DeSclafani eyeing return to '21 form, evolution in '24

February 19th, 2024

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Whether fairly or not, any newcomer to the 2024 Twins’ starting rotation was inevitably going to be burdened with the outside perception of having to most visibly step in for reigning AL Cy Young runner-up Sonny Gray -- and that’s part of the battle that will face as he eyes a comeback campaign.

But the majority of that battle lies within his right arm. Namely: Can he keep it healthy and regain the form that saw him pitch to a 3.17 ERA in 31 starts for the Giants in 2021, his last full and healthy season?

Just as significantly, how much can he help himself do that by evolving his repertoire, too?

“I’m trying to dial in a swing-and-miss pitch,” DeSclafani said. “I think that’s something I’m in desperate need of.”

As to the first point, DeSclafani feels as healthy as he’s been in a long time. After being held to 19 innings in 2022 and 99 2/3 frames in 2023 by tendon issues in his right ankle, right shoulder fatigue and a right elbow flexor strain, the 33-year-old pitcher entered camp feeling “100 percent and ready to go,” and has been on a normal buildup alongside his teammates early in camp.

After a platelet-rich plasma injection in the elbow and plenty of rest, DeSclafani started his buildup to the season in early October. It was a more normal offseason from the throwing standpoint than it was from the transactional side, considering he bounced around in two offseason trades -- first to Seattle, then to Minnesota -- to get him here.

Just glad for the opportunity to start, DeSclafani is looking to make up for lost time and put the 5.16 ERA of two injury-riddled seasons behind him.

“I think in 2021, I had a really good year, and I was looking forward to building off that, and I was just never able to really do that,” DeSclafani said. “I was looking to do that last year and I got off to a hot start. Just from health reasons, everything was starting to be a grind and it kind of snowballed on me.”

Ostensibly ticketed for the fifth and final spot in the Twins’ rotation ahead of youngster Louie Varland, DeSclafani has the most to prove in terms of health and performance among that starting group -- but he’s also shown he can get plenty of outs in this league.

He doesn’t even need to go that far back to find evidence of that: Before the elbow issues took hold, DeSclafani had a 3.48 ERA through his first 11 starts last season, including seven outings of at least six innings.

“Getting DeSclafani healthy, getting him closer to what he was in ‘21, when he was just absolutely dominant -- just a very dominant pitcher -- that could be a huge thing for us,” catcher Ryan Jeffers said.

But DeSclafani knows he needs to not only catch up -- but also progress.

His game has always been predicated on pounding the strike zone and inducing weak contact with his varied array that relies most heavily on a cutter-like slider and sinker -- but he thinks his next step is to find a way to miss more bats.

He feels that he gets into two-strike counts effectively, but among the 189 pitchers to throw at least 1,000 two-strike pitches since the start of 2021, DeSclafani ranks 118th with an 18.6% strikeout rate on such pitches.

“I’m trying to figure that out,” DeSclafani said. “If I can do that, I think it’ll be a lot of fun.”

In that regard, he’s toying with two new offerings that he has workshopped this offseason: a new sweeper that won’t replace his cutter but aim to act as more of a swing-and-miss pitch, and a split changeup with more depth to replace his traditional changeup, which got a paltry 15% whiff rate last season.

It’s been a mixed bag so far, with the quality of those pitches worse in camp than they had been during his offseason development, DeSclafani said.

The Twins do have depth behind DeSclafani in Varland, who dominated out of the bullpen down the stretch last year, and top prospect David Festa might provide more of a backstop, too. But depth always wins the day -- and the Twins hope DeSclafani can be more than just that.

“Hopefully, I can capture ‘21 and the beginning of last year, and just make it a full season and help this team,” DeSclafani said.