Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Patience Paving the Way

One of the many topics that John Bonnes and Seth Stohs broached on Sunday night's edition of the always-entertaining MN Gamenight podcast was the increased patience that the Twins lineup has shown this season. The discussion came in the wake of a weekend series against the Mariners in which Twins hitters drew 21 walks in three games. Hearing this talked about piqued my interest, as I too have noticed an increase in quality at-bats from Twins hitters in this young season. Let's dig into the topic...

Coming out of the weekend, the Twins rank seventh out of 14 American League teams with 109 walks -- about exactly average*. That might not seem like everything special, but given that the Twins perennially rank anywhere between below-average and terrible in walks taken, it's noteworthy. That ranking also understates the team's patience to some degree since Joe Mauer has only been playing for about a week.

* Posnanski-style side note: the team directly in front of the Twins in walks? The Royals, with 116. Who would've thought??

It is a well-known fact that the Twins organization has not generally been known for preaching a patient approach to its hitters; one of the most annoying contradictions in the Twins' philosophy has been the way they emphasize avoiding walks to their pitchers while seemingly dismissing the value of hitters taking walks. Yet, one gets the sense that we might be seeing some changes in this deep-seeded philosophy.

The Twins current lineup features a number of patient hitters. Mauer is of course one of the league's best in this regard; he's got a 4-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in this young season. Denard Span (14/13 K/BB) has also quickly developed a reputation as being an extremely disciplined hitter, while Justin Morneau (19/13) and Michael Cuddyer (22/15) are power guys who will draw walks at a pretty steady pace as well. Nick Punto and Matt Tolbert haven't hit much thus far, but both bring a professional approach to the plate, work the count, and keep their strikeout-to-walk ratios pretty close to even. Brian Buscher and Mike Redmond have both walked almost as much as they've struck out, and guys like Brendan Harris and Jason Kubel -- who don't walk a ton -- have shown a propensity to take some pitches and work deep into counts. Aside from Carlos Gomez and Delmon Young, who remain the very definitions of free swingers (and who also both came over from other organizations in the recent past), this lineup generally features a good deal of plate discipline. Are we seeing a shift?

Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, the Twins brought up a group of talented, home-raised young players who mostly lacked patience at the plate. Players such as Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones, Luis Rivas, A.J. Pierzynski and Cristian Guzman (not homegrown) enjoyed varying levels of offensive success in the majors, but none of them would be mistaken for a particularly patient hitter. The new generation of homegrown talent seems much different in this regard, and a quick glance at the organization's current farm system suggests that we're seeing a trend rather than a mirage.

Running down my Top Ten Twins Prospects list, we find a number of players whose offensive strengths include plate discipline. Ben Revere, who hit for a huge average but didn't walk much last year, has drawn 12 walks while striking out only seven times through his first 29 games, leading to a .377 on-base percentage. Danny Valencia, who struck out more than three times for every walk after moving up to New Britain for the second half of last season, has shown tremendously improved discipline with the Rock Cats this year, having drawn 14 walks while striking out 17 times in 21 games. Aaron Hicks is in extended spring training right now, but last year he broke onto the scene in rookie ball with an impressive 32-to-28 K/BB ratio and .409 OBP in 45 games. Chris Parmelee, a 2006 first-round pick who didn't break into my Top Ten but is perhaps the organization's best pure power-hitting prospect, has been a walk machine over the course of his career. Sure, you've still got the raw, undisciplined hackers like Wilson Ramos and Angel Morales dotting the organization's list of upper-echelon prospects, but in general one gets the sense that the Twins are seeking more disciplined hitters and putting more of an organizational emphasis on teaching patience. That's a very good sign.

One could argue that some members of the sabermetric community overrate the value of the walk, and I might be inclined to agree. But there's no denying that having hitters in your lineup who can work counts, fluster pitchers and put themselves on base even when their line drives aren't falling in has wide-ranging benefits. The Twins, as you'll see below, have been getting better in this department every year since 2005:

Twins Team Walks
2005: 485
2006: 490
2007: 512
2008: 529

And this year, they're currently on pace to walk 551 times (a conservative projection given that the effect of Mauer -- who walked 83 times last season -- is understated in the current sample). No Twins team has walked more than 550 times since 2000. This is progress, and I think there's plenty of evidence to suggest it's no coincidence, and not going away any time soon.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Another value of patience is that in the era of the pitch count you can shorten a start by being patient.

To paraphrase Bert, "My New York math tells me...":

If a pitcher averages 3 pitches per batter (strike 1, strike 2, ball in play/K), he faces 33 batters before he hits 100 pitches. 27 outs, plus 6 hits/walks.

Add just two pitches, for an average of 5, and he's down to 20 batters (6.2 innings of no-hit ball). Mix in a few hits and you can see why stringent use of the 100 pitch count means a lot of 5-6 inning starts.

So the "secret" appears to be have your pitchers average 3-4 pitches per batter and have your hitters work the pitcher for 5-6 pitches per at bat.

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