If the Twins front office hadn’t signed Nelson Cruz, and he hadn’t taken a personal interest in reviving Miguel Sano’s career, he would not have hit 34 home runs, the Twins wouldn’t hold the home run record, and they might have struggled to make the playoffs.
Twins executives Derek Falvey and Thad Levine deserve credit. Cruz deserves credit. But their efforts wouldn’t have mattered if Sano hadn’t taken responsibility for his failings.
Sano is the reason Sano is becoming the player he was always expected to be.
Other Twins executives, managers, coaches and teammates tried to lead Sano in the past. He just happened to find the ideal leader when he was ready to follow.
“He has grown up,” Cruz said. “He understands the responsibility he has to the team, he knows how important he is for us, and he’s taking care of his body and the little things that will make him better. I’m really proud of how much he’s grown, both in the game and outside the game as a person.
“The first time I saw him at spring training, he said, ‘Whatever you’re doing, I’m doing it with you.’ That’s what you want. You don’t want to chase guys. You want them to be hungry to learn.”
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Sano might have picked the wrong sport. He is a stronger Charles Barkley, a bulkier Von Miller. Had he been born in America, Sano probably would be shattering backboards or quarterbacks while selling you soft drinks and auto insurance.
Instead, Sano grew up poor in the Dominican Republic and became a baseball phenom linked with doubts from the beginning.
He has had his birth date investigated by Major League Baseball and his work ethic questioned by members of the Twins organization. He has also spent the past two months re-establishing himself as one of baseball’s most pivotal players.
Scrutiny is not new to Sano. When Sano and Byron Buxton emerged as two of baseball’s top prospects in 2013, the Twins, in a departure from their normal protocol, eagerly promoted them as the centerpieces of a bright future.
Sano has made himself a figure of hope and worry ever since.
“I’ve put in a lot of work and hours,” said Sano, now 26. “I’m putting up numbers, and I’m healthy. I have my routine and I stick with it and this is an amazing year for everybody in here. We have a chance to win in the playoffs and try for the World Series. For me, this is big.”
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As the Twins prepare for their American League Division Series vs. the New York Yankees, Sano is among the top power hitters in baseball. He did not play this season until May 16 because of an infected cut on his heel, but in only 105 games he had 34 home runs, 79 RBI, a .247 average and .576 slugging percentage. Over his final 19 games, he had eight homers and hit .300.
He still strikes out a lot — his .362 strikeout percentage was highest in baseball among players with 400 or more plate appearances. And, oddly enough, he hit much better on the road (.276, 20 home runs in 54 games) than at Target Field (.218, 14 home runs in 51 games).
Two years ago, the Twins and Yankees met in the AL wild-card game in New York. Sano, sidelined nearly six weeks because of a shin injury that would later need surgery, tried to get ready for that game by serving as the designated hitter in the season’s final series, but he couldn’t put weight on the leg and couldn’t play against the Yankees. The Twins lost 8-4.
In 16 career games vs. the Yankees, Sano has eight homers and 18 RBI.
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When Sano was a teenager, his representatives held lengthy negotiations with the Pittsburgh Pirates. An MLB investigation never confirmed his exact age, and the Twins came in late and signed him, giving him a $3.15 million bonus, the highest for an international player in franchise history.
Sano’s sheer size — he is now listed at 6-6 and 272 pounds — surprised those who saw him upon his arrival in the United States, but he wasn’t much of a mystery to anyone familiar with his story. He was the subject of a documentary named “Pelotero” that chronicled his odd signing process.
Sano began dominating quality minor league pitching, hitting 35 homers between high Class A and Class AA in 2013. He also got into trash-talking exchanges with opposing dugouts. The Twins, known then as a staid organization, supported Sano’s fire.
“He threw the bat — I watched that play,” manager Ron Gardenhire said in the spring of 2014. “But if I hit one that far — if I could ever hit one that far — I might do the same thing.”
That spring, Sano said, “I want to hit 40 home runs, drive in 100 runs and win a Gold Glove.”
Instead, he injured his shoulder and underwent Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery, and spent most of the year at the Twins’ facilities in Fort Myers. A visitor in July found him and Buxton, who was recovering from a wrist injury. The two jogged onto a field with just one glove to played catch with a third player. They stood next to each other, Sano catching throws and Buxton throwing the ball back.
Sano also sat on an overturned container and took hundreds of ground balls in the searing sun, working on his fielding. Buxton and Sano invited a Star Tribune writer and photographer to go fishing with them. They drove their pickups to Daniels Parkway and fished by the side of the road. While Buxton struck out, Sano pulled fish after fish out of the water for his entourage of friends to secure.
“We’ll cook them,” Sano said.
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On July 2, 2015, the Twins called Sano to make his big-league debut. He immediately became the best hitter on a contending team.
“He changes the way pitchers have to approach us,” teammate Torii Hunter said. In 80 games, Sano produced a .916 OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage). And after hitting a home run to help beat the Astros, he stood in front of his locker singing “Little Red Corvette.”
On Aug. 21, 2017, the Twins were surging toward a playoff spot. Sano had fouled a pitch off his left shin. He could not recover in time for the wild-card game, leading to organizational worries that one of their budding stars was not disciplined enough to realize his potential. At the end of the season and the next spring, then-manager Paul Molitor and front office executives made public their concerns about Sano’s conditioning.
In 2018, the team’s frustrations with Sano came to a head during the season, and on June 14 they demoted him all the way down to Class A Fort Myers. Their public rationale was that Fort Myers had the best facilities and a cafeteria full of healthy options; they also wanted to shock him into realizing his career was in jeopardy.
In 71 games in the big leagues in 2018, he produced a .679 OPS — the lowest of any season of his professional career.
Over the winter, the Twins sent Sano home with a workout program and sent team officials to the Dominican Republic to monitor him. Twins boss Derek Falvey watched videos of Sano doing football-like agility drills, looking lean and powerful. Sano helped his winter team win a championship, then cut his heel on a metal staircase. After sitting out at the start of 2019 spring training, the Twins determined that a medical procedure to clean the wound was necessary, and he missed the first 42 games of the regular season.
Once playing, the pressure on Sano to lead the team in the power category was gone. The addition of Cruz, who hit 41 home runs, as the No. 3 hitter moved Eddie Rosario to the cleanup spot, where he had 109 RBI. Sano moved down comfortably: In 27 games as a No. 7 hitter, Sano hit .291 with 12 homers in 27 games. As a No. 5 hitter, he hit only .220 with 11 homers in 47 games.
On June 28, after going 0-for-7 with three strikeouts in an 18-inning loss to the Rays, Sano was batting .195. From then through the end of the season he hit .271 with a .618 slugging percentage a .994 OPS. No Yankees player has an OPS that high.
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The Twins returned from a trip to Texas on Aug. 19. Outfielder Max Kepler had left the last game against the Rangers because of heat illness. Sano asked to show up early on the first day of the homestand to take extra batting practice.
Then he lay in front of Cruz’s locker, doing extra stretching, as Cruz talked with him.
“We talk all the time, about a lot of things,” Cruz said. “We need him.”
Said Sano: “Nelson is my brother, my dad, my friend. He’s humble, too. I just try to follow what he does.
“What happened last year motivated me. I put in a lot of effort and I put in my work. Every day.”