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Three-Bagger: Berrios Brilliance, Mauer's Rebound & Containment

The Twins lost big on Sunday, but not before making a statement in Cleveland by notching a pair of impressive victories against the defending league champs to take the series. Let's focus in on three top storylines as we head into the second half of May with a first-place club.
Image courtesy of Ken Blaze, USA Today
* On Friday, I wrote about the adjustments Jose Berrios had been making in Triple-A, and wondered if they would translate to the majors.

Specifically, his latest starts in Rochester suggested Berrios was effectively adhering to a blueprint of attacking the zone relentlessly rather than trying to throw past hitters or maximize the gas. In essence, the Twins were asking him to pitch to contact. And while that's a term that probably makes a number of local fans shudder, it's sage guidance for the young righty, and might have helped him put forth easily his best big-league outing in Saturday's return.

The blowback against Minnesota's "pitch to contact" mantra, which to my recollection reached a high point as Rick Anderson futilely attempted to rein in a wayward Francisco Liriano in 2012, was always overblown. It is understandable enough that the phrase would induce a visceral reaction given the chronic and crippling inability of Twins staffs to miss bats over the years, but to take the words at face value is to misunderstand the nature of the concept.

Asking a guy to pitch to contact is not a literal instruction to throw over the middle of the plate and let 'em nail it. It is instead about instilling a mentality wherein the pitcher trusts his stuff and stops worrying about actively trying to blow everyone away.

And here's the thing with Berrios: he doesn't need a huge strikeout rate. He has proven extremely tough to square up at every level, with the exception of his rookie stints in the majors where he was so often behind the in the count he was forced to pitch to contact in the bad way.

In 591 minor-league innings he has allowed only 472 hits and 35 homers. His K-rate in Triple-A dropped from 28.9 percent in 2016 to 25.7 percent in six starts this year, yet his opponents' average dropped from .188 to .167.

If he's getting ahead in counts the whiffs will come naturally, but much like his new mentor Ervin Santana, Berrios doesn't need to strike out a batter per inning to be successful at this level. Saturday's start, in which he allowed one run on two hits in 7 2/3 innings despite only four strikeouts, reinforces this.

Go ahead and keep on pitching to contact, Jose.

* At the end of a sluggish April that registered as one of the least productive months in his career, Joe Mauer expressed minimal concern.

“I feel like I’m striking the ball pretty well,” he told Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press. “You’ve got to try to stick with the process, and hopefully those results change.”

Guess the grizzled vet knew what he was talking about after all.

Since the start of May, Mauer's results have taken a turn. In 41 plate appearances this month, he is slashing .324/.390/.514. His batting average on balls in play, which sat at an uncharacteristically low .243 at the end of April, has swung to .385 over the past two weeks.

Mauer still has a long way to go before he's even at an average level of output (his OPS ranks second-to-last among qualified AL first basemen) but at least he's moving in the right direction.

* The penchant for Minnesota's lineup to hit the ball over the fence has been a major topic during the first leg of the season. Miguel Sano has himself on pace to approach 50 bombs, and Jorge Polanco's long ball on Sunday marked the 15th consecutive game where a Twin has homered, one short of a franchise record.

But it's been the pitching staff's ability to keep it in the yard that has been more essential to the team's success. Last year the Twins allowed 221 home runs, most in the American League. This year, they entered Sunday's finale in Cleveland with 40 allowed – fewer than all but six AL teams. Of course, Hector Santiago then went out and gave up three, with Adam Wilk adding another for good measure. But the Twins remain on pace to finish short of last year's total despite homers trending dramatically upward across the league.

Is this containment sustainable? It's certainly worth tracking, and there's fair reason for skepticism. Ervin Santana has historically been susceptible to the long ball but he's mostly kept them in check. Ditto Phil Hughes despite lackluster velocity. Berrios, who can't generate much downward plane from a 6'0" frame, gave up 12 in 58 innings with the Twins as a rookie. And the rotation's best ground ball pitcher, Kyle Gibson, is presently in Triple-A.

Clearly the pitchers have benefitted tremendously from the exceptional defensive outfielder alignment, but if more balls start traveling beyond the wall it's a different story. As we saw on Sunday.

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18 Comments

What a good article. Everything made sense. Hey, what's this guy doing around here??

    • Blake, Loosey, Otwins and 5 others like this
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HitInAPinch
May 15 2017 02:31 AM

Nice article, Nick.  

 

The whole "pitch to contact" angst always confused me.  That's been a standard strategy for a long, long time.  Except when you have lousy pitching.  

 

Still need to see more of Berrios, but his recent start was a good start!

