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Miguel Sano and the limits of what’s possible

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The Twins slugger hits the ball harder than nearly any human alive. So can he possibly maintain a historic BABIP?

Minnesota Twins v Baltimore Orioles
Miguel Sano boasts a near-.500 BABIP in the 2017 season.
Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

In the top of the fifth inning on May 22 against the Orioles, Miguel Sano smoked a line drive 110 miles per hour at a 6.3-degree launch angle. Had Sano struck the ball at 111 miles per hour and a 6.2-degree launch angle, Ubaldo Jimenez may have perished.

As is a surprise to no one who’s been paying attention, Miguel Sano hits the ball awfully hard, and thus sits atop many a Statcast leaderboard (all stats in this piece are through Sunday’s game against the Angels). The Dominican bonus baby boasts the highest average Exit Velocity, more than one mile-per-hour faster than Monstar Aaron Judge, who also appears quite frequently; the fourth-highest EV on fly balls and line drives; the second-highest percentage of balls hit 95+ MPH; and the third-highest highest percentage of “barrels” per batted ball.

These newfangled stats confirm what Twins fans know: Miguel Sano wrecks baseballs.

Logic dictates that the harder a batter hits the ball, the more often he gets on base. Though the relative newness of the data and some of its holes make the precise correlation between Exit Velocity and Batting Average on Balls in Play difficult to divine, it’s clear that harder-hit balls do more damage than their softer-hit compatriots, per Statcast/Baseball Savant maven Daren Willman.

Again, this makes sense: it is hard to track down, let alone get in front of and glove, the type of laser beams Sano sprays around the field.

In Sano’s case, his hard-hitting ways have resulted in a 2017 BABIP that would set a single-season major-league record. (I’ve organized it since 1950, since statistics back when MLB barred players of color are bunk.)

Best BABIP seasons since ‘50

Season Name Team BABIP K% BB% wRC+
Season Name Team BABIP K% BB% wRC+
2017 Miguel Sano Twins 0.465 37.1% 15.2% 169
2017 Ryan Zimmerman Nationals 0.413 20.1% 7.5% 194
1977 Rod Carew Twins 0.408 7.9% 9.9% 175
2017 Aaron Judge Yankees 0.408 29.2% 14.6% 194
2002 Jose Hernandez Brewers 0.404 32.3% 8.9% 119
1967 Roberto Clemente Pirates 0.403 16.3% 6.5% 170
2000 Manny Ramirez Indians 0.403 22% 16.2% 181
2004 Ichiro Suzuki Mariners 0.399 8.3% 6.4% 131
1993 Andres Galarraga Rockies 0.399 14.4% 4.7% 150
1985 Wade Boggs Red Sox 0.396 8% 12.7% 156

The presence of two other 2017 seasons illustrates the small-sample-size issue with the stat, and it’s clear that Sano will be unable to sustain such a ludicrous BABIP. But what this article presupposes is, maybe he can?

Minnesota Twins v Baltimore Orioles
Miguel Sano is the best.
Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Sano’s world-beating BABIP

Although Sano’s BABIP this season easily the highest of his career, the Twins’ third baseman and erstwhile “outfielder” has always slugged the ball hard. His career BABIP is the highest of any hitter with more than 1,000 career plate appearances since, again, 1950.

Top 10 Career BABIP-ers

Name PA BABIP BB% K% wRC+
Name PA BABIP BB% K% wRC+
Miguel Sano 1040 0.375 13.4% 36.1% 133
Mike Trout 3764 0.360 13.6% 21.9% 170
Rod Carew 10550 0.359 9.6% 9.7% 132
Starling Marte 2514 0.358 4.7% 22.4% 120
Christian Yelich 2351 0.356 10.3% 20.5% 120
Joey Votto 5678 0.355 15.9% 18.2% 157
Paul Goldschmidt 3607 0.355 14.2% 21.7% 146
Odubel Herrera 1407 0.355 7.2% 22.3% 104
Chris Johnson 2995 0.353 4.8% 25.1% 95
Corey Seager 1041 0.352 10% 19.3% 138

(h/t to “Gleeman and the Geek,” which got me looking more closely at Sano’s BABIP.)

Simply put, no player in the past 67 years has reached base more often when he puts the ball in play than Miguel Sano.

Again, the prevalence of active players — players who have fewer MLB plate appearances and who have yet to slow down and decline much yet — illuminates the SSS problems inherent in this kind of leaderboard. (Also, Rod Carew! Imagine a guy with that approach and profile entering the big leagues right now. I don’t think we’d know what to do with him.)

But if there were ever a cheat code for BABIP, hitting the ever-living snot out of the ball would be it, methinks. And Sano is certainly doing that.

(Also, just worth mentioning to really drive home Sano’s absurd batting line this season: BABIP does not include home runs. You probably knew that, but a quick reminder demonstrates just how bananas he’s been. We’re not even factoring in the dingers!)

Where Sano differs from his comrades on the Sky-High BABIP list is his propensity to strikeout.

When the Top 40 all-time BABIPers are thrown on to a scatter plot with their career K-rates, Sano occupies a particularly anomalous perch.

Graph via Louie, data via Fangraphs

Sano strikes out far more than anyone else who’s run such a high BABIP through 1,000 career PA’s — and his BABIP also sits comfortably above the rest of the field. He’s doing something wholly different than his peers.

A look back at the table of the 10 highest BABIP-ers does suggest a trend; the only players remotely near Sano in both BABIP and K’s are his contemporaries, which makes sense: strikeouts have never been more prevalent in baseball history, and, especially over the last few seasons, more players are selling out for dongs to the detriment of their contact rates.

Miguel Sano may be taking the “swing your pants off” approach to its logical extreme, but one adjustment augurs well for its viability: a steady uptick in aggressiveness on pitches in the zone, particularly from 2016 to this season.

Image via Fangraphs

Sano has elected to uncork his violent, devastating swing more often when he sees strikes while retaining his strong eye on pitches out of the zone. If a hitter is going to swing out of his shoes, this is the way to do it.

Whatever success Sano shows will invariably be accompanied by plenty of strikeouts. We know this. And sure, It’s lunacy to expect Miguel Sano to maintain a plus-.400 BABIP.

But his selectively aggressive approach and once-or-twice-in-a-generation swing do provide hope that Miguel Sano can continue to be the big, beautiful outlier we all dreamed he could be.