The Twins New Plan: Don’t Swing

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.


Player 2013 2014 Difference
Brian Dozier 40% 36% -4%
Joe Mauer 38% 38% 0%
Trevor Plouffe 43% 37% -7%
Chris Colabello 46% 47% 1%
Jason Kubel 46% 40% -6%
Josmil Pinto 42% 38% -4%
Kurt Suzuki 42% 35% -8%
Aaron Hicks 40% 36% -4%
Pedro Florimon 44% 43% -1%

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.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

49 Responses to “The Twins New Plan: Don’t Swing”

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  1. Steve says:

    How far is this skewed though by that one brutal inning vs. the Jays?

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    • The Real Steve says:

      Get out of here, I’m the Steve that pisses fangraphs off.

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    • Well-Beered Englishman says:

      The punchline of that inning was that the Twins announcer – having just watched his own team take the improbable lead – ended the coverage with a deep sigh and a resigned, almost tragic delivery of the line: “You have just watched eight men walked in one half-inning.” No more commentary; cut to commercials.

      +35 Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. RMD says:

    [Two minutes of research..]

    The Rockies and Brewers are 1st and 4th in MLB Non-pitcher wRC+. They’re also 1 and 2 in highest Swing%. Not swinging helps. Except when it doesn’t.

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    • Compton says:

      I think the point is that the Twins couldn’t possibly be a top 5 offensive team by any measure if they just went up there hacking. Like the article said, Suzuki, Plouffe, Kubel, etc are not great hitters.

      For teams with a few elite hitters like the Brewers and Rockies, the approach wouldn’t necessarily need to be altered. They can go up there and swing away and be successful because of their overall hitting ability.

      So yes, there are many ways to skin a cat. The Twins are just doing it with an incredibly dull blade.

      +72 Vote -1 Vote +1

  3. terencemann says:

    “Hitters aren’t afraid to throw strikes to this lineup…”

    I didn’t know the Twins’ offense was so bad that teams are just sending their position players out to the mound to face them. Makes some sense…

    +14 Vote -1 Vote +1

  4. Ron says:

    Neil Walker or Dozier in a league that counts -1 for strikeouts?

    -25 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Andrew says:

      I think you’re looking for this site: http://www.fangraphs.com/fantasy/

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      • Ron says:

        My apologies…I’m new to these parts of town. Can you provide some insight on the primary differences between the topics covered here and those covered on the other site? Thanks.

        +5 Vote -1 Vote +1

        • Aaron Trammell says:

          Fangraphs = General baseball articles

          Rotographs= Fantasy articles

          Notgraphs= Semi-humorous psuedo-intellectual baseball wankery.

          +30 Vote -1 Vote +1

        • Jason B says:

          With regards to fantasy questions and commentary, remember:

          If it’s green, they shouldn’t be seen.

          If it’s brown, put your questions down.

          If it’s purple, nothing rhymes with purple. Here’s a picture of a 1981 Lee Smith Topps card and a 1,600-word tribute to Mickey Morandini.

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  5. Robin Ventura says:

    Swinging at far fewer pitchers than any team in baseball….good for them.

    I, for one, know better than to swing at certain pitchers.

    +48 Vote -1 Vote +1

  6. The Humber Games says:

    As you mention in your article, curious to see how this plays out given time. Plouffe for example, has seen 386 pitches so far, and the difference between his current % and last year’s is 12 pitches swung at over 21 games played. And he’s showing one of the larger deltas from last year. Others know more than I do about stabilization rates and all that, but that sure doesn’t seem like a high number.

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  7. Urban Shocker says:

    I don’t think anyone expects guys like Colabello and Kubel to keep hitting

    Until last year, Kubel has been a decent hitter-career wOBA of .339. He’s certainly a liability in the field and running the bases, but then one has to wonder what could have been if not for torn ACL early in his career.

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    • Luke in MN says:

      He’s also basically a platoon guy for the Twins, and if healthy he should be able to put up good numbers against righties.

      Colabello’s the mold-breaker who’s swinging at everything and as a result of all the guys walking in front of him, leads the league in RBIs. And if you say you don’t believe in Colabello, well, a fairy dies every time you say that.

