Wes Johnson’s job title is Twins pitching coach, but he sounded like a biomedical scientist in a conversation Monday inside the clubhouse at Target Field.
Asked how he improves a pitcher’s velocity, Johnson mentioned chest and spinal flexion and hip speed. (Apparently, it’s a little more complicated than yelling “put some mustard on it” from the dugout.)
“We use a lot of our biomechanical data that we get,” Johnson said.
The Twins’ front office and coaching staff treat their methods in compiling that analytical data like they are guarding nuclear codes. That information is top secret, but Johnson gave a tiny glimpse behind the curtain.
“We have a system, a biomechanical system in our stadium, so that helps,” he said.
Sounds mysterious. But biomechanics, spin rate and launch angle represent the new frontier in baseball, and the Derek Falvey/Thad Levine regime has modernized the organization’s use of analytics full throttle.
Wherever that leads long term remains to be seen, but new discoveries have helped ignite the team’s surprising start.
Exhibit A: Martin Perez.
Perez describes himself as an “old-school guy” but at age 28, the veteran pitcher is trying to reinvent himself, and his career, by adding a new pitch to his repertoire.
“Sometimes in your life, in your job, it’s time to change things,” Perez said.
Perez said the idea to add a cut fastball was the brainchild of his agent, but also found support from Twins officials, who apparently used data to forecast that a cutter might unlock something successful.
Teammate Jake Odorizzi talked to Perez about the pitch in spring training and showed him his grip. Perez threw eight cutters during his bullpen session and then unveiled the pitch in an exhibition game the next day.
“I saw the movement and was like, ‘Wow,’ ” Perez said.
This isn’t an example of someone tinkering with a new pitch. Perez throws his cutter — which has different movement than a slider — 35% of the time. He had not thrown a cutter in seven major league seasons. Not purposely, at least.
“When we usually make a change to a guy, they have thrown that pitch by accident before,” Johnson said. “Think about Perez in his career, how many fastballs has he thrown? Well, there have been a couple of them in his career that have cut or have sunk more than normal. That’s the great thing about technology we have today. I’m able to go back and look at what he did in 2011 and show him.”
The cutter has made Perez the biggest surprise on a pitching staff that has performed above expectations so far. Perez also made changes in his mechanics — using his hips more — that have added 2-3 mph on his fastball.
Perez suffered his first loss Sunday but he has a 5-1 record with a 3.11 earned run average. He posted a 6.22 ERA last season and a 4.63 career ERA in Texas.
We’ll offer the obligatory “small sample size” disclaimer, but adding a new (dominant) pitch and more velocity as a veteran sure seems rather unusual in a practical sense.
The Twins hired Johnson from the college ranks largely because of his knowledge of analytics and new-age methods. Providing pitchers with “objective data” helps sell new concepts, he said.
“It’s not like, ‘Hey Martin, we want you to throw this cutter [because] I’ve just got this idea,’” he said.
There are other examples. Odorizzi tweaked his mechanics and has increased his curveball rate from 5.4% last season to 12.6% this season. He, too, has been unusually strong, compiling a 5-2 record and 2.32 ERA while not allowing a run in 20 innings.
“All these guys want success, they want to be better,” Johnson said. “That’s all we’re trying to do.”
Changes aren’t for everybody. Taylor Rogers, the team’s best reliever, said he’s not been exposed much to the organization’s new emphasis on analytics.
“For my personal situation, it was one of those, ‘Leave it where it’s at for now,’ ” he said. “I always want to improve so if there is something that they see that I could benefit from I would definitely like to know.”