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The Twins Have Cracked the Pitching Code in 2022


Twins Daily Contributor

Do the Twins actually have a good pitching staff? Twins fans have asked this question in various forms, attempting to grapple with a group of arms currently sitting with the fourth-lowest ERA in baseball. Usually, one does not question a good thing, but Minnesota sports fans know better than to buy into any hype. This author cannot answer for sure, but it does appear that the team has purposely constructed a stable of pitchers perfectly suited for a new Twins pitching style. Let’s dive in.

 

The ball is dead. The ball remains dead. And Rob Manfred has killed it. One can barely watch a game or read a baseball article without someone mentioning just how short baseballs are flying compared to previous years. Perhaps MLB wanted to counter-act the previous “rabbit ball” era, perhaps they wanted to de-incentivize home runs to move away from three-true-outcome baseball, or perhaps Manfred is a foolish stooge. One cannot say with authority which statement is true, or if the answer includes some combo of the three, but the reality is thus: baseballs in 2022 are not flying as far as before.

If the baseballs are dead, and they are, then flyball pitchers have the most to gain from such a development; their main weakness—one of those flyballs landing behind the fence—is neutered. The term “flyball pitcher” has become something of a swear in the juiced-ball age, implying a deficiency rather than describing a strategy. The main plus to being a flyball pitcher is that most true flyballs end up in gloves; flyballs held a .117 BABIP in 2018, and that number barely moves yearly. If flyballs are no longer as threatening as before, a team in 2022 could be more liberal with allowing them.

For the Twins, that’s an important note. The team has the seventh-highest flyball rate in baseball, and many of the culprits holding that number up—Joe Ryan, Chris Archer, and Sonny Gray—the team targeted over the past year. Those pitchers have other desirable traits, so their flyball rate could be a secondary thought, but that consideration looms especially large this season.

Of course, presumably, part of why the Twins targeted them involved other details; Target Field and outfield defense.

If Target Field feels like it’s on the cavernous side of ballparks, that’s because it is. Statcast’s park factors claim that the stadium was the 10th best at suppressing homers between 2019-2021 and is generally slightly more of a pitcher’s park. That feels right. The high walls in right field block homers that would go out in the wiffleball field that is Yankee Stadium, while centerfield often plays like Death Valley, eating up flyballs for dinner. Righties have it better for hitting doubles, but it’s also the most challenging park for them to single in. A secondary point: that 2019 team looks even more impressive when you consider that the team hit many of those homers in a park that is bad for power.

The exact characteristics that define Target Field aside, there’s one glaring, painfully obvious reason Target Field is more challenging for hitters: Byron Buxton.

Buxton’s defense needs no introduction, so it won’t get one. Buxton is an out machine, whether you like OAA, UZR, DRS, or any other suspiciously New Deal Program-sounding acronyms. His presence in center is world-altering, attracting fly balls to his person so he can gobble them up in a SportsCenter Top 10-esque diving catch or during a mid-sprint effort that only looks easy because Buxton makes it look so. Even his backup, Gilberto Celestino, currently is in the 84th percentile of outfielders by OAA, albeit in a minuscule sample size.

In fact, let’s talk about those other outfielders; Max Kepler has long been one of the finest defensive right fielders in the game, ranking in the top 15 in MLB in OAA every full year since its introduction. Trevor Larnach is messier to analyze given his small sample, but Statcast at least thinks his route-running is good enough for an NFL wide receiver. Nick Gordon holds the least attractive numbers, but he has the athleticism to play in the outfield and should improve with more reps. It should be unsurprising that the Twins outfield is currently 1st in MLB in DRS, 3rd in OAA, and 3rd in UZR/150 innings.

The ball does not fly as far as before, Twins pitchers are good at allowing fly balls, Target Field suppresses those fly balls, and the Twins outfield will probably catch them. Derek Falvey and Thad Levine are either cracked-out geniuses or fortunate individuals because they have quietly built a perfect relationship between the ball, pitcher, park, and defense. That combination has not only fueled their success so far in 2022, but it will probably carry them to many victories as the season continues.

