The Minnesota Twins were in complete control of the Los Angeles Angels on Saturday night. Dylan Bundy was cruising through six innings, and it appeared to be an easy night for the Twins…except for Rocco Baldelli. The Twins manager likely was pacing in the dugout. He was sweating bullets as Bundy’s pitch count soared into the 60s. With the third time through the order approaching, Baldelli pulled Bundy, but something was still off.
Michael Fulmer and Jhoan Durán preserved the lead through the seventh and eighth inning. All-Star closer Jorge López was tabbed for the ninth. After Nick Gordon tried to dive for a fly ball, the Angels tied the game.
“We have to get Pagán in the game,” Baldelli probably muttered.
Emilio Pagán trotted in from the bullpen. After fiddling with his pitchcom for five minutes, Pagán began the high-wire act that Twins fans know too well. A sacrifice bunt moved the shadow runner over to first. Pagán intentionally walked Shohei Ohtani. Luis Rengifo lifted a flair to center field, but Byron Buxton made a diving catch and doubled off Ohtani at first base.
Perhaps Baldelli would consider someone else after the close call. But he left Pagán in the game. One 97 mph fastball down the middle of the plate later, the game was over.
Taylor Ward’s walk-off homer capped off one of the most frustrating losses of the year for the Twins, but it also brought up one of their most confounding questions. Why do the Twins keep using Pagán in high-leverage situations?
When Pagán arrived in Minnesota, he was supposed to be a replacement for Taylor Rogers. Over a four-year stretch from 2017 to 2021, Pagan had a higher ERA and FIP but posted similar peripheral numbers to Rogers.
To some degree, Pagán has been as advertised. His 12.6 strikeouts per nine innings is a career-high. His 31.7 percent strikeout rate is in the 92nd percentile of all major league relievers. Pagán’s 85 percent whiff rate ranks in the 85th percentile, and his fastball spin rate is in the 94th percentile.
With Rogers eligible for free agency after this season, the Twins added a similar arm with an extra year of team control. Throw in Chris Paddack, who is under team control for three more seasons, and it looks like a brilliant move. But that would be ignoring Pagán’s fatal flaw.
While Pagán has shown the ability to miss bats, bad things happen when players can get a hold of one. According to Statcast, Pagán has allowed a whopping 48.6 percent hard-hit rate and has allowed a player to barrel up once every 7.7 plate appearances. He also has an average exit velocity of 91.4 mph, which ranks in the second percentile of major league relievers.
You may have also noticed that Pagán’s 1.7 home runs per nine innings allowed was double what Rogers allowed during his time with the Twins. What you may not know is that his career 1.8 home runs per nine innings are the highest rate for a reliever in the history of Major League Baseball.
Since the start of the 2020 season, Pagán’s 30 home runs are the most allowed by any major league reliever. Even more impressive? Only 10 relievers have allowed 20 or more homers during that stretch. Pagán’s penchant for giving up the long ball creates a coin flip every time he goes to the mound. Pagán could strike out the side, but he could also give up a home run that hasn’t landed yet. Most teams have a reliever like Pagán, but they don’t use them in high-leverage situations.
Then again, most bullpens have better options.
One could argue by using him earlier in the game, the Twins can get to the back end of the bullpen where Fulmer, Duran, and López can finish it off. But it also results in a frustrating scenario where leads go to die. The Twins should go to someone else, but is there anyone they can trust?
Griffin Jax has been a pillar of a shaky bullpen, but he owns a 6.10 ERA in his last 22 games. Trevor Megill has been impressive but has a higher hard-hit rate (50 percent) than Pagán. Caleb Thielbar has looked good returning from injury, but the Twins would probably like to save him for left-handed hitters.
Cole Sands probably isn’t ready for a high-profile relief role. The next best option would be to promote Brad Peacock or Louie Varland from Triple-A St. Paul. Unless the Twins start extending their arms, these options create a feeling of déjà vu, where Baldelli had to toss Alex Colomé out to the mound last season.
If there was a better option, Baldelli would use it. But right now, he doesn’t have one.