Too Many Twins Hitters Are Sacrificing Power for Contact
Image courtesy of David Richard-USA TODAY SportsUnder the terminology of MLB's Statcast system, a "Barrel" is defined as "a well-struck ball where the combination of exit velocity and launch angle generally leads to a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage." In other words, it is the highest quality of contact.
In 2019, the Twins led all of baseball in Barrel % at 10.1%. In 2020, they rank 21st in baseball at 6.6%. They've dropped from third to 13th in Average Exit Velocity (AEV).
What is causing this drop-off in detonations for the Bomba Squad? One might surmise it is the result of injuries forcing lesser players into the lineup, and that is certainly a partial factor, but hardly the driving force. The biggest problem is that many of Minnesota's key sluggers from a year ago are hitting the ball with minimal authority, seemingly because they are sacrificing power for contact.
The prime example is Jorge Polanco. He's been one of the toughest hitters in the majors to strike out, ranking in the 97th percentile for both K-rate and whiff rate. But his Barrel % and AEV are both in the 7th percentile. His Hard Hit % is in the 5th.
Last year, Polanco piled up 69 extra-base hits and slugged .485. This year he's at eight and .388. He has improved his zone coverage and is making more contact, but there's little evidence that he's benefiting from it.
Next up: Max Kepler, who often accompanies Polanco at the top of the lineup. Kepler too has been tough to fan this year – he's in the 89th percentile for whiff rate and 72nd for K-rate. But he too has lost some punch. His Barrel % is below average (48th percentile) and his AEV (36th percentile) and Hard Hit % (30th percentile) are around the bottom third of all hitters. Last year he was solidly above-average in all three categories.
Even Eddie Rosario, who sometimes reflects the embodiment of a "grip it and rip it" approach, has really come to profile as more of a slap hitter. He's been very tough to strike out (87th percentile for K-rate) and doesn't have much swing-and-miss in his game (71st percentile for whiff rate) ... but every Statcast measure rates his quality of contact as low. He's 24th percentile in Barrel % and around the bottom third for AEV and Hard Hit %. His xwOBA, xBA, xSLG ... all well below average.
Finally it's worth mentioning Luis Arráez. His profile this year is more typical and expected, but it's worth calling out the stark contrast: 95th/99th percentiles for strikeouts and whiffs, 22nd/4th percentiles AEV/Hard Hit %.
Whereas Miguel Sanó and Nelson Cruz are both swinging out of their shoes, striking out frequently but plastering the ball upon contact, nearly every other Twins player falls starkly on the other side of the spectrum. The result, as we're seeing, is an offense that has not been particularly threatening or intimidating on whole.
Many fans have wondered whether the change in hitting coaches may be a contributor to the team's offensive drop-off. The answer, based on these insights: maybe. James Rowson seemed to be a champion of the aggressive approach that spurred the lineup's success last year, but that's not to say Edgar Varela isn't.
One way or another, several Twins hitters could benefit from taking a page from Cruz and Sanó – often the lineup's only productive players of late – and sacrificing some contact for power.
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