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Off-Day Observations: Pitching, Defense, and Small Ball

Plus, the starters go streaking, the catchers’ blocking, and perfect extra-inning bunts! Enjoy!

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Minnesota Twins v Kansas City Royals
Christian Vazquez #8 of the Minnesota Twins celebrates against the Kansas City Royals
Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

The Twins are 10-6 and in 1st place in the AL Central with about 10% of the season complete. That includes the very encouraging 10-game stretch against Houston, Chicago, and New York that saw the team go 6-4 against other American League contenders. Minnesota’s good start, combined with a rocky opening few weeks from the White Sox, have added about 3 wins and about 20 points of playoff probability to the Twins’ outlook according to FanGraphs:

FanGraphs, As of April 17

For the most part, the Twins have been relying on pitching and defense to carry the load. Offensively they are ranked below the middle of the pack by just about any measure you care to use. Through 16 games, they rank tied for 24th in scoring with 3.94 runs per game, 28th in weighted on-base average (wOBA) at .294, and tied for 25th in weighted runs created plus (wRC+) at 85.

But the pitching, both starting and relieving, has been excellent and the arms have been backed up by a very solid set of gloves that currently lead all of baseball in defensive efficiency by converting 74.4% of batted balls in play into outs and rank tied for fourth in defensive runs saved (+10). Add that to the pitching staff’s baseball-best strikeout rate (29.9% and strikeout-to-walk rate differential (23.4%), and the Twins have the game’s second-best ERA (2.60) and rank fourth in fielding independent pitching (FIP, 3.54).

14 Straight Starts

Minnesota Twins v Kansas City Royals
Tyler Mahle #51, Kenta Maeda #18, Joe Ryan #41 and Pablo Lopez #49
Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

A major reason the pitching numbers are as good as they are is the starting pitchers have been posting up with solid starts nearly every time out. The five main starters, plus Louie Varland in one spot start, combined to start the season with 14 straight outings of at least five innings. The last time the Twins had that many consecutive starts of at least that many innings was in 2019, when the combination of José Berríos, Martín Pérez, Kyle Gibson, Jake Odorizzi, Michael Pineda, and Kohl Stewart (!) threw 28 such games in a row from April 20 to May 17. That group also had multiple other double-digit streaks that season and combined with the power of the Bomba Squad lineup to get the Twins to 101 regular season wins.

Last season, the most consecutive 5+ inning starts for the Twins was 8, and it was part of a stretch of 13 out of 14 from June 23 to July 5. The season before they reached 8 straight three different times and also made 13 of 14 from April 25 to May 11. In the short 2020 season, the longest stretch from the starters was just six. All of which is to say, it’s been a while since the Twins had a starting rotation like the one they have in 2023.

Bullpen Hierarchy

While we expected the starting staff to be solid, the Twins’ bullpen was viewed as a big question mark entering the season, especially outside of Jhoan Durán and perhaps Caleb Thielbar. While it’s early, it’s been so far, so good for the guys in Rocco’s magical arm barn.

Aaron Gleeman pointed out late last week that the Twins’ relief corps is suddenly the hardest throwing group in all of baseball (it’s not just Durán bringing the velocity anymore). The Twins relievers also lead the majors in WHIP (0.97) and Win Probability Added (WPA, +1.77), and rank fourth in ERA (2.64). Perhaps more importantly after last season’s bullpen nightmare, the Twins have the second-fewest reliever meltdowns (defined as an appearance of -0.06 WPA or worse) with just 4.

Along with the positive results, the pecking order in the ‘pen has been perhaps a little different than anticipated. Durán is obviously the high-leverage linchpin, but it’s Griffin Jax that seems to have ascended into the second spot, followed by Jorge López and Thielbar. Here’s how the relievers sort by the leverage of the situations they have been used so far:

FanGraphs, through games played April 16

Catcher’s Defense Instills Confidence

Now, given the pitching numbers I showed above, you might imagine that the Twins pitchers just pound the strike zone with their high-velocity fastballs and high-octane breaking and off-speed stuff. But that’s not quite been the case. So far, per Statcast, the Twins rank just 25th in the rate of pitches thrown inside the strike zone (47.3%). Despite that, the Twins are tied with the Dodgers for issuing the fewest walks (36). The way that combination works is because the Twins are drawing a ton of chases out of the zone (31%, ranked 4th) and swings and misses (29.6%, ranked 2nd).

A major reason the Twins’ pitchers collectively can tempt opposing batters with pitches out of the zone, especially breaking balls down in the dirt, is because of the confidence they have in catchers Christian Vázquez and Ryan Jeffers to block those pitches and limit free bases from wild pitches and passed balls.

