How Does Minnesota's Pitching Fix Its Home Run Problem?

Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Twins’ pitching staff has a home run problem. Minnesota’s starters and relievers have combined to allow 57 home runs through their first 47 games, which ranks bottom-four in the majors. Adjusting the numbers doesn’t help matters either, because their 1.24 HR/9 is also bottom-four in the majors.

Last year, Minnesota’s high-level pitching carried the team to an AL Central title and their first postseason win in 20 years. Their 3.87 team ERA was top-five in the majors, and their 1,560 strikeouts were the best in baseball. Home runs weren’t as much of an issue team-wide when the 2023 staff’s 1.20 HR/9 was the 13th-best in the league. This season hasn’t been a complete reversal of that type of pitching production, but there has been a backslide. The Twins own a 4.32 team ERA, 20th league-wide.

The pitching staff’s home run issue was most glaring during Minnesota’s seven-game losing streak. No American League team has allowed more home runs than the 10 the Twins pitchers gave up over the last seven games. Two of those were back-breaking go-ahead homers against the Cleveland Guardians in a huge missed opportunity for the Twins to gain ground on the division leader after fighting back from a 7-13 record.

However, opposing batters aren’t crushing Minnesota’s pitching this season. The pitching staff is relinquishing an 88.8 MPH average exit velocity, which ranks 10th-best in baseball.

Still, a few notable factors explain why Minnesota’s staff is having issues with the long ball. One is how the Twins built their starting rotation. Bailey Ober, Joe Ryan, and Chris Paddack are all fastball-first pitchers who live in the upper part of the zone, a recent staple of Twins pitching. Only the San Diego Padres have a higher zone percentage than Minnesota’s current 43.7% zone rate. Despite that high clip, the Twins are ranked second in the majors with an 83.6% zone contact rate.

Pitchers who frequently throw strikes up in the zone become homer-prone when they aren’t pitching well. However, opposing teams aren’t destroying Minnesota’s pitching. Instead, they are finding ways to elevate those high fastballs. The Twins’ 16-degree launch angle is the third-highest in MLB. Pair that with a 40.9% fly ball rate, and it’s a recipe for giving up a lot of home runs.

The answer seems simple: If the Twins throw fewer fastballs, they’ll give up fewer home runs, right? But it’s not that easy. Minnesota’s starting rotation throws the fastball 43.5% of the time, 23rd in baseball. Overall, the staff is throwing the heater just 39.9% of the time this year. It is their most effective pitch. FanGraphs gives Twins pitchers a plus-10 rating, the seventh-best in MLB.

Still, Minnesota’s pitchers must add velocity. They average 94.1 MPH on the fastball, 20th in MLB. Hitters can sit on a 94 MPH fastball, and it’s snowballed for the Twins’ pitching staff. Minnesota’s pitchers must throw more effective secondary stuff to become well-rounded. Their sliders have a 2.5 FanGraphs rating, their changeups have a minus-11.1 rating, and their curveballs have a minus-3.0 rating.

Opposing lineups have also done damage on mistake pitches. The Twins are in the bottom 10 in the league with a 7.8 meatball rate (10th-worst in baseball) and 78.5% meatball swing rate (ninth worst). As a result, they have a league-worst 37% launch angle sweet-spot clip, making them homer-prone. When pitchers have issues with their secondary pitches, they have to generally throw a fastball that gets a good amount of the plate. The result is often a meatball that the hitter can give a ride.

Will these home run issues won’t linger throughout the regular season? After all, the lower exit velocities could suggest that those deep fly balls are a bit unlucky. While we’re two months into the season and no longer have a small sample size, the Twins can make simple changes that will make a big difference. Louie Varland (six HR allowed) and Jay Jackson (four HR allowed) are not on the active roster and accounted for nearly one-sixth of Minnesota’s home runs allowed in only 39 combined innings.

Still, Twins pitching generally tends to be homer-happy. In 2022, Minnesota’s staff allowed 184 home runs and an HR/9, ranked 20th in baseball that season. In 2021, the Twins 1.52 HR/9 was third-worst in the majors. This staff will attack the upper part of the strike zone, and high home run totals will always be a side effect of that philosophy. Realistically, Minnesota needs to try and hover toward that league average of 1.0 HR/9.

Twins pitchers have been an above-average staff in 2024. However, the high number of home runs is the biggest culprit in their lack of production — and maybe sore necks from watching the ball continue to go over the fence. Minnesota’s pitching staff needs to sharpen up on the secondary pitches to become less one-dimensional. Limiting the home runs won’t completely turn around the Twins’ pitching staff. However, they can’t get back on the right track if they can’t limit the home runs they allow.

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