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Are the Twins Pitchers Great or Are the Indians Hitters Terrible?

Posted by dave_dw , 01 April 2019 · 1,255 views

berrios odorizzi pineda martin perez pitching
Sound the alarm! The Twins pitchers currently lead the league in team strikeout percentage! I know, I know, we’re talking about three games in March. This sample size hopes one day it will grow up to become a “small sample size.”

That said, Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi each struck out 10+ batters in the Twins first two games, something that only Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling have ever done before. As an encore, Michael Pineda and Martin Perez teamed up for 11 strikeouts in 7.2 IP in game three. There’s a legitimate chance that this is the best starting rotation to ever reside on Target Field’s mound.

It would not surprise the reader to know that the Twins have been really bad at getting strikeouts. For five straight seasons, from 2011 through 2015, they finished dead last in team K% in all of baseball. In the 35 years since the Pohlad family took over as the Twins’ owners, their 15.9 K% is the second to worst in the MLB, just 0.1% better than the last-place Tigers. So ya, leading the league in strikeout percentage is very unusual, even if it is only three games into the year.

But the question is: are the Twins pitchers really this good or are the Indians hitters really bad?

Should we commence construction of Wes Johnson's statue? Or should we point and laugh Nelson-style at the Cleveland’s crappy lineup?

A point in the favor of Twins pitchers is that their stuff has been better.

Odorizzi’s velocity is up nearly a mile per hour over where it was a year ago, and his swinging strike rate was up 140% over his career mark. Berrios had a similar increase in his swinging strike rate (156% increase over his career mark). Pineda also got more whiffs and was insanely efficient in blanking Cleveland through his four innings. Perez maintained his spring velocity bump with a fastball that maxed out at 97 mph while producing a swinging strike rate at nearly double his career mark.

Here’s the problem though: if the Indians hitters really do suck, then these improvements in swinging strike rates are exactly what we’d expect to see. Bad hitting teams make opposing pitchers look good. It’s the pitching equivalent of a Snapchat filter that removes your blemishes and makes your eyes look like Alita (you know, the freaking Battle Angel).

With proven major-league hitters Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis on the injured list, the Indians gave 18% of their team’s plate appearances to a putrid combination of Eric Stamets, Max Moroff, and Brad Miller. Hanley Ramirez was batting fifth despite not having played a major-league game since last May. Their leadoff hitter Leonys Martin has never produced an above-average DRC+ in his career. These guys are … not great. It’s Jose Ramirez, Carlos Santana, and the cast of The Expendables up there hacking.

To see if having a bad lineup explains the Twins’ pitching dominance, I looked at the PECOTA projections for each Cleveland hitter and weighted them based on the number of plate appearances they actually had in this series. This gave me with a PECOTA-projected K% for the Indians when Jose Ramirez gets 12 plate appearances and Jake Bauers gets 9 and Jordan Luplow gets 4 … you get the picture. I did the same with Twins pitchers, weighting them by batters face for each pitcher and adding them all together.

INDIANS HITTERS PROJECTED K%
21.7%

TWINS PITCHERS PROJECTED K%
21.2%

ACTUAL K% FOR BOTH
38.6%

Had the Indian’s projected strikeout percentage been worse, I would’ve been tempted to chalk this up to terrible Indians hitting. Similarly, had the Twins projected strikeout percentage been higher, I'd talk myself into thinking the Twins pitchers are great. As it is, we’ve probably got a little from Column A and a little from Column B, but even that is uncertain in our tiny sample.

We can’t glean anything conclusive from three games, we knew that coming in, but these are interesting data points that trend in an exciting direction. As we collect more and more data points over the coming weeks and months, the picture will continue loading until it eventually becomes clear. In the meantime, we can stare these particular data points and admire their beauty. Twins pitchers are striking people out and it’s amazing.

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