With Spring Training fast approaching, MLB.com will take a look at a different aspect of this year's Twins squad each day this week. Today's topic: Who might surprise?
MINNEAPOLIS -- After he followed up his solid rookie season with a disappointing sophomore campaign, Kennys Vargas found himself last on the depth chart among the Twins' crowded corner infield situation entering last year.
With Joe Mauer, Trevor Plouffe, Byungho Park and Miguel Sano all ahead of him, Vargas turned down offers to play in Korea and opened the year at Triple-A Rochester. But Vargas bounced back offensively in 2016, showing plenty of promising signs, and now he's likely to get a chance to shine as Minnesota's everyday designated hitter, as Plouffe was outrighted, Sano is now the club's full-time third baseman and Park was designated for assignment on Friday.
Barring a surprise signing of a veteran DH, the door is open for Vargas, who hit .230/.333/.500 with 10 homers, 11 doubles and 20 RBIs in 47 games with the Twins last year. The hulking 6-foot-5, 290-pound slugger posted some of the highest exit velocities on the team, per Statcast™, and improved his plate discipline, but still needs to cut back on his strikeouts.
When Vargas did make contact, the switch-hitter made it count, as he had an average Exit Velocity of 91.6 mph, which ranked second on the team to Sano's 93.2 mph. For context, the average Exit Velocity in the Majors last year was 89.1 mph and Vargas was in the same range as players such as Mike Trout, Carlos Correa and Freddie Freeman.
He also had the hardest-hit ball all year by the Twins, scorching a grounder 116.4 mph off Chris Sale. It was the 15th-hardest hit ball in the Majors last year. He was also third on the team in percentage of Barreled Balls, behind Park and Sano.
After seeing his slugging percentage drop from .456 as a rookie to .349 in '15, Vargas also said he made more of an effort to lift the ball into the air in '16. His Launch Angle was radically different, going from an average of 4.7 degrees in '15 to 14.7 degrees in '16, allowing him to drive the ball into the outfield instead of into the ground.
It helped him cut his ground-ball rate from 51.2 percent to 37.5 percent, while doubling his fly-ball rate from 23.1 percent to 47.9 percent. In his career, Vargas has hit .241 with a .259 slugging percentage on grounders, but .269 with an .827 slugging percentage on fly balls.
Changing his Launch Angle played to his strengths, as evidenced by his career-high .500 slugging percentage and his .270 Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average) in 2016. His Isolated Power would've ranked seventh in the Majors, if qualified, ahead of sluggers such as Nelson Cruz, Josh Donaldson and Kris Bryant.
He also improved his walk rate from 4.9 percent to 13.6 percent, which is more in line with what he did in the Minors (12.4 percent career). His 32.2 percent strikeout rate, however, would've ranked as the second-worst in the Majors behind Chris Davis, if qualified.
So there's still plenty for Vargas to work on this season, including becoming more consistent batting from the left side, but the path for him to be the club's everyday DH has never been clearer and he could surprise with a breakout season.