- While the Twins' pitchers aren't swinging for the fences, they're betting on which of their hitters will.
Last month the Twins became the third team in history to hit 49 home runs in April, the second team in history to hit eight home runs in a game and the first team in history to begin booing its own success.
It was the second game of a doubleheader in Baltimore, and Minnesota was up, 15–7, when second baseman Jonathan Schoop strode to the plate. On the mound, Orioles first baseman Chris Davis assumed pitching duties. In the bullpen, Twins co-closer Taylor Rogers whipped off his hat and flung it on the ground: He was betting Schoop would go yard against Davis.
Schoop did. Rogers rejoiced. His teammates jeered. Two weeks later, this moment remains the main source of contention in the otherwise upbeat clubhouse of the AL Central leaders. These are the perils of power.
Rogers scoffs and says, “I told everybody in the fifth that I was gonna wait for a position player, so they were aware of it, and there were no objections at the time, until it happened. Then there were objections.”
“I’m gladly willing to pay for clutch home runs,” says seventh-inning guy Trevor Hildenberger. “If we’re down a run and [first baseman C.J. Cron] hits a two-run homer and someone calls it, I have no problem paying that. But Rogers on a position player …”
Rogers, the record keeper, points out that Hildenberger has called exactly zero home runs this season. Since the Twins wager $100 on each shot—no penalty for whiffing except that you’re done for that game—and have been right approximately a dozen times, that means he’s almost ready to start valeting his teammates’ cars for extra cash. (And the contest does require cash. No checks, no Venmo. “Uncle Sam’s not involved here!” Rogers reminds players.) Hildenberger is completely out of ideas at this point. At first he tried to play the percentages. Then he went with gut instinct. Now he has resorted to polling hitters when they enter the clubhouse to see who feels good. He swears he will go into debt before he cheats with a position player on the mound.
The Twins have hit so many home runs—64 entering Thursday, good for fourth in baseball and on pace for a record-shattering 296—that the relievers have begun discussing lowering the buy-in. Mid-inning man Adalberto Mejía, fed up with losing money, withdrew from the contest last month. Assistant pitching coach Jeremy Hefner, who spends games in the bullpen, has called three shots and begun sparking rumors of cheating.
“Hef, we feel, has inside information,” says Rogers. “He can talk to the hitting coach and know who’s our good matchup here.” (Hefner and hitting coach James Rowson vehemently deny the allegations.)
Regardless, the current setup isn’t working, admits eighth-inning man Trevor May, who has two successful called shots. “We didn’t anticipate this many!” he says.
His bosses had an idea this was coming. As seemingly everyone in baseball acquired the ability to hit 30 home runs, power has become cheaper. So this offseason, for a total of $26.6 million, the Minnesota front office signed Schoop (78 bombs over the past three years), Cron (30 last season) and DH Nelson Cruz (203 over the past five years, the most in baseball).
But even now, with one franchise-record month behind it and another apparently in progress, Rowson is hesitant to refer to his squad as power hitters.
“It’s having good hitters,” he says. “We’ve got an aggressive group, but they’re aggressive to the zone.”
Schoop has hit five home runs, Cron six, Cruz seven. This is roughly what they were supposed to do. The bigger surprise has come from players such as leftfielder Eddie Rosario (12, almost halfway to his career high of 27), catcher Mitch Garver (seven, already tied with his career high) and rightfielder Max Kepler (seven, a third of the way to his career high of 20). These unproven players credit the influence of the veterans.
The surprise playoff Twins of 2017 launched 206 home runs, 16th in baseball, but still squeaked into October. Last year’s group left the park only 166 times, ranking 23rd in the majors. That core remains. But now the kids watch the way Cruz commits to his pregame routine, or the way Schoop approaches an at-bat aggressively, and they try to mimic what they see, they say.
Rowson believes there’s more to it than that. “There’s no greater tool than experience,” he says. “I think one thing that goes unmentioned sometimes is in the minor leagues, a lot of your best hitters move rather quickly, and they’re not seeing [the same pitchers]. It’s quick shots and then they’re in the big leagues. The second time and the third time and the fourth time you see a pitcher, you start to put pitchers in a box—this guy’s a lot like this guy—so I think there’s something to getting comfortable facing the same pitcher multiple times.”
Here seems as good a place as any to mention that the ball is almost certainly juiced. Hitters are more willing than ever to sell out for power with strikeouts reaching unprecedented rates. Not to mention Minnesota played seven of its 27 April games against the historically moribund Orioles (who are on pace to allow a record number of home runs).
But Rowson points out something else: It averaged 46 degrees in Minneapolis last month. These Twins will likely only get better. So as the home run total continues to soar, spare a thought for poor Hildenberger, who sits in the bullpen, baseballs and caps raining down on him, and boos his teammates.