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TwinsCentric: Can Alex Meyer be a shutdown reliever?

The Minnesota Twins bullpen maintains the worst strikeout rate in baseball but on Thursday afternoon, they made a move to improve that area.

After sending Michael Tonkin down to Rochester after Wednesday’s game, they recalled hard-throwing Alex Meyer to replace him. Meyer, who the team received in the Denard Span trade with Washington as a starting pitching prospect, has rediscovered himself as a reliever in the Red Wings bullpen. Since the move Meyer has worked 17 innings in relief and has limited opponents to a .188 batting average while posting a solid 20-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
 
The numbers all look convincing enough to believe that Meyer will play an effective role as a reliever going forward. When the Twins opted to send Meyer to the bullpen, he owned a 1.91 WHIP. While he was striking out plenty of batters, the others were either getting hits or walking. Velocity was never an issue for Meyer, who routinely reached 98 on the gun, but commanding pitches in the zone became the focus in 2015. Too often, Meyer’s fastball would fly down the middle or his breaking ball would hang. By the definition of the zone, they were strikes but they were also very hittable.


According to the Durham Bulls broadcasters, their players said that compared to 2014 Meyer’s fastball was flat and that it lacked movement that it had the previous year. His command also was an issue since once he was behind in the count, they did not have to anticipate the knuckle-curve. This was reminiscent of Francisco Liriano’s plight from 2012 in which he was unable to locate his fastball and hitters simply laid off his nasty slider. In his final start, Meyer faced Durham and in just over four innings, the Bulls’ lineup knocked out seven hits of him. They waited patiently as he progressed deeper into counts by missing his spots and made him throw 109 pitches on his way to another early exit.

Six days later, Rochester was in Durham, North Carolina and Meyer had moved to the bullpen.

The move was made in order for Meyer to find consistency with his fastball and to attempt to regain his biting curve ball which had lost the break it had had a year ago. It also was a move to alleviate the pressure he applied to the relief corps each time his start was truncated. Meyer acknowledged that his arm slot had dropped since the end of 2014. Now in the pen, he told the Rochester broadcasting team that he would be concentrating on getting that release point back up to improve his movement.

While some pitching prospects might find the switch troublesome on the ego, Meyer seemed to transition smoothly. In his first outing in relief, Meyer worked a clean 1-2-3 eighth inning against the Bulls -- the team which had less than a week earlier knocked him out of the starting rotation. Meyer worked quickly, getting strikes within the first two pitches of each at-bat. His fastball was humming at 96 and touching 97. He deployed a short break slider at significantly slower speed to register his first two outs and blasted a 97 mile per hour fastball above the zone for a swinging strike for the final out.

READ: TD MIDSEASON TOP PROSPECT #10 - ALEX MEYER

It was something that every bullpen needs -- someone to be able to throw late innings, bat-missing heat. When Rochester hosted a wrestling night at the beginning of June, all the relievers were given WWE wrestling persona’s that matched their demeanor on the mound. Meyer -- who is also called White Missile by his teammates -- was given The Undertaker, a wrestler who dominated in the ring and stole the souls of his opponents. The character fit well for Meyer’s new role.

"While I'm in the bullpen, it's go get 'em,” Meyer told the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. “Do whatever you have to do to get them out. I'm just trying to go out there and attack every batter. Get one batter out at a time and try not to over-analyze things any more than that."

By the eye test, he looked comfortable going through the motions of a short outing. He leaned on his fastball but was sure to work his knuckle-curve in several times. In fact, he leaned on his curve too much in his first few relief outings. In his first outing, Meyer found himself up 0-1 in the count and shook off his catcher, Josmil Pinto, in order to throw back-to-back curves (both for balls and well off-target). He returned to his fastball and got two swinging strikes: one on the inner-half of the plate and another above the strike zone to finish the hitter off. In another outing, Meyer turned to his curve too frequently in two-strike situations. In four of the nine matchups against Lehigh Valley on June 2, he threw the bender three pitches in a row -- one of which, on a 3-2 count, facilitated a bases-loaded rally that Meyer somehow eventually wiggled out of.

Although he appeared to overuse and misfire with the curve early, Meyer also tightened it up in his subsequent outings. The break appeared sharper and able to generate swinging strikes again. Upon his promotion, Red Wings beat writer Kevin Oklobzija highlighted Meyer’s improvement with the curve as a function why he was successful in the pen.

During several broadcasts, announcers remarked how “confident” Meyer looked in his new role. His second appearances out of the bullpen on May 25 was all business. The Red Wings needed one out in the sixth inning and they called on a pitcher who could get a strikeout. Meyer threw four pitches -- all fastballs, all on the outer-half of the zone. While the umpire did not agree that the first one was a strike, the next three were placed in the same spot and were all deemed strikes. At that speed, in that location, the hitter stood little chance of doing anything.

