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Can the Twins keep pace in a strikeout-driven MLB?

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After years of pitching to contact, the Twins have changed their strategy for the better

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Texas Rangers Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve watched baseball for the last fifteen years or more, you know the game has changed. One of the biggest changes has been the strikeout, which has become significantly more prevalent and connected to a team’s success than ever before.

Flashback to 2005, when the Chicago White Sox were World Series Champions. (I know, kind of a gross way to start the article, but bear with me). In that year, the top team in the league in strikeouts per nine innings was the Chicago Cubs, with a K/9 of 7.9. Among the eight playoff teams that made the playoffs, five (including the White Sox) had a K/9 below the league average of 6.4.

Things have changed significantly, and teams with the ability to strike hitters out have risen quickly to the top. The 5th best team in K/9 in 2005 (the Florida Marlins, at 7.0 K/9) would have finished dead last in the statistic in 2018. This season, each of the top five teams in the major leagues in K/9 made the playoffs, and all but one of the ten playoff teams was above the league average. In 2017, the top eight teams in K/9 all made the playoffs, and just the second wildcards in each league (the Twins and the Rockies) were below league average in K/9 among postseason teams.

Here’s a look at the K/9 compared to wins for the 2018 season:

Data Collected from Baseball Reference

Though having strikeout pitchers doesn’t guarantee your team 100 wins and a playoff berth, the data for the last few MLB seasons indicates that teams that strike out batters at a high rate generally have more success. Here’s a look at how the Twins have done in that statistic, as well as their overall record in the past five seasons

The Twins were able to climb up from the bottom of the ranks in 2018!

The Twins have traditionally been near the bottom of the league in strikeouts, but there are indicators that could change. Since Derek Falvey and Thad Levine were hired in November 2016, the organization seems to have put more of an emphasis of striking out batters.

Looking at the the pitchers that the Twins brought in during the 2018 offseason, you can see that the Twins management started to target guys that could strike a few more batters out. Among the pitchers that the Twins acquired before the 2018 season, Fernando Rodney (10.3), Zach Duke (9.4), Jake Odorizzi (8.9), and Lance Lynn (8.8) all finished above the league average (8.5) in K/9. Let’s also not forget about Michael Pineda, who led the league in K/9 in 2016 at 10.6 before an injury shortened 2017.

Looking at the trades that the Twins made at the deadline and the pitchers that they acquired in those deals, it appears that Falvine has also picked up some arms that could produce strikeouts in the future. Jorge Alcala, who the Twins traded for in the Ryan Pressly deal, posted 9.4 strikeouts per nine over two minor league levels, including time in AA. Jhoan Duran, acquired in the Eduardo Escobar trade, finished the season with a 10.3 K/9 in A-ball.

Falvey and Levine have targeted hitters early in the draft in the past two seasons, but the pitchers they have selected in the first few rounds have the potential to rack up the K’s as well. 2017 draftee Landon Leach, a tall high school right-hander with the classic “projectable” frame, was hitting mid 90’s in his prep years. Blayne Enlow, also part of the 2017 draft class, was said to have the best curveball among pitchers selected in that draft. Neither has put up stellar strikeout number to this point in their careers, but both are younger than a majority of the competition they have faced and have the tools to do so.

It remains to be seen how Rocco Baldelli as the new manager of the Twins will affect the way the team plays, but it appeared that last year’s coaching staff also put a bigger emphasis on strikeouts. All-Star Jose Berrios saw his K/9 jump from 8.6 in 2017 to 9.5 in this past season. Kyle Gibson also saw his mark rise from 6.9 in 2017 to 8.2, posting the best season of his career.

Stephen Gonsalves and Fernando Romero represent two young pitchers that have flashed strikeout stuff in the past. Though both had up and down seasons in 2018, they each have shown potential in minor league seasons and have minor league career K/9’s around nine. Digging deeper into the Twins farm system, Brusdar Graterol and Lewis Thorpe have shown promise in their time in the minor leagues. Graterol, ranked as the Twins #3 prospect on MLB.com, has a fastball that sits in the 95-98 MPH range and can touch triple digits. Graterol also has a potential wipeout slider and a near 10 K/9. Thorpe has battled through multiple arm surgeries, but has still posted a K/9 rate near 11 (including a stint in AAA last year).

It appears the Falvine’s strategy to this point has been to draft and develop young hitters while acquiring major league-level pitching through trades and free agency. Whether this is a plan that they will employ every year or is just based on the draft availables and free agent market on a year-to-year basis remains to be seen. However, it is likely that the Twins will pursue a starting pitcher and a reliever or two on the free agent market based on past Falvine moves and the current roster construction.

Looking at some of the free agents available as the offseason begins, there are a few bigger names that could help the Twins move up the strikeout ranks as well as some sneakier candidates. Patrick Corbin generated 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings (6th MLB) in a breakout 2018 campaign, but will likely come with a heftier price tag. Charlie Morton also flashed top-notch stuff last year for the Astros with a 10.6 K/9, and should earn just a few notches below Corbin on the open market because of his age. J.A. Happ also could be an option at 9.8 K/9, but the 36-year old probably doesn’t fit the Twins roster too well because of his age.

Two lower profile options for the Twins could be a pair of LA pitchers, Garrett Richards of the Angels and Hyun-Jin Ryu of the Dodgers. Richards has a very spotty injury past and just had Tommy John surgery in July, but posted a 10.3 K/9 in the innings he pitched this year and hasn’t finished the season with a mark lower than 8.8 since 2015. Ryu also showed flashes of top-notch talent with NL champs, as he closed the season with a 9.7 K/9 in 82 innings of work. Neither would come super cheap because of potential that they have shown in the past, but both have the possibility of outpitching their contracts. Richards’ deal could be somewhat similar to what the Twins signed with Pineda this offseason, as the Richards is targeting a comeback in 2020. Ryu could slide into the Twins rotation with the potential to be their number two starter.

Though strikeouts alone don’t make a team a World Series contender, the recent trends in baseball show that the teams that can generate whiffs have markedly more success than those who fail to do so at a high rate. Looking at the Twins roster moves and farm system, it appears that Falvey and Levine are trying to revamp the organization’s approach to pitching philosophy, and have both the prospects and funds to do so in the upcoming seasons.