FORT MYERS, Fla. – The Rochester Red Wings were holding a “Super Heroes” promotion on July 9, 2017 at Frontier Field.
Mitch Garver adopted the day’s theme by becoming the first Red Wings player to hit three home runs in a game in four decades. He was also the first player to do so in what was then 20 years of Frontier Field.
“I took my time a little bit that third time around (the bases),” the La Cueva High alumnus and former New Mexico Lobo said. ” … I could see the crowd was on their feet. That’s a really special feeling.”
These weren’t pop-ups. The exit velocity for one blast was 109 mph. And this wasn’t a nuclear baseball. It was strength. And it was being short to the ball and keeping his bat on plane through the zone.
That’s what Chad Allen, a former hitting coach in the Twins’ minors and 2003 Albuquerque Isotope, raved about with Garver – his “bat path,” the ability to get the bat in the zone quickly, stay on the ball’s plane and finish strong.
Garver played in 23 games for the Twins later in the 2017 season and didn’t homer in 46 at-bats. His first big league homer came in the 2018 home opener, breaking a 2-2 tie in the seventh by hitting an 0-2 slider from Seattle’s Dan Altavilla into the left-field seats.
That game is well-remembered by Twins fans in attendance, not so much for Garver’s game-winning home run but for Challenger, the overworked eagle, trying to land on Seattle starter James Paxton (standing in left field) during the pregame patriotism.
Garver wound up with only seven home runs in 302 at-bats in that first season of regular duty. He decided to make a change.
He went to work with Jason Columbus, a hitting instructor back home in Albuquerque. Columbus gained notoriety for his work to add power to Alex Bregman’s swing with Houston, and the goal was the same with Garver.
More lift and more left field in Garver’s swing. Allen, no longer in the Twins’ organization, might have wept a bit over the adjustment, but the results were phenomenal.
The most-amazing individual total as the 2019 Twins set a major league record with 307 home runs came from Garver: 31 home runs in 311 at-bats.
One home run per 10.03 at-bats. The American League’s Silver Slugger as a catcher. A .630 slugging percentage that would have been third in the AL if he had the required 502 plate appearances. A .995 combined slugging and on-base percentage that would have been fourth in the AL.
It wasn’t all the lively baseball that MLB had in play. Many of those balls were flattened by Garver’s contact. There was a memorable rip to “dead central,” as old baseball guys call it, that destroyed part of the juniper crop at Target Field.
And then came 2020, a mini-season, a shortened season, a season to be forgotten.
“That’s the only way I can look at it,” Garver said this week. “In my mind, it didn’t happen. I only had 20-some games. That’s not close to a season. That’s not close to a college season.
“You don’t have any idea where a season is headed after 20 games. For me, 2020 didn’t happen.”
Except it did in his thinking, as you get glimpses of Garver’s modified approach in this spring training with days remaining.
The first Garver at-bat witnessed came on March 3 and he drove a home run to right-center field. The impression has continued of a hitter less-focused on lifting pitches to left.
Mini-season or not, did Garver find himself forcing the issue on pulling the ball to left – you know, “pull happy” – as his results waned in 2020?
“I did get that way,” he said. “I came to this spring training with one goal: hitting the ball hard. Start by making hard contact to the big part of the field and adjust from there.”
It’s fairly certain it isn’t this way with the athletes, but Twins manager Rocco Baldelli is the master of the indirect message with the Twin Cities media.
Asked about Garver’s spring training on Wednesday, Baldelli said:
“Mitch came in looking good and feeling good. He’s held up physically and swung the bat very well. I think he’s in a good place right now … just getting himself ready for the season.
“I don’t think he came into this season with any specific expectations.”
It took a while, and some inference, but that was Rocco saying Garver came into the 2020 mini-season with the expectation of remaining a home run-hitting machine, and when the batting average was .150, the strikeouts were mounting and there was one home run and two RBIs after three weeks – the grip on the Garver bat got tighter.
Then came the pull of a muscle near the ribs in mid-August, a month out of the lineup, making it a lost season. Garver went on injured list on Aug. 19, and Ryan Jeffers was called up from the St. Paul taxi squad the next day. The 23-year-old held up well, both hitting and receiving, and was in the lineup (with Garver available) for the two playoff games vs. Houston.
Garver has been the catcher when the Twins have played what looks like the “A team” in exhibitions this month. So, he’s still the No. 1 catcher in the minds of the Twins?
“I don’t read it that way,” Garver said. “I think we have two No. 1 catchers. That’s a good situation for Ryan, for me and our club.”
This was confirmed by Baldelli – and directly:
“With our group, we have two regular catchers. We have guys to turn to that are excellent options.”