MLB's Team of Unknowns Could Obliterate All-Time Home Run Record

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJune 18, 2019

Nelson Cruz is the Minnesota Twins' most famous slugger, but he isn't their best.
Nelson Cruz is the Minnesota Twins' most famous slugger, but he isn't their best.Associated Press

The team that was supposed to break Major League Baseball's single-season home run record in 2019 has big-name sluggers from top to bottom.

In other words, not the Minnesota Twins.

In addition to an outstanding 47-24 record, the Twins have racked up 137 home runs thus far in 2019. That leads MLB, and their average of 1.93 homers per game works out to a full-season pace of 313. That would be 46 more than the record-setting 267 that the New York Yankees hit last season.

The Twins aren't slowing down, either. In fact, their home runs per game are going up by the month:

  • March/April: 1.85
  • May: 1.93
  • June: 2.07

This is impressive stuff for an offense that has only one player in line for a starting gig in next month's All-Star Game. For that matter, Minnesota's offense has only four hitters who've previously been All-Stars. Veteran slugger Nelson Cruz is the only one who's been to the Midsummer Classic more than once.

Hence an obligatory question: How the heck is a team that has nary a Giancarlo Stanton nor an Aaron Judge doing this?

Eddie Rosario has done his part by hitting a team-high 19 home runs.
Eddie Rosario has done his part by hitting a team-high 19 home runs.Jim Mone/Associated Press

The Twins didn't exactly plant a seed for this season's home run outburst in 2018. They hit only 166 home runs last year, which ranked 12th in the American League

Still, Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler hit a respectable 44 homers combined last season. Looking ahead to 2019, the Twins could hope for more from Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco, Jason Castro and even Mitch Garver, who had been a power-hitting catcher in the minors as recently as 2017.

However, power was a big item on the Twins' winter shopping list, as evidenced by their signing of Cruz, Marwin Gonzalez, Jonathan Schoop and C.J. Cron as free agents. The four of them combined to hit 104 home runs in 2018, and they're living up to that standard with 49 homers thus far in 2019. 

But perhaps just as much as their new players, the Twins' new manager is also driving their assault on the single-season home run record.  

The Twins made a bold choice when they hired Rocco Baldelli in October 2018. He was their first manager from outside the organization since 1985, and he had previously never managed either in the minors or the majors. At 37 years old, he instantly became MLB's youngest manager.

Yet Baldelli has needed no time at all to find a groove as Minnesota's skipper. At least as far as his team's ongoing home run binge is concerned, his biggest influence is in not demanding too much from his guys.

As hitting coach James Rowson told ESPN's Marly Rivera:

"Rocco believes in the importance of being yourself, getting your rest, and coming to the field and doing what you need to get yourself ready to play the game. He has done a great job getting that through to the guys. For example, our batting practice is optional every day. We don't have mandatory batting practice. We leave the choice up to them. ... If guys aren't taking batting practice, they go down into the tunnels and get their work in. They find a routine that they feel like their body is well-rested."

Further, Twins general manager Thad Levine noted to Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post that Baldelli is keeping players fresh by "literally rotating 12 guys through the lineup."

That's hyperbolic, but Baldelli has used his depth while filling out 59 different lineups this season. The Twins haven't used a single lineup more than seven times.

Minnesota's rising home run rate isn't the only evidence that this approach is working. The Twins are the only team in MLB with 11 different players who've hit at least seven homers.

Rowson's own influence is not to be underestimated. Although he insisted to Jim Souhan of the Star Tribune that hitting home runs isn't the ultimate goal, he does preach an approach of "get good pitches and hit them hard."

That should be more difficult for Twins hitters to do than it is for Rowson to say. But in actuality, it hasn't been.

Max Kepler has 17 homers of his own.
Max Kepler has 17 homers of his own.Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Twins hitters do like to swing their bats, yet they're more selectively aggressive than free-swinging. They rank fifth in MLB in swing percentage against fastballs, and they're tied for third in swing percentage against all pitches in the "heart" of the strike zone.

These are otherwise known as good pitches to hit, and Twins have obliged. They boast the third-lowest strikeout rate in MLB. Plus, their .575 slugging percentage against fastballs and .750 slugging percentage against pitches in the heart of the zone are both MLB-best marks.

It's only fair to wonder in 2019 if these numbers are being inflated just as much by juiced balls or by a slugger-friendly home ballpark as they are by anything Twins hitters are doing.

But if anything, ESPN's park factors suggest Target Field has actually suppressed home runs. And while the ball is obviously juiced, Twins hitters have put plenty of their own juice into it.

Modern hitting is all about keeping the ball off the ground and putting a charge into it. The Twins excel at both, as they've posted both the majors' lowest ground-ball percentage and highest average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives.

Thus, the Twins don't just lead baseball in slugging percentage. They also lead MLB in expected slugging percentage:

What the Twins lack in star power, they're more than making up for with actual power. And if they can keep it up, Rosario, Kepler, Polanco, Buxton, Sano, Castro, Garver, Gonzalez, Schoop and Cron may steadily catch up to Cruz in notoriety.

If not, the 2019 Twins may be all too happy to settle for being known as the team that out-bombed the Bronx Bombers.

                      

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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