Written by Nick Dika, Jenn Smith, and Andrew Munn
The Twins Home Run Problem and their Weapon Against It
It’s been no secret that the Blue Jays have been overly dependent on the home run this year. Toronto, who sits 13th in the major leagues with 174 home runs this season, scored all seven of their runs on Wednesday night in Tampa Bay via the longball. When the Rays kept the ball in the park on Thursday afternoon, the Jays were limited to no runs on six hits. The Jays sit atop baseball with over half of their runs scored this season coming via the home run. This is all despite the Rogers Centre playing fairly neutral as a power park.
At this point in the season the composition of the Jays’ roster is more or less set. Their ability to score will likely stay tied to their ability to hit the ball out of the park.
Luckily for Toronto, the Twins pitching staff is most susceptible to the Blue Jays’ biggest strength. Minnesota, who ranks towards in the bottom of the major leagues (22nd) in team ERA at 4.71 gives up more home runs than almost every team in baseball – 182 this season (1.46 HR/9), both good for fifth highest in all of baseball. Newly acquired Bartolo Colon (who starts for the Twins on Friday) isn’t doing much to help the situation, surrendering 21 in 105 innings already this season during his time with the Mets and the Twins.
The Twins do possess one weapon they can use to counteract their pitching staff’s tendency to give up home runs: Byron Buxton. The Twins’ centre fielder has played elite defense this season and has taken more than one home run away from opposing batters. More importantly, he helps keep additional runners off base by making plays that most outfielders do not. Per this statcast leaderboard, Buxton is among the best (and most efficient) in baseball at robbing opponents of batted balls that are likely to fall in for hits. 4-Star outs are balls that are only caught 25-50% of the time and 3-star outs are caught 51-75% of the time (based on hang time, distance, and direction):
|Player||4-star Outs||Chances||%||Player||3-star Outs||Chances||%|
|Byron Buxton||23||24||95.8||Mookie Betts||23||28||82.1|
|Mookie Betts||20||23||87.0||Ender Inciarte||20||24||83.3|
|Ender Inciarte||13||22||59.1||Max Kepler||19||23||82.6|
|Lorenzo Cain||11||17||76.5||Byron Buxton||18||20||90.0|
|Jarrod Dyson||11||14||78.6||Lorenzo Cain||17||22||77.3|
Yes, that is correct. Buxton catches 95.8 percent of balls that are hits 50-75% of the time. The Jays just left Tampa and the wizardry of Kevin Kiemaier, but it’s not going to get any easier.
What a Difference a Year Makes
Who could have guessed a year ago that the Toronto Blue Jays and the Minnesota Twins would be where they’re at right now?
The Twins concluded the 2016 season as the worst team in baseball. With a 59-103 record, they finished a whopping 35.5 games back of Cleveland for the AL Central and 30 games back of the wild card. The Blue Jays, as we all know, snagged one of the two wild card spots and went on to the American League Championship Series for the second straight season.
The two teams have experienced quite the reversal of fortunes.
After going 1-5 on their recent road trip, the 60-67 Jays appear to be all but out of the wild card race, sitting 5.5 games back with seven team ahead of them. The team at the top of that list? The Minnesota Twins, who surpassed the Los Angeles Angels earlier this week to grab hold of the second wild card spot. Their lead is tenuous: the Angels sit just a half-game back with both Kansas City and Seattle a game back.
The Blue Jays can only wish they held a half-game lead for the second wild card.
Had the Jays split their road trip, this series against the Twins might be pivotal as it would have given them an opportunity to gain real ground against a team ahead of them; instead, it is far more likely that it’s now just another in a string of games that need to be played out. Baseball Prospectus currently has the Jays’ playoff odds at one percent, down from 3.3 percent a week ago. The Twins, meanwhile, have a 31.3 percent chance of returning to the postseason for the first time since 2010 – up from 15.5% just seven days ago.
Now, the series against the Jays is being touted as a part of an easy schedule ahead as the Twins fight for a playoff berth. The Jays, meanwhile, have nine games against Boston, six against Baltimore, six against the New York Yankees, four more against the Twins and three against the Royals – all teams ahead of them in the wild card race (as well as three against the Detroit Tigers). The overall winning percentage of these teams is .510; the Jays have yet to reach .500 this season. In order to have any hope at all as the calendar edges ever closer to September (and with Boston rolling into town next), the Blue Jays can afford nothing less than a sweep of this series.
Big Sexy Bartolo
Opposing J.A. Happ on Friday night is veteran Bartolo Colon, who is making his second start of the season at the Rogers Centre in a second uniform. It has been an eventful week for the right-hander, who has now recorded a win against every major-league team with his victory over the Diamondbacks on Sunday.
After being designated for assignment by the Braves earlier in the year, Colon has regained some of his pitching form since joining the Twins. He struggled mightily to an 8.14 ERA in 13 starts with the Braves, but Bartolo has since earned a 4.46 ERA in seven starts for the Twins. Colon struggled with the home run ball at new homer haven SunTrust Park, allowing 1.57 HR/9. Weirdly enough, he has actually allowed more home runs since joining the Twins, giving up 2.13 HR/9.
One thing that Colon is doing differently this season is that he is throwing more changeups. In the past, Colon has used his changeup and slider an equal amount against right-handers, and then gone to the slider but not the changeup versus lefties. This season, he has let the batter’s handedness determine which pitch he uses – the slider for right-handers and changeup for left-handers.
While hitters have mashed on his changeup in the past to the tune of .285/.311/.475 for Colon’s career, 2017 hitters have managed a measly .163/.234/.302 on the pitch. Interestingly, Colon’s slider is seeing similarly better results while being used less against lefties. Opponents are hitting just .179/.207/.250 against the slider in 2017, compared to .266/.293/.421 for his career. It seems that these pitches are becoming more effective this season, coinciding with their different usages.
Colon will likely be in need of both pitches on Friday as he looks to keep the Twins in the wild card spot in which they have found themselves. Keeping hitters off balance is his key to being successful, considering the difficulty involved in blowing 87 mph fastballs he throws past major league hitters. Colon knows this, which is what has allowed him to pitch in the majors for 20 years, and to win against every team in the majors. The Blue Jays will have to figure out Colon’s changeup to prevent him from winning another one on Friday night.
Lead Photo © David Richard-USA TODAY Sports