Ervin Santana's first pitch of the 2017 season to Royals left fielder Alex Gordon was a 93 mph fastball, on the black, knee-high on the inside corner. The Minnesota Twins starter didn't get the call, but he came inside again with his second pitch, this one 92 mph and well off the plate, but one that moved Gordon's feet just a little bit.
Those first two pitches might have put Santana in an early hole, but they sent a message, both to his fellow pitchers and to opponents that the Twins were going to try to be different this season in their hopes of turning around a 59-103 finish last season.
How do you fix a pitching staff that finished with the second-worst ERA in the majors last season (5.08), without any significant changes in mound personnel? Twins management and their coaching staff have put a multi-pronged plan into place. Now, it's just a matter of execution.
Behind the plate
Twins catchers ranked 27th last season in strikes looking rate above average. That’s a number that indicates whether a pitcher and catcher are getting calls, both on pitches they should and pitches they shouldn't.
One of executive vice president Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine's first moves this season was to sign former Astros catcher Jason Castro to a three-year deal. Though three years and $24.5 million might have seemed like an overpay for someone who hit .211 and .210 the past two seasons, Castro’s skill is in his work at getting called strikes for his pitchers. He ranked 14th out of 76 catchers in strikes looking above average. Falvey also changed backup catchers, bringing in Chris Gimenez, whose numbers hover around average in that stat, to replace Juan Centeno (who ranked among the worst).
It’s amazing what going from bad to slightly above average can do for a staff. The Twins pitching staff has a 3.17 ERA, which ranks sixth in the majors through 16 games.
"In spring training, [Castro] had pitcher-catcher relationship meetings," Twins pitching coach Neil Allen said. "He talked to each guy about this pitch and that pitch, how he was going to receive it and how he was going to let the ball travel and not reach for it. He opened up the eyes of our guys. He’s been fantastic in how he communicates with our pitchers."
Confirmed Santana: "We’re on the same page all the time. We worked in spring training and we’ve brought that to games."
In the field
The Twins have a great ERA, but it’s not necessarily a deserved one. Their fielding independent pitching, an estimate of what the ERA should be based on strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed is just below 4.00. One of the ways a pitching staff can be better than its FIP is to excel defensively, and the Twins have.
Last season, the Twins had some major defensive holes, particularly when they played Robbie Grossman and Miguel Sano in the corner outfield spots. Grossman moved to designated hitter, and Sano to third base. In their place, the Twins have better athletes sandwiching center fielder Byron Buxton with Eddie Rosario in left and Max Kepler in right. Again, upgrading from not good to average can do wonders. Twins corner outfielders combined for minus-31 defensive runs saved last season. This season, they’re average. And Buxton, despite not hitting, has flourished with a couple of phenomenal extra-base hit saving catches.
"They’re all young, they’re all good, they’re all quick," Allen said of the current trio. "They get good breaks and good jumps. They’re situated better. They’re moved around depending on each individual’s style of pitching. You get behind in the count, our pitchers trust our outfield [to make plays] now."
"They catch everything," Santana said.
The Twins’ infield defense has similarly done its part. The Twins rank fourth in the AL with 10 defensive runs saved this season and have the highest rate of turning batted balls into outs of any team (74.6 percent). They ranked last in the latter last season.
Mechanics and strategy
Four of the five starting pitchers in 2017 ended 2016 in the team’s rotation (the exception being rookie Adalberto Mejia). The bullpen is almost entirely the same, save for 36-year-old middle relievers Matt Belisle and Craig Breslow.
This isn’t a pitching staff that blows you away. It averages the fewest strikeouts per nine innings of any team in the majors. Getting the most out of them requires creativity and work.
This takes us back to those first two inside fastballs that Santana threw this season. At the start of spring training, Allen told all of his pitchers that they would be pitching inside with greater frequency, both for strikes and for effect, that throwing strikes with the four-seam fastball was a high priority, and that they’d be pitching up in the zone as well.
This was emphasized during spring training side sessions, where pitchers wouldn’t be allowed to do anything else until they executed Allen’s plan.
"We know that the inside fastball is very effective," Allen said. "The ball’s on the hitter a lot quicker. We’re doing it more this year. It has to be done. Last year, we went down and away more than we should have. We’ve got to control the inner-half better."
It’s early, but the Twins lead the majors in the percentage of pitches thrown to the inner-third of the plate or off the corner. They also have the sixth-highest rate of fastballs thrown to the upper-third of the strike zone or over the top of the zone.
The second component to this is making sure his pitchers can execute such a plan. That required some mechanical tweaks. Allen got to Santana last year when he noticed Santana’s front shoulder flying open and gave him a drill that fixed the issue within two starts. Since last June 19, Santana has the best ERA in the majors (2.06) and has a 0.64 ERA with nine hits allowed in 28 innings in 2017.
With veteran lefty Hector Santiago, who had a 5.58 ERA in 11 starts last season, Allen came up with a change that kept Santiago’s left elbow even with or higher than his shoulder, ensuring his pitches would have movement. In four starts this season, Santiago has a 2.19 ERA.
The Twins moved righty Tyler Duffey and his 6.43 ERA to the bullpen. In five outings, he’s started to establish himself as reliable for multiple innings, with a 2.00 ERA. The tweak there was simply ensuring that Duffey’s release point was consistent. Extra work between appearances has produced success.
"It’s important we come out of the gate stronger this year," Allen said. "Last year was a disaster out of the gate. These guys are now aware they can compete and they felt good about themselves."
The other step in this is in game-planning. Falvey, formerly the Indians assistant GM, and Levine, formerly with the Rangers, brought a more data-driven approach than his predecessor, Terry Ryan. As such, the Twins' advanced scouting reports are different from what they’d provided their players in the past.
"We recognize how Phil Hughes' stuff is different from Kyle Gibson's stuff," Allen said. "So we have individual reports for each pitcher. Before, we would get a report and it would say we pitch this guy this way and that guy that way. That doesn’t apply to everybody. Now we break down what each pitcher's stuff will do against that particular club."
And so far, everything’s gone according to plan. The Twins aren’t overwhelming opponents, but those who experienced the 59-103 season can tell you that things are a heck of a lot better.
"We’re enjoying the moment, keeping positive and having fun with what we’re doing," Santana said. "We can tell the difference compared to last year. We’re winning. That’s different."