CLEVELAND – Miguel Sano knows what he wants.
In the visiting team quarters in Progressive Field, there’s a small kitchen — like something you might find in a World War II-era submarine — that offers players various pre- and post-game sustenance. On Sunday morning, Sano, apparently unsatisfied with the options, disappeared from the clubhouse and reappeared with rectangular aluminum carry-out pan containing mangú, a Dominican breakfast dish of mashed plantains topped with a type of thinly sliced sausage. He said he had procured it from a local restaurant. The 6-foot-4, 260-pound Sano is known as a popular teammate and this catering feat was a prime example. As he appeared with breakfast, several of his teammates, also of Dominican origin, huddled around a card table in the center of the clubhouse for a Sunday morning feast.
Sano is selective at the plate, too.
Sano has always had excellent discipline, but this season his walk rate has jumped to 20.1%, which trails only Matt Carpenter’s 20.8% mark, entering play Tuesday. He’s trimmed his out-of-zone swing rate from 24% to 21% this season. He’s 23rd in pitches seen per plate appearance (4.24).
He’s become more discerning about the pitches at which he offers, and perhaps it explains this Sano fact: only 1.6% of his contact this season has been categorized as “soft.” Sano is more often looking for, and not missing, pitches of his liking. His soft contact rate was 14.1% last season.
Now, contact quality is not a perfect measure of batted-ball quality. It’s subject to bias. But the next-best mark since quality of contact began being tracked in 2002, was a 5.1% soft-contact percentage by Joe Mauer in 2002.
|4||2004||Manny Ramirez||Red Sox||5.5%||38.4%|
|8||2006||Manny Ramirez||Red Sox||6.2%||39.2%|
By hard hit percentage, Sano ranks second since the metric begun being tracked in 2002, though the methodology changed in 2010.
If you prefer something more free of subjective analysis, Sano is also sixth in expected wOBA — or xwOBA, MLB’s batting metric based on exit velocity and launch angle. He also leads baseball in average exit velocity (99 mph). By comparison, Aaron Judge ranks sixth (93.9 mph).
By any measure, Sano is crushing the baseball.
He’s always been capable. He ranked 15th in average exit velocity last season (92.3 mph) and second in 2015 (94.0 mph), trailing only Giancarlo Stanton (95.9 mph), according to Baseball Savant. Nelson Cruz led baseball in average exit velocity in 2016 (95.1).
With batted-ball performance nearing stabilization points, Sano is perhaps on track to make some history. While Judge is one of the few players capable of hitting a pitch with more force than Sano, no one is hitting the ball harder and more consistently than Sano.
Sano was great in 80 games as a rookie in 2015, posting a 150 wRC+ mark. He struggled some last year (107 wRC+), but he has performed at an elite level (190 wRC) to date this year thanks to a more refined approach and (perhaps as a result) higher quality of contact. It’s allowed for elite-level production despite a 34.5% strikeout rate.
“He’s learned to be aggressive toward pitches he can drive,” Twins hitting coach James Rowson said. “I always say experience helps a lot of things along. I think it’s just another year. Getting a chance to see what the league looks like. He saw a lot of it last year. He kind of came in [to the season] looking for pitches to drive and he stuck with that. It’s one of the things that stand out. He has not given in on at-bats. He’s stayed pretty disciplined. He looks for his pitch and he hits it hard… He’s not looking for walks. He’s looking to drive the baseball. He’s taking the walks that are given to him.”
Consider a heat map of all of Sano’s swings in 2016:
And consider a heat map of all of Sano’s swings in 2017:
Then consider a heat map of Sano’s swing frequency against offspeed and breaking pitches in 2016:
They are seemingly modest adjustments, but Sano is raising his sights, and becoming more selective.
“There’s a lot of pitches he may be laying off that he wasn’t laying of in the past,” Rowson said.
Sano said he he worked with Fernando Tatis this past winter on adjustments to his swing and balance, about which I wrote early last month. Sano said he also spent a considerable amount of time watching video this offseason of right-handed hitters Miguel Cabrera, Manny Machado, and Manny Ramirez to see how they approach breaking balls.
“They let the ball get closer [to home plate],” Sano said. “And they hit it the opposite way.”
Rowson said Sano has stuck to a pre-game soft toss and hitting routine where he works on different areas of the strike zone. He said he has a better understanding of what pitchers are trying to do, how they are trying to sequence against him.
“I’m just looking for a good pitch and trying to hit it hard,” Sano said.
Rowson is not worried about the strikeouts.
“His strikeouts aren’t an issue in my opinion because he is aggressive in the zone,” Rowson said. “If you try to cut something back it might take something away that he’s doing well.”
And what Sano is doing well is hitting the ball harder than anyone on record.