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Chris Gimenez: Molitor’s mop-up man

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The backup catcher’s historically frequent relief appearances illustrate just how bad the Twins’ bullpen has been

Minnesota Twins v Seattle Mariners
Chris Gimenez is a backup catcher. He has pitched four times through one-third of the season.
Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

One-third of the way through the season, Twins backup catcher Chris Gimenez has pitched four times. Chris Gimenez is on pace for 12 relief appearances this season. For those of you who made preseason bets on the Twins’ No. 2 catcher logging more innings than Trevor May, please collect your eleventy billion dollars.

On Tuesday night in Seattle, Gimenez pitched in the eighth inning of a game for the first-place Twins. In fact, he started the inning.

How did Gimenez feel about making his fourth pitching appearance of the season?

That’s not the preferred technique, Christopher. You’ve got to turn your hand the other direc... Oh wait, turns out he was telling Kyle Seager to hit the weight room. Nevermind!

The whole thing was treated as kind of a laugh by the Twins’ bench, if Ervin Santana’s reaction is any type of gauge.

What really prompted Santana’s laughter was not just who was on the hill but who was behind the plate; Molitor used this as an opportunity to let Eduardo “Emergency Catcher” Escobar catch, despite the absence of a Little League chest protector, per the Star Tribune’s Phil Miller.

While Chris Gimenez warmed up to pitch the eighth inning of the Twins' 12-3 loss to the Mariners, Escobar was searching for a wearable chest protector, since the straps on the one with his name on it had not been adjusted to fit him. He’s a utility infielder, after all, and the need to have Escobar play behind the plate had never arisen before. So Gimenez threw to Jason Castro while Escobar wrestled with the equipment.

“He had to borrow,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “We had to go through a couple of chest protectors to find one that didn’t make him look a little silly.”

Did I mention the Twins are in first place? Damn fine team.

Minnesota Twins v Seattle Mariners
There are multiple Getty photos of Chris Gimenez pitching in major-league games.
Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Scouting Chris Gimenez

OK, so we’re now in some type of bizarro universe where Chris Gimenez is going to pitch a lot. I suppose if this is our new normal, Twins fans, we may as well get a better understanding of the man’s pitching style.

The invaluable Brooks Baseball has a feature called “Pitcher’s Repertoire at-a-Glance” on each pitcher’s landing page. It includes a “basic description of 2017 pitches” that compares said pitcher to other same-handed fellas. It’s in beta and is clearly computer-generated, which makes for some high comedy when a position player is thrown in the ol’ algorithm. Here’s the entry for Gimenez:

His fourseam fastball comes in below hitting speed, is basically never swung at and missed compared to other pitchers' fourseamers, explodes on the hitter [Ed. note: What now?], results in somewhat more flyballs compared to other pitchers' fourseamers and has slightly less natural movement than typical. His change (take this with a grain of salt because he's only thrown 4 of them in 2017) comes in below hitting speed, is basically never swung at and missed compared to other pitchers' changeups, results in more flyballs compared to other pitchers' changeups, has slight cut action and has an extreme amount of backspin.

Now that sounds like a pitcher!

I wish my pitching coaches in college would have been this gentle with me: “Louie, your fastball comes in below hitting speed and is basically never swung at and missed. Also, it has slightly less natural movement than typical. But keep up the good work!”

Gimenez sits at 76 mph with his fastball and 67 with his changeup, which Dick and Bert originally were calling a knuckleball but appears in most pitch databases as a changeup. Probably because it doesn’t move.

Here’s Gimenez’s changeup/knuckler monstrosity, complete with the kind of bellyaching about balls and strikes that any true pitcher has perfected.

Beg when it’s close, Chris.

Gimenez can hump it up there to 81 when he wants to, as he showed on Tuesday against Boog Powell.

Apparently Gimenez has also thrown a slider, according to the Statcast data housed at Baseball Savant.

Image via Baseball Savant

This scatter plot also clarifies just how impossible it is to categorize pitches from a man who clearly is all out of F’s to give and is just going to lob it in there. Or whoever is working has been inspired by Gimenez’s nonchalance and elected to just say “whatever” and classify pitches as they please.

Gimenez is clearly on the cutting edge of baseball analytics; he’s countering the so-called “fly-ball revolution,” with its emphasis on launch angles, and the lowering strike zone by looping in high pitches that are harder to elevate.

Image via Baseball Savant

His “approach” means that ground balls are few and far between against him.