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    • stephenjacobs27 says:

      I agree with that too, although him Colabello will regress some, I can also see the both of them ending up with decent seasons when its all said and done. Also nice to see Pinto developing one of the better eyes on the team after being known as a notoriously free swinger, and I believe Plouffe has completely changed his pull happy approach. It is also interesting to have Colabello batting 4th behind 3 incredibly patient hitters (this year so far at least with Trevor). Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like quite often Dozier Mauer and Plouffe frustrate the starting pitcher in the first inning by driving his pitch count up, leading him to throw meatballs to Colabello. It’s been working so far though and, unlike the author, I can definitely see this particular Twins lineup (with Willingham, Arcia, and Nunez in the mix as well) generate top tier run production by the end of the year. This April isn’t a fluke.

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      • Luke in MN says:

        Yeah, there’s a legitimate offense here. Colabello, Pinto, and (injured) Arcia have short MLB resumes, but have absolutely mashed the high minors. All project as above-average hitters on this site. Plouffe has been an above-average MLB hitter since 2012. Dozier was an average hitter last year in his first full MLB season. Willingham (also injured), Mauer, and Kubel have long histories of being good hitters to different degrees. Yeah, Suzuki, Hicks, and Whatever SS will probably drag numbers down a bit, although Hicks still has upside.

        They’ll score some runs (just don’t mention the starting pitching or defense).

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  8. Fritz Peterson says:

    Don’t swing!

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  9. grammar goebbels says:

    Someday Dave and Fangraphs et al will learn when to hyphenate “age 30″ and when not to. I am not holding my breath, though.

    (The correct answer is when it’s a compound modifier — “age-30 season” is correct, “figure something out at age 30″ is also correct.)

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    • chuckb says:

      Someday grammar nazis will know that a comma should follow the proper name that immediately precedes “et al.”

      Maybe it’s different in German. I’m not fluent.

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      • Johnston says:

        Actually, you’re wrong about that. The comma is optional in that circumstance, depending on whether the author uses the Oxford Comma or not.

        You shouldn’t insult people who want the language used properly by calling them “Grammar Nazis.” It’s rude, it’s wrong and it’s lame. (Note that I don’t use the Oxford comma either.)

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        • a teenager says:

          Grammar doesnt exist anymore, text messages have done a thourough job of killing the poor bastard. As long as it’s on the internet and not in a scientific journal or what not, get over it.

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        • Vampire Weekend asks... says:

          Who gives a f*ck about an Oxford Comma?

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        • AlteredEgo says:

          Considering his user name owns up to it, I think he is quite fine with being called a grammar nazi.

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  10. The funny thing is, they aren’t showing any more power (.387-.380 slg from ’13), and are striking out nearly as much.

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  11. Satoshi Nakamoto says:

    The Twins will start stinking it up real quick.

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  12. Helladecimal says:

    twinsies!

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  13. I don’t know that they necessarily lack power. Top half in iso. *shrug*

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  14. Kirby Puckett says:

    I think the twins can keep the runs coming in. Colabello is the real deal. He reminds me of Jose Bautista before he found his power stoke. Brain Dozier reminds me of a younger Chase Utley. Trevor Plouffe reminds me of Evan Longoria especially now that he has changed his approach. To say the twins don’t have good enough hitters in their lineup is just ridiculous. I’m not saying dozier, Plouffe. or colabello are going to bat .300 but I definitely think they can hit the .270 range and I would also wager that dozier finishes with 100+ runs 25+ HR and 25+ steals. Colabello I would wager finishes with 100+ RBI’s and around 15-20 HR. Barring injury of course both need to finish with around 600 AB. We are starting to see the effects of Tom Brunansky, Terry Steinbach, and Paul Molitor. These guys have been preaching this approach in the batters box to the young players and they’re finally starting to get it. This isn’t the twins yr to win the division. But to think what their lineup is gonna look like in 2016 when buxton and sano are up and ready is scary. If they can find some starting pitching they’ll be one of the best teams in baseball. All in all we are starting to see the twins turn it around from rock bottom. I think they’ll finish at .500 + or – 5 games and be in the top 10 in offense.

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    • Satoshi Nakamoto says:

      You’re delusional.

      +12 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Steve-O says:

        Delusion is certainly part of the baseball equation…so what’s your point? He has every right to be myopic as you have to be a skeptic, since neither of you know what exactly what is going to happen.

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        • RSF says:

          People have every right to be irrational if they want. And others have every right to point out their irrationality. That’s what’s going on here.

