The statistics say that major league offenses are sputtering this season, that hitters aren’t as fearsome, that pitching and defense are steadily draining the action out of baseball.
But Tyler Duffey’s point is, the numbers don’t have to stand 60 feet, 6 inches away from those 100-mph exit velocities.
“I don’t know, [offense] may, on average, be down,” Duffey said. “But I feel like there are guys still absolutely tearing the cover off the ball.”
Point taken. Even if the advantage in baseball’s fundamental hitter-vs.-pitcher struggle is gradually shifting toward run prevention, every lineup is still a challenge, every swing can still drive a ball over the fence. There is no doubt that scoring has declined during the first three weeks of the mask-and-sanitizer 2020 season, but nights such as Wednesday — when 19 of 28 teams in action scored five or more runs, and the Twins piled up 12 against the Brewers in Milwaukee — still pop up.
Which gives the Twins — well, their hitters, anyway — hope that the declines are related to the short training camp and exceptional circumstances of a season during a pandemic, and not structural changes in the game.
“Three months is a long time for a hitter to go without seeing live pitching,” Twins hitting coach Edgar Varela said. “Timing, pitch recognition, things like that, it takes time for everything to feel comfortable.”
Especially since pitchers could more readily stay in shape, could throw at top speed, during the time off.
“It’s probably easier for pitchers to stay ready,” Duffey said. “It could be some of that. Seeing live pitching for a hitter is way different from hitting off a machine, or hitting regular [batting practice]. They’re still playing a little catch-up.”
There’s still a ways to go. American League hitters are batting .236 as a group, which is not only well below last season’s .253 but would rank as the lowest since the league adopted the designated hitter rule in 1972. Even the National League’s composite average somehow has declined from .251 in 2019 to .240 this year — despite replacing pitchers in the lineup with DHs.
Still homering, but ...
The Twins have been affected like everyone else. Their batting average, three weeks into the season, stands at .241, well off their .270 average last year. And though they entered Thursday, their only scheduled off day in August, with an American League-leading 98 runs scored, their 5.16 runs per game represents an 11% nose dive from their franchise-record 5.80 of a year ago.
They are still hitting home runs, though also not at the historic rate of last season: 1.68 per game, down from 1.90. But it’s home runs-or-nothing for the Twins, more than ever; 51% of their runs are driven in by homers. Yes, they have hit 32 of them, more than any AL team except Mike Trout’s Angels, but Minnesota’s 17 doubles are tied for the fewest in the AL, and they are the only team in the majors yet to hit a triple.
Is it the ball? Defenses that sometimes now shift pitch by pitch? The explosion in bullpen populations, which means hitters generally see three different pitchers in four at-bats?
That last one seems to afflict the Twins more than most. They are hitting .275 against starting pitchers this season, second best in the AL, and lead the majors in runs scored in both the first and second innings. But when the bullpen gets involved? Twins hitters are batting .199 against relief pitchers, second worst in the AL, and their three eighth-inning runs scored are the fewest in the league.
“We’ve had some gaps where we haven’t had good at-bats where we need to in the middle of a game,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “We have to do it for nine innings. Our guys know this, they know the runs in the sixth and seventh and eighth innings matter just as much as the runs in the beginning of the game.”
Game is changing
Explanations tend to center on proximate causes and temporary conditions, though the underlying forces might be tectonic.
“It’s probably more than just circumstance or small sample size,” reasoned Baldelli, who noted the number of injuries and opt-outs around the league. The short training schedule, in a sport used to seven weeks of ramp-up, might be having a hidden effect, he added: fatigue.
“Simply the schedule of being on your feet every day, going from not doing anywhere close to what you normally would” to a full midseason workload, with few off days, Baldelli said. “It’s a long year and it takes a lot out of people. That’s why we build up and train for this every day. The preparation was very different this year.”
Then again, the game is evolving as statistical analysis increasingly guides on-field decisions, and that evolution is accelerating.
Or perhaps you noticed all the strikeouts?
Feast or famine
Only 67% of all plate appearances in MLB this year result in the baseball being put in play, a historic low, and 23.4% result in a strikeout, on pace to set a record. And even when the ball is struck, it falls for a hit only 28.2% of the time, down from its historic average of above 30%.
The Twins’ numbers reflect that slowdown, too. They put the ball in play 67.3% of the time, down from 70.9% a year ago, and their batting average when they do is only .274. On-base percentage has fallen to .318, reflecting their all-or-nothing approach: The Twins have more than half again as many strikeouts (167) as singles (102).
“As they continue to see more pitches, get their timing underway, we’re on our way to having more guys on base,” Varela said. “As they start to recognize more pitches in the zone, some of our guys will start finding their way more on base as well.”
Perhaps it won’t matter, regardless. Even mildly diluted, Minnesota’s loaded lineup remains among the best and most explosive in the American League. They are the only team to score in double digits three times, and have scored fewer than two runs only once.
“Things tend to get magnified during a short season in a way they probably wouldn’t over 162 games,” Baldelli said. “I’m happy with our approach, I’m happy with the focus we’ve put on every at-bat. With our lineup, we know it’s going to come around.”