Image via Baseball Savant

OK, I think I — and likely you — have grown exhausted pretending Chris Gimenez pitching every two weeks is totally normal. Let’s talk about why we should care.

Boston Red Sox v Minnesota Twins
I’m telling you: there should not be this many photos of Chris Gimenez pitching.
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Chris Gimenez: mop-up legend

It’s not uncommon for position players to pitch in blowouts, especially when — despite ever-expanding bullpens — teams insist on shorter relief outings and are more aggressive about chasing beneficial matchups.

But Chris Gimenez is in a class all by himself.

Tracking position players’ pitching appearances is tricky. Baseball Reference’s Play Index — to which I probably owe the naming rights of my first-born child — doesn’t have an easy way to search for these outings.

But B-Ref does at least have a page logging every such instance, and digging around in there does provide some context for whatever it is that Paul Molitor is doing with Chris Gimenez.

Chris Gimenez is the preeminent modern-day mop-up man. If we exclude converts like Babe Ruth and Rick Ankiel and the few legitimate two-way players post-Integration (Willie Smith from ‘63 to ’71 and Johnny O’Brien from ‘53 to ‘59, most “notably”), to drill down to the modern sense of the “mop-up” man position player, Chris Gimenez is at the top.

Gimenez has pitched seven times in his career, the most of any active position player and tied for the most of any position player in the modern era. Looking at the names surrounding Gimenez on the “career pitching appearances” list illustrates just how much of an anachronism he is.

Image via Baseball Reference

God blessed, I love this list. Bones Ely? Cub Stricker? Granny Hamner? I can’t pick a favorite.

Also, Frank Fleet sounds like a player on Roger Clemens’ MVP Baseball for NES, the game where they couldn’t get the proper MLB licensing and thus called Rickey Henderson “R. Speed.” (Also, Vance Law from the above list was apparently called “V. Order” on the game, which I very much endorse. That damn game’s naming conventions were simultaneously so cheeky — Darryl Strawberry became D. Raspberry, Steve Sax became S. Clarinet, Mike Moore became M. Less — and straight-up lazy: Juan Samuel is now S. Juanwell! Brett Butler, meet B. Brettler! Orlando Merced, your new name will be M. Orced!)

Point is, Gimenez has few modern analogues. The closest are the aforementioned Vance Law, who also pitched seven times with both the Expos and the A’s, and former Twin Drew Butera, who has appeared as a pitcher in five games and is also a long-time backup catcher. As far as active players go, Butera is the most obvious Gimenez comparison.

Thing is, Butera actually throws kinda hard — around 88 mph, which would make him a flamethrower by Twins standards. In five career appearances covering four innings, Butera has struck out four batters. Not bad! Butera can at least generate a few whiffs: in four career innings, batters have swung and missed at 9.2% of his pitches.

Gimenez has never earned too many swings-and-misses, but this year it’s gotten pretty silly. Batters have not swung and missed once against Gimenez this season. Zero times.

Image via Fangraphs

With an arm like his, I understand why Butera has been thrust into mop-up duty. Gimenez lacks that type of stuff, such as it is. Gimenez never pitched in the minors, so perhaps he was a lights-out amateur pitcher? Every position player that managed to make the show probably could have been a dominant pitcher; they’re just better than most of us at this. There’s no record of Gimenez pitching in high school, such that I could find. But let’s check in on his career at the University of Nevada-Reno, where Gimenez elected to enroll instead of going pro after being drafted in 2001. Here’s what Gimenez’s hometown newspaper, the Gilroy Dispatch (Gilroy, CA), had to say about his collegiate career:

Gimenez took on many hats during his three-year career at UN-R

Perfect! Position player, pitcher — Chris Gimenez can’t be pigeon-holed!

getting recruited as an All-League catcher out of Gilroy High but eventually moving to the outfield at both leftfield and centerfield.

Shucks. Well, Gimenez may not have been a trusted reliever or college starter, but surely he was relied on to pitch in a pinch, like he is with the Twins. I bet Gimenez was the emergency pitcher.

He was also the emergency back-up at first and third base.

LOL. You know who the emergency back-up is at first base? Literally every player. As a lefty, I got to live the good life just dicking around at first. First base is super easy.

Whatever, Fictional Ron Washington.

Anyway, Chris Gimenez hadn’t pitched since (possibly) high school or at least little league when he first pitched in a big-league game in 2014. I’m guessing he convinced a coach he threw a killer knuckleball, because every position player thinks he has a killer knuckleball.