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      • Kirby Puckett says:

        Maybe I am but the name of the game to hitting is getting the pitch you want to hit.. Plouffe is still learning while longoria developed early. Players develop at different rates. Look at Carlos Gomez with the twins. Look at him now with the Brewers!! We all know Plouffe has Power as he displayed with one of the greatest months in baseball history 2 yrs ago. The difference between him then and now is he is trying to put together the other side of hitting. When he does and I think he will put them both together. He will be as good as Longoria. For at least a couple yrs. I am NOT saying any of these guys from the twins will have the careers of those players I mentioned. But they really remind me in style and approach at the plate and I think they can put together a couple yrs like those players.

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    • tz says:

      In reverse order:

      Plouffe vs. Longoria – no way.

      Dozier vs. Utley – I can see Dozier becoming a poor man’s Utley; his minor league track record ain’t shabby.

      Colabello vs. Bautista – if you’re thinking of the Pittsburgh-era Bautista, I’m totally on board. He murdered AAA pitching last year over 391 PA, to the extent that you could safely say the guy can hit. As a Red Sox fan, I’d say Colabello should be about as good as Jonny Gomes going forward.

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  15. Josh M says:

    Who/what broke Joe Mauer anyways? I expect him to turn it around but even last year his strikeout was way out of whack compared to his career 10-11%

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  16. Johnny Ringo says:

    I like the idea of it, because pitchers are getting better, and there are not a lot of .300 guys floating around over the course of a full season.

    Thus, it seems that putting the ball in play could be considered detrimental more times than not, if your best guys can only do it successfully 30 percent of the time.

    Most pitchers can’t pepper the zone pitch after pitch if asked, and if so, they would get too predictable. I really don’t see why teams don’t look more into simply having guys work the count until they get two strikes.

    They get more looks at what the pitcher has, they have a change to work into a hitters count (if people are on base), and they are putting the pressure on the pitcher to “make” the pitches.

    If you become a pure zone hitter, this approach makes a lot of sense. Hard thing is, how do you adjust your swing with 2 strikes, and how many guys can do it successfully to foul pitches off in a deep count? (assuming no men on base?)

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  17. Dave P says:

    Finally, teams are following Buttermaker’s offensive strategy.

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  18. philkid3 says:

    A changed swing rate for a player becomes more reliable than career data pretty fast, too. The coin-flip point for recent vs. large sample in swing% is like 50 PA, if I remember correctly.

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  19. Hey Dave says:

    Remember your call on Denard Span?
    You sure know them Twins…

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  20. I don’t know where you get that Kurt Susuki don’t know how to hit. By his contact and walks rates, he does know how to hit.

    Per Baseball Forecaster studies, his contact rates have been excellent for much of his career, only bad blip was in 2012, his first year traded. Perhaps that threw him off, perhaps it was a continuation of the uptick in striking out that he had in 2011 versus his career. But he returned to his good contact ways in 2013, just not with his BABIP. Hitters in his range average .270-280, not his career .254.

    Add to that his OK walk rate, 6.5%, and hitters with that contact and walk profile averaged .279, again, much higher than his career numbers. Of course, there is the curve, and somebody is below as well as above. Perhaps he’s one of those, I will grant that. But he has the profile of a good hitter.

    That’s where I think the second thing needs to be brought up: yes, he’s a 30-YO player, but the key thing that I think you are missing is that he’s a catcher. Look at his AA and AAA stats. That’s a good hitter, his wOBA was pretty good down there. But catcher’s main duty is defense, and sometimes they fall behind on their hitting concentrating on their defense. That’s why there is sometimes a renaissance for catcher offensively when they reach their 30′s, they catch up with others in their hitting.

    Now whether Susuki is like that is another question. His high BABIP suggests a fall back regression to the mean at some point. He was actually pretty OK offensively his first couple of seasons, but then seem to have lost his way offensively. Maybe this season is regression to the mean on his BABIP for the really bad years he had in 2010, 11, 13. Maybe he figured out what’s been missing from his 2007-08 performance and won’t fall back as much.

    In any case, I think his stats show that he’s been a good hitter, he knows how to take a walk, he knows how to avoid the strikeout, but I will grant that he’s had troubles with actually getting the hits, but he has a good hitter profile and he has done it before, so he has it in him, perhaps he’s been lost the last few years but maybe the Twins has a batting coach who has helped him figure it out. It will be interesting to see how it turns out, but I would be more hopeful on him, since he is a catcher and has shown his abilities before, it is a matter of capturing that again.

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