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Bargain shopping: Three low budget starting pitchers that make sense for Minnesota

The high number of outrights and non-tenders this offseason present opportunities to add reclamation projects with upside

San Francisco Giants v Oakland Athletics Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

Naturally, much attention is paid to the top of the free agent player market every winter. The big names who will get the big contracts. But for all that internet ink and Twitter rumoring, the big deals are generally not the ones that make the difference for contending teams. Winning the offseason has a tenuous relationship with winning the regular season and winning October. Instead, it’s often the below radar moves that ultimately separate the wheat from the chaff. Getting more of the small ones right is where good organizations distinguish themselves.

We know the Twins have holes to fill in the pitching staff, in addition to the usual necessary moves to fortify the bottom of the roster and top of the minor leagues with depth. While we know they are looking at the middle and higher ends of the market to address some of those needs, it’s likely they’ll do some bargain bin shopping, too.

With that in mind, today I’m looking at three pitchers that are still relatively young and have some plausible upside to be valuable contributors. The record number of non-tenders (and several outrights and releases before that) have made the bargain bin unusually interesting with reclamation projects this winter. Each of these players has experienced big league success in the not too distant past. Perhaps a new scene and a few tweaks could help them take the next step. Because the market seems to so clearly benefit clubs this winter, I expect each will be relatively inexpensive to bring aboard, and in some cases may only require a minor league deal.

★ ★ ★

LHP Tyler Anderson, Age 30, 6’3, 215

Arsenal: 4-seam fastball (40%, 90 mph), Changeup (33%, 81 mph), Cutter (18%, 85 mph), Sinker (6%, 89 mph), Curveball (2%, 72 mph)

Profile: The former Rockies’ first round pick out of the University of Oregon was non-tendered by the San Francisco Giants after going 4-3 with a 4.37 ERA and 4.36 FIP in 59.2 innings over 13 appearances (11 starts) in 2020. For Anderson, last season was a return to health campaign after missing most of 2019 for a major surgery to correct a chondral defect in his left knee. The knee was enough for the Rockies to move on from Anderson last offseason and he was picked up by the Giants on a $1.775M deal.

Anderson has been a league average-ish starting pitcher across his four full major league seasons, evidenced by a career ERA- of 98. Anderson falls a bit into the “crafty lefty” archetype, relying heavily on a fastball-changeup-cutter arsenal and sprinkling in a rare lollipop curveball. Despite the lack of big stuff he’s been successful suppressing hard contact over his 456.2 big league innings, yielding only 86.6 mph exit velocity on average in his career (86.8 mph in 2020), compared to the MLB average 88.3 mph. That contact suppression offsets a slightly below average strikeout rate (21%). The lack of a traditional breaking ball hasn’t hampered Anderson from a splits perspective. He’s allowed an identical .334 wOBA to both right and left-handed hitters overall, although he was more susceptible to left-handers in his 2020 return (.365 wOBA allowed). If Anderson had proceeded to arbitration with the Giants, he was projected to earn somewhere between $2.4M - $4.3M.

The case for the Twins: It’s not all that common for a starter with Anderson’s pedigree and performance to be non-tendered. There are a few possible reasons he was let go (besides the obvious economic dynamics), first and foremost being the injury concerns. Leg injuries are always risky in pitchers and can lead to arm issues. Perhaps the Giants weren’t comfortable with Anderson’s medical outlook in the long term. Aside from the injury risk, Anderson is also a bit older than your typical sixth year big leaguer. Perhaps the biggest red flags concern some of Anderson’s 2020 peripheral stats. His 15.8% strikeout rate was a career low and his 9.6% walk rate was a career high if you ignore the five game sample from 2019. In addition, as he returned from injury, his fastball velocity was just 90.6 mph on average. In his successful years in Colorado previously, he averaged 92 mph. Some combination of those factors (or something else) were enough for the Giants to move on.

Despite those concerns, Anderson’s FIP and ERA were lined up and slightly better than league average for starting pitchers in 2020 and I think there is reason to think another year away from the surgery, and a more normal offseason strength and conditioning program, will enable Anderson to improve on some of those peripherals. In particular, it’s plausible to expect he’d see some kind of velocity bump in year 2 post surgery, given it was his left knee that was operated on. As a left-handed thrower, Anderson drives off the rubber with his left leg and it is a big source of the power in his delivery. An extra tick or two of heat would also likely improve the performance of his cutter, which allowed a .372 wOBA in 2020 while coming it at 85 mph. In 2018, that number was a much more palatable .311 when the pitch averaged 87.6 mph. The cutter was the primary source of Anderson’s struggles with left-handed batters (.456 wOBA allowed vs. LHB) in 2020 as well. Perhaps with some tweaks to the pitch and a little more velocity across the board, Anderson could improve his strikeout rate closer to his career norms and handle left-handers a little better. Throw in the reasonable expectation his command might return to his career norm with regular offseason workouts and repetitions and you can see a decent case that Anderson can again be a 2 WAR starter in 2021. League average starting pitching has value, even though it’s not always sexy, and the areas Anderson might need to improve also all happen to be strengths of the Twins’ pitching development program.

