The Twins are off to a bit of a surprising start, with 15 wins to 14 losses. They had the worst record in baseball last year, though I would argue that they were not as bad as their record indicated. Still, I would not project this team to finish above .500, and neither do the projections. FanGraphs has them finishing the year with 76 wins, which would still be a huge improvement over last year’s 59–103 finish.
There are a few reasons behind the Twins’ success so far this season. Ervin Santana has a 1.72 RA9, and it was below 1.00 before his last start. Héctor Santiago is enjoying a bounce-back year, though it appears unsustainable, not least because he can’t strike anybody out. Thanks to their defense, Max Kepler and Jason Castro have each been worth 0.8 bWAR. Robbie Grossman is off to a great start at the plate. He is hitting .267/.402/.400 and walking 18.5 percent of the time, which ranks fifth-highest in baseball. Some regression will likely come, but there is reason to believe that he has made some real improvements.
The biggest contributor to the Twins’ solid start at the plate is Miguel Sanó. He has been well known since he appeared in “Pelotero,” a documentary that portrays what really goes on behind the international signing process in the Dominican Republic. Believe it or not, he was drafted as a shortstop. He was 16 years old at the time and far from the 6’4’’, 260 lbs that he is currently listed at.
Sanó’s calling card was his monster raw power, which is universally considered to be an 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale. There have been plenty of busts in the history of baseball who had elite raw power but could not hit enough to access it. Sanó was not expected to be one of those prospects.
Sanó had an excellent debut in half a season in 2015. He hit .269/.385/.530 with 18 HR. However, that came with a .396 BABIP and he was striking out 35.5 percent of the time. He was the definition of the three true outcomes player, having struck out, walked, or homered in about 57 percent of his plate appearances.
The 2016 season saw some heavy regression for Sanó. He hit .236/.319/.462, which was barely above average. His walk rate dropped dramatically, by almost five percentage points, though strangely enough, there was no significant change in his plate discipline numbers, except for the fact that he was making contact with pitches outside the zone at a much higher rate. It is possible that Sanó’s struggles had to with injuries and positional changes.
On that latter point, after trying him out in right field, the Twins learned through injury and ineffectiveness that Sanó is not an outfielder. He is just too big. Aaron Judge makes it work, but only because he is far more athletic. Ideally, Sanó would be a full time first baseman or DH, but he is currently blocked from doing so. Grossman and Kennys Vargas are hitting too well to lose their jobs, and Joe Mauer is making too much money. That is a poor reason to play somebody over a superior player, but the concept of sunk costs is one that teams still struggle with.
Sanó has played mostly third base and a little first base this season. The Twins learned their lesson about putting him in the outfield. He is not going to win any Gold Gloves at third base, but as FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron pointed out, he is more athletic than he looks, and he has a great arm. He should be passable there, though he will almost certainly have to be moved to first base some day.
Currently, Sanó is hitting a monstrous .300/.431/.640 with 8 HR. His 192 wRC+ ranks seventh in the majors. As one might expect, he has an absurdly high .440 BABIP. His 28.6 percent HR/FB ratio is also quite high, but his career rate is 23.6 percent. It is possible that his true talent HR/FB is not too much higher than what he’s displayed this season. He does hit the ball really hard, as evidenced by his 53.4 percent hard-hit rate. That is second in the majors to... Nick Castellanos? April baseball is weird.
FanGraphs’ Travis Sawchik wrote about a change that Sanó made to his swing. I am sure that the change is a factor in his improvement, but I am going to go out on a limb and say that it is not the sole reason for the almost 90-point improvement in wOBA over his first two seasons.
What is surprising is that Sanó lowering his hands has not improved his strikeout rate. He is still striking out in over a third of his appearances. It is really hard to rake while striking out that often. Here is a list of the top 50 seasons by wRC+ from 2010-2016, roughly starting when strikeout rates began their current rise. There are not many examples of a hitter having a wRC+ over 150 while striking out more than 21 percent of the time. The highest is 2013 Chris Davis, who had a 168 wRC+ while striking out almost 30 percent of the time. No one comes close to Sanó’s 34.1 percent.
Again, there is not much difference in Sanó’s plate discipline numbers compared to last year. The biggest difference is that he is swinging in the zone a lot more, which is good, but he is making less contact there than ever, which is bad. According to Brooks Baseball, he is also very susceptible to offspeed stuff, which makes you wonder why pitchers are not exploiting that more. I would expect to see more of that soon.
Sanó will obviously regress, but his true talent offensive output might still be very high. The Twins have him under contract through 2021, and I am sure that they hope to be competitive before then. Sanó is looking more and more like he could be the offensive centerpiece on the next great Twins team.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.