Is Miguel Sanó About to Have a BABIP Problem?
Image courtesy of © Tim Heitman-USA TODAY SportsMiguel Sanó will always strike out a lot. In fact, he’ll probably always strike out at a higher rate than that at which any player in baseball history has sustained his caliber of production at the plate. His power is extraordinary, but in order to make up for all his strikeouts, Sanó has to have success even when he isn’t hitting the ball over the walls. That poses an interesting dilemma: can Sanó thrive as a dead-pull hitter who relies on running a high BABIP?
First of all, let’s establish a couple of facts about Sanó’s approach, and about the shape of offensive production. Last year, for the first time, Sanó became an extreme pull hitter. In fact, according to FanGraphs, Sanó’s pull rate on batted balls last year was the second highest in MLB among players with at least 300 plate appearances. In the last decade, out of over 2,700 player-seasons, only 14 saw a higher pull rate than Sanó had.
Meanwhile, despite his overall improvement (some might even call it a breakout) during the second half of 2019, Sanó kept striking out at an exceptional rate. He fanned in 36.2 percent of his plate appearances, almost exactly matching his career rate of 36.3. In baseball history, no player with at least 2,000 career trips to the plate has struck out as often as has Sanó. Despite that, according to FanGraphs, he’s been 21 percent better than an average hitter (as signified by his 121 wRC+).
There are four core skills involved in hitting. They overlap, and each contains several smaller skills that also belong in some measure to other core skills, but these four are the most concise way to capture a hitter in profile. Strikeout rate is one of them, and in that regard, Sanó is certainly well below-average, even by modern standards. In the other three, though, to this point in his career, he’s been quite good. He maintains a high walk rate, has tremendous isolated power, and owns a career .342 BABIP—a 98th-percentile figure in baseball history.
Most hitters who whiff as much as Sanó does flame out of the league fairly quickly. Those who survive long enough to play even as much as he already has necessarily possess at least some of the other skills, as Sanó does, so it’s not wholly unusual for a batter to be average or better while running a high strikeout rate. Of the 50 most strikeout-prone hitters ever, however, 22 were below-average, and 19 had a wRC+ between 100 and 115.
To run a great wRC+ while striking out more than a third of the time, as Sanó will need to do if he’s going to be an impact player now that he’s moved to first base, requires one to excel in the other three core skills.
Considering his newfound pull-happiness, however, that might be a challenge for Sanó. Pulling the ball frequently only helps him tap into his power, and waiting for pitches he can yank in that direction can help brace his solid (if unspectacular) walk rate. Running a high BABIP while pulling the ball so often, however, is rare and difficult. For the 100 player-seasons since 2010 with the highest pull rates, the average BABIP was just .275.
Sanó’s BABIP last season was .319, down considerably from his career rate, but still almost 1.5 standard deviations above the average for dead-pull hitters. Between that gap and his unprecedented rate of 0.37 home runs per fly ball, there’s plenty of cause to wonder whether Sanó’s apparent breakout represented a level he can carry forward.
Advocates for Sanó could point out, correctly, that the very extremes we’re examining here make comparing him to other hitters unfair. Almost no one in baseball hits the ball harder than Sanó. Unlike many dead-pull hitters, Sanó is right-handed, making him (if only slightly) harder to defend with defensive shifts. Unlike many right-handed mashers, Sanó runs fairly well, which might help him collect an infield hit or force teams to defend him differently on occasion.
Still, as has been the case in each of his big-league seasons to date, 2019 gave us insufficient data to determine what we can expect from Sanó in the future. We know he’ll strike out a ton, hit a handsome number of homers, and draw his walks. We don’t yet know what adjustments he can make, around and within those parameters, to weather the process of aging, to respond to the league’s adjustments to him, and to bring his extreme skill set in line with what we know about paths to success and failure in MLB.
MORE FROM TWINS DAILY
— Latest Twins coverage from our writers
— Recent Twins discussion in our forums
— Follow Twins Daily via Twitter, Facebook or email