The Minnesota Twins are in the playoffs. Can they learn how to be creative with their bullpen usage from the 2016 Cleveland Indians?
The Minnesota Twins made it! After a hiatus that was far longer than any fan wants to endure the Twins have an opportunity to compete in October. Until Tuesday night when the Twins face off with the New York Yankees, everyone has the opportunity to try and figure out lineup strategies for each team as they try to advance to the ALDS. Where the winner will be able to play a real series against the Cleveland Indians.
Those Indians, along with current Twins front office leader Derek Falvey, did something that seemed crazy last postseason. They rode their dominant reliever Andrew MIller game after game all the way to the World Series, and they did that by calling on Miller to pitch multiple innings in each outing.
The Indians discovered a formula for the postseason and saw enough opportunity for rest where they could use Miller for multiple innings and maximize one of their top relievers. And until the World Series, the Indians were rewarded with shutout inning after shutout inning.
It has been well documented that the Twins do not have the strongest of bullpens in the playoffs. In fact, they traded away their best reliever at the trade deadline. So the question being raised here is can the Twins find a way to employ a similar strategy to get their best bullpen arms more time and maximize the teams chance of advancing through the playoffs.
The two relievers that have the best chance of filling a Miller-like role for the Twins has to be their surprising setup men, Taylor Rogers and Trevor Hildenberger. On the season Rogers has a 3.07 ERA over 55.2 innings. As a left-hander, Rogers can immediately be pegged simply as a lefty specialist. Surprisingly Rogers has also had enough success against righties that he has been trusted to stay in for whole innings and used as a constant piece of that bridge to the closer.
This year, Rogers has pitched more than one inning seven times. Six of those seven times he pitched 1.1 innings and the seventh time 2.0 innings. Rogers had success in each of those outings only allowing a run once. Without the track record, Rogers doesn’t seem like the reliever the Twins would want to try and use the Miller-model with. His success in these longer outings can likely be attributed to good leveraging of matchups and nothing more.
Hildenberger has turned in 42 innings for the Twins this year and holds a 3.21 ERA. It was clear for much of the stretch run that Paul Molitor has developed trust in Hildenberger and was using him to get key outs as the Twins worked to secure their playoff spot.
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Hildenberger found himself being used for more than an inning in an appearance 15 times this season. Six of those appearances Hildenberger commanded the mound for more than 2 innings, and in only 3 of those 15 games did Hildenberger allow any runs. With that track record, Hildenberger seems to be the most likely candidate at this point to fill a Miller-like role.
Dillon Gee could be a dark horse candidate for an effective multi-inning reliever. The playoffs may not be the place to gamble with putting Gee into high leverage situations that he hasn’t been used in the past, but he has pitched well as of late. Not allowing an earned run since September 10th. And the one run that was allowed under his watch was the result of a Joe Mauer error against the New York Yankees while Buddy Boshers was pitching.
The truth is that the Twins just do not have someone the caliber of Miller to try and copy the Indians this postseason. Hildenberger is clearly the most capable but if at any point Hildenberger would become ineffective because of fatigue the Twins would be in big trouble.
It does seem Molitor and the Twins have maybe learned something slightly different from the Indians that is affecting some of their bullpen management. That is, use your best pitcher when it is the most critical. Hildenberger seems to have claimed the role of the most effective reliever in the Twins bullpen and has been used to get important outs, not simply pigeonholed into being the Twins closer.