Twins' patience at plate, on base paths, are keys
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He wound up losing to T.C. Bear, who may or may not be eligible for the MLB's P.E.D. testing policy, but that's another story.
Heading into this weekend, the Twins offense ranks fifth in the league with a 11.7% walk rate -- behind only the Yankees, Phillies, Nationals, and Braves. The Twins' .364 team on-base percentage ranks fifth as well.
And while I always try to caution against relying heavily on early-season small sample sizes, this patient approach at the plate -- combined with a heavy dose of power -- is the primary reason why the Twins have scored 64 runs in 12 games.
In 2006, when Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Nick Punto, and others had spectacular offensive seasons, the Twins hit only 143 home runs and drew walks in only 7.9% of their plate appearances, both of which ranked near the bottom of the league. The Twins managed to score nearly five runs per game that season, however, because they hit well over .300 with runners in scoring position -- a feat that has not, and will never, sustain over time.
Traditionally, the most sure-fire way to score runs on a consistent basis, and sustain it over the long term, is to combine slugging with ability to reach base often.
Over the past few years, the Twins have certainly had patient, power-hitting bats in the middle of the lineup in Morneau, Mauer, Cuddyer, and Jason Kubel. But subtract Orlando Cabrera, Carlos Gomez, Matt Tolbert, Alexi Casilla, Craig Monroe, etc., and toss in Denard Span (.390 career OBP), Orlando Hudson (.360 OBP since 2008), Jim Thome (.368 OBP since 2008), and heck, even Nick Punto and J.J. Hardy, who have both steadily improved their walk rates, and the Twins have a lineup full of players who can work the count.
Take Friday and Saturday for example. The Twins drew five walks off reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke, who hadn't issued five free passes in a game since August of 2008, when the Diamondbacks drew seven walks in an interleague game. Then they came back and drew four more walks in six innings against a struggling Gil Meche.
"[Greinke] got into counts where he had to throw strikes, and he still couldn't," said Delmon Young, who is the only true free-swinger in the Twins starting lineup these days. "It wasn't necessarily the hitters. They were just laying off pitches in counts. In 2-0 counts, you're not going to swing at a borderline pitch regardless of what it is. Even if it went to 2-1, you still have confidence that he still needs one more pitch to get into a [favorable] count for him."
Notice how Young says, "It wasn't necessarily the hitters," meaning Greinke's control was a tad erratic, and Twins hitters simply laid off the bad pitches.
But that's the point. Pitchers seem to be nibbling more against this potent Twins lineup, and the hitters aren't giving away as many free strikes.
"I think that's the good thing about this team," Denard Span said. "For the most part we all have good at bats, and we're patient at the plate. That was the key [against Greinke].
"We always talk about trying to get the (starting) pitcher out as soon as possible and try to get into the bullpen. That's what you want to do... Get those guys scrambling out there."
Against the Royals, knocking Greinke out of the game -- and in Saturday's case, knocking Meche out -- allowed the Twins to tee off on a Kansas City bullpen that has an ERA over 8.00 so far this season.
But what about the Twins' trademark aggressiveness on the base paths? Will they attempt to hit-and-run or steal as often?
On Saturday, Span attempted, successfully, the only stolen base for the Twins. But Gardenhire said they could have been even more aggressive, if they felt inclined.
"We had situations today where we normally -- [runners on] first and second -- we're running in situations," Gardenhire said.
"With these guys, the way they swing the bat, if one guy misses, the next guy might get it. So, rather than doing all that running... and taking chances like that, we kind of stood back today and let them take their whacks."
That doesn't necessarily mean the Twins will always just sit back and wait for the three-run bomb.
"We always try and be aggressive, and the pitcher kind of dictates what you're able to do," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "If a pitcher is misfiring and behind in the count, you definitely don't want to run into any outs and force guys to swing. If the guy is throwing the ball over the plate and you have speed out there and you want to hit and run, go for it... When guys are misfiring, it's really kind of silly to try to force an issue. If he's not throwing the ball over, you don't want to give him any golden opportunities to get some outs he shouldn't get.
"We like to run. If we get chances, and they're not quick to home and not paying attention, we'll run."
As Gardenhire says, the Twins have been selective about running. They do not feel the need to press the issue or force the action. So far, the Twins have attempted nine steals and have succeeded eight times.
All in all, the patient approach at the plate and the selective approach on the base paths have served the Twins well through 12 games. After beating Kansas City 6-5 on Saturday, the Twins now sit at 9-3, and they've won all four series to start the season, with a chance to sweep on Sunday.