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Three True Outcomes vs. Just Putting the Ball in Play

Cleveland and Minnesota illustrate the limits of one size fit all offenses and the metrics we use to characterize them

San Francisco Giants v Minnesota Twins
Byron Buxton #25 of the Minnesota Twins takes an at-bat against the San Francisco Giants
Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Through 60 games, the Twins continue to have one of the best-performing pitching staffs in baseball. The bullpen has had its share of shaky moments, but the starting rotation has been consistently excellent, despite some injuries. Overall, they rank among baseball’s best in many categories:

The offense, on the other hand, has been a different story. The equivalent list of hitting stats looks like this:

  • K%: 30th
  • AVG: 24th
  • OBP: 21st
  • SLG: 16th
  • OPS: 20th
  • Runs: 14th
  • Runs/Game: 17th
  • WPA: 27th
  • BB%: 5th
  • K/BB Ratio: 22nd

As a group, the hitters have underperformed relative to expectations and generally rank in the bottom half of baseball in offensive production. Those underperformers are “headlined” by Carlos Correa, José Miranda, and Max Kepler, but those three are hardly the only hitters who have struggled. Byron Buxton has slumped for weeks at a time, Nick Gordon started out very slowly, and Christian Vázquez has swung a light bat all season.

Three True Outcomes

Twins fans on this site and elsewhere have lamented and decried the Twins’ heavy three true outcomes — walks, home runs, and strikeouts — orientation on offense, especially their league-leading rate of strikeouts. Twins hitters have struck out in 26.8% of their plate appearances, walked in another 9.4%, and homered 77 times (3.4%).

Data from FanGraphs

Add that up and 39.6% of the Twins’ plate appearances this season have ended with one of the three true outcomes. That’s the largest share in MLB and about 1.5 points ahead of the Dodgers and Padres.

The Twins are far from the only team that has enthusiastically embraced this offensive approach. The overall league-level rate of three true outcomes has steadily increased over the past few decades:

Data from FanGraphs

There are many potential reasons for this, including similar steady increases in velocity, increased breaking ball usage by pitchers, and the widespread embrace of the third time through the order penalty on starters and the associated parade of max effort, high-velocity relievers.

All of that makes it harder than ever to actually put a ball in play, and that’s then been compounded by the widespread implementation of data-driven defensive shifts that make it more likely for a batted ball to be turned into an out.

Others have lamented potential “cultural” shifts, such as the so-called “launch angle revolution” and a generation of players that don’t view a strikeout any differently than any other out.

For my money, all of the things listed above have a common foundation and rest on the fact that the data analytics revolution in baseball has disproportionately benefitted pitching and defense over offense.

Thanks in large part to ever-improving measurement technology and the data it yields, it is harder than ever to hit today, and the increase of three true outcomes is largely a result of hitters adapting their approaches to the increasing scarcity of pitches they can do anything with.

Because it is so difficult to string together three or four hits in an inning against this level of pitching, the thinking goes that hitters are better off, in the aggregate over time, swinging for the downs and trying to run into extra bases against the 1 or 2 hittable mistakes they will see on a given day.

While many will lament the game’s lack of contact and declining batting averages, others will counter with the data that shows a strikeout isn’t much different than any other kind of out in the aggregate (set aside situational hitting events like a runner on 3rd and less than 2 outs) and that batting average does not matter. On-base and slugging are the coins of the realm of modern baseball and more strikeouts are simply the cost of doing business.

All-In Approaches Only Go So Far

This past weekend’s four-game set with division rival Cleveland offered a glimpse of a club that’s taken the polar opposite approach. You saw in the chart above that the Guardians rank 29th in three true outcome rates this season and they also had the league’s lowest percentage last year.

