FORT MYERS, FLA. – When Joe Mauer visits Target Field this season, he will be in a suite, not the lineup. And he will be watching the Twins play a style of ball he might not recognize.
Just ask any Timberwolves or Vikings fan what that’s like.
“There are more three-pointers in basketball, and there’s more passing in football,” Twins General Manager Thad Levine said. “Across all sports, we’ve all concurrently learned that there are faster ways to score, and everyone is trying to push the envelope to increase those. Baseball is no different — we’re in an era right now of [pursuing] home runs.”
Yes, the revolution has already begun. The Twins are taking up arms this year.
Over the past decade, homers have rapidly become more common, reaching levels reminiscent of the so-called steroids era, and strikeouts have skyrocketed with them. For the first time, there were more strikeouts than hits across the majors last season, yet scoring has not declined. The Twins have noticed — and adapted.
Mauer, whose career .388 on-base percentage is the third-highest in Twins history, retired last fall, and the Twins chose not to offer a contract to Robbie Grossman, whose .371 OBP the past three seasons led the team. Third-best over that span was Brian Dozier, traded at the deadline last July.
In their place, the Twins added C.J. Cron to man first base, Jonathan Schoop to handle second and Nelson Cruz to serve as designated hitter. All have socked 30 or more home runs in a season, levels that Mauer and Grossman never reached. On the other hand, only Cruz has ever posted an on-base percentage higher in one season than Mauer or Grossman’s worst year.
“There are different ways to score runs. Power hitting, putting guys on base — teams have been successful with a lot of strategies,” said Derek Falvey, the Twins chief baseball officer. “Our makeover, it wasn’t deliberate, necessarily, in terms of trying to play a different style. It just ended up working that the players we identified as being good fits have more of a power profile than on-base.”
The difference might be obvious from Opening Day, or perhaps it will sneak up on fans. But the Twins believe their new lineup will produce far more home runs in 2019 than the 166 they hit in 2018. It’s even possible they could challenge the franchise record of 225, a number they haven’t reached since 1963.
“On paper, you can’t deny that we’ve added quite a bit of power, and that’s the goal, absolutely,” hitting coach James Rowson said. “But I’d hate to anticipate anything in this game. And we don’t want to become a home-run-or-nothing lineup. We believe the guys we’ve added will battle every at-bat, and that’s the most important thing — to take good at-bats. That gives us a chance.”
The Twins didn’t go into the offseason looking to load up on righthanded power, Falvey said, even though their 62 home runs by righthanders in 2018 were the second-fewest in the AL. But when Mauer retired, they jumped at the chance to claim Cron (and his 30 homers last year) when the Rays put him on waivers. Then the Brewers didn’t offer Schoop a contract for 2019, the Twins saw him as a good bounce-back possibility, and suddenly they had another slugger — 32 homers as an All-Star in 2017, but a grim .294 career on-base percentage — in their infield.
“We were looking for good baseball players. We didn’t necessarily come to some conclusion that our field played specifically to some certain skill set or that our offense needed some specific infusion,” Levine said. “I know that there looks to be a common thread between the players we acquired.”
The addition of Cruz only added to that perception, and the sudden stockpile of righthanded sluggers, but the veteran comes with a talent for reaching base that suddenly stands out among his teammates. Cruz has belted at least 37 homers in each of the past five seasons, but it doesn’t come with an all-or-nothing edge: He’s walked at least 55 times each year, and his on-base percentage has ranged from .333 to .375 in that span.
“Even if he didn’t have a lot of power,” Falvey said, “he’d still fit really well because of how well he works the count and how often he gets on base.”
The Twins believe the addition of Marwin Gonzalez last week will shore up their on-base numbers, too; his OBP was at .377 two years ago, though only .324 last season.
“There was a realization that when you looked at our nine-man starting lineup, we did not have as much of the patient approach as we would want in a balanced lineup,” Levine said. “So that added quality was certainly was something we valued in the acquisition.”
But the most important number is the simplest of statistics: wins. Will adding power to the lineup, at the potential cost of baserunners, help the Twins in the standings?
“We think so,” Falvey said. “We’ve tried to add good hitters to the lineup, and we expect some to develop even further.”