Twins President Derek Falvey, in discussing his search for a new hitting coach late last month, cited the San Francisco Giants' forward-thinking approach to coaching as a potential model. And why not? The Giants, next-to-last in runs scored in 2019 but second in the NL in 2021, won more games this season than in any of their previous 138 years of existence.
One of the Giants' boldest and most notable moves in their turnaround was raiding the Dodgers' farm system for a young, little-known but cutting-edge hitting coach, Justin Viele from the Great Lakes Loons.
On Thursday, according to major-league sources, the Twins settled on their new hitting coach, too: David Popkins, a 31-year-old swing mechanic who spent last season as the hitting coach of … the Dodgers' Great Lakes Loons.
"They're a lot alike," said Austin Chubb, manager of the Class high-A Dodgers farm team. "They're amazing game-planners, and they really connect with players. Going from high-A to the big leagues might seem like a big jump, but it'll be an easy transition because of what a great coach [Popkins] is."
The San Diego native will replace Edgar Varela, who was reassigned to a more familiar minor-league instructor role, on Rocco Baldelli's staff in 2022, joining holdover Rudy Hernandez. Together, they will try to turn around a Twins offense that has steadily declined since hitting a major-league record 307 home runs and batting .270 in 2019. This season they hit .241 with 228 homers, their run production falling to 729 from the 939 they scored two years ago.
And they'll do it, Falvey asserted when discussing the opening, with an eye toward quantifiable adjustments and metrics, similar to the data-driven approach that Wes Johnson takes with the pitching staff.
They got the right guy for that, Chubb said. "I learned a ton from [Popkins]. Mechanically, metrically, understanding the swing, he was ahead of the game and he really gets where it's headed," Chubb said. "We'd be on the bus, and I'd see him reading a book about how the body works and how to [coordinate] movement. And I saw his ability to teach kind of a hybrid swing that can cover different areas, different swing planes, different pitches."
The Loons hit more home runs under Popkins' watch than all but two of the 90 Class A and AA teams this year, the sort of results the Twins are looking for.
Popkins, drafted out of Cal-Davis by the Cardinals in 2012, played three seasons in the St. Louis system, but never rose higher than Class AA, and three more seasons in independent ball before being hired by the Dodgers in 2018. His youth and personality helped him have an impact right away, Chubb said.
"He's able to show empathy. To be able to get down on the same level as a guy who's struggling means a lot," Chubb said. "He did an especially good job of connecting with our Latin players as well. I was impressed with his ability to connect. He's just a really bright guy and a special, dynamic personality."