FORT MYERS, Fla. – There are 75 players in Twins camp, so it's not uncommon to see players, especially rookies and minor-leaguers, walking around wearing numbers more appropriate for offensive linemen or wide receivers.
But Randy Dobnak? The righthander who won six games in a 60-game season, tying Kenta Maeda for the Twins lead and fourth-most in the majors? The guy who started a playoff game in Yankee Stadium? What is he doing wearing No. 68?
"Everybody back home has jerseys with this number already," Dobnak said with a laugh. "It's too late to change it now. That would be a little too expensive for my friends."
What a thoughtful guy. But Dobnak hints that there is an ulterior motive, too: He's very aware of where he started and how far he's come. No. 68 is a perfectly noble number for a hard worker from coal country.
"I've always been the kind of guy who is — I don't want to say overlooked, but I know I always have to prove myself," said the 26-year-old righthander. "I take everything, really, as a challenge. Making the roster, helping the team win. Maybe wearing this number."
Those Dobnak jerseys probably haven't been huge sellers, not yet, except maybe in southwest Pennsylvania, where he grew up, and the West Virginia panhandle, where he and his wife bought a house in November. But he keeps showing signs of establishing himself, almost sneakily, among the Twins' top options in the starting rotation. Heck, among the best pitchers in the league.
Over the past two seasons, in fact, how many starting pitchers have won at least eight games and posted an ERA lower than Dobnak's combined 3.12? Only 10, and the list includes Cy Young winners Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Clayton Kershaw and Shane Bieber, among others. Nobody compares Dobnak to those elite arms — but Twins manager Rocco Baldelli doesn't discount his ability to be a major contributor, too.
He's even willing to wager some snack foods on it.
"I would put a lot of money or pretzels or whatever you want that Dobber is going to be out there throwing for us a ton this year," Baldelli said. "We're going to be looking at him in some big spots."
Maybe so. But the Twins have a weird way of showing that confidence. After he debuted with a 1.59 ERA in nine appearances in 2019, including zero earned runs in his first 10 innings, the Twins gave him a start in Yankee Stadium for Game 2 of the American League Division Series. But they also traded for Kenta Maeda and signed Homer Bailey and Rich Hill as free agents, forcing him to elbow his way into the rotation again.
He did, and though he wasn't fooling hitters quite as often last year, his ERA stood at an impressive 2.72 ERA after his first eight starts. Then his command abruptly disappeared, he allowed nine runs in his final two starts, saw his ERA balloon to 4.05 and was relegated to the alternate site in St. Paul for the final 10 days of the season.
"I understood. It was just one of those thing, kind of a freak thing," he said of his awful finish. "It gave me a chance to work on some things, to work on getting my sinker under control a little bit more."
Then the Twins auctioned off his rotation spot again last winter, adding J.A. Happ and, just before training camp, Matt Shoemaker via free agency. Suddenly, he's the sixth guy in a five-man rotation again.
Dobnak's reaction: Hey, terrific job, Twins.
"It's great for the organization, great for the team. They're all really good dudes," he said. "The more people we have helping us win a championship, the better. For me, I'm still going out there and give them a reason to include me."
He'll do it by relying on his amazing slider, which produces ground balls 56 percent of the time if hitters can get their bat on it, and gets hitters to chase it out of the strike zone 44 percent of the time. That pitch helps him succeed despite a strikeout rate below 20 percent, which is normally a sign of trouble for most pitchers.
And that pitch is even better now, he said.
"I've been working on getting more horizontal break. I've trying different grips and arm angles," Dobnak said. "Look, I'm sure I'll get my opportunity. It's a long season, and we're going to need a lot of pitchers. If I'm in the rotation at the start or if it takes awhile, I just want to make sure I'm at my best when they need me."