Miguel Sanó stepped to the plate on Saturday afternoon in a deep slump. His last home run came over a month ago, and in the 30 at-bats since, he had mustered a .133 average. With Jake Diekman on the mound for the Oakland Athletics, getting Sanó out seemed like a formality as he tried to close out the inning.
Sanó hit a towering pop-up with two outs and two men on that carried to the overhang in the right field. When the ball landed in the flower pots, Target Field was stunned.
Sanó rounded the bases like he had just won the World Series and the fans in attendance applauded like the kid on the end of the bench had just homered in a little league game. For one afternoon, Sanó was the hero. But we have to ask: How did we get here?
Sanó’s game always has carried a sense of risk and reward. Two years ago, he hit 34 home runs but also carried a .195/.278/.483 line in his first 31 games. The same thing played out last year when Sano led the league with 90 strikeouts but finished second in average exit velocity behind Fernando Tatis Jr.
But this year, the reward aspect of Sanó’s game has vanished. After ranking toward the top of the league in exit velocity in four of the past five seasons, Sanó’s average exit velocity has dropped to 88 mph, entering Sunday’s finale against the A’s. What’s even stranger is that Sanó’s expected slugging percentage has gone from .550 in 2019 down to .248 this season.
That’s not to say that everything has been a struggle for Sanó. His 17.4 percent walk rate is the highest of his career and ranks in the top third-percentile in MLB. But when Sanó has received a pitch to hit, he has struggled.
A key part of Sanó’s decline has been his performance against four-seam fastballs. While he’s seeing fewer fastballs than in previous years, pitchers have thrown a four-seamer to Sanó 28.1 percent of the time, the most of any pitch. That should be a pitch Sanó demolishes, but he has struggled to hit it this season.
Sanó has also had a tough time getting his bat on the ball. His 44.5 percent whiff percentage is the highest of his career, and his 7.9 percent barrel percentage is a huge drop off from last year, where he squared the ball up 22.9 percent of the time.
Those numbers might be playing a significant role in why Sanó has swung the bat less this season. At 41.4 percent, Sanó’s swing rate is the lowest since 2016 (41 percent). While it has helped him draw more walks, he’s taking more pitches he should be swinging at.
According to Statcast, Sanó has generated minus-6 runs at the plate this season. By comparison, Sanó created 18 runs with his takes in 2019, which helped him become a vital part of the Twins lineup.
His numbers this season are incongruent with the rest of Sanó’s career and could be caused by various factors.
One of the most apparent culprits is Sanó’s injury history. He missed the first two months of the 2019 season with a cut on his heel and contracted COVID-19 before the 2020 season. While Sano was still able to produce at the plate in both seasons, this year, Sano got off to a slow start after the Twins put him on the injured list with a hamstring injury.
The Twins were using Alex Kirilloff as his replacement at first base. But when he went down with a wrist injury, they removed Sanó from the injured list, and he took over first again. Sanó may have returned too soon, causing a lack of production at the plate.
Sanó’s struggles could also be a case of overcompensation. After logging a career-high strikeout rate of 43.9 percent last year, there’s a chance that he is trying to be a more disciplined hitter. That could result in Sanó swinging less and not crushing the pitches he has throughout his career.
Whatever the reason, the Twins need Sanó to snap out of his slump. With Byron Buxton and Kirilloff out of the lineup due to injury, they have leaned on Sanó to be a middle-of-the-lineup hitter. While it’s the role that has been destined for him throughout his career, he has had trouble producing when there isn’t protection in the lineup.
With a 13-25 record, Sanó needs to let it fly as soon as possible. Otherwise, the Twins could be in for a long summer.