Can Royce Lewis Save Minnesota's Group Of Slumping Sophomores?

Photo Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

One year ago, the future looked bright for the Minnesota Twins. Edouard Julien joined the team early in the season and never returned to St. Paul. Royce Lewis was getting ready to return from a torn ACL, and Matt Wallner was getting ready to join the Twins in July after smashing pitches in Triple-A.

A few months later, Julien, Lewis, and Wallner became the first trio of teammates to post an OPS of .839 or better in their rookie season since the divisional era began in 1969. That feat is even more impressive, considering that only 169 total players have reached that mark in their rookie year with a minimum of Julien’s 239 plate appearances.

Julien, Lewis, and Wallner appeared to be the nucleus that could lead the Twins for years to come. However, 2024 has been a reality check. Heading into the summer months, it’s possible that Minnesota’s group of slumping sophomores can turn it around, and Lewis’s return could get them there.

Minnesota’s bad luck began dating back to Spring Training. Wallner arrived for camp and put his work in to prepare for the season. However, he didn’t look like the player who had smashed 14 homers in 213 major league at-bats a year ago. Wallner hit .132/.227/.395 with three homers, nine RBI, and 17 strikeouts in 38 at-bats.

We can write off Wallner’s numbers as Spring Training jitters, and Twins manager Rocco Baldelli had to call him into his office to let him know he was making the team. Wallner started the regular season in the majors, but pitchers adjusted their approach to throw more breaking balls and offspeed pitches.

As a result, Wallner saw fastballs on 42.3 percent of his pitches after seeing 56.9 percent a year ago. Wallner’s breaking pitches also went from 27.1 percent to 40.9 percent in the opening months of the season. Wallner did not react well and only hit .091 against breaking pitches and 0-for-7 on fastballs.

Wallner hit .080/.273/.240 with 17 strikeouts in 25 at-bats before the Twins sent him down after 13 games. He has played 33 games in St. Paul but still hasn’t recovered. Wallner is hitting .183/.274/.349 with five homers and 20 RBI with the Saints.

That’s a far cry from the player Wallner was one year ago. Je demolished Triple-A pitching for a .291/.403/.524 line with 11 homers and 47 RBI in 67 at-bats. While Wallner is just a few months removed from hitting .249/.370/.507 with 14 homers and 41 RBI in his rookie year, it’s fair to wonder if he will regain that form at some point this season, which could leave it to Julien to pick up the slack.

He was terrific during his rookie season and made an immediate impact wherever he went. During the World Baseball Classic, Julien hit two homers and drew five walks in 13 at-bats with Team Canada. Carlos Correa praised Julien in Spring Training, and he stuck with the Twins for good by the time the calendar turned to May.

Julien hit .263/.381/.459 with 16 homers and 37 RBI in 109 games for the Twins last season and became their leadoff hitter by the middle of the summer. While there was a huge split between right-handers (.274/.401/.497) and lefties (.196/.229/.217), he also did a lot of his damage on fastballs. Julien hit .299 with a .537 slugging percentage against heaters in his rookie season.

Opposing teams saw this and decided to throw the same game plan at Julien that they threw at Wallner. Julien still sees fastballs 47.8 percent of the time compared to 54.3 percent during his rookie season. He’s still smashing them with a .300 average, a .578 slugging percentage, and all seven of his home runs coming against fastballs.

But his breaking pitch percentage has jumped from 28.7 percent to 36.7 percent with a .089 average and .133 slugging percentage. Pitchers have also used off-speed pitches to finish Julien off, recording a 34.2 putaway percentage and a 51.3 whiff percentage this season.

Julien still does a lot of things well. He has MLB’s lowest chase percentage (15.4 percent) and a 12.6 percent walk rate. He’s also improved defensively, recording four outs above average after recording zero during his rookie year. But his numbers from a year ago also indicate there was some luck involved.

Julien’s .233 expected batting average last year didn’t affect his .263 actual batting average. However, his expected batting average has dropped to .192 his year, while he is hitting .209. Julien has also seen a decrease in his barrel rate and average exit velocity, but those could be corrected with the right adjustments.

With Brooks Lee working his way back from injury and Willi Castro as Minnesota’s other option at second base, it’s likely Julien will look to make those adjustments at the major league level. But it also paves the way for Lewis, who could be the true hero of the sophomore class.

It was a shot of adrenaline to the ball club when Lewis rejoined the Twins after rehabbing from his second ACL tear in 15 months. Lewis homered in his first game back and spent the rest of the summer injecting personality into the team while launching grand slams over the fence.

Lewis’s final line of .309/.372/.548 also had historical significance. Only eight other players reached those numbers with a minimum of 239 plate appearances in MLB history – a group includes Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, Fernando Tatis Jr., and Yordan Álvarez.

Lewis’s rookie year also didn’t have many flaws. Lewis hit .337 with a .683 slugging percentage against fastballs last season, and those numbers only dropped to .278 with a .467 slugging percentage against breaking balls. In his two at-bats during Minnesota’s season opener in Kansas City, Lewis’s home run came on a Cole Ragans fastball before he followed up with a single on an offspeed pitch in his next at-bat.

Of course, this neglects what may be Lewis’s true weakness – himself.

Lewis plays the game like The Ultimate Warrior running through a brick wall, and it’s caused him to land on the injured list more often than not. While his ACL injuries could be freak accidents, Lewis spent nearly a month on the injured list with an oblique strain last summer and injured his leg in the weeks leading up to the postseason.

Even his quad strain happened while rounding the bases, leaving some to question whether he’s similar to Byron Buxton, a player with game-changing ability but an injury history longer than a Costco receipt.

Perhaps the answer is to get Lewis to slow down. However, even a stolen base attempt during his rehab stint in Triple-A caused Baldelli to call Lewis and tell him to take it easy.

That could be why the Twins have been so cautious with Lewis’s injury. While Julien and Wallner are also important to the long-term future, Lewis is the centerpiece that brings it all together. Maybe Lewis’s presence could lead to more of the fastballs that Julien and Wallner crushed during their rookie season, and it could bring a promising rookie class back out of its sophomore slump.

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