The last time the Minnesota Twins were out of contention at the July trade deadline was during the 2018 season. Then, the team traded right handed reliever Ryan Pressly to the Houston Astros for two minor league prospects -- one of whom was right handed pitcher Jorge Alcala. At the time of the trade, Alcala was ranked as the tenth-best prospect in the Astros’ highly regarded farm system by MLB Pipeline. Fast forward three seasons and Alcala is in his second season as a regular part of the Twins’ relief pitching corps. Now, with the Twins again looking to trade away veteran talent mid-season, the focus turns away from competing for a playoff berth to developing talent for the future. For Jorge Alcala, that developmental focus has meant being challenged by increasingly difficult game situations.
When he was acquired, Alcala stood out among Minnesota’s pitching prospects because of a high-velocity fastball that could routinely clock in the upper-90s. That kind of velocity has been uncommon in the Minnesota system, historically. Throughout the early 2000s and 2010s under General Manager Terry Ryan and Field Manager Ron Gardenhire, the “Twins Way” was famous for low velocity, strong control, and pitching to contact. The acquisition of the high upside stuff of Alcala was seen as an exciting example of the shift in organizational philosophy brought by new front office decision makers Derek Falvey and Thad Levine.
The publicly available prospect scouting reports from outlets like MLB Pipeline and FanGraphs describe Alcala as a raw, athletic prospect that had natural ability. The reports questioned if he could be a starting pitcher because of his below average command and inconsistent secondary pitches. Even with those concerns, the evaluations were confident his floor was an effective MLB reliever (perhaps even a high leverage, late game reliever) because of the rare arm strength.
After joining the Twins system, Alcala continued to work as a starting pitcher through the rest of 2018 and early 2019 at the AA level. In mid-2019, the long expected switch to relief came and accelerated Alcala’s advancement. By the end of that season, he had made a couple of major league appearances for the Twins and gave everyone a glimpse of his late inning potential.
Alcala began the shortened 2020 season in the minors, but was recalled to majors to stay about a week into the season. Since, the Twins have brought him along slowly, choosing spots to deploy Alcala when the stakes were low.
Leverage Index (LI) is a stat that quantifies the amount of pressure in any given baseball game situation. The math behind the stat is somewhat complex, but at a high level, the leverage of a particular situation is calculated with the possible changes in win expectancy. The more likely a situation is to affect the final outcome of the game, the higher the leverage. In practice, a leverage index greater than 2.0 is considered high leverage and below 1.0 is considered low leverage.
In Alcala’s case, both of his appearances in 2019 were in low leverage situations. In 2020, he made 16 appearances and worked 24 innings. Of those, all but three were in low leverage spots and only one came in a high leverage situation. Overall, 17.2 of his innings pitched were in situations classified as low leverage.
In the first few months of the current 2021 season, that pattern continued. For the season, Alcala has made 41 appearances and thrown 39.0 innings. Sixteen of his first 17 appearances -- through April and most of May -- were low leverage. Then, the Twins started to challenge Alcala with tougher assignments. Since May 22, just seven of his 24 appearances have been low leverage.
Below, I plotted a 10-game rolling average of the leverage index when Alcala entered the game (gmLI). You can see very clearly that he’s been trusted with higher level situations in his more recent appearances:
This data suggests a deliberate approach by Twins manager Rocco Baldelli and pitching coach Wes Johnson to deploy Alcala in more impactful spots. Such decisions make sense from two perspectives. The Twins’ bullpen has struggled all season. As Alcala’s teammates failed to perform in high leverage situations, he was given opportunities to try. Those kinds of opportunities also fit well for Alcala from a developmental perspective, giving him chances to learn on the job and gain pressure situation experience that should serve him well in the future.
So, how has he done with these chances?
Last season, when his chances were mostly low leverage, he performed very well. For the season he finished with a 2.63 ERA and a 28.7% strikeout rate. He led all Twins pitchers with an average fastball velocity about 97 miles per hour and demonstrated an effective slider that limited opponents to just .205 batting average.
Through games played on July 27 this season, Alcala’s numbers are significantly worse across the board. For the season, Alcala has a 5.54 ERA and 22.4% strikeout rate. Velocity-wise, he's again leading the team and throwing slightly harder this season, averaging 97.4 mph on his fastball. Despite the increased heat, opponents (especially left handed hitters) have had a bit more success against both his fastball and slider (hitting .241 and slugging well over .400 against both). In addition to the decreased strikeout rate, Alcala has been more homer prone this season, already giving up 9 long balls.
Unsurprisingly, the young pitcher has performed comparably worse in medium and high leverage opportunities, as the table below breaks out:
This data suggests he’s on the early part of the learning curve and going through growing pains. Despite those ugly early returns, it makes sense for the Twins to continue to throw Alcala into the fire with higher leverage opportunities. Their chances of competing this season are gone and the best thing they can do is focus on developing young talent for the future. That young talent includes Alcala and his potential late inning stuff. It’s not a guarantee that he’ll be able to succeed and grow into a reliable, high leverage reliever. But the Twins have every reason to let Alcala prove it -- one way or the other -- on the field.
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