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What’s a Michael Tonkin for?

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The rarely used reliever represents what’s wrong with the Twins’ roster

Minnesota Twins Photo Day
This is the only Michael Tonkin photo to use because the photographers have already left by the time he gets in the game.
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

The Twins’ bullpen self-destructed Thursday against the Indians, squandering another good — though, let’s be honest, much bumpier — Ervin Santana start to lose 6-2 to the Cleveland professional baseball team.

Twins fans could have pinpointed several moments when things went well and truly off the rails: Taylor Rogers walking in the tying run, Matt Belisle walking in the go-ahead run, Ryan Pressly handing out doubles like Dan Gladden used to hand out cans of Gluek. But for me, that moment came with two outs in the ninth, after Yan Gomes doubled down the left-field line to make it 6-2.

Yes, folks, it had gotten that bad: Paul Molitor was prepared to use Michael Tonkin in a major-league baseball game, and there are few things Paul Molitor likes less than using Michael Tonkin in a major-league baseball game.

Michael Tonkin is not a bad pitcher. In fact, he’s good enough to not be the 13th pitcher on an MLB roster, but, lo, Michael Tonkin is now the 13th pitcher on an MLB roster.

Usually the 13th pitcher on an MLB roster doesn’t find himself on an MLB roster; he’s in Triple-A or Double-A, actually accruing innings and experience as he awaits his chance at the big-league level.

But Michael Tonkin remains a member of the 2017 Minnesota Twins, a team that’s decided carrying a baker’s dozen of mediocre pitchers is vital to maintaining mediocrity. During Friday’s game, Twins announcers Dick Bremer and Torii Hunter (!!) discussed the Twins’ roster inflexibility and how, hey, if a starter or two can regularly throw six innings in a start maybe seven relievers (still a crap-ton of relievers!) is an adequate amount of pitchers for a team to carry.

Hopefully this madness will stop soon. When the team’s roster was announced, Falvey indicated that the 13 pitchers thing was a temporary solution for the cold weather portion of the season, although how closely the front office is tracking weather patterns is hard to say.

Which brings us back to Tonkin. Turns out, Michael Tonkin is one of the only Twins pitchers who can actually miss bats with any regularity.

Twins 2016 leaders in K%

Name K%
Name K%
Trevor May 32.1%
Michael Tonkin 25.4%
Glen Perkins 25%
Buddy Boshers 24.3%
Taylor Rogers 24.2%

And Tonkin doesn’t walk too many folks either, especially relative to his strikeout rate.

Twins 2016 leaders in K-BB%

Name K-BB%
Name K-BB%
Trevor May 23%
Buddy Boshers 19.7%
Taylor Rogers 18.2%
Michael Tonkin 17.8%
Glen Perkins 16.7%

But what is Tonkin known for, as a Twins player? Not being allowed to play when it counts.

Friday’s 6-3 win over the Tigers featured Molitor’s ideal 2017 relief sequence: 6+ innings from a starter, followed by some combination of Taylor Rogers and Ryan Pressly with Brandon Kintzler closing the door in the ninth.

That’s the relief recipe when things are going well. When they’re going poorly early, Molitor hands the ball to Justin Haley, who’s made more than 100 minor-league starts and feels comfortable throwing multiple innings; or Tyler Duffey, who was and probably should be a starting pitcher (somewhere).

That leaves Craig Breslow, who I suppose you could call a “mid-game situational lefty,” as in a guy Molly can bring in earlier to face a tough lefty while keeping Rogers in the holster for the late innings; and Matt Belisle, who functions as, I don’t know, Pressly but with a permission slip to throw more than 15 pitches per outing.

And what is a Michael Tonkin for? He is for warming up when you’re losing by four with two outs in the ninth. He is for giving Eddie Guardado someone to talk to. He tells really funny jokes, Kintzler says.

So far this season, Michael Tonkin has pitched three times:

  • April 8 at Chicago he came in with one out in the bottom of the sixth down by 4
  • April 11 at Detroit he came in with one out in the bottom of the seventh down by 2
  • April 18 vs. Cleveland he came in with nobody out in the top of the ninth down by 5

Tonkin’s average Game Leverage Index rates when he entered those three games, according to Fangraphs, were 0.13, 0.55 and 0.02, respectively; anything below 1 is considered “low leverage.” Molitor does not trust Tonkin with literally any responsibility.

When the roster was announced there was some speculation — I believe on “Gleeman and the Geek,” though don’t quote me on that — that Tonkin was included by the front office, who see something valuable in him despite Molitor’s clear aversion to him. In this scenario, Tonkin’s the primary reason the Twins boast such a bloated bullpen; Molitor and Falvey/Levine couldn’t agree on which relievers they liked, essentially. I don’t know. (Obviously.) But guys, c’mon: this is getting silly.

Fangraphs has a handy-dandy pitcher visualizer, and here’s the last week of Twins reliever usage.

Image via Fangraphs

The main takeaway? Nobody’s really doing much of anything. The median workload here is 38 pitches per week. That’s a lot of leaning on a rake. The bullpen’s sunflower seed budget must be through the roof.

I get that it’s 2017 and six pitching changes per game is de rigueur. Pinch hitters and pinch runners are so 1983.

Twins starters have also pitched well, for the most part, and it’s probably foolish to bank on that for an entire season.

But good Lord, we do not need this many pitchers — especially painfully mediocre ones. Or at least get, I don’t know, a person of color or a dude with a little personality so I can differentiate these generic chuckleheads. It’s exhausting to have to know the difference between a Justin Haley and a Ryan Pressly. They’re both adverbs? I don’t know.

Nobody’s pitching much, and mop-up duties can be handled by any number of these relievers, all of whom could use more innings. I work at a bar and I can tell you: mopping up is really easy! You’re basically just pushing dirt around.

If you love a Michael Tonkin, set him free. Or a Tyler Duffey. Or a Craig Breslow. Or a Justin Haley. Or literally any of them. I don’t care.

Call me crazy, but I think we can manage with seven relievers.