Seemingly every day brings a new pitching need for the Minnesota Twins. First, the Twins brought in Chris Paddack this spring to help replace Kenta Maeda. Then Paddack underwent Tommy John in May, leaving Minnesota without Paddack and closer Taylor Rogers. Minnesota went out to fix these holes at the deadline, acquiring starter Tyler Mahle and relievers Jorge Lopez and Michael Fulmer. But now, the Whack-A-Mole of Twins pitching strikes again. Mahle is now on the injured list due to shoulder inflammation.
The Twins share first place with the Cleveland Guardians, despite dropping two of three to the Chicago White Sox, who are two games back. Is that going to hold after a four-game set at Yankee Stadium? Time is running out, and they need all hands on deck. They don’t have that without Mahle. Dylan Bundy has been on a relative tear, but he’s not trustworthy as the No. 3 option in a rotation.
Luckily for them, the Twins might be in a position for last year’s José Berríos trade to pay off. Austin Martin was the centerpiece of that trade, but it’s Simeon Woods Richardson who could make an impact soon.
Last year, Woods Richardson was a 20-year-old prospect with incredible potential (13.0 K/9 rate in Double-A) but in need of serious refinement (5.7 BB/9). But Woods Richardson refined his approach this season, and the results have been staggering. In 84.1 innings between Double- and Triple-A, he’s dropped his strikeout rate to 9.8 per nine innings. That could seem like a red flag, except Woods Richardson has solved his walk troubles. His BB/9 rate is nearly cut in half, at just 3.0. If you’re looking for a reason his ERA dipped from 5.90 last year to 3.09 now, that’s a great place to start.
There’s more, though. Woods Richardson is keeping way more balls out of the air and on the ground. His ground-ball percentage has jumped from the low-30s last year to the low-40s. That’s not a worm-killer to the level of Jhoan Durán, but who is? The important thing is that Woods Richardson isn’t a pure flyball guy anymore.
He’s also seeming to reduce hard contact against him. Line Drives made over 20% of his batted balls last year, which are the most likely to be hit hard and fall for hits. But only 17.8% of his batted balls against were line drives in Double-A this season and (in a small 13-inning sample) 11.4% in Triple-A. 31% of his fly balls in Double-A didn’t leave the infield, further suggesting soft contact.
With expanded rosters in September and a need for impact pitching, Woods Richardson seems like a logical choice to turn to without Mahle. Even if Mahle returns for the playoffs at full-strength, Minnesota could certainly use another arm in the bullpen. Woods Richardson could either do long relief, or dial up the velocity as a high-leverage reliever, right?
But a playoff race, and presumably the postseason, is a big situation to drop a 21-year-old into. It’s fair to ask if the Twins should have someone make their MLB debut in that type of crucible. Do young pitchers get these high-level playoff spots?
It doesn’t happen very frequently, but it does happen. Since 2000, 19 pitchers age 21 or under have either made one start or thrown seven playoff innings. They’ve posted 196.2 innings with a 4.07 ERA and 183 strikeouts (8.4/9) to 82 walks (3.8/9).
That’s not a bad track record! Let’s compare that to, oh, say, the Minnesota Twins during their 18-game playoff losing streak. That’s a total of 163.2 innings with a whopping 5.28 ERA, 129 strikeouts (7.1/9) to 66 walks (3.6/9). At this point, the Twins should only let 21-and-under players pitch.
There’s definitely some bias in that 21-and-under sample. You have to be really talented to advance to the majors at such a young age. However, Woods Richardson is showing off that talent. And like we’ve just shown, it’s not like you can do much worse than Twins pitchers have the last 18 years.
But more relevant to Woods Richardson is that almost none of these players were making their MLB debuts in the playoffs. Most of them weren’t even close.
For example, Madison Bumgarner was just 20 when he played in the playoffs for the first time. But he already had 121 regular-season innings under his belt. Maybe that’s not a ton. Still, he at least had time to get his feet wet before jumping into the deep end. Same with Clayton Kershaw, who threw 107.1 innings before ever making a postseason start.
Some of these players had even more experience than Bumgarner and Kershaw. Rick Ankiel (208 IP), Mike Soroka (200.1 IP), CC Sabathia (180.1 IP), Dontrelle Willis (160.2 IP), and Lance McCullers (125.2 IP) all threw big innings before making their postseason debuts.
And all that will be way more than Woods Richardson will get in September. Assuming he gets a call-up this week, which would put his MLB debut in Yankee Stadium, he can make a maximum of six starts before the end of the regular season. Assuming he goes five innings in each start, that’s a maximum of 30 innings he can log before playoff time.
Just four under-21 pitchers made their postseason debut with 30 innings or fewer.
The good news is, most of these turned out pretty well, at least in a limited time. Adrián Morejón (27.1 IP) was probably the worst outcome, with three earned runs in five innings for the San Diego Padres in 2020.
Brusdar Graterol (9.2 IP) was only called on for an inning of mop-up duty, in Game 1 of 2019. He notched two strikeouts, indicating he maybe should have come in when the outcome was more in doubt. Graterol went on to have a stellar postseason the next year for the Los Angeles Dodgers, with eight scoreless appearances out of nine en route to a World Series win. He had 33 regular-season innings to that point.
Carlos Martínez pitched just 28.1 innings before jumping into the postseason fray in 2013. That didn’t stop him from making 12 postseason appearances, and finishing with a 3.55 ERA over 12.2 innings. The St. Louis Cardinals made the World Series, and Martinez played in all but one of those six games.
But Francisco Rodríguez is perhaps the most encouraging example for Woods Richardson. “K-Rod” was even younger than Woods Richardson (20), and had thrown only 5.2 innings before the Anaheim Angels’ playoff run. That didn’t stop him from posting a 2.16 ERA with a 28:5 K/BB ratio in 18.2 innings. Those Angels won the title.
It’s not guaranteed that Woods Richardson would put up K-Rod-type results. There’s not even a guarantee he’d be good. But history does show that Woods Richardson’s youth and inexperience don’t put a ceiling on what he could do in a playoff spot. With that in mind, there’s no reason to not give him a shot. He’s throwing at a high level and excelling against top competition. His game grew by leaps and bounds this season, and giving him this spot would be a great reward for his progress. There’s a need for his arm somewhere on the Twins, whether that’s in the rotation or bullpen.
There’s only upside with giving Woods Richardson a shot, especially for the Derek Falvey/Thad Levine/Rocco Baldelli brain trust. The Twins have an 18-game losing streak, and nothing to lose. Think of how great it will be to finally have that streak snap. Think of how well it would reflect on the front office if a Falvey/Levine acquisition played a crucial role in delivering that fabled playoff win. There’s simply no reason to keep Woods Richardson away from that potential moment.