Last season the Twins scored 815 runs, the fifth-highest run total since the team moved to Minnesota in 1961. They finished fourth or tied for fourth in the American League in runs, batting average (.260) and on-base percentage (.334) while starting five position players under the age of 25.
One man who was given a lot of credit for that success was James Rowson, who signed on as hitting coach last season to replace Tom Brunansky.
When Rowson joined the Twins, he said he immediately saw just how athletic the young hitters were.
“It was great last year,” the former Yankees minor league hitter coordinator said. “First of all, we had a great, young athletic group. Probably the most athletic group of players I have ever been around, and I have been around the minor leagues with players for awhile. It was exciting to come in with [Byron] Buxton, [Eddie] Rosario, [Jorge] Polanco, [Max] Kepler, all these guys are young, very athletic and they just need more at-bats.
“The more experience they get, the better they get. I think last year was a chance to give them a chance to fail, give them a chance to go out there and be themselves, and not worry about what they do wrong but try to stay positive with them and let them do what they do right.”
Rowson’s approach really paid off for the young Twins down the stretch.
Looking at the first 103 games of the season, from April 1 to July 30, the Twins hit .251 with a .328 on-base percentage and averaged 4.6 runs per game while posting a 50-53 record. But in the home stretch from Aug. 1 to Oct. 1, the team hit .275 with a .344 on-base percentage while posting 5.9 runs per game. They finished the year going 35-24 to clinch a wild-card playoff spot.
The player who might have had the most pressure on him was Buxton, the consensus best prospect in baseball from 2014 to 2016, who really struggled again at the start of the season.
Buxton was hitting only .195 over the first 78 games of his year with just 14 RBI, 22 runs scored and four home runs.
Rowson said he and Buxton broke down small parts of the center fielder’s swing and over the final 62 games of the year, Buxton hit .314 with 12 homers, 37 RBI and 47 runs scored.
“I would say we talked about Byron — and his leg kick, that was the thing going around and it was never about the leg kick in our discussions. What we talked about is, I always say you can’t fire a cannon from a canoe. So the thought is you’re so powerful, his swing is so powerful, if you’re not strong in your lower half, you’re not going to be able to execute that swing consistently all the time.
“What we talked about with him was just getting to a point where he was stronger on his legs, and he could feel his legs and feel like he was grounded when he was going to take a swing. When he started to feel that by eliminating the leg kick a little bit at first, that gave him the feeling that he needed. But from that point on it was about him. Once he got that feeling, I told him, ‘Go out there and be an athlete and do the best you can.’ ”
Kepler vs. lefties
If there is one player who will be looking for a similar adjustment this season it’s Kepler, the 25-year-old right fielder.
Kepler hit .272 with a .343 on-base percentage, with 17 home runs, 57 RBI and 29 doubles against righthanded pitchers. But against lefties, Kepler hit only .152 with 19 hits in 125 at-bats, with two homers, 12 RBI and three doubles.
“If you watch him historically, he has hit lefthanded pitching well,” Rowson said. “I thought there were times when he hit lefthanders hard and just didn’t get rewarded for it at times. That puts you in a hole and at times you start trying to do too much here and there. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s something we’ll continue to work on, but it’s not a huge thing for me. It’s something that if you put too much thought into it, the player will start to think about it too much.”
Learning from Mauer
Rowson might have had a lot of work with the young talent, but he said Joe Mauer’s season — in which he bounced back to hit .305 with a .384 OBP and had his most hits, 160, since 2012 — was special.
“I tell everybody all the time that I learned more from Joe Mauer than Joe Mauer learned from me last year,” Rowson said. “Joe is an incredible professional, probably one of the most professional guys I have ever been around. He studies his craft, he goes about his business the right way, and what young players had a chance to learn from Joe was his consistency.
“He doesn’t ride the waves. There are no ups and downs. He comes up and shows up and does the same routine every day. He understands if he does that over the course of the season, at the end, the numbers are going to play out. A bad week doesn’t have to turn into a bad month, and Joe has done a nice job on that.”
Yes, the Twins are looking for big things this year, and with Rowson helping the hitters, look for their output to continue to be among the best in baseball.
• John Anderson, in his 37th season as the Gophers baseball coach, became the 20th coach in NCAA Division I baseball history to reach 1,250 career victories Monday in the Gophers’ 3-1 victory over North Dakota State at U.S. Bank Stadium.
• The Twins have been playing prospect Nick Gordon at second base instead of shortstop during spring training. You have to wonder if they view him as an eventual replacement for Brian Dozier.
• Eric Musselman, the son of former Timberwolves coach Bill Musselman, just won his second consecutive Mountain West basketball championship with Nevada, which is ranked No. 21 in the country. In his three years at Nevada, Musselman has a 76-26 record and ESPN.com currently has them projected as a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament.
• Frank Ragnow, the Chanhassen offensive line standout who starred at Arkansas, is expected to be picked in the first or second round of the NFL draft. He said he would love to play for the Vikings. “I’m a Minnesota boy, and I take a lot of pride in that state,” Ragnow said. “I grew up cheering for them, so it would be a pretty surreal moment.”
• Of the top five in-state high school football prospects for the Class of 2019, the Gophers have commitments from two of them: Eden Prairie quarterback Cole Kramer (ranked No. 3) and Owatonna athlete Jason Williamson of Owatonna (No. 5). The other three — Edina tackle Quinn Carroll, Lakeville North tackle Bryce Benhart and Maple Grove running back Evan Hull — all have offers from the Gophers.
• Edina High School is getting close to completing the work that was funded by a $125 million tax referendum back in 2015. A number of the school’s athletic fields got big upgrades, a 70,000-square-foot multipurpose activity center was built and an additional 65,000 square feet was added to the high school.