★ ★ ★

RHP Trevor Williams, Age 28, 6’3, 235

Arsenal: 4-seam fastball (42.7%, 91 mph), Slider (27%, 83 mph), Changeup (15%, 85 mph), Sinker (8%, 90 mph), Curveball (7%, 78 mph)

Profile: Williams was a second round pick out of Arizona State by the Marlins in 2013, and was traded to Pittsburgh after reaching Triple-A in 2015. Interestingly, Williams was acquired by the Pirates as compensation for Miami hiring one of Pittsburgh’s front office personnel. After five mostly steady seasons in Pittsburgh the Pirates designated Williams for assignment after the 2020 season when he would have been arbitration eligible again this winter. The Pirates chose to move on rather than pay him a projected $3.2M to $4.6M.

Williams debuted in Pittsburgh during the 2016 season. He joined the regular rotation to stay in 2017 and made 94 starts over the next four seasons. Over 534.2 innings, Williams delivered a 4.43 ERA / 4.57 FIP which helped him accumulate more than 5 fWAR over that span. 2017 and 2018 were the high points (and contributed most of that WAR) when Williams combined to throw 321 innings of 3.56 ERA ball and held batters to a .243 / .309 / .376 combined line. In the two years since, Williams has been hit hard and become very homer-prone. After allowing just 29 home runs combined in 2017 and 2018, Williams coughed up 27 in 2019 alone, before allowing 15 more last season. All told, 2020 was disastrous for Williams, who pitched to a 6.18 ERA and 6.30 FIP over 11 starts and 55.1 innings that ultimately led to his release. The right-hander operates with the standard pitch mix, with a cutter-slider as the primary breaking ball. The stuff isn’t overpowering (18% career strikeout rate), but he throws strikes (8% career walk rate), and has previously suppressed hard contact, allowing an above average 87 mph exit velocity on average. It’s a back of the rotation innings eating profile when he’s keeping the ball in the yard.

The case for the Twins: Williams underlying peripherals present some interesting signals that his issues might be correctable. If they are, he certainly wouldn’t be the first hurler to benefit from leaving Pittsburgh’s pitching program (see Cole, Gerrit and Glasnow, Tyler as just two examples). Despite his 2020 struggles, Williams struck batters out at the highest rate of his career (19.4%) while at the same time holding his walks in check. The result was the highest differential of walks and strikeouts of his career, 11.1% K-BB%. Furthermore, Williams turned around a two year trend of becoming more fly ball prone overall and raised his rate of generated ground balls to 44%. Strikeouts, limiting walks, and ground balls are all keys to success for pitchers. So, what gives?

Williams’ prior success was driven in large part by his fastball. Despite its below average velocity, Williams confidently deployed the pitch often, and usually to success. By pitch type linear weights at Fangraphs, Williams’ fastball was worth 21.7 and 21.3 runs above average in his strong 2017 and 2018 campaigns, figures that ranked among the top 10 starters in baseball. In 2019 that changed to -1.1 before plummeting further to -7.0 this past season. Velocity doesn’t seem explain this because Williams’ four-seam velocity has been steady the past three seasons, per Statcast: 91.1 mph, 91.7 mph, and 91.5 mph. While his velocity has remained similar, his fastball has undergone an underlying change in how it spins that might be the key. The Statcast chart below makes clear that Williams has added about 15% more spin to his fastball over the past four seasons.

For context, Williams’ spin rates overall are below average (despite the recent gains) — even that career high mark in 2020 above was in just the 38th percentile. Generally, we tend to think that more spin is better, because spin increases carry and gives fastballs the illusion of rise. Fastballs with lower spin rates tend to have more downward movement, resulting in fewer fly balls. Accordingly, Williams has traditionally worked down in the strike zone (as Pittsburgh tends to do), taking full advantage of the movement of his low spin fastball. But in this case, I think the extra spin is just making Williams’ low fastball flat. Sure enough, as Williams fastball has added spin, the average launch angle allowed off the pitch has increased from 11 degrees in 2017, to 19 degrees in 2018, to 24 degrees in 2019, which tells me this additional spin is making it easier for hitters to elevate his fastball. In 2020, he was able to get the launch angle back down to 17 degrees, but 11 of the 15 home runs he allowed came off the fastball.

