MINNEAPOLIS – The Twins have clubbed 49 home runs so far this young season, and they’ll probably get to 50 before they run out of games in the month of April. It’s an incredible pace bested only by the world-beating Seattle Mariners in the American League. (Seattle has played 6 more games than Minnesota, so look out, M’s.)
The home runs have come at such a frantic pace that the Twins have put themselves in position as one of the best offenses in the A.L., and the only hiccup on the schedule to date was a rocky 4-game series with the Toronto Blue Jays.
This winter there was some talk among a certain segment of the fanbase that the Twins were taking a risk, as they loaded up their roster with some new hitters that hung their hats on hitting it over the fence, rather than getting on base at a high clip. That list of hitters includes Nelson Cruz, C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop. In the early stretches anyway, the team’s front office appears to have placed a good bet.
This column presents 5 thoughts on the home run parade currently being performed by the Twins’ lineup:
Actually, those 11 home runs lead the American League, as of this writing.
Do I think Rosario will win the A.L. home run race? In a word, no. But let’s not ignore the fact that Rosario already has reached double digits and we’re only a month into a 6-month season. Here’s the Twins’ leaderboard after the weekend sweep of the hapless Orioles:
Eddie Rosario, 11
Max Kepler, 7
C.J. Cron: 5
Nelson Cruz: 5
Mitch Garver: 5
Jorge Polanco: 5
Jonathan Schoop: 4
I expect some jostling at the top of that list. By the end of the year, I think you’ll see Cruz’s and Cron’s names at or near the top of Minnesota’s leaderboard, and don’t be surprised if Mitch Garver hangs around in that race, too. Rosario and Kepler will continue to appear on the Twins leaderboard, although this is a new level of power from Rosario that we have not seen to this point in his career.
Kepler hit another home run on Sunday – on the first pitch thrown to the Twins, no less – which was the exclamation point on a power outburst for the newly extended right fielder. He hit 2 homers in a win on Saturday, and he also got on the board Friday against Baltimore. There’s a guy who’s probably sad to see the Orioles get on a plane out of town.
We’ll have plenty more in the coming days and weeks about the bet that the Twins made on Kepler, “pre-breakout,” but let’s at least point out right now that after a month, the 26-year-old’s batting line is far better than his career norms. That’s especially true in the power department. Kepler is hitting .274/.340/.571, which is a nice jump in average and on-base percentage from last season, but it’s a monumental increase in power production.
Kepler led off with the homer off Dylan Bundy on Sunday and I asked him about a topic that’s near to his manager Rocco Baldelli’s heart: quality at-bats. Every time Rocco is asked about the homer surge, he continues to underscore that he’s more concerned about the consistent quality of the at-bat, rather than the result of the ball leaving the yard.
“Yeah, I’ve always said quality at-bats is key over anything, when it comes to hitting,” Kepler said after his 4-homer weekend. “Whether it’s working an at-bat – as the leadoff, working a good long at-bat – or hitting a good pitch, first pitch. There’s multiple ways you can have a quality at-bat and I think this team’s been having a lot so far.”
The guy who leads the A.L. in doubles (12) found a way to put two together in one plate appearances Sunday against Orioles pitching. He left the park for the first time of the season, and the early signs offensively have been encouraging for the player with the widest variance in the organization.
The doubles, the loud contact, and the home run all register as checks on the good side of the lingering question, Is It For Real This Time?
To answer that, I would say that he’s not out of the woods yet. You’d rather have this great start at the plate than not have it, it’s just that for right now let’s say he’s had a good month and stop there.
He’s hitting .270/.325/.500 with 12 doubles and a homer. That’s a good batting line for a player who legitimately is on the short list of best defenders in baseball. He’s also trending in the good direction with more advanced metrics, like his hard-hit rate, the speed he hits baseballs, and how often his swings find a pitch with the barrel of the bat.
For what it’s worth, Buxton does rate in the top 10% in the Majors in average exit velocity, at about 93 mph. He’s hit 20 different balls at a speed of at least 100 mph, including a string of 5 scorchers in a row two weeks ago against the Tigers and Blue Jays.
Let’s hold off crowing him a superstar just yet. The encouraging thing for the Twins and their fans is that Buxton is looking much more fit for the part than he was six months ago. And now he’s on the board.
José Berríos leads the staff with homers permitted (6), but he’s also been the innings hog that the Twins want him to be this season. When you control for the numbers of frames pitched, Berríos and Michael Piñeda are pretty close in overall effectiveness of shutting down long balls.
We like to complain about the pitching staff around here, and some of that is warranted. It’s just worth noting that when the bats outpace your hurlers in a month with 49 homers to 29 for the staff, your club is doing something right.
Better than those two, Jake Odorizzi (Monday’s starter) and Martin Pérez have kept the ball in the yard nicely, and if you’re the Twins you’d hope those trends continue. In Pérez’s case because everything looks good so far about their bet on his remaking himself as a starter in his late-20’s; and in Odorizzi’s case it’s because his approach in the past has meant that when he struggles on the score sheet, it’s often because those high fastballs turn into homers more often than he’d want. Good things from both of those starters through the first month of the season.
On the reliever front, homers help tell a story, too. On one hand you’ve got Chase De Jong and Tyler Duffey, who rate near the top of the Twins in homers-surrendered-per-batter-faced. Those long balls – and the circumstances of their promotions – helped to earn them a trip back to Triple-A Rochester. On the optimistic side of the Twins bullpen worries, the four guys that you need to be good have been that. Among the late-inning quartet, only Taylor Rogers has served up a gopher ball, and even that shouldn’t have been on his books. That was the deep fly ball to center field that stayed in the park and all-world defender Byron Buxton turned into an inside-the-park home run. Blame Rogers for the loud contact, but after that he’s not in control of whether that ball is an out, a double or a little league home run. Trevor May, Trevor Hildenberger and Blake Parker have yet to allow a home run this season, through Sunday.
Home runs are up so much in the first month of the season, it’s led some humans to speculate that the baseball is once again “juiced.”
Here’s a glance at the league-wide trend through April 27 each of the past 4 years:
|Year||MLB Home runs||Plate appearances||HR / PA|
Source: FanGraphs.com (totals through April 27)
The total home run count will be topped this year, I’m guessing. Some are speculating that the single season home run record is in danger. (Note: Do you think MLB would like to take that belt from Barry Bonds and hand it over to a new heavyweight champion of the world?)
Bringing in Cruz at Cron at moderate price tags, and even Jonathan Schoop, relative to his peers at the position, looks a little bit like a bet on power over OBP.
Now, roster decisions are not made in a vacuum, and the goal of the Twins front office, I’ve been told, is more ambitious than to win the single-season home run crown. Still, it’s fascinating to me that the Twins have morphed their roster in this way at a time the baseballs seems to be flying like never before.
Manager Rocco Baldelli said it doesn’t change how they build a roster or manage an individual game.
“Not directly, I don’t think [it changes anything],” Baldelli said. “We’re just trying to put the best lineup out there today to win the game – looking small-picture at today, and looking big-picture – that’s how we’ll assemble our roster. We look at it a week out and try to figure out how it all fits together. But I don’t think the home runs that either we’re hitting or that are being hit throughout the league really change any of that.”