Twins fans who grew accustomed to the pleasant comfort of Taylor Rogers entering a ballgame have been jolted in 2020 by a much different experience.
The Twins closer, so dominant over large stretches of 2018 and 2019, has been somewhere between ordinary and downright shaky through 49 games this season. His relative plunge has been mitigated by the rise of other Twins relief pitchers and a deep roster that has forged ahead to carve out a 30-19 roster and near-certain playoff berth.
But while in a normal season there would be plenty of time left to divest himself of this slump, this year’s condensed regular season ends in 12 days — and those aforementioned playoffs, where mistakes or triumphs loom larger, are right around the corner.
So what do we make of Rogers, whose ERA swelled to 4.86 Monday night while allowing two eighth-inning runs to Cleveland and taking his fourth loss already this year?
Is he the same pitcher getting different results or a different pitcher getting different results? Or maybe more to the point: Has he been bad, unlucky or some combination thereof? Here are some numbers that can help us arrive at a conclusion:
*First off, we need to acknowledge that the dropoff seems so stark in large part because Rogers had a very long way to fall from a lofty pitching perch.
From July 2, 2018 through July 18, 2019 — more than a full season, during which Rogers pitched in 73 games (including eight in the early part of 2019 in which he was asked to get at least six outs) — Rogers threw 79 innings, allowing just 47 hits, 11 runs and 16 walks while striking out 95 batters for a ridiculous 1.25 ERA.
He was likely to come down from that sort of heater at some point, particularly since he allowed an absurd .169 batting average on balls put in play from July 2 through the end of 2018. When you figure .300 is about average, that’s quite an over-performance.
*And he did come down from it last season, to a degree. From July 20 to the end of last year, he had a 4.44 ERA in 24.1 innings, though his peripherals (four walks, 34 Ks) were good. The biggest culprit seemed to be balls were finding holes, to the tune of a .345 opposing batting average on balls put in play.
But most of that came during a brutal stretch that lasted until mid-August, after which he was more or less himself again.
*That brings us to this weird season. I won’t profess to know what it’s like to suddenly pitch in empty stadiums in the middle of a global health pandemic (while serving as your team’s union rep on the side), so I want to give any player this season some grace.
But I also see some numbers in front of me that are not good. Rogers has pitched 16.2 innings, giving up 23 hits, 13 runs (nine earned) with three walks and 20 strikeouts. When opponents put the ball in play, they are hitting an otherworldly .412.
That last number tells us he’s running into at least some measure of bad luck, almost in equal proportion to his good luck in the back half of 2018. So, too, does his FIP — a calculation similar to ERA that tries to take elements of fortune and fielding out of the equation. Rogers’ FIP this year is 2.90 — almost identical to last year’s 2.85 mark.
*But the eye test suggests Rogers’ pitches haven’t been as crisp. Fangraphs tells us that he’s had an uptick in fastballs thrown (56% vs. 50% last year) but that his average fastball velocity was right around 95 mph both years. Deeper in the numbers we find some indications, though, that his command has been suffering this season.
Opposing batters have a “hard hit” rate of 39.6% this year on 53 batted balls — way up from 28.6% and 29.9% the past two seasons against Rogers. Similarly, the line drive rate against Rogers jumped to 30.2% this season, up from 18.1% last year. It stands to reason that opponents will have a higher BABIP when they are hitting the ball harder.
Another interesting FanGraphs stat: If a reliever has a win probability added of at least .06 in a particular game, he is credited with a “shutdown” performance. If the WPA is minus-.06 or lower, he is tagged with a “meltdown” performance. Last year Rogers had 38 shutdown and just seven meltdown games. This year? Seven shutdown games and five meltdown games.
*The logical conclusion seems to be the Rogers has been a little unlucky but that his struggles aren’t an illusion. He’s not putting hitters away with the same ruthless efficiency (.343 OPS against Rogers once got to two strikes last year, vs. .702 this year) and the times he misses his spot are getting tagged.
Some of this is also owing to small sample size noise that could have been smoothed out over the course of a 162-game season. A few bad outings can wreck a reliever’s stats in a short season.
But more importantly, they can wreck a team in the postseason.