The Minnesota Twins have frequently cycled their bullpen this year, particularly the long reliever role. Whenever the big club is in need of a fresh arm, they’ve sent their current long reliever down and brought up the next man from Rochester, enabling the team to keep a fresh arm for situations when the bullpen needs rest.
But how effective have these long relievers been in their appearances? Have they preserved not only the Twins’ bullpen, but also the team’s chances of winning each game?
The longest of relievers
Five Twins relievers have appeared to confirm their role this season as long relief, averaging at least two innings pitched per appearance (which includes spot starts; numbers are rounded to the nearest third of an inning):
- Devin Smeltzer (5 IP/A)
- Randy Dobnak (4 IP/A)
- Kohl Stewart (3.1 IP/A)
- Lewis Thorpe (2.1 IP/A)
- Sean Poppen (2 IP/A)
As these players have bounced on and off the 25-man active roster, none of these players have a large sample size of appearances, with Smeltzer and Stewart leading the pack with seven apiece. In particular, Dobnak, who was just recalled to the active roster as of this writing, has appeared in only one game for the Twins in 2019. But each pitcher listed above has been counted on for a pair of key jobs: keeping the bullpen fresh and the rotation in order.
So how have they done?
By far and away, Smeltzer has most fit the role of long reliever and spot starter solely looking at his innings pitched. Smeltzer has made four starts and three relief appearances, none of which have lasted less than four innings. He leads this group with a 0.6 bWAR, and excluding Dobnak and his one runless appearance, Smeltzer also has the best MLB ERA of the group at an even 4.00.
While Thorpe hasn’t been employed in situations requiring more innings pitched, his longest relief appearance just 2.2 innings, the Aussie has been effective in his six games (one start), posting a modest 4.40 ERA but a remarkable 2.79 FIP. Thorpe also leads the group with a 0.4 fWAR (again, tiny sample size).
Stewart started his first two 2019 appearances in a Twins uniform but has appeared in relief five times since without opening a game. Neither Stewart’s ERA (5.64) nor FIP (5.85) are particularly sightly, and he is the only player in the group with a negative bWAR and fWAR (-0.1 each).
Poppen’s fourth and most recent appearance nearly doubled his ERA, as he allowed a ninth-inning grand slam in just 1.1 innings of work. His 7.56 ERA is easily the worst among this group of long relievers, though his 4.40 FIP is only considered below average, not awful, by Fangraphs.
One game is too small a sample size even for this article, though he certainly leads the team in quality facial hair.
Again excluding Dobnak’s one game, Smeltzer and Thorpe have been the most impressive in the 2019 Twins’ cycle of long relievers and spot starters. With a month of regular season baseball to go and September call-ups on the horizon, we’ll certainly see these players again. But no matter what happens during the remainder of this season, they’ve already shown they can successfully preserve the bullpen, something that can be appreciated despite mixed statistical results.