The Minnesota Twins have been one of the most disappointing teams in all of baseball this year, and pitching has been the main culprit, especially from their starting rotation. The Twins have a 5.00 team ERA, 27th in the majors, that stems from a 24th-ranked 4.64 bullpen ERA and, more importantly, a 5.27 ERA from the starting rotation that’s third-worst in all of baseball behind only the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Baltimore Orioles.
You know the season has been a disaster for your starting rotation when your arms are only ranked above two of the worst teams in baseball. It has been a far cry from where the pitching was the last two seasons, which helped the Twins win back-to-back AL Central Division titles for the first time in a decade.
Last season, Minnesota’s starters had a 3.54 ERA, which ranked top-five in the major leagues in the pandemic-shortened 60-game season, and Randy Dobnak played a big role in their success last year.
Everyone remembers Dobnak as the feel-good story. He drove Uber to get by when he was in the minors and pitched at Yankee Stadium in the playoffs. But in the early parts of last season, Dobnak showed that he could be more than a feel-good story. He could be a legitimate starting pitcher for a first-place team.
During his first eight starts last season, Dobnak recorded a 2.72 ERA, a 3.87 FIP, and a 4.79 K/9 rate. He allowed three home runs in 39.2 innings with an average exit velocity of 87.5 in the first half of the shortened season. However, he regressed over his next two starts and allowed an 11.57 ERA with a .385 BABIP in just seven innings, with an average exit velocity of 89.2 MPH. Consecutive poor outings during Minnesota’s AL Central pennant chase in September resulted in Dobnak being sent down to the alternate site last season, where he spent the rest of the 2020 campaign.
But even though a promising start ended badly, the Twins front office of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine rewarded the handlebar-mustachioed hurler with a five-year extension that paid Dobnak $9.25 million with an AAV of $1.85 million. It was a deal that seemed to work out for both sides, giving the Twins extended control of a young pitcher while offering Dobnak a meaningful pay boost and the security that comes with a big-league contract. It also signaled that the Falvine regime could take pitchers out of nowhere and develop them into quality MLB arms.
Dobnak’s ability to limit hard contact and keep the baseball in the ballpark was a major part of his success: His hard-hit percentage (40.5 percent) and barrel percentage (5.1 percent) made him a reliable starter last year. On top of that, he only gave up three home runs in 2020. But his play towards the end of last season showed that there were still areas that needed to be improved upon, including the swing and miss numbers.
On Opening Day, Dobnak was given an opportunity to solidify his spot in a Twins rotation that looked good enough to help the team compete for another AL Central title. With Kenta Maeda, José Berríos, Michael Pineda, and J.A. Happ penciled in the rotation, the last spot wasn’t given to Dobnak but to Matt Shoemaker, who signed a minor-league contract over the winter. Dobnak still cracked the Opening Day roster but began the year as a swingman in the bullpen.
From Minnesota’s perspective, it would be a good thing because it could allow him to continue honing in on some of the things that the Twins were encouraging him to develop in the offseason and spring training. That included relying mainly on his fastball while strengthening his slider to make it a strong knockout pitch. That’s been the case so far this season. According to FanGraphs, he’s been relying solely on his fastball (59.5 percent) and slider (33.2 percent) and basically shelving the changeup.
Dobnak also spent that time working on that and his spin rates to generate more movement on his pitches than last season. And when the two are put side by side, you can see improvement in his active spin percentage and total movement, according to Baseball Savant.
Although as we all know, the rotation fell apart almost immediately. Dobnak went back into the rotation but suffered the same fate as many other Twins pitchers before missing most of the season with a right middle finger strain.
The righty’s numbers this season haven’t been great. He has a 7.64 ERA, a .307 opposing batting average, and a 1.54 WHIP in 50.2 innings pitched. But his numbers can be a little deceiving because the Twins started him in the bullpen, where he is less effective, instead of Triple-A, and because of his finger injury.
The best thing for Dobnak is more time to continue working on his approach. The injury didn’t help matters, but it let him get some time in the minor leagues during his rehab stint. While it was against Triple-A lineups, Dobnak started to see some improvement in his game. He recorded a 3.00 ERA, a 17.3 percent K/9 and a .234 opponent average in 18 innings in St. Paul. It’s a small sample size, but it’s enough to show that Dobnak might be able to find out how to take the next step in his career. He just needs to log more innings to see the work pay off.
Dobnak has returned to the Twins and showed some promise against a tough Tampa Bay Rays lineup. With Minnesota retooling their starting rotation, he has another chance to get back in the rotation full-time next year in the final month of the season. Outside of any help the Twins could bring in next year, Dobnak has a chance to be the veteran on a pitching staff that will be younger next season.
It will also give Dobnak the chance to get extended innings to see if the changes to his approach are working and taking him to the next level. Dobnak has been an easy guy for Twins fans to root for because of his story. If his new approach starts to show results, Dobnak not only will get his spot in the rotation back for years to come but will also reaffirm confidence in Minnesota’s ability to develop under-the-radar arms into quality big league pitchers.