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Miguel Sano Has the Tools to Defend First Base for the Twins

The Minnesota Twins signed the guy for whom Miguel Sano was willing to move to first. Now the question looms of just how well will Sano field his new position. The verdict is ultimately still out but there are some positive signs for the previous defensive liability.
Image courtesy of © Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Minnesota Twins fans first learned that Miguel Sano was signing his brand new three year contract. We then heard the interviews. Where time and again Sano mentioned he had been working on first base among other aspects of baseball. Then came the official news of Josh Donaldson coming to Minnesota and the official start to Sano’s move across the diamond as a defender.

We all know at this point that, albeit being very athletic for a man his size, Sano was not a good defensive third basemen. Now that he is on the move, what can we piece together about Sano, from the eye test as well as the numbers that may give us a clue to the type of first baseman Sano may be in 2020 and beyond.

When watching Sano highlights there are moments where he looks absolutely incredible. He sprawls out for a zooming line drive, collects himself, and rifles the ball across the diamond. In watching, it may simply be his arm that makes some of these lateral plays look tremendous.

At the same time he has these plays where he just seems to almost stumble around. That is where the concern comes in as Sano moves across the diamond. First base requires good foot work and does he have that?

Trying to look through game highlights of Sano as a first baseman it is clear he can receive the ball well. It is also clear he hasn’t truly learned the craft of being a first baseman, but the ability is there. Within the same game last season against the Yankees on July 24th we can see Sano not quite get a good stretch on a play in the fourth inning that allows DJ LeMahieu to reach safely. Then later in the game he makes a better (although slightly unorthodox) stretch to record an out in the fifth.

When using OAA to zone in on Miguel Sano we learn that our eyes do not totally deceive us and that he does lack lateral movement. What is good news in comparison to his third base numbers is that he sits much more in the “OK” range at first with OAA ratings of +2 (2017 on 11 attempts), 0 (2018 on 15 attempts), and -1 (2019 on 11 attempts). Very small sample size, but that's what we have to work with since Sano hasn’t spent much time at first.

The first basemen skill that we worry about the most with theTwins infield in the past is how well can an errant throw be picked. Fangraphs Scoops stat ranks Sano favorable in his small sample size with +2 (2017), +2 (2018), and 0 (2019). Now scoops is another imperfect statistic where Sano is likely being compared most against his teammates and is a stat that is figured to only show us about 25% of a first baseman's defensive worth. (Read more in this explanation of “Scoops”)

Sano does project as likely getting a plus on his ability to scoop compared to other first baseman solely due to his size. As the linked explanation of Scoops states, players who are right-handed and are over 6’1” see a 1.2 increase in runs saved on average. Sano standing at 6’4” has that working for him.

Putting all these pieces together, it seems Sano has all the tools, and now with first base as his focus, to become an at least average first baseman. He may not win Gold Gloves, but his value is his bat. If Sano carries defensive abilities that don't hurt the team he will still individually translate into a very good player since his bat does wonderful things like hit 34 home runs with a .923 OPS.

The looming question may be: Do the Twins have too many players like that in their infield as a whole? Individually though, Sano should be fine defensively which translates into a good player. What are your thoughts on Sano moving to first? How will he perform?

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Doctor Gast
Jan 25 2020 09:29 AM

When I 1st saw Sano play I was amazed how quick he was for a big man. w/ a full spring training he`d be fine at 1B or 3B. But I think it`s best having him at 1B because of his leg especially in the long run. At 1B he still needs to be careful. I still remember Harmon making that transition from 3B to 1B, at the all-star game he hurt himself making a long stretch.

    • glunn likes this
Personally, I don’t think Sano was as bad at 3B at some people believe/say. I’m also not convinced that some of the advanced stats really tell the whole story. It’s my opinion that we’ll look back at some of these advanced stats in the future and wonder why we used them, similar to looking back at the times when offense was primarily analyzed using batting avg and pitching ERA. So, while advanced stats can be a useful tool, looking at them and saying “this says Sano is the 29th best 3B in baseball, so it must be the case,” is a little silly. Any statistician worth his salt will tell you any output likely isn’t a completely accurate representation of reality, hence the need for regression analysis, error tolerances, etc. In summary, the eye test tells my this guy has some defensive acumen that can be very useful despite the hyperbolic hit takes that get thrown around.

Obviously, Donaldson is much better at 3B. No question. Sano should be pushed to 1B and there are a couple discussion points that intrigue me:

1). Some seem to think his throwing arm will become a null asset at 1B. I disagree. The 3-6-3, 3-6-1, 3-2-3, etc. double play arent the easiest plays to make for a 1B, and I think Sano’s arm strength will play well in that scenario.

