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What will the Twins be missing with Trevor May out?

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Though he’d been a reliever, the loss of Trevor May for the upcoming season will probably hurt the starting rotation the most.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Minnesota Twins
Twins righty Trevor May was going to get the chance to start again in 2017. Then he tore his UCL.
Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

On July 1, 2015, Twins righty Trevor May took the hill against the Reds at Great American Ballpark for his 24th career start.

It was May’s last start before Ervin Santana was to be activated after serving his half-season ban for getting caught “accidentally” taking PEDs. Entering the season, human pitching machine Mike Pelfrey looked to be the odd-man-out of the Twins’ starting rotation. But Santana’s suspension gave Pelfrey an opportunity to start, and the tall northpaw took advantage, posting a 3.81 ERA over 87 13 innings during Santana’s absence.

As Twinkie Town’s Jesse Lund wrote at the time, Twins manager Paul Molitor faced a difficult decision: Pelfrey, Kyle Gibson and Tommy Milone all had ERAs in the 3’s and Phil Hughes was fresh off a 2014 season in which he set the major-league record for K/BB ratio (it doesn’t make for the most attractive plaque, I know...) and received multiple Cy Young votes.

May pitched well against the Reds on July 1. The then-25-year-old scattered six hits across 6 13 innings, giving up one earned run while walking three and fanning six. But May and the Twins had the misfortune of facing Johnny Cueto and Aroldis Chapman that day, and perhaps unsurprisingly couldn’t muster much offense on their way to a 2-1 loss.

The loss dropped the Twins to 41-37, 4.5 games behind the first-place Royals but still very much in the hunt — yet another reason why a rotation solution seemed so vital at the time.

May made only one more start the rest of the season, an Aug. 14 spot start against the Indians that was prompted by injuries to Hughes and Milone. May lasted only three innings — he surrendered two runs and walked zero — and has not started since. His 63 succeeding appearances have begun with a trot from the bullpen.

That final fact makes May’s postgame quote from this CBS Sports recap downright heartbreaking.

''I felt good,'' May said. ''There were no physical problems and I didn't feel much different than I did my last start. That's encouraging. I'll take my routine out there and try to improve my next start.''

Trevor, you sweet, sweet boy.

In his article right after May’s demotion from the rotation, Jesse noted that, at the time of his move to the bullpen, May led Twins starters in Wins Above Replacement, strikeouts, strikeouts per nine, strikeout percentage, FIP, xFIP, SIERRA, contact percentage and swinging-strike percentage. That’s a lot of things!

In his article, Jesse called May’s banishment to the bullpen a “mistake.”

Well, it looked like the Falvey/Levine regime was planning on rectifying that mistake. After spending the entire 2016 season pitching from the ‘pen, the Twins’ new front office was going to give May a shot to start again.

To my mind, this was a no-brainer: May offered more upside than many of his possible rotation mates, he demonstrated an ability to miss more bats than his peers and his injury-plagued 2016 appeared to stem from pitching on zero- or one-day’s rest.

After a couple solid but unspectacular trips to the hill this spring, it looked like May would be battling with Berrios for the Twins’ final rotation spot, according to Twins MLB.com beat writer Rhett Bollinger.

Instead, May felt something go awry during his start Wednesday against Team USA.

May, 27, said he felt “a little grab” in his elbow while making an 0-2 pitch to Andrew McCutchen in the second inning of his last start on Wednesday night against Team USA. May ended up walking McCutchen but rebounded to throw 34 more pitches in a 58-pitch outing over four effective innings.

“I downplayed it in my head,” he said. “I thought it was some tightness in my flexors, something I’ve felt before. A lot of times it’s a coin flip for whether or not it’s nothing or it’s bad.”

He was his usual upbeat self afterward while meeting with the media, but when his elbow remained inflamed over the next few days he decided to seek medical evaluation.

Now, with May on the shelf for the foreseeable future, we’re left wondering just exactly what the Twins will be missing this season.

MLB: Minnesota Twins-Media Day
Peek-a-bo! It’s Trevor May. Object-permanence is a thing, people.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

May be a starter, May be a reliever

The first thing to get out of the way is the requisite disclaimer: relieving is way easier than starting. Nearly 100% of relievers were meant to be starters; failed relievers get booted from baseball, not into the starting rotation. The reverse move happens every day.

But hey: there’s no shame in admitting that starting pitching is damn difficult! It’s harder to get 20 people out than three; it’s harder to throw three or four pitches effectively than one or two. The times-through-the-order penalty is real and unrelenting. When a starter gets moved to the bullpen, we can expect to see an improvement in efficiency and velocity.

