Monday, November 28 2022

The language of baseball has a long history of infiltrating the English language at large. Habitually spinning off phrases that stood in for much bigger ideas — home run, three strikes, curveball — the game embedded itself in the American lexicon during its midcentury cultural heyday. But even the contemporary numbers-obsessed version of the sport has made major contributions to the world of letters.

When Michael Lewis documented the data-guided rise of Billy Beane and the early 2000s Oakland A’s, his account was so easily grasped and so compelling that it brought a whole world of seemingly stale financial concepts into the popular imagination. Where “market inefficiency” was instant eye glaze, “Moneyball” was catchy, made for the tip of every savvy striver’s tongue.

It came to mean … well, pretty much anything you want it to … but mostly it evolved into a flashy-but-still-cool way to say: Actually, there’s One Neat Trick to win at whatever you’re trying to do. It is the tip that your pitch will be counterintuitive. It took the gist of “zig when others zag” and distilled it into an aspirational, gamified nine-letter word that also soon became associated with images of Brad Pitt.

In the case of the 2002 A’s, Lewis’s book and reality in general, nothing is actually that simple. But there is occasionally great value to be found in doing something different before everyone else realizes it.

So it goes that 20 years after Scott Hatteberg and that A’s team set off baseball’s Great Advantage Hunt by prioritizing on-base percentage, an era-updated zig right out of the “Moneyball” playbook might be behind the sterling start of the Minnesota Twins in 2022.

The Twins are dodging first strikes

Here’s the trick, in its glossiest, most Powerpoint-ready form: Take a ball to start your at-bats.

Pitchers are getting a first-pitch strike against the 2022 Twins lineup only 56.1% of the time, which counts as a big win when the league average has hovered around 60% for the past decade. In 2022, the average stands at 60.9% and the Twins’ mark is in its own universe, besting second place by more than 2 percentage points.

In classic Moneyball fashion, this is where I tell you that those marginal sounding numbers are, in fact, massive.

Each time a hitter steps into the box, there is an immediate fork in the road. If the pitcher collects a strike against them, the walls close in. In 2022, MLB hitters who start an at-bat down 0-1 produce results 33% worse than a league average hitter, per the park-adjusted wRC+ metric. The ones who go up 1-0, meanwhile, are 31% better than league average. It’s a huge, huge chasm.

Starting 0-1: .211/.255/.325, .580 OPS

Starting 1-0: .251/.317/.417, .789 OPS

Take one ball, and you can expect to hit like J.D. Martinez. Take one strike, and you hit like a guy worried about a demotion to Triple-A. That’s the tradeoff.

So far, the 2022 Twins are getting to more of those advantageous 1-0 counts than anyone in the past decade. They have had 701 of those plate appearances on the attack, where a team with just an average first-pitch strike rate, the New York Yankees, has 635. That’s about two entire games worth, in less than two months of action. On the other extreme, the Chicago White Sox — the AL Central favorite the Twins have put squarely behind the eight ball — have the league’s worst first-pitch strike rate and have started with 1-0 counts only 577 times.

Of course, the results of the trick aren’t a secret. Everyone understands the game, everyone would love to pull a rabbit out of a hat, but the Twins are actually doing it. So the question is how.

Twins hitter Luis Arraez is leading the charge of Minnesota hitters getting ahead of pitchers by taking the first pitch. (Photo by Reed Hoffmann/Getty Images)Twins hitter Luis Arraez is leading the charge of Minnesota hitters getting ahead of pitchers by taking the first pitch. (Photo by Reed Hoffmann/Getty Images)

Twins hitter Luis Arraez is leading the charge of Minnesota hitters getting ahead of pitchers by taking the first pitch. (Photo by Reed Hoffmann/Getty Images)

How Twins turned pitchers against themselves

Like a lot of great tricks, this one is powered by misdirection.

Since the beginning of pitch tracking stats in 2008, the league’s broader trends toward strikeout stuff and homer dependency have spawned related strategic arcs when it comes to that crucial first pitch.

Realizing that it might be their best chance to ambush a fastball and/or a pitch down the middle, hitters have swung more and more often. The 30.1% swing rate in 2022 is the highest on record. It was 26.6% in 2014, the last full season before the juiced ball and home run spike took hold.

