The Twins’ penchant for pitching to contact is one of the most consistent organizational philosophies (and by now, one of the most tired tropes) in baseball. For the last five years, the Twins have had the lowest team strikeout rate in the American League, every year. The league’s aggregate strikeout rate has shot up over that span. Strikeout accumulation has become the top run-prevention priority of every organization, as teams have come to understand that there’s no more reliable way to slow an opposing offense than missing a lot of bats. The Twins, though, keep plodding along at the bottom of the league.
It would be unfair to pretend that the team hasn’t noticed this league-wide trend, or that they’re actively resisting it. Indeed, a great 2013 piece by Ben Lindbergh here at BP provides some strong evidence that 2011 is roughly the exact moment at which the Twins began committing to the strikeout, just like everyone else. Here’s the problem: That commitment manifested itself only in the pitchers they sought out as prospects. In trades and in the Draft, the team has started seeking out young power pitchers, guys who throw hard and miss bats.
To date, though, they remain bizarrely attached to their old principles when they make outside additions at the big-league level. That’s why the team has only seen its aggregate strikeout rate rise from 15.1 percent to 17.0 percent since 2011, an increase faster than the league’s increase over that span, but not sufficiently faster as to catch the Twins up to all the teams who had a hefty head start on them. In 2011, Carl Pavano (10.7 percent), Nick Blackburn (11.3 percent), and Matt Capps (12.4 percent, as a closer) had strikeout rates hilariously below the acceptable threshold for most teams. In 2015, Mike Pelfrey (12.0 percent), Phil Hughes (14.4 percent), and Blaine Boyer (12.3 percent out of the bullpen) virtually matched that ineptitude, once you adjust for the league’s change in strikeout rate. The 2011 trio threw 436 innings; the 2015 group threw 385. Shaving 12 percent of the innings allocated to such helpless pitchers is something, but it’s not remotely satisfying.
Still, it’s easy to see change on the horizon. Tyler Duffey (a 2012 draftee, and so a member of the new guard) came up late last season and made 10 impressive starts, fanning 21.9 percent of opposing batters, and he looks likely to claim a spot in the team’s Opening Day rotation. Trevor May began 2015 as a starter, walking just 5 percent of opposing batters and keeping a decent groundball rate. He wasn’t consistent, though, and his strikeout rate was barely over the league average, so the Twins shifted him to relief—where he struck out over a third of his opponents and cut a run and a half off his ERA. The old Twins wait out a guy like May, hoping that ability to pound the zone allows him to become a passable, high-volume starter. The new Twins seem to understand that a high-octane relief weapon can be worth more than a back-end starter hitters square up too often.
Most importantly, there’s Jose Berrios. The sandwich-round 2012 draftee has blossomed into a top-shelf pitching prospect, and he whiffed 26.2 percent of opposing batters in the high minors last year. The Twins might not have him in the rotation right away this spring, but he’ll be there by Memorial Day, barring injury, and he promises to add even more good stuff to a staff suddenly filling up with it. Boyer is gone. Pelfrey is gone. The back-end bullpen trio of Glen Perkins, May, and 2015 trade acquisition Kevin Jepsen is the most strikeout-heavy (and by far—by far!—the best) the team has had in years. League roster rules will force them, at last, to give Michael Tonkin an uninterrupted chance to miss some bats in middle relief. When you look up the AL’s team strikeout rates at the end of the season, there’s a decent chance the Twins will have escaped the cellar.
This still isn’t going to be an above-average staff at keeping the ball out of play, though. To that end, we had better talk about another thing that has sunk the Twins’ efforts to prevent runs over the past handful of seasons—their crummy defense. There’s no surer way to get consistently bludgeoned than to trot out a team of poor fielders behind a pitching staff that gives up a lot of contact, and that’s been the Twins’ predicament. Our Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (PADE) has pegged them below average for the last six years, including: worst in the league in 2011, second-worst in 2013, second-worst in 2014, and fifth worst last season. In 2015, they had the second-lowest DE on fly balls, and the eighth-worst on grounders. Again, it’s okay to take advantage of the league’s infatuation with strikeout arms by going for guys who do other things well, but that tenuous strategy becomes pure folly if it’s not buttressed by a focus on strong defense. That’s where Minnesota has been.
Maybe that’s changing this year, again thanks to the 2012 Draft. Byron Buxton has a positively gaudy, a really unbelievably rosy PECOTA projection of 25 Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) in center field. Alongside Eddie Rosario, he could be part of a suddenly stellar outfield defense. The team made weird choices in support of Buxton this winter, though, making Miguel Sano a full-time right fielder so as to keep Trevor Plouffe at third base and add Byung-Ho Park as Joe Mauer’s new first base/DH tag-team partner. Sano weighs 270 pounds, easily, and the best thing you can say about his straight-line speed is that it’s better than you’d expect from a guy that big. In general, the notion that a great center fielder can simply hide a bad corner guy by shading his way has been debunked, but the Twins seem ready to test it out this year. Maybe Sano will be better than expected. Maybe Plouffe will be traded mid-season, and the more athletic Max Kepler will take Sano’s spot in right field. It seems more plausible, though, or at least just as plausible, that Rosario won’t hit enough to merit staying in the lineup, and that Buxton will find himself between Sano and either Kepler or Oswaldo Arcia within a few months. It’s probably a better outfield defense, with Buxton out there, no matter what else is happening. ‘Better’ doesn’t have to mean ‘good’ in this case, though.
As for the infield, nothing changed. That’s remarkable, really; nothing changed after an infield full of good-not-great offensive players proved they could barely handle themselves as a defensive unit last year. In isolation, Plouffe, shortstop Eduardo Escobar, and second baseman Brian Dozier are fine, and Mauer acquits himself at first base, though he’s nowhere near the revelation some people hoped he would be when he moved out from behind the plate. As a group, though, they were only narrowly serviceable last year, and they’re all a year older, now. Jorge Polanco is the closest thing to a ready substitute, and Polanco’s best position, the organization thinks, is the spot at which the team already has their best defender—second base.
If there’s one thing that defines the Twins, it’s continuity. Their front office doesn’t change, and I don’t just mean that the personnel rarely turns over. Terry Ryan is a smart and well-respected (even beloved) baseball man, but he’s extraordinarily conservative, for a top executive in this day and age, and the overperformance of what was fundamentally a 75-win team last year seems to have stayed his hand a bit too much. The Twins’ offense got a bit better this winter, which is good, because it wasn’t nearly as good as the run totals looked last year. On the other side of the ledger, there might be even bigger strides coming. It will certainly be worth watching, even throughout spring training, to see whether the team has the courage to move low-upside guys like Tommy Milone and Ricky Nolasco aside to make room for Duffey and Berrios. If the strikeout rate climbs toward the middle of the league, this team could make some noise. Unfortunately, they’re likely to be held back, eventually, by a defensive alignment that has changed too little and too strangely to inspire much confidence.