Watching an MLB television broadcast involves navigating a minefield of not only all the hoary old baseball conventional wisdom — “lefties love the ball down-and-in,” a good batter needs protection — but also coming to terms with the peculiarities and proclivities of one’s hometown broadcasting team.
For Twins fans, that means knowing Bert and Dick will have their tired exchange after every broken bat (“Best sound in the world!”; “Just a sickening sound”); Bert will bellyache about today’s pitchers being ninnies and Dick will bemoan the Staples-Motley School District’s inability to provide him an adequate mathematical education. There are countless more; I’m guessing all of us have a nominee for Most Grating Twins Announcer Tic. (If yours is “Ex-Player talks mad shit about former teammate and current MLB-er,” then apologies for LaTroy Hawkins’ comments earlier this week.)
When you’ve listened to the same announcers for so long, you grow inured to, say, Dick Bremer’s reliance on the phrase “off-speed pitch” because he still can’t divine the difference between a changeup and a slider. After a while, you begin to ignore a lot of it, not wanting to even bother determining whether one of Bert’s outlandish claims bears even a mote of truth.
So when I started hearing Dick ramble on about how the Twins had improved their two-strike approach, I thought little of it; announcers have to say something, and this felt like just another something that Bremer was saying to fill some dead air space.
But then Bremer just kept mentioning it, to the point that I felt compelled to look it up. After all, the Twins are walking more than ever, and their plate appearances certainly looked light years ahead of last year’s. Perhaps there was something to the idea that this young lineup was maturing with its plate discipline before our very eyes.
And you know what? Dick Bremer is right! (Crossing “writing previous sentence” off my bucket list...)
Thus far this season, the Twins have a team OPS 26% better than league average. (It’s listed as sOPS+, the “S” meaning the OPS+ on that particular split. An OPS+ of 100 is league average, adjusted for park and other vagaries. This batch of data is through Wednesday because it took me a while to make the requisite charts and graphs. Apologies.)
The Twins have hit well with two strikes this season. Sure, a .188/.284/.300 line appears horrifying, but that’s what “26% better than the MLB average” on two strikes looks like; turns out it’s hard to hit with your back against the wall.
More impressive than this year’s team’s success hitting with two strikes is the lineup’s improvement in that regard from last season. By Weighted On Base Average (wOBA), a more accurately weighted version of OPS that adheres to the OBP scale, the Twins have improved with two strikes from 2016 to 2017 by nearly 30 points — more than all but three teams: the Yankees, the Nationals and the Astros, all of whom are tearing the cover off the ball.
Much of the Twins’ two-strike improvement comes from their on-base ability; here’s the league-wide change on two-strike OBP from last year to this. Again, the Twins are showing a far great ability to eschew balls out of the zone this season in favor of walks.
And, lastly, the best representation of the Twins’ improved two-strike plate discipline: their collective ability to cut down on strike outs and induce more walks when in the hole. The Twins have improved their two-strike BB/K rate nearly twice as much as the next-best team, the Yankees.
On an individual basis, the Twins’ top-nine lineup — Jason Castro, Joe Mauer, Brian Dozier, Jorge Polanco, Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton and Max Kepler — is nearly all hitting well with two strikes. Seven of those nine boast an above-average OPS with two strikes. (The black line is an sOPS+ of 100, a.k.a. league average.)
That’s a lot of tall blue bars, i.e. a ton of solid two-strike production from the Twins’ core lineup in 2017. Sano and Mauer have both been nearly twice as good as the average MLB hitter in two-strike counts.
(For what it’s worth, Mauer has actually been 34% better with two strikes than without this season, which feels legitimately crazy. For his career, Mauer’s been good with two strikes but of course far worse than without, like most MLB hitters.)
Not only are the majority of Twins hitters batting better than league-average with two strikes; everyone but Castro and Grossman has improved from last season.
After Thursday’s doubleheader, the Twins boasted the fourth-best two-strike OPS+ since the team moved to the Twin Cities.
Now, I’m not suggesting I plan on listening intently to Dick Bremer. I would never suggest that to anyone.
But Bremer was right about one thing: the Twins have grown into great two-strike hitters, and it’s a promising sign for the development of the youngest lineup in baseball.