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TwinsCentric: Adjustments have led to Sano's power surge

On Tuesday night, with the Twins trailing the White Sox by a run in the seventh inning, Miguel Sano turned on a 3-2 pitch from Nate Jones and launched it into the second deck at Target Field to tie the game. Heavy breathing ensued. The shot ushered in a rally the following inning in which the Twins jumped all over the Sox bullpen and posted three more runs to take the late inning lead and they never looked back.

Sano has been nothing short of amazing since pulling on his Minnesota Twins uniform for the first time. While the power numbers are already mind-blowing, Sano’s ability to make adjustments against baseball’s best pitchers suggests the best is yet to come.
 
There is no denying the fact that Sano has been blessed with tons of baseball tools which are developed well beyond those of a typical player at his age. At this point in his young career, his power isunparalleled by 22-year-olds throughout history and he already has a master’s degree in zone comprehension. These two factors alone have made him an unmitigated force in the middle of the lineup which sorely needed a thumping heart.

"I know in a very short amount of time he has developed a following that can really only compare to the likes of Jim Thome and Harmon Killebrew,” Twins president Dave St. Peter told the Pioneer Press’s Charley Walters. “[P]eople don't want to miss a Miguel Sano at-bat because you just never know what might happen, and at any given moment, he may hit a home run 500-plus feet. That's a trait very few players have."

For the past month we have ooh’d and ahh’d over his moonshots and catwalk clanks. Since August 5th, Sano owns the fourth-highest slugging percentage (.722) and the fifth-lowest out rate (53.7%) among all hitters in that time frame. These are the direct results of Sano’s ability to adjust quickly at the game’s highest level without missing a beat.

Here’s the really interesting thing: Whether you noticed it or not, Sano already went through a small hiccup at the plate this year and made the necessary changes on the fly to become this monster masher he has been over the last month.

After starting his career hitting .378 with a pair of home runs, he cooled down during a series against Oakland. At that time, Sano stepped on a baseball during warm-ups at the O.co Colisuem and twisted his ankle. Perhaps the combination of teams adjusting to him and the injury played a role over the next 15 game where he hit .184 with a pair of home runs and a few doubles. Nevertheless, by early August, Sano was firing on all cylinders again -- amassing 10 home runs over his next 24 games.

Sano has made several changes to his swing since his arrival to Minnesota that have boosted his performance at the plate.

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Sano showed early on that he was extremely adept at hammering pitches that were middle-in and middle-middle. Over the first four home runs he tagged in his career, all were in one of those two zone locations. Teams clearly took note of that.

After he began struggling in the Oakland series, he began to tinker a bit with his set-up. Hitting coach Tom Brunansky expressed concern that he was pulling off the ball and Sano seemed to institute several changes at the plate to help combat that. He displayed a stance where he was slightly open on his front leg, holding the bat high and striding inward toward the plate. This stride was likely implemented in order to try to have him stay closed on his swing.

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After the Seattle series, Sano made a few more modifications to his stance and his swing. In Toronto, he lowered his hands prior to the gathering process (you will noticed in the previous clips he ended up dropping them when he loaded for his swing) and closed his stance. When hitters are going through funks, hitting coach and instructors often advise hitters to calm everything down for a while. They encourage hitters to reduce as much movement (such as keeping his hands in one spot rather than dropping them from an elevated pre-swing position) and focus on bat to ball.

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Since then, Sano’s swing has gone through a slight transformation. Once again his hands are held high with noticeable pre-swing motion (creating a rhythm) but rather than toe-tapping to make front-foot contact with the ground before the pitch is released, Sano is lifting with a minor kick and getting that foot down well after the pitch is released -- to the dismay of many of the league’s pitchers including Chicago’s Nate Jones.

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The biggest takeaway from his previous swing and the one currently employed is how efficiently he is loading/gathering before driving toward the ball. In the comparison images below, you see that in the more recent swing [middle and right], Sano is turning his hip inward slightly and staying closed on his front side.

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In the earlier model [left] his hip is square to the pitcher before flying open when he would swing. This version left him less able to drive pitches on the outer-half as well as a man with his size, stature and strength should and could. The new model has allowed him to punish anything that flies from east to west in the strike zone.
 

