In a 5-3 loss to the Miami Marlins Wednesday night, the Minnesota Twins sent 39 batters to the plate. Only six of them swung at the first pitch. The Marlins, in a game they won, threw 183 pitches. Mike Dunn pitched a perfect eighth inning, just that one inning. It took 27 pitches.
After that performance, the Twins have now lost three of their last four games, going back to Saturday. In those four contests, though, opponents have thrown 725 pitches to Twins batters. It all traces back to the first stat I offered from Wednesday night, something the Twins are trying this season that has fascinating implications for baseball’s future.
The Minnesota Twins never swing at the first pitch. They just don’t do it. Only the Boston Red Sox swing less often on the first pitch of their at-bats, as a team, than the Twins, and the Red Sox are a truer take-and-rake team. Whereas Boston’s individual players make individual decisions to work the count and get into power counts, it’s pretty clear to me: The Twins have programmed in first-pitch selectivity, even passivity.
Some teams spend a lot of time trying to coach hitters into taking a certain mentality to the plate. They want their guy guessing along with the pitcher at times, shrinking his hitting zone at times, always thinking about the situation and processing information even as the pitcher begins his wind-up or comes set on the mound. In fact, I once assumed all teams did this. It seems like the way to go, the thing to do. You teach self-sufficiency, and hope your players become hitting savants who can read facial twitches and know that a back-door cutter is coming. That’s player development. That’s fostering personal and professional growth.
The Twins present me an opportunity to rethink that assumption. I truly believe the Twins have hard ‘take’ and ‘swing away’ signs for their batters. I can’t prove this, because I have never attempted to steal their signs, and obviously, information that valuable would never earn acknowledgment from the mildly paranoid men who run virtually all MLB teams. It sure seems true, though.
If it is true, it has serious implications. Because the thing is, I think the Twins are an overachieving offense. They’re not a good offense. Their park-adjusted wOBA is .321, and they’re about 10 runs worse than an average team after stripping away externalities. That’s quite a bit better than I think they would be, though, if left entirely to their own devices. Brian Dozier is a bad hitter, one with below-average power and fringe-average contact skills. (That characterization is slightly harsh. I treat him more thoroughly here.) Dozier needs to be forced to take pitches in order to get to the pitches he can handle, and in order to find his way on base despite very poor patience. Pedro Florimon is the same guy. Chris Parmelee is the same guy. It’s a team full of very bad players, in my opinion, but they’re playing like merely bad players.
You can see hints that the pitch-taking is programmed, for instance, in the guys who are allowed to cut it loose early in the count. It has mostly been Oswaldo Arcia and Trevor Plouffe who get that green light (by the way, please remove Joe Mauer from this conversation in your mind; Joe Mauer is a singular talent, and no one is telling him what to do), which is a concession to the obvious truth that (although Arcia has some upside, and he has put together some good at-bats, and he’s impressive as Hell) those two players have good power, and not a ton else in their bags. They are guys who derive their value to the offense from their ability to really punish the ball, and they can do so best by holding nothing back when they step into the box.
To get down to my central point: Is it possible that teams would see better results from many batters if they forgot about trying to coach them into approaching each plate appearance like Ted Williams, and simply told them when to swing, and when not to swing? That sounds radical, and old baseball men (among many others) might say it’s simple-minded and reductive. But coaches are supposed to help players prepare, and put them in positions to succeed. In the NFL, coaches call plays, rather than having the huddle turn into a conference among players without the time or resources to make a fully-informed decision. In basketball, coaches draw up plays because often, a player who follows his instincts is led astray. In all the history of baseball, teams have primarily prepared batters to go into the batter’s box, and then been more or less hands-off. Maybe it’s time for hitting coaches to earn their keep by being more directly involved in the decision of when to swing, especially early in counts, and when to live to fight another pitch.
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