In my last article, I wrote about 2022 shaping up to be a major test of the Twins’ organizational strategy of supplying the major league pitching staff with homegrown arms. Naturally, the lack of experienced pitching options on the roster and available in free agency has many followers of the Twins looking skeptically at management when they declare that the club is not rebuilding.
For good reason. The history of teams successfully competing with rookie pitching is not in the Twins’ favor. According to data in this piece by The Ringer‘s Zach Kram written before the playoffs last season, only two teams since 1903 had relied on rookie starting pitchers to start three playoff games in a single postseason – the 1937 Kansas City Monarchs and the 2012 Oakland Athletics.
Less than 5% of all playoff teams since 1903 have used two rookie starters in October. Historically, the numbers are very stacked against playoff-caliber teams relying heavily on rookie pitching.
A different way
This data makes sense when you think about how baseball traditionally develops young pitchers. It’s always been a survival of the fittest approach that is predicated on using failure as the sorting method. A starting pitcher stays a starting pitcher until he proves he can’t be a starting pitcher. Then he auditions in various relief pitching roles until one sticks or he washes out altogether.
That failure-based approach takes time and in-game failure is obviously counterproductive to a team trying to win. Our skepticism about the Twins’ ability to compete in 2022 stems from the fact that finding multiple young guys that can shoulder the 150+ inning workloads we traditionally associate with starting pitchers is an awfully large task.
But, what if that’s not what was asked of them?
The traditional approaches for breaking young pitchers into the majors are not conducive to being competitive.
Why not try something different?
That may be what the Twins are thinking. The Athletic’s Dan Hayes, in detailing the pitching challenge ($) facing the Twins back in November, got this potentially revealing quote from GM Thad Levine:
“I think with the challenge comes opportunity,” Levine said. “We’re going to be as creative as we can be in terms of not being necessarily hemmed into the notion of it has to look exactly the way it has always looked. We may end up looking at this from the lens of how many multi-inning guys can we add to a staff and how far does that take us?”
That quote seems instructive after we watched the Twins’ early offseason inaction. Some fraction of the public frustration and confusion with the Twins’ approach to this offseason can be chalked up to the belief they need to build a roster using a traditional paradigm of pitching roles.
What if instead of trying to get five or six innings from a “starter” every five games, the ask was for more pitchers to go just one or two times through the opposing lineup every three or four days? What if a larger number of pitchers provided 75 to 125 innings over the course of the season?
A blueprint to follow
It is not radical as it once might have been. Using more than one multi-inning pitcher in a game has become more commonplace in recent years. That movement has been led in large part by the uber-cost-conscious Tampa Bay Rays but has also been used by many of the most analytically inclined organizations, including the big-budget Los Angeles Dodgers, as a way to piece together effective outings from pitchers limited in one way or another. Many other clubs, including the Twins, have dabbled in the approach, but few have truly made it a way of life like the Rays.
According to research in this Ben Lindbergh piece for The Ringer, a few other (bad) teams (like the 1993 Athletics and the 2012 Rockies) gave it a temporary whirl mostly from a place of desperation. The results were expectedly disastrous.
Then the 2018 Rays, operating in part from a place of necessity after injuries wrecked their planned rotation, tapped into their cultural willingness to experiment with different ways of doing things. Instead of it being a disaster, it worked. When injuries decimated their experienced pitching, they did not default to “next man up” and throw their next in line young pitchers to the wolves. They challenged the thinking behind rigid pitcher roles and thought about what would put their young arms and the team in the best position to have success. Blurring the lines between traditional starting and relieving pitching roles became a key piece of their puzzle.
Let the Rays explain:
“Our focus has been on deploying our pitchers in a way that takes care of them, puts them in position to succeed, and gives us the best chance to win,” said Rays senior vice president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom at the time. “Credit Kevin [Cash], [pitching coach] Kyle [Snyder], [bullpen coach] Stan [Boroski], and our whole staff for prioritizing the strengths of each individual pitcher, even if it meant doing things a bit differently.
