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How The Twins Learned To Love Strikeouts Again

Nobody usually celebrates finishing sixth in anything but it could be understood if Derek Falvey fired off a low-key fist pump after the Twins pitching staff finished the 2020 season with the sixth-highest strikeout rate in baseball.

After all, in 2016 the Twins had finished with the 3rd lowest strikeout rate in baseball, which was actually a marginal improvement after finishing dead-last in the previous six seasons.

The last time they finished in the top-10 in strikeout rate was when Johan Santana was in the rotation. It would seem that when the Twins traded him to the Mets, they must have packed their blueprint for striking hitters out along with him.

So, after years of wallowing at the bottom of the league, Falvey finally gave them a new one.
Image courtesy of Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
A younger generation of fans might not recall that for a stretch in the 2000s, the Twins’ pitchers were a perennial top-10 strikeout staff. That was mostly due to one man: Johan Santana. In 2006, with Santana and Francisco Liriano in the same rotation, they led the American League while finishing behind only the Chicago Cubs in strikeout rate overall. It was a glorious era of missing bats in Minnesota.

The Johan Santana trade happened right as strikeouts began to skyrocket. The Twins, however, never got the memo. From 2008 until 2016 they never finished higher than 23rd out of the 30 teams. By 2011 Minnesota was ensconced as the anti-strikeout team, actively bragging about their ability to hit bats and finishing last in strikeouts.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly what was to blame.

There were obvious factors like targeting free agents with low strikeout arms, a philosophy of developing sinkerball pitchers, and encouraging quick contact (“I’m not trying to strike people out,” Nick Blackburn readily admitted in 2012). Meanwhile pitchers with swing-and-miss potential like Liriano and Scott Baker battled injuries and ineffectiveness. They were also pushed by coaches toward pitching to contact.

When it became beyond apparent that the game had shifted toward big velocity, the front office tried to course correct by drafting college power arms, trading a future Gold Glove shortstop and two starting center fielders for more hard-throwers.

Prompted by 2016’s “Total System Failure”, ownership finally accepted that it could no longer continue on the same path. And because a lot of the failure stemmed from years of poor pitching performances and inability to develop it consistently, it was no surprise when the person chosen to lead baseball operations was a pitching savant.

Interestingly, Falvey and company did not make any sudden or major moves. With the exception of adding Jason Castro and Chris Gimenez as catchers -- one a strong framer, the other a strong clubhouse presence -- the 2017 team advanced with the same set of arms as the previous year. They retained the same pitching coach. By simply progressing to the mean, the Twins’ pitching staff finished a half-run better in ERA, 20 points lower in batting average and winning 26 more games overall.

Yet at the conclusion of Falvey’s first year, the staff dropped to 28th in strikeout rate.

That wasn’t necessarily by design but it was clear that Falvey spent his first season evaluating what he currently had at his disposal. After that task was completed, the real work began.

It was that offseason in which the organization held a pivotal meeting. The Twins had recently hired two key people to lead the pitching development process: Pete Maki from Duke to be the team’s minor league pitching coordinator and pitching analyst Josh Kalk from the Tampa Bay Rays. In order to create a unified vision for the team’s pitching, they hosted a summit with coaches, coordinators, front office members and former players turned advisors.

With so many great minds in one room, there is potential danger for certain personalities to dominate the conversation. Front office officials, based on their title alone, might carry more sway in the conversation. Long-time instructors could have belittled and dismissed ideas from newly hired college coaches. A former pitcher-turned-advisor might be vocal about how things were done in his day and poo-poo this new age technobabble nonsense.

None of that happened, however.

“You almost set ground rules for things like that. Where you start at the outset and say, this is egoless, hierarchy doesn't matter, this is about us brainstorming and think-tanking,” said Falvey, discussing the team’s pitching summit in the winter of 2018. “Let's vet it. Let's talk about it. Let's disagree.”

Falvey came away impressed by the group’s dynamic.

“I know we are in a good place organizationally when we were sitting in that room and two guys had totally different opinions and they went back and forth and then the meeting ended and they still talked and walked out the room. That's a healthy place to be. Because we're never going to agree completely, if we do that just means we are saying yes to one idea. If we can disagree and actually, genuinely talk about different perspectives, we’ve got a chance to make up ground and be better.”

What is notable is not just the brainstorming, but Falvey’s emphasis on allowing for disagreement.

Research has shown that creativity is substantially increased when members are allowed to criticize one another’s ideas. Provided that the criticism goes beyond the “oh man that will never work” shutdown, it can spark a cycle of critical feedback that can lead to creative breakthroughs — such as entertaining the notion of hiring a major league pitching coach straight from the college ranks.

Wes Johnson’s name likely did not arise at the gathering that year. Still, that mindset eventually led the organization in the right direction. If they had stayed within the pool of established pitching coaches -- as was the norm -- it is hard to say where the team would be right now.

