Hiding in his dreadful start are clear signs he’s on the right track
Through ten Twins games, first baseman Miguel Sanó has come to the plate 44 times. The results thus far have been disheartening. The traditional numbers are scary bad — .086 batting average, .273 on base percentage, .171 slugging percentage. Sanó has collected just three hits — a homer and two singles — while striking out 16 times.
But, it’s April. Small sample size. Yesterday’s game was played in the snow. It’s easy to come up with lots of reasons to wave his early returns away. But, then again, those 44 plate appearances do count in the overall ledger. Given that Sanó’s career high is 495 plate appearances in a season (in 2017), he’s roughly completed 10% of his season’s trips to the dish already. Those chances mean something. Earlier this week, FanGraphs ran a post from Dan Szymborski in which he showed lists of players whose end of season ZiPS projections have changed the most based on the early season data. Sanó ranked 2nd on the list of negative changers with a 23-point decline in his projected OPS (.852 to .829) from the preseason.
On the surface, it all looks very bad for Miguel Sanó.
But, what if I told you that hidden underneath those early season results are some process oriented details that indicate it might actually be pretty good? And what if I told you I could show you that without using any “expected” statistics, citing bad BABIP luck, or pointing to any other complicated, derived statistic that data analysts sometimes use to explain things away? Would you be interested? We’ll find out, because I’m about to try. Small sample sizes be damned.
I don’t need anything fancy. For Sanó the trick is straightforward, visible, and does not require complicated data. It all boils down to swinging at strikes and not swinging at balls. In the past when he’s done that, he’s been successful. When he hasn’t done that, he’s struggled mightily.
Naturally, then, the positive indicators so far in 2021 begin with Sanó not chasing pitches out of the strike zone. Sanó’s chase rate is just 21.4%, a career-best level that he hasn’t been close to since 2016. Pitches tracked by Statcast are classified into one of four attack regions, as shown here:
You can take a look at how the pitches Sanó has seen break down within those attack regions here. Within the small number of chases out of the zone he has committed, none of them have come against the 23 “waste” pitches he’s seen. That fact is a dramatic improvement over last season when he offered at 14 of the 103 (14%) “waste” pitches sent his way, resulting in a percentage more than double the league average (6%).
He’s also showing improvement against pitches in the “chase” region. As you can see on the map above, pitches classified as “chase” are more tempting than “waste” pitches but still clearly would be called balls. Sanó has managed to restrain himself and only go after 8 of the 57 chase pitches he has seen. That works out to a 14% clip that is an improvement on the 21% league average and his own 18% mark from 2020.
Those numbers are supported by what we see on the field. These are the kinds of pitches he has long battled to stay off:
As a result of this improved plate discipline, Sanó has already walked nine times, a rate of 20.5% that is easily a career high. I wrote a few weeks ago that Sanó’s walk rate had proven to be a good indicator of his overall performance in the past. That he’s laying off pitches out of the zone and taking his walks are signs that his overall approach is in a good place.
The other part of the equation is swinging at strikes, especially those in the “heart” region of the plate. On pitches located there, Sanó has hit .376 and slugged .852 the past six seasons. Again, thus far in 2021, the signs in this area are positive. Sanó has increased both his Zone Swing percentage (to 73.4%) and Meatball Swing percentage (to 83.3%). Both of those percentages are significantly above the league average, which suggests he’s being aggressive in going after the pitches he can handle. On 42 pitches classified to the “heart” of the plate, Sanó has swung at 35. That 83% rate exceeds the 73% league average by a good margin.
This is precisely the approach we should want to see from him. Attack pitches in the zone with the intent to do extra base damage. Lay off the ones out of the zone and patiently wait for another he can hurt. The process is good, but the results haven’t followed… yet.
To me, it seems his swing is just just a tick off to begin the season. That’s not uncommon. Lots of hitters require a few week’s of regular at bats to get everything comfortable.
To illustrate what I’m seeing, take a look at these “just missed” swings over the past few games:
Many of those swings were just a tiny bit off, resulting in several being fouled back or popped up. He has an absurdly outlying 31.6% pop up rate so far. The first pitch in the reel was smoked right at the third baseman. His timing and swing mechanics are just not quite dialed in all the way yet. You can see in his facial and body language reactions after those swings that he knows he’s close. He might need a slight mechanical tweak. Whatever it is, it’s not far off. If he gets that locked in, those baseballs are going to go a long way.
I think he’s close to seeing his results catch up to his process. I could be squinting too hard at small samples and cherry picking video clips to fit my hypothesis, too. We won’t know for sure until we see how he plays in the coming weeks. We know he can’t control the results. But he has more control over the process. As far as that goes, I’m encouraged by what I’m seeing. Let’s stay patient with the big man. Better days are ahead.
John is a contributor to Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analytics. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnFoley_21