Whether you’re in the camp that thinks Miguel Sanó is a constant disappointment or the one that believes there’s still time for him to live up to his uber-prospect expectations, you’re probably wrong.
The slugging first baseman is an enigma.
The dimensions of his game are well-documented. We’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly from him. Similar to when he tried to wear Nelson Cruz’s pants, Sanó doesn’t fit into the expectations of the masses. But that doesn’t mean his value is non-existent. It means fans have to adjust their expectations for who he is and what he can still bring to the table.
By looking at the adjustments that he has made throughout this season, it’s clear that he can still provide value, even if it isn’t as much as fans once hoped.
To address the elephant in the room, yes, Sanó’s strikeout rate is completely ludicrous and drags down his performance considerably. There is no getting around the fact that being the fastest player to accumulate 1,000 career strikeouts is troubling. But a common misconception is that he needs to adjust his approach if he wants to be successful.
The truth of the matter is that the approach isn’t the issue. Instead, it’s the execution.
His approach is to do more damage than just about anyone when he gets a pitch to hit, and he does that even in a down year. His execution falls short when he completely sells out while seeking a fastball, leading him to swing wildly at pitches that tail away from him. So it’s reasonable to suggest that he should thrive if he stops swinging at pitches tailing away from him and takes more walks.
Well, that is what he tried throughout the first five weeks of the season, and it led him down one of the deepest holes of his career. Sanó had a stellar 18.3% walk rate through May 14 because he was doing just that. He tried to lay off breaking pitches and get deeper into counts to get on base more consistently. But it backfired hard, and he hit .119/.280/.208 and pretty much cratered any credibility that he had built up in Twins Territory.
Then, on May 15, something seemed to click when he went back to his free-swinging ways. He hit a clutch, go-ahead home run that looked like it could be season-saving for the Twins at the time. While the team certainly didn’t find its way back on track after that, Sanó did.
Since that bomb, he has hit .241/.314/.524 (.838 OPS, 124 wRC+) with 26 additional home runs.
The key for him was finding the right pitches to crush before getting to the dreaded two-strike mark in an at-bat. Since the beginning of 2019, Sanó is batting .452 when dealing with a hitter’s count, good for fourth-best in all of baseball. When batting in non-two strike situations, he has an .805 slugging percentage this year, 11th-best in the big leagues. He’s even taken that success to another level this month, with an other-worldly 2.222 OPS when he’s ahead in the count.
If he’s going to go all-or-nothing with his swings, he needs to know when to pull the trigger, and the numbers show us that happens earlier in his at-bats rather than later. If that means that his walk rate takes a considerable hit, then so be it.
A common assumption for a power-hitting first baseman is that they can be had for a dime a dozen on the free-agent market. But looking at last year’s free-agent class and the group of upcoming free-agent first basemen, it’s hard to see more than a couple who present clear upgrades to Sanó at his current price. Old friend C.J. Cron signed a minor-league deal with the Colorado Rockies and has thrived at hitter-friendly Coors Field.
At three years for $30 million total, perhaps the team-friendly extension that he signed before the 2020 season was meant to bet on Sanó having at least one breakout year in the span of the deal rather than a gradual progression of production.
So at the end of the day, sure, it’s justifiable to be disappointed that he isn’t a more polished, well-rounded, multidimensional player. But it’s just as important to look at the skill set he possesses and keep it in context. Sanó’s numbers in the first five weeks of the season should cause you to wince, but the adjustments that he made throughout the year should cause fans to reconsider their calls for an early dismissal.