Santiago recent start was, well, what is was.  Need at least one more good starter. And I don't know where that player would come from.  Trade?

    • nokomismod, Joe A. Preusser, Gene Larkin Fan Club and 2 others like this
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Comrade Bork
May 15 2017 06:28 AM
Go Sano! Fifty Nifty!
    • Joe A. Preusser likes this

The term "pitch to contact" is what caused the angst.  If Anderson would have called it something else, like "attack the zone" or "throw productive strikes" it would be caused no media and fan uproar.

    • jimbo92107, Joe A. Preusser, goulik and 1 other like this

 

The term "pitch to contact" is what caused the angst.  If Anderson would have called it something else, like "attack the zone" or "throw productive strikes" it would be caused no media and fan uproar.

 

I come across "pitch to contact" about every other week from quotes from other teams, especially pitching coaches. Always gives me a chuckle.

    • Loosey, Joe A. Preusser and HitInAPinch like this

Specifically, his latest starts in Rochester suggested Berrios was effectively adhering to a blueprint of attacking the zone relentlessly rather than trying to throw past hitters or maximize the gas.

 

Or, you know.....he's cheating.  (sarcasm)

    • woolywoolhouse and HitInAPinch like this

 

The term "pitch to contact" is what caused the angst.  If Anderson would have called it something else, like "attack the zone" or "throw productive strikes" it would be caused no media and fan uproar.

This. He should have called "trust your stuff" and people probably would have been "hell, yeah! Liriano (Berrios) has great stuff!"

 

Ervin Santana's performance on Friday was the really fun one for me. He was clearly struggling with his command, just unable to locate his pitches precisely enough and fought his way through for another impressive start. Great work by a veteran.

    • glunn, nokomismod, Halsey Hall and 2 others like this

Nice recap.  I am all in on Berrios and hope he thrives, but you are right we now have Santana, Santiago, Berrios - we need more and Santiago is not high on my list, just doing better than Hughes.  Mejia is not doing all that well in the minors.  Do we have anyone else in the minors that we could try?  Sleger?  

 

Joe is just Joe, not good on quotes and not too spectacular in the field any more either.  We can live with him, but I thought we were going to give him more days off.  I do not seem him making adjustments - he says he just has to keep doing what he is doing to which I would say, you have been doing this for the last three years and it is not working - make some adjustments.

 

I am more happy with Sano's BA than his HRs.  I expect the bombs, but controlling the plate and hitting bombs too is really great.  

    • USAFChief, glunn, birddog and 2 others like this

We often here the terms 'Don't give up an AB' or 'Making the pitcher work etc.'On the flip side pitchers need to execute competitive pitches.Being accurate within the strike zone is imperative.You don't have to throw it by everyone to be competitive within the strike zone.I think if you show you can hit your spots early in the game it benefits later in the game in getting hitters to expand the zone.Fantastic start by Berrios.Lets hope it is the beginning of many more to come.

    • glunn, HitInAPinch and howieramone2 like this

 

Nice recap.  I am all in on Berrios and hope he thrives, but you are right we now have Santana, Santiago, Berrios - we need more and Santiago is not high on my list, just doing better than Hughes.  Mejia is not doing all that well in the minors.  Do we have anyone else in the minors that we could try?  Sleger?  

 

Joe is just Joe, not good on quotes and not too spectacular in the field any more either.  We can live with him, but I thought we were going to give him more days off.  I do not seem him making adjustments - he says he just has to keep doing what he is doing to which I would say, you have been doing this for the last three years and it is not working - make some adjustments.

 

I am more happy with Sano's BA than his HRs.  I expect the bombs, but controlling the plate and hitting bombs too is really great.  

Unfortunately, the cupboard is sparse for fresh 4th and 5th starters. As you mentioned, Mejia is not yet dominating, Gibson needs time, and other guys in AAA are either non-prospects (Slegers) or retreads. 

 

The real problem looks like injuries. The Twins appear to be hit by a lot of minor issues landing their highest pitching prospects on the DL. Chargois and Reed are two of the top guys in Rochester...DL. Same time, Stewart, Jay, Gonsalves and Jones all are injured in AA. 

 

This does still leave two starters that might be okay in the 5th spot: Slegers and Felix Jorge. Of the two, Jorge is on the 40, but it can't be too tough to figure out a guy to drop for Slegers. Thing I like about Jorge is that he has always been a stingy control pitcher, very consistent, and he doesn't seem to mind pitching deep into games. Slegers is hot, and he's been doing it against better competition. I could go either way, or both. 

