If you were a fan that happened to snag a Lewis Thorpe autographed card at TwinsFest, you may have flipped the card to the backside and thought, “THIS GUY STINKS.” Thorpe’s debut, albeit an abbreviated one, looks like a giant struggle due to his 6.18 ERA and his below-replacement-level WAR of -0.2. While those numbers don’t exactly scream “building block” for a pitcher approaching 25 years old, a deeper dig into Thorpe’s brief debut may actually point toward a pitcher with some promise.
Just Plain Ol’ Unlucky
Thorpe made his Major League debut for the Twins on June 30th of 2019, following an injury-riddled path to the majors. In his first start, he displayed the repertoire that led to him appearing in most prospect publications throughout his minor league career. Facing the White Sox, Thorpe threw five effective innings, striking out seven and only allowing two earned runs. In what would be a precursor of sorts for the rest of his debut season, Thorpe would be saddled with the loss, as the Twins would lose 4-3. The rest of Thorpe’s season would be mixed bag of results, as he struggled to both find a spot on the Twins and find a role once he was called up. Thorpe would not reach five innings in an outing the rest of the year, as he finished with 27.2 innings in 12 appearances.
The numbers on the surface (19 earned runs in 27.2 innings) may indicate a pitcher that was in over his head, but Thorpe’s peripheral numbers may point to a pitcher that simply had some bad luck. One indicator that Thorpe may have pitched better than his ERA was his FIP, which registered an expected ERA of 3.47 vs. his actual ERA of 6.18. A disparity of that size between FIP and ERA is not common, as only 4 pitchers with 25+ innings pitched had an ERA over 6, and a FIP below 4. Thorpe’s rate statistics were also indicators that he may have facing some bad luck:
MLB Average: 23%
MLB Average: 8.5%
MLB Average: .296
As you can see above, Thorpe’s K% and BB% are both slightly better than league average, which certainly would not be an indicator of a pitcher with a 6+ ERA. The BABIP points more to why his ERA was so high, as he gave up a batting average that was 142 points higher than the league average on balls in play. While BABIP may be indicator of bad luck, it might also be an indicator that a pitcher is finding too many barrels with his pitches. In Thorpe’s case, he induced soft contact on 18.1% of batted balls, which would’ve placed among the 25 best pitchers that qualified for the ERA title. Thorpe also posted a swinging-strike rate of 11.8%, which would’ve also placed him in the top 25 of pitchers qualified for the ERA title, and is also a higher percentage than both Taylor Rogers and Jose Berrios posted in 2019. All in all, Thorpe was missing bats, drawing soft contact, but somehow still giving up an excessive amount of hits and earned runs. All signs seem to point to improvement for Thorpe, but a limited sample size also provides a level of skepticism.
Finding His Place
As a left-handed pitcher with an above-average strikeout rate, Thorpe would figure to be a lock to remain with the Twins throughout the season. That may not be so simple, however, as a few factors come into play. First, the rotation will be a moving goalpost of sorts behind Berrios, Jake Odorizzi, and Kenta Maeda. Homer Bailey figures to begin the season in the rotation as well, but that’s when the real shuffling begins. For the fifth starting position, likely incumbent Michael Pineda is suspended to begin the season, and free-agent acquisition Rich Hill is unlikely to pitch before June. That leaves Thorpe, Randy Dobnak, and Devin Smeltzer among the most likely options to bridge the gap until Pineda and/or Hill become available.
Thorpe also pitched primarily out of the bullpen for the Twins in 2019, which may provide him with more of on opportunity to stick with Twins if the projected rotation comes to fruition. The Twins appear to have a deep, veteran-laden bullpen ready to roll out in 2020. One major advantage Thorpe may have is that he is a southpaw, as Taylor Rogers is the only lefty to be a lock in the Twins’ bullpen. In the past being a lefty might have meant only getting out other lefties, but the MLB implemented new rules to basically eradicate the LOOGY (R.I.P.). Fortunately for Thorpe, he was equally unlucky against righties and lefties, as righties posted a .384 wOBA against him, and lefties posted a .386 wOBA. In order to stick, Thorpe will have to show the ability to eliminate batters from both sides of the plate.
It will be interesting to see how Thorpe is implemented by the Twins in 2020, and I am looking forward to seeing what he can do after a full season of Wes Johnson-ology. Thorpe has the arsenal to become an effective Major League pitcher, but it remains to be seen if he will get a significant chance to display it in 2020.