Have the Twins found a trick to beat baseball in 2022?

The language of baseball has a long history of infiltrating the English language in general. The game embedded itself in the American lexicon during its mid-century cultural heyday, habitually spying on phrases that stood for much larger ideas – home run, three strikes, curveball. But the modern number-obsessed version of the sport has also made great contributions to the world of letters.

When Michael Lewis documented the data-backed rise of Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s in the early 2000s, his account was so easy to understand and so compelling that it brought a whole world of seemingly outdated financial concepts into the common imagination. Where “Market Inefficiency” was instant eye candy, “Moneyball” was catchy and made for the tip of the tongue of any savvy nerd.

It meant…well, pretty much anything you want…but more often than not, it turned into a flashy, but still cool, way of saying: actually, there’s a neat trick to winning at anything you try. It’s the tip that your pitch will be counterintuitive. It took the core of “zig when others zag” and distilled it into a sophisticated, gamified nine-letter word that was also soon associated with Brad Pitt imagery.

In the case of the A’s of 2002, Lewis’ book and reality in general, nothing is really that simple. But occasionally there is great value in doing something differently before everyone else knows.

So the point is that 20 years after Scott Hatteberg and the team at A started baseball’s Great Advantage Hunt by prioritizing percentage on the basis, an era-updated zig right out of the “Moneyball” playbook behind the excellent start of the Minnesota Twins could stand in 2022.

The twins dodge first strikes

Here’s the trick at its most polished, PowerPoint-ready form: grab a ball to launch your bats.

Pitchers only get a first-pitch strike 56.1% of the time against the 2022 Twins lineup, which counts as a big win when the league average has been around 60% over the past decade. In 2022, the average is 60.9% and the Gemini brand is in its own universe, beating second place by more than 2 percentage points.

In classic Moneyball fashion, I’m telling you here that these marginal-sounding numbers are, in fact, huge.

Every time a batsman enters the box, there is an immediate fork in the road. When the pitcher collects a punch against them, the walls close. In 2022, MLB batsmen who lose an at-bat 0-1 have scores that are 33% worse than a league average batter, according to the Park-adjusted wRC+ metric. Those leading 1-0 are 31% better than the league average. It’s a huge, huge abyss.

Starting 0-1: .211/.255/.325, .580 OPS

From 1:0: .251/.317/.417, .789 OPS

Pick up a ball and expect to hit like JD Martinez. Take a swipe and you’re slamming like a guy worried about a triple-A demotion. That’s the compromise.

So far, the Gemini of 2022 are getting more of those advantageous 1-0 counts than anyone in the past decade. They had 701 of those plate appearances in offense, while a team with only an average first-pitch hit rate, the New York Yankees, have 635. That’s about two full games in less than two months. On the other hand, the Chicago White Sox — the AL Central favorite that the Twins put just behind the eight — have the league’s worst first pitch hitting record, having started 1-0 counts just 577 times.

Of course, the results of the trick are no secret. Everyone understands the game, everyone would love to pull a rabbit out of a hat, but the Twins actually do it. So the question is how.

Twins hitter Luis Arraez leads the charge of Minnesota hitters ahead of pitchers by taking the first pitch. (Photo by Reed Hoffmann/Getty Images)

Like twins turning jugs on themselves

Like many great tricks, this one is fueled by deception.

Since pitch-tracking stats began in 2008, the league’s broader trends towards strikeout stuff and homer addiction have created related strategic arcs when it comes to that crucial first pitch.

Hitters, realizing that ambushing a fastball and/or pitch down the middle might be their best bet, have swinged more often. The swing rate of 30.1% in 2022 is the highest on record. It was 26.6% in 2014, the last full season before the juiced ball and home run spike took hold.

In response, pitchers have been throwing fewer and fewer fastballs—reflecting the general trend toward more pliable pitches that are harder to level. For the first time on record, and almost certainly the first time in baseball history, fastballs will make up less than 60% of opening fields in 2022.

