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Wetmore’s 5 thoughts: Finding 5 Twins players that I expect to be better than projected

FORT MYERS, Fla. — By now I’ve spent enough years living as a nerd with an interest in baseball and a connection to the internet to know one thing. If I strongly disagree with an intelligent stats projection, it’s best to just eat my slice of humble pie early and figure out why I’m wrong and the model is most likely right.

With that in mind, I’m going to attempt the impossible task of outwitting the algorithms. This is my attempt to find 5 Twins players I believe are better than their 2019 projections expect. For this I’ll be using the ZiPS projections that you can find at FanGraphs.com, developed by Dan Szymborski.

This column presents 5 thoughts on the guys I expect to be better than projected.

1. LHP Taylor Rogers – ZiPS projects 67 innings, 3.22 ERA, 63 strikeouts, 19 walks

Rogers last gave up a run on July 28, and I’m not sure the models have caught up yet. His scoreless stretch has gone to 26 innings, during which time he has 29 strikeouts and only 3 walks, and of course, a 0.00 ERA.

I don’t believe that Rogers will post a zero ERA if he pitches 70 times this year. But let’s stretch that data sample back even further to get a more accurate representation. ZiPS likes to use multiple years as a sample because it smooths out the stats, and you’re likely to protect yourself from forecasting off of a guy’s best 2 months of his career. In the case of this stealthy lefty I don’t think that’s fair.

Rogers quietly added a slider last year and ditched his changeup. People within the Twins’ organization have talked for years about how Rogers needed a third pitch to keep right-handed hitters of the fastball-breaking ball mix. But after years of trial the change piece just didn’t sit well with Rogers for whatever reason, and so he played around with a different third offering – a slider – sometime last May. Here are his numbers from June 1 to the end of the season:

1.34 ERA in 47 innings, 57 strikeouts, 10 walks, 2 home runs.

Those are elite reliever numbers, and it’s more in line with what I expect from Rogers in 2019.

2. SS Jorge Polanco – ZiPS projects .263/.316/.410 with 10 home runs

I think Polanco’s good for a better batting line than the trusty equations are currently forecasting. I think the Twins are also banking on more, given the fact that they just signing him to a 5-year contract extension to ensure that he’ll be a part of the core going forward.

Polanco is 25 years old and it’s long been thought that his bat is what got him to the big leagues. It’s also what the Twins are going to depend on from their starting shortstop.

Actually, I’m slightly surprised that the formula is so down on Polanco, given the context of his offensive performance. For instance, we know that he missed the first half of last year with an 80-game drug suspension, and when he returned to play he was a better hitter than the batting line projected above. The projection is just about in line with his overall numbers from 2017, but what I think it misses is that he was one of the worst hitters in the Majors in the first half that year, and then he was a thunderbolt in Minnesota’s lineup from Aug. 1 until the end of the season. We spend a lot of time talking about Byron Buxton’s rebound from that summer; Polanco’s was every bit as impressive.

ZiPS projects: .263/.316/.410 with 10 home runs per 500 plate appearances
2017 totals:   .256/.313/.410 with 12 home runs per 500 plate appearances
“2nd half” 2017: .316/.377/.553 with 21 home runs per 500 plate appearances
2018 totals: .288/.345/.427 with 9 home runs per 500 plate appearances (post-80-game suspension)

I understand why the models would be skeptical of Polanco. I just believe that if he’s the hitter that he’s shown for the past 18 months, Polanco is a borderline star with a bat in his hands.

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3. RHP Michael Piñeda – ZiPS projects 80 innings, 4.50 ERA, 72 strikeouts, 21 walks

The Twins made a modest bet on Piñeda two winters ago. They agreed to pay him $2 million as he rehabbed from Tommy John surgery from the summer before, and in exchange he agreed to pitch for them for a full season in 2019 for $8 million. Given the way the Twins are talking about Big Mike this spring, it’s clear they think highly of him. I know it’s a risky proposition for the purposes of this column to bet on a perceived injury risk. But that appears to be exactly what the Twins, under Derek Falvey, have done in this case.

I’ve heard multiple reference his time with the Yankees as a sort of baseline for expectations, and that’s what you’d expect give it’s his most recent performance. Fans in New York might scoff and say his time was underwhelming, although many people seem to believe that Piñeda’s ability was greater than what his year-to-year ERA showed.

He hit 95 mph on the stadium radar guns in his first start back from ligament replacement surgery (summer 2017), and he said his main focus is to getting back to being the pitcher he’s been in the past. If he performs the same way and luck shines on him, he could outstrip the estimates posted here. I think the Twins are counting on it.

4. RHP Trevor May – ZiPS projects 44 1/3 innings, 3.86 ERA, 48 strikeouts, 19 walks

I’ve apparently been wearing May-colored glass for a couple of years now. Last year some of those beneath-the-surface stats started to make their way to the back of his bubblegum card. What’s not to like about a hard-throwing reliever with multiple effective pitches who strikes out tons of hitters and limits the walks? That’s what May was last season and I see no reason to expect any different this year.

He’s out of minor league options so it’s hard to image that May, barring an injury, will not make the team out of spring training. I expect that he’ll be one of their high-leverage relievers again this season, a role he inhabited toward the end of 2018.

He only pitched 25 innings last year, so he didn’t qualify for many of the leaderboards on your favorite baseball website. Still, he cut his walk rate significantly and he struck out 35% of hitters he faced, which is a good indicator that he’s got the stuff to succeed at the highest level. Only 10 A.L. relievers pitched at least 20 innings and punched out opponents more often. May even topped former teammate Ryan Pressly, the strikeout machine that the Twins traded to the Astros just before he blossomed into a relief ace. (If you want to exclude May’s brief stint as an opener, which I don’t, he would creep into the top-6 for strikeout rate among A.L. relievers.)

I should note that it’s possible that I’m being naively bullish on a guy who hasn’t yet proven it over a full season and who, at age 29, has often struggled to stay healthy. I just think that May is poised to have a great year and he’ll be a valuable asset to Minnesota’s bullpen.

5. RHP Matt Magill – ZiPS projects 58 1/3 innings, 4.94 ERA, 56 strikeouts and 28 walks

Magill, like May, is out of minor league options and so he’d have to make the team out of camp to be assured of staying with the Twins organization.

It’s going to be a crowded bullpen, I expect, because Minnesota won’t need 5 starting pitchers until the middle of April. So they can bump a starter to a relief role for the first two weeks if they want to, and they should also be able to carry one fewer arm overall to make room for an extra bench player. Now, maybe having a guy like Marwin Gonzalez or Willians Astudillo reduces the amount of bench flexibility that Rocco Baldelli will need, but the point remains. There could be a pitching staff squeeze at the end of camp.

So admittedly I’m taking a leap of faith on a guy who might not even make the club, depending on how things shake out. But I do know that the Twins like Magill, and I thought he had a good season last year that flew under the radar. He pitched in 40 games for the Twins, offered some length when needed, pitched in a few high-leverage moments, and finished the year with a 3.81 ERA next to his name.

What the Twins like about him has already been on display in the early goings of spring training. Magill features a fastball that hit 96 mph no the stadium radar gun earlier this spring, and he complements that with a hard curveball that sits at 88 mph. He also spent the first two months of last season refusing to hand out free passes. But from July onward he did start issuing more walks. So, to outshoot this projection here, he’ll need to curb that issue. If he can do that the Twins will have a nice reliever on their hands, one that didn’t get enough credit for the job he did last season, and another arm to add to the mix of trusted relievers that nobody’s talking about outside Minnesota.

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