Twins hitters claim they haven’t been counting as they roll toward Major League Baseball’s single-season home run record, one bomba after another.
But the bullpen pitchers have been keeping track … sort of.
In tackling the daily tedium of sitting hundreds of feet from home base watching a game, the relievers partake in a home run competition of sorts.
The rules are simple. A pitcher tosses his hat into the ring if he is betting the Twins batter at the plate will smack a home run. The wager only lasts for one at-bat, and the only way you get another shot is if the player hits a homer. Once you’re in, you can’t back out. If you lose, pay up, or face a well-timed callout from a collector in the middle of the clubhouse.
“For me, it helps me get enough focus, I know what’s going on in the game,” Tyler Duffey said. “I’m not just sitting there staring at home plate. You can drive yourself nuts doing that. It’s light, it’s fun, it gets some excitement.”
Duffey said he wouldn’t reveal his secrets as for who he picks and why, though he did provide a glimpse into the thought process behind parting with your one-bet-a-game gamble. Some guys wander over to assistant pitching coach Jeremy Hefner or advance scout Frankie Padulo for some matchup data or specific splits. Others go off a hunch or a whim.
It’s not always about winning either, according to Trevor May. Occasionally, there’s a toss-in for good karma, the “sacrifice” bet. The aim is to aid guys mired in a slump at the plate an extra boost.
With the Twins boasting a huge lead against the Orioles in an April game, some pitchers promised they wouldn’t throw in the hat until a position player came out to pitch. Sure enough, infielder Chris Davis headed to the mound that day — eventually yielding a homer to Jonathan Schoop.
Those early Baltimore series were a treasure trove for the bullpen. Guys were homering left and right, the unlucky losers having to dish out a decent amount of money.
May’s shining moment came in C.J. Cron’s two-homer game May 18. He guessed correctly not once but twice, tossing his hat on both Cron dingers. Hitters don’t get wrapped up too much in the bullpen’s antics, but Cron earned himself a surprising hug from May, though Cron himself was merely enjoying a career day.
“We know our hitters pretty well,” May said. “We know what kind of guys they usually feast on. Lefties have been pretty good for us this year. Some guys are really good in the big spot, that’s when they hit homers. Some guys are real good with them on base.
“There’s really not that much strategy, though,” May added with a laugh.
The game was the closest the bullpen arms get to the hitting side of the bomba-blasting Twins. The pitchers get to bat during interleague play on the road, so they will be hitting in Miami this week, but even then relievers rarely get an opportunity to hit. So they get in on the big-fly fun in their own, bullpen-like way.
“If there’s an intentional walk or if a guy bunts or whatever, you don’t get it back,” Duffey said. “So if you call a guy and he gets hit by the first pitch, it’s tough luck.”
Sometimes, the act of betting can elicit competition immediately. If a certain batter feels lucky and two pitchers want to risk some money on him, the one whose hat hits the ground first earns the right to bet.
Money changes hands, but Duffey added it mostly evens out, with the game mainly for bragging rights. It also keeps relievers engaged. During a blowout or when a starter goes deep in the game, it’s difficult to stay focused. The side bet action doesn’t hurt.
“For a while there, [Taylor] Rogers hit quite a few,” Duffey said. “[Ryne] Harper’s hit a few as of late. I did OK for a little while. That’s the thing, it all comes down to even.”
They have lots of betting to ponder. The Twins are on pace to shatter the single-season record of 267 home runs, set by the Yankees last year.
“Baseball’s a weird sport where there’s always stats coming out that you don’t even know about, don’t even know exist,” Cron said. “It’s always cool to be part of something special and hopefully we can make this season special for us.”