MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Improved Sano vital to Twins' turnaround

Improved Sano vital to Twins' turnaround

The longer you watch baseball at the Major League level, the more you appreciate how truly difficult the game is.

Here's an example of the difficulty, the unforgiving nature of the game: the 2016 Minnesota Twins.

The Twins in 2015 were a young team on the rise, a winning team, a second-place team in the American League Central, a team that narrowly missed capturing a Wild Card berth.

The 2016 Twins, with a roster not all that different from last season, are 12-34, tied with the Atlanta Braves for the worst record in the big leagues.

This performance has required many aspects of Minnesota's game to go wrong. 

Sano's solo home run

One of the most noticeable individual declines has been that of Miguel Sano. That is true mainly because so much was expected of him. Sano came up in the second half of last season and performed like the slugger the Twins hoped he would be. The thought was with his tremendous power, he would continue his inevitable push toward stardom this season.

But the game is rarely as simple as that. In 2015, Sano produced a slash line of .269/.385/ .530, with 18 home runs in 80 games. In 2016, Sano's slash line is .221/.325/.411. And he has struck out a league-high-tying 67 times in 163 at-bats.

There have been misadventures in right field as well, as Minnesota attempts to make Sano a plausible outfielder. For a man, who is listed at 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, he is remarkably athletic. Given that and the fact that Sano just turned 23 earlier this month, there is plenty of reason to believe that he can become a capable defender, along with supplying an impact bat.

Sano's shoestring catch

It was encouraging for Sano and the Twins on Wednesday, after losing the first two games to the defending World Series champion Royals, that Sano hit what turned out to be the game-winning home run.

With the Twins trailing, 5-4, in the fifth inning, Sano crushed a two-run blast to left to give Minnesota the lead and knock Kansas City starter Dillon Gee out of the game. It was the first homer since May 17 for Sano, who was in a 2-for-22 slump before the two-run shot. It was also the hardest-hit ball by exit velocity by him this year, leaving the bat at 111.9 mph according to Statcast™

"I'm really excited to be able to hit the ball like that and help the team win today," Sano said. "I feel really happy. I want to be able to help the team 100 percent."

"Miguel, he's been fighting it, but I think he's got the makeup to get his way through this thing," Twins manager Paul Molitor said. "It was nice to see him get a ball out of the park."

Statcast: Sano's moonshot

Molitor was asked how he would evaluate Sano. The manager's response was suitably multifaceted, but eventually concluded with Sano's considerable potential.

"There's different ways you can do that," Molitor said. "You can look pitch by pitch through an at-bat, you look at where he's at in the season, expectations through the roof, and then project if he does this what his season is going to look at, all those things.

"It hasn't been what everyone hoped it would be -- just come out and be a guy who can dominate in his second year and all the hype. But it's a tough game. He's kind of learned that. I don't know that you need to be humbled or anything like that, but he's trying to get better. He knows that it's not easy to come up here and be thrust into the middle of the lineup and be expected to produce.

"Every once in a while, you get a glimpse; easy swing on a little cutter, and the ball went nine miles. It's a thing where it's still a work in progress, but there's a lot of things that we're still positive about with him."

There is nothing more to be done about the first 46 games of the season. But you had to like what Molitor said in regard to Sano: "It's a tough game. He's kind of learned that."

That knowledge might be a key to a better future for Sano and the Twins. It's a hard way to learn a lesson, but the knowledge gained can also be invaluable.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.