Hunter exits camp leaving impact on youngsters

Outfielder worked extensively with Buxton, Sano

March 7th, 2016

SARASOTA, Fla. -- As Byron Buxton stood next to Torii Hunter behind the batting cage during a round of live batting practice early in camp, Hunter would yell out what pitch was coming before it even left the pitcher's hand.

Hunter, fresh off a 19-year career and serving as a Spring Training instructor, had picked up on the pitcher's tendencies, which amazed Buxton. Hunter asked Buxton to watch closely to see if he could figure out what he was seeing, and the youngster initially struggled to find what Hunter had noticed.

Spring Training:Schedule | Tickets | Gear

"He picked it up in like two pitches," said Buxton, shaking his head. "I'm sitting there looking and I couldn't see anything. He told me to keep looking and like five pitches later I still didn't see anything. But then he said to watch his glove. So the next pitch is a fastball and before it, he takes a deep breath and squeezes his glove. But then on the next pitch, a curveball, he only took a deep breath. So he asked if I noticed and was like, 'There you go.' It was crazy."

It was just one small example of the kind of mentoring Hunter did in his 10 days in camp before he departed on Sunday. And while Hunter spent time working with several players, it was his work with youngsters Miguel Sano and Buxton that stood out the most.

Every day at about 8 a.m. Sano would go out on a practice field with first-base coach Butch Davis, and Hunter would stand behind him and explain to him exactly what he did right and wrong after every play no matter how routine it looked. It was the kind of one-on-one mentoring the Twins were looking for when they brought in Hunter to work with Sano on his move to right field.

"The most ideal thing was that we got a guy who is making the transition to the position he used to play," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. "They know each other and trust each other and I don't know that could've turned out any better."

Hunter made progress with Sano's outfield fundamentals, but said the most important thing was that Sano was willing to learn despite moving away from his natural position of third base.

"I think he has all the potential in the world," Hunter said. "He has all the athleticism he needs. It's just the mental side of the game playing right field. Things like angles. But what we worked on at 8 a.m., he applies it. So I think he wants it."

So while Hunter mostly helped with Sano's defense, he worked with Buxton on his approach at the plate. Buxton, ranked as the No. 2 overall prospect by, admittedly struggled in his first taste of the Majors last year, hitting .209/.250/.326 in 46 games.

But Hunter could relate, as it took him several years to get established as a big leaguer and didn't have his breakout season until playing parts of four years in the Majors. Last season was the first time Buxton had dealt with struggles, but instead of dwelling on it, he's trying to learn from it with Hunter's help.

"It was tough, but I think what's helped out the most, was opening up and talking to guys like Torii and [hitting coach Tom] Brunansky," Buxton said. "Just seeing what I could do to get better. I know I struggled, but I just wanted to see what I could do to help myself to hit the ball harder and slow the game down."

Even after games, Hunter would take Buxton into the batting cages to help him with his swing -- Buxton is trying a new leg kick that serves as a timing mechanism -- but also to break down his at-bats from the game on what pitches he saw and what he was expecting.

"It was more me learning the mental side," Buxton said. "It's something I need to get better at. He said I have a good swing, it's just what to expect in certain situations. It was more about him finding out about what I'm thinking in the box."

Hunter admitted it was strange being around the game during Spring Training without preparing for the upcoming season, but said he plans to be involved with baseball in some capacity in retirement. The Twins are open to bringing Hunter back into the organization, but Hunter is weighing his options and could go into television, but said not this season. But for now, Hunter was happy to be able to pass on his wisdom in his role as a Spring Training instructor.

"This is my life," Hunter said. "I spent 23 years in it, over my half my life, so the game is a part of me. So me coming here for 10 days was fun."