2023 SABR Analytics Conference Research Awards: Voting Open Now!

Miguel Sano will be one of the most hyped first-year players in fantasy baseball in 2016, perhaps behind only Kyle Schwarber, Corey Seager, and Noah Syndergaard. He clobbered 18 homers in just 335 big-league plate appearances—his first taste of The Show—and is already being projected by some to hit 30+ home runs this upcoming year. If the 22-year-old weren’t stuck as a UTIL option in most leagues to begin the campaign, he’d assuredly be drafted higher than the fifth round (where he’s currently going this winter).

There’s obviously a lot to like about Sano. He comes to the majors with a glowing minor-league resume. He hit .269/.385/.530 with an impressive .314 TAv in his big-league debut. He launched 35 long balls between High-A and Double-A in 2013 before missing 2014 with an injury—and between the minors and majors last year, he hit 33 more homers. By all accounts, Sano appears to be a young, can’t-miss fantasy superstar.

Ultimately, I agree, but I’m worried that Sano could have some Joc Pederson in him for 2016.

Pederson hit 26 home runs in 2015; however, the Dodgers’ center fielder struggled down the stretch and finished the year with a mere .210 batting average. He had too much swing-and-miss in his game that allowed opposing pitchers to exploit the weak spots in his swing—the same swing-and-miss profile that Sano possesses.

And by this, I do not mean something simplistic like a high strikeout rate. Sano struck out 35.5 percent of the time in 2015—which is obviously a negative—but Kris Bryant also whiffed in over 30 percent of his plate appearances and was plenty productive. In short, not all strikeout rates are created equally.

What I’m concerned about is the fact that Sano pairs a high swinging-strike rate with a tendency not to swing. His 15.7 percent swinging-strike rate would rank in the top-10 among qualified hitters, but right next to Carlos Gonzalez and Chris Davis. That’s not necessarily a death sentence, especially with the second-highest average batted-ball velocity in the majors. Instead, it’s the fact that Sano only swung 40.8 percent of the time in 2015, and when he did, he swung and missed 15.7 percent of the time.

The other player with a top-30 swinging-strike rate who swung 43-or-less percent of the time? Joc Pederson, who was the 88th-ranked fantasy outfielder in 2015. And Sano swung even less often. That means his strikeout rate should remain sky high and his batting average is unlikely to be above the league’s average. When that .396 BABIP declines to something more reasonable, there’s a high chance that his batting average falls to .240ish. Maybe worse.

As a fantasy owner targeting a guy who could hit 30+ homers and offer very little in terms of batting average, it almost feels as if I’d be better off gambling on Chris Carter or Pedro Alvarez 200-300 picks later. Of course, Sano has much more upside than either of those players—so it’s not a reasonable comparison—but it does illustrate my point about what the fantasy downside looks like in 2016 if Sano can’t hit above .250. And once he obtains outfield eligibility, his value will be higher still.

Owners have to identify potential downsides for young players who are being drafted in the top-100 picks. Guys like Schwarber and Seager have premium position eligibility, which helps mitigate their downsides. Sano, on the other hand, will eat up the utility spot for the first month of the season. And even after he can be moved off UTIL, he’ll only be an outfielder—a position that’s more easily obtained than catcher or shortstop.

Perhaps it’s a function of getting older and preferring something safer, but I’m not likely to gamble on Miguel Sano this year. His power potential is immense—and he could legitimately blossom into a superstar—but the downside in the batting average and steal categories is stark. I’m not ready to pay into the fifth round for someone like that. I’d much rather grab Xander Bogaerts, who is currently being drafted five spots after Sano—which is just insane.

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Sano's .385 career OBP in the minors (since age 16) isn't causing me to lose any sleep going into my dynasty points league. Think lots of walks to go with the Ks and the moon shots.
While Sano's contact rate is low, his zone-swing percentage should rise as he gets more comfortable facing MLB pitching and gains, no? He has shown the ability to make adjustments at every level, doesn't chase a high percentage of pitches out of the zone (unlike Bryant and Gallo) and has never had a K rate anywhere near 35% before.
should say swing rate, not contact rate.