Led by rookie Miguel Sano, Twins' unexpected season takes new turn
Can a baseball player’s production suffer because he is bored? Paul Molitor, the first-year manager of the Twins, thinks so. How else to explain the strange season being put together by 22-year-old Dominican slugger Miguel Sano? He became a celebrity long ago: The Twins gave him a $3.15 million signing bonus in 2009, a record for a Latin American amateur, when he was just 16, and a few years later, he starred in the documentary Ballplayer: Pelotero (a sequel is currently being made). But during the 66 games he played in Double A Chattanooga this season, after he missed all of last year due to Tommy John surgery, he didn’t quite live up to his billing, batting .274 with 15 home runs, 48 RBIs and a .918 OPS.
The Twins called him up to the anyway, on July 2, and despite the two-level jump, he has done something which few do: immediately improve upon his performance in the minors. Despite having played just 56 games with Minnesota, Sano has a higher average than he did in Chattanooga (.277), as many homers, nearly as many RBIs (42) and a significantly better OPS (.961). In fact, since his promotion, he ranks in the league’s top 15 in each of the power categories. To Molitor, the reason is simple: Sano is finally being presented with a challenge that, he feels, is commensurate with his prodigious skills.
“I think that he has felt for a long time that he belongs up here,” Molitor says. “He knew that he had to pay his dues, especially with the elbow injury last year. But there were times where, you know, his focus and consistency in the minor leagues wasn’t at the level it needed to be to be up here. I think certain guys need the spotlight to bring that out of them. He likes the big stage.”
For a while, it seemed as if the Twins’ season would prove a play in two acts. The first, during which they overachieved, appeared to run until approximately July 17, when they were 50–40 and had a one-game lead for the American League's first wild-card spot. Then it looked as if it had inevitably turned into a tragedy: Minnesota lost 21 of its next 30 games, falling to 59–61 and four games out of a playoff spot as of Aug. 19. Just as the audience was filing out, though, the Twins raised the curtain on Act Three, going 12–6 over the past three weeks to climb back within 2 1/2 games of the second wild-card position. They have done so on the broad shoulders of a late-arriving, 6’4” and 260-pound special guest star, who is batting cleanup in your programs.
“He’s been a vital part of the fact that we’ve been able to hang around this thing,” Molitor says. “There’ve been times when we’ve been dangerously close to starting to extend ourselves away from the race in the wrong direction. We’ve put together little runs. Part of it is the fact that through the year, collectively, we’ve been fairly resilient. But when you look at our offense since he’s been here, he’s just changed the dynamic of it. Most days we have good days offensively, he’s in the mix somewhere.”
Sano, whose English is rapidly improving, doesn’t deny an affinity for the klieg lights. “In Double A, I was really struggling, but now I feel like I have more pressure at the plate.” That, for him, is a good thing. “I’m looking for my pitch all the time, never trying to swing too hard. It’s better here. Better pitchers [who] throw more strikes. Better umpires. I feel like when I was playing in Double A, the pitchers were the same that I’m seeing in the big leagues. Same deal.”
Sano’s raw power has never been in dispute. Torii Hunter, his 40-year-old teammate, describes it this way: “It’s almost a little bit of The Hulk combined with some strong-ass animal.” The question was whether he’d be able to exploit his strength against major league pitching with any consistency. Sano does strike out a lot—some 88 times in his 56 games, a rate that if maintained for a full 162-game schedule would translate to 255, blowing away Mark Reynolds’s 2009 record by more than 30.
That high whiff rate is largely attributable to Sano’s susceptibility to swinging through breaking balls thrown out of the zone. It’s not that Sano is a free-swinger, as he has offered at just 25.8% of non-strikes that he has seen, the 48th-lowest rate among the 314 batters who have so far made more than 200 plate appearances. It’s that when he does swing at balls, he hardly ever hits them: Sano has connected with just 34.3% of non-strikes at which he has swung, a success rate worse than that of any other player with 200 or more PA. (The Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton is second, at 45.5%.)
“He has a lot of strikeouts because pitchers are going to get nastier to him,” Hunter says. “They don’t want him to beat them on a fastball in a 3–1 count. They’re going to throw off-speed. 3–2, they’re going to throw a changeup. They don’t want to give him a pitch he’s going to hit out of the park. They know he’s looking for a fastball. He’s getting pitches you’re not supposed to throw 3–1. He’s getting fooled more than most of us. But when he hits it, he hits it hard.”
That is undoubtedly true, and is supported not only by Sano’s surprisingly high batting average but also by StatCast, Major League Baseball’s new player tracking technology. According to StatCast, the average exit velocity of balls off of Sano’s bat is 94.36 mph, which ranks him second overall behind Stanton’s 97.73 and just ahead of Miguel Cabrera’s 93.95.
Sano has another explanation for his high strikeout rate. “I take a lot of pitches, so sometimes the umpires are calling a bad pitch, and sometimes I swing at a bad pitch,” he said last week. “I have like 65, 70 strikeouts”—actually 77, at the time—“and 35 of those, the umpire called a bad pitch.” You might take that assertion as a measure of Sano’s belief in his own batting eye: His walk rate of 15.5% is baseball’s seventh best among players with 200 or more plate appearances. But you might also view such an attitude as a sign of Sano’s more general confidence in his own abilities.
“His mindset is totally different than most that come up,” Hunter says. “This guy, he doesn’t care. He comes up, he trusts in his ability. See ball, hit ball.”
One thing is certain: Miguel Sano is no longer bored, and neither are Twins fans.