Yesterday, Zach had an article here where he conducted a blind statistical comparison of Max Kepler and Miguel Sanó. Zach pointed out the two players have eerily similar batting lines over the past two seasons even though they are perceived quite differently by the fan base. When Zach’s post went up, I was most of the way through a similar thought exercise involving Sanó and a different comparable Twin — Luis Arraez.
Where Kepler and Sanó have many differences, Sanó and Arraez are perhaps even more starkly juxtaposed. Physically, they are polar opposites. Sanó looks the part of an NFL defensive lineman and the diminutive Arraez is unlikely to be picked out of a crowd for being a professional athlete. At the plate, the right handed Sanó and his extra base hits and penchant for swinging and missing are on one side of the spectrum and the left handed Arraez and his high rates of contact and singles are on the other.
Something Sanó and Arraez share is that they are both below average defenders and base runners, which means their ability to provide value is dependent on their bats. Fortunately, they each have unique skills with the bat that rank among MLB’s elite in their own particular skill areas. Below are their Statcast percentile ranks in different statistical categories:
You can see they both have multiple deep red markers with numbers in the 90s, indicating they are among the best ~5% of all players in that respective category. While they have this in common, it again highlights their differences. Those red markers do not overlap in any categories — where Sanó is red, Arraez is blue, and vice versa.
These Statcast measures are about the process underlying the results achieved on the field, not the actual outcomes themselves. But, the traditional results stats also show the contrast between Arraez and Sanó.
Here are their seasonal triple-slash lines (BA/OBP/SLG):
- Arraez: (422 PAs) .291 / .358 / .376
- Sanó: (466 PAs) .218 / .307 / .461
As their reputations would suggest, the traditional and advanced stats show that Arraez has large advantages over Sanó in batting average and on base percentage while the big first baseman has a large advantage over Arraez in slugging.
I doubt that is news to anyone who follows the Twins closely enough to be reading a fan blog in September with the team far out of playoff contention. But it might be news to you if I told you the two player’s total offensive production this season is strikingly similar. (Especially given Sanó’s early season slump).
I’ve written in our Analytics Fundamentals series about the limitations of using stats like batting average to assess offensive production (Part 1) and the more comprehensive measures we should use instead (Part 4). In those pieces, I wrote that rate stats weighted on base average (wOBA) and weighted runs created plus (wRC+) are preferred for more accurate and complete evaluation of total offensive production.
If we look at the two with wOBA and wRC+, we see they have been close to the same:
- Arraez: wOBA: .321 wRC+: 103
- Sanó: wOBA: .327 wRC+: 107
Just a few days ago, they each had .326 wOBA and 106 wRC+. The league average wOBA in 2021 is .314 and wRC+ is scaled such that 100 is league average, so these numbers also tell us they are both having slightly better than league average offensive seasons.
Because they create these very similar levels of offensive production in different ways, Arraez and Sanó serve as an excellent reminder of the relative value of different kinds of offensive events.
Intuitively, we know things like a double is more valuable than a single, a walk is more valuable than a strikeout, and strikeouts are less valuable than making an out on a ball in play (but only slightly). But, for a variety of reasons, it’s difficult to intuitively grasp these relative values with precision.
For example, just exactly how much more valuable is a double than a single?
Using historical data and an approach called linear weights, it has been shown that a double is not actually twice as valuable as a single (despite its name) — it is about 1.4 times more valuable, on average. Similar calculations have been done for all the various offensive events. While there is some variation that occurs over time, this list from Tom Tango in 2010 still works as a rough guide for the relative run values of each kind of offensive event on the field.
Using that knowledge, we can dig a little deeper into how Arraez and Sanó make their production. At the most basic level, offensive value is created by reaching base safely (or said differently, avoiding making an out). The primary ways for a hitter to reach base are hitting safely, walking, or being hit by a pitch — the three inputs to the numerator of the formula for on base percentage.
With his 151 times reaching base in 422 plate appearances, Arraez leads the current Twins roster in on base percentage at .358. (Nelson Cruz had a .370 OBP when he was traded to Tampa Bay). Sanó, with more plate appearances than Arraez and eight fewer times on base, has a much lower .307 OBP.
Whereas Arraez has a distinct advantage in getting on base, Sanó makes up for it by delivering extra base hits much more frequently.
Here are each player’s distribution of hit types for this season:
Sanó brings extra bases on more than half of his hits and, among those, the majority are the most valuable kind of extra base hit — a home run. Comparably, almost 80% of Arraez’s hits are singles.
Going back to the linear weights approach, we can see how the extra base skew in Sanó’s distribution helps him close the value gap with Arraez. This season, the weighted relative run values (from FanGraphs’ Guts! page) for the four different hit types, walks, and hit by pitches are as follows:
In the table above, I’ve also calculated how many times more valuable the extra base hits are than singles (e.g., I divided the w2B value by the w1B value).
This helps to explain how Sanó can keep pace or even exceed Arraez in total offensive production, despite his lower batting average and on base percentage. When he does reach base on hits, those hits tend to be much more valuable than the kind Arraez usually provides. For every homer Sanó bops, Arraez needs to hit 2.28 singles to create the equivalent offensive value.
As Zach said better than I could, “this whole exercise is illustrative of the power of perception (often over reality)”. I think it’s also illustrative of the power of expectations.
Much like Zach pointed out about Kepler and Sanó, Arraez and Sanó are also oppositely viewed in the realm of public fan opinion.
Sanó is a favorite target for fan frustration for his failure to meet lofty prospect expectations, boom or bust streakiness, and living embodiment of the strikeout scourge that many feel ails the game of baseball today.
On the other hand, fans did not have much in the way of expectations for Arraez because he was not a highly regarded prospect. Now, he is celebrated for his grind, consistency, bunches of singles, and infectious energy. He’s held up as a refreshing throwback to a bygone era of the game that some feel needs to be brought back.
But our expectations and difficulty perceiving the players objectively and precisely don’t make either player more or less valuable than they are. Would it be better if Sanó made more contact? Of course. And it would also be better if Arraez had more power.
But, there is room for both styles in the game as they are and both can be valuable (in this case, similarly so). In that way, Arraez and Sanó exemplify a great part of the game of baseball — there are many different ways for players with very different talents to contribute.
John is a staff writer for Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analysis. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnFoley_21.