The Twins Can't Afford Another Slow Start

Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

In a flashback from the early part of last season, the Minnesota Twins are having issues hitting the baseball.

The Twins have scored 26 runs on just 51 hits through the first nine games. The latter was a nearly unprecedentedly infamous stat. Not just that, but Minnesota’s 26.8 percent strikeout rate is bottom third in baseball, with a league-worst seven home runs in their first nine games. Their .539 OPS through their first nine games is second-worst in baseball. Not to mention the 0-27 streak with runners in scoring position.

A slow start shouldn’t make fans panic. However, this isn’t just a nine-game sample size. Minnesota’s offense had a .709 OPS, which was 22nd in baseball through the first half of the 2023 Twins season.

Minnesota started 45-46 last year, ranking 24th in runs scored. However, they changed their fortunes in the second half. The Twins eventually became a top-five offense in baseball in runs scored during the second half of the season. Minnesota’s offense put the team on a 93-win pace after the All-Star Break.

Like in 2023, the lineup is too talented to be this unproductive. And Minnesota’s fortunes will get better throughout the season. While that statement may generally be true, the 2024 Twins won’t get the same luxury of time that the 2023 squad received.

Time was definitely on Minnesota’s side throughout the 2023 season. They finished the first half below .500, and only winning 89 games was more than enough to win the division last year. However, this season appears to be a much different story. Three teams in the first two weeks of this season own plus-.500 records, and none of them are the Twins.

The Cleveland Guardians are off to an 8-3 start, and the Detroit Tigers and the Kansas City Royals are 7-4. Last year, the Twins were the only team with a winning record in the AL Central, even though pundits expected Cleveland and Detroit to push Minnesota at the top of the division. A year ago, the Twins had a two-game lead in the AL Central, now the Tigers and Guardians are off to better starts while Minnesota is sputtering out of the gate.

Minnesota’s opponents are pitching them differently than they did last year. The Twins try to work the count, being selective at the plate so they can hammer specific pitches. They mostly want fastballs over the plate. But what happens when teams work to limit those situations?

Twins hitters are top three in with how many times their lineup has faced a slider from opposing pitchers. Minnesota’s hitters faced the slider 23.5 percent of the time in 2023, which ranked 11th-most in all of baseball. The Twins also saw fastballs in 32.4 percent of at-bats that year, which was 13th-most in the league. In 2024, Minnesota saw 23.9 percent fastballs, the third-fewest in baseball, and the third-most sliders at 28.7 percent. Now, the Twins are second to last with a 30.6 percent whiff rate behind only the Oakland Athletics.

Opposing pitchers have been cautious with Minnesota’s hitters. That’s why just 47.9 percent of pitches Twins batters see are inside the strike zone; only three other teams see fewer strikes. Their deliberate approach at the plate is supposed to filter out less-than-ideal pitches so the Twins can drive hittable pitches. But that means Minnesota must capitalize on pitchers’ mistakes.

Meatball percentage tracks how often a player sees a pitch that ends up middle-middle in the strike zone. Twins batters so far in 2024 have seen the second-fewest with a 5.8 percent meatball rate behind only the Toronto Blue Jays (5.7 percent). Minnesota’s deliberate approach makes them third-worst with a 69 percent meatball swing rate. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays are in the top 10, swinging at 79.8 percent of the meatballs they see. Being deliberate and working counts isn’t a terrible strategy. But when a batter gets their pitch, they need to capitalize. The Twins haven’t done enough of that this year.

Striking out less alone won’t fix Minnesota’s offensive issues. While it would put more pressure on the defense, especially in situations with RISP, that won’t help much either. Minnesota’s batters are barreling up pitches; their average exit velocity of 88.8 MPH is 13th in baseball.

However, when the Twins get their pitch, they have trouble lifting the ball in the air with a 10.4-degree launch angle that’s second-worst in the American League. That doesn’t necessarily mean home runs. It can also mean line drives to the gaps, and the Twins seem not to be doing much of either. Minnesota’s .296 expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) is only better than the A’s, which might be the most concerning stat. There are plenty of talented hitters in Minnesota’s lineup who can turn things around, but they must avoid digging themselves in too big of a hole in the standings.

Infusing young talent into the lineup during the 2023 campaign helped the Twins out last season. Royce Lewis (155 wRC+), Matt Wallner (144 wRC+), and Edouard Julien (136 wRC+) all chipped into a historic group of Twins rookies. Lewis can’t produce because he is out for at least the next month with a quad injury. Wallner (89) and Julien (52) are fighting through sophomore slumps.

But the Twins still have some young hitters who can help them out. Austin Martin collected his first two big league hits Tuesday night and can be an excellent utility player for the Twins. Minnesota’s No. 2 prospect, Brooks Lee, should be ready to go once he returns from back spasms. Neither player can come close to last year’s rookie trio. Still, Lee and Martin can raise the floor of Minnesota’s offense by finding ways to make hard contact, even if that doesn’t lead to more home runs.

The Twins shouldn’t hit the panic button 10 games into a 162-game season. Hard-hit baseballs off Minnesota’s bats can be encouraging, even if they have led to outs. Fans still need to see results, even early in the season. But there’s still time to overcome early offensive struggles like they did a year ago. The Twins don’t seem to have the luxury of being patient through their struggles like they did a season before, and pressure grows with every game where hitting doesn’t improve.

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