Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Twins Miguel Sano Likely To Take A (Minor) Step Back

I love Miguel Sano. He's an amazing talent, he looks to have a great future, and the Twins have rarely had an elite power hitter. When he was in the minor leagues, a friend and I went to see him play on a rainy night. The stadium was mostly empty because of the weather, but Sano managed a monster game. He roped two balls off of the wall for doubles, had a hard single and a warning track sac fly. Thanks to the stadium being empty, we were able to shout at Sano to get his attention. Despite being a multi millionaire and playing in the game, he was always quick to acknowledge the shouting, smiling and clearly just enjoying the situation. When we left, Sano graciously waved goodbye to us while playing third base. It was refreshing to see someone who enjoyed the game and was just having fun, and wasn't so dead set on the "professional baseball" mentality.

Obviously it's easier to do that in the minors, but not everyone on his team was as fun. There were several Minnesota kids who my friend and I played with or against growing up and throughout high school; these players didn't even look up from the on deck circle when we yelled their names. And they were career minor leaguers who barely anyone knew anyway. Miguel Sano is a fun loving kid who truly enjoys the game.

However, despite my obsession with Sano, and his amazing half year last season, the numbers seem to suggest Sano is in for a slight decline this coming season. Let's dig a little deeper:

Sano hit .269/.385/.530 with 18 home runs in 80 games, while walking 53 times. Over a full season, that's 35+ home run power. His .916 OPS would have ranked 10th in baseball last season had he gotten enough at bats to qualify, right between Chris Davis and David Ortiz. Not bad company.

The prevailing thought is that Sano is poised to have an even better season this year. He's got more experience, he's had an entire off-season to prepare for the longer major league season, and he's not coming off a major injury so he shouldn't be as rusty as he was to begin last season.

Unfortunately, as good as Sano was last season, he was also extremely lucky on balls he put in play. He got more balls to drop than other major league hitters, as his BABIP was an unsustainable .396. That would have led all of baseball. The league average was nearly 100 points lower at .299.

Prior to last season, Danny Santana was expected to have a big season by those who refused to look at the advanced stats. Predicting Santana's 2015 struggles was actually fairly easy, though, because he had a terrible K:BB ratio in 2014, and he'd had a ridiculously high BABIP. His minor league track record also showed nothing similar to his 2014 breakout.

Miguel Sano is a much different player than Santana. Sano has been a great hitter at each level in the minors, so he's not going to struggle in the same kind of way Danny Santana did last season. Sano "coming back down to earth" is still a great player; Danny Santana was not.

Sano struck out 119 times in the 80 games he played last season, which is a ton. Strikeouts in general are overrated, and when paired with Sano's patience and power, it's not even really a red flag. Because a majority of Sano's outs are made via the strikeout, he will likely always have a BABIP above league average. That's simple math; since most of his outs won't be "put in play" he will have a higher than usual success rate when he does make contact. There's only so many outs any one player can make during the season.

If we give Sano a BABIP 25% above league average, he'd be around .350. While there's no guarantee Sano would be that much above average consistently, it's at least possible. That's a great number, but still quite a drop from his .396 a season ago. Even with his remarkably high .396 mark, he still hit just .269 for the year. A drop to .350 with the same power, walk and strikeout rates could see Sano's slash line decline from .269/.385/.530 a season ago to something closer to .260/.378/.515.

To me, that slash line represents Sano's most likely best case scenario. There's a chance he could improve his strikeout or walk rate, but it'd be very difficult for him to improve his power output. His isolated power last season was a spectacular .262, which would have ranked 9th in baseball. Bryce Harper's ridiculous season led the league with a .319 mark, but in 2014 Edwin Encarcion led the league with a .278 ISO rating. Isolated power is basically a measure of the players raw power. We all know Sano has a ton of raw power, but expecting him to be top 5 in baseball in his second season might be expecting too much.

Because of Sano's talent level, an improvement isn't impossible, just unlikely. Even if he regresses closer to a .245 ISO mark, he's still going to be a great player. However, that would move his slash line even lower; something like .260/.378/.500. Posting an .878 OPS in his second season would still be great and nothing to be ashamed of. He'd almost certainly be the Twins best hitter with that stat line.

He's also going to have to learn a new position as the Twins plan to play him in the outfield this year. I don't really agree that moving positions is much of a distraction, especially for someone with Sano's makeup, but it's at least possible he struggles in the outfield and it carries over to the offensive side of the ball. I doubt it will make a difference though.

The only point I'm trying to get across is that Sano is unlikely to improve upon his rookie season slash line in 2016, simply because he had a lot of things go in his favor last year. A Danny Santana like decline is impossible in my opinion; a 10% or less decline is the most likely outcome.

So while the rest of Twins fans are insisting Sano is set to jump into the MVP conversation as early as this season, remember a slight decline is more likely than any kind of improvement. A more realistic timeline would be the 2018 season, but if Sano continues to mash like he has at every level, a .950 OPS in the 2017 season is a distinct possibility. I just don't see it happening this season.



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