Hot start hasn’t cooled Pinto’s work ethic
By Mike Berardino
St. Paul Pioneer Press
ST. PAUL — A couple of throws sailed on Josmil Pinto during a recent road trip, including one his manager said he never should have attempted.
So the first thing the Twins’ rookie catcher did upon returning to Target Field over the weekend was to march onto the field with catching instructor Terry Steinbach and work on his footwork and throwing.
“Pinto is one of the hardest-working kids you’re going to see,” reliever Jared Burton said. “He’s in the video room studying hitters. He’s not afraid to ask questions. That’s the biggest thing you (want) in a young player. He did that as soon as he got here last September.”
At 25, the powerfully built Venezuelan isn’t about to let a hot start at the plate diminish his thirst for information.
Among big-league rookies, only Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu has better overall numbers than Pinto. Yet, while Abreu was signed as a Cuban defector for $68 million over six years this winter, Pinto is still working for the big-league minimum of $500,000.
In that regard, he has been one of the game’s best bargains.
With 17 walks entering Tuesday and the start of a three-game interleague series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Pinto already has broken Tim Teufel’s 30-year-old franchise mark for most April walks by a rookie. Pinto still has a shot to catch Butch Wynegar’s Twins rookie record for any month: 20 in July 1976.
“His walks and his strikeouts (15) aren’t far apart,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He’s got a big swing but it’s compact. He can drive the ball, uses the whole field. He’s not just a pull, pull, pull guy. I’m just glad we’re getting him in the lineup.”
In order to do that, the Twins have used Pinto at designated hitter 11 times already while Kurt Suzuki handles primary catching duties. While even veteran players often struggle with the mental challenge the DH role presents, Pinto has done some of his best work while sitting for long periods between at-bats.
Among those with 35 or more plate appearances at DH, only Baltimore’s Nelson Cruz (1.174) has a higher combined on-base/slugging percentage than Pinto’s .990. His .447 on-base percentage in the DH role also ranks second.
How does Pinto keep from growing antsy on those nights when he’s the DH?
“During the game, I just stretch and take a few swings in the cage,” he said. “Not too much, though, just regular. Just enough to stay warm.”
Some veterans have tried riding an exercise bike in the clubhouse in an effort to simulate the effort on defense, but Pinto hasn’t done that yet.
“Just stretch and stretch and stretch and then get ready for your at-bat,” he said. “Plus, all those games when I play DH, I can watch the hitters for the other team. I try to learn the most that I can so I can see every inning the other hitters and see what pitch they can hit and what pitch they can’t.”
That’s a vital part of the Pinto Principle: He never stops trying to absorb all he possibly can.
“I always concentrate on the game,” he said. “I always watch all the game now.”
His mind is constantly working, to the point where he will sidle up to Suzuki and Steinbach with defense-oriented questions during games when he serves as DH. Generally, they will gladly share their knowledge, but there are times when even Steinbach has to caution Pinto against trying to stay too involved during defensive innings.
“I respect him as a DH, too,” Steinbach said. “Kind of been there, so I’m not going to sit here and mandate that we’re going to focus 100 percent on catching. He’s got to go knock in some runs.”
That part has been remarkably easy for Pinto since he was first promoted to the majors last Aug. 31, the day Justin Morneau was dealt to Pittsburgh. In 40 big-league games spanning 162 plate appearances, Pinto has hit .292 with a .401 OBP and slugged .533.
Most of his nine home runs in that span have been no-doubters, and his 158 career OPS Plus — adjusted for park and league effect — puts him 58 percent above the league norm.
“I want to make sure when he’s DH-ing, his No. 1 job is to hit,” Steinbach said. “If there’s stuff we can point out in the process, we will, but in no way do I want to compromise what he needs to do to get ready to hit. Whether it’s getting some swings in the cage or a couple sprints or whatever, I make sure he does that first.”
At that point, the unfailingly pleasant Pinto will nod and leave the dugout and retreat to the tunnel or the indoor batting cage. Twins veterans appreciate those moments, as well.
“He’s only going to get better,” Burton said. “When he gets better behind that plate, we all know what he can do with that bat; we’ve seen a little taste of that. He’s an elite-type player, and he’s got a high ceiling and he’s definitely going to work hard to get there.”
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