It’s a bit frustrating to be saying this for two reasons. For one, Miguel Sano blasted 25 home runs last season. Secondly, he’s only 23 years old. Nevertheless, when expectations are sky-high even before you put together a solid rookie season, anything less than extraordinary is a disappointment, and that’s exactly what we saw last year from Sano.
Signed when he was 16 years old from the Dominican Republic, we always knew that Sano’s calling card was going to be his power. In less than a season and a half, he’s already jacked 41 home runs. His 2015 season, 18 of those home runs accompanied a .269 batting average and a nearly 16% walk rate as he was worth 2 WAR in just 80 games. Although he struck out a staggering 36% of the time, it was worth it as Sano was demonstrating the light tower power that made scouts salivate when he was just a teenager.
However, last season was absolutely full of chaos. First, it was the ill-fated move to right field as the Twins attempted to cram as many sluggers as possible into the lineup. Injuries hit as it appeared that Sano wasn’t as svelte as anyone had hoped. Then Sano suddenly forgot how to field as it appeared that he carried a frying pan out to third base with him, and it all culminated with him hitting just .236 and his walk rate dropped to a still above-average but less impressive 11%.
How did this train get derailed? Well, it all started with the dreaded luck factor. His rookie year, Sano exploded on the scene in a similar fashion to Danny Santana. Or, if you prefer more obscure infielders, you could look at Brian Dinkelman, Tommy Watkins, and Glenn Williams. In short, they all possessed the same trait: an incredibly lucky BABIP in their debut. Granted, Dinkelman, Watkins, and Williams all had far fewer at-bats than Santana or Sano, but they all benefited from a high batting average in their first taste of the majors. In the case of Santana and Sano, they both were talented enough to be handed a sophomore season but they both stumbled and fell. Santana fell back to an average BABIP over the past two years, while Sano actually managed to be lucky on balls in play in spite of his .236 batting average?
Alright, next question. How was Sano so bad and yet still lucky? It wasn’t the strikeouts. Even though he whiffed 36% of the time, it was only half a percent more than what he accomplished in 2015. Last season, he didn’t hit the ball with as much authority. His line drive percentage fell from 24.7% to 20.2%. Since they’re by far the most likely type of batted ball to result in a hit, having fewer of them is naturally bad for your batting average. Additionally, he had fewer batted balls classified as “hard hit.” According to FanGraphs, his hard hit percentage fell from 43.2% to 40.1% as his soft hit percentage climbed from 11.7% to 14.1%. However, he still was mashing the ball as Statcast ranked him at 20th in the league in exit velocity at 93.2 MPH (minimum 30 batted balls). Change the minimum to 190 batted balls and Sano climbs to 12th. (In case you’re wondering, Baseball Savant only goes up to 190 batted balls).
Therefore, on the batting side it’s obvious that Sano would need to fix his strikeout rate but still hits the ball hard when he makes contact. As for the fielding side... well, let’s just start with the data. Last season, Sano appeared to completely forget how to field. I despise the use of fielding percentage and errors on their own to judge the quality of a fielder because they completely ignore the player’s range. If we factor in Sano’s range via UZR, he was slightly above-average at third base last year at 2.7 UZR/150 games. If you’d rather look at Defensive Runs Saved, he was slightly below average at -2.
However, I’m sure we all remember the plays Sano should have made rather than the ones he did make. At Inside Edge, one of our top stats is our defensive probabilities. By analyzing the difficulty of a play, we determine the likelihood that a play should have been made by all fielders at that position. Each opportunity is sorted into one of six buckets ranging from “Impossible” (literally no one could make the play) to “Certain” (listed as “Routine” on FanGraphs, these should be made 90-100% of the time).
Last year, Sano was disastrous across the board. Yes, he made 15 errors, but I think these numbers might be even more telling. On “Remote” (1-10% made probability) plays, he missed all five of his opportunities. Sano converted just one of his eight “Unlikely” (10-40%) plays and half of his 10 “Even” (40-60%) plays. On “Likely” plays (60-90%), Sano completed just five of eight, but most egregiously he struggled to make under 90% of his “Certain” chances. Remember, those are plays that should be made 90% of the time minimum and even worse, they combined with the “Impossible” ratings are the most common type of play.
I’m no expert and I don’t have any video to back up my argument, but the lack of success on the plays that should be made suggests that Sano may have been lacking some focus on the defensive end. Maybe it was from the disastrous right field experiment or perhaps he carried his struggles with the bat onto the defensive end, but it’s certain that Sano should have been better with the glove last year.
I do expect a rebound from Sano in the 2017 season. Though cutting his strikeout rate is the real key, I think his power and batted ball quality is good enough that he should see a rebound in his batting average in spite of the lack of contact. On the defensive end, I’m hoping that he will be more serious about his weight and will be in better game shape come spring training.