NEW YORK – Max Kepler has hit home runs in each of his past three games. Jorge Polanco hit for the cycle Friday, part of a career-best five-hit game.
“It has been fun so far, and I think it is going to be fun the rest of the season, if that’s the way we are going to go,” Polanco said. “I know [Kepler’s] approach and I know sometimes the way he goes, then I know when to be ready right behind him. We’re good hitters, and I think we can help the lineup.”
They have so far. As the Twins bring a 5-3 record into their two-game road series against the Mets on Tuesday, Kepler and Polanco had provided an all-around offensive boost to the lineup.
Kepler is batting only .265, but his three home runs — including the first leadoff homer of his career Sunday — have led to a .529 slugging percentage. And his on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) percentage of .854 is 11th among major league leadoff hitters, fourth in the American League. He’s also tied with Nelson Cruz for the team lead with six RBI.
Polanco became the 11th Twin to hit for the cycle and has lifted his OPS to 1.116. Only the Angels’ Mike Trout and the Brewers’ Christian Yelich lead him among No. 2 hitters in that category.
One of first-year manager Rocco Baldelli’s most important tasks was to improve the offense in the post-Joe Mauer era. The Twins lost 15 years of batting savvy in the top third of the order when Mauer retired after last season.
Kepler was sort of a surprise pick to be the leadoff hitter, but it’s not like Baldelli had many options. The outfielder batted only .224 last season but did draw 71 walks and raised his batting average against lefthanders to .245 from .152 in 2017. He also hit 20 homers last season and has not altered his approach.
“The only thing that changes is to be ready earlier in the game and before the game starts,” Kepler said. “Once the game starts, it’s the same old ballgame to me.”
The Twins didn’t sign Kepler, 26, to a five-year, $35 million contract for him to change into a traditional leadoff hitter who will take pitches so his teammates can get a feel for what the opposing pitcher is throwing that day. Kepler will use his skills to define the position in his own way.
“We’re not trying to turn Max Kepler into Juan Pierre or anything like that,” Baldelli said. “That is not part of what we’re doing here. He’s going out and trying to hit the ball hard. He’s trying to hit the ball on the barrel. He’s going to swing at the good pitches that he deems worthy of him attacking the ball. ... From everything I’ve seen from Max from the beginning of camp until now, if he keeps doing what he’s doing, he’s going to fill that role very nicely.”
Polanco, a switch hitter who batted .288 last season with six home runs and 42 RBI last season after serving an 80-game suspension for a performance-enhancing drug violation, started 23 games in the No. 2 spot in the order and already had been identified as one of the better at-bat takers on the club.
The 25-year-old shortstop does not draw a lot of walks but is a good contact hitter who jumps on pitches over the plate. “A good strike hunter” is what hitting coach James Rowson calls Polanco. And the club believes in Polanco enough that it signed him to a five-year, $25.75 million contract during spring training.
“His mind-set is that he’s looking to attack the zone,” Rowson said. “It’s just a matter of whether or not he has the ability to lay off those balls that aren’t in the zone.”
The two are needed to continue their productive starts this week as the Twins enter Citi Field for two games against the Mets. They will face defending National League Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom on Tuesday and Noah Syndergaard on Wednesday. Both righthanders throw hard but pitch with moxie while keeping the ball in the park.
The Twins need to have a few more hitters get going at the plate, but they like the look Kepler and Polanco have given them at the top of the order.
“They are very good major league hitters and well-rounded major league hitters,” Baldelli said. “Guys that see the ball well. I consider them very talented in the box. They swing at strikes.
“[Polanco] has kind of shown this to everyone around the organization for a little while now. Truthfully, I think we’re still scratching the surface on Max. We could look up any year — this year, next year or the year after — and find one of the better players in all of baseball.”