The Twins bullpen – figured to be the most questionable area of the team coming into the season - has helped elevate the club to a 6-2 record. Through the first eight ballgames, the late inning clean-up crew has exercised a 1.66 ERA and a 0.97 WHIP, best in the American League. What has been the early season formula for success?
(1) No walks.
They have dominated opponents by dominating the strike zone. The relief staff has walked just one (Jose Mijares) in 21.2 innings of work, which keeps opponents from adding base-runners during pivotal portions of the game. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Washington Nationals relievers have issued 20 walks in 28.2 innings leading to a 5.02 group ERA. Because of the miniscule 0.42 BB/9 the Twins relievers hold an unearthly 14.00 K/BB ratio in spite of averaging just 5.8 K/9. To put that into context, the next closest team is the Atlanta Braves who hold a 4.29 K/BB ratio thanks to a 10.38 K/9.
(2) First-pitch strikes.
This goes hand-in-hand with the no walks. In 63.0% of plate appearances, the relievers have achieved strike one, well-above the 58% baseball average. Only Toronto’s 73.8% first pitch strike percentage is better in the American League. Getting strike one ensures that the Twins pitchers position themselves well. Everybody other than Brian Duensing (46.2%) and Alex Burnett (33.3%) hold percentages over 50%. Jose Mijares leads the staff with an 81.8% rate while Jon Rauch (68.4%), Matt Guerrier (64.7%) and Jesse Crain (63.6%) are not far behind.
(3) Getting hitters to chase their pitches.
The byproduct of throwing first-pitch strikes and working ahead is being able to move the ball of the plate. While pitchers typically throw a fastball 62% of the time, the Twins relief staff has had the luxury of using their breaking stuff, mostly sliders (30%), far more frequently because of their ability to get ahead. Since the Twins are throwing pitches in the zone at a high rate, they have also enticed plenty of swings are pitches that dart out of the strike zone. At 35.7% out-of-zone swings, the relief staff is coaxing hitters to go after their pitches. While opponents have put a fair amount of those out-of-zone pitches in play, they have failed to make solid contact – hitting line drives just 12% of the time (2nd only to the Diamondbacks).
(4) Stranding runners.
The relievers have stranded 93% of all runner put on base, head-and-shoulders above all the other clubs (the next closest is the Mets at 84%) and well-above the 71.7% average. Their current rate is bound to revert closer to the average, but for now it is working.