Bailey Ober’s Deep Arsenal Is Filled With Potential

After trading away José Berríos and J.A. Happ last season and losing Kenta Maeda and Michael Pineda to Tommy John surgery and free agency, respectively, the Twins rotation was in serious need of rejuvenation. Instead of diving into the pre-lockout free agent frenzy in November, the Twins stayed on the periphery, only signing Dylan Bundy to a one-year, bounce-back contract after his ugly season for the Angels. With Byron Buxton newly signed to a long-term extension, the Twins have indicated their intention to compete for the AL Central crown in 2022. But even with Bundy added to their staff, their starting rotation looks exceedingly thin.

Under president of baseball operations Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine, Minnesota has been notoriously risk averse when it comes to committing to pitchers for any significant length of time. It was probably a long shot to assume the Twins would be among the suitors for the top names in a strong class of free agent starting pitchers and once the lockout is lifted, it seems like it’ll be difficult to add another arm to their rotation. Of the 16 starters ranked in our top 50 free agents, all but six have already signed with a new team. That doesn’t leave many options for the Twins when it comes to outside help.

Instead of bringing in another quality arm from outside the organization, I suspect the Twins are hoping some of their young starters take a significant step forward in 2022. Bailey Ober, Joe Ryan, and Randy Dobnak have less than 50 career starts between them but each will likely hold down a significant role this year. Additionally, top pitching prospects Jordan Balazovic and Jhoan Duran could make their major league debuts some time during the season. It may not be an inspiring group of names, but one of those young pitchers holds potential that could provide some upside for Minnesota.

Among that group of inexperienced starters populating the Twins’ projected rotation, Ober compiled the most innings in 2021. He made his major league debut in mid-May and wound up throwing 92.1 innings with a 4.19 ERA and a 4.56 FIP that was just a step behind. Even more impressive was his 5.05 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the 13th highest in the majors among starters who threw at least 90 innings. Those excellent peripherals formed the foundation of his 4.01 xFIP, with only his extremely high home run rate holding him back.

A 12th round pick in the 2017 draft, Ober compiled a 31.9% strikeout rate during his minor league career. He paired that lethal ability with a 3.4% walk rate; astonishingly, his walk totals never crossed double-digits in any of his minor league stops. With such phenomenal results, you might expect Ober to be highly ranked on the Twins prospect lists, but he never reached higher than 22nd on the 2021 list with a 40 FV. His command was an obvious strength but his fastball consistently sat below 90 mph in the minors. There was some considerable dissonance between his scouting reports and the results he was putting up.

During the 2020 season, Ober wasn’t invited to the alternate site but worked on smoothing out his mechanics on his own. Upon reaching the majors in May 2021, his fastball averaged 92.3 mph, a big uptick in velocity. The raw velocity he showed in the big leagues was a significant improvement over what he was showing in the minors, but 92 mph isn’t exactly head-turning. Fortunately, his gigantic 6-foot-9 frame allows him to impart a ton of additional effective velocity on his pitches. Just six other pitchers had a higher release extension than Ober’s 7.3 inches. That elite extension helped him add more than 2 mph to his heater, the largest difference between raw velocity and effective velocity among all fastballs thrown at least 100 times in 2021.

With a heater that plays up due to his extension and uncommon delivery, he leaned on that pitch pretty heavily during his rookie season. His excellent command allowed him to locate his fastball up in the zone regularly. The combination of effective velocity and location led to a 24.8% whiff rate, slightly above the league average for four-seamers. Even though batters often had trouble making contact with the pitch, they did tremendous damage against it when they did put it in play. Throwing hard stuff up in the zone comes with its drawbacks if batters are able to connect with those pitches. Nearly 60% of the balls in play off Ober’s fastball were fly balls or line drives and he allowed a .578 expected wOBA on those elevated batted balls.

Ober’s repertoire also includes a slider, changeup, and curveball. Of those three secondary pitches, the two breaking balls are the most interesting. Along with his fastball, those three pitches each ran swinging strike rates in the double digits, forming a deep arsenal to give Ober plenty of options with which to attack batters. What’s more, he completely revamped his slider mid-season. In an effort to differentiate his slider from his curveball a little more, he tinkered with a new slider grip and started implementing it in mid-August. He detailed his process in an interview with David Laurila in September:

I started throwing a new slider [in early-to-mid-August]. I wanted something a little bit harder. It had been around 78-80 [mph] and I wanted to give hitters something different. It was kind of blending with my curveball, too. Basically, the idea was something with a bigger speed difference between my curveball and my slider.

Before, I had it a little deeper in my hand and it had a lot more horizontal movement on it. It wasn’t as depth-y as my new one. My new one is harder [82-84] and has a little more depth, and it’s also not as horizontal anymore.

Here’s how different his two sliders looked in practice. This slider was thrown in mid-July:

And here’s his overhauled slider from a game in mid-August:

They’re completely different pitches. Ober still used them both similarly, locating them on the outer edge against right-handed batters to generate swings and misses. Here’s what the physical characteristics and results of the two pitches looked like:

Bailey Ober, Slider Characteristics
Period Usage Velocity V Mov H Mov Spin Rate Whiff% xwOBAcon
Pre 8/11 16.0% 79.7 3.1 11.5 2149 27.9% 0.416
Post 8/11 22.0% 83.3 -0.4 5.4 2169 27.0% 0.340

Despite the drastic changes to the pitch’s shape, his results were nearly the same as they were with the slower, looping slider. But with his harder slider established in his repertoire, his curveball suddenly became vastly more effective. From August 11 through the end of the season, Ober’s curveball ran a 45.5% whiff rate, a 26.5 point improvement over the 19% whiff rate he ran during the first half of the season. Differentiating the two pitches really helped him mold his breaking balls into two separate weapons that should give batters fits at the plate.

The path towards a breakout season for Ober seems pretty clear. He has three pitches that produce excellent results and he has excellent command of his entire arsenal. His fastball is decent, especially with its effective velocity helping it play up, but he could probably stand to throw it a bit less in favor of his two breaking balls. Pounding the strike zone with his heater is a fine strategy in the minor leagues, but he needs to learn how to better incorporate his two breaking balls into his pitch mix to avoid allowing so much loud contact off his elevated fastballs. I haven’t even mentioned his changeup, which was graded his best secondary offering as a prospect. With such a deep repertoire, Ober has plenty of avenues to take to build on his promising debut.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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1 year ago

Love this stuff! Keep it up!