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The unsung bullpen hero

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Originally a middling starter in the minor leagues, Taylor Rogers has turned into another good reliever for the organization.

Minnesota Twins v Cleveland Indians Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images

I don’t think this is what anyone expected for Taylor Rogers. The 6’3”, 170 lb. lefty, selected in the 11th round of the 2012 draft, had spent his entire professional career as a starting pitcher. It wasn’t that he was bad, he was just good but not outstanding. While the overall 3.33 ERA and consistent groundball rates above 50% were promising, he struck out just 7 batters per 9 innings. He was succeeding with good control and by inducing weak contact, the prototypical recipe for a Twins pitcher since the days of Brad Radke.

Though Rogers was a starting pitcher, he was the man that earned a promotion in 2016 when closer Glen Perkins hit the shelf with the first instance that his left shoulder was completely shot. The Twins chose to place him in the bullpen due to an important fact about Rogers: he absolutely neutralized lefthanded batters. In 2015, lefties hit just .177/.209/.193 against him. The year before, it was .217/.268/.287. They also had a hard time facing Rogers in 2013, batting just .214/.264/.260. No matter how hard they tried, lefthanded batters weren’t having much success against the southpaw. Hence, with the bullpen needing someone to step in for Perkins, Rogers seemed like the perfect fit.

Though he struggled initially by giving up 3 runs in his first 3 23 innings, Rogers nonetheless impressed the organization. Sitting in the low-90s with his fastball, Rogers generated plenty of sink and tail on it while utilizing a hard, sweeping curveball to keep hitters off balance. However, he righted his ship afterwards by allowing just 2 runs over his next 11 innings, becoming the second lefty in the bullpen behind Fernando Abad and eventually taking over the top southpaw reliever role after Abad was traded to Boston.

At the end of the 2016 season, Rogers had a reasonable 3.96 ERA with his customary good command and above-50% groundball rate, but what was most surprising was the number of strikeouts. The man that struck out just 7 batters per 9 innings in the minor leagues suddenly was just under 9.5 per 9, or an above-average 24.2% of batters faced.

The 2017 season was simultaneously better and worse for Rogers. By ERA, he improved as it dropped to 3.07. However, his command suffered (jumped nearly 3 percentage points to a below-average 8.9%) and his strikeout rate dropped to 20.7%. I’m not sure if it was a coincidence, but Rogers also became more of a LOOGY that year, appearing in 69 games yet tallying just 55 23 innings.

Meanwhile, this past season was a breakout for Rogers as he posted career highs in multiple categories. I almost did a double-take upon looking at his ERA, which was 2.63. FIP felt he was a little unlucky, as it was even lower at 2.33. That was due to a career low in home runs allowed (3 HR in 68 13 IP), a return to his excellent command (6.2 BB%), and an enormous jump in his strikeout rate (28.9%).

In the first two years of his major league career, Rogers primarily used his sinking fastball and sweeping curve while tossing an occasional change-up. This repertoire was perfect for facing lefthanded hitters, but righties had no problem handling him. In 2016, Rogers allowed a triple-slash of .291/.349/.462 when batters had the platoon advantage, while it was .285/.362/.404 in 2017. Ordinarily, the solution would be to lean more on a change-up or splitter, but Rogers went in a different direction. To make the opposition uncomfortable with his curveball, he developed a slider. Though the two pitches generally don’t look that similar, it was a different story with Rogers thanks to his arm angle. Throwing from a low three-quarters delivery, he was able to throw a second breaking ball that came in 5 MPH faster with just a little less sweep. The addition of the new pitch was significant, as righties suddenly dropped to hitting .220/.267/.377 against Rogers this year.

Altogether, Rogers ended up with 1.9 fWAR in 2018, putting him 4th among Twins pitchers behind Jose Berrios, Kyle Gibson, and Jake Odorizzi. He likely was considered as a trade candidate by opposing teams this year, though the Twins ended up dealing Fernando Rodney, Zach Duke, and Ryan Pressly instead. With Gabriel Moya and Andrew Vasquez being the other lefthanded relievers on the 40-man roster, Rogers is primed to serve as the primary lefty out of the bullpen for 2019. He’s likely going to be trusted as one of the setup men and while a little bit of regression should be expected, he still should be a reliable pitcher in the late innings for next season.