On June 4, the Minnesota Twins held an 11.5-game lead on the Cleveland Indians for first place in the American League Central. After losing three out of four games at home against the Indians last weekend and free-falling beforehand, the Twins now hold just a one and a half game-lead on the division.
The culprit for the Twins’ epic downfall? Starting pitching.
When the Twins were perceived as running away with their division, they looked impeccable. Their lineup was firing on all cylinders, their bullpen was competent, and their starting rotation was one of the best units in Major League Baseball.
After a June 9 start against the Detroit Tigers, Odorizzi owned an astonishing 1.92 ERA and 0.97 WHIP. He was putting a minuscule amount of runners on-base and doing so at an efficient rate. He was pitching like an amplified version of himself. Since that outing, he has been a shaky force on the hill.
In his last 11 starts, Odorizzi has pitched through the sixth inning just twice and surrendered an alarming 11 home runs, raising his ERA to 3.50.
Gibson hasn’t been the force he was last season when he recorded a career-best 3.62 ERA, but he has held his own in 2019. The right-hander owns a 4.28 ERA, can work through trouble, and keeps hitters guessing with his five-pitch arsenal (sinker, slider, four seamer, changeup, and curveball).
However, Gibson has struggled mightily against the Twins’ divisional foes, the Indians in particular. In his two summer starts against the Indians, Gibson has surrendered nine runs and pitched just eight innings.
After making three appearances out of the bullpen, Twins manager Rocco Baldelli moved Perez to the starting rotation. Over his first eight starts, he performed swiftly. Granted he didn’t pitch deep into games, he worked out of trouble, limited the long ball, and was efficient. Then June happened.
Since May 30, Perez has surrendered 46 earned runs over 70 innings pitched. He has also surrendered three home runs in three of his last five starts. Once the most intriguing development on their pitching staff, the southpaw has become Minnesota’s most unreliable starting pitcher.
The only consistent force has been Berrios. The hard-throwing right-hander is one of the best pitchers in baseball and a master of deception. His curveball is as nasty as any other big-leaguer’s, he keeps hitters guessing, is averaging roughly 6.1 innings per start, and owns a career-best 3.29 ERA.
An inability to consistently get big outs and provide length has a trickle-down effect on a pitching staff. Given how the Twins rotation has struggled to do as such, their bullpen has faltered. It’s not to say that their bullpen is a formidable unit — because it’s far from it — but having to get 10-12 outs a game has wear and tear on your relievers. Hence, the Twins bullpen went into their Friday night matchup with the Texas Rangers 16th in MLB in ERA (4.53), 18th in strikeouts (425), and 22nd in opponent batting average (.261).
At the same time, can you really scrutinize this group of starters? Outside of Berrios, this is a rotation made up of starters who were overachieving throughout the first half of the season and, for their careers, have been inconsistent.
Odorizzi has put together a respectable career, but going into 2019, he was fresh off back-to-back seasons where he recorded an ERA above 4.10. He has been a groundball pitcher who doesn’t go deep into games and relies on soft contact — which can, at times, be dangerous, especially with power hitters.
Gibson has strung together one plausible season at the big-league level, which was last season. Perez strung together some impressive outings early this season, but for the bulk of his career, the southpaw has performed at a level deemed appropriate for a backend starting pitcher.
Michael Pineda is coming into his own, but his steady improvement and Berrios’ scattered big-time outings aren’t enough for the Twins to feel comfortable in a five, or seven-game series. Heck, they may not even reach such play because of their rotation.
Over the offseason the Twins were, at times, linked to big names on both the free agent and trade market, but they never acted. They opted to stick with their core and see what would happen with their roster at full force. At first, it worked well, probably better than they envisioned. Jorge Polanco, Eddie Rosario, Nelson Cruz, Max Kepler, Miguel Sano, Mitch Garver, Byron Buxton, among others, quickly formed arguably the best lineup in the sport.
But what more is their offense supposed to do? They have eight players with at least 17 home runs and 10 consistent rotation players with an OPS above .800. The Twins offense went into Friday first in MLB in home runs (236) and total bases (2,139), second in hits (1,156) and OPS (.836), third in runs (700), and fourth in batting average (.270).
The Twins bolstered their bullpen at the MLB trade deadline with the acquisitions of Sergio Romo and Sam Dyson, but they didn’t address their starting rotation. Meanwhile, the Houston Astros, who have been slated to matchup with the Twins in the AL Division Series for the majority of this season, acquired Zack Greinke and Aaron Sanchez.
The world could see that this pitching staff needed improvement in the offseason. Sure, their rotation had upside, but even throughout their first half success, it was evident that they needed a jolt. Veterans were overachieving, and they were heavily relying on their offense.
The Twins are 34-30 since June 2 and 17-15 since the All-Star break. The Indians have won the AL Central in each of the last three seasons, have continuity, a revitalized lineup and bullpen, and a young starting rotation thriving in the absence of Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco. This team has faced adversity, isn’t afraid of the Twins, and are the hottest team in the AL.
We’re about to find out just how good the Twins are, as they’re faced with their first pivotal test as a ballclub, but the odds are perhaps stacked against them.
Reality is settling in for the Twins on the hill, and there’s little they can do about it: Their starting rotation is running out of gas.