They said it was impossible.
Okay, maybe they didn’t say that. But it sure seemed impossible. For a while, it looked like no Twin would ever hit 35 home runs in a season.
But Josh Willingham broke that barrier Wednesday night when he drove Zach McAllister‘s 93 mph fastball into the empty left center field seats in Cleveland. That shot made Willingham the first Minnesota Twin since Harmon Killebrew in 1970 to reach the 35 mark. Killebrew socked 41 homers that year, a mark that Willingham is unlikely to match unless he experiences a big power surge in the season’s last 13 games.
Willingham has arguably been the most successful free agent hitter the Twins have ever signed. Lured away from the Athletics on a three year contract, the right-handed outfielder is currently hitting .262 with 110 RBIs in addition to the 35 homers. His previous career high was 29 with Oakland last year. Before that he had never exceeded 26. But his best year has come this year, his age 33 season, which makes Willingham one of the rare players who has actually improved as he neared his mid 30s.
The Twins’ 35 homer drought never received a lot of press, but it was actually one of the most unusual feats in modern professional sports. The lack of elite homer hitters was not due to a lack of talent; the Twins made the postseason eight times and won two World Series titles during the streak. And they had several players come close to the mark, including Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, and Justin Morneau, all of whom hit 34 in a season.
But the biggest reason the Twins stood out is that the rest of baseball saw a major surge in individual power stats. According to data from Fangraphs, there were 397 individual 35 homer seasons in baseball from 1971 through 2011, many of them coming during the Juiced Ball era of the 1990s. Such baseball legends as Nate Colbert, Ron Kittle, Preston Wilson, and Brian Giles all notched 35 homer seasons while the Twins were left homerless. Ken Griffey Jr. did it eight times, Jim Thome did it nine times, Sammy Sosa did it 10 times, and Alex Rodriguez did it 12 times. Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire each managed to do it twice in the same season when they hit 73 homers in 2001 and 70 homers in 1998 respectively.
From a team perspective, every single team in baseball boasted at least one 35 homer season between ’71 and ’11. The Marlins were the only team with just one 35 homer season, courtesy of Gary Sheffield in 1996. The Rays had just one player do it, but Carlos Pena made the 35 homer club twice, in 2007 and 2009. At the other extreme, the Braves had an astounding 25 individual 35 home run performances, ranging from Hank Aaron’s 47 in ’71 to Dan Uggla‘s 36 last year (interestingly, in 1977, the Braves got a 37 homer performance from Jeff Burroughs, father of 2012 Twins non-roster invitee Sean Burroughs). The Colorado Rockies made the list 18 times, doubly impressive when you consider that they’ve only existed since 1993.
So the Twins still have some catching up to do before they join the rest of baseball, but at least that awful streak is over. Good job, Mr. Willingham.