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Miguel Sano has a problem at the plate

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If the Twins slugger doesn’t evolve, he might never see a fastball again.

Minnesota Twins v San Diego Padres
Sano go boom
Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

As Miguel Sano tromped toward home plate in the first inning last Tuesday in San Diego, Padres starter Jhoulys Chacin clearly did not recall the advanced scouting report prepared by some poor Padres intern, who likely would have shown Chacin some much fancier/glossier version of this table.

Miguel Sano’s 2017 Pitch Mix

Pitch Type Pitches Whiffs Whiff % AVG SLG
Pitch Type Pitches Whiffs Whiff % AVG SLG
Four-Seam Fastball 502 70 13.9 0.310 0.650
Slider 420 95 22.6 0.247 0.393
Changeup 171 50 29.2 0.163 0.256
Two-Seam Fastball/Sinker 254 24 9.4 0.389 0.778
Curveball/Knuckle-Curve 225 49 21.8 0.235 0.510
Cut-Fastball 101 28 27.7 0.100 0.100
Data via Baseball Savant

Miguel Sano does large doses of damage on fastballs. One could even say he “hit straightball very much.”

Sano ranks 11th in the majors among qualified hitters against fastballs by Fangraphs’ Weighted Pitch Value metric with a mark of 20.1 Runs Above Average, and — if luck-denuded, Exit Velocity-based data are more your thing — he ranks 9th in MLB against fastballs in Statcast’s Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA).

Yet, last Tuesday, Chacin threw Sano a fastball.

The Twins-Padres was inexplicably broadcast on national television Tuesday night, so fans were treated to the color-guy stylings of Eric Karros, and said stylings were surprisingly sagacious and prescient.

[I’m] surprised that Chacin went right after him with that fastball. Sano hits the fastball as well as anybody in the game, especially if you’re talking about slugging percentage. Sliders? Not so much. Chacin, that [the slider] is his bread-and-butter pitch, so I don’t expect that Sano’s going to get too many more fastballs tonight if Chacin has anything to do with it.

Karros called it, for the most part. After Sano’s line-shot to right-center, Chacin largely stayed away from the four-seamer in favor of a bunch of junk outside.

Image via Baseball Savant

All told, Chacin and lefty reliever Brad Hand threw Sano seven fastballs in the 17 pitches he saw Tuesday evening — a 41.2% rate that comes awfully close to the distribution of fastballs Sano’s seen this season. Opposing pitchers have thrown Sano 42.4% fastballs in 2017, the lowest rate in baseball through last Thursday.

Lowest % Fastballs Seen in 2017

Name Team FB%
Name Team FB%
Miguel Sano Twins 42.4%
Salvador Perez Royals 44.4%
Kendrys Morales Blue Jays 45.4%
Rougned Odor Rangers 45.6%
Trey Mancini Orioles 45.6%
Yonder Alonso Athletics 46.8%
Joey Gallo Rangers 47%
Justin Smoak Blue Jays 47.2%
Mike Moustakas Royals 47.6%
Nick Castellanos Tigers 47.8%

As Sano has stuck around and proven his ability to mash fastballs, a scouting report has crystallized, especially in his third season: shelve the fastball and throw him a steady diet of sliders.

Image via Fangraphs

(Something else to keep an eye on: Sano has really struggled against changeups this season, though he hasn’t seen any more than he did in 2015/’16. Expect pitchers — especially lefties — to lean on that pitch more heavily until he can prove he can stay back and smack ‘em.)

Opposing pitchers’ desire to feed Sano sliders comes from his relative inability to hit them. Over his three-year career, Sano has hit .293/.388/.622 (a 181 wRC+) against fastballs and .193/.250/.358 (76 wRC+) against sliders.

Sano has swung and missed 24.5% of the time on sliders this season, a career-worst number — in a year where he’s seen more sliders than ever before.

When it comes to sliders, Sano’s “bats are afraid.”

Sano boasts a massive differential between his fastball and slider numbers, whether using Fangraphs’ Weighted Pitch Values or Statcast’s xwOBA.

