The Twins Place a Small Bet on a Potentially Resurgent Jharel Cotton

Coming off of a disappointing last-place finish in the AL Central, the Twins made it clear that they were looking to compete in 2022. That would seemingly require them to rebuild their starting rotation after trading away José Berríos last season, losing Kenta Maeda to Tommy John surgery, and the departure of Michael Pineda via free agency. But as the rest of the baseball world was gobbling up free agents with a fervor that can only happen when Thanksgiving and an impending lockout collide, they were seldom heard from and hardly involved on some of the top arms. Maybe this should’ve been expected given their lack of history spending on pitchers, but their inaction has understandably drawn some criticism. But while they may not have made a big splash so far this offseason, they did make one smaller move that I find quite intriguing: adding right-handed pitcher Jharel Cotton.

Cotton found his way to the Twins after a series a setbacks that have, up to this point, derailed a once promising career. A former top 100 prospect with the Dodgers, he made 29 starts for the A’s in 2016 and ’17 before requiring Tommy John surgery during spring training in ’18. Hamstring surgery came next, just as he was working his way back in 2019. He spent the shortened pandemic season with the Cubs, but with a thick layer of rust needing to be knocked off and no minor league season to assist, he didn’t last long in Chicago. Finally, after three and a half long years, he returned to the big leagues late last season for the Rangers and more than looked the part of a quality pitcher with a 3.52 ERA and 3.72 FIP in 30.2 innings, albeit mostly in mop-up outings and entirely out of the bullpen.

The Rangers, afraid of his upcoming arbitration cost, cut him loose, and the Twins were able to work out a deal for only $700,000, barely above the league minimum. Luckily for Cotton, he’s now on a team that desperately needs quality arms; Minnesota’s rotation, as currently constructed, is shockingly thin and inexperienced.

Twins Starting Pitching Depth
Age Career Innings Projected ’22 ERA (ZiPS)
Dylan Bundy* 29 770.2 4.55
Bailey Ober 26 92.1 4.22
Joe Ryan 26 26.2 4.11
Randy Dobnak 27 125.2 4.36
Lewis Thorpe 26 59.1 5.04
Jharel Cotton* 30 189 4.52
Jake Faria* 28 203 5.20
Griffin Jax 27 82 5.53
Jordan Balazovic 23 0 (AA) 4.49
Jhoan Duran 24 0 (AAA) 4.53
Simeon Woods Richardson 21 0 (AA) 4.88
* New Acquisition

Cotton may lack the shine of some of the younger arms like Ober and Ryan, but I think he represents a nice bit of upside, and when you take a look at some of the skills he displayed in his return last season, he starts to look like a guy that could pitch some valuable innings.

Beyond the strong surface-level performance last season, we got a good glimpse at how Cotton’s stuff has evolved while he was away. Not only has his fastball velocity stayed steady at 93.2 mph, but he’s also added spin, which gave it some extra juice to help it evade bats. In fact, his fastball had the second-highest amount of vertical movement (meaning it drops less) in baseball last year among pitchers with at least 30 innings. Here’s an overlay of the movement profile of his fastball last season compared to 2017 so that you can see the extra vertical movement he’s getting.

That may not seem like a massive change, but his fastball was already one with a unique shape given the amount of “rise” he gets on it, and now he’s consistently getting more. This is creating an even bigger movement separation between his fastball and changeup.

If you have any prior familiarity with Cotton, it likely stems from the changeup that he throws 30% of the time and was a key talking point when he was a prospect. There’s a massive 13-mph gap between that pitch and his fastball — one which used to be bigger — but as he’s altered it, it’s gained three mph. Cotton puts a great deal of spin on the pitch (seventh highest among changeups), which helps give it a unique movement profile; the spin keeps the pitch from dropping as much as you might expect, given the velocity, and provides a ton of late horizontal movement. Think of it as a lite version of Devin Williamsunicorn changeup.

This unusual movement and velocity gap leads to lots of popups and soft contact, even if Cotton’s swinging-strike rate is about average for changeups. Check out this changeup-fastball-changeup sequence that he threw to César Hernández, and you’ll begin to see how well these two offerings work in tandem.

That first changeup is not a particularly great one, but the speed and movement difference off of his fastball makes it hard to hit. Opposing batters had a mere .219 wOBA on his changeup this year and an average exit velocity of just 84.4 mph.

The rest of that sequence shows how nasty Cotton’s fastball/changeup combo can be; they look exactly the same halfway to the plate and end up well away from each other.

That’s the power of having a fastball that doesn’t drop. Cotton doesn’t need to be throwing in the high 90s to get whiffs when he can locate that pitch up at the top of zone, especially with hitters worried about his changeup. They swung through 11.6% of his fastballs last year, a noticeable improvement from 2017 and well above average for fastballs.

One other notable thing we saw from Cotton in 2021 was the debut of his new slider. Used in place of his ineffective cutter, it has plenty of sweeping movement and comes in at about 82 mph, or five ticks off of his old cutter.

It performed like a league-average slider last season, allowing a .251 wOBA, and he threw it about 13% of the time, or about twice as much as his seldom used curveball. Cotton has reverse splits, partly because his changeup is so tough on lefties and partly because he’s struggled to develop an out-pitch to righties. This new slider represents a chance to develop a quality third pitch that he can use against those same-side hitters.

If there’s a downside with Cotton, it comes from his struggles with his command. I don’t want to make too much of a 10.9% walk rate for someone who was working his way back from so much time off, but it’s been a problem for a while (our 2017 writeup included that as a potential flag), and his windup isn’t exactly smooth. As a heavy fly-ball pitcher (he posted a 146 FB%+ last season), so he’s not someone who can easily mitigate walks with a timely ground ball. Cotton was surprisingly good at keeping the ball in the yard last season, with a home run-to-fly ball rate of only 4.2% (league average is 13.6%). But while his ability to generate popups should keep his HR/FB rate better than average moving forward, that performance shouldn’t be the expectation moving forward.

Even if the Twins obtain more pitchers who are clearly better than Cotton — a big if, given their history and the remaining available pitchers — it still looks like he should have plenty of opportunities to prove himself. With even league-average command and good results from his new slider alongside that great fastball/changeup combination, he could become a rotation mainstay for a resurgent Twins team.

Luke Hooper is a designer and writer at FanGraphs. He lives in Portland, Oregon, longing for a major league team to materialize.

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2 years ago

Fangraphs favorite, Jharel Cotton.