    • glunn, mikelink45 and howieramone2 like this

I think so many of us dislike the "pitch to contact" phrase because we're so used to guys with mediocre (at best) stuff "pitching to contact." When your stuff isn't overpowering and you're laying in strike after strike after strike without nibbling it usually leads to the results we've seen over the last handful of years; lots of balls flying out of the park. When you have electric stuff like Berrios you don't have to be as fine with your location and you don't need to nibble so much to induce weak contact. "Pitch to contact" is a mantra often used to help guys with electric stuff who want to strike everyone out learn they can be in the zone and get a few 2 pitch outs and last longer as opposed to all 5 or 6 pitch at bats that end in strikeouts. Kyle Hendricks doesn't "pitch to contact" in that way because his stuff isn't that explosive. He nibbles and paints corners while mixing pitches really well. The problem with the Twins using the "pitch to contact" mantra was they didn't embrace the velocity era until a few years ago so they had guys who's stuff dictated they needed to have pinpoint control who were trying to just induce weak contact all the time while throwing a ton of pitches over the heart of the plate. When you're filthy "pitch to contact" means quit nibbling and attack the hitter (depending on the situation). When you're running out a mediocre array of pitches "pitch to contact" means throw pitches that start as balls and end as strikes on the edge of the zone to limit the number of balls hit 450 ft against you.

    • glunn, drjim, DocBauer and 1 other like this

Absolutely loved Berrios' first start. He attacked the strike zone and did not nibble. He appeared to trust his stuff and I was most impressed with the pace of the game with him on the mound. "Get the ball and throw the ball" will keep your fielders in the game so they will be ready to catch the ball when put in play (the opposite of Pelfrey who put everyone to sleep, especially with runners on base).

 

I think we will see (and I'm hoping and praying) a much different Berrios this time around as he attacks early on to get ahead of the count instead of pitching behind like last year when hitters new what was coming on 2-0 and 3-1. He may not average a K an inning, but we should see him go 7+ most starts. What a relief it would be to see a drafted pitching prospect succeed in the majors. It's been a long time.

    • glunn, Mike Sixel, Vanimal46 and 1 other like this
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LA VIkes Fan
May 15 2017 11:39 AM

Does anyone else see Mauer trying to adjust his approach to pull the ball more? It seems like he's going after more pitches earlier rather than letting everything travel deep into the contact zone the way he used to do. That may explain why he only has 8 walks and 15 strikeouts in roughly 125 plate appearances. I don;t have access to the advanced stats and spray charts so I'm just curious if there has been a difference since May 1. 

    • glunn and bizaff like this

I was interested in the Mauer resurgence described by Nick so I plotted out his OPS by date to see what that showed:

 

Mauer OPS By Date
 
It looks like to me that this isn't a clear progression where Mauer is continuing to improve but instead looks like he spiked 120 OPS points from 4/30 to 5/5 and since then has been flat in the .660 OPS range.
 
I would also emphasize Nick's point of comparing this to other 1B.  League average OPS for 1B this year is .818 vs his current .660.
 
    • glunn, Mike Sixel and D.C Twins like this
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HitInAPinch
May 15 2017 03:22 PM

IDK, sounds like I coulda started an entirely new thread on "Pitch to contact angst"  ;)

Great game by Berrios! I mean, really, what more could we have hopes for or asked for? Now, he's still young and inexperienced. Even the best pitchers have off days. But what a boost he gives the rotation! Now, if Santiago can keep plugging along, and Hughes can continue to refine his latest approach and offerings I feel we have at least 4 "decent" if not good starters.

But who is the 5th starter when we need one. Or should I say, the first guy to audition? Experience and contract, I'd almost have to say Gibson, though I think he's better off in AAA a little longer. But the same could be said for Slegers and Mejia. I doubt Haley is stretched out enough.

Mayer is trending, and hopefully that will continue and we'll at least see the '15-'16 versions of him this season. Am I crazy to suggest that even if we do the lineup is better...assuming Buxton ALSO keeps improving...with Mayer hitting 8th, ahead of the catching platoon, providing a veteran presence at the bottom of the order and ahead of Dozier?
    • Mike Sixel likes this

Mauer is fine for now...

 

BUT, if Park or Palka really start to mash with reasonable control of the strike zone in AAA, he immediately becomes a liability at 1st (obviously a premium offensive position)

 

Given our pitching staff, we are going to have to continue to score runs....lots and lots of runs... 

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diehardtwinsfan
May 16 2017 08:35 AM

cannot speak for Palka, but Park is a decent defender at 1st.

    • USAFChief likes this

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