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Wetmore’s 2017 Twins outlook: Twins should convert Trevor May back into a starter

Editor’s note: This story about Trevor May is part of an ongoing series at 1500ESPN to preview the 2017 Twins season. We’ll glance at the player’s 2016 season and try to make some informed judgments about his upcoming year.

We’ve already done the same for …

Byron Buxton
Miguel Sano
Ervin Santana
Brian Dozier

Mission 1A for the Twins this season as they attempt to recover from 103 losses a year ago is to improve their starting pitching. This winter, the first under new front office bosses Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, they added zero starting pitchers on major league contracts.

So how can they reasonably expect starting pitching to improve?

There are a few reasons. I think Trevor May should be at the front of the list.

For the Twins to take a measurable step forward in the win column this year, I believe they should move May into the starting rotation and keep him there.

Every team needs to use more than five starters to get through a full season, but it’s sort of staggering the beating the Twins’ pitching staff took last year. Nearly 80 percent of the starter innings came from pitchers who finished with an ERA higher than 5.00. And more than one-third of the starter innings were logged by Ricky Nolasco, Hector Santiago, Tommy Milone, Pat Dean, Alex Meyer and Andrew Albers.

So the point is that despite what looks like a long list of starting pitching candidates this spring, the Twins shouldn’t assume they have enough quality depth there.

Not all relievers could handle a move from reliever to starting pitcher. But May’s an interesting case. He seems to be a legitimate four-pitch pitcher with a mid-90s fastball, was once considered a top starting pitching prospect, and now at age 27, casts an imposing shadow at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds. The durability questions are fair, in my opinion, but I don’t think pitching him out of the bullpen is any less risky. Pitchers get hurt all the time. Some can handle significant starter innings loads, some can handle taxing bullpen duty.

It’s worth noting that May’s numbers from last year look pretty bad. I still see the makings of a solid starting pitcher.

For one thing, I think a back injury derailed his 2016 season. For another, if we have some fun with numbers here, the picture begins to look a lot prettier for May.

In 42 2/3 innings last year, one of Minnesota’s more trusted relievers gave up 25 earned runs (5.27 ERA) and had a 60:17 strikeout-to-walk ratio. If, just for fun, we slice out a brutal 5-appearance stretch in which May gave up 10 earned runs and recorded just 10 outs, the picture of his season looks drastically different. If we remove that stretch in mid-May, the Twins’ reliever posted a 3.43 ERA and struck out 12.6 batters per 9 innings and walked 3.7 batters per 9.

Playing with numbers like that isn’t always fair. Even if we leave in that terrible stretch, that’s still a strong 12.7 K/9 and a high-but-not-disastrous 3.6 BB/9. For reference, Dellin Betances struck out 15.5 batters per 9 innings and walked 3.5. Let’s aim a little bit lower with the comparison and say that Cody Allen (Indians) struck out 11.5 per 9 innings and walked 3.6; and Jeurys Familia (Mets) struck out 9.7 per 9 and also walked 3.6.

It’s almost certain May’s strikeout rate would go down in the starting rotation, and furthermore, strikeout rate is far from the only factor to consider when looking for starting candidates.

May’s swinging strike rate led the Twins last year (13.2%). In all of MLB, 40 relievers topped that mark, but it’s still a strong swinging-strike rate. That’s in the same neighborhood as relievers Tony Sipp (Astros), Wade Davis (Royals) and Junichi Tazawa (Red Sox). If you can make a hitter swing and miss you’re going to have an easier time putting him away.

In fact, only six starting pitchers missed bats at a higher rate than May last year, which illustrates that it’s more difficult to get swinging strikes over the extended workload of a starter. And in his three seasons in the big leagues, we’ve seen May’s percentage of swinging strikes rise as his number of starts has diminished.

So I don’t think he’ll be the strikeout king or anything, but I think he’s Minnesota’s best bet to move from the bullpen into the rotation and fortify the latter group. Last year it seemed to me like May was only nominally in the competition for one of the five starting spots during spring training. This year I think it would benefit the Twins if he wins one of those five jobs.

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