How the Twins’ once-struggling lineup got aggressive and started mashing meatballs

Two months ago, the Minnesota Twins’ lineup was in absolute chaos. Two-run deficits felt like 10 and good pitching performances often went to waste.

Most of the veteran position players were struggling to produce or were injured. Twins batters frequently took meatballs for strikes and aggressively offered at unhittable pitches. And even as they routinely held meetings to figure it out, players rarely felt as if they were on the same page.

Yet all along, everyone — the players, coaches and the team’s top decision-makers — expressed unwavering confidence that a course correction was long overdue. And for the past seven weeks, it’s finally arrived.

During their most recent homestand, the Twins demonstrated how much their fortunes have changed as they rallied from deficits of five and four runs on consecutive days to win. Whether it’s improved health, the outstanding performances of rookies, a better understanding of how the roster works or approach adjustments, what recently felt impossible is seemingly less so these days.

It won’t mean much unless the Twins keep it going over the final month of the season, but for now, they’re finally backing up their claims about being a formidable offense.

“We’ve had our moments where we weren’t producing, but we still never lost the belief that we had all the pieces,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “It’s way, way, way more important to show somebody something than it is to tell somebody something. … The words don’t drive runs in. The words don’t get hits.”

But words can certainly describe the drama that played out in May, June and early July.

Before the Twins slumped into the All-Star break, finishing the first half 24th among 30 teams with 380 runs scored (4.18 per game), Carlos Correa described the team’s struggles to hit as being like “a virus.” Royce Lewis noted frustration with his and the team’s strikeout rate. And a month earlier, as the team struggled with the bases loaded, a frustrated Baldelli offered his hitters advice: “If you just hit the ball anywhere forward, you will score runs.”

Baldelli ordered a players-only meeting after the Atlanta Braves completed a series sweep of the Twins on June 28. Having already made what he felt were too many postgame speeches, Baldelli ripped his team and instructed players to figure it out: “They are just so far from where we need to be that we need to own it.”

“We didn’t have the confidence,” infielder Kyle Farmer said. “Hitting is all confidence. We didn’t have any. We didn’t really have an identity. And we didn’t really know how the lineup was going to shape out, honestly. Pinch hitting here, pinch hitting there. Now, guys have gotten comfortable in their routines and comfortable in their roles.”

Since the All-Star break July 14, the Twins are seventh out of 30 in runs scored (223, or 5.19 per game). They’re third in homers (72), tied for fifth in wRC+ (121) and sixth in on-base percentage (.340) and slugging percentage (.464).

Still, it didn’t happen overnight.

The game after their players-only meeting, Baldelli wrote “The season begins today” on a dry-erase board in the visitors clubhouse in Baltimore. Though the Twins scored eight runs in a June 30 victory over the Orioles and won two of three games in the series before sweeping the Kansas City Royals at home, they only scored 37 runs over their final nine games of the first half.

“Everything that’s happened so far has made us battle-tested,” hitting coach David Popkins said. “We’ve been punched in the face. We know what it feels like to play like that. It’s hard. You’ve got to get through it. … We’ve learned from it and we got better.”

There is no singular reason for the Twins’ offensive turnaround. Better health. A resurgence from veteran players. An adjustment to the team’s philosophy. The outstanding play of rookies Lewis, Edouard Julien and Matt Wallner.

Each is playing a role in the offense transforming from a bottom-third club in the first half to a top-third team after the All-Star break.

But as players and coaches discussed the topic, one thing repeatedly came up.

“Communication has been a huge part of it,” Correa said. “Talking to each other about what we’re seeing out there.”

In the aftermath of the June 28 meeting, Twins players decided to start holding hitters meetings on their own. One goal was to hold each other accountable. Whereas coaches and analysts previously disseminated information in daily sessions about the pitchers they’d be facing, players took over with no coaches present.

The players-only sessions lasted just a few days before coaches began to participate again. But one aspect of those meetings that survived was improved communication between players, who began to relay pertinent information to each other more frequently.

It was a good little reset,” Popkins said. “Guys kind of kept the communication that they had in those individual meetings and it bled into everything else.”

One of the improvements included better buy-in from hitters in being more aggressive at the plate.

Twins hitters are swinging at slightly fewer pitches in the second half (46.3 percent) than in the first half (47.0 percent). However, they’ve ramped up the aggressiveness early in counts, which was a common criticism throughout the first half.

They’ve swung at roughly 10 percent more first pitches since the break, which is a big enough difference to jump from No. 15 to No. 10 in MLB for first-pitch swing rate. They’ve also swung nearly 5 percent more often at 1-0 and 0-1 pitches, so their increased aggressiveness early in counts extends beyond the first pitch.

“I think we’re the best team in baseball 0-0 and 1-0 in the count,” Farmer said. “I think we’re being more aggressive early in the count. Once we realized that, and we had numbers to back it up, we bought into that.”

Within the first two pitches of their plate appearances, the Twins have swung 6 percent more often in the second half, jumping from No. 17 to No. 8 in baseball. From an aesthetic and stylistic standpoint, that’s been tough to miss, and it’s helped them avoid two-strike counts.

Another common first-half criticism was letting too many crushable pitches go by, regardless of the count. And that was very much borne out in the data, as the Twins swung at MLB’s third-fewest pitches down the middle of the plate — aka “meatballs” — during the first half. They’ve swung at about 6 percent more meatballs in the second half, jumping from No. 28 to No. 17 in the league.

Donovan Solano has led the charge of swinging at more first pitches. During the first half, he did so just 18.5 percent of the time, one of the lowest rates in the league. In the second half, Solano has swung at a staggering 51 percent more first pitches, upping his overall rate to 28.0 percent.