 

 


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To judge the pitchers we have to judge the opposition - How have we done when we faced the Dodgers and Astros versus the A's, Orioles, Tigers, Royals, and at the time slumping and injured White Sox?  If we can only beat the bad teams what is our chance in the playoffs?  I need to see more to judge, but lucky for the Twins the May schedule after the Astros looks like it is filled with teams on the bottom. 

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Twins just have too many injuries right now.  It's amazing they are in 1st place in the division.  But I agree they have gotten there by beating poor teams.  But that's what they are supposed to do.  But yes it would be nice to beat a good team to show we are competitive.  Byron Buxton?  Does he still play for the Twins?  I haven't seen him on the field lately.  He's only played in 19 of 30 games.  We should be used to that.  Not much changes with Buxton.

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Matt, We agree that baseballs do not go as far in the air in cold, damp weather. Therefore I submit we need to wait until the entire season is over before we pronounce the baseballs currently being used in MLB are "dead". May 11th is too early in the season to conclude this. In compiling the end of this year's stats, one must also somehow factor in the addition of the DH to the National League, which will increase the homeruns due to having a professional major league hitter batting instead of a pitcher batting. However, I do agree that there appear to be more fly balls being hit to the outfield in today's game than in recent years. I submit it is due to 1) the greater speed of the pitches being thrown by the pitchers, 2) more batters swinging in an upward plane instead of swinging level and 3) more pitches being thrown higher in the zone by pitchers (to try to take advantage of the upward plane of the batter's swings). Thus, I agree with your conclusion that speedy, good defensive outfielders are more important in today's game than in past years, due to the increase in fly balls being hit to the outfield. Thank you for an interesting article. 

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2 hours ago, tarheeltwinsfan said:

Matt, We agree that baseballs do not go as far in the air in cold, damp weather. Therefore I submit we need to wait until the entire season is over before we pronounce the baseballs currently being used in MLB are "dead". May 11th is too early in the season to conclude this. In compiling the end of this year's stats, one must also somehow factor in the addition of the DH to the National League, which will increase the homeruns due to having a professional major league hitter batting instead of a pitcher batting. However, I do agree that there appear to be more fly balls being hit to the outfield in today's game than in recent years. I submit it is due to 1) the greater speed of the pitches being thrown by the pitchers, 2) more batters swinging in an upward plane instead of swinging level and 3) more pitches being thrown higher in the zone by pitchers (to try to take advantage of the upward plane of the batter's swings). Thus, I agree with your conclusion that speedy, good defensive outfielders are more important in today's game than in past years, due to the increase in fly balls being hit to the outfield. Thank you for an interesting article. 

Baseball doesn't use the word "dead," but they have been very open that the ball is different now than in the 2019/2020 seasons. They designed them to go 2 feet less on fly balls. 2021 had a mix of the old balls and new balls so those stats are a little weird. 

The big question now is what are the humidors doing. All 30 stadiums now use humidors as opposed to just 10 before this season. The stadiums that had humidors already are seeing the ball travel 2 feet less, while the ones with new humidors are seeing the ball travel 10 feet less on average (Oakland is like 25 ft or something crazy). But there's a lot that goes into that. The drag on the ball is higher this year which could be from them going from dry to humid conditions and then dry then humid as that could be making the seems rise and increase drag. It will be really interesting to see what the season long stats look like on ball distance and if certain stadiums see big jumps at certain times of the year when the humidor is drying the ball towards the end of the year instead of adding humidity like they are now.

All that to say that I agree we'll need more data to see the long-term trends, but the baseball itself is also "deadened" on purpose. But it's been great to see the Twins take advantage of the shorter distance and rack up some fly ball outs!

