In 2009, the Minnesota Twins agreed to a contract with the 16-year-old, 190 pound, Dominican shortstop Miguel Sano. The deal included a $3.15 million signing bonus, the largest international signing bonus in Twins history. He cracked Baseball America’s top-100 prospect list entering the 2010 season as a 17-year-old. By 2013, he was ranked Baseball America’s ninth-best overall prospect. Today, at the age of 26 and weight of 272 pounds, Sano is considered by many a lost opportunity. An injury-riddled and drama-filled career has resulted in significant on and off-the-field obstacles. Will Sano ever lock in all that potential?
Let’s Take a Look Back
On the field, Sano was a highly touted and exciting international prospect. He busted onto the minor league scene with major power and flashes of all-around offensive dominance. Hype continued to build as he landed as the Twins’ number two overall prospect behind only Byron Buxton, who was considered by many to be the best prospect in all of baseball. His minor league numbers speak for themselves.
*2014 missed due to Tommy John surgery
What’s Going Wrong?
The ability to play a full season is a pre-requisite to being a superstar. At 116 games, 2016 has been Sano’s healthiest season as a professional ball player. Most recently, Sano missed two months this season due to a procedure on his lower Achilles area. He has dealt with a host of injuries throughout his career, including Tommy John surgery, shin surgery resulting in a titanium rod in his left leg, and multiple other heel, knee, hamstring, and lower-body ailments.
Injuries aside, Sano has other issues. More specifically, the strikeouts. How bad? Really bad. In the following tables, I have added Sano to the qualified hitter player pool (all of his seasons have been cut short due to injury). Let’s look at the league leaders in strikeout percentage.
Despite the strikeout concerns, Sano still posted an above-league-average wRC+ in both 2017 and 2019. Sano has solid plate discipline—the issue lies in the swing and miss. Thus far in 2019, Sano has the worst Z-contact (contact on swings at strikes) and sixth-worst O-contact rate (contact on swings at balls) in the MLB. When you connect on only 64% of the pitches you swing at, it becomes increasingly difficult to reach that potential. This issue has persisted throughout Sano’s entire career: minors and majors. Splits aren’t the issue. For his career, Sano hits .254 against lefties and .240 versus right-handers. It’s the breaking stuff that causes concern: Sano is whiffing at more than 50% of the breaking pitches. As a one-dimensional fastball hitter, the job is simple for opposing pitchers—throw the junk.
Sano has made significant gains against offspeed pitching this year cutting his strikeout rate to 35% from 50% in 2017. Slugging percentage on offspeed has doubled to .700 in 2019 from .344 two years ago. But breaking pitches continue to fool Sano, whiffing on more than 45% each year of his young career. In 2019, Sano has actually seen less breaking pitches (33.2%) which is perhaps contributing to some early success. I would expect going forward for this pitch mix to normalize and negatively impact Sano’s performance. That being said, Sano is hitting in a stacked Twins lineup and pitchers may have no choice but to keep floating in fastballs in an attempt to avoid other threats like Nelson Cruz and Max Kepler.
What’s Going Right?
When Sano is able to connect, baseballs get hurt. Like really hurt. Like Mike Tyson right hook kind of hurt. It’s simple: At 51.8%, he trails only reigning MVP Christian Yelich (54%) and Hunter Renfroe (52.1%) in hard hit rate thus far in 2019. This mark is up from 44.8% in 2017 (third best in the MLB) and 42.5% in 2018. While always among the best in hard hit percentage, there is an even more intriguing underlying batted ball mark for Sano this year. Below are 2019’s leaders in minimal soft hit percentage:
|ISO||Soft%||Medium%||Hard%||K%||Avg Exit Velo (mph)|
Sano is second to only J.D. Martinez in lowest soft contact rate and leads this group in average exit velocity. He also has an isolated power metric of .338 which is similar to Mike Trout and Josh Bell near the top of the MLB. To add to these sensational power metrics, Sano is top ten in the league for barreled ball rate per batted ball (17.6%)—a leaderboard dominated by consistent all-stars Joey Gallo, Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge and Mike Trout. Sano also gets on base consistently, walking at over a ten percent clip. Any kind of OBP formats make Sano much more productive. Almost all of the pieces of the puzzle are in place.
At a full season pace, Sano has always posted above average numbers. Below I assumed 600 plate appearance seasons from 2017-2019 and here is what the counting stats look like:
Significant work will be needed for Sano to reach his prospect potential. It all starts with health and cutting the K rate. The batted-ball data is MVP level. If Sano can simply hit the ball more, he has potential to put up monster numbers. Just hit the ball when you swing. Now parlay that with the fact he is hitting in arguably the best lineup in baseball. The Twins recently set the record for most home runs in the first half of a season. They are leading the league in R, HR, RBI, AVG, SLG and OPS. But cutting the strikeout rate is easier said than done. It is always still possible to remain productive as a high strikeout guy (e.g. Joey Gallo and Aaron Judge). There are positive early signs in 2019 that Sano has made adjustments to better handle offspeed pitches as he is hitting .300 against such pitches this year. Going forward, watch the K rate and ability to hit offspeed pitches. If he has made permanent adjustments, we could be looking at a 40 HR, 100 RBI guy. In a future world of increased health and slight strikeout rate cut, Sano could live up to the top prospect pedigree.
(Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire)