The Minnesota Twins are one of the best teams in the American League halfway through the season despite a couple players struggling at the plate to start the year. Miguel Sano and Mitch Garver, who were productive hitters season, both had a slow start to the 2020 season.
With less than 30 games left, here is why Sano’s slow start felt more impactful than Garver’s:
Comparing Garver and Sano
Both Garver and Sano were coming off of monster seasons and were expected to be impact bats in 2020. Sano hit his career-high home runs in 2019 with 34, and in 19 games this season he was hitting .148. But that appears to be a thing of the past: He hit .462 in his last seven games entering play Wednesday night and seemed to have figured out his swing.
Sano started this season without seeing any live at-bats in training camp due to his league-mandated quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19 in early July.
His slow start is something the Twins have seen from him in the past when he has dealt with injuries, and his first 20 games this season could be interpreted as training camp for Sano because he is beginning to find his stride and look more like a first baseman.
In 2019 Garver had a slash line of .273/.365/.630 with 31 home runs — that’s the second most among catchers last season — and changed the way that he approached his game from behind the plate after working with Twins coach Bill Evers and minor-league catching coordinator Tanner Swanson prior to the 2019 season.
While he started slowly, Garver started turning it around before his intercostal injury. He was batting .250 in his last seven games compared to his season average of .154 through 17 games played.
But why were more people talking about Sano than Garver?
In today’s league, the defensive spectrum matters when it comes to offensive firepower: As a first basemen Sano needs to be a stronger hitter than a catcher, like Garver. First basemen in the league today are more consistent hitters and are known for their offensive power, while offense is not as necessary for catchers. With more and more teams using multiple catchers on a roster, it is sometimes easier to substitute one when they are having slumps.
Looking at catchers league-wide, five currently have 15 or more RBIs, while on the other side 12 first basemen have 15 or more. In most offensive statistical categories first basemen outshine catchers.
With Sano being an offensive powerhouse in seasons past, the move across the diamond set the expectation for him to start the season swinging for the fences. But inevitably this is what made his slow start so disappointing. On the other hand Garver was not given as much scrutiny as a catcher, especially when he has not played close to every game like Sano has.
Sano has no other competition at first base besides defensive replacements like Marwin Gonzalez. In fact, the Twins in the last 10 seasons have never had more than four different players play first base — that only happened once, in 2014 — and in the days of Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer they had several seasons that saw only one player at the position.
Conversely, in the last decade Minnesota has never had fewer than three catchers. In 2018 they had as many as six different players behind the plate. This season the Twins have gone with Alex Avila opposite Garver, and now that he has been put on the 10-day IL, rookie Ryan Jeffers been called up and played well.
The point is that it is much harder to replace a first baseman who can collect hits and RBIs than it is to find a catcher who can hit the league averages.
The biggest downside to Garver getting off to a slow start is that he was a big part of the team’s success last season at a position where batting acumen is not expected. He was one of the top 10 catchers in the league when it came to hitting.
Although Garver has not seen as many at-bats as Sano has, if he gets healthy he can turn his season around and piece things together. With only 28 games left this season both players are capable of being impact bats that the Twins will need come playoff time.