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RandBall: The end of the pitch-to-contact era for the Twins

  • Blog Post by: Michael Rand
  • December 7, 2012 - 9:43 AM

 

There are two different versions, really of the somewhat infamous term "pitch to contact" when it comes to the Twins. The fans' version is that Minnesota stocks up on rag-arm hurlers who couldn't break a wet paper towel with their fastball and has them throw strikes at all costs in the hope that enough hard-hit balls will find gloves. The Twins' version -- and in reality the version employed or embraced by a lot of teams -- has held that, essentially, getting ahead in the count with quality (though not overpowering) pitches is critical for success, which ultimately comes when the batter (behind in the count) makes weak contact for easy outs. They were channeling Crash Davis:

 

Don't try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring, and besides they're fascist. Throw some ground balls. It's more democratic.

There is some overlap in the two versions; there is also no doubt the philosophy has worked to a certain degree. When the Twins were winning six AL Central titles in a nine year span, they were often among the stingiest team in the majors when it came to allowing walks and never had a consistent strikeout pitcher for a long period of time outside of Johan Santana. Fans would complain that the philosophy worked well over a 162-game schedule, often against inferior division opponents, but fizzled in the postseason against better-hitting teams. The proof of that, of course, is in the fact that the Twins have lost their last 12 playoff games dating back to Game 2 of the 2004 ALDS. Nine of those losses came to the loaded Yankees. Still, six division titles are nothing to sneeze at.

In any event, we didn't come to praise Pitch to Contact. Instead, we came to bury it. Because it certainly appears the Twins are doing so. If the philosophy didn't die during the 2012 draft, when they loaded up on power arms, it has been finished off over the past week or so with the trades of Denard Span and Ben Revere.

In return, the Twins received two flame-throwing prospects -- Alex Meyer and Trevor May -- as well as a young major league starter in Vance Worley who, while he is not a classic overpowering pitcher, does have a career MLB strikeout rate of 7.7 per nine innings (yes, he has a high called strike rate, but a strike is a strike).

In other words, this is a major shift in thinking. Jim Souhan described it thusly today:

When Terry Ryan made the Twins one of baseball's most respected organizations in the early 2000s, he employed a formula, his own version of Moneyball.

He emphasized drafting athletic players with fielding range and pitchers who threw strikes, and making trades for underappreciated prospects in the lower minor leagues, while avoiding spending big money on the free-agent market.

In his second tenure as the Twins' general manager, Ryan is following a similar plan with a significant twist: He's looking for power pitchers via all avenues.

''We want the kind of pitchers we haven't had enough of," Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony said. "Pitchers who can miss bats."

That's the money quote -- an acknowledgment that not only has there been a shift in thinking, but that relying too heavily on a pitch-to-contact staff is flawed. The Twins will surely look to harness these young throwers who are now in their system and work to bring their walk rates down. But it sounds like they won't mind seeing a few more strikeouts and overpowering stuff going forward.

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