“Solano is going to occasionally take a pitch to start an at-bat and sometimes he’s just going to take a strike,” Baldelli said. “But there are not too many guys in our lineup that are doing that at this point. They are just looking for good pitches to whack.”

Correa has also swung at 21 percent more first pitches since the break, and Ryan Jeffers, Max Kepler, Christian Vázquez, Michael A. Taylor and Farmer have also upped their first-pitch swing rates by at least 15 percent. Wallner’s joining the lineup full time in the second half is also a big factor, as the rookie is a big proponent of swinging at first pitches.

Meatballs are by definition pitches that all hitters should be looking to swing at as often as possible. Yet in the first half, Correa swung at just 62 percent of meatballs, the fifth-lowest rate among qualified MLB hitters and well below his career rate of 71 percent. He’s increased his swing rate on meatballs to 70 percent, right in line with his career norms and closer to the MLB average.

Correa has been joined by Solano, Kepler, Taylor, Farmer and the ultra-patient Julien in swinging at meatballs at least 10 percent more often since the All-Star break. Wallner’s addition has helped here as well, with the rookie swinging — usually with bad intentions — at 86 percent of meatballs, second most on the team behind Kepler at 91 percent.

“Being aggressive in the zone,” Correa said. “In the first half, we were taking too many pitches for strikes, what we call meatballs. And the second half, we’ve been swinging at them and hitting them hard.”

Julien, Lewis and Wallner are central to the turnaround.

After showing positive signs in his first two big-league stints, Julien made himself indispensable after Jorge Polanco suffered a hamstring injury in June. Julien has appeared in 64 of the team’s 70 games since, producing an .868 OPS. He’s been so good the Twins moved other players around defensively to keep his bat in the lineup.

No hitter in the league swings at fewer pitches outside the strike zone than Julien, but he’s swung at 33 percent of first pitches and 77 percent of meatballs, both above the league-wide rates. Julien is ultra-disciplined, but he still gets very aggressive on the pitches the Twins are now looking to crush.

“The main thing is we don’t chase,” Julien said. “We’ve been taking balls and swinging at strikes. … One through nine, everybody can hit. Everybody’s comfortable and nobody chases and everybody takes a good swing at strikes. I think we’re pretty dangerous.”

Limited to 40 games because of injuries, Lewis has been dynamite with an .874 OPS in 161 plate appearances, and an eye-opening .364/.429/.659 slash line in 49 plate appearances with runners in scoring position. From a walk-off homer to a key grand slam, Wallner’s found himself in the middle of several big moments, too, posting an .851 OPS.

They’ve meant everything,” Popkins said. “Them being young, fiery and not having so many years on the body. They’re fresh. They’re ready to go in there and they’re giving it their all every single day.”

Another big factor has been the resurgent play of Kepler and Polanco.

Since taking a .188 average into a June 10 game, Kepler is hitting rockets. Called out by Baldelli three days earlier for a base-running miscue late in a one-run loss at Tampa Bay, Kepler responded. Since then, his average exit velocity is 92.9 mph, up from 90.8 mph over the first two-plus months of the season, resulting in a .920 OPS.

“He’s as hot as he gets,” Correa said.

The return of Polanco, who missed 74 of the team’s first 104 games, is also critical. He’s played in all 30 Twins games since he was activated July 28, posting a .847 OPS. The second-half performances of Jeffers, who has a .925 OPS since the break, and Solano, who isn’t slugging much but has a .379 on-base percentage, are helping offset poor seasons from Correa and Byron Buxton.

Correa’s been very frank about his poor season. Booed by the home crowd in May, Correa said he understood fans’ frustration. Though he’s had his share of good moments, Correa is playing with plantar fasciitis that he suggested would have sidelined him in most seasons, which is likely a large factor in his season-long struggles.

Meanwhile, Buxton’s bat isn’t close to matching his All-Star production of a year ago. He’s still slugging enough to almost produce a league-average OPS, but Buxton hasn’t struck out this much since his age-22 season in 2016. The hope is returning to center field for the stretch run and possibly the postseason will free up Buxton, who acknowledges he’s still learning the designated hitter routine.

In a normal season, Correa’s and Buxton’s struggles would sink the Twins. But these Twins aren’t just managing in spite of those slumps, they’re also thriving in the second half.

This front office did such an amazing job with getting the depth that it did,” Popkins said. “Last year, it would have been detrimental and this year it’s like, ‘Next man, up.’ Right now we’re in a really good spot. If you get one healthy, it’s going to be very scary.”

As they open September, the Twins hope Buxton, Alex Kirilloff (who had an .856 OPS in July before injuring his shoulder) and Willi Castro will return soon from the injured list.

“We still can get better,” Correa said. “I still think there’s another gear to our lineup.”

There needs to be, because the Twins’ pitching staff is slowing down after posting outstanding numbers in the first half. Whereas the pitchers propped up the offense as it stumbled through June and early July, they haven’t been nearly as good since the break (4.49 ERA vs. 3.68 in the first half).

Combined with Wednesday’s disappointing loss to Cleveland, and their rivals then adding pitchers Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo López and Matt Moore via waivers Thursday, it appears the Guardians aren’t yet done. If the Twins hope to win the division and do any damage in the postseason, the offense will need to continue performing.

“There’s big value to handling adversity and coming back better, coming back stronger,” Baldelli said. “We have to carry this forward. Having a good stretch for six weeks, that’s not going to be enough. This is something that has to be a consistent part of our reality from here on out, and I think it very well can be.”

(Photo of Matt Wallner and Royce Lewis: Brace Hemmelgarn / Minnesota Twins / Getty Images)

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