Here’s Fangraphs’ $0.02:

2017’s Biggest Fastball-Slider Neg. Differentials (Weighted Pitch Values)

Name Team wFB wSL +/-
Name Team wFB wSL +/-
Mark Reynolds Rockies 23.5 -14.5 -38
Paul Goldschmidt Diamondbacks 30.6 -0.3 -30.9
Jose Ramirez Indians 21.1 -8.1 -29.2
Ben Gamel Mariners 17.4 -8.2 -25.6
Miguel Sano Twins 20.1 -2.4 -22.5
Bryce Harper Nationals 27.8 5.5 -22.3
Joey Gallo Rangers 16.8 -5.2 -22
Joey Votto Reds 25.9 4.7 -21.2
Giancarlo Stanton Marlins 18.2 -2.9 -21.1
Justin Smoak Blue Jays 20.9 0.1 -20.8
Data via Fangraphs

Statcast has a handy tool that allows pitches to be grouped by “Fastball” or “Offspeed,” both of which groups encompass all pitches therein — cut-, two-seam, Et al. for the former; curveball, knuckleball, screwball, Et al. for the latter. This delineation allows us to determine which MLB batters boast the largest negative difference between the two expected xwOBA’s — i.e. how much harder/better they hit fastballs than non-fastballs.

2017’s Biggest Fastball-Offspeed Neg. Differentials (xwOBA)

Player Name Fastball xwOBA Offspeed xwOBA xwOBA +/-
Player Name Fastball xwOBA Offspeed xwOBA xwOBA +/-
Curtis Granderson 0.403 0.196 -0.207
Ben Gamel 0.373 0.183 -0.190
Joey Gallo 0.438 0.250 -0.188
Michael Conforto 0.447 0.265 -0.182
Joe Mauer 0.427 0.256 -0.171
Miguel Sano 0.431 0.265 -0.166
Todd Frazier 0.428 0.262 -0.166
Keon Broxton 0.353 0.188 -0.165
Alex Gordon 0.365 0.209 -0.156
Hunter Pence 0.358 0.202 -0.156
Data via Baseball Savant

(Of note: Joe Mauer sits one spot above Miguel Sano. More on that in the near future.)

Sano rates pretty poorly compared to his compatriots in making contact and hitting offspeed pitches with authority, per this Baseball Savant data (and crude MS Paint-style construction by yours truly.)

Data via Baseball Savant

The only players who make less contact with less velocity on offspeed offerings are the league’s biggest whiffers: Brandon Moss, Mike Napoli, Wilson Contreras, Keon Broxton and Joey Gallo, the latter of whom is so far right on the above graph he can barely be contained by the X-axis.

(Gallo is also capable of things like this:

which I mostly included because I find Jose Berrios’ incredibly naive, involuntary flinch/gaze post-dong combo to be so utterly heartbreaking and touching. Jose, you knew where that was going, yet you couldn’t help but watch. We get it.)

Point is, Miguel Sano prefers fastballs — for the most part.

Sano’s straight-ball love may have dimmed a bit Friday after he became intimately and uncomfortably acquainted with a real humdinger from the RangersTony Barnette.

Barnette’s heater kept Sano out of the remainder of Friday’s game and for the next three, but when Sano returns, his ability to adjust and hit sliders will be vital to anything resembling Twins success. Why? Because the Twins’ lineup sans Sano is less a lineup and more a collection of well-meaning and incompetent gentlemen holding clubs near an ivory pentagon.

The Twins have four average-or-slightly-better non-Sano hitters — Robbie Grossman, Eddie Rosario, Joe Mauer and Brian Dozier — and after that a bunch of dross.

The Twins need Sano, whose evolution into a premier middle-of-the-order slugger will be the team’s biggest gain in 2017 barring any late-season Wild Card-race excitement. But for Sano to take the next step in his development as an elite slugger, he’ll need to make strides vs. sliders.

And avoid fastballs heading directly toward his hands.