While Byron Buxton’s first week was discouraging owing to the presence of his ongoing contact issues, another former uber prospect, Miguel Sano, put together a promising opening week during the Twins’ surprising start to the season.
Sano’s resume is dotted with its own swing-and-miss issues, and strikeouts will always be a part of Sano’s game as a three-outcome slugger.
But when Sano makes contact, special things happen. According to Statcast data, he finished 13th in average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives last season (97.0 mph) — minimum 100 batted ball events — and second in 2015 (99.2 mph), trailing only Giancarlo Stanton, a frequent comp for Sano.
After giving us a taste of his promise in 2015, Sano dealt with injury, inconsistency, and perhaps an ill-advised position change last season.
But things are looking up for Sano in 2017. As Dave Cameron noted earlier this year, there’s evidence he possesses the athleticism to handle third base, the position to which he’s returned this year. And Sano received an interesting — and perhaps crucial — swing tip this offseason.
In an age when more hitters are receiving help from non-traditional sources — such as private hitting instructors, for example — Sano received some advice this offseason while home in the Dominican Republic, where he encountered former major leaguer Fernando Tatis.
Sano recalled the exchange last month for Phil Miller of the Star Tribune. From Miller’s piece:
Tatis, whose son Fernando Jr. is a top prospect in the Padres organization, watched Sano take batting practice and made a suggestion.
“He said hands up high takes me too much time to [get in position to] swing,” Sano explained, demonstrating the extra motion required to trigger his swing. “Put my hands lower, and it’s just one move. Faster.”
The result, according to Sano? “If I put [my hands] lower, I have more time. I can see the ball more,” he said. “I start them down, see the pitch, and boom.”
Consider Sano’s hand placement last season in this at-bat…
Then consider Sano’s hand placement this season…
Then consider the result of this specifically chosen example from last season when he was late on a fastball…
And a specifically chosen example from last week when he was not late on a fastball…
It’s just one subtle adjustment and we have only a very small sample of regular-season data from which to work and make assessments. April is a dangerous time of year to make any sort of assessment. But that doesn’t mean everything that happens early lacks meaning or merit. And while Sano is still striking out near his career rate early this season, he has worked a number of quality at-bats. He has better avoided swinging at pitches diving out of the zone and done damage to pitches that are in the strike zone. And that is what the adjustment was designed to do.
If he can replicate his first week’s production for the next 25 weeks, Sano’s out-of-zone swing rate (21.6%) and zone contact rate (85%) would represent marked improvements and career bests. His first week’s work perhaps speaks to a player who has a fraction of a second longer to identify pitches — and a shorter distance for his bat to travel to contact them — thanks to a subtle lowering of the hands.
Projections this preseason were down a bit on Sano because of his .236/.319/.462 slash line and 107 wRC+ last year, compared to his marks of .269/.385/.530 and 150 wRC+ in 2015. And some projections were also down on Sano’s ability to stay on the field: ZiPS projected Sano to make 509 plate appearances after he played in 88 combined major-league and Triple-A games last season.
But another thing working in Sano’s favor is health. He’s now two full seasons removed from returning from Tommy John surgery. He’s made it through the spring without issue from the hamstring that bothered him a year ago. And the idea that he — or any hitter who’s not dealing with a chronic injury — is injury prone is perhaps folly, as Jeff Zimmerman’s research from earlier this year suggests. Wrote Zimmerman of a prediction that Stanton will hit 50 home runs this season:
There is no such thing as an injury-prone hitter. Almost. If a hitter, like David Wright, has a chronic injury the effects will linger. Otherwise, no data or research points to an injury prone trait as I found at BaseballHQ ($$). Owners are discounting Stanton and Bryce Harper but I see them as buying opportunities.
Stanton and Sano are two of the select few hitters capable of reaching 50 home runs. And thanks to a swing adjustment, and a chance for much better injury luck, perhaps Sano will push north of 40 home runs this year at a defensive home perhaps better suited to his talents.
Sano certainly passed the eye test in the first week. He again looked the star he was expected to be.