Whenever the keys to successful pitching in baseball are discussed at any level, little league to major league, one of the first things surely to be mentioned is the importance of pitchers working ahead in the count. Throwing a first pitch strike and getting to two strikes as quickly as possible are seen as important fundamental goals for any pitcher to find success. According to this line of thinking, doing those things will lead to success more often than not. Failing to do so (i.e., falling behind in count), favors the batter and leads to pitching struggles.
This is not just a “words of wisdom” truism. It is backed up by stats.
Using the comprehensive offensive statistic weighted on base average (wOBA), we can see the impact of the ball-strike count on offensive production. One example of this by count analysis is included in this Ben Clemens piece published at FanGraphs. It included the following data:
Weighted on base average is scaled similarly to on base percentage and the league average is usually around .315. The data here make it very clear that the old adage about pitchers working ahead is true. In counts that favor the pitcher (0-1, 1-2, 0-2) the offensive numbers are significantly lower than the league average and dramatically lower than the offensive numbers in counts that favor the hitter (1-0, 2-0, 2-1, 3-1, 3-0, 3-2).
The Minnesota Twins know this and they strive for their pitchers to work ahead in the count (just like every other MLB franchise). For the most part, the Twins have succeeded in doing this in recent seasons. Over the past five seasons, the Twins rank 13th of the 30 MLB teams with 29% of all their pitches thrown while ahead in the count. In 2019 and 2020 -- when the Twins pitching staff was one of the best in baseball and led all MLB teams in FanGraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement -- they ranked 6th in this measure. Thus far in 2021 they’ve continued to work ahead, throwing 29.4% (14th-most) of their pitches in favorable counts.
The difference this season, though, is that this approach has not been leading to success. In 2019 and 2020 combined, Twins pitchers allowed .213 wOBA when they were ahead in the count. That mark ranked 8th in MLB. Over that time period, in 0-2 and 1-2 counts, they allowed just .172 wOBA.
This season, through games completed on June 19, their results in similar situations have tanked. When ahead in the count, 2021 Twins pitchers have allowed a league worst .256 wOBA. In 0-2 and 1-2 counts, they’ve allowed .222 wOBA and 19 home runs (both league worst).
The league average wOBA allowed this season when the pitcher is ahead in the count is .216 (denoted in gray in the chart below). Of the 23 Minnesota players to pitch this season, only nine have numbers better than that league average mark when ahead in the count:
Those nine include pitching staff regulars Michael Pineda, Tyler Duffey, Jorge Alcala, and Hansel Robles. The others are the up and down depth arms from the minor leagues that have not pitched very much in the majors -- Cody Stashak, Griffin Jax, Lewis Thorpe, Juan Minaya, and position player Willians Astudillo, who is only used on the mound to mop up blowouts.
On the other side of the league average mark you can see several of the Twins most prominent pitchers, including all of their starting pitchers. Kenta Maeda, J.A. Happ, Matt Shoemaker, and Randy Dobnak, four pitchers that have combined to start 39 games this season, can all be found on the far right hand side of the chart.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what might be causing this. It would not be unusual to see a few pitchers have trouble in this area in a single season. But this seems to be systemic across the entire pitching staff, which makes one wonder if there is something in the team’s strategy and approach when ahead in the count that needs to be re-evaluated. Perhaps their location and pitch type selections in these situations are too predictable. Perhaps they are just failing to execute with a flukishly high frequency. It may be something different with each individual pitcher. Perhaps it is something else entirely.
Whatever the cause, if you are looking for root causes to explain how the Twins pitching staff has fallen from one of the best collective groups in the sport the prior two seasons (4.02 ERA, 7th) to one of the league’s worst this season (4.94 ERA, 27th), I would put forward this sudden inability to finish batters off when they have the chance as a leading candidate.