I could probably make three articles from this, but I’ll run through the condensed version of each finding here instead, for concision’s sake:

-Late last week, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs wrote a quick post about the Twins’ patient offense. Dave does great work, but to pat myself on the back a bit, I took notice of this change much sooner–10 months ago.

It’s also worth noting that there’s more nuance to the phenomenon than Cameron’s piece presents. The Twins do swing less often than an average team in general, but the majority of the difference between them and other clubs shows up on the first pitch of plate appearances.

Swing Rates
Split Twins League Average
On First Pitch 20.0% 25.0%
All Others 46.8% 50.7%
Total 40.5% 44.5%

Proportionally, what sets the Twins apart is that they swing so much more frequently after the first pitch than they do on that first one.

And it’s an effective strategy. Last season, employing the same philosophy, Minnesota batted .239/.261/.383 when they swung at the first pitch. (That was 18 percent worse than the league average in at-bats like that.) When they took the first offering, though, they batted .243/.326/.379. (That was just three percent off the league average.)

Now, they still weren’t a good offense last year, and the dirty little secret about this year’s offense is that it’s just as bad. Jason Kubel (.440), Chris Colabello (.397) and Trevor Plouffe (.388) all have batting averages on balls in play that will settle in 100 points lower, or worse. Still, by drilling home plate discipline, the team got the most out of its modest talent, and they look to be doing the same thing early in 2014.

-That’s the team-level look. Now, check out this breakdown of the team’s nine regulars by first-pitch swing rate, and let’s talk about some of the individual dynamics at play:

First-Pitch Swing Rate, 2014

Player Swing %, First Pitch
Pedro Florimon 37.3
Trevor Plouffe 24.8
Aaron Hicks 21.4
Chris Colabello 20.6
Jason Kubel 20.0
Josmil Pinto 18.8
Joe Mauer 16.1
Kurt Suzuki 8.1
Brian Dozier 8.0

First of all, Florimon and Dozier make for an interesting contrast. Back in 2012, Dozier was Florimon, more or less. He was fairly free-swinging, and had a trace of power, but not much else. When the Twins really ratcheted up the emphasis on taking pitches early in the count, though, Dozier embraced the philosophy wholeheartedly, and his career has taken off. He’s a weird but terrific top-of-the-order guy thus far, walking and hitting for power, even though he’ll clearly never hit for a high average.

Florimon continues to swing at that first pitch more often than anyone else on the team, though. It’s not surprising that he’s had no success this way. What is surprising, at least to me, is that the Twins have permitted him to keep up his aggressive approach. If it were me, a poor hitter like Florimon would be the first one upon whom I would inflict a new mandate.

Other players of note include Plouffe, who’s swinging at that first pitch nearly at the league-average rate but still drawing walks—a very good sign. Joe Mauer’s number is interesting, too, but I’m going to break this one off into a separate bullet point.

-Mauer’s nearly-25-percent strikeout rate and nonexistent power has some people worried about him already. I want to firmly counsel patience, but it is worth noting that something is different.

Mauer is, as you saw above, swinging at about one in six first pitches, which is about the double the frequency with which he did that in 2012 and 2013. I’m not sure what’s spurring that, but it’s a significant change. Mauer is swinging at pitches outside the zone slightly more than in recent years, but the real story is that he’s whiffing on more of those swings (a 72.6-percent contact rate, down from the mid-70s and up over 80 percent the past few seasons), so swinging more early in at-bats is putting him in a position to be punched out late in them.

All that said, Mauer is also walking at a career-high rate, and has a history of swinging and missing at off-speed stuff more early in the season than he does as the weather warms. Contact and power will come. For now, Mauer’s .358 BABIP and all those walks ensure he’s not a black hole in the lineup.

-Ricky Nolasco is getting hit hard early in his Twins career, and it seems to be a result of throwing his fastball a whole lot more than usual. Nolasco uses his fastball pretty much the way an average big-league pitcher does, but he’s never been able to get many empty swings with the pitch. It’s straight and not overwhelmingly fast, so when batters elect to swing, they usually find good wood.

For that reason, Nolasco is more than usually reliant on his breaking stuff to get strikeouts and weak contact. Early this season, he’s going to the fastball very often, likely because his catchers aren’t familiar with him yet and are more comfortable receiving that pitch, so he’s unable to do anything with a batter once he gets ahead of them. There’s no velocity lost; I would expect Nolasco’s pitch usage to smooth out and move toward his career norms as the season goes on.

That will help solve his problems, but it may not be a perfect cure. Batters are also swinging at Nolasco’s pitches substantially less often than they typically have. Maybe that’s a fluke, but if it turns out to be the result of moving to the American League and Nolasco never does start getting batters to chase against him the way they used to do, it might spell real trouble.

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