COMMENTARY | The Minnesota Twins' management team is shocked -- shocked I tell you -- that their batters have obliterated the team record for strikeouts in a season. This has been a recent focus of reasons for the team struggles this year, but their problems go far beyond that.
For one thing, no one should be surprised about a rise in strikeouts. The strikeout rate has been on the rise for a decade now. The current strikeout rate of 19.6 percent as of Sept. 17 would surpass the old record of 19.3 percent set in 2012. In fact, this would be the seventh consecutive year the AL set a record for strikeouts rates.
So, the Twins shouldn't be surprised that they're hitters are striking out more than ever before because they are facing pitchers that are striking out more batters than ever before. It's just the way the game has evolved.
It also has to do with how the Twins have transformed their roster. The only current Twins batter on the current roster that was on the Twins' postseason roster in 2010 is Joe Mauer. The only other player to have significant at-bats for the Twins this year and was on the 2010 postseason roster is Justin Morneau, who was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in June.
So, the Twins have had dramatic turnover, and they shouldn't be surprised about the strikeouts based on the moves they made. The biggest was trading away contact players like Denard Span and Ben Revere and replacing them with players with high strikeout rates, such as Aaron Hicks and Clete Thomas.
The Twins also let Alexi Casilla go and essentially replaced him with Pedro Florimon. Casilla never did hit much, but he rarely struck out. His career strikeout rate with the Twins was less than 13 percent. Florimon had a career strikeout rate in the minors of about 24 percent and is about 25 percent this year with the Twins.
Even the biggest acquisition the Twins have brought in to bolster the offense is strikeout prone. Josh Willingham had what was then a career year for him just before signing with the Twins. In 2011, he had a strikeout rate of 26.6 percent while playing for the Oakland A's. After signing with the Twins, he's had a strikeout rate of 24.4 percent, including 26.4 percent in 2013.
The young players the Twins have brought up through the minors all have had higher strikeout rates. This includes Hicks, Chris Parmelee, Trevor Plouffe and Oswaldo Arcia. All were promoted because of their power potential, and Hicks and Parmelee both had good walk rates in the minors to offset the strikeouts. Arcia always could hit for high averages despite the strikeouts.
That inexperienced players should struggle more with strikeouts in the major leagues should never be a surprise at all. In fact, it is a surprise when they don't struggle with that.
The real concern should be not about the strikeouts by the batters, which aren't even the most in the AL, but the lack of strikeouts by the pitchers. This has been a consistent pattern throughout this three-year streak of bad baseball. While strikeouts have gone up in the AL, the strikeout rate for Twins pitchers has dropped.
Actually, the Twins' strikeout rate dropped dramatically in 2011 and has increased only slightly the last couple years thanks to a better bullpen and less and less innings by the starters. The Twins went from about league average in 2010 to dead last in strikeout rate in 2011, and they've been there ever since.
The biggest current culprits by far are the starters. In 2013, the average AL starter strikes out 7.2 batters per nine innings. Mike Pelfrey leads the Twins with a rate of 5.9 strikeouts per nine innings.
So what's the big deal? An out is an out, right? The problem is that when a batter doesn't strike out and just puts the ball in play, even without hitting a home run, batters historically get a hit about 30 percent of the time, and that can add up to a lot of extra hits, which means more runs allowed.
When evaluating pitchers, modern statisticians tend to look at strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed because they don't involve the defense. In 2013, Twins batters homered 144 times while their opponents homered 149 times, so that's almost even. Twins batters have walked 497 times while their opponents have walked 422 times, so the Twins have an advantage there.
And yet, the Twins have been outscored 710-577, which is a huge deficit. Where is that coming from? Well, the Twins' front office will want you to believe that it is because the Twins can't hit in the clutch. However, the Twins' batters have struck out 1,296 times and their opponents have struck out just 913 times. That is 383 fewer strikeouts. Historically, you would expect three more hits for every 10 fewer strikeouts, which means you would expect Twins opponents to get 115 more hits based on the difference in strikeouts. And we've still got two weeks left in the season.
If the Twins are going to get back to their winning ways, they need to find ways to shrink that gap in strikeouts. Asking batters to change their approach rarely works. The Twins have tried that with Thomas, but his strikeout rate remained the same while his power numbers dropped.
It's doubtful the Twins will ask pitchers to focus on getting more strikeouts since they will be fearful of pitchers walking more batters. Hopefully, the Twins will be looking to add more starters from outside the organization in the offseason. They need to take a serious look at strikeout rates before making any offers.
Darin McGilvra has been a professional sportswriter since 1997 and has been a Twins follower since Kirby Puckett's breakout season of 1986. He has been published in The Californian, a newspaper covering Riverside County, and numerous other websites.
Follow Darin on Twitter at @SoCalTwinsfan.
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