Something in Minnesota Has Clicked

Allow me to revisit something I wrote about yesterday. For the first sustained period in his major-league career, Byron Buxton has shown the ability to hit for some contact. It doesn’t mean he’s totally fixed, and he’s gone through his hot streaks before, but, with Buxton, we’re always looking for a reason to get excited. This is a new one, and in part because of Buxton doing a better job at the plate, the Twins are in wild-card position. It’s a close race, and I can practically guarantee you there’s going to be further jostling, but before the year began, we projected the Twins to be one of the worst teams in the American League. They’re poised to go to the playoffs. Outside of the mood around trade-deadline week, the year has been a fun one.

Allow me to revisit something I wrote about in May. Back then, when we were a month and a half into the season, there were promising signs up and down the Twins lineup, at least as far as plate discipline was concerned. There were suggestions of a team-wide improvement, which was sufficiently remarkable to catch my eye. The samples then were fairly small. They’re not so small anymore. Twins hitters have taken some steps. Buxton isn’t alone — something seems to be clicking, which has helped allow the Twins to get to where they are today.

Now, if you concentrate on the numbers, you’ll see that the Twins have been outscored. This isn’t a great team — this is, after all, a team that recently elected to sell — and the lineup has nothing on, say, the Astros. But here’s what could be said of the Twins: A season ago, they ranked 18th in team wRC+. So far this season, they rank 11th. A season ago, they ranked 25th in team K-BB%, at the plate. So far this season, they rank 11th. Teams are never identical season to season, so these simple comparisons do fall short of showing the whole picture, yet the Twins have felt that improvement. We can zero in on the plate discipline.

Think about the very most fundamental of the fundamentals. As a hitter, how do you want to swing? You want to swing powerfully, sure, but as far as pitch selection goes, you want to swing at strikes, and you want to not swing at balls. There’s a little more to it, and it’s always contextual, but this is why I like to look at the difference between Z-Swing% and O-Swing%. I like it as a basic measure of discipline, where a greater number would seem to be better.

Moving along, I gathered data for every hitter who’s batted at least 100 times in each of the last two seasons. I calculated the differences between Z-Swing% and O-Swing%, and then I calculated the differences between those differences. We can look at the entire landscape first; here are the 2016 and 2017 data points, for everyone, with all the present-year Twins highlighted in yellow.

There are 12 different Twins hitters who have met the playing-time specifications. In all 12 cases, the player has improved at least a little bit. Some players, of course, have improved more than others, and this table further drills down. Here are the dozen players, listed individually.

Plate-Discipline Changes
Player PA 2016 Difference 2017 Difference Change
Jorge Polanco 385 21.3% 31.5% 10.2%
Eddie Rosario 437 26.9% 34.3% 7.4%
Eduardo Escobar 345 26.6% 33.5% 6.9%
Byron Buxton 372 25.3% 32.2% 6.9%
Max Kepler 460 22.0% 28.9% 6.9%
Miguel Sano 475 35.1% 41.6% 6.5%
Jason Castro 340 33.1% 39.1% 6.0%
Chris Gimenez 167 32.5% 37.9% 5.4%
Joe Mauer 449 22.0% 26.2% 4.2%
Brian Dozier 545 30.5% 34.4% 3.9%
Kennys Vargas 199 31.5% 33.0% 1.5%
Robbie Grossman 380 32.3% 33.8% 1.5%
Twins players shown; minimum 100 plate appearances in each of the last two seasons.

Polanco’s Z-Swing% – O-Swing% difference has improved by 10 percentage points. The improvement for Grossman has been a hair below two percentage points. Not everyone could possibly improve in the same way, but if you take the average of the last column above, you get a team improvement of 5.6 points. That seems like it’s pretty enormous. Is it actually enormous, relative to the competition? Indeed. The Twins are clear outliers.

Players on the Twins have improved by an average of 5.6 points. Players on the Braves have improved by an average of 1.9 points. There are only four teams with an average improvement of at least one point, and, bringing up the rear, the Mariners are down by an average of 2.2 points. The Twins are well separated from the pack, and although the team offense has improved only slightly in terms of the results, you have to acknowledge this significant change in process. Twins hitters, as a group, have been making far better decisions, and that’s one of the reasons why the club could be looking ahead to a one-game playoff.

In the simplest terms, it seems like it would be good for a hitter to be managed by Paul Molitor. And then, last offseason, the Twins hired hitting coach James Rowson, who’s been paired with assistant hitting coach Rudy Hernandez. One can’t just automatically give those people the credit for what’s gone on, because it’s possible this progress would’ve been made anyway, but, hitting coaches probably don’t hear enough positive statements. They get blame more often than they get credit, so we should acknowledge the likely presence of positive influences, here. So many spring-training articles were centered around how Rowson was excited to work with the Twins’ young hitters. He’s seemingly helped Buxton, and he’s presumably helped some others. One of the most tricky elements of coach evaluation is that some tactics work better with certain players than they do with others. In the Twins’ case, improvement has been team-wide. It’s a rather astonishing set of circumstances, so at the very least, we should conclude the Twins have fostered a healthy environment, in which players can further develop.

On the one hand, I’ve never seen something quite like this. On the other hand, I’ve seldom searched, so I can’t authoritatively speak to the precedent. I don’t know whether the Twins’ improvement has been in some way historic. And yet it’s clear that, relative to the rest of the teams in baseball today, what the Twins have done has been exceptional. It’s not the kind of thing you’d notice on a pitch-to-pitch basis. You have a handful of better decisions being made every game, and that doesn’t always lead to better outcomes. Yet all the little decisions do inevitably add up. In this case, they’ve added up to nudge the Twins toward October. And even if these playoffs aren’t made, improvements are improvements. The Twins are still building a foundation.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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