May was no different. Like most pitchers, he saw an uptick in velocity, strikeouts and effectiveness when being asked to do less.

Molitor moved May to the bullpen in July of 2015 — and, not coincidentally, May added some immediate MPH to his fastball.

(In many of these graphs, you’ll see a dip down in 2016 again, which I’m attributing to May’s nagging and constant back-injury issues, which cost him a whole mess of time and effectiveness.)

Since his move to the ‘pen, May was literally harder to hit. May’s jump to excellent swing-and-miss stuff was as hard and fast as his rejuvenated fastball.

A few graphs illustrate this point succinctly. (For context, the X-axis here is his career number of games; May moved to the bullpen in his 26th career game and made the one spot start in game number 39.)

Almost immediately upon moving to the bullpen, May’s swinging-strike rate and strikeouts increased and his opponents’ contact rate plummeted. In each of the metrics, May went from slightly below-average to well above. (Again, there was a dip in all three near the end of the graphs; this coincided with May’s frequent trips to the DL and his back issues.)

I took a look at two games, in particular — May’s final start as part of the Twins’ rotation, that game against the Reds on July 1, 2015; and a relief appearance later that month, on July 30 against the Mariners — to show the changes in his arsenal across a short period of time when he was similarly healthy.

Against the Reds on July 1, May spotted his fastball between 91 and 95, with most of his heaters clocking in around 94.

Here’s a pretty typical May fastball as a starter, taken from the Cincinnati start: it’s relatively flat, hits 92 and features a little glove-side run. Working out the windup, May stays relatively quiet, standing tall and minimizing excessive movement.

At the end of the same month and in his new reliever role, May was sitting comfortably at 96 with roughly the same amount of horizontal movement. His curveball stayed between 78 and 80, increasing the difference between his four-seamer and his deuce, while his slider jumped up two miles per hour to stay around eight MPH slower than his fastball.

May’s motion didn’t change much; he simply could let it rip, adding some giddy-up to his fastball. That 2-MPH jump makes his heater exponentially harder to catch up to — as Franklin Gutierrez found out on July 30, 2015.

May missed his target big-time. Suzuki sets up here.

Screenshot via MLB.tv

And caught the pitch here.

Screenshot via MLB.tv

That’s basically the last spot you’d want to throw a fastball, but May got away with it due to his increased velocity. As a reliever, May was much more eager to attack the heart of the zone with his humped-up fastball.

Against the M’s, Trevor May has the swagger of a man who knows he possesses a real tough fastball and doesn’t give too many F’s where it ends up because you’re not gonna hit anyway.

As a starter, May lived low in the zone, often to the detriment of his control.

Screenshot via Brooks Baseball

As a reliever, May was emboldened to unleash his new-and-improved velocity near the top of the zone, where a 2-MPH bump can make all the difference — and allow a pitcher to pump the zone with strikes instead of nibbling down below the knees.

Screenshot via Brooks Baseball

Because his outings were short and (usually) sweet, May could ditch his weaker secondary pitches in favor of his newly 95+ heater.

As a starter, May used his fastball about 50-55% of the time, give or take a few percentage points, and threw his change-up about 15-20% of the time.

Brooks Baseball

May joined the bullpen in July of ‘15, when he was still throwing a change-up at about the same rate. By the end of last season, May had essentially replaced his change-up with his slider and was loosing that speedball 55-65% of the time.

Brooks Baseball

This uptick in velocity allowed for (1) fewer off-speed pitches and (2) increased effectiveness of those off-speed pitches when May did elect to throw them. In both Fangraphs’ and PITCHf/x’s estimations, Trevor May’s change-up and breaking balls became nastier the less he relied on them.

This makes some sense: the less a hitter sees a pitch, the harder it should be to square up and hit it; and the harder you throw, the better your secondary pitches will look. Hitters have to be geared up to touch 96, 97, and even though the speed gap between May’s fastball and off-speed offerings didn’t change much (see above tables), the increased velocity just meant less time to react in general.

Let’s take a look at a couple of May’s off-speed deliveries against the Reds as a starter and compare them to the rest of the above Franklin Gutierrez at-bat, in relief 29 days later. I don’t think they’re definitive or anything, but I do think they demonstrate how velocity can paper over a pitcher’s deficiencies.

After getting Gutierrez to a 1-1 count with his 96-MPH fastball, May reached into his bag of tricks to throw some junk at Franklin.

This isn’t the sharpest slider and it certainly isn’t well located; it’s on the outside edge, I suppose, but its height is damn tasty for a hitter. But Gutierrez can’t pull the trigger, and I’d argue it’s at least partially because the thought of that 96-MPH heater boring in on his hands is fresh in his mind. Gutierrez’s reaction tells the story. He missed his chance.

