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Can the Twins big data their way into a decent pitching staff?

Twins Executive Vice President and Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey is careful not to crow about the team’s investment in technology and analytics, since it merely brings the Twins in line with industry standard.

Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Kyle Gibson
Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Kyle Gibson pitching against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field last August.
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Twins pitcher Kyle Gibson threw a bullpen session last week at Hammond Stadium that seemed almost naked. Gone were the high-speed video cameras and data-capturing devices omnipresent through the first days of spring training. It was just Gibson throwing under a warm Florida sun, with new pitching coach Wes Johnson next to him and special instructors Jim Kaat and Phil Roof nearby.

Once exhibition games began, Twins staffers repositioned the equipment in the stadium to monitor live action. Now if Gibson asks to compare a pitch today with one from last week or earlier, the technology staff can bring it up for him, slowed to fractions of a second to view the grip and hand position.  

“It was more just trying to show us subtle differences between release points,” Gibson said, “We can go side-by-side video and say, this is what it looked like when it’s good. It really gives you the ability to see how your hand comes through on each pitch.”

If, as starter Jake Odorizzi said, “all information is good information,” this camp has been loaded with badly-needed good.

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With pitchers making up the bulk of today’s major-league rosters — 12 or 13 spots out of 25 — it’s imperative for organizations to develop lots of their own pitching, especially starters. That’s where the Twins have fallen short over the last 15 years. For every Johan Santana and Jose Berrios, there were too many Scott Bakers and Nick Blackburns — promising arms who plateaued, got hurt, shifted to the bullpen, or never panned out.   

Last year, even with homegrown products Berrios, Gibson and Francisco Romero combining for 75 starts, the Twins ranked 22nd in the majors in starters ERA at 4.50. That’s better than some recent seasons but unacceptable for a team with World Series aspirations, which the Twins claim to have.

Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey modernized the club’s pitching instruction since his arrival in October 2016, emphasizing biomechanics, technical analysis and analytics-based scouting. Johnson, a technology and analytics savant believed to be the first pitching coach to go from college (Arkansas) directly to the majors, fits what the Twins are doing.

Instead of spending heavily on free agent pitching last winter, the Twins invested in research and development. Pitchers throwing off bullpen mounds early in camp found every pitch tracked by Edgertronic SC2x high-speed cameras and Rapsado monitors, equipment already used by most major league teams.

Falvey said the Twins bought the small blue Edgertronic cameras last year. For $16,000 each, they record high-resolution video at more than 20,000 frames per second, crisply capturing details imperceptible to the naked eye. The Rapsado devices churn out data similar to MLB’s Statcast, things like how fast a pitch spins and how much it breaks.

If that sounds way too complicated, imagine being the pitcher who just gave up an upper deck homer on a slider that didn’t slide, and can’t figure out what went wrong or how to fix it. That describes too many Twins pitchers since, oh, 2004.

“I’ve been really proud of our group, that nobody has started from a place of, ‘I don’t know if that makes sense,’” Falvey said. “It’s much more of an, ‘How can this help me?’ Then the key is for Rocco and the pitching coaches and staff to explain why it can be helpful.”

Johnson tailored individual improvement plans for every pitcher in camp. Some involved biomechanics. Others, pitch selection. And still others, better use of detailed scouting information.

“We don’t have big lumps of players who we’re preaching the exact same things to,” said rookie manager Rocco Baldelli. “All of these guys are different. They’re unique. We’re going to try to use their unique traits to enhance them anyway we can.”

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Non-roster invitee Jake Reed, a reliever for Class AAA Rochester who is yet to pitch in the majors, said he had no interest in technology-based analytics until this spring.  “There’s a level of humility to it, which I didn’t have and kind of resisted for awhile,” he said. “I was in that mindset of: My stuff’s great, I don’t need a computer to tell me that. That’s just not the right mindset to have.”

Reed’s best pitch is his slider, so the Twins technical staff showed him video of Chris Sale, Craig Kimbrel and Adam Ottavino, current masters of the pitch. Reed discovered his slider breaks less than it should because those guys release the ball a fraction of a second earlier in their deliveries than he does. That seemed counterintuitive to Reed — until he saw video evidence.

“The average extension on a curveball and slider is four to six inches less than a fastball,” Reed said. “That’s something I never knew. I’ve been taught the opposite my whole life, about really getting out in front and creating extension with your slider and curveball. Now, it’s more about making it less. That’s really helped my slider a lot.”

Sinkerballing reliever Tyler Duffey, optioned to Class AAA Rochester last week, learned it’s okay to walk a batter occasionally if you’re making quality pitches. And getting a free swinger who can’t handle a high fastball to chase one once in a while is fine, too.

“It took a lot of adjusting but I’m on board with it now,” Duffey said. “Basically, if it’s the right pitch, they’ll swing at it.”

Odorizzi relies on the high-resolution video for small details. “If I don’t like a certain pitch, if something’s off, I can look and see if my grip is cocked a quarter of a centimeter the wrong way, and make an adjustment on the next pitch,” he said. “It’s self-explanatory when you can see it right there.”

Other pitchers extract more from analytics-based scouting. Reliever Trevor Hildenberger tries to avoid predictable pitching patterns. Berrios, the Opening Day starter, studies how hitters swing and what they like in certain counts.

And some focus on biomechanics. Fifth starter Martin Perez, the most significant free agent pitching addition, concentrates on using his hips more, which he said helps with velocity and throwing strikes to both sides of the plate. Michael Pineda, returning from Tommy John surgery, tries keeping his left shoulder in tight for better control and movement on his pitches.

“When you look at all the technology available to every pitcher, I’m surprised more teams don’t dive into it,” said veteran lefty reliever Tim Collins, new to the Twins after six seasons with the Royals and Nationals (and two Tommy John surgeries). “The staff here wants to win and help everybody. They want pitchers to be successful. I think they do a really good job of it here. Other teams need to do a lot better job.”

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Falvey is careful not to crow about any of this, since it merely brings the Twins in line with industry standard. The club still lags behind top clubs like the Astros in developing quality arms.  

“You’re seeing signs of some success for some players that have adapted this and made the adjustment and said, ‘Oh, okay, this is how my stuff plays and this is a much better way to use it,’” Falvey said. “And when it works, it builds some confidence and some momentum. That’s key.”

“But some of them won’t work. Some of the changes suggested won’t be exactly what that player needs, and that’s something we’ll deal with too. With change and with some new ideas comes some failure, and they have to accept that. But there’s also comes some failure if you do nothing. We’re trying to be thoughtful about it with our guys.”