Elite Hitter Must Get Healthy


A little Twins trivia: how many Twins have hit 30 or more home runs in a season three times or more?

Answer: just two. The great Harmon Killebrew did it eight times (1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1966, 1967, 1969, and 1970). The other one is Justin Morneau, who accomplished the feat in 2006, 2007, and 2009.

Here’s another one: how many Twins players have ever put together a .300, 30 HR, 100 RBI season?

Answer: one. Even Killebrew never accomplished this one. Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett almost met the requirements in 1986, hitting .328/31/96. Tony Oliva went .323/32/94 in 1964. But Morneau topped them both with a .321/34/130 line in 2006. He was on pace to match that accomplishment in 2010, when he hit .345/18/56 in just over half a season before suffering a concussion. [EDIT: the original version of this post stated that Puckett had 119 RBI in 1986, but that was incorrect. I apologize for the error.]

It may come as a surprise, but Justin Morneau actually ranks with the greatest hitters in team history. He is one of five Twins hitters to win an MVP award, one of only nine to rack up 700 RBI, and ranks eighth in Twins history with 185 home runs. Impressively for a power hitter, Morneau has never struck out more than 100 times in a season. He also holds the team’s single season record for doubles, with 47 in 2008.

Losing Morneau to injuries for most of the last two seasons was not just an inconvenience for the Twins, it was a solid blow to the core of this team. If the Twins have any hope of avoiding a full-scale, drawn-out rebuilding process, that hope rests squarely on Morneau’s back. Or, rather, his head.

Morneau’s struggles with concussions are well-documented. Some fans have grumbled that he is soft, or that he isn’t motivated enough to play. This is incredibly unfair, and borderline insulting to a player who is suffering from a debilitating brain injury, but it might be understandable that fans would think that. For one thing, medical science seems to know very little about the true effects of concussions, and the general public is even less informed. For another, Morneau looks just fine – the concussion doesn’t force him to wear a cast or walk with a limp.

But Morneau’s toughness as a ballplayer is 100% above reproach. For those who doubt this, please remember that Morneau is not the one who made the decision to sit out. MLB rules require that players with concussion symptoms cannot play until they pass a concussion test. If Morneau misses any games, it’s because his doctors will not allow him to play, not because he is lazy. Also, remember that just a few years back, Morneau was the closest thing to an Iron Man that modern baseball had. He played all 163 games in 2008, he played nearly a month with a broken bone in his back in 2009, and this year he kept himself in the lineup despite the fact that wrist and neck injuries reduced him to a shell of his former self at the plate. If anything, the team needs to force Morneau to rest more instead of playing through pain.

The scariest part of Morneau’s injury is that he can trigger a relapse without even hitting his head. The latest problems occurred when he dove for a ball at first base on August 28th. Watch the video, and it doesn’t even look like something that could cause a headache, much less a concussion. But it did. The Twins have talked about using Morneau as a DH to limit his exposure to potential harm. But even as a DH, he might be a ticking injury time bomb. You never know if diving out of the way of a pitch, sliding into a base, or even a non-baseball activity like jogging across a busy street might cause more problems. In short, Morneau’s future in baseball is a complete unknown.

On the plus side, it’s possible that with proper rest and training, the symptoms may finally go away. Morneau is recovering from surgery to repair his wrist injury. His cast should come off sometime in November. Hopefully, he can use the rest of the offseason to get in shape, something he was unable to do after 2010. They say that old-timey ballplayers used to spend the offseason drinking, smoking, and gorging themselves, and they didn’t bother to get in shape until Spring Training. But that isn’t true in modern baseball. The competition works hard all winter long, so hopefully Morneau will have a chance to do the same and catch up.

It was not that long ago that Morneau was one of the elite hitters in MLB. Will he ever return to that level? Nobody knows. But the future of the team may depend on it.