How Can the Twins Get Miguel Sano Going?
Image courtesy of © Michael McLoone-USA TODAY SportsFirst and foremost, it’s worth noting that Sano missed a significant portion of Summer Camp due to a positive COVID-19 test. In an already truncated ramp up, the Twins new first basemen got a muted opportunity to prepare. On top of getting ready at the plate, he was also fine tuning his skills and footwork for a new role. Those could all be classified as excuses, but let’s not negate that the Dominican slugger was behind the eight ball.
Fast forward to where we are today. Sano has played in 15 games for the Twins and has 56 plate appearances. He’s posted a .137/.214/.412 slash line and owns a 26/5 K/BB ratio. His 46.4% strikeout rate is 10% north of his career average, and the 8.9% walk rate is down nearly 4% from where he was a year ago. Of the seven balls he’s put in play, only one has been a single, with four leaving the yard (I’ll spoil the fun, the other two aren’t triples.)
Now that we’ve got the bad out of the way, let’s go under the hood. Eno Sarris recently wrote about offense being down across the board at The Athletic. He noted that batters are taking more pitches, likely in an effort to see the ball and work on timing. Swing rates are down early in the count, and guys are trying to lengthen at bats. As Twins Daily’s own Matthew Taylor points out, pitchers have benefitted from this situation in converting substantially more looking strikes and strikeouts.
For Sano specifically, this is wildly apparent in how he’s being attacked. Last season Miguel got first pitch strikes 56% of the time. That number is all the way up to 71.4% in 2020. In 40 of his 56 plate appearances he’s seen two strikes, and he’s been ahead in the count just 24 times. His hard-hit percentage is a career best 56% and he’s actually generated a career best 95.6 mph average exit velocity. Pitchers know this information too and are exploiting it.
Right now, Miguel Sano is season more early strikes because pitchers don’t want him to settle in. He’s taking pitches early and has a career low 42.9% swing rate. He’s chasing less than he ever has, but the contact rate is 6% below his career average and the 18% whiff rate is 2% above 2019. Instead of dictating at bats, he’s needing to respond to the scenario he’s been presented. In short, it’s a long game. His goal is likely early season timing for a tradeoff that hopefully results in late season production.
One other facet that’s currently coming into play, but also relates to his timing and patience, is the resulting launch angle. Sano has a 52% fly ball rate in 2020 and is converting 30% of those into homers. Where there’s a slight issue is that the 10% increase in fly balls from 2019 has dropped the line drive rate down to a career low 12%. He’s still not putting the ball on the ground, which is good, but too many of his fly balls right now are unproductive.
Last season when he pulverized the baseball Sano owned a 15.9-degree average launch angle. In 2020 it’s an ugly 27.6 degrees. When he previously dropped the line drive rate to 18% in 2018, it coincided with a ground ball rate of 43.8% (a career high). His launch angle in that season swung negative the other way, down to 12.6 degrees. The sweet spot for a player hitting the ball out of the park is something in that 14-17-degree range. By making hard contact with the barrel at that trajectory, you’ll create the most ideal scenario on batted ball events.
Once again, a microcosm of timing, it can likely be surmised that Sano’s pop up problem comes from both being reactionary and getting settled into the season. It’s not that he’s swinging with an upper cut or intending to be under the ball as much as it is the bat path through the zone and it lagging behind an optimal connection point with the pitch.
Right now, there should be no reason for concern. Sure, we’re one game shy of having completed 33% of the 2020 season, but everyone was aware this would be an extremely small sample size. When the dust settles on the regular season the goal for Miguel Sano, and all Minnesota Twins hitters, is that they’ve found their groove making them capable of being the lineup most feared by opposing pitchers in the Postseason.
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