Overhauling their pitching philosophy has paved a new path to success for the Minnesota Twins
For the first time in some years. the Minnesota Twins will enter the 2018 season as legitimate contenders for a post-season birth – a welcome relief for Minnesota sports fans. Having cracked the 80 win mark for just the second time since 2010, the Twins now find themselves projected just 3 games out of the second Wild Card birth. On the back of a lamentable, 103 loss season in 2016, obvious changes must have been made to the the club in order to find themselves in the playoffs in 2017. One of those things of course is the continued development of their young offensive core, led by Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton. The other is a gradual improvement from their pitching staff despite very little turnover on that side of the roster.
When teams get better in a certain area without adding external talent, it’s worth paying attention to. This is especially true for the Twins whose pitching staff – with the exception of Jose Berrios – wasn’t expected to improve in 2017. The Twins are unlikely to cement themselves as a major threat in the AL unless they add some external talent to their pitching staff (hence the rumored courting of top-tier free agent Yu Darvish) however, the Twins pitching gains in 2017 remain something worth examining. When you do so, one is compelled to notice that the Twins are in the midst of an organisation wide philosophical shift.
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For much of this decade the Twins have been renowned for their ‘pitch-to-contact’ philosophy. The idea there is to limit walks and exra base hits by prioritizing pitchers who work with sinkers down in the zone, often at the expense of strikeouts. The result is a BABIP dependent run prevention strategy, one that naturally comes with high variance in performance. However, with the emphasis placed on launch angle in today’s game, throwing sinkers down in the zone may no longer be the best strategy for getting hitters out at the MLB level.
To counter this, teams begun emphasizing pitchers who could employ ‘rising’ fastballs in the upper part of the zone in order to generate swings and misses. The more analytically inclined front offices were jumped on to this trend a few years ago:
The uptick in vertical fastball movement (FB-Z) during the 2014 season screams at you, with the league as a whole gaining a full inch of rise. The move towards rising fastballs was not universal however and the chart below shows the average fastball movement for each team in 2014:
The Twins, to their credit, are certainly not last here though they are squarely in the bottom half of the league. While teams such as the Rays, Orioles (?) and Royals had begun to embrace the rising fastball, many had not and it is clear that the Twins lagged behind many of the teams. It’s also worth noting that the teams at the top of the chart almost unanimously enjoyed strong years.
However, we are here to talk about the Twins. We are talking about them because they used to be bad and now we think they might be good and that one of the reasons they might be good is because there pitching staff looks to be on the upswing. Changes in talent level don’t just happen on their own, they require either an influx of external talent or tangible adjustments by current players. During the 2016 season, the Twins overhauled their front office replacing Terry Ryan with the analytically inclined Thad Levine and it appears Levine brought a new approach to pitching with him. If you haven’t had enough charts yet, here’s another one for you:
The chart above shows the change in vertical fastball movement by team from 2014 to 2017. While the Twins may not have been the biggest movers in over this time period, they have jumped from a sinker reliant ground ball approach to a clear emphasis on rising fastballs an strikeouts. Where the Twins once aggressively sought out sinking fastballs, they now find themselves in baseballs upper echelon of risers. That this change in the organizations pitching philosophy coincides with the teams rise in the AL Central, is an unlikely coincidence.
The Minnesota Twins are expected to compete for a playoff berth – something that hasn’t often been the case for much of this decade and while much of the credit belongs to breakouts from players like Brian Dozier, Buxton and Sano, it would be irresponsible to ignore the tangible changes the Twins have made to their pitching staff. The Twins are catching up to the rest of baseball and they might just punch themselves a ticket to the playoffs because of it.
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