Matt Wallner had struck out 15 times in his last 25 Triple-A at-bats when the Minnesota Twins called him up on May 23. The promotion hardly felt merited. Wallner didn’t have a hit in his first 11 major-league at-bats this season, and he only hit four Triple-A home runs in April and May. Still, the Twins needed to tap into their depth, and he was the next man up.
Twins hitting coach David Popkins felt Wallner’s swing had become sweepy, so he told Wallner to focus on hitting the ball to left-center. Suddenly, Wallner had his powerful left-handed swing back. The 6’4”, 220 lbs. outfielder from Forest Lake hit .636/.714/1.000 with a homer from May 23 to 28. He looked like he was trying to plop the ball into Third Lake or knock it off the Running Aces sign. He had a hit in eight straight at-bats. Wallner was back.
But after going 2-for-2 with two walks on May 28, Minnesota sent him back down. The run-deprived Twins, who had Max Kepler and Joey Gallo hitting below the Mendoza line, told Wallner to drive back to St. Paul. So Wallner hopped on I-94 with a 1.099 OPS. It felt unfathomable.
“He had a really good run of ABs,” Rocco Baldelli said minutes before announcing that the Twins were sending Wallner to Triple-A. “He’s swinging the bat great. [Wallner is] playing well, very confidently. What he’s trying to do is he’s going up there with a good idea of what he’s trying to accomplish, he’s swinging at good pitches, he can do some damage.
“I mean, he’s a dangerous hitter. I couldn’t have been happier with what I’ve seen from him.”
Kepler and Gallo are better defensive players. Wallner can throw 100 mph from the outfield, but Kepler and Gallo take better routes to the ball. And Wallner is strikeout-prone. Still, it’s not like Kepler and Gallo were doing much at the plate. But Wallner had minor-league options, and they didn’t. He became the victim of a roster crunch on a team full of left-handed corner outfielders.
The Twins called Wallner up on July 17, and he’s hit .238/.333/.571 with six bombs in his third stint. On Sunday, his walk-off home run completed a sweep of the Arizona Diamondbacks. He has 24 strikeouts in 72 plate appearances during his third stint, and Kepler and Gallo are crisper defensively in the outfield. But Wallner looks like he belongs. He hit an opposite-field home run against the Seattle Mariners that landed in the second deck.
“I mean, he’s a big boy and hits the ball so hard,” said Baldelli in admiration.
But he’s under control. He’s never really out of control. It’s a controlled, violent swing. And he’s been doing this. That swing today just now, that’s not new. We’ve seen him doing this. He works incredibly hard, something that I’ve been talking about. He’s made some really, really good adjustments to take his game to the next level. Over the last couple years, he’s transformed himself in a lot of ways. It’s not by accident. He’s not up there just swinging the bat. He’s up there having good at-bats.
Minnesota may have an excess of left-handed hitting corner outfielders. But they have to treat Wallner, 25, as a part of their future. The Twins took a flier on Gallo, signing him to a one-year, $11 million bounce-back deal. But he’s hitting below the Mendoza line for the third straight year, and his home run totals have declined. Gallo hit 41 and 40 home runs as a 23- and 24-year-old in 2017 and 2018, respectively. A year later, he had a .986 (145 OPS+) and made his first All-Star team. In 2019, he made his second All-Star team with 38 bombs and a .199/.351/.458 slash line.
However, he’s hit .166/.286/.388 with 36 home runs (88 OPS+) since that season. His 17 home runs and .432 slugging percentage have buoyed his .726 OPS this year, and the Twins like his defense. But Wallner possesses power, can improve defensively, and is about to enter his prime. His best years should be ahead of him. He’s also been more reliable on the basepaths and willing to make adjustments. Wallner is the kind of player Minnesota should be prioritizing.
Conversely, Kepler has made discernable improvements in the last month. On June 9, Baldelli said that Kepler made a baserunning mistake that cost them the lead the day before. The Twins had just lost in Tampa, extending their losing streak to five games and dropping them to 31-32. Kepler was hovering around .200 at the time. Baldelli called him in for a meeting. “It went well,” Kepler said. “I learned from my mistake.”
Kepler has hit .279/.333/.552 with 12 homers and no baserunning errors since then. The Twins will lean on the veteran outfielder, given they’re trying to secure the division and win in the playoffs. But Kepler has a $10 million club option next year before he hits free agency; Wallner is under team control until 2027. Wallner represents the present and future.
The Twins had to add depth after watching their team fall victim to injury last season. But Wallner needs to be part of the equation. He’s the powerful bat they wanted in Gallo and Kepler, and he can improve defensively. They sent Wallner down at the end of May because of 26-man roster restrictions. But it’s still odd that they needed offense, and he was hitting in St. Paul. With the way he’s playing now, it looks like he’s here to stay.