When it comes to the Minnesota Twins’ bullpen, it almost feels like manager Rocco Baldelli is a kid wearing a shoe that just can’t seem to stay tied.
He and his team move along just fine for a bit, and then before he knows it, the whole thing comes undone again. He tiptoes around for a few paces before everyone reminds him of the issue — one that he is keenly aware of, but just can’t figure out how to fix.
It’s not his fault, necessarily. We’ve seen him tie shoes before, so we know he’s capable of making it work. These are just the flawed shoes that his parents (Derek Falvey and Thad Levine) picked out for him this year, and he’s going to continue wearing them until he’s gifted something better.
But for now, he’s left with a shoe that has a short lace.
One of the biggest differences between the 2021 Twins and those of the last two years has been the stark contrast between bullpen performances. In 2019 and 2020, Baldelli was able to get great major contributions from the majority of his relievers. Not only did familiar names such as Taylor Rogers, Tyler Duffey, and Trevor May lead the way with mostly stellar performances, but the club benefited from the success of their depth pieces. Relatively unknown players along the lines of Cody Stashak, Matt Wisler, and Jorge Alcala played crucial roles in the later innings, helping to keep the staff healthy and performing at a premium level.
Needless to say, 2021 has been a completely different story.
While Rogers and Hansel Robles have performed reasonably well so far, they’re starting to get over-exposed, even overworked at times. The issue now is that the well of great performances from depth pieces has turned into a revolving door of despair.
The Twins need somebody to bridge the gap between their starters and the back end of the ‘pen, and their solution might already be on the big league roster.
When Rocco needs to make a change in the fifth or sixth inning of a close game, he can’t keep bringing in the likes of Brandon Waddell, Juan Minaya, and Shaun Anderson. He needs to call upon Matt Shoemaker.
When the Twins inked Shoemaker in February, it looked like a pretty prudent signing that would deliver value if he could stay healthy. A miniscule $2 million for a starting pitcher with more than 600 innings pitched and a career ERA under 4.00 had the legs to be an under-the-radar move for a team seeking help in the back end of the rotation. Well, if the Shoemaker deal had legs, they must have been different sizes, because he’s done nothing but limp through the first third of the season.
In 10 starts so far, Shoemaker boasts an unsightly ERA (5.90), the worst strikeout rate of his career (5.90 K/9), and the highest walk rate since his rookie season (3.40 BB/9).
But the worrisome trends don’t stop there.
As is the case for many other current Twins pitchers, left-handed hitters have absolutely demolished his pitches. They have a well-hit average of .293 against Shoemaker, good for third-worst in all of baseball according to Inside Edge.
That doesn’t refer to hits per at-bat. That’s hits that are absolutely tattooed against him (95 MPH+) per at-bat.
Besides giving up moonshots off the bat to lefties, Shoemaker’s biggest issues have been his inability to put away hitters once he gets to two strikes and getting knocked around when he gets to the third time in the order.
When he gets to a two-strike count, he has a strikeout rate of just 30%, which is the second-worst among qualified starters in the big leagues. He just can’t seem to finish with a wipeout pitch, something that you need from a reliable starter.
When facing hitters for a third time this year, he has a 17.28 ERA, and his opponents beat him up to the tune of a .351/.422/.703 slash line. Almost a quarter of his hits allowed in those situations have gone for extra bases. Simply put, he either loses steam or the other guys catch on to whatever tricks got him to that point in the game.
So here’s where a potential solution can come into play. By having Shoemaker come out of the bullpen rather than go as long as he can in the rotation, the Twins can potentially take care of two birds with one stone. When Kenta Maeda returns from the injured list, moving Shoemaker to a long-relief role could maximize his performance while assisting the softest part of the bullpen.
Sure, this makes some generous assumptions. We have no idea when Maeda will be healthy, and there is no certainty that the rest of the rotation will remain healthy when he does come back. But at the very least, putting Shoemaker in the bullpen will allow him to perform in the kind of situations where he hasn’t been a disaster in 2021.
At the cost of losing some innings pitched from Shoemaker, the Twins can better limit the amount of lefties that he faces, they can have him mop up if one of the other starters gets pulled early, and they can work on emphasizing his one or two best pitches rather than the full arsenal that is typically demanded of a starter. After all, that strategy worked with Wisler last year, when Minnesota’s plan was to have him throw his slider 84% of the time.
Of course, this doesn’t fix all that plagues this club. They would obviously need somebody to improve the spot in the rotation that Shoemaker vacated. They would also still need more dependability from current bullpen arms that have struggled so far. But, those issues aside, they need to get this shoe to stay tied before they completely trip over themselves.