Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Big Bert and the Hard Road Ahead

It’s long been a thing in baseball that struggling or failed starting pitchers could simply head out to the bullpen and find another path to success. From the short burst outings, to avoiding multiple lineup turns, and even decreasing the total pitch mitch, it’s a whole different recipe beyond the outfield wall. Adalberto Mejia was thrust into this role for 2019, but it doesn’t appear to be going as smoothly as Minnesota may have hoped.

Let me start out by saying that we’re still dealing with a small sample size. Only 27 games have been played, and with the Twins housed in the Midwest, weather has been the enemy more often than it hasn’t. There’s reason to believe that the Dominican native could settle in as the weather warms up, but the flip side of that argument is in the benefit provided to the hitter and batted baseball in those same circumstances. While not dismissing and of these realities, looking at the generated inputs is a must.

Prior to 2019 Mejia had operated solely as a starter for Minnesota. With a full rotation for Rocco Baldelli’s squad, the out of options lefty got moved to the bullpen. There was never any indication that this was a more logical path to success as it was a necessity to get all the pieces on the 25-man roster to coexist. Now that we have some actionable data to work with, we can start to make some comments regarding how the transition is working out.

Through 11.1 IP Mejia owns an ugly 8.74 ERA having given up earned runs in four of his 11 outings. On three of those occasions, the damage has been in the form of a crooked number. As expected, the velocity and strikeout rates have spiked a bit in short bursts, but the greatest problem has been a complete lack of command. He’s sporting a 7.1 BB/9 and an 11/9 K/BB ratio. Adding in the 8.7 H/9 and a HR/9 rate nearing 2.0 only helps to complete a recipe for disaster.

Typically, the thought process of moving a starter to relief would be in the hope that a smaller repertoire and enhanced velocity would provide a two-headed approach towards a more effective arm. Mejia has jumped his velocity, but only minimally. Averaging 93.8 mph he’s up one mph on his number from 2018, but there’s an argument to be made that more is in the tank once the weather warms up. Maximizing effectiveness in his offerings though, the pitch mix is far from specialized.

Utilizing the same repertoire as when he was starting, Mejia throws a four-seam fastball, sinker, changeup, slider, and has lightly mixed in a curveball. The four main offerings are all utilized at a relatively high clip, and the greatest change this season has been in muting the traditional fastball while turning to the changeup more often. The lack of specialization, however, is indicative of a guy without a true out pitch. There isn’t enough velocity on the fastball to make it a plus pitch, and just a 9% whiff rate doesn’t scream that any other offering is missing bats either.

If you could construct Mejia in the model that Minnesota would like to see, it’d be a lefty that is able to generate power from his size into his fastball. Pairing that one pitch with an off-speed slider or changeup would allow him to effectively keep opponents off balance. Just 2.8% of Adalberto’s fastballs have been whiffed on, with sliders generating a 3.7% whiff rate. That’s far too much contact allowed from a relief pitcher often tasked with keeping opportunities at bay. Add in that you’re giving out free passes at an alarming clip, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

At this point the Twins are getting closer to a point in which they’ll need to decide. It’s unfortunate to lose out on starting pitching talent, and there’s reason to believe that Mejia could bolster the back of a rotation. At almost 26 though, we’re getting to the point that there needs to be more of a plan than just reliance on stuff. He can’t go down without passing through waivers, so unless a flip-flop is being made with Martin Perez in the starting five now, continuing to employ him in the bullpen looks like a losing proposition.

As good as Taylor Rogers is, having him be your sole lefty in relief is probably not a path you’d choose to go down. Jake Reed deserves a shot in Minnesota but is of the wrong-handedness for this discussion. Right now, that leaves one of Andrew Vasquez or Gabriel Moya. Both of those guys could certainly take their lumps but investing in them as long-term relief solutions seems to be a better idea than fitting this square peg in a round hole.

We can wait another couple of weeks to see if warmth is able to correct any of Adalberto Mejia’s situation, but right now it looks to be larger than something the mercury can correct.