The Twins are Winning by Walking
by, 04-25-2014 at 02:17 PM (510 Views)
Despite the fact that more than half their games have been on the road and five of their seven series have been against clubs that finished with winning records last year, the Twins are above .500 after 21 games.
They've managed to win despite starting pitching that has been astonishingly bad. Nearly everyone expected improvement from the rotation after large offseason investments were made, but so far the Twins have gotten a 5.91 ERA from their starters, a regression from last year's 5.26 mark.
The key to the early success has outscoring the opposition, specifically by getting on base more often.
This was well exemplified in Thursday's series-clinching victory against the Rays. Three of the first five hitters to face Erik Bedard reached on a free pass, and all three ended up scoring to give Minnesota a lead it would never relinquish.
As we approach the end of April, the Twins are leading the majors in walks taken. This continues a shift toward increased plate patience that we've seen in the past few seasons. As you can see below, the lineup has been gradually reinventing its reputation.
Here are their MLB ranks in walks since their postseason run began in 2002:
During their glory years, the Twins frequently had one of the better team batting averages in the league, but they almost always ranked in the bottom half in terms of walks.
The lopsided philosophical emphasis on limiting walks for pitchers versus drawing walks for hitters always seemed to represent a blatant contradiction in the coaching staff's approach.
The Twins have always viewed the base on balls as a dangerous weapon for the opposing offense, but consistently failed to deploy it as a featured component of their own offensive attack. Now they are, and it's paying off.
One of the central concepts in sabermetrics is that the most important aspect of scoring runs is getting on base. The Twins are reinforcing that now.
They currently rank second in the American League in scoring despite ranking eighth in batting average and 10th in slugging. But thanks to their propensity for drawing the free pass, they lead the league in on-base percentage.
The high volume of base runners has created plenty of opportunities to drive in runs. Obviously guys like Chris Colabello, who leads the AL in RBI, have been taking advantage, but as a team the Twins are hitting only .256 with runners in scoring position. The bottom line is that if you put enough men on base, you're going to score runs, even if your lineup lacks a bunch of dominant hitters.
Is the increase in walks reflective of the Twins embracing this notion? Tom Brunansky, who took over as hitting coach last year, was a guy who relied on the free pass during his playing days, helping him put together an impressive career as a batsman despite a .245 lifetime average. When you consider that the Twins have had their two highest MLB ranks for walks in the last 13 years during Brunansky's two years as an instructor, it's hard to downplay his influence.
That's especially true when you look at some of the specific examples. Trevor Plouffe, who has struggled with plate discipline for most of his career in the majors (and minors, for that matter) has 14 walks in 21 games and a .412 OBP. Brian Dozier had a 7 percent BB rate during his first two years with the Twins; he's at 16 percent early this season.
Perhaps the most noteworthy is Josmil Pinto, a rookie who entered this season with only 40 games played above Double-A. He's drawn walks in nearly a quarter of his trips to the plate (22.5 percent), which not only gives him the team lead but ranks him second in the majors behind Jose Bautista.
As spring came to a close, it was clear that the Twins weren't going to dominate offensively based on talent alone. Under such circumstances, a good team with smart coaches alters its overall approach to gain advantages in other ways.
That's what we've seen from the Twins. Brunansky, the rest of the coaches and certainly the hitters themselves deserve a lot of credit for that. Hopefully they can continue to utilize that edge this weekend against the Tigers, who (somewhat surprisingly) have the fourth fewest walks of any AL team.