Despite a dearth of experience — and, let’s be honest, ability — Gimenez keeps getting the call. Gimenez’s fourth appearance of the season set a new post-Integration record for mop-up appearances in a season, breaking the previous high of three held by Law in 1986 and ‘87, Doug Dascenzo in 1991, and Bobby Darwin in 1969.

So, why has Paul Molitor made the call to the bullpen bench for Gimenez so often? Why are the Twins in a situation where Chris Gimenez potentially pitching 12 times in one season is funny and not sad?

Minnesota Twins v Seattle Mariners
Randy Rosario has not exactly impressed out of the bullpen thus far this season.
Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

A bereft bullpen

The Twins have required a lot of mopping up this season. Though they boast a winning record and a (tenuous) grasp on the AL Central’s top spot, they’ve gotten worked a lot this season.

Game Results through Wednesday
Image via Baseball Reference

(This massive negative run-differential explains how the Twins have a Pythagreon win-loss record of 25-31, five games worse than their actual record. Based on runs scored, the Twins have gotten lucky so far.)

The Twins have used five or more pitchers 21 times so far this season, which puts them squarely in the middle of major-league baseball. But when the Twins use 5+ pitchers, it’s not to mix and match but to stop the bleeding. When the Twins use five or more pitchers, they usually lose and always give up plenty of runs.

Image via Baseball Reference

Gimenez is Molitor’s white towel, the man Molly turns to when all is lost and nothing matters anymore.

Molitor likely feels as if all is lost quite frequently when looking at his bullpen, which has struggled mightily through the season’s first 2+ months.

Twins Bullpen Woes

Team ERA FIP xFIP WAR K% K-BB% SwStr%
Team ERA FIP xFIP WAR K% K-BB% SwStr%
Twins 5.28 5.12 4.64 -0.7 18.5% 9.8% 8.6%
MLB Rank 30 30 28 30 30 29 30
Stats through Thursday

Gimenez can at least claim he belongs a bit in this bullpen; his 0% swinging-strike rate isn’t too far off the bullpen’s 8.6% mark, which is not only the worst mark in MLB but the only single-digit number in the league.

The Twins’ bullpen, as a whole, has been worth nearly one win less than an entirely-replacement ‘pen, which makes sense: most of these guys are the types of scrap-heap finds that populate crappy bullpens.

The bullpen’s ineptitude has led to Gimenez’s name popping up on some surprising team leaderboards.

Stats through Thursday
Image via Fangraphs
Stats through Wednesday
Image via Fangraphs

Sure, Wins Above Replacement through four innings of work may not be terribly useful; one could argue that Gimenez being at 0.0 as a reliever isn’t necessarily indicative of much. How much value can you accrue in just four innings?

Counterargument: In one inning of relief work, Hector Santiago managed to be worth -0.4 WAR. So, yeah. You can hurt your team pretty darn quickly.

There were numerous reasons to doubt the Twins entering the 2017 season, and a weak bullpen with few impact arms was certainly one of them. The infuriating thing with this particular flaw is the ease with which it can be rectified; bullpen arms are aplenty in the offseason, and the Twins’ only bullpen moves were to sign Craig Breslow to a minor-league deal and Matt Belisle to a major-league one. The Breslow signing has been fine; the Belisle deal looks increasingly like a disaster.

The most frustrating problems are those that were the most avoidable, and the Twins’ bullpen woes certainly feel as if they could have been avoided with something as small as, say, $8 million in 2017 salary. (Guys: did you know Joe Mauer makes WAY more than that? What a jerk.) Hell, with more like $15 million, the Twins’ bullpen could have been a full-blown asset. And, if the Twins weren’t contenders at the trade deadline, a buy-low offseason guy like Greg Holland would be a prime candidate to bring back a prospect or high-upside youngster.

Sure, there may be help on the way. Minor-leaguers like Nik Turley, Stephen Gonsalves, Fernando Romero and Felix Jorge have impressed as starters, and there are several high-velocity relief arms at the upper levels, though they’ve been winnowed by injury and a couple of them have fared poorly in their brief forays into big-league ball. I guess the silver lining to having such a shambles of a bullpen is that the front office has some flexibility to drop dudes, trade dudes, and pick dudes up off waivers — like when the Twins claimed Chris Heston and dropped Nick Tepesch earlier this week. A weakness means more opportunity to get creative.

If the Twins’ bullpen continues to perform as it has, we can expect to see more and more of Chris Gimenez. And I think we’ll reach a point awfully soon where his appearances elicit less laughter and more anger.