Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Will The Real Sano Please Stand Up

2017 is here, Miguel Sano is 23 years old, and the Minnesota Twins can finally call him a focal point on their 25 man roster. The long time heralded prospect out of the Dominican has long since made his big league debut, but many around Twins Territory are still awaiting his breakout campaign. In 2017, as a 24 year old, Sano coming into his own may be the best thing possible for the local nine.

I've been pretty critical of Paul Molitor's handling of young players. To put it mildly, I don't believe he's done an exceptional, or even an average job, of relating to his youth. While they represent the lifeblood of this organization's future, the skipper has seemed unsure at how to best utilize them more often than not. For players like Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, they'll need to come into their own despite that belief.

For Sano, he's got 196 big league games under his belt, and has launched his first 43 major league home runs. Last winter I wrote about what a long term extension may look like for the Twins and Sano, and while that was coming off a ridiculous rookie year, he's still going to be worthy of a big pay day at some point. His 2016 didn't follow the same narrative however, and a step backwards equated to over a .100 point drop in the Twins hulking slugger's OPS. So, what lies ahead for Sano, and how does he achieve what that is?

Through his first 196 games at the big league level, Sano has played over half of his games as a designated hitter. While destined for third base ideally, he was jettisoned to right field for 2016 as the Twins overcrowded their corners. Now with Trevor Plouffe out of the picture, the hot corner should be Sano's to lose, but that could certainly happen.

A small sample size to be sure, 51 games specifically, Sano has turned in a -3 DRS at third base. His range has been average, and his arm strength isn't an issue even after undergoing Tommy John surgery. The real problem in the field for Sano seems to be accuracy, and potentially effort. Too often, he seems lackadaisical in his pursuit of balls in play, and then sails them past his teammate over at first. Lumbering around at something north of 270 pounds, Sano will need to be doing everything right to stick on the left side of the infield.

There's some merit in the thought that Sano would find success playing first base. The unfortunate downside there is that Joe Mauer is a Gold Glove caliber defender, even if he's not equipped to be an every day regular anymore, and I still believe in Byungho Park. On top of that, Minnesota would be asking Sano to switch to his third position in the majors over the course of three seasons. Sure, it's a possibility down the road, but I think Sano getting the most of himself coincides with making it work at third base.

At the plate, there's no shortage of belief in the potential that Sano has shown. Yes he has swing and miss tendencies, but in today's game, he should punish baseball's enough to make that alright to deal with. After hitting 18 homers in 80 games during his rookie campaign, Sano his 25 in 116 last year (a 39 per 162 pace). Whether Brian Dozier is with the 2017 Twins or not, I'd be far from shocked to see Sano launch 40 homers and lead the club.

In 2017, Sano has plenty of room for growth. After an OPS drop a year ago, he also saw his BABIP dip by nearly 70 points. For a guy that hits the ball "hard" over 40% of the time, that number should always push closer to .400 than .300 (.329 in 2016). He did fall roughly 3% in his hard contact rate a season ago, which suggests that he may have been seeing the ball a bit worse as his chase rate, swinging strike percentage, and contact rate all improved. When putting the ball in play, Sano generated line drives less often, and 6% less of his fly balls left thet park, neither or which helped his cause.

Obviously after a great rookie campaign in 2015, the league would make adjustments against him as well. He still sees a good deal of fastballs (over one-third of the pitches he faced), but there was also a 4% spike in the amount of curveballs and sliders thrown his way the past year. Striking out at roughly the same rate in 2016 (36%) as 2015 (35.5%), Sano's point of contact was probably to blame for some of his struggles.

When at his best, Miguel Sano is dictating plate appearances. He needs to continue to draw walks at a high rate (which he did better in 2015), and get ahead in counts. A year ago, he spent a good deal of time dealing with injuries, and worrying about other mental roadblocks such as playing out of position. Those remain obstacles that ideally would not be in his way during the season ahead.

There's merit to the argument that Minnesota's former top prospect may not be cut out to play the field. With a DH body, and maybe lacking the motivation to be great in the field, that transition may come sooner rather than later. Right now though, it doesn't seem to be something the Twins want to pigeon hole their youngster into, and it happens for players at all different ages. It's my guess that Minnesota would prefer Sano be more Edwin Encarnacion (who still significantly plays the field) as opposed to a David Ortiz type (who really never did) given the landscape of the current roster.

In his first 80 big league games, Sano was trending towards a 4.0+ fWAR player over the course of a season. Unfortunately in 2016, he accounted for just 1.3 fWAR and was only on a 1.8 fWAR per 162 pace. Now with an offseason to get right, and coming into spring training with a defensive home, I think 2017 represents the best yet of Sano. I'm not sold on his mental makeup yet, and he needs to buy into wanting the most of of himself if he's going to be elite, but greatness is already in his sights.