Aggressiveness in a New Area for Twins
Image courtesy of © Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY SportsAs of Tuesday, Wes Johnson’s staff is sending first-pitch strikes into the zone at a 62.1% rate. That’s ninth in all of baseball, and fourth in the American League. Right now, the major league average sits at 60.6%, and it’s a far cry from where this team has been previously. A year ago, Minnesota’s first-pitch strike percentage was 58.4% (28th), with preceding years sitting at 60.5% (13th), and 60.0% (16th).
Getting the ball into the zone early doesn’t create a benefit in and of itself, but it allows for an increased opportunity to gain the upper hand. Trailing only the Tampa Bay Rays, Minnesota has given opposing batters fits with 0-2 counts showing up 29.4% of the time. Putting the pitcher in a dominant position nearly one-third of the time, the opportunity to force chase swings or generate less than ideal contact only rises.
Often, good pitchers aren’t giving away at-bats either. In 2018 Minnesota’s staff turned in 91 four-pitch walks. That was the ninth-worst mark in baseball, and certainly did no favors for a group that needed to avoid extra baserunners at all costs. Through their 33 games in 2019 the Twins have allowed just 13 four-pitch walks, fifth lowest in baseball.
Throwing more strikes, and more early strikes also, isn’t going to transform pitchers into strikeout stalwarts. Right now, Baldelli’s group owns the 19th-best strikeout rate in baseball. That says they can't easily put the ball past opposing hitters, and it’s evidence that that’s not the strength of this group. What we should see though, is the results be reflective of lackluster chances for the opposing batters. That has played out.
Batted balls off Twins pitches have resulted in soft contact exactly one-fifth of the time. Exit velocities in the soft contact realm are the easiest to convert into outs, and Minnesota is getting the fourth most chances at them in all of baseball. As would also be expected, the 36.8% hard-hit rate ranks well, checking in at the 10th lowest in the sport. As pitchers get ahead, batters are forced to react as opposed to dictating the action at the plate. Regardless of who’s on the mound, being in a position of control helps to heighten the effectiveness of each offering.
While this isn’t an exercise you may want to undertake before making sure you’ve got the correct ratios down, Minnesota has flipped the script on a long-time mantra for the organization. Pitch to contact is predicated on getting ground ball outs and allowing your fielders to do the work. Right now, the Twins' 39.5% ground ball rate is third lowest in all of baseball. If they were allowing hard hit balls, and getting behind in counts, that would be a recipe for disaster. Instead, this group is giving up the fifth-lowest HR/FB rate because it’s a perfect storm for dominance.
Over the winter, and really since this front office has taken over, the emphasis has been on overhauling processes and putting people in place to drive quality results at the highest level. Most notably this offseason things took shape on the pitching mound, and that’s helped to drive a results that include getting ahead early, throwing strikes often, and generating weak popups that become immediate outs.
In a strikeout-driven league, the Minnesota Twins have a stable of starters that include just one pitcher (Jake Odorizzi) with a current K/9 over 9.0. I’d imagine Jose Berrios will push this total to two by the end of the season, but the reality is that this group isn’t relying on dominance by way of the K. Pitching to their strengths, Johnson has his starters working ahead and dictating the action. When and if the strikeouts do pop up in any given game, it only raises the effectiveness of the blueprint up another notch.
We are at a place where the sample size is not substantial relative to a full season, but ignoring the current merits would be a foolish proposition as well. Minnesota is challenging opposing batters, forcing their hand, and benefiting from it. The plan is working right now, and there’s no sign of an impending slow down.
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