“It’s a softer landing for those guys,” GM Erik Neander. “Guys that we weren’t sure were ready to graduate and become a 200-inning major league starter—Yonny Chirinos, Ryan Yarbrough—we thought there was a better entry point where they can go three or four or five innings, experience success, and graduate to a higher inning total as they go forward.”
“I feel like we’re the perfect case to do it,” Rays left-hander Ryan Yarbrough said. “We have a lot of young guys who’ve been in different roles throughout their minor league careers, who can rotate here and there. There are some teams that wouldn’t do it because they have full-fledged starters. We’re happy to be here, and we’re happy to contribute.”
You don’t have to squint very hard to see a number of similarities between the Rays situation then and the Twins situation now. A lack of proven pitching depth. Young pitchers that need development, care for their workloads, and a softer entry point to the major leagues. An organizational intent to be competitive despite the historical drawbacks of relying heavily on young pitching. The Twins’ situation is one ripe for thinking differently.
Even in the (likely) event the Twins add some veteran pitching depth to the 2022 roster when the lockout ends, it won’t be long before Josh Winder, Cole Sands, Drew Strotman, Jordan Balazovic, Chris Vallimont, Matt Canterino, Simeon Woods-Richardson, and Jhoan Duran will be getting opportunities. Joe Ryan and Bailey Ober will need their workloads managed carefully. The organization needs to find ways and roles that enable Lewis Thorpe, Griffin Jax, and Randy Dobnak to be successful. Cribbing from the Rays’ blueprint may be just the way to manage that young pitching more effectively.
The data that shows it can work
Since the start of the 2018 season, the Rays 20.2 cumulative rookie pitching fWAR leads baseball by a wide margin (Atlanta is next, with 12.2). Where the league average ERA for rookie pitchers over that span is 4.70, Tampa Bay’s is 3.72 and ranks 2nd-best, trailing only the Dodgers’ 3.45:
Tampa Bay’s 1,686 innings pitched by rookies since 2018 rank 3rd-most, trailing only Miami and Baltimore, and is by far the most innings of any of the teams on the left side of the chart above. The Dodgers ranked 21st in rookie innings, St. Louis was 9th, Atlanta 13th, and Oakland 26th. While that innings total makes up just over 34% of Tampa Bay’s total innings pitched in that span (leaving about 66% covered by more veteran pitchers), it’s worth noting that Tampa Bay has won the fourth-most games over the last four seasons. They’ve made the playoffs three times, the World Series once, and finished the season they did not make the postseason with a 90-72 record, all while relying on young pitching as heavily as any team in the game at the time.
Certainly, a major component of having success with rookie pitchers is having talented rookie pitchers. The Rays have had a great pitching development pipeline that has supplied their rosters with talented young hurlers (as have the Dodgers, Cardinals, and Braves), but the Rays stand out from the pack in how they’ve used those pitchers and put them in positions to succeed.
While the Rays ranked 3rd in total innings pitched by rookies since 2018, they were just 17th in innings pitched per appearance by rookies, averaging about five outs (1.73 innings) per outing. That is the result of both stretching their relief appearances and shortening their starts. Tampa’s 164 games started by rookies over that span have averaged a league-low 3.42 innings (about 10 outs) while their 809 relief appearances by rookies have averaged a second-highest in baseball 1.39 innings (about 4 outs, behind only the Yankees’ 1.47).
This rookie-only data tracks with findings from last fall by Ian Malinowski of our SBNation sister site DRaysBay, who found the Rays were among baseball’s leaders in both frequency and effectiveness of what he called “bulk bridge” pitching appearances — defined as those pitcher appearances that lasted between seven and twelve outs.
