Coming off a disappointing series split with Cleveland last weekend, the Twins’ recent six-game road trip through AL East cities Tampa Bay and Toronto continued their challenges on the field. With a slumping offense struggling to score runs and injuries mounting, the Twins went just 2-4 on the trip.
Despite the rough stretch, the Twins expressed optimism that they took advantage of the road trip for what it provided off the field: a chance to watch other Major League teams play good baseball.
Minnesota players and coaches spoke exclusively to Twinkie Town about the benefits of the opportunity and what they learned from it.
“Yeah, I mean, the games on the east coast are done and over with early, so we get a chance to watch everyone else play the rest of the night,” said infielder Kyle Farmer. “We don’t usually get that chance at home because the pitch clock is making games finish so quickly. It’s really been eye-opening.”
When pressed to name what had stood out to him, Farmer noted that “Shohei Ohtani is amazing, man. I hadn’t quite appreciated what he’s doing before. I saw him throw like a hundred [miles per hour] off the bump and then go hit a tank, in the same game the other night. He’s insane.”
Shohei Ohtani's homer left the bat at 112.9 mph and went a projected 440 feet to center pic.twitter.com/vpem610D0N— Rhett Bollinger (@RhettBollinger) June 10, 2023
Michael A. Taylor, standing nearby in the visiting clubhouse offered, “It’s been really great to be able to watch the games with the guys. Usually [at home] we go get dinner and head home for the night, but on the road, we can be together a little more. Guys are watching the games together in the hotel and pointing out different things that they notice about the other teams to each other.”
For Twins manager Rocco Baldelli, this sort of team bonding is important, especially during a string of frustrating performances. “We’ve got to be able to stick together, keep grinding together. This time on the road is special for the group, but it’s also been a great chance for us to notice some things.”
“I don’t really want to get into the specifics,” Baldelli said. “We can’t give away everything we’ve figured out. The one thing I’ll say, though, is that we’ve really noticed that other clubs don’t seem to strike out as much as we do. It’s almost like they try to avoid them.”
“The Blue Jays, who we’re playing now, they had a game a couple of weeks ago against Milwaukee where their batters didn’t strike out. For the entire game. That’s not something we’ve ever really considered as an option.”
Rocco Baldelli: "The strikeouts, they are an issue and there’s no way around that. I think I’d be sitting here feeding you something if I told you it wasn’t something that we’re thinking about and talking about." #MNTwins— DanHayesMLB (@DanHayesMLB) June 7, 2023
“When we’re in the thick of the season, playing almost every day, we mostly just get to see what other teams’ hitters do against our guys on the mound. And we’ve got a good group out there on the bump,” Baldelli continued. “Pete’s [Maki] got ‘em going. They strike out a lot of guys. So, the strikeouts by our hitters didn’t really stand out… until we started watching some of these other games on this trip.”
The numbers support Baldelli’s point. Through games played Sunday, June 11, Twins pitchers lead all MLB teams in strikeout rate, having punched out 25.6% of the batters they have faced. Twins hitters also lead the league in strikeout rate, striking out in a full season record pace of 27.0% of their plate appearances.
“Our glaring weakness is with two strikes,” hitting coach David Popkins said to reporters. “That’s something we need to get better on. I take full responsibility for that. We’ve got to better prepare and execute in those situations.”
The Athletic’s Dan Hayes reported Popkins used a golf analogy to describe the team’s strikeout struggles. He noted Twins hitters have approached hitting as if they were using a driver all the time rather than shortening up with two strikes.
“The good news is, watching these other games gave us some ideas about what to do about it,” Popkins said to Twinkie Town. “You can see other clubs implementing what’s apparently known as a ‘two-strike approach’. That’s not really something we’ve thought much about around here before.”
“But... we’re thinking now it might be a good idea to try,” Popkins admitted with an audible sigh after a long pause.
Rocco, on the offensive approach: "Sometimes, it’s the mentality going into the at-bat that I think has to change a little bit, and believe me it’s something that we’re not going to forget and it’s something that we definitely have to spend some time on and address."— Do-Hyoung Park (@dohyoungpark) June 7, 2023
Catcher Ryan Jeffers said he’d first noticed this change in strategy with two strikes while watching the St. Louis Cardinals (21.3% team strikeout rate, 7th-lowest in MLB) play the Texas Rangers earlier in the week. “I was watching those games and the Cardinals’ guys really seemed to do something different with two strikes. That definitely caught my attention. It’s almost like they think strikeouts are bad.”
“It’s not just with two strikes,” Baldelli said.
Byron Buxton, on the injured list with a rib injury, agreed. “I was watching the Giants play this week and they really love to mash on first-pitch fastballs. We need to do that more. You know, hit it before you can even get to two strikes. We’re always thinking about being patient to get your pitch. San Francisco seems to think that can happen on the first pitch, too. It’s really creative.”
San Francisco ranks 2nd in the league for production against first-pitch fastballs with .477 wOBA. Minnesota ranks 22nd.
Byron Buxton, on the offense:— Do-Hyoung Park (@dohyoungpark) June 7, 2023
"Early in the year, I feel like we were a very aggressive team. We were striking out a little bit, and then we kind of talked about it, and now, we overreact and are not swinging in the zone, trying to make sure it's a strike."
Regardless of the ultimate solutions to be employed, the Twins players all thought that seeing other teams put these techniques into play in games helped them visualize the things they hear from their coaches and the Twins analytics staff.
“We’re big on technology and the analytics here,” noted analytics nerd Carlos Correa said to Twinkie Town. “I love that. But, I guess some guys need to see what it looks like to get what the data is saying. Apparently, not everyone is comfortable reading spreadsheets. We’re figuring that out now. Hopefully, it will help us.”
When asked by Twinkie Town to comment on their teammates' and coaches’ recent revelations, Twins pitchers collectively declined to comment through representative Griffin Jax. “Do yourself a favor and don’t ask Sonny [Gray] about any of this. Just trust me on that.” Jax told Twinkie Town.
Baldelli declined to comment when asked if he’d picked up any ideas watching other clubs for how to handle unreliable relievers.
In Toronto, the Twins’ new approaches helped them strike out 9 times on Friday, 17 times on Saturday, and 11 times on Sunday.
The Twins open a home series with regional rival Milwaukee on Tuesday.