“This is the way we’ve always done it” is considered a poisonous phrase. It is partially responsible for why the Twins held so tightly to a pitching philosophy long after it became productive to do so.

The new front office fought hard to avoid that from happening again. It was preferable, but not necessarily a prerequisite, to hire employees who came from outside of baseball. Those hires wouldn’t be tainted by a preconceived notion of how things are done in professional baseball. With new eyes comes fresh ideas. Similarly, on the field the Twins added Johnson and Jeremy Hefner, who had no coaching experience, as the primary and assistant pitching coach in 2019.

Throughout the organization, coaches and instructors were given free reign to try new methods and techniques at the lower levels -- some of which led to significant changes at the big league level (i.e. the catchers one-leg stance). If you follow them on Twitter, you will find the coaches as a collective very active during the offseason, sharing new research, training methods and working on things. No one is sitting around and waiting for spring training to start.

“If you wait to know if you’re right about something, you will never try,” the Twins’ assistant GM Jeremy Zoll said on The Mound Visit podcast last April, expressing the organization’s willingness to challenge existing ideas.

Minor league coaches were given resources to experiment. Nothing was off-limits but results had to be documented and demonstrated useful. Not everything they have tried worked but they were trying.

While some teams choose a top-down method -- planning with a select leadership group at the top and distributing the marching orders to staff in the field -- members of the Twins organization spoke highly of the way the senior officials of the front office and major league coaching staff looked to them for suggestions. Rather than top-down, ideas are shared in every direction.

Ultimately the strikeouts themselves came from the players. Players who embraced ideas and concepts generated from people throughout the organization. Those ideas and concepts made it to the players because the organization created an open flow of communication.

To wit: One reason the team’s swing-and-miss numbers spiked in 2020 was due to the well-designed pitch sequencing and strategies created by Kalk and his team of analysts.

A major change made during Falvey’s tenure was an increase in slider-driven pitchers. Pitchers in the system had been encouraged to transition away from curveballs and into sliders. Sliders, Kalk found, had the ability to hide in a fastball’s tunnel longer. As a game-calling strategy, these were summoned more frequently than any other team in the league: In 2020, Twins catchers flashed the slider sign 28% of the time -- well above the league average of 18%. What’s more is that they were not afraid to come at hitters with back-to-back sliders more often than any other team.

Aided by technology, the Twins created a development plan to help their pitchers increase break in their sliders. The front office also targeted available pitchers who had the foundations of a solid slider but just needed a slight tweaking (Matt Wisler, Kenta Maeda) to supercharge that offering.

To implement this plan on the field, the Twins turned to Wes Johnson. Johnson’s reputation as an educator and innovator preceded him. He spent a significant amount of time on the speaking circuit, providing other coaches with glimpses into the methods he used to make college pitchers better. His ability to distill difficult biomechanical insights into transferable skills is lauded throughout the industry. And there’s little question that pitchers have benefited from his tutelage.

Of course, Derek Falvey’s mission wasn’t to improve the team’s strikeout rate. Similar to how Moneyball was not about finding cheap players through statistics, Falvey’s overhaul of the organization was not focused on increasing strikeouts -- it was to create an environment that works to stay ahead of current trends and continuously adapt.

While high fastball and sharp sliders are in vogue now, hitting styles might adjust. The best organizations are the ones that are constantly trying to push convention and establish new ideas. Those organizations are built to last.

Ending the year sixth in strikeout rate is about as minor of a victory as one can get. But the consistent upward mobility in that category is a sign that Falvey’s plan of improving pitching overall is progressing.

It might not be a World Series title but climbing the ladder in strikeout rate is at least worthy of a low-key fist pump.

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14 Comments

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terrydactyls1947
Dec 08 2020 06:51 AM

I was worried that this article was going to be about the hitters embracing striking out as often as they do.I'm glad it was about pitching instead.

    • ashbury, USNMCPO, mikelink45 and 4 others like this

That was really enjoyable.Thanks

 

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puckstopper1
Dec 08 2020 01:02 PM

Good article with lots of background/history.

 

I've said it before and I will say it again - Twins pitchers throwing strikeouts are great, but this does not always equate to success - especially in the playoffs.

 

Proof of this is in those same rankings where Tampa, LA Dodgers, Astros, Yankees, A's and Braves all had lower SO% than the Twins and they all fared better in the post season.

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Andrew Bryzgornia
Dec 08 2020 01:09 PM

Math quibble: You do not "progress" to the mean. You can only regress. 

 

Signed,

 

A high school math teacher

    • ashbury and Dave The Dastardly like this
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Parker Hageman
Dec 08 2020 01:42 PM

Math quibble: You do not "progress" to the mean. You can only regress.

