It was a beautiful night at Target Field. The temperature was perfect, the sky was beautiful, and Joe Ryan was dealing.
The Minnesota Twins rookie tore through the Kansas City Royals lineup, and anticipation started to mount. The crowd of 19,005 realized what was happening and grew louder with each out. Ryan was chasing a no-hitter, but he was also working against himself.
Ryan’s pitch count soared into the 100s, leaving Rocco Baldelli with a dilemma. He could either let his starter go for the no-no or remove him from the game and have him rested for a series with the first-place Cleveland Guardians.
After striking out Vinnie Pasquantino, Ryan finished the top of the seventh with 106 pitches. He was getting stronger and ready to chase the final six outs. Then, Baldelli greeted him in the dugout, shook his hand, and praised him. He was done for the night.
When Jovani Moran came out for the eighth inning, the beautiful night faded away. It began raining with boos from frustrated Twins fans, who believed they were on the verge of witnessing history. The Twins would win the game but not without controversy.
Should the Twins have allowed Ryan to chase the first no-hitter since 2011? Or was Baldelli right to remove his starter in anticipation of a critical five-game series?
It turns out both things can be true.
Baldelli and the Twins have firmly placed themselves on the side of analytics. Pitcher Devin Smeltzer criticized the organization for making decisions on their starters well before the game. Judging by Baldelli’s comments, the decision to pull Ryan was by the book.
“The anxiety wasn’t really quite there,” Baldelli said after the game. “Looking at the situation, you want him to keep going…but he also has to pitch for us in five days again in what’s hopefully going to be a very important situation for our team. Just kind of balancing all of that, the decision was made to take him out of the game…at some point, you have to do what you think is right.”
Nobody can blame Baldelli if he’s looking ahead toward this weekend. With 22 games to play, the Twins are five games behind the Guardians for first place in the American League Central. With the Twins trailing by 6.5 games for the final wild-card spot, they have to win the division, or they’ll be sitting at home in October. That means winning at least four out of the five games is a must.
Because of this, the Twins need all hands on deck in Cleveland. Ryan’s previous career high in pitches per game came on Aug. 9 when he threw 110 pitches against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Allowing Ryan to stay in the game would have sent him into the 120s or 130s, which Ryan admitted would leave him with “a new level of soreness” after the game.
“The pitch count obviously comes into play,” Ryan admitted after the game. “We’re trying to win some games, and I’m throwing in five games again too. I think going there for…130, 135 [pitches] and not having done it this year; we’re going to reach a new level of soreness after that. I totally understand we’re in the hunt. So I think we just make the right decision for the team.”
Ryan’s analysis is spot-on but ignores his previous performance this season. Chasing the no-hitter would have resulted in a season-high number of pitches, but it also ignored Ryan’s track record this season.
The 26-year-old has thrown over 100 pitches seven times in 24 starts this season. According to Statcast, Ryan’s hardest pitch (94.7 mph) of the game while facing Bobby Witt Jr. in the seventh inning. Four of his five hardest pitches came after the sixth inning. This was not a case of a pitcher running out of gas. He was getting stronger as the game went on.
But take Wednesday night out of the equation. Look at the long-term future of the Twins. By pulling Ryan, Baldelli and the front office believes that they are not only saving him for this weekend but preventing critical injury down the road. The problem here is that it also could have a negative effect on their future.
ESPN’s Jeff Passan released his early free agent tiers on Tuesday morning, and there will be plenty of arms for the Twins to choose from. Justin Verlander, Carlos Rodón, and Japanese flamethrower Kodai Senga could be available. Minnesota could have the budget for free agent pitching if Carlos Correa declines his $35.1 million option for next season.
The Twins could have the cash to spend, but they might not be an attractive destination.
The look on Ryan’s face when Baldelli pulled him from the game says it all. Pitchers want to compete. They want to dominate teams like the Royals. Ryan was doing both, but Baldelli shut him down.
Let’s say the Twins had enough money to convince Rodón to Minnesota. Does he want to come to a place where his manager will remove him the third time through the lineup? Probably not.
This doesn’t mean the Twins can’t attract free agents, but it limits the type they can acquire. Chris Archer praised Wes Johnson for how he handled his workload before he departed for LSU. But at 2-8 with a 4.56 ERA, he’s not the type of pitcher who will turn them into legitimate contenders.
That makes this weekend even more important. Baldelli’s top priority was to ensure Ryan’s peak performance this weekend in Cleveland. If Ryan is just as dominant as he was on Tuesday night, it reinforces Baldelli’s decision and validates the decision to pull Ryan.