Mackey: Strikeouts are Joe Benson's main roadblock to the big leagues
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Minnesota Twins outfield prospect Joe Benson is moving up in the world.
From 100th to 99th, to be exact, on Baseball America's Top 100 list.
"I moved up one spot this year," Benson said earlier this week with a prideful grin. "I have to be doing something right."
In reality, Benson is doing a lot of things right -- enough to be named the Twins' minor league position player of the year in 2010, and enough to be called up for his major league debut in September of last season.
More importantly than his Baseball America prospect ranking is the fact that Benson, along with other young players such as Chris Parmelee, Brian Dozier, Ben Revere and Trevor Plouffe, will likely determine the organization's future over the next 5 to 10 years.
Scouts love Benson's skill set. He covers gap to cap in center field with a plus-arm, and the ball springboards off his bat when he squares up pitches.
Benson's numbers in the minor leagues hold up strongly over the past couple years too. Between 2009 and 2010 -- making the leap from High-A to Double-A (and briefly back to High-A after a demotion) at age 22 -- Benson jumped from five home runs to 27. He slugged .538 that season, then followed up by slugging .491 in 2011 with 16 home runs and 29 doubles.
His major league debut in September last season didn't go particularly well, as Benson hit just .239/.270/.352 with 21 strikeouts in 74 plate appearances -- a 170-whiff pace over the course of a full season.
Strikeouts aren't a new hindrance for Benson. He whiffed once every four trips to the plate in Double-A last year, and once every 3.8 trips in 2010.
He also mixes in a fair amount of walks, but those strikeouts, Benson says, are the tallest hurdles in front of his path to the major leagues -- not just the quantity of strikeouts, but the timing of them as well.
"Defensively, I feel like I can play in the outfield (in the major leagues)," said Benson, has eight strikeouts in 16 spring at-bats so far, to go along with a home run and two singles. "It really is an issue with this strikeout thing, because I really feel if I can cut those down -- an extra 20 balls put in play. Beat out two for infield singles, find a couple holes, a bloop here and there, and your numbers start to take care of themselves and you become a better baseball player, help your team win more games."
Enter: Tom Brunansky, former Twins outfielder and current hitting coach for Triple-A Rochester after an offseason promotion.
In 2011, Brunansky served as hitting coach for Double-A New Britain, where he worked closely with Parmelee, Dozier and Benson.
"I didn't know much about him," Benson said, "so I did a quick look at his career and everything and found out he was a corner outfielder, he was a power hitter and stuff -- things I'm striving to be. Once I met him, we just had personalities that attracted each other. He always called me the little brother that he never had."
Before working with Brunansky, Benson already had established himself as one of the organization's best young players after a breakout season in 2010. So he was clearly on the correct path.
But Brunansky's approach as an instructor is different than the instructors Benson worked with on his way up the ladder -- mostly because the job of rookie ball and Single-A instructors is to iron out poor mechanics.
Brunansky talks more about plate approach, situational hitting, types of pitchers, how to adjust to someone throwing harder, or how to adjust to pitchers who throw more sliders.
"We got into talking about extension, really hitting the ball out in front," Benson said. "And those are things I had never heard before."
Benson said hitting coaches at the lower levels of the organization had worked with him on approach and plate discipline, which helped lead to a breakout season in 2010, "but I guess Bruno put it in different terms for me, and I found a different understanding of the things he was trying to apply."
Brunansky spends a lot of time explaining the psychology of hitting to young players -- how to handle failure, how to look for certain pitches, and which pitches to avoid in certain counts.
"Young hitters, especially, think that they're bulletproof, that we can hit every pitch, that we can hit every slider or curveball," Brunansky said in an interview with 1500 ESPN earlier this month. "You're not going to hit the good ones. At this level, you're not. That's why they're there. But the smart hitters, the veteran hitters, are the ones that don't get all worked up about letting that pitch go by. Because they're going to get that one pitch. And the good ones don't miss."
As for hitter mechanics, Brunansky says, "My whole thing is keep it simple."
Brunansky preaches three main mechanical items to hitters: Balance, finishing swings with good extension, and coming to a balance point again after the swing.
"There's a lot of stuff that goes in between that as a hitter, and I try to make sure our hitters don't think too much about that," Brunansky said. "Because one of the biggest keys to being a good big league hitter is not to think."
Benson is frequently guilty of thinking too much.
"And that's where we've got to get past," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He's got to quit worrying about that stuff and quit thinking about it. ... He's working really, really hard. Like a lot of young players, he thinks about it more than we do. We're just out here working in spring training and he thinks about it a little too much. He gets frustrated. He's got to learn to calm all that down."
Along with teaching Benson how to handle the ups and downs and swings of baseball, Brunansky is trying to explain that there's an appropriate time to strikeout, and an appropriate time to put a ball in play by any means necessary.
"Runner on second base, no outs, or runner on third base -- situational hitting like that," Benson said, "you have to do everything possible to try and put the ball in play, move runners, make something happen. Leading off an inning or two outs in an inning, nobody on, why not try to hit a double? Hit a triple? Hit one over the fence to get a quick run at the end of an inning?
"But it's a learning process. I've got to get a lot better at cutting down my strikeouts. I feel like that's one of the things holding me back from becoming a better baseball player."
Benson also must stay healthy in 2012. He missed a month last year with a torn meniscus, and he also missed time in 2008 with back problems; not to mention the two months he missed in 2009 with a broken hand he sustained after punching a wall.
Outfielders Denard Span, Josh Willingham, Revere and Plouffe are all slated to see regular playing time with the Twins at the start of the season, which means Benson will almost certainly start the season at Triple-A Rochester -- his first at that level -- where he will work closely once again with Brunansky.
"Benny is like the bull in the China shop," Brunansky said. "He's going to run around and hit a bunch of stuff, he's going to break some things, and he's going to miss some things. And that's the way his whole approach has been. I saw him with some unbelievable swings, and then I saw him swing at some pitches that were a few feet outside. I saw him make a play in the outfield, and then I saw him dive for a ball in the outfield that was 10 feet away.
"That's his makeup right now. And as the game starts to slow down and he starts to realize it's the same game, and his approach gets a little cleaner, he's going to be a good one."