In the midst of what would become yes another defeat at the hands of the Tampa Bay Rays yesterday, Justin Morneau launched a two-run homer that, at the time, tied the game at 2-2. James Shields hung a curveball, and Justin was the perfect amount of early through his swing. It wasn't a towering, majestic fly ball either. It was a line drive, putting on display the special kind of power Morneau still has when he connects.
Line drive home runs aren't an uncommon occurrence in baseball, and certainly not when Morneau goes deep. The best power hitters in the game aren't necessarily home run hitters because they hit fly balls. David Ortiz, Adam Dunn, Dan Uggla, Curtis Granderson, and Jose Bautista (at least since 2010) all have, historically, posted fly ball rates in the mid to upper-40s. But other hitters, batters who could be called a bit more "complete" when they're at their best, actually post the home run totals in spite of different batted ball tendencies. Miguel Cabrera, Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols, Ryan Braun, Mark Teixeira, and Morneau typically generate power with fly ball rates of 40% and under. While it's been a couple years since we have been able to consider Morneau an elite hitter along with the other names on this list, his ability to hit line drives - and hit them an exceptional distance - is a credit not just to his hitting abilities.
We can't say with any certainly how close Morneau is to being back to his "old self" (in spite of a .341/.393/.545 triple slash since July 1), but we can begin to judge his place in the history books of the Minnesota Twins. His home run yesterday marked career jack number 201, which ties him for sixth all-time for the Twins along with longtime hot corner stalwart Gary Gaetti.
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Morneau is accomplishing this feat during his age-31 season, and I have little doubt that he'll pass the immortal Kirby Puckett by the time the summer is out. How were the other members of this list doing through their age-31 seasons?
Gaetti - The Rat became a free agent following his age-31 campaign in 1990.
Puckett - Puck's age-31 season came in the championship year of 1991, when he 15 homers to give him 123 for his career. His career was cut short at age-35, but Morneau has four years to make up six home runs. He'll get there.
Oliva - Tony O smashed 155 bombs through this point, and while his age-32 season would be the last truly great one of his esteemed career it could also be Morneau's last as a Twin period. His contract expires after next season.
Allison - Bob actually finished his age-31 year with 201 home runs, thanks to a shortened campaign that granted him just 8.
Hrbek - Hrbek's age-31 campaign saw him finish the year with 243 homers, which is significantly ahead of Morneau's pace. It was also the last time in his career that Herbie had more than 500 plate appearances, and he'd combine for 50 more homers in his final three seasons.
Killebrew - 380. It's not even fair to judge Morneau against Killer's standard really, but it does go to show what a truly special and exceptional talent Killebrew was. He led the league in homers that year, as he had done four other times, and he was healthy and productive enough to bash another 179 bombs before his career in Minnesota was done at age 38.
How high can Justin go? If he's traded this winter he'll finish in fifth, right ahead of Kirby. If he plays out his current contract he'll likely finish in fourth, ahead of Oliva but behind Allison.
But what if the Twins keep Morneau in the fold? If Justin plays until he's 36 and averages 20 homers per year he'd finish ahead of Hrbek. There's a lot that would need to happen between now and then, but it's fun to think about. It's been a long time since this organization has had a player capable of hitting the 300-home run benchmark as a member of the team.
Good luck, Justin.