Move from starter to reliever going smoothly for Twins pitcher Griffin Jax
He’s struck out 17 batters, walked just three and hasn’t allowed a run since April 18.
The conversation would pop up regularly last season between manager Rocco Baldelli, pitching coach Wes Johnson and the Minnesota Twins’ other pitching minds, but every time it did, it eventually got tabled.
The core question: What if we moved Griffin Jax to the bullpen?
They got close a few times, Baldelli said, but every time they did, they wound up needing him to start and cover innings out of the rotation. Though Jax said it wasn’t a topic discussed with him last year, it was something he thought about, too. Opponents hit .175 off him with a .597 OPS the first time through the order in his rookie season last year. Those numbers ballooned on batters’ second and third times through.
It made sense to him, and so he tried the best he could to prepare those around him for the possibility.
“I talked about it a lot to my wife, to my family this offseason, saying, ‘Hey guys, I’m not sure if this is going to happen, but please don’t be surprised if I come back and tell you I’m going to move to the bullpen. It’s not a bad thing,’ ” Jax said.
It sure hasn’t been.
After posting a 6.37 earned-run average his rookie season while mostly starting, Jax has been an early-season bright spot out of a strong Twins bullpen this spring, and his quick success in his new role has led to the 27-year-old beginning to see more opportunities in higher-leverage spots.
“I knew that my repertoire and what I got working for me would play well out of the bullpen, and I knew that the Twins would be making some moves for starting pitching this year, and I just was hoping to stay in the mix for any sort of opportunity,” Jax said. “So when they presented me with that, I had no reservation. I was ready to go, excited for it, new opportunity, all that kind of stuff.”
In eight games of varying lengths this season — he has thrown anywhere between one and three innings — Jax has a 1.35 ERA and has picked up a pair of wins. He’s struck out 17 batters, walked just three and hasn’t allowed a run since April 18.
He’s done so by becoming even more heavily reliant on a slider that has seen a significant bump in its velocity. Jax’s slider averaged 83.3 miles per hour last year. As a reliever, it’s up to 86.4 mph.
“He’s a guy that just had the type of slider that could tick up, that had the ability and growth potential to be a real above-average weapon out of the bullpen,” Baldelli said. “When you’re throwing 80 pitches, you’re not going to have the best version of that pitch. Being able to see what it looks like in an inning or two-inning burst is very nice.”
And the Twins sure are seeing it a lot. Last year, Jax’s slider accounted for 31.1 percent of his pitches thrown.
This year? He’s throwing it 52.7 percent of the time.
The grip on the pitch is the same, he said, but as he has moved to the bullpen, everything has ticked up. And he’s put on some weight and gotten stronger, which has helped as well.
“The spin is a little bit faster which is helping it seem to a hitter like it’s more like a fastball,” Jax said. “So the faster it spins, the less time it has to sort of get a bigger shape and the hitter can sometimes see that hump on an off-speed pitch or just a change of direction that they know is going to be the off-speed, so I think it’s tunneling better like a fastball, which is why we’re getting the results and swing and misses this year like we are.”
All those swings and misses have helped him become a weapon out of the Twins’ bullpen. And though he spent a lifetime starting, Jax said he doesn’t miss it at all.
It’s pretty easy to see why.
“I thought it was going to be a little bit more of a transition almost, but I feel like I’ve settled in pretty well right off the bat,” Jax said. “It’s a lot of fun. I have a lot of confidence out there.”