K's continue piling up for struggling Twins offense

June 7th, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG -- At a certain point, it matters less that borderline foul balls are being called fair against the Twins, or that the opposing team is hitting multiple tape-measure blasts of 450 feet or longer, or even that Minnesota is still in first place in a deeply flawed American League Central despite all that.

Where has the offense gone? How do the Twins deal with so many strikeouts? And will it improve?

The Twins are facing a tough run of pitching in this stretch against the Guardians and Rays. But the offense has remained in a deep rut fueled by an ever-climbing strikeout total, which led to another paltry hitting performance in a 7-0 loss to the MLB-best Rays at Tropicana Field on Tuesday night -- the fourth straight game in which Minnesota was held to two or fewer runs.

Tampa Bay starter Zach Eflin began the game with four straight strikeouts. And in both innings in which the Twins got a runner into scoring position, inning-ending strikeouts squashed the rallies. Minnesota finished with 12 K’s in the game.

“The strikeouts, they are an issue, and there’s no way around that,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “I think I’d be sitting here feeding you something if I told you it wasn’t something that we’re thinking about and talking about. … I think the consistency at which we’re not making the decisions that we want at the plate, it has to change.”

The Twins have amassed double-digit strikeouts in 16 of their past 20 games and now have 33 such performances this season, trailing only the Giants and Royals. Their 625 team strikeouts lead the league by a wide margin, putting them on pace for 1,660 for the season, which would set an all-time record by surpassing the 1,596 strikeouts by the 2021 Cubs.

That’s not the only reason for the offensive malaise that has seen the Twins held to three or fewer runs in 10 of their past 15 games. But Baldelli noted that the strikeouts are indicative of a tough approach not just with two strikes, but in general -- and that’s something they’ve talked about all season.

“Truthfully, it’s easier to make good decisions when you’re actually timed up to let the ball travel a little bit more,” Baldelli said. “I think we’re probably making a lot of decisions closer to out of the hand than at the plate. … Letting the ball travel a little bit deeper and seeing it and making better decisions is definitely part of what we’re talking about right here.”

But even when the Twins do make their swing decisions, they just haven’t been executing. Their rate of swinging at 28.8 percent of pitches outside the zone ranks 16th best among 30 teams, which is fine -- but when they do swing, whether in or out of the zone, they’re not making contact. Their contact rate inside the strike zone is second worst in MLB, and their contact rate outside the zone is third worst.

The sum total: The Twins’ 29.3 percent whiff rate entering Tuesday would rank worst among any team in any season since Statcast began tracking in 2015, outside of the pandemic-shortened ‘20 campaign.

As Baldelli indicated, trying not to jump the ball too early to pull could be part of the solution -- but, as he also noted, team improvements are made through concerted individual adjustments that have to work together toward the whole, with most of the Twins’ regulars underperforming their expected contributions.

“Every guy is different,” Alex Kirilloff said. “There's approaches each individual can have, and obviously a team approach off certain pitchers as well. I think just having a good plan and preparing to execute that plays into it a lot.”

"I think we need to swing at strikes. That's it,” Christian Vázquez said. “We need to come tomorrow and cut home plate -- swing on the plate -- and make better decisions.”

And Baldelli openly acknowledges that it’s a litany of issues -- quality of at-bats, decision-making, ability to use the whole field -- that is holding down this offense. But as spring turns to summer and the season nears its halfway point, the Twins are still searching for the answers.

“There’s more than a few things,” Baldelli said. “I’m not going to sit here and rip our guys because we’re not hitting right now. We know we have work to do. It’s better for us to, I think, look in the mirror than sit here a couple times a week and just describe all the things that we’re not doing.”