Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What's behind the offensive plight?

A year ago, the Twins fairly high-octane offense generated 4.8 runs per game in their first 10 games played. This season, the Twins sputtered out of the gate averaging two full runs fewer in the same amount of games. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons behind this scoring decline:

(1) No free passes

This year’s model has been unable to remain patient and selective – at least in contrast to last year’s team. In their first nine games, the lineup has managed to draw just 22 walks – the fewest in baseball. In comparison, through the first ten games last season, the team had coaxed 43 free passes off opposing pitchers. That’s 21 fewer base runners by virtue of walks alone.

This appears to be the byproduct of pressing. As the season progresses, hitters are compounding their issues at the plate by attempting to hit their way out of the doldrums. Only, we often see hitters stretch out the strike zone and put borderline pitches into play – frequently to the pitcher’s delight. Being more discriminating at the plate will lead to more base-runners and an inflation of a starter’s pitch count.

(2) Not capitalizing on favorable counts

This drought may lead one to believe that opposing teams are thundering hellfire and strikes across the plate however teams are actually avoiding the strike zone like the plague against the Twins. Minnesota has seen a very low number of first-pitch strikes to date (55.6% vs. 59% league average) and the seventh-lowest zone presence (46.2% vs. 48% league average). In theory, this should lead to favorable counts for the offense – one in which hitters can drive the ball or coax a walk -- yet those opportunities have been squandered.

When hitting ahead in the count, the 2010 Twins batted a robust .303/.473/.486 – slightly above the league norm under those circumstances. This year’s team is hitting nearly two hundred OPS points below that benchmark with a .250/.373/.384 line when ahead in the count.

In the recent broadcasts, Bert Blyleven stated that he believed opponents were pitching the Twins hitters’ backward more – that is, throwing more breaking and off-speed pitches during typical fastball counts. Observationally, this makes sense. I’ve witnessed several accounts when this happened, catching a hitter way out in front of the pitch when they expected something harder. Scientifically however, I am a tad more skeptical if this truly is the case. Without being able to pull pitch f/x data for the entire team on my own, I cannot corroborate or disprove Bert’s theory. At this point, let’s leave it as the Twins are not producing at the rate they did last year under the same conditions.

 (3) Not driving the ball to the opposite field

From 2008 to 2010, the Twins blasted their way to the plate by driving the ball the other way. Sure, it may be an approach that David Ortiz thinks makes you “hit like a little bitch”, but it worked for the Twins. In that duration, the team amassed a .330 wOBA – the best in baseball. They piled up 1,226 hits when going “oppo” (the most in that time) as well as 296 doubles (also the most). This season, they’ve shown little pop going the other way. While they are struggling to get hits to all fields, they have a muddling .252 wOBA with just two extra base hits.

This stat is more of a barometer to fundamentally how the team is hitting. When you see numerous opposite field shots, you know that the hitters are sitting back and driving pitches outside. When you see the number of hard-hit opposite field balls drop, there is likely a rise in pulled groundballs as hitters tend to turn over on those pitches away.

With a park that plays big like Target Field does, you will likely see opposing teams implement the same strategy the Royals’ Jeff Francis did on Tuesday night and that is destroy the outer-half of the plate. Hitters are not likely to drive that pitch to the opposite field for a home run so damage will be minimal in a worst case scenario. In the best case, the opponents simply roll their wrists over and put the ball on the ground. The Twins hitters need to show they can drive that pitch with consistency to the opposite field where they have demonstrated success in the past.

On Tuesday, April 19th, Lindsay Guentzel (the former “Intern Gal” at KFAN) is hosting a benefit for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society at Bayside Grille in Excelsior. In additional to watching the Twins take on the Baltimore Orioles, there will be food & drink specials along with drawings & prizes (I’ve got some DiamondCentric shirts and pint glass to giveaway) all supporting a terrific cause. Please come out to the Lake and join us!