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The bullpen is being overworked

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The Twins are on pace to use far fewer relievers this year than they did in 2017, but they may want to use a few more to lessen the workload for their top pitchers.

Arizona Diamondbacks v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Last year, the Twins made it to the Wild Card game but their road to the playoffs still had some hiccups. One of the biggest issues came on the pitching front as the organization utilized an astonishing 35 pitchers and one Chris Gimenez to guide them through their 163-game season.

Currently, the Twins have used 19 pitchers (and Ryan LaMarre), so they’re already less likely to use as many hurlers as we saw in 2017. However, this season has brought its own unique problem as several of the relievers are getting worked to the bone.

When I think of overworked relievers, I think of former major leaguer Pedro Feliciano. Debuting in 2002, Feliciano had a rather quiet career at the beginning, serving as a lefthanded reliever out of the New York Mets bullpen. But, that changed in 2007 as Feliciano became the most-worked pitcher in the major leagues. That year, Feliciano appeared in 78 ballgames, which isn’t that out of the ordinary for the most-used pitcher in any given year. However, the Mets just kept leaning on the lefty, using him for 86 games in 2008, 88 games in 2009, and a staggering 92 games in 2010.

While Feliciano was the prototypical LOOGY and thus only maxed out at 64 innings pitched in a season during that stretch (2007), it wasn’t normal for a pitcher to be used that often for that long of a period of time. In fact, it was as if the baseball gods agreed as Feliciano hit the disabled list at the start of the 2011 season with shoulder soreness, which eventually was diagnosed as a torn capsule and rotator cuff in his left shoulder. Technically now a member of the Yankees due to a free agent contract, Feliciano never suited up in pinstripes and didn’t pitch in the majors again until he returned to the Mets in 2013.

I don’t think the Twins will be as irresponsible with their relievers as the Mets were with Feliciano, but the early returns on their usage of their bullpen isn’t looking great. As I said before, the most heavily used relievers typically pitch just shy of 80 games in a season, or just under 50% of their team’s games. Last season, Bryan Shaw and Peter Moylan tied for the league lead with 79 relief appearances (48.8% of possible games), with Dan Jennings and current Twin Addison Reed just behind at 77 appearances. The Twins were led by Taylor Rogers, though his 69 games pitched only tied him for 32nd-most in the league (42.6%).

It’s been a different story in 2018. Prior to Tuesday night, the Twins have played 37 games and they already have four pitchers that have thrown in nearly half or more of their games played. Ryan Pressly (20 games, 54%), Trevor Hildenberger (19 games, 51%), Reed, and Zach Duke (18 games, 48.6% each) have all seen frequent action. The reason is clear: the Twins have been in many tight ballgames. FanGraphs uses leverage index to measure the pressure of any scenario in the game. Bases loaded, no out situations while clinging to a one-run lead will have a very high LI while playing in a blowout will carry a very low LI. The average LI is scaled to always be 1. Of the four pitchers I mentioned above, all have an average LI above 1 from when they entered their respective games, though it should be noted that this is typical for most relievers. However, I counter that the Twins have handed many of these stressful situations to Fernando Rodney (5th-highest LI in MLB), Reed (28th-highest), and Duke (36th-highest), showing that those three have not only pitched often, but often when the game has been on the line as well.

On Monday night, the top relievers in the bullpen had been so overworked that in a 1-0 deficit against the Mariners, it was Phil Hughes that was called upon to pitch the 9th inning. That’s right, the same Phil Hughes that recorded just his third appearance since his last start on April 27th. If that isn’t a cry for help, I’m not exactly sure what would be. There is additional help down in the minors, if the Twins were willing to call for it. Gabriel Moya struggled early in the season but as righted the ship by racking up strikeouts at Rochester, albeit with plenty of walks tossed in. Alan Busenitz and John Curtiss have been even better, yet they too were given brief auditions this season before being returned to the minor leagues. Ordinarily, it wouldn’t be hard to create room when your bullpen is carrying a fourth-worst bullpen ERA at 4.83, but there aren’t many obvious choices. Hughes carries the weight of his contract and the Twins still want to coax any value out of him before declaring him a sunk cost, while Matt Magill has been surprisingly decent as he’s sat in the mid-90s with his fastball. If anything, Trevor Hildenberger is the one that has earned a possible demotion, but it appears that the Twins are hoping he figures out his issues in the majors rather than having him correct them in the minors.

Thus, there’s no easy solution for the Twins. As long as they’re playing tightly contested games, Rodney, Reed, Duke, Pressly, and Hildenberger are all going to see action. In a perfect world, they could trust Taylor Rogers to get righties out and Magill to throw higher leverage innings. I have to think that over time, they’ll have fewer close games and thus they won’t have to lean so heavily on the back end of their bullpen. However, it won’t surprise me if one or two of these guys go down with injuries as their overuse catches up with them, so I hope the Twins have a plan in place to ease their workloads so we won’t have to worry about that in the near future.