2). “Scooping” has been brought up. I have to believe after years of fielding hot one-hoppers at third base in practice/games has set up the hand-eye coordination necessary. If he could field his position at the hot corner even remotely well (which he did, despite some belief), I can’t imagine tracking throws to 1B is going to be an issue.

I’m the end, as mentioned, it’ll just come down to footwork on the bang-bang plays. Even Mauer struggles with this during his first year. Seeing as Mauer is an all-universe level athlete, that’s where I get a little nervous with Sano. It’ll be interesting to see the progression.
    • glunn, DocBauer, MN_ExPat and 2 others like this
Jan 25 2020 12:05 PM

After playing 3rd he should be fine "picking" the ball on plays. The footwork at 1st is different but think he is more than capable of making the switch. Good insight into the "stretch" issue as he and the medical folks are going to have to keep working on his flexibility issues to make sure he stays healthy... See him beings the "other" Miggy and mirror the Detroit version... Lots of offense and okay defense. 

    • glunn likes this

 You'd hope that anyone with his combination of size and athleticism would be able to make the transition to 1B.We have to be a little patient though...Mauer was as good of an athlete or even better and it took him some time.By all indications, Sano's work ethic has improved and that'll key to the move.

    • dbminn, MN_ExPat and jkcarew like this
Jan 25 2020 01:15 PM
Pickin' machine!
Don't want to just echo some of the previous comments and be redundant, but probably will anyway.

But first, I want to comment about Sano himself. Despite his freak accident and some poor initial care, the guy worked really hard to come in shape last season. When cleared to play, he hit, then looked lost, but continued to grind, work, adapt, and then took off! By all reports, he continues to be working this offseason to remain in shape and be ready to go. He not only signed his extension while knowing the Twins were working to sign Donaldson, but made a video plea for him to sign and come on board. What did he say, something about being more than willing to move to 1B to make room for him. I don't think it's far fetched to say we have been witness to the maturation of this young man.

As to his defense and potential acumen:

1] You don't have to be a large individual to play 1B. Hell, we've seen various short 1B previously, even as fill ins. Adrianza can even fill in OK there if you need him to. But presenting a larger target with length to reach for balls is nice to have.

2] His strong arm is necessarily wasted at 1B, as previously mentioned, when making throws to 2B for a double play or even a throw to home.

3] He has gone from poor to fine chasing foul balls, he'll just be doing so on the other side of the diamond and a regular basis now.

4] I have maintained for some time now, and still believe, that lateral range was his biggest issue at 3B and not his hands. The guy charges and fields bunts and slow rollers well. He usually secures what he gets to with no problem.

5] A baseball career from teenage SS to ML 3B has allowed him to see thousands of hot shots and ball skips on the turf/dirt. There is no reason he can't dig out throws.

In short, there is no reason he can't be OK to good at 1B defensively. But there are footwork nuances around the bag and taking throws from the pitcher, or catcher, much less the rest of the infield that will take time to learn and polish. He will not be a finished product immediately, and that has to be remembered.

I am very optimistic for his future there, but am really hoping Morneau will be in ST and impart wisdom to him.
    • Don Walcott likes this

Sano started as a shortstop and then moved to third. I am probably in the minority on this view, but i feel he could have been a good right-fielder if the transition had been handled properly rather than throwing him out there with little on no preparation. Obviously he has some defensive skills.

First base is the easiest position on the diamond to play adequately.I don't think there is any question that he can perform at the average level.The question is whether or not he can become an above average to gold glove performer; as was the case with Albert Pujols who had a similar progression.

Just an additional observation.It is a nice story that Miguel said that Donaldson was the only player he wold have moved to 1B for, but the reality is he would have moved if the team told him to, regardless of who was taking over at third.

1st base is not the easiest position on the diamond. It is the easiest to be passable. The footwork at 1B is critical, especially for right handers. Putting yourself in good position to field throws and make throws to 2nd makes the position look easy.
With good coaching and a strong work ethic at it I think Sano has the skills to be good in time defensively.
The throwing arm strength doesn’t matter at 1B it’s the footwork and quickly putting yourself in throwing position that makes the difference.
Halsey Hall
Jan 27 2020 01:51 PM

The reports I've gotten is that Sano is huge.  Kiriloff took a lot of grounders at first base thiis  morning,  

    • Sconnie likes this


I am very optimistic for his future there, but am really hoping Morneau will be in ST and impart wisdom to him.


Mauer, by many metrics, should've beaten out Moreland for the Gold Glove in 2017.Isn't that a more elite defensive year than Morneau ever had? real question.And wouldn't his advice be more valuable as a right-handed fielder?