Quick: which pitcher led the Minnesota Twins in rWAR from 2001 to 2010? The answer is Johan Santana by a landslide, as he had almost double the WAR of the next player on the list.
So... who’s number two? The Twins dominated the decade, winning six division titles and finishing above .500 three additional times. They had a more talented roster than many people realize — the 2006 team that won 96 games featured Santana, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Torii Hunter, Michael Cuddyer, Francisco Liriano, and Luis Castillo (yes, that Luis Castillo) — but a lot of that talent rested on the offensive side of the ball. Pitching-wise, the Twins relied on a lot of anonymous, pitch-to-contact arms that would struggle to have the same success now.
Case in point: the next pitcher on that aforementioned WAR list? Closer Joe Nathan.
The Twins are still working on the anonymous secondary starter thing, but they may have found their next Santana. Jose Berrios is off to an excellent start in 2019, with 20 2⁄3 innings pitched across just three starts. He has allowed just five runs on 11 hits so far, and has notched 21 strikeouts to just four walks. His 0.8 rWAR is tied for third in the American League.
Berrios is coming off a solid 2018 season, but he looks to have taken a step forward through his first three starts in 2019. He has lowered his walk and home run rates so far, the latter a divergence from what the rest of baseball is doing (pitchers have given up 1.32 home runs per nine innings this season, reminiscent to 2017’s barrage). He is also eating innings, something a struggling Twins bullpen will appreciate.
Can the Tigers get to the budding ace on Sunday?
Detroit Tigers (8-6) at Minnesota Twins (7-4)
Time/Place: 2:10 p.m., Target Field
SB Nation site: Twinkie Town
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Jordan Zimmermann (0-1, 2.50 ERA) vs. RHP Jose Berrios (1-1, 2.18 ERA)
Game 17 Pitching Matchup
For a player we’re considering as a potential ace, Berrios doesn’t necessarily pitch like it. He has reduced his fastball usage to just 48 percent in 2019, just a hair over his curveball usage (43 percent). He also mixes in a changeup, which he threw almost exclusively to left-handed hitters last season. This pitch mix seems a little unusual for a pitcher with a 93-94 mile-per-hour fastball — he touched 98 mph at one point in 2018 — but the numbers have warranted the shift. Berrios’ curveball is his best offering, and both that and his changeup have been well above-average in 2019, according to FanGraphs’ pitch values.
On the other side, we saw the ugly version of Jordan Zimmermann five days ago. The veteran righthander just didn’t seem to have it, allowing four extra-base hits (including three home runs) in just 4 1⁄3 innings. It’s something he will flirt with throughout the season as an extreme fly ball pitcher, but outings like this are possible just about every time Zimmermann takes the mound. Squaring him up could prove a bit more difficult on a cold day in Minneapolis, but the Twins have proven to be a dangerous lineup, with a 115 wRC+ and .196 ISO — both figures among the top 10 clubs in baseball.
Key matchup: The Tigers vs. fielding a full lineup
The Tigers were down to just nine position players by the end of Saturday’s game, and their lineup was... not great. Nicholas Castellanos is currently working through a nagging toe injury, one likely not helped by the chilly Minnesota weather. Niko Goodrum is the best bet to return to action on Sunday, as his illness wasn’t quite bad enough to keep him from pinch running if needed. The Tigers will call someone up to replace Jordy Mercer on the active roster prior to the game — signs point to Ronny Rodriguez — but getting from Norfolk to Minneapolis in time might be a challenge.
Call-up or not, the Tigers could be without their two best hitters and their starting shortstop in this game. That’s not a great way to go up against a pitcher like Berrios.
Berrios carves up a hobbled Tigers lineup and the Twins sweep the two-game set.