It’s not often I’m enamored by talent anymore. That’s not to say that baseball isn’t flush with ascending and established players, but in an era derived upon furthering skills and development, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate the good from the great.
For example, one player that parallels the above argument is Los Angeles Angels’ right fielder Kole Calhoun. From 2014-15, his first two seasons as a regular in LA LA Land, Calhoun compiled a .266/.316/.436 slash, including 43 HRs and 141 RBIs while mostly batting second. Calhoun is the kind of player that 29 other teams rightfully covet, mixing solid defense and above-average offensive capabilities.
Though Calhoun is certainly a notch above the norm, that same level has become increasingly blurred. The Calhouns, Salvador Perezs, Ben Zobrists, Neil Walkers and Ender Inciartes are just a few samplings of how even baseball’s “pretty good” talent pool continues to increase. However, with an influx of so many good players, the obvious pronouncement of “superstars” has lost its luster.
In other words, the abundance of so many technically-sound, fundamentally-gifted baseball players has created an expectation. Yes, we know the Trouts, Harpers, Machados and Arenados are exceptions, but we live an era where someone such as A.J. Pollock is worth nearly 7-wins. It is becoming much easier to value the skills of an all-around solid player like Pollock, who really is a five-tool player.
So, when someone such as Miguel Sano stumbles to the scene, that’s when your eyes really open. That’s when talent forces you to be enamored.
I’m not one to really follow the prospect scene, and I’m seldom caught up with the international signings, but Sano was an exception. There was always a raised allure in his mention, and as 2015 proved, there is fact to his folklore. In his first 80 big-league games, Sano slashed a mammoth .269/.380/.565 with 18 HRs and 52 RBIs, and for a 22-year-old making the jump from Double-A, his rookie year leaves heaps of optimism for 2016.
The source of such hope? Sano possesses as advanced a swing as any 22-year-old we may ever see.
Angels’ reliever Trevor Gott had a mini-breakout in 2015, a credit to his unique velocity at a three-quarter delivery. Gott also managed an impressive 57.2 GB%, again, much of that due to his arm slot. On a 1-0, 95 MPH fastball, the 23-year-old reliever may have left the pitch over the plate, but it’s not as if his fastball was on a tee. That fastball is down. A typical response would have likely been a ground ball somewhere, but a special hitter like Sano, who possesses rarely explosive hands, manages to lift the pitch 448 feet to left-center field.
Any hitting coach will you tell that power comes not from simply flexing your muscles and swinging as hard you can, but from being compact, the utilization of your core and the forcible extension of your hands. Sano’s superb mechanics flip the script on a fastball most right-handed hitters would either be stilted to take the right field, or let travel too far into the strike zone, turning into soft contact.
When watching Sano at the plate, the only player that seems to come to mind is Miguel Cabrera.
Despite an undesirable physique which likely hampered Cabrera into only 119 games in 2015, he is still the best pure hitter in baseball. Again, all of which comes back to to a swing made of minimal movement and overwhelming outward exertion. You’ll notice the similarities in the two, as both players use their hands in order to traverse the bat through the zone and with efficient explosion. As the old adage says, “short to it, long through it.”
Not to say that Sano is going to be the Hall-of-Fame-type hitter that Cabrera is, but he already has the tools and simplistic mechanics that have molded Cabrera into the most feared hitter of his generation.
Combine a flawless approach with a 6’4″, 260-pound frame and baseballs are going to be hit hard, as Sano proved. Among those with at least 300 plate appearances, Sano was second to only Giancarlo Stanton in terms of Fangraphs’ hard-hit percentage (43.2%), while also finishing second to Chris Colabello in BABIP (.396). There are many ways to interpret such data, but correlating the two is actually very simple. Hard-hit baseballs tend to find open real estate, and Sano hits baseballs very, very hard. Sano translated StatCast’s third-highest average exit velocity (94.9 MPH) into more home runs, as his 26.5 HR/FB% was sixth-best in baseball, ahead of both Mike Trout and Paul Goldschmidt.
Though Sano’s 35.5 K% in 2015 looks disheartening, his free-swinging nature was never going to bode well with seeing pitchers he hadn’t yet faced. Steamer has Sano projected for a 29.5 K% in 2016, right around his 25.5 K% in between Low-A and Double-A. It’s more likely he’ll eventually fall into that range throughout his career as he makes his rounds through the American League, but even so, a power-hitting righty striking out 25% of the time is well worth the surrounding traits.
Speaking of Steamer, the newly-announced projections have Sano pegged for a .255/.341/.501 slash with 32 HRs and 91 RBIs this upcoming season, a remarkable outlook for a second-year player with only 80 major league games to his credit. Though the Twins have had somewhat of a slow winter, there is much to look forward to in baseball’s next best thing.
As was said before, the clutter of so many well-rounded ballplayers of this generation has dimmed the light on up-and-comers. Yet, we don’t see guys like Sano very often. A typical 22-year-old is supposed to mix flashes of reputation with expected struggle. That’s what makes the idea of Sano so wonderfully enticing. Yeah, Sano is probably going to strikeout at a plus rate, but the tradeoff what comes with a few extra swings and misses is undeniable.
As he becomes more in tune with the rest of the AL and circuits through the league, we’re talking about a guy whose potency should only further because he is so far ahead of the curve. Though the Twins have been nothing more than a sunny afternoon this offseason, Sano is a hurricane fixing to make land.