MINNEAPOLIS -- The Twins lead the Majors with 106 homers. Minnesota relievers have thrown only 165 1/3 innings this season -- the fewest in the American League. A fun, winning team and idle relievers -- that's a dangerous combination.
With that in mind, take a look into the Minnesota bullpen when the Twins are hitting -- perhaps around the third inning or so -- and see if you notice a reliever without his hat on. Taking a peek during C.J. Cron's second at-bat is also a good bet. (We'll get to why later.)
Chances are, that reliever isn't just trying to feel the cool Minnesota spring breeze on his scalp as he waits for the call to warm up. It's actually the closest look you'll get into an intriguing underground economy within the Twins' clubhouse.
Welcome to the world of the Twins' bullpen game, in which the relievers compete to call their teammates' home runs.
"We’re getting to the point where we’re laughing, it’s happening so much," Trevor May said. "A lot of guys who have gotten a lot of them right. It’s fun. It’s a fun team to be on."
The rules of engagement are simple:
• At any point during an at-bat, you can throw your hat to call your shot.
• The hat must hit the ground before the pitch is thrown.
• You must have a witness.
• You get one throw per game.
• If you "hit," you get another throw during that game.
• A throw in the bullpen supersedes a throw in the clubhouse during any one at-bat.
Everybody in the current Twins bullpen participates except Zack Littell, Matt Magill and assistant pitching coach Jeremy Hefner, who backed out before the designated opt-out date. (At least one reliever felt that Hefner, the information master, had an unfair advantage.) Once you're in, you're in for good.
(Littell said he did something similar with Triple-A Rochester, wasn't good at it, and thus wanted no part of his more experienced peers at the MLB level.)
Blake Parker claims that he was one of the "founding fathers" of the game during his days with the Angels. He thinks Bud Norris might also have been involved sometime around 2017. But with the game evidently no longer being played in Anaheim, the true origin story is likely lost to the ages. Whatever the case, it was Parker that brought it over to Minnesota and planted the seed.
Perhaps he regrets that now.
"I’m getting crushed right now," Parker said. "[Mike] Morin hit four times, twice in one day. Cron’s been lighting it up for him."
Taylor Rogers and Morin are the consensus picks around the clubhouse as the best at the craft.
Despite not having familiarity with the game when he first joined the Twins, Morin, one of the more recent additions to the bullpen, has carefully honed a strategy that he has used to ascend the ladder and challenge the thoughtful Rogers for supremacy in the game.
Cron became a known commodity to Morin as they came up through the Angels' Minor League system together, and the reliever staked his strategy around his knowledge of his old teammate.
"He’s very streaky," Morin said. "That’s one thing that I’ve noticed with my Cron expeditions."
The first time Morin hit, it was for a homer that Cron hit in his second at-bat of a game. And thus, the strategy was born: Cron, second at-bat. Morin said he proceeded to hit three times on the subsequent road trip.
"I tell him," Morin said. "We talk before the game. I ask him who the starter is, how he's been feeling. He knows I've got his back. There is no game planning, but he does know that I'm rooting for him, and it's usually the second at-bat. It's a beautiful thing."
"I don't care what they're doing," a decidedly less enthusiastic Cron said. "They can do handstands for all I care. We're just trying to hit, I guess. I don't know."
For all of Morin's success, Rogers is still king, and he has no qualms about sharing that with the world. He doesn't even have a strategy. He just knows.
"I go with the gut!" Rogers exhorted. "It leads me to the top of the leaderboard at the moment."
But there have been murmurs around the bullpen that there's more behind the strategy of the unassuming Rogers than he would care to admit, particularly when the "gentleman's game" was put in question after Rogers claimed a hit when a position player -- Chris Davis -- was on the mound in Baltimore and Jonathan Schoop took him deep.
"He said, ‘Prison rules, anything goes, I’m waiting for a position player,’ were his exact words," Parker recalled.
"If it needs to be done, it needs to be done," Rogers said. "If your gut's been telling you to wait for the position player, that's what you've got to do."
Morin, for his part, respects that and simply tips his cap to Rogers for seizing the opportunity. Analytics in baseball is all about finding the littlest edges, after all.
"He's kind of introverted, but he's a very smart dude," Morin said. "So that's something that no one thinks about. We're not at the same IQ level as Rogers. Don't let him fool you. That guy's extremely smart."
Like any good game, there is triumph.
"It was like the bottom of the second inning [in Seattle]," Morin said. "It was when we had scored seven or eight runs off Wade LeBlanc and it was crazy. I was like 2-for-2 in the second inning still waiting to throw my third hat."
There is defeat.
"[Ryne Harper] was in a drought," Morin said. "He was going through some tough times."
And there is, of course, suspicion.
"We did have an incident where [Tyler] Duffey threw early, I think the first inning, and [Kyle Gibson] was the only one around," Parker said. "Gibby doesn’t play the game. After the game, Gibby said, 'Did Duffey throw again?' Make sure he wasn’t doubling up, because he was the only one around. There’s a little bit of integrity held to the game."
And it's not simply a matter of fun. Duffey pointed out that it kept the relievers more involved in the game even when they weren't pitching, and helped them get a better feel for the strike zone -- for what's getting called and what's not -- before they actually took the mound.
But most importantly, it's just another element of fun for a team that's firing on all cylinders and having a blast while doing it.
"It's a lot of fun and it keeps it light out there, and gives us something to do every day to stay locked in on the game while we get ready and loose, and all that good stuff," Duffey said. "It's been a good time."