Monday, May 1, 2017

Twins Sano Punishing Baseballs

Through the first month of the 2017 Major League Baseball season, it's hard to argue against Miguel Sano being the Minnesota Twins most valuable player. Ervin Santana has been incredible on the mound (and he's benefited from improved defense) but Sano has really come into his own, and it's been fun to watch. Why trying to find answers as to why, Sano is quite simply destroying baseballs.

With the first month behind him, Miguel Sano has been worth 1.5 fWAR and owns a .316/.443/.684 slash line. It's a far cry better than his .235/.356/.388 mark a year ago through April, and his seven homers put him on pace for right around 40 at season's end. The Twins third basemen is drawing walks (an MLB best 18), while striking out just a bit less often as well.

Digging beyond the surface numbers, the biggest thing bolstering Sano's production is just how hard he is hitting the baseball. Generating hard contact 55.3% of the time, he's over 13% higher than his career average. Fly ball, line drive, and ground ball rates all remain relatively in tact, but Sano is depositing balls in the air over the fence 33.3% of the time (with a career mark of 23.9%). Hard hit contact generally produces around a .700 batting average, and that helps to explain why Sano is currently enjoying a .450 BABIP.

Noted earlier, Sano is drawing a few more walks and commanding the zone a bit better. His swinging strike rate is at 14.0% (replicating 2016), but he's chased pitches out of the zone 2% less of the time, and he has raised his contact rate by just over 1%. It's not a significant or massive boost, but it helps to paint the bigger picture.

Everything continues to point back to how hard Sano is putting the ball in play however. When looking at Fangraphs calculations for hard hit rate, only Nick Castallanos (56.7%) has a higher hard hit rate than Sano's 55.3%. When diving into Statcast at Baseball Savant, Sano's 99.3 average exit velocity is nearly 4 mph harder than the number two, Khris Davis (95.8). When generating hard contact, it obviously comes from solid bat to ball connection points, and Sano has barreled 12 baseballs this year, good enough for 5th in MLB.

There's virtually no reason to believe that Sano is going to keep up the pace he's currently on. Expecting the Twins hulking third basemen to finish with an average north of .300 is a fool's errand. Digging down to OBP or OPS can tell us a bit more, but this seems a good time to referring wOBA (weighted on base average). 

Where OBP and OPS try to tell us more about how a batter is getting on base, and the weight of those bases, neither completely encompasses how valuable one hit is over another. With wOBA, we have a more accurate way to evaluate hits in relation to their expected run value. You can read more on the concept here, but a general rule of thumb is .320 hovers around league average, while great is anything north of .400.

After the first month of the season, the Nationals have the top two spots accounted for when sorting MLB hitters by wOBA (Zimmerman .553 Harper .521). You only have to go down to the 7th spot to find the Twins Miguel Sano however, as his .466 puts him well into the excellent category. Sano's career wOBA is .369, and his 2015 season produce a .392 mark. While he continues to get on base, he's routinely doing so for multiple bags at a time, and it's a by product of how hard he is hitting the ball.

It's always been an expected reality that Miguel Sano was going to strike out. When at his best, Sano is fending off those strikeouts by generating extra base hits (namely homers), as well as drawing walks. He's made strides in plate discipline this season, and in turn, that's allowed him to square up the pitches he chooses to go after.

Fast forwarding a few months down the road, we'll likely see Sano's average (and numbers as a whole) dip. What should sustain however, is the overall results. As long as Miguel continues to be patient and square up the pitches he puts swings on, he'll find sustained success. Soft contact isn't something he's going to produce, and fielding the balls he's roping into play over half the time will continue to be a difficult task for defenders.

The Twins knew Sano would hit for years, but I can't imagine they expected him to destroy baseballs at the pace he's currently on.