March 13, 2015
How the Twins Discovered Moneyball 10 Years Too Late
I’m not a scout, but sometimes it’s fun to pretend. When I attend baseball games in person, I often do so alone, the better to scratch feverishly at a notebook all night long. On April 15, 2013, I got to Target Field early, settled in with George Will's Men at Work, and braced myself for a long night of cold baseball. The Twins were playing the Angels, and I had a dirt-cheap seat in the highest level of the seating bowl, but directly behind home plate. I was there, mostly, to see Mike Trout in the flesh, but also to witness the big-league debut of Oswaldo Arcia and to get a feel for this young, rough Twins club.
Trout had two hits. Arcia had one, and flashed his violent, lightning-quick swing. Joe Mauer had four hits, two of them for extra bases. (This was before his power disappeared into the ether.) The Twins won easily. What caught my eye, though—what began showing up in my scorebook by the second inning, and what I’ve tracked for two years since—was one peculiar element of Minnesota’s collective plate approach: They weren’t swinging at the first pitch of any at-bat.
The first Twin to swing at a first pitch that night was Pedro Florimon, the ninth batter of the game. The second to do so was Trevor Plouffe, the 15th batter, leading off the fourth inning, and Plouffe only did so because he got such a meatball from Joe Blanton; he homered on that swing. The Twins had 39 total plate appearances in the game, and swung at the first offering in only seven of them—six, if you don’t count Florimon’s sacrifice bunt in the sixth inning.
That was early in 2013, but nothing has changed yet. In each of the past two seasons, the Red Sox have swung at the first pitch less frequently than any other team in baseball. That’s probably not surprising; the Red Sox are the best-known take-and-rake team in the league. In each season, though, the second-least likely team to hack away at the first pitch has been the Twins. In fact, if you take the two seasons as one lumped-together data point, you get:
Highest Percentage of Plate Appearances, Taking First Pitch, 2013-14
Not swinging at the first pitch feels like a very Moneyball thing to do, and, indeed, the teams who have traditionally valued walks highly and been known as stat-savvy—Boston, Texas, Cleveland, Oakland—do show up here. Yet, so do the Twins, a team we usually think of as strikeout-averse and aggressive. From 2002 (when Ron Gardenhire took over) through 2012, that was true. The Twins ranked 20th in team walk rate over that span, and they had the second-lowest strikeout rate. They weren’t a consistently good offense during those years, though. In 2011, they were downright awful, and they didn’t even make it back to average in 2012. Therefore, they reassigned ("reassigned" is what the Twins do, a year after anyone else would have fired the guy) hitting coach Joe Vavra to the third-base coach’s box, and hired Tom Brunansky in his place. It’s under Brunansky (who survived Gardenhire’s ouster, and remains in place) that the team has become the proto-Red Sox.
We’ve had pitch-by-pitch data (and, therefore, the ability to break down outcomes by count and approach) since 1988. The league has never, in that time, done better when swinging at the first pitch than when taking it. However, the gap has never been so narrow:
2014 League Splits, Swung at or Took First Pitch
It’s hard to argue with Brunansky’s results. The Twins were the only team with 10 players who batted at least 200 times and had an average or better OPS+ in 2014. A lot of the names on that list—Brian Dozier, Kurt Suzuki and Eduardo Escobar being the poster boys—embraced the approach Brunansky preached, and overachieved because of it. Seven of the team’s 10 significant contributors took the first pitch more often than the average batter, and Dozier, Suzuki and Joe Mauer all swung at about half the league rate. The Twins scored the fifth most runs in the American League, and the next person you find who thinks they had the fifth most offensive talent had better be the first.
On the other hand, there’s an argument that this is a dying strategy. Maybe it’s a good way to rein in young hitters and impose some plate discipline on a team lacking other key offensive skills, but the league is moving away from this kind of programmed pitch-taking. The rate of first-pitch swinging bottomed out five years ago, and 2014 marked the highest leaguewide rate since 2008.
Why is this happening? That’s a fair question, right? We know that, on balance, batters do better when they take the first pitch. That may be less true than it has been for at least 30 years, but it’s still true. Pitchers say the best pitch in baseball is strike one, and the only way a batter can give himself a chance to get ahead in the count is by letting the first pitch go by.
The thing is, the chance of getting ahead even when taking that pitch is lower than ever.
This chart shows the percentage of taken first pitches that go for a ball. Clearly, pitchers are attacking the zone to start plate appearances in a way they didn’t even five years ago, and batters are responding by getting more aggressive. Last season saw the highest OPS+ on first-pitch balls in play on record, 45 percent better than the overall average. That signals that batters could stand to swing even more, at least until pitchers go back to nibbling at the corners on those opening salvos.
I had a chemistry teacher in high school who liked to say, “If you have a question about chemistry and it starts with ‘why,’ the answer is hydrogen bonding.” Now, I don’t have a clue if that’s true. I failed that guy’s class. But that basic idea works right now, in baseball. If you have a question about a macro-level trend affecting the way the game is played throughout MLB and it starts with "why," the answer is strikeouts. Strikeouts are changing a lot of what used to be foundational truths about the game. The numbers don’t work the way they used to work. Falling behind even 0-1 now puts a batter at a 28.2-percent risk of striking out. Just seven years ago, that number was under 25 percent.
With pitchers pouring so many balls into the zone, the frequency of those 0-1 counts is at an all-time high, 49.6 percent in 2014. In nearly half of all plate appearances, batters are ending up facing a disastrously high risk of whiffing. That’s driven the increase in early swings. That’s pushed teams like Houston and San Francisco to swing very aggressively early in the count, then wait back if the at-bat goes farther.
The Twins and Red Sox paid a price for their resistance to that shift last season. The two clubs had by far the highest likelihoods of falling behind 0-1 anywhere in baseball.
Percentage of Total PA Beginning 0-1, 2014
And from there, naturally, they proceeded to face two-strike counts more often than anyone else:
This is where the rubber meets the road. Notice how strikeout rate once the count reaches two strikes (the orange bars) correlates nearly perfectly with overall strikeout rate, at the team level. Minnesota and Boston are the biggest exceptions to this rule. Because they were so patient early in counts, both the Twins and the Sox ended up in so many two-strike situations that their strikeout rates crept into the highest quartile in the league, despite each team being better than average at battling once they had two strikes against them. They need to make more contact to optimize their offenses, and more contact is going to mean more first-pitch swings, if only from specific players or in specific situations.
The Red Sox added Hanley Ramirez (32.5 percent career first-pitch swing rate) and Pablo Sandoval (a staggering 43.1 percent) to their lineup this winter. The Twins added Torii Hunter (32.3 percent, for his career) to theirs, and promised Kennys Vargas (36.2 percent, in his partial rookie campaign) more or less a full-time job. While both teams should remain among the most patient in the league, they’re making adjustments. That’s good. Any extreme approach risks going too far, and given the current constraints on offense (to wit, strikeouts), both clubs needed to modulate their approach, temper it. As long as Dozier, Mauer and Suzuki populate Minnesota’s lineup, the Twins are going to be one of the most patient teams in the league. It would do them some good to get a little more aggression from a few other spots, in order to maintain their balance.