How Did Miguel Sano Become Minnesota's Most Polarizing Player?

Photo Credit: Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday afternoon, the Minnesota Twins announced that they did not exercise their team options on a handful of players, making them free agents next year.

Miguel Sanó headlined the list, and the decision wasn’t met with much fanfare. Still, one of the most-hyped prospects in recent memory is gone after an up-and-down career. Sanó leaves behind a complicated and, at times, controversial legacy in Twins territory.

Sanó came out of Minnesota’s big international signing class in 2009, which also featured Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler. Polanco and Kepler were always considered nice prospects who would eventually break into the big leagues. But the organization saw Sanó as a building block for a franchise. Outside of Byron Buxton, there was no prospect more hyped than Sanó by the team and the fanbase.

However, Sanó quickly became a divisive figure among those following the Twins. A large chunk of the fanbase saw him as nothing but a liability at the plate. His high strikeout numbers were too much to bear. Another group of Twins fans believed that Sanó’s ability to mash the ball outweighs his high swing-and-miss numbers.

Making his debut in 2015, Sanó had an impressive first year and received Rookie of the Year votes. He slashed .269/.385/.530 while hitting 18 home runs and 52 RBIs in 80 games that year. Sanó’s boom-or-bust nature has always been part of his game, but Sanó was much more disciplined at the plate early in his career. The hype and hope of Sanó being a franchise player looked like it would pay off.

As a rookie, he’d take good at-bat and try to see pitches. Sanó’s 35 percent strikeout rate doesn’t seem impressive, but it’s just below his career average (36 percent). However, his walk rate was 15.8 percent in 2015, which is well above his career average (11.6 percent). Again, his career average .323 BABIP falls well short compared to his .396 BABIP during his rookie year. The power has always been there. He has a 93 MPH career exit velocity, but his shortcoming was ultimately his discipline. Sanó had a 40 percent swing percentage in 2015 and averaged 44.1 percent in his career.

But in 2018, Sanó began to earn his reputation as the most controversial player in recent Twins history. Everyone was waiting for Sanó to take the next step. But he recorded a .203/.270/.405 slash line with just 7 home runs with a 40.5 percent strikeout rate in his first 37 games. The start to his season was so bad that the Twins didn’t just send him down to the minor leagues. They sent him to Single-A Ft. Myers to start from scratch. That was Sanó when his production was at its low point.

Sanó rebounded in 2019 and showcased the high-end of his game. His .247/.346/.576 slash line with a career-high 34 home runs in just 105 games reminded everyone he could be one of the better power hitters in baseball. A 36 percent strikeout rate was there for Sanó in 2019. When you’re smashing baseballs like he was, though, everyone could overlook his biggest flaw. There we got to see the height of Sanó’s game at its peak.

The seasons between 2019 and now have shown us the same thing. When Sanó is on his game, he is one of baseball’s most dangerous power hitters. When Sanó is off of it, though, he is an automatic strikeout. To the point where the Twins started replacing him with rookies in the last two seasons.

Eventually, the fanbase became split on whether Sanó was a good player. It’s tough to find many Twins who the fans have been so divided on. Buxton could be in that camp, considering how long it took him to develop. But now, I believe everyone is on board with him. Everyone knows Buxton is good. The question is if he can stay healthy. However, Buxton isn’t inconsistent as Sanó when he can play.

Joe Mauer is another example of a divisive player. He took plenty of heat from a vocal minority of the fanbase for not living up to the expectations of his $184 million contract. His defenders pointed to injuries and that his production was still respectable late in his career. The other difference with Mauer is that he was a multi-Gold Glove winner and batting champion with a Silver Slugger and MVP award. Sanó only had a handful of ROY votes in 2015 and one All-Star appearance in 2017.

So was Sanó an underwhelming player for the Twins, or misunderstood? To me, it’s neither. In reality, he was more somewhere in the middle. He was a hitter flashing signs of a dominant power bat with too many strikeouts to overlook. Sanó was just too inconsistent for the majority of the fanbase to get behind him in one direction or the other.

Inconsistency was one thing. There are plenty of players in baseball who are inconsistent that still make an impact in the league. For Twins fans, though, Sanó was considered a generational talent for the team, and failing to see him reach those expectations is part of that frustration. He will get another opportunity somewhere and could bounce back with some nice power numbers. To do that, he’s going to need to be more disciplined. There will still be swing-and-misses, but reducing the overall amount of swings with a more patient approach will go a long way.

Sanó has incredible highs and frustrating lows. It’s hard not to blame anyone for the decision they came to if you cling on to one side of the coin. Sanó’s big issue wasn’t that he struck out too often – it seemed like the Twins would live with that. But the Twins weren’t going to be patient when he followed it with low production, young guys coming behind him, and potentially a $14 million price tag for 2023.

Love him or hate him, there is no doubting the impressive talent of Miguel Sanó. He may never be the core power hitter the Twins envisioned, but there is still a path for him to be a competent big leaguer in the future. Whether or not that happens is up to him.

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