September 16, 2015

Will the Twins use Trevor May as a starter or reliever?

Turning failed starting pitchers into successful relief pitchers is common practice across baseball and the Twins have done it frequently for decades, finding most of the top closers and many of the top setup men in team history that way. Trevor May looks likely to be their latest starter turned reliever after thriving in the bullpen for the past two months when a midseason rotation logjam led to his supposedly temporary role change.

May has appeared in 27 games as a reliever after coming into the season as a career-long starter, throwing 27.2 innings with a 3.25 ERA and 31/7 K/BB ratio. No longer needing to pace himself for multiple trips through a lineup, May has upped his average fastball from 92 to 95 miles per hour and induced nearly 50 percent more swinging strikes while throwing more of his pitches in the strike zone. Everything points to May being a successful late-inning reliever.

I just wish the Twins had given him more of a chance to actually fail (or succeed) as a starting pitcher before making what now seems likely to tempt them into being a permanent switch for a 25-year-old. May was moved to the bullpen in July not because of poor performance but because the Twins had six starters for five rotation spots and predictably decided that the youngest, least experienced pitcher should be uprooted.

May had a mediocre 4.48 ERA in 16 starts this year, but his secondary numbers were far more impressive with 73 strikeouts and 18 walks in 86 innings and just eight homers allowed in 360 plate appearances. Among the six pitchers to start double-digit games for the Twins this season May has the best strikeout rate, swinging strike rate, and xFIP. Bad defense and luck made his numbers as a starter look so-so, but by several key measures May was the Twins' best starter.

Even in the most optimistic scenario May is unlikely to have top-of-the-rotation upside starting, but the combination of durability, bat-missing stuff, and improved control gives him the potential to be a solid No. 3 starter at the very least. To move that type of arm from a 200-inning role to a 65-inning role at age 25 seems impulsive, especially for an organization that has long struggled to develop starters beyond pitch-to-contact, back-of-the-rotation filler.

Building a quality bullpen is much easier than building a quality rotation for many reasons, one of which is that failed starters are regularly converted into successful relievers whereas the opposite rarely happens. Hopefully the Twins leave the door open for May to rejoin the rotation next year, but based on his strong performance as a reliever and their multi-year commitments to expensive veteran starters my guess is that we've seen him start his last game.


For a lot more discussion about May's long-term role, plus talk of Byron Buxton's struggles and Jose Berrios' absence, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

  • Steve Johnson

    I agree. Post was spot on.

  • Chris Wagener

    I really hope you are wrong. It’s easy to argue that right now Trevor May is the best starter on the Major League roster.

  • TJW

    I was disappointed to see May become a reliever, because I think he has value as a starter and the Twins definitely need them. However, if he became a lights out 8th inning guy with the opportunity to slide up to the ninth inning as a closer, then that would be awesome. Just think where we would be if we could regularly close games with confidence. Unfortunately, while he has been very good, he has not been lights out. Given his performance, I would rather see him be a mid-rotation starter than continue in his role.

    • Chris Holm

      You forget that closing games has zero value if you have a bad starting staff that can’t get you to the 9th with a lead.

  • Kavan

    I think the larger point here is that if you include the universe of starting pitchers, it’s not all that difficult to find a really good 8th inning guy. I doesn’t really matter that Trevor May is good as a reliever. Good starting pitchers are going to be good 8th inning guys in most every case. There are a subset of pitchers that aren’t good starting pitchers but, for whatever reason, can make good 8th inning guys. Those are the pitchers you should have in your pen, not the ones that are good starters as well (which should just be starters…. ‘cough cough’ Trevor May ‘cough’).

    • TR

      While I agree with the general thought about keeping May as a starter, let’s not get too carried away. To say …”it’s not all that difficult” to find a good 8th inning guy is a pretty big leap. Having an elite 8th inning guy does have real value. 75 high leverage innings is not insignificant…

      • Kavan

        Yeah, I guess I’d say it’s not all that difficult if you’re willing to throw your SP into the 8th inning spot. In essence, pretty much every team with a good rotation has at least 5 guys that could handle the 8th inning, they’re just providing more value being in the rotation. What is difficult is both fielding a decent 5 man rotation plus a solid 8th inning guy. I’d bet any of Pelfrey, Milone, Hughes, Santana or Duffey would make a fine late inning reliever. I don’t think there is anything about May that makes him more suitable as an RP over SP compared to any of the guys in our rotation. If you buy that, then swapping May for Pelfrey or something like that would improve the staff.

  • Chris Holm

    If they make this move permanent, I’m counting on you to shred them for this move like they deserve. There is no justification for moving your best and youngest starter to the bullpen ever unless injuries or durability are a concern and May has shown so far to be quite durable.

  • Gregg Bendtsen

    I’m pretty sure Johan Santana was a reliever for a little while. Can’t he be or model?

  • Rick

    He will start next season

  • Shakes

    That’s easy will be a reliever. But as far as the rotation, there’s not much. Duffy, Berrios perhaps, Santana sometimes on, Hughes isn’t going anywhere, nor is Nolasco. Pelfrey and Milone are hopefully gone next year

  • Jorge Garcia

    Remember how Greinke did not seem to put it all together as a starter when he was with the Royals. Then they moved him to the bullpen and eventually he was able to correct what was wrong in his delivery and gain confidence. Often, that’s why starters get converted into relievers. But it’s only to give them a chance to get it right. Greinke eventually was given another chance to start and the rest was history. Maybe May will follow the same path for the Twins. The Padres too will most likely try the same thing with Drew Pomeranz this year since he seemed to do very well last year in Oakland when they moved him to the pen. I’m positive these guys will eventually get to start again once they build more confidence and actually learn to use their arsenal effectively.