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The Twins are burning through a record number of pitchers

Those Minnesota Twins just keep trotting out more fresh meat, and yet, are good. What will they do at the deadline?

Minnesota Twins v Cleveland Indians
Kyle Gibson again walks away from the mound sooner than he had hoped
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Twins right-hander Trevor Hildenberger — a 2014 draftee from Cal with a Twins Territory-approved, hyper-German surname — made his major-league debut on Friday against Cleveland.

Hildenberger pitched one scoreless inning, hurling 18 pitches and logging one strikeout. His family was on hand, which precipitated the obligatory adorable post-game family photo-op.

I bring up Hildenberger’s debut less for its potential impact on the Twins’ dire bullpen situation than for its illustration of the Twins’ unrelenting pitching-staff carousel: Hildenberger was the 26th different pitcher used by the Twins this season, just 71 games into the 2017 campaign.

Hildenberger’s appearance moved the 2017 Twins past the 2012 team into second-place in franchise history for most different pitchers used in a single season.

The below graph serves as a handy proxy for the evolution of modern pitcher usage: fewer pitches and innings per pitcher means more pitchers used, and the Twins have largely stuck to that script.

Data via Baseball-Reference; graph & inclusion of Mike Pelfrey via Louie

The major recent outlier is the 2005 Twins, who somehow only used 15 different pitchers over the entire season.

Johan Santana, Brad Radke, Carlos Silva, Kyle Lohse and Joe Mays each made more than 25 starts, with youngsters Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano pitching in for a combined 13. Six relievers — Joe Nathan, Jesse Crain, Juan Rincon, Terry Mulholland, J.C. Romero and Matt Guerrier — each threw more than 50 innings out of the ‘pen. Those 13 pitchers accounted for a gobsmacking 1,447 of the Twins’ 1,464 13 innings that season. Presumably sentient, baseball-playing human men Travis Bowyer and Dave Gassner pitched 9 23 and 7 23 innings of relief, respectively, though I have no recollection of either gentleman.

But, generally, the Twins are following the path of most franchises as the years tick on: more pitchers, fewer innings per pitcher. It’s not crazy that the 2017 Twins would conceivably set the record for most different pitchers used in a season — it’s where baseball has gone and will only continue to go. The Top 100 leaderboard in this here category, for example, features only two pre-2000 teams — the 1996 California Angels and the 1999 Seattle Mariners.

As I’m sure Bert Blyleven, Jack Morris or Jim Kaat would tell/have told you, pitchers used to be men. A man’s manager would inform said man that his arm remained attached to his torso by only a single fraying ligament, and the man would spit “Get off my plane!” and go back out and throw more forkballs. Millenials are cowards, is what I’m saying.

Back in reality, baseball resides firmly in the era of tons of pitchers and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it relief outings, and the Twins’ 2017 season hews to that narrative.

But, and this is a dirty blogger trick, I purposely withheld which team remains atop the Twins’ all-time pitchers-used leaderboard: the 2016 Twins, of course! Combining baseball’s aforementioned evolution (devolution?) toward tons of pitchers with a team that was out of contention on April 12 creates the perfect environment for a bevy of fellas taking the hill.

Last season, the Twins used 29 pitchers; through 71 games, they’d trotted out 23, three fewer than the ‘17 team.

There’s a logical rhythm to pitcher usage in the modern game: a team sits around 13 for the first couple dozen games, then gradually adds names to the list as ineffectiveness, attrition and service-time considerations require or induce reinforcements. Then, near the trade deadline, roster shake-ups can bring in new names before roster expansion, which gives a teams a little boost down the homestretch.

This gentle crescendo becomes apparent when the 2016 and 2017 seasons are laid out on top of each other.

Data via Baseball-Reference; graph via Louie

Note that, going by pitchers used, the 2017 Twins are where last year’s team was in game 115 — August 11, 2016, the day Andrew Albers made his season debut. (Incidentally, Eduardo Escobar pitched in game 114, the game before Albers’ debut; the quixotic pitching adventures of position players like Escobar and Chris Gimenez have been included in the above numbers.)

This year’s team still has a long way to go to catch the all-time MLB record (40 different pitchers used, by the 2014 Texas Rangers), but if the season thus far is any indication, Derek Falvey and Thad Levine are certainly willing to throw fungible arms at the wall and sees what sticks. Twins fans should be prepared to see plenty more new faces as the season rolls on.

And that’s what makes this particular Twins team fascinating: the teams who’ve historically deployed 30+ pitchers are bad. Only five teams in the top 20 — the ‘15 Yankees (33 different pitchers), the ‘15 and ‘16 Dodgers (both 31) and the ‘15 and ‘16 Rangers (both 31) — ended up making the playoffs. (I also think there’s a bit of a... difference, to put it charitably, between the way Paul Molitor and Joe Girardi, say, use their respective bullpens.)

On Sunday, the Twins beat Cleveland to take a 12 game lead in the AL Central with a 39-34 record. On the same day last year, the Twins were 16 games worse: 23-50. And yet the pitching staff remains largely unsettled and consistently terrifying. The Twins have two starters they can count on, one of whom was abysmal not long ago, and a bullpen with three (?) arms that a contending team would deign to carry.

The new front office has shown a zeal for embracing all the byzantine machinations allowed under the Collective Bargaining Agreement to audition plenty of pitchers, to their credit: most objective, sober analyses of the 2017 Twins team would see a team a couple players and a couple seasons short of a real playoff push.

The Twins are outperforming their Pythagorean won-loss record by six games, and Fangraphs projects the Twins with a 4.7% chance at a division title, while the Indians sit at 90.1%. (“But that’s why they play the games, Louie!!” I know. But the Twins have nerds in charge now, thank God, and I’m guessing they know about the Fangraphs.) Teams like the Twins should experiment with their pitching staffs. Not giving an F is one of the few silver linings to taking over a recently cellar-dwelling team.

The carousel of interchangeable, generic, bearded white dudes with low-90s fastballs will continue apace, but the cause of that carousel could stem from one of two approaches: either the front office continues to dumpster-dive the rest of the league’s pitching castoffs, or they aggressively promote young arms like Stephen Gonsalves and Fernando Romero and pair them with trade-deadline acquisitions for a race toward the playoffs.

The Twins are in a bind largely of their own making: Falvey and Levine have juggled the pitching staff the way a rebuilding team should, but their team just keeps winning.

If the Twins just keep winning, just keep winning as the trade deadline looms, the team’s brain trust will have to decide whether it’s worth throwing another quarter in the slot or if it’s time to jump off the pitching carousel.