Mitch Garver is a fan of “Breaking Bad,” which is fitting. Garver is a talented guy with a scientific bent who lives in Albuquerque and is devising a formula that has made him a big name.
Garver’s parents used to go to the Dog House, the drive-in hot dog stand featured in “Breaking Bad.” He still bikes past Jesse Pinkman’s house and other Albuquerque sites featured in the television show.
“My parents used to go on dates to the Dog House in college,” Garver said.
“Breaking Bad” protagonist Walter White created a pure form of meth. Garver used science in a more endearing way in 2019, transforming himself from a pretty good prospect with pretty good power into the best-hitting catcher in the American League.
Science has given baseball the “launch angle,” a methodology for optimal trajectory for hitting home runs. Garver blended science, baseball analytics and common sense in devising the approach that produced a Babe Ruth-like 31 home runs in 311 at-bats last year.
“You look at the numbers, on home runs hit over the last 10 seasons,” he said. “I’d say 70 percent of them are to the pull side, 15 or 20 percent are to dead center, and then a small percentage are to the opposite field. I built my swing to hit pull-side loft.
“Not a lot of guys are as big and strong as Nelson Cruz or David Ortiz or Khris Davis. Those guys are physically far more advanced than a lot of us to be able to hit the ball out of the park to the opposite field consistently. So I came in last year and I knew I wanted to do pull-side damage, and I wanted to look for pitches that I could hit in the air to left field.”
Garver never hit more than 17 home runs in a minor league season. Before 2019, he had produced seven homers in 346 big-league at-bats. Did he expect so much success in 2019?
“Yeah, yeah, of course,” he said. “I’ve seen the same things work with other players. Alex Bregman was one of them. Yes, he played in [Houston’s] Minute Maid Park, but he designed his swing to play there. Mookie Betts designed his swing to play in Fenway. There are a lot of players who have had success building a swing a certain way and looking for certain pitches in certain counts.”
From 2018 to 2019, Garver increased his percentage of pulled balls put into play from 34.5 to 47.8 and his launch angle from 12.7 to 15.3 (according to baseballsavant.mlb.com).
Somewhere there is probably a formula for players facing outsized expectations for the first time. A year after becoming one of baseball’s most pleasant surprises, he’ll be the starting catcher for a team that set an MLB record for home runs and won 101 games last year.
He’s not really a sophomore, and a return to a more normal level of production would not necessarily be a slump, but someone asked Twins manager Rocco Baldelli about the possibility of a sophomore slump anyway.
“The question makes a lot of sense,” Baldelli said. “I also think that with the quality of at-bats that Mitch has, his ability to see the ball well and make good decisions as far as which pitches he’s really attacking — I think he’s a tough at-bat.
“Obviously, he had a ton of success last year against — he had pretty unbelievable success against lefthanded pitching, but also really good at-bats against righthanded pitching as well. I don’t know if, looking at him, that there’s really big areas or holes where people are going to be looking to attack.
“He covers a lot of these different parts of the zone and again, because he’s pretty selective as far as what he’s doing up there, I think he’s a nightmare in a lot of ways for guys on the mound.”
Baldelli has so much confidence in Garver that he will insist on not playing him. Baldelli believes, and can prove, that his players perform better with rest.
Garver, who will share time with Alex Avila, agrees.
“Sixty games, 160 games, 200 games, it’s going to be the same recipe,” Garver said. “I don’t think you can just say that because it’s a 60-game season that I should play five days in a row and take one day off and play five more. I don’t think that’s fair to myself or Alex. Alex is a great catcher and he’s going to help our team in a lot of ways.
“I don’t see us being in a starter and backup role. I see it as two starters. The way he controls the staff is pretty impressive. I like seeing him behind the plate. And we can both contribute in a lot of ways.”
In 2019, the Twins developed the kind of hitter-to-hitter rapport that led to days of rest becoming more like days of tutelage. There is always a good hitter on the bench who wants to study the game and talk hitting. Josh Donaldson, the Twins’ new third baseman, has noticed.
“Mitch enjoys talking about hitting just as much as I do, and obviously I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find as much information as I can, and have experimented with a lot of different things over the course of my career, and I have some insights into some areas,” Donaldson said. “A lot of times I just want to see what he’s thinking as well. And if there is something that I can maybe clarify here and there, maybe give him a different perspective …
“We had a really nice conversation the other day [and] I think he’s hit two or three homers. It seems to be something, so far, that he’s benefited from.”
Strangely, Garver and Donaldson have been teammates for six months and yet haven’t played in a big-league game together. Throughout the emotional upheaval of the pandemic, while trying to motivate himself through workouts and work stoppages, Garver adopted a simple motto:
“Let’s win it,” he said. “We’re here already, aren’t we? We’ve gone through all of this to get to where we are now. Let’s take 2½ months and win the World Series and come back and have a regular year next year.”