I want to say right up front that this is not going to be a piece defending the Twins’ decision to bring back Emilio Pagán. I’ve already published my offseason plan and it did not include Pagán.
Despite his results and much chagrin from Twins Twitter, the Twins tendered Pagán a contract for 2023. That always seemed like it was going to be the case, especially after Darren Wolfson shared the Twins had floated the idea of a multi-year extension with Pagán. Dan Hayes reported that Pagán had garnered some trade interest from other clubs and it’s still possible a trade could be in the offing later this winter.
Clearly, the powers that be, both in Minnesota and elsewhere, see something with Pagán that has yet to translate into on-field results. Twins General Manager Thad Levine told Hayes about the decision:
“If he pitched for another team, he would have been a target for us,” Levine said. “For all those reasons, if we held true to that rationale, we felt why would we let him go just because there were times in the season where the results didn’t match exactly with all the positives he brought to the game that night. That’s where we were really true to the process over the results with him and do believe over a time horizon that’s greater than a season or greater than a month or two within a season, his talent should yield better results than it did in 2022.”
There’s that phrase that we’ve heard so much from the Twins bosses since 2017 – process over the results. Nearly everyone has probably made up their mind about Pagán already, but in the spirit of being open-minded and curious, lets’ give the Twins their due and try to piece together what they might like about Pagán’s process and what adjustments might be needed to get better results in 2023.
Perhaps the simplest way to break down a pitcher’s process is by digging into their defense-independent pitching stats – walks and hit-by-pitches, home runs, and strikeouts. Together, these make up the main inputs into the ERA estimator fielding independent pitching (FIP). For his career, Pagán’s 4.23 FIP is average-ish among relievers (101 FIP-). The league average FIP for relievers has ranged between 3.86 and 4.51 since 2017.
Often when we hear teams talk about process with pitchers, it’s because that pitcher’s FIP has outpaced his ERA and suggests he’s pitched better than the traditional numbers indicate. That’s not the case with Pagán, who has a 3.86 career ERA that’s better than average (95 ERA-).
Walks & HBPs
Pagán has walked 6.9% of the 1,349 batters he’s faced in his career. MLB relievers, as a group from 2017-2022, walked 9.5% of the hitters they faced per FanGraphs data. However, it is worth noting that Pagán walked just 5.5% of the batters he faced in his first three seasons, and has walked 8.5% in the past three seasons, including 9.5% last year.
Pagán’s ability to throw strikes is reflected in that he has thrown 51.6% of his pitches in the strike zone, per Statcast measurements, compared to the 48.5% MLB average rate. Similarly, his 62.9% rate of throwing first-pitch strikes is better than the 60.8% league average.
Pagán has hit eight batters with pitches in his career, which is about average among the 335 relievers who have thrown at least 100 relief innings over the same span.
Overall, I think we can credibly assess that he gets positive marks on this component.
The core of any argument in favor of Pagán has to be his ability to get swings and misses and strike batters out, which he’s done at above-average rates throughout his career. His career strikeout rate is 29.0%, about 25% higher than the 23.6% reliever league average. Last season, despite his overall struggles, his 30.7% strikeout rate was in the 90th percentile of all pitchers and tied for 27th out of 152 qualified relievers.
Pagán gets those punchouts by making batters swing and miss. By Statcast’s measurements, Pagán’s career whiff rate is 30.6%, which is also about 25% higher than the 24.7% league average. Last season, his 30.8% whiff rate was in the 84th percentile of all pitchers.
Not only do batters swing and miss at Pagán’s offerings, but they also go after them outside the strike zone. Last season he was in the 83rd percentile with a 32.6% chase rate and his career 30.3% chase rate beats the 28.4% league rate handily.
If we put these first two components together, we can see that Pagán is clearly in a favorable spot relative to most MLB relievers:
Simply subtracting his walk rate from his strikeout rate (K-BB%) has been shown in studies to be a better predictor of future performance than ERA and the mainstream ERA estimators like FIP, SIERA, and xFIP. Pagán’s career 22.1% K-BB% ranks 34th out of the 335 relievers to throw at least 100 innings since 2017.
Home Runs Allowed
You already know this is the bugaboo. Pagán has given up 64 home runs in his 330.2 career innings, which gives him a 1.74 HR/9 rate that ranks 328th out of 335. Pagán is a fly ball pitcher, there’s no denying that. For his career, 35.2% of the batted balls against him have been categorized as fly balls by Statcast. That’s about twelve points more than the 23.1% league average. Of the fly balls Pagán has allowed, 14.4% of them have resulted in home runs. That rate is nominally in line with the league average for relievers since 2017, but because Pagán allows a larger volume of fly balls, he gives up more home runs than just about everyone.
That has especially been the case past two seasons when Pagán has allowed 28 home runs, good for 1.99 per nine innings, the second-highest rate among 138 qualified relievers.
Summary and Other Positives
So Pagán checks two of the three major component boxes when it comes to defense-independent pitching.
Hayes also cited “Pagán’s willingness to pitch in any situation, his ability to pitch in consecutive games or throw two innings in an outing, and the way the right-hander bounces back mentally from his struggles” as positives that the Twins front office likes.
