Twins manager Paul Molitor said last week he had seen a difference in Miguel Sano since the third baseman spent over a month away from the team to reconfigure everything about his approach at the plate.

Part of the difference was in Sano’s eyes.

“He has made a concerted effort to recognize spin better,” Molitor said.

While that might mean Sano gets beat on fastballs from time to time, it prevents him from chasing pitches out of the zone — a major problem before the trip to Fort Myers.

The other big change involved Sano’s physique.

“The fact he can engage his lower half a little better and do what he needs to do to cover [the plate], that’s giving him a better chance,” Molitor said. “We’ve seen a lot of balls off the end of the bat that have been queued foul or even in play, but those were pitches that were being missed.”

One of Sano’s most significant improvements since he rejoined the Twins was that he was swinging and missing at fewer pitches and swinging at fewer pitches outside of the strike zone — at least until the last week, when these problems returned.

Before his assignment in Fort Myers, Sano had a swing-and-miss percentage of 16.1 percent, according to FanGraphs — one of the highest numbers in the majors. After rejoining the Twins in late July through last Thursday, he had improved that rate to 11.8 percent in 17 games. He was swinging at 32 percent of pitches outside the strike zone before Fort Myers; that decreased to 28.2 percent in those 17 games.

“I’m selecting more pitches and am trying to have a better approach than before,” Sano said last week. “I try to do the best I can every day at the plate. That’s a part of the game. Sometimes you’re going to miss.”

Over the last week, however, Sano has returned to missing more than he’d like. He struck out 10 times in the Twins’ past six games, with a swing-and-miss rate of 16 percent — nearly identical to his early season struggles. He was held out of the starting lineup Thursday night against Oakland.

A week is a small sample size, but the swing-and-miss statistic could become the best barometer of Sano’s attempt to return to form.

A high number of strikeouts likely will always be a part of Sano’s stat lines, but if he’s able to come down a bit on drop his strikeout rate (he’s at 36.2 percent for his career) he again could be counted among the Twins’ best hitters. It starts by him laying off bad pitches and making contact with those he does try to hit.

“If you’re just going to ambush that pitch, you’re going to recognize it a little bit too late, and you’re going to swing and miss at that ball or put it in play without having hard contact,” hitting coach James Rowson said.

“He’s done a nice job of giving himself a chance to recognize pitches a little bit longer and not getting overanxious at the plate.”

Sliders were a big problem for Sano in the first part of the season. There has been progress there, albeit incremental.

In the 23 games since his return, Sano’s average is .150 against that pitch, according to Baseball Savant, up from .103 pre-Fort Myers, and his slugging percentage is .250, up from .138.

Sano’s top line stats have seen a small uptick as well. His batting average was .203 pre-demotion, and it’s .232 post-Florida, his on-base percentage difference is up from .270 to .323, and his slugging has gone from .405 and .439.

Those awful early numbers were likely the product of Sano’s struggles early snowballing into something worse, and the Twins hope his recent struggles aren’t a reversion to his old form.

“When you don’t start off really great statistically, there’s always that desire to want to maybe do a little bit too much,” Rowson said.

“And you want to just take that one swing that’s going to get you feeling back to where you want to be — and before you know it, you’re maybe down in the hole 20-25 at bats and have not gotten that swing you’re looking for.”

It’s something Sano is still trying to locate.

 

Chris Hine is the writer for North Score, the Star Tribune’s sports analytics beat: startribune.com/northscore. E-mail: chris.hine@startribune.com