Tony Oliva's advice, and what Miguel Sanó might make of his moment (free post)

What felt like a huge home run Saturday gave way to a frustrating defeat Sunday. Will Sanó and the Twins use the weekend as a springboard?

Twins fans, this column on Miguel Sanó is part of my larger effort, the 5 Thoughts column that I sent to members on Monday. (Yes, before his 3-homer game.) The original column contains happy parts, frustrating/sad parts, and my explanation of why it’s too soon to give up hope. It’s the 2021 Twins season in a nutshell.

I hope that by posting this mid-week, more people are able to see the free preview. And if you are able to support my work, please consider becoming a subscribing member for less than $1 per week.Don’t hesitate to reach out to me with any questions - thank you!

1 - Did Miguel Sanó just have a moment?

I can’t remember exactly how long, but for a while now I’ve been watching Twins games with the express purpose of uncovering that “moment.” What’s going to be that one stroke of luck, or one hard-hit ball that finds a corner, a sign or something – anything, really – that will lead to a win, a winning streak, and a climb out of the mud-filled hole. Maybe 10 days or two weeks this has gone on. And still, the losses piled up and moments fizzled from possible Moment to footnote.

Miguel Sanó’s home run Saturday to win the game in a crucial moment is as close as we’ve come to unearthing that gem. Both for the context of the team, the player, and the little things leading up to it.

Twins legend Tony Oliva joined the Twins Today radio show Sunday, and I asked him what he thinks of the big first baseman.

“I know Sanó, he tries so hard,” Oliva said. “But right now he goes through a very hard time. … I watch him every single game. He takes a lot of pitches, too close [to the strike zone] because he thinks it’s ball. That ball is too close. Those pitchers are no dummies; they don’t give him too many good pitches to hit because he’s too strong. … He has to fight for everything. … If it’s close enough to call strikes – hey, as many times you hit home runs, hit base hits, hit doubles on balls, they’re too close [to take]. Please, swing the bat!”

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His advanced batted-ball metrics don’t give Sanó Defenders much to work with right now. He’s OK at first base, he draws a lot of walks, he sometimes hits the ball really hard when he makes contact, but right now the 37% strikeout rate isn’t being offset by enough power to make you forget about the whiffs. Perennially, his hardest hit ball of the season is one of the top marks in the Majors – he has a strong max exit velocity, in the parlance of our times. But so far among his 40 balls put in play, only 3 of them have qualified as a “Barrel” by Statcast – judged to be the right combination of speed and direction off the bat to do damage.

(And for the very interested nerds out there: there’s already research in the early season that exit velocity is impacted by the new and “improved” baseballs they’re using this year, which might mean that those barrels are easier to come by for hitters; after the league as a whole averaged roughly a 7% barrel rate on batted balls in 2018-19, the league as a whole right now has a barrel rate of 8.2%, a 17% increase, ignoring 2020.)

In light of all that, it kind of looked like he’d been benched for Willians Astudillo in recent games. And the Twins’ tailspin continued, with the AL West leaders in town, who had already served Minnesota its biggest gut punch of the year in that 13-12 debacle of a loss in Oakland.

“I think he knows that he has to work,” Rocco Baldelli said this week, amid the context of questions about Sanó potentially losing his first base job to Astudillo for the time being. “I sat down with [Sanó] and had a good conversation with him. And he knows that he has to get dialed in and get his timing in and go out there and have good at-bats when he has the opportunity and he goes out there and plays. … And he keeps working on the side when he’s not in the lineup.”

I know that it lost some significance after the latest routinely/unbelievable wild loss Sunday, but the context leading up to the big homer struck me at the time. Mitch Garver had lined into a back-breaker double play. But then, instead of folding, Jorge Polanco drew a walk after at least one bad strike call could have flipped that plate appearance. New guy Rob Refsnyder – who may be the eighth man on the outfield depth chart – singled on a ball that just cleared the infield and did enough to drive in a run and bring Sanó to the plate with a chance.

Lefty Jacob Diekman was pitching Sanó away, and put a 1-1 fastball at 95 mph on the outside black. He was late on the pitch and served it out to right field, narrowly clearing the limestone overhang and sending Target Field into a frenzy.

We’d been waiting for the “moment” that was going to jolt the Twins to life, remind them that they’re supposed to be one of those good baseball teams, not the worst baseball team, and send them on their merry way to win the division. Well, it’s impossible to know if the home run was that moment until we have the benefit of hindsight. But it sure seemed on Saturday like an important shot to a team in desperate need of anything to change the mojo.

Apparently it was the first time the Twins had overcome a deficit of more than one run to win a game this year. Undoubtedly a mood-lifter but also, if you’re looking at the calendar, that factoid qualifies as a big yikes.