Pitchers only have a few days left to hide from the Bomba Squad.
The Twins won’t eclipse the record 307 home runs they clubbed last year, but on paper, there are reasons to believe Bomba Squad 2.0 could be even more potent in a 60-game sprint. First and foremost, that case began when Josh Donaldson put ink to paper and signed with Minnesota on Jan. 22.
Not only did the Twins add a former American League MVP when they beat out the Braves in the Donaldson sweepstakes, they officially shifted their record-breaking lineup into the “embarrassment of riches” territory. With Donaldson in tow, the reigning AL Central division champs now boast four of the 10 most powerful sluggers from across the entire sport in 2019.
But don’t take our word for it; the Twins’ war chest is front and center on Baseball Savant’s Statcast exit velocity leaderboard. Sort the columns by your batted-ball metric of choice -- hard-hit rate (percentage of balls hit 95 mph or harder), barrel-per-batted ball rate (how much contact is launched with the most damaging combinations of speed and launch angle) or average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives -- and you’ll still see the four names penciled into the heart of Twins manager Rocco Baldelli’s 2020 lineup card: Nelson Cruz, Donaldson, Mitch Garver and Miguel Sanó, who was cleared to join the Twins' player pool Wednesday after quarantine.
Statcast is entering its sixth year of tracking, and no team in that span has possessed this much slugging on one roster. The closest any team has come to having even three players rank among MLB’s top 10 in hard-hit rate, like the Twins did last year, were the 2018 Red Sox (J.D. Martinez placed third, Mookie Betts 10th and Jackie Bradley Jr. 11th). Donaldson, Cruz, Garver and Sanó combined to hit nearly as many barrels (209) last year as the entire Marlins organization (241). Their combined homer count (143) very nearly surpassed both Miami (146) and Detroit (149). Oh, and the Twins very nearly made this a Fab Five with C.J. Cron (tied for 13th in barrel-per-batted ball rate, tied for 26th in average fly-ball/line-drive exit velocity), before they non-tendered Cron last winter out of salary and injury considerations.
Cruz, MLB’s second-oldest non-pitcher behind Albert Pujols, led all qualified hitters by barreling the ball in 12.5% of his plate appearances and posted the game’s fourth-highest weighted runs created plus (wRC+), sandwiched between Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, Alex Bregman and Cody Bellinger. Donaldson woke up from a slow start and actually finished last year with better contact metrics than his 2015 AL MVP season with Toronto. Garver homered once every 10 at-bats and recorded the best hitting season by any Twins/Senators catcher besides Joe Mauer’s 2009 AL MVP campaign. And Sanó came back from Achilles surgery to lead all qualified hitters in hard-hit rate, barrel-per-batted ball rate and average exit velocity on balls in the air.
None of these four will repeat their season totals again (though it should be noted that Donaldson and Sanó each belted 20-plus homers within 60-game spans last summer), but there are a couple factors, however, that could make them -- and the Bomba Squad as a whole -- even more dangerous in ‘20.
Is there any better setup for the stars to align, and for the Twins to show their full might, than a 60-game flash season? Sure, one injury could knock any of these sluggers out for most of that slate, but at the same time, Baldelli is only asking this group to stay intact for two months (and possibly another, depending on its postseason fortunes) -- not a six-month, 162-game grind.
Myriad injuries meant that Cruz, Garver and Sanó didn’t hit in the same game last year, believe it or not, until June 4, and more injuries meant Bomba Squad 2.0 never took the field together in this year’s Spring Training. The hiatus since then has given everyone time to rest and heal (though Byron Buxton is day to day with a mid-foot sprain), and there will probably never be a better chance -- if Baldelli’s group can avoid the nicks, bruises and strains over the next week of Summer Camp -- for Minnesota to assemble its company at full strength. Plus, the sweltering conditions of late July should provide a much more pleasant start to the season than Minneapolis' frigid April afternoons.
With the revised 60-game schedule, matchups against tough pitching staffs on AL powers like the Yankees, Rays and Astros are no longer of the Twins’ concern -- at least not until October. Instead, two-thirds of Minnesota’s schedule is now dominated by games against the AL Central, including the Tigers’ and Royals’ bottom-10 pitching staffs. The Twins will also get between three to six games each against the Pirates (sans Chris Archer and Jameson Taillon this year) and the Cubs, whose rotation depth is already being tested by a freak injury for José Quintana. This club (50-26 against division foes) absolutely feasted on the AL Central last year, and so one would think the new regionally based schedule spells advantage, Minnesota.
Certainly regression could come for any of the Twins’ big four. It’s not fair to expect Garver to repeat the 54-homer pace he was on last summer. Cruz and Donaldson are 40 and 34 years old, respectively, and no one defies Father Time forever (OK, but maybe with the exception of Cruz). And Sanó has failed to suit up for a full slate of games in any of his first five big league seasons -- plus he’s only two years removed from a huge struggle (.679 OPS, 38.5% strikeout rate) in 2018. But, factoring all of that in, this quartet still makes the Twins' lineup look exceptionally deep. Say that regression merely gives Minnesota four of MLB’s top 30 sluggers by hard-hit rate, instead of four of the top 10; only nine clubs -- an average of two per season -- have previously even featured three players in the top 30 in a single season since Statcast launched.
Cruz, Donaldson, Garver and Sanó give the Twins’ offense both a historic ceiling and an enviably high floor. Even outside those four, huge gains were made last year: Buxton was breaking out at the plate, Jorge Polanco was an early-season AL MVP candidate, leadoff man Max Kepler crushed 36 homers and Luis Arraez established himself as a popular sleeper pick for this year’s batting title.
Minnesota still has to pitch well to win its first postseason series since 2002, but this unusual season and this lineup could make 2020 the club’s best chance for a deep October run.