In such appearances, last season, only the Rays, Dodgers, Astros, and Tigers pitched to an ERA below 5.00. In part, because these kinds of appearances often are not planned and instead the result of a poor start forcing relievers to extend, more than half the league’s teams averaged ERAs over 7.00 in such outings (including the Twins at 8.61). Malinowski inferred that a primary difference for the teams that had success in bulk appearances is that the appearances were planned and not the result of an unexpected bad start.
How it works and what it means for Minnesota
The Rays have proven this different model can work and that it is a better way to put young pitchers in a position to be successful on the field. What they have experienced and gained jives with previous, more-theoretical research into role fluid pitching models. Various analyses over the past two decades expected the benefits of such an approach to come from avoidance of the decreased effectiveness pitchers experience each subsequent time through the batting order — especially the third time through the order penalty. This model also results in more frequently getting the platoon advantage and more frequently getting favorable matchups through pitching changes that protect lesser pitchers from the most dangerous parts of the opposing batting order. It also serves as a way to hold down the pitchers’ workload, while still maintaining a regularity that allows for sufficient rest and routines.
Moreover, various rule changes within baseball over the past several years have alleviated the resource constraints that had prevented the multi-inning pitcher approach from catching on. Expansion to 26-man rosters, reduction of the minimum injured list stay to 10 days, and the ability to make nearly unlimited roster transactions with young players who have minor league options make it possible for a team to have enough healthy and rested pitchers available to execute the strategy. If a team carries 13 pitchers (as most now do), there is little reason not to have as many as 8 of them be multi-inning guys in various flavors, with the remaining being high leverage, late-game matchup types.
Beyond the players already in the organization, the pool of pitchers who can be successful in limited, multi-inning stints is much larger than the pool of pitchers who can be successful as traditional workhorse starters. For a team like the Twins, who are reluctant to commit to expensive, multi-year contracts for proven free agent starters, this approach opens the aperture to bring in modestly priced veteran pitchers as complements to their young pitchers that are breaking into the majors. Taking this tack would not even be that out of place in the Minnesota organization, as they have been experimenting with various multi-inning pitcher setups in the minor leagues for a few years.
It would make a lot of sense to see the Twins add a couple of veteran pitchers, who can hold up for three or four innings at a time, to pair up with Ober, Ryan, Jax, Dobnak, Thorpe, and Bundy. Jharel Cotton, a former top starting pitcher prospect could also fit into this picture. Dylan Bundy is an example of this kind of pitcher. Last season he held opponents to .199 BA and .317 wOBA the first time through the lineup, .270 and .335 the second time, and .389 and .470 the third time.
Of course, going this non-traditional route is not the only option and no team has exclusively committed to the new model yet. St. Louis, Atlanta, Cleveland, and Miami have had varying degrees of success developing young starting pitchers with more traditional methods in recent years. The Rays, for all their success with a different approach, have used a hybrid mix of traditional starters and bulk bridge guys when they had capable starters (Glasnow, Morton).
Barring some surprisingly significant pitching additions via free agency or trade, the Twins might be positioned to give the new approach a full go. It’s a workable blueprint to follow, especially when your pitching prospects come with question marks about their viability as starters, ability to stay healthy, preparedness for shouldering heavy workloads, and/or competitive readiness for the game’s highest level — as the Twins’ do — and your approach to free agency (self-imposed or not) prevents you from adding bonafide starting pitchers — as the Twins’ does.
That blueprint is also catching on. Last season, division-rival Detroit, with a mix of young, not-yet-established prospect pitchers and veteran retreads, made heavy and effective use of planned bulk bridge appearances (4.82 ERA in 69 appearances, according to Malinowski) on their way to their best finish since 2016.
Like using the “closer” strategically in the highest leverage spots and pulling starting pitchers early, this is another evolution in pitching management that will challenge our beliefs about pitching roles. How well the approach works when multiple organizations are pursuing it is an open question, but blurring the lines between starters and relievers might be the Twins’ best hope for both breaking in the young pitchers and staying competitive next season.