Fifteen games in, and unexpectedly a game over .500, it may seem funny how much I've found myself thinking this season about all the bad Twins teams I used to watch in the 1990s. Back when they were playing terribly in the Metrodome, the Twins never had a fancy video scoreboard in the outfield, so most of their graphics were text heavy and incredibly simple. By far the best was a little (well, it looked little, it was probably huge) pixelated ghost head who would pop up when an opposing pitcher would issue a free pass, and the ominous words "Walks will haunt." (You can get that on a t-shirt, by the way.) The ghost went away for a while, but I'm told it's back at Target Field, in all its pixelated, creepy simplicity.
Photo courtesy @KirbysLeftEye
For the longest time, the Twins have taken that message to heart, as they've gone out of their way to sign and promote pitchers who limit walks. While this has often left them with a hittable staff that doesn't strike anyone out, there's no doubt that limiting free passes itself is a good thing, and that no one has been better at that than Minnesota, who finished first or second in the American League walks allowed every year from 2001-2010 except one.
But, for some reason, the Twins never recognized the power of walking on offense, despite that ghost's constant reminders. One of the most profoundly frustrating things about the Twins in the early part of the 21st century was the club preaching the importance of staying aggressive to hitters. Much to their offensive detriment, except for the salad days 2009 and 2010, the Twins have never finished above the middle of the pack in walks. Indeed, since beginning their successful run in 2001, they've finished an average of eighth and ninth in the AL in walks and runs scored, respectively. That's pretty remarkable for a team that won six division titles and finished with a winning record nine times in twelve seasons.
With that in mind, I'd really like to get excited about how the worm has turned. Through the first tenth of 2013, the Twins' pitchers again lead the American League in walk rate. Much bemoaned off-season acquisition Kevin Correia has walked just three batters in his three starts, and has a 2.95 ERA. Sure, nobody in the starting rotation is striking anybody out (just 39 batters in 77-2/3 innings), but at least nobody is on base when they give up all their hits.
Just as importantly, the club's hitters are also walking in 11 percent of their plate appearances, tops in all of baseball. This base on balls revolution has been fueled by unlikely sources. It's understandable that Josh Willingham would draw a ton of walks (11 in 57 plate appearances, 19.3 percent). But Pedro Florimon, who has a .321 minor league on-base percentage, has walked six times in 35 PAs (17 percent) and has an OBP of .441. Joe Mauer continues to rake and work the count like he always has, but Aaron Hicks has walked nine times in 60 plate appearances in spite of the rest of his offensive troubles. Brian Dozier's walk rate is at 10 percent, and Chris Parmelee is at 14 percent. If this is a new approach, and not some combination of small sample size, bad pitching, and random luck, it's a net positive, even as the rest of the offense struggles to hit homers and strikes out far too often.
Like I said, I'd love to be excited about all this. I'm as surprised by the Twins' early season success as anyone. I figured (and, in all honesty, still figure) them to be a 95 loss team. I'm just happy to be watching them win a few for as long as it lasts. I'm also glad that a respectable start might build up a little enthusiasm for this club from a fan base that's taken a serious hit over the last two years.
That probably only lasts until the Rangers come to town later this week. I have a suspicion that stronger clubs are going to highlight the weaknesses on this Twins team. Once temperatures warm and the ball starts jumping more, so many balls will be flying off of and over the fences it won't matter how few batters the Twins walk. As opposing pitchers' hands thaw, they'll be able to challenge the weaker hitters in this Twins lineup more often. Despite the hot start, I'm not putting any more stock in Pedro Florimon continuing to walk in 17 percent of his trips as I am in Kevin Correia's ability to have a sub-4.00 ERA. It's still incredibly early. Walks will haunt, but they aren't nearly as troubling as another season of bad baseball and the subsequent eroding enthusiasm and attendance for this team. I remember when that ghost and I were pretty much the only ones watching those ballgames. That's what's really haunting.