Plate patience leads to walks, runs for efficient Twins
With steady approach, Minnesota leads Majors in on-base percentage and runs scored
MINNEAPOLIS -- The theme song for the Twins' first month of the season certainly could be Aerosmith's "Walk this Way."
The Twins lead the Majors with 121 walks entering Monday, as they've walked in 12.9 percent of their plate appearances, well ahead of Oakland's 11.3 percent rate that ranks second in the Majors. For context, the Rays led the Majors with a 9.4 percent walk rate last year and no team has had a rate above 12 percent since 2000.
So although history suggests that rate will decline as the season goes along, it's been a major reason why the Twins are leading the Majors with 5.52 runs per game, buoyed by a .353 on-base percentage as a team that also paces the Majors.
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire says it's no fluke the Twins are using walks to their advantage, as it's part of a conscious effort created by hitting coach Tom Brunansky to lay off tough pitches until getting a pitch to drive. The Twins have swung at the fewest pitches in the Majors as a result, and also lead baseball in pitches per plate appearance.
"I think everybody is just trying to get on base, and there's always conversation about it," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "A lot of our hitters have a few more at-bats in this league and understand it a bit more. It's experience and not panicking in certain situations. They're doing a lot better at that. We're striking out a little too much, but that goes along with it by going deep in counts. But it's an effort, and it's experience."
As Gardenhire noted, the Twins are still striking out plenty, as they broke a team record with 1,430 strikeouts last season with 23 percent of their plate appearances ending in strikeouts. This year that rate is roughly the same at 22.5 percent.
But the Twins are doing a better job not swinging at bad pitches, as they rank second in the Majors by swinging at just 24.1 percent of balls outside of the strike zone, according to Fangraphs.com. Last year, they offered at 29.5 percent of pitches classified as balls.
"We're just trying to make the pitchers work," third baseman Trevor Plouffe said. "There's the old saying, 'You're not going to hit a three-run homer with nobody on base.' So we're just going up there trying to keep the line moving."
The Twins also doing a better job with runners in scoring position. They ranked seventh in the Majors in walks last season, but 25th in runs scored because of their inability to drive in runners. Twins hitters combined to hit just .225/.304/.331 with runners in scoring position last year, but they're hitting a much better .251/.379/.349 in those situations this year.
"I think it's about having professional at-bats," first baseman/outfielder Chris Colabello said. "Just being aware of the situation and how the pitcher is doing. If he's a little erratic, don't try to expand the zone. You just have to wait for what you want to hit. If they don't throw them where you want them, you don't have to swing."
Colabello has been a major reason why the Twins have been on a roll offensively this month, as he's already set the club record for RBIs in April with 27 to break Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett's mark of 26, set in 1994.
Colabello is reaping the benefits of an offense that has six regulars walking at above-average rates, including Josmil Pinto (21.5 percent), Brian Dozier (16.8), Aaron Hicks (16.7), Joe Mauer (15.3), Plouffe (14.3) and Kurt Suzuki (13.5). For further context, Mauer, who is known as one of baseball's most patient hitters, has a career walk rate of 12.2 percent.
The Twins know that those rates are likely to regress as the season goes along, but they're also hoping to see more hittable pitches as a result of that patience. The offense has also been far from perfect, as Mauer is off to an uncharacteristically slow start and both Pedro Florimon and Hicks are hitting below .200.
But Gardenhire believes many of the club's hitters such as Dozier, Plouffe, and Pinto are showing signs of maturity at the plate, and the Twins are still without power-hitting outfielders Josh Willingham and Oswaldo Arcia, who have both been out since early April with wrist injuries.
So Gardenhire said he thinks the offense can continue to be a strength moving forward, especially if they continue to heed Brunansky's advice.
"It becomes a mindset," Gardenhire said. "Make the guy throw the ball over the plate and use the whole field. All these guys are drawing walks and getting on base. And if you put people on base, good things are going to happen. That's where we're at right now, we're taking advantage of what's given to us, and that's what we have to do."