"Twins finally joining in on push for power," read a headline in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune on March 1.
It wasn't hyperbole, because the Twins have rarely been a notably powerful team. In the previous 20 seasons dating back to 1999, the Twins had hit the third-fewest homers of any club, even the NL teams that didn't have a designated hitter. They had the AL's third-worst slugging percentage. Even as recently as last season, the Twins were one of just six teams without a 25-homer hitter. That's bad for business -- the other five teams were a combined 150 games below .500.
So imagine our surprise when we pulled up the MLB.com stats leaderboards on Saturday and saw that the Twins -- after crushing five home runs against the Orioles on Friday -- had the highest slugging percentage in baseball, at .503, or slightly better than what Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins (.496) had last year. Imagine, further, when we looked at the Statcast Expected Slugging Percentage leaderboards -- which remove defense and ballpark from the equation, rather outputting an expected number based on exit velocity and launch angle -- the Twins bats were first again (.491 to the second-best Yankees' .456).
The Minnesota lineup has been so powerful, in fact, that if you look at the entire history of the franchise -- and we're including the Washington, D.C., days in here -- this is currently the second-best slugging month in more than a century of baseball.
Best slugging months, Twins (and Senators), 1908-present
.505 -- May 1986
.503 -- March/April 2019
.498 -- August 2017
.493 -- June 1994
.484 -- June 1933
(What was happening in May of 1986? A classic-era Twins quartet of Kirby Puckett, Gary Gaetti, Kent Hrbek, and Tom Brunansky combined for 31 home runs between just the four of them. On May 30, Roy Smalley became the first Twin to homer from both sides of the plate.)
They're 17% better than league average in slugging percentage, when their previous high was 9% better, back on the Harmon Killebrew/Bob Allison team of 1963.
They've added 98 points of slugging since 2018, the most in baseball, and perhaps most notably, they've done all of it without their supposed best slugger, Miguel Sano, who has yet to play this season due to a lower leg injury.
So: What's causing this? What are they doing -- and how much of it can you expect to last? We have four ideas.
1) New faces, new power
That Star-Tribune article we referenced above was largely about the winter moves that the Twins made this year, namely importing designated hitter Nelson Cruz, first baseman C.J. Cron, and second baseman Jonathan Schoop. Although Cron homered Friday, he's off to a slow start (.236/.276/.444), as is fellow new face Marwin Gonzalez, who is hitting just .159/.227/.217.
But Cruz is still mashing, just like he always does. After a two-homer game Friday, he now has five home runs, and his .308./423/.600 slash line is a huge upgrade on last year's Twins DH line of .240/.316/.373, mainly put up by the departed Joe Mauer, Robbie Grossman and Logan Morrison. Put another way, last year's Twins were tied with the Tigers for the weakest DH slugging in the American League. This year's Twins have the the best DH slugging in the league. It's a jump of 259 points.
In some sense, it's this: Two of the four new Twins batters haven't done much, but two of them have mashed, accounting for big upgrades. It's not all new faces, though ...
2) Some long-awaited breakouts may be happening
Last week, we talked about some April breakouts-in-progress, and one of the names noted was shortstop Jorge Polanco, who has returned from his 2018 suspension to absolutely smash the ball, carrying a .349/.406/.663 line, which is tied for the seventh-highest slugging percentage in baseball.
That's not sustainable, obviously. Absolutely no one should expect that it will. Polanco is not one of the top 10 sluggers in the game. Then again, as we noted at the time, Polanco has been one of the 25 best hitters in baseball dating all the way back to Aug. 1, 2017, though obviously in fewer plate appearances than everyone else due to his suspension. He's been better than Harper, Javier Baez or Manny Machado. If this isn't "real," it may not be that far off, either.
We're also lumping in Eddie Rosario (.275/.320/.692) here, though he already had 51 homers over the last two seasons. On April 23, he became the first Twin to hit 10 home runs in April. He now leads the league with 11. And April, of course, still has a few more days to go.
3) The Byron Buxton factor
An interlude, briefly, to talk about Buxton, who is slugging .465, but is still looking for his first home run of the season. While he hasn't yet gone deep, he does have an American League-leading 12 doubles, plus a triple, which is how he's getting that slugging percentage, and his hard-hit rate is now in the 87th percentile, which is outstanding.
Yet while some of them are the typical rip-it-over-the-outfielder's-head type of extra base hits, he's also capable of turning singles into doubles, and doubles into triples. That's because Buxton is very literally the fastest man in baseball, and it's part of why he's far outplaying his expected slugging (.380), which is primarily about contact off the bat, with his actual slugging (.465).
There's a difference between "power" and "slugging," as Buxton is showing, though he certainly has power as well. We just note it here because no one runs like Buxton does, and that can add some extra bases.
4) A possible new approach
If you want home runs, the easiest way to find them is by pulling the ball in the air. That is neither new nor controversial; Target Field, for example, is 339 feet down the left-field line, 328 feet down the right-field line, and 404 feet to dead center. Nearly two-thirds of all home runs last year were pulled. That's not to say that every hitter should go up there trying to pull every ball in the air, because that's a bad approach. It does, however, stand to reason that hitting the ball where the fences are shorter may help with home runs.
Last year, the Twins pulled 30% of their flies and line drives, which was 18th, or slightly below average. This year, the Twins have pulled 39% of their flies and line drives, or second-highest in baseball. Their 9% jump is the highest in the American League and second highest in baseball -- and interestingly enough, the team they're behind, the Nationals, now employs Dozier, long known for trying to pull everything.
Garver, for example, has pulled 10 of his 17 balls in the air, including three of his five homers. There are seven different Twins who had at least 15 flies/liners in both 2018 and 2019. Six of them have increased their pull rates on those balls, all but Ehire Adrianza.
+27.2% -- Garver, from 31.6 to 58.8
+13.7% -- Astudillo, from 32.7 to 46.4
+22.1% -- Max Kepler, from 33.5 to 55.6
+13.6% -- Rosario, from 36.4 to 50.0
+11.5% -- Buxton, from 38.5 to 50.0
+1.8% -- Polanco, from 32.2 to 34.0
Some returning Twins are doing more or less the same thing that they always do, of course. Catcher Jason Castro has a .360 slugging percentage this year, and a .385 career mark. Right fielder Kepler has hovered near his .416 career mark despite the pulled-air-ball increase -- although his homer Friday did help boost his season slugging from .403, slightly below his career mark, to .447, a good bit above it.
Everyone here won't keep up their pace, because April starts are often just that. (Remember: Cody Bellinger is hitting .433, and Jackie Bradley Jr. is hitting .147.) But the Twins face the Orioles twice more this weekend, and no staff in baseball has allowed more home runs than Baltimore's -- especially after Minnesota's slugfest in the series opener. At the very least, the 2019 Twins seem certain to put up one of the best slugging months in the history of the franchise. It's not the only reason they sit atop the AL Central with a 14-9 record, but it's certainly one of them.