Here’s a first-pitch slider to Marlon Byrd 29 days earlier.

Byrd is not fooled. With how little movement and velocity May has on his slider, that’s basically a Single-A fastball, right down the chute. And without the specter of an elite fastball staring back at him, Byrd can let fly with impunity.

May’s change-up looks to be a mediocre offering in both games, to me at least. It has little-to-no dip, minimal fade and sits too close to the fastball in velocity to deceive hitters too much.

Here are two of May’s change-ups early against the Reds on July 1. Both look eminently hittable.

Change-up No. 1.

Change-up No. 2.

And, as a point of comparison, here’s the culmination of May’s face-off against Franklin Gutierrez 29 days later, which features a much better result from a very similar change-up.

The pitch still isn’t located well, lacks movement and is a relatively fast 86 MPH. But, with the 2-MPH bump in his fastball, May has better separation between the two pitches, which adds to the deception. That’s the primary, unseen, difference between those two change-ups, 29 days apart: Gutierrez had to contend with the threat of a premium fastball.

Trevor May is clearly a different pitcher out of the bullpen than from the starting rotation. But could Trevor May have found a spot in the ‘17 Twins’ rotation?

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Chicago White Sox
Pretty in pink.
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

May he really have re-joined the rotation finally?

May clearly took off once he was moved to the bullpen in 2015, and his stuff plays up in a reliever role. But could it have played up enough to allow May to slide into the Twins’ rotation?

Here’s how Twins starting pitchers have ranked among MLB rotations, sorted by K%, since May was demoted to the bullpen.

Bottom 3 K% 2016

Season Team K% BB% K-BB% ERA FIP WHIP w OBA
Season Team K% BB% K-BB% ERA FIP WHIP w OBA
Total MIN 0.166 0.0659 0.1001 4.85 4.29 1.4161 0.340
Total TEX 0.1691 0.0806 0.0886 4.48 4.51 1.3982 0.334
Total COL 0.1705 0.0856 0.0849 4.98 4.60 1.47 0.349

You may be wondering why that table only has three teams. Well, those are the three worst starting rotations by strikeout percentage. The Twins are the worst.

But Minnesota pitchers famously pride themselves on avoiding bases-on-balls. So maybe they performed better in K%-BB%?

Bottom 3 K%-BB% 2016

Season Team K% BB% K-BB% ERA FIP WHIP w OBA
Season Team K% BB% K-BB% ERA FIP WHIP w OBA
Total COL 0.1705 0.0856 0.0849 4.98 4.60 1.47 0.349
Total TEX 0.1691 0.0806 0.0886 4.48 4.51 1.3982 0.334
Total MIN 0.166 0.0659 0.1001 4.85 4.29 1.4161 0.340

They did perform better! Unfortunately it was still third-worst in the majors. That also qualifies as 28th-best, which is not the best.

As mentioned, Trevor May’s repertoire played better from the bullpen. But his starting game was still pretty legit compared to his potential compatriots in the ‘17 rotation.

Trevor May as a starter

Season Team K% BB% K-BB% ERA FIP WHIP w OBA IP
Season Team K% BB% K-BB% ERA FIP WHIP w OBA IP
Total MIN 0.205 0.068 0.137 5.61 3.85 1.51 0.354 126.2

Looking at this table and May’s velocity, it’s clear he offered the Twins a possible rotation weapon they’ve lacked: someone who can miss bats. May boasted an above-average strikeout rate, something the Twins desperately needed, and a sterling K%-BB% rate.

May had also made great strides in his control from 2014 to 2015, trimming 4.9% off his walk rate while maintaining the same ability to fan batters. His peripheral numbers have always outshone his performance stats, but he hasn’t thrown many innings, and his time as a starter also coincided with the Twins’ subpar defense (especially in the outfield); May, a fly ball pitcher, never got to start in front of the Rosario-Buxton-Kepler triumvirate.

The best argument for May as a rotation piece was his swing-and-miss stuff, and now the Twins will be without it for the entirety of the 2017 season.

It’s easy to make jokes wondering if this will affect his video-gaming career, or whether this will give him more time to focus on his terrible EDM music.

But mostly I’m just sad. Trevor May is already 27 and has only been given a chance to show his stuff as a starter, in the rotation, for half of one season. In that half of one season, he pitched as good or better as all his rotation-mates. He deserved an honest-to-goodness shot in the rotation, and even before he tore his UCL, it’s unclear whether he would have gotten that.

May will turn 28 in September, and coming off a catastrophic injury and returning to a team and a rotation that may look wildly different — or, in a more depressing scenario, exactly the same.