Miguel Sanó: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Photo Credit: Raj Mehta (USA TODAY Sports)

Miguel Sanó is hardly the first player to cause consternation among Minnesota Twins fans.

The hulking first baseman has built a reputation as one of the streakiest hitters in the league, something that has seemingly split a fan base that relishes an opportunity to show off the scars from their past. No matter how well he performs when his swing is working, skeptics can’t help but point at the damage done during his cold stretches. Conversely, when results don’t show up for an extended stretch, hopeful baseball romantics will refuse to give up on the high ceiling of their beloved Pelotero.

In the end, the current outlook on Sanó consists of three massive branches: the good, the bad and the ugly, with plenty of leaves on each.

The Good

While things haven’t gotten off to a comfortable start this year, there are still multiple aspects of Sanó’s game that should give fans some level of optimism. Let’s start with the very economical nature of his current contract, a three-year extension that he signed before last season. He was tabbed to make $7 million last year, but that total ended up being prorated to the 60-game schedule that MLB implemented due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He’ll make $11 million this season and is guaranteed to earn $9.25 million next year. The Twins hold a team option for the 2023 season, which, if exercised, will pay the first baseman $14 million. If they decline the option, Minnesota only owes him $2.75 million as a buyout.

In total, Sanó is guaranteed to make at least $30 million from that deal.

While it may be hard for some to swallow the idea of a player underperforming while on a multi-year extension, this deal is rather team-friendly. Operating under the pretense that one WAR is worth around $8 million to a team, Sanó would need to accumulate roughly 3.75 WAR for this extension to break even as a fair deal for both sides. FanGraphs had Sanó’s performance between 2017-19 pegged at 5.2 WAR, so it’s not out of the question for him to still perform at a level to make this deal a value for the Twins.

To make that happen, he will undoubtedly need to produce at a higher clip than he’s shown since the beginning of last year. But some underlying numbers suggest it isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

First, he is racking up walks at a much higher rate than was expected based on his career numbers. His 23.2% walk rate is the highest of his career and ranks third in the majors this season. Not only that, but his approach is far better this year based on the fact that he’s averaging 4.5 pitches per plate appearance, good for 14th in the league, according to Inside Edge. Now, those numbers only mean so much when the result is a .116 batting average, but it’s a positive factor when projecting forward.

Another positive is that Sanó does considerable damage when he manages to make contact. Last season, no player in the American League had a harder average exit velocity than his 95.2 mph, which helps to explain why 66% of his hits went for extra bases — good for the best rate in MLB. If he can start making more consistent contact while keeping his current approach, it’s reasonable to expect one of his patented hot streaks will follow.

The Bad

While the good side of Sanó revolves around strong underlying numbers and changes to his approach, the bad side consists of a plethora of concrete data and poor results over the past few seasons. As nice as it is to walk more and to see more pitches, it’s difficult to frame that as a good performance to a fanbase that has watched him strike out in 36.9% of plate appearances at the highest level. Those strikeouts can be attributed to his massive, all-or-nothing type of swing, but the point remains that more than a third of his plate appearances in his career have resulted in no value for the team.

As previously mentioned, few players can hit the ball as hard as Sanó when he gets ahold of one, but the downside to that is the emptiness of his misses. Last year he sat at the top of the AL leaderboard for hard-hit rate (measuring what percentage of batted balls were hit at 95-plus mph), but he was 48th in hard hits per swing (just 13.4%).

Not only that but last year saw his strikeout rate reach a new peak for his career at 43.9%. To put it simply, he came up empty far too often to produce any considerable value to the team.

Another aspect that has been quite bad when dissecting this year’s numbers: luck.

Looking at Sanó’s batted-ball stats, one number stands out among the rest. His BABIP (batting average of balls in play) sits at a lowly .136 this season. When Sanó has put the ball in play, they just aren’t falling for hits. League average BABIP is around .300 most years, and his career average BABIP is .302, so it’s reasonable to expect some regression to the mean. Part of that will have to be Sanó making better contact than he has been this year, but there is certainly some level of bad luck involved (good defense against him, hitting the ball hard right at a fielder, etc.).

The Ugly

Ugly may not do Sanó’s 2021 stat line justice. It’s been almost a constant struggle for him to get going this season, save for a few mammoth home runs.

  • He’s batting .116 on the year (fifth lowest in MLB).
  • He has missed on 55% of swings on breaking pitches (third highest in MLB).
  • He has struck out in 40% of his at-bats with runners in scoring position (tied for fourth-highest rate in MLB).

Sure, the Twins have multiple hitters struggling right now. But part of the hole that Sanó finds himself in can be attributed to the fact that he has received more plate appearances than anyone on the team except Jorge Polanco. He has had the most opportunities to turn things around, especially during Minnesota’s losing skid over the last few weeks, but Sanó has mostly fallen flat. That will stick in the minds of a disgruntled fan base more than numbers on a spreadsheet ever will.

Take a look at his Baseball Savant profile for this year, which compares his performance to the rest of the league:

Though his walk rate and chase rate — the percentage of times that he swings and misses at a pitch out of the strike zone — are in good shape, nearly every other stat is in the bottom 25% of hitters thus far.

Granted, 16 games is a short sample size. But even so, these numbers are reflective of struggles that he has had in the past. Sanó apologists can keep their fingers crossed for a likely regression to the mean soon, but as long as his hitting profile shows that much blue, it’s hard to call his output anything but downright ugly.

All players carry their branches with good, bad, and ugly qualities. Some are bigger than others, and the leaves will continue to blossom throughout the length of a season and even a career. Miguel Sanó is no different. Like it does for every other player, human nature allows for a lot of variance in a player’s triumphs and struggles.

Clint Eastwood’s character may have stated it best in the 1966 classic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

“In this world, there’s two kinds of people, my friend: Those with loaded guns and those who dig.”

Twins fans have seen Sanó play both roles in this scenario. Now they will have to patiently wait to see if he can drop the shovel that he’s currently clutching and pick up his six-shooter.

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