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Twins Minor League Relief Pitcher of the Month - April

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After going through the top performing Hitters and Starting Pitchers from April, its’ time to now check out which relief pitchers performed the best in April. The Twins announced their choices of Byron Buxton and DJ Baxendale as their Hitter and Pitcher of the month, respectively. As we saw with the starting pitcher list, using an beginning and ending point (such as a month) can alter how the numbers look. Alex Meyer may be been #1 or #2 on the list if not for one inning in which he gave up four runs. Instead, he was #4. With relief pitchers, the low number of innings in a given month mean that having one bad outing can really affect your numbers. However, we have a pretty strong list of relievers who started the 2013 season with a strong first month.

Let's get to the Top 5 Relief Pitchers in April:

Number 5 – Cedar Rapids – Tim Atherton - 0.82 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 11.0 IP, 9 H, 3 BB, 13 K

The 23-year-old from Australia originally signed with the Twins in 2007 as a position player. He was released a year later for some off-field stuff, but re-signed with the Twins, this time as a pitcher, in 2011. He has been quite good since then, and that was the case in April. He pitched the ninth inning of the Kernels’ early-season no-hitter. He struggled some with control last year with the Snappers, but has shown good control to this point in the season. He has a good fastball and a solid slider. He can be deceptive due to a very animated motion. He should move up to Ft. Myers during the season.

Number 4 – Ft. Myers – Cole Johnson – 1.69 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, 10.2 IP, 5 H, 4 BB, 7 K

This time last year, Johnson was still toiling in Ft. Myers with the Extended Spring Training group. He was promoted to Beloit when the short-season leagues started. He pitched well for the Snappers in the 2nd half last year and in minor league camp to earn a spot in the Miracle bullpen. The success has continued through the season’s first month when he gave up just two runs and opponents hit just .143 off of him. The 23-year-old was the Twins 44th round pick in 2011 out of Notre Dame.

Number 3 – Cedar Rapids – Steven Gruver – 1.08 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, 16.2 IP, 11 H, 3 BB, 22 K

A year ago at this time, the 23-year-old Gruver was in the starting rotation for the Beloit Snappers. He made 18 starts and 12 relief appearances and posted a 3.61 ERA. The lefty began this season in the Kernels bullpen and has been pitching in long relief. He has pitched at least two innings in each of his appearance and has pitched as many as four innings in relief. He did go 4.2 innings in one spot start. The 2011 7th round pick from Tennessee throws strikes, hits 91 and has a good slider. He is another guy that just needs a spot to open up in Ft. Myers to move up.

Number 2 – Ft. Myers – Corey Williams – 2.31 ERA, 0.69 WHIP, 12.2 IP, 8 H, 0 BB, 5 K

In 2012, Williams led the Twins minor leagues with 17 saves while pitching in 47 games for Beloit. The lefty struck out 68 batters in 62.1 innings, but he also walked 33. In his first month in the Florida State League, Williams led the organization with six saves despite splitting save opportunities. However, as you can see, he didn’t strike many out, but more encouraging, he also threw strikes. He was the Twins third round pick in 2011 out of Vanderbilt. He throws hard and has very good stuff. Despite not being promoted last year, Williams is a guy who could move quickly.

And the Twins Minor League Relief Pitcher of the Month is:

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Ft. Myers – Zack Jones
– 1.64 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, 11 IP, 5 H, 3 BB, 13 K

Zack Jones was one of the talented bullpen arms that the Twins selected in the 2012 draft. Unlike some, he will not be getting an opportunity to start. He will be a back-of-the-bullpen arm. When fans hear Zack Jones, the first thing you should think is fastball. Reports last year in Beloit say that radar guns consistently would hit 98 mph with several instances of reaching triple-digits. In 2013 with the Miracle, the radar guns are consistently between 96 and 99 with the fastball. He has been splitting time pitching with late-inning leads with Corey Williams. Jones has five saves. Opponents hit just .139 off of him in April.

Jones is highly-touted and has a chance to move up quickly, but his role and level of success could be determined by his ability to continue to develop a second pitch. Jones said, “Right now, just a slider I’ve been working on. Spent some time messing with different grips and what not, but right now, I believe I have a better grasp on the pitch than I have previously.

“His slider is improving,” said Twins Director of Minor League Operations Brad Steil who added, “He’s being aggressive, throwing strikes and not walking many.”

To what does Jones credit his first-month success? “In my opinion, a lot of my success this first month really came from attacking the hitter. I’m starting to develop more confidence with my slider and using that periodically in fastball situations so teams can’t just sit on the fastball,” he continued, “For me, I just try to keep it simple. Come into the game ready and throw strikes down in the zone. Do my best to compete with a relaxed intensity and not let the game speed up on me.”

The Miracle are 22-4 on the season. They’ve had strong offense, solid starting pitching, and as you can see from this list, their bullpen has been very good. What’s it like to pitch late in games with Corey Williams, and what can he learn from him? Jones says he learns a lot and they push each other.

“I’m lucky to be competing with a pitcher like Corey. I believe a lot of our success comes from us competing with each other and backing each other up. He is a well-rounded pitcher and has a very good mound presence. So, from watching from the bullpen, I try and study how he and other pitchers deal with adversity because that is what makes or breaks a pitcher. We both want the ball just as bad as the other at the end of the game, and we will continue to push each other to be the best we can be.”

So, when he gets called in for a save situation, what’s his walk-in music? Jones chuckled and said, “Good question. Guys have different ideas on the walkout music. Some like calm, steady songs, but I’m the opposite. I like feeding my adrenaline when I pitch so I go with something heavy like Metallica.”

It may be something he’ll have to have played in Target Field in the future!

It was a terrific month for the Ft. Myers Miracle. They were the only team in baseball to end April with 20 wins. Miguel Sano was my choice for Twins minor league hitter of the month. (The Twins officially chose Byron Buxton, which is completely understandable.) DJ Baxendale was the choice for me for Twins minor league starting pitcher of the month. The Twins made him their pitcher of the month. And today, three of my top five relievers, including the top two, were from the Miracle.

Hopefully May can be as exciting for the Twins minor league affiliates and their prospects. As always, please feel free to ask any questions you may have.
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