NORTH PORT, FLA. – The Twins held spring training for the first time in 1961, and a pitch thrown above the waist with close-to-maximum speed went with the catchy description "high fastball."
Sometime in the 1990s that pitch became a "four-seamer," which emphasizes the grip and allows a bit more variety in location.
And this is important why? Because if you started covering big-league baseball in the mid-1970s and are uncomfortable with the changes in terms (defense, not fielding … boo!), the use of "four-seamer" must be explained to clear your conscience.
Now that's over with, and here's the deal:
Any attempt to explain Miguel Sano's alarming decline as a 27-year-old in the virus-shortened season of 2020 must start with the four-seamer. We spent a lot of time fretting about the manner in which Sano chased breaking pitches out of the zone as a young hitter, but it was being late on a well-located fastball that created the chain reaction to 2020's batting average of .204.
Twins manager Rocco Baldelli was asked in a Zoom interview last month if getting Sano "on time" with more pitches was a task for both Miguel and instructors in the weeks ahead in Florida.
"Miguel's ability as a hitter is sometimes misrepresented," Baldelli said. "When he is getting to fastballs in the zone, he has the ability to lay off very tough pitches.
"When Miguel is getting to the fastball in the middle of the zone, or a little bit higher, he's a tough at-bat. Being on the fastball, getting to those pitches, that's important for him and our team."
The statistical breakdowns available on pitchers and hitters are endless. The numbers do show this:
Sano had a whiff (swing-and-miss) rate on four-seamers of 36.2% in 2020, 29.3% in 2019, 27.6% in 2018 and 30.7% in 2017.
As frightful as were those world-leading 90 strikeouts in 186 at-bats in 53 games, the Twins could offer the same rationale as with other falloffs after the shortened run-up to the mini-season.
Asked if big swingers with massive power might have suffered the most last summer, Baldelli said: "It was a disjointed situation. No matter what we did, it was hard for many of those guys. It certainly will benefit a lot of hitters with the ability to have a full spring training."
Sano was lauded exuberantly for the physical condition he appeared to report in for 2020 spring training. This huge man had to be down 30 pounds from the out-of-shape Miguel of two years earlier.
Then came the pandemic and 3½ months without formal workouts, followed by three weeks to get ready for a sprint to October. Sano looked heavier when the Twins gathered at Target Field in early July than was the case at his fighting weight in Fort Myers.
And there it was with the swing:
Late on the fastball, which then made him vulnerable to breaking pitches away from righthanders and down and in from lefties. Plus, right field remained a mysterious location for Miguel as a hitter, basically his version of Area 51.
A couple of weeks ago, Brian Dozier officially retired at 33, about the same time Josh Donaldson, at 35, was reporting for Season 2 of his four-year, $92 million contract with the Twins.
Clearly, Donaldson has a more powerful frame than Dozier, but the difference between Dozier (career-high 42 home runs) and Donaldson (career-high 41 home runs) was maintaining the ability to get to the fastball.
Donaldson's timing mechanism is a huge left leg kick. Look at video. It's amazing how early he lifts that powerful leg and lands it with a thump, providing a ready swing at full force.
Sano is a late starter with his swing. He's 50-60 pounds heavier than Donaldson, so the option of a high, potent leg kick doesn't exist for him. And the knowledge and adjustments to maintain power that exist with Nelson Cruz, the 40-year-old wonder, haven't been part of Miguel's hitting talent.
On Tuesday, getting a couple of at-bats in his second exhibition game, Sano had the misfortune of facing Atlanta starter Ian Anderson and lefty reliever Will Smith.
Anderson threw the 86-mph changeup that made him famous last fall for strike two, then Miguel was extra late on a fastball at 94. Smith then struck out Sano on one of the game's best down-and-in sliders.
It's way early here, and the task remains for another month in Florida:
Get Sano on time with a fair percentage of four-seamers above the waist and then big damage in the clutch can follow.