The Twins Are Pushing the Strikeout Beyond the Borders of the Known

Pablo Lopez
Matt Blewett-USA TODAY Sports

The Twins are in first place. I’m not talking about the standings, though it’s true that they’ve got a substantial lead over the Guardians in the AL Central. The Twins are in first place where it counts: on the strikeout leaderboards. Minnesota’s pitchers are striking out 25.7% of the batters they face, and Minnesota’s batters are striking out 27.2% of the time. Both of those numbers are the highest in baseball this season, and the latter is just a tenth of a percentage point off the all-time record set by the 2020 Tigers. In all, the Twins are on pace to be involved in 3,211 strikeouts, the most of all-time.

In a way, the Twins are on the cutting edge. We are living in the strikeout era, the golden age of the golden sombrero. If you sort every team offense in AL/NL history by strikeout rate, 299 of the top 300 played in this century (congratulations and apologies to the 1998 Diamondbacks). Relative to the rest of the league, the Twins aren’t close to making history; they’re just the team in first place. Their offense’s 118 K%+ pales in comparison to the 163 put up by the 1927 Yankees, to pick a notable example.

The game has been trending toward more strikeouts for as long as it’s been around, and if the Twins do end up setting an all-time record, it likely won’t last all that long. Still, we’d be remiss if we didn’t honor them for racing out ahead of the pack and playing winning baseball in the crushing maw of the strikeout apocalypse.

What really makes the Twins special is that they’re burning the candle at both ends. Our leaderboards have strikeout rate data going all the way back to 1916. In that time, only two teams have ever had the highest strikeout rate on both sides of the ball. It makes sense that this would be a rare feat: If you’re trying to put together a good team, you’re going to invest in both pitching and hitting. Speaking very generally, that means a high strikeout rate on defense and a low strikeout rate on offense. If you’re not trying to field a good team (or you’re the 1998 Arizona Diamondbacks), then the reverse will be true. Either way, your strikeout rates are likely to sit on opposite sides of the spectrum.

The Twins, at four games above .500, are managing to lead the league while staying right around the middle in terms of overall performance. Their batters are on pace to strike out 1,669 times; the current record is 1,596, held by the 2021 Cubs. Their pitchers are on pace to strike out 1,542 batters; the current record is 1,687, held by the 2018 Astros. Together, Minnesota’s 3,211-strikeout pace is 97 more than the 2019 Rays, who notched 1,621 on offense and 1,493 on defense, for a total of 3,114.

So how did the Twins get here? It started with signing Joey Gallo, because of course it did. There are a lot of baseball players whom you could reasonably call strikeout artists, but Gallo is the only non-pitcher of the bunch. After a dreadful 2022, he is actually having a bounceback season at the plate, running a 107 wRC+, and please don’t laugh when I tell you that his batting average has improved by 20 points and is all the way up to .180. But he’s also striking out 42.8% of the time. Gallo won’t have enough PAs to qualify, but among players who made at least 300 plate appearances, that would be the highest strikeout rate of all-time.

The next step was even bigger. In January, the Twins swung a deal with the Marlins, trading Luis Arraez for Pablo López and two prospects. Arraez is the greatest contact hitter in the game today, and he’s batting .356 after spending the first half of the season flirting with .400 so hard that the teacher had to make them sit on opposite sides of the classroom. He is running a 5.7% strikeout rate this season, lowest among all qualified batters, but why stop there? He has a lower strikeout rate than anybody who has made more than 10 plate appearances. If you drop the minimum all the way to one plate appearance — just one! — his is still the ninth-best in baseball. The eight players ahead of him have a grand total of 33 PAs.

But that’s just one side of the trade. López finished the 2022 season with 147 strikeouts, 26th in baseball. His 23.6% strikeout rate was 18th among qualified pitchers. He’s been even better in his first season with the Twins, running a career-best 29.9% strikeout rate thanks in part to a new sweeper. On top of that, both his four-seamer and his sinker have added at least a tick, possibly due to an offseason visit to Driveline. His 3.8 WAR is already a career-high, and that figure ranks sixth among all pitchers this season.

The Twins also traded away Gio Urshela and his 18.7% career strikeout rate, and (in a separate deal) acquired Michael A. Taylor and his 29.9% career strikeout rate. They also signed Christian Vázquez, which brings us to the second part of the story. The first part is the new personnel. The second part is that new or old, everybody is striking out more often — and I mean everybody. In the table below, the players whose 2023 strikeout rate is higher than their 2022 strikeout rate are in red:

All the Twins Are Striking Out More
Player PA 2022 K% 2023 K% Difference
Carlos Correa 482 20.5 23 +2.5
Max Kepler 354 14.8 22.3 +7.5
Byron Buxton 347 30.4 31.4 +1
Donovan Solano 339 20.1 22.4 +2.3
Michael A. Taylor 330 23.9 34.2 +10.3
Willi Castro 315 20.9 24.8 +3.9
Joey Gallo 313 39.8 42.8 +3
Christian Vázquez 278 16.2 21.6 +5.4
Kyle Farmer 275 17 24.4 +7.4
Edouard Julien 272 29.4
Alex Kirilloff 258 23.1 26.7 +3.6
Ryan Jeffers 240 26.3 28.7 +2.4
Jorge Polanco 220 21.3 25.9 +4.6
Trevor Larnach 188 31.7 35.6 +3.9
Jose Miranda 152 18.8 15.8 -3

Of the 15 players who have made the most plate appearances with the Twins this season, 13 have a higher strikeout rate than they did in 2022. The only player with a lower strikeout rate is Miranda. (Julien’s strikeout rate is also higher than the one he ran in the minors in 2022, but it doesn’t seem fair to include him.) If they’d run the same strikeout rate that they did in 2022, those players (minus Julien) would have struck out 944 times so far this season. Instead, they’ve struck out 1,108 times, a difference of 164.

This year, the league as a whole is striking out 22.7% of the time; only six of the 20 players who have made at least one plate appearance for the Twins in 2023 are below that number. That’s not to say that the Twins have been bad at the plate: their 103 wRC+ is tied for 12th in MLB and is down just four points from 2022. They’ve lost some batting average and made it up with some slugging percentage. Buxton and Correa have had major drop-offs, but Kepler, Solano, Castro, Gallo, Kirilloff, and Jeffers have all improved at the plate despite their higher strikeout totals.

Still, the team isn’t exactly jazzed about setting an all-time record. Back in June, manager Rocco Baldelli told reporters, “The strikeouts, they are an issue and there’s no way around that. I think I’d be sitting here feeding you something if I told you it wasn’t something that we’re thinking about and talking about because we can say, ‘Oh yeah, we can still be productive and strike out.’”

All the same, if you’ve been following the Twins for any length of time, the offense’s tendency toward strikeouts is less surprising than the defense’s. Minnesota’s pitching staff has never once led the league in strikeouts. Over the last 15 seasons, the Twins have run a 19% strikeout rate, tied with the Rockies and the Orioles for the lowest in baseball. For a long time, that was by design. As the league strikeout rate ballooned from 18.5% in 2010 to 23.4% 10 years later, the Twins were still preaching about pitching to contact. They backed it up, too, running MLB’s lowest strikeout rate for five years straight, from 2011 to ‘15, and ranking in the bottom three in ‘16 and ‘17.

I know I made a point of saying that Minnesota’s offense isn’t bad despite all the strikeouts, but for the team’s pitchers, the newfound ability to strike batters out has definitely been a good thing. The Twins have the best K%-BB% in baseball. They also have the second-best FIP, the fifth-best xFIP, and the eighth-best ERA. That’s a top-tier pitching staff.

This year, the starters are leading the way with an MLB-best 26.5% strikeout rate; the relievers are in ninth place at 24.3%. That in itself is a little bit unusual, given that 24 teams have a higher strikeout rate from their relievers than their starters. Of the 22 Twins who have thrown at least 10 innings this year, 14 are running a strikeout rate above the 22.7% average the league is running as a whole.

Minnesota’s returning players have found ways to improve. Jhoan Duran has somehow added nearly a full tick to his fastball, going from an average of 100.8 mph to 101.7. Sonny Gray has added a cutter that’s working out quite nicely. Joe Ryan, who looks likely to return from the IL very soon, added a splitter and revamped his slider to add more horizontal break.

Meanwhile, Minnesota’s new pitchers are performing well. In addition to trading for López, the team also got Kenta Maeda back after the right-hander missed all of 2022 due to Tommy John surgery. They took a chance on Brock Stewart in July of 2022, and after two surgeries and three years away from the big leagues, he is a completely different pitcher. He’s releasing the ball six inches higher than he did in 2019, has added 5.6 mph to his four-seamer, and is now throwing a cutter and a sweeper. The result? A jump of more than 20 percentage points to his strikeout rate. Stewart is currently on the IL with elbow soreness, but the Twins hope to have him back in September.

But it’s Minnesota’s latest addition that gives should give us pause — one that could bring their glorious strikeout-laden season crumbling to the ground. Instead of learning to stop worrying and love the strikeout, the Twins signed Dallas Keuchel in June and brought him up to the big club earlier this month. Keuchel, winner of the 2015 Cy Young Award, is the premier contact suppressor of the past decade. Not striking people out is his whole thing: he owns an 18.1% career strikeout rate, though in the 2020s, he’s at 13.8%. Through three appearances with the Twins this season, he’s at 5.4%. That is to say that so far this season, when Keuchel is on the mound, he turns every hitter into a version of Luis Arraez that strikes out even less, which was not a thing I ever thought I’d have to imagine.

I’m very happy for Keuchel. He’s making the most of his chance in Minnesota after his career appeared to be over. It’s wonderful that he was able to take a perfect game into the seventh inning four days ago. But the Twins have a record to think about here. Maybe Keuchel can help them win this season, but I’d like to leave you with one thought. Earlier, I mentioned that only two teams had ever led the league in both pitching and batting strikeout rate. Those two teams were the 1958 Dodgers and the 2015 Cubs. Know what else those two teams have in common? They both won the World Series the next year. Embrace the K, Minnesota.

Davy Andrews is a Brooklyn-based musician and a contributing writer for FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @davyandrewsdavy.

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8 months ago

Excellent finish.

8 months ago
Reply to  Jim

Yes and the Dr Strangelove reference was fun too

Oh, Beepy.
8 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Typical Davy doubleyou