by JDCam 11.18.14
The Minnesota Vikings are a very different team in 2014. An early injury to incumbent QB Matt Cassel sparked the early initiation of the Teddy Bridgewater era in Minnesota and GM Rick Spielman has continued to make impressively impactful free agents signings as well as meaningful draft picks (Linval Joseph, Anthony Barr, Teddy Bridgewater to name a few). Despite this change the Vikings offense continues to sputter, struggling to cover up the loss of Adrian Peterson and overcome the struggles of an ineffective offensive line. One area the Vikings have improved significantly since 2013 is their pass defense, long an area of weakness that drew constant ire and frustration from Viking fans.
New head coach Mike Zimmer has preached discipline and the no nonsense approach to team defense that the previously ill-disciplined Vikings have long needed. Zimmer’s message is clear, losing is unacceptable. As trite as it sounds Zimmer has a ‘sound fundamentals’ approach that is having a huge impact in Minnesota.
Through the first 9 weeks of the season the Vikes passing defense went from joint 22nd in the league with 22 sacks to 1st with 30. They went from 30th in the league conceding 287.2 yards per game to 4th conceding only 213.6. They conceded 21 TD through this point in the season through the air in 2013, good for 31st in the league, in 2014 they are tied 15th with 14. Finally their pass defense rating has gone from 26th in the league in 2013, to 16th in 2014. Zimmer’s aggressive approach certainly seems to be having an impact, despite limited personnel improvement in the Vikings secondary an area of consistent struggle in recent seasons.
Conversely, Zimmer’s last employer, the Cincinnati Bengals have seen their defense go from dominant to ugly since his departure. Last season the Bengals defense stymied almost everything that came at them, conceding a miserly 19.1 points per game, giving up a balanced 209 ypg through the air and 96.5 ypg on the ground. The Bengals defense has plummeted this season since Zimmer’s departure, falling to 29th in the league, conceding 23.4 points per game and giving up 248.9 ypg through the air and a porous 143 ypg against the rush, including their recent Thursday Night Football domination at the hands of the once lowly in-state rival Cleveland Browns…at home. Of course Zimmer is not the sole reason for these changes but the numbers don’t lie, these trends are too stark to ignore.
A short way across town the Minnesota Twins made an announcement Thursday that drew little fanfare but could be similarly impactful for an organization that is filled with recent optimism after the recent hiring of home town hopeful and Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. The Twins decided to retain hitting coach Tom Brunansky after his second season with the club. Looking at the Twins offensive improvement, it is easy to see why. The Twins pitching woes are well documented and do not bear consideration in this article.
In 2013 the Twins were in the bottom 10 (and often the bottom 5) in almost every major offensive category. They finished 25th overall in team offense with a .242 team BA, .312 OBP, .692 OPS. The Twins scored just 614 runs in 2013 6th worst in the majors and managed just 151 HRs. Brunansky entered at the beginning of the 2013 season and opened with an immediately disappointing season. In 2014 however he sparked an immediate turnaround. Simply looking at basic metrics the Twins jumped 18 spots to 7th overall in hitting. In 2014 the Twins team BA rose to .254, OBP rose to an MLB 5th best .324, OPS rose to .715 and unbelievably the Twins scored 101 more runs despite homering just 128 times. The Twins had limited personnel turnover between the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Most of the Twins significant offseason additions were pitchers, with the exception of catcher Kurt Suzuki, who posted a career year in his first season at Target Field. The Twins also saw impressive debuts from SS/OF Danny Santana who posted a .319/.353/.472 slash line through 101 games to finish 7th in the AL ROY voting. Kennys Vargas also debuted later in the season and despite some inconsistencies managed 9HR and 38RBI through his first 53 big league games. So what is it in Brunansky’s coaching and adjustments that caused such a turnaround for the Twins in 2014?
In a recent interview Brunansky opined that he wanted to challenge all the Twins hitters to ‘be more competitive’. I wanted us to compete on every pitch’. This all part of an improvement in spite of a career low .277 average from perennial team BA prop Joe Mauer. In short there doesn’t seem to be one factor at play here. The Twins simply got a little bit better at a lot of things offensively in 2014. Their SO% dropped from 23% to 21.3%, this doesn’t seem significant until you factor in that a drop of just 1% over the course of the season is akin to 62 less SO. Their BB% rose incrementally, their SO/BB ration fell from 2.68 strike outs per walk to 2.44. The Twins also increased their number of ABs per %, hit less ground balls and increased their team LD% (line drive %) by 2%. All of these incremental, seemingly unimportant statistical increases and decreases point to one conclusion; the Twins are becoming more competitive. They are striking out less, walking more, hitting the ball on the ground less and hitting more line drives. As with Mike Zimmer and the Vikes, the Twins limited personnel are benefiting from quality coaching and buying into a new offensive mindset. If both franchises can continue to build on these improvements and address areas of need, the long drought of highly competitive sports franchises in the Twin Cities may be coming to an end.