Struggling Wallner optioned to Triple-A for a reset

April 16th, 2024

BALTIMORE -- thought he’d finally found something last Wednesday, when he was out of the lineup against Dodgers right-hander Bobby Miller and spent the game inside, foam rolling and stretching his hips for around two hours -- just to get them as loose as he could.

When he took swings in the cage after that, Wallner immediately felt that old comfort return -- like when he was at his best last year.

Wallner felt that got him right on the cusp of clicking again -- but he didn’t fully find it in time to stave off a reset in Triple-A St. Paul, where he’ll get the everyday opportunity to lock that in. The Twins optioned Wallner on Tuesday to get outfielder Trevor Larnach -- recovered from the turf toe that sidelined him at the start of the season -- back on the roster.

“If I can feel loose, I get that sit feel that I like to feel before my swing, pop my hips down a little bit and soften,” Wallner said on Friday in Detroit. “That's when I feel like I can hit anyone. If not, I struggle with hitting college pitching sometimes -- seriously. I've never hit without being able to get in my hips.”

Perhaps an inability to hit college pitching was stretching it as a self-diagnosis, but the start of the season was admittedly quite grim for Wallner, who went 2-for-25 (.080) with 17 strikeouts in 33 plate appearances. There’s always going to be swing-and-miss in the burly slugger’s game, but a 55.2 percent whiff rate -- more than double the MLB average -- was unsustainable, even in a small sample.

Wallner reiterated, over and over again, that he felt “really close” to making consistent contact now that he’d found what he felt was the culprit: more stiff, locked-up hips that prevented him from timing his swing and getting to certain pitches in time.

“It's literally just like my hips haven't been working the right way," Wallner said. "And I probably should have done it a while ago, but I didn't really realize that was the issue until I was kind of hammering it out. No matter what I'd do, it wouldn't feel right.”

With Wallner having started to address that with team massage therapist Kelli Bergheim in Detroit earlier this road trip, perhaps the opportunity to just clear his head, take some pressure off and see Triple-A pitching every day might help him get back to his normal self.

“A good opportunity for a reset -- both a physical reset at the plate but also a good mental reset,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Sometimes it’s hard for guys to take or accept or be OK with, and sometimes everyone knows that it’s actually the right thing to do and the best way to get him going. I think that it’s more of the second one in this instance.”

Wallner was one of the prime factors behind the Twins’ offensive resurgence in last season’s second half. Once they called him up for good last July 15, he posted an .854 OPS the rest of the way, with his 144 wRC+ for the season second on the team behind only Royce Lewis. His 13 homers and 37 RBIs in the second half both led the team.

The biggest point of frustration this season was that Wallner felt good in seeing the pitches, but his locked-up hips just didn’t let his swing impact balls he knew he should be damaging.

Wallner is the type of guy who will obsess over the details and dive in. The 26-year-old noted that he even got to the point of zooming way in on his back foot on videos of his swing in the hopes of finding infinitesimal timing differences that might help him self-diagnose, but when he zoomed way back out, he just felt that he was tighter than he should be, as a whole.

But Wallner thought he had the fix -- and he’ll just need to go translate that onto the field.

“I want Matt to feel like himself as a player and go out there and be able to just simplify things, go do his job,” Baldelli said. “Right now, it probably feels more difficult than it really should be for him. All it takes is for him to just get settled in, go hit some balls good. It probably won’t take that much or hopefully that long for him to feel like himself again.”