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Updated: April 22nd, 2010 4:25pm
Twins pump strikes while opposing pitchers labor

Twins pump strikes while opposing pitchers labor

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com
To put it simply, Twins hitters make opposing pitchers work. A lot.


And Twins pitchers have thrown more strikes than any other pitching staff in baseball. Without getting rocked.

Of course, Scott Baker served up 10 hits and six earned runs on Thursday in a 8-1 loss to the Cleveland Indians. But throughout the first two weeks, the Twins' 11-5 start can be largely attributed to two very important undercurrents; plate discipline, and pinpoint control.

The Twins pitching staff entered Thursday allowing the fewest walks in the majors (2.2 per nine innings), while the lineup currently leads the majors in walks drawn (76).

Limiting walks as a pitching staff is certainly nothing new to the Twins, who are always at or near the top of the league in control categories. But this newfound offensive patience, which actually began to appear last season, is a welcomed addition.

To illustrate further, take a look at how Twins hitters have made opposing starting pitchers labor throughout this homestand:

- Mitch Talbot threw 99 pitches in six innings on Thursday (57 strikes)
- David Huff threw 102 pitches in six innings on Wednesday night (61 strikes)
- Justin Masterson threw 96 pitches in four innings on Tuesday night (55 strikes)
- Luke Hochevar threw 104 pitches in six innings on Sunday (53 strikes)
- Gil Meche threw 109 pitches in six innings on Saturday (67 strikes)
- Zach Greinke threw 108 pitches in five innings last Friday night (57 strikes)
- Tim Wakefield threw 98 pitches in 5 1/3 innings last Thursday (67 strikes)
- John Lackey threw 107 pitches in 6 2/3 innings last Wednesday (64 strikes)
- Jon Lester threw 107 pitches in five innings last Tuesday (59 strikes)

"I have played on teams where we've talked about it," J.J. Hardy said, regarding building a starting pitcher's pitch count, "but I think it just kind of happens on this team.

"I think it's patience. It seems like we've got baserunners every inning, whether it's a walk or a hit. I think it's just kind of the way our lineup works."

Over this nine game homestand, Twins hitters have drawn 49 walks, while Twins pitchers have issued only 20.

"When you look at this team, and you look at like what Zack Greinke said (about) pitching around Mauer and Morneau. When you do that, then you have to face Cuddyer and Kubel, it's tough. You're pitching around a couple guys who are really good hitters, and then you've still got really good hitters coming up.

The Twins are still hitting only .255 with runners in scoring position, but they've scored the fifth-most runs in baseball regardless. Imagine what will happen when the clutch hitting inevitably comes around.

On the pitching side, the Twins are taught at every level of the organization to pump fastballs, throw strikes, and limit walks at all costs.

According to Fangraphs, Twins pitchers entered Thursday leading the league in "strike zone percentage" and second in first-pitch strike percentage, all while posting a 3.20 team ERA (6th in MLB).

"We're certainly not doing anything new for this organization," Kevin Slowey said. "It's something that is kind of driven into us from the time that we're drafted and signed, or brought over here. It's something that (Rick Anderson) really preaches, especially with the abilities that we have behind us in the defensive front. Guys like J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson, a guy like Denard Span in centerfield. Up the middle, our defense is incredible, and for us to walk guys is nothing short of unacceptable.

Left-hander Brian Duensing, who has climbed through every level of the Twins organization since 2006, said the same messages have been hammered into his head over and over.

"Ever since you get into the organization, the first thing they say is, ‘You're never going to get anywhere walking guys,' and to pitch off your fastball," Duensing said. "That's what opens up every other off-speed pitch... It gets you deeper into games, and it gets you more outings. That's all they preach, and that's at every level. If you walk guys here (in the majors), they're all over you.

"Obviously you're going to walk a guy or two, or three, per game every once in a while, but if you're constantly walking guys, that doesn't fly over too well."

That said, how do Twins pitchers balance throwing fastballs, throwing strikes, not walking guys, with not getting rocked at the same time for throwing too much over the plate?

Duensing has an interestingly simplistic theory.

"Mentally, for me, I always think to myself that it's hard for a hitter to get a hit. It's a hard thing for him to do. If you ever watch batting practice, they're laying it in there, and if you really count how many times a guy actually would have gotten a hit in a game, it's not very many.

"So in my head, personally, I think, ‘For him to hit this pitch where he doesn't know where it's going, he doesn't know what pitch it's going to be, for him to get a hit is going to be difficult.' That kind of puts me at ease a little bit."

There will certainly be occasions, like on Thursday with Baker, where a Twins starter will get shelled. And the lineup won't always take advantage of run-scoring opportunities, as we've seen several times early this season.

But ultimately, the Twins will benefit greatly over the long haul by continuing the trends of great plate discipline and excellent command.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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