In the eighth inning of last Tuesday’s 7-2 Twins win over the White Sox, Melky Cabrera smacked a rather unremarkable sinking line drive off Tyler Duffey that Max Kepler converted to a rather unremarkable out.
The Twins outfield has leapt and stretched and dove its way to quite the collection of highlight-reel plays so far this season; this was not one of them.
But that rather pedestrian liner is almost always a base hit, per the Statcast data housed at Baseball Savant.
Kepler’s grab won’t grab any headlines or be featured on MLB.com, but it’s the kind of easily unnoticed saved-hit that, over the course of a long season (or 34 games), makes a massive difference in the ongoing effort to prevent runs.
And the Twins’ pitching staff needs all the help they can preventing runs, because (and this will not surprise you) the team’s pitchers once again are throwing some super tasty, hittable pitches.
I’ve plotted 2017 team pitching Contact Rates and Swinging Strike Percentage, with the former being the X-axis and the latter as the Y-axis; the ideal spot to be would be the very top left of the graph, which represents a high percentage of swinging strikes and a low percentage of opponent contact (i.e. folks aren’t hitting you).
The 2017 Twins have a contact-heavy approach, as always, and Twins fans saw both possible outcomes of that approach last weekend: Jose Berrios struck out only four batters but pounded the strike zone — 71 strikes on 104 pitches — to put himself into pitcher-friendly counts that allowed him to mix his pitches effectively and ultimately succeed. Berrios’ control and command were suspect last season, so seeing the sophomore set up shop in the zone all game heartened Twins Territory and augurs well for a new-and-improved Berrios.
Berrios also limited hard contact, inducing numerous pop outs and lazy fly balls; he only allowed one batted ball with a hit probability above 75%, per Statcast, and it was converted into, again, a rather unremarkable out.
Hector Santiago played the role of Mr. Hyde to Berrios’ Dr. Jekyll in Robert Louis Stevenson’s (incredibly poor-selling) “Minnesota Twins pitchers” reboot. Santiago continued to allow oodles of contact and it finally bit him in the ass on Sunday, as SooFoo_Fan documented.
This was coming, as most attuned observers — and, it turns out, advanced stats — could have told you! Opposing hitters are really mashing the ol’ baseball against the Twins’ pitching staff. (Again, per MLB’s Statcast. The Rockies got “purpled” because Mike Petriello’s article focused on Colorado. I purpled myself.)
But the Twins’ defense isn’t making mistakes and is now starting a defensive lineup — Castro/Gimenez at catcher, Kepler, Buxton and Rosario in the outfield, namely — that excels defensively.
That Rosario-Buxton-Kepler triumvirate is one of the best in the game, and — again, shocker — when you replace Miguel Sano and Danny Santana in the outfield for two excellent outfielders, good things happen.
The Twins’ Outfield Catch Probability has increased more than any other MLB team, which has driven much of the defensive improvement.
The outfield defense is so good we even have Adderall-addled ex-ballplayers attempting Twins outfield feats.
This weekend demonstrated something obvious to those of us watching this (1st-place!) team: the Twins’ pitching staff is walking a dangerous, thin line, and the only thing keeping them on the right side of it is a dramatically improved defense.
Here’s hoping it continues.