Photo via Call to the Pen
As the Minnesota Twins take the field Saturday evening against the Kansas City Royals, they must be feeling like they struck gold.
It is not because of their electric lineup, though. It is not because Jose Berrios is finally starting to find his groove, either.
Instead, it comes in the form of their starter who will toe the rubber Saturday: Randy Dobnak.
Dobnak, after going undrafted in 2017 and playing in the United Shore Professional Baseball League, signed a Minor League contract with the Twins during the same year. After two-plus seasons of grinding through minor league action, he finally found himself at the Major League level. Through a brief cup of coffee last season and currently during the 2020 campaign, Dobnak has compiled a career 1.51 ERA through 53.2 innings in 14 games (10 games started).
While it is definitely a small sample size, the 25-year-old Dobnak has been impressive through the early part of his MLB career. Anyone posting a sub-2.00 ERA is worth keeping an eye on, especially if that someone went undrafted and had to prove his worth through independent and Minor League ball.
Even still, Dobnak’s numbers might begin to catch up to him as he continues to log innings. To keep it blunt, regression is likely in the cards for the right-hander.
How so, though?
Let’s start by looking at his base numbers through the 2020 season so far. Dobnak has started five games and compiled 25.1 innings. He has a 1.42 ERA, which ranks sixth among 85 starters with a minimum of 20 innings pitched entering Saturday’s action. More specifically, he has a groundball percentage (GB%) of 64.5%, which ranks second. Additionally, his home runs per nine innings (HR/9) is .71, which is 19th. In a league continually driving toward the long ball, the number is impressive and makes sense, to a degree – with such a high GB%, Dobnak has prevented the ball from leaving the infield, let alone the ballpark.
While this sounds all fine and dandy, regression begins to creep in as a possibility once other metrics are taken into account. To begin, his 4.97 strikeouts per nine (K/9) ranks 81st among 85 starters with a minimum of 20 innings pitched entering Saturday’s action. Furthermore, his .189 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), is fifth. When looking at fielding independent pitching (FIP) – which looks at a starter’s expected ERA when taking into account strikeouts, BABIP and overall numbers a pitcher can account for – Dobnak sticks out even more, as his 3.80 FIP is a far-cry from his sparkling 1.42 ERA. His FIP ranks 39th among the same crop of starters.
While those metrics already imply that Dobnak is bound to decline toward a more expected norm, other statistics can further prove how regression is on its way. To emphasize on this, it is best to look at the pitches he relies on to get batters out.
Per Baseball Savant, Dobnak has used four pitches this season: a sinker, slider, changeup and a four seamer. His sinker and slider have been the primary pitches he has thrown, as they both make up over 75% of his usage when combined (he has used his sinker 44.8% of the time and his slider 32.7%). While he has been able to supplement both pitches with the other two (17.4% on the changeup and 5.1% on the four seamer), the strikeout percentage (K%) of all combined pitches comes in at 14.6%. This is a downgrade from his 2019 season (19.5%). This 14.6 K% poorly ranks in the 12th percentile in all of MLB this season. His ability to even generate simple swings and misses (Whiff%) ranks poorly, as his 20.3 Whiff% in 2020 is also a downgrade from his 2019 season (27.0%). The 2020 Whiff % ranks well below the MLB average, as it is only in the 17th percentile.
This, along with weak fastball velocity on his primary pitch (his velocity average on his sinker is only 91.1 mph) and low spin rate on his fastball usage altogether (his fastball spin rate ranks in the fifth percentile), suggests he has neither the put-away power, velocity or spin to lead to consistent outs over the duration of an entire season.
While he is predominantly a contact pitcher to begin with, Dobnak will eventually need to rely on some strikeouts when he inevitably leaves pitches up in the zone or when batters begin to lay off the borderline pitches. Thus, it is likely pitches will start finding more holes in the infield, gaps in the outfield and even seats in the stands. Eventually, the BABIP will creep up on him and the ERA will begin to look more like his FIP. While he will still likely be able to pitch effectively (his HR/9 and GB% are, again, very solid), it will not be at the superstar level it is right now.
The Minnesota Twins have definitely reaped the benefits of Dobnak’s production since he took the mound last season.
Even still, regression will likely take place for the pitcher. While this does not mean Dobnak will completely implode, it likely means he will not be putting up his usual numbers he has put together so far through his career.