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The most interesting player in the playoffs

Pitching in Independent Baseball two years ago, Randy Dobnak could be in the playoff rotation for the Twins.

Minnesota Twins v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

One of the main treats of watching postseason baseball is the constant flow of household name pitchers taking the bump. Only three days into this postseason, we’ve been treated with names like Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Justin Verlander, Jose Berrios, and Jack Flaherty among others.

A pitcher that many may not recognize could possibly be starting a game in the ALDS for the Minnesota Twins. Randy Dobnak, a bulky 24-year-old right-handed pitcher with only 28 13 big league innings under his belt navigated his way onto the Twins postseason roster, with a strong possibility that he ends up starting a game.

Coming out of Division II Alderson Broaddus University, Dobnak went undrafted in 2017 and opted to continue his baseball career professionally, signing with the Utica Unicorns of the United Shore Professional Baseball League. Making six starts and putting up a 2.31 ERA in 35 innings, he earned himself an opportunity in affiliated ball, signing a minor league contract with the Twins in August of 2017, finishing the season with a 2.43 ERA across 33 13 innings for the Rookie and Low-A affiliates.

The Twins sent Dobnak back to Low-A for the 2018 season, where he would pitch the whole year. All things considered, he had a successful season (3.14 ERA in 129 innings), but being 23 in Low-A with a lack of strikeouts (5.9 K/9), it looked as if he was nothing more than organizational depth. His control-first profile wasn’t going to be enough to get him to the big leagues.

Making an adjustment, Dobnak added a sinker to his repertoire towards the end of the 2018 season, while also working on a slider.

“Towards the ends of last year, I developed a sinker,” he said. “The way I throw, I don’t get a lot of spin rate and carry like most guys. I went from a 4-seam to 1-seam fastball, which sinks a lot more. I started noticing a lot more success early. I was getting an insane amount of groundouts. This year I’ve also worked on developing a slider. I’ve had one, but it’s really come around for me. Having that sinker/slider combo and changeup and being able to throw all of them for strikes in any count has helped me move up, and be more consistent throughout the season.”

Dobnak mentioned his notice of increase in ground balls. The numbers backed that up, as during the 2018 season, while above-average, he ranked 82nd out of 285 qualified minor league pitchers in ground ball-rate, standing at 46.1 percent. For the 2019 season, he ranked fourth out of 249 pitchers, inducing ground balls at a 59.6 percent rate. His 13.3 percent increase in ground ball-rate was the biggest increase among all qualified minor league pitchers by a considerable margin.

Biggest increases in GB% among minor league pitchers

Name Age 2018 GB% 2019 GB% GB% Change
Name Age 2018 GB% 2019 GB% GB% Change
Randy Dobnak 23 46.1% 59.6% 13.5%
Foster Griffin 22 37.6% 49.2% 11.6%
John Parke 23 43.9% 52.2% 8.3%
Johan Oviedo 20 36.2% 44.1% 7.9%
Alex Wells 21 34.8% 41.6% 6.7%
Michael Baumann 22 38.1% 43.8% 5.7%
Alvaro Seijas 19 39.9% 45.5% 5.6%
Thomas Jankins 22 48.5% 54.1% 5.6%
Cody Poteet 23 40.3% 45.4% 5.1%
Ronald Bolanos 21 42.8% 47.7% 4.9%
At least 120 IP in both 2018 and 2019 FanGraphs

The increase in ground balls did wonders for Dobnak’s run prevention (2.07 ERA) and shielded him from his low strikeout-rate (109 strikeouts in 135 innings). The high level of success carried him quickly up the minor league ladder, going from High-A to the major league rotation in a matter of months. The same trends he put up in the minors carried over to the majors too, as in 28 13 big league innings this year he posted a 1.59 ERA with only 23 strikeouts, along with a high 52.9 percent ground ball-rate.

To an extent, the Statcast data backs up Dobnak’s success. While not as good as the .266 wOBA against that he put up, his xwOBA against sat at a very good mark of .288. Only 2.3 percent of his batted balls were classified as barrels and hitters put the ball in play against him with an average launch angle of six degrees.

While his above-average sinker produced serviceable value (.316 wOBA, thanks to a negative five degree launch angle), his slider (classified as a curveball), held hitters to a .266 wOBA and .233 xwOBA. In the 28 plate appearances that ended with a curveball, he struck out 14 batters and walked none.

The movement profile for Dobnak is particularly interesting. Only two qualified pitchers get more vertical drop on their sinker (Jared Hughes, Zach Duke). He ranks in the bottom eight percent of baseball in horizontal break for a curveball.

Dobnak could play a pivotal role for the Twins the rest of the way. He could be pitching with their season on the line. But no matter what the result is, the fact that he has reached this point needs to be appreciated.

Patrick Brennan loves to research pitchers and minor leaguers with data. You can find additional work of his at Royals Review and Royals Farm Report. You can also find him on Twitter @paintingcorner.