Pitchers, in response, have thrown fewer and fewer fastballs — echoing the overall tendency toward the bendier pitches that are harder to square up. For the first time on record, and almost certainly the first time in baseball history, fastballs make up less than 60% of opening pitches in 2022.

Baseball is cyclical. There’s a rise and a fall. A surge and a crash. So much of what we think of as the Moneyball effect, of the era of analysis it ushered in, is staying on the right side of those curves. Think of the Twins, then, as the people who might have cashed in and cashed out of this one at the right times.

From 2019 to 2021, they swung fairly often (8th in MLB) and especially hard. In the peak of the sport’s reliance on homers, the Twins hammered an MLB-best 126 home runs on first pitches, and posted the second-best slugging percentage (behind the Yankees).

This year, pitchers adjusted, but found the Twins had pulled the rug out from under them.

They have thrown the Twins hitters first pitches outside the zone, per Statcast, 51.2% of the time. No other team’s hitters are seeing more than half their 0-0 pitches outside the zone, and no team has seen this many first pitches out of the zone since 2010.

Happy to go to 1-0, Minnesota’s first-pitch swing rate is down 3.1 percentage points from 2021, the second-largest drop in the majors. After being one of the 10 most swing-happy teams in 2021, they are in the bottom five this year.

The results are extremely promising. They have MLB’s third-best park-adjusted OPS despite injuries that have limited Byron Buxton, Carlos Correa and some other lineup fixtures early on.

Meanwhile, the two teams who most closely rivaled the Twins’ first-pitch homer prowess in recent seasons — the Atlanta Braves and Toronto Blue Jays — have remained among the most aggressive swinging teams and stumbled out to surprisingly weak offensive starts.

However, it’s not that simple. Most teams that end up seeing very few strikes are not necessarily intimidating, but top-heavy. The Washington Nationals are the Twins’ closest rival in first-strike rate this year, because teams are happy to avoid Juan Soto and Josh Bell, and take their chances that a lesser hitter will beat them.

The Twins have a little of that going on, too. It’s possible at least some of their count domination has to do with that — they are middle of the pack in runs per game despite the stellar OPS, hinting at the possibility pitchers are having partial success by avoiding their most dangerous hitters.

A fleeting fact or the start of a trend?

As baseball feels its way through the new status quo of the hitter-pitcher balance, everyone is looking for the next secret to scoring more than the other team. The rest of MLB’s 2022 season is going to be a big, collective experiment. It could be that the Twins’ first-pitch routine reverberates as an efficient way to win, or it could be that it fades away by July and new possibilities — like literally how the ball spins off the bat — take center stage.

But right now, there is a lot of attention on how to win without the homer.

As Eno Sarris detailed at The Athletic, taking pitches in general could be described as a new “Moneyball.” It’s not exciting, but it is statistically useful — especially if results on contact continue to suffer from a less lively baseball. As Sarris explained, taking pitches is ideally a sign of selectivity. Not all strikes are created equally for hitters. They can put themselves in position to do more damage by narrowing down the swath of pitches they go after to the ones they hit the best.

Being ahead in the count provides the flexibility to do that, and the 2022 Twins spend more time ahead in the count more than any other team. The list of players who get ahead most often is littered with Twins. Luis Arraez, Jorge Polanco and Byron Buxton are all among MLB’s top five.

Arraez, a contact wizard who rarely whiffs but lacks home run power, currently leads baseball in on-base percentage, adding to his value at a time when more hitters are joining him in the no-power boat.

All of this is helping Minnesota post an effective offense and take advantage of the early White Sox struggles to build a division lead.

Whether the Twins keep doing this — and whether opposing pitchers catch on — remains to be seen. The extreme nature of the trends could dissipate some as more daunting bats rejoin the lineup. Or the summer could bring more advantageous hitting conditions that incentivize more swings. Or perhaps it will persist, and the Twins will thrive off a judo-like ability to make pitchers work against themselves.

What’s clear for now is that they made a first move to combat some of the forces stifling offense. Now the timer starts — until everyone else adopts it, until pitchers adjust, until an old Moneyball becomes the new Moneyball once again.

(All stats current through Tuesday’s games.)

Source: Yahoo Sports

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