is the best of his professional career. While many expected him to have plenty of punchouts notched on his steering wheel, it’s hard to say anyone could have seen this many in the first month of the season. Duran has struck out more than half of the right-handed hitters he’s faced (16 strikeouts in 31 plate appearances), and they have an ugly 47% miss rate against him. According to Inside Edge, that’s best in MLB and is quite remarkable for someone who has been in the league for just four weeks.
That success against righties is carrying him to the closer’s role. Three of the four home runs that he’s allowed have come against right-handed hitters, but they are only getting on base at a .226 clip, and he has more than twice as many strikeouts as hits allowed against them (16 strikeouts, 6 hits). Now, fans are getting used to seeing him in some of the highest-leverage situations of the season, from closing out one-run games to getting six-out saves. His Win Probability Added is already 0.68, good for eighth-highest in the American League among relievers.
By moving Duran to the bullpen, they’ve allowed him to unleash his nastiest stuff for one to two innings rather than having to pace himself for multiple trips through a lineup. He can floor it past his opponents with the heater while flashing a plus splinker and a looping curveball. While starters will generally have more success by balancing their pitch repertoire to a degree, Duran can now use his off-speed offerings sparingly and at the most opportune times. And for a pitcher that lost out on the 2020 season and only pitched 16 innings last year, that easing back into game action will be much needed if they want him in the driver seat at the end of the race.
Jax had a pretty forgettable 2021 season, just like most of his teammates that year. The Twins thrust him into the major league starting rotation due to need rather than readiness, and the results showed. The 26-year-old finished his rookie year with a 6.37 ERA, primarily because he allowed a whopping 23 home runs in just 82 innings. He started 14 games for the injury-plagued Twins rotation and didn’t have a single month with an ERA under 5.14.
There was one condition where he showed at least some success last season, and that was when he faced the opposing lineup for the first time in a game. In those first runs through the lineup, Jax had a respectable 3.41 ERA, and opponents had a .175 batting average against him. That’s a tell-tale sign that someone should have more success in a relief role, and the Twins read the signs on the dashboard.
Since moving to a full-time relief role this year, Jax has been nothing short of spectacular. He has a pristine 1.35 ERA, with an 11.5 K/9 and just 2.0 walks-per-nine innings. While Jax wasn’t a key part of the Twins’ bullpen plans at the onset of the season, he has taken this new opportunity and peeled out with it. The Twins don’t have a firm hierarchy with their relievers, but needless to say, he scooches himself closer to the pole position with each outing.
He’s found success by increasing his fastball velocity, which averaged 92.7 MPH in 2021 but is all the way up to 94.7 MPH this year. That, paired with the Matt Wisler special™, where a pitcher starts throwing their slider more than half the time (52% for Jax this year), has been a revelation for the Twins hurler. By limiting his exposure to opposing hitters and unleashing a harder fastball, he’s turned into a completely different pitcher, and the results have followed close behind. With Jax assuming a high-leverage position in the Twins bullpen, it gives the team a new road map for other middling starters that could potentially find similar success if given that opportunity.
Moving starters to a relief role isn’t a new tactic by any means. In recent years, the Twins themselves have done it with guys like Taylor Rogers and Duffey. But neither of them was as highly-touted as starting pitcher prospects. Duran was the centerpiece return in a major trade and has been among Minnesota’s top prospects for four years. Jax was a third-round draft pick as a starter and had success in the Double-A rotation as recently as 2019. But the club kicked the tires and revved the engine a few times and decided that these cars were made for quick sprints in a drag race rather than an all-day circuit. And though the MLB season is still in its first leg, these two pitchers are putting the Twins on an inside track for success.