Just before the season, Statcast unveiled its new metric for catcher blocking. Twins catcher Christian Vázquez has already handled 345 opportunities to block a pitch, and he’s only allowed 1 total wild pitch or passed ball. Not all block opportunities are made equal, though. Stopping a Durán fastball at 103 spiked in the dirt is quite a different job than stopping a bounced Thielbar low-70s curveball.

Statcast, through games played April 16

Statcast bins those opportunities into easy (95% chance of success), medium (85-95%), and tough (<85%) chances, based largely on the location of the pitch (including whether it bounced or not) and the location of the catcher, and then accounts for the speed and movement of the pitch and the handedness of the batter and pitcher. That chance information is used to estimate the average number of passed balls and wild pitches a catcher would allow, which can be compared to actuals to determine the catchers that are best at blocking errant pitches.

Based on the makeup of his chances, Statcast expects Vázquez to have allowed 4 wild pitches and passed balls, meaning he’s accumulated +3 blocks above average so far this season, which ranks tied for 4th-best in all of baseball. You can see in the visual above where Vázquez has excelled in stopping pitches in the dirt around the left-handed batter’s box (where right-handed breaking balls often land), further evidence of how his signing was intended as an investment in the pitching staff.

For his part, Ryan Jeffers has also been solid in this area. He has allowed 2 wild pitches and passed balls in his 151 chances. Statcast estimates that Jeffers was expected to allow 2 based on his chances, and his 0 blocks above average ranks tied with 20 other catchers for exactly the league average.

A Perfect Bunt

Chicago White Sox v Minnesota Twins
Michael A. Taylor #2 of the Minnesota Twins bunts
Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

Last Tuesday’s win against Chicago headed to extra innings tied at 3 runs apiece when Durán suffered a rare hiccup and served up a game-tying home run in the 9th. Jax drew the task of keeping the Manfred Man off the board in the top of the 10th and did so successfully with a groundout, a short flyout to left field, and a comebacker.

Entering the bottom of the 10th the Twins had the bottom of their lineup due up, with #9 hitter Michael A. Taylor leading off with the Manfred Man on second base. Needing only a single run to win the game, this was the perfect situation to execute a sacrifice bunt. Based on the average run expectancy data from the past ten seasons, moving a runner from second base with no outs to third base with one out has increased a team’s chances of scoring at least a run from 61.2% to 66.6%.

With high-contact hitter Donovan Solano due up next, the sacrifice bunt put pressure on the opposing White Sox. If Taylor got it down and moved the runner to 3rd, the White Sox would have had to choose between pitching to Solano with the infield in, walking Solano to set up a double play for #2 hitter Byron Buxton (an extremely difficult hitter to double up), or walking the bases loaded to create a force play at the plate (and face Trevor Larnach). All bad options for Chicago.

Rocco Baldelli had Taylor bunt, just the third time he’s ordered a sacrifice bunt in extra innings since 2020, and Taylor dropped down a good one. The runner was easily able to advance to third, and the White Sox ended up throwing the ball off Taylor and down the right-field line to end the game on a walk-off error.

A Sticky Situation

Last Saturday’s game in New York was overshadowed by the umpires’ awkward handling of the foreign substances inspections of Yankees starting pitcher Domingo Germán. Germán worked three perfect innings to start the game, striking six Twins in his first trip through the order. He was just as effective after the hubbub before the fourth inning, working into the 7th allowing only 3 hits and striking out 11 Twins.

Wherever you fall on the spectrum of thinking Germán was cheating to buying the umpires' explanation that he just had too much rosin (a legal substance) on his hands, it’s undeniable that the umpires handled this situation poorly and it casts doubt on the league’s commitment to enforcing its rules about foreign substances.

Moreover, it’s also undeniable that the physical properties of Germán’s pitches were quite different from the fourth inning on. Per Statcast, Germán’s four-seamers averaged 2615 RPM in the first three innings, with a standard deviation of about 50 RPM. From the fourth inning on, his four-seamer averaged 2537 RPM (about 80 RPM less, or significantly more than one standard deviation less). The same was true for his curveball, which went from 2774 RPM to 2667 RPM, a drop of 107 RPM that was more than his 92 RPM standard deviation in the first three innings.

We know that spin and velocity are correlated, so it’s important to normalize this data for velocity to try to account for fatigue as the outing goes on. We do that by dividing the spin rate of a pitch by its velocity. The spin-to-velocity ratio of Germán’s four-seamer and curveball both decreased by more than a standard deviation from the fourth inning on. These are not the declines in spin rate that we were seeing at the height of the Spider Tack controversy in 2021, and they likely wouldn’t have changed the outcome of a game in which the Twins weren’t ever really close, but they were meaningful changes that are unlikely to be just normal variation within an outing.

John is a writer for Twinkie Town and Pitcher List with an emphasis on analysis. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnFoley_21.