FORT MYERS, Fla. – On a team that hit more baseballs into the seats than any other in baseball history, it’s easy to get overlooked.
Case in point: Which Twins outfielder had the highest average exit velocity last season? Which outfielder was among the top 50 in all of MLB in percentage of swings that hit the barrel of his bat? Which outfielder’s contact produced “hard-hit” balls — as defined by MLB’s Statcast — 52.3% of the time, higher than any Twin but Miguel Sano and Nelson Cruz?
“I know the numbers were good, but that’s not enough,” said Jake Cave, whose sledgehammer style has produced some of the longest home runs on a team now known for them. “We’ve got a lot of guys who can drive the ball. My approach this spring is, if I can find ways to get on base more often, that makes me a more valuable commodity.”
Yes, Cave already is trying to live in a post-power world. And for good reason, too: Even with his ability to hit the ball hard, even with a 26th roster spot available to each team this year, he is not certain he will be employed at Target Field this summer.
“I know I’m fighting for a job. I know there are a lot of talented hitters in here,” Cave said last week. “That’s why I’m using the spring to work on pitch recognition and strike-zone discipline, things that I feel like will help me and help the team.”
The way Cave figures it, even if the makeup of the baseballs are unchanged from a year ago, the Twins are unlikely to match their 2019 total of 307 home runs.
“I mean, that’s the most ever. I don’t know of a single person on our team that did anything that would surprise you last year, but even so, how can you expect to break a record every year?” Cave said. “We’ll still hit a ton of homers, but the more guys who are on base when we do, that’s how you keep the runs coming.”
The Twins’ 2019 on-base percentage was actually relatively good — .338, fourth best in the AL, though they have exceeded that mark five times this century. And Cave himself compiled a .351 mark, fifth on the team behind Luis Arraez, Cruz, Mitch Garver and Jorge Polanco. His 21 walks trailed only Max Kepler among outfielders, even though he played only 72 games.
But … “I know I can get better. I know seeing more pitches would help me get into better counts, help me get my pitch more often,” Cave said.
The 27-year-old has taken extra hitting sessions in the indoor batting cage, cranking up the machine’s velocity while also programming it to throw occasional pitches outside the strike zone. It’s not the same as live pitching, he said, but he believes he is training himself to swing at fewer bad pitches.
One other change he would like to make: driving the ball in the air more, a side effect of swinging at better pitches. When he put the ball in play, 53.1% of the time it was hit on the ground, by far the highest percentage on the team. Because he hits the ball so hard, he still had a .358 average on balls in play, highest on the team, but it’s a difficult figure to sustain.
By drawing more walks last year, however, “my power numbers went up, I hit the ball hard, and I was getting on base more. Mixing in more walks, it makes the 0-fer games less critical, because I’m still doing something to help.”
Learning to take more pitches isn’t easy, though, because Cave, like a lot of hitters in recent years, was taught to be aggressive, to swing at anything in the strike zone. Cave swung at 31.7% of pitches out of the strike zone last year, roughly in the middle of Twins hitters, but a number he would like to bring down. Then again, he hit only .184 after taking a first-pitch strike, so it’s difficult to muffle the instinct to swing.
“That’s what spring is for. I don’t have to swing at the first pitch. I’m trying to take more pitches. It’s a balance,” Cave said. “There are times when the first pitch might be the only mistake you see, and if that’s the case, you have to grind. Why do I need to be hacking at the first pitch? If I get to see five or six pitches, that’s helping me later in the game, that’s helping the team.”