Last night was the exception to 2017, rather than the rule. Sano has looked like the Platonic ideal of himself in the first five weeks of the season. While Eric Thames, Aaron Judge, Bryce Harper, and Ryan Zimmerman have been getting all the attention, Sano has bashed his way to a 197 wRC+ and 8 home runs in 111 plate appearances.The Twins have had a lot of things go right so far this season, but Sano is maybe the biggest, literally and figuratively. Miguel Sano had a bit of an ugly game on Thursday, going 0-for-4 with a walk, striking out the other four times he went to the plate. It was the kind of performance that reminded Twins fans of the uglier side of Sano’s game, one that showed up a lot in his sophomore campaign last year.
How did Sano turn a disappointing, injury-riddled 2016 into a world-beating 2017? Travis Sawchik recently observed on FanGraphs that Sano had adjusted his swing a bit. He lowered his hands to allow the barrel of the bat to get into the zone quicker and stay there longer. It’s a common fix among power hitters, and one that frequently pays off.
It’s paid off for Sano. While he’s been fairly poor overall on contact–he only gets the bat on the ball on two-thirds of his swings–he’s controlling the zone a lot better. He rarely chased anyway, but he’s already managed to shave a couple percentage points off of his chase rate. That has allowed his walk rate to skyrocket to nearly 19 percent; he is an on-base machine now.
He’s also swinging a lot more in the zone. His whiffs are still pretty high, leading to another rough strikeout rate of about 35 percent, but getting the bat in the zone means a higher likelihood of damage done on contact.
And boy, has he done damage. Sano is currently sporting an unseemly .356 isolated power percentage. He rarely put the ball on the ground before, but his groundball rate is now a measly 29.4 percent. His average launch angle is a power-happy 19.7 degrees, the highest of his career. Sano was already a flyball hitter, but now, everything goes in the air.
He’s hitting it too hard for those fly balls and line drives to turn into lazy outs, too. Sano’s 56.9 percent hard-hit rate is second-highest in all of baseball. His average exit velocity is 100 miles per hour. That is unheard of.
Put it all together, and Sano has produced more than any other hitter in baseball aside from Judge and Freddie Freeman. Expected Weighted On-Base Average, or xwOBA, properly weights all hitting events, including walks, and then takes a batted ball’s exit velocity and launch angle to determine what a hitter should have produced. The stat strips out defense and luck from hitting to give us a much more precise look at a hitter’s skill.
Now, xwOBA isn’t park-adjusted, and Statcast can generate some pretty legitimate park effects. We need to take the values that xwOBA produces with some grain of salt.
The league average xwOBA is .316; Sano’s is currently .469, third behind Freeman and Judge. What’s even crazier is that Sano has been getting results commensurate with that contact quality, as his .471 raw wOBA attests. He isn’t getting lucky; he’s just that good.
Sano’s 2016 struggles were driven mainly by hamstring, elbow and back injuries. He never really played at 100 percent. With that said, he has already taken a massive leap forward in his development. His plate discipline is as evolved as it’s ever been. When he makes contact, he absolutely destroys the baseball.
Sano will need to continue developing his contact skills. Pitchers know that low-and-away is a hole in his swing, and if they stop missing in the zone, they can exploit him with pitches down. That said, he has already shown us that he can adjust to lethal effect.
Sano is pure fire. If the Twins plan on surviving much longer in the AL Central, he will be their spark. Justin Verlander, Carlos Carrasco and the rest of the Central had better be ready.
By Evan Davis