Randy Dobnak is enjoying the ride.
In less than three years, Dobnak’s gone from being an undrafted pitcher out of Alderson Broadus University, a small DII school in West Virginia, to putting up strong numbers in the top levels of the Twins’ minor league system and knocking on the door of the big leagues.
The best stories in baseball are often those of players who persevered despite overwhelming odds. Trevor Hildenberger was a seldom-used reliever at Cal-Berkeley and about to quit baseball before a roster spot opened up when another player went pro. Nick Anderson, who made it to Triple-A with the Twins and is now pitching well for the Marlins, was playing town ball—a step below Indy ball—in the Twin Cities before eventually getting signed. Dobnak’s story is just as unique.
Dobnak, who grew up outside Pittsburgh, received just three offers coming out of high school—two DII schools and a DIII school—and eventually chose Alderson Broadus after the other DII school pulled their offer. Despite a solid college career, he went undrafted, which didn’t surprise him.
“During college I talked to a few teams, but I don’t think they ever came to see me play,” he said. “I knew coming into the draft there was a chance, but I wasn’t really expecting it.”
Instead he signed with the Utica (Mich.) Unicorns of the United Shore Professional Baseball League.
“Just give this Indy ball thing a shot for a year or two and move on with my life,” Dobnak said about his thought process when he signed. “I never talked to any scouts in Indy ball. [The Twins offer] caught me off guard. One morning Brad Steil called me. Long story short, he said, ‘Do you want to sign?’ I said, ‘Uhh, yeah.’ It was pretty crazy.”
After signing in August 2017, Dobnak pitched mostly in rookie ball, making one appearance with Low-A Cedar Rapids. In 2018, he spent the entire season in Cedar Rapids, posting a 3.14 ERA as a starter. A groundball pitcher, Dobnak gave up just six home runs in 129 IP, and had an excellent 4.6% walk rate. His strikeout rate (15.6%), however, was modest. It was near the end of that season that he worked with the coaching staff at Cedar Rapids to add a sinker, and he’s paired that with an improved slider this season, both of which have translated to more strikeouts and better overall numbers.
“Towards the ends of last year, I developed a sinker,” he said. “The way I throw, I don’t get a lot of spin rate and carry like most guys. I went from a 4-seam to 1-seam fastball, which sinks a lot more. I started noticing a lot more success early. I was getting an insane amount of groundouts. This year I’ve also worked on developing a slider. I’ve had one, but it’s really come around for me. Having that sinker/slider combo and changeup and being able to throw all of them for strikes in any count has helped me move up, and be more consistent throughout the season.”
Dobnak, whose sinker sits around 92-93 but has touched 96, has used his new pitch mix to skyrocket up the Twins system this year. He started the year in High-A, but quickly moved to Double-A, and made it to Triple-A earlier this year, where he pitched well before getting sent back to Double-A. Overall across the three levels, he has a 1.99 ERA, 1.093 WHIP, 22.2% strikeout rate, and 5.6% walk rate. In his most recent start for Double-A Pensacola Tuesday, Dobnak pitched seven scoreless innings, giving up three hits and one walk while striking out nine.
The Twins, of course, are now known as one of the most progressive organizations in baseball in terms of developing pitching. Derek Falvey earned his reputation as a pitching guru through his work in Cleveland’s organization, where he played a key role in developing pitchers like Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer. Kohl Stewart, Martin Perez and others have talked positively about the impact the Twins’ player development and field staff has had on their success. Dobnak may be another example.
“Nowadays it’s more of a numbers game, whether people want to believe it or not, it’s just the way it is,” he said. “Rapsodo, Trackman, I never had that until I got to pro ball. We have so much scouting report stuff on other teams. Hot zones, cold zones, whether they’ll swing at a backdoor breaking ball, fastball up, etc. Having access to all that has helped me be more consistent. [When I signed], Trackman and Rapsodo would say my stuff is seriously average. My sinker now, they say it’s elite. It’s nice to have, that’s for sure.”
Dobnak’s watched a number of his teammates get callups to the majors this year. Lewis Thorpe, Ryan Eades, and Dobnak’s roommate in Triple-A, Sean Poppen, have all made their major league debuts after putting up similar numbers to Dobnak. As the Twins continue to search for help at the front-end of their bullpen, he could be a candidate for a callup if he continues to pitch this well.
“Personally, I think I’m close, but you never really know,” he said. “I can’t control any of that besides just doing what I can for myself, and if they were to give me a shot, I’m all for it. I can see it happening, which is crazy to think about when two years ago I was undrafted and going to Indy ball. I’m just enjoying the ride.”