Baseball is cyclical. There’s an up and down. A wave and a crash. So much of what we think of as the Moneyball Effect, from the era of analysis it ushered in, stays on the right side of these curves. So think of the twins as the people who could have cashed in and cashed out at the right time.

From 2019 to 2021, they’ve been swinging quite often (8th in MLB) and particularly hard. At the height of the sport’s reliance on home runs, the Twins hammered the MLB-best 126 home runs on first pitches and recorded the second-best slugging percentage (behind the Yankees).

That year, the pitchers adjusted, but found the Twins had pulled the rug out from under them.

They threw the Twins’ first punches outside the zone 51.2% of the time, according to Statcast. No other team’s hitters see more than half of their 0-0 pitches outside the zone, and no team has seen as many first pitches outside the zone since 2010.

Happy about the 1-0, Minnesota’s first-field swing rate is down 3.1 percentage points from 2021, the second-largest drop among the majors. After being in the top 10 swinging teams in 2021, they’re in the bottom five this year.

The results are extremely promising. They have MLB’s third-best OPS for Parks, despite injuries that limited Byron Buxton, Carlos Correa and a few other lineup plays early on.

Meanwhile, the two teams that most competed with the Twins’ homer abilities in recent seasons — the Atlanta Braves and Toronto Blue Jays — have remained among the most aggressive swinging teams and stumbled to surprisingly weak offensive starts.

However, it’s not that simple. Most teams that end up seeing very few hits aren’t exactly intimidating, but they’re top-heavy. The Washington Nationals are the Twins’ closest rival in first-bat ratio this year, as teams are happy to sidestep Juan Soto and Josh Bell and take their chances at a weaker hitter beating them.

The twins have a bit of that too. It’s possible that at least some of their dominance has to do with that – they’re mid-table in runs per game despite excellent OPS, suggesting the possibility of pitchers partially succeeding by dodging their most dangerous hitters.

A fleeting fact or the start of a trend?

As baseball gropes its way through the new status quo of batsman-pitcher balance, each seeks the next secret to scoring more goals than the other team. The remainder of the 2022 MLB season will be one big collective experiment. It could be that the Twins’ first-pitch routine will resonate as an efficient route to victory, or it could be that by July it will fade and new opportunities — like literally how the ball spins off the bat — take center stage.

But right now, a lot of attention is paid to how to win without the homer.

As Eno Sarris detailed at The Athletic, pitching in general could be called a new “moneyball.” That’s unexciting, but it makes statistical sense — especially if results at contact continue to suffer from less-buoyant baseball. As Sarris explained, participating in pitches is ideally a sign of selectivity. Not all strikes are equally suitable for hitters. They can put themselves in a position to do more damage by narrowing the swathe of playfields they are pursuing to those that hit them best.

Being ahead on the count offers the flexibility to do so, and the 2022 Twins spend more time on the count than any other team. The list of players who progress most often is littered with twins. Luis Arraez, Jorge Polanco and Byron Buxton are all in the top 5 in MLB.

Arraez, a contact wizard who rarely puffs but lacks home run power, currently leads baseball’s percentage on base and is increasing his value at a time when more batsmen are joining him in the no-power boat.

All of this helps Minnesota release an effective offense and take advantage of the White Sox’s early struggles to build a divisional lead.

Whether the Twins continue to do so – and whether opposing pitchers will prevail – remains to be seen. The extreme nature of the trends could scatter some as more intimidating bats return to the lineup. Or summer could bring more favorable hitting conditions that encourage more swings. Or maybe it will stick, and the twins will benefit from a judo-like ability to make pitchers work against themselves.

What is clear now is that they have taken a first step in combating some of the forces stifling the offensive. Now the timer starts – until everyone else takes over, until the pitchers adjust, until an old moneyball becomes the new moneyball again.

(All stats up to Tuesday’s games.)

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