Miguel Sano’s Other Elite Skill

Miguel Sano didn’t exactly sneak up on the league. The massive 22-year-old Dominican slugger had been considered a top-100 overall prospect in baseball for each of the last six seasons, a top-20 overall prospect each of the last four. He’d have been a perennial No. 1 prospect for most any organization in baseball, if not for the presence of super-prospect Byron Buxton. In the prospect world, Sano played Pippen to Buxton’s Jordan.

Last season, they both arrived. And for Sano, the debut couldn’t have gone much better. Sano batted 335 times in his rookie season. Set the playing time minimum low enough, to include Sano on our leaderboards, and he was a top-10 hitter in baseball. Immediately, Sano thrust himself into the company of Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Chris Davis, not only as one of the game’s premier power hitters, but as one of the most dangerous all-around at-bats in the league.

Pitchers who had faced Sano in the minor leagues already knew what to expect. Pitchers who hadn’t faced Sano before quickly learned what to expect. The most simple scouting report goes like this: true 80-grade power, the kind of power that necessitates lofty comparisons with Stanton. Proceed with caution.

And that’s exactly what pitchers did. A reputation as a feared hitter is the kind of thing most guys have to earn. Bautista, Davis, Encarnacion: they had to earn their reputations as truly premier power hitters, as the most dangerous at-bats in the game. It wasn’t simply assumed. Sano? Sano arrived with that reputation.

On one hand, the numbers speak for themselves. But one way to look beyond the numbers, to gain a sense of the industry’s perception of a hitter, to confirm what our eyes see, is to assess the way a hitter is pitched. Changes in the way a hitter is being pitched can help inform us of impending breakouts and declines, and likewise, the way a hitter is pitched upon his arrival to the majors can help inform us of his perceived strengths and weaknesses.

Early scouting reports of Sano from Baseball America set the stage for the way Sano would be pitched as a rookie.

From 2010’s report:

“He’s a physical, aggressive hitter who should hit for average and power.”

From 2011:

“The strength, bat speed, swing path and leverage are all there for him to hit 30 homers once he refines his approach and learns to recognize pitches. Like many young hitters, he sometimes struggles with spin…

The early reads on Sano mirror plenty of other young, prodigious sluggers: oodles of raw power with the bat speed to punish any fastball, but difficulties staying back and laying off breaking and offspeed pitches. There was reason to believe Sano had a tendency to get himself out on offspeed stuff, and with major league pitchers possessing better breaking balls than Sano’s ever seen, there seemed to be little incentive for them to throw him a fastball.

So perhaps it should come as little surprise that, from the start, Sano was pitched like either the best fastball hitter in baseball, or the worst offspeed hitter.

Lowest fastball rate, 2015, min. 300 PA:

  1. Pedro Alvarez, 47%
  2. Miguel Sano, 47%
  3. Luis Valbuena, 48%
  4. Brett Lawrie, 49%
  5. Evan Gattis, 49%

What is surprising is the way Sano responded to this approach. Last year, major league hitters swung at 45% of breaking pitches seen. Early scouting reports on Sano painted him as an overly aggressive hacker against breaking balls with a tendency to swing and miss, and so the league tried to take advantage of his perceived weakness by coaxing him into bad swings. But, while the average hitter swung at 45% of breaking balls, Sano swung at a shockingly low rate of just 30%.

The rookie simply didn’t bite. Breaking ball after breaking ball came Sano’s way, and he repeatedly laid off, defying the apparent scouting report.

Sano stands alone as an outlier when we visualize the disparity between the number of breaking balls seen, and the number of breaking balls swung at:

SanoBP2

The way Sano was pitched suggests the league expected him to be more Yasmany Tomas than Jose Bautista, but he surprised everyone by countering with remarkable discipline. But, maybe that shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, this is an adjustment that started several years ago.

From Baseball America’s 2012 scouting report:

“Sano regularly expanded his strike zone at the start of the summer, then adjusted. He improved his weight shift and began staying back and trusting his hands.”

From 2013:

“Minnesota envisions him as a future cleanup hitter thanks to his present power, improved patience and pitch recognition. Sano is learning to lay off breaking balls out of the strike zone…”

Sano’s startling discipline resulted in the obvious: tons of free bases. Only Joey Votto, Bryce Harper, Paul Goldschmidt, Bautista, and Carlos Santana drew walks at a higher rate than Sano last year. But the other way it manifested itself is the more advantageous result of elite discipline: count leverage. Sano was in the top 10 in getting first-pitch balls. Sano was top 10 in pitches seen in three-ball counts, and was arguably the most dangerous three-ball hitter in baseball. By laying off breaking balls early in at-bats, Sano routinely put himself in hitter’s counts, and that’s where he does the real damage.

Let’s watch an at-bat. Twice last season, Sano worked a full-count walk against Corey Kluber, who walks fewer batters than almost anyone. Being division rivals, these two are going to get to know each other real well, real soon. One such walk occurred September 23, in Minnesota. The at-bat began like this:

Kluber starts off Sano with a sinker, and tries to spot it low and inside, preventing Sano from extending his arms and ambushing a first-pitch fastball. Every pitch against Sano needs to be fine; any miss is liable to leave the park. Kluber is too fine with his first offering, and falls behind in the count 1-0, as so many pitchers did against Sano last year.

After getting the first-pitch ball, Sano has the upper hand in the at-bat, and goes into attack mode. Kluber counters with his most consistent offering: the cutter, spotted low-and-away to righties, just off the plate. When Kluber hits this spot, the pitch is nearly impossible to hit. Sano’s whiff evens up the count.

Kluber and catcher Yan Gomes don’t want to risk falling behind in the count again, and they come back with the fastball, low and inside. But this one doesn’t sink; it’s the four-seamer, and it goes straight, and it’s spotted perfectly for strike two.

Sano’s now on the defensive; Kluber has him right where he wants him. This is the exact spot where the initial scouting reports said, “Throw him a breaking ball that he can’t hit. He’ll chase, and whiff. Threat eliminated.”

It couldn’t be a much better breaking ball. This very pitch in this very location is the biggest reason Kluber’s struck out more batters than anyone in his league over the last two seasons.

You see Sano’s instinct kick in: he wants to chase. But the adjustments he’s made over the last couple seasons take over, and he’s able to keep himself from swinging. It’s a remarkable take for anyone, let alone for a rookie who was thought to have a discipline problem.

Kluber tries to come back with the same cutter that got him his first strike, but again: you’ve got to be careful when pitching to Sano. Kluber tries to make another perfect pitch, but it slips, and it’s an easy take for Sano to work the count full.

It’s the same cutter Sano whiffed against just four pitches prior. Again: you see Sano’s instinct is to chase. But he just saw this pitch. He recognized it. He made the adjustment. Keep in mind: this was a 22-year-old rookie, facing the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, putting up the kind of at-bat you’d only expect from a longtime great.

Sano’s still got his warts; his contact rate was the lowest we have on record. But the apparent difference between Sano and other low-contact sluggers is what appears to be highly advanced pitch recognition. It doesn’t look like pitchers will easily get Sano to chase. If they want to get Sano to swing and miss, they’ll have to come in the strike zone, and that’s where the real damage is done. Miguel Sano showed up last year as a rookie with an obvious plan of attack on how to get him out. Only thing is, that plan might be a couple years outdated.

We hoped you liked reading Miguel Sano’s Other Elite Skill by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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The Ghost of Johnny Dickshot
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The Ghost of Johnny Dickshot

It appears that Sano might actually be the Jordan and Buxton ending up being Kukoc.