Signed,

A high school math teacher


I do not care about your killjoy math rules.
    • ashbury likes this
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Parker Hageman
Dec 08 2020 03:11 PM

 

Good article with lots of background/history.

 

I've said it before and I will say it again - Twins pitchers throwing strikeouts are great, but this does not always equate to success - especially in the playoffs.

 

Proof of this is in those same rankings where Tampa, LA Dodgers, Astros, Yankees, A's and Braves all had lower SO% than the Twins and they all fared better in the post season.

 

Just to be clear, this article is not about strikeout rate. It's about how the Twins improved one area of their team and the culture shifts they did to do so (and these same shifts have helped them in other areas as well). 

 

To the statement about regular season strikeout rates not equating to playoff success: Well yeah. 

 

You can say the same with home runs. One statistic alone is not a predictor of success. You do a little bit of everything well and you can be a good team. You do a little bit of everything very well in the postseason and you can go deep. 

 

I would also say that strikeout rate is very much a driving force behind postseason success. It's not everything, of course, but if you look at the strikeout rates of the all the playoff teams over the last five years that had 20 or more postseason games (LAD, HOU, WAS, CLE, TB, NYY) all over-performed their regular season marks in those years.

 

The Twins pitchers and their six win-less appearances, meanwhile, have under-performed their regular season rates (and were the second lowest ahead of just the Rangers). 

 

Not striking people out wasn't the only reason the Twins are on their playoff drought but it definitely didn't help. 

    • puckstopper1 and Melissa like this
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puckstopper1
Dec 08 2020 03:58 PM

 

Just to be clear, this article is not about strikeout rate. It's about how the Twins improved one area of their team and the culture shifts they did to do so (and these same shifts have helped them in other areas as well). 

 

 

Parker - I totally agree with this, and thanks again for the research you put into this article.

 

My point is there are other critical items to be consider when assessing the strength of a pitching staff, and it seems like, at times, that SO's are all that some on this site care about from the Twins staff.

 

And yes - the Twins pitching had a very strong year in many categories this season (4th in ERA, ERA+ and WIP, 2nd in FIP, 1st in HR/9), etc.

 

Several of the things you mentioned in your article likely assisted those as well.

 

These positive stats however, makes their playoff flop even more dumbfounding and frustrating.

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theBOMisthebomb
Dec 08 2020 04:40 PM
When do these culture shifts equate to postseason success?
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Dave The Dastardly
Dec 08 2020 04:56 PM

 

I do not care about your killjoy math rules.

Easy there, Big Fella. This old-timer likes to be reminded about math stuff he's forgotten.

    • Parker Hageman likes this
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Parker Hageman
Dec 08 2020 05:33 PM

 

When do these culture shifts equate to postseason success?

 

Suddenly back-to-back division titles are meaningless. How quickly we've been jaded around here.

 

This glib comment deserves a much more robust response than I'm about to give but I think there is a little bit of Billy Beane's "my **** doesn't work in the postseason" element to everything. So far this front office has been really good at solving problems (fielding, pitching, catching, etc). I would suspect they are working hard to figure out how to cross that last bridge. 

 

One of the first things that Falvine did in 2017 was sign Matt Belisle, Craig Breslow and Chris Gimenez. Falvey said that was a deliberate attempt to establish a better clubhouse culture that was supposedly lacking in the TSF season of 2016. In a similar fashion, I think they are very interested in finding players who have "been there before", such as targeting Charlie Morton. They want talent first but having more people who have experience going deep in the postseason might also be one way they can get over that postseason drought.  

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Andrew Bryzgornia
Dec 08 2020 05:41 PM

 

I do not care about your killjoy math rules.

 

Am I on Twins Daily or in one of my math classes? 

    • Parker Hageman likes this

I do not care about your killjoy math rules.

Also, the cool thing about math rules is that the feeling tends to be mutual. Math rules don't care about you - they just are.

 

4pmdsy.jpg
 

    • Parker Hageman and Melissa like this
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Andrew Bryzgornia
Dec 09 2020 09:26 AM

 

Also, the cool thing about math rules is that the feeling tends to be mutual. Math rules don't care about you - they just are.

 

4pmdsy.jpg
 

 

On a related note, my favorite comeback when a student says "I don't like math" is "That's okay, math doesn't like you, either." 

    • ashbury likes this

I always wonder how strikeout pitchers fare overall in pitch counts. Do they need 5-7 throws to get a batter out? Do modern pitchers work the counts more rather than just dominate? Even a specialist like Wisler got the "k"s but also walked a lot of guys. The plus is leaving runners stranded. Some pitchers also work well on contact (Kintzler) and if you have the fielders, that is a plus. Do you want the double-play ball or a strikeout?

 

And you have to get the batter to see at least three pitches for a strikeout. That's two pitches that the batter MAY have a solid attempt at connecting and causing trouble.


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