Miguel Sano will play the 150th game of his career tonight, which is a nice round-number place to pause and examine how one of the decade’s best offensive prospects has fared so far.
Sano has been a top prospect since 2009, when he signed with the Twins as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic following a long, controversial process that was later shown—warts and all—in the 2012 documentary “Pelotero.” He signed for $3.15 million and immediately put up big numbers in the minors, debuting on Baseball Prospectus’ annual top-101 prospects list the next year—as a shortstop, if you can imagine—at no. 35. Sano went on to crack BP’s top 15—as a third baseman, or perhaps more accurately as a hitter—in three different years.
His arrival in Minnesota was delayed when Tommy John elbow surgery knocked him out for all of 2014, but Sano picked up where he left off—finishing his minor-league days with a .565 slugging percentage in 442 games—and on July 2, 2015 made the jump from Double-A to the majors two months after his 22nd birthday. He’s been setting Twins records ever since, ranking first in team history through 150 career games in homers, walks, and strikeouts. Sano has been a revelation for a strikeout-phobic organization that has long struggled to produce power hitters.
Here’s his first big-league homer, off Orioles right-hander Kevin Gausman on July 7, 2015:
To frame what Sano has done within only Twins history probably undersells just how extreme his performance has been on the way to hitting .260/.367/.501 with 33 home runs, 91 walks, and 218 strikeouts in 149 games. Among all hitters in baseball history through 150 career games he ranks 23rd in homers and 29th in walks. The only players with more homers and more walks than Sano through 150 career games are Adam Dunn and Kevin Maas. And yet, his elite ability to hit home runs and draw walks look like nondescript skills compared to his unmatched ability to strike out.
All-time strikeout leaders through 150 career games:
Clearly the MLB-wide rise in strikeout rate—paired with an increased acceptance of high-strikeout hitters—is evident in the above list, which features three players who debuted within the past two years and a fourth active player. Bo Jackson, among many other incredible things, was ahead of his time in the strikeout department. Sano has struck out in 34.5 percent of his plate appearances as a major leaguer, which would be the highest rate in baseball history. And his strikeout rate this season is actually down slightly from his rookie year.
Strikeouts, walks, and home runs are the Three True Outcomes, which is a concept introduced here at Baseball Prospectus by Rany Jazayerli back in 2000. Adam Dunn retired as King of the Three True Outcomes, as 49.9 percent of his career plate appearances ended with a strikeout (2,379), walk (1,317), or homer (462). Sano’s current Three True Outcomes rate is 54.1 percent. Extrapolated to Dunn’s career plate appearances, Sano would have 440 homers, 1,200 walks, and 2,900 strikeouts. Reggie Jackson is the all-time strikeout leader with 2,597.
How has Sano been such a productive all-around hitter while striking out 35 percent of the time? When he does make contact, he hits the ball really, really hard. His average reported exit velocity of 94.9 miles per hour is the second-highest in baseball since last year, behind only Giancarlo Stanton. Sano crushes mammoth homers on a regular basis and, despite being a massive right-handed hitter with below-average speed, his batting average on balls in play is a robust .368. That’s the highest career mark among all active right-handed hitters, slightly ahead of Mike Trout.
Here’s his hardest-hit ball of the season, a 112-mph rocket off Mariners ace Felix Hernandez:
There’s a tendency to label high-strikeout hitters as free-swingers, but Sano is anything but. He’s one of 13 hitters to swing at fewer than 40 percent of pitches seen since 2015, joining the usual patient suspects like Joey Votto, Joe Mauer, Ben Zobrist, and Matt Carpenter. His swinging strike rate of 14 percent is high, but not among the highest in baseball. In fact, it’s not even the highest on the Twins. Sano strikes out a ton because he gets into deep counts a ton and, no matter the count, never stops trying to murder the ball.
Since last season the league leaders in total full counts are Joey Votto and Mike Trout. During that period Votto has gone to a full count in 24 percent of his plate appearances and Trout has done so in 22 percent. Sano has gone to a full count in 26 percent of his career trips to the plate and he’s got a 1.066 OPS in all those full counts. It’s an incredibly mature, patient, and effective approach for a 23-year-old. Strikeouts become almost a weapon, as Sano trades them for putting pitchers in tenuous spots full of home runs and line drives.
Here’s his longest homer of the year, a 464-foot bomb off Josh Tomlin on, what else, a full count:
Whenever Sano has a bad game or even a bad at-bat the standard complaints about his strikeout totals are easy to find. They’re not totally without validity, in that there’s certainly a level at which the inability to make consistent contact will hold back a player’s development. However, to simply suggest that Sano would be better if he struck out less is sort of missing the point of how he’s so good in the first place. He’s unafraid of striking out, treating it just like a groundout or a pop up or whichever method of making an out is deemed less aesthetically jarring than whiffing.
He wants to be where the most likely outcome is strikeout or walk, because that’s where the most damage is done. That approach is how Sano slugged .501 with a .241 isolated power. It’s how he sits atop the BABIP leaderboard for right-handed hitters despite sub par speed. It’s how he drew 91 walks to offset a .260 batting average on the way to a .367 on-base percentage. It’s how he hit .281/.419/.532 with RISP and .270/.365/.506 “close and late.” Sano drags pitchers out to the deep water, with strikeouts and walks floating all around, and tries to drown them with 450-foot homers.