The cause isn’t lost, however, and Minnesota may be uniquely qualified for helping Williams return to form. BaseballSavant generates affinity groupings of pitchers based on their pitch velocity and movement profiles, giving us a sense of which pitcher’s arsenals are similar to one another. One of Williams’ top matches by these measures is another fastball dependent and formerly homer prone right-hander - Jake Odorizzi. The Twins helped Odorizzi to the most successful seasons of his career by helping him make more effective use of the high fastball, despite his middling velocity and below average spin rates (much like Williams). Williams’ average vertical fastball location has risen toward the middle of the zone the past two years as his spin rates increased. Instead of trying to be perfect down with a pitch that isn’t behaving like it was, and then missing middle, perhaps Williams would benefit from a similar recipe to what the Twins gave Odorizzi and start intentionally working much more frequently up in and above the strike zone with his fastball. His fastball is different than it was and he should utilize it accordingly. Doing so might also have positive effects on Williams’ changeup and cutter-slider by creating better tunneling and location differentials, while also helping to further differentiate the pitch from his sinker.

★ ★ ★

RHP Mike Foltynewicz, Age 29, 6’4, 200

Arsenal (2019): Slider (29%, 85 mph), 4-seam fastball (26%, 94.8 mph), Sinker (26%, 95 mph), Curveball (10%, 79 mph), Changeup (9%, 87 mph)

Profile: Foltynewicz, who once looked for all the world to be a front of the rotation starter in the making, was designated for assignment in July after one very poor start in which he showed an alarming lack of velocity. The former Astros’ first round pick was traded to Atlanta in the offseason before 2015. A tall, lanky right hander with a big fastball and developing secondaries, Foltynewicz joined the Braves rotation part way through 2015 and he would make 117 starts over the next five seasons. 2018 would prove to be his high water mark when he delivered 3.8 fWAR on the back of a 2.85 ERA / 3.37 FIP, 183 inning campaign in which he struck out 27% of the batters he faced. At that peak, Foltynewicz averaged over 96 mph on his fastballs and paired them with a high 80s slider that generated swings and misses about 35% of the time. Always more of a thrower than a pitcher, with an inconsistent delivery, Foltynewicz threw strikes but was never considered to have great command. In 2019 the velocity backed up, down below 95 mph, which caused him to lose some strikeouts (21%). The extra contact also yielded more home runs as his 1.77 HR/9 rate was a career-worst and more than double his rate in that great 2018 season. In his lone 2020 start, Foltynewicz topped out at just 92.9 mph and Atlanta moved on.

The case for the Twins: Foltynewicz’s fit for Minnesota has less to do with any style or pitch mix adjustments, and everything to do with making a bet that the lost velocity can be found. Under the current pitching leadership, the Twins have had some success helping pitchers recover or add velocity, and perhaps they can do the same again here. After Foltynewicz cleared waivers in July, he was sent to the Braves alternate training site, where he spent the remainder of the season working to regain form. Reports from that camp around the end of August suggested that his velocity had begun to tick back up. Perhaps with a more normal offseason and spring training, Foltynewicz will look more like himself.

In addition, there could be a psychological factor at play that may benefit from a change of scenery. Foltynewicz was Atlanta’s starter for Game 5 of the 2019 NLDS against St. Louis. If you don’t remember, Foltynewicz retired only 1 of the eight batters he faced (on a sacrifice bunt) and the Cardinals went on to put up a 10 spot in the top of the 1st. The winner take all playoff game was effectively ended before it had even begun with him on the mound. It’s hard to assess how an experience like that can affect a person and Foltynewicz had already shown some concerning signs of decline throughout the 2019 season. But nonetheless, it’s plausible to think that he could benefit from a fresh start in a different organization and environment.

Besides the velocity and fresh start, there’s also a case to be made that a pitcher like Foltynewicz could effectively transition to the bullpen. Major league bullpens are full of failed, big-armed starters who throw fastballs and sliders. In shorter stints, perhaps his fastballs play up again and can help him regain the swings and misses that have gone missing. In any case, Foltynewicz is exactly the type of low-risk, high upside flier the Twins should be looking for on minor league deals. If it doesn’t work out, no harm done. But if it does, it has higher upside than most, as you can see from the stuff in the video below.

John is a contributor to Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analytics. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnFoley_21.