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Sano’s adjustments at the plate go beyond just the physical swing. When pitchers began to attack the strike zone early in the count in hopes of putting him in a hole right away, Sano countered by taking aggressive swings at the first pitch.

When he began his “struggles” in Oakland, pitchers threw in the zone 55.6% of the time to which Sano offered at just 17% of those pitches. Over those 15 games, he accumulated just two first-pitch hits. After incorporating the improved mechanics, Sano has made pitchers pay for trying to sneak a quick strike on him. Since August 5th, he has offered at nearly a quarter of those pitches and has launched five first-pitch home runs. It is remarkable to have a player understand what the opposition is trying to do to him and adjust this quickly.

Call it clicking or call it confidence or excellence. Whatever superlative you want to use when describing Miguel Sano at the plate right now is deserved. Sano has found the right swing to maximize his zone coverage and allow for his natural strength to handle anything that finds its way over the plate. This, combined with his competitive comprehension (such as attacking in first-pitch situations) has made him perhaps the most dangerous hitter in baseball at the moment. With just over a month of baseball left to play in the 2015 season, people should be waiting eagerly to see what the big man will do for an encore.


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TwinsCentric: From key cogs to September call-ups

Danny Santana and Kennys Vargas were both in Minnesota's Opening Day lineup this year, batting leadoff and fifth. Following impressive rookie campaigns, both were viewed as important young staples for the rebuilding Twins.
 
Now, nearing the end of tumultuous sophomore seasons, both return from the minors as September call-ups, needing to prove that there's still a place for them in the team's plans.
 
Regression was widely expected for Santana and Vargas in light of some ominous statistical indicators that came along with their overall outstanding production in 2014 – namely a lack of plate discipline exhibited by each.
 
Yet, few could have anticipated that the dropoff in both cases would be so dramatic. Vargas was demoted twice, first to Triple-A and then to Double-A. Santana was given an extremely (some might say overly) long leash and still couldn't do anything to justify his place in the lineup. He was optioned at the end of July with a miserable .541 OPS and 16 errors at shortstop.
 
Now, both players return to the fold as September call-ups, and with some momentum behind them. Vargas has shown tremendously improved patience at the plate since his latest demotion, drawing 42 walks against 52 strikeouts in 56 games between Double-A and Triple-A while hitting .277/.418/.492. Santana ended the month of August on a blistering tear at Rochester, with six straight multi-hit games and a .403 batting average in his last 15 contests.
 
Despite their fine work in the minors, neither player is going to be in line for regular playing time this month, and maybe not even a substantial role.
 
Eduardo Escobar has excelled at short since Santana's removal, hitting .295/.375/.577 in August with much sharper defense and surprisingly strong plate discipline (14 strikeouts and 10 walks in 88 plate appearances). At this point the Twins need to be planning around Escobar as their shortstop. Santana can help out this month as a pinch-runner and bench guy, but I think his opportunity is gone.
 
For Vargas, there appears to be a bit more hope. For one thing, his improvement in the minors was more encouraging in that he clearly improved his approach, as opposed to Santana whose 15-game torrid stretch came attached to a 12-to-0 K/BB ratio. Obviously Miguel Sano is entrenched at DH for the time being but long-term the Twins would like to find a place in the field for him. If Vargas can demonstrate the same adjustments that he made in the minors when he gets his chances, he can re-establish himself as a legit DH option going forward, although I don't think there's anything he can do at this point to ensure himself a spot on next year's Opening Day roster.
 
Ultimately both players are going to have their work cut out for them this month, because they've dug themselves pretty deep holes and their sporadic playing time will make it tougher to maintain the grooves they've found in the minors.
 
The Twins have put themselves in position to contend for a postseason berth without getting much of anything from two players that were viewed as key cogs at the outset of the season. Now both will have a chance to contribute to a contending team – albeit in significantly reduced roles.
 
Can Vargas and/or Santana end a negative season on a positive note?

7:10 PM (FSN, MLB)
Minnesota 69-64
Houston 73-61

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