Subjectively, Minnesota isn’t as bad as it appears

MINNEAPOLIS -- By several objective measures, the Twins are having another disappointing season at the plate. They rank 22nd in the majors with 92 home runs, 24th in strikeout rate (21.3 percent), 20th in batting average (.249) and 27th with runn...

Joe Mauer
Photo by Troy Taormina / USA TODAY Minnesota Twins first baseman Joe Mauer drives in two runs with a single during the ninth inning against the Houston Astros on Monday at Minute Maid Park in Houston.

MINNEAPOLIS - By several objective measures, the Twins are having another disappointing season at the plate.
They rank 22nd in the majors with 92 home runs, 24th in strikeout rate (21.3 percent), 20th in batting average (.249) and 27th with runners in scoring position (.236 average).
However, by certain subjective measures, they are doing just fine.
One of those is hard-hit percentage, as compiled by ESPN’s Mark Simon.
The top three, not surprisingly, are the Oakland A’s, Washington Nationals and Detroit Tigers. The first two are leading their respective divisions, while the Tigers are just off the pace of the surprising Kansas City Royals.
As for the Twins, they rank 12th, right between playoff contenders from Toronto and Milwaukee, another first-place team.
“That’s good. That’s a nice thing,” says former Twins slugger Tom Brunansky, in his second season as the team’s big-league hitting coach. “Hard-hit percentage is a pretty good indicator.”
Of those dozen teams making consistently hard contact, the Twins’ batting average ranked fourth-lowest, suggesting they aren’t being rewarded nearly often enough.
Brunansky doesn’t keep hard-hit data as assiduously in the majors, but hitting coaches at each of the Twins’ seven affiliates compile daily hard-hit data and submit it at the end of each month to hitting coordinator Bill Springman.
“Unfortunately, Spring gets inundated,” says Brunansky, who spent three seasons coaching in the Twins’ system, from 2010-13.
Those reports also include a breakdown of another statistic the Twins hold near and dear, one Brunansky relies on even more heavily at the major-league level: quality at-bats.
Here he has even more latitude to determine if his individual hitters are successful or not each time they step into the batter’s box.
“It’s very subjective,” Brunansky says. “We try to stress to the guys that we fail so often at getting hits, the goal should not be the hit itself but the at-bat, the approach. You could be 0 for 4 on a given night and have two or three quality at-bats.”
Conversely, just because a Twins player gets a base hit, that doesn’t guarantee he will be credited with a quality at-bat.
“Say if it’s a 2-0 pitch and he caps it off the end of his bat and it bloops over,” Brunansky says, “or you get out in front of one and you roll one down by the pitcher and beat it out and it’s a hit. The 2-0 to get there is nice, but that wouldn’t be a quality at-bat.”
Well-struck balls or plate appearances that cause the pitcher to work for eight or 10 pitches are far more likely to count as quality at-bats no matter the result.
Context is vital for a team whose drive to improve patience has resulted in a tie for baseball’s second-best walk rate - 9.0 percent, trailing only the Oakland A’s, who made patience cool.
Brunansky’s hitters also rank 10th in the majors in on-base percentage (.321), 14th in combined on-base/slugging (.700) and are tied for 11th in runs (500).
Feeding into all of that is his daily emphasis on quality at-bats.
“Now, if it’s an 0-2 pitch and you fight it off and you bloop one in, pretty much, you’re OK,” Brunansky says. “Hey, you’re battling, you’re staying in. You got beat but you had to do it.”
Other examples of a quality at-bat would be a productive out that moves a runner to third base with less than two outs or a seemingly failed confrontation in which the player followed the scouting report and showed the right approach despite making an out.
“You could have a 10- or 12-pitch at-bat or you could go up to look for a specific pitch and he makes a couple nasty pitches on you and then you fight a few off and then he gets you on a strikeout,” Brunansky says. “You know what the hitter’s trying to do. You’re sitting there talking with him. (Outsiders) might say he’s taking a fastball down the middle, but he might be sitting on an off-speed pitch.”
What’s a good quality at-bat average (QABA)? Brunansky says anything over .400 is excellent. Some Twins hitters are pushing .500, although he won’t name them or even inform the players themselves where they stand in relation to one another.
“You can have a quality at-bat average of .480 and your batting average is .220,” Brunansky said. “That might tell you, ‘Well, maybe he’s had a little tough luck.’ It’s just another way of getting an evaluation of what the hitter is doing, along with all the other stuff they come up with.”
Twins all-star catcher Kurt Suzuki, raised in an A’s system where advanced metrics were an accepted part of the daily discussion, likes to joke about how tough a grader Brunansky can be.
In Suzuki’s mind, a knock is a knock.
“I think anytime you get a hit, it’s a quality at-bat,” Suzuki says. “I don’t care what (Brunansky) gives. He can take his quality at-bats and shove them, for all I care.”
Laughter punctuated that line, but the larger point remained for a player whose .361 on-base percentage leads all Twins qualifiers.
“What if you’re a leadoff hitter and you get on base?” Suzuki says. “Who cares how you get on base? You got on base. That’s a quality at-bat to me. For the team it doesn’t matter how you get on base. That’s better than having a quality at-bat and not getting on base.”
Clearly, Oakland’s Green and Gold still courses through the catcher’s veins - at least when it comes to offensive objectives.
“As a player you always keep track of your quality at-bats,” Suzuki says. “It’s not always about the results. That’s huge. Quality at-bats are really important. Obviously this game is results-oriented, but the more quality at-bats you have the better chance you have of getting a hit.”
Twins rookie Kennys Vargas, hitting .300 through his first 50 at-bats since making the jump from Double-A New Britain on July 31, also knows a quality at-bat when he has one. He had that drummed into him throughout the minors, most recently by Rock Cats hitting coach Chad Allen, a former Twins outfielder.
“When I swing at too many pitches, (Allen) tells me to be patient,” Vargas says. “Still swing, but try to select a good pitch. They try to have everyone have a quality at-bat. A good at-bat can help the team, too. Taking a walk is good.”
On the day after a tough night at the plate for one of his hitters, Brunansky often will pull that player aside in the batting cage and mention his quality at-bats as a mental safety net of sorts.
“I say, ‘Hey, I know you didn’t get the results you wanted, but you had a couple of good quality at-bats,’” Brunansky says. “Then they look at you and say, ‘Screw you.’ We laugh and joke about it, but it’s something to watch because it’s easier to attain than the result.”
With one simple stat, one he guards closely and never makes public, Brunansky is attempting to guide his mostly young pupils through a long, unforgiving season. Mention that a good QABA might help a slumping player feel better about himself, and Brunansky nods.
“That’s the goal,” he says. “We’re at a point now where the guys understand what we’re shooting for as far as an overall goal offensively. You come up here, and everybody keeps every stat they want to, but for me personally, it’s more about the quality at-bat.”
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