The Twins’ Other Dramatic Turnaround

Byron Buxton’s torrid August has been the primary reason the Twins have vaulted back into the Wild Card race this month, as the team’s center fielder is again showing why he was previously considered the best prospect in baseball. But while it’s very easy to draw a straight line between Buxton’s performance and the team’s 17-10 record in August, he isn’t doing this alone; there’s another guy on the roster whose performance has changed even more dramatically. And that guy is Matt Belisle.

After having a nice run with the Rockies in his early-30s, Belisle became the quintessential journeyman reliever the last few years, signing one year deals with the Cardinals, Nationals, and now the Twins. Those one year deals paid him between $1.25M and $3.5M per year, and despite running a 1.76 ERA with Washington last year, the Twins got him for just $2 million this past winter. As a pitch-to-contact 37-year-old, there just wasn’t much interest in Belisle despite last year’s shiny ERA.

And for the first three months of the year, the league looked prescient. When June came to a close, Belisle had a 6.53 ERA/5.17 FIP/5.53 xFIP. He was pitching himself out of baseball, as if the Twins released him, he might not get another chance, given his age and lack of ability to put batters away. An aging command guy with a 12% walk rate isn’t something many teams want.

But then, at the beginning of July, Belisle started doing something weird, for him; he started striking everyone out.

At the end of June, his rolling 10-game strikeout rate was 11.8%. As of his last appearance on August 27th, his current rolling 10-game strikeout rate is 46.4%. This 37-year-old pitch-to-contact specialist, on the verge of the end of his career, somehow spent the last two months doing his best Dellin Betances impersonation.

Since July 1st, among relievers with 15 innings pitched, Belisle ranks 14th in strikeout rate, sixth in K%-BB%, eighth in FIP, and sixth in xFIP. If you just look at August — where the sample becomes just six innings, so obvious caveats apply — he’s sixth in strikeout rate and second in K%-BB%.

So what’s the deal? How did Matt Belisle suddenly start blowing hitters away after a replacement-level first half and a career of just trying to throw strikes and get ground balls?

For one, he stopped throwing so hard. No, really.

At the end of June, Belisle was averaging 92 on his fastball. Now, Belisle is averaging just 90 mph, and his two breaking balls have similarly slowed down. Usually, a guy losing two ticks on all his pitches across the board is a giant red flag. In this case, though, it coincides with Belisle’s remarkable improvement.

So how is Belisle striking everyone out while throwing slower? You might think maybe he’s figured out how to attack hitters in the strike zone with more frequency. But, nope.

The apex of that graph is basically the end of June. Since then, his Zone% has steadily dropped, so Belisle is now throwing more and slower pitches out of the zone, and it’s working miracles for him.

New pitch? No, that’s not it either. He’s thrown a few more two-seamers than he did in the first few months, but we’re talking about a difference of one extra two-seamer per game, and it’s still his rarely-used fourth pitch. New movement on one of his old pitches? Nah, that is all mostly the same too.

And it gets weirder. The primary driver of strikeout rate is the amount of contact that opposing hitters make against you. K% and Contact% move almost entirely in lockstep, with only a few exceptions. Except Belisle’s contact rate has barely changed at all, going from 79% in the first half to 78% in the second half. So while he’s throwing more pitches out of the zone, he’s not getting significantly more whiffs.

So why has Matt Belisle started striking everyone out? I think it’s because of his foul ball rate.

Matt Belisle’s Foul Balls
Fouls/Swing Through 6/30 Since 7/1
Fastball 45% 44%
Curveball 32% 50%
Slider 24% 53%
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball

His fastball foul rate hasn’t changed, but his breaking ball foul rate has basically doubled in the second half. So pitches that went in play in the first half are going into the stands in the second half, and thus, Belisle’s getting contact strikes instead of contact-in-play.

Since the start of July, 27% of all of Belisle’s pitches have resulted in foul balls, the fourth-highest foul rate for any pitcher over that time. He was perfectly pedestrian at foul-inducement in the first three months of the year, ranking 136th of 293 pitchers from April through June.

There appears to be a little bit of skill in generating foul balls — Addison Reed, for instance, ranks in the top 10 in both April-June and July-August rankings — but it certainly doesn’t appear to be a skill that is reliable enough to be the core of a foundational change. But when it comes to Belisle’s dramatic change in results, it’s really the only thing I’ve been able to find that is significantly different.

He’s throwing softer, he’s throwing fewer strikes, and he’s getting a ton of foul balls on his off-speed stuff. And apparently that all adds up to a 37-year-old command artist striking everybody out for two months while helping lead the charge back to the postseason. Okay.

Baseball, man. It’s weird. This is weird. The next time we think we’re figuring stuff out about this game, just remember Matt Belisle, and remember that we don’t really know anything at all.





Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

newest oldest most voted
Baron Samedi
Member
Baron Samedi

God, might as well rename this site #Twinsgraphs

Baron Samedi
Member
Baron Samedi

Just wait till they sign Bryce Harper.