Is Minnesota's Starting Rotation A Miracle or A Mirage?

Photo Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Based on the day-to-day performance of the 2022 Minnesota Twins, it takes more than a hot start to have a real shot at being successful. We’ve seen a handful of instances where the starting pitcher shoved for four or five innings, only to see the Twins fail to support them on the offensive end or have a bullpen arm squander a lead. Nevertheless, the starting rotation has mostly done their part to keep their team in the ball game.

Imagine saying that three weeks ago.

The Twins have five starting pitchers with an ERA under 3.69. Last year, Minnesota’s starting pitchers combined for a staff ERA of 5.18, good for third-worst in the American League. The stark contrast between these rotations is a welcome development, especially considering the departure of José Berríos, their former ace.

While starts have been shortened based on conservative pitch counts thanks to an abbreviated spring training, the unit has been as good as anyone could’ve hoped for. As nice as it’s been, it’s impossible not to anticipate the other shoe falling. We’ve seen the good side of all five starters in this young season, but who has the best chance to sustain their success?

Joe Ryan

The club’s opening day starter has been fantastic in three starts this year. He has a sterling 1.17 ERA in 23 innings pitched after his gem of a start on Wednesday. Ryan averages over a strikeout per inning and just 2.35 walks per nine innings (league average is 3.4). His deceptive fastball is still proving to be an effective weapon as opposing hitters have only mustered a .103 batting average against it. Since last year, he has upped his slider usage, using it at a 30.3% clip compared to 16% in 2021.

Predictably, that’s led to great results against right-handed hitters. They have a paltry .119 batting average against Ryan (5th-best in MLB) and have a 39% miss rate. That’s good for 3rd-highest in the game, and trails only Corbin Burnes (the reigning Cy Young winner in the NL), and Shohei Ohtani (the reigning MVP of the American League. Pretty elite company for a young arm.

It’s easy to say that Ryan will regress to the mean if you compare his opponents’ overall miss rate on fastballs last year (23%) to this year (30.1%). But it wouldn’t be shocking to see him sustain this deception to a degree based on his new balance to his pitching repertoire, with a heavier usage of his improving slider That’s not shocking considering pitching coach Wes Johnson’s reputation for helping incoming pitchers with their breaking pitches. If Ryan can continue to attack with his fastball and pair it with well-placed sliders, it could lead to a sustained stretch of dominance.

Dylan Bundy

Full disclosure, I wasn’t thrilled when the Twins signed Bundy to a one-year contract in December. His numbers from the last few years weren’t very encouraging, and I said Minnesota will have their work cut out for them. Now, it’s hard to imagine them not picking up his $11 million option for the 2023 season. Yes, it’s still too early to make that call. After all, J.A. Happ looked spectacular in the first month of last season (1.96 ERA), only to fall apart after that (8.24 ERA from May until getting traded at the end of July).

Bundy looks far more promising, though. His 0.59 ERA and 0.59 BB/9 are both elite so far this season, and his 46.7% ground ball rate is the best of his career. His fastball, while certainly not overpowering, is in the 76th percentile for spin rate, and hitters haven’t been able to do much damage against it so far (.133 batting average against, no extra-base hits). Bundy also features a slider and a curveball that have each been slightly above average, according to Fangraphs. He has a changeup in his back pocket, but he hasn’t featured it prominently thus far.

Could this be one reason for his sudden success? While none of Bundy’s pitches were particularly good last year, his changeup was worth negative-3.7 runs above average. It was also worth negative-10.8 runs above average in 2018, which was his second-worst season when he owned a 5.45 ERA.

Ditching his worst pitch while upping his fastball and slider usage has worked like a charm. If Bundy can continue to follow and adapt this game plan throughout the season while avoiding walks, he could feasibly be able to keep this success going, at least for the time being.

Chris Paddack

The Twins acquired Paddack in a last-minute deal with the San Diego Padres, shipping out fan-favorite Taylor Rogers. Many were underwhelmed with the move considering Paddack’s lackluster performance over the last two seasons. That criticism was at the forefront in his first Twins start against the powerhouse Los Angeles Dodgers, when he gave up three runs in his first two innings. However, Paddack has been fantastic since that point. In 12 ⅔ innings, he has a 2.13 ERA and 13 strikeouts.

His control has been spectacular, even elite. Paddack is in the 93rd percentile in walk rate and the 85th percentile in chase rate. He’s keeping his fastball up above the zone, where batters have chased it 45% of the time (good for third-highest in MLB). He’s been pairing it with his improved curveball and solid changeup that he has kept out of the hitter’s wheelhouse so far. Opponents can’t seem to get good contact off of his non-fastballs, where they have a Well-Hit average of just .034 (also third-highest in MLB). If Paddack can keep this control while getting batters to flail at pitches out of the zone, he could be a horse for the remainder of this season and for the two years that follow.

The rotation as a whole has been a pleasant surprise. Ryan, Bundy, and Paddack have the peripheral stats to suggest their success is not a mirage, and even Bailey Ober and Chris Archer could very well continue to shove all the same. Things looked ominous when Sonny Gray, the team’s premier off-season pitching addition, went down with a sore hamstring. Who would have thought that the Twins’ rotation would go on to have the lowest ERA in baseball after that point?

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