For Twins’ Emilio Pagán, highs and lows starting to even out

18 July 2023

SEATTLE — Every major league team, every season, has a relief pitcher who becomes a punchline. For the Twins last season, it was Emilio Pagán — and the reputation has largely stuck.

“That comes with the territory of being a reliever,” he said. “You come in with a one-run lead and you blow it, you give up a run, you suck. … I get it. It doesn’t bother me at all. We wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for the fans. They’re allowed to be passionate. They’re allowed to hang on every pitch and every outcome.”

Through more than half of this season, though, Pagán hasn’t quite deserved the residual ire from 2022.

The right-hander has rebounded from a disappointing, and sometimes confounding, season that finished with a 4-6 record, seven blown saves and a 4.43 earned-run average in a year that saw the Twins fall from first in the American League Central to 14 games out over the final month.

Pagán started the season as the closer, and had seven saves in the Twins’ first 46 games, but by July, the only time reporters showed up at his locker, it was because something bad had happened.

“(Teammates) asked me last year, ‘How do you stay so calm when you’re answering those questions?’ ” Pagán said. “On the inside, I wasn’t calm. On the inside I was furious, because we were a playoff team and things didn’t go my way. It wasn’t just me, but I was a big part of it.”

Pagán often told reporters that he felt good, that he was putting pitches where he wanted them — that he was pitching better than his, and the team’s, record showed.

“In the moment, it sounds ridiculous — especially for fans,” Pagán said Monday before the Twins’ late start against the Mariners at T-Mobile Park. “Like, ‘What do you mean?’ We’re losing a lot of games and I’m getting a lot of the losses. I understand how that can be a frustrating answer.”

But that’s how Pagán felt, and to some extent the Twins did, too. His metrics were pretty good, yet he was part of some key first-half losses to Cleveland, which ultimately won the division and advanced to the postseason. On July 3, Cleveland was hitting .346 with a 1.106 OPS, .414 on-base average and 12 runs in Pagán’s seven appearances against the Guardians.

At the time, Pagán led the team with nine saves, but that marked the end of his run as a high-leverage reliever in Minnesota, which acquired him with Chris Paddack in a trade that sent closer Taylor Rogers and outfielder Brent Rooker to San Diego.

“We get a chance to look at every pitch that comes out of a guy’s hand, and what that pitch generally gives you as far as the results,” manager Rocco Baldelli said Monday. “You combine that with usage and location and you should have your answer. There were appearances where not a lot of it made sense. The results were not what we were looking for, but it wasn’t all smoothly working together where we knew exactly what was going on.”

But Pagán has been better in 2023, lowering his WHIP from a below-average 1.365 at the end of last season to an above-average 1.119 so far. Three of his 36 appearances have been rough — he was rocked in an early loss at Boston, and blew leads against the Dodgers and Blue Jays — but the rest have been sharp.

In the Twins’ 5-4 victory at Oakland on Sunday, he pitched 1⅓ innings of hitless baseball with a strikeout to get the ball into the hands of closer Jhoan Duran, and in his past 20 appearances — which includes the Toronto game — he has allowed 11 hits and seven walks while striking out 20. Overall, opponents are hitting .151 against him this season.

To Pagán, it’s just starting to even out. He worked with weighted golf clubs, called Super Speed Sticks, to improve his torso rotation and believes that has helped his velocity. His four-seam fastball averages 96 mph and has topped out at 98.4.

“I’ve thrown this hard before; I’ve never thrown this hard this early in the season,” he said.

He also isn’t riding emotional highs and lows, and trying to focus on his process. For instance, he noted, that while he pitched 1⅔ scoreless innings in last Friday’s 5-4 win at Oakland, one of his five outs was a liner crushed by Ryan Noda — right at right fielder Max Kepler.

“That should have been a double,” Pagán. “Luckily, he hit it right at our right fielder and Kep made a nice play on a ball with a lot of top spin added. So, I’m trying to be better at understanding that that wasn’t a great pitch. Yeah, I got the outcome that I wanted, but he hit it really well. I didn’t deceive him at all. That kind of stuff is how you stay even-keeled as a reliever.”

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