He’s only had one major league start, but Devin Smeltzer is already helping the Twins address an area of need.
In shutting down a very good Brewers offense Tuesday, Smeltzer played a large role in the Twins getting a series split with Milwaukee, and earned a second start with the big league club. Zooming out, he’s also showing that he deserves to be the Twins No. 6 starter, so to speak. That is, after Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi, Martin Perez, Kyle Gibson, and Michael Pineda, Smeltzer should be next in line to join the rotation if one of those first five goes on the IL, as Pineda did earlier this week.
That’s an important development for the Twins, because starting pitching depth in the high minors is currently an area of concern. Smeltzer’s really the only (healthy) starter who’s stood out among those at Double-A and Triple-A. Prior to his arrival with the big club, he had a 1.15 ERA, 25.6% strikeout rate, and 4.7% walk rate across Double-A and Triple-A. Those numbers earned him a call-up, and he justified it with an outstanding pitching performance Tuesday.
Now, a caveat. Smeltzer’s numbers this year are far better than what he’s done in the past. In 2017 and 2018, he had ERAs of 4.17 and 4.52 across three levels. His strikeout rates were generally modest, even when working as a reliever, though he did have excellent walk rates. Smeltzer was never a highly rated prospect, so It’s possible this is a flash in the pan and he won’t be able to sustain the success.
However, Smeltzer’s also just 23, so to judge him too harshly for putting up respectable but not off the charts numbers in A-ball and Double-A as a 21 and 22-year-old would be unfair. Given his age and level, he’s been fine prior to this year, and it’s not unusual for a good player to make significant strides after initially struggling in the high minors.
Derek Falvey will be quick to tell you that ultimately it’s the player who deserves credit when there’s a spike in performance. And while he’s right about that, it’s also true that the Twins seem to be outperforming most MLB franchises in developing pitching. Since Falvey and Thad Levine took over, Gibson’s turned around his career, Berrios has developed into a borderline ace, and Martin Perez and Jake Odorizzi are enjoying career years. All of those pitchers have credited Falvey, Wes Johnson, Josh Kalk, Jeremy Zoll and others in helping their development. In the bullpen, Ryne Harper and Mike Morin are pitching well above what they’ve done in the past. Tyler Duffey’s suddenly throwing 96. Taylor Rogers has become an elite relief ace. At the minor league level, Kohl Stewart has gone from a pitcher who looked lost in Double-A to a solid Triple-A starter who’s at least held his own during his time in the majors. After his initial call-up last season, Stewart cited meetings with Zoll and others in which they tweaked his pitch usage as a reason for his turnaround.
The current regime prioritizes implementing individualized plans that cater to each players’ strengths. Whereas the past regime seemed to have an organizational philosophy that every pitcher should pitch more or less the same way (e.g. keep the ball down, pitch to contact etc.), Falvey and Co. make a concerted effort to look at each player on his own.
Ultimately, it’s on the player to implement the tools the Twins’ player development staff is imparting on them, and some are surely more open to it than others. It’s also fair to point out the Twins have given up on pitchers who’ve gone on to see moderate success elsewhere, like Randy Rosario, Nick Anderson, and J.T. Chargois, and that top prospect Fernando Romero hasn’t developed as hoped to this point. Overall, though, the Twins’ track record so far is impressive, and Smeltzer may be the latest example.
Smeltzer’s back story of beating childhood cancer is remarkable, and he sure seems like a person who’s both wise beyond his years and open to new information. After the trade that sent him to the Twins last July, he requested to be converted from a reliever back to a starter, and Falvey said they worked together to develop a personalized plan for him to make that transition. Clearly, it’s worked so far.
The league will surely catch up to Smeltzer to some degree if he sticks in the big leagues. With a fastball that sits around 90, he relies on his secondary pitches to get strikeouts and weak contact. As teams learn more about him and are able to formulate data-driven offensive game plans, he and the Twins will have to make their own adjustments in a way they didn’t have to against a Milwaukee team that never faced him and had less than 24 hours to prepare.
If he can do that, he could be a key contributor to this year’s team. Whether that’s in the rotation or out of the bullpen remains to be seen, but for a club that desperately needs quality pitching options in the high minors, Smeltzer may be a revelation.
Twice, the Twins have turned to Kohl Stewart for spot starts. He’s been okay in those two starts (6.00 ERA), but hasn’t shown an ability to miss bats at the major league level, though his strikeout rate in Triple-A is up this year. Zack Littell is only 23 and has the potential to be a solid back-of-the-rotation starter, but after a good relief appearance against Chicago, he got lit up for 8 earned runs in 4.1 IP against Tampa Bay. Brusdar Graterol and Stephen Gonsalves have both been shut down and don’t appear close to returning. Romero, Lewis Thorpe, Gabriel Moya, and Andrew Vasquez have all struggled at Triple-A. Trevor Hildenberger, thought to be a key piece in the bullpen going into the year, got sent down after a number of poor appearances in May, and thus far has continued to struggle in Rochester.
The track records of those pitchers suggests at least some of them will rebound as the summer goes on. Nevertheless, for an organization that has strong playoff aspirations, finding arms they can trust in the high minors is important. That’s particularly true at this point in the season, with the trade deadline still two months away. If Smeltzer can continue to be the lights out lefty he’s been through the season’s first two months, he’ll help give the Twins the quality pitching depth they’ve been searching for thus far.