Homer hankering: MLB has a thirst for free swingers, and the Twins are getting on board | Star Tribune

Homer hankering

MLB has a thirst for free swingers, and the Twins are getting on board

From left, Nelson Cruz, C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop are all Twins newcomers who can hit the ball over the fence ... and strike out ... and draw a wa
From left, Nelson Cruz, C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop are all Twins newcomers who can hit the ball over the fence ... and strike out ... and draw a walk.

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Some weeknight Twins games will begin at 6:40 p.m. this season. But the real show might start closer to 4.

Not since Jim Thome put dents in the bleachers at brand-new Target Field nearly a decade ago has batting practice been appointment viewing in downtown Minneapolis. Nelson Cruz might make arriving early worthwhile once more, though.

“It’s like fireworks in the daytime,” marveled Phil Roof, a Twins teammate of Harmon Killebrew’s who still throws batting practice in the spring.

“Batting practice has been fun to watch. He’s got the most natural power swing you’re ever going to see,” Twins hitting coach James Rowson admired of the new Twins slugger, whose 203 home runs over the past five seasons lead all of baseball. “It’s like golf. You watch most golfers swing as hard as they can. Then a pro takes a swing — it looks like he’s swinging half as hard, and the ball travels twice as far.”

There’s no doubt that Cruz’s smooth swing is lethal to fastballs over the plate. In 2016, he belted a ball 493 feet into the third deck, the longest recorded home run by a visitor in Target Field history. That’s the stratosphere that the Twins hope Cruz reaches with regularity in 2019. In fact, they’re counting on it.

The revamped Twins lineup, with Cruz as its centerpiece and its archetype, will rely on long-distance connections more than ever before, with all the side effects that strategy entails. So as Opening Day nears, it may be helpful to commit these numbers to memory: 225 and 1,430. The first is the most home runs a Twins team has hit in a season, a record that has stood for 55 years. The second is the most times they have struck out, a mark just set in 2013.

The 2019 Twins appear designed to challenge that first number, with Cruz as a latter-day Killebrew. They may well surpass that second number, too, as an acceptable price to pay for all those home run trots. The Twins have, with startling speed, morphed into a three true outcomes team, in which home runs, strikeouts and walks flourish, and balls are put in play with less frequency.

“The goal is to score runs and win games, and it doesn’t matter how you get there,” said Derek Falvey, the Twins chief baseball officer. “For the players we brought in, as well as the potential for growth from the players already here, home runs are obviously going to be an efficient way to do both. We may not have explicitly set out to [build] toward that [strategy] at the beginning of the offseason, but we’re excited about its potential.”

Homer and win

The Twins have ranked in the bottom half of home run-hitting teams in the American League for 14 straight seasons, so the strategy might feel a little foreign to their fans. But it’s an effective way to win games. In the past 10 seasons, Minnesota has won 534 games in which it has hit at least one home run, and lost 442. That’s a winning percentage of .547, compared to .336 (217-428) when it failed to hit one out.

Last year alone, same story. Though the Twins hit just 166 homers, ahead of only the Royals, Rays and Tigers, they went 58-45 (.563) when they connected at least once, and 20-39 (. 339) when they didn’t. That’s why their performance this spring — 46 home runs, or twice their 2018 total of 23 — with a lineup full of new power hitters like Cron, Jonathan Schoop and Cruz is so encouraging. Yep, they are 1-6-1 in Grapefruit League games when they fail to homer — and 13-7-1 when they connect.

“We knew we were going to have power, and we knew we’d have some swing-and-miss, certainly, so I don’t think [the spring] changes my perception of what we have going into the season,” Falvey said. “I feel pretty good about the collective power of the position player group, for sure.”

That’s because of the 14 position players who likely will form the Twins’ Opening Day roster, plus the injured Miguel Sano, only utility infielder Ehire Adrianza, rookie Willians Astudillo and second-year catcher Mitch Garver have not had a double-digit home run season in the past two years. Seven of the Twins have hit 20 or more in a season.

What about walks?

As the Twins morph into a three true outcome team their on-base numbers might sag, especially with the retirement of Joe Mauer, who led the Twins in walks eight times during his 15-year career and has the second most, after Killebrew, in franchise history. But Cruz brings the plate discipline of a veteran, with at least 55 walks in each of his past five seasons, and newcomer Marwin Gonzalez walked 55 times last year.

“You can’t replace a guy like Joe Mauer, with his two-strike confidence. The mindset we want is, walks are a byproduct to not getting a good pitch to hit. The more damage you do with the pitches over the plate, the more guys don’t want to throw you those pitches,” Rowson said. “Walks need to be a byproduct, not a goal.”

No, the goal is to win games. After failing to do so often enough with a balanced approach, the Twins are trying a new way.

“One through nine, we have guys that can hit homers,” said Cruz, who has been a part of seven different teams that have hit more than 200 home runs in a season; the Twins have had only four such seasons in their 58-year history. “My teams in Texas, Baltimore — there are more young guys here, but it’s definitely very similar.”

Tracking upward

Cron, Schoop and Cruz have all had 30-homer seasons in the past two years, so adding them to the roster has definitely juiced Minnesota’s power output. But Falvey believes that some players who were already on the roster, none of whom has ever reached 30, might be close to doing so.

Eddie Rosario, for instance, who led the Twins with 24 homers last year, and Max Kepler, who reached 20 for the first time in 2018, “are still tracking upward,” Falvey said. “We believe they aren’t yet the players they will be.” And Miguel Sano hit 28 homers in 2017 despite playing only 114 games. Put him in the lineup for a full season — not this one, however, given a heel injury that will keep him sidelined another month — and “I don’t think we know what sort of [production] he’s capable of.”

But there’s another side of that production, too. In addition to looking like the most accomplished collection of power hitters that the Twins have ever assembled, the new lineup may strike out at a relentless pace. The trio of sluggers signed to beef up the power numbers combined for 88 home runs last season — and 382 whiffs.

“It’s a balance you have to strike. There are always going to be strikeouts, because the pitchers are really good, too,” Rowson said. “But we’re working on having a good two-strike approach. Some guys have trouble hitting later in the count, so we’re trying to help them become comfortable, lose some of that anxiety.”