Is Miguel Sano Hurt or Just Struggling?

We’re at a point in the season when you can reasonably split the data into two halves. In terms of reliability for batted-ball metrics, 50 balls in play is a good sample, and the majority of regular position players have produced that many since the first of July, more or less. If you look at exit velocity in two halves, Miguel Sano’s name jumps off the list. In a bad way. But why?

Here are the biggest losers in average exit velocity in our “second half” — i.e. since July 1st.

Biggest Second-Half Exit-Velo Droppers
Player 1st Half BIP Avg Exit Velo 2nd Half BIP 2nd Half Velo Difference
Justin Bour 173 91.2 54 83.8 7.4
Ronald Torreyes 133 83.2 75 76.6 6.6
Francisco Cervelli 135 89.0 61 83.5 5.5
Russell Martin 120 90.1 76 85.0 5.1
Joc Pederson 116 91.9 57 86.9 5.0
Miguel Sano 153 94.8 76 90.3 4.5
J.D. Martinez 112 93.0 75 88.5 4.5
Martin Maldonado 163 85.7 71 81.4 4.3
Miguel Cabrera 186 92.5 93 88.3 4.2
Jorge Bonifacio 149 89.2 70 85.1 4.1
Jackie Bradley Jr. 173 90.3 93 86.2 4.1
Adam Duvall 220 89.1 88 85.0 4.1
Adeiny Hechavarria 71 87.0 78 83.1 3.9
Jose Ramirez 256 88.9 120 85.1 3.8
Trey Mancini 159 90.6 100 86.8 3.8
Yasmani Grandal 175 88.6 59 84.8 3.8
SOURCE: Statcast
‘Second Half’ = since July 1st.

First off, we find that a decent number of the hitters here (Cervelli, Martin, Maldonado) are catchers. That might not be much of a surprise. Michael Ricciuti and Matthew Yaspan of Tufts University showed, at Saber Seminar last weekend, that catchers see a general decline in performance over the course of a season. All those squats take it out of you after a while.

You’ll see a couple players who were hurt in the second half, too. Justin Bour had a couple maladies that obviously sapped his bat of power. J.D. Martinez got hit on the hand… and also left Detroit, where the Statcast exit-velocity readings look to be about a mile per hour “hot.” Alex Avila, also traded from Detroit, appeared high on this list until I sorted for 50 balls in play in the second half.

And then you’ve got an interesting test case in Miguel Sano. In the league-defined first half, he was 37% better than the league with the stick. Since the All-Star break, he’s been 2% worse than league average. Maybe it’s not a surprise to see him listed here, then.

Sano has been hit on the hand — the same hand — twice this season in early August. He reported soreness and wore a pad over the affected area. When Carlos Correa told me — regarding his dips in exit velocity last year — that “some parts of the body are hurting so you have to lay off some things and deal with some things,” he was admitting that there was a relationship between pain and exit velocity.

Could Sano be exhibiting the same problem?

Take a look at his rolling exit velo. At first glance, you might say that the valleys are the result of injury. Look, however, at the early August portion of the graph. That doesn’t link up with the hand injury.

We know that exit velocity and launch angle differ wildly based on the location in the zone where the batter makes contact. In this case, it looks like Sano is being pitched differently ever since that downturn in exit velocity in mid-June. Check out his early two-seam-fastball locations:

And then since June 15th:

Pitchers were throwing sinkers down the middle to Sano for some reason; now they’re hitting the corners. Sano was walking more early, so perhaps he was forcing pitchers (and their sinkers) into the zone by being more selective. And then (again, perhaps) he started struggling and started swinging more. Then pitchers were able to try and dot the i on the inside corner more often. He’s still swinging at them, he’s just missing (and mis-hitting) more often.

We’ve talked about a player’s exit velocity and launch angles as if players exert full control over those things, and that performing well by both metrics will eventually lead to good outcomes for everyone. But if launch angle and exit velo are tied to the location of the pitch in the zone — and they are — then we should acknowledge that even a player hitting the ball 95 mph on average could be getting “lucky.”

In that sense, Sano was a little fortunate in terms of the location of the fastballs he was seeing. He spanked those, as he should, and pitchers started to thread the needle on him a bit more. The hit by pitches won’t help, but really Sano needs to find his most patient self again, and force the pitchers to come to the middle of the zone more often, so he can again hit the ball 95 mph.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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5 years ago

Sano is definitely hurt. Just a few days ago it was an open question whether he would hit the DL or not. I don’t think that you found anything here. Isolating a week or two of data doesn’t tell you much of anything. You don’t know that he was healthy then either. I am not implying that he wasn’t, but there are a world of reasons why his exit velo could drop, including a slump.

Your final paragraphs exhibit some flawed logic as well. Why assume that he was lucky when he was getting pitches to hit? Perhaps he is unlucky that pitchers have actually been making good pitches lately? When he is successful it is luck, when he struggles it is reality?

I don’t think there is any reason not to attribute these struggles to injury. I can’t help but think of 2016 David Peralta, who was hit twice in the same spot (hand I think) and missed several months in a lost season. If your hands hurt, you are not going to be able to swing that bat like you could if you were healthy. I hope Sano gets healthy and gets a chance to solidify this breakout 2017 season. However, if he just kind of spirals, then this won’t look like the breakout that is was. That is the problem with arbitrary endpoints though… like a two week stretch in July.

On another note, I think you may have an important typo, “Look, however, at the early August portion of the graph. That doesn’t link up with the hand injury.” You mean July, right? In any case, Sano is not a model of consistency and he may never be. He swings hard and will always be prone to slumps unless he makes a change. It doesn’t man that he has been solved though.

5 years ago
Reply to  Eno Sarris

Pitchers miss spots all the time – especially guys that are stuff over polish, which is more common today than ever before. I wouldn’t call it luck as much as baseball. Watch any non-TOR pitcher and you are going to see constant misses missing over a foot, and we are talking about less than that. If making good pitches was as easy as looking at heat-maps and deciding to throw effective pitches, then everyone would do it. Exploiting a guy’s bad hand with fastballs is easy though – anyone can do that. I am willing to acknowledge that it may be better pitcher execution, but I am skeptical that this is the whole story.

I am also not sure you aren’t pointing out fluky exit velocity to start the year and reality settling in after that point.

Your piece is primarily trying to downplay the injury and assert that pitchers have solved him, right? That is the point that I am disagreeing with. His start to the season was unsustainable – that doesn’t mean that pitchers are doing anything right necessarily. Perhaps I am just having a hard time with the point of the article – it is certainly possible. He has had a few slumps, a hot start and is currently hurt. That’s my take – sounds like a young slugger playing baseball to me as opposed to a narrative of the league’s changing approach. We all accepted that he was playing over his head in April. It is kind of weird to analyze the inevitable regression as more than that.

I guess I just want to celebrate the progress that Sano has made this year as opposed to tear it down. I really like the way he is developing and I think there is actually upside there. If he struggles down the stretch, I want to give him an injury pass because I think he earned it in the first half. Maybe he was just the beneficiary of a bunch of luck, but I don’t think so.