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The Twins are walking at a historic rate

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BB’s have helped key their early turnaround. But will it last?

Minnesota Twins v Kansas City Royals
Miguel Sano has upped his walk game in 2017, helping the Twins to lead MLB in the stat through one month.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

A gander at MLB’s walk-rate leaderboard offers a bit of a jolt these days, especially for Twins fans.

Image via Fangraphs, through April 30

Heading into Tuesday’s game against the A’s, Miguel Sano is on-pace for 127 walks, which would give him the fourth-best bases-on-balls season in club history.

Image via Baseball Reference

Even if Sano slows down, it does look like he will have the Twins’ first 100-walk season since Bob Allison’s 1961 campaign — and right in front of Joe Mauer! How rude.

But it’s more than just Sano, Grossman and Castro: one month into the 2017 season, the Twins lead all of baseball in walk rate.

Top-5 2017 Walk Rates (BBr)

# TEAM BBr SOr HR AVG OBP SLG OPS
# TEAM BBr SOr HR AVG OBP SLG OPS
1 MIN 0.116 0.204 20 0.242 0.331 0.375 0.707
2 NYA 0.110 0.210 37 0.266 0.349 0.456 0.804
3 CLE 0.101 0.203 30 0.253 0.334 0.424 0.757
4 LAN 0.101 0.205 28 0.250 0.333 0.410 0.743
5 WAS 0.100 0.191 43 0.295 0.369 0.510 0.879

Since they moved to Minnesota, the Twins have only posted a double-digit walk rate once, and it happened 55 years ago when the ‘62 team walked in 10.2% of its plate appearances. This Twins team is walking more than any other in club history.

Zooming out from our Twins bubble, we see that the ‘17 team has walked at historic rates compared to urrrbody, not just other Twins squads. The Twins currently boast the 22nd-best walk rate in baseball history. Only four teams since 1956 have logged better base-on-balls numbers than these Twins: the 2000 Seattle Mariners (12.0 BB% & 91 wins); the 1993 Detroit Tigers (11.8% & 85 W’s); the 1999 Oakland A’s (11.7% & 87 W’s); and the 2000 A’s (11.7% & 91 W’s).

The 11.6% mark the Twins have posted through the first month is a marked improvement over last season’s numbers, when Minnesota ranked 13th in MLB with a 8.2% walk rate.

The Twins’ uptick in walk percentage has helped them to a .332 OBP thus far, good for ninth in the league and 16-point increase from last year, when the team finished 22nd in on-base percentage.

It’s perhaps dicey to read too much into the graph I’m about to drop in here, but it does seem like the Twins have finally received the memo on the importance of the base-on-balls, albeit 15 years after the smart kids.

Data via Fangraphs, graph via Louie

From 2000-2008, the Twins fielded generally strong teams with sub-par walk rates. But since constructing a team with a semblance of plate discipline, Minnesota has actually stunk. Alternate reading of above graph: walks are dumb and let’s ignore ‘em!

Walk rates don’t tend to stabilize for individual batters this early in the season, per Eric Seidman’s indispensable 2009 blog post “When Samples Become Reliable,” which I tend to consult extensively this time of year.

But a player’s Swing Rate stabilizes around 50 plate appearances, and we’ve passed that point of the season.

In 2016, the Twins were 13th in baseball in O-Swing% (i.e. percentage of pitches swung at outside the zone); this year, Minnesota’s only chased 25.5% of pitches outside the zone, good for second in the league and a 4.3% decrease from last year, one of the biggest improvements in plate discipline in the league.

Biggest O-Swing% Improvements

Team 2016 O-Swing% 2017 O-Swing % Difference
Team 2016 O-Swing% 2017 O-Swing % Difference
Indians 30.1% 24% -6.1%
Yankees 30.5% 25.9% -4.6%
Twins 29.8% 25.5% -4.3%
Rockies 31.1% 28.4% -2.7%
Dodgers 28.4% 26.1% -2.3%

On an individual level, nearly every Twins everyday player has made great strides at laying off pitches outside the zone, decreasing their strikeouts and increasing their walks since last season. (I didn’t include Joe Mauer, because he’s radically altered his approach this year and I don’t know what to make of it. Expect to hear more on that soon.)

