The Twins Are Now Hitting With More of a Clue

If we can just be up front about things — I don’t think the Twins are very good. Chances are, you don’t think the Twins are very good, either. They didn’t come in as a consensus contender, and even now, the rest of the way, our projections have the Twins as the second-worst team in the American League. If they’re good, actually good, well, I know at least I will need a lot more convincing. That’s enough of that. Let’s get to the positive stuff.

I don’t know how much longer it’ll last, but right now one can find the Twins at the top of the AL Central. It’s not a division many expected to be good, but it *is* a division that includes the defending AL champs, so seeing the Twins where they are is a surprise. As long as the Twins are successful, they’re worth our attention, and for now I’d like to bring your attention to something about the team’s hitters. Recently, I noted that the Twins have experienced something of a defensive turnaround. There are also signs of progress on the offensive front. Stick with me, because you know I have plots.

Just a few days ago, Travis wrote about Miguel Sano. Sano is currently wowing everyone with his batted-ball speeds, and Travis drew a line between Sano’s productivity and his more refined approach. Sano, now, has never exactly been a hacker, but sometimes he would get himself in trouble. Part of maturing is learning more about how you’re attacked. Learning more about what you can and can’t handle.

We have plate-discipline statistics on this site, and you’re probably familiar with them. There’s O-Swing%, which measures the rate of swings at pitches out of the strike zone. There’s Z-Swing%, which measures the rate of swings at pitches inside the strike zone. I like to combine the two by subtracting the former from the latter. The way I figure, the bigger the result, the better the discipline. Everyone can agree it’s good to swing at strikes and bad to swing at balls. All right.

Out of curiosity, I looked at the hitters who’ve changed the most from 2016. I set a minimum of 100 plate appearances in each season, and I looked for the biggest positive differences in Z – O-Swing%. I had a hunch I’d find Sano. Here’s the full top five:

  1. Jed Lowrie, +14.2%
  2. Jorge Polanco, +13.5%
  3. Anthony Rendon, +13.1%
  4. Max Kepler, +11.7%
  5. Miguel Sano, +11.2%

Five players. Three Twins. Sano, indeed, is close to the top of the leaderboard, but he still has two teammates in front of him. That right there is enough to capture my interest, and now here’s the first of two plots. This shows every player who met the plate-appearance threshold, as well as their changes in O-Swing% and Z-Swing%. I’ve highlighted the nine Twins.

The upper left is the best quadrant, here. That’s the quadrant with more swings at strikes, and fewer chases. Whether coincidentally or not, the nine Twins are kind of closely grouped together. All nine players have seen some kind of improvement in the difference between their swing rates. Now, some have improved more than others. The three Twins mentioned above have improved by double-digit percentage points. Robbie Grossman has improved by about one percentage point. But there’s enough for me to consider this a possible pattern. There are signs that the Twins, almost as a whole, have improved their hitting approach.

Here’s what things look like on the team level. This plot is going to look a little different, but, again, the highlighted point belongs to Minnesota.

Rosters aren’t identical year-to-year, of course. But the Twins have seen the biggest good change in O-Swing%. They’ve seen the third-biggest good change in Z-Swing%. So here are the top three teams in terms of improvement in the difference between those two swing metrics:

  1. Twins, +5.4%
  2. Braves, +4.1%
  3. White Sox, +4.0%

Last season, the difference between the Twins’ out-of-zone swing rate and in-zone swing rate was 29.9 percentage points. That ranked last in the major leagues. This season, the Twins rank eighth in the major leagues in the same category. Not coincidentally, a year ago, the Twins were 21st in walk-to-strikeout ratio. Now they’re second, between the Red Sox and the Nationals. Sano has been the greatest individual success story, but he couldn’t achieve all of this by himself.

Whenever you see a big change like this, it’s natural to wonder about a cause. We’re always on the hunt for easy explanations, and, just by chance, the Twins are working with a new hitting coach. This is the first year with Minnesota for James Rowson, and you can see how a new coach could install a new plan of attack. And, I’m sure Rowson has been preaching good discipline all along. Every coach wants for his hitters to make better decisions. I wouldn’t rush to give Rowson all the credit, though. If you read Travis’ piece on Sano, you see that Sano has been trying to make improvements on his own. It’s a part of gaining experience. For Sano, this is his age-24 season. Same for Kepler. It’s Polanco’s age-23 season. It’s Byron Buxton’s age-23 season. It’s all a learning process, and we could be seeing synchronized maturation.

It is important to note that it’s not like the Twins have suddenly developed into an offensive juggernaut. That’s what would follow, right? That the Twins would be scoring more often? The Twins, last year, had a 95 wRC+. This year, they have a 99 wRC+. Of the nine Twins with seemingly better discipline, only two are running better batting lines. Only three are running higher average exit velocities. Development is complicated, and it doesn’t all happen at once. You have to embrace the gains that you can. The wRC+ is better. The hard-hit rate is better. The walks are up. The strikeouts are down. The improved process is there, even if the gains have been modest. It gives hope the gains could get greater.

As a team, the Twins are hitting with more of a clue. I don’t know how you could spin that as a bad thing. We’ll see if they stick to it. We’ll see if approaches break down as fatigue becomes a factor. But the lineup, as a whole, is smarter, which is bad news for any opponent. The pitching staff? The Twins could use help in the pitching staff. The position-player side of things is looking all right.

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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6 years ago

It helps not having to face that guy named Berrios right now!