How Miguel Sano Can Fix His Swing
Image courtesy of Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY SportsThere is no denying that Miguel Sano hasn't been clicking on all cylinders.This season, Sano has approximately one portion of the zone in which his swing does damage. See if you can pick that out.
On balls that are thrown on the outer-third/middle-third section, Sano is hitting .579 with five home runs. It is absolutely crazy that teams still manage to pour a pitch or two in that area every couple of games -- just like the Royals did twice this past series -- but it happens because Sano’s largest swing holes happen to be a section above or a section below that spot.
Let's start by discussing his inefficiencies above that spot.
Sano’s swing path is highly susceptible to fastballs up in the zone. With the increasing emphasis on high spin fastballs, it is no surprise that teams have gone upstairs on him. In two-strike counts this year, Sano has swung-and-missed at 90 percent of fastballs. That’s helpless territory. So what can the big man do to fill this swing hole that can be seen from space?
The first is simply learn to lay off that pitch. To Sano’s credit, he has actually decreased the amount of swings at fastballs up in the zone over his previous years. Early in the count he spits on those pitches, swinging at only a quarter whereas in the past, there was a 50-50 chance that he would take a hack.
Contrary to what you might have heard on the local broadcasts, umpires are actually not calling more strikes on fastballs up in the zone. In 2011, if you took an elevated fastball, there was a 23 percent chance it would be called a strike. So far in 2019 those fastballs have been called a strike 17 percent of the time, which is the lowest rate dating back to 2009. So there isn’t a grand umpire conspiracy to call more elevated fastballs strikes. Laying off more of those pitches is not going to advance the count in a pitcher’s favor.
What’s more is that hitters in general have curbed their appetites for high fastballs as well, demonstrating a swing diet three percentage points lower this season than it was in 2017 when the Boston Red Sox pitching staff rode the elevated fastball to the American League’s second best ERA. Teams have started to use spin data to help hitters know when they should adjust their approach, swinging above the baseball when there’s a high spin hurler on the mound. They have also incorporated more high velocity pitching machines in batting practice that attempts to duplicate what they will face that night rather than facing a soft-tossing coach for on-field bee pee. So it is no surprise to see offenses starting to counter the attack.
That being said, when hitters do offer at high fastballs, they are missing at a greater rate than ever before and Miguel Sano is no exception. Although he is swinging less frequently than he has in his career, he is swinging through more. Compared to last year, Sano swung and missed at 34 percent of elevated four-seamers. This year that’s at a grotesque 50 percent clip (and you will recall the sheer futility in the aforementioned two-strike situations).
So far in 2019 Sano has opted for the path of least resistance -- not swinging at elevated fastballs, at least until it is imperative that he protect the zone. Given what he is currently working with, this is a decent option. Sano has what ill-informed broadcasters like to call a “launch angle swing” but, more accurately, Sano’s swing path is down-to-up trajectory that does a ton of damage on balls down in the zone. In his career, the big man holds a .698 slugging percentage against all fastball types in the lower third of the zone. At the top of the zone, pitchers have turned him into Drew Butera with a .287 slugging percentage. It is no surprise then to see that in a series versus Boston, frontrunners in the high fastball industry, Sano struck out 9 times in 15 plate appearances as the Red Sox pitchers threw 26 of their 41 fastballs in the upper third of the strike zone (he swung through 36 percent of those too).
So while we can point to Sano’s swing path as a reason why he has trouble catching high fastballs on the barrel that doesn’t answer the question as to why he swings over breaking balls that actually bounce in a neighboring zip code.
For anyone who follows PitchingNinja or Driveline coaches on Twitter knows, pitchers have some absolutely filthy stuff right now and, to make matters worse, they have also found ways to make it even more disgusting. The TrackMan data has helped pitchers tunnel pitches better. The high speed cameras and Rapsodo devices have helped add extra break. Hitters are completely outgunned. At the very least Major League Baseball has seemingly done the hitters a solid by tossing in a juiced ball to help even the playing field but pitchers have the development advantage. So there is an element of that behind Sano’s increased strikeout rate.
There is also an element of simply telling Miguel Sano to go up there and be Miguel Sano -- the man who can crush monster second deck tanks. Rip the governor off and open it up. Chuck three pointers and don’t worry about the missed shots. Strikeouts be damned.
But that’s not why Sano has trouble with his pitch selection.
One issue that appears to be hindering him his timing mechanism in his mechanics. It is a main reason why he keeps getting beat on fastballs up, regardless of velocity. And it’s one of the factors behind his inability to lay off those acid-soaked breaking balls.
Watch this clip of Sano next to teammate Nelson Cruz. Watch for where they get their hands to the launch point (where the bat starts firing forward).
If you are stumped, here it is:
What you will notice is that Cruz has his hands and bat in a position to fire forward before the 97-mile-per-hour fastball leaves Gerrit Cole’s fingers. It requires no extra travel from this point. This gives him additional time to read and react.
Sano, on the other hand, brings his hands back to a spot when Ryan Braiser’s 97-mile-per-hour cheese is quickly approaching the plate. This means he has to make his decision to swing earlier -- before getting the right read on the spin. This is part of the reason why you see Sano swinging over so many breaking balls: out of the hand they look destined for that juicy lower third of the zone before *fart noises* vanishing. Furthermore, Sano has a rolling launch point, almost continually moving his hands which means that he will get beat on fastballs up as well as inside if he starts them late.
As another example, consider Mike Trout. Admittedly, it is cheating to take the world’s greatest living hitter and say “do what he’s doing” but there are some existing components in Trout’s swing path that is similar to Sano’s. Both Trout and Sano share that down-to-up swing that decimates balls low in the zone. However, Trout has the ability to get to pitches up in the zone (although, like Sano, this year he’s spitting on more of them). Similar to Cruz, Trout gets his hands to the launch point early, giving him time to recognize the pitch and shut down his swing on things he doesn’t like.
It’s difficult to tell hitters change their approach drastically in midseason -- especially when every one out of eleven at bats results in a home run. Still, it is not about a total overhaul, it’s making the right tweaks to improve deficiencies.
This is something that just a few years ago, Jorge Polanco cleaned up and has since entered the land of ten thousand rakes. Prior to making that change, he had posted a .245/.296/.351 batting line in 147 games. Since taking the slack out of his drawback, Polanco has hit .308/.368/.502 over his last 204 games. Polanco had been blessed with world class bat-to-ball skills but this modification has allowed him to drive the ball.
Another successful Twins convert of the reduced slack swing was Eduardo Escobar. Escobar modified his swing in 2017 which gave him the ability to better differentiate fastballs and breaking balls. From 2014 through 2016, Escobar produced a .626 OPS versus breaking balls with a 30 percent strikeout rate. From 2017 on, he’s posted a .815 OPS against breaking balls and reduced his strikeout rate to 25 percent. And he still hammers fastballs.
Sano could be one of them. He could be like Polanco or Escobar. He could be a non-slacker.
While the movement may seem minor, it takes a lot of muscle memory to commit that to the body. There are plenty of hitters too, like Sano, who have similar big pre-swing movements (Josh Donaldson comes to mind) but those hitters get their hands to the launch point sooner as well. The solution may not be to swing like Cruz, Polanco or Trout, it maybe simply get your hands moving earlier in the process.
There is no question that Sano can hit a ton in his swing plane. His exit velocity on fastballs down in the zone is 98 miles per hour. But more teams are seeing the blueprints to getting him out -- avoid the lower portion of the zone. When or if the adjustments come, then maybe -- just maybe -- we can stop reading about Miguel Sano’s supposed failure as a player.
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