In his final outing before being recalled to Minnesota, Meyer worked effectively against the Pawtucket Red Sox. Despite allowing an inherited run to score, he was locating his 95+ fastball with precision and deploying a large breaking ball that buckled several knees. Rather than just throwing the curve when up in the count, Meyer also used it to get ahead of hitters and in even-count situations, making him and his fastball even more difficult to hit. Between the two pitches Meyer looked every bit the part of a major league shutdown reliever.

In all Meyer has the raw stuff to be dominant at times. Most critical is working ahead of hitters. Even in relief, he showed signs of struggling to locate his fastball and was occasionally helped by opponents who would chase pitches.


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TwinsCentric: What's the plan for Tyler Jay?

They say that you should never draft for need with a high first-round pick, and I suspect that the Twins did believe that Tyler Jay was the best player on the board when they selected him sixth overall on Monday night.

 

But when you look at the landscape of this organization, it's tough not to notice that the dominating college lefty fills a significant void, whichever role he ends up falling into.

 

Jay still needs to sign, but once that formality is taken care of, his future role becomes the hot topic. He worked almost exclusively as a reliever during his career at the University of Illinois, and while he was perhaps the most dominant collegiate closer in the nation this year, he has no experience handling a full-time starter's workload.

 

Terry Ryan stated that he plans to keep Jay in a relief role for the remainder of this season, but the team has expressed commitment to giving him a shot as a starter going forward. That makes sense; rarely does a club use a Top 10 draft pick on a pitcher who is designated a reliever right out of the gates, and many (though not all) scouts do believe that Jay could start thanks to his deep pitch repertoire, exceptional command and easy throwing motion.

 

A successful path might mirror that of Tyler Duffey, who currently ranks as one of the organization's most MLB-ready pitching prospects. Duffey was the closer for Rice University before being selected by the Twins in the fifth round of the 2012 draft, and finished out that year as a reliever at Elizabethton after signing, but he moved to full-season ball in 2013 and 18 of his 24 appearances came as a starter. He has been starting exclusively since then and has really taken to it, as he's now in Triple-A with a decent shot at debuting in the majors this summer.

 

Duffey, like nearly every top starter in the Twins' system, is a righty. The only left-handers that ranked among my top eight pitching prospects a few weeks ago were Taylor Rogers, who's known more for polish and command than overpowering stuff, and Stephen Gonsalves, a 20-year-old who is still likely several years away from the majors.

 

As a potentially fast-tracked lefty power arm, Jay would provide something that is currently amiss for the Twins if he can start. But he would also do so by remaining in his familiar relief role, and in that capacity he would be geared for a much faster impact with fewer foreseeable obstacles.

 

While the Twins' bullpen has been surprisingly effective this year, it is lacking quality left-handed options. Brian Duensing has been terrible and is probably in his last year with the club. Aaron Thompson and Caleb Thielbar are nothing special. And while the Twins have numerous high-upside relievers developing in the minors, nearly all them throw from the right side.

 

Jay has a chance to fill that void on the big-league club and he has a chance to do it very quickly. Baseball America suggested that the 21-year-old "could be the first player from the draft class to reach the majors if he stays in a relief role." 

 

Consider that Brandon Finnegan, the college reliever selected 17th overall by the Royals last year, was up in the majors pitching key innings in September and October, and most consider Jay a superior talent.

 

The Royals sent Finnegan back to the minors to work on starting this year, but the results so far haven't been great, as his control has been a mess and he has yet to complete even five innings in a start. And while Duffey has been a success story up to this point, he's been the exception. Countless other college relievers that the Twins have drafted with thoughts of being converted to starters have failed to stick.

 

Attempting to move Jay into a starting role means gradually extending out his workload (his 66 innings this year are the most he's thrown in a high school or college season) and acclimating his arm to a very set of different demands. It's certainly not impossible, but it could be a lengthy process and the odds aren't stellar. Conversely, he could be pitching in a big-league bullpen by the end of the year and his chances of excelling in that role seem extremely good.

 

Obviously Jay would offer much more value as a starter if it worked out, but a lefty reliever who can dominate hitters from both sides and pitch multiple innings is a quality asset, and for what it's worth the Twins have built considerable starting pitching depth in the minors, which they have added to with some other picks in this draft.

 

What do you think? Would you try Jay as a starter, or would you rather commit to him as a reliever with the idea of getting him up to the big leagues, for good, as quickly as possible?

 

~~~

 

The Twins have been struggling against the Royals, but it's been a big week for the organization. Get caught up on all the news at Twins Daily!

 

* Seth discusses Jorge Polanco's promotion and another big game for red-hot Chattanooga in his Minor League Report.

 

* Community members discussed all of the players selected on Tuesday in our Day 2 Draft Thread.

 

* Seth recounts some of the hidden gems that the Twins have found in Rounds 2 through 10.

 

* The No Juice Podcast featured an entertaining interview with Twins official scorekeeper Stew Thornley. 

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Minnesota 40-36
Cincinnati 35-40

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