Twins +/- from 2016-17

Player BB% +/- K% +/- O-Swing% +/-
Player BB% +/- K% +/- O-Swing% +/-
Miguel Sano +7.7 -3 -2.1
Robbie Grossman +5.9 -7.4 -4.7
Byron Buxton +4.6 +1.6 -1.4
Jason Castro +3.5 -5.9 -4.8
Jorge Polanco +2.7 -8 -5.1
Max Kepler +2.1 -2.4 -4.5
Brian Dozier +1.1 -4.2 -8.2
Eddie Rosario +0.1 -7.1 +0.6

This is what the maturation process looks like, especially for youngsters like Sano, Kepler and Polanco: more walks, fewer strikeouts and less chasing. New hitting coach James Rowson and manager Paul Molitor deserve plenty of credit instituting what sounds like a team-wide offseason emphasis, according to Molitor.

"That was one of the components that we added to what we thought we could be good at [in the offseason], trying to get a little better plate discipline and improve on our strikeout and walk ratios where we could," Molitor said. "Some guys are going to be a little more lopsided than others, but almost 20 games, I think it's paid dividends. There have been some games where bases on balls have been a part of what we've done, because we really haven't swung it real well yet. But the extra baserunners have been cashed in now and then, and have enabled us to win some games."

Of course, any manager with any sense will claim that his team’s improvement is due to his staff’s tireless offseason work; when a reporter sets you up with the ol’ “Your plate discipline is vastly improved from last season; was that a point of offseason emphasis?” question, you best take all the credit for that.

Walk and strikeout rates are still another month from entirely stabilizing, but the Twins have certainly improved their plate discipline by laying off pitches outside the zone.

Minnesota Twins v Kansas City Royals
The Twins have faced a bunch of Royals who can’t throw strikes, which has helped their walk rate thus far.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Okay, but...

One look at the team’s opponents thus far may make Twins fans feel a bit more cautiously optimistic than straight-up optimistic.

Opposing Pitchers' BB%

Teams Games Against BB% MLB Rank
Teams Games Against BB% MLB Rank
Tigers 6 10.2 4
Royals 5 10.1 5
White Sox 6 9.7 6
Rangers 3 9.5 7
Indians 3 7.9 23

In the season’s first month, the Twins have played the bulk of their games against wild pitching staffs, which makes me think that our walk rate is bound to tumble a bit.

But perhaps not too much: after all, three of these godawful bunch of strike-throwers reside in our division, and we play our divisional opponents like 37 times each!

The next week will be telling: the Twins host the A’s — 17th in BB% — and the Red Sox — 18th in BB% — over a six-game home stand. If the Twins can maintain these adjustments and continue spitting on pitches outside the zone against a stronger staff, perhaps this improved plate discipline can last.

And let’s hope it does. Another glance at the Top-5 walk rates — and this will be the last table, I swear — should explain why the Twins need to keep walking.

Top-5 2017 Walk Rates (BBr)

# TEAM BBr SOr HR AVG OBP SLG OPS
# TEAM BBr SOr HR AVG OBP SLG OPS
1 MIN 0.116 0.204 20 0.242 0.331 0.375 0.707
2 NYA 0.110 0.210 37 0.266 0.349 0.456 0.804
3 CLE 0.101 0.203 30 0.253 0.334 0.424 0.757
4 LAN 0.101 0.205 28 0.250 0.333 0.410 0.743
5 WAS 0.100 0.191 43 0.295 0.369 0.510 0.879

Because they can’t really hit so well!

Yes, the Twins lead baseball in walk rate. But this team has only managed a .242/.331/.375 slash line. The Twins’ team OPS is .707, 18th in MLB.

The 18th-best batting team can still do plenty of damage, especially if the defense plays as it has for the rest of the season.

But for the Twins to stay on the edges of the wild-card hunt, they’ll need their improved patience at the plate to be real and sustainable.