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2 hours ago, tarheeltwinsfan said:

Matt, We agree that baseballs do not go as far in the air in cold, damp weather. Therefore I submit we need to wait until the entire season is over before we pronounce the baseballs currently being used in MLB are "dead". May 11th is too early in the season to conclude this. In compiling the end of this year's stats, one must also somehow factor in the addition of the DH to the National League, which will increase the homeruns due to having a professional major league hitter batting instead of a pitcher batting. However, I do agree that there appear to be more fly balls being hit to the outfield in today's game than in recent years. I submit it is due to 1) the greater speed of the pitches being thrown by the pitchers, 2) more batters swinging in an upward plane instead of swinging level and 3) more pitches being thrown higher in the zone by pitchers (to try to take advantage of the upward plane of the batter's swings). Thus, I agree with your conclusion that speedy, good defensive outfielders are more important in today's game than in past years, due to the increase in fly balls being hit to the outfield. Thank you for an interesting article. 

You may think it's too early, and that's fine, but we have countless articles from incredibly bright minds that can absolutely prove that the balls are dead.

https://blogs.fangraphs.com/home-runs-and-drag-an-early-look-at-the-2022-season/

https://www.baseballprospectus.com/news/article/74097/moonshot-2022-mlb-baseball-higher-drag/

https://theathletic.com/3272450/2022/04/26/baseballs-arent-flying-as-far-and-home-runs-are-down-across-mlb-is-it-the-ball-itself/

 

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I agree that the baseball is deader and suppressing home runs - that's exactly what baseball intended to happen.  Baseball as an entertainment product is trying to deal with 2 negative issues (1) almost all games lasting longer than 3 hours, and (2) a lack of action in those games. This causes baseball to appear "slow" and "unexciting" when compared to a 2 to 2 1/2 hour basketball or hockey game that has a lot of scoring and excitement during that time frame. Football lasts just as long but there's excitement or least potential excitement on every play. Not so in baseball. By deadening the ball, baseball hopes that the trend towards the 3 true outcome layer is reduced in favor of more athletic, contact oriented types. Think more Gilberto Celestinos and fewer Miguel Sanos. 

This is going to take a while to play out, probably more than just one season. Teams that were built based on slower power types have to adjust and you can't just do that overnight. I expect that we will go back to the day where each team has a lineup of 2 or 3 power/homerun/strikeout guys and 6 or 7 contact oriented/single/doubles guys rather than the other way around which is what many teams have now. That should mean more players on the bases, more high stress situations, and more pitch to contact pitchers. Pitchers will be less worried about guys hitting home runs on mistakes since many of them will hit singles or doubles on those same mistakes, nor homers. The end result is theoretically a more exciting game because of more runners on base and a faster game because of fewer strikeouts, which is what baseball wants to make it a better entertainment product.

It is far from certain that any of these changes are going to happen or that any of this will work in practice the way it "should" work in theory. I think this season is the test. Baseball is losing popularity or to basketball in particular and it felt like it had to do something to improve the entertainment product. We'll see if this works and whether we like the result. Pretty unclear right now ...

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Most pitchers have figured it out the dead ball since 2020 but this management maybe has figured it out as far pitching goes but not as far as hitting goes. Saw a great MLB segment where Jim Thome was praising Trout for being able to level off his swing so he wouldn't strike out as much. When will we be able to figure it out.

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Besides the excellent question about the opposition, the other question is what will happen when hitters remember than line drives have a better BABIP than fly balls, and they become willing to sacrifice power for it? The outfield defense still matters, but will these pitchers still be able to induce futile contact?

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2 hours ago, Matt Braun said:

Thank you for this interesting and informative information. I still submit we must look at a whole season because maybe April 2022 was the coldest and wettest month in major league cities in a decade. The weather is a variable which the mentioned  studies seemed to ignore. 

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The ball is dead, we know that.  There are 2 questions that need to be answered to determine if we have the right staff.  One, will they stay dead, or will MLB change up the ball again to get more HR again?  Two, will the players make the needed adjustments this season to not trying to hit as many HR but more line drives or finally agree to hit against the shifts? 

For years the plan was to pitch low in the zone, and pitches up were bad.  Well, now we find high fastballs are effective because hitters adjusted to all the low pitches and adjusting launch angle.  Once hitters adjust we will see how we are doing. 

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If we are going to make proclamations based on SSS the last several starts don’t bode well for our club. Bundy and Archer are starting to look like the long shots they always were. 

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