Minneapolis, MN, USA: Minnesota Twins first baseman Joe Mauer (7) hits a single in the third inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE
In the early going, the Minnesota Twins have had trouble scoring runs, just as they did all of last season. When you look at the numbers, it's no wonder why.
Monday, on a chilly afternoon in Minneapolis, C.J. Wilson made his Los Angeles Angels debut. Facing the Minnesota Twins, Wilson walked four guys in seven innings, but he allowed just one run, thanks in large part to the balls in play. Twins batters put 17 balls in play against Wilson and the Angels defense. One was a fly, one was a line drive, and 15 were groundballs. Wilson's long been a groundball pitcher, but not to such an extreme, and as groundballs are mostly harmless, the Twins couldn't manufacture any rallies.
Sunday, against Jason Hammel, Twins batters put 19 balls in play. Of those, 14 were grounders.
Saturday, against Tommy Hunter, Twins batters put 23 balls in play. Of those, 16 were grounders.
Friday, against Jake Arrieta, Twins batters put 17 balls in play. Of those, a far more acceptable eight were grounders. Still, that's 47 percent.
Understand that it's still very early. It's still obnoxiously early, as far as all statistics are concerned. It will continue to be very early for another few weeks. For the sake of all of our mental well-beings, there's an argument to be made that baseball statistics shouldn't even be made available for public consumption until the middle of May.
But as early as it is, the Minnesota Twins have zero wins and four losses. The pitching hasn't been real good, but the offense has scraped together all of six runs. The team has a .492 OPS. Ryan Vogelsong has a career .506 OPS. There are any number of reasons why the Twins have struggled to score, but what's catching my eye are their ball-in-play statistics. Peek over at FanGraphs and you see that the average team has hit about 47 percent groundballs. The team with the second-highest groundball rate so far is the Indians, at 55 percent. In the lead, by a healthy or unhealthy margin, are the Twins, at 68 percent. To date, the Twins have put two balls on the ground for every one ball not on the ground. That's a good way to keep a first baseman busy. That's a bad way to keep a third-base coach busy.
Look at the Twins players individually, and it's almost staggering. Statistics mean even less after four games for players than they do for teams, but every single Twins batter has put at least half of his balls in play on the ground, with the exception of Chris Parmelee (one out of seven). Denard Span, to pick one example, has 12 grounders and a line drive. These numbers don't mean much right now, but when you look at them on the page, it's visually striking.
The Twins posted baseball's highest groundball rate in 2011, so this position atop the leaderboard isn't unfamiliar. But in 2011, the team groundball rate was 48 percent. The highest groundball rate posted by any team since 2002 is 50 percent, by the 2005 ... Minnesota Twins. In second place, by a hair, are the 2007 ... Minnesota Twins. All right.
Just for the sake of reference, Joey Gathright has a career groundball rate of 68 percent. That's the highest among contemporary players. His batting line: .263/.328/.303. He walked like the Twins have walked, and he struck out like the Twins have struck out. In the early going, overall, the Minnesota Twins have hit like a team of slower Joey Gathrights. Notice that the regular Joey Gathright doesn't have a major-league job.
This is not to say anything except "that's weird." And also, "boy, it'd be great if this didn't continue." And the Twins won't continue hitting so many groundballs to such an extreme. That would be nearly impossible. But the Twins scored 619 runs last season. That's a terrible number for anybody who isn't the Mariners. They hope to improve in 2012, but they're off to an unwatchable start because they haven't been able to put the ball in the air. The air is where runs come from. The Twins will hit fewer groundballs as the season wears on. But if they continue to lead the league, they'll continue to struggle to score, and they'll continue to struggle to win.
It's all very simple. The Minnesota Twins have hit an unthinkable amount of groundballs. They need to not do that anymore.