Benson, as you may recall, was a promising center fielder in the organization who was ranked in Baseball America’s Top 100 list. He was lauded by scouts and prospect evalutators as a rare five-tool player. However, injuries and ineffectiveness facilitated his exit in 2013. Because of his potential, Benson has bounced around the minor leagues with Texas to Miami to Atlanta to Sugar Land to New York. Now headed for his age-28 season, Benson is back with his original team and ready to provide depth in the Rochester outfield.
The following this isn’t a story or analysis on Benson, per se. This is a tale about the Twins’ hitting philosophy and how it has changed over the past few years.
To begin, take a look at Benson’s swing in September 2011 during his only stint at the Major League level.
Does that swing look familiar? It’s basically Brian Dozier. Getting that front foot out and down early and then let the hands and hips supply the power. That style is no accident as it has been passed down to numerous hitters throughout the organization. In 2011, Baseball America’s David Laurila interviewed Benson along with then-New Britain Rock Cats hitting instructor Tom Brunansky and wondered what if any philosophies were being instilled by the coaching staff throughout the system. “Absolutely,” Benson replied. “Stay as quiet as possible at the plate, get your foot down early, and especially with Bruno, working on where I need to get to in order to get extension through the baseball.”
Keep quiet. Foot down early. These have been the tenets of the Minnesota Twins’ hitting philosophy for some years. It is the offensive version of “pitch to contact”.
In 2013, Bobby Tewksbary -- the private hitting instructor responsible for helping cultivate the swings of Chris Colabello and Josh Donaldson through his Elite Swing Mechanics program -- visited the Minnesota Twins camp. In scouting Benson’s hacks Tewksbary noted “I would bet he had really good patterns earlier in his career, then has been coached out of them. I hope he finds the right feel again. All scouting reports say he is a tremendous athlete and I know it isn’t fun to struggle like he has.”
Benson wasn’t the only hitter whose athleticism was coached out of them in the system. After demonstrating decent movements with his lower half and hand load while in high school showcases, the Twins eventually reduced Byron Buxton’s swing patterns to the same muted, compact linear mechanics as seen by Benson above. Rather than try to embrace his natural movements, the organization eliminated them. Stop moving. Get your foot down.
Like Benson, Carlos Gomez was also instructed to get his foot down early and remain still at the plate -- not matter how much his instincts told him to move and create rhythm. This led to a 645 OPS during his Minnesota tenure before reinventing himself in Milwaukee as a centerfielder with power.
If you were a speed guy, regardless of your power potential, the Twins would outfit their hitters with a specific swing which may or may not be the best fit. But it wasn’t just speedy outfielders that received this treatment. Danny Valencia was another victim of the team’s outdated teachings. In 2010, the third baseman had an excellent rookie campaign, hitting for power and average as a 25-year-old. His power jumped in 2011 but his pull tendencies allowed the league to quickly figured him out and his numbers suffered greatly. It wasn’t until he hit the ripe age of 30 and the Blue Jays organization that he was able to change his ingrained approach. He got his foot down later. He generated power through creating depth in his load process. In short, just the opposite of what the Twins taught him. The result was a career-high in home runs (18).
Of course, not everyone has had instant success when throwing off the swing shackles. When Benson was selected off waivers by the Texas Rangers in 2013, he immediately changed his mechanics but his season in the Rangers organization left a lot to be desired. That was followed by a year in Miami’s system in which he performed well in AA but now was significantly older than the league’s average. In 2015 he came one cut away from making the Atlanta Braves roster out of camp before being assigned to the minors (where he was eventually cut midseason).
Benson may put it all together in his age-28 season, similar to how Valencia did for his age-30 year, and provide the Twins with outfield depth a phone call away in Rochester but you have to wonder what Benson’s career might have looked like had he been given an opportunity with more appropriate mechanics. After all, most evaluators agree that Benson was one of those rare five-tool talents. There are signs that the organization is not going to repeat the mistakes of the past.
While it may have been coincidental, since the Twins dismissed minor league hitting coordinator Bill Springman for “philosophical differences” prior to the 2014 season, there appears to be less of an emphasis on adhering to the no movement/foot down early. Since then, inside the organization, players who would normally be expected to maintain the low movement/foot down early method have been encouraged to make adjustments. Prime example is outfielder Max Kepler whose transition to a big leg kick to generate power in his breakout year. In a conversation with Chattanooga hitting coach Chad Allen -- who Springman had a hand in hiring -- Allen affirmed that the swing change was by design, motivated by the staff. Meanwhile Brunansky has said in the past that he isn’t interested in remaining rigid when it comes to a player’s swing. He noted that he has not tried to change Oswaldo Arcia’s big leg kick and loud hand movements despite the decline in performance. When Aaron Hicks struggled to perform from the left side and felt that a leg kick would help, Brunansky worked with him to refine it, not remove it. On the front office side, the Twins have locked up Byung Ho Park to a four-year deal, an indication that they are not deterred by Park’s big movement swing patterns.
Previously, the Twins were notoriously blamed for ruining players' swing or hindering their potential by forcing them into the Twins' mold. Their reputation preceded them as hitters would leave the organization, find success elsewhere, and occasionally disparage the instruction they received in the system. Now, when it comes to developing the talent in the system, the organization seems to be headed in the right direction.