Before the first pitch of their home opener, the Twins hit all of the right notes, honoring former members of the organization and big-league luminaries who had passed, saluting front-line workers and paying homage to George Floyd and Black Lives Matter.
The Twins made only two mistakes. They had two military planes conduct a flyover … of an empty ballpark.
And they didn’t bat Luis Arraez leadoff.
The modern Twins brain trust is not easy to second-guess. The front office has built an elaborate and well-staffed analytics department. The manager, Rocco Baldelli, won 101 games in his rookie season and was named American League Manager of the Year.
After the Twins beat the Cardinals 6-3 on Tuesday night, Baldelli’s record as a big-league manager is 104-62.
When devising a lineup, Baldelli considers player comfort, analytics, deep analytics, deeper analytics and at least three Ouija boards. So I’m not saying Baldelli is wrong to bat Arraez seventh in the lineup — just that even supercomputers need tuneups once in a while.
I’d bat Arraez leadoff every game, for the rest of his Twins career.
Tuesday, in the smallest of sample sizes, Arraez offered a demonstration of his unique leadoff skills, including savvy, attitude, combativeness and bat control.
He led off the bottom of the second. The Twins had threatened but not scored in the first. Cardinals starter Carlos Martinez started Arraez with a fastball for a strike.
Seven pitches later, Arraez, having worked the count full, blooped a single to right. He scored on Byron Buxton’s grounder to third, sliding headfirst across the plate to beat a throw home from shortstop Paul DeJong.
That’s what a leadoff hitter should do, even in the age of home-run records and bouncy baseballs.
Baldelli has favored Max Kepler and Mitch Garver as his leadoff hitter, and both have produced. That’s why lineup debates aren’t all that consequential. If the manager gets his best hitters the most at-bats, he’s doing his job. And last year Kepler and Garver were the two Twins who greatly exceeded power expectations.
Player comfort matters, and Kepler hit a career-best 36 homers last year while looking quite comfortable in the leadoff spot.
But even in the launch-angle era, there remains value in a leadoff hitter who wears down pitchers and gets on base. Last year, Arraez had the best on-base percentage of any Twins regular, at .399. Kepler’s was .336. Garver’s was .365.
And if your lineup is stacked with power hitters, why not let your best on-base performer get on base before the homers fly?
“It’s definitely something that we’ve talked about,” Baldelli said. “We spend a lot of time discussing our lineup, and we do it as a group sometimes, we get everyone together.
‘‘There are a lot of people who would be in favor of seeing him at the top and watching him do his thing.
“The guy has tremendous at-bats. Luis does everything right in the batter’s box, and he has since the first day he got here. That being said, Max Kepler also is a fantastic option to bat leadoff.”
The only consensus necessities in the lineup are having Nelson Cruz and Josh Donaldson bat somewhere in the first four slots.
My favored lineup, when facing a righthanded pitcher, would be: Arraez (lefthanded hitter), Donaldson (righthanded), Polanco (switch hitter), Cruz (RH), Kepler (LH), Garver (RH), Sano (RH), Rosario (LH) and Buxton (RH.)
Of course, with Kepler and Garver batting leadoff last year the Twins set a big-league record for home runs, and there is some comfort in the ability to take a 1-0 lead after one batter.
“It’s refreshing to see,” Donaldson said. “I’ve been on some teams that have strictly relied on the home-run ball. This team has the ability to do that. We also have the ability to create some runs without just the home-run ball.”
Even if the deepest analytics disagree, Arraez should bat leadoff for the sake of aesthetics. No Twin stages a drama in the batter’s box quite the way Arraez does, with attitude and style.