The last time Mitch Garver was a leadoff hitter was in college, so when he received a text message from Minnesota Twins manager Rocco Baldelli on Sunday saying he would be No. 1 in the lineup Monday night against the Toronto Blue Jays, he was caught by surprise.
“This is something we tried in Spring Training,” he said. “I thought it was just to get some extra at-bats earlier in the game and get out by the fifth or the sixth.”
The 28-year-old is off to a hot start, hitting .500/.522/1.045 in the first seven games of the season after hitting .268/.335/.414 last year. But despite being known for his hitting, rather than his defense, he never hit leadoff at any level in the Twins system. He started in rookie ball after being signed out of the University of New Mexico in his hometown of Albuquerque, and played at every level — Rookie, Low-A, High-A, Double-A and Triple-A — before making his debut in 2017.
He showed flashes of being an on-base guy in the minors, with a .399 on-base percentage in A-ball and .386 OBP in his two years at Triple-A.
But many of baseball’s axioms have been upended in the Moneyball era. On-base percentage and the ability to steal bases are still valued, but teams are generally inclined to put their best hitters at the top of the lineup simply because they will receive more at-bats throughout the year.
“The idea of a leadoff hitter has been so set in stone in this game. It’s a guy who can put the ball on the ground and run the bases and is fast, right?” said Garver.
“But the lineup that we have, we have nine guys that can drive the ball all around the yard and over the fence. Really, you can put anybody in the leadoff spot and we’d probably be just fine. I think I can get on base. I’m not going to steal any bases, but we’ve got eight guys behind me that can all drive me in. That’s my idea of it.”
This could be chalked up to the Baldelli Twins bucking conventional wisdom and redefining the leadoff position. Such are the expectations of a manager who was hired away from the Tampa Bay Rays organization after spending 18 of his 19 years in professional baseball with one of the most forward-thinking teams in the league.
But Baldelli said he thinks Garver has the qualities of a leadoff hitter, and this may be more of a case of looking at a player differently rather than redefining the role of what a hitter should do in that spot.
“Mitch does stay honest,” said Baldelli, meaning that he doesn’t try to cheat and jump on the fastball rather than react to the pitch that is thrown. “He sees the ball very well. … Mitch is a guy that I think fits well in that role.”
Conventional wisdom would dictate that Jorge Polanco would move up into the leadoff spot when Max Kepler gets a rest day. He’s hitting well to start the season and has speed to steal bases, but Baldelli feels that moving Garver into the leadoff spot is less disruptive to the lineup.
“On days where we are going to give Max a day, you could move people around and change the lineup up a decent amount,” he said. “Or you could find someone that also has excellent at bats like Mitch.
“He is kind of a patient guy. He’s a guy who has a pretty good approach up there and a good idea of what he’s doing. He’s also swinging the bat really well for us right now. I think he’s comfortable doing it, too, which I think matters as well. I think he was a good fit. It could be something we see more of on occasion as the season goes on.”