The Minnesota Twins and reliever Alex Colome officially put pen to paper on a one-year deal last Friday. The deal is worth $5 million in salary for 2021, and carries a mutual option for $5.5 million with a $1.25 million buyout.
In doing so, the Twins continued their path toward re-making a bullpen that has already lost — or may still lose — Matt Wisler, Trevor May, Sergio Romo and Tyler Clippard from last season. That’s roughly half of a bullpen that posted a 3.62 ERA last season (sixth in MLB) and struck out 10.4 batters per nine (fifth).
Before adding Colome, the rest of the bullpen additions had been fairly under the radar for the Twins. Hansel Robles signed a one-year deal worth $2 million in late December, and while he’s coming off a dreadful 2020 — 10.26 ERA/5.89 FIP in 16.2 innings — he’s just one year removed from being one of the best relievers in baseball.
He also had a bad-ass closer entrance with the Angels:
Beyond that, the Twins have quietly added Ian Gibaut, Shaun Anderson, Brandon Waddell and Ian Hamilton (currently in DFA limbo) as competition via minor trades or waiver claims. In doing so, the team again made it fairly clear what they like from relievers — largely ones who throw hard and/or feature sliders.
Colome is a little different.
Let’s first take a look at the obvious. In an abbreviated season, Colome’s 0.81 ERA doesn’t carry quite as much weight in 22.1 innings as it would in his customary 60-70. Reliever ERA is already particularly volatile, but let’s put it this way — if Byron Buxton’s “ground-rule double” on Sept. 14 had instead been ruled a home run, Colome’s ERA for the season would have swollen nearly a half run (1.21).
And to be sure, a 1.21 ERA would still have been exemplary, but that’s a swing of roughly 50 percent.
FIP (2.97) and xFIP (4.26) agree that he wasn’t quite that good, and while he induced grounders at a rate of 52.4 percent — 45ish percent is average — and didn’t allow a home run all season, he still fanned just 6.5 batters per nine (17.8 percent) with a respectable, but not amazing 2-to-1 ratio of strikeouts (16) to walks (eight).
Inducing grounders at this rate should be a really good thing for Colome, as the left side of his infield will be patrolled by Josh Donaldson and Andrelton Simmons — two of the best in the business defensively. There’s reason to believe that Jorge Polanco can make a leap defensively at second base this season — he even started to look better at short last year, depending on what metrics one subscribes to — so that’s three-quarters of an infield that should at least be good defensively, if not better.
The strikeout rate is troubling on a surface level — especially when the league averages were 9.4 K/9 and a 24.1 K% — but there’s more than what meets the eye here.
First, let’s get this out of the way — Colome hasn’t allowed an ERA above 4.00 in any full season since 2008. At that time, he was a starting pitcher in rookie ball with the Tampa Bay Rays, and posted a 6.80 ERA in 46.1 innings. In other words, there’s a track record here of sustaining a strong ERA — good peripherals or otherwise.
In addition to Colome’s groundball rate, he induced the lowest average exit velocity he’s had in the Statcast era (since 2015) at 87.4 mph — two full ticks below his career average. If a reliever has a paucity of strikeouts, weak contact and grounders are going to help fill in the gaps.
One thing that doesn’t jive in Colome’s statistical profile is that he had a swinging-strike rate of 15.3 percent. We generally accept an average of roughly 10 percent in that respect — a touch lower for starters and a touch higher for relievers — so he was clearly good at getting swinging strikes.
So why didn’t he strike batters out?
First, let’s try to establish some context for how many strikeouts pitchers who got commensurate swinging-strike rates attained:
This list includes every single reliever last season who threw at least 10 innings and had a swinging-strike rate between above 15.0 percent but below 16.0 percent.
The next lowest K/9 after Colome’s 6.45 is Diego Castillo’s 9.55. The next lowest K% after Colome’s 17.8 percent is Ryne Stanek’s 22.9 percent.
That means he was a massive outlier — basically getting tons of swinging strikes one and two but somehow not strike three.
Why might this be?
According to Brooks Baseball, the swinging-strike rate on Colome’s cutter was a fantastic 19.0 percent in all situations. On his fastball, it was a respectable 8.0 percent — again realizing that a fastball is going to skew below average as the most hittable pitch as a rule of thumb.
In any count, Colome threw the cutter about 70.1 percent of the time and to reiterate, with a swinging-strike rate of 19.0 percent.
With zero strikes, Colome threw the cutter about 59.9 percent of the time with a swinging-strike rate of 19.6 percent.
With one strike, Colome threw the cutter 77.2 percent of the time with a swinging-strike rate of 23.2 percent.
With two strikes, Colome threw the cutter 78.6 percent of the time with a swinging-strike rate of 13.5 percent. Also, with two strikes, batters fouled it off 24.0 percent of the time — easily the highest of any count.
Righties especially didn’t have issues with Colome’s cutter with two strikes, swinging 73.5 percent of the time but with a swinging-strike rate of just 5.9 percent.
It feels like this is a two-fold situation. First, it’s just pretty obvious that Colome works ahead of batters and attempts to finish them with the cutter. It’s not a bad approach; Fangraphs has it at 38.9 runs above average over the last four seasons.
The cutter allowed a slash line of .157/.192/.214 last season and was pounded into the ground 56.4 percent of the time. When hitters weren’t swinging and missing, they were definitely not hitting the cutter very hard.
His average exit velocity against the cutter was 85.9 mph, for what it’s worth, against 89.4 mph versus the four-seam fastball.
Beyond that, it just feels like there wasn’t enough time for Colome’s numbers to regress. With 40 or so more innings like he typically throws in a full 162-game slate — which will hopefully be the case in 2021 — there’s a fairly good chance his strikeout rates would have rebounded to at least some degree.
His career strikeout rate, for a point of reference, is 8.2 per nine innings.
In short, it looks as though the Twins found a good deal on a dependable late-inning reliever.
Colome is 32 and has been worth at least a half-win in six straight seasons according to Fangraphs. Pedro Baez, who has been worth a half-win just three times in that span, signed a two-year deal with Houston for more than double the total value Colome received.
Oh, and maybe here’s another reason — the cutter is really just a harder, shorter slider.
And we know how the Twins feel about those.