The Twins are 4-2 after their season-opening road trip through Kansas City and Miami. They will kick off their home slate later today against the defending champion Houston Astros. The powers that be wisely evaluated the weather forecast for yesterday and chose to postpone the home opener. Sonny Gray will face off against Jose Urquidy in slightly warmer conditions this afternoon.
With only six games completed, just 3.7% of the scheduled 162 contests, it’s far too early to make any definitive conclusions about the team or any of its players. Small sample sizes are galore right now. While I wait for more data to play with, there are a few observations I had from the first six games that I thought might be interesting to dig into.
We know Gallo is going to produce a ton of the three true outcomes – strikeouts, walks, and home runs (probably in that order) – and nothing Twins’ hitting coach David Popkins will do with Gallo is likely to change that profile or how any Twins fan feels about it in a meaningful way. Not unlike his archetype colleague Miguel Sanó, Gallo walks a fine line between patience and aggressiveness that can easily get out of balance.
When Gallo’s performance tanked last season with the Yankees and Dodgers, a big jump in his chase rate (from ~19-20% up to 27.5%) appears to have been a significant factor. Players of this archetype tend to get peppered with offspeed pitches and breaking balls down and out of the zone by pitchers daring them to chase after stuff they can’t do damage on.
That remained true for Gallo and he chased those pitches at roughly similar rates as he had previously. What changed for Gallo, who was perhaps pressing to produce in the bright lights of New York and Los Angeles, was that he chased more fastballs out of the zone, especially up high – something FanGraphs’ Michael Baumann pointed out at the time of the signing.
Gallo needs to seek and destroy fastballs to succeed, but chasing ones he can’t hurt only raises the bar he has to clear to be productive. Over the course of his career, he’s hit .172/.272/.418 (.267 wOBA) against fastballs in the upper third of the strike zone. Against those pitch types in the bottom two-thirds of the zone, his numbers are .256/.261/.640 (.369). That’s the difference between being unplayable and a borderline all-star.
Popkins and the Twins felt Gallo had too much movement in his mechanics, particularly with his head, and it was contributing to him jumping after pitches that he shouldn’t and missing ones he could hurt. So far this season, Gallo is working with a wider stance intended to slow his movements and the returns are promising:
wider base at set up— parker hageman (@HagemanParker) April 2, 2023
trying to keep him from making too much of a forward move during stride pic.twitter.com/tNyDNPhH1J
Gallo has refrained from chasing at the elevated rated (just 18.5% so far in this season’s tiny sample) and his whiff rate is near his career bests right now. And, he’s hurt pitches middle and down:
He’s still going to swing and miss. He’s going to strike out a lot. He’s going to have stretches where he won’t make contact with much of anything. But, if he doesn’t chase out of the zone, particularly up high, and he can lock in on pitches to drive down in the zone, he can be productive nonetheless.
The new rules limiting pickoff attempts and the larger bases have encouraged a boom of baserunning activity across the league so far. Through the first week of games, successful stolen bases have almost doubled compared to the first week of games last season. Stolen base attempts are up by about 1.7 times and those attempts have been successful more than 80% of the time, a mark that would be an all-time high by a large margin.
Historically, the risk-reward break-even point for attempting a steal has been right around 70%, varying some based on the game situation. A stolen base success rate near 80% means that teams are probably not running enough, even though the rate of attempts so far this season would be right at home in the go-go 1980s.
The increase in baserunning aggressiveness has not been uniform across the game. The top 8 teams in stolen bases – the Orioles, Guardians, D-backs, Yankees, Pirates, Astros, Mets, and Mariners – have more successful steals than the other 22 teams combined.
Our plodding Twins have not joined in on the stolen base craze (and don’t figure to, although Royce Lewis and Edouard Julien are able to run). The Twins were the last team in the league to even attempt a stolen base this season, finally trying twice (succeeding once) in Wednesday’s matinee against Miami.
(As a quick aside, I really enjoyed this Anthony Castrovince article (When is 90 feet not 90 feet but still 90 feet) about the history of baseball having 90-foot basepaths – which turns out to be a bit of a misnomer. At any rate, the bigger bases have made the distance from home plate to first and third base 3 inches less than before and reduced the distance between 1st and 2nd, and 2nd and 3rd, by 4.5 inches.)