That all goes a long way toward explaining why his services are desirable. Relievers who can miss bats will always be in demand, especially if they throw strikes, stay healthy, and are always willing to take the ball.
The swing and miss is likely the biggest reason Minnesota elected to keep Pagán after a rough year when they made the opposite decision last year with Alex Colomé.
One of the other ways that Pagán stands out is his ability to impart spin on the baseball. His average four-seamer spins around 2,500 RPM. His four-seamer spin rate was in the 94th percentile last season and has been within the top 15 percent in each season of his career, save for the shortened 2020 season (72nd percentile). That elite spin rate, plus 80th percentile extension, helps Pagán’s 95-ish MPH fastball punch above its velocity-implied weight which is another favorite trait of this Twins’ front office. (See Joe Ryan, Bailey Ober, Tyler Mahle, and Caleb Thielbar).
With characteristics like that, Pagán’s fastball has excellent vertical movement. Last season it dropped 11.6 inches on average per Statcast (which includes gravity effects). That is 2.7 inches less drop than average at his velocity and tied for 13th-best among qualified pitchers last season.
Pitchers in 2022 who avg'd >= 93 mph & vertical movement of >= 2 inches vs league average in four-seamer (arranged by whiff percent):— Sung Min Kim (@sung_minkim) November 16, 2022
1. A. Vesia (31.9%)
2. E. Pagán (29.4%)
3. G. Cole (28.9%)
4. R. Helsley (28.6%)
5. L. Hendriks (28.2%)
6. T. Mahle (28.1%)
7. C. Javier (27.3%) https://t.co/DrE7rRJ9yW
Knowing that, it’s clear that Pagán’s fastball should play best at top of the strike zone. His best season was in 2019 with Tampa Bay when he worked up relentlessly with his fastball and produced a 2.31 ERA, 3.30 FIP, and +2.28 WPA. About 56% of Pagán’s fastballs that season were located in the top third or above the strike zone and batters hit just .166 and produced .240 wOBA against it.
For his career, his four-seamer has very clearly performed better when it has been up:
When he’s put his four-seamer in those white and blue boxes across the top of the plot, batters have hit just .176/.258/.345 (.264 wOBA) and whiffed 33.6% of the time. When he’s located that pitch belt high and down, he’s allowed .254/.311/.566 (.364 wOBA) and gotten 23.4% whiffs. Notice the difference in slugging. Not only does Pagán miss more bats up high, but he also does a much better job of suppressing extra-base damage.
For whatever reason, though, he didn’t stick with that approach when he moved to San Diego or Minnesota:
When Levine speaks of Pagán being a guy the Twins would target if he was on another club, this is likely what he’s talking about. It’s also probably driving the trade interest coming from other teams. Teams are always on the hunt for pitchers that are sub-optimally using their stuff and that could reach another level with a few easy tweaks.
The difference here, though, is that Pagán has already made this adjustment. He got back to working up with his fastball at the end of last season. Why that didn’t happen sooner, I don’t know (although there have been some rumblings he was resistant to change his ways), but look at his four-seamer location comparison before and after September 1:
In September, Pagán located 65% of his heaters up. The average vertical location of his four-seamer changed from 2.65 feet to 3.06 feet and batters went just 2 for 27 against it (.083 avg), with a .125 slugging percentage and a .156 wOBA. That coincided with his most effective stretch of the season – 2.25 ERA / 2.86 FIP and 34.7% strikeout rate in 12 innings while holding opponents to a .163/.265/.302 line (.250 wOBA).
A Different Breaking Ball
One of the reasons Pagán might have lowered his four-seamer location was to help the pairing with the cutter that he most often worked down and to his glove side:
He’d used that cutter with great success prior to 2021. But something major changed the past two seasons:
This is evidence to suggest a different breaking ball or a tweak to restore his cutter might be able to help Pagán improve in the future. And once again, he already implemented a change late last season.
emilio pagan has definitely added a new breaking ball to his repertoire.— parker hageman (@HagemanParker) September 18, 2022
morneau pointed out on the broadcast that it has much more depth and, yes, yes, it does.
-10.1 vert pic.twitter.com/84V6WiHtyp
He almost completely shelved his cutter in September and replaced it with a curveball that has more up and down break that might pair very nicely with high, riding fastballs, a lá the style of Tyler Duffey and Caleb Thielbar, among others.
It’s a very small sample – just 28 thrown – but the initial results suggest the curveball gets swings and misses (41.7% whiff) and ground balls (-9° launch angle on five batted ball events), which are both positive things given his fly ball ways. Sometimes a new breaking ball can make all the difference.
The point of this was not to defend or justify but to try to understand and explain. It’s never been a question of stuff or ability with Pagán. It’s been a question of consistently executing a smart plan. With the adjustments he demonstrated late last season, there are glimmers of hope that the Twins and Pagán see a plan that he can buy into and execute. (And, it seems, so do some rival clubs).
In the end, there is no guarantee this will work out. But relief pitching performance is volatile. Good relievers don’t always stay good and many relievers find second and third (and fourth) lives after bombing out. Through that, the best decision process is often to bet on guys with stuff, especially when there are obvious adjustments worth trying. The Twins apparently see that as the case here.