Woof. Not much has gone right for the Twins this past week.
On April 19, the getaway day after their 16-inning epic against Cleveland in Puerto Rico, the Twins boasted playoff odds of 28.9%, not far from where they began the year and just a tick below their April 14 high of 31.7%, according to Fangraphs.
Cut to seven days and seven losses later, and the Twins’ playoff odds have been more than halved down to a season-low 13%.
The last four games have been especially demoralizing for Twins fans, most of whom didn’t think it possible the Yankees could demoralize them more: after Twins pitchers surrendered 29 earned runs and 10 home runs through the series’ first three games, Kyle Gibson put together arguably the best start of his major-league career. (Gibson’s Game Score of 78 tied for the third-best of his career; using that metric, it was Gibson’s best start since July 22, 2016.)
Gibson allowed only four base runners and struck out a career-high 10 batters in six innings against a monumentally powerful Yankees lineup, only for the Yankees to yank the rug out from under the Twins in the ninth. It would have been heartbreaking if the Yankees hadn’t already obliterated Twins’ fans’ hearts years ago.
With all this doom and gloom casting its pall over the past week of Twins baseball, I noticed a statistical nugget worth examining in the hopes that it could remind us that maybe, just maybe, there is something positive to cling to.
Gibson racked up 19 swings-and-misses on 95 pitches Thursday, good for a 20% swinging-strike rate. It was the highest single-game swinging-strike rate for Gibson’s career. His previous high (18.7%) came against the woeful White Sox last season. Gibson had the most unhittable stuff of his career against one of the best lineups he’s faced while pitching in a shoebox. Gibson’s offspeed offerings posed a particular challenge to Yankees hitters, who did a lot of halfhearted waving and futile check-swinging.
In a week where we could all use some positivity, Gibson’s strong outing highlights a positive development for Twins pitchers. Between 2011 and 2017, the Twins finished 29th, 30th, 30th, 29th, 29th, 29th, and 28th in swinging-strike rate. So far this year? They’re ninth.
As you likely already know or could hopefully intuit, it turns out swinging strikes lead to strikeouts! And here’s the thing: through their first 20 games of the 2018 season, the Twins’ pitching staff is doing something it hasn’t done since the G.W. Bush administration — striking batters out!
This year the Twins’ staff has struck out opposing batters in 24.4% of plate appearances, good for eighth in Major League Baseball; the last season the Twins finished in the top ten (or even the top half) in strikeout rate was 2007, when Johan K’ed 235 and the three-headed bullpen monster of Joe Nathan, Pat Neshek, and Matt Guerrier combined for 219 strikeouts. Since then, the Twins have rarely poked their head from out of the strikeout cellar.
Twins’ strikeout rate & MLB rank
Take that, pitch to contact! I hope this gives you mild heartburn and/or indigestion, Rick Anderson. (But really I hope you’re OK. Tell Gardy we say hi.)
In fact, heading into this weekend’s series against the Reds, Twins pitchers are even K-ing batters at a better-than-league-average rate for the first time since, you guessed it, 2007.
Thus far, the Twins have particularly benefitted from the strikeout-heavy seasons of Gibson, Jose Berrios, Lance Lynn, Ryan Pressly, Zach Duke, Gabriel Moya, and Alan Busenitz, all of whom are fanning batters at an above-average rate.
Though it’s early and there are certainly some red flags (Hildenberger, in particular, has looked off), the Twins have 10 pitchers who are near league average or better in strikeout rate.
The increase in strikeouts has also come with an increase in walks (the Twins are fifth in MLB in walk rate, but we’re going to go ahead and ignore because we’re trying to keep it positive); however, the Twins remain an above-average 13th in Strikeout Rate-minus-Walk Rate (K-BB%).
Barring some collectively bargained intervention, the league-wide spike in strikeouts shows no signs of abating. The strikeout rate has metastasized to historically absurd levels, as Joe Sheehan documented earlier this week.
There has never been a month in baseball history with more strikeouts than hits. With eight days left in March/April 2018:— Joe Sheehan (@joe_sheehan) April 23, 2018
However boring one may find modern baseball’s massive drop in balls in play, strikeouts are, more than ever, a vital component to fielding a successful pitching staff.
This is where baseball is, whether we like it or not. After years of pitching to contact, the 2018 Twins have reshaped their pitching profile to match the modern era. We’ll see if it pays off.