Published September 22, 2015
MINNEAPOLIS -- Torii Hunter, Minnesota's 40-year-old right fielder in his 17th full major league season, was at the plate last week with the bases loaded.
Miguel Sano, the rookie slugger, was shouting more than simple encouragement from the dugout.
He was giving Hunter hitting advice.
"Make him come to you! Make him come to you!" Sano bellowed, cautioning Hunter against chasing a pitch outside the strike zone.
Twins manager Paul Molitor called the scene "a little bit comical," the way the 22-year-old Sano earnestly warned Hunter to be patient.
"But it was good, because I think how he was thinking Torii should be thinking was how he thinks when he's the guy doing that," Molitor said, "which is not easy to do when you're a young guy in a big situation."
The Twins have put Sano in plenty of those big spots already in his not-quite-two-month-long career, and the broad-shouldered Dominican has delivered more than his share of big hits.
In just 49 games, Sano has 13 doubles, 13 home runs, 40 RBI and a whopping .989 on-base-plus-slugging percentage while facing a majority of off-speed pitches. He hasn't played enough to officially qualify, but the only American League hitter with 50 or more at-bats and a better OPS percentage than Sano is two-time AL MVP Miguel Cabrera.
Called up at the beginning of July from Double-A Chattanooga, Sano might not have enough time to beat out front-runner and Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa for the AL Rookie of the Year award. Still, a better prize for Sano would be powering the Twins to an AL wild card. With a 67-63 record, the Twins were 1 1/2 games behind Texas for the second spot before the Rangers played Monday night.
Cabrera, now with the Detroit Tigers, won a World Series as a rookie at age 20 with the Marlins. That got Hunter daydreaming, as much of a long shot the Twins might be to make it that far.
"Not saying he's going to have the same numbers or end up like Miggy or anything like that, but his body type and everything, his presence, is like Miggy," Hunter said. "A lot of similarities. Put it that way."
Sano's discipline at the plate, despite never playing in Triple A, has made the Twins the most proud. Though his 74 strikeouts in 206 plate appearances are alarmingly high, a rate putting him on pace to lead the major leagues while playing a full season, Sano has shown discipline beyond his years.
He has 33 walks, roughly one every six times he steps in the batter's box. With an average of 4.34 pitches per plate appearance, Sano is behind only Los Angeles Angels star Mike Trout (4.39) among AL players with 200 or more plate appearances.
"Every at-bat I try to read the pitcher and try to look for my pitch," Sano said recently. "When they make a mistake I need to make them pay for that."
With Trevor Plouffe at third base and Joe Mauer at first base, the Twins have used Sano mostly as a designated hitter. His 6-foot-4 and 260-pound frame has shaped the perception that's his permanent role, but the Twins have long touted his sufficient athletic ability to be a long-term corner infielder once there's an opening. He was signed at age 16 as a shortstop, after all.
Sano's legacy will ultimately be with the bat, though, no matter how he fares in the field. Again, Sano hasn't yet collected enough at-bats to qualify, but his .287 batting average is by far the best for the Twins.
"He's going to get his home runs by being a good hitter," Molitor said. "When he gets a little greedy, sometimes he's been paying a price for that. I wouldn't blame him with that skill set to try to take a shot now and then, but just being a good hitter is what's making him valuable."