How The Twins Learned To Love Strikeouts Again
Image courtesy of Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY SportsA 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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