There was a plan for Pablo López
One of the hardest parts about evaluating trades as they happen is that we are often constrained to assessing the players as they are or have recently been. But we know they are not static entities — they change, grow, develop, and decline in unpredictable ways. When the Twins added Pablo López for the painful cost of batting champion Luis Arráez, we mostly felt that they were getting a solid, mid-rotation starter, one not unlike the several they already have.
López and his average-ish fastball and plus changeup had always been somewhat limited by the dearth of a quality breaking ball. He’d tried different options over time. He debuted with a curveball and then added a cutter after a couple of seasons. All throughout his first five seasons, his breaking balls were somewhat neutral performing and not really bat-missing threats.
This season, López has seemingly scrapped his cutter and introduced a sweeper that he trusts enough to throw 48 times in his first two starts. The pitch has yet to allow a hit and has generated a swing and miss 60% of the time batters have gone after it.
Pablo Lopez's 4th and 5th Ks pic.twitter.com/5BVTlsbJ1Y— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 5, 2023
In addition, López has made some subtle adjustments to improve his four-seam fastball. The pitch is up almost two ticks of velocity from last season and it is dropping more than two inches less than it previously had per Statcast, making it more of a true four-seamer that can stay above bats in the zone. It’s not the same kind of invisiball as Joe Ryan’s four-seamer, but the extra heat and improved movement profile, plus the addition of what appears to be a very functional breaking ball, change López’s outlook from a mid-rotation innings eater to something potentially much more.
Sonny Gray Closing His Split
One of the unique things about Sonny Gray is that he’s long held what’s known as a reverse platoon split. Despite being a right-handed pitcher with a rare ability to spin breaking balls, Gray has typically fared better against left-handed batters than right-handed batters. For his career, Gray has about a 10-point reverse platoon split by wOBA. But that gap has been increasing over time and exploded last year when he held lefties to a stellar .243 wOBA, but allowed a .316 wOBA to right-handers.
Gray operates as essentially two different pitchers against lefties and righties. Against lefties, he primarily works with his four-seamer (which has some natural cutting movement), curveball, and an occasional changeup. Against right-handers, Gray is basically a sinker-slider pitcher.
Throughout his career, Gray has occasionally dabbled with a cutter, usually to right-handers. Last season he threw more than 200 of them (about 9% of his total pitches), using a low-80s variety that some could rightfully characterize as a gyro-slider that was only a mile or two different than his actual slider.
It was interesting then when Gray threw 14 cutters in his first start, all to right-handed Royals batters. Moreover, the 2023 version of Gray’s cutter was better than 87 mph on average, a much more middle-ground velocity between his 92-ish mph sinker and his 82-ish mph slider.
You can see in the GIF how this year’s version compares to last year's in terms of movement:
A firmer cutter makes sense for Gray for many of the same reasons it does for Griffin Jax. The movement gap between Gray’s sinker and slider is almost 30 inches horizontal, significantly more than is optimal from a pitch tunneling perspective. A cutter that sits between the two in terms of movement and velocity should enable all three to work together better and give Gray a pitch that he can work in the zone for called strikes and early count contact against right-handers. It’s something to watch for in today’s home opener against Houston.
If it’s far too early to draw things from hitters, it’s really too early to do so with relievers who may have only pitched once or twice. That said, I really disliked seeing Griffin Jax throw two changeups to right-handed hitting Jean Segura in Wednesday’s game in Miami. While both were located down and perhaps out of the zone, the second one went for a base hit that kick-started the rally that cost the Twins the game. I just don’t see how a changeup is a good option for Jax against righties when he has that dominant slider. I must be missing something.
I’ve also noticed that Emilio Pagán has primarily relied on his cutter as his secondary pitch against right-handed hitters, and not the bigger breaking curveball that he toyed with last September. He’s thrown a few curves, all to lefties, in addition to his splitter. So far he’s located the cutter very well down and away on his glove side. It’s also clear that Pagán has been moved much farther down the bullpen pecking order than he was during parts of last season.
Jorge López seems to be back to working the top of the zone with his sinker. That should be a good thing.
Enjoy the game today!