That’s not just from a single category – last season Cleveland had the league’s lowest hitter strikeout rate (18.2%), the 3rd-lowest walk rate (7.3%), and they hit the 2nd-fewest home runs. This year, it’s more of the same: they have the 2nd-lowest strikeout rate (19.0%), rank 22nd in walk rate (8.3%), and have hit the fewest home runs by a wide margin (35). Unlike the Twins, the Guardians swing a lot and put the ball in play a lot.

Per Statcast, the Guardians have put the most pitches in play of any team the past two seasons, and have put 477 more pitches into play than the Twins.

Data from Baseball Savant

Ultimately, despite their vastly different approaches, the Twins and Guardians both rank in the middle to bottom of the pack in runs scored. Last season, they finished just two runs scored apart, with the Guardians ranked 15th with 698 and the Twins ranked 17th with 696.

This season, Minnesota ranks 16th with 4.45 runs scored per game (a 721 run pace) and Cleveland, thanks to an early season team-wide slump, ranks 29th with 3.59 runs per game (a 582 run pace).

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

The Guardians, more than any other team today, subscribe to the traditional maxim of “put the ball in play and good things will happen,” which is also a common refrain from those unhappy with the Twins’ approach. Proponents of such an approach will be quick to point to the Guardians’ contact rates and low strikeout rate as evidence that this approach is superior. After all, strikeouts are bad! (Or so the thinking goes.)

The Guardians are also an example of the limits of that approach at the major league level where defenses are highly effective at turning batted balls in outs and limiting mistakes. The “just put it in play” philosophy makes all the sense in the world at lower levels of baseball where defenses are not nearly as efficient, but in MLB it’s mostly just a recipe for getting out a lot, which is evident in the Guardians' data.

St. Louis Cardinals v Cleveland Guardians
Cleveland’s Amed Rosario makes a lot of contact, but not always productive contact
Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Despite putting more balls into play than any other club the past two seasons, Cleveland ranks just 28th in cumulative run value (183.4) produced by their batted balls, and 29th on a per-event basis.

By contrast, the Twins rank 15th (305.2) on the same cumulative list and 13th on a per-event basis. By comparison, the ~120 run gap the Twins have over the Guardians on batted balls exceeds the ~87 run value differential they cede to Cleveland on strikeouts.

Proponents of the Twins’ “seek and destroy in all situations” approach are often quick to point to the contact quality stats provided by Statcast, like exit velocity, launch angle, hard hit rates, and barrel rates as evidence that this approach is superior. After all, this kind of approach necessitates that a team is very productive on contact.

The Twins routinely rank among the top 10 or better teams in these categories and as a result, often have some of the highest marks for production and expected production on contact (wOBAcon / xwOBAcon). But, those marks can be just as misleading as the Guardians’ strikeout rate because they are most often based only on balls in play instead of all plate appearances. Sure, the Twins might have hit 41.3% of their batted balls hard (i.e., 95 mph or greater exit velocity) the past two seasons, but on a per-plate appearance basis, that’s a less impressive 27.6%. (Twins fans will recall this conundrum with Miguel Sanó).

Minnesota Twins v Milwaukee Brewers
Miguel Sanó is the poster boy for batted ball quality stats not telling the whole story
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Point

That’s about 1,300 words so I guess I should get to my point. My point is: both approaches, when done in an all-in manner, are flawed and have limited upside. In either case, it seems the best that can be accomplished this way is middle-of-the-road offensive production. The Twins, for all their loud contact production (when they do make contact) and patience, will be dragged down by their inability to make frequent contact. The Guardians, for all their contact-oriented swings and putting the ball-in-play prowess, will be dragged down by the low quality of that contact and their seeming unwillingness to take a walk. Such are the limits of these one-size fit all approaches.

We often try to reduce complexity by framing things in “either-or” terms. It helps us make them simpler and easier to deal with. But that habit strips out important context and can leave us missing important nuances. Baseball is rarely “either-or”. That’s part of its beauty. The teams that have shown to be the most productive understand that and find ways to balance both, blending power and contact, and patience and aggressiveness.

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.