Don’t look now, but the Minnesota Twins lead the major leagues in runs scored per game. The Minnesota Twins — with a line-up featuring the likes of Chris Colabello, Pedro Florimon, Kurt Suzuki, Aaron Hicks, Josmil Pinto, and Trevor Plouffe — are scoring 5.52 runs per game in a month where Joe Mauer has been kind of terrible. On the list of amazing things to happen this April, this has to rank near the very top. And the way they’re scoring runs is perhaps just as surprising.
When you think of organizations that have committed to a patient approach at the plate, you probably think of the Red Sox, Yankees, A’s, and Indians; clubs with long track records of emphasizing on-base percentage and working counts. You probably don’t think of the Twins; over the last three years, Minnesota’s hitters rank just 24th in OBP and are tied for 16th in walk rate. Even with a franchise player like Joe Mauer, taking pitches and getting on base hasn’t really been a point of emphasis for the Twins, and Mauer found himself surrounded by the likes of Ben Revere, Ryan Doumit, Alexi Casilla, and Danny Valencia.
Those four are all gone now, however, and the new Twins don’t look much like the old Twins. Their 12.9% walk rate leads the majors, and their .354 OBP ranks second only to the Colorado Rockies. The Twins are basically walking their way into wins, and it looks like it might very well be be design.
Here are the nine hitters for Minnesota who have constituted something close to regular status for the team this year, and their corresponding swing rates from 2013 and 2014 listed next to that.
Seven of the nine Twins starters are swinging less often this year than they did a year ago, while Mauer has continued his don’t-swing-unless-I-have-to approach that he’s had for years. Colabello is the only hitter who has swung more often this year than he did last year, and even his increase is negligible. And the result is that the Twins are swinging at far fewer pitches than any other team in baseball.
On the year, they’ve offered at just 39.8% of the pitches they’ve been thrown, two percentage points below the next lowest team and five percentage points below than the league average. And while we’re dealing with a sample of just under a month of the season, things like team level swing percentage aren’t subject to the same fluctuations that we see at the player level, or with other metrics that have more variables in the calculation. For reference, the lowest swing percentage any team posted in any month last year was 41.9%. A team posting a swing rate under 40% over an entire month is not a common occurrence, even with random variation.
Now, you might say that maybe this is just a reflection of the Twins facing some lousy pitching over the first few weeks, and the low swing rate is just a reflection of the fact that they’ve seen a lot of pitches out of the strike zone. The numbers refute that hypothesis, however; the Twins hitters have faced the eighth highest Zone% in MLB this year. Because they lack power, pitchers aren’t afraid to throw strikes to this lineup, and yet they’ve still managed to swing at the fewest pitches and post the highest walk rate in baseball.
Because we’re dealing with just 21 games worth of data, this could end up being just a fluke, and perhaps the Twins will return to their hacking ways of previous years. I don’t think anyone expects guys like Colabello and Kubel to keep hitting, after all, and Kurt Suzuki has a long track record of not being able to hit, so expecting him to have figured something out at age-30 is unrealistic. The Twins offense is performing way over its head, and is basically guaranteed to regress over the next five months.
But there are some signs that this might be the fruit of an organizational shift in offensive approach. As a few of the guys told Fox Sports North last week:
“You look at our lineup and we’ve got guys in the lineup with a little more time under our belts now. They know what it takes,” Dozier said. “You’ve got to draw your walks. It’s a long year. Any way to get on base in certain situations, guys are doing that now. But at the same time, we’re not going to lose our aggressiveness. We’re still out there trying to hack away.”
“Me and (Kubel) were joking in the dugout, we were like, ‘Man, we’ve been doing it all wrong for a while. We’ve been trying to hit the ball to score runs. We don’t need to do that,'” said Chris Colabello, who drew the seventh of eight walks in the bizarre eighth inning. “It was awesome, just the combination of guys having good grinder at-bats and not trying to do too much. It’s really easy in those situations to get too amped up and get out of the zone. But obviously, awesome approach by everybody. It was just a great team inning.”
There is some evidence to suggest that Major League hitters do swing too often, especially in two-strike counts, and their overall production could be improved if they stopped chasing as many marginal pitches to avoid being called out taking strike three. Since the Twins don’t have many legitimately good hitters, they may very well be able to maximize their offensive potential by swinging less than anyone else, and forcing the opposing pitcher to challenge them.
The swing/take decision is a constant game of chess between the pitcher and hitter, and if the Twins continue to just take pitches at the rate they’re taking them now, teams will adjust and throw them more strikes. But until they do, the Twins plan seems to be working out pretty well, and a line-up that looks like it should be terrible is performing better than any other. This won’t last, but if the Twins keep up their early season approach, perhaps they won’t be quite the doormat they looked like headed into the season.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.