In 2019, the Twins posted a .349 slugging percentage against left-handed pitching. Only the Mariners and the Cubs fared worse. It was expected to be an anomaly. After all, almost the exact same lineup walloped lefties with a .521 slugging percentage. What’s more, they anticipated having healthy contributions from Josh Donaldson and Mitch Garver.
As Aaron Gleeman wrote earlier this month, the 2021 roster was designed with right-handed thump up and down the lineup.
“I expect us to be able to put a group out consistently that makes life difficult for left-handed starters,” manager Rocco Baldelli told him. “We can throw some very good right-handed hitters out there, and our goal is to just have good at-bats. … I think right now, where we sit, we should be able to go out there and have those at-bats that we want to have.”
The season is just a few weeks old but so far the trend set in 2020 has continued into this season: they are slugging just .347 after the doubleheader in Oakland on Tuesday.
Before you panic, consider that Twins hitters are doing almost everything right and not being rewarded appropriately. They have the highest amount of batted balls hit 95 miles per hour or higher (44.9) and they have the second highest exit velocity average (89.7). If you trust the process, then the extra base hits will surely follow. For the analytically optimistic, however, Baseball Savant notes that the expected slugging is closer to .439 which would place them closer to the middle of the pack.
What is concerning is that the balls aren’t going anywhere.
While they are rocketing off of their bats and the optimal speed (95+) and angle (10-30 degrees), the ones that are hit in the air aren’t traveling. Their fly balls against lefties are averaging 301.4 feet, second lowest in the game. This is not that far off from their 314.4 feet from 2020, to be sure, but it is certainly not headed in the right direction if they wish to improve upon their slugging totals from a year ago.
Last year, when they did make that optimal contact, their fly balls averaged 425 feet of travel, highest in baseball. This year it’s just 379.5 feet, 25th out of 30 teams.
So far this year lefties have challenged the Twins’ hitters. After staying in the zone just 45.9% of the time in 2020, they are filling it up at a 52.8% clip in 2021, perhaps unafraid of having damage done. Another notable change from last year is how left-handed opponents are using their fastballs against Twins’ hitters. In 2020, they stayed away from the inner-half of the zone (42.7% of fastballs were thrown inner-half, lowest in MLB). This year, they are going inside more often with the fastball (50.3%).
It’s difficult to say anything is really driving this decline in distance. It’s possible that the colder weather is playing a role or the new baseball is shaving off a dozen or so feet. Maybe there is too much topspin on their swing. Or a combination of everything.
It is still early in the season -- one that will hopefully stretch well beyond last year’s parameters -- so most of the results could be attributed to a small sample size. If they continue to hit the ball hard, the extra base hits will surely follow.
But, as Baldelli said, health is the one true wild card for this lineup. With Miguel Sano and Nelson Cruz both ailing and Josh Donaldson seemingly on a knife’s edge with every sprint, the ability to hit the ball hard against left-handed pitching could quickly become an issue.