For as long as Twins third baseman Miguel Sano has been in the baseball consciousness, it's easy to forget that he's still just 23 years of age. After all, he was a fixture on top prospects lists for half a decade, has been toggled among various positions, and is even a veteran of Tommy John surgery. Let's not forget that he's still a young player who projects as having a great deal of long-term value.
That brings us to his 2017 season. Sano finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting in 2015 and entered this season with a career line of .249/.346/.489 (125 OPS+) in 830 big-league plate appearances. That's not exactly a young hitter starving for a breakout. So Sano was already a potent hitter. This year, however, he's climbed another rung or three of the developmental ladder, at least in the very early going. More on that in a moment.
What's also notable is that if you approached Sano's 2017 bestowals from a more traditional mindset, you might lay some harsh estimations on him. That's because of two numbers, current as of Monday: .241 and 34.7. The former is Sano's current batting average -- not optimal -- and the former is Sano's strikeouts as a percentage of plate appearances -- lofty and troubling even in today's high-K environment.
If all you know about Sano were those two foundational outputs, then you'd assume he wasn't much of a hitter. You'd be justified in thinking to that to a certain extent, but you'd also be flat wrong. Sano, you see, excels when it comes to secondary hitting skills -- i.e., drawing walks and hitting for power. Now that we've dinged him with those two previous numbers, let's praise him with some other, more important numbers. These are the numbers that show how Sano is a top-tier producer despite the low batting average and all the swing and miss ...
That figure represents Sano's walks as a percentage of his total plate appearances. Right now, that figure leads all qualifiers in baseball, and it's why Sano, despite that .241 average, is presently running an excellent OBP of .413, which is good for 17th in all of baseball. Also, know that only one of Sano's MLB-leading 17 walks have been intentional.
As you might expect, it all flows from his patience at the plate. Sano in 2017 is swinging at just 40.8 percent of the pitches he sees, which is both in keeping with his career norms and well below the league-average mark of 46.0 percent. That's a wise approach for a hitter who's seeing breaking balls and offspeed stuff more than half the time (sign of respect, that). It's also helping Sano see 4.48 pitches per plate appearance, which is tied for fourth-highest in MLB.
That's the average speed at which a batted ball has left Sano's bat this season. Average. Triple digits. Average. Let's take it to the 2017 leaderboard ...
2017 average exit velocity
Miguel Sano, Twins
Joey Gallo, Rangers
Khris Davis, Athletics
Freddie Freeman, Braves
Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins
That's solid company right there, and Sano leads the pack by a comfortable margin. That ties back into his selectivity at the plate. He's not watching pitches go by idly, he's hunting. Sano knows what he can drive, and he's going to wait until the pitcher gives him something to his liking. Then he's going to scald it at 100 mph or so. Also, Sano's average launch angle off the bat (23.0 degrees) is right at the boundary of fly ball and line drive -- i.e., the kind of hit that does damage, especially at those velocities. For instance ...
And the people say: Larduhmercy.
Hmm. That figure looks a bit paltry given what we've been talking about heretofore. Well, that, per FanGraphs, is Sano's percentage of batted balls that in 2017 have been classified as "soft hit." To indulge in the obvious, absent the occasional bunt, hitters don't want to hit the ball softly. That's also an obscenely low figure. To put in context, the average major-league hitter in 2017 records a soft-hit ball 19.6 percent of the time. This season, a Sano mis-hit has been vanishingly rare.
Sano this season has shown an above-average tendency to hit fly balls, and unless you're a Billy Hamilton type that's a good thing. That's a very good thing for someone who hits the ball as hard as Sano does. That figure above? That's his 2017 OPS on fly balls. Yes, it's 1.929. To be sure, fly balls tend to yield good results for all hitters, as the league-average OPS on fly balls is .915, but Sano's in another universe. All of that makes the following figure all the more astounding.
That's how many infield pop-ups Sano has hit this season. Yes, it's early, and yes there's some gray area when it comes to classifying infield pop-ups. However, that's still a notable figure for a power hitter with fly-ball proclivities. Consider this related to the 3.1 percent soft-hit rate cited above. Sano doesn't make contact all that often, but when he does he squares it up.
So, sure, Cano could stand to put the bat on the ball more often, but despite the low average and climbing strikeout totals he's running an OPS of .982 and on pace for 90 extra-base hits and 153 walks. That kind of profile may not square with old notions of what hitters should do, but it certainly wins baseball games.