The offseason pitching acquisitions made by the Twins’ current front office have been a decidedly mixed bag. For every Jake Odorizzi and Kenta Maeda success, there is a Lance Lynn or Matt Shoemaker counterpoint.
On one hand, that’s how it goes. Projecting future performance is a messy and difficult thing to do. Much of why we are drawn to professional sports is because the outcomes are unpredictable. They would not be much fun or all that interesting if the outcomes were predetermined and it was easy to build successful teams year after year.
On the other hand, doing precisely that is the main job of the front office decision-makers. As fans, we want the leaders of our favorite team to be skilled in correctly identifying and acquiring players that will perform well going forward. While we accept that future outcomes cannot be guaranteed, we want reasons to think our team has a good chance to win and to have faith that the decision-makers are good at what they do.
After last season’s disappointing collapse and the often confusing arc to this offseason’s activities, many followers of the Twins’ have had their faith shaken. On paper, the pitching still appears to be this team’s Achilles’ heel. We can’t know yet if this winter’s pitching acquisitions will fare any better than last year’s spectacular flameouts of J.A. Happ, Matt Shoemaker, Alex Colomé, and Hansel Robles.
But, I’m here today to share one reason for optimism about the pitchers acquired this offseason: they represent the front office returning to a plan that has worked well before —targeting pitchers with a strong feel for spinning breaking pitches.
Below is the year-by-year list of notable offseason pitching acquisitions made by Falvey and Levine. It was mostly sourced from MLB Trade Rumors’ Offseason in Review articles for each season (2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021). Along with the names, I’ve included each pitcher’s rate of throwing breaking balls (BrB% — sliders and curveball types as tracked by Statcast), innings pitched (IP), and earned run average (ERA) with the Twins:
A clear pattern does not emerge in the data displayed this way, although some of the individual numbers are interesting. For instance, I had mostly blocked Addison Reed and Zach Duke from my memory. And I still don’t think I understand why Tyler Clippard and Rich Hill were not Twins longer.
This data also illustrates that more often than not, the Twins have approached building their pitching staff in the manner of a bargain bin shopper. They’ve willingly chosen not to definitively address the weaknesses on their roster through large free agent contracts and instead routinely preferred to take low cost, short term fliers on reclamation projects, waited out the market to get more established veterans on short term deals, or traded for pitchers they thought could be improved through a few tweaks.
Within that, we can see that some of the most impactful additions have been those that use breaking pitches at high rates like Maeda, Matt Wisler, Sergio Romo, and Caleb Thielbar, and some of the most disappointing additions have been pitchers who do not throw a high rate of breaking pitches, like Lynn, Happ, and Colomé.
With that in mind, I was curious if there was a pattern to that. To investigate, I pulled together a dataset, from Baseball Savant and FanGraphs, of all the Twins pitchers who have thrown at least 50 pitches in the last five seasons (excluding position players, sorry La Tortuga). That gave a list of 94 pitchers covering 6,192 innings pitched, along with their rates of breaking pitches and ERA.
I found, at a macro level, that there is not a significant linear relationship between rates of breaking pitches thrown and ERA, as you can see in this scatter plot:
Scatter is the appropriate term in this case and the correlation between the two axes of the chart is negligible (R = -0.014).
While there might not be a linear relationship, I wondered if there could be something to be said for using breaking pitches at certain thresholds leading to better results. To look at that, I grouped these pitchers together into three (admittedly somewhat arbitrary) categories — those that threw breaking pitches more than 35% of their pitches, those that threw them less than 25%, and those that fell in between — and calculated each group's cumulative ERA. Here are the results for those bins:
You can see the group that threw more breaking balls has performed the best in terms of ERA and the group that threw the least breaking pitches has performed the worst.
I re-ran this same analysis just on the subset of notable offseason acquisitions I showed earlier and got similar results across the three bins.
Now, I do not want to declare any kind of definitive takeaway from this. This data is noisy and the analysis is lacking rigor. It needs all kinds of caveats and it’s not clean-cut enough to say that just throwing more breaking balls will lead to better results. In fact, there were several examples just last season where they tried that with waiver claims and non-roster pitchers that proved it is not a silver bullet.
But, from a high-level trend perspective, this lends some support to the idea that this front office has been better at evaluating, acquiring, developing, and using pitchers who rely on breaking pitches compared to those who do not — something I’ve explored before.
This offseason, perhaps save for the trade for Sonny Gray, the Twins again went the value route in adding Dylan Bundy ($4M), Chris Archer ($3.5M), and Joe Smith ($2.5M) to strengthen the pitching staff. Given the holes they had to fill, it is hard to argue that those moves alone represent the front office doing enough to bolster the pitching staff. As we sit here just before Opening Day, there remains a good deal of uncertainty about whether the reclamation projects will be impactful and if the prospect pitchers that will join them are ready to contribute to a winning team.
That said, the value signings they have brought on for 2022 might have a decent chance to turn out because they fit the mold the organization has had more success with. The four names listed in the previous paragraph all have relied on breaking pitches more than 35% of the time in the very near past and could probably stand to throw them even more with the Twins. Gray (38.6% breaking balls) mixes sliders and curveballs. Bundy does that as well and did so at a 34.8% clip last season and 36.7% rate in his 9th-place in the AL Cy Young voting 2020 season. Archer has leaned on his slider more heavily over time and threw it 42% of the time in his brief action with Tampa Bay last season. In his only Grapefruit League outing with the Twins so far, he threw 46% sliders. Smith, the submarining reliever, threw his frisbee spinner 35% of the time last season and 41% in his last full season before that (2019).
None of this is to say these moves are sure things to pan out. We have no way of knowing that now. But, at the very least, the pitchers brought in this offseason reflect the